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Originally published Saturday, June 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jazz pianist Dan Nimmer shares the key to his success

Dan Nimmer, the 26-year-old pianist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, talks about developing young jazz talent — including students at Seattle's Roosevelt High School.

Special to The Seattle Times

Watch and listen

Hear Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio broadcasts with Wynton Marsalis, and find podcasts and videos at www.jalc.org; click on Jazzcast.

Concert preview

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

With Wynton Marsalis, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $17-$75 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).

"The most important thing for a young musician is playing with people at a higher level," says jazzman Dan Nimmer, who followed that advice in his teens and recommends it to today's budding players.

Nimmer, the 26-year-old pianist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, will perform with the 15-piece group at Benaroya Hall Tuesday, under the direction of legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The show is part of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra's SummerFest program, a diverse series of music events scheduled through mid-July.

Seattle actually went to Nimmer last month in New York City. The rising star, who also fronts the Dan Nimmer Trio (featuring 79-year-old drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played with Miles Davis and John Coltrane), had the opportunity to share his guidance with Roosevelt High School's jazz band at Essentially Ellington, the national high-school competition. Nimmer mentored Roosevelt during the contest, in which the school took first place.

"It was a great opportunity to work with a great band and with [band director] Scott Brown," says Nimmer, calling from his Manhattan home. "The last three years I've done master classes at the Ellington festival. But Roosevelt was so tight, I didn't have to do much. I just gave them some words of wisdom."

Raised in Milwaukee, Nimmer began playing by ear on a century-old, out-of-tune piano bequeathed by an aunt. He took classical lessons, and at 15 studied jazz at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

At night, his parents broadened his education in the city's clubs.

"My dad would take me to hear professional musicians in Milwaukee," Nimmer says. "That's where I'd hear the older generation of jazz artists like Berkeley Fudge."

Fudge, a saxophonist and local legend, also taught at the Conservatory, but he mentored the adolescent Nimmer on the club scene. Nimmer eventually found himself immersed in performances with fine veteran players.

"They let me sit in," he says. "They took me in before I was ready to play a gig. If they hadn't done that, if they hadn't shown me the ropes, that would have meant one less young musician to carry on their music into the next generation."

Nimmer attended Northern Illinois University while playing in Chicago clubs. He moved to New York in 2004, and was tapped by Marsalis the next year to join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

"I've been in the orchestra three years," says Nimmer. "I've become more comfortable and confident over time. I've learned more about my role in the band's sound. When I joined, there were many more styles to play than I had been playing, and opportunities to get a grasp on them. It takes a few years. Playing with a wide variety of musicians, figuring out their take on things, teaches me a lot."

Asked what Marsalis and the orchestra might play at Benaroya, Nimmer says they've "been going through a potluck of great music. Ted Nash [who plays saxophone and clarinet for the orchestra] has written a suite about great artists called 'Portrait In Seven Shades.' That's on the modern side. We've also got a tribute to Blue Note masters. There are Wayne Shorter tunes with new arrangements for everything. We'll see what ends up in the set."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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