Talking with Andy Reiss

When I first moved to Nashville, there was a guitarist I kept hearing people in the jazz scene talk about in the most glowing of terms: Andy Reiss.  It was hard to find Andy playing in a ‘typical jazz setting’, although the first time I heard Andy was in an ensemble with George Tidwell at the Nashville Jazz Workshop.  Lots of people were humming about the Western Swing band Andy played in every week at the Station Inn: The Time Jumpers. I didn’t realize then that Western Swing = jazz, so it took my stupid self some time before I got hip to the band, but boy am I glad that I did (their weekly spot is now at 3rd and Lindsley).

andy reiss

Last week Andy and I sat down at one of the tiniest spots on Nolensville Road for an authentic Mexican lunch (mole poblano in Nashville!) and a discussion about the Andy’s work in Nashville, jazz, and Western Swing.  Andy is the featured guest at this coming Sunday’s NJW Jam Session.


EC: What were your first gigs in town?

AR: Well I was really lucky.  Through a friend of a friend I hooked up with a record producer and steel guitar player named Pete Drake.  Pete was a very, very influential player in the 60s and 70s.  He played with a couple nobodies like Paul McCartney, George Harrison…he literally taught Peter Frampton how to use the talk box.  So he was a heavy hitter and a really great guy.  The best thing was that he was a really active producer at that point, and his “school” was come down and watch recording sessions.  That gave me a great opportunity to see how it was really done by all the really great players.  It was amazing.

EC:  So having moved to Nashville in 1980, did you find that the word ‘jazz’ was something you wanted to avoid?  Was it a bad word?

AR:   Nashville was really fragmented back then.  You were a club guy, or you were a studio guy, or you were a road guy.  You were not any combination of that.  Studio guys were studio guys, period, and they were the elite.

EC:  Was the fragmentation because Nashville was a handshake kind of a city, and back then there wasn’t as much exposure of all the facets going on?

AR:  Partly, and partly because there was a lot of work for studio musicians then.  They were a larger group.  I mean now there is probably a larger group than there was then, but there are very few people who can really make a good living only doing studio work.  There are some guys who do it and make a really good living, but it’s tough.  Stylistically there was fragmentation too.  If you were a rock guy, you were a rock guy – you were not a studio guy – you were not a country guy.  And jazz guys were jazz guys, period.  I may have hurt myself because Mel Deal and I used to sit in Pete’s front office and play guitar duets all day long.

EC:  Do you think you missed opportunities because people thought ‘Andy Reiss is a jazz guy’?

AR:  There’s no way to really tell.  There’s an attitude “this guy just strums a G chord…what the hell anybody can strum a G chord!”  Then I realized it’s a very subtle art, the rhythm guitar.  I’m ashamed that I had to learn that.

EC:  Were you playing full-time in San Francisco when you moved to Nashville?

AR:  When I was seventeen I graduated from high school and pretty much hit the road.  I started with a rock band for six months and then got a gig, so I’ve always been a professional musician.  I guess I’m proud of that even though it’s not always been great.

EC:  Was it the connection to Pete Drake that made you decide to move here?

AR:  I had already moved here at that point.  I married a southern girl, and in San Francisco the only professional music really was rock’n roll.  You could make a living playing in clubs: play country music, do a few jazz gigs and casuals… but that started kind of drying up in the late 70s and early 80s.  And that was always a cliquish thing – there were maybe ten full-time country music club gigs in the area.  They payed good for the time – 300 to 350 bucks per week, which in the late 70s was pretty nice.

EC:  I think there are guys busting their butts down on Broadway for that kind of money now!

AR:  Yeah I saw a thing online about some guy who wants a commitment, you’ve got to stick with the gig, for a gig that pays 400 to 600 per week.  How the f$@k can you do that?

EC:  Yeah I’ve seen some scary stuff posted in that new Facebook group for finding Nashville gigs.

AR:  Yep.  I mean how can you do that?

EC:  Do you mean from the vantage point of paying somebody that and asking them to commit, or from the vantage point of actually taking that gig?

AR:  Well that’s one thing, the arrogance and stupidity of the offer, but I mean from the side that there were guys trying to hit him up for the gig!

EC:  It’s a pretty startling and frightening scene on that page.

AR:  Yeah.  But that’s a lot of people’s reality too.  I was really lucky because I got to see what you want to do right from the beginning.  See how the guys acted, how they learned songs.  I got to meet the guys and hang out with them and that was certainly valuable.

EC:  Do you see people today who move into town and get to have that experience?

AR:  There’s no place like that now.  I don’t know, maybe there is.  There’s a kid who moved to town who’s sort of a protégé of Brent Mason – Brent still works all the time, he’s a fabulous musician – so he got to go around with Brent on his stuff and learn that way.

EC:  So when you were meeting the main studio guys, would you tell them you were a jazz player?

AR:  I kind of turned my back on jazz for quite a while there because I really wanted to be a part of the scene and be successful.

EC:  Is that something you felt the need to do, or did happen naturally because you were working in different areas?

AR:  It happened naturally.  I had done a pretty good amount of jazz in the Bay Area.  I had a really good teacher there, a guy named Dave Smith who was a Joe Pass disciple – student, I should say.  And I got together with guys regularly and just played, which has always been the best thing you can do in my opinion.  I still do it.  There was probably ten years where I didn’t do any jazz here.  But then I started getting together with a couple friends just about every week and realized how much I loved it.  We had what I always think is so important  – what you’re doing with the Jazz Workshop jam session – a place where you can f#@k up and nobody will be mad at you!  A place where you can learn how to approach tunes.

EC:  Sometimes it does seem that in Music City, because so many people work in studios, they don’t take chances when they play jazz like you might be used to in other cities.  Many of our players’ approach to jazz seems really down the middle.

AR:  It does.  If you have an eight-bar solo – if you’re lucky – it’s got to be perfect the first time.

EC:  In 1980, was anybody in Nashville able to work full-time as a jazz player?

AR:  Well J.C.’s was happening.  Guys like Denis [Solee] and George [Tidwell], Bob Mater was doing it.  There was a scene, although it was nothing like it is now.  For a long time there really weren’t any upright bass players.  The country had mostly made a transition to electric bass at that point, so you had Rob Moore and Jim Ferguson, but that was about it.  At that point Jim was playing jazz, but he was working as a background vocalist a lot.

EC:  Were there any seminal moments between then and now that you can point to as changing the dynamics of the jazz scene in Nashville?

AR:  When Lori [Mechem] and Roger [Spencer] started doing what they’re doing that was huge.  I think just having more musicians move to town.  When Chris Brown moved to town, all of a sudden Bob wasn’t the only game in town.  We started getting more jazz bass players.  Gradually more and more people started saying “there is a jazz scene in Nashville – I can do this here.”  And now guys like you come to town and it’s great.

EC:  So the other week a musician friend of mine whom I’ve worked with asked me “do you want to play any gigs besides just jazz?”  Besides the antiquated notion that ‘jazz’ is “just” playing in quintets that sound like the late 1940s and 50s – I hear jazz in the majority of styles of today’s music –

AR:  Definitely!

EC:  and in 2013 there are maybe five people in Nashville who can afford to play “only” ‘jazz’ gigs and not play other genres.  I thought it was a crazy question – of course I want “other” gigs – I want to work and make money!  I enjoy playing in different genres too.  I find it so interesting that the word ‘jazz’ has these negative connotations that don’t serve the music that we love, either in its proliferation or our ability to grow a career.

AR:  It’s kind of like you’re part of this arcane knowledge.  Like “ooh you speak conversational Latin.”  What do you do with that exactly?

EC:  So what’s the secret to making people understand that a pursuit in jazz doesn’t equate to a disinterest in other genres?

AR:  Quite simply you do gigs in those other genres and you go out there and kill as an R&B saxophone player so people hear it and go “yeah!”.  Denis always played plenty of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.  If I had to point out one musician that I’ve learned the most from, it would be Denis.

EC:  Anything specifically you can share?

AR:  Musicality.  I used to do these society gigs with him and Roger [Spencer], just the worst gigs you could imagine.  We’d be standing in front of the Belle Meade Country Club playing Dixieland tunes with some guy beating us up about how we’re not doing it right.  So Denis would find one song a night and make it intensely musical.  That really inspired me.  He wasn’t doing it for the gig, certainly – the gig was easier and better if we slept-walked through it.  He wasn’t doing it for me or for Roger, he was doing it for Denis.  I thought that was amazing.

EC:  When you first came to town, would you say yes to any gig that came your way?

AR:  I still kind of do, although I made a decision about fifteen years ago to not play music that I hated and only play music that really meant something to me.  And that meant not making certain amounts of money, definitely.  But it’s been good.  That’s what got me into the Time Jumpers, and that’s a really good fit for me musically.

EC:  Can you tell me about how you initially connected with the Time Jumpers?

AR:  Hoot Hester, who’s the staff fiddle player at the Grand Ole Opry, got together to play with a couple of friends at his house.  Around the next week or so I did a road trip that he was on and the steel player was on.  I knew they had got together and played Western Swing just for fun, so I was like “how could you even think about doing that without calling me!”  So I kind of buffaloed my way onto it, and now I’m the longest running member of the band.  It was just something for fun.  I always liked the music, because it’s as simple or complicated as you want it to be.  It’s the perfect vehicle for superimposing chord changes over simple structures, which I love to do.

EC:  Between you and Paul Franklin, I never know what to expect when I go hear the Time Jumpers.  It’s a simple blues but then suddenly it has the depth of a Bird Blues.

AR:  My musical relationship with Paul is probably the best that I’ve had in my life.  He’s a genius on his instrument.  He totally transcends the instrument.  And we communicate stupid good.

EC:  How would you describe the difference between jazz and the country western swing that the Time Jumpers play?

AR:  Well it’s 1948 jazz, for one thing.  Paul will get a lot more modern than I will, harmonically speaking or phrasing-wise.  But western swing is swing music.  It harkens back to the tradition of Texas fiddle music, which generally was one fiddle & one guitar or two fiddles & one guitar.  The guitar players developed this really unique style of superimposing other chord progressions on top of them.  So it started out being simple songs, two chord or three chord songs, but these guys would do things like on a I chord start on the minor iii, go flat-iii diminished, minor ii and V chords, things like that.

EC:  What’s the time frame that this is happening?  Is it concurrent with bebop?

AR:  Earlier – the early 40s.  A lot of those guys were really sophisticated jazz musicians, and there were a lot of jazz musicians who would walk the line and play western swing, regular jazz gigs, and just kind of go back and forth.   The most famous band in the genre was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.  At one point he had something like a six-piece horn section.  People always wanted that gig because he paid more than The Dorsey Brothers or Artie Shaw.  They were really popular.

So good musicians are always curious about everything – you can imagine you’re in Texas trying to play saxophone and all of a sudden you hear Coleman Hawkins, you’re going to want to go there.  Same with guitar players – the impact of Charlie Christian on guitar players was unbelievable.  He was the young genius who played with the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1939 and really defined electric guitar as a solo instrument, changing the guitar from just a rhythm instrument.  The vocabulary he developed all by himself is still heard in guitar players today, everywhere.

EC:  Looking at the history of Texas swing music, did they steer away from the word ‘jazz’ even though there’s not so much of a discernable difference?  Perhaps Western Swing isn’t borne out of New Orleans?

AR:  But it is.  Texas is very close to New Orleans.  There’s a story of Bob Wills riding a mule a hundred and fifty miles just to hear Bessie Smith sing in Memphis.  So there’s definitely a major cross-fertilization of musical styles.  And I don’t think people were as rigid then either.  Now everything has to be “is it metal, or is it speed metal, or is it death speed metal?” There’s all these really intense subdivisions in a lot of forms of music.

EC:  Does that come from the recording academy?

AR:  Not from the recording academy, I think it comes from radio.  And people like to categorize so that you don’t have to really think about something.  “What’s it sound like?  Oh it sounds like this.”  It makes it safer and people like safe.

EC:  So amongst the Time Jumpers, do any of you call your music jazz?

AR:  Nah, we don’t call it anything, we’re not into labeling.


The Cosmonaut, live

The Nashville Jazz Workshop just posted a performance of The Cosmonaut from the Falling Up CD Release Party last year.  One of my favorite examples of the Quintet’s ensemble playing.

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

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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.