UA alum Autumn Dominguez releases musical memory of fallen friend

Enshrining the joy and love that a treasured friend brought to life, the inspiration for Autumn Dominguez’ latest single was borne out of tragedy.

“I wrote “The Girl With Hearts in Her Eyes” for my childhood best friend Taylor Jane while she was dying of cancer,” Dominguez said, wistfully. “When she was in hospice I told her that I would write her a song.”

“We had been best friends since we were three years old.”

After earning a Bachelors of Music degree from the University of Arizona in 2019, the talented young saxophonist, vocalist, composer, and bandleader left the Old Pueblo for the crescent-shaped city of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz.

In an interview with the Tucson Sentinel, Dominguez shared her story.

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Originally from Prescott, Dominguez’ family have established deep roots in the Bradshaw Mountains of central Arizona.

“I am the fourth generation to be raised there.”

Dominguez credits her grandfather, Steve Dominguez — the man who raised her — with instilling a passion for music.

“He used to be the lead guitarist and singer for a band, Stevie & The Wonders, back in the 1960s.”

During her childhood, Dominguez mostly listened to pop and rock.

“Billy Joel and No Doubt were my first two CDs,” she recalled. “I got more into jazz a little bit later.”

Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer’s intermixing of jazz with pop also caught her ear early on.

“Also, I remember hearing jazz in the background of TV shows and movies,” she said.

Holding a certain fondness for the pop culture of yesteryear, Dominguez notes that the music she heard on classic TV shows like “Perry Mason,” “Green Acres,” “The Munsters” and director Randal Kleiser’s 1978 romantic-comedy/musical “Grease” were inspirational.

“On the ‘I Love Lucy’ show with Lucille Ball, in particular — a television sitcom that originally aired on CBS during the 1950s — there was a lot of big band, orchestral music in the background that I always loved,” she said. “I was getting into that throwback thing where I would search for music or buy CDs that were old.”

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It can be said that the human voice was Dominguez’ first instrument, followed by the guitar.

On “Sunflower Seeds,” Dominguez’ 2022 debut album, her smooth vocal phrasing can be heard on “It’s You I Like,” “Love You Owe,” and the title track.

“I have been singing since I was in kindergarten.”

She sang in a small choir at the Washington Traditional School. Founded in 1867, it was the first public school in Prescott and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Shortly afterwards, Dominguez’ grandfather gave her a guitar.

“I used to practice on it all the time, learning songs from YouTube. Mostly old blues and, sometimes, gospel songs.”

In the sixth grade, Dominguez had a change of musical direction.

“I picked up the saxophone when I was 11 years old and actually stopped playing the guitar,” she recalled. “Saxophone was easier to play and they didn’t have guitar in the school band for beginners.”

In high school, Dominguez went on to play in the marching band, concert band, and jazz band. Music had become her passion and she has immersed herself in it ever since.

“I was a band geek, to the max,” she said, unapologetically.

After graduating from high school, Dominguez applied to the three major state universities before training her focus.

“I wanted to stay in Arizona, close to my parents. It was also more affordable staying in state,” she said of her decision to attend the University of Arizona.

In 2015, she embarked upon the journey of self-discovery that college life can be.

“Actually, I wasn’t planning on majoring in music,” Dominguez imparted. “I wanted to major in psychology and minor in music.”

Inspired by her peers in the music program, during her freshman year Dominguez began to feel the pull to switch paths, awakening to the melody of her soul.

“It was admirable to see people practicing all of the time and being so ambitious with an instrument,” she said.

“Also, I was under the impression that being a professional musician is not a realistic career path.” Casting aside the conceit of the starving artist, Dominguez asserted, “but, it totally is.”

“From the second half of my freshman year and sophomore year I studied classical saxophone.”

Dominguez studied under Dr. Edward Goodman, assistant professor of saxophone at the Fred Fox School of Music.

“They wouldn’t let me into the jazz program. I didn’t have a good enough understanding of theory, yet. Which I always thought was silly,” she reflected.

But, the attainment of self-actualization requires acceptance and patience.

“I eventually switched to jazz as my major in my junior year,” she said.

Once in the jazz program she was mentored by saxophonist Brice Winston, pianist Dr. Angelo Versace, and trumpeter Jason Carder, all notables on the Tucson jazz scene.

Exhibiting the fortitude of Minerva — a symbol of strength, wisdom, and art in Roman mythology — while still attending class and working a part-time job, Dominguez began performing about town.

In 2017, Domiguez originated and hosted Strawberry Jam — a popular straight-ahead jazz jam session — at Espresso Art Cafe.

“I really wanted to have my own band.”

In addition to a cavalcade of guest musicians sitting-in, the original Strawberry Jam house band featured John Black on bass, Jonathan Hines on piano, drummer Kai Felix, and Dominguez.

“I was working at Espresso Art Cafe 25 hours a week, taking a full-load of credits — in order to catch up with the rest of the jazz majors — gigging, and hosting my Strawberry Jam.”

“It was a super busy time. I was hanging on by a thread. But I made it through,” Dominguez said with pride.

She earned her degree in Saxophone Performance/Jazz Studies in May 2019.

“I think a piece of my soul was left at college,” she said.

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One of Dominguez’ fondest memories of her time in Tucson occurred during an installment of Strawberry Jam.

“It was a night when some Phoenix musicians had driven down to make the jam. A lot of Tucson musicians were there as well.”

“At the cafe there is a long staircase that leads up to the office. We’d set up the band at the bottom of the stairs around the piano,” she detailed. “There were about 20 horn players lined up on the stairs.”

“We were all dancing and playing the melodies together,” Dominguez recalled. “It was a moment, for sure.”

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“One night, I was playing in a trio at Hotel Congress in the lobby. That is where Arthur and I met.”

Arthur Vint had returned home to Tucson in 2022, after having built a career performing in NYC — most notably as drummer with Postmodern Jukebox — when he assumed his present role as artistic director/general manager at a newly christened downtown venue, the Century Room.

After witnessing the success of Strawberry Jam, Vint asked Dominguez if she would be interested in hosting another weekly jam session at his new nightclub.

“I said, ‘Yes.'”

Dominguez’ After Hours Quintet — featuring Hines on piano, bassist Colin McIlrath, Max Goldschmid on brass, and Kenji Ono behind the trap set — hosted the Late Night Jam at the Century Room every Sunday until she relocated to New Orleans in 2022.

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Dominguez credits her mentor Brice Winston with firing her imagination.

Winston had lived and worked in New Orleans for 16 years and the fondness with which he spoke of the city left an impression on Dominguez, prompting her decision to move to the Crescent City.

“Not only was jazz invented here, but the people who live here have the spirit. It has been in the air here for a long time,” she said with reverence.

“I wanted to move to the source. It seems like the most organic way to become a virtuosic musician. Which is what I want to be one day.”

“Right now, I am freelancing,” she said.

“I haven’t had any shows under my name here, yet. I have been so busy trying to absorb everything and to learn how to be a sideman,” Dominguez noted. “Being a sideman is an art unto itself.”

“I am part of Trumpet Mafia”

This New Orleans ensemble is the brainchild of virtuoso trumpeter Ashlin Parker and are known for creatively arranging traditional jazz with hip hop.

“It’s absolutely crazy. There are 25 trumpeters in the band. Sometimes we play all at once. But usually there are groupings of five or six at a time; including one trombone player, me and another saxophone player, and a rhythm section.”

“I play other gigs around town as well; whatever I get called for.”

Domiguez has performed on the riverboat with the Dukes of Dixieland and has been featured with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra as part of a special concert celebrating women in jazz.

“Also, I work at the Jazz & Heritage Foundation. I am a teacher there. They are a nonprofit funded by the long-running New Orleans Jazz Festival. In most cases, if the students show dedication they get to keep the instruments for free,” she enthused. “It is amazing.”

“I feel so lucky.”

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A portion of her time in the Crescent City has been spent with pen in hand.

“I’ve been writing more music than I ever have.”

Dominguez is currently putting finishing touches on a new indie rock/pop project expected to be released in early 2024.

The first single off of the upcoming EP is art borne out of tragedy.

“I wrote ‘The Girl With Hearts in Her Eyes’ for my childhood best friend Taylor Jane while she was dying of cancer,” Dominguez said, downhearted from the recent loss.

“While she was in hospice I told her that I would write her a song.”

“During her illness there were a couple of scares where we thought that she was going to go before she actually went. During one of the scares, I rushed to Prescott to spend time with Taylor,” she said.

“I wanted to be able to sing the song I had written for her with the chords. So, I asked a dear friend (Tucson musician Max Goldschmid) to record a backing track of the song on piano.”

“I didn’t expect him to go all out. He wrote horn lines, double-bass and piano parts.”

“He co-wrote the song,” Dominguez said. “I was able to perform the song for Taylor because of Max.”

The dawning of “The Girl With Hearts in Her Eyes” came to Dominguez during rapid eye movement, the deepest slow-wave sleep.

“It’s crazy how this happened.”

“In January, I had a dream where this scary-looking man was threatening to take my life. He had a gun to my head; then started crying. ‘I can’t kill this one. I can’t do it,’ the scary-looking man said to an unseen entity. He then said to me, ‘I’ll spare you but only if you hangout with girls with hearts in their eyes,'” Dominguez recalled, taken by the specificity of her dreamed encounter with death.

“When I awoke, I immediately wrote it down.”

Taylor Jane Teliha died in late October 2023. She was 26 years old.

“Taylor is ‘The Girl With Hearts in Her Eyes’; so kind, so warm hearted and open. A wonderful person,” Dominguez’ said, plaintively.

“We met when we were just 3 years old and grew up alongside each other into adulthood.”

“I could write a book full of the memories we shared.”