By Sabina L. Lilly
Time flies when you’re into jazz! In case you missed any of the “10 Questions” columns from 2019, here’s a chance to catch up before 2020 is in full, ahem, swing. Below is each artist’s answer to a question we love to ask every time, along with a link to the full column as it was originally published.
Chicago Jazz Magazine sincerely hopes you enjoy reading the recap as much as we enjoyed putting it together. We wish you all the very best in 2020!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
I’m lucky to have an older brother, Grady, who has always been a voracious music listener. He was in to all sorts of music—indie rock, hip-hop, ska, electronic music—but also jazz. At the time that I started playing drums, he was listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker, as well as some of the ’90s swing revival stuff like Royal Crown Revue and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Listening to and playing jazz seemed cool to me, whereas most kids might not have been interested in it early on. My parents encouraged it by involving me in a citywide jazz education program called JazzWerx in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. I participated in that program from 6th grade all of the way until I graduated high school, and it was a huge factor in me taking jazz seriously and wanting to really dig deep into the history and art of the music. Apart from that program, which is now called the Tucson Jazz Institute, I frequented local jam sessions and had a jazz quartet with some friends that played standards as well as original music, and got real-world experience gigging and recording. Even though most people wouldn’t think of Tucson as a hotbed of jazz, it’s actually a great place to get started as a jazz musician. In addition to all of that, I was playing in a lot of punk, metal, and indie rock bands throughout high school, so music was really central to my whole childhood.
The first time I remember seeing jazz was on TV. I saw a special on Dizzy Gillespie's Afro-Cuban band on CBS Sunday Morning, but I had no idea what it was. Jazz scores like The Hustler also made a big impact on me. In some strange way, everything I was checking out (rock, funk, etc.) kept leading me to jazz. I was in awe of the concept of improvisation and the fluency that jazz musicians had in the language of music. Miles Davis’ ’58 Sessions, Mingus’ Ah Um, and Duke Ellington’s Piano Reflections were game-changers for me.
My high school barely had a music program, but there were some very serious musicians there. We formed a group and connected with students from the School For Creative and Performing Arts. Cincinnati had a strong environment of apprenticeship from the elder generation of musicians and even from musicians only few years older. I truly got to learn on the bandstand, and I became enamored of the jazz community. People were obsessively talking about recordings, personnel, memorizing solos, I was drawn to that passion. Jazz is a practitioner’s art, and I love the tangibility of its tradition.
I can’t recall specifics in that way because my mom and dad took the family to lots of shows. But one that really stands out is going to see the Modern Jazz Quartet at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center with my mom and sister when I was in middle school. Hearing vibraphonist Milt Jackson play live for the first time really left a lasting impression on me.
Early on I resolved that if I was going to play an instrument that wasn’t so common [tuba] I would be able to play any style where the instrument could be used. This, of course, included Dixieland music, German music, and other ethnic music. Delving into Dixieland got me listening to jazz of various types and I started to become drawn to the bass.
Also, in high school I had a crappy old car to cart my tuba around to all the places I was playing. The car’s AM radio could receive a late-night program out of Rochester, New York, called The Best of All Possible Worlds. The host, Harry Abraham, played all kinds of jazz of all eras interspersed with one another: Louis and maybe Clifford then maybe Ornette then maybe Bix, etc. Even though I was thoroughly into classical music at the time, I recognized that this stuff is serious business—it’s not pop or rock—this is some serious art music. Then I got pulled in more by listening to Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, and all the great bass players. I finally got a bass and started getting serious about it around age twenty-three. From there, I started going to summer jazz camps—Aebersold’s in particular—and going around to jam sessions to try to get my chops together. I should also mention that my ear training/music theory studies during and after Roosevelt with Ralph Dodds were essential to my relatively quick transition from a strictly classical musician to a jazz player.
My interest in jazz began to take shape toward the end of my high school years. I’m not entirely sure exactly what started it, but I remember feeling compelled to check out recordings of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Quincy Jones that were around the house—Quincy Jones particularly because he was already on regular rotation around the house and on car rides. It was during my freshman year of college that I read the Quincy Jones autobiography, Q, and decided to make a commitment to music. I ordered several more CDs such as Big Train by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, compilation CDs of Nat King Cole and Joe Williams, and many others.
At Lane Tech College Prep High School, part of our band grade was based on us doing a CD review. In my junior year, I brought in a review I had done of a pop saxophonist’s album. My band director asked, “Is this what you listen to?” At that time, I hadn’t heard of any improvising saxophonists. He then went to his office and handed me a Charlie Parker CD. The rest is history. However, I am still a big fan of pop saxophone!
I wish I could say there was one specific artist or album that was a changing point, but there were several. Jimi Hendrix music was very influential, especially the record Band of Gypsys. I remember when I was in high school my uncle gave me the album Coltrane Live at Birdland which really blew my mind. I also remember really wearing out Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet in those early years. I was starting to hear how a lot of the music I liked was related.
While in high school I also started going out to hear live music. There was a jam session at a place called Cedar’s Lounge in downtown Youngstown. My teacher (Jeff Bremer) was the house bass player so my parents would let me go and sit in on a school night! That was the first place I got to meet and play with professional musicians, one of which was [trumpeter] Sean Jones. Sean helped me so much. He would tell me recordings to check out, let me tag along to gigs, and always provided advice and insight.
I can’t say that I remember a specific event. I just remember always being drawn to the music.
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Plays the Music of Duke Ellington is what inspired me to get serious.
I always feel like exposure is everything. Growing up listening to great records from day one has so much to do with it, I think. There are some home videos where you can see two-year-old me and there’s an Ornette record blasting in the background . . . my dad would put on lots of Miles, Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis stuff, and had even taken a few lessons with Ed Blackwell when he was young and so we had the Old and New Dreams records.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra would run these daytime programs for kids that we’d check out, so I got to hear that band a lot growing up. Later on in high school I went to spots like the 55 Bar, the Vanguard, the Jazz Gallery . . . it was pretty mind-bending, checking that stuff out. While later on it felt (and sometimes continues to feel) like a professional stretch to try and find my way through the music, it never felt like a personal or emotional stretch; I feel like I’m a product of being exposed to a wide variety of sounds and given a chance to explore playing music from an early age in a way that felt both fun and meaningful.
There have been many people that have inspired my interest in this great art form. My grandfather created the initial spark but the drummer Matt Wilson brought his quartet to Galesburg in 2002 and gave a master class with our entire high school jazz band program. He had the entire band improvise together with his quartet all at one time. It was the first time most of the members of the band, including myself, had played “free.” It was a magical experience to express myself without constrictions.
In high school we had a jazz band and I held the piano chair for three years. I distinctly remember playing an arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Spain” and being thrilled by the sound of that chart as well as the groove and energy our band was creating. It was difficult to learn, but exciting. Our director, Paul McGoveran, encouraged us to listen to great music, not just jazz, but also master composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Somewhere along the way I heard about Miles Davis so I went out and got the album Relaxin’. It was a turning point for me. I wanted to sound just like Miles’ pianist Red Garland; I thought he was so swingin’!
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at email@example.com.