Katie Ernst—Someone You Should Know

February 2017 View more

While it may break the hearts of her former English teachers at Naperville North High School to learn the truth, Katie Ernst wasn’t spending all of those hours at the Nichols Library during her teenage years brushing up on Brontë or delving into Dickens. Though she loved to read as well, Ernst was more a musical searcher than a budding bookworm, and was therefore instead buried beneath a set of headphones, discovering and dissecting the challenging and addictive sounds of legendary composers and iconoclasts like Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.

The good news—not just for her teachers, but for jazz listeners in Chicago and beyond—is that the education and inspiration gained from those countless listening sessions have helped turn the now 28-year-old bassist and singer into one of the most compelling young voices on the local jazz scene.

“My dedication to music grew slowly and steadily over my years at
Naperville North,” Ernst recalls. “I loved music as a kid, but I also liked playing sports and reading books and doing all the usual kid activities. But once it became clear that music performance could be a serious pursuit—and not just another after-school activity—I decided to major in music performance and apply to music schools around the country.”

That pursuit led Ernst to several summers in Door County, Wisconsin at the Birch Creek Music Performance Center and to Rochester, New York to study and play at the Eastman School of Music. These formative posts along her musical journey helped solidify two passions to which she remains devoted: exploring the seemingly limitless possibilities of jazz music and mentoring other young musicians who are seeking a similar path.

“I was drawn to jazz because of its openness toward personal expression and individuality,” she explains. “Jazz thrives on versatility and open-mindedness, which is why it has always found its way into all kinds of music, from pop and modern classical to hip hop and even country.”

It is this sense of versatility and open-mindedness that has guided Ernst’s multi-faceted approach to jazz, which has thus far encompassed—among other wide-ranging endeavors—performing in the ongoing Chicago-based trio Twin Talk (with saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi and drummer Andrew Green). Their work includes a well-received original song cycle based on the poetry of Dorothy Parker called “Little Words,” and a high-profile solo turn in the world premiere of pianist/composer and MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran’s evening-length commission “Looks of a Lot” at Symphony Center in 2014.

Despite her increasingly busy touring and recording schedules, Ernst is equally committed to mentoring aspiring young musicians who she sees looking for the same answers and opportunities that she was just a few short years ago, which is why she also maintains a slate of teaching and volunteer gigs at places like Wheaton College, Grace Presbyterian North Shore and the Jazz Institute of Chicago. Because when it comes to getting a well-rounded education, few people can better attest to the importance of hitting both the books and the CDs at the local library.

“I feel a strong sense of responsibility to continue growing and searching and creating,” she says. “The musicians I most admire are those whose music evolves and changes over their lifetimes—those who use music to ask new questions, or seek out new answers to old questions. That’s what I’d like to spend my next eighty years or so doing.”

Now Hear this

Later this month Ernst will travel to Washington DC’s Kennedy Center to reprise her role in a performance of pianist Jason Moran’s large-scale composition, “Looks of a Lot.” But before that big date in the nation’s capital, local listeners can hear the bassist in one of her fairly typical settings—among a quartet of veteran Chicago jazz cats, helping to nurture the next generation of young musicians.

Jazz Institute of Chicago Jazz Links Jam Session
February 8 at 5:30 p.m.

Studio Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center
78 East Washington