Talking with Alex Graham

Dr. Alex Graham moved to Nashville in the summer of 2011 to become the Assistant Professor of Saxophone at Belmont University.  Beyond teaching a studio of around 15 commercial and classical saxophone students, Alex also directs a big band and both of the jazz combos.


A clip of ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’ from his CD “Brand New” on Origin Records [audio:]


Dr. Graham will be the featured guest at this Sunday’s Nashville Jazz Workshop Jam Session.  Last week Alex and I grabbed lunch at Tequila’s and spoke a lot about the jazz scene in Nashville: how it’s viewed, how it’s going, and where it’s headed.  Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

EC:  What were your first impressions of the jazz scene in Nashville?

AG:  After moving here?

EC:  Upon getting the job offer from Belmont, when you were weighing if there were going to be musical outlets outside of the university.

AG:  From outside of Nashville, my impression was that there probably wasn’t much of a scene.  Although, when I started telling people that I was moving to Nashville, a lot of them would say “oh yeah so-and-so lives there” and would name people that either I knew of or should have known of that lived here.  So I started realizing what I later realized after being here for a little while: that even if there’s not a huge scene per se in terms of what you outwardly see, there are a ton of great jazz musicians that live in Nashville.  More so than most places you would go.

EC:  What do you wish was different about the jazz scene in Nashville?

AG:  There are so many world-class musicians in Nashville, and I wouldn’t want to change a thing as far as that is concerned.  That being said, I guess there are a couple of things I’d like to see evolve over time with jazz in Nashville.  First of all, we need more people out there like Roger Spencer and Lori Mechem from the Nashville Jazz Workshop who are willing to stick their necks out and provide a place for musicians to perform, teach and learn about jazz.  I think the more that we can educate the public about this music, the more people you’re going to see going out to hear music at the clubs, and that will lead to a bigger and healthier scene.  The musicians are already here to make Nashville a top-notch jazz city, so now we just need some more infrastructure and public support to make that a reality.  Another thing I’ve noticed is that, since Nashville is such a studio oriented city, there is a tendency sometimes to ‘play it safe’ when playing jazz.  I like taking chances when I play, and with that comes the chance that some of your improvised moments might not end up in the tidiest package.  But it also means that you’re going to discover some new things and have more interaction with the people you’re playing with and the audience, and to me that’s what this music is all about.

EC:  In regards to music education, by my calculations Belmont University works out conservatively to a cost of 33 thousand dollars per year for undergraduate studies.  What would you tell a talented high school player who needs to bear the burden of even half those costs – student loans of $66k to pursue an undergraduate music performance degree?

AG:  That’s kind of the million dollar question.  I think a lot of educators are going to have to contemplate that nowadays.  It’s not just Belmont.  As you know, the cost of college education, with exceptions, for private school (which Belmont is), is very high.  I just recently saw a list of then ten least economically viable degrees.  My wife, who is a graphic designer, and I were looking at it and I think graphic design was the sixth worst degree to get and music was seventh or something like that!

EC:  Really?  I’m surprised there are five worse.

AG: [laughing] I know that was a surprise.  It’s on – I can’t remember exactly what it was.

*the list Alex was speaking about is Forbes 10 Worst College Majors

AG: [continued] Well we laughed at it – I feel like we’ve both been able to do pretty well at what we do.  I guess if a high school student was asking me that direct question, I would say that if his/her heart was in it, and they really believed in it and were willing to try to see it through all the way their life; that music meant that much to the student, then yeah it is worth it.  As crazy as that sounds to somebody who got some other kind of degree that leads to a clearer career path, like a doctor or lawyer.

It wasn’t easy for me, but I remember at one point many years ago I was kind of at a crossroads.  I had been in New York for a long time which was great for me.  I met a lot of great people and played a lot of great music – I learned a lot and really grew as a musician.  But financially it was incredibly difficult, and I reached the end of my rope a little bit in terms of being able to live – and I dropped off the scene for a little while.  What I realized after going through some soul-searching, was that I’d rather make a living playing crappy music – as a worst-case scenario – than leave music behind and try to do something else.  And that’s just who I am – it took me going through that those difficulties to realize that.  And I’m glad I did that.  Once I made that realization, I was able to start from scratch a little bit and build a career.  A different anecdote about this: a friend who is an amazing musician – one of the best musicians I’ve ever met in my life – he had a potential opportunity to get a pretty good teaching job that would probably have paid him twice as much money as he currently makes.  Plus insurance and all the other benefits.  When I pushed him on it – he’s very humble – and would say “no, no, I don’t want to do that.”  I figured he was just being humble, but then I realized after he never broke and said “okay I’m going to go for that job,” that he liked his life the way it was.  He doesn’t want to use up his time teaching.  He has a life where he can do nothing but play, study, and live music, and that’s what he wants out of life.

EC:  That’s worth something, even if financially it’s worth less.

AG:  Right, that’s what I’m saying.  For him, that’s what it came down to – he would have given his life for the music.  It wasn’t about the money and it never will be.  That comes with potential problems and hardships in life, but when it comes down to it you have to know who are.  If that’s who you are, then go for it.  File bankruptcy! [laughing]  I guess you can’t do that with student loans though, can you?  They’re still going to get you.

EC:  So in light of all this, and considering that college tuition has inflated at a rate greater than even the medical industry, I’m curious about something.  If a student came up to you and said “Dr. Graham I want to study the saxophone with you, but I don’t want the formal pedagogy and costs of a university.  Can I give you xx amount of dollars per month for intensive studies and apprenticeship?”  Would you be open to that, some kind of alternative degree, if you will?

AG:  I think my quick answer to that is ‘no’, but my extended answer to that is ‘maybe?’ I would probably be willing to see students like that on a casual basis, maybe come to a gig or rehearsal.  With my students at Belmont I have office hours.  I have students come and see me to ask questions about a lot of different things: music theory, career advice, arranging, whatever.  If there was a young student in town that came to me a similar proposal to what you’re saying and I thought that they were really serious and had a lot of potential, then I might be willing to work with somebody like that without financial compensation.  But I consider my role at Belmont to be one of exclusivity in terms of money exchanging hands, which I think is fair.

EC:  Where do you see the Nashville jazz scene ten years from now?

AG:  I think one of the unique aspects of jazz in Nashville is the eclecticism of it and its connection with current popular music styles, and I see that continuing to develop.  Since I am relatively new to town, it’s hard for me to have very much perspective on what came before me.  That being said, I hope that the jazz community in Nashville can continue to grow closer together and continue striving to make jazz that’s culturally relevant without losing too much connection with the jazz tradition and the broader jazz community.

3 thoughts on “Talking with Alex Graham
  1. Great points. “Since Nashville is such a studio oriented city, there is a tendency sometimes to ‘play it safe’ when playing jazz,” really spoke volumes to me. Not being a studio musician, or having any knowledge of that scene, this cause and effect relationship never occurred to me. Yet, for years some of the best known players in town have been a little frustrating for me because I always want to hear them take chances and go out on a limb. And I want to hear how they get back safely, or at all. Thanks for the insight.

    Unrelated note – nothing on the Forbes list is surprising, but it should be noted that “History” is the most common undergrad degree to go into Law School. Literature is a big pre-law degree too. Basically, at this point none of those degrees is going to make you much without going on to graduate school and enslaving yourself to debt even further. There is no doubt that the system is broken when it comes to the cost of education.

  2. The association of potential salary to a degree’s worth is ridiculous.

    Yes there needs to be practicality in education. People need to eat! But college is also a place to explore (no matter the degree path), and tread down paths that one might not get to explore “in the real world”.

    Our education (which we hopefully continue throughout life) is not a zero sum game. If it was, life would suck! Our education is the continued process of bettering ourselves. Not just in our chosen field but in any and every facet of our humanity.

    School is the right path for some and the wrong path for others. (and that sometimes even depends on the period of life one is in)

    We shouldn’t try to make some qualitative judgement between going to school or not going to school. They are BOTH beautiful paths! We each just need to find the right path for us, and at the right time.

    Kind of simple really. And when we grasp this simple concept, we stop trying to compare and we realize that we can learn and grow in both paths (or maybe there is even a THIRD path). We can gain things from either path and learn from people who have taken either path. THAT is beautiful!

    That is how I want to look at it because I don’t want to miss a single moment of inspiration I can glean from people I meet, regardless of the path they have taken!

    Therefore if college is the right path for someone the money is worth it. If college is not the right path for someone, the money is not worth it.

  3. Thanks for sharing those thoughts Tommy. I like your view on the education process – I subscribe to your notions of exploration through education and finding inspiration from people in all paths.

    I wasn’t trying to imply that music education at the college level is a zero-sum game, merely to think about what colleges are selling through music degrees and where that puts the student.

    I have many friends crippled by student debt. I think that for colleges to ignore the economic implications of their products and sell students/families on the idea of self-discovery for the cost of modest house is a bit short-sighted.

    No doubt this is an oversimplification, but I think it deserves being talked about, especially with great educators such as Alex and yourself!

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