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February 17, 2014IM -
Music schools around the country are pumping out technically fantastic sax players. They can tear the knob right off of a metronome, sight read an inkblot test, and tightly navigate through miles of chromatic chord extensions.
This type of playing, as impressive as it is, seems to be a purely academic phenomenon. In the real world, you’re expected to make music, not intellectual fodder. “I try to play in a way that’s going to serve the music, but I’m also going to try to retain who I am as a player,” says Jeff Coffin of Local 257 (Nashville, TN). “I think that gets lost a lot of times, especially in academia. Everyone is trying to prove themselves, playing as much as they can, the hippest stuff that they can, the fastest, and the most changes. But at the end of the day, who cares? If you’re not serving the music, then what’s the point?”
It’s not that Coffin is against education; in fact, it’s quite to the contrary. He graduated from the prestigious North Texas music program with a degree in music education. It’s just that he’s an activist by nature, working tirelessly to advocate positive changes for the betterment of himself and his profession.
“I think that the academic area has to change,” Coffin says. “That’s one of the reasons that I try to do a lot of educational stuff, because I want people to know that you can have a very solid improvisational jazz background, and still go out and play pop, or your own music, and compose. I like to spend a lot of time with students, as often as I can.”
Coffin is best known as the saxophone master in Local 257 member Béla Fleck’s cross-genre creature, the Flecktones, and more recently, as a full-time member of the Dave Matthews Band. But, what many fans may not realize is that Coffin has given more than 200 clinics in the last seven years—no easy feat considering his intensely packed gigging and recording schedule. “I’m squeezing them in when I can,” he says. “It’s a lot, but I really love it.”
In his workshops, which he performs in high schools, colleges, and conferences, Coffin urges students to find their own unique voices as musicians. “What I’m trying to do when I teach is to have the long tail, which means that, once I leave, I want to leave something with them that they are not only going to remember, but carry with them,” Coffin explains. “I want them to have an experience of discovery, and because they discover it, they own it, and it becomes a part of their experience.”
Along with advocating for more relevant academic studies in music schools and conservatories, Coffin pushes for advancement in his profession. As an AFM member for nearly 20 years, he enjoys the benefits of discounted, no-fault instrument insurance, health care, and a pension, but still sees many areas for improvement.
“There are a lot of guys that play for free in Nashville,” he says. “I’m a big advocate of not playing for free. I would never ask any of the musicians in my band to do that. The clubs don’t serve food for free, and they don’t even match the tip jar, so they’re asking the patrons to pay for everything. And that’s not right.”
Coffin urges fellow members to contact their local union representatives to put an end to these practices. “I think there are things that should be openly discussed about how we can make it better,” he says.
Coffin belongs to a select group of true musical visionaries who inadvertently shatter accepted boundaries of commoditized music, not through a need to be crowned the cultural avant-garde of a generation, but rather as individuals seeking a deeper connection to themselves and their music. Coffin’s three main projects, the Flecktones, the Dave Matthews Band, and his own band, the Mu’tet, all embody the principle of artistic freedom in an oftentimes creatively stifling environment.
In July 2008, LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band broke his arm in an ATV accident, and Coffin got the call to fill in on very short notice. “I got the call on July 1st, while I was at a friend’s wedding in New York, and I had to be in Charlotte on July 2nd for a gig that night,” says Coffin. Before the show, Local 655 (Miami, FL) member Rashawn Ross, trumpet player in the band, sketched out some of the horn parts, and the rest Coffin picked up by ear, on the job. “I wasn’t playing the music to memorize it, I was playing the music to get through the gig for a couple of months until LeRoi came back, and then I’d be back to doing was what I was doing,” he says.
Tragically, that never happened. Moore died a little more than a month later of complications from his accident, and Coffin was brought on as a full-time member. “I’ve become very intimate with Roi’s playing, and his concept; the way that he used the saxophone to get to the music that was in his head,” he says. “He was a beautiful and very unique player. He sounded just like himself.”
As an improvising musician, the ultimate goal is to find your own voice, and then to continue the process of refinement and discovery. But what does it mean to have a unique voice on your instrument, and how does one find it? “I think the big thing is being a composer,” Coffin answers. “I think when we compose, it’s like slowing down improvisation, so we get to hear it in a finite form. It’s sort of the distilling down of certain ideas.” Creating a composition allows you to work over original ideas, and in the process, identify and foster the growth of your musical domicile.
For Coffin, the Mu’tet, which he founded in 2002, is the ideal vehicle for his compositional and improvisational explorations. In this group, Coffin is free to experiment with his intricate pieces, which are rarely in simple meters. “It’s not because I want to write a difficult piece of music, it’s because I don’t hear in four all the time,” he explains. The current line up of the Mu’tet features some impressive players that are more than able to bring these difficult pieces to life. Expect to see a new record from Mu’tet within a year.
Coffin not only loves what he does, he loves helping others do it, too, which continually fuels his passion to play, learn, and above all, give back what he has discovered. “I see pro musicians that I taught in camps 15 years ago and they tell me that those were some of the greatest times. That’s really an incredible feeling, not only as a professional musician, but as an instructor also,” he says. “These students have carried on with that inspiration, and now they’re inspiring other people. It’s a cyclical kind of thing, and I’m very pleased to be a part of that for sure.”