If you’re heavily into the Winter Jazz Fest this week, I’d say the chances are good that you’ve never heard of the trumpet player Steve Herrman, even though the chances that you’ve heard his playing are strong, particularly if you’ve ever listened to Kenny Chesney or Delbert McClinton, among others. Steve is well-known and very highly regarded in Nashville’s music scene as a session trumpet player. But fear not if “session trumpet player” is an unfamiliar term – it was to me when I first moved here.
Earlier this week Steve and I sat down to lunch where we spoke about that very term, as well as the idea that ‘jazz’ is a dirty word (and not just in the BAM sense), and how his music career has unfolded. He’s also the featured guest at today’s NJW Jam Session. I’ve transcribed the first part of our interview below, and also included an audio clip of Steve’s original tune Winter Solace that he recently recorded with the Kelli Cox Collaborative. I’ll post the rest of the interview in a few days – when I have time to finish writing it out.
EC: Were you a jazz performance major at University North Texas?
SH: Yeah it was jazz studies at first, then I switched to jazz performance.
EC: Did you stay in Denton after school? For how many years?
SH: Thirteen years.
EC: Did you get the Delbert [McClinton] gig down there?
SH: Yeah. He was based out of Fort Worth back then.
EC: How did first working with that band come about?
SH: A good friend of mine who I had known there, his name was Mark Breithaupt, he got some kind of theater job in Japan that was coming fairly quickly and was going to be very lucrative. I’m sure I’m not the first guy that he called [laughing], but I was the first one that could do it! I just went out for a week and a half run or something like that, and stayed for seven years. And I was only 28, which is not young, but for that kind of gig I was by far the youngest guy on the band. The other guys were in their 40s and 50s, I’m sure.
EC: How long had the band been playing at that point?
SH: Well the guys came and went out of there pretty frequently. After I left he kind of settled into some guys he had for a long time, like Kevin McKendree, Rob McNelley. That rhythm section was together for maybe 15 years working for him. But when I was there it was a lot more volatile – guys coming and going a lot.
EC: What else had you been doing in Denton for those 6 or so years between graduating and Delbert’s gig?
SH: Played a lot of Latin gigs down in Dallas. Worked in bands from ‘82 till probably ‘86 or ‘87. I worked in a straight ahead Cumbia band: all Cumbias and Rancheros – that was a traditional Mexican music band. I did that 5 nights a week for over a year. Then I got to play in a tropical band, did that for around 3 years, and I was doing that at the same time I was playing in the 1 o’clock. So I was paying my own way – finished up my school. My folks payed for the first 4 years but I have to say I kind of dicked around and didn’t get the degree. So I stayed out of school, took enough hours that I could become a Texas resident and then get the in-state tuition, which back then was ridiculously affordable.
EC: Would you call the playing that you were doing with the Latin bands ‘jazz’?
SH: I got to solo a lot in the Cumbia band – but that’s all like two chord vamping groove kind of stuff. But it was a blast. In the other band we did a couple of “Girl From Ipanema” type things, stuff like that we could solo on. We also played some Salsa stuff –obviously we were doing it with a small rhythm section, a guy at a drumset – a Salsa purist might have looked down his nose at it. But it was a pretty good band for guys who were mostly part-time players, they had day gigs.
Then we had a three-night a week house band gig, so I’d do school then go down Friday night and play Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights at this club and make a couple hundred bucks a week. My rent up in Denton was ridiculously cheap, so it was working. I was happy to be playing.
EC: Was the training you got at North Texas helpful for the work you were doing?
SH: For that particular gig, probably not, it didn’t really have anything to do with it. I got good instruction just as far as learning to play the horn, but then all of a sudden you’re trying to turn around and play a 4 or 5 hour gig. There’s no substitute for that other than just doing it. But yeah, I got a lot of great instruction up there. I was also studying with Don Jacoby who’s a legendary trumpet player from back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He had settled in that area, and almost all the guys were going and studying with Jac also. But I had good teachers at school too.
EC: At what point in your seven-year tenure with Delbert’s band did you decide to relocate to Nashville?
SH: I moved here in ’91 – that’s when I met Susie.
EC: Can you tell me a bit about the decision process to move?
SH: It happened so fast, it’s ridiculous. I had an aunt who lived here, and H.B. Johnson who was a sax player and instrument repairman lived next door to my aunt. He had a rental house nearby in Antioch that opened up, and I had an old friend that I grew up with in Hamilton, OH whose roommate was leaving so he needed a roommate. And I knew Susie was moving here too, and we had grown close – so I swear to God it was less than two weeks that I made the decision to pack up all my stuff and move to Nashville. I just thought if everything is pushing you in one direction, why fight it? I have to say at one point in my life I hated Nashville – everything I had seen of it I despised.
EC: How far after 1991 is that?
SH: Oh that was before ’91. I wouldn’t have moved here if I had still felt that way. But when I used to get warehoused on Demonbreun – this is before all the restaurants and stuff that are there now – it used to be this tourist trap area, and I’d be stuck in the Shoney’s for two or three days [laughing]. You know, the town has changed a lot. Once you get to know it, there’s a lot more going on here than appears.
EC: I imagine Nashville didn’t come into your realm of thought while you grew up in Ohio. I imagine that when you were working in Texas you started hearing about it and coming into town for the occasional gig?
SH: Yeah we [the Delbert band] would play here – not a lot – but you know Delbert was always held in high regard among the singers and songwriters, and still is, and that’s why he moved here. And also as far as touring, when we left to go play the Carolinas from Dallas/Fort-Worth that was close to a thousand-mile hike. And that was a huge hunk of his workload back when I first started with the band. We were in the Carolinas all the time – all the Shag music, beach music kind of thing – they really loved Delbert. We were certainly touring nationally, but I bet we were in that area – we were playing 200 gigs a year when I started , and I bet half of them were in the Carolinas, Virginia, maybe northern Florida. From Nashville, those bus rides are a lot better. Look at the eastern half of the United States – we’re smack in the middle of it – you can jump on a bus leaving midnight from here and be in half the population of the United States.
– the rest to come soon – evan