As an active recording artist and full-time professor, saxophonist and singer Walter Beasley has spent the last 25 years exploring many shades of the music business. His students at Berklee College of Music (as well as on Skype) have been a source of inspiration in between his touring and releasing classic Smooth Jazz albums like Just Kickin’ It, Intimacy, Tonight We Love, and Free Your Mind. The two-time SESAC and Boston Music Awards winner talks with former student Justin Kantor about his new CD, Live: In the Groove. He also shares his thoughts on “American Idol”; the legal and political sides of the business; and his surprising musical beginnings (You can hear the interview in its entirety on BlogTalkRadio).
You've been teaching at Berklee College of Music for the past 25 years. How's that going for you?
Very well, man. Teaching is probably the most exciting part of my life right now, especially with the Skype lessons. That enables me to teach the way I learned to teach. Institutional training is great; however, it can be a bit restrictive. You have to teach what the institution deems as being important for the student. I’ve had 30 years of success in the industry, so I like when I can go outside the boundaries. It enables me to do and say things and create analogies that are applicable. It also allows me to teach people from all over the world. I have students in Japan, London, Texas, and Philly. It’s taking on another life for me. The process of helping people become better is something that really turns me on.
I also produce my own educational DVD’s and seminars through my company here. It allows me to go directly to people who want to play, sing, or write. Wherever I am in the world, I can still be effective as a teacher or mentor. I have students who are recording, and they need me to counsel them on mic positioning, copying, and phrasing. It’s just a great world to be in right now.
Do you teach group classes through Skype, or private lessons?
Private lessons. The curriculum is constructed by me and the student, and whatever the he or she feels. The direction of the student is my focus. If they need a bit of technique and vocabulary, then that’s what we focus on. If they are intermediate students, and they want to get to the next level so they can be recording artists, then we focus on that. If they are already recording artists who are putting together their CD and love what I don't play on the saxophone, they may want me to help them be conservative as it relates to their ideas and their musical responses. It's analogous to the medical industry: how a drug can be tailored to a person’s DNA . That’s how I do the Skype lessons.
What classes are you teaching at Berklee?
Vocal Rhythm Section Ensemble, Traditional Ensemble, Smooth Jazz Ensemble, and private saxophone lessons. I tour on the weekends.
Do you find there are any particular skills that aspiring singers or players are in most need of these days?
I think that experience is what I offer and is probably most needed in students’ lives, because they just got here! They have everything they need as far as Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, and American Idol. They have all of these riffs going on. They just don’t understand, –and even older musicians and singers feel like it’s all about riffing all over the place, doing twists and gymnastics. The next thing you know, the song has gone by, and you haven’t really done anything to express yourself in the song. You’ve left the people thinking, “Wow! He or she can really sing, but I don’t remember what they sang.” That’s the problem with younger and older singers today, is that everything happens so fast and everything is such a freak show, that nobody really remembers what it means to be an artist. At this point, that’s what’s needed, and that’s what I offer.
What did you get out of being a student at Berklee? Were the circumstances similar then?
I think it was similar. I learned most from the people who I went to school with: Rachelle Ferrell, Branford Marsalis, Smitty Smith, Jeff Tain Watts, and R&B artists that people don’t even know anymore. That’s how I learned to play and sing. Actually, I learned to play and sing before I got here, but around the age of 18, that’s when it really took off. I was able to play at Wally’s Café and other joints around town that really enabled people to go and play for people — not just other musicians. People paid to go in there and they wanted to be entertained. That was the last of the urban entertainment thing.
Nowadays, you have an antiseptic approach. Students go in there, and you teach them the A-B-C’s. And they come out going “A-B-C.” You go into the community, and they go, “This isn’t entertaining. I can go ‘A-B-C’ myself.” We’ve lost a lot of the experience of playing clubs, so what I’ve tried to do is recreate a club scene at Berklee. I have to bring that reality into the classroom. It’s exciting, because I’ve had to be creative with it. How do you create a Wally’s Café or an institution that enables a person to see how it really feels?
Students now have lost the ability to communicate with people who don’t play instruments. That’s a problem, because they’re jumping through hoops and playing all these great ideas and so forth — but the masses remain untouched, It was never like that with Jazz, Funk, and R&B music before. You were able to reach a person or move a person with what you played or what you sang.
With the Internet being the primary platform for artists to get their music out, the kind of feedback one can get seems limited. Not everybody who listens to independent artists will tell them if they’re good or bad. Are there ways outside of school that students can practice in front of a non-musician?
Berklee has an outreach program, where they go out in the community and let the kids play. But if you don’t know how to reach the people who have the money to sustain your career, then going out and doing what we’re doing is not going to cut it. There have to be more teachers who are able to teach students how to move other people so that they can make a living making music, which is getting harder and harder to do. It’s like you said, you’re not going to get constructive criticism from your colleagues — they’re broke! I don’t know about you, but when I was in college, nobody had any money to buy any CDs. That means that your audience has to be people who knows nothing about a saxophone or a trumpet.
What is the significance of Wally’s?
Wally’s, for me, was an institution that offers the chance for musicians to hone their skills and play the type of music that they like to play in front of an audience, who may not understand that type of music but wants to be entertained. If you do not entertain them, then you might not be asked to come back to Wally’s. It becomes a launching pad for your career.
They’re welcoming of up-and-coming artists?
Exactly! I went through there. Branford Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, and Greg Isley went through there. That was our training ground. They still offer that type of training for people.
When did the saxophone first come into your life? Who or what drew you to the instrument?
I heard Grover Washington, Jr., when I was 10 years old, and I knew then and there that there was something different about this instrument. I found out later that it was simply the way he played that made me want to play the saxophone that way, and the saxophone was a way for me to be popular. My cousin, Rodney, had the sports thing down, and he danced really well. I wanted something for myself. It was a way for me to express myself, and I fell in love with music. It really wasn’t about, “Oh, I heard The Rite of Spring, and I realized I wanted to play saxophone.” No, it wasn’t any any of that. The girls looked good, and I had to find a way to get to them. The saxophone was my medium.
You grew up in El Centro, California. What was life like?
El Centro is 50 miles from where the last big quake hit. It’s very close to the border of Mexico and the border of Arizona, but still close enough to San Francisco and L.A. that you would get all types of music. I was in an area where I would listen to Mariachi music, music from Columbia, and mambos. Then, we would also practice Country & Western and Rock when the radio was on, and we would just play for entertainment. We were happy to get anything at that point.
Did you play trumpet before you played sax?
I wanted to be like my mentor, Jimmie Cannon, and his son, Derek. We played together as kids. Derek started when he was 9, and I at 11. We would play Chicago tunes, Earth, Wind & Fire tunes and all that. I tried to play the trumpet, but just couldn’t. The saxophone became my thing.
How did you end up singing in Spanish with a local band?
I lived in the Black community for seven or eight years, and then I moved to the Mexican American community around 11 or 12. I didn’t know the language, but I wanted to know what people were saying. I wanted to know when they were talking about me, and I just love the way it sounds. So, Eric, my nextdoor neighbor, taught me. I was always in both the Black and Brown communities. It was a great mixture of influences. When I got into the band, a couple of singers had left, and some of the guys couldn’t sing very well, so I said, “I’ll sing some stuff!” That got me started. I was afraid, so they taught me how to enunciate certain words and phrases. I was known as the Black kid who sang Spanish. I think it made us some money.
What kind of gigs were you getting?
Quinceaneras — that’s when a young lady turns 15 and her parents present her to the world.
Had you thought for a long time about going to Berklee?
Honestly, man, every Black kid, when they’re a teenager, starts going through things for whatever reason; and I knew that I needed to get out from where I was, someway. One day, I remember some things had happened at the house and in the neighborhood. My parents were great in knowing that it was time for me to go. The school that presented the best ability for me to do what I needed to do was back east. I didn’t care where Berklee was, as long as they had music there. When I landed, I looked around and was, like, “What the hell have I done?” Boston, especially in 1979, was one of the most racist cities, and very mean. If you didn’t look and act a certain way, there was a lot of drama around here. I came in at the end of the busing situation.
Even at that point, unbelievable!
1979! There were places that I could not go. One time we were at a performance. It was 2:00 in the morning, and five police cars pulled us over and made us take off our coats and put our hands on the car for about 45 minutes! That was my first exposure to Boston. I was 18 years old, man.
Just for the hell of it?
Yeah, for no reason — well, because they could. I had been thinking, maybe I wouldn’t have to put up with some of the stuff in Boston that I was putting up with in California!
All in all, though, Boston has been very good to me. People say, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,” but I tend to think Boston is that kind of city. In New York, people don’t like you, they don’t like you. If they like you, they like you. In Boston, you have to mess around a little bit before you know if people like you or not.
What prompted you to start teaching at Berklee right after graduating?
I was broke! [Laughs] No, I had a meeting with [Vice President of Academic Affairs] Larry Monroe. He asked me, “What are you going to do when you get out? Would you like to teach?” I said, “I don’t know, man,” and he said, “We’ve been watching you, and we’ve hired some people who have graduated, even at 18. Would you like to come on board?” I remember it like it was yesterday. A guy got up onstage and started playing, and I was, like, “Wow! He’s broken through the barrier!” and I remember asking him, “How did you do that?” and he said, “Walter, I just worked on the stuff that you gave me,” and I was done!
I was 22, and people were advising me, “Quit teaching, move to New York or California," but I couldn’t give it up. There were people here — older people like Tim “Bone” Williams — who helped a lot of the younger Blacks and Browns when we got here. I wanted to be that kind of person. My mother and father were both teachers, and my mentors were a great influence on my life. I knew that it was going to be harder to become successful in the game if I became successful as a teacher, but it's kept me balanced. Both careers are intertwined. I’m only half of who I am unless I have the other. It’s a blessing, because I’ve touched thousands of lives while I’ve been able to pursue my dream as a recording artist. You can’t have it much better than that.
How do you balance the two?
I never got married and never gave anyone the ability to post up in my life that much. I was able to concentrate on music all the time. I tell my students even now, if they think this looks good because of me: I eat, drink, sleep music, and I can’t say the other words. [Laughs] This can be a very frustrating and lonely life if you’re not prepared to go to the wall for it. I have risked everything for music, and she has given me everything and more in the process. I’ve made my sacrifices. I don’t see my family much at all. I never really made the time to pursue a quality relationship, and now that I’m at the age where I want to, I’m finding out I need to learn a lot of things that people 20 or 30 years younger than me learned off the bat.
You play both alto and soprano sax in your live performances and recordings. How do you determine which one to play when?
The song decides. The song speaks to you — the melody, the range speaks to you, or the words come. I have a decent singing voice, and if the song presents itself and there are words to it, I have to really do the best I can singing, or do the best I can with soprano or alto sax. I’m close to 50, and all these runs and fancy things that you can do to make your playing interesting mean nothing to the average ear when it’s not really coming from your heart. So, I try to make sure everything comes from my heart, whether it’s soprano, alto or my voice, and I don’t want to say things that don’t make sense. Time is important, and I think it’s time for people to understand that this life is quick. You have to say what you mean and mean what you say, whether it’s verbally or musically.
Did you study voice, or do you do it on feel?
I studied it. Actually, I sang in a Baptist choir in El Centro, California, and nobody really knew I could sing well, but when I got to Berklee, they had a recital and I sang Earth, Wind & Fire's “Reasons,” and people were just floored. Some sax players were really mad at me. They were like, “You have the audacity to sing, too?” It really got crazy, Justin.
Let’s talk about your recording career. You've got 12 albums under your belt. You started on Elektra Records with a single called “Back In Love Again,” which focused on your singing and remains popular with fans of 80’s R&B. How did you get that first deal, and what do you remember about the beginnings of your recording career?
I tell people, when I’m on the bandstand doing “Don’t Say Goodbye” or "I'm So Happy," how that was really the start of my career. “Don’t Say Goodbye” popped in D.C. and Virginia, and they said, “Walter, you have a hit! Leave your horn up in Boston, because they like ‘Don’t Say Goodbye’ and ‘I’m So Happy.’” There were times when I would do concerts and play saxophone all night long. I would look out into the crowd, and they’d look at me like I had thorns. As soon as I would play “Don’t Say Goodbye” they would say, “Yeah! Yeah!” That’s when I knew this wouldn’t pan out the way I planned it as a kid.
How had you planned it?
I planned to come to Boston, become a studio session worker, maybe become a recording artist. Then, around 23 or 24, come back home, get married, have some kids and have a white picket fence and call it. The voice was a secondary instrument and still is. But people really embraced “Don’t Say Goodbye” and a few other vocal pieces. I tell my students, “You never know what’s going to pop for you, so you have to make sure you’re prepared for anything and everything.” We no longer live in a world where you can be one-dimensional and expect to be successful. A person can have four or five different jobs or bosses in their lifetime. The same goes for a musician: you’ll go through four or five makeovers. If you’re not cognizant of that, you have some problems.
Was the business side something that was difficult for you in the beginning? You made a really quick switch from Elektra to Mercury.
Man, in the 80’s, to get a deal, you had to sign a production agreement, and they were the foulest things. You had to sign your publishing away. I remember the day that I was at my lowest point. I had just finished a course in Harmony Classical Writing. There was something wrong in the record, and I really didn’t understand what it was. So, I went back to some of the stuff I had learned in that class to correct it. I thought, “I’m not even getting credit for this, and I’m not even getting paid for it!”
It was hard, but I kept fighting for the ability to express myself; and the more I fought, the harder I fought. I remember thinking, “I can play different cards now, because I’m getting more popular.” So, I was finally able to get away from the agreements and that period of my life. I don’t regret it, because had it not been for that, I wouldn’t be where I am. I was the one who was able to break the contract, because I sat down and read through the legalese and found a loophole in the contract. At that time, I stopped hiring lawyers and I started managing myself.
Are you referring to your contract with Mercury
Yeah, that contract with Mercury and the production agreement. Private Time was my first album where I was able to be in control of the budget. I should have gotten paid $200,000 to make it, but I had to do it on a budget of $25,000 — because of what I had to pay to a couple of people to basically exit my life. It was a good record, and the start of my new career. I was blessed then; but I’m really blessed now, to be able to understand the benefits of managing myself and making sure that everything I sign, I know exactly what I’m getting into.
How did you end up recording “On The Edge," written by Kenny G (with Preston Glass)? Was that written specifically for you? I know you have mixed feelings about some of the more commercial saxophonists.
I gave a lecture on that yesterday, and someone said, “You must hate Kenny G,” and I said, “No, Kenny G opened the doors for a lot of saxophone players who would not have had the opportunity to have a long career, and I’m one of them!” I don’t like some of the things that happened. I don’t like the racism in Smooth Jazz, when it comes to White and Black artists and saxophonists. There are festivals that pick and choose acts based on the color of their skin.
There have been times when promoters have called to ask about my availability, but then when someone is available who appeals to a different ethnic group, I get shut out. You have to take the good with the bad. I’ve been able to play for progressive audiences — White, Black, Asian — my whole life. But I do acknowledge that there is a problem that can inhibit us from making a decent living at doing what we do. It still exists, only not as much now as it did then.
Does that occur more stateside than overseas?
I’ve only done a couple of gigs outside the states, but it’s all experience. When the brother did his thing on American Idol — I mean I don’t watch the damn thing, but you remember the guy who won with the risqué moves?
Yeah. I got in trouble with some of the things I’ve said, but you can’t have it both ways. If you want people to assert themselves and be who they are, then you can’t decide who you’re going to let in and who you’re not going to let in. It has to be clear-cut. Thinking about my own career, I came out with a song called “On The Black Side,” which, in my mind, was a protest for what I deemed to be a lot of racism going on in the Smooth Jazz arena. The radio stations wouldn’t play me for a long time, because I made a political statement. It didn’t meant that I didn’t like other people; it just meant that I became very aware of how you treat me and how you treat Kenny G.
With that difficulty in the Jazz radio world, you nonetheless had success on R&B radio. As far as instrumentals, “Just Kickin’ It” comes to mind as one of your earliest records to score on the R&B charts. Did that influence what kind of musical direction you wanted to go in?
Actually, that’s why I say I’m very grateful to Smooth Jazz and Kenny G, because when that popped off, Black radio had basically shut down to adult Black expression. They had basically said, “Hip Hop or Die!” I think I was about 30 when they decided, “You’re too old, man. We’re going to deal with people who are 14, 15 years old. Go somewhere else.” I looked over the bridge and there was Smooth Jazz, older people with different ethnic backgrounds saying, “Come on over, Walter. The water is warm!” I said, “Okay, I’ll be there in a minute!” That’s what happened, and the rest is history. Actually, when I do concerts, I have two different audiences: one which has followed me since my early days in R&B; the other came around after Smooth Jazz was invented.
Since leaving the major label scene, you've worked with independents such as Shanachie, N-Coded, and Heads Up. What has the experience of been like?
I love partnering with the labels. I still own those songs.
So is your label, Affable Records, the licensor for them?
Exactly. I prefer to be a partner, rather than at the beck and call of a big organization. Not being able to do what I want to do when I want to do it is just a problem for me. I’m a man, so I like to own my stuff. [Laughs]
To what extent have the labels you make deals with been involved in your career? What aspects do you handle yourself?
The masters are mine, and if they pay me to make a record, and then they recoup it, we settle on a split that’s fair to both parties. When the term of the agreement is over, everything goes to me. Now, I’m releasing an album called Walter Beasley Live: In The Groove, with no outside distribution; I’m doing everything myself.
It’s interesting, because let’s say I sell 4,000 copies of In The Groove, I’ll make as much money selling 4,000 copies as most recording artists will make, selling 30-40,000 copies, probably more. I can sell even 10,000 copies, and whatever I make is on me. With this record, if I’m blessed enough to have children or whatever, it belongs to my family when I’m gone. That’s what a lot of Black and Brown and other artists who are like-minded never really had a chance to do. People talk about how the record industry has crumbled and they say, “Aren’t you sad?” Well I’m not sad at all (laughs)! I’m loving it!
There’s good and a bad during every time period in the industry. It’s good to be nostalgic, but there are a lot of things that people may not have seen, behind the scenes
I think it’s ego; and I had it, too. When you’re in your 20’s, you want people to say your name, scream for you and all that kind of stuff,. That’s cool and all, but once you reach a certain age, it’s all about having one or two people scream your name; that’s what’s important to you.
Tell me about Live: In the Groove. Where and when it was recorded,? Was it one show or a combination of shows?
This album was recorded in Boston at four shows. I picked the tunes that I like, and went from there. There are no overdubs, no Auto-Tune; it’s all Walter Beasley. You can even hear some mistakes, and how I come back in, and people say, “What’s he doing?” and I start circular breathing and go from there. I think it’s my best. It reflects where I am now. I don’t want things to be too cookie-cutter. I’m not too depressed about the demise of some of the smoother musical styles.
Musicianship has taken a hit, both in the Smooth Jazz and straight-ahead scenes. You have many musicians who love what music does to people and how it makes them feel better about themselves. When I think back to when I was coming up, we felt that we gave nothing to the music, but that the music gave everything to us. That’s kind of the way this record feels to me. I’m letting the music do what it does to me, and I’m just trying to create a certain vibe. It’s done after that.
Do you have a problem with people calling you a Smooth Jazz artist, or is that a title that you wear proudly?
People can call me what they want to call me. It doesn’t hurt me and it doesn’t help me. If my music touches you, that’s great. No matter who you are or what you are, if I’ve done something that made your life better, that’s all I care about.
On Live: In the Groove, you perform a couple of songs from a CD you did a couple of years ago called Sax Meditations. What makes a song a sax meditation?
The way it makes me feel. If I feel totally at peace with something I’ve written or am playing, and I know it’s not going anywhere, but it really lowers my blood pressure and makes me feel just grateful to be breathing, it’s a song I put on Sax Meditations. When I did that album, I was in a terrible place. I had lost a couple of very close family members, and I had to make it through it. I live alone, and sometimes you go through serious events, When you’re a teacher, people think that you can handle everything. Then you wake up one morning and go, “I don’t know!”
Testing your strength.
Yeah, and so I ended up in a town in Florida, and I just let some emotions fly that I hadn’t let fly in probably 20 years. Sax Meditations came from that.
What about “The King Lives”? What’s the story behind that?
Oh, that’s my favorite song on the album. I wrote that when my mentor, Jimmie Cannon, passed. He used to say, “Say what you have to say, and shut up.” I think I’m most proud of that solo, because it was only one time through. I didn’t do anything that was inappropriate, and then I ended the song, and I think he would have liked that. Short and sweet!
Where in Boston were the shows recorded?
Scullers Jazz Club.
You covered another mentor of yours, Grover Washington Jr.'s “Mr. Magic”. What was it about that song that spoke to you?
Well, “Mr. Magic” is a song that I first heard as a 12-year-old kid. For my money — and I say this very humbly — there’s nobody who can do it better than I can. I don’t even articulate it well, but when it comes on and I start playing it, something comes over me and I don’t try to play too much more than what the master, Grover Washington Jr. would have played himself. That song is just classic, and I feel like I do a pretty decent job of it.
So it’s a song that you feel you can preserve the integrity of it and give it your own spin as well?
If I’m onstage with somebody playing it, I know there’s somebody who might do a better job than me playing it. But the question is, can you bring that integrity and honesty to the piece without saying too much? If you’re playing saxophone, and “Mr. Magic” comes up, you’d better really come hard!
You also perform a remake of “Free”, which you previouslyrecorded on your Ready For Love CD. Has that song always been a favorite of yours?
Actually, Deniece Williams has always been a favorite of mine. This Is Niecy might have been the third album I ever owned in my life, and I love that whole album. There were three songs that I always wanted to record: “Free,” “Do You Want To Dance," and “Be Thankful For What You Got.” Those songs have to be my top three songs in life forever. There is one other song that I’m doing in the studio, but I can’t talk about it. Those three remakes are timeless, and I love them and I love the people who made them. It was just incredible to be a part of that.
Where are you going to be selling Live: In the Groove?
The CD and downloads will be available first on my website and at my live shows. Later, I’ll be putting it on I-Tunes. I know what I’m going to be selling, and it’s going to be significant, so there’s no need to break the bank. It’s a great record, and I think you would agree it’s a reflection of who I am, and I’m loving it! I’m getting a lot of nice responses from the clips I’ve put up. Actually, I’m thinking the first 30 or 40 customers who buy on Facebook, I might give them a couple of free CDs of some of my past recordings. It’s nice when you’re in the position where you have the wherewithal to do whatever you wish with your art.
A lot of your focus is on positivity. Have there been any particular life changing events that you have had since getting into the industry?
I heard someone say once that the key to life is dealing with loss. For a long time, I didn’t have to deal with loss. My grandmother, who was my best friend, died when I was 14, and that kind of crippled me for awhile. When my second mother died, and my mentor, it became clear to me that you’re not going to be on this Earth very long. What you do with your time is important, and how you treat people is even more important, and how you treat yourself is the most important, and that’s what I try to do every day and that’s what I want my music to reflect. I’m in a great place right now. You’ve known me almost 15 years now, and I’m crazy! [Laughs]
It’s different when people interact face to face versus online; but when I saw some of your recent Facebook posts, it just seemed like something had changed.
When you were in my class, I was over the top! I just wanted my students to be the best, study hard, work hard, and I was hard on myself as a teacher. I wanted to bring out the best in them, and if I couldn’t, then I would kick myself in the behind. One of my phrases was, “If I lose one, it’s my fault. I need to pick up my game.” I was driving myself crazy! Sometimes, if a student didn’t get it, I’d be angry at them and at me. All of a sudden, the more I learned about life, music and myself, the more I learned that none of that was true. People get things in their own time, or they don’t. Even if they don’t get it, they’re still okay!
It’s kind of like the vocalizing — keeping it simple and not filling it up with a lot of riffs.
That’s right. People aren’t going to remember what you played, they’re going to remember how you made them feel. You can do that with one little place at the right time, without any vibrato or any riff. Until you understand the power and value of singing one line from the heart effectively — so that a gyration or a movement is not needed, in my old school book, you’re not an artist! You have lost the ability to speak a phrase and have it really mean something to somebody. Look at other forms of music that haven’t lost it — like Latin music. You don’t even have to speak the language. Listen to Marc Anthony sing a love song. That dude knows what he’s saying. You don’t have to speak a lick of Spanish to know that’s romantic shit!
Are there any other artists right now that are doing something that’s especially relevant in music?
I love Jill Scott and India.Arie. I listen to a lot of relaxing music now, but most of the straight-ahead Jazz artists I listen to have long since passed. Also, I love Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper, Carrie Underwood, Ingrid Michaelson. My students are really into the whole singer/songwriter vibe, and I really like it! You know me, I try to find beauty in many different genres. What I’m most disappointed in, is that a lot of the Smooth Jazz and the Straight-Ahead Jazz that’s going on now is a bunch of the same old shit! What has happened is that a lot of high school band directors are very afraid of Hip-Hop and took it out of the Jazz music in their bands. By doing that, they’ve really hurt the art of straight-ahead Jazz music.
By homogenizing it?
Exactly. Jazz music has always been sanctioned by the community. When you take the expressions of the community out of the music, you end up killing it. I think that a lot of the straight-ahead Jazz coming out now has nothing to do with the expression of the Black and Brown communities, and as such, it makes it not viable to people who don’t play instruments.
When you mention Hip-Hop, are you referring to the origins of Bebop, or more contemporary Rap?
All of that! When you decide that the music is too violent or that the music is not representative of what you want your students to hear or play, then you take that aspect out the music of Black expression — you have used your arrogance to impede the progress of the music. That’s what’s happened to Jazz music. You have a whole lot of players — Black, White, Brown or Asian — who play a lot of notes, but have lost the ability to speak clearly through their instruments with their voice. That has killed the expression.
Did that have anything to do with you starting the "Hip Hop Improvization" DVD series?
It’s basically groove-based music. Even in school, when we do Smooth Jazz, we play Ronnie Laws, Grover Washington Jr, Crusaders, Gerald Albright, John Klemmer, and myself. It's a history lesson, but it’s not marginalized. Most of the saxophone players I teach are straight-ahead players, so we go to Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane, we discuss how they are very similar in their styles. It’s a history lesson in music, because I feel that without understanding the history of the people who produced the music, you can’t understand it. If it’s good enough for us to put this stuff in the schools when we talk about Bach and Beethoven, it’s just as important to use Jazz, R&B and Gospel.
That’s certainly a good thing about being at Berklee, but it can still be an issue at large. It’s like censoring from a musical standpoint.
That’s a great way to put it. It is censoring. You know, this is absolutely nothing new. There’s documentation of that — they did it with Elvis and Rock ‘n Roll. I’m surprised that people don’t speak on it more.
Where have you been performing lately?
We still go all around the country. I’ll be playing an African-American festival Worcester, Massachusetts, in June. In July, Washington, D.C., and then I’m doing a couple of master classes and clinics. In August I’ll be in Ohio, and September, I’ll be in Los Angeles. In October, I’m going on a Smooth Jazz cruise, the Capital Jazz Cruise.
I keep an active schedule. I’m hopeful to retire in about 10 years.
I think I’m going to have to approach this like an athlete: when it’ done, it’s done. Like you said, I have to start learning how to deal with normal stuff, at almost 50! I’m looking forward to dealing with normal stuff.
You’ve been on the other extreme of it.
That’s like Michael Jackson. I’m thinking to myself, we helped create this shit. He was not normal from the time he was 11 years old. Yeah, he was a great entertainer, but that man was not normal. Once you get to a stage where that’s what you’re doing, so you’re doing it — you’ve got to change it. I’ve had a good run at this, but everything has a season. I love doing it, I love my fans from all different backgrounds, races, and creeds; but there’s a time when you have to live for yourself.
Look at Prince: he just disappears. He was at a baseball game and nobody even knew he was there. It’s a quick life, and I want to enjoy it. I want to make as much music as possible. I want to educate as many people as possible and bring out some things that need to be said. Musically, we are doing a disservice to the community. There is a book called Interface that I read in college. It warned that technology, if not used properly, would take away from the substance of creativity. I think that’s what’s happening to us now across the board, and we should think about that.