The Rebel

Trevor St. John uses jazz-improv in acting

Trevor St. John (“Roswell,” “Containment,” “The Kingdom”) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (“Hamilton,” “Altered Carbon”) made beautiful music together back when they co-starred on an ABC soap opera, “One Life To Live.”

Interview first appeared in Examiner Nov. 5, 2009.

St. John didn’t act like the rest of the soap cast. He seemed to literally improvise much of his facial and bodily expressions, inflecting lines in a different, almost free-form manner. You never knew what he’d do or say next. If a scene called for crying, he’d laugh maniacally. If he was supposed to act like a bully, he might cower and cry instead. It was scary-exciting. And when he was partnered up with a pro, like multi-Emmy-award-winning Erika Slezak, who plays his sister Viki, he’d play off against her in a creative, in-the-moment give-and-take — just like a musician would in a jazz jam session.

He gained favorable, awestruck notoriety in Todd’s execution scenes, where he visibly shook with terror all the way up to his hair follicles until viewers could almost feel the fatal injection course through their own bodies. He redefined the face of rape when his own character was sexually violated by a psycho named Margaret. And when the woman Todd raped, Marty, returned to the show suffering from amnesia, he continued to tread controversial territory by boldly romancing his former victim with genuine caring and possibly redemptive love.

So, it didn’t surprise me to read in his bio that he studied jazz percussion growing up in and near Spokane, WA.

St. John studied jazz as a blossoming percussionist at Whitworth on a jazz performance scholarship and performed with some impressive jazz names, like the late pianist Gene Harris, the Marshall Royal (Count Basie Orchestra) and Slide Hampton and Bill Berry (Duke Ellington Orchestra). While there, he also acted in plays from Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Merry Wives Of Windsor to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

Once St. John’s acting took off, with OLTL success, there seemed little time for jazz music — until fate intervened with the addition of a hot shot lady lawyer by the name of Evangeline. The introduction of Broadway star Renee Elise Goldsberry as Evangeline and her subsequent pairing with St. John resulted in beautiful musical collaboration. They performed Kelly Clarkson’s hit “Breakaway” and other tunes at the 2006 ABC Daytime Super Soap Weekend — she’d sing and he’d bang on whatever was handy for drums, a wooden board even — becoming an instant hit. Goldsberry’s collaborative version of “Breakaway” with St. John made it on her “Beautiful” CD too. When Goldsberry left OLTL in 2007, there went much of St. John’s musical endeavors.

Most of his days are spent in New York City, memorizing scripts, rehearsing, blocking and filming, and sometimes, speaking with the press about his motivation as an actor, his approach to fleshing out character and future film/TV projects. He’s been in movies — The Bourne Ultimatum, The Kingdom, Crimson Tide and Dog Town, among others. He’s done guest spots on other television shows — Dirty Sexy Money, Just Shoot Me, Murder She Wrote, Hope and Faith, and Nash Bridges. And recently, he’s received critical acclaim and a best actor award from the 5th NYC Downtown Film Festival in the short film, The Art Of Getting Over It — another collaborative venture with former OLTL co-star and friend, Dan Gauthier (ex-Kevin).

With every acting effort, Trevor St. John’s jazz roots clearly, often brilliantly, showed. Full of curiosity, I sought him out for a quick interview and managed to inspire the multi-talented actor/musician to take another look at jazz:

You’re a jazz musician, you went to college on a jazz scholarship and you’ve played with some big jazz names, like Gene Harris. What are you doing on a soap opera?

That’s a question I often ask myself. But more specifically, why am I an actor? I still haven’t figured it out yet. I will tell you that my quest in acting is to make it more like drumming; more physical, more visceral. I miss the physicality of drumming. There’s an immediateness about it that I’m always striving for in my acting. Maybe I’m in the wrong profession. I certainly wish I could spend more time pursuing music. It feels like a part of me I’m neglecting.

It seems you’ve applied your love of jazz into the way you perform, full of improvisation, give and take with other “soloists”/co-stars in a scene, always on the hunt for a different, creative angle, a jam session with a script, a story and characters, instead of instruments on a stage. How intentional was this acting approach, or is this just something that instinctively comes from starting off playing jazz?

It’s both intentional and instinctive. I’ve always believed acting is an improvisational art form, even when not a single line is changed. I mean, the behavior should always be improvised. My favorite moments in any performance are when I’m just along for the ride; when I’m surprising myself. I know when I’m done and I think to myself, “Gee, I didn’t see that coming,” I’ve done well. Yes, jazz music and, more specifically, jazz musicians, are my artistic heroes. I want to be the Thelonious Monk of acting. He had no concern for how well he was received. He played whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. He just wasn’t interested in achieving the good opinion of his audience. That’s the Holy Grail of acting; of any art form. It’s funny. Not giving a s**t is the highest aim of any artist. When I get there, I’ll be a master.

Except for a few soap events, where you collaborated with Renee Elise Goldsberry (ex-Evangeline) on a few jazzified numbers, what other gigs have you been on or are pursuing? Or does this cut into your acting job too much?

Unfortunately, I haven’t had any time to pursue music gigs. But answering these questions has piqued my interest. So, thanks.

A lot of the OLTL cast members have been allowed to perform on the show in character. But not you. What’s the deal?

Well, Todd has been around a bit too long as a non-drummer to suddenly find him banging away at the skins. Unless, of course, they want to take the time to show him taking lessons.

Are you an actor or a jazz drummer? Which do you prefer if you had your way?

I’d like to not be able to tell. I’d like to be one of those cats who does both. Miles painted, you know? When I’m acting I like to think of myself as a non-actor, and a non-drummer when I’m drumming. It frees you up to not care how well you do.

Who were your musical influences growing up?

Tony Williams. Elvin Jones. Miles. Coltrane. Ray Brown. Ella Fitzgerald. Yes. Rush. Fleetwood Mac. I could go on and on. But you don’t have the space, surely. [Actually, I do.]

How did playing alongside Marshall Royal (Count Basie Orchestra), Slide Hampton and Bill Berry (Duke Ellington Orchestra) and Gene Harris come about?

We had a great jazz director named Dan Keberle who really took it upon himself to attract great players to our little college in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not quite sure how he did it. But he did. And we really cooked with those guys. It was great fun.

Can you describe what made you go for jazz drums, and what it feels like to play in a groove?

My first drumming teacher was a jazz guy, so I couldn’t help but go that way. Plus, all the best drummers are jazz drummers, so I wanted to be like them. You know, I’m not sure I can describe what playing a groove is like. If you’ve ever gone out dancing and your favorite dance song comes on and you say, “Oh, yeah!,” and run out to the dance floor and get down and move with every nuance of that song you know so well, it’s a little bit like that. Only better!!!

What does playing jazz percussion afford you that’s different from acting in a real, juicy scene?

The ability to hit something as hard as you want!

Jazz Medium©: Feeling the music, one review at a time.

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