Thursday, July 26, 2012


Ornette Coleman
I remember hearing a very well respected jazz educator say this about  "free jazz" alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman:" Yeah, I would like to listen to Ornette Coleman...if he didn't play so OUT all the time!" I remember thinking even then, the little I had heard of Coleman's music, that this sort of statement didn't add up. I don't hear Coleman's music as being "out" all of the time. I think much of it is tonal, and much of it is quite beautiful. Obviously, Coleman's music and concept doesn't work for everyone, and for a variety of reasons. Some people just don't like the idea of "free jazz"; in order to feel like the music has validity, the "chord changes" need to be addressed. And yet, isn't it interesting that most people, including some musicians, can't even hear chord changes? Harmony is the most elusive of musical elements. Most people can identify melody, rhythm, lyrics, form, and so forth; however, we need to study theory and ear training in order to hear even simple harmonies. So at a certain point, why are the "changes" so important?

Don't get me wrong; I love to play chord changes. And the concept of harmony, while elusive and abstract to many, is key(no pun intended) in many of the emotional moments of music. We say a major chord is "happy" and a minor chord is "sad". (Diminished chords are "annoyed", and Augmented chords are "cautiously optimistic." Ha Ha.....)Take the harmony out of a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto or a Beethoven Symphony or a Bill Evans ballad and you have a completely different emotional experience. All this being said, we as musicians and music students spend a lot of time on harmony and playing the changes. And eventually, the more wrapped up in the pursuit of better "change" playing, the less attention we give to melody(we can't play the melody correctly of these tunes), rhythm(our solos become run on sentences of eighth notes, devoid of any phrasing or variety), lyrics(please, we have no idea that these songs even HAVE lyrics), and musicality(our music becomes flat and introverted, a mere exercise in plugging in our licks and scales into chord sequences. Oy, my students are going to be confused after reading this....).

I recently gave a lesson to a bass player. I was trying to get him to make his walking lines more relevant and "outlining" the chords. I enlisted a guitarist who was practicing out in the hall to come in and play with us. I played drums, so we had a trio session. We played "The Days of Wine and Roses" a few times. Yes, the "spelling" of the changes got better, but the better it got, the less interesting the music became. We were no longer playing together;instead, we were all focused on form and changes, as if we were hunched over a desk working on a math problem.

So, I said, " Hey, you know what? We aren't communicating at all. We aren't making music. We are going through the motions. Let's just throw away the song, the chords, and the form, and just play free, and see what happens." Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle: the whole vibe of our little trio changed dramatically. Now that we didn't have this math problem to attend to, we could finally LISTEN to each other and make something happen. We played something that you might actually want to LISTEN to, that you might actually pay 99 cents to download it on Itunes! Now, my contention is that advanced players can make music regardless of whether the tune is no changes or Giant Steps in all keys. But forcing these students to play "free" was a real eye opener.

Getting back to Ornette Coleman; I recently transcribed a tune off of "Something Else!!!The Music Of Ornette Coleman", the first album from the then unknown saxophonist. The tune is called "Invisible". I transcribed it because Jack DeJohnette says he wants to play it when we play the Newport Jazz Festival next week. So I learned it and made a chart.(You can take a look here if you want.)It's a really cool melody, and what's really fascinating is that there are fairly conventional chord changes underneath the melody. However, it's a real clash between the solidly conventional bebop comping of pianist Walter Norris and the wild abandon of Coleman's alto shredding.

Walter Norris
I had a SKYPE rehearsal with DeJohnette a few days ago, and we went over the tune, and talked about it a bit. "It seems like Ornette isn't playing these changes at all," I remarked. DeJohnette replied that "Yeah, well, Ornette was probably playing the changes but in a different key. I actually spoke to Walter Norris about it, and Walter said that on that when they were in the studio, Ornette told him:"Play the way you play.'" It's fascinating to hear this information from a source close to those who were making the history. 

I think this is a great tune and I'm surprised that I don't hear people playing it more often. This tune should be in the fakebooks! I'm going to try to get people in Portland to add it to the repertoire. I think it's a cool tune because it does have that Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry vibe to it, but it's not that far off from being a bop, or hard bop tune, especially if you decide to address the changes, which are basically bebop changes without a clear tonal center. Many tunes are melodious on the surface, while the changes underneath are moving more fluidly than the melody might imply. However, this melody is really giving you the sense that every bar is a new key. And there's even a "shout chorus!" I can't say that I love Coleman's approach on this tune, but I think it's very musical, and he plays what he plays with a lot of energy. It is pretty "out". However, if it wasn't this way, it wouldn't be "Something Else!!!!" They would have had to call it "The Same Old Stuff"......or something like that.....

Monday, July 23, 2012

The 4th Shagg

Back in the 90's, I was touring Europe with a vocalist; it was part of what they called the "Rising Star" tour. Normally, this tour went to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria(which is why we called it the "Schnitzel Circuit.") Occasionally it might begin in Denmark. But on this particular tour, we went to Italy-the island of Sicily to be exact. And so our first gig was in a town called Messina. The Germanic portion of the tour, while mostly in small jazz clubs, favored me with well maintained Steinway grand pianos. For some reason, I was curious to see whether the same standard would exist in Sicily. So when we arrived at our hotel, I made arrangements to go to the club early so that I could check out the piano.

My servants who lift my piano for me
When I arrived at the venue, there was a man sitting at the piano, and he was in the process of tuning it. At first, I was relieved, because I believed that only someone very qualified would be allowed to tune the piano for a performance. I've personally never tuned a piano, and I kind of regret not learning how to do it, because I imagine it would be a useful skill(especially in this situation-you'll see why in the next paragraph). As pianists, we depend on others to tune our instrument. It's kind of elitist, no? Can you imagine a bassist who "hired" someone to tune his bass for him?( I think the piano is especially elitist because you have to pay several men to carry the instrument for you. Yes, you have to have "servants" carry your instrument! What pianist can carry his own instrument? None! Can you imagine a trumpeter who hires several people to carry his instrument for him?"Of course I don't carry my own trumpet. I have to HIRE people to do that." What an elitist jerk! That's why I'm going to the gym- my fitness goal is to be able to LIFT a piano and carry it to the gig myself. It's a strange paradox; people who play the piano are usually people who look the LEAST likely to be able to LIFT a piano...)

So this man was "tuning" the piano, except the more I observed him, the more I realized that he had NO idea how to tune a piano. He was turning the pegs up and down the instrument with reckless abandon, and it seemed to be making it worse as he went along. I stood with my jaw dropped and my ears in shock. This went on for about twenty minutes, and finally, the man had "finished" tuning the piano; by that, I mean he had fiddled with the tuning pegs from bottom to top, having accomplished nothing except creating a Poorly Tempered Clavier. I was horrified.

And then, this man decided to test out his Frankenstein Monster of Intonation by sitting down happily and playing a song. This song probably would have sounded like conventional western music if played on a "tuned" piano. Instead, it sounded like a John Cage Sonata for Prepared Piano. Or should I say Unintentionally Prepared Piano? Anyway, triads sounded like complex polychords. Octaves sounded like flat 9ths or major 7ths. This guy on the piano was like the 4th Shagg.(As in the group of questionable intonation The Shaggs. That's a very inside joke; if you need me to explain it, I will....)

I had to intervene, although I really didn't know what to say. And the piano was so out of tune, it was beyond hope. I approached the man, and tried to summon some Italian. "Scusi, signore", I sputtered. "Piano.......e........desafinado......" (Desafinado is Spanish or Portugese for "out of tune." Spanish and Italian are quite similar, so I thought maybe he might understand.)

The man was a bit startled. He didn't even realize anyone was there. He seemed immediately apologetic. "Oh, scusi! I sorry, sorry, sorry.........Please, I sorry......." And then, it all made sense.....

(Wait for it....)


Friday, July 20, 2012

The Shed Day 3

Dan Balmer gave an excellent clinic on the Blues
It's hard for me to believe that it's over, but we have completed our first ever Summer Jazz Camp! By most accounts, it's been a success. I'm hoping to get more feedback in the days and weeks to come, but many students have expressed interest in returning next year, and there were also some suggestions of having more than one "Shed" during the year! That might be a tall order. Nevertheless, I'm interested in expanding a bit next year; perhaps we could do four days, five at the most. It might be nice to have some classes which are more instrument specific, although the idea of working around a controlled set of tunes makes our camp unique. Still, most of the comments seemed to favor our schedule. I got the feeling that the "intensive" aspect was really fitting of our camp compared to other camps; it sounds like other camps in the area allow for much more free time. Our days were packed for almost 12 hours a day with an hour for lunch and an hour for dinner. It didn't feel long at the time, but not that I think about it, I'm exhausted!

Our last day began with another  9 A.M. "Morning Shed", a kind of open practice session led by Darrell Grant. We then split into our combos for two hours of coaching. I worked with an ensemble of mostly beginners. (Another cool thing about the camp is that there was a huge range of abilities, but there was no undue opposition or negative vibes; all levels seemed to coexist pretty well. I certainly tried to encourage everyone to play during the evening jam sessions; the prevailing wisdom was that anyone who wants to play should get up and play. Also, since we had charts for all of the tunes, there was never the lull created by the typical "uhhh, what do YOU want to play? Ah, I don't wanna play that...." type of thing.) We worked on keeping the form on "Footprints". I insisted that when playing in a group, the most important things involve making sure you are playing together. This means rhythm and form. Which means you have to listen! "As a drummer, I don't think about chops of flashy ideas any more," I stated, since I was playing drums with the group for most of the coaching session. " I think about playing WITH the band and making sure my time feel is good for the music." I'm hoping that these beginners will be inspired to continue to grow in the next year, hopefully taking with them some of the concepts they have learned during "The Shed."

David Valdez' clinic on motivic development was brilliant
Our featured guest artist, guitarist Dan Balmer, gave an excellent clinic on playing the blues. "Every night I play with Mel Brown, at some point in the night, he leans over and says, 'Dan, let's play a slow blues in G.' So that's part of my job. I need to be able to play the blues. And the blues is the foundation of all of American music. So you need to learn how to play the blues." He offered some different harmonic options and also scale ideas (including something he called the "Superscale", which is a combination of the Mixolydian scale and the Blues Scale.) The next masterclass was given by alto saxophonist David Valdez on the subject of motivic development in improvisation.(You can check out some of the concepts he discussed here on "The Shed" website.) Valdez' ideas were very conceptual, however, they were also inspirational. Valdez asked me to demonstrate using two contrasting elements in my improvisation over "All The Things You Are"; rushing and dragging. I was a little stumped at first, but once I got the hang of it, I could see how this kind of thought process would enhance the quality of your improvising by leaps and bounds. I think overall, the masterclasses were all a big hit with the students.

I coached another ensemble in the afternoon. This ensemble had worked on "Nica's Dream", and they were feeling pretty confident about it. We also worked on "Red Clay", which was the only tune that no one had played in the camp. I asked them what they would like to play as a group  in the evening jam session, and they insisted on "Nica's Dream." However, in the evening jam session, the preceding group performed a very unique arrangement of "Nica's Dream". So I convinced my group to try "Red Clay," although they hesitated a bit. However, the performance went quite well, and I was happy that we had officially played every tune in our list of twenty tunes. The jam ended with a rousing rendition of Duke Ellington's "Cottontail" which featured pianist Darrell Grant, drummer Alan Jones, and some of the students.

I look forward to another edition of "The Shed" next year. It's a long way away, but I think it's going to be even better next year. At this point, Grant and I agree that it works better on the smaller side; however, I could see something like this expanding a bit over the next five years or so. It seems like it is a very informative and useful endeavor. Let's see what happens.........

I leave you with a surprise jam session featuring Liam Colligan which occurred before the dinner break on day 2.....

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Shed Day 2

Our Jazz Camp has been running smoothly, perhaps more smoothly than we expected. I've been asking students if they are enjoying the camp and one student gave us a great compliment. "I just went to the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Camp, and I feel like I'm learning more here!" That's a pretty bug deal to me, since Jamey Aebersold is considered a God of Jazz Education. And not to dis Aebersold at all, but since this is our first time ever doing this, we are the serious underdog of Jazz Camps. Even among camps in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest! Anyway, the turnout and the success so far has made us start to seriously plan for next year. Who knows what could happen after five or ten years?

Darrell Grant began the proceedings with "The Morning Shed", which served as a session so that students could ask specific questions about our repertoire, and work on specific problem areas. One students wanted to learn "Nica's Dream" more thoroughly. Grant put on the Art Blakey recording; it was unexpectedly enlightening to listen to exactly what was on the recording, and what was missing from the chart. A lot of the chords, which I had gotten from an Aebersold book, were not exactly what was on the recording(still not dissing Aebersold!). I think some of the issue with playing Hard Bop tunes is that composers from that era did more arranging than the Bebop guys, who mostly used head charts and played melodies in unisons and octaves. Oftentimes, Hard Bop tunes have harmony parts, counter-melodies, rhythm hits, and intros and outros that don't end up in the fake book for some reason. Grant's theme for "The Morning Shed" is to really focus on detail and perfection and total understanding, and to figure out how much time it takes to solve problems or master difficulties. It was billed as "optional"(since it's at 9am) but it was surprisingly well attended.

The instructors rotated for the 10-12 combo coaching; I worked with a medium advanced ensemble. We worked on "Footprints" for a good portion of the class. I suggested that we work on finding cells of three notes for each chord and try to treat the notes as a "drumset." By limiting your melodic choices, it forces you to focus on your rhythm, phrasing,space, timbre,etc... Also, we came up with a version of "Corcavado" which threw the typical bossa treatment out the window; instead, we just straight up swung it! This brings into question the issue with standards; if we work on standards, what do we play when it's time to make a recording? We can't expect to record standards in the usual way and that then our listeners will be eager to buy our music, let alone download for free or watch on youtube for free! We have to ask ourselves, "what makes our version of Corcavado or whatever distinctive?" I think it's worth asking in this competitive marketplace.

Master drummer and educator Alan Jones gave the 1pm masterclass. Jones is an extremely intense, thoughtful dude, and his audience was hanging on his every word. Jones talked about relationships, and how we develop relationships to rhythm and other musicians. Charley Grey's clinic was a panel discussion which included myself, Darrell Grant, and David Valdez. We mostly talked about career development, and the idea that you CAN have a life in music, but that you have to define what "success" is for you. Valdez talked about the challenges of booking your own gigs, the "shotgun" approach. "You might send out 50 packages and maybe you will get 2 gigs from that." Grant talked about how you are perceived as a musician and a person, and how that can translate into opportunity. I mentioned how things like showing up on time, being easy to work with, and dressing appropriately are things "you don't have to spend hours or years practicing!" I think the masterclasses have been highlights of the camp; the feedback I've gotten has been very positive.

I'm excited for day 3!Stay tuned........

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Shed Day 1

We have completed our first day of "The Shed" Summer Intensive Jazz Camp here at Portland State University. I am extremely pleased at how things are going. There was a lot that had to be sorted out in order to make this happen, and there are admittedly still a few kinks left to iron out. However, all things considered, we are off to a great start. There were a few very last minute applicants, and a few who canceled at the last minute as well. Some people weren't sure of exactly how it was all going to proceed, and in some ways, I wasn't either. Nevertheless, as the director of the workshop, I had to answer many urgent  questions in a authoritative way. Now, although I am technically the "director" of "The Shed", my colleague Darrell Grant has done a lot of the organizational work; without him, I think I would have had a tough time getting this all to function. Grant has been teaching at Portland State for about 16 years, and he has a good handle on all of the administrative things which need to get done in order to have a successful event such as this. Working together, and with the help of other outstanding faculty, as well as some students who are helping with odds and ends,  Day 1 of "The Shed" has been a wonderful experience.

After we made sure everyone was registered, we had a welcome jam session. The faculty began the proceedings( I played drums, Dan Balmer was on guitar, Darrell Grant played piano, and Tim Gilson played bass) with a spirited version of Sonny Rollins' "Airegin". We then had the students play, in order to hear their level so that we could better organize our small groups. (Since we had almost double the students originally anticipated, we ended up with 6 full groups. So I had to get some extra time out of our faculty at the last minute-as well as find extra rooms!) The level of students is quite varied. We have some advanced and some beginners, and everything in between. Also, there is a pretty wide range of ages. I think it's a great mix of folks and so far there seems to be a good camaraderie.

I gave a masterclass on how to prepare "The Shed" preselected repertoire(which discussed concepts which could be applied to any tune you want to learn.) The first thing I had listed for the clinic  was "1. Listen to the original recording of the tune you want to learn." The tune was Joe Henderson's "Recorda Me", so we put on the track from the original Henderson album, "Page One", featuring Henderson on tenor, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, McCoy Tyner on piano, Butch Warren on bass, and Pete LaRoca on drums. It was cool to be in a room full of jazz students intently listening to a classic recording, trying to draw from it as much as possible. I could feel the vibe.(I think the idea of people getting together socially to listen to music is a lost endeavor; people tend to listen on their ipods, or their phones, while on the bus. Who has the time to go over to somebody's house and listen to music? )

Darrell Grant gave an excellent masterclass on practice techniques and philosophies. (You can actually take a look at some of his notes here.) Then we broke off into small groups and our instructors for the day(Dan Balmer, Charley Grey, David Valdez, Farnell Newton, Darrell Grant, Alan Jones and myself) coached these groups. Finally, after a well-deserved dinner break, we concluded the day with another jam session,  adding David Valdez on alto saxophone and Alan Jones on drums. This time, we mixed the bands up with faculty and students. I think that's a really important part of the learning of jazz; students have to play with older, more experienced players, not just their peers. This is the "mentorship" aspect of the learning process. I'm really enjoying hearing everyone play and also enjoying interacting with old and new students. I'll keep you updated on our next two days as we go. One thing is for sure: now that we know that there is more than decent interest, we will definitely be having "The Shed" next year!

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Shed: Portland State's First Jazz Camp starting this WEEK!

The Shed is happening this week!
I've very excited about what's happening this Tuesday: the first ever Portland State Summer Jazz Camp. We're calling it "The Shed." It's a three day combo and improvisation centered intensive workshop, being held right on the Portland State University campus(in Lincoln Hall). We have a great faculty; myself, Darrell Grant, Charley Grey, Farnell Newton, Alan Jones, Tim Gilson, David Valdez, and special guest Dan Balmer. There will be some great masterclasses, ensemble coaching, and student/teacher jam sessions. It's a great way to keep your inspiration up during the summer break.

Darrell Grant
I think it is a unique jazz camp in that we are focusing on specific repertoire. The idea is that three days of concentration on a set group of tunes will give a certain amount of clarity to the entire camp. When we end the day with jam sessions, we can come together and see how we have improved and also see what others are doing with the same tunes. There won't be the dreaded,"uhhhhh, I dunno, what do YOU wanna play?" We'll have a collective rep to call upon. I prepared transposed charts for every student( I even add correct intros and chord changes, so there is a bit more accuracy than just reading out of the Real Book), and students who have already signed up have the charts to prepare beforehand.

Alan Jones
If you are reading this and thinking, "I wonder if there is more space in the workshop?" Yes, there is! While the enrollment thus far has been better than expected, we still have room and would love to have you. The last chance to enroll, besides today, is tomorrow between 8 am and 10 am in Lincoln Hall 47. Please see the website ( for details. If you email me today, I can send you the packet of charts in PDF form so you can take a look before we start.

Dan Balmer
I'm extra enthusiastic about this camp because my own experience with summer band camps was a big part of why I became a musician. I went to a summer music camp at Centennial High School in Maryland in the early 80's; this is where I first heard Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown, and Weather Report, thanks to the Music Appreciation segment. I wouldn't have had a jazz career without that class. Hopefully, "The Shed" will serve as lasting inspiration for all the students who have enrolled. See you there bright and early tomorrow!

I'm leaving you with a video of Darrell Grant on piano, one of our students Jon Lakey on bass, and I on drums. It's always fun for me to get a chance to play drums, and it's especially fun to play with Darrell Grant! Enjoy!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Viewer Mail: Plaxico and Practicing

This is a two part question from one of my former students at PSU:

I've been listening to Lonnie Plaxico Group Live at the Zinc Bar, and I'm wondering how thoroughly composed/arranged his tunes are. Like how much of your part during the head of any given tune is composed vs how much is improvised?
You've said before that you spent a significant period of time practicing anywhere from 4-8 hours per day. Since you are a proficient pianist, trumpeter, drummer, and composer, how have you divided your time in such a way that you progress/maintain a certain level in all of these regards? I'm having a hard time giving attention to each instrument I play in addition to making time for writing. 

Lonnie Plaxico is a pretty interesting musician. I first met him when
we both worked with trombonist Robin Eubanks in the late 90's. He was
one of the first people I interviewed when I started my
Plaxico grew up in the projects of Chicago, and started playing bass
in R&B cover bands when he was in his teens. When he first started, he
played completely by ear(he has perfect pitch) and admitted that he
didn't even know the letter names of the notes. As he got older, he
started playing upright bass and studied with local classical
teachers. Plaxico was fortunate to spend time as a sideman with Dizzy
Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Jack DeJohnette. He moved to New York City
while a member of Wynton Marsalis' band in 1982. He also spend maybe
20 years on and off with vocalist Cassandra Wilson( Plaxico got me in
her band in 1999; I stayed for about 2 years). He started his own band
in 2000; I was the first keyboardist in the band, and I played with
his band on and off for 4 or 5 years.

Plaxico's interests are extremely wide; he knows tons of jazz
standards, as well as a boatload of R&B tunes. His music is quite
unique and he draws on many elements, from jazz to funk to fusion to
gospel to MBase to pop. Plaxico writes his music by sequencing it on a
keyboard and printing out the charts using Logic. Much of the music is
composed, and it's very challenging to learn the parts. I had to
practice my parts a lot, and usually memorizing them was the only way
to play them effectively. The trumpet and saxophone parts are
particularly challenging. The band's first inception featured trumpet
great Lew Soloff, and even he was complaining at how strenuous the
parts were.( I showed the trumpet parts to another trumpet great,
Randy Brecker, and he said, "There's no way I'm playing that!")

Plaxico is very specific about when the parts need to be played. In
that respect, he's coming more from a funk and R&B perspective, and
maybe sort of an African perspective, where everyone has their role;
it's not just everyone improvising. Particularly in the rhythm
section, the parts are pretty set. Whomever is the soloist is left
alone; however, the solo changes are so dense that most of us are
lucky to even get through a chorus! (In fact, Plaxico doesn't write
the changes, he writes voicings, so you have to kind of figure out
what the changes are on your own. Also, in the solo form, as well as
the heads, there might be 5 different chord changes in a measure, and
they are mostly polychords in the vein of Wayne Shorter's "Endangered
Species". So there aren't any ii-V-I type of progressions. It's hard!)
I found that Plaxico would basically leave you alone on your solos.
But if I played one wrong voicing, usually I would get a look from
Plaxico! (His ears are pretty ridiculous.He's one of those cats that
you could play most any standard and if he didn't already know it, he
would just hear his way through instantly.)

I really got a lot of inspiration from watching Plaxico develop his
own band. There was a good bit of work for the first few years; we
started with a week at the legendary Sweet Basil's in New York We also
toured Europe and the midwest of the U.S., and did a few stints in
Japan as well. Plaxico did one CD for Blue Note; unfortunately, Blue
Note didn't really "get" Plaxico's music, so they didn't support him
with enough vigor to make more happen for him. There were some more
recordings for European and Japanese labels. The last recording I
played on was "West Side Stories", which he released on his own label.
One thing I always appreciated about Plaxico was that he really didn't
ever get into the politics of the jazz scene(which might have actually
done more harm than good). He always wanted the guys that would play
his music the best. Age, or fame, or color was never an issue. I think
many promoters would try to get Plaxico to have bigger names in his
band. The problem was that the music was way too hard to have an "all
star" just come in and sit in. All of the music required as much
practice as a classical etude!(I remember it took me about two months
of daily practice to be able to play the piano music for "West Side
Stories". And I still couldn't play it!)

Speaking of practicing, on to your next question. Yes, when I was in
my early 20's, I practiced every day between 4 to 8 hours. I also had
between 3 to 6 gigs a week. I was mostly practicing piano; since I
started piano later in my life, I felt as though I had to play a bit
of catch up. I used to keep a practice journal and I had very specific
goals. Over the years, as I got busier with touring, and then more
recently, being a full time educator and father, I have had to focus
my practice time in a much more streamlined way. I'm lucky to find 10
minutes in a day to either practice one instrument, or write some
music. I have to "steal" time; for example, if my son is taking too
long to put on his shoes, I will pick up my trumpet for 5 minutes and
work on a ii V lick, or maybe work on a new song.

Always remember that real "practicing" is different from just
"playing". It should be tedious if it's really worthwhile. Much of
practicing is not fun. It takes discipline. I personally don't have a
problem with people practicing while they watch TV! If you are doing
maintenance exercises, or warm ups, or something like that, I think
that watching TV might make the "medicine easier to swallow, " if you
know what I mean.

I think it's good to have short and long term goals for practice.
There are certain things that might only take a few practice sessions
to master. There might be other things that take years. There are some
things that you might never master, but just the act of trying will
make you a better musician. There are some things I've been working on
for 20 years! You have to look at music as a lifetime pursuit.

It's hard to budget time, but you have look at it in almost a Tony
Robbins Self Help kind of way. What is really important to you? Is it
more important to go to the coast on the weekend and hang out with
your friends? Or is spending some time on your instrument more
important? Maybe you could do both. Still, you might find that
spending quality time on your instrument means there are other things

"You CAN find the time to practice!"
that you won't have time for.

Before there were portable MIDI keyboards, I used to be frustrated
with the fact that while I was touring, I couldn't get in the hours on
the piano. What I ended up doing was trying to practice in my head, or
try to transcribe or compose without an instrument. So all those hours
on the trains or planes or buses weren't a total waste. One thing you
might try the next time you are waiting for a bus or driving is to
pick a song and try to hear bass lines in your head. And then try to
hear solo lines in your head. I do this almost without even thinking
about it now. Music has to start in your head, and then go through
your body into your instrument.

Remember, it's important to be patient. And try spending small chunks
of time in a focused way, as opposed to 5 hours of unfocused noodling.
Maybe do 10 minutes, then take a break, then do another 10,'s like doing High Intensity Interval Training on your

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Musical Families

We had this on 8 track......
I've always been envious of musicians who come from musical families. It seems like they would have a huge leg up on anyone who didn't grow up with music around the house. And not just music, but music from the perspective of people who actually play instruments and who really care about the music, more than folks who are just occasional listeners. My parents were not musicians; they were both English/Drama majors in college. However, they did own some hip records; musicals like "My Fair Lady,""Damn Yankees,""Jesus Christ Superstar," some Beethoven Symphonies, assorted jazz like Bunny Berigan, Fats Waller, and Jonah Jones. My mother had Stevie Wonder's "Musiquarium". (They had some great comedy records, though: Bill Cosby's "I Started Out As A Child," "Wonderfulness,""200 Miles Per Hour," some Flip Wilson, Don Adams, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and some great Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner-their bit about the 2000 Year Old Man was a family favorite). Still, sometimes I wish my folks had been able to give me real guidance, more than just,"Hey, you should practice that trumpet because it's costing us 10 dollars a month!" If my parents were actually players, maybe I would be a much better musician now. It's all hypothetical, but that's my excuse, anyway.

Nasar Abeday
I was thinking about this because this weekend I played with drummer Kush Abeday. He's a twenty- something year old from Washington, D.C. I remember the early 90's when I used to play many gigs with his drumming father Nasar Abeday. Obviously, having a father who plays the drums would at least increase the likelihood that their child would end up also playing the drums. Kush is a marvelous drummer, and plays so far above where most kids his age are playing. And Papa Nasar is an educator as well, but I sort of wonder how much he encouraged his son to play, or whether it's one of those things that just happened. Maybe it was a combination of both. Still, I would think that growing up and hearing your father play some hip drum stuff on a daily basis would rub off on you the same way that the words that come out of your mouth end up in your kid's vocabulary.(We have to spell our curse words now, so that our  2 and a half year old son Liam doesn't learn these words. He's got a pretty ridiculous talent for mimicry....)

Bill Moring
I was also thinking about this because earlier today I played a little jam session with a young bassist from New Jersey named Adrian Moring. Adrian is the son of Bill Moring, who is a wonderful bassist; I played with him a handful of times in New York City. I remembered Adrian from his audition at Juilliard, where I taught as an adjunct professor for two years. Adrian is a really fine player, definitely a chip off the old block, so to speak. After the session, I asked him what it was like to end up on the same instrument as his father. "I always knew what jazz was, although I didn't love it at first," he admitted. "But my first word was Bebop...." ( It's funny because my son Liam knows what bebop is. I'll say, "Liam, sing Bebop!" and he goes "du ba du ba du ba du ba Du!")

Antonio Salieri- the movie "Amadeus" was  of dubious historical accuracy
Not all of the greats came from musical families. However, some of the current greats do; Nicholas Payton, Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, Ralph Peterson, Buster Williams, of course the Marsalis family...this is just off the top of my head. I feel like musicians who come from musical families are always going to have an unfair advantage over those musicians who don't. I had to "discover" Clifford Brown and Weather Report in my early teens. If my parents had been jazz aficionados, maybe my whole career would have been different. And look even further back; look at the advantage that Mozart had: to have his prodigious talent recognized and nurtured by his father(Mozart began to study piano at 3 and wrote his first major composition at age 5). This was the complaint of his contemporary Antonio Salieri(well, at least in the film "Amadeus," his testimony reveals that Salieri's father did not care for music, and that Salieri was jealous of the fact that Mozart was playing concerts for kings while Salieri was playing children's games in a small town in Italy. But this movie is known for being very loose with the true history...). Unfortunately, Mozart's father didn't seem to be able to teach Mozart about LIFE well enough to keep him out of a pauper's grave at age 35.....

I know many musicians who don't have any expectation that their kids will play music. If they do, cool; if not, they'll figure out their own interests. I was around sailboats most of my childhood, and it never really worked for me the way it did for my father. I think he really wanted me to WANT to be a sailboat person, but I think he was proud that I became a musician, too. He was somewhat knowledgable about music, but he was not a musician. Although, I do remember that when I and my sister were very young, he would "improvise" tone poems on the piano. (He would just mess around on the black keys or white keys, in different registers, and make up stories. "There was a young princess," he would say, and then play on the higher white keys. "And she loved the fair prince," and then play middle register black keys. " But then they were chased by a MONSTER!" And he would rumble on the lowest keys of the piano. Not bad for a non-musician.)

I have no idea if my son will be a musician. I just hope he's happy with whatever he decides to be into. Earlier today, we had our first attempt at a "family" jam session. Liam brought my wife Kerry's guitar into the living room and then brought his bongo drums and sticks for me to play. Then, while standing and randomly strumming the guitar, he sang "Old MacDonald Had A Farm". And then he said, "Mommy, you could play Daddy's trumpet!" It was incredibly adorable. I'm just amazed that he's making these connections. For the time being, his real passions are bulldozers, subway trains, and dump trucks. Still, maybe he'll be playing an instrument sooner than we might think. I don't mean to exaggerate, but he's even starting to compose his own songs. He has a song called "Happy." It goes like this:

Happy    Happy 
Happy Happy Happy

He has another song that's called "Today". It goes something like this:

Today, Today
Today, Today

His latest work is entitled, "Dumping Out The Dirt." It's catchy:

Dumping Out The Dirt
Dumping Out The Dirt

I know I'm just being one of those annoying fathers who brags about their kid at every opportunity. (And those aformentioned "songs", while impressive, clearly still need work.And Liam can't really sing well, but hey, that's what Auto-tune is for........) Nevertheless, I would be thrilled if someday my son were a great musician. I'd even love it if he got all the gigs that I wished I had. Only time will tell.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Brief East Coast Jaunt , etc....

New York: probably what it looked like last night....
I'm in New York once again. I'm feeling more and more like a tourist every time I come. It's obviously much more intense than Portland, Oregon, where I've been residing for almost a year. I know my way around, so in some ways, it's still got that feeling of homecoming. However, I'm finding that there are some things I don't miss. Portland is so easy to get around; anytime you need to get somewhere within the five boroughs, you need to set aside a good  5 hour chunk of time for traffic, subways breaking down, streets being blocked off, etc...Also, the humidity in New York will drown you to death  as you walk down the street! Portland summers are a dream compared to the stifling heat of the east coast. Still, New York still has it's charms. The energy is infectious. Everybody knows where they are going and what they are trying to do. Even if they aren't doing it well, they still have a momentum you don't see anywhere else. I hope I never lose all of my East Coast Energy by living out West. Maybe some of it is gone already.......

Eric Wheeler
Tonight I will be experiencing another homecoming of sorts; I'm playing at the Bohemian Caverns(2001 11th Street Northwest  Washington, DC,(202) 299-0800 Tickets $15 in advance, 20 at the door.). I lived in D.C. for a few years in the early 90's; I learned how to play jazz by working as many gigs as I could between D.C. and Baltimore. (At least back in that time, there were so many great players from different generations to play with, and it really pushed me in way that I believe jazz education doesn't push kids who are trying to learn today.) However, that was a long time ago, and I hope that there are at least a few folks in D.C. who remember me and will come out tonight to see if I've improved at all! Joining me will be a bassist named Eric Wheeler; I met Wheeler on a recording with clarinetist Todd Marcus last summer. I was really impressed with his playing and luckily, he was available for this gig. I've never played with drummer Kush Abeday, but I used to play quite a bit with his father Nasar Abeday when I lived in D.C. I was fortunate to hear Kush Abeday about six years ago at Peabody Conservatory when his band opened for Gary Thomas' quartet, a group in which I was playing Hammond B-3 organ. I was really impressed with Abeday;he was only 14 years old at the time. He's come a long way since then! He's been touring with people like trumpeter Wallace Roney.  I'm very excited about playing with these fine young musicians tonight. I am bringing some brand new original music as well. Won't you join us?

Kush Abeday
My East Coast Tour is rounded out by a two night engagement at Small's(183 West 10th Street  New York, NY(212) 252-5091 Starts at 10 pm and goes til 12:45 am). Small's is one of my favorite places to play because the people that run it really care about the music. Spike Wilner, a great pianist in his own right, is doing a great job in bringing this venue into the 21st century. He's bringing in a variety of jazz, and really does his best to support young and up and coming players, as well as feature more established veterans. My band this weekend will consist of Tom Guarna on guitar, Jaleel Shaw on alto sax, Boris Kozlov on bass, and E.J. Strickland on drums. To me, this is a serious all star group and should prove to be an exciting weekend.

Ronan Guilfoyle
Those of you who either know me personally or read my blog or my Facebook posts know that I occasionally like to wax philosophical about the state of jazz. I've thought for years that the jazz scene in New York, while still packed with the most number of great musicians per square inch than anywhere in the world, seemed like a continually losing proposition (especially if you don't want to live like a college student when you are in your 40's and 50's) in terms of personal economics. I lived in New York for almost 15 years, and I saw a steady decline in opportunities as the years went by. We all know that the music industry has indeed gone through so many changes, even within the last 5 years, and unless you've been living in a cave, you may have heard that the overall state of world finance is pretty messed up as well. I was browsing the internet and I happened on another blog called Mostly Music (, written by  Irish bassist Ronan Guilfoyle. He seems to have come up with a much better articulation of what I've been driving at:

On the minus side it has to be said there are just far too many musicians in New York for it to make any sense on an economic level. The money paid for playing clubs in NY is laughable – there is no way you could make a living by solely performing creative music in New York. The abundance and availability of musicians and the lack of places to play drives the price musicians can charge for NY gigs down to below subsistence levels. It’s a buyers market for the clubs and the musicians suffer. For all the advantages of being cheek by jowl with so many great musicians, there is the reality of the economics of it. A lot of the New York musicians I know work in (often menial) day jobs that have nothing to do with music, and the reality for them is that they’re not going to get out of that situation anytime soon. As they get older and take on responsibilities the typical situation of doing two rehearsals of original music for a gig that pays $30 is revealed for the economic luxury that it is. All that work, all that practice, all that study, all of that creative energy, and in the end you get less than if you’d done a four-hour shift at Dunkin’ Donuts......... The New York jazz scene depends on the willingness of a large percentage of its musicians to put musical value before economic reality. But with performance opportunities shrinking even further, and ever more musicians arriving in New York like gunslingers riding into town to prove themselves, can this model survive?

Check out the entire post here under New York-Beauty and The Beast. It's very insightful writing, and trust me, it's not all doom and gloom. I think it's all about how we choose to see reality. Look, nobody ever said that the Jazz Life was going to be easy! We all have to figure out what is really most important to us. When I was 25, I could live in a tiny closet space, sleep on a futon, and go out and hang and play sessions and practice 5 hours a day, and never know when my next gig or tour was coming in. At 42, with a family to support, things have changed.

Still, for the time being, any change to come back east and play with burning players is a great opportunity. If you live in D.C or Baltimore, I hope you'll come down and try to catch some of the music this weekend!