Here at NYU I am exposed daily to some of the most talented and successful musicians in the world. I’ve never been (and likely never will be again) surrounded by such a diverse and eclectic group of true musical masters. By virtue of this, I’m gaining a clearer picture of what it takes to “make it” in the musical world. No, I cannot point to a single factor that will guarantee musical success—  anyone who is in the business of reducing success to a single factor is probably trying to sell you something. There are always many unique elements— talent, discipline, luck, influential friends, facial symmetry, instrument choice, era, location, etc.— that may have lead a musician to his or her brand of success. Yet among the multitude of varying success factors, there is one thing that I think all the musical masters have: Love.

That’s right kids, buckle up, because this blog post might get a little sappy.

This seems obvious, but it is worth stating anyway: you have to love music to be successful at music. True, I can’t think of any musician I know who doesn’t love music, but I can think of a lot of musicians (myself included) who sometimes forget about that love because we are distracted by concerns like making money with music, pleasing an audience, or becoming a better musician. There’s certainly nothing wrong with considering those things, but I think it is important that they not cover up the essential fact that we are doing all of this because we just love music.

This semester I have the incredible honor of taking both an improvisation class and a guitar ensemble with the great John Scofield. By all measures John Scofield is one of the greatest and most important living musicians— he is an incredible guitarist and a prolific artist who has recorded and performed alongside jazz legends such as Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Tony Williams, Joe Henderson, and many more. Here is a man who (rightfully) could carry an air of self-importance— and yet what shone through when I met and interacted with him was just a selfless, joyful, and gracious love for music. After a two hour guitar ensemble in which he patiently played arrangements of his songs (at much slower tempos) with me and four other guitarists, he then treated us all to an impromptu rendition of the beautiful standard Days of Wine and Roses. It is clear that he doesn’t think of himself as “the great John Scofield” the way that we do as fans. Instead, he is the great musician that he is because he maintains a deep love for music that pushes him to keep playing, learning, and listening.

On Wednesday I was treated to another lesson in love by the delightful Mary Scott,  the widow of the English saxophonist and jazz club owner Ronnie Scott. Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club opened in 1959 and has been the most important jazz venue in London ever since. In 1964 Mary Scott, an avid lover of jazz, ditched her nursing studies and began working at Ronnie’s, thus beginning a long series of interactions with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. She spoke to all of the NYU jazz studies grad students about the onstage power and offstage antics of people like Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Wes Montgomery, and countless others. She told us that when Bill Evans played there you could hear a pin drop in the room because everyone in the audience was listening to the beautiful music with rapt attention. She said that Sonny Rollins would always treat the club staff to an after hours solo concert that would sometimes last until the sun came up. All the while that she was telling us these amazing stories, Mary was glowing with sincere love for the music and musicians.

Again, there are countless reasons that Mary Scott and John Scofield have gotten to live the incredible lives that they’ve lived. You cannot discount the luck of simply being at the right place at the right time. Yet John and Mary’s experiences couldn’t have happened to just anyone. A fundamental reason that John Scofield has gotten to perform and record with brilliant musicians and that Mary Scott has gotten to hear them and know them personally, is that each has a deep devoted love for the music.

A lot of things need to go right for you to be success in anything. I can’t tell you what the right conditions are for you to become a famous musician, or a well known author, or a brilliant inventor— I’ll leave it to Malcom Gladwell to tease all of those out. However (no matter how corny it sounds) I do know one thing: you have to have love.


img_0967—Sunset at Coney Island, not related at all to this post, but this was my view on Sunday evening—

Billy Drewes can levitate. The jovial saxophonist/composer who has collaborated with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield and countless others, incredibly is teaching my improvisation class at NYU. He used the first day of class to get to know us, the ten bright eyed graduate students in his class, and tell about his background. He included in his rich backstory the fact that on at least three occasions he thought he was levitating: once after being administered a generous dose of codeine at a hospital, once after being put in a euphoric state via acupuncture, and once during a powerful improvisation at a concert with Eddie Palmieri. Each time he had to physically check to see that he was still on the ground, and each time that act of checking broke the spell. After spending a couple hours with him, it’s no surprise to me that he’s accidentally dabbled in levitation. Despite his undeniable status as a heavy-hitter in the music world, Drewes is incredibly light-hearted and easily swept up in his surrounding experience.

Yet it takes much more than happy thoughts to get off the ground in music. After a week of being surrounded by incredibly talented and accomplished students and teachers, it is clear to me that I’m just beginning to crawl. Frankly I’m not used to feeling so far behind my musical peers. In Little Rock I was sometimes told that I was the “best guitarist in town”— that was certainly a gross overstatement yet I enjoyed the ego boost of feeling like I was among the cream of the crop. Here no one is going to accuse me of being the best, nor of being particularly creamy at all. Yet I didn’t come here to prove myself as “the best” (a generally bogus pursuit if you ask me), I came here to learn. And in a mere hour and forty minute class with Billy Drewes I learned several musical tricks of the trade.

“I’d get the most done when I didn’t have my instrument… just singing,” he said, talking about how he would practice. In other words, any instrument has its physical strengths and weaknesses. You’ll be compelled to play or not play certain things depending on which instrument you play. Yet if you are singing or even just thinking music, you have no limitations other than your musical imagination. It doesn’t matter if (like me) you are not the most talented or natural singer— if you start with your mind and voice and then transfer those ideas to your instrument, you’ll often come up with new and more natural ideas, ideas that truly come from inside of you rather than merely existing on the surface of your instrument.

Later in class he asked us “does everybody read pretty well?” and the room fell silent. If its not obvious, he was talking about reading music (let’s safely assume everyone in my graduate program knows how to read words). “That’s an important thing,” he went on “if you don’t have that, you kinda cut yourself off from things.” Drewes was a strong reader when he was at Berklee College of Music in the 1970s, and as a result he was able to get plenty of gigs. He explained why: “It’s a time thing. It makes rehearsals go faster.” If you can read, you can work all the time.

A large part of our class was also devoted to talking about composition. He was curious if any of us composed music, and everyone did except for one. Drewes himself recently embarked on a composition project called “first ideas” in which he wrote 24 pieces of various lengths, styles and textures which were all simply his fist ideas, with no editing or rewriting. He told us when composing to “keep every idea,” a suggestion that was repeated to me later in the week by my Film Scoring instructor Irwin Fisch. For musical content that does not quite fit in with a current piece often proves perfect for a different piece days, months, or even years down the road.

The ideas above seem obvious to me now—perhaps I should have come up with them on my own. Yet ideas like these are easier to trust when they’re coming straight from the horse’s mouth (especially a horse who has made a living since the 1970s performing and composing music, who has collaborated with a laundry list of jazz masters, and who currently plays saxophone, clarinet, and flute for the Village Vanguard Orchestra). Every day at NYU, I’m being inundated with great ideas. Earlier I described this as “learning the tricks of the trade,” but the truth is, I haven’t really learned anything yet. Musical knowledge is not transferred verbally. The only way I can learn these lessons is to sit down and apply them. I confess I am not the best reader, I rarely practice without having my instrument in my hand, and I don’t keep every musical moment that I compose. I’m still crawling. Yet I firmly believe that if I work hard to incorporate the musical wisdom provided by my brilliant instructors here, I too will be able to levitate someday.

By the way, here’s what I’ve been listening to this week:

 

IMG_0116

Start spreading the news

I’m leaving today

I want to be a part of it

New York, New York

Ok, so technically I am not leaving today, but it is true, I’m going to go make “a brand new start of it” in New York City this fall. This past fall I applied to a number of music master’s degree programs in New York City. My hope was that I would get in somewhere (anywhere), increase my musical knowledge and skill with the help of my teachers, meet fellow musicians at the school in order to start or join a band (or multiple bands), and proceed to “make it” in New York. Because “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere” (that’s my last Sinatra reference I swear). Well, in March I was informed that I had been accepted to NYU to do a master’s in jazz studies with a focus on guitar performance. And an instant after hearing this news, a very tangible feeling of fear appeared in my gut. New York is so far away! I can’t leave my friends and family! I’m so comfortable here! School is so expensive! Is that really what I want to do? What if I’m not good enough? I should stay here… Yet in spite of these voices of fear, and in fact because of these voices of fear, I have decided that NYU is exactly where I need to be this fall.

I am making a conscious decision to go against what my fear is telling me to do because in my heart and mind I know that going to NYC is right. I am simply experiencing something like long-term stage fright: before I play a show I always get a little nervous (and sometimes I get very nervous), but that doesn’t mean I don’t want and need to play the show; I am extremely nervous about moving to NYC, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want and need to move. In fact whenever I take a moment to check into my body, and I say to myself “I am moving to New York,” my heart smiles. Yet it is a strange phenomenon to know that something is right, and to still be clearly afraid of it. I likely won’t be free from these fears until I actually start school (even then who knows), but in the meantime, I am going to engage in the futile activity of trying to dispel these fears by explaining to myself and you readers exactly why I am moving.

I have reached a peek in my music career. When I finished my bachelor’s degree at UALR my singular goal was to not get a “real job,” and instead to support myself solely with musical activities. My logic was simply that if I used only music as my livelihood, I would be spending a lot of time working on music, and thus would become better at music, and thus would be equipped to have more opportunities to earn money with it, and thus would be spending even more time on music (and so on and so on in a wonderful positive feedback loop). At first I had to hustle hard to find enough guitar students and gigs to pay the bills, then slowly but surely I had enough musical work to feel comfortable. As we were doing my taxes for this past year, my accountant even told me that I “did well this year” (granted I did well by a young, single musician’s standards— the bar is low). I have succeeded at my initial goal and have spent over two years in Little Rock as a full-time professional musician. Unfortunately I have also grown somewhat complacent as a result of this. There is currently no pressing need for me to get a lot better at guitar, or make a lot more money, or challenge myself creatively. If I were to stay here in Little Rock, I like to think that I would do these things out of sheer will and self-motivation, but I wouldn’t necessarily have to. If I am going to succeed in New York City, among the enormous amount of creativity and talent there, I will have no choice but to maximize my potential. I’m aiming for a new peek.

I am going to New York to test myself, and to learn. Sometimes it is not clear to me here in Little Rock how good of musician I am. Honestly I could name ten guitarists in town who I think are better than me, and yet I have had a few people tell me that I am the best guitarist in town (they need to get out more). I play a large amount of gigs, yet many of these gigs connections are made through friends and family. There is not a clear external test of how good of a musician I am. In New York, I’ll be one of hundreds of good guitarists, with little to no connections prior to arriving there, and I am going to have to work my ass off to practice, plan, and put myself out there. Perhaps this sounds like a fools errand— it is actually a personal test to see what kind of musical and personal strength I can muster in my pursuit of New York City success. Regardless of what the success test shows, I know that I have much to learn, and at NYU I am going to receive an incredible musical education and be in the presence of world-class guitar teachers such as John Scofield, Peter Bernstein, and Wayne Krantz. I am going to grow.

Finally I am going to New York because the time is right. I have always thought about moving somewhere else, but part of the reason I have stayed here this long is because I have an incredible family whom I have loved to live close to. However, this past summer, after decades of living in Little Rock, my parents moved to Newport, AR and my sister, brother-in-law, and baby niece moved to Kansas City, MO (each move was for work)— my stable family tree has been uprooted. Thus the people who are closest to me, my blood, do not need me here right now. Add to that the fact that the location of my brunch gig shut down last month, and it is time for this little bird (ok, grown bird) to leave the nest and go take flight. Peace!

For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

Week 1—Nine Months of New Music

Week 2—That’s Masturbation

Week 3—Oblique Strategies

Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

Week 5—Turn Off the Music

Week 6—Thoughts on Prince

Week 7—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt.1)

Week 8—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt. 2)

Week 9— Paul Simon, Still Alive After All These Years