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papa funk Neville

Poppa Funk Neville: Keeping New Orleans Funky into the Next Generation

In a career spanning more than six decades, Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) member Art “Poppa Funk” Neville is a
legend of the music scene in one of the world’s most musical cities. Though Art was the first Neville to launch a career in music, today the family name is synonymous with the New Orleans sound. Art’s three siblings—Charles, Aaron, and Cyril—all eventually went into music.

“Being born and raised here, I picked up on the rhythm of the city from a very early age. It’s something you can’t get away from—the people, culture, food, and music shape everyone here differently,” he explains. “I’ve been able to carry those values of loyalty, love, and creativeness with me all my life.”

When Neville first formed a doo-wop group in high school, it was just for fun, and also to meet girls, he confesses. “I was steeped in doo-wop early on—the Clovers, the Spiders, as well as Fats and other local favorites. We used to sing in the bathroom at school (the acoustics were good) and we’d get together at night in the park and practice. It was really the beginning of making music seriously.”

The Hawketts

papa funk NevilleAround age 17, Neville joined his first real band, The Hawketts. The group was looking for a piano player, and through a friend of a friend, Neville was invited to join. “I didn’t know who they were at that point. I said, ‘Sure,’ and my mother and father said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ And the rest is history.”

It was shortly after joining the band, that Neville made his classic recording of “Mardi Gras Mambo.” At the time, it didn’t occur to him that it would become a seasonal anthem. “I never thought it would [still] be around to this day,” he says.

The Hawketts became the hottest band in New Orleans and the surrounding area. “We played for every type of function—sororities, fraternities, plus night clubs, small and large,” he says. When most of the original members left, Neville kept the band together. After being drafted into the Navy Reserve’s active duty for two years, including a stint as a cook on the USS Independence, the musician jumped right back into the New Orleans music scene, not missing a beat. 

In 1966, Art’s brother Aaron had his first major hit, “Tell It Like It Is,” and they went on tour together. Soon after, Art put together a seven-member group that included his brothers: Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. In 1967, when they were hired to play a coveted gig at the Ivanhoe bar in the French Quarter, they had to scale-down to fit the venue.

The Meters

That marked the launch of The Meters with bassist George Porter, Jr., drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, and guitarist Leo Nocentelli. They soon became the house band for Allen Toussaint’s studio. They backed a long list of local and international musicians including Dr. John, Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer, and Patti Labelle.

The group released eight albums of distinctive New Orleans sounds blended with funk, blues, and dance grooves. Together through the 1970s, The Meters toured the globe, including opening up for The Rolling Stones on their Tour of
the Americas.

A family steeped in New Orleans culture and traditions, Art’s parents and uncle, “Chief Jolly” George Landry, longed to see the Neville brothers work together. Landry and his nephews released The Wild Tchoupitoulas in 1977, a sort of aural documentary of Mardi Gras Indians. Following their mother’s death in the late 1970s, the brothers formed The Neville Brothers. The next year they released an album and performed and toured together until 2012.

The Neville Brothers

papa funkThrough all those years, the brothers continued their independent careers and work with other groups. In 1989, Art was involved with an informal Meters reincarnation at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that included Porter and drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. Encouraged by that performance, the funky METERS was officially launched in 1994 with Neville, Porter, Batiste, and guitarist Brian Stoltz.

“We’re still out there touring and playing festivals. It is exciting to still see the fans that have been with us for a long time, and now young fans discovering our music. It’s also exciting to know the music has stood the test of time,” says Neville. “Last year, The Meters’ ‘Stretch Your Rubber’ was used in a Nationwide commercial and right now ‘Hand Clappin’ Song’ is being in the new Google Pixel ads.”

Through all these years, Art Neville has been a loyal AFM member. “I remember when we first performed on television and filling out the paperwork. I was happy to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’m an AFM member,’ and I was also happy to get paid accordingly and properly. I’m a proud AFM member to this day,” he says. Neville’s AFM membership goes back to the days of segregation, and black Local 496, which combined with Local 174 in 1968.

During segregation, touring outside of New Orleans was particularly perilous, he recalls. “It was interesting because, in New Orleans, playing music was the one thing we all did together: black musicians playing with white musicians, or musicians of any ethnicity. It was always about the music, not what color you were.”

But, in other places it wasn’t like that and touring was scary. “It was treacherous. We wanted to play music, but we always had to be aware of our surroundings, whether we were playing school dances or night clubs,” he says.  “I remember playing a show and when we returned to our station wagon there was a note under the windshield wiper that read: ‘The eyes of the Klan are upon you.’ That was very scary.”

“One dance, in particular, our drummer forgot his snare drum so we had to go back home and get it,” he says. “While we were gone, the stage in the auditorium was blown apart by dynamite that had been placed with a timer under the stage. Had we gone on, on time, we wouldn’t have been around to tell about it!”

Looking back on his long career, Neville says he has no real regrets but does wish he had finished school. “The one thing I would tell my younger self is: ‘The music will be there, and you can do both,’” he says. “I’m very happy and blessed with all the opportunities I’ve had and created on my own.”

Neville says he’s not sure if the Neville Brothers will get another chance to perform together. “Maybe we’ll do some more shows in the future, while we’re all still here, I Neville say never!” he says. “I’m most proud of fulfilling my uncle’s wishes to keep the family and music alive. I think, between The Meters and The Neville Brothers, we made it happen.”

John McCutcheon

John McCutcheon: Folk Musician’s Celebrates Activism

“It was a really confusing and fantastic thing to watch. There was this huge crowd of people and speeches. And what really hit me was the music—Mahalia Jackson; Marian Anderson; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Bob Dylan [of Local 802 (New York City)]; and Joan Baez. I had never heard folk music before. It was old, but really urgent, and it was connected to something going on in the world.”

Three years later, McCutcheon’s father bought him his first guitar, a Silvertone from Sears. “That began the long downhill slide into professional musicianship,” laughs McCutcheon. The 14-year-old immediately went to the public library and checked out Woody Guthrie Folk Songs, thinking it was a guitar instruction book, and methodically began learning each song. “I was singing ‘Union Made,’ but I had no idea what it was about,” he concedes.

Ironically, McCutcheon’s first gig, just two weeks later, was a Labor Day picnic for the local paper mill union. The neighbor who hired him wasn’t concerned when McCutcheon told him he only knew three songs, but he did require McCutcheon learn one new tune: “Solidarity Forever.”

Through most of the picnic no one seemed to notice the young musician, but when it came time to play that tune, everyone stopped talking, stood up, joined hands, and sang together. “I was flabbergasted!” says McCutcheon. “It was the first crack in the door connecting the principles that I was seeing and the songs I was singing; the song connected real people, in real life, and it moved them to do things.”

“Back then, people were from union families and it was cradle to grave. You just instinctively sided with the guys who were out on strike,” he recalls.

He soon realized the connection between the labor unions and the Civil Rights Movement, his very first inspiration. “When Martin Luther King marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he was flanked by union guys. At the march on Washington, there were union people all over the dais. It was one great social movement,” says McCutcheon.

From that first union gig, he was hooked, beginning a lifetime of dedication to activism through music. “I wanted that to happen again and I also wanted to have the feeling that I was helpful—doing something that wasn’t just about me,” he says.

“I spent a long time working with different unions,” says McCutcheon. “In this line of work, we [musicians] have it pretty easy. I’m very aware that the hard work gets done by the people I’m coming to sing for. I constantly think about what I can do to help. And that ends up being, not only singing for them, but turning their stories into songs and singing them to other people.”

“Being part of the labor movement for my entire career, and especially being involved with the AFM, helped me keep the sentiment that it’s not just about me,” he says.

A Local for Travelers

One of the founders of “traveling musicians” Local 1000, McCutcheon explains the idea for that local came from musicians at the annual Great Labor Arts Exchange in Silver Spring, Maryland. “We were telling labor war stories of bravery and resolve of the unions we’d worked with and Charlie King said, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we felt that way about our union?’”

“At the time, the AFM essentially didn’t know that people who do our kind of work existed,” McCutcheon explains. “We traveled; we weren’t part of a big ensemble or collective bargaining agreement.”

A group of similar AFM members got together and formed what they called the New Deal Committee to explore the idea. A few years later, at another Great Labor Arts Exchange, someone asked then AFM President Martin Emerson about the possibility of forming their own local. “He didn’t shoot
it down; we started talking and eventually got chartered,” says McCutcheon.

“I remember talking to my buddy John O’Connor, who was the first Local 1000 president,” McCutcheon says. The pair came to a quick realization that they were agitators, not bureaucrats. “That’s when we began learning how to be a local. Local 1000 would never have thrived without the mentorship and help of Local 802.”

“The idea caught on. We were able to open up access to a pension plan through some very creative means via the LS-1 contract,” he says.

McCutcheon was Local 1000 president for 15 years, and now serves on the board of his home local in Atlanta. “Our union has gone through some rough times, but it’s headed in the right direction; I’m really enthusiastic about it,” he says, adding, “We’ve got a lot of myths to break down because the union has changed tremendously in the past 30 years.”

Songs that Move You

McCutcheon has written hundreds of songs, and released 37 solo albums, resulting in seven Grammy nominations. Among other projects were tributes to some of the people who inspired him, among them Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill. In creating the album This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America, Woody’s daughter gave him complete access to Guthrie’s papers, including never finished songs.

A DVD (and CD) project, Joe Hill’s Last Will, is a one-man play written by Local 1000 member Si Kahn. McCutcheon portrays labor songwriter Hill in the final hours of his life.

McCutcheon’s songs are often sparked by events in the news or happenings in his life. “I’m not writing to have a song, or even to finish anything. The more I write, the more I understand that there’s a part of you that you don’t know; it’s wonderful to explore that area.”

“Songs can transport you to another place, help you forget your world or dive you deeper into your world; they can fill you with awe, or rage, or inspiration,” he says. “They move hips and hearts, and sometimes mountains.”

His 38th album, Trolling for Dreams, will be released
February 3. Begun as a collection of earlier songs that never made it onto albums, there’s also some new material. Among the inspirations were a road trip he took with his father who was ascending into Alzheimer’s; his son’s wedding; and a perilous illness last year.

McCutcheon regularly plays more than 15 different instruments. He travels with a hammered dulcimer, 12-string and six-string guitars, banjo, autoharp, and fiddle, plus a piano is waiting at every gig. “I was taught by amazing teachers who never realized they were giving me lessons,” he explains.

While in college, McCutcheon convinced his advisor to let him do an independent study to learn banjo from musicians in the Southern Appalachians. “It was a three-month independent study that I’m still on 45 years later. I went off thinking I was learning how to put my fingers in the right place, and all of a sudden, it was about everything—the context of the music, the community that fosters the music, and the music that sustains the community. I fell in love with the region, the land, the people, the music, and the food.”

Connecting People

At McCutcheon’s shows you will hear a combination of original tunes, labor tunes, traditional songs, classic folk songs, and a healthy dose of storytelling. At first, he had no idea the storytelling would become such a big part of his show.

“Stories are like connective tissue,” he says. “I would tell stories to recreate the environment in which I learned a song, or wrote a song, so the audience could sort of climb inside a little easier.” He soon discovered that his audiences craved the storytelling.

He says “This Land Is Your Land” is always an audience favorite, especially after the contentious election. “It feels like people are yearning for a sense of connection.” The song brings him back to the paper mill workers picnic all those years ago. “It captures an audience in a way that is reflexive, unexpected, and all of a sudden they feel connected to one another.”

“I look for those moments that are unexpected and surprise you with their power,” he says. “I was surprised at 11 years old, hearing those songs, but I didn’t know my life was going to be changed by it.”

Eager to encourage young singer-songwriters, McCutcheon hosts Songwriting Camps at the Highlander Center in east Tennessee—a place that holds special meaning to him. It’s where Martin Luther King heard ‘We Shall Overcome’ for the first time, and it was the initial stop on McCutcheon’s “independent study” program. “I fell in love with this group of people who were activists from all over the Appalachian Mountains, and all of a sudden, the whole region opened up for me in a very real way,” he says.

Largely due to technology he sees a bright future for young folk musicians. “There’s a whole old-time music scene of people that can play rings around the rest of us because they grew up with it,” he says. “The Internet exposes kids to music from around the world and the stuff becomes a mash-up. That’s cool and exciting to see!”

“The dream that fueled me all those years working in a leadership position at Local 1000 is the notion that young musicians will not only find a home within the union, but help to direct it so it morphs to accommodate them. They are full of great ideas, and if we give them the foundation in unionship, we can learn from them and they can learn from us,” he says.

The Beaches

Life’s a Beach: Toronto Rock Group, The Beaches, Head Out on the Road with a New Album, New Tour, and Big Ideas

The BeachesEven through the roar of the open road, The Beaches’ youthful optimism reverberates on the other end of a speakerphone call. Leandra Earl (23, guitar), Kylie Miller (20, guitar), Jordan Miller (21, bass and lead vocals), and Eliza Enman McDaniel (21, drums) are packed in the Miller’s family van en route to Seattle where they will open for the Canadian rock duo and fellow Local 149 (Toronto, ON) members Death from Above 1979. While it’s not the most luxurious of accommodations for Canadian rockers on the rise, it will do for now. The members of Local 149 (Toronto, ON) were smart about joining the union from the onset of their careers.

Currently on their first international tour, fresh off the heels of their debut album Late Show, the musicians have gained attention in the alt-rock world for a 1970s sound and swagger transported to the twenty-first century.  Drawing from the likes of David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and The Strokes, Late Show’s lip-curling lyrics, pounding drums, and snarling guitars feature heavily on the album. Standout tracks like lead single “Money” and “T-Shirt,” show off an attitude fit for a young rock band with veteran polish to back it up.  International Musician caught up with The Beaches in the middle of a hectic touring schedule to talk rock influences, record contracts, and whether making it means just getting out of your parents’ basement.

How did you guys meet, how did The Beaches form?

Kylie: Jordan is my sister and we started playing guitar together at very young ages, six and seven. We wanted to start a band and we were looking for someone to drum with us and we asked our friend, Eliza, if she would come and audition—and she absolutely kicked ass and the three of us have been playing music ever since. We were in a Disney pop-punk band called Done with Dolls up until high school. At that point, we were looking for another band member and that’s when we asked our friend Leandra to join the band to expand the outlook. That’s how The Beaches came to be.

The BeachesDid any of you guys have plans for college or post-secondary education before getting signed?

Eliza: I think the three of us—me, Jordan, and Kylie—were kind of unified in not going to school. With Leandra, it was kind of an overlap with her joining the band and also applying to school. She got accepted to York University for classical piano. She went through a bit of a hard choice and she wasn’t sure whether she should commit to school or the band, or both. We kind of came to the unified decision that, if she went to school, she couldn’t give her all to either—and at the same time we decided that we wanted to go full force with this band.

Leandra: It was weird because I took an extra year of high school just because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after grade 12. I knew I wanted to pursue music, and the only option was to become a music therapist or a music teacher, which didn’t excite me, really. When I got the offer to join this band I was excited and I didn’t know if my parents would support it, or how far this would go. But my parents were super supportive and they’re the biggest fans of this band. They come to like every show. It’s been amazing. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Since [hearing] my gal, Avril Lavigne, in grade four, I knew that I wanted to be on stage and play all these instruments with my BFFs, so it was insane to get to do this.

The BeachesWas there anything about being on a label that deviated from your expectations?

Kylie: There was this kind of expectation, in my mind at least, that once we got signed, we’d release a record and be on tour right away. But the reality of the situation was that we got signed and for three years we were doing writing sessions and working with different producers. At the same time, we were able to work with amazing writers and producers and we became a lot stronger as a band and as friends. We had that time to develop our sound and our band.

Jordan: The one thing I didn’t expect was how many people were going to be on our team. I thought there would be maybe six or seven people, but there are like 30 people that have their own unique job at the label that are working for you.

You guys have cited Avril Lavigne as a childhood influence of yours. Why was she so important to you at a young age?

Kylie: You know, being young women and seeing someone who’s badass playing a guitar and being a rock goddess. It was an inspiring visual image for us to see and there weren’t a lot of people doing that at the time. They were playing a different kind of sound and owning their own thing.

Do you guys take inspiration from other all-girl groups? You have a lot of male heavy rock references. Is there any other all girl group you guys idolized or looked to incorporate into your sound?

Kylie: I think that we don’t really think about gender in who we’re inspired by; it’s not really something we consider. So, there are females we’re inspired by, but there are a lot of males. We don’t really think about that when we’re writing music and making music.

The BeachesDo you feel like the “all-girl” label sets expectations for you?

Jordan: When we were in Done with Dolls we’d have people come up to us and be like, ‘Yo, I really like you guys. I didn’t expect you to be good because you were all girls, but you were awesome.’ But, honestly, we haven’t gotten a comment like that in years. I think it’s because there are a lot more females present, especially in the alternative rock industry; it’s way less of like a taboo that we’re girls in a band.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved with Death From Above 1979?

Kylie: We actually met them backstage at a show during Canadian Music Week [in 2016] when we opened up for Eagles of Death Metal and DFA was on tour with them. But it wasn’t until Leandra, who runs our social media, became social media buds with the guys that our relationship with them blossomed. They ended up reaching out to us and offering us a spot on this tour. To seal the deal, they ended up coming to our show this summer in Quebec City. They watched our set and officially invited us to the tour. We ended up celebrating with them all night. We went out until five in the morning and got poutine. It was rad.

Jordan: I really think the audition was how long we could stay out with them. It wasn’t even our show. [laughs]

Kylie: This is our first big international tour. It’s been really fun. A lot of unique opportunities—a lot of firsts.

What was one interesting first?

Leandra: A first for us that I thought was really exciting was we got to go on live radio in Laguna Beach and play our song “Money” for the first time and play a couple other songs. It was really cool because we’re getting a lot of radio play in Canada right now—we’re number three on the charts, nbd, it’s a good time—so to go over to America and start our journey over there is really cool.

Where do you see rock going in the next few years and where do you see your place in it moving forward?

Kylie: There’s a nice little community in Toronto currently that we’re happy to be a part of. If we can just continue to expand and explore that, that would be really awesome. For us it’s all about real music and actual rock, rock ‘n’ roll movements. There’s nothing fabricated about us. Sometimes it’s chaotic, sometimes we f*** up, but it’s all really fun and raw. I, personally, am not a fan of things that feel fake or things that feel phony, so I’m happy to see a lot of people exploring a more real side of this.

When will you guys know you’ve made it as a band?

Leandra: We haven’t really been on a headlining tour or played many heading shows, so I think when we start to do that and see people coming out to our shows and buying tickets to see just us, then we’ll start to realize, oh, cool we’re making it.

Eliza: For me personally, I think when we have a real legit tour bus—with beds and a toilet and stuff—I’ll feel like we’ve made it. Currently, we’re in a family car. Jordan and Kylie’s dad was very nice and lent us his car for the tour and we have a U-Haul attached. But I think we’ll have made it when I can sleep on my bed in a tour bus with a fridge and a driver [laughs].

Jordan: I think we’ve made it when I can move out of my parents’ basement. Like, that’s my goal right now.

Kylie: When we were in New York City, someone saw a couple people across the street yelling “Beaches!” while were trying to go get a bagel in the morning, and I said to Leandra, “Oh my God we’ve made it, people know who we are here!” And then we cross the street and see they’re our friends who were in New York at the same time. So, still making a name for ourselves, I guess.

Reggie Watts: Musical Disinformationist

reggie-watts-mic-pointingReggie Watts of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) is making a definite mark on late-night television. For years, in his solo shows, he has entertained by disorienting his audience, referring to himself as a “disinformationist.” His funky looking sweaters, colorful socks, and bigger-than-life afro made him instantly recognizable to fans. In 2015, he become the leader of the house band for The Late Late Show with James Corden. 

Watts wasn’t looking for a “day job” when James Corden asked him if he’d like to be bandleader. Watts says he approached his decision to take the gig as a sort of experiment into an unknown realm. “I thought about it pretty hard for about a month,” he says. “It’s strange to have a thing repeat, and I entered into it interested in that idea, that paradigm.”

Watts seems to have found his place on the show. “They give me the space that I need and the leeway,” he says. “They trust me in what I do.” He says he also enjoys the freedom of being able to exploit his unique improvisational skills for much of the show.

Watts hand-selected his Late Late Show bandmates: Tim Young (lead guitar), Steve Scalfati (keyboards), Hagar Ben Ari (bass), and Guillermo E. Brown (drums), all members of Local 47. “The band is really great; we have a fun time always,” says Watts.

“We create great videos that I get to watch live during the show. I’m kind of half audience member and half bandleader. I appreciate the show from two perspectives,” he explains.

As bandleader, Watts has an egalitarian take on publishing. “I made the decision to give equal publishing to everybody in the band for new material we come up with,” he explains. “Splitting things evenly just makes sense. It’s a great incentive and gives a cooperative feel, so there is no hierarchy when it comes to the money made from publishing.”

reggie-watts-james-cordonWatts likes knowing that he and his bandmates are covered under union agreements should any problems arise. “It helps them to know they are in a union, that’s great!” he says. “It’s really about guidance and advice, especially when things aren’t moving smoothly. If there’s a technical issue—a problem with publishing, overtime, or things of that nature, it helps them. It’s a resource and kind of an ambient feeling to know I have this to fall back on. It’s also about camaraderie and knowing you have a resource for questions you might have.”

As a comedian and musician on The Late Late Show, Watts not only leads the band, but also participates in other areas of the show, acting as an announcer, as well as occasionally asking questions of guests sitting on the couch. “We get incredible combinations of people on the couch, and it’s really a lot of fun,” he says.

When it comes to his questions to guests, they are just as spontaneous as his music. Watts asked singer and guitarist Noel Gallagher, former frontman for Oasis: “As a person who lives on a very interesting island with a huge history, do you have hope that humanity will make good choices for itself for the future?” And asked actress Jessica Szohr: “Would you allow me to name a really hard-core metal band after your last name?”

Watts began honing his solo act way back in high school in Great Falls, Montana. “I always thought that music and comedy went together sort of naturally. When I was in drama in high school, we would perform in statewide drama competitions and I would do exactly what I’m doing now, minus the reverb pedals,” he says.

Among his many early musical influences he names Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI), James Brown, and Elvis. On the comedy side, he was a fan of Monty Python and looked up to many of the popular comedians of the 1980s: Gilda Radner, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and George Carlin, plus Carol Burnett and Danny Kaye.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-1-43-29-pmAfter high school, Watts moved to Seattle to study music at Cornish College of the Arts and became involved in as many as 20 bands, in a wide variety of genres. This early dabbling in new areas had a huge impact on his chops and continues to shape his act. “Whether it was a pop group, a dance band, a heavy metal group, a rock and roll band, a jazz fusion band, performance arts stuff, or creating music for modern dance choreographers, all of that has contributed to my history and my performance today.”

In his one-man show, Watts switches between numerous accents, while singing and speaking, breaking into convincing faux languages. His music moves from hip-hop to blues to funk and heavy metal.

In the late 1990s, Watts was singer with the band Maktub, which also explored a variety of genres. Though the group never formally split up they stopped playing together when bandmates ended up in different cities. “We continued to make a couple albums together,” he says. And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could one day create another.

Watts’ most recent project is the Netflix special Spatial, which he describes as a “hybrid stand-up, science fiction, variety show.” Debuting in December, it highlights Watts’ musical and comedic talents through sketches, singing, stand-up routines, and dance. The show, like all of Watts’ acts, is completely improvised.

reggie-watts-sing“I kind of just go for it; I’m listening to everything—my intuition, the audience, and even the soundprint the microphone might be making. I react to the moment,” says Watts. To accompany himself, he uses a small table full of tools—a Line 6 DL4 delay pedal, a reverb pedal, an Eletro-Harmonix 45000 four-track looper/recorder, plus a Teenage Engineering OP1 micro-synthesizer.

Watts first incorporated loopers into his show back in the late 1990s. At first, he used the Line 6 DL4 with his band Maktub, as kind of an idea sketchpad. “I could sing ideas that I wanted the band to play and loop it,” he says. “Then, I started to use if for harmony; I would sing my lead vocals and then harmonize with the sample.” That evolved into using the looping function to accompany himself in his solo act.

Very much into exploring gadgets and modern technology, Watts calls himself a “fan” of virtual reality (VR). To that end, he created the 360-degree VR video, Waves, which includes special effects, music, and philosophy. He describes the experience he showcased at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival as “visualizing his imagination.” He says that another VR 360 movie is in the works.

Watts’ advice to other musicians? “Keep believing in music and keep making art, at all costs.”

Making Musical History with Alex Lacamoire

 by Michael Manley  Director Touring/Theatre/Booking Division and Assistant to the President

To call the musical Hamilton a success is like calling rain wet—it has not only scaled the theatrical heights of Broadway and now Chicago, it has transcended its musical theatre roots to become a worldwide sensation. But a pop musical inspired by the biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton did not seem like a slam dunk to at first.

Alex LacamoireThe show’s Tony Award-winning orchestrator Alex Lacamoire of Local 802 (New York City) had his doubts. “I knew this was the best show that I’d ever worked on, and that Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing and composing at the peak of his powers,” Lacamoire recalls. “But really, I thought, are people going to pay money to see American history told through hip-hop? It seemed like such a disparate marriage.”

For Cuban-American Lacamoire, the journey to Hamilton began early—at age 11 he was asked to join the pit band for his junior high school’s production of Bye Bye Birdie. A classically trained pianist who began his studies at age four, Lacamoire developed an early interest in pop and Top 40 music. But it was the theatre—with its immersive and broad collaboration involving dance, costumes, story, and song—that really excited him. “I loved how outgoing the theatre kids were, and I loved the idea of collectively building a piece of art together.”

Lacamoire built on this early and voracious musical curiosity, studying jazz and classical music in high school and even writing his own arrangements for himself and friends. From there, he landed at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “It was a school where you’d have jazz ensemble in the morning, a class on Stravinsky in the afternoon, and then play a Queen tribute show in the cafeteria at night. It was exactly what I was looking for, and what I needed,” he says.

Upon graduation, Lacamoire planned to move to New York City, hoping to hit up his friends for leads on gigs. But before leaving Boston, he caught a lucky break when he was hired as an accompanist for Boston auditions of the recently-opened The Lion King. That show’s music director at the time, Joe Church, a member of Local 802, quickly offered him work as a rehearsal pianist on the show, once he landed in New York City.

Lacamoire credits these early successes to his playing ability, his boundless musical curiosity, and his fluency in a variety of musical styles. “In New York I got to meet composers like Stephen Schwartz and Alan Mencken. They not only hired me to play, but also to arrange and music direct. I basically learned as I went,” he says.

For Lacamoire, broad-based musical diversity is the key to musical theatre success. “Especially now, where theatre music is headed—pop music is so rhythmic and consistent in its feel and time; you have to grow up hearing that, knowing and feeling what that is. Having that in your life, as well as whatever classical or instrumental training you have, is what makes people able to excel in musical theatre today. If you want to do it all, you have to play it all—and you have to live it all. It has to be in your DNA,” he says.

Lacamoire notes that this is especially true of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda: “This is what makes Lin so special; he knows the musical styles he is writing about. He isn’t just mimicking or parodying—these styles are in his blood.”

Fitting Into Hamilton’s Groove

Alex LacamoireAnd how is it for the union musicians hired to play the 10-piece orchestration of Hamilton? “It’s extremely demanding,” states Lacamoire. “It requires such precision, and an innate sense of rhythm—particularly for the string players. The ability to play right on the beat, to a click-track, totally precise and also perfectly in tune—it’s not just any string player who can play Hamilton. You have to be able to groove.”

As far as scouting for musicians with such specific skills, Lacamoire cites an unlikely source: YouTube. “With YouTube, you can hear musicians play, and see what they are doing. I mainly look for a sense of time—it is more challenging than you would think to find musicians whose time does not fluctuate, who have that drummer’s innate sense. In Hamilton, everyone in the pit has to have it.”

But that is just the start. “Within that structure, I also look for people who can interpret what’s on the page and also go beyond it. I want people who can make music, and not just play notes.” Lacamoire also stresses that chemistry and camaraderie are important. “In a pit, you’re in a bunker with people for hours and weeks on end—you want to get along with them, but also be inspired by musicality that is at such a high level that you respect and want to make music with them.”

And the Broadway and Chicago Hamilton bands will likely be busy for a while, as the blockbuster seemingly reinvents musical theatre as it introduces it to a new generation. But is Hamilton revolutionizing musical theatre, or is it a traditional musical in contemporary clothing?

“What I love about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music,” notes Lacamoire, “is that, though his language is contemporary, the mechanics and foundation of his musicals are very old-fashioned. Hamilton has an ‘I want’ song, it has reprises, and it ends with a big finale—all the basic building blocks of a musical, and how you make it flow. You don’t usually find hip-hop and rap in a musical—and while that vernacular is fresh, in its bones Hamilton has influences from Fiddler on the Roof, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, and Jesus Christ Superstar—these iconic shows are in the DNA of Hamilton.”

When it comes to his success as an orchestrator and music supervisor, Lacamoire credits his ability to adapt and collaborate. “I feel like I know what Lin wants to hear. He trusts that I will be true to what he is looking for, and add my own spin. He knows I can execute his vision,” says Lacamoire.

One particular musical challenge of the hip-hop and rap-infused Hamilton is the tight interweaving of text and music. This demanded a light touch when it came to the score. “My biggest job as an orchestrator was to stay out of the way of the lyrics,” states Lacamoire. “I had to consider ranges—I could have a lot on the low end, and bright colors on the high end, but the middle registers had to be reserved for the voices.”

Lacamoire’s broad musical knowledge and experience allow him to make these choices. “I wear so many hats—arranger, conductor, orchestrator, music director—and while it can be taxing, it gives me the ability to have this total vision in my head,” he says. The density and rhythmic complexity of the language and music of the show mean that the hardworking AFM pit musicians are front and center with nowhere to hide. “In the shows I’ve worked on, every instrument is a distinct voice and contribution to the whole. I try not to waste a single note—everything is integral, meaningful, and hopefully, fun to play.”

Lacamoire’s Take on Tech

Hamilton also points to the future in its use of technology, which has always courted controversy in theatre music. On this point, Lacamoire offers strong opinions as well as advice: “As musicians, we need to embrace technology, because it is not going away. But I’m not interested in using technology to replace people—I feel that when technology is used ‘in lieu of’ something else, that is when you get into trouble.”

He notes that the style of music is a driving factor in how technology should be used. “If you are working on The King and I or South Pacific you want that huge, lush sound of a 30-piece orchestra. Those shows deserve and warrant that kind of sound,” he says.

alex-3When it came to Hamilton, the needs were different. “I never saw Hamilton as having that symphonic texture; it was always conceived of as a chamber piece.” And one in which technology plays a distinct role in the musical fabric, he explains. “Our bassist uses upright bass, electric bass, and a small synth bass keyboard. The synth bass isn’t used to replace those other bass instruments, but is used to provide a different bass sound at various moments.” Lacamoire cites the sound loops and digital-delay effects found in rap and hip-hop music as examples of using technology “not to do something a human can do, but to do things a human cannot do.”

As for Lacamoire’s early doubts about the viability of hip-hop musical history, the show’s explosive success has proven him wrong. How does he account for the show’s off-the-charts popularity? “There is not a lot of stillness in Hamilton,” he says. “It engages the audience and demands that they listen in a way that maybe they are not accustomed to listening, because of this language that flows at a very rapid pace.”

Indeed the rapid-fire, rhythmic barrage of words pouring onto the audiences of Hamilton just might be inspired by one of literature’s founding fathers. “The effect has been compared to listening to Shakespeare,” explains Lacamoire. “Sometimes it takes a minute for your ear to click into the language and become attuned to it.” A favorite compliment Lacamoire has received comes from folks who begin listening to the cast album, and never hit “stop” or “pause” until they get to the end. “One song flows into the next; it has this quality that pulls you in.”

Up next for Alex Lacamoire is the musical Dear Evan Hansen, opening this month on Broadway. The success of this show—which could not be more different from Hamilton—has yet to be measured. But with a diverse, award-winning musical career that includes Wicked, In the Heights, and now Hamilton, there is no doubt that Lacamoire has already made history. 

Serena Ryder

Serena Ryder Discovers Utopia Through Her World of Contrasts

Canadian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Serena Ryder is known for her vocal range and full voice. A natural talent, the six-time Juno winner has opened shows for Aerosmith and One Republic, and traveled with Melissa Etheridge on her 2011 tour across Canada.

Through hard work, networking, and creativity, she’s built a steady following in Canada with her catchy, genre-blending songs. Ryder relocated to Petersborough, Ontario, from the small town of Millbrook at age 18 to launch her career. Roughly nine years later she had her first hit “Weak in the Knees” (2007) and then won her first Juno Award: Best New Artist of the Year (2008).

Though people stateside might not yet know her name, they may have already heard her music. The catchy tune “Stompa” from her fifth album (Harmony, 2012) was featured on both Grey’s Anatomy and Hawaii Five-O. In 2013 Ryder performed the platinum recording on the Tonight Show.

serena-ryder-handNow a six-time Juno winner, she has sold more than one million singles from her releases. All the while, she has been a member of Local 149 (Toronto, ON). “Now, as an adult I’m seeing the importance of being a part of a larger community and learning from that community,” says the singer songwriter who will release her sixth album, Utopia, in early 2017 and launch an international tour.

As a child, Ryder’s mother would write out the lyrics to songs she wanted to learn. At age seven, her mother found Ryder a private music teacher who ended up becoming more of a collaborator. “I already knew a bunch of songs—Linda Ronstadt, Buddy Holly, Roger Miller. He would play them on piano and I would sing. I did my first gig when I was eight years old at the Legion hall in Millbrook.”

“I just knew I always wanted a life in music,” says Ryder, who began writing her own songs at age 11, after her step-father gave her a guitar.

“My biggest influence was definitely Roger Miller,” she recalls. “He was a quirky, amazing songwriter who kind of blurred the lines, but always made it fun and kind of silly. He didn’t take himself too seriously, which I loved,” she says.

She was further influenced by her parents’ record collection. “When I was about 13, I went into my basement and just started unearthing all this vinyl,” she says. There she discovered diverse artists—from Leonard Cohen to The Beatles. Their sounds now resonate in the music she creates.

Ryder says that the Canadian weather inspires her. “It’s the changing seasons that really make Canadian music and gives artists diverse emotional perspectives. The weather affects how you feel. When it’s freezing cold—minus 30 degrees Celsius—you don’t want to even walk to the corner store. Music becomes more insular—about your close friends and family. In the summertime it gets as hot as Los Angeles and you’re [music is] inspired by spring fever.”

At just 33, Serena Ryder says she has seen huge changes in the way technology helps her create music. She says that, with the past two albums, she’s had more creative freedom. Beginning with her fifth album, Harmony, she completely changed her writing process.

“It shocked me that I could go into a studio, write a song, and have the track finished in four hours. I used to write for a year or two, get all my songs compiled, find a producer, hire a band, and then we would get into the studio to learn the songs. Then, that would take a couple weeks,” she explains.

She also finds her new process more instantly gratifying. “I feel more free to write whatever I want because it doesn’t feel so painstaking and it doesn’t cost as much in terms of money and time,” she says.

“I made my last record mostly in my garage studio,” she explains. “My producer stayed in my basement. In the morning he went to the studio and got all the tracks ready and the sound running. I’d go out with my guitar and start riffing and write for a couple hours; then he’d produce it. By the end of a day, we had one song done, sometimes two. The main recording of the whole album took a couple weeks.”

Among the innovations it allows, is the ability to experiment with different instruments. She recorded some of her own harmonica and drum tracks. She also plays these instruments at her concerts. “Sometimes for an encore I’ll play drums and guitar and sing, all at the same time,” she says.

Ryder says the process of creating her sixth album, was even more unrestrained. “For Utopia I recorded stuff all over the world,” she says.

With all her success, Ryder is the first to admit she’s had struggles with depression and self-doubt along the way. She advises struggling musicians to look within themselves for answers. “The more you think about what you should be doing or how you should be doing it, the more complicated it gets.” She says that one of the best pieces of advice Ryder received came from veteran AFM Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) musician Melissa Etheridge who told her simply, “Do what you love.”

The two met through Ryder’s manager, Sandy Pandya, and developed a friendship. When Etheridge was looking for a Canadian musician to pair up with for her Canadian tour, she turned to Ryder.

serena-ryder-sitting“Melissa Etheridge was an amazing person to be on tour with; she’s one of the coolest people I’ve met and she kind of took me under her wing,” says Ryder who was just 29 at the time. “She heard one of my songs, ‘Broken Heart Sun,’ which I’d written with one of her producers and she loved it.” Etheridge recorded the song as a duet with Ryder and released it in Canada before the tour began.” The pair also performed the song for the 2011 Juno Awards.

Of late, Ryder has been particularly prolific. She’s written about 80 tunes in the past three years. “I really love them all,” she adds, explaining how she followed her own advice. “I think it’s because I haven’t been taking myself so seriously, and I know that not everything I do matters as much as I think it does.”

She says that being true to yourself is important in songwriting. “Write from the place where you feel, even if you think it’s a bunch of shit!” she advises. “A year later you will look back at the songs you wrote and think they are amazing. I may not always be present with myself in some sort of happy state that we all want to be in, but I am honest.”

Coming to terms with her inner struggles is at the heart of the new album’s title, Utopia. The idea came from a First Nations story about two wolves. “There is a white wolf inside of you that is love and peace, happiness and joy, and it’s starving; there’s also a dark wolf inside you that is anger, jealousy, resentment, pain, and it’s starving too. They are battling each other. The wolf that wins is the one you feed.”

“Utopia, for me, is about marrying the light and the dark, and making a gray area—a balanced area. It’s about finding your own balance in life. Utopia is a place of absolute light and perfection,” she says.

This balancing act brings Ryder’s typical diversity to the album. “There are a lot of dark songs about dark feelings and dark places, like the song ‘Killing Time’—one of my favorites. It’s about wasting time and getting caught up in your head. Then there’s ‘Got Your Number,’ which is a single I wrote while jamming on the drums in my apartment. I was thinking about New Orleans, which I love, and people dancing in the street.”

“Then, there’s a song called ‘The First Time’; it’s about treating your relationships like you are meeting the people in your life for the first time. We all have history and we think we know our mom, sister, brother, but in actuality, we are always changing and every second is a new opportunity to see things differently.”

Serena Ryder is pre-releasing a few singles from Utopia over the next few months, with an album launch planned for early 2017. “We are doing a lot of intimate shows to test out some of the new stuff live to see what the industry thinks,” she explains.

Brent Mason

Behind the Scenes with One of Nashville’s Most In-Demand Players: Brent Mason

Brent-Mason-by-Marc-Quigley-PRS-GuitarsOne of the most in-demand Nashville session guitarists of the past 30 years, Brent Mason of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) advises young players who would like to become a part of the Nashville music scene to do as he did: Come to Nashville, hang around, pay your dues, and learn the ropes from today’s hot players.

A self-taught guitarist, Mason grew up playing in a family band with his parents and brother Randy, a drummer. As a youngster, he says he was always reading liner notes to find out who the instrumental heroes were who accompanied the named artist on his records. He hoped to join their ranks one day.

Eager to bring home a steady paycheck and save money, Mason took a job in a toolbox factory when he finished high school. One day he put a rivet through his thumb and realized that, if he stayed in the factory, he might lose his chance to use his natural talent.

Fortunately, his mom was already on it. She always knew her son’s future was in Nashville and had connected him with steel guitarist and Local 257 member Paul Franklin. After hearing a recording of Mason, Franklin offered to introduce Mason to the Nashville music scene.

Arriving in Nashville, Mason was suddenly thrust into a world where he was meeting his liner-note heroes face to face. “I was a nervous wreck,” he says. “I was around all these guys who were playing on records, names like renowned session drummer Larrie Londin and bassist David Hungate. In my eyes, they were stars; when I was around them, I had butterflies. Truth is, they were nice and they could see a musician’s talent and potential from the first few notes.”

One of the most important things Mason learned from the session players is the importance of the union and union contracts. “Pandemonium would occur if things weren’t run through the union,” he says. “Like all unions, there’s strength in numbers. It sets a precedent for pay, a scale. Somebody trying to do it alone could be quickly taken advantage of.”

“The pension is something I’m really happy about. I’m 57 now and I’ve got a pretty good pension,” says the 35-year AFM member who adds that he’s also benefitted from the Special Payments and AFM SAG-AFTRA funds. “They can tally up what you’ve played on only by pulling union contracts.”

“If a guy just hands you $100 when you play on something, then later you find out it sold a hundred million records, there’s no proof you played on it,” he says. “Musicians need to be respected and compensated for their playing and intellectual contributions to songs. We want to know that our history of work is well documented and compensated fairly in retirement.”

A couple years after arriving in Nashville, Franklin’s brother-in-law, Gregg Galbraith of Local 257, helped Mason land a steady gig at The Stage Coach Lounge honky-tonk with the Don Kelley Band. For the next few years, Mason paid his dues, gigging until the early morning hours, then often heading out to Music Row around 8:30 a.m. for his growing session work, sometimes followed by a co-writing at the Monk Family Music Group where he
also worked as a songwriter.

“It was kind of an ambiguous time for me. It was starting to wear me out,” he recalls. That’s when Chet Atkins called him up. “He said, ‘I’m going to come tomorrow night to hear you play and I’m bringing George Benson. I was nervous, not only because they were going to show up, but also because it was a pretty dangerous redneck bar!”

“But, I thought it was a chance. When I looked over and saw they were digging it, that kind of calmed me down,” says Mason, who got his big break shortly thereafter when Atkins phoned him and said, “I’d like you to be on my record on a song with Mark Knopfler.”

The album, Stay Tuned, was a compilation featuring many guitar players. “I remember going into the record store when it came out to see if my name was on it. I thought I would sneak and open the wrapper,” says Mason. The staff was on to him and kicked the 27-year-old out, doubting his claim of being on the record.

Brent-Mason-Marc-Quigley,-PRS-GuitarsEager to be discovered, Mason put everything he had into every job. Working as a songwriter, he frequently recorded demos. “I knew the recording would get pitched to the artist and the producer; they would say, ‘Who’s playing guitar on it? We need him on this,’” says Mason.

The strategy paid off when Keith Whitley decided to cut Mason’s song, “Heartbreak Highway,” and requested Mason play guitar on it. “That was Whitley’s last album [I Wonder Do You Think of Me]; he passed away before it was released in 1989. The album became legendary, and everybody started calling me,” says Mason.

Aside from always putting his best foot forward, he also credits his success to timing. “At the time, the studios were all running the instruments direct. It was very pristine, with no amps,” he says. “While Dwight Yoakam was already doing the live roadhouse kind of honky-tonk music on the West Coast, they weren’t really doing it in Nashville. We—Glenn Worf, John Jarvis, Lonnie Wilson, and myself, just to name a few—were sort of pioneers of that sound. I drug my smokey, buzzy, Stagecoach Lounge Fender amp to the studio to record with.”

Among the earliest sessions Mason recorded in that way was the very first Brooks & Dunn album. “It was like an evolution of music—rock and roadhouse, rather than urban cowboy,” says Mason. “Alan Jackson followed. His songs are a lot of my Fender Telecaster. I gained a lot of fans through Jackson’s stuff.”

By the 1990s, Mason was working around 23 sessions a week. To date, he has played on well over a thousand records and is a 12-time winner of the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Guitarist of the Year Award and two-time winner of the CMA Musician of the Year Award. Among the long list of artists that Mason has recorded with are country legends like Josh Turner, Dolly Parton, Travis Tritt, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Shelby Lynne, Trace Adkins, Terri Clark, and Trisha Yearwood of Local 257; George Jones; Merle Haggard; Willie Nelson of Local 433 (Austin, TX); plus artists in other genres such as Alabama, Natalie Cole, and Neil Diamond of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA).

In addition, Mason has a catalog of more than 100 original instrumentals heard regularly on television, in movies, and on commercials. He’s played on many movie soundtracks, including A Few Good Men, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone, and Indecent Proposal.

One of the things Mason loves most about session work, particularly in Nashville, is the creativity involved. “In Nashville there are a lot of creative juices in the studio; musicians throw out their ideas for what are often just shells of songs,” he explains. “In L.A. or New York all the arrangements are pretty much written out for you, but in Nashville we sometimes don’t know what we are going to play until we show up in the studio. I really love to be part of the creation of a song.”

He also welcomes the variety in session work. “You may do one thing for Shania Twain, but it’s going to be different when you go in for George Strait. It’s fun to have that challenge. There is an art to being a chameleon. When you walk out of the studio, you want to leave the impression that you’ve played that style of music since you were five years old,” he says. “You try to leave them with their jaws dropping and thinking they couldn’t have gotten a better part.”

Mason says he often brings a whole arsenal of guitars to the studio. “If we don’t have the luxury of hearing the stuff before we get there, I’ll bring the whole kit and caboodle—20 to 30 different guitars—a couple Fender guitars: Stratocasters; some PRS guitars—a baritone; some Gibsons—a Les Paul, a 335. You may run into something where you want a hollow-body sound, so a Gretsch with a Bigsby. I’ll bring a Rickenbacker, a 12-string, and maybe a sitar.”

Mason says the industry has changed fundamentally in the years he’s done session work. “Moving from analog to digital has flipped it over sideways. Music is done a lot more expediently now. You don’t have to slave over it and play something just right. Give them a bunch of takes and they’ll put it together. It’s endless what you can do now by manipulating the music with software such as Pro Tools and Nuendo; you can even change the key of the song without changing the tempo.”

It also makes music more accessible, he continues, “Somebody can sit in their living room and play an amazing guitar solo, or write something, and the whole world can see it. The kid in the middle of Iowa can become a star, and rightly so. On the professional level, somebody can send me a track from London or Brazil, and I can play on it, and one of the top musicians in L.A. can be on it, then somebody from Cuba can be on it. We are all playing ‘together,’ but we didn’t ever look anybody in the face. While there are good things about that, I’m always looking for the human element of playing off each other.”

Another benefit is having more time to create the music. “I can take the time to do the best solo that I can do, while back in the old days, we only had like 15 or 30 minutes to get the solo and move on,” he says. “The drawback is that the music can be manipulated so much that somebody can ‘play god’ with it and it becomes fairly mechanical, stagnant, when you can hear the hard tuning.”

“I never thought music was about perfection. If you took Ray Charles and tuned him up, would that be Ray Charles anymore? Would that be soul music? How did The Beatles sound like they did? By not making it perfect; it was a time of invention,” he explains.

Though the industry has changed, and there may be less work, Mason says that the best way to become a Nashville session player remains the same. “Hang out; come into a session and watch. Be a good listener and learn how Nashville works. Be friendly and not arrogant. Find someone you can hang out with, but don’t be too aggressive. Be patient and persevere. Find out what equipment guys are using to get a certain sound, and learn all the tricks of the trade firsthand.”

Though Mason is far from retirement, he says that he feels secure enough with his AFM pension that he can relax and focus more on teaching and creating some of his own music. “I’m a pretty good example of what the union can do for a guy—taking the pressure off him as he gets older,” he adds.

It’s surprising that one of the most recorded guitarists of all time has only done a couple solo projects. His first album, Hot Wired (1997), was nominated for a Grammy. In 2006, he released the jazz and Western swing album Smokin’ Section with his brother Randy, also a member of Local 257. Mason will finally find time to begin work this fall on a second solo instrumental album.

Lately, he also enjoys sharing his knowledge with the next generation through teaching clinics. “I’m able to have a little more fun now, rather than working myself to death!” he says.

delfeayo marsalis

Delfeayo Marsalis Creating Tomorrow’s Music Through Traditions of the Past

Trombonist and composer Delfeayo Marsalis, says “The trombone chose me. There’s a reason the trombone is in the middle of the band,” adding the punchline “to keep the trumpets away from the saxophones.”

Delfeayo_Marsalis-sittingDelfeayo Marsalis, a member of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA), has performed with venerable players like Ray Charles, Fats Domino of Local 174-496, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones. Early on he also parlayed his considerable talent into production work, making a major contribution to the revival of acoustic jazz recording. In 1986, on brother Branford’s recording, Renaissance, Marsalis changed the way the bass was recorded across the board “to get more wood sound,” he says. “We just unplugged the ‘dreaded’ bass direct, put up a microphone and the rest is history!”

These days, Marsalis leads the Uptown Jazz Orchestra every week at the famed Snug Harbor in the Faubourg Marigny, just outside the French Quarter. If the trombone is arbitrator, the peacekeeper between sax and trumpet, as the third of six brothers in New Orleans’ famed jazz family, Delfeayo was destined to play it. “There’s something about the trombone—the range and requirements—that really suits my personality,” he says.

In high school, Marsalis cut his teeth at the Eastern Music Festival (EMF) in North Carolina for advanced studies in classical repertoire and at Tanglewood Music Center Fellowship Program, Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer academy. As an undergraduate at Berklee College of Music, he studied performance and audio production, then went on to earn a master’s degree in jazz performance at the University of Louisville.

Marsalis has produced more than 100 recordings for
major artists—including his father and brothers, Harry Connick, Jr., Spike Lee, Terence Blanchard, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In 2014, he co-wrote a documentary, The Sound of Redemption, about the late jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan.

Famous for his colorful liner notes, Marsalis likes to incorporate political and social themes into his music. This fall, Uptown Jazz Orchestra will release its first CD with the tongue-in-cheek title, Make America Great Again. They pay homage to native people around the world who, by sharing their traditions and values, also risked their freedom. The music ranges from the New Orleans brass band “street” sounds to Ellington swing to modern originals. Several songs feature a vocalist and a rapper.

“In all, we try to best represent the full spectrum of today’s New Orleans music. Recently, an audience member said, ‘With all we go through in a day, for 90 minutes, you guys make us forget about all that.’” Marsalis adds, “It’s the New Orleans way.”

On recordings, Marsalis assembles a range of multi-generational musicians performing as many different styles as he can. In the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, the founding member is 74 years old, the pianist is a woman, and the youngest musician is 20. “It’s a true democracy,” he says.

An American Original

DMarkeyHaving grown up in an iconic family of modern jazz, it’s no surprise Marsalis has staunch opinions on what it means to play traditional New Orleans jazz. “The greatness of New Orleans jazz is the ability to easily navigate different styles,” he says, rattling off luminaries—the legendary Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, contemporaries Dr. Michael White, Lucien Barbarin, Benny Jones of Local 174-496, and the Treme Brass Band.

His own compositions are influenced by South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim’s harmonies. Marsalis says, “New Orleans maintains more of the African tradition than any other city. It’s why people love the music. They love the food. It’s a storytelling tradition.”

The greatest advantage he and his brothers had was attending high school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Marsalis says, “Listening to classical music, my teacher would always say, ‘What do you hear?’” Listening is part of musicianship, he explains, the sound gives you much more information than the score.

“My parents taught us to learn as much as we could. The richness of life is not defined by just what you like, but how many things you are not familiar with, which you then become familiar with, learn about,” he adds.

Learning from the Best

In seventh grade, he was listening to Duke Ellington’s “Sweet Thunder.” Branford showed his younger brother how to create a feedback loop on a reel-to-reel machine, which they would use for early productions. “Branford transferred LPs onto reel-to-reel tape. He’d play music in the background, take the microphone and introduce: ‘J. J. Johnson and Stan Getz live at the Opera House, featuring Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, and Connie Kay.’ He’d list the songs and fade out like a radio broadcast.”

At 12 years old Delfeayo worked on his older brother’s audition tapes, made in the room of their house with the best acoustics—the kitchen. He laughs, “Wynton wondered why they didn’t sound like [classical trumpeter] Maurice André’s studio recordings.” It was trial and error, but Delfeayo says he discovered a process and logic that he’s used throughout his professional career. 

For all his bonhomie and good humor, Marsalis takes on a decidedly fervid tone when discussing the state of jazz education. It’s becoming more standardized, with emphasis on the notation and execution, he contends. “Reading is an important discipline, but it’s still music—it’s heard. That’s why playing by ear is a useful exercise. When I teach, the primary lesson is: use your ears; your ears will not fail you. In orchestras, the musicians are listening. This is how you play in tune; it’s how you play Stravinsky.”

Educating a New Generation

Marsalis is keenly aware of the long neglect of the jazz idiom. In his clinics for kids, he admits it’s a challenge to open their minds. He says, “Rather than students learning to improvise, they’re more concerned with being able to play something they consider unique.”

It’s a lack of understanding of the genre and its great history, he explains. Readily accessible technology provides immediate fulfillment, and to young people, the past may seem to have little to offer. Marsalis often tells them, “Everything does not serve the same function. You can’t say I only want to be around things I relate to immediately.” He stretches his students’ imaginations with a wider repertoire, playing Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, and Luciano Pavarotti. “What do you hear?” he’ll ask. “Tone, vibrato, intonation, passion, emotion. Your ears will give you much more information than your eyes every day of the week.”

Marsalis introduces kids to classical music and opera first, then jazz, and he rounds out sessions with pop music. He is currently working with his own daughter, who at 15 enjoys singing. It’s about listening—understanding timbre and pitch.

“Every day, we are working on opera, a jazz song, and a pop song, so she has a full understanding of the range of the voice. She sings in Italian, but she doesn’t understand Italian!” He says, “My hope is that within the next 15 years I’ll reach some students who’ll make the connection between the great jazz sounds and the contemporary popular, and come up with something unique that has the best of both worlds. That would be an important element in the music’s longevity.”

Individuality was a strong concept in the Marsalis household. And strangely, music did not dominate the conversation. The Civil Rights Movement was unfolding, and his parents’ concern was making sure their children could take advantage of opportunities not afforded to previous generations of people of color. Marsalis says, “They wanted us to understand our responsibility. ‘You’re going to grow up to be responsible men.’”

In 2011, Delfeayo and the Marsalis family (father Ellis and brothers Branford, Wynton, and drummer and vibraphonist Jason) earned the nation’s highest jazz honor, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters (NEA) award.

Strength of the Union

UJO_Photo_Promo-2Marsalis is a longtime union member. His grandfather, Ellis Marsalis, Sr., was a powerful business leader and a strong political voice in support of unions. Recently, Delfeayo mandated that every musician in his band join the union. Union membership in Louisiana, a right-to-work state, has declined. Musicians are often considered a commodity, and like manual labor, paid as little as possible. Marsalis says, “The union is the only professional organization we have for musicians, so it’s important to show solidarity.”

“My dad [Ellis Marsalis, Jr.] was always in tune with the importance of the unions. What he imparted is being able to manage and have an understanding of the business we’re in. He said the union establishes a respectable wage standard so we’re not working for $25 a day.” 

From the 1940s, Ellis, Sr., owned a filling station and the Marsalis Mansion Motel, which was also home to the popular nightclub Music Haven. During segregation, black dignitaries and musicians, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Etta James, and Ray Charles were invited to lecture or perform at downtown hotels, but they were barred from staying there. Marsalis says, “The Mansion was the colored motel. It was the reality of living in a segregated community.”

Delfeayo’s father, a pianist, is a well-respected music educator who also mentored his sons. He gained national recognition after Wynton, and later Branford, became internationally known as classical and jazz virtuosos, and another student, Local 802 (New York City) member Harry Connick, Jr., shot to fame.

But Marsalis says his father’s greatest influence on his sons was his passion, his seriousness, and his love for music. He points out, “He had to be passionate about the music because, back then, when he played there would be five or six guys on the bandstand and 10 people in the audience.”

The boys would occasionally go to gigs with their father. Marsalis describes a night when, in the middle of a set the boys, who were around eight or nine at the time, asked to go home. Without missing a note, his father said, “This engagement ends at midnight. That’s when we leave.” That passion is something Marsalis tries to pass on to students. “Whenever we perform, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 or 10,000 people, we’re going out there with the same level of commitment every time.”

Like his father, Marsalis has long been involved in the community. To expose New Orleans youth to arts education, he founded the Uptown Music Theatre in 2000. He has composed more than 100 songs to introduce kids to jazz through musical theater. In addition, he established KidsTown After School in three New Orleans public schools. The program is designed to foster an understanding of the arts.

His clinics, “Swinging with the Cool School” workshops, where he works with students in jazz, take him around the country. He’s often a guest artist at music and jazz camps.

Weston Sprott

Weston Sprott Lays His Cards on the Table

Weston-Sprott-cafeWhen the curtain closes for intermission at the Metropolitan Opera, the musicians step out of the pit, put down their instruments, and take a few moments to relax—and maybe even make a little extra cash. Weston Sprott, acting principal trombone for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra describes a perfect night at work: “A Strauss or Puccini opera with a great conductor and cast, and a run of good cards at the poker table during intermission.”

But win or lose, Sprott feels lucky when he returns to the pit, working with the world’s greatest musicians, singers, and conductors. “My favorite thing about playing with the Met is listening to my colleagues in the pit and on the stage. Participating in music making at this level is incredibly rewarding,” says Sprott. “Every night provides an education in beauty of tone and phrasing.”

Up the Ante

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, this just happened,’” Sprott remembers, referring to the day in 2005 when he learned he had won the second trombone position at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. At 22 years old, it was undoubtedly a turning point. “More than excitement, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief, as though the pressure to find success in such a competitive world had been released.”

Sprott is a firm advocate for more orchestras to adopt the Met’s example of a fully blind audition process. “I have been a participant and observer of countless discussions about the need for orchestras to diversify their rosters and better reflect their communities,” he says. “In my experience, I have been the winner of numerous auditions where a screen was present from start to finish, but I have never won a professional audition where the screen came down.” Unfortunately, his experience is not unique.

“If you’re serious about diversifying your ensemble, the first of many steps is to raise the screen and let your ears (not your eyes) guide your artistic convictions,” Sprott advises. “Diversity will follow.”

His next thought on the day he won the Met position was of his parents, teachers, and mentors—all of whom invested countless hours in his personal and musical development. “I was thankful there would be something to show for their sacrifice,” he says.

Sprott spent two years studying at Indiana University before transferring to The Curtis Institute of Music, where he developed an especially close relationship with Nitzan Haroz of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA), principal trombone of The Philadelphia Orchestra. A huge part of his education happened outside of school at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts; he was the orchestra’s biggest fan, religiously attending every week. “Curtis provided an atmosphere that was both demanding and supportive, leading me to believe, although much was required, I was capable,” he recalls. 

His instinct was correct and was quickly validated with a whirlwind of successes after graduation. “We work in an industry where the victors get the spoils,” says Sprott. “Winning the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra position opened the doors to my aspirations as a teacher, soloist, and chamber musician.

All In

Weston-Sprott-classroomSprott has taken full advantage of the opportunities he has been presented with—almost to a fault. “I’m convinced that I suffer from an overdeveloped work ethic,” he says. “It’s a characteristic that is simultaneously an asset and a weakness.”

In addition to the demanding schedule at the Met—on average performing four-hour shows seven days a week—Sprott has held positions with the Zurich Opera and Philharmonia, Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra, and Delaware Symphony Orchestra; performs in The Philadelphia Orchestra with his musical idols from his Curtis days; plays chamber music at venues like the 92nd Street Y; has been a soloist on four continents, making his Carnegie Hall solo debut in 2007; has recorded a solo album; and is on faculty at Mannes College (The New School for Music), Bard College, Rutgers University, and Juilliard Pre-College. He even helped design the “New Yorker” Weston Sprott Model trombone for the Antoine Courtois Instrument Company.

Sprott’s intense dedication started early. “When I started playing as a child, I immediately fell in love with the concept of sound creation,” he says. “My parents never had to encourage me to practice. In fact, they sometimes had to encourage me to come home from the band hall, or to put the instrument away and do something else.”

His friends shared his passion—Tim Higgins of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), for example, who is now principal trombone of the San Francisco Symphony, was a high school classmate. The pair was in constant competition, battling for bragging rights and pushing each other to be better.

“We were the perfect depiction of iron sharpening iron: Who could play louder, faster, higher, softer?” Sprott remembers. “We went to symphony concerts on weekends and listened to Joseph Alessi’s recordings on the way to Sonic after marching band practice. Some people see spending the entire day with your instrument as discipline. We saw it as enthusiasm.”

These days, Sprott still wants to do it all—“play all the music, teach all the students, go to all the festivals”—but he’s striving to find a balance between work and rest. “Once or twice a year, my body sends me a firm reminder that I’m still only one person and there is only so much time in the day,” he says.

Even so, Sprott makes time to serve on the orchestra committee for the Met Opera Orchestra, a task that reinforces the value of AFM membership. “Beyond benefits related to collective bargaining and contract enforcement, AFM membership connects musicians of all levels and genres across the continent,” he explains. “Membership is a reminder that the work we do has value and we are not alone in our artistic pursuits.”

Pay It Forward 

Weston Sprott image1-2Knowing that his work has value is of the utmost importance to Sprott, who, above all, loves helping people. (“I think many of my friends would say that I’m someone they seek out for advice. In private, they might say that advice is sometimes unsolicited,” he admits.) Teaching, he finds, is the perfect outlet to positively influence the lives of others. Plus, he sees it as a way to “pay it forward” after being the beneficiary of great teachers throughout his training.

Some of his most rewarding teaching experiences are at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in South Africa, which hosts talented young musicians—many of whom don’t have access to regular high-level training or don’t own their
instruments. Sprott continues his relationships with these musicians long after the festival has ended, teaching via Skype or even sponsoring them to visit New York City and get a glimpse into the lives of full-time professional musicians.

Beyond bringing a wealth of knowledge to impart on the students each summer—this year will be his sixth—Sprott also brings donated instruments with him. “Here’s my shameless plug: If you have a decent instrument that you never use and that would be better off in the hands of an enthusiastic young musician, please contact me!” he implores.

Sprott puts a great deal of thought and energy into helping his students, and he advises them that it is paramount for any aspiring musician to have incredible enthusiasm for the craft. “Enthusiasm fuels work ethic,” he says. “John Wooden once said that work without joy
is drudgery.”

He also encourages students to be multi-dimensional. “In addition to being a great player, work to be a great writer, speaker, teacher, historian, or recording engineer,” he suggests. “Even for those who are fortunate enough to make a living from playing alone, great satisfaction can come from having multiple outlets of expression.”

Outside of performing and teaching, Sprott reads nonfiction (he leans toward books on self-improvement, interracial relations, and interpersonal skills). He is an avid sports fan (rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Indiana University Hoosiers), with a passion for travel (the vacations he and his wife take every year are preceded by a lengthy discussion about whether or not he is allowed to take his trombone along!). He’s also perfected his response to the comment that he looks like President Obama. “I’m a big fan of Obama … so, when I’m told I resemble him, I chuckle and take it as a compliment,” he says.

And, of course, there’s poker—lots of poker. “We play at every break of every [Met] performance and rehearsal,” Sprott says. “It’s tons of fun and a nice income supplement, often times courtesy of select colleagues who, for this article, will remain unnamed.”

Sprott is lucky at the poker table and is certainly having a great run in his career. “In my experience, there is no shortage of worthwhile opportunities available to those who work hard, treat people with dignity, and keep their focus on generosity of spirit and being good to others,” he says, noting that he is content to let his next steps unfold organically. “What I know for sure is whatever comes next will be done with these values in mind.”

We can bet on it.

paul williams

Paul Williams: The Man with the Rainbow Connection

paul williamsToday, singer, songwriter, and composer Paul Williams is a different man than he was at the height of his music career. Now President of ASCAP, Williams says that his two biggest passions are recovery and artists’ rights.

“March 15 I celebrated 26 years of continuous sobriety—the greatest gift I’ve ever been given,” he says. “At 49, I had misplaced a decade due to alcohol and cocaine addiction. I was a mess and I was dying. I asked for help and people came out of the woodwork—a choir of grateful hearts—recovering alcoholics and addicts. I began to connect with the world around me.”

Musician Buddy Arnald, founder of the Musicians Assistance Program (MAP), suggested the newly sober Williams spend a year in UCLA’s drug and alcohol counseling program. Afterward, Williams became a volunteer counselor at MAP’s offices that were located in AFM Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), where Williams has been a member for 44 years.

“I felt really useful for the first time in years,” he says. “And isn’t it interesting that it was at Local 47 in Los Angeles that I found that feeling? Eventually, I fell in love with songwriting again. However, I think it’s remarkable that my career in music—the life and love of music that I had misplaced—I found again partly through the musicians union’s generosity.”

Q: How did the process of recovery change the way you thought about your career? How did it change you as a human being?

I became grateful. I began to see life as a gift. I began to feel connected to the world around me in ways I’d never really experienced before. Alcoholism is an isolating disease. We recover into a life of love and service. Those are important words to a recovering alcoholic. We get to keep the miracle by giving it away.

Writing became easier. I began to trust that the words and the music would come. I see the real magic in the process and I know the songs are a gift to me that I get to share. I think we have unseen allies. The muse has been very generous to me.

Q: What are some of the ways organizations like ASCAP or the AFM can help with the problem of musician substance abuse?

Organizations like ASCAP and AFM provide a community of peers. The ASCAP membership is strong. This community is a source of mentorship and learning, and one that I’m thankful for and proud to be part of. One of the things we provide at our EXPO every year is a safe harbor room for any attendee who needs the support.

Q: Why did you want to become president of ASCAP? Was there something you thought the organization should or could do differently when you took the helm?

I’ve been an ASCAP member since 1972. My friend Hal David—the great lyricist and former president of ASCAP—suggested that I run for the board in 2001. I was pretty uninformed for someone who made their living in music and counted on performance royalties to feed his family. The more I learned, the more impressed I became. I’ve come to love this remarkable organization.

Since its founding, ASCAP has been on the front lines fighting for the rights of its members. We are still the only PRO owned and run by creator members, and we’re proud to operate as a not-for-profit.

When I took over as president in 2009, I saw an opportunity to expand our message to include the first-person stories of our members. The songs and scores don’t write themselves. I wanted to put a face to the work. The antiquated music licensing system is having a severely negative impact on their ability to earn a fair wage for their craft. Everything starts with a song, and it’s important we tell this story to legislators and those in Washington, DC, who write the laws.

Q: Can you explain for AFM members how ASCAP and the AFM support each other’s missions? Why should performing songwriters belong to both?

The songs would be lifeless without the musicians’ art and craft. You bring our songs to life. Thank you. We really appreciate it. When music is performed there is a blanket licensing process that serves the music creator, the licensee, and the music lover. I was free to write a second song because ASCAP was collecting for my first.

AFM is dedicated to the interests of musicians, just as ASCAP is dedicated to the interests of publishers and songwriters. We both work to negotiate fair payments, protect the use of our members’ work, and advocate for policies that ensure a prosperous future for American music. Joining both organizations allows performing songwriters to enjoy the benefits of two of America’s most trusted advocates for music creators.

Q: Many AFM members have lost work in small venues due to the proprietors’ reluctance to pay SESAC, BMI, and ASCAP fees. Has ASCAP explored the idea of exempting or reducing fees for venues with small capacities?

We understand how essential music is to local businesses—it helps attract customers and drive revenue. But it’s also important that songwriters be compensated when their music is performed. In today’s marketplace, we depend on public performance royalties more than ever before to earn a living. ASCAP recently re-examined our fees, particularly for small venues, to ensure fairness and transparency across the system. The average cost of an ASCAP license for bars and restaurants amounts to a little over $2 a day. So for the equivalent of the cost of a cup of coffee, businesses can legally perform any of the millions of copyrighted works in the ASCAP repertory. Also, food service or drinking establishments under 3,750 gross square feet are exempt from licensing for radio or TV music uses.

paul-williams-speakingQ: As a leader in the music business, do you have any advice for young musicians?

As music creators, we understand it’s a personal decision to join any professional organization. That’s why we’re honored when songwriters and publishers decide to join ASCAP, and we work tirelessly to support them, their music, and their rights.

My advice to young musicians would be to educate themselves about their rights and join an organization that has proven itself to be on the side of music creators; whether that’s AFM, ASCAP, or any other organization that is out there fighting to protect the future of this profession.

Q: I remember talking to one songwriter about how, when a song he wrote for a well-known country singer went viral on YouTube, he received only pennies. How can performers’ rights organizations better adapt to this new dynamic?

The framework of federal laws that governs how ASCAP and BMI operate was largely put in place in the 1940s. It’s a system that was created for a very different time and a very different marketplace. Today, a lot of digital music companies are exploiting these outdated music licensing laws in order to pay songwriters less than what their music is truly worth—or less than it would be in a truly free and fair marketplace.

The remedy, of course, is modernizing the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees to better reflect the way people listen to music today. ASCAP’s consent decree, for example, hasn’t been updated since before the iPod hit stores.

When I started out, it was possible to earn a decent living as a songwriter. Now, it’s a much riskier time. In today’s highly competitive music marketplace, it’s downright absurd that American songwriters—small business owners, in the truest sense—are more heavily regulated by the federal government than the giant corporations that use and profit from the music we create. This needs to change so that we can keep America’s music industry alive and thriving.

That’s why ASCAP is fighting for updates to our federal music licensing laws.

Q: Do you think we are losing diversity in songwriting due to the fact that fewer songwriters can earn a fair living?

The irony is, music is used more today than ever, yet our music licensing system rewards the billion-dollar streaming companies at the expense of the actual creators. I do think it’s having a negative effect on those who are thinking about joining this profession.

From a practical standpoint, it’s very risky to enter the music business as a songwriter today simply because there is so much standing in the way of being able to earn a fair wage. It still takes more than one million streams on Pandora for a songwriter to earn $100! Even when your song is a hit, it’s still a very risky business.

And that’s a shame, because if the profession can’t attract talent, it affects everyone downstream—record labels, recording artists, streaming companies, and music lovers alike.

paul-williams-standingQ: How has your thinking about digital music changed as the industry has evolved?

The advent of digital music has brought with it some great changes to the way people consume music—people are able to discover new artists with ease and carry their music with them everywhere they go. Personally, I think that’s a wonderful thing.

But as music users move from physical downloads to streaming, the royalties don’t cover the gap in what songwriters used to make. In 2015, ASCAP processed about 570 billion performances of our members’ music, a 14% increase from 2014, and more than double the number of performances tracked in 2013. But revenues and distributions have remained relatively flat in comparison. That’s because the majority of the growth is happening on streaming platforms, which pay songwriters far less. And that’s why we continue to push for reform. We need our licensing laws to reflect today’s technologies.

Q: Looking back on your career, knowing what you know now about life and the
music industry, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?

Be authentic. Tell us your story. Let us know who you are. When you dare to share something from the center of your chest—your most private thoughts about loneliness or love—you may be happily surprised by the number of people who identify with your emotions and find comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

I get very Jiminy Cricket about our work. But I’m a realist too. Having witnessed this incredible technological revolution in music, I could have never predicted that there would be such great inequities for the lifeblood of the industry—the music creators themselves.

If I were just starting out today, I’d tell myself the usual—find what inspires you, hone your craft. But just as important, I’d tell myself to get up to speed on copyright law; join the movement to modernize our music licensing system because these laws won’t correct themselves. We, as music creators, must fight for change.

Q: What song are you most proud of? Which song has the most personal meaning to you?

One of the high points of my career was working with Jim Henson. Kenny Ascher and I wrote the songs for The Muppet Movie. “The Rainbow Connection” has had a life beyond our wildest expectations. It’s really a song about the power of belief.

Who said that every wish would be heard and answered if wished on the morning star? Somebody thought of that … And someone believed it. Look what it’s done so far.

Q: What projects are you currently
working on?

I’m working on a musical with Gustavo Santaolalla. We’re writing the songs for a theatrical adaptation of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. He’s writing the music and then I am providing the lyrics. Incidentally, he’s brilliant. I’m so excited about this work.