I see it has been a while since I let everyone know what I’ve been up to. I don’t always have the time to write, and when I do write, I normally feel a sense of pressure to write important education or uplifting stuff. I forget that this doesn’t make for good blog writing. I do believe it’s important to stay in touch, so to speak.
A Not So Distant Pass
There has been a lot of activity on the career front since the turn of the year. The first major event happened on January first, when I had the opportunity to record with some friends in El Paso. We had a reunion of sorts, recording some of my original jazz tunes and spending some of that time recording free improvisations.
The recording was at a studio called Sonic Ranch where they specialize in what I think is called “location recording.” I think the concept is that you book the place for a couple of weeks and live there with your band while you work on your next big project. Sonic Ranch is a fully equipped, state of the art studio located about an hour’s drive south east of El Paso, in the middle of a pecan orchard.
The CD is double themed. On the one hand, this is the first CD of what I hope becomes a series of recordings that I do on location at different places around the world. So the fact that it is in El Paso is part of the theme. Then the other theme is that this was a reunion. Ruben Gutierrez was the pianist in my very first jazz combo and Ricky Malichi was the leader of the band that hosted most of the jam sessions I attended when I was first starting out in jazz.
At this point, the recording is done, it has been mixed and we are in the final stages of getting it ready for release. We still need to have it mastered, finish the cover design and layout and have it duplicated.
The music on the recording ranges from dreamy to wild. The original intention was to use duo improvisations as a way to “warm-up” at the beginning of the session, but all of those free improvisation takes were keepers and we are using them as meditative interludes between each of the tunes.
It is a bit on the more modern side. Those of you who already know my music know that I do not like music that repulses. I feel like the music on this CD is free and creative but in a way that does not repulse. It’s NOT the kind of music that sends a message that says “We are so good that you won’t understand a note of our music.” It is free and modern, but it still connects on a musical and emotional plane.
I’ll definitely write more about the project as it nears the release date. I am considering using KickStarter to generate funds to take the project to completion. If you think this is a good idea, please leave a comment and let me know. I’ve never done KickStarter before.
Oh, by the way, the name of the CD is A Not So Distant Pass… meant to sound like “not so distant past.” “El Paso” is Spanish for “the pass.” This CD reflects both of those statements. El Paso and my friends who live there will never be far from my heart, and meeting with them this way reconnects me in a way that makes my early years as a jazz musician seem not so long ago.
Mardi Gras Legends
Jazz Forever Vol. 3
Immediately upon returning home, I had to get busy writing more music for Jazz Forever. This time I was preparing music for our fourth CD (labeled “Vol. 3” because the third CD was our Christmas CD).
This project was a bit different for me to the others. For reasons I won’t get into here, I had a little more freedom to write slightly more creative arrangements. For two of the tunes we recorded, When the Saints Go Marching In and Jambalaya at the Bayou, the arrangements I wrote were completely original. The rest of the new charts were something of a hybrid between lifts and creative arrangements.
For our previous arrangements, I would say the ratio was about 30% creativity and 70% transcription. For Saints and Jambalaya, that was flipped, 80% creativity and 20% transcription. Then for the rest of the list, I did about 60/40, 60% creativity.
In some ways, this makes the writing work a bit more enjoyable. Don’t misunderstand, I LOVE doing lifts. I love learning new music that way and exploring what other musicians have done in the past. But that’s a different kind of pleasure from what I enjoy about the creative work. That’s more of a love of learning kind of thing. These new charts have a piece of my heart and soul in them. I hope that makes sense.
If you haven’t heard Jazz Forever yet, I encourage you to take a trip with us back about a hundred years when jazz was a little different from what I recorded in El Paso with my friends.
This CD is called Mardi Gras Legends and takes you back to the days when Joe Oliver reigned as “King.” It takes you back to New Orleans during a time when jazz was happy music and didn’t take itself too seriously. The tracks on the CD include:
- Dipper Mouth Blues
- While We Danced at the Mardi Gras
- Sweet Baby Doll
- Willie the Weeper
- Basin Street Blues
- If You Knew
- When My Baby Smiles at Me
- Jambalaya on the Bayou
- Climax Rag
- When the Saint Go Marching In
- Wang Wang Blues
This CD should be available much sooner than the El Paso one, and I will be certain to let you know when it is available.
Beginner Jazz Trumpet Book
On the publishing front, we are in the final stages, after literally twenty years of trial and error, of releasing the first jazz book in our jazz trumpet series. I’ve been using this method and the materials with my students for over ten years, refining and modifying it as we progressed. Now I believe that the method is “tried and true” and is ready for public consumption.
The musical content and exercises are completed, all that’s needed at this point is to write the text, record the accompanying CD and make it look pretty.
What makes this series of books unique is that the student can sound good NOW. I have used this method with students who could barely play the trumpet, and still they sounded good improvising, even on their first try.
I call this the “foot in the door approach” as opposed to the more traditional “sink or swim” approach to teaching jazz trumpet. People are less likely to give up and quit if they can enjoy smaller successes along the way. This book series makes an effort to expose the students to all of the materials they need to be great jazz trumpet players but in a way that doesn’t make them feel like quitting at every step of the process.
We are very excited about this book and just like the other two projects I already wrote about here, I will let you know more as we near the release date.
As always, there are a lot of other irons in the fire, but these are the three I feel comfortable sharing with you at this point.
We have finally gotten around to creating a discount code for our current and past students. That was one of the reasons why we switched to a dynamic shopping cart instead of the old “static” store we had over two years ago. We wanted to be able to offer discount coupons and vouchers and other opportunities of that nature. We wanted this mostly for our students.
If you are currently a student of mine, or if you ever took lessons with me in the past, please contact me if you are interested in getting that code. The voucher gives students and ex-students 50% off of any e-Product (eBooks and digital download sheet music) and 20% off of our physical books.
Oh, and we are also making this code available to students of students. So, if your teacher was ever one of my students, you are eligible for this code.
There is a very nice article by Linda Essig about something I’ve written about here a few times. What I like about her article is that she quotes rules from the US Department of Labour. This new slant on an old issue gives “our side” a bit more strength in the ongoing argument.
In my experience as a professional musician (a career spanning three decades) is that nothing good comes from playing for free. People think you can gain exposure and/or experience from donating your services for free. It’s funny, I remember a quote from a music business book that said “All you expose by playing for free is that you will play for free.” My career experiences concur. I will also add that the way I am treated on a gig is directly proportionate to how much I am paid. The worst I have ever been treated has been on gigs that I volunteered (very, very early in my career) to do for free.
The other excuse people give for playing for free is that they want experience. Unfortunately, not all experience is equal. And the worst kind of experience you can gain is from playing for free. This goes hand in hand with the way you are treated. The only experience you gain from playing for free is just how bad things can get when you play for free.
Anyway, I invite you to read her article. I agree with her 100%
I believe in musical honesty. Don’t try to do deep if you are not a deep person. Don’t try to do anger and bitterness if you are not an angry, bitter person. Don’t try to be funny or cute if you are not that way inclined. Strive to express through your music the very same qualities that God gave you when he made you.
In the music world, we are constantly pushed, from many different directions at once, to conform to a standard. Ironically, most music business people know that conforming to other people’s success formulas only leads to musical mediocrity. I am not suggesting that we should all rebel and jump off the proverbial deep end. However, just as it is in other creative fields, even when we do the same thing as others have done in the past, we must invest a bit of our own personalities and life experience if we want our music to connect with an audience.
I remember a composition lesson I had one time with Dr. Joseph Packales when he asked me, “What do you have for me today?” I sheepishly told him that I hadn’t done any writing all week, but had been doing a lot of thinking about the next project. I was expecting a good tongue lashing for not doing anything all week, but that never happened. His response stuck with me all these years. He said, “Thinking is good!” Then he asked me to share my thoughts. And I did. And we spent the rest of the lesson time discussing how to make them happen.
I thought about this last week as I prepared to work on another arrangement for Jazz Forever. I spend as much as an hour or more researching and planning each arrangement before I begin. Last week I was thinking to myself how different my work would be if I hadn’t learned to approach composing and arranging this way.
Thinking Is Good!
This is just one of the many different ways that Dr. Packales contributed to my life.
A good friend of mine, Rob Alley, is doing something on his facebook wall that I really like a lot. He is listing 365 things he likes, doing it roughly about one per day (going for a year of course). He posted something today that got me thinking about musical careers. I decided to post my response here on my blog for two reasons. The first is because, as is the case with most of my writing, I am too long winded. Secondly, because I also feel that what I am writing here doesn’t really contribute to the discussion. I am not disagreeing with what he posted. I am really just sharing what it means to me.
Here’s a copy of the post from his wall on facebook:
I like (135/365):
Jimmy Maxwell to Steven Bernstein:
“‘If you’re going to be a professional trumpet player, you don’t turn down a gig. You’re not above any gig.’”
[Bernstein] continued. “But it was also the idea that being a working musician is an honorable profession. Anytime that you’re out there playing your trumpet , you are practicing an honorable profession. And that’s why I love getting calls and why I say yes to every gig that comes my way. I love working. It’s why I can own a house.” SB
p. 44 DOWNBEAT APRIL 2014
Making a Living Playing Trumpet
For the most part, I agree with this quote, but I want to spend some time talking about it. I don’t think it means to trumpet players today what it meant for Jimmy Maxwell. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Maxwell was from an era when trumpet players could make a very good living as a full-time performer. Someone like Jimmy Maxwell would have made his living primarily off of his trumpet playing. But times have changed and that is not as true as it used to be.
To give you an idea of how untrue it is, I remember when I gave Randy Brecker a ride back to his hotel. He was in the audience for one of my performances and joined us for the after concert hang at Kim Son restaurant. On the way to his hotel, he asked me what else I do “besides this.” At that time, I was on a seven year hiatus from teaching regular weekly students (I was still teaching but only single lessons). At that time, about 98% of my income was from gigs. Yes, for seven years I was living every trumpet player’s dream. Mr. Brecker was surprised when he heard my response and told me that he doesn’t even know anyone in NYC who only gigs full time. He said everyone has college teaching gigs and stuff like that.
So yes, things are different today. I believe that the Jimmy Maxwell/Steven Bernstein quote above is not talking about taking every gig regardless of how much it pays. I think he’s saying that there should never be any TYPE of gig that is beneath you. There’s a very big difference!
Of course, I don’t know either one of those people personally. I only read the quote today. But I’ve “been there, done that.” So I am speaking from my own perspective. I know that there are people today who believe I have become more selective with the gigs I take. And really, that’s not true. Not at all. But I do have a minimum rate now and there are certain conditions under which I WILL turn down a gig.
That said, I didn’t always do it this way. For the first twenty-five years of my performance career, I took every gig no matter how much it paid. What’s different now? Well, now that I am teaching again, getting paid to compose and arrange music and selling a lot more books and sheet music, I now have four income streams. One of the first things we figured out when Pearl got here was just how much income I was losing because of my “take every gig” policy. So I sat down and crunched some numbers. I decided to begin having a minimum rate for gigs that was based on the amount of money I would NOT be making at home if I took a gig.
I am EXTREMELY opposed to the whole starving artist mentality. The only time that life style is okay is when you are single and have no intention of ever getting married. But if you have a family or are planning to have one in the future, it is NOT okay to do the starving artist bit. I sort of indirectly deal with this in a series of posts I wrote on what I call “Wholesome Musical Priorities.” In these posts, I talk about where music should fit into a person’s overall life. Here are some links to those articles:
Hard Core Artists
On a tangent note, there are a lot of hard core classical and jazz musicians out there who disagree completely with Maxwell’s quote. They believe that you cannot become the best of the best at what you do if you are watering down your performance experiences with diverse musical influences. I have heard many, literally many, very successful musicians preach this kind of abstinence from musical diversity.
I believe there is no hard fast rule on the issue. It’s a personal thing and it comes down to what you want to do with your performance career. It was always very important to me to be involved with EVERY kind of music I could – simply so I could be a better, more rounded teacher. Of course, it also helps that I like almost every kind of music. But if your goal is to be the next trumpet superstar (an obvious oxymoron), then you will probably have a different opinion from me.