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Jazz History, Education, and Performance: An Interview with Chris Madsen

By Jeff Cebulski

Highly respected and sought-after area saxophonist Chris Madsen seems to have little downtime these days. He is active in jazz education as an adjunct faculty member at University of Chicago-Illinois and University of Wisconsin-Parkside after a six-year stint in the Northwestern University Jazz Studies program. He also teaches privately from his home, conducts educational clinics on a regular basis, and writes occasional articles for The Instrumentalist. Often interviewed about jazz history, Madsen’s creative juices flow constantly; one can find two sets of videos on YouTube that explore soloing by historical players and collaborations with bassist Clark Sommers. And he still finds time to play locally. We found some time to talk with Chris about his inexhaustible interests in the world of jazz.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Listening to your "alternate jazz history" posts on YouTube has got me thinking about not only jazz history as defined by style and technique but also how you analyzed the various sax players to create your interpretations, such as how Don Byas would have played "Giant Steps.” How did you become so attracted to jazz history?

Chris Madsen: For some reason, the history of jazz has always been alluring to me. The first players I listened to with great intensity were Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and I felt an emotional kinship with them that I just didn't get from more contemporary players of the time, the 1990s. As the years went by, I learned to appreciate modern jazz as much as its classic counterpart, but it didn't come naturally. I particularly remember buying the Coltrane album Lush Life in high school and reading the liner notes wherein the author details three major influences for the big saxophonists of the time. For example, I think Trane's influences were listed as Bird, [Don] Byas, and Coleman Hawkins. He went through other saxophonists of the 1950s and did the same analysis. I was fascinated by the idea that you could actually pinpoint the influences of players and that line of thinking led me to explore other players and listen to people using that frame of reference.

CJM: So, were you a saxophonist before you heard Trane and Bird?

Madsen: I had been playing saxophone for about three years before I actually got interested in jazz. I was very fortunate to grow up in a public school system that started kids on band instruments at a young age and valued music. The summer before my freshman year of high school, I went to Birch Creek summer music camp and it changed my life. From then on, I was set on becoming a jazz saxophonist and started listening almost exclusively to jazz beginning with Charlie Parker.

CJM: In your YouTube series, you have a take on ‘Kenny Garrett’ soloing on "One o'clock Jump." How did you determine what you think he would play as a solo? Take us non-musicians through the interpretive process.

Madsen: The first thing to consider is sound. You have to have listened to enough of the musician to cop their sound adequately—it’ something that you learn when you start to transcribe players: match their sound exactly. But it doesn't stop there. You have to copy their articulation, vibrato, phrasing—everything that makes them, them. Once you've "digested" them enough, you can start to improvise in their style. The real challenge comes with the "alternate jazz history" series in placing them in a weird context. One of the things I do to prepare for those is to listen to the player for about a week improvising on songs that are comparable to the one I'm about to do. I pick apart their style and figure out what licks and phrases I can supplement into the song I'm going to record, and it kind of goes from there.

CJM: Let’s say Chris Madsen is doing “alternate jazz” videos on YouTube 30 years from now. What current sax players might become ‘models of distinction’ for you to emulate?

Madsen: I'm hesitant to name current players for fear of leaving someone out, so I'll just say that I find it interesting that this type of exercise would never have been conceived of in the past, maybe forty years ago. From my research, it seems that in the 1990s most progressive jazz musicians began adopting the aesthetics of a generation earlier—the acoustic, natural sounds that the instrument produces began to be preferred over heavy amplification, sound alteration, DI in the bass, etc. This goes for most mainstream as well as progressive jazz. Take Michael Brecker for example. In 1990, he was producing jazz fusion for all intents and purposes. This was considered by most to be "cutting edge." By the mid-90s, he was playing largely acoustic jazz.

CJM: How has your emulation of famous sax players affected your own development?

Madsen: I wouldn't be the player that I am today had I not been processing all these great players from the past during my formative years. For the "Alternate Jazz History" series, I get to re-discover some of them that I haven't consciously emulated in many years.

CJM: Who was the first jazz ‘star’ you encountered, both on and off stage?

Madsen: One of the most important encounters of my life was with my idol Wayne Shorter. Somehow I scored a backstage pass to a duo concert at Ravinia he was playing with Herbie Hancock, and I got to shake both of their hands and make small talk with them. Wayne advised us to "create mistakes," which can mean so many things to different people, but I've always interpreted it as a call for musicians to take chances when they play and really get rid of your fear of failure by trying things. It's a beautiful sentiment and a difficult one to keep in mind while you're playing. And although it was a bit artificial, the first time I really shared the stage with a legend of the music was my sophomore year at DePaul University when Bob Brookmeyer was in residency for over a week. I didn't know Bob's music prior to that, but as soon as I heard he was coming in, I became obsessed with his writing especially. I devoured his scores and every recording I could get, and that's what really got me into arranging for big bands.

CJM: Do you want your students to be as interested in jazz history as you are, at least in terms of studying it through various players?

Madsen: I definitely want my students to be aware of the history of jazz and to synthesize the sounds of great players of the past into their own playing. In my opinion, that's the only way to truly achieve an individual sound. Understanding how your own style fits into the grand scheme of the jazz continuum is the ultimate goal of any jazz musician as far as I can tell. Now, chances are that they won't be as into jazz history as I am, but I always use the study of other players as a basis for understanding yourself. It might seem contrary to logic, but the more you study others, the more your own individual sound can come through the fog and make itself known. That's another reason why it's important to study a variety of different styles of you don't run the risk of "cloning" one great player and getting stuck in their style.

CJM: Your statement about students needing to learn about past performance in order to realize their own, original voice/style reflects the paradox of jazz—of all music, actually—that the present and the past co-exists continually. My observation is that there seems to be continual tension, even debate, in jazz circles about how much the art needs to either embrace its roots or move away from them (you know, the Marsalis thing). I find this tension to be more tragic than helpful in representing jazz. How do you see it as a player? Does this tension have any effect on the avocation of jazz to your students?

Madsen: My position on this has wavered over the years. At this point in my career, I think people should just be free to do what they want with regards to playing jazz, and call it whatever they like. I know very few people, including younger players, who completely eschew any aspect of the past in favor of moving the music forward. For example, what saxophone player out there sincerely doesn't appreciate Coltrane? Very few, I'd say. He's pretty much universally accepted as one of the greatest musicians of all time; it would be like a classical player trying not to learn Beethoven or Bach. I think the tension that you reference is more a relic of the 1980s and '90s and doesn't bother players nowadays as much as it used to. I get the sense that the jazz world has relaxed a lot since then and adopted a more "live and let live" approach. Having said that, if you're a student of mine, you're going to be doing some transcribing of classic AND modern players.

CJM: If someone were to ask you "What is jazz education?", how would you respond?

Madsen: There are two sides the question really...maybe in the proper sense "Jazz Education" (capitalized) is the industry that has been built referring to University teaching, method books, conferences, etc. In a more immediate sense, "jazz education" (lowercase) is the act of individually tailoring your guidance for a student based on their particular strengths, weaknesses, and needs. I like to approach every student and class I teach with that in mind...that I am there to help them navigate through the field of jazz and let them know what to focus on in a jazz world that is seemingly endless. I remember starting out listening to jazz as a teenager; I had no idea what to listen to other than what a few of my peers would recommend. I was overwhelmed by all the different players, styles, albums, etc. So we should rely on our teachers to let us know what the best place to start based on our individual needs is.

CJM: How did you arrive at your current teaching position?

Madsen: In 2008, I was hired to teach at Northwestern University in the Jazz Studies department. I taught there for six years, and then in 2014 I moved to UIC. Recently I switched from a full-time to an adjunct position and then took on an additional position at UW-Parkside in Kenosha.

CJM: When do you know when one of your students “gets it”—that you can tell this young person could be headed for high achievement?

Madsen: It might sound tongue-in-cheek, but when the student actually does the work that they've been assigned and then continues further on their own from week to week, I know I'm dealing with a person who is really curious and committed to learning about the music. With certain students, you're really more of a guide to help them navigate the study of the music on their makes teaching easy.

CJM: So many good players have created careers where teaching and performing seem to come hand-in-hand. Is that the best scenario for players living in a not often-so-friendly-media/radio/sales environment?

Madsen: I think it's the best scenario from an artistic standpoint. Teaching your craft to others really helps to codify concepts in your own mind and clarify your thinking about your own playing. So teaching helps playing and vice versa. I think it's safe to say that most people who start out as players have to learn to teach at some point (myself included), and it's an economic reality from that standpoint. But only rarely do I run into players who absolutely can't stand any type of teaching; on the contrary, most find it extremely rewarding for the reasons I mentioned.

CJM: Will performing basically eclipse recordings, in terms of creating revenue? Do you think sponsorship of artists/events will strengthen or weaken, based on your observations?

Madsen:It definitely already has, and not only in the jazz realm. With streaming services like Spotify and the fact and almost every single song ever recorded is available on YouTube, how can anyone plan to make serious money selling recordings? The most you can really hope for is to move some units at live gigs. Sponsorship is a more difficult thing to predict, although in my experience sponsors are still willing to put up money for artists. I haven't sensed that relenting in any serious way.

CJM: One cool thing about the Chicago jazz scene is the spirit of collaboration among its players, keeping things fresh, creating new music. How have you benefitted from this environment?

Madsen: I love the Chicago scene and the cooperative, collaborative, and supportive nature of the musicians here. I find that, particularly when you have a new project featuring original music, your peers are very curious and come out to support things consistently. There are also a number of venues specializing in jazz of all different seems like if one ends up closing down, another opens to take its place. Let's hope that continues for a very long time.

CJM: So, in terms of collaboration, let’s talk about another YouTube project you have, the “Duet Book” series, now in its second ‘volume,’ with esteemed bassist Clark Sommers. How did that evolve and what was the motivation behind it?

Madsen: Well, a few years ago, Clark just offhanded mentioned that he wanted to record some bebop duets with me. From there, the idea for videography and distribution through social media came naturally. Clark and I are both musicians who like to be considered multi-faceted in that we write and create what you could call "progressive" original jazz music, but we have both spent a ton of time listening to the past masters of the music. We decided to focus on bebop as a basis for our duet series, and I think people have enjoyed them. To collaborate further, we recorded one song with vocalist Morgan Pirtle (a former student of mine at UIC) and we plan to include other guests in our third volume as well.

CJM: You have some appearances lined up at California Clipper and Winter’s...those that I know of. At the Clipper, it seems to consist of your duos collaboration. At Winter’s, your quartet will play with the wonderful vocalist Alyssa Allgood along for the ride. You are certainly busy these days. Are these long-term collaborations or trials? How do you go about creating these collaborations?

Madsen: The Clipper show on March 6th will actually be billed as "The Duet Book plus two" as Morgan and drummer Quin Kirchner will be joining us. The Clipper is more of a lounge atmosphere and can get energetic from an audience perspective, so we thought it would be nice to invite some more musicians to play with us on stage. In the future we'll explore certain gigs where it's just us two playing repertoire from the videos and more. Alyssa and I started collaborating at Winter's about a year and a half ago, and the owner liked it enough to where he has us back periodically, each time with a different theme. I have a couple other shows with my own quartet featuring Clark, Stu Mindeman, and Dana Hall coming up in April at Elastic on April 15 and the Cafe Logan on April 16 that I'm excited about because we'll be premiering new music I'm writing after having studied some of Messiaen's music during my doctoral studies. Finally, I'm reconnecting with NYC pianist Adam Birnbaum who recorded on my first album in 2005 in a duet at Pianoforte on May 16th. So yes, collaborations are what it's all about!

CJM: Will any new recordings by you emerge from all this activity?

Madsen: Not to tell tales out of school, but we are planning to release the Duet Book recordings in an album format eventually, along with Volume 3 which will be recorded later this year. Additionally, I've got the debut recording for my quartet in the can already; it's mixed and everything, so keep an eye out for that as well.

CJM: Do you get the sense that venues for jazz in Chicago are in a healthy state, including the annual Festival?

Madsen: From an outside perspective, the Chicago Jazz Fest seems stronger than ever. Attendance looks very strong, and each year many groups of different styles get the chance to showcase themselves. And like I said before, live music venues are notoriously difficult to maintain, and I have no insider information, but it does seem like a nice feature of Chicago music that there are always patrons out there who are willing to host music. Another feature of 21st Century jazz musicians is that they have to be willing to make it happen themselves. It seems like "the hustle" is stronger with each subsequent generation so that more and more people become creative at just creating possibilities to get their music played.

CJM: As a jazz educator, how does the state of the genre look to you going forward, especially in maintaining the wellspring of the Chicago jazz community?

Madsen: If you're going by sheer numbers of young people involved with the music, I think the future is surprisingly bright. Just think about the number of jazz musicians who graduate from programs in Chicago alone every year. Of course, not all of them will continue into a career playing jazz, but the fact that there are so many young people interested in the music in 2019 is kind of mind-blowing considering how unpopular the music is in the general population. Playing jazz is such a labor of love that I think many people who do follow through and choose to focus on learning it for their whole lives tend to be very passionate about it.

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