Pianist Matt Cooper featured at SJC jazz fest

Mike Easterling
Pianist Matt Cooper is featured this weekend at the 17th annual Jazz Festival at San Juan College.

FARMINGTON – Although his teaching and performance schedule focuses mostly on jazz and classical piano, Matt Cooper is by no means restricted to those styles.

The Eastern Oregon University instructor, who will headline the 17th annual Jazz Festival at San Juan College this weekend, keeps a hand in a variety of genres. He spent St. Patrick’s Day playing accordion in an Irish band, spent Easter weekend playing a couple of jazz gigs and joins his wife in playing in an eclectic folk group that counts world music, Balkan, Irish and Americana tunes among its repertoire.

“When you’re in a small town, you have to diversify,” he said, explaining his all-over-the-map approach to music making.

Cooper, who holds a doctorate in piano from the University of Cincinnati and who co-directs the 45th Parallel Ensemble in Portland, Ore., hasn’t always embraced such a wide variety of music. He focused on jazz when he was in middle school and played a lot of rock ‘n’ roll in high school and college. But over the last 10 or 15 years, he’s cast a much wider net, spending a fair amount of time playing a Hammond B3 organ and even developing a strong affinity for Cajun music.

“I love jazz, but there’s a lot of good music in different styles,” Cooper said during a phone interview last week from the Tri-Cities area of Washington state, where he was doing some shopping. “I even like some popular music, although some of it is terrible. Some classical I don’t care for, but some I love. I think it would be boring to play one kind of music all the time.”

Matt Cooper specializes in jazz and classical piano, but he plays a variety of styles that includes Cajun, Americana and Irish.

A statement on Cooper’s bio on his website indicates he believes all good music is “beyond category.” Cooper said he borrowed the expression from one of his greatest influences, Duke Ellington, who believed that description was the highest praise he could offer to a fellow musician.

Cooper encourages his students to embrace that kind of versatility, especially the ones who are intent on making a living performing music.

“Live music is as challenging or more challenging than it’s ever been to make a living at,” he said, explaining that the changes that have occurred in mass media over the past two decades have had a negative impact on the earnings of most musicians. “It’s almost impossible to sell CDs anymore. You can go on the Internet and find any kind of music you want for free. So recordings are not viable, and live performances still pay as poorly as ever.”

So why pursue a career in music?

“I don’t really do anything else well,” Cooper said, bursting out in laughter before turning serious again. “I’m pretty good at what I do. It’s my livelihood, but also one of my favorite hobbies, and I do it every day in some capacity. If I weren’t making music, I’m not sure what I would do with myself.”

Cooper has performed with Eddie Harris, Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd, Nancy King, Clark Terry, Howard Levy, the Les Elgart Big Band and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, and is the author of “Duke Ellington as Pianist: A Study in Styles.” He also is a former prize winner in the Thelonious Monk Competition and the Great American Jazz Piano Competition.

Cooper is performing at the festival this weekend because of his friendship with Teun Fetz, an assistant professor of music at San Juan College. Until last year, Fetz was a member of the faculty at Eastern Oregon, and he and Cooper were in several bands together, including a Mardi Gras outfit that performed every year on Fat Tuesday.

Cooper said he will perform approximately five songs this weekend with the San Juan College Jazz Big Band, directed by Fetz, and one more with a smaller group of students. He’ll also do one or two solos, while the Big Band will perform three songs without him.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.


If you go

What: 17th annual Jazz Festival

When: 7 p.m. Friday, April 1

Where: The Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Hall on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Tickets: $18 for adults, $12 for seniors and $15 for students online at

For more information: Call 505-566-3465