L.A. Jazz Scene Reels From Untimely Death Of Zane Musa

Zane MusaEXPAND
Zane Musa
Photo by Tom Meek

[Update on Thursday, Feb. 5: The family and friends of Zane Musa have announced a memorial event to be held on Monday, Feb. 16 at the Sofitel Beverly Hills hotel. Details on that and a previously announced memorial concert at Catalina Jazz Club are at the end of this article.]

On Monday, the L.A. jazz community erupted with news of the death of local saxophonist Zane Musa, a fixture on the Southern California jazz scene for nearly 20 years. Musa died on Monday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the age of 36.

News of Musa's passing came from trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who'd used Zane often in recent years in his bands, including a popular annual jazz cruise that had docked in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday after a week in the Caribbean. Sandoval first tweeted on Monday morning that Musa had been in a “terrible accident” and asking for prayers for “my brother,” then tweeted again a few hours later to say that he had passed. Musa was reportedly taken from a parking structure near the Fort Lauderdale Airport to Broward Health Medical Center's Intensive Care Unit, where he was pronounced dead on Monday night, according to a family spokesperson.

Sandoval told me, “I have played with a lot of great musicians, but there are very few that really impress me — Zane Musa was one of those very few. I considered him to be a true master of his instrument on a level with some of the great jazz masters, and I always felt it was an honor just to be able to play with him. His control and his imagination on his instrument was second to none.”

Zane Musa first came to the attention of former L.A. Times jazz writer Don Heckman, who called him "a name to remember" after seeing the then-17-year-old play at Catalina Jazz Club. He was later a regular at Charlie O's in Van Nuys, a club dedicated to the local mainstream/bop jazz scene that closed in 2011. It was there that I first saw Zane at the suggestion of Fred Selden, a former member of the Don Ellis Orchestra and long-time local studio musician.

Fred had told me, “You gotta see this kid, especially when he plays 'Cherokee,' man!” “Cherokee” was a jazz standard I'd heard many times, originally written in the 1930s, and sometimes played at a breakneck tempo.

That evening I heard “Cherokee” not just played, but shredded, on the soprano saxophone by Zane Musa. Jazz shredding wasn't something I was used to, and in meeting Zane for the first time that evening, I was surprised not only with his playing, but with the way his soft-spoken, seemingly shy demeanor contrasted with the fireworks coming from the stage. 

Musa originally shared an interest in tap dancing with his older brother, Chance Taylor, but decided to pursue the saxophone instead. He opened producer Barbara Brighton's still-running Young Artist Jazz Series in April of 1996, a monthly showcase for up-and-coming jazz talent at Catalina. He was then already at Valencia's CalArts, and was soon to graduate from Van Nuys High School's Performing Arts Magnet Program.

After our first meeting at Charlie O's, I saw Zane on a semi-regular basis, and often spoke with him about how his life in the L.A. jazz scene was going. We crossed paths most often at a regular Monday jam session hosted by drummer Kevin Kanner at the Mint, and Zane was also a featured regular at a Sunday jam at Dinner House M in Echo Park.

Kanner, who's since left for New York, was one of dozens of musicians expressing shock and disbelief at Musa's death. Zane simply loved to play with other musicians no matter when or where — in 2002, he and bassist Ravi Knypstra were cited in another L.A. Times article as part of a program playing music on Skid Row.

Zane was genuinely excited that he was able to join the television band of Last Call with Carson Daly. Television gigs are some of the most sought-after anywhere, not only because of the visibility, but because they offer a degree of stability that most musicians, especially younger ones, struggle to find.

When the gig with Daly ended, Zane shared the news with me after a show at the Mint, wondering where it would leave him going forward. From then on Zane returned to the local scene, leading his own bands and supporting a wide variety of acts including the late piano phenom Austin Peralta. I recorded the pair performing with the young bassist Mike Gurrola and drummer Tony Austin at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City not long before its closing in 2009.

Upcoming Events

The year 2012 was terribly difficult for Zane, as both his brother Chance and his close friend and musical partner Peralta met untimely deaths. I spoke with Zane at the first Austin Peralta memorial show at Bluewhale a year later; he remained mostly quiet and off to the side when he wasn't playing, and it was obvious he and many other young musicians there were still hurting. He had also played at the second memorial event for Peralta at Bluewhale last November.

Zane had become a major part of Jeff Goldblum's shows at Rockwell Table & Stage in Los Feliz, wowing crowds there on a weekly basis as he effortlessly provided musical accompaniment to Goldblum's running banter and kept pace with the actor/singer/pianist's constant musical changes. When Goldblum's Mildred Snitzer Orchestra traveled to New York's venerable Cafe Carlyle last September for a two-week run, the New York Times review of their opening night singled out Zane, saying, “The group’s musical star isn’t Mr. Goldblum but its resident wild man, Mr. Musa, who in his most frenzied sax solos suggests a maniacal John Turturro character.”

Other musicians on the Jazz Cruise had posed for pictures with Musa, including veteran saxophonist Bob Sheppard, whose Facebook page showed a picture taken Saturday night of the pair. Sheppard commented on Facebook, “I am shocked, stunned and saddened beyond words at Zane Musa's passing. We were just hanging Saturday night on the Jazz Cruise. Zane was a sweet soul and a naturally gifted improviser. Only God knows what lies hidden inside a person's mind. We will miss you Zane and thank you for your passionate inspiration. Please send a prayer.”

I can only echo those same sentiments, and be deeply saddened at the loss of a young jazz icon far before his time. Rest in peace, Zane.

The family and friends of Zane Musa have announced a memorial and celebration of Zane's life, to be held at the Sofitel Beverly Hills on Monday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. More info available here.

Arturo Sandoval will lead a memorial concert for Zane Musa at Catalina on Tuesday, March 17. Tickets available here.


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