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.

Talking with Steve Herrman, part 2

Here’s the second half of the recent conversation with Steve Herrman.  After talking about the benefits of Nashville’s location, we got off topic discussing our very happening lunch at Jamaica Way – curried goat for Steve and bbq soy for me.  Eventually Steve steered our ship back onto track.

picture courtesy of The Examiner

picture courtesy of The Examiner


SH: So I started really getting into the R&B scene – you know we would play a lot of festivals and I started hearing about the Muscle Shoals thing and Stax and listening to all that music I hadn’t been all that familiar with before.

EC: Is that when you first got in touch with Jim Horn? [the horn section leader for the Kenny Chesney band]

SH: Yes actually Delbert brought him out when we played The Tonight Show in 1991 so that we’d have three horns.  He [Delbert] had an album that was out then – I think Never Been Rocked Enough – that was getting some play and so we got on the Leno show.  We just missed Johnny [Carson] by about six months I think.  That was too bad.

EC: So once you’re up and running here in Nashville, I’m curious how you identified yourself when you were meeting other musicians?  Did you use the word ‘jazz’?  Would mentioning you played trumpet in Delbert’s band put your playing into a certain area of expectations?

SH: I’d have to say, and it’s sad, I wouldn’t say “hey I’m a jazz musician.”  I think to really say you’re a jazz musician you need to be making a large chunk of your money playing jazz.  And we both know how hard that is.  So as much as I love jazz, as much as I practice it and work on it, it would be hard for me to really identify myself as a jazz musician.  Most of my professional work is not jazz.  But the cool thing is that the world has become a smaller place and there’s a lot of hip stuff going on in all kinds of music pulling from that area.

If somebody asked “what do you do?”, I’d say “I’m a trumpet player… I’m a session player”, or “I’m a freelance trumpet player.”  If they asked what kind of stuff I played, then I’d say a lot of jazz, a lot of blues, and I work in the studios a lot – which can be anything.

EC: Did you ever feel that ‘jazz’ was a dirty word in this city?

SH: I never felt that.  Jazz scares a lot of people, especially if it’s really aggressive or modal with guys playing twenty-minute solos.  Man, you want to clear a room in this town [laughing]… you know what I’m saying.  And I’ve changed myself.  I used to listen to a lot of that kind of stuff when I was younger but I don’t anymore.  I’m more of a ‘change player’ – I like to hear a tune and a melody with somebody making changes.  The modal stuff – I can appreciate it when people do it well – but it’s not my bag; it’s not what I hear in my head.

EC: Do you feel like the musical goals you had when you were coming out of school changed in any way after you worked different gigs?

SH: I think yeah – when you’re in that bubble at North Texas, I envisioned myself one way.  A lot of guys went out there and jumped into the Buddy Rich Band, the Woody Herman Band – but by the time I got out of school you realized those bands were no gravy train. I saw some of the guys jump onto Maynard’s thing when he was still out there – and I would have hoped to turn that into a soloist’s career.  That was my plan going into North Texas.  But the reality of the situation was I started getting gigs with those Latin bands, and coming home with a paycheck from playing my horn was something I felt pretty good about.

EC:  It’s hard to argue with.

SH: You just had to adapt.  Life is never what you think it’s going to be! [laughing] At least not for me, it’s been a surprise every time I turned around.

EC: It’s easy to be an idealist if you have nothing to lose.

SH: Right, exactly.  A good friend of mine, Jim Rotondi, he played in the One O’clock Band with me, he went to New York and made it. But now Jim is over in Europe full-time.  He took a job in…Graz? I remember asking him, I said “is this a business decision” – I forget how I worded it.  But I don’t think his wife, who’s from Paris, was happy with the United States.  And the jazz scene is certainly a lot better over in Europe.

EC: When you’re looking for musical inspiration, do you still mostly listen to jazz?  Or has your taste broadened because of the work you’ve done?

SH: If I’m actually putting music on, it’s usually jazz.  I’ve gotten into the music channels that come through the TV on AT&T.  So we’ll be sitting at the table and I’m constantly playing “who is that?” They’ve got about 30 channels and I listen to maybe three or four.  One of them is more of a singer’s channel which is cool because you get to hear the words to some of the songs you know the melodies to and have played for years.  And just hearing all those great big band arrangements behind the crooners from back in the day.  And then on the straight ahead jazz channel I’m always trying to guess who the horn players are.

I actually just bought a turntable [laughing].  I’ve got all these records that haven’t seen the light of day in over ten years.  I wanted at some point to move them over to disc, and I did with several, but not the whole collection.  So a lot of these records are stuff I really loved when I was younger and I’m looking forward to hearing again.

EC: That’s one thing that sucks about my generation.  My first music was on tape – and there’s no great fidelity in them that’s going to make coming back to that medium the joyful experience it is for record owners.

SH: It’s sad because as horn players, and maybe it’s this way with every instrument but I hear it more with horns, there’s something missing on digital.  They just cannot capture all that.  I saw an article in the paper the other day talking about how each one of these evolutions of music has actually reduced the information a listener receives.  On a record the information is all there – but when they scaled down to CD they pulled all this information out.  It’s a shame.  Obviously the convenience of it is what prompted it all.

EC: Agreed – it’s a double-edged sword.  Something like Spotify or one of those services – suddenly you have all this information at your fingertips, but it’s all diluted.  So is a kid who starts listening to Miles Davis at the age of thirteen going to have that same visceral reaction that’s happened for the previous generations?  When you listen to an MP3 through crappy $10 headphones, the material might be amazing but will it still be the same hair-raising experience?

SH: No it’s not.  I’ve noticed that in my own work.  When somebody asks you to record some Harmon mute, they’re thinking Miles, but it’s really hard to digitally capture a good Harmon mute sound.  I know guys have done it, but I’ve done other sessions where I left scratching my head thinking it just sounds like a pitch buzzing.  [laughing] It doesn’t have that sound.  And I don’t know enough to tell the engineers “okay you need to do this” – you know you need to experiment with things like distance to the mic.

EC: Have you continued to write music from your school years up through now?

SH: I’m not real good at just sitting down and writing – I need something to write for.  It’s been real great to be in Kelli’s group, because that’s given me something: okay I’ve got a three-horn arrangement to write for this performance in two months.  I can bring in a tune and get it played by great players.  But if I don’t have something like that going on I’m not real good at sitting around writing stuff – I wish I was! [laughing]

EC: Has it been important to have a musical outlet when you’re on the road for 200 dates in a year?  Are you practicing or does the music work become so all-encompassing that the outlets have to be books and family and whatnot?

SH: Yeah the outlet was definitely books for me on that gig. I must have read hundreds and hundreds.  I wish I could say it was all good literature, but a lot of it was just to pass time – there were so many hours on the bus.  With that gig we spent a lot of nights over in hotels after the gigs unless we had a real long haul, so we were doing a lot of day travel.  There was a lot of downtime – I read a ton.  I wish I could read that much nowadays.  Wearing glasses kind of ruined reading for me – I get tired so much faster.  It probably didn’t help trying to read like this! [Steve held up an imaginary book that was shaking all over from a bumpy ride].

EC: Something I’ve always heard about finding a big gig like the Kenny Chesney band is that you never know when that kind of opportunity might hit you, and so it’s best to keep your hands working in a lot of areas and be ready should opportunity strike.  What’s been the most major factor in your life in finding the career success that you’ve had?

SH: We both know guys that are ‘go-getters’ that are on the phone calling people – I’ve even heard of guys finding out where producers go to church and try to meet them at their church.  But to me, I’m what you just said.  I just want to be ready for the next opportunity.  I think work tends to come to people who deserve it, but you’ve got to take advantage of that opportunity when it happens.  I think for the most part I’ve been able to rise to the occasion or maybe even play better than I really play in crucial situations [laughing] and landed a lot of work that way.  You’ve got to be responsible and be somebody that people can count on.  You know and I know that there’s plenty of people who can do most gigs.  Even in the jazz world, maybe even more so in the jazz world, there are so many great players and so few jobs.  Say you went out there on a jazz road gig and you go out there and you’re an asshole or you’re showing up five minutes before the gig and freaking out the bandleader because you’re not there, you’re gonna be gone.  There’s just not room for that.  You’ve got to be someone people can count on, and fun to be around.  I hate to say that that’s an important thing as far as being a musician, but at the same time it is.  So much of our time is spent sitting around, unfortunately.  We’re not putting in twelve hour days – playing is the easiest part.  Especially as far as road gigs go, they’re not paying you for playing – you always want to play – they’re paying you for waiting at an airport for five hours at 4 in the morning for your next flight, or waiting three hours in the hotel lobby for your room to open up.

EC: Any closing thoughts on how Nashville has changed in terms of music scene and lifestyle since you first moved here?

SH:  I think it’s progressing every year. There’s a lot of opportunities here to do a wide variety of things.   I think you or I could land a gig that might be monetarily satisfying and musically satisfying here.  It might not be straight-ahead jazz like I think you like and I do, but maybe even that?  I think you’ve got to be flexible – you’ve got to be versatile.  There’s very little music that I’ve played that I didn’t get at least some satisfaction from being a part of.  If the musicians are competent and they believe in what they’re doing, and you’ve got a crowd that’s enthusiastic about what you’re playing, then I’m having a good time.

EC: There’s innate challenges in all of it.

SH: Yeah!  Kenny Chesney’s gig was simple parts for the most part – some of it was physically challenging endurance wise.  But sometimes whole notes are harder to play than Donna Lee.  If you’re trying to play in tune with a lot of really loud guitars, it can be really challenging.  And temperature can be a factor, we’d do outdoor shed shows where it’s been 105 degrees during the day and you’ve got all those stage lights – that’s a whole other realm of challenge.