May 24, 2019

Advice for Jazz Graduates

It’s May. Thousands of young people across the country move on from their college education into the real world. Some of them entered college not knowing what their career path might be, and some of them graduate from college still not totally clear on where they are headed. It’s been my experience that music students are among of the most focused of all young people. Music students know exactly why they’re going to college. They may be headed on a performance path or a music teaching career, but there is no doubt of their planned trajectory from day one of their freshman semester. Four, six or eight years later their hoped-for destination may have shifted, particularly in the field of jazz. Jazz is one of the most creative, exciting and challenging career paths a musician can pursue, and equally fraught with competition. In this blog we’d like to offer three opinions about a jazz career and how to prepare for it.
In a most recent interview, I spoke with Denis DiBlasio, saxophonist and educator at Rowan University. His take on careers in jazz is highly relevant for the times.
Denis DiBlasio, in 2019
MR:   So are you able to give [jazz majors] advice on what their possibilities are after they graduate?
DD:   Well the ones that are serious we usually have a talk right around the sophomore, junior year. And it’s different for these — the age that we’re teaching now than it was for us. They can’t do what I did, because what I did doesn’t exist anymore. You know you go out in the big band, maybe get a name. I mean almost everything that happened to me happened because I was on Maynard’s band and I maybe took advantage of it afterwards, doing these clinics and all this business you know. It all came because people saw me with that band and you know then you’re able to keep it going. Most of us that have been on the bands, a lot of them, like when I think about the people I know who are doing things now, they either were with Count’s band or Duke’s or Woody’s or Stan’s or Maynard’s or Buddy’s, you know? And when these guys leave they either go to Chicago, New York or LA for the most part, and there’s pockets of guys, and they’ve all had that kind of experience, so — but now that whole band thing doesn’t exist. And I don’t want to say it shouldn’t, it just doesn’t. But when a student starts talking now about you know what am I going to do when I get out, I get them in my office and we look at YouTube. And I talk to them about how certain people have to — well you have to kind of design your own life. There’s nothing that you’re going to go to and join and that’s going to be your life in jazz. However, you look up — look at some of the people who are creating their own thing, and I’ll pull up you know Leo Pellegrino? Too Many Zooz? He’s a baritone sax player. He’s playing. And so I’ll pull that up. And I said, “Look at what he did.” Now no one would think you’re going to make a living doing this. But he put this up. Social media is a big part of it. You develop your own audience so your audience comes and sees you, where before you would play a gig to sell your CDs. Now you’re giving away CDs to hope they come to your gig kind of, because you have to have, how do you develop your audience? You’ve got to have an online presence. It’s all the stuff that didn’t exist before. Have a website. People start to follow you. People ask you questions, you answer them back, and I have a couple of students that have gone out and been successful but part of the work is this online activity that is very much a part of it all. We have a Music Industry major at our school. And these guys that teach it like they’re all about this thing. And I asked one of the guys, I said, “How do you get a record deal these days?” Because the record deal thing the way it used to work was different. You have a name like Sal Nistico. Played with Woody Herman, great tenor player. Sal gets off the band, Sal’s got recordings, ooh let’s follow Sal. That’s over. How do we do this. And I said, “What would the record companies even do?” He says, if you came to a record company one of the guys told me that the record company is going to look at your social media to see how many followers you have. And if you have enough followers then I’ll just create a real nice slick video for you and we’re just going to post it on the followers that you’ve already made and there’s your audience. So if you have enough followers you’re apt to get a record deal, not that the music isn’t that important but it’s almost not as important as how many followers you have. Nobody’s going to listen to it to say man that’s great tenor playing. They’re going to say who’s going to follow you? Nobody. Well then we’re not interested. So I think wow, that’s a whole change. But they need to know that. And as a teacher teaching something that is like an art form, and the society around it is changing so quickly you can’t look at it like the way it used to work. But it’s do-able and there are some kids doing it. So some of my students they get on it, it’s not that foreign for a lot of them, and they have a big presence. Because now it used to be the club would advertise it and you would go and play and you know you get paid and hopefully somebody would show up. But now they want a guarantee that you’re going to bring your peeps to the gig, right? So you have to guarantee like 35 people before you get — but for some kids it’s not a problem because they’re active on the social media. And that’s a thing that never happened — that didn’t even exist before. And when I had to learn that, I won’t say it was a bitter pill but it was so opposite of how I came up. But we talk about it and we look and Colin Stetson, this guy that plays bass saxophone and he sets up a loop, he does these concerts — it’s great playing. It’s unbelievable playing. I never heard it. I have about five different people that I show my students look at what they’re doing. This is what you have to do if you want to have a future in it. Because what I did is gone. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just what it is.
Denis mostly works with instrumentalists who hope to carve their own niche in the world of jazz.

Ametria Dock is a valued vocal and theatrical coach and has worked with numerous successful artists during her own career. She is adamant that setting goals is essential. In our 2019 interview, she offered advice.
Ametria Dock, in 2019
MR:   If you get a student that comes to you about the age of when you entered the business and they say, “I really want to make it in the music business.” This idea of making it — do you address that?
AD:   Absolutely. So I have a lot of young artists, up-and-coming I call them, artists, creatives. Now I have some that are really successful in movies and television right now that are transitioning over to doing more musical things. And we sit down and we talk about what is your idea of making it. What does that mean for you? What does that look like for you? Who does that look like for you? Who are some of the people that you think made it you know? Because sometimes what you think making it is not necessarily — I mean is it making a lot of money? Is it doing what you love everyday? So we sit down and we have conversations about that. And I have some really, really intelligent kids that are way ahead of their time. So I’m blessed to be able to mentor and sit down and have real conversations about what that looks like. What does the next five years look like for you in terms of working on this music and working toward whatever goals you have. We sit down and we create plans and things like that. I think that’s important — whether they’re kids or college aged, 20, 21 years old and coming up with a plan of action.
MR:   I wonder how the technology and the way music is delivered these days affects their vision?
AD:   Yeah. 100%. I think it does. I think that social media, I mean it has its value, but it also makes the creative, the artist see something so fast. It’s here today and it’s gone tomorrow. And so music that artists that I loved growing up, you know, they had albums upon albums upon albums. And now we have singles. And they’re here for a couple of weeks and then it’s on to the next thing. And it’s scary because you never really get to — I feel like a lot of artists got to really dig deep and develop and evolve and become. Artists today, that opportunity is, I mean you get a window and then you’re gone.
MR:   There used to be an art to creating an album concept, and which song should follow which and the keys and all that kind of thing.
AD:   Yeah. There was a lot of thought put into making an album or creating a body of work, and then introducing it to the world you know. I think now there’s more emphasis on introducing it to the world than the body of work, in my opinion. It’s like you’re pushing to put something out instead of taking the time to really master and create, and so yeah that’s my opinion.

And last, but certainly not least, the late iconic saxophonist Phil Woods suggests that the path to a jazz career has to start before you enter your freshman college dorm. As a successful jazz man who paid many dues, I feel he is qualified to offer the following advice:
Phil Woods, in 1999
MR:   Do you have advice for aspiring jazz musicians that might help them in their careers?
PW:   Advice for young jazz men. No. I figure that if they’re going to do it, no matter what I say they’re going to do it. It’s for those ones in between, those ones that aren’t really sure, those are the ones I worry about. I mean I think jazz is only for those that have no choice. I think if you’re a young man and you’re entertaining thoughts of becoming a brain surgeon or a jazz tenor man, I’d go with the brain surgery, you know what I mean? If you have a choice. If you’ve got two burning desires, don’t pick jazz. I mean keep playing it, I mean sometimes I envy the amateur, like all those dentists and doctors who play for kicks. They don’t have to worry about making bread at it. They really enjoy making music. And that’s really what it’s about. Never forget that joy, that first time you made a note and it made you feel good. Musicians kind of forget that stuff, you know, they’re sitting in the pit and reading The Wall Street Journal and grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. They forgot that feeling, that burn of the belly the first time they sounded decent. And it’s easy to get kind of trapped into just making some bread and trying to exist when the bloom is off the rose. But a young man should consider — you only have one life. When you make a choice, a career decision, it should be well thought out. Not too carefully structured mind you, but I wouldn’t rush into anything. I wouldn’t rush to go to a jazz school or any university. I always recommend take a year off man. Hitchhike around the world. Take your horn and see if you can play for your supper around the world. See what life is about while you can, before you have a family, before you need bread. Get a couple of thou and just do it. Just do it, man. Take a chance. Because you might never have a chance to do it, and that’s when you can really kind of get inside your head. It’s hard to do it when you’re surrounded by your peers or family or the pressures of society that you know — go somewhere where it’s all fresh and pursue your — find out who you are. And then when you decide, you’re going to be a much better player for this experience.
MR:   Well I think you just gave some good advice in spite of yourself.
PW:   Darn. There goes my image as the curmudgeon.
Jazz has evolved at a rapid rate, as have the social and economic conditions in which it lives. Opportunities for musicians that once existed have disappeared, but others have presented themselves. The music graduate must be open to career opportunities they create for themselves, which may not have existed thus far. Making a living in any genre of music has never been easy. People who have the requisite passion must also have parental support and enthusiasm behind them. Conversely, convincing a creative and determined young person that a musical path would be too difficult is unhelpful in the long run. Evaluating with an eagle eye the current musical milieu should be undertaken by all music majors before they arrive at music school.

December 14, 2018

Nancy Wilson 1937-2018

On the heels of our tribute to Joe Williams, we now learn of the passing of vocalist Nancy Wilson at the age of 81. Nancy and Joe shared a number of parallel lines throughout their singing careers. They had a common manager in John Levy; they both recorded albums with Cannonball Adderley, George Shearing, and Count Basie; and both objected to being typecast as a certain style of vocalist. I was fortunate to sit with Nancy Wilson in November of 1995 for an interview, and she addressed the issue of stereotypes:
NW:   I have to say about jazz critics, they really gave me the pits for a while. They felt that the Cannonball Adderley album was a compromise for Cannon. Because I was a pop artist.
MR:   No kidding?
NW:   Oh, yes. You don’t know the stuff they did to us. But my point that I’ve always tried to stress is I came into this business with a gift, the voice is a given. It was a gift from God. I didn’t put any labels on it. I also decided to leave my home to do this, to be commercial. I mean the object of the game for me was why would I want to, why would anybody in their right mind want to give up their security, their home, all the things that mean happiness to me, to go out to only want to fulfill somebody else’s idea of who and what I am. I figured that I was going to do this on a major scale or I didn’t want to do it. Because I could go home, go to Carnegie Tech as opposed to Central State, and be a doctor or be something in medicine, and I’d have been fine. But the voice was always out front. But I have never apologized for being a commercial artist. That is why I do what I do, is to sell. I want to be heard, I want to reach as many people as I can. I believe in that mass thing. You know I want everybody to know who I am if I’m going to do it.
I recall being surprised to hear this recollection, as the Cannonball Adderley-Nancy Wilson LP is one of my absolute favorite recordings.
One thing Nancy did not have to deal with was performance anxiety. Again from her interview:
MR:   Can you recall as a child, were you always pretty comfortable in front of an audience? 
NW:   It never occurred to me that you should be nervous. When I found out I was so grown that it didn’t make any difference. Then I found out people actually get nauseous and tremble and shake. Well I don’t want to do this if I have to be sick before I go on. But some people do. Some people just feel that that’s a part of it. I like being relaxed. I like taking it in stride. I love it. I keep it in its proper perspective, and it allows me to continue to do it. As long as I do it this way I can do it.
Nancy was awarded three Grammys and was an NPR host for Jazz Profiles. She considered herself a storyteller, and she chose the songs in her repertoire based on their strong narrative element.
This interview was conducted early on in our oral history project, when I was still developing an interviewing style. I will always remember the dignity and class that was part of Nancy’s persona. You can view the complete video here.

December 11, 2018

Joe Williams Centennial

Joe Williams, in 1998
Today we celebrate singer Joe Williams’ one hundredth birthday. Joe was born Joseph Goreed on December 12, 1918 in Cordele, Georgia. He grew up in Chicago, paid his musical dues with a number of area swing bands, and joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1954. Joe started a solo career in 1961 which lasted four plus decades. Along the way he became close friends with Milt Fillius Jr., an avid jazz fan and a 1944 graduate of Hamilton College. Together Joe and Milt launched an oral history project, an effort to gather extemporaneous life stories of jazz musicians, their spouses, writers, producers, and jazz aficionados. This collaboration resulted in what is now called the Fillius Jazz Archive, and I am proud to be called the Joe Williams Director. Our 350+ video interviews are now posted on the Fillius Jazz YouTube Channel.
To celebrate Joe’s one-hundredth birthday we are posting a compilation of interview excerpts which were previously unpublished. Joe’s commentary is intertwined with anecdotes from his accompanist Norman Simmons, his manager John Levy, and Basie band members Bill Hughes and John Williams. These excerpts and outtakes were originally captured for the 1996 concert documentary called Joe Williams: A Portrait in Song, a film commissioned by Hamilton College and produced by Burrill Crohn.
We invite you to view this compilation here, and hope you enjoy the magic of Joe Williams all over again.