Wednesday, September 18

Alum Nathan Kersey-Wilson composes life of activism through music

Ethnomusicology alumnus Nathan Kersey-Wilson plays saxophone, piano, flute, bass and guitar. His collaborators described him as having a carefree attitude in life, whether it's performing in a pirate outfit or climbing trees before gigs.  (Miriam Bribiesca/Photo editor)

Ethnomusicology alumnus Nathan Kersey-Wilson plays saxophone, piano, flute, bass and guitar. His collaborators described him as having a carefree attitude in life, whether it's performing in a pirate outfit or climbing trees before gigs. (Miriam Bribiesca/Photo editor)

Villain's Tavern Jazz Jam 1356 Palmetto Street Los Angeles, CA 90013 Tuesdays, 9 p.m. FREE

Nathan Kersey-Wilson and his roommates hosted open mic concerts from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. from the second floor of their apartment “Treehouse” in 2013.

On Strathmore Drive, students and bands performed using a variety of instruments, including Middle Eastern ouds, Persian hand drums and classical violins as crowds danced into the night.

Kersey-Wilson, an ethnomusicology alumnus, still hosts jams sessions like the ones he held at UCLA – but now they’re Tuesday nights at the Villains Tavern in the arts districts of downtown Los Angeles.

He accepts online submissions from local professional and amateur musicians to perform impromptu at the jazz avant-garde-themed nightclub, playing music ranging from jazz standards to big band to pop songs. Anyone can go to the New Orleans-style pub and sing a song, play an instrument or work on a tune for free for the local crowd Tuesday nights, he said.

But hosting jam sessions is just one of Kersey-Wilson’s projects.

In the last few years, Kersey-Wilson has become a multi-instrumentalist who plays saxophone, piano, flute, bass and guitar. His musical talents helped him land gigs playing with bands like indie band Saint Motel at Coachella, Lollapalooza and The Late Late Show with James Corden. Kersey-Wilson has always followed wherever music takes him, even through the sharp and flat notes in his life and musical career.

“Nathan was always good with rolling with the punches,” Saint Motel guitarist Aaron Sharp said.

[Related: Alum Kalil Wilson uses operatic roots to rise in jazz world]

After graduating from UCLA in 2013, Kersey-Wilson spent hours on Craigslist applying to different jobs – a dishwasher, a server, an usher – but ultimately did not receive any offers. With music, inconsistent work was something he had to learn to accept, he said.

But by building his professional connections, he was able to pursue more artistic endeavors, Kersey-Wilson said.

“I got to meet a bunch of other cool musicians and meet the guys that are playing at major festivals,” Kersey-Wilson said. “(I saw) that they’re just guys. They’re people just doing their own thing, and it’s not unattainable to play festivals like that.”

In 2014, Kersey-Wilson formed a band called AMBL comprised of musicians he met from across the country. After playing a gig in Los Angeles, Kersey-Wilson was introduced by his drummer and friend Rich Agren to Mississippi-based songwriter Brad Mallette, along with bassist Jason Gloria from New Jersey.

They developed their own genre called river rock, which has roots in blues, folk, psychedelic rock and funk, Mallette said.

“Whether or not (Kersey-Wilson is) doing something successful or just continuously building up his name, there’s no doubt he will be respected as he grows,” Mallette said.

Just three days before Saint Motel’s national tour started in 2015, Kersey-Wilson was offered the opportunity to play saxophone for the band and he immediately leapt at the chance, he said.

[Related: Saxophonist Kamasi Washington credits success to UCLA roots]

While on tour, Sharp said Kersey-Wilson frequently donned a pirate-like costume, showing up barefoot with messy bed head and a tattered shirt.

Kersey-Wilson, a stranger to mainstream fashion, could barely walk in skinny jeans when buying new outfits to perform with Saint Motel on The Late Late Show with James Corden, Sharp said.

“It was like a taking a cat out to walk,” Sharp said.

Between gigs, Kersey-Wilson and the Saint Motel bandmates blew off steam by throwing light-up frisbees and riding RipStik boards through their hotel parking lots at night, Sharp said.

His eccentric personal style is likewise reflected in his stage presence, Sharp said.

“The way he dresses, it’s very playful in a lot of ways and when he performs, he’ll add embellishments because that’s just the type of person he is,” Sharp said. “He always adds his own little flair.”

Kersey-Wilson has always been a free spirit in both music and in life, said David Villafana, a 2013 UCLA alumnus and member of the band We the Folk, with which Kersey-Wilson has made guest appearances.

Before a high-end wedding gig in Napa Valley, Kersey-Wilson decided to kick off his shoes and climb a few trees for fun, Villafana said.

His energy translates to his performance in concerts, making crowds roar, Villafana said. In performances, Kersey-Wilson will jump from playing the flute to jamming on the saxophone and then to rocking out on the keyboard, producing sounds as if he were a one-man band, Villafana said.

Kersey-Wilson has always been able to adapt to sticky situations when performing, Villafana said. When Kersey-Wilson’s low C key chipped off his keyboard during a show, he played his solos without missing beat, avoiding that note without the crowd noticing, he said.

Before another gig, Kersey-Wilson’s saxophone broke and he quickly fixed it by borrowing a hair tie from someone in the audience, Kersey-Wilson said.

But despite his fun-loving side as a performer, Kersey-Wilson takes his craft as an artist seriously, Villafana said.

Kersey-Wilson’s music and performance ultimately reflects his integrity and his consciousness about society. Kersey-Wilson created a Facebook group Thursday called the SoCal Resistance Jam Squad to bring together musicians who want to use their talents and bring instruments to marches and protests, he said.

Beyond the fun of it, making music should have a purpose, Kersey-Wilson said. That purpose can be to evoke laughter, create something beautiful, expand the mind or inspire action.

“Music brings people peace and brings people joy, and it has been a central part of every cultural movement,” Kersey-Wilson said. “Now is the time to make as much music as possible and as much art as possible.”

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