Your Crystal Ball
—From approximately what age did you think: “I’m going to be a musician for my career”?
Somewhere around age 13 I got the bug, though I didn’t make my first formal decision about it until entering college as a Jazz Studies major at age 18.
—Has your career taken the path you had envisioned back then?
Not at all. Due to allergies and asthma, I was ill-suited to playing the trombone. And since there were no instrumental music programs in my elementary school system, I had a late start on my horn, much less pursuing jazz in my native New Orleans. And though I had enjoyed hearing big band swing music, I had never heard of Charlie Parker or Miles Davis when I entered college as a Jazz major. I couldn’t improvise consistently decent jazz solos until I was 25, by which time I’d considered quitting twice: my own teachers couldn’t initially recommend me as an improviser (though I gigged constantly playing written music). I’m the poster child for late development! But music would not let me go. One of my teachers suggested I pursue a Masters in Jazz Writing, and that opened the door for me to learn far more about how to perform as well. I don’t intend to give up writing and playing while teaching.
I had never envisioned being a teacher. But I discovered that all the challenges I’d had as a trombonist and improviser had resulted in my being extremely successful in assisting others in solving their own sound-production and improvisation challenges. And I found out how much I loved teaching, making that difference for students.
—Can you briefly describe a live performance you performed in that marked a turning point in your younger musical life (say, under age 25)?
I was fortunate to share in many by that age, including performing with such inspirational artists as Ella Fitzgerald. But I recall how, when I was around 16, I so much enjoyed learning in a summer band camp at Loyola University. My jazz mates included such future artists as Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, and Wynton and Branford Marsalis; and we were hungry to learn. That camp performed my first composition for big band and fired me up so much that I could write out my trombone parts from memory a week later. I began to realize how music was such an important part of my existence.
—Can you briefly describe a live performance you observed as an audience member that marked a turning point in your younger musical life?
I’m going to deviate from my own question and answer with a televised performance. I was 13 when I saw on public television a concert by jazz trumpeter Chuck Mangione with a jazz combo surrounded by a large studio orchestra. The concert, “Together,” just stunned me with its elements of what was possible in music, vocally and instrumentally. I couldn’t move from that small, black-and-white television. I later found the two-LP recording (on the Mercury label) and just about wore out the grooves.
After undergraduate school, I decided I wanted to pursue a Masters in Jazz Writing at the Eastman School of Music. Many of my teachers had gone there, and Eastman offered the opportunity to learn how to write for such ensembles as a large studio orchestra. It was the only place I applied to, and it did not accept me the first time I applied. But I was persistent, learned from my inexperience, and got in the second time.
One day, rehearsing in Eastman Theater as a grad student, I was startled to realize that I was sitting on the very stage on which that Mangione studio orchestra concert had been performed and recorded fourteen years earlier. I was studying with some of the very performers on that broadcast. I had become friends with some of those performers. I was writing for a similar orchestra. I was improvising the music I wanted to play on the trombone. All my hairs suddenly seemed to stand up on end: I had managed to follow my passion despite many obstacles.
And I still own that double-LP set.
—Do you feel as though your formal musical studies provided you an anchor for your current career?
Absolutely. But I also benefited from a tremendous “street” education, gigging in so many styles of music while in New Orleans. The combination of academic and street was superb preparation.
—Can you remember the one or two most surprising things about being in your career that no one told you, that you had to learn on your own?
I was surprised to learn how much autonomy I had as a university teacher. I have tremendous freedom to teach as I view best. On the flip side, I am always disappointed when I cannot “reach” a student. I’m pleased that the percentage is very low, but no one can prepare you for that disappointment.
As a performer, you learn that what you do off and around the bandstand is as important to your career development as how you play—though you still won’t last long if you can’t play well. And as a composer, you learn quickly that short-cuts in part-writing don’t pay off. The easier your parts are for the performers to read, the more they’re going to want to play your music—and you’ll sound like the best composer you can be.
Likes and Dislikes
—What’s the best part of your current, music-related career?
The people: students, colleagues, performers, audiences, enthusiasts, composers, and more. My career seems to place me continually in the traffic of some of the most creative and fun people I can imagine. And that contributes everything to the next thing on the list: the music. Without the superb people surrounding the music, though, music would not mean as much.
—What’s the worst part?
Probably booking guest artists at my university. It’s an endless sea of logistics, paperwork, and red tape; and it can’t even work out every time. Sometimes you invest dozens of hours attempting to bring together an event that evaporates before it can take place. But when it does work out, the creative benefits to my entire community (including me) make lasting, positive roots in ways no other activity can.
Ups and Downs
—Name up to five people who inspired and/or made a pronounced difference in achieving your musical goals—and in a brief phrase, tell why for each. (We’ll take for granted that you have to leave out many other deserving names.)
- Richard Erb, bass trombonist with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra: He had the most profound effect of all my wonderful trombone teachers on my playing skills—and a world of patience.
- John Mahoney, Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Loyola University: A trombonist, pianist, composer, educator, and sometimes-vocalist…sound familiar? He, along with Dr. Joseph Hebert and many other jazz faculty there, steered me through years of efforts to find my creative voice.
- Rayburn Wright, the late Director of Jazz Studies at the Eastman School of Music: What a mind! What ears! What leadership! What interpersonal skills! What organizational chops! What a visionary! What a teacher! What a nice guy! To say he taught by example is an incredibly unsatisfying understatement. And joining that résumé with other phenomenal instructors such as Bill Dobbins was an unforgettable recipe for learning.
- Arnold Jacobs, the late tubaist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: He was Erb’s most profound teacher, to whom Dick had sent me when I was struggling the most. In one hour, Jacobs permanently changed my playing for the better. (He would say, of course, that I made the change; but I could not have without him.) Needless to say, I returned for more hours! And then my lessons with Dick entered the new possibilities we had hoped for.
—Don’t name—but loosely describe—how one or more persons discouraged you from being a musician (or from entering your current music-related career).
I’m not sure that really ever happened. I do recall my high school band director, in a moment of great stress, telling me, “Look at my grey hairs, my heart attack: don’t teach!” But Mr. Marion Caluda was actually another fine teacher-by-example. I will say that over the years various musicians and non-musicians have occasionally asked me how, ethically, I can sleep at night teaching students who will enter a career that is already saturated with musicians, that pays rather average (or worse) in general, and that can be hard to break into. And I am always pleased to say that I believe that “the cream of the crop rises to the top”—that the best and/or hardest-working musicians will have a career, that I also teach Music Industry in order to prepare them to not only succeed but thrive in that career (artistically and financially), and that I think it is so amazingly wonderful that we live in a country in which we can follow our dreams to that success. I sleep really well, thanks!
—Name up to three, single-CD recordings that you think everyone on earth should own.
- Frank Sinatra Live at the Sands (with Count Basie) (Reprise). You’ll have to pick out one of the two CDs within.
- Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, On the Sunny Side of the Street (Verve).
- Carl Fontana and Jake Hanna, Hanna/Fontana Band: Live at Concord (Concord).
—Name up to three more that simply provide you great personal listening pleasure every time you hear them.
- Sunday in the Park with George, by Stephen Sondheim (RCA). A masterpiece of the American musical from one of the greatest creative minds alive—and a story about the artistic process. Each track speaks to a part of my life. And as the tune goes, the only things that last in this world are “Children and Art.” Rent the DVD.
- Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim conducting, Wozzeck, by Alban Berg (Teldec). A masterpiece of opera from a composer of the highest order. Picking one disc: the final one—and specifically the “Invention on a Key (D minor)” that is the interlude before the final scene. If that music doesn’t make your hair stand up, check your pulse.
- Poncho Sanchez, Afro-Cuban Fantasy (Concord Picante). Exotic Latin grooves and great jazz, built to make you move.
—If you could give only one sentence of advice to a high school or college student considering a career in music, what would you say?
All artists, all people, face obstacles in their path; so remember that when it comes to your career, “no” does not mean no—it means not now, not this way, not with these individuals, not until you’re better prepared, not until you want it more—but it never means no: it means “not yet.”
—And what’s the best way someone school-age could prepare to do what you currently do?
Never pass up an opportunity to learn from those who have more experience and/or different viewpoints. Whether teaching, composing, or performing, my goal is to reach my listener. So the first and most important thing I have to do is listen—to my audience and to those who have already succeeded in reaching them.