Two trumpet players walk into a bar…

How do trumpet players traditionally greet each other? “Hi. Nice to meet you. I’m better than you.”

A good friend of mine recently reopened a wonderful little spot in Tacoma, complete with tasty craft cocktails and a wonderful food menu that matches nicely with each featured drink. I decided last Sunday that I would go pay her a visit.

It was relatively late, and the evening crowd had died down to just a customer or two, and the friend I went to see had actually taken the day off. As it turned out, the head chef, who also happens to be a friend, was sitting at the bar and I decided to join him.

It was a beautiful, warm summer night. I ordered a glass of Bastille 1789 Whisky over ice, and we sat and listened to a cover of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five (which is titled The Russians are Coming) done by Jamaican reggae saxophonist Val Bennett that was playing over the sound system. It was a perfect setting to talk about music, and that is exactly what happened for the next several hours.

Here is the catch: Riley (the chef), was  highly trained at multiple conservatories as a classical trumpeter. I attended and played trumpet at one of the best jazz schools in the country. That might not seem all that interesting, but the reality of the joke that I started the blog post off with is something that many trumpet players find true, even in the most casual and friendly of settings and conversations.

The earliest settings for a young trumpet player, be it a concert band or a jazz big band,  are designed to create competition. No matter how young, there are auditions, and musicians are encouraged to challenge each other for their chair. The best gets to play the solo, the rest of the section gets to sit there and watch. Who can play higher? Who can play faster? Who has the best tone?

Riley and I get along magnificently, and this conversation was no exception. We have had so many conversations about other things during the course of our relationship that it had almost escaped both of our minds that the other person had a legitimate musical background.

As I mentioned earlier, Riley focused primarily on classical, while I focused on jazz. Riley, as he explained, was known for a beautiful tone and his ability to incorporate personal creativity to his classical performances. I, at one point, had great range, which I eventually gave less attention to in order to become a better improviser.

At the end of the day, Riley is and was a better trumpet player and overall musician than I am, and we probably both know it. But there are rules to being a trumpet player. And once you and a fellow trumpeter start talking horn, the inevitable “trumpet measuring contest” proceeds, even in the most friendly of settings.

One of us would mention a venue we had been to or played at. The other one “out-venued” that first venue. There was the inevitable comparison of horns that we had used. We compared our experiences with Wynton Marsalis. There were several causal “You know who trumpeter John Doe or composer Jane Doe is, don’t you? Oh, you don’t, well let me tell you why you should.”

Through all of this, the conversation was interesting, friendly, and in good nature. There was not a malicious or derogatory word or tone included, and we were never tired of what the other person was saying. But just like a “friendly game of tennis”, it is instinctual,  if it is not intentional, that both players show off their chops.

There is always one easy, yet often uncomfortable way to end a conversation where trumpet players are talking trumpet: compare embouchure changes. An embouchure change is when a trumpet player changes the way the mouthpiece sits on his or her lips in an effort to improve tone, range or some other sound related element. It is rarely easy, takes a considerable amount of time, and is almost always frustrating. When this topic came up between Riley and I, you could see the life slowly leave our faces, as we were reminded of more painful times in our trumpet career. There was no need to continue our trumpet conversation after that, no more need to compete, and we both knew it without saying another word. We sat in silence for a minute or two, until one of us brought up bad horror movies that the other should see.

Since the first draft of this post, I made sure to ask Riley if it was OK to use his name and our discussion in this post. I informed him that I was using a trumpet player joke at the top of the post. He replied with “Oh man, I’ve got a ton of trumpet player jokes if you want to use one of mine.”

Resolutions for jazz in the new year

As we head into the new year, I decided to take a look back at some of the things I saw dominate discussion as it relates to jazz over the last year, and I must say, I have no issue with many of them never being discussed again.

I know that the topic of finding a way to revitalize the commercial success and popularity of jazz is certainly nothing new. However in 2012, it seemed that many found it necessary to anoint two musicians as saviors for jazz in the mainstream. Bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding beat out pop child Justin Bieber for the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist (much to the chagrin of 9 year old girls everywhere), and keyboardist Robert Glasper made a musical appearance on David Letterman. Following this, jazz bloggers and writers seemed to suggest that these two young musicians could attract the attention of more than just hardcore jazzheads, and in turn it would/could result in an increase in record sales, concert attendance, and overall acclaim for the jazz industry.

There are so many different things I want to say about this that I hardly even know where to start, but I will try my best.

For starters, I vaguely remember the same sort of suggestions being made when Norah Jones exploded on to the scene with her mega-hit Blue Note album Come Away With Me. I also remember the Herbie Hancock album River: The Joni Letters  winning the 2008 Grammy for Album of the Year, only the second jazz album ever to receive that honor, and writers suggesting that this would launch jazz back into the mainstream.

The recognition that Norah Jones and Herbie Hancock received benefited two musicians: Norah Jones and Herbie Hancock. I have yet to see any evidence that those who ended up purchasing their albums or hearing their music all of a sudden made a huge genre switch in their listening patterns, or sought out other musicians from the jazz genre. In fact (and I have no evidence to support this, only a very strong gut feeling), I would be willing to bet that if you took a poll of 100 jazz musicians, 99 of them would say, without hesitation, that the attention Norah and Herbie received did literally nothing to increase the work or sales for the rest of the musicians in the jazz industry.

Now, somehow, Spalding and Glasper are the fresh faces, and once again, writers are holding them up on high. These two musicians appealed to the mainstream because they produced music with crossover appeal (not to mention that they are young, attractive, and hip). Many jazz musicians (in fact, I would say the majority), either have no interest in producing “crossover” music that appeals to those that might not particularly be attracted to mainstream jazz, or have struggled for years to find out exactly how to create that appealing crossover sound.

What we need to do is be honest. People that have listened to rap, rock and country don’t just wake up one day and decide that today is the day they start listening to jazz. And there isn’t a young, attractive crossover musician that can appear on a late night talk show that will make them do that. While I share the concern with others about jazz radio stations disappearing, record labels dropping their jazz musicians, and jazz musicians in general struggling to get work, trying to attract people through Esperanza and Glasper is not the way to go.

There is no magic bean to make jazz commercially successful again. Those who are going to enjoy it will enjoy it, and those who wont enjoy it wont. But if that is your concern, bloggers, writers, and critics, then there are a few things you can always do to help.

For starters, try taking a friend (or six) to a show. And then another show, and then another show. These shows can be cheap, yet you kill two birds with one stone. You are still financially supporting these musicians with your cover charge, and you are exposing others to their music. Try purchasing albums (especially by jazz musicians who are still living) rather than having your jazz collection be made up entirely of records sent to you for free by labels for review or airplay.

Regardless, I would love this year for writers to be more focused on good, quality music rather than discussions on what pretty face is going to save jazz this year.

On a different note…

I was more or less over reading the writings and Twitter posts of Nicholas Payton, but I was way more over reading the thoughts and responses to Nicholas Payton by everybody else. I may not care for or agree with all of the stuff Payton wrote over the last year, but it is crazy how much people tried to analyze it dissect it. The worst part about it was people deciding on their own exactly why he was writing it. Who cares? Maybe his is mad, maybe he isn’t. But with all the crap that people write on the internet, why does a trumpeter get so much attention and is so scrutinized for it? Politicians and professional athletes barely have their “controversial” public thoughts and comments gone over with such a fine tooth comb.

I will say that one of the best things that Payton wrote this last year was An Open Letter to Branford Marsalis. I didn’t just like this post because he took Branford to task, but because he supported his ideas academically. His arguments were well thought out, his tone was calm, and he used great quotes to support his opinion. Whether you agree with a person or not, this is a great example of how someone should present their side in an argument. Just like in any real life debate, people respond much better to logic and facts rather than anger and yelling.

There are plenty of other things for me to rant about (like how I am convinced that one major jazz blogger is insistent on creating a “best of” list at the end of each year, this year no exception, filled with albums based on how obscure they are rather than if he really enjoys them). Instead, rather than focusing even more on the things I didn’t like about the jazz world from last year, I’m going to open up a new CD and focus on enjoying the jazz world more this year. Hopefully this year we can all focus less on the politics of the music, and focus more on the music itself.

5 ways jazz musicians can help themselves with technology

I can’t quite figure out why, but it seems like at least once a day I try to look up a musician to check out their touring schedule or to see if they have any new releases coming out, and either I can’t find a website for them or their website is incredibly out of date. Most recently I found a website of a certain guitarist who had his upcoming shows posted on his website – for 2009.

I understand that music is their craft – and not website management. But these days getting the word out is probably easier and quicker than it has ever been, and for whatever reason jazz musicians seem to struggle to understand this. So I have decided to offer up these five easy tips on how jazz musicians can better promote themselves and their music with very minimal time and effort using “modern” technology.

1. Build (or have built for you) an easy to find website.

People are impatient. No one wants to go on a hunt to track you down, so create a website with a URL that makes sense so you can be easy to find. If your band is called The Jazz Celery Sticks, then purchase and get a website going. As you can see in the photo on the top of the page, the website for Herbie Hancock is easy to find, navigate, and is updated regularly. By the way, there are websites practically giving away URL’s, and other websites that show you how to easily build your own at a very minimal expense. This doesn’t have to cost you a lot and it doesn’t need to take up a ton of time to create or manage. Need some help getting started? It is definitely worth doing some research, but you can find some helpful information from by clicking here. It just needs to be something that can host your information and can be updated regularly. Speaking of which…

2. Update your website regularly!

A website for a jazz musician, or a musician of any genre for that matter, doesn’t do any good if the information on it is several years old.

A musician will spend several hours a day practicing, writing music, getting rehearsals together and booking clubs for their show. They will then spend several hours on planes, trains, buses and in cars traveling to these shows. They then play these shows, sometimes 5 or 6 days a week, sometimes until 1 AM in the morning. The only problem is that the room was half full because your website didn’t have your current shows listed.

Hours and hours of preparation, but the musicians didn’t take the 5 crucial minutes it would take to update their tour schedule. The same goes for updating information on new albums. I can’t get excited about the album that took a musician three years to complete if there is no evidence that it even exists.

3. Enough with MySpace

When people started leaving MySpace in droves for Facebook, I heard a lot of chatter (likely started by MySpace) that MySpace was transforming itself more specifically as “the place for musicians.” Nonsense.

Why on earth would you want to spend your limited free time promoting your band on a social networking site that only musicians use and visit?

Your time is valuable to you, so when it comes to social networking sites, create a band or musician page on Facebook. It is far more user-friendly, and, oh yeah, the whole freaking world uses it. You can post virtually any and all information and media you want to it, and you are maximizing the number of people that can become exposed to your craft. Google-plus and Tumblr are also great places to share video and easily expand your range.

4. Tweet!!!

Twitter is a simple resource that can be used in a very unique way for jazz musicians. I follow about 150 jazz related twitter handles and easily half of them are actively tweeting jazz musicians.

What would Bix Beiderbecke tweet about?

What a jazz musician posts on Twitter does not necessarily need to be an extension of their website (the fact that you have a show tonight in Poughkeepsie is helpful…if you happen to be in Poughkeepsie tonight. I tend to scroll right past the tweets that musicians put out about their show for the evening because it doesn’t have much appeal to the masses.

What Twitter does offer for a jazz musician is the opportunity to humanize themselves to their audience and interact with them.

One jazz musician who does a wonderful job on Twitter is bassist Christian McBride (@mcbridesworld). Not only is he regularly active on it, but in recent history I learned that Christian was exhausted from a 14-hour bus ride, his feelings on a Dianne Reeves CD, and his disappointment with the Philadelphia Eagles football team.

It not only shows that he is a real person, but he also interacts with his followers, allowing them to become attached to him more personally as a human rather than just a fine bassist. Your personality can be good for business, and you don’t have to use more than 140 characters to show it.

5. Let them SEE you play, not just HEAR you play

You are an amazing musician, and your albums are fantastic. But part of who you are as a musician is what you can do live on stage. For every 300 people that come and see you at a club and love what you do live, there are thousands and thousands that have no idea what an experience that is. So show them.

Video tape a live performance (not with the camcorder from the 80’s, but some sort of high-quality video camera), and post some live music videos. I think just about every musician agrees that there is something that can be done on stage that cannot be done in the recording studio. And while it is certainly not the same for a viewer to watch a video as it is to be live in the audience, it again allows them to at least experience in some way a more personal side of you. Keep in mind that even a video recorded on a cell phone is better than no video at all. Your viewers are going to be watching these on a computer, tablet, or cell phone…not in a large theater, so the exposure can be the most important element.

All of these tips can make you a more accessible, personal musician with minimal effort. You have put in all the work to become the musician you are … why not share it with as many people as you can?

If you don’t know this band, you don’t know anything about music – really?

I literally had someone say that to me the other day. My head almost exploded.

So if I am not familiar with a band that you happen to know or like, that means I have NO musical knowledge, whatsoever?

What is worse is that this is not the first time I have heard this from someone.

Imagine living in a city like Austin, Texas, or in my case, the Seattle/Tacoma area where there are so many bands they are more likely to break up and start a new band before you get a chance to hear them. I have several friends in a variety of bands, and I regularly tell them that I don’t have time to listen to their CD or go to their show. I was recently invited to play trumpet in a band, was given the sheet music, and found out that the band disbanded. I get dozens of CD’s a month having the job I have, only to be dwarfed 100-fold by the amount of music that my music director gets in the mail.

Where does the expectation come from that everyone should know about a band that a particular person likes, and furthermore, where does that person get off being pretentious about it?

Every day I deal with loving particular kinds of music that my friends/coworkers don’t feel the same way about. Michael Brecker, Dave Matthews, Brad Mehldau, Notorious B.I.G, Doc Severinsen, Ben Folds, Terence Blanchard and Jewel (yes, Jewel) are all examples of musicians I love, but at the same time could easily name 30 people in my life that can’t stand them or have never even heard of them.

I have a friend who loves Steely Dan, which I happen to think is the worst band in the history of music, while I love Fleetwood Mac, which he happens to overwhelmingly despise. Do you know what we do? Respect each others opinions. Our friendship does not hinge on liking the same music, nor should it.

Excising smooth jazz 

When I first got hired at KPLU, long before I was ever put on the air, one of my first jobs was to go into the music office, go through the coffins of jazz CD’s, and remove all of the smooth jazz.

Regardless of how you feel about smooth jazz, we are not a smooth jazz station therefore we do not need smooth jazz in our coffins. I came across a CD of a guy that I never heard of, and asked my music director at the time “Who the hell is this guy?” He responded with “Oh he probably ranks as one of the top 5 bass players of all time of any genre.”

He could have been more harsh, but he wasn’t, because if I hadn’t heard of the guy, then I simply hadn’t heard of him. There was no need to make me feel inferior, so he didn’t. He simply informed me, because I asked.

Ten years later, I still walk into the office of my current music director with a CD I came across and ask him if he had ever heard of the musician before.

Make it personal (the right way)

So why does there need to be a superiority complex when it comes to music? There is a particular jazz blog in mind that I can barely stomach reading because just about every post emphasizes the fact that the author knows about a band that very few have ever heard of.

Instead of it being presented in a way where the author introduces his readers to new music, it is presented like the author knows something that others don’t, therefore making him superior. It becomes so much more about the “knowing” and so much less about the “sharing” or “enjoying”, that I often wonder if the author even likes the music he is writing about.

Music is supposed to be one of those things that is personal.

As I stated in my recent post Hearing, more than smell, brings (my) memories to life, a song that has emotional attachment to me could mean something completely different to another person. But it defeats the purpose if I were to try and force my feelings about a particular song or band onto another person. Sure, it would be great if everyone understood and felt the same way I did, but it certainly isn’t necessary, and it certainly doesn’t mean that that person has no musical knowledge.

I hesitate to say this, but under these circumstances it almost feels like religion and politics. You are either with us, or you are against us, and there is no middle ground. You know the band and you like them, or you don’t know them and you are a fool.

My feelings are (just like with religion and politics), that you start by making music personal, and if someone asks you about it, then by all means, share your feelings on it. But don’t push it. You are likely to push more people away by trying to force your personal feelings on them and expecting them to feel the same way, rather than just telling them why you feel the way you do and letting them figure it out for yourself.

Hearing, more than smell, brings (my) memories to life

I know. I know. It is widely assumed and believed that smell is the strongest sense tied to memory. But for me (and a handful of musicians that I spoke to), music – in some cases even just a few bars of a song –  can draw upon some of the most powerful memories in a persons life.

It has been an interesting month for me, for a variety of reasons, some good and some less than. Everyone has months like mine. Certainly the events are unique to each persons life, but similar where a variety of things go on, and regardless of whether or not they are all positive, the mere quantity of them can be overwhelming.

Through it all and along the way, music has seemed to fall into my lap as if it was intentional, triggering a variety of powerful memories, stronger than any smell could ever offer.

When the thought came in my head to write about this, I decided to ask some jazz friends their thoughts on the topic, and what music takes them back to a point in their life.

“I think recordings are a bit like scents. You may not experience a smell for years… say, the faint smell of your high school auditorium… and you wouldn’t even remember that it exists, except that when you’re exposed to it again, all the memories come rushing back. For me it’s not so much a particular song as a particular recording – the particular combination of musicians and how they hooked up that day and what little figures they improvised.

The John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman album has that quality for me. The whole album. Sophomore year in college was a very melancholic time for me. I broke up with my first real girlfriend and was doing a lot of soul-searching. I poured that intensity into how I listened to music, and I listened to a lot, probably to no recording more than Coltrane & Hartman.

That whole album has such a cohesive vibe that it more or less effects me as a whole … though I suppose if I had to choose one standout track it might be Lush Life. I’ve listened to the album periodically since, so it doesn’t invoke quite the same *surprise* rush of memory that it used to, but it remains supercharged with that larger-than-life emotional intensity I associated with it.

And there’s the song that I wrote for my wife and played at our wedding ceremony. I never recorded it. I’ve performed it a small handful of times. More often than not I’ve had to fight off tears when I do. In fact, I cried some while I was writing it at the piano, and I cried playing it at the wedding. I suppose you could say it has some emotional memories attached!”

– Saxophonist Anton Schwartz

I also heard from Taylor Eigsti…

“Well for me, the music most tied to my memory is not jazz. But as far as jazz songs go, my favorite, and the one that makes me pretty emotional every time I hear it, is Nancy Wilson / Cannonball “The Masquerade is Over”. I think that’s the single most beautiful track ever recorded – in my opinion, the closest thing to perfection in recorded form. Can’t get through it with dry eyes, ever. ”

– Pianist Taylor Eigsti

…and from Grace Kelly.

“When I hear Desafinado done with Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz it really resonates with me. I grew up listening to Stan Getz as a kid around the sounds and would sing along to his solos not even knowing it! When I hear this song I remember being at home, happy as a button and just chilling around the kitchen as a little kid.”

– Saxophonist Grace Kelly

I think that some of the key points made by these wonderful musicians can be the most true when it comes to most people. A particular song can trigger thoughts of a relationship, childhood, beauty, pain, or simply just a deep appreciation for the overwhelming importance of the recording itself and the first time that someone heard it, whether it is jazz or not.

Dorothy by Dr. John is a song that I not only found timelessly beautiful the first time I heard it, but it is also a song that I am not allowed to play when a certain person is around because of a completely different emotional attitude that she has towards it. The Dave Matthews/Tim Reynolds live album (while not jazz) became sort of a summer anthem for me in my 20’s, and always takes me back to the treks from Seattle to Spokane for college.

I remember not being able to get the shrink-wrap off of Michael Brecker’s Pilgrimage quick enough, after hearing for months what genius Michael had contributed to this recording while his body was being ravaged with cancer. I remember breaking down in tears in the production studio of the radio station listening to it realizing that all of the hype was correct, and I still can’t believe that the music world is without him.

I remember Basie’s version of One O’clock Jump live at Newport in 1957 being my first inspiration to becoming a real musician, Freddie Hubbard’s Birdlike making me want to become better, and Arturo Sandoval’s A Mis Abuelos demonstrating to me what I would never be able to do on the trumpet, but what only one man could.

Bach’s Mass in B Minor takes me to a German cathedral where I first heard it while studying abroad in college. Talk about the ultimate emotional surround sound. The cheesy international pop hit Macarena by Los del Rio will always take me back to a mission trip I took to Ivanhoe, Calif., in high school where the song played on a local radio station over the loudspeaker around the clock. It didn’t seem to get old while sitting in the orange groves, soaking up the sun, eating fresh fruit.

I remember seeing Brad Mehldau live on solo piano. Just him and the piano, no wires, no amplification. After a virtuosic set in a beautiful room on a stunning piano, he came out to perform his final encore, Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. While the song is a tune embedded with nostalgia in the lyrics alone, I had never thought a whole lot of it. Mehldau’s down-tempo, thoughtful, complex interpretation was probably the most touching version of another musicians’ tune that I had ever heard. On the drive back from Seattle to Tacoma from the concert, it was 30 minutes into the commute before it struck me that the radio was off, and I had been repeating Mehldau’s final 8 bars of that song over and over in my head the entire drive. His timing, his chord construction, his touch was perfect, and I will never hear Paul Simon’s voice again when thinking of that song. Just those eight bars.

Love, childhood, road trips, friends. I find it safe to say that there is not a person out there that does not have a song that has triggered a powerful memory from the past. And I will make that claim that these triggered memories via sound are far more powerful than any odor or fragrance could ever inspire. But then again, maybe I just have a bad sense of smell.