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 clichĂ© 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