Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Matt Jorgensen Interview

Drummer and Record Label Entrepreneur Matt Jorgensen is a Seattle native who lived in New York for a number of years before moving back and settling in Shoreline, Washington. I've known Jorgensen for over a decade, and since my arrival in the Pacific Northwest, we've gotten many opportunities to work together. I also got to record for his label, Origin Records, which is one of the best indie jazz labels in the world. I recently sat down with Jorgensen to talk about how he got started and his thoughts on music and the jazz biz.

GC: What are your earliest memories of music?

MJ: I started out playing piano in the first grade. My mom always wanted to play and we had one at home. Then there was a kid who would babysit me when I was around 8 and he would bring over records or browse my parents’ collection. My mom had lots of Beatles records and the White Album was my first musical exploration. I’d  listen to side after side, transfixed. High school was the next musical era for me. Freshman year I started drum lessons with John Bishop.The next year, I began playing in marching band, concert band and formed a rock band with my friends.

GC: How did you get into Jazz?

MJ: My senior year of high school they started a jazz band at the school. I can't lie, it was awful and I  later, he went to the New School and convinced me to go with him.
didn't really know what I was doing. The summer between high school and college, my Dad signed me up for a Tuesday night community big band at Shoreline Community College where I was planning on attending that Fall. I went to the first rehearsal only able to play a swing beat and that was it. The band director Jeff Sizer came to and said, “I can pretty much tell you don't know what's going on.” He summed up, from a director’s standpoint, how to play big band drums in 4 minutes. I called John Bishop for a crash-course lesson on reading big band charts and spent the summer practicing. In the fall, I auditioned for the big band [for music majors] and got in. I met a bunch of musicians; one of them was bassist Tom Abbs. A year and a half

GC: If you decide to go to the New School, people there KNOW they're going to be a jazz musician or at least try. Where in your short amount of time did you KNOW you wanted to do that for your life? Or did you have no other option like the rest of us?

MJ: Looking back on it, I don’t really know. It’s funny, I've always been really driven on certain things and music became one of those things. And it slowly became what I did.

GC: That was your identity.

MJ: Yeah, I don’t know if it was set yet though. My friend Tom went to New York and I tagged along because that sounded like fun. I auditioned for both William Patterson and the New School but was waitlisted for both. I already committed to moving to New York though and Tom got an apartment on 30th and Lexington. I moved there two weeks before the term started at the New School and showed up to update my address. Fortunately, a spot had opened up and they let me in. When I went in for auditions at the school, I got placed in one of the higher up combos. The summer between my audition and the start of school I had started to figure out what I was doing on the drums. Then meeting all the great students at school, playing in groups, it was exciting and new. After a while it [music] was just what I did.

GC: You didn't graduate?

MJ: No. I had a certain amount of money saved up and I knew if I went there part time, I could get through two years before it ran out. My mission in school was to meet people, play, and be in the city. I knew when I was about to go that I wasn't going to graduate. Then I stayed in New York, played gigs and took odd jobs.

GC: How long were you in NY?

MJ: 10 years from 1992-2002.

GC: And we never played together.

MJ: No, that was after I moved back to Seattle. Pretty much everyone I work with now on gigs, with Origin or the [Ballard Jazz] Festival, I met during the time I was in New York and the New School. I've always said to kids who are in school that you need to meet people and be active because throughout your career you maintain relationships with all these people.

GC: Do you regret not having a bachelor's degree? Do you think it's important?

MJ: Part of me wishes I had finished, but I don't teach and I don't envision myself teaching. I'm not going to get fired from Origin Records for not having a Bachelor's degree! But, if it was my kid, I'd say, “Yeah, you should finish.” But everyone will have their own path. One of my friends wanted to be a musician and when he was young his mantra was, “do anything possible you can to be a musician.” For him that translated into living as cheaply as possible and doing whatever it took to get by and keep making music. Since school is so expensive now, I don’t think it matters if you go to one of the most expensive schools. I went to Shoreline Community College for two years first, which had an incredible music department. If it wasn't for the band director, Jeff Sizer, I wouldn't have a career in music. He showed me so much.

GC: Let's talk about drumming. The first things I hear when I listen to you play is Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb, and Bill Stewart. Who are your top 5 drum heroes?

MJ: Everyone you mentioned are my heroes. If you asked me top 5 of yesteryear it would be Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb, Elvin, Tony Williams, and Arthur Taylor. If you asked me today it would be Bill Stewart, and Brian Blade. Also, I've listened to a lot of John Bonham and Keith Moon-

GC: And you've listened to a lot of Ringo Starr.

MJ: [Laughs].  Bernard Purdie and  Motown records. The big thing for me, which didn't happen in Seattle but did in New York, was that people hung out and listened to records. As a drummer, it's important to listen to as much as you can. People who play chordal instruments learn the changes, while drummers learn the arrangements and song forms. So if you're playing Moment's Notice, which version of the first two bars are you going to play? And knowing the different arrangements on different records by different guys is important. I was lucky enough that John Bishop was my instructor in Seattle. Before I moved to New York, I read an interview with Kenny Washington in Modern Drummer about him being a hardass as a teacher. I looked at the New School faculty and saw he was on the list. My first semester there I called him up told him I wanted to take lessons from him. People told me that I was crazy and that he was super tough. Kenny was really cool but very demanding that you do the work and listen to the records. He has an amazing record collection and an encyclopedic mind. But what stuck me was that he was teaching me what John Bishop had been teaching me, I just wasn’t ready for it yet.

GC: Do you think that some of the trends in jazz education are leading kids away from listening to records and having things under their belt to execute? Do you think jazz is moving away from that [listening] tradition? Is there a way to move jazz forward without chucking the tradition away?

MJ: I think there are different ways to approach it, depending on what instrument you play. As a horn player, you're usually out front leading groups. As a rhythm section player, you're hired by a lot of different people to be a sideman and you need to be familiar with a lot of music history as well as different ways of playing. It's tough because there's so much music to check out and you need to do it or else you limit yourself to only playing certain gigs. I've done a gig where it's bebop one night and the next night is John McLaughlin fusion stuff where I was playing like Billy Cobham. You need to move from gig to gig; I personally like to be able to play the music in a way that would be appropriate. There's no real substitute to listening and checking out the music. It’s like explaining a foreign language, right? You can learn French from a book but until you hear it spoken, you're not going do it right. You can learn music by the numbers, but until you hear someone else and see them play- that's the most important part. When I was in New York, Arthur Taylor, Max Roach and Elvin Jones were still alive and I got to see how they execute things I've heard on records and that always gave me new things to practice.

GC: You also said you've been inspired by fellow-students like Joe Strasser, who was maybe more advanced than you at the time. Do you think it's really important to draw inspiration from the people around you?

MJ: When I got to the New School I was just amazed at the level of drummers and I also realized there was a lot I needed to learn. My first semester I show up and there was Joe Strasser, Stefen Schatz, Ali Jackson, Chad Taylor, Brian Floody, and I think Adam Cruz was there or he had just left. But there was always a cool vibe between everyone. I remember hanging at Strasser's place and talking drums while listening to records I'd never heard. Watching Strasser and seeing how he comp'd was different than what I was doing, so I applied what he and others were doing and it opened up my playing. I also took a couple of lessons with Bill Stewart - he’s so creative how he works an idea to the infinite possibilities and he got me thinking more creatively.

GC: Do you miss New York?

MJ: Certain parts for sure. I like going back and playing but I knew after I’d been there for just a couple weeks that I wouldn't be there forever. It changes you. There are certain things I miss, but there are a bunch of ex-New Yorkers in Seattle and we commiserate. The thing I miss is the consistent high level of playing. You’re also able to call some of your musical heroes to see if they want to play a session. You have to be the best all the time there, or else there are people who will take your gig out from under you. When everyone is of such high caliber, it naturally brings you up to that level.

GC: Ok so you came back to Seattle and what happened then?

MJ: In 1997 John Bishop started Origin Records when there were five different projects he was involved with where he both played drums and was designing the album cover. He decided to put the recordings under one record label. I was talking to him on the phone and told him I was getting into building websites. At the time, I had a project that I was doing with saxophonist Alex Graham, pianist Whitney Ash, and Gary Wang on bass. We had a CD we were going to put out and I traded doing the cover art [with John] for doing the website and that was the start of my involvement with Origin Records.

By 2002 the label was building a lot of momentum. I moved back to Seattle and we got our first office. John and I were doing everything for the label and in 2003 we started the Ballard Jazz Festival. From there we've been doing the same thing every day and everything keeps growing.

GC: How do you balance the music with the entrepreneurship? You were saying last night that it's a new thing for musicians to be doing everything. How do you negotiate that?

MJ: We started doing everything for ourselves because no one would do it for us. I think the balance for us is we do what it takes to make the music happen. If guys are coming through town, I usually help set up some gigs and make a tour happen. We had an opportunity in front of us with an organization that wanted to put money behind the Ballard Jazz Fest and we reverse engineered what it would take to make the festival happen. Once things get going for us, it’s hard to stop. I don’t know if I truly have balance between the two but I do the record label and festival stuff to be able to make music. For me there’s no real line between the business or music side, it all goes hand-in-hand.

GC: Do you think that’s the way of the future for all musicians?

MJ: Unfortunately I do and I tend to think that’s not a good thing. There are people that have specialties in all kinds of things. Look at Spike Wilner who is an amazing piano player and had the opportunity of taking over Small’s. What he’s done with it is great. Not all of us can do all of those things well.

GC: Or do them well. I know for myself, sometimes it’s like I need to slow down and focus on one thing but it’s life in the 21st century. You can kiss goodbye the idea that you can do anything well because there’s so many things that need to get done.  And nobody is going to do them but you.

MJ: Yeah and I think the danger in that is you’re going to burnout. For years there were record labels and radio promoters and now that’s all fallen on independent artists. Those artists don’t necessarily have all the experience or know how to do it. Fortunately with Origin, we have 16 years of experience and we know how to get from point A to point B. There has been a lot of frustration along the way, as well as success, but I feel fortunate to have John Bishop to share the burden of the business side.

GC: When you and I were coming up, everything was compartmentalized. I came up at a time where people that put out their own records were seen as going around the system and couldn’t get on a label. It telegraphed that they couldn’t make it in the real world. Now, no matter how good you are, from bottom up, it’s a completely different story. Sonny Rollins has his own label. Artists you’d never think would have to do [independently release] are. With me, coming from this era and transitioning to the new era it’s hard to catch the new paradigm. If you present this new paradigm to young musicians from the jump, do you think that will yield better results?

MJ: If you’re teaching music business in a college course with a textbook that’s more than 2-3yrs old, you’re teaching useless info. Things are changing all the time and I don’t know where things are going to be filtering out in the next couple of years. I don’t know if everyone can do it all. Sometimes I just want to write tunes or play the drums and not do all of this other crap. But you can’t now. I don’t know what the answer is. Part of it goes into technology. You can pay $5 a month for Spotify or $0 for Spotify and have commercials. As musicians, we should have conversations about giving away our music for fractions of pennies. Overall, the amount of money we’ve gotten paid has gone down and the infrastructure has gone away. Is that good? These things are not set in stone and there are discussions about royalties. If Spotify can charge $5 a month for music, then as musicians we should decide what a fair wage is and demand it. I think the future is obviously in flux and it’s changing week by week, month by month. If we’re churning out these kids in jazz school and not making them aware of what the future has in store for them, we’re doing them a disservice. Music business class in college needs to be rewritten every year. But I also think kids need to know that while there are a lot of avenues to market yourself, I keep coming back to rule number one: sound good on your instrument and do everything possible to make the music happen. 

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