Saturday, September 27, 2014

BIRDLAND Jazzista Social Club ~ Reborn

BIRDLAND Jazzista Social Club ~ Reborn

Onstage: the charming neon sign with the blinking yellow bird

The Berkeley, California jazz club known as the Birdland Jazzista Social Club is a local legend.  Named for the unique and detailed bird houses which adorn its walls and are sold to fund the club, its true function has been to provide an after-hours music club where both students and masters are welcome to play, as jazz clubs historically have, into the early morning hours.  Though Birdland has famously functioned for years in its low-key, Berkeley home garage form, playing to sold-out crowds, the social club is expanding.  Having run afoul of various Berkeley business laws, the founder of Birdland, a former UC Berkeley lecturer on Asian American History, Michael Donato Parayno, hopes the recent move to Oakland will improve the offering.

The new sign outside the North Oakland site 
The new space at 4318 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland, CA is about three blocks from the MacArthur BART Station and plans to offer live music two to four nights per week.  Entry cost will be a $10 donation.  Birdland also plans to offer "membership cards" for $40/year that offer priority admission to events, discounts on merchandise and higher-priced shows and special events as well as discounts at participating local businesses.  The club's farewell-to-Berkeley concert on April 30 and opening-in-Oakland soft launch on June 21, 2014, were played by two high-school jazz bands, all of whom had played at the previous venue many times before.  The headlining group was comprised of: Tim Lin, saxophone; Omree Gal-Oz, piano; Logan Kane, string bass; Edward Evans, trumpet; and Marcelo Perez, drums.  Though the soft launch refers in part to the space being in serious construction mode, the vibe was high and excited.  Birdland is well-known for being as accepting of students looking for places to play, as it is of more established bands and big names in jazz.  Mike not only hires them and pays them a portion of receipts, he encourages them and feeds them before the show.  There is always their famous BBQ chicken, vegies and palettes of water (the club is BYOB).  While they eat, he explains the legal and monetary difficulties of such an enterprise: cabaret licenses, food and beverage permits, etc.  It's a story of red-tape and courtroom battles.

Mike's dream is to form a musical community around a neighborhood, in this case, North Oakland, with services that appeal to concert-goers and benefit the locals.  The beginning phase of this "neighborhood music scene" that will "reinvent the entire neighborhood like Austin's music scene," includes six businesses along a five-block stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Way - Marcus Bookstore, MLK Cafe, Ray's Barbershop, The Fruit Basket, Gallagher's Liquors and Micro's Market - offering free music on Fridays and Saturdays from 9pm to midnight.  Taking advantage of these day-businesses after hours, the opening weekend included such diverse genres as blues, samba, bossa nova, West African, neo-Soul, Jazz and Cuban music.  Conversely, during the day, the 2700-square-foot Birdland building will be open as a retail space, selling Mike's one-of-a-kind birdhouses as well as offering dance and music classes.  He hopes to open the cafe component by Thanksgiving. 

Birdland's proximity to the MacArthur BART station is important; Mike has plans to include British Taxis, pedi-cabs and a Thai tuk-tuk that will be available for hire, to transport people from Birdland to BART or their vehicles (there is a spacious parking lot adjacent and ample street parking).

Mike's vision is about community-building.  Billed as the "Bay Area Arts & Music Project" (BAAMP), he says, "it can't just be about us," and hopes the neighborhood will become known as, "the Bay Area music district."  I attended two concerts in the series at the charming Marcus Bookstore, the oldest black-owned bookstore in the United States, with its striking exterior murals and beautiful, interior leaded-glass (created by the owner's brother and offered for sale).  Being in a bookstore late in the evening for an original music concert is inspiring and interesting, and allowed browsing between sets for my next read.  Blanche Richardson, co-owner of Marcus Bookstore, said of Birdland, "I think what they're doing is great.  It really instills a sense of community." 

Check it out, by clicking here: BIRDLAND WEBSITE  

***If you are interested in an insider's description of the original Birdland, read this interesting and info-rich post on Culture Spy Blog (of East Bay Express) by the eloquent and obviously, seriously cool,  Simma Lieberman.*** Below her post, is my own. ***
SCROLL DOWN, just below Bibliography -OR- click here ---> Simma Lieberman


Birdland Jazzista Social Club. September 27, 2014 <>.

Martersteck, Paula. "Birdland Jazzista Social Club Hopes to Establish an Oakland Music District." Culture Spy. April 18, 2014. September 27, 2014 <>.

***** Simma Lieberman post about Birdland on the Culture Spy Blog: *****

If you live in Berkeley, Ca and you haven’t been to the Birdland Jazzista Social Club, then you haven’t really experienced Berkeley.

A lot of people like to talk about diversity, community, and inclusion, but it’s just talk. They like the idea of diversity, of people from different cultures, backgrounds and interests converging, as part of their romantic ideal, but their actions and the people they have in their lives, don’t demonstrate what they say they believe. Some of these people have not rarely if ever been inside the homes of people different than themselves, nor have they ever invited any one different to share a meal, and have a meaningful conversation.

But Michael Parayno has not only shared meals and conversation with people from diverse backgrounds, he’s built a social club in his garage, where people who represent almost every, and any difference converge together on Friday, and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons to eat massive amounts of barbecue and listen to live jazz, blues and play dominoes, cards, checkers and chess on small tables set up on the sidewalk.

Before I became a member, I would pass by this house with weird looking old English cars, birdhouses, loud music, the smell of barbecue, and hundreds of people from every dimension of diversity going in and out. I was curious, and wanted to know how someone could have such big parties every weekend, and not invite me.

So one night, on my drive home, I passed his house; saw the garage door open, and Michael standing outside. I couldn’t stand it any longer, I had to know, so I pulled over, jumped out of my car, and said, “What the heck is gong on, and how do I get invited?”

Fourteen months ago, Michael (who was known for designing and building his world famous birdhouses) bought his first grill, and invited a few neighbors over to barbecue, and listen to jazz on the radio. Everyone had such a great time, they decided to do it again, and they invited a few more people, who had such a great time, that they had another barbecue. Not only did they invite more people they knew, but they started inviting anyone who happened to be walking up their street.

One of Michael’s friends from Malaysia, Morgan Lim, offered to cook Satay, and then they decided to have a “multi-culti,” grill with barbecue recipes from a myriad of cultures.

One Friday night, one of Michael’s neighbors brought his jazz trio, and everyone got to listen to live jazz instead of the radio. Naturally, the next step was to continue with more live jazz, and Michael decided to build a stage, get a professional sound system, and create a night club, with lights, and furnishings, where everyone could feel at home, and the Birdland Jazzista Social Club was formed.

Parayno’s Birdland Jazzista Social Club is a true “multi-culti,” community. Michael says, “we have people of all ages from embryos to people in their late 80.’s. This is a social club where gay, straight, Black, White, Asian, Latino, and people from every other culture can feel at home, including homeless folks.” “I want to bring back the idea and practice of people being a real community,” “We have people, food and music, from 8:00 PM-5:00 AM

It costs $20.00 to join, and then regular donation is $10.00 of which goes to the musicians.
“Actually, Michael said, “the $10.00 is only for the music, There is never a
charge for food and drink because food and drinks should not be monetized among friends in a social club .”

On a Friday night, the number of people who attend can easily reach 250, and on Saturday nights at least 150 show up to hear blues.

“I want people to associate jazz as party music again, and equate it to having a good time. Jazz is for the masses and all classes,” Parayno declares.

He told me, “this is a place where my young immigrant students learn how to interact and interface with people who have been in the US all of their lives instead of just hanging around with people of their own ethnic background. “

And in keeping with the ideas in my article, “How Jay-Z, Eminem, and Steve Jobs Can Bring Us to Salvation,” I believe that spending time at Birdland, sitting on one of the leather couches, or on a folding chair listening, conversing and grooving to the music, one minute with a homeless person and the next minute with a Silicon Valley CEO, can bring us to inclusion and community.

If you find yourself in the SF Bay Area, you can go to the website, where you can find the menu and music calendar. Birdland has musicians through November, The word is out and it’s gone viral, musicians who come out to San Francisco to play at the upscale venues, make it a point to also play at Birdland. Be prepared to be welcomed like an old friend and make some new ones.
6 likes, 0 dislikes  

Posted by Simma Lieberman on 04/21/2014 at 11:00 AM

As a parent of a jazz student who has benefitted immensely from Mike's wide vision and love of community, I can say that Birdland has become an extraordinary & essential stop along the Bay Area Jazz Education Continuum. High School students, Jazzbos in training, bitten by the jazz bug, compete for precious few spots in the conglomerate All-Star Bands at SFJAZZ, the Studio Bands at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly, the Jazzschool, in the Berkeley theater district) and elsewhere, still need a place to play and a place to listen, talk and grow beyond the group.  Many of these players also write music and it is indispensable to them to be able to showcase their work in this under-21 environment.  These kids are the NEXT GENERATION!  Mike is their adoptive cool-father-figure and his one-of-a-kind bird houses, their metaphorical homes!
Posted by Shamera Kane on 09/27/2014 at 4:01 PM

Thursday, July 3, 2014

5 Qs for Patrick Hogan ~ "Mr. Bebop"

5 Qs for Patrick Hogan ~ "Mr. Bebop"

Patrick Hogan joined SFJAZZ for the 2013-2014 year, easily winning a spot in the SFJAZZ All-Star Jazz Orchestra (under director Paul Contos) and the SFJAZZ All-Star Combo (under director Dann Zinn) his first time auditioning.  Very rare.  As is Patrick.  He knows what he likes and quickly developed a persona in these groups; hearing him referred to as "Mr. Bebop" (a term coined by Paul Contos) testifies to his penchant for straight-ahead jazz compositions.  His own compositions run this way, but his improvisations are also replete with quotes from songs by The Beatles.  Writing about him brings to mind an article I recently scanned by Dr. Phil McGraw where he states, it's important in life to "pick a horse and ride it to the finish line."  If this is a metaphorical way of saying, "know your strengths" and "strive for focus," I couldn't have picked a better line (unless it was either music or baseball-related, another subject on which he is quite versed).  I have heard long, detail-laden discussions with Patrick and SFJAZZ Combo director Dann Zinn about the sport.  Zinn supports and recommends that musicians watch sports; I believe it has to do with noticing non-verbal communication in groups requiring split-second decisions and perfect physical execution.

Patrick is supremely confident, states his beliefs and backs them up like someone with much more experience, and is very comfortable with who he is.  You will see this in his answers, which he elected to speak instead of write.  Here is our discussion.



Primary Instrument:       PIANO

Music you play:            
     Classical:         No
     Jazz:                  Yes
     Pop:                   No, except the Beatles
     other:                No

Music you listen to:            
     Classical:        No
     Jazz:                 Yes
     Pop:                  No
     other:               Soundtracks

Private Lessons?  Yes

Year You Will Graduate HS: 2014

5 Qs for Patrick:

1. How do you approach improvisation?

"I start with melody, that's always very important to me.  My favorite soloists, their solos are like new tunes.  Each chorus they play, you can write it down, and play it.  It would sound a lot like a Bebop head, like Anthropology or something, where it's not quite like a Tin Pan Alley standard, but they're very melodic and very memorable.  There are passages or phrases that are almost like they're written by hand with care.  So, I'm always tying to play melodically.  It's also important to be cohesive, so you're not just throwing random stuff out there or random licks out there and not putting anything together.  You gotta build it, start small and end it big, which I actually do.  What I tend to do is actually a formulaic thing, I actually do it too much, where I'll go to block chords at the end.  I have guys like Dann Zinn getting on me for that [mimes Dann Zinn saying, ' gotta change it up'].  I try to work in the Blues now and then; I guess [listening to] Horace Silver helps with that.  And dissonance.  Because the basic vocabulary I'm working with is Bop and Hard Bop: guys like Red Garland, Bird, Bud Powell.  I try to work in elements of the Blues: Thelonious, a little bit of Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, you know the spare thing that Ahmad did.  So, very rooted in Hard Bop, try to keep it rooted, but interesting.  I think that sums it up pretty nice."     

2. What makes you play the way you play? (Influences? Where do you find inspiration? Group vs. solo?)

 "My mom and dad, especially my dad, have always listened to jazz so I've been hearing it since before I was born.  So, I've been absorbing it since I was very young.  I wasn't consciously thinking about it.  I'm told that at age 2, I wanted to hear Barry Harris.  I think I absorbed it whether I knew it or not, because as soon as I started playing, and I started pretty late [about 10 years old], that's immediately what I wanted to play.  It was an immediate thing:  I want to play jazz.  Now I'm interested in this stuff, now I'm getting out his Thelonious Monk records and playing them, and absorbing them, and hearing the licks those guys are playing, and trying to copy them.  So, I think my mom and dad shaped it a lot, based on what they were listening to."

"Influences:  I mentioned Red and Thelonious, Horace Silver, there's a lot...Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Vince Guaraldi, Bud.  As far as horn players, well, Charlie Parker influences everyone.  Because he, Dizzy and Thelonious developed the Bebop vocabulary.  A lot of it can be attributed to them."

"Inspiration:  I practice by myself because I don't have the opportunity to play with others much where I live.  I think listening has been my inspiration.  Sometimes I'll be inspired by something non-musical, maybe a particular memory or nostalgia, or something like that.  I can get fairly nostalgic about places I've been.  Mostly, I'd say inspiration comes from the music itself."

"I'm always down to play solo piano, but group playing is what I really thirst for and what I really need to advance and get better.  It can be frustrating, because now I have all these wonderful opportunities with SFJAZZ and I get gigs, but it can still be frustrating not living right next to guys you can play with all the time, like a school environment.  It's kind of interesting being home-schooled.  On one hand, I can practice more, but on the other hand, living where I live and not going to a public school, I don't have a built-in way to play with guys that way.  So, it has it's pros and cons.  I'm cool with either one, but as far as improvement, I need combo playing and group playing and group interaction."       

3. When you're frustrated & want to quit, what makes you come back to your instrument?

"First of all, I am religious, I believe in God and I go to church every week.  The thing that gets me going is that I feel that God has been kind enough to give me a gift.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying 'I'm the greatest.'  But, he's allowed me to do what I'm doing and I won't squander that.  It would be foolish, it would be throwing something away.  Also, sometimes I get frustrated, I'm tired of hearing myself.  But, I can't stay away.  I'm constantly thinking about something related to it.  Literally constantly.  If there's a new composition I'm working on, or even just a recording of someone else I'm listening to, it's stuck in my head.  I don't think I could get it out if I wanted to.  It's such a part of my life now.  I'm obsessed. 

"My practice habits are not great.  And often, if I'm having a day where I'm just not feeling it, I'll stop for a day.  But, that's just for the day.  I rarely go a day where I consciously decide, 'I really don't want to do anything.'  If I have a day where I don't play at all, it's usually because it's not my choice, because I'm busy.  I play every day, but sometimes for whatever reason, I have to get up, but I'm still thinking about music.  I'm thinking about it all the time."  When asked how much he does practice daily, he replies, "A lot of people ask me that and I always have trouble answering because I don't know.  It varies.  Sometimes it's extremely short, about 30 minutes, probably because I'm not playing very well that day.  In spurts, I can play for hours.  It all depends.  Usually, I'd say it comes to, 1 to 2 hours, but not all in one sitting."

4. How does pressure ('good' or 'bad') affect your performance?

"I definitely still feel pressure.  Even though I've got lots of experience, I've done a lot of gigs at this point, I still get nervous.  Especially for the bigger things.  You know, butterflies and 'I gotta play this part perfectly.'  In a big band, if I've been working on something, I really think 'don't screw this up!'   Sometimes I think the bigger the gig, the better I sound to myself.  I think I can rise to the pressure.  I still get nervous but I also think I feel more satisfied, I'm more confident for the bigger gigs that I'll sound okay, that I'll rise to it."  I agree wholeheartedly, he is a crowd pleaser, this pianist. 

I ask if after listening to performance recordings, if his assessment of the record equals what he felt about the performance at the time.  He says that sometimes there is a disparity, but usually, "if I thought it sounded decent, it'll sound like that on the record.  That seems to be the case more often than not.  And, I do think it's beneficial to listen to recordings of yourself.  I think it's good to transcribe yourself."  Great idea.

As far as so-called bad pressure, Patrick says, "99% of the time, if somebody says I didn't sound good, I agree with them and I know what they're talking about.  I think that helps too because I'll be [mad] at myself  and I want to make sure it sounds good this time.  It doesn't adversely affect me.  Well....that's not quite true.  Sometimes, it won't be somebody telling me something.  Sometimes I don't like how I sound, so then I think, 'now, I really gotta nail it.'  But, whether it's me or someone else, I think it helps."  When asked if he is his own worst critic, he replies, "Yea, I think most musicians are." 

5. Parent support directly affects musical achievement.  How does parent support look in your family?  How does it affect your ability to succeed? 

"My parents are extremely supportive, to the point where they go out of their way to help me along.  And, we're talking about more than just getting me to gigs and stuff like that.  I think it can be indicative of something, when parents go out of their way, tying themselves in knots to get you where you need to be, to get you opportunities in music.  I think it's indicative of something."  I believe he is saying that all that support may be indicative of his student success.  "As far as something higher than that, they just love it.  I think that if they have any sort of worry, it is that jazz isn't very lucrative.  It is true for most people that the music business is not very lucrative.  Obviously there are lots of people making lots of money, but for most, they won't be raking it in.  That's just out of concern, wanting to see me do well.  But they are 100% down with it.  In fact, they push me to do more.   To make sure my audition stuff is done and taking care of my responsibilities related to it.  They help out and they make me more business-like, in a good way.  I think that when parents are doing that, I think that's a pretty good sign that they are 100% down with it."

Patrick is quick to point out that this in no way makes them the dreaded "stage parents," whom he has encountered and calls "unfortunate."  He clarifies by saying, "when they push me to do stuff, it's really when I'm dragging, like stuff related to colleges and auditions.  I'm not being pushed into it.  I'm either doing it because I want to do it or because I know it's important and I know it's going to help.  To put it bluntly, they help me get off my ass and do it.  They never tell me to do it; their pushing is good pushing." 

With a big smile on his face, he adds, "My Dad just loves it!  He just loves being able to hear the music."  This is true.  I tell Patrick that his father, who digitally records and shares every performance, is fairly glowing the whole time.  The Hogans and I have a mutual admiration society, in the way that we both get joy from watching each other's sons perform.  Imagine how it must feel to be a jazz lover your whole life.  Imagine then, your child also develops that love and pursues an instrument.   That would be quite lovely, just as is, hearing the music in the home, sharing an interest.  But imagine then, that you come to the point of watching your child win an audition and then play in one of the highest level jazz ensembles for students of his age, in a world-class city, San Francisco.  It makes my heart sing.

Part of parent support is putting your child with suitable mentors like the aforementioned directors at SFJAZZ.  Though it wasn’t part of our discussion questions, I wanted to add his comments about those directors.  The SFJAZZ All-Star Combo is unique for performing student-written charts in a small band format; a group of 6 as opposed to the 25-man Big Band puts the players square in the spotlight, with nowhere to hide.  Combo director, Dann Zinn,* has a reputation for being brutally honest and bringing his groups to unprecedented heights; when you get a compliment from Zinn, you know it's sincere.  Many students are not comfortable with this dynamic.  But, of Zinn, Patrick says, “I welcome the pressure and his bark is worse than his bite.  He has a heart of gold!”  Of  SJAZZ All-Star Jazz Orchestra director, Paul Contos,** who discovered Patrick in the Monterey area and encouraged him to audition for SFJAZZ, he considers at length and simply says, “…words fail.”  Well said, Patrick.

*   Dann Zinn Interview, see:

** Paul Contos Interview, see:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Jesse Foster Interview ~ Father of Jazz in the Basement

Jesse Foster, father of Jazz in the Basement

After seeing the amazing, modern-day jazz salon, called Jazz in the Basement, created by Michele and Jesse Foster in their gorgeous San Francisco home, I had to interview him.  You can read the article about their salon by clicking here Jazz in the Basement or by going to:  In addition to hosting these monthly salons, Jesse is an avid educator, composer and performer.  His perspective as a vocalist is new for The Lead Sheet SF and Jesse has a lot to say.

Educator Q's

1.  How do you find a balance between imposing your own ideas over the students' creativity?

"In the case of an intermediate student, who is learning to improvise, what I usually say to the student is 'you may already have this information, but here it is in a different shape and form.'   It might sound cliché to say, 'the more I teach the more I learn,' but it's true, and the proof is in the pudding.  So, sometimes you get a student of that nature in a rebellious mode who will say, 'what am I going to get out of playing these exercises?'  My friend, a guitarist and educator, Chris Pimentel, says to his student, 'these are the basic energy and atoms of performance, so when you go out and play, they manifest themselves.'  The brain goes to work, it's heard it before and it juxtaposes what it learned in education.  That's when implementation comes in.  That's how they start doing musical quotes of a song they've heard before, because there's a chord they're playing with the same series of notes."

"I have them make up their own exercise.  I say, 'what's your address?'  Say it's 7125.  Find the root of 7125, and create me a chord progression from those four chords.  The 7 is harmony, the 2 is Dorian, and the 5 is dominant, you see it every day, it's a product of life.  You hear it all the time, train stations, alarms, etc. (when I say doorbell, he corrects me, saying those are really major 3rds)." 

"These ideas pass on the academia that bothers people. I play little games with people.  I usually start on the thirds and have people sing (and he sings....3 notes for each word):    Ma-j-or, Mi-n-or, Aug-men-ted, Di-min-ished...  I want to get these intervals into people's heads and singing is the best way.  I have them replay and cycle those triads, sounds like Wagner, the classical composer, and they get comfortable [without knowing it is a difficult classical exercise].  The idea is that a melody is part of a broken-up chord."  He goes on to explain how to respond when a student asks how to determine which key to use when writing a song.  I have heard songwriters talk about determining a chord first because they have such a feeling for the way each key feels.  He says, "I ask them to determine a small portion of the melody and try to determine the bass.  The bass is the tonic, the tonic and the root are the same thing and you go from there.  If you're ever in doubt, the root will help you out."  I find his ideas so interesting, starting on something random, an address and then creating this unique pattern.  I try not to group or channel these interviews into structured ideas.  I want each person to say what they feel and I'm always surprised when unique ideas come up.  In jazz, I shouldn't be, and Jesse agrees.
As he's playing these exercises, he varies the rhythm, the texture and dynamics and starts to tell me about the original viewpoint on rhythm, that it was originally viewed as "just African music" and given a racially-offensive term to describe the type.  Eventually, it was realized that rhythm is melody.  Everything has a pitch; even drums are tuned (not just the orchestral timpani, but all drums.  Even drumsets in a rock setting are tuned, or at least they should be).  Piano is a percussion instrument because the sound is created by striking a key, which engages a hammer, which hits strings of different lengths.  True.  In this case, each key-strike is a note that has an individual frequency (pitch) and an amplitude (volume).  You can chart that single key-strike event as a singular sine wave (that is one form of those sine waves and cosine waves from high school math).
Jesse says he composes from an emotional place and if the key is too high, he transposes.
He likes E flat, B flat (horn keys), and F.  He especially likes, 6 - 4, called the "Amen Inversion."

2.  Practice + Parent Support = Musical Achievement
A recent publication, Guitar Zero, was written by a neurologist about his 2-year journey learning to play the guitar.  The author claims that the single-most important quality, after practice, that indicated musical success, is parent support.  Assuming parent support includes lessons or school classes,  do you see this statement as accurate?

"If the kid isn't interested, it isn't going to work.  Without desire, it won't happen.  'Stage Parents' can be more trouble than help.  You can appreciate being proud of your kids and their accomplishments, need space.  And, like those kids that played at Jazz in the Basement (the 2014 SFJAZZ All-Star Combo under director Dann Zinn), they're young and that adrenaline, it's so intense.  After they play a concert like that, they need to find a way to cool down.  You're bouncing off the walls, you're feisty, wired..."  We then have a short private conversation about that idea and how it has manifested in our respective homes.  He believes the mental state associated with performance has a touch of mania; just a touch, for those well-adjusted performers.  But, the ego has two sides and you need to foster that 'good' side with relaxation techniques: meditation and deep breathing or whatever works.  Jesse says he used to read a lot of Carl Jung and he sees the other side, the 'dark side' of ego as what Jung called the 'trickster.'  The dark side is in every person, it's how you negotiate A to B.  He sums it up, "Common Sense says: Discipline and Repetition are the two best teachers in the world.  People confuse it with rigidity, but it's not.  It's about organization and boundaries.  Life is a constant dance."  The truth of it!  Pure talent is strangely just one component of a successful musician.  All the time people spend wishing for talent they should spend practicing and developing life skills because those are the characteristics of success in any field - confidence, self-promotion, logging time in the perpetual shed (euphemism for the state of constant practice), etc.

3.  What is your approach to teaching student a process as intangible and personal as improvisation?

"I like to do the following exercise that gives a lot of freedom; nowadays they call it Free-stylin'.  Take a C minor 7 chord, add a melody (he sings a 5-note phrase).  Then I say, 'he needs a partner, add a bass line' (he sings a 2-note rhythmic bar).   Now, I have two things (he sings the melody, directly followed by the bass line) and I improvise (he expands on the melody).  What's the mood here?  Minor.  Pensive.  You can hear "Moondance" and "Summertime," find that pitch (he plays the C minor chord, while singing the first bars of each song and you can hear the notes match up).  This is where the ear training comes in, recognizing songs and moods.   Now sing it from the 4 (he plays the chord with F as the root and brings the melody up to that note), now up to the 5 (singing one note higher), now you want to be fancy?  Come down chromatic (he plays the 3 successive, descending chromatic notes).  From here, now, be free, have fun (he keeps riffing on the melody)."  I break to ask if the student is actually singing in these exercises and he says they do.  "If they're scared, I say ok, let's play something scary.  Here's a diminished D chord, for you, now inverted (the diminished sounds sad, minor; transitioning to the inverted gives a feeling of tension, perhaps fear)." 

"I've had really good luck with putting words with a scale....sing 'this is the major scale, this is the minor scale, this is the chromatic scale...' "  He sings each of these with their respective notes, sort of 3-3-5-3-2-1.  It is proven that students do well with memorization of words when sung to music, the idea behind School House Rock.  It seems the idea is to make the student comfortable with the creation of singing patterns and feeling the changes and the feelings produced, recognizing those changes in other tunes.  It is common to see jazz musicians sing while they are improvising.  My son and I were listening to pianist, Keith Jarrett and you can clearly hear him singing on the recording.  I often hear my son sing while practicing and mention this.  Jesse replies by saying that Coltrane did this, listened to how singers phrased their melodies; similarly some singers may phrase like a horn.  "A lot of times, you have a tenor sax and a male tenor voice and you can't tell one from the other."
4.  What qualities have you seen in students that seem to predict future success in music? 
Jesse begins by mentioning a former student, Sean Whitehorn, who had such a voice, "when he sings the walls just rumble, he has this incredible resonance.  I always say, 'you got it!  You're the chosen one!'  The next step would be to have a good relationship with business.  Musicians tend to not have a good relationship with business.  You're in the shed [musicians' euphemism for the practice room] all day working and you need some support, someone who believes in what you do, who can book gigs and go through the trenches with you and get you to the next place.  Nowadays you can find benefactors but you need to find someone who really believes in what you do."

I ask if he was going to back someone, what qualities he would look for and he responds with "self-confidence, know who you are, no apologies for what you do.  You need to follow your heart and have conviction.  An example: when Marvin Gaye was making the 'What's Going On' album and Barry Gordy said what he was doing wasn't going to work.  Marvin said he was going to stick with it and it's one of the best albums ever made.  Most importantly, you have to make a commitment and stick with it, because if you're not, when disappointment pops up, you'll be even more disappointed.  Be honest with yourself and realize that unfortunately, the dark side of music is that creative musicians aren't really appreciated.  It should blow right by you.  Follow your support systems and get some good skill sets: be able to read people, know the difference between someone who is genuine and someone who will shyster you."

On the subject of self-promotion, he adds, "These days it's difficult.  When you go on the internet, it's exhausting.  There are all these people saying, 'come see me' and it's made it so I don't even do flyers anymore.  I always say go because you want to hear the music.  I tell my students, when you're going to hear another student, leave your book at home.  You're going to hear them.  Pardon the generalization, but singers have the reputation of being prima donnas.   That's the dark side of that.  I call it 'ego'n out.'  The humble side of the ego just wants to get up every day and make music; you have to have enough confidence to say, I practice every day and I'm proud of who I am.  Artists can be insecure.  They can have a fragile psyche in that way."  When I venture a suggestion that it's a contradiction in terms because performers have to be confident and secure to take the stage, he agrees.  The two-sided ego idea comes up again.
The conversation turns to fronting a band and addressing an audience.  Being good at one does not guarantee being good at the other.  Jesse tells the story of an excellent student who comes for lessons for just that thing.  I can remember more than a few times watching the student bands discussing who had to do the announcements, not a popular job.  He talks about breaking the ice by asking questions of the audience and proposing audience participation (sing-alongs, side-vs-side volume contest...).  He also likes to change small portions of lyrics to certain classics that bring them firmly into the present.  I can definitely imagine the delight that would produce, gaining their attention, and increasing the engagement of the listeners.  Jesse says that the audience, who has chosen to spend their time with you, is interested to hear the inspiration for compositions and anecdotes about well-known songs or artists.  I think that definitely increases the understanding of a tune and enhances the overall experience, making it memorable.  

~~~ Jesse Foster ~~~
may be seen every 2nd and 4th Saturday
6:00 - 9:00pm
Café Soliel
in San Francisco

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Michael Miller Interview ~ the L.A. Story of a Mentored Mentor

Michael Miller ~ the L.A. Story of a Mentored Mentor


He who bends himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

~ William Blake

I made a new friend recently, someone after my own heart, a true giver.  Michael Miller has breathed life into several musical careers and we are now just beginning to see the result of those years of loving care.  I was seated next to 'Mickle' front and center at the jazz club called Birdland in Berkeley, California (Birdland is an article of its own).  I was there to see my high-school son, Logan, play upright bass with a band of college students assembled during Christmas Break.  I knew a little about Michael, as he had visited SFJAZZ earlier that week, but I was in for a treat when he agreed to let me interview him.  He sees himself as a mentor to one very special trumpet player in the band—the very talented, Josh Shpak.

The student interview with Josh may be seen by clicking here, 5 Q's for Josh Shpak
or at: (

Josh’s amazing success (countless national performance and composition awards, and 4 full-tuition college scholarships!) has prompted many parents to ask Michael for advice on music college application preparation, how to implement his long-term plans designed to take music students through the finish line in grand style.  In fact, Josh is paying it forward himself.  Onstage at a recent SFJAZZ ‘Discover Jazz’ workshop, one of Logan’s best friends, Edward Evans, told the story of his own inspiration: he began playing jazz trumpet and even transferred schools in order to go to school with Josh and take advantage of the superior opportunities for jazz education, a decision that has served him well.  It is rare to hear of such an impact made by a virtual peer, and a very young one at that, further testament to the magnetism and synergy that Josh and Michael project.  But, before Michael was a mentor, he was a student and his own story is seriously interesting, a vignette of a super-successful music director in Los Angeles throughout the mid-1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.  

Michael begins the interview by saying he was initially compelled to help Josh because of his own experience with mentors.  At Ygnacio Valley High in Concord, California, Michael got, "the bug to write music."  He started by transcribing Buddy Rich big band charts and bringing them in for his school jazz band to play.  The band leader, Bill Burke, was instrumental in introducing the students to well-known professional musicians by inviting one or two each year to play with them at performances.  One year it was Clark Terry (now aged 93), one of only four trumpet players to win a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the record-holder for playing trumpet on the most jazz albums to date (~943, far more than the other winners of this award: Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong & Dizzy Gillespie).  Michael remembers those few days spent with Clark during junior year in high school as being worth more than a lifetime of music lessons.  Clark’s inspired musical artistry and unbridled enthusiasm were never forgotten by Michael, and he was absolutely thrilled when, a year later, as a member of the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star High School Jazz Band (now called “The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra”), Clark was their guest artist.  During Michael’s senior year in high school, the guest artist was Bud Brisbois, one of the top trumpet-players in Los Angeles and Henry Mancini's first call for recording sessions.  Michael had written an arrangement of "Jesus Christ Superstar" for Bud to play with the band; Bud showed it to "Hank" (Mancini's nickname), who immediately offered to mentor Michael if he went to college in Los Angeles, which he did at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).  

Flying into Los Angeles, Michael recalls a memory: looking down on the endless mass of humanity, he imagined most people thinking, "How am I going to stand out in all this?" Anyone who has flown into LAX or Burbank, can surely relate.  With LAX, and a coastal approach, first you observe the ocean as far as the eye can see, abutting the endless grid of streets and buildings, as far as the eye can see.  But Michael imagined it as a huge Monopoly board, with UCLA as the 'Go Square', the launch-pad, the place where you play the game based on skill and chance.  He still sees it this way, though chance had little to do with it. Michael was motivated.  He talks about his ability at the time (mid-1970’s) to sneak in to recording sessions in Hollywood, observe the composers and producers at work, be inspired and meet people.  Of course, this probably couldn't happen in the same way today due to increased security, but it sure worked well for Michael back in the day.

1: Michael's 1st recording session

During his freshman year at UCLA, he was asked to write a Mancini-style version of “Happy Birthday” for Mancini's 50th Birthday.  Mancini liked it so much, he invited Michael to his birthday lunch, where he met Hank’s twin daughters, one of whom, Monica, still tours the world performing her Dad's music.  Soon after the birthday lunch, Michael saw a sign advertising a UCLA summer production of South Pacific, with Peter Matz as music director. Matz was the producer of Barbra Streisand's albums in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and music director of the Carol Burnett Show.  Michael has always felt that school breaks are the best times for students to find their own breaks.  So, Michael stayed in Los Angeles that summer to play trumpet in the production and, soon after, Matz offered him the opportunity to ghost-orchestrate for the Carol Burnett Show, which hosted one great artist after another. Offers for additional arranging & orchestrating work for other CBS shows: Donny & Marie, Sonny & Cher, Tony Orlando and Mac Davis, soon followed.  Davis, a Country Western singer, who had success on the Pop charts as well, invited Michael to co-write a song with him, which ended up on a hugely successful album and earned Michael his first Gold Record (as a junior at UCLA!).

2: Henry Mancini & Michael at Mancini's 50th Birthday Concert 

Michael's success with and love of pop music did not always earn him the respect of certain Music Composition teachers at UCLA at the time, whom he saw as very avant-garde and were horrified at his wish to compose what they called "music for the masses."  He heard staff-written compositions for piccolo & brick, or John Cage-inspired productions, which incorporated fish tanks and fish movement-initiated playing.  (In the mid-1980’s, John Cage was a guest lecturer in residence at UCSD when I was minoring in music; I remember an eye-opening concert I attended where the rhythm section was comprised of four musicians, hand-scooping water in time from onstage fish tanks.  Avant-garde, indeed, and unforgettable).  In fact, one instructor took his disdain for Michael’s music all the way to the transcript, by awarding Michael a "D" grade.  Feeling this was undeserved, he successfully contested the grade, which was changed to an "A."

While constantly fighting this attitude at UCLA, there, thankfully, was some recognition available at the school for those attracted to pop music.  Frank Sinatra hosted a yearly award show where he presented the "Frank Sinatra Award" and cash to promising musicians, $2000 for first place.  Every year, auditions were held for Best Pop Singer, Best Pop Instrumentalist, Best Classical Singer, Best Classical Instrumentalist, and others.  Michael was always brought in to arrange the music and conduct the orchestra for these shows. After his third year at this job, as a junior in college, Sinatra told him he was creating a new award for Best Arranger/Composer for the following year.  Ironically, Sinatra happened to be out sick that next year, so the MC and presenter job was taken on by "a friend of his, a guy named Gene Kelly," who awarded Michael the first ever "Frank Sinatra Best Composer/Arranger" award.  Soon after, Sinatra called to say he apologized for missing the award show, but offered Michael a job arranging a medley of Sinatra songs for him to perform at another show at the Century City Hotel, where Sinatra was to receive an award (ca. 1978).  

3: Frank Sinatra & Michael, on right

4: Gene Kelly presenting The Sinatra Award to Michael, in lieu of Sinatra

5: Frank Sinatra's letter of apology to 'Mike Miller'

Following graduation from UCLA, Michael continued to find arranging/composing work in various places.  Working on an Ice Follies show for Disney, Michael met a choreographer who was looking for a musical director for a new Paramount TV show set to air, to be called Solid Gold.  Submitted with the resumes of two established arrangers, Michael's resume caught the eye of the producer, Brad Lachman, creator of Solid Gold.  The final decision was to be made by the show’s star, Dionne Warwick, so after Lachman sent her the demo tapes for the three possible musical directors, Michael answered the phone at home one afternoon and recognized the voice immediately: Dionne Warwick was calling to say she loved his recordings and she would very much like to meet him in person.  As she opened her front door, she happened to be on the phone with Peter Matz (the Carol Burnett Show musical director), who gave him a glowing recommendation.  After some discussion, she turned around and said, "I have found my musical director!" and proceeded to call the producer with the good news.  Michael was also asked to write the theme for the show.  He decided to enlist the help of a lyricist with whom he'd just worked, Dean Pitchford (who had just won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the movie FAME).  He says it is common for a producer to make you think you are the only one being asked, when in fact they tend to ask many composers for theme demos, and they may not even be the one making the final decision.  To avoid all of this, Michael, after a half-hour's work and armed with Pitchford's lyrics, went back to Warwick's house to play the theme for her on her piano.  Dionne loved it, effectively enabling Michael to jump to the head of the line.  In fact, that was all it took for his theme song to be used for nearly 10 years - the entire run of the show.

6: Michael on the set of Solid Gold

Solid Gold was the first television show that had Michael, as Musical Director, completely in charge of the music.  He wrote the Opening Theme and the Closing Theme, both entitled "Solid Gold Theme."  [Solid Gold is an American syndicated music television series that debuted on September 13, 1980.  Like many other shows of its genre, such as American Bandstand, Solid Gold featured musical performances and other elements such as music videos.  What set Solid Gold apart was a group of dancers who performed various dances to the top ten hits of the week.  The series ran until July 23, 1988 and was usually broadcast on Saturdays in the early evening.]  About nine years later, taping the last season of Solid Gold at Paramount Studios, Sinatra was hired to co-host the show with Dionne Warwick. They were to sing a duet, a difficult overlapping medley of his hits, that Michael was to arrange.  At this time, the process was to record the band tracks ahead of time, then record the singers live on-stage, and mix their voices in with the tracks later.  Unfortunately, Sinatra's first take on-camera was unusable: he missed every other line and was out of tune. Michael diplomatically tried to say, "Okay, we now have the microphone levels all set and that was a great run-through, so let's do the real take."  But, when Sinatra replied, “No, I saw the red light, and I only do one take, and that one was fine,” the Producer asked Michael if he could fix it.  Fortunately, Michael happened to know that one of his background singers, Christopher "Kipp" Lennon* (the youngest of 11 children, whose oldest sisters were The Lennon Sisters, popular in the 1950’s - 1960’s), was a crack vocal impersonator & voice-over actor.  Kipp was game to try to replace Sinatra's parts and sang them line by line in a recording studio with Michael until they had it all.  With six cameras working, the director could cut to audience shots for the lines that Sinatra forgot to sing, so no one would know the difference.  In fact, after the show aired, Michael received a telephone message from Sinatra, saying, "See, I told you it was fine."  I'm not sure whether it's Sinatra's fallibility and/or false confidence or Michael's tactful sensitivity, but that story just makes me smile. And appreciate live performance for its delicacy even more.  When Solid Gold first started, Michael thought the show wouldn't last more than 6 weeks, but after 48 shows/year and specials, nearly 10 years had passed.  This took Michael off the path he'd envisioned, the "Mancini" path, but he loved the work, experience and was able to do a few other things during its production.

7: Dionne Warwick, Host & Michael Miller, Musical Director of Solid Gold

His song that won the "Sinatra Award" was titled "Just a Dream Away."  Written in college (with lyrics by Monica Riordan), the tune was about reaching goals.  In 1983, one of Michael's high school friends, then working for Olympic Committee Chairman, Peter Ueberroth, and President of ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, heard the song at UCLA, had never forgotten it, and recommended it for use at the upcoming Olympic Games.  It became the Opening Theme, which Michael first recorded with John Denver and a full orchestra in Los Angeles, and then Denver ceremoniously sang it in the snow of Sarajevo, at the opening the 1984 Winter Olympics.  You may view the video of this performance on You Tube by clicking here: John Denver 1984 Winter Olympics Opening Theme or by copying this address into your browser (  Having admired John Denver for a long time, this remains one of Michael's favorite projects.  After the Olympic broadcast, Denver's friend, opera singer, Placido Domingo, also wanted to record the song.  Michael was contracted to arrange and conduct the orchestra for Domingo, and they recorded it at 20th Century Fox Studios for Domingo’s album, “Save Your Nights for Me.”  In fact, Domingo liked the song so much that he also put it on his greatest hits CD, “The Domingo Collection.”  Additionally, Dionne Warwick recorded it as the theme for a United Way promotional film.  

In 1987, Disney produced a television special honoring the 50th Anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with Michael as the music director.  Dick Van Dyke hosted with Linda Ronstadt co-hosting.  As Michael wrote the music, he was sure to include the onomatopoeic "whoops" sound utilized comically as Van Dyke tripped over an ottoman in the opening of his eponymous show, The Dick Van Dyke Show (with Carl Reiner and Mary Tyler Moore).  Van Dyke was charmed and humored by this gesture.

Ever since his graduation from UCLA, Michael lived in a beautiful guesthouse that he rented in luxurious Bel Air.  A couple of years after Solid Gold began, he purchased the three-acre property on which it stood.  Loving his guesthouse as much as he did, he decided to stay put and rent out the main house.  The gated community gave him the privacy and sanctuary he desired with the convenience of a very short commute along Sunset Boulevard into Hollywood.   Despite these measures designed to de-stress and revive, he was hit by what can only be called a life-changing experience, to say the least.  Napping outside in his Bel Air backyard one afternoon, he was inadvertently sprayed with a toxic mix of pesticides by neighboring gardeners treating trees along the fence line of the property next door.  Rushed unconscious to the ER at UCLA, he was revived, but the poisons had entered his system.  His health did not improve and at a visit to a Liver Specialist a month later, he was given the ultimate pronouncement: terminal liver cancer and 6 months to live. 

His personal life now took on an urgent theme of healing.  After seeking 2nd and 3rd opinions from Liver Specialists with the same result, he sought various treatments Eastern and Western, conventional and alternative while, amazingly enough, continuing to work for more than seven years.  Ultimately, the services of a specialist-type healer, a fruitarian diet and frequent trips to Big Sur and Maui to breathe as much clean air as possible were his modus operandi. 

When Solid Gold ended, Michael was proud not only of what he had accomplished musically, but how well he felt physically.  He decided to check back in with the so-called Western specialists who had previously given him a death sentence.  Walking back in the door was surprise enough, but his radically improved, perfect blood labs were astonishing, the stuff of divine intervention.

As a way of celebrating, Michael decided to take an extended hiatus.  His plan to rent a private island in Fiji for three years was derailed.  He stayed only three days (due to the island not being anywhere near as advertised).   Next stop, Maui, where he stayed at the Kapalua Bay Hotel for several years, enjoying the abundance of organically-grown tropical fruits and pure island air. Capitalizing on his recovery, he traveled the world, living in Greece, Switzerland and New Zealand, and enjoying his break from the spotlight.

Interspersed amongst all this travel, Michael occasionally returned to California to visit his godsons, Josh and Noah Shpak.  After hearing Michael play trumpet for years, Josh, at age eight, announced he’d like to try.  Michael says, "He was instantly really good and into it.  He really wanted to play it!"  Besides Michael returning to Northern California as often as possible to mentor Josh, he arranged for additional teachers whom he thought could help, including Mic Gillette of Tower of Power fame.  By the time Josh was in high school, he was good enough to audition for some of the national honor bands.  Michael continued coaching Josh and doing anything he possibly could to open any doors for him.  It became a beloved and "great hobby."  He even tracked down jazz legend, Clark Terry (once Michael’s high-school band's guest-artist) to see if he’d be willing to give lessons to Josh.  Terry, who has helped so many young musicians become masters said, “If you can put Josh on the phone, I’d like to talk to him to see if he has the passion that it takes to succeed.”  Five minutes later, a beautiful bond was birthed between Clark and Josh.  Michael would take Josh and Noah for week-long visits to Terry’s house in Arkansas, where the most amazing jazz wizardry lessons took place.  Soon afterward, when Terry was informed that he would be receiving the 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, he invited Michael, Josh and Noah to join him at the awards show, where Clark introduced Josh to the audience as his protégé.  A few years later, when Josh – out of hundreds of trumpet applicants – became one of four finalists in the world to be selected to audition live for Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and other jazz luminaries for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz college graduate program (when Josh was only a college freshman), it was clear they had something.

Fast forward to April 2014: Michael and Josh attended the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, for the world premiere of a movie made on the life of Clark Terry, entitled "Keep on Keepin' On."  Michael was the original executive producer of the film until Quincy Jones, Clark’s lifelong friend, expressed interest in taking over the reins, which suited Michael just fine.  The movie is about the relationship Clark has with a young, blind piano player whom he has mentored for many years.  You may learn more at this link to the movie's website:  At the Tribeca premiere, all sorts of Clark's friends were in attendance (Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Heath, Robert DeNiro, etc.) and afterwards, Quincy Jones and Clark's wife, Gwen Terry, led a Q & A, while Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Roy Hargroves, Justin Kauflin and others played music.  If you'd like to read about the premiere, you may visit the Tribeca site:

8: Michael’s adventures with Clark Terry, Josh & Noah Shpak

Many have wondered how Michael could seemingly be immune to the allure of the Los Angeles music career that he left behind.  In fact, Louis J. Horvitz, director of Solid Gold, the Grammys, the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Emmys, The Kennedy Center Honors and American Idol among many others, has urged Michael to come back into the Los Angeles fold for years.  Michael often considers it, and if he did go back it would only be for Lou who, first and foremost, continually does all he possibly can to ensure that artistry and spirit shine through everything he touches.
While a return to Los Angeles might be on the horizon for Michael, for now, he is happy putting his musical time and energy into one Josh Shpak.  Josh is a charming guy, amazing to watch play, and locally famous.  The kids really look up to him and he is supportive and kind.  His link with Michael is strong and he is grateful for it.  By association, many people would say he is lucky, but lucky just means being well-prepared when opportunity comes your way.   And, Josh has done the hard work himself.  The best guide cannot help you fake that, not in jazz.  Because of its bright spotlight on improvisation, unique in every performance, I sometime see jazz as the ‘Reality Show of Music’ ~ get a guide, there's nowhere to hide.

And in Michael Miller, Josh has a genius guide. 

*   When The Simpson's featured Michael Jackson singing on the show, Kipp Lennon is the voice you hear.  A Solid Gold story: when Boy George was to appear in a duet with Warwick of her hit, "I Say a Little Prayer," starting off with the line he requested to sing, "The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup," he had laryngitis.  Lennon's vocal impersonation gift (later utilized for Sinatra’s appearance) was a godsend on the day that Boy George was to tape Solid Gold.  Prior to the start of the show, Michael took Kipp into a recording studio to sing all of Boy George’s lines, causing Boy George to be absolutely stunned at what he heard.  On-camera, Boy George lip-synced to Kipp’s pre-recorded vocal and Dionne sang live, and no one was the wiser.  You can see the video on You Tube by clicking here: 
Boy George & Dionne Warwick sing "I Say a Little Prayer" or by copying this address into your browser (


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