Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bob Mintzer interview, Man of Several Musical Lives

Bob Mintzer
Bob Mintzer
Interview with Bob Mintzer ~
a Man of Several Musical Lives
Bob Mintzer is professor of Jazz Studies at the USC Thornton School of Music as well as an accomplished saxophone player, band leader and composer. He is a twenty-year member of the Grammy award-winning Yellowjackets, who also leads a Grammy award-winning Big Band, travels with his own Quartet, and plays with numerous bands globally.
A respected educator, Bob is the recipient of the Buzz McCoy endowed chair of jazz Los Angeles, Bob continues to conduct clinics and workshops worldwide. He has also written nearly twenty books which are an important part of the curriculum of Jazz education worldwide.
Bob writes for orchestra, concert band and big band, with over two hundred charts to his credit. His big band music is performed by groups all over the planet. Bob honed his big band writing and playing skills in the bands of Tito Puente, Buddy Rich and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis.
His recent master classes with the SFJAZZ All-Star Jazz Orchestra and SFJAZZ All-Star Combo left me feeling more grounded than usual.  So much of this type of education can seem esoteric, but Bob's feedback and suggestions were practical, usable.  Many visiting educators will bring their instrument, but play very little if at all.  Bob played with the group quite a lot, especially with the combo. He sat in with the combo the following day to illustrate certain Big Band concepts for the SFJAZZ Discover Jazz Workshop (expertly curated by SFJAZZ Education Director, Rebeca Mauleon). It was such a growth experience for these young players, reminiscent of the proverb which ends, "...involve me and I will understand."  Asked about his influences for jazz composition, he began by naming several classical composers including Stravinsky and Mozart, to my surprise and delight.  His website ( is a treasure trove of information including many teaching videos, one thus described: "I've always loved Classical Music and in my new video, I discuss, with examples, how Jazz improvisers can best utilize classical music."
Given that he relates to and creates all these different music genres, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he also relates to students and their struggle. Our friends at USC love him, they all want to be in his Big Band class. A couple years ago, my son Logan visited USC as a HS sophomore, college-shopping. Though he was young, Bob welcomed him heartily, asked him to sit in with the band and even included me in gathering around a computer to watch a special video. That kind of willingness to disrupt your day and add to a student’s experience was so special, we’ll never forget it.  That was plainly evident in the master class as well; it can be nerve-wracking for young players to sit in with the master, but he makes them feel comfortable. Even when delivering necessary criticism, he has an easy way about him that I find pretty often in the jazz community, but not out in the world. It speaks to a larger world view; he is in the eye of the storm in the center of several musical lives of his own making, and the many he supports.
Educator Questions

1.  How do you find a balance between imposing your own ideas over the student's creativity?
I preface most teaching with the fact that music is subjective, and opinions vary greatly on what works and doesn't work. That said, I feel there are certain fundamental principles that are common to well-conceived music that an experienced musician and  teacher usually has a good grasp of, and can hopefully impart to students in a way where it doesn’t impede creativity. I relied (still do, actually) heavily on both teachers and colleagues as a young musician to pull my coat when a specific area of my musicianship needed consideration. I feel it enhanced my creativity if anything.
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?
Parent support is critical in whatever passions and interests a young person may have. This can include helping a student find good forums for study and collaborating with other like-minded young people. However, I think another critical parental activity may be staying out of the way, and letting the young musician blossom on their own, find their own way, if you will.
If a young person is truly passionate about music, they will immerse themselves in the business of learning the language, and inevitably wind up being steered in the direction of nurturing musical activity, either by school music teachers, or peers. The music scene is a small club, and if a young musician can really play, word travels fast. Generally playing and learning situations will present themselves. At least they did for me when I was younger.
In my case, it was a combination of the two elements. My folks took me to an after school jazz improv class at an early age, as well as steered me in the direction of going to Interlochen Arts Academy. They also let me find my own way into the world of music study on my own terms, which ultimately helped me to find my voice and specific calling in the music scene.
3.  What is your approach to teaching a student a process as intangible and personal as improvisation?
The study of improvisation is not terribly intangible to me. There are tangible elements to being a good soloist that can be taught and learned.  The art of improvisation in jazz is a language, and must be learned like any other language, through repeated exposure, study of grammar, and the act of immersion into speaking the language with others. Repertoire plays a big role in shaping a jazz improviser’s vocabulary in a similar way that Shakespeare would be an integral part of any aspiring creative writer's study.
Studying all the detail of the music is critical. Those who are most thorough in this endeavor generally are the most articulate and creative improvisers.
Creative musicians are generally shaped by their environment. Those who have the most expansive recording collections, or perhaps had the opportunity to be around live musical performance on a regular basis generally have a broader vocabulary. Bottom line: the more you know about the subject matter, the more you have to say.
4. What qualities have you seen in students that seem to predict future success in music?
Those students who seem to thrive in music are not afraid to work harder than everyone else. They also manage to see the big picture, which goes well beyond just playing an instrument. They usually get involved with composition, arranging, recording, video, instigating playing situations vis-à-vis putting bands together to play original music. The most successful musicians are instigators. They envision an environment in which it would be inspiring to play, and they follow through to make it happen. 



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SFJAZZ All-Stars at 'Jazz in the Basement'

~ Jazz in the Basement ~

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”  ~ Thelonius Monk

Despite Monk’s quote, I will talk about an extraordinary musical event that took place on Saturday night, March 1, 2014.  My son, Logan, and the SFJAZZ All-Star Combo (expertly directed by Dann Zinn) were the guests selected to perform at this month’s Jazz in the Basement, a serious, old-school jazz salon that has taken place every month for more than five years at the beautiful, classic San Francisco home of Michele and Jesse Foster.  Taking place in the detached, first-story music room off the garden of the Foster abode, there is an intimate theater set-up (drum set, bass amp, lighted music stands, theater and mood-lighting, framed photographs of jazz luminaries and classic-show bills on a freshly-painted, lovely ground of periwinkle blue) with seats for about 40 regular guests and guests of artists. There is an adjacent room where wine is poured and Michele’s chicken and snacks are served.  There is even a dedicated “green room” used by the band to take breaks between their two 45-minute sets.  The atmosphere is very friendly, most of the regular guests (including a 6-month-old baby girl named after Ry Cooter), are like family.   We are warmly welcomed and questioned about our life in the jazz lane.  This is the first time the SFJAZZ All-Stars have been invited and the first time they are hosting student musicians. 

Though Jesse Foster is a jazz singer, percussionist and educator himself (performing at Café Soliel, 2nd and 4th Saturdays, 6:30 – 9:30pm), Michele is responsible for the line-up.  She proudly says that Jesse gets “his own night” on the schedule.  They are both very open and willing to speak to The Lead Sheet SF about their unique event.  They have been able to attract some leading names in jazz, including Mads Tolling, Kenny Washington, Alvon Johnson, Mike Zilber, Peter Horvath, Dave Mcnab, Anton Schwartz, Wayne Wallace, Howard Wiley, Lady Memphis, Will Blades, Raz Kennedy, and Marcus Shelby, to name just a few, so special and attractive is their salon.  Nestled among the spread, is a basket labeled “$20” for guests to donate to the artists’ compensation.  By providing a venue and sharing the cost, I think it is notable how this group of music-lovers enjoys a private concert and in the process, supports the arts.

On this night, as is the group’s signature, the All-Stars perform nearly all original music, composed by the band members.  The introductory offering is an upbeat tune, entitled “Bebop,” by the band’s percussionist, Benjamin Ring.  Enthusiastically received, this is followed by two tunes by string bassist, Logan Kane, including the forceful “Doors Lead to Ceilings” and the odd-meter "Birdsong’s the Thoughts of a Wood.”  Included in the set list was “Supermoon” by pianist, Patrick Hogan and “Tune for Dann” by saxophonist, Matt Richards, ending with the rollicking “Grapes” by trumpeter, Edward Evans.  The audience is surprised and impressed by their self-compositions, receiving enduring applause and promises to be invited to return and perform again.  We hear comfort expressed about the future of jazz in the hands of these young giants.  I feel very fortunate to have attended, met the Fosters and friends, and am sure this will become a regular stop for the All-Stars.

Jesse has kindly agreed to be interviewed as an educator, so look for his upcoming article.
Photo: Jazz in the Basement
SF Jazz Salon

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Stradivarius Violins at upcoming "Strad Fest"

Stradivarius Violins at upcoming "Strad Fest"

The Holy Grail among string players and owners is the famed Stradivari.  The world-renowned sound of violins created by Cremona, Italy, luthier, Antonio Stradivari, are so unique and beautiful, it is said that his hands were guided by God.  Few on earth have ever heard such sound, so an upcoming event is truly a ‘chance of a lifetime.’  For four days in March (the 26th through the 29th), the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will showcase eight of these violins, worth more than $25 million collectively, at an event called the “Strad Fest.”  These masterpiece instruments will be showcased, played and displayed.  Most of these have been owned by collectors, so precious are they, most musicians cannot afford such a luxury.  Fortunately, these collectors know that the instruments must be played to maintain the sound.  Foundering in a museum would ruin them.  Thus, they are heavily insured, and then loaned to professional musicians.

Each of them has a story unto itself, many of world travel and intrigue.  Following is a brief history of four, which will then add Strad Fest to their lengthy resumes.

The Serdet Stradivarius, 1666:

The earliest known Stradivarius violin still bears its original label with the year 1666.  Its name is derived from the Paris shop of violin dealer, Paul Serdet, who sold it in 1900.  Last summer, it was featured at the first significant exhibit honoring Antonio Stradivari at the famed Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University in Oxford, England.

The Titian Stradivarius, 1715:

The orange-red color of this reminded one French violin dealer of the paintings of Titian, and it was thus named.  It is known the instrument traveled to the United States and was in Boston in 1872.  The famed Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, owned it from 1924 to 1926.  Currently, it is owned by Cho-Liang Lin who played it in residence with the Shanghai Symphony.

The Milstein Stradivarius, 1716:

An Olympic sailor from Viborg, Finland, by the name of Harry Wahl owned this violin until his death in 1940. Soon after, virtuoso, Nathan Milstein, played this violin in London and other European cities for more than 40 years.  Its current home is in Pasadena, California, owned by philanthropist couple, Jerry and Terri Kohl, who lend it to various fortunate concertmasters in Los Angeles.

The Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius, 1720:

The 1999 Academy award-winning film, The Red Violin, was inspired by the story of the Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius.  Soon after it was crafted, this violin disappeared for Elizabeth Pitcairn, played it for the premier of a Swedish concerto in Helsingborn, Sweden, in 2005.

I can’t resist throwing in a quick book review.  There is a new crime novel called The Tooth Tattoo – a Peter Diamond Investigation, that deals with the classical musical community and speaks about the nature of these priceless, collectable instruments and their loan to masters.

“Peter Diamond, head of the Criminal Investigation Division in scenic Bath, England, is investigating the murder of a young woman whose body has been found in the canal, the only clue to her identity a tattoo of a music note on one of her teeth. For Diamond, who wouldn’t know a Stradivarius from a French horn, the investigation is his most demanding ever.

Meanwhile, jobbing violist, Mel Farran, finds himself scouted by a very elite classical quartet with a cushy residency at Bath Spa University -- one whose previous violist disappeared without a trace.  As the story unfolds in fugue-like counterpoint, Peter and Mel both learn frightening secrets about fandom and about what it takes to survive in the cutthroat world of professional musicians.”

Detwiler, Jacqueline.  “The World on a String.”  Hemispheres.  March 2014.

Lovesey, Peter.  The Tooth Tattoo – a Peter Diamond Investigation (Peter Diamond #13).  New York: Soho Press, 2013.