Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Jim Rotondi Interview

 I recently had the good fortune to do a mini-tour with Jim Rotondi, one of the great jazz trumpeters. I have admired his playing since first hearing him in the 90's at Augie's and with the group One For All. Rotondi is trained in the old school; he knows a lot of tunes, is serious about playing changes and swinging. We played some standards that I have not played in a while; we also played some of his originals which were fun as well. After hanging with Rotondi for the week, I decided that it would be great to interview him for jazztruth.

GC: We're here with Jim Rotondi, one of the great trumpet players in jazz. He's spent many years in NY and is now in Europe, living part time in Graz, Austria, and where in France?

JR:  The city is called Clermont-Ferrand, it's in the dead center of France, about 3hrs south of Paris.

GC: Can you tell me, because I know you're from Butte, MT., how did you get into music and when did you decide that you wanted to be a jazz musician?

JR: I grew up as the youngest of five kids and we always grew up with music in the house. My
mom was a piano teacher and she wanted all of us to have music lessons, but insisted on not teaching us because she wanted to separate family and music endeavor. The way it went down in our family was that my mother was the musical inspiration and my father enforced all the rules. All of us were strongly encouraged to take piano lessons, and if we didn't want to take piano lessons, it was kind of a problem. My siblings and I took piano lessons until about high school. Along the way, we had the option to take up another instrument if we wanted to. I wanted to be in some kind of musical group where I was with other people, rather than practicing solo piano. And that's how I got into the trumpet. I started playing piano at the age of 8 and started the trumpet at12.

Now sort of briefly speaking about the musical community in Butte, Montana, there really wasn't one. My initial exposure was from public radio and a buddy of mine in junior high had the Clifford Brown and Max Roach vinyl set. He was also a trumpet player and he let me take it home for a few weeks and it completely blew my mind. Any trumpet player that hears Clifford Brown for the first time, more or less, has to be overwhelmed.

GC: I had the same feeling.

JR: I finished high school and always had the vision to get the hell out of Montana as soon as possible. You also asked, how did I arrive at the decision that I wanted to be a jazz musician and make that my life calling? That didn't happen actually until a few years after graduating high school. Ironically, my father enforced the rules that we had to take piano lessons, but when I decided to become a musician, it backfired on him. He didn't want me to be a professional musician and was upset when I told him I was going to the University of North Texas to study music. Like most fathers, he wanted to know that I'll have security. 

Anyway, I was hesitant the first two years after high school when I was in college at U of O in Eugene, OR. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was enrolled in a bunch of courses that I was not going to in favor of practicing the trumpet. I was practicing more than some of the music majors there and always listening to music with my older brother in our apartment. I'll never forget, I was listening to an Inner City record of Dexter Gordon called “Bouncin' with Dex, ” with Billy Higgins and Tete Montoliu. They were swinging like a mofo and I just looked at my brother and said, “You know what man, I'm outta here. Next fall I'll be going to a music school.” It happened like that.

GC: Wow, Interesting. So you went to UNT?

JR: Yep and I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in 1985.

GC: Did you go to NY right after that?

JR: No I didn't. I didn't have any bread. Since my dad was ambivalent towards me becoming a musician, I made it a point of pride to not ask him for money. I figured I'm gonna have to do a gig or some kind of job. North Texas is the kind of institution that is contacted by a lot of professionals for young student recruits. I got a call from a cruise ship and I did that for a year to save bread. After that I moved to NY in 1987.

GC: When you got to NY, how did you get started?

JR: I met some contacts on that ship that were really valuable. One of those contacts was Richie Vitale,  a great bebop trumpet player and another guy was a keyboard player named George Whitty. When I got to NY, I called them as well as a bunch of other people saying that I'm in town and went to a ton of jam sessions. I forget who recommended me to go on a tour of an off Broadway show, but it was an R&B review show happening at the Village Gate.  I went and auditioned, got the gig, and within months of moving to New York, I was on the road. It lasted about 5 months off and on though. But that was the start of road gigs that got me out of the city til about 1992. I went on the road with the Artie Shaw Big Band and was called to do the Ray Charles thing in 1991. Basically, my musical subsistence at that point was either going on the road or doing wedding/ bar mitzvah type gigs.

GC: So cut to 1991-92, Augie's was happening.  Were you on that scene?

JR: Augie's was happening before that, Joe Farnsworth was giving weekends in 1989. In and around all the things I've been talking about, I was doing that too. It's an outstanding experience as you know from doing similar gigs. Joe was visionary with that gig because he could have had just one steady group every weekend, but he used this opportunity to play with cats he didn't normally get the chance to play with. It was through this that I met Junior Cook and Cecil Payne, Charles Davis,  and a host of other saxophone players. John Patton and Eddie Gladden used to come play when Joe couldn't do it.

GC: So, you were going on the road and you would do this?

JR: Yeah, a big point of contention was that Joe wanted me to reserve my weekends for his gig, but I had wedding gigs and I had to pay my rent.

GC: Did you feel a difference between playing with Ray Charles versus a jazz gig at Augie's?

JR: Playing with Ray Charles, for me, was a jazz gig. I was a featured soloist, and he wanted all of us to play. he had arrangements in his book that had Trane changes. He actually tested us to see if we had it together. It was a blowing gig whether you liked it or not. He had a great book; Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, and all these great cats wrote for him.

GC: How long were you with Ray Charles?

JR: About a year and a half. I did one tour which was 7 months and at the end of it, I did a bunch of stuff with him but was not officially in the group.

GC: How did One for All get started?

JR: One for All got started through Joe Farnsworth Augie's thing. It came together piece by piece. Joe and Eric Alexander went to school at William Patterson. Joe got the gig at Augie's and when he wasn't hiring other cats, we were doing it as a quintet. John Webber was always on that scene too and was playing most of those gigs. One for All officially came together because I got a weekend at Smalls. I had been talking to David Hazeltine. At the time he was living with Brian Lynch in Chinatown. We all thought that David and Brian were a package deal because they played a lot with each other, but Dave started asking us to come over for sessions when Brian was out of town. We found out Dave had arrangements ready to go for a sextet. Joe knows Steve Davis because Joe's from Massachusetts and Steve is from Hartford. The whole band played together for the first time at Small's in 1992 or 93 I think. Then we tried to doing that sextet all the time. The first time that personnel recorded was on Steve's album Dig Deep. Six months later we did our first for Sharp Nine.

GC: What's the status of One for All?

JR: It's harder since I don't live in the US anymore and it's never been an easy band to book. Eric Alexander skyrocketed in popularity in 10 yrs. There was some contention that people would perceive it as Eric Alexander and One for All. We as the group wanted to keep it as a co-operative, but Eric's other band was working more than we were. I think it's unfortunate because we could've done a lot more.

GC: At some point you started pursuing teaching gigs and you won the position at the Graz Conservatory?

JR: I'm going into my fourth year.

GC: Did you think of yourself as an educator?

JR: No, definitely not. The first two jobs I had, I didn't seek out, they came to me. John Thaddeus and Todd Coolman both sounded me for an adjunct gig at SUNY Purchase and I was there for 10 years. The year before I left town, I was on the faculty for Rutgers University. I didn't think of myself as a teacher but when they asked me to do it, I thought I would try it. Being a teacher crystallizes what you do because if you can't clearly explain what to do, then you really don't understand it. I felt like I had to get it together so I could show students what I was doing and to help them with what they wanted to do. It took me a minute, but after a while I fell into a groove for teaching.

GC: how would you describe your way to teaching jazz?

JR: My philosophy about improvising on the trumpet is that it's a unique study because improvising eliminates the concept of pacing. You don't know exactly how long you're going to play. When I deal on the technical side with students, I always talk to them about that. I also tell them think about things that are substitutes to pacing so they don't blow out their chops right away. I have exercises that I do that are technical but also can be musical phrases that deal with harmonic sequence. We work a lot at the keyboard, a lot of ear training, study language a number of ways such as transcription and listening.

GC: What strikes me about your playing is that the music comes through. I think the best jazz musicians transcend the instrument. Have you always had that?

JR:I wasn't one of those natural guys. There was a period in my development early on when I was in NY where I sought out specific technical advice for the problems I was having. For me, it has taken me a while and I was really fortunate to have some technique oriented teachers that have helped me a lot. Going back to how I teach, I talk a lot about transcending the physical difficulty of the instrument and being musical.

GC: I personally am into a lot of different types of music and now that I teach history, I'm more fascinated with the old and with what things people consider new but are now technically old. How do address the notion of musicians or students rejecting the past completely as if it never happened? What's your opinion?

JR: I think jazz music has always favored innovation but key principles from the previous generation's music were retained.  What you mention, sometimes appears to be change at the expense of all else. Young people are always going to be young,  they're going to want to change the world, conquer it, and do their own thing. I dig that and I think that's very important in young people and that keeps us young. As a teacher, I don't want to fight that, but rather balance that. My responsibility as an older musician who knows a bit of that stuff is to get them into what has already happened.

GC: Do you think Europe will be the center of jazz? Do you think that NY will lose its claim to being the place that everyone feels like they need to go?

JR: I do not, and I say that as a European musician now. I think Europeans have their take on the music which is unique. I'm not sure there's anything strong enough to lay claim as the capital of music.

GC: I think so too. Some people might say you have to go to NY or Berlin but another person might not have the same experience.

JR: I still feel like there's an energy in NY that doesn't exist in any other city.

GC: I totally agree. Especially with the music. Whether anybody's working or not, when you play with cats from NY, you just feel it immediately, it's different. It's hard to get that from other places.

JR: When you go back, there's a little bit of a letdown. I don't want to be hypercritical because I'm in that community. I have a group I work with now that contains a lot of former students. One of the things I work with them, especially rhythm section members is maintaining energy. They always want to have some energy and drop it down, and I don't think that's necessary. It's more important to maintain an energy level.

GC: What was it like working with Harold Mabern?

JR: Great, [laughs] speaking of energy. He's in his late 70s now, I guess. I worked with him about a month ago. He has more energy than any one musician I've ever played with. The qualities I love in him aside from his energy is his knowledge of material. He taught me a lot of things that I teach now about harmony and substitutions. He's a selfless mentor.

GC: Do you think knowing tunes is a lost art?

JR: Yes, absolutely.

GC: How do you feel about that?

JR: I don't like it. I think studying tunes like that informs your ideas on composing. Students want to write tunes without having studied those song forms and harmonic sequences, and it doesn't work. They don't know it and they're not qualified yet to write. I can think of a million reasons to study all that music and not one reason to not study it.

GC: Do you have anything new coming up?

JR: My most recent recording (Hard Hittin' at the Bird's Eye) came out a few months ago on the Sharp Nine label. I'm hoping to record my electric group from Austria next fall or spring. I'm excited about these guys because it's an opportunity for me to write in a new way. It's different than anything I've done before.

GC: I've already heard this story, and I couldn't stop laughing. If you can tell the story....

JR: What happened was when I recorded my first album as a bandleader on the Criss Cross label and it's called Introducing Jim Rotondi. I guess for some people, my name is not the easiest to pronounce.

GC: Where does your name come from?

JR: It's Italian, my grandfather was from Naples. So, there was a certain radio DJ in the NY area back in the 90s that had an evening program. The DJ featured some clips of my album, but he had difficulty pronouncing my name and would always say, “That's music from brand new artist Jeb Rodonti.” I hadn't heard it myself, but people kept on telling me that the DJ was calling me Jeb Rodonti. I listened it one night and called the studio at a time when the music was playing so I could talk to the DJ. I told him thanks for playing my new record and how important that is for me. I tried telling him my name isn't Jeb Rodonti, it's Jim Rotondi. The DJ responded, “Man, I don't know who you really are, but I'm looking at the CD right now and it says Jeb Rodonti.”

GC: [laughs] Ok Jim, or should I say Jeb Rodonti, Ill be sure to spell your name right…. 

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