UPDATE September 14, 2020
Although Sawyer’s name will still appear on the ballot, his withdrawal leaves three candidates for the District 3 seat being vacated by Dr. Richard Schneider: Public Safety Commissioner Alan Ehrlich, Mobility, Transportation and Infrastructure Commissioner Michelle Hammond, and South Pasadena School Board member John Primuth.
Previously published article: August 8, 2020
Should a meeting ever become tedious, leaning on the boring side, perhaps even reach long into the night, musician Jaz – with one ‘Z’ – Sawyer, if elected to the City Council in November, might pull it out of its doldrums with a musical number.
After all, he just happens to be a top classical jazz entertainer, recognized around the globe for his enormous talents.
Playing the drums since the age of two, Sawyer has been mentored by some of the best, working with such notable artists as Wynton Marsalis, Abbey Lincoln, George Benson, Bobby Hutcherson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Randy Weston and Phil Lesh & Friends while playing in some of the world’s premiere venues, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and the Sydney Opera House.
So why would someone with “an eclectic and refined personal style of drumming that stems from his deep roots in his classical, jazz, West-African and Afro-Caribbean musical training,” as characterized on his personal website, want to seek a seat on the South Pasadena City Council in November’s General Election?
Recognizing that incumbent Dr. Richard Schneider was bowing out, leaving a position he’s held since 2007, opened the door for Sawyer to go after the District 3 seat on the council.
“I’ve always had aspirations for public service,” he explained. “After learning Dr. Schneider was not going to seek another term it was an opportunity too great to pass up for a chance to make real change and potentially make history. Secondly, there are folks all over the nation stepping up to run for public office such as AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), Rain Pryor and Andrew Yang. Furthermore, public service provides an opportunity to contribute and make a difference despite the challenge of having to safely campaign in a pandemic.”
Although he admittedly doesn’t have a typical political background, Sawyer comes from a progressive one, saying he’s always been committed to giving back and being of service, exemplified by time spent as a teacher, musician, social worker and community organizer. “My background is unique because I’m not a professional politician but a member of this community, one that is continually expanding its affluence and diversity,” he said. “I’m a renter, so I know the everyday issues people face from lack of access to quality healthcare, housing, quality education, resources for essential services and understand the importance of how strong faith and the arts are to the success of a community. I am the product of advocates, organizers, faith leaders and giving back.”
Sawyer’s music accomplishments have given him valuable experience, “that at its core, it is rooted in community building,” he insisted. “Some of my public service experience includes being a co-jazz ambassador for music outreach programs with the U.S. Embassy in Add is Ababa, Ethiopia. While studying my masters of public administration and public policy degree, I worked for the City of New York through a homeless prevention initiative of New York mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg. There, I developed enrichment programs for residents of several homeless shelters and organizations in Harlem, Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens, and recognized by the City of New York districts 12/13 for community involvement. Through a public service/performer approach I’ve designed, implemented and conducted programs for schools and local organizations while building longstanding relationships.”
Proudly, Sawyer has been recognized by the California State Senate for his community outreach excellence. “I’ve also volunteered with the Urban League, the United Way, and every holiday season for the LA Boys and Girls Club and continue to serve as a public arts commissioner,” he offered.
In his desire to earn a council seat, Sawyer believes he can make a difference and “be that bridge to the residents and the city to ensure that crucial goals are reached that affect all of us,” he said. “Collectively, we need to be diligent in our pubic health efforts to reduce COVID-19 cases here, and develop more safe activities based on CDC guidelines to proliferate commerce. I believe SPPD (South Pasadena Police Department) is continuing to learn how to better serve and improve engagement with their residents. Engagement forums connect the community towards a path for real change that all can see and experience. The voices of our local business owners must be heard and met with the city’s resources and support as well, so they can transform and continually prosper during the pandemic and beyond.”
He values the city’s many strengths, including what he calls “the culture, growth in diversity, local causes, and creative residents always working towards a better South Pas” and calls the city’s farmers’ market “one of the best places to experience in all of LA County.”
The city’s leadership is facing many challenges through the coronavirus pandemic, “and it is affecting their capacity to manage certain issues,” stressed Sawyer. “We should remind ourselves that a lot of procedures have changed because of COVID-19, and new safety measures are in the interest of public health for the community. There are always opportunities to increase support for our teachers with resources so they can meet their adaptation challenges to virtual curriculum. Traffic flow and reducing congestion are other areas for improvement and discussion.”
In recent day he has followed the turmoil at the top, the resignation from the council by Dr. Marina Khubesrian, admitting to creating fictitious emails, sending one to City Council member Michael Cacciotti and to others critical of her actions while in office. Khubesrian could be facing a criminal investigation.
“It is an unfortunate situation,” said Sawyer of his friend. “As a whole, the community still needs time to process the situation and consider all the information. I pray reconciliation and forgiveness can be achieved someday soon. Our city is not the only one to fall susceptible to pressures that cause political disruption even in our local government. Regarding the city’s leadership, it appears that only reactionary tactics are being used as opposed to proactive tangible solutions. It’s astonishing to learn several of the reasons for the budget shortfalls. The delay in budget audit requires swift corrective action.”
Born and raised in San Francisco, Sawyer’s mother would take him down the street to the Haight Asbury Music Store where “I found my music calling,” he remembers.
In September 2019, his quest for learning led him to earning a doctorate of education in organizational leadership. “It was through a friend’s recommendation we settled here in South Pas,” noted the 42-year-old.
He and his wife, Esther, have lived in South Pasadena for six years coming south from the Bay Area, where he previously taught at Oakland School for The Arts while living in the East Bay city.
Now he’s joining a long list of residents determined to making a change for the good of everyone by landing a spot on the council.
“I’m moved by the passion and number of potential candidates that want to serve,” he said. “However, I will be a unifier to enhance the city’s staff engagement that strengthen and foster better governance. I will vote for a change in leadership if necessary, to improve the city’s ability to manage its mandated obligations. I have always been actively involved in the communities I live and work.”
Not that it was dull and needed a little boost, but Sawyer did indeed showcase his musical talents earlier this year at a South Pasadena City Council meeting – pre-COVID-19, of course – to the delight of the 5-member panel, those in the audience and community members watching from home.
“I delivered the Arts Innovation for City Council to offer a blessing of prosperity to the leaders using the drum,” said Sawyer, noting that he also conducted drum circles for a South Pasadena Veteran’s Day ceremony and a conference for all mayors in the county held at the South Pasadena Library.
For the past few years, he has been instrumental in bringing the Nola Resistance band, comprised of top musicians in the area, to the Blue Guitar at the Arroyo Seco Golf Course in the city, to the local high school for music workshops and was part of the Juneteenth Celebration in 2019, an annual holiday observing the end of slavery in the United States.
Now he hopes to be part of future council meetings from a whole different perspective, lending a hand in guiding the city with an even louder drumbeat.
“As an educator, state professor, commissioner, volunteer, and a black man/man of color I’m seeking to earn the votes of our residents for a chance to serve them in a greater capacity,” he said.