When James Zeller left his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, for New York City at the tender age of 18, it was to pursue a single vision: to work his way through the live music scene in the big city of culture in America to become a professional musician. It was 2000, and New York had a vibrant live jazz scene, mostly situated in an archipelago of clubs in lower Manhattan.

He quickly fell in with the scene at Small's, a club in the West Village with a reputation for excellent jazz played by top musicians in an intimate setting. Over the years he honed his craft as a trombonist, playing in studio sessions and even a performance with Wynton Marsalis as part of his acclaimed "Jazz at Lincoln Center" series of big band music. It was during this time he began playing weddings, eventually performing at hundreds of them as a sideman in the horn section of dozens of groups. At the end of the decade, he found himself as a regular member of the group The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn, whose old-time, New Orleans-style sound fit Zeller's tastes. Informed by the approach of the Vipers, Zeller started booking weddings with his own trio in 2011, where he quickly found success using emerging social media advertising and his preferred repertoire of vintage jazz and pop songs, which he would both play horns on and sing.

"When we play for weddings, I like to play classic love songs. Really, the 1920s to 1950s is my favorite era," he says. "But I love any beautiful song and we've done a wide variety. For the ceremony itself, I like something slow and romantic. I want to play or sing something really meaningful and personal to the couple. We've done 'You Send Me,' 'At Last,' 'The Way You Look Tonight' and 'La Vie En Rose.' I like when someone wants something more obscure, like 'Stairway to the Stars.'"

Feeling a desire to return closer to home, "but not too close," Zeller relocated in 2017 to Arcata, where he successfully kept up his gigging schedule by changing his online advertising from New York to the San Francisco/Bay Area market. He also found work as a musical instructor at Cal Poly Humboldt, and fell in with the people at the Sanctuary, Arcata's unique artist residence and venue. Before long, he was in a Sanctuary-centered group called the J Street Regulars, a rotating cast of musicians dedicated to playing the kind of early to mid-century jazz that he adores. Weddings still loomed large on his ledger of desired gigs, and in the years since his relocation to Humboldt, he has set himself up as a wedding musician with a good reputation and steady bookings.

"The group I have booked the most over the last decade is the James Zeller Trio," he says. "We have played probably over 150 weddings in that time, I've lost count."

The trio, composed of a rhythm section of Britt Smith on guitar, Lee Phillips on upright bass, and fronted by Zeller, who handles lead vocals inspired by Chet Baker and Frank Sinatra, with his trombone providing a mellow melodic style influenced by the work of Jack Teagarden, J.J. Johnson and early Miles Davis. However, Zeller enjoys various configurations and options, noting he has also played weddings solo and in duos, his most recent called "The Ponies of Harmony," and featuring Sanctuary co-owner Katie Belknap.

"She sings beautiful harmony, plays guitar and clarinet, and composes music as well," he raves.

"We've played a few weddings, and I imagine we'll be playing weddings for a long time. I think harmony vocals on love songs are very romantic. Guests love them and, in my opinion, the Ponies are kind of a perfect match for many weddings."

Lately, his booking options have included this duo, his standard trio and the trio with Belknap and a rotating cast of guest musicians. "I like to offer some simple options," he notes, adding that for some weddings, the duo is preferred for the ceremony itself, while afterward it makes sense to add musicians to get the dance floor moving.

"If our client wants us to keep playing for dancing, we can add drums and even another horn player for the rest of the reception. It all depends on the venue, the number of guests and the atmosphere that's desired. For cocktail hour and dinner, it tends to be all about upbeat love songs like 'Fly Me to the Moon,' and 'Beyond the Sea.' It's really all about communicating and figuring out how to make magic happen."

  • Photograph by Dave Woody

Zeller says he is dedicated to being affordable and, while he has a bottom line, costs can shift dramatically based on booking times. For instance, if someone is booking a year in advance, that requires more cost upfront to guarantee the band's availability and to allow him to book his year around the saved dates. Only about 5 percent of his weddings get booked that far ahead, however, while the bulk of them get booked around three to four months in advance. He enjoys working with each new client and has unique memories from his years of performances that still bring an emotional reaction on recollection.

"I love weddings. I always say it's the biggest honor and that's not hyperbole. It really is, and I give my heart and soul to the music to any wedding I'm hired for."

Check out jameszellertrio.com for booking and performance information.

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Collin Yeo

Collin Yeo

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