March 11, 2015

Lew Soloff, 1944-2015

On the heels of the death of Clark Terry, we now mourn the passing of another trumpet legend. Lew Soloff passed away on Sunday, March 8, at the too early age of 71. I was enrolled in the music program at SUNY Fredonia in the late 1960s, and Blood Sweat & Tears LPs were constantly on our turntables. For us it was a musical triumph to have trumpets, saxophones and trombones share equal space with electric guitars. Lew Soloff was responsible for the virtuosic solos that helped BS&T score number one hits.
Lew was a jazz man at heart, and while he enjoyed the notoriety of playing in a band that celebrated rock, his tenure with BS&T was a small part of his career. He was a member of an elite group of instrumentalists who could excel in any musical situation. Although his resume included playing behind Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Sting, and Billy Joel, his driving passion was to improvise. One of his proudest accomplishments was his recordings with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, which he co-founded.
Frank Foster
Unsolicited praise is the best kind, and in 1998 Frank Foster addressed the subject of race and jazz and when he wanted to cite a white musician at the top of his game, he spoke about Lew.
FF:    Are you familiar with Lew Soloff? Lew Soloff can play anything, can play jazz, can play lead trumpet, he can play in a section, you know, he can just do anything that’s necessary for a jazz trumpeter to do. Big band, small group, whatever.
Lew described the difference between being very good at what you do, and exceptional.
LS:    It takes a lot to concentrate and to be a master, a real master, or to try to be a master of one thing. It’s basically a different thing of being a working trumpet player, which means hello, sure, sub over here tonight, yeah? Wedding tomorrow night? Sure. Okay, a block party? Fine. A jingle here, you know, a recording date. There’s one thing to being a working trumpet player, and it’s great and it feels really good to be called for that kind of work. But it’s another thing to be a working musical personality, where people hire you because of the way you play, not because of the way you play the trumpet, but because of the way you play. Because of the way you can play a song. Because they like your style. The first person who made me aware of it very clearly was Warren Vaché actually, who I’m a great admirer of. And I was telling him — this was years ago and I was doing a lot of studio work — and I said, “gee I really want to get better at playing jazz” and this and that. “Well, look,” he says, “it’s kind of hard to do when you play the way everybody else wants you to all the time.” Gil Evans of course would state it as it’s basically hard to be creative when you have to be professional.
Having music as your main source of income is a dicey affair. Frank Foster described it as “freelance starving.” Nonetheless, my classmates and I aspired to it, and Lew Soloff was one of the best examples of where we wanted to be. He spoke eloquently about the passion and the strong sense of direction that aspiring musicians had to have:
MR:    Have any words of advice for young trumpet players or musicians trying to break into the business these days?
LS:    Yeah. I do. First of all you have to decide what you want to do, whether you want to be an instrumentalist, a trumpet player per se, or whether or not you have a love of jazz to the point where you want to be a stylist. You have to decide what you want to do. If you want to be an in-demand cat, and I include women in that, to play any kind of job for anybody, the key is versatility and very fast sight reading ability. There are people that learn to read lines ahead of where they’re playing. Very few people have this ability but some people do, culminating in maybe a whole page ahead, almost like photographing the page with your mind. But most people that can do that learn it when they were very small. But it’s a good thing to learn to read, if possible, a bar or two ahead, or even more if possible, then where you’re playing. It’s a skill that’s hard to develop, I don’t have it, I read maybe a couple of beats ahead of where I’m playing. But if you can do that, if you can become a superb sight reader, if you want to become a horn for hire or a musician for hire, that’s one of the prime things you need to do. And there’s another kind of musician who could be a for-hire musician as a sideman, and I think this combines with being a stylist, where you may not have to read as well but you still have to be a good reader if you’re going to play in somebody else’s band. Because somebody else wants to do new material, and if the whole band can learn the material in two hours and you need to spend four days learning it because you can’t read, if there’s another person plays as well as you they’re going to get the job. On the other hand if you’re such a super excellent player that somebody wants your feeling on it, you’ll get the job even if you’re a slow reader. But that’s rare. It exists, but rare. And then, if you’re hooked on music and you want to really express yourself playing your music you should start getting bands together, ensembles together, whatever it is you like to play and you should start assuming the role of leadership at a young age and learn how to play your own music, in your own group, and how to get a whole concept of what you like. Develop your whole concept of what you like and go for it. Don’t have any doubts about it. And the final piece of advice is that it’s a very competitive field, everybody would like to have a good time rather than go to work and do a job they don’t like from nine to five. So if you love it enough and you really want to do it, work really, really hard at it. And if you don’t have the ability to work hard at it, it’s going to be a very dangerous field for you to make a living. There’s no guarantee of making a good living anyway in it, because it fluctuates. But, in other words, the passion has to overcome all the possible problems. It’s very possible to make a great living at it also. But the passion has to overcome all these problems. It has to become more important than a comfortable (meaning rich) lifestyle. It has to be more important to you than that, and then you might get the rich lifestyle from it.
MR:    That’s great advice.
LS:     Otherwise don’t go into it.
For two additional Jazz Backstory blog entries that featured Lew with Blood, Sweat & Tears, you might enjoy Spinning Notes from 6/19/14, and Inside the Studios Part IV from 9/1/14.

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