“Mark is one of the more brilliant pianists and composers in the Northwest. His range of work extends from the early years of bebop to the avant-garde; definitely a pianist to watch out for.”
– Ron Steen, drummer and former protégé of Joe Henderson
Pianist Mark Simon couples jazz experience with a myriad of jazz influences to create a style of playing and writing that offers a mature outlook while pushing his work to the edge.
Simon, a Chicago-born Cub fan, has made jazz his passion and profession for more than 30 years. His musicianship started somewhat inauspiciously at the piano when, as a boy, he played along with old Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) records. The albums were just a few in his father’s massive and eclectic record collection that ran the gamut from early jazz master Louis Armstrong to avant-garde Cecil Taylor. By age 13, Mark was listening to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge and other jazz legends while his school chums were spinning Led Zeppelin.
Mark soon graduated to jazz sessions, where he further honed his keyboard skills, and his high school jazz band. He cites the band director, Don Owens, who went on to become the director of Northwestern University’s jazz program, as an important part of his jazz education.
Mark also was influenced by the staff at the University of Illinois’ youth summer jazz camps he attended, where he would sneak out of the dorm at night to attend the faculty jam sessions, the only student invited to sit in. The experience provided an invaluable foundation in jazz, Mark recalls, and he says that the sense of excitement he felt participating in those sessions is one he continues to feel whenever he plays.
Although his greatest interest was jazz, Mark wasn’t left out of the pop music loop. When his friends came over to listen to his jazz records, they in turn introduced Mark to the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Doors and other rock artists. However, Mark’s influences were firmly grounded in jazz artists such as pianists Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, bassist Charles Mingus, vibist Gary Burton and saxophone giant Sonny Rollins, each of whom he was able to hear as a teenager for $2 a ticket at a Chicago concert hall.
Mark also studied the works of pianists Hampton Hawes, whose honesty and integrity appealed to him, Wynton Kelly, Thelonious Monk and Vince Guaraldi. He cites his older brother, Fred Simon, an accomplished jazz pianist and recording artist, as his earliest influence.
Mark began playing jazz gigs as a teen. His performance experience includes extensive time playing with Leroy Vinnegar and Hadley Caliman, performing in concert with Bud Shank, Jeff Clayton, Joshua Breakstone and singer Julie Kelly and playing jam sessions with several notable jazz artists, including Teddy Edwards, Red Holloway and Herb Ellis.
A Portland resident since 1978 when he came west to study jazz at Mount Hood Community College, Mark has been a featured performer with the MHCC alumni band at several Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz events and has played with most of the jazz stalwarts in the Portland area over the years, including Mel Brown, Glen Moore, Nancy King, Ron Steen and Karla Harris.
His 1995 Libra Moon debut release, “Portland Nights,” featured eight originals and includes first-call jazz artists Paul Mazzio on trumpet and flugelhorn; Gary Hobbs, drums; Dave Captein, bass; and Michael Bard on sax. “Portland Nights” received heavy local airplay and critical acclaim.
In 2012, Mark released his second recording, “Bass 10,” featuring him performing 12 standards in a duet format with 10 different bass players.
A third CD, “Inkling,” is scheduled for release in Fall 2014. On it, fans will hear 10 Mark Simon originals as performed by the Mark Simon Quintet.
Mark continues to compose music and perform around the Portland area, playing solo piano gigs, accompanying vocalists and working with various jazz groups, including the Mark Simon Trio and his newly formed Mark Simon Quintet. Between performances he teaches piano and works with vocalists in developing charts and chops.