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 (www.bobmintzer.com) 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.
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.