Tag Archives: musician profile

Alphonse Stephenson

Retired Chaplain Brigadier General Alphonse Stephenson Serves as Maestro

Alphonse Stephenson

Fr. Alphonse Stephenson at the piano with AFM musicians of the Orchestra of St. Peter By the Sea.

Father Alphonse Stephenson of Local 802 (New York City) is conductor and director of one of the most successful small orchestral ensembles in the country. Located in Providence, New Jersey, the Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea recently marked its 30th anniversary.

It all started on a lark. Stephenson was saying mass at St. Peter’s while serving at St. Malachy’s, the Actor’s Chapel, in New York City’s Theater District. “It’s not really by the sea. It’s pretty much in my head,” he laughs and explains he was thinking of London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The very first concert sold out. “I paid the musicians, gave a check to the pastor for $2,000, and said thanks for turning on the lights,” Since then, he’s helped many parishes, nonprofits, and service organizations realize their fundraising goals. “We charge a fee, play the concert. You sell the tickets and make a profit.”

In 1986, when Stephenson decided to establish an orchestra, he tapped into Local 802 to enlist musicians. The union provided names and a contractor, and all the musicians became signatory on the pension fund. Thirty years later, the 48-member orchestra is a self-sustaining entity that performs across the state. In addition, Stephenson created the St. Cecelia Foundation, a charitable arm, which supports scholarships, private study, and quality instruments for children who display academic excellence and talent.

“A kid wrote me a long letter about wanting to be a doubler on Broadway. I didn’t know how much English horns cost. Eight thousand dollars later, we gave him an English horn. Money comes in, the money goes out!” he says light-heartedly. In a more serious tone, he explains that the athletic kid generally is awarded scholarships. “The kid sitting in the practice room is being ignored. If we can help through the Foundation it’s answering a huge need.”

With such an easy charm and an infectious laugh it’s surprising that Stephenson is a retired Military Chaplain and Brigadier General. “I was in the pit at the Schubert theatre in New York City and somehow ended up in the Pentagon,” he says, adding, “If I had known how nice it was to be a general, I’d have done it right from the beginning.”

He became a chaplain at 39, joining the Air National Guard, and continued to work with the orchestra. When a job in DC came up, Stephenson grabbed it. “It was fantastic,” he says of his career as Assistant to the Air Force Chief of Chaplains at the Pentagon and as Chaplain Brigadier General, and then Director of the Joint Chaplaincy Staff at the National Guard Bureau. “I left kicking and screaming. I just became too old to stay in!”

The military proved to be a life-changing experience. Deployment to the Middle East and an assignment at Landstuhl Hospital in Germany forever changed Stephenson’s worldview. Wounded soldiers were flown directly from the field to Germany so he witnessed firsthand the cost of war—and often reflects on what he saw. “Anytime you feel the weight of the world you see what real resilience is about. These kids were magnificent, their willingness to be of service,” he says.

It adds perspective to his current job. “It doesn’t matter if something goes wrong. Nobody got hurt. If a musician hits a clinker, they look at the instrument as if they got betrayed!” he laughs. “The real challenge among musicians is that we work in harmony with each other, that’s always a challenge. Keep the troops alive—and enthusiastic, no matter what the mission. Show some soul, whether it be military or in an orchestral setting.”

Ordained in 1975, Stephenson detoured into music in 1976 at age 27, studying under Robert Abramson of the Juilliard School and George Schick of the Metropolitan Opera. At a certain stage of one’s life, Stephenson says, “You need to critique your education. Narrow down what you need to learn and go and study with somebody who knows how to do it. They want to pass on what they know.” In 1980, the late Broadway director and choreographer Michael Bennett engaged him as conductor and music director of his smash hit, A Chorus Line, which he continued for seven years, more than 3,000 performances.

Although he’s been retired from the military since 2014, Stephenson is still getting used to not wearing a uniform. Stephenson has a parish on weekends, but for the most part he’s taken on the role of musician full-time.

“It’s been whacky—how did it all come together? How do you run an orchestra for 30 years? You have money, you do a concert; if there’s no money, you don’t do a concert. Admittedly, the orchestra has a strong following, especially during the Christmas season. Amid a full repertory of holiday classics, Maestro Stephenson punctuates the concerts with anecdotes and plenty of humor. For the past 27 years they have performed at Monmouth University. He says, “They gave me an honorary Doctor of Music at their commencement after the 25th year! [It was] a lot more fun than sitting in a classroom!”

For everything he does, Stephenson draws on each of his roles—chaplain, general, and conductor. He says, “The maestro stands between one body making music and the other receiving music. Like a priest, asking them to come with me.”


Jane Suberry

Northern Star: Jane Siberry on a New Musical Journey

Jane Suberry

Canadian musician Jane Siberry of Local 149 (Toronto, ON) has a goal to live more authentically, and lets her heart and music decide where she will travel next.

At 60 years old, Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry says she’s inching toward her prime. “Maybe there are several primes,” she muses. “My goal—maybe a lot of people’s goal—is to live more authentically. Don’t make a move until it pushes you from inside.” Planning is not typical for Siberry, but other projects she thinks about include a TV talk show with musical guests, and a detective TV series for which she’d enlist her musician friends—a light-hearted show covering complex issues, she explains. 

Siberry’s new CD, Angels Bend Closer—her first in five years—is garnering the kind of praise that secured her cult-like status 35 years ago. Here, she confronts hopelessness and doubt, but true to form, Siberry inevitably provides solace, a way of feeling whole again. She says, “It was time to do songs that were safe, direct, familiar, not too weird or outside.” The album is listed In NPR’s Best Music of 2016. 

It took her five years to complete Angels working intermittently in different stages. “People might ask why it’s been so long,” she jokes, “Who knows? Maybe they thought I was working at a Whole Foods or something.”

“I went through my whole catalog and I was surprised to find there’s a through line: trustworthy, consistent. I’m much more direct now. I don’t use he and she, I use ‘you.’ I try not to be too cryptic.” She says candidly, “We don’t have that much time, let’s dive in. I’m sort of like that in person, too. It’s a good feeling when you’re not tentative. You’re operating from a whole different foundation.” 

Siberry of Local 149 (Toronto, ON) is largely self-taught, having learned to play piano by ear at a young age. Later on, she would draw on classical and operatic works to create her distinctively lush, ethereal sound. As a teenager, she learned to play the guitar by working through the repertory of fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen.

Already a union member at 18, Siberry began recording in the 1970s. In the 1980s, when she moved into electronic art pop,  she became internationally recognized.

Siberry’s second album, No Borders Here (1984), yielded her first single, the hit “Mimi on the Beach.” With her breakthrough album, The Speckless Sky (1985), she earned awards and the attention of artists like Brian Eno, who collaborated on a later album, When I Was a Boy. Her duet with Local 145 (Vancouver, BC) member k.d. lang, “Calling All Angels,” from the same album, has been featured in two films: Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991) and Pay It Forward (2000).

In 2006, Siberry adopted the name, Issa, and shed most of her possessions, keeping only one guitar. And then six years ago, she made the switch from performing in larger clubs to smaller venues—home concerts in a salon-type setting.

“I move around a lot and that was part of changing my name—to be more at the behest of the universe,” she says. These days, her only home is a cabin in Northern Ontario, where she retreats when not touring. Her traveling companion is her beloved border collie, Gwyllym.

Siberry credits executive producer Dellamarie Parrilli for adding energy to the arrangements on Angels. “She took what she loves about my music and tried to exaggerate it, making things more poignant, more soaring, elevating my voice,” explains Siberry.

“Part of our jobs as musicians is to be a barometer—it’s a natural thing,” Siberry says. I write about things I wish I had heard people talk about when I was 16. “There weren’t very many people [talking about them], except maybe Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell [of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)]. I felt like that was a party I wanted to join.”

It was through jazz that Siberry became more interested in formal writing. She says she has always “trusted” jazz musicians. “I understand their kind of musical poetry. I’m being spoken to respectfully. They’re connected enough to themselves. I’m hearing how someone else is living their life,” she explains. Jazz players are also better suited to her music and performances, which involve a lot of on-stage improvising.

“I sometimes think the true role of the musician should be unterritorial, more like shaping than writing a song,” she says, adding that she wouldn’t mind if someone decided to change some of her lyrics. “We’re all different musical beings.”

Every now and then Siberry performs with k.d. lang and says she looks forward to the day when they do “Living Statue” together on stage. In the meantime, Siberry will tour wherever the new CD events and celebrations take her—as long as Gwyllym can go, too.

She may play Carnegie Hall, or head to the mountains in Wales, she explains. Some shepherding friends have invited her to help take the sheep up the mountain when they’ve got their lambs—one event where Gwyllym will be the star. After the sheep are up the mountain, Siberry will tour the UK, walking from town to town and gig to gig.

michael walden

Narada Michael Walden: Evolution to Success

michael walden

Drummer, producer, songwriter Narada Michael Walden of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA) has written hits for some of the biggest names in the industry.

Narada Michael Walden of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA) was just 21 when he was discovered by the avant-garde guitarist John McLaughlin and joined the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Taking over for the illustrious drummer Billy Cobham was a pivotal moment in Walden’s career. The experience defined his life on many levels, from visionary, genre-blending new music to the spiritual quest it would take him on. McLaughlin introduced Walden to a guru, Sri Chinmoy, who gave him the name Narada and who taught him not to judge himself too harshly. “The only person you need to compete with is yourself. Be the best you,” advised Chinmoy.

At 64 years old the top-flight producer, songwriter, and musician, who has produced 57 number one hit songs, and received three Grammys, and an Emmy, is still humbled by life. His joie de vivre is compelling as he talks about success and contentment. “Did you have a good time?! Did you accomplish what you wanted to? I played with John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana [of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA)], Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder [of Local 5 (Detroit, MI)]. I had fun, I had children—all the things we’re here to do,” he remarks.

Walden calls Evolution, his 16th album with the Narada Michael Walden Band, “a celebration of delight.” On it, he revels in late-in-life fatherhood and pays homage to musicians who have inspired him. “I’m calling out their names,” he says, “A lot of high-spirited dancers came out. Curtis Mayfield touched my heart. Rick James’ spirit, just crooning, came out. Rock blues came out. Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck all came out. The 1978 dance music came back around again.” The album includes two covers: “Freedom” by Richie Havens and “The Long and Winding Road” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Growing up in the 1950s, between Detroit and Chicago, Walden listened to everything. “Even before Motown, we had beautiful music. There was Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Mathis, Patti Page, Jimmy Smith, and Dave Brubeck. Anything that was cool, even country, like Patsy Cline—we loved,” he says. Heavily influenced by Ray Charles, as a kid he carried around his live album What’d I Say. “Every song was so deep. Groove, all the while his feet beating under the piano. So much command, control, and discipline,” he says.

Walden’s debut album back in 1976, Garden of Love Light, featured tracks representative of his experience with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But Atlantic Records was looking for commercial hits so Walden’s follow-up work moved toward the dance-pop and soul music for which he’s become most famous. He says his hit from that album, “I Don’t Want Nobody Else (to Dance with You)” saved his career. As a producer and songwriter, he’s collaborated with musicians across the charts, notably Stevie Wonder, Stanley Jordan of Local 802 (New York City), Whitney Houston, Steve Winwood, and Mariah Carey, while scoring many hits of his own. With Jeff Beck he wrote and played drums on the seminal album, Wired, earning each a Gold Album.   

Walden makes his home in the studio, but still loves live venues. On occasion, he plays with his old friends, like Aretha Franklin. Recently, in New York City, for the first time they performed the hit he co-wrote and produced for her, “Freeway of Love.” Walden expresses awe for that generation of singers, especially from the gospel tradition. “It’s a power that’s ordained, almost transcendental,” he says. 

He describes Tarpan Studios as a nesting ground for developing talent. Part of his genius as a producer is freeing up the artist so he can capture the emotion. Walden creates ambiance, the perfect lighting, the vibe, getting to what he refers to as the deep heart space to touch the emotion. He says, “The timing, how it feels, the tuning, how it goes down—the emotion is critical. A few great singers absolutely love the sound of their voices. And that’s what makes it easier for me as a producer. They just love the sound that comes out of the speaker.”

In the ’60s, ’70s, even into the ’90s, music had air, making space for artistry. “These days, it’s got to be mastered to the point where it’s super powerful, which often takes air out of the music. Going fast,  intense and big sounding.” Walden remembers what Quincy Jones of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) taught him long ago: “If it’s number one it’s number one for a reason”—which these days means keeping up with cultural shifts, being competitive in the industry, all the while preserving an art form. 

A longtime session musician, Walden is a strong advocate for musicians’ rights. He regularly contracts union musicians. “We want to make sure we protect ourselves and artists and songwriters get paid,”  he says, noting the solidarity and order the union brings to the industry to keep musicians in business.    

Through his own foundation, he’s broadened his advocacy work. The Narada Michael Walden Foundation fosters music education for children by providing instruments for private lessons and music programs and camps. In addition to Christmas shows and jams throughout the year, he invites students into the studio for sessions on recording and writing, where they participate in singing or drumming classes. For many of the events, Walden calls on high-profile friends, like Sting, Dionne Warwick, and Martha Reeves to work with kids. “It’s a confidence builder. We both win.” 

In a life that’s come full circle, with Evolution, with his family, and the foundation, Walden has found his center. Invoking the guru, he tells students, “Be the best you.”

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.

Edward Avedisian

Veteran Musician and Union Member Edward Avedisian Receives Medal of Honor

Edward AvedisianThe National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) has awarded musician and philanthropist Edward Avedisian of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) the 2016 Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

“Not only is Ed Avedisian an exceptional musician, he is an extraordinary humanitarian,” says Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) President Patrick Hollenbeck, reflecting on this prestigious honor. “Little did we know that the quiet man with clarinet in hand was making people’s lives better across the globe in his spare time.”

Avedisian’s career spans 55 years, as a performing symphonic musician, professor, arts administrator, and philanthropist. He retired after 30 years as clarinetist with the Boston Pops and more than 40 seasons with the Boston Ballet Orchestra. Avedisian has contributed much to the Armenian community and the American University of Armenia (AUA), namely the Center for Health Studies and Research and the Center for Business Research and Development. He is sole benefactor and chair of the AUA Oversight Committee for the Nork Marash Medical Center, which performs open heart surgeries for children at no cost. Other projects include the Paramaz Avedisian Pharmacy Scholarship at University of Rhode Island, the Chobanian Professorship at Boston University Medical Center, and the BU Tanglewood Scholarship. 

“I am very proud to accept the Ellis Island Medal of Honor this year,” says Avedisian. “Ellis Island reminds us that we are a welcoming nation built on diversity. I salute the efforts of NECO and greatly appreciate the honor symbolized by the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.”

One of the nation’s most prestigious awards, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor has been awarded each year since 1986 and recognizes individuals who have made it their mission to share with those less fortunate their wealth of knowledge, indomitable courage, boundless compassion, unique talents, and selfless generosity, all the while maintaining the traditions of their ethnic heritage as they embody the American dream.

Past recipients include Eli Wiesel, Rosa Parks, Colin Powell, Frank Sinatra, and Mohammad Ali, plus six US presidents.

Joe Costello

While Firmly Entrenched in the Phoenix Music Scene, Joe Costello Still Longs for the Road

Joe CostelloJoe Costello of Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) put his promising music career as a drummer on hold nearly 25 years ago. At the time, the now 54-year-old musician says, “I thought I would save money and stash it. Being in the corporate world would support my music.” He became a weekend warrior, touring with a blues band, often doing shows in three states over three days, and returning late Sunday to begin a normal workweek. 

Eventually, Costello started his own software company. It was the 1980s, at the beginning of the dot com era, and Costello says, “I thought something magical would happen. I’d buy a tour bus and tour the world.” In 2004, he moved from New York City to Phoenix. It would take him another seven years to shed the software, networking, and home automation jobs and return to music.

He pared down his belongings and anything that required a monthly payment. “It meant being lean and mean,” he says. To his astonishment, something remarkable did happen. The moment he let his business life go, music work started coming in. 

Indeed, the projects now seem inexhaustible. He plays four to six nights a week (including the union hall of Local 586), and leads three working bands. He also presides over the jazz ensemble The Joe Costello Project. He heads a highly successful booking agency, Onstage Entertainment Group; teaches private drum lessons; produces shows; and as a session drummer, he records percussion tracks for a number of in-town and touring artists.

In May, Costello launched his most ambitious effort yet, The Performers Institute. The Phoenix-based facility offers summer music camps, private lessons, band coaching, music business seminars, clinics, workshops, and online courses. Costello says he wants to help artists make a living with their talent and passion for playing music, but also teach them entrepreneurial skills.

“If more musicians were educated on the business side of being a performer, they could better sustain themselves and make a living at what they love to do,” says Costello.

In business clinics he tells young musicians, “Don’t do what I did. You’ve got to go for exactly what you want. Meet it head-on.” He emphasizes that it takes more than talent. It takes learning to communicate and learning about music as an industry. He eagerly imparts what experience has taught him: develop  business acumen, PR, and marketing skills, and above all, have integrity. Costello adds, “Make sure you answer your phone. Get back to people.” 

Instructors and teachers at the institute are professional musicians. Costello explains that the kids absorb on-the-job lessons from people in the trenches. His goal is to bring in top-notch musicians, but also draw on professionals and experts in the field. For instance, entertainment attorneys who could explain contracts and clarify copyright for songwriters, and accountants could help independent artists with tax issues.

He wants the institute to be a destination for professional musicians making their way along the Phoenix-to-LA corridor to do seminars, workshops, and concerts. According to Costello, more musicians are relocating to Phoenix for the weather or its proximity to Los Angeles, a mere six-hour drive. Some performers cut their teeth in LA, but get tired of the rat race and move to Phoenix.

His hope is that the Performers Institute becomes an institution on par with the Musicians Institute of Los Angeles, which was similarly conceived as an innovative education facility for creative and professional careers in the music industry. People in the community know Costello is funding the institute with his own money—on a musician’s income—and they have rallied, volunteering and donating equipment, food, furniture, keyboards, and drums.

There is a particular camaraderie in the Phoenix music scene and the union is well-represented with a number of transplanted musicians. Costello holds what he calls a “musicians’ hang,” essentially a networking event where musicians show up with business cards—and a sense of what they want to accomplish in their careers. Costello feels strongly that it’s important to bring the music community together: those who want to play for fun and those who need the work. The hang helps to fast-track connections
for people. He says, “It gets things moving in the community.”

Costello grew up in Port Ewen, New York, just south of Kingston. His father owned a restaurant that was a hot spot for music. He sat in and listened to a lot of bands and learned to play the sax. But his idol was Buddy Rich, the drummer. When his parents took him to a show, he would walk out shaking. Although he played drums in high school, he entered Fredonia School of Music as a vocal major—an operatic singer. Gradually, he moved into radio, sound recording, and performance and proved to be a natural drummer for the school’s jazz ensemble.

After graduation, in between odd jobs, he performed with a quartet. Some of the musicians he played with were in Harry Connick, Jr.’s band and periodically Connick of Local 802 (New York City) would sit in and play.

Ideally, Costello says he’d model his career on that of his friend, the versatile session drummer Steve Gadd of Local 802. As a studio musician, Costello is well versed in jazz, funk, R&B, and country music. For all his accomplishments—cultivating the Costello brand and building a center for contemporary music, to say nothing of endorsements from cymbal, stick, and drum companies—you would think Costello would be content and too busy to think of anything else. Still, he has not strayed from his original dream. He still longs to tour the world.

“It’s vast,” he says, “I want to see every part of it. If I can do it, and if I can make a living, that’s my ultimate dream.” He has a core team in place at the institute and ample support from the community. One day, he hopes to have a stream of income that allows him to leave it behind for a while to just travel and play music.

papa john

Papa John Talks About His Keys to Success

papa john

In the Hammond B-3, Papa John Defrancesco of Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) discovered a “spiritual sound” that determined his extraordinary career in jazz.

Keyboardist John Defrancesco of Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) started on clarinet. “But I saw Louis Armstrong play, and I said, ‘Man, I want to play the trumpet!’ Louie inspired me on the horn. I had all those old 78s. There was one called the ‘12th Street Rag.’ I’ll never forget it.” He hums, “Babaa do ba dupe.”

At 16 years old, the Niagara Falls, New York, native joined AFM. “It was a powerful thing when I was a kid,” he says.

His father Joseph was a musician, too, a reed man. “Back in the day, he played with the Dorsey brothers, when they were young, before they were popular,” he recalls. “I remember dad saying they would argue all the time.”

Defrancesco was still a teenager when he first heard Jimmy Smith playing his famous Hammond B-3 in Buffalo, New York. He says, “I heard that organ and it was just so spiritual. I was playing trumpet at the time, but when I heard that organ and Jimmy and the band—the groove, it sounded so heavy.”

With a powerful instrument like the B-3, he says, “A musician uses all his limbs. Your brain is working extra hard playing chords, bass lines, and harmony changes.” It would be a few years before Defrancesco began playing the B-3 full time.

Laughing, he says, “My wife bought me an organ because it’s all I ever talked about.” From then on, hard bop and deep groove would define his sound. He quit trumpet, and after months of steady practice, he was ready to showcase his skill.

He moved from western New York to Philadelphia in 1967, and immersed himself in its vibrant jazz community. It was there he and his wife, Laurene, raised their family.

“Jazz was the music of the house and the organ music was at the top. We used to listen to all the cats—Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott,” Defrancesco says. He played around Philly and on the Jersey Shore, between three and four nights a week, plus festivals—which meant hauling the 325-pound organ to and from gigs.

“One time, it slipped and chased us down the stairs,” he says. “I flipped it, tightened the tubes, and went right to work.”

To think Defrancesco’s first love was aviation. “Originally, I wanted to be a pilot,” he laughs. “You get wrapped up in music and it takes everything away from you. In a good way,” he adds. “When you’re playing it’s so enjoyable. The bad time is when you’re not playing, of course, but that’s the business.”

In 1979, he put his career on hold to spend time with his kids. By then, his son Joey, just eight years old, was a prodigy on the organ, and his father was his music teacher. At 17, Joey was offered a rare chance to tour as a member of Miles Davis’ band. John resumed performing and recording, which eventually included his sons. It was at this point Defrancesco adopted the moniker “Papa John.”

With a playing career of more than 50 years behind him, Papa John lives far from the Philly music scene where he made his name. In Maricopa, Arizona, he still performs and occasionally does out-of-town gigs. He plays around Phoenix and at the union hall, with Jerry Donato, also of Local 586.

Before Jimmy Smith died, in 2005, Defrancesco was able to perform and spend time with the B-3 legend. Defrancesco says he tries to keep the music alive—but he needn’t worry. Thanks to Papa John’s example, inspiration, and mentoring, the Defrancesco name remains synonymous with soulful jazz organ mastery.

Johnny Cowell

Johnny Cowell: Toronto Trumpet Soloist Still Performing at 90 Years Old

Johnny Cowell

Johnny Cowell of Local 149 (Toronto, ON) is a recipient of the local’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Johnny Cowell, a 73-year member of Local 149 (Toronto, ON), is considered to be one of Canada’s most renowned trumpet soloists. Over the years, he’s worked with many of Canada’s symphony orchestras and concert bands.

Born in Tillsonbur, Ontario, Cowell played his first trumpet solo at age six. At 15, he became the youngest member and soloist of the Toronto Symphony Band, which presented weekly broadcasts on CBC radio. During wartime, Cowell was a soloist with the Royal Canadian Navy Band and Victory Symphony Orchestra. Upon discharge from the Navy Band he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto.

Cowell was a member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for 40 years. After he retired from that orchestra in 1991, he became a principal trumpet with the Toronto Philharmonia for 10 years. He was also a featured soloist with the Hannaford Street Silver Band, which included some of Toronto’s finest brass and percussion players. He even had the opportunity to substitute for Doc Severinsen when Doc cancelled a solo performance with the Hamilton Philharmonic at the last minute.

Cowell is also an accomplished songwriter and composer who has had more than 100 of his songs recorded by musicians like Floyd Cramer and Al Hirt (“Strawberry Jam”). Two of them—“Walk Hand in Hand” (1956) and “Our Winter Love” (1963)—became number one hits. His credits also include a number of symphonic pops compositions. Two composing highlights came in 1984 when he was commissioned to compose both a special fanfare for Governor General Jeanne Sauve, as well as fanfare for Her Majesty the Queen at the opening of the Metro Convention Centre (Toronto).

Cowell was honoured by many Toronto professional musicians at his 90th birthday celebration this year and he has received Local 149’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Though semi-retired, he continues to perform occasionally. In February, he was a featured soloist with the Hannaford Youth Band.

Jimmy McIntosh Creates CD with His Heroes

Jimmy McIntosh

The album Jimmy McIntosh, a Downbeat editor’s pick, features the Local 369 (Las Vegas, NV) guitarist jamming out with some of his musical heroes, including John Scofield (left) of Local 802 (New York City) .

You could say that Las Vegas guitarist Jimmy McIntosh has built his life and career around music business connections. The best example may be his latest CD, Jimmy McIntosh and … which features McIntosh exchanging licks with some of his personal heroes, including John Scofield and Mike Stern of Local 802 (New York City), plus Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones.

McIntosh’s earliest connection to the music industry goes way back to his mom’s friendship with Duke Ellington, who was a major influence when McIntosh was a young musician. Ellington bought McIntosh his first instrument when he was in 7th grade—a Bb French horn.

“Whenever he was playing in Detroit, Cincinnati, or Toledo we would go see him,” says McIntosh, who grew up in Temperance, Michigan, on the border with Ohio. “He would chip in money for private lessons.” The afternoon before McIntosh’s first school performance Ellington called to give him a pep talk.

McIntosh began playing guitar in 9th grade, influenced by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and David Bowie, and later, Jimi Hendrix, Allman Brothers, Jim Hall, Pat Metheny of Local 34-627 (Kansas City, MO), John Scofield, Mike Stern, Scott Henderson, The Neville Brothers, and The Meters.

After graduating from college, McIntosh moved to Las Vegas, a city he was also profoundly connected to and visited frequently while growing up. “Our roots are in Las Vegas,” he says. “My grandfather built the first permanent structure—a saloon called the Arizona Club.”

When he arrived in Vegas in 1981, McIntosh reached out to a musician he’d met at Berklee College of Music who was already working there. “I didn’t have any experience as a professional musician,” says McIntosh. “He told me to start at one end of the Las Vegas strip and go to every place that had live music and introduce myself to the band and see if I could sit in.”

McIntosh also joined the union, Local 369 (Las Vegas, NV). “My goal was always to get good union gigs. The best jobs are union,” he says. “There was a really nice union hall on Duke Ellington Boulevard and they would have bands on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights where they would get together and play big band music. I would go down and hang out.”

Throughout the years, his career expanded until he became an in-demand Vegas guitarist. McIntosh says the union has been important to that growth. Though he admits he’s played some “Vegassy” gigs that were kind of corny, he’s also managed to share the stage with quite a few big name musicians.

For a while, McIntosh played a show called Legends in Concert at the Imperial Palace. Through that job, he also worked as the house band for several annual cerebral palsy telethons. “Billy Preston was on the last one,” he says. “Playing with him was a real highlight. I was about 26 at the time.”

One steady gig for the past 25 years has been with the Lon Bronson All-Star Band. “We do a lot of Tower of Power and that kind of thing,” McIntosh says. “It’s made up of some of the best players in town who do other full-time gigs.” Aside from playing after-hours shows a couple nights a week, for a while, the All-Star Band played on a show on Comedy Central called Viva Variety.

A big fan of Penn & Teller, McIntosh was particularly pleased to get a gig playing for the magician duo’s Sin City Spectacular variety show broadcast on the FX Network 1998-1999. “It was fun and challenged your reading,” he says. It also gave him an opportunity to work with a wide variety of musicians, including Lyle Lovett of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), Jennifer Holiday, and Slash of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA). Other career highlights include working with David Foster and Kenny Loggins of Local 47, Donna Summer, and Gloria Gaynor.

Though McIntosh works steadily, he says the Vegas music scene is not as great as it used to be. “I think the heyday for working musicians was the ’60s and ’70s, when every little lounge had a duo or trio playing,” he says. “Now there’s some lounge work, but not that much. Musicians still move here, but like any place, it takes a little while to get plugged in.”

“Broadway shows have been really good for Vegas,” he continues. McIntosh played Mamma Mia in the Mandalay Bay for five years and then moved over to Jersey Boys for the past eight years. “I enjoy the steady gig, and then I can do something creative on the side. I have a trio with Keith Hubacher and José “Pepe” Jimenez [both members of Local 369].”

Having a steady gig allowed McIntosh to launch his first solo album, New Orleans to London, in 2006. “It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to make a record. All of my musical heroes wrote their own material, so I kind of think that’s the ultimate thing to do,” he says. “Then my father passed away in 2001. That’s what got me thinking—life is short; it’s time for me to make a musical statement.” He wanted to ask the Neville Brothers to be on the album, so he set a date when they would be in town.

It was Art Neville of 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) who first introduced McIntosh to Ronnie Wood backstage at a Las Vegas Stones show. They reconnected through Wood’s manager, and Woods agreed to play on that first solo project, New Orleans to London. McIntosh flew out to London to record five tracks with Wood, and was surprised when Jeff Beck also showed up and played on three tracks.

“Ronnie and I hit it off fantastically and we stayed in touch, so when I started the second record, Jimmy McIntosh and …, I was hoping he would play on it,” says McIntosh. Wood agreed and he and McIntosh played two improvised jams to open and close the album, plus Wood played on McIntosh’s cover of Wood’s “I Gotta See.” “The Rolling Stones have been my favorite band since I was a kid, so getting to work and play with Ronnie is literally a dream come true.”

Robert Earl Keen: A Unique Perspective on Songwriting and Success

Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen of Local 433 (Austin, TX) offers a “real” perspective on the music industry and making sure musicians can support themselves.

Texas troubadour whose witty words and infectious melodies have proved a winning combination, says he stumbled onto the musical side of word-smithing by accident. As a child he had the habit of making up songs in his head. “When I was about eight years old, I wrote a song for Larry’s Mexican Food restaurant in Rosenberg, Texas,” he says. “I sang it for Larry and he gave me a taco plate; the die was cast.”

When Keen, who grew up in Houston, moved to College Station to study English at Texas A&M he picked up his sister’s old guitar simply out of boredom. “I didn’t know what else to do; I didn’t have any friends up there and I wasn’t interested in studying. I got this book called The 10 Greatest Country Songs Ever Written and I learned all of them, except one—‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA’—I didn’t think it fit my repertoire.”

“I was always interested in words and read a lot. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 18, but when I started playing, it made all the sense in the world,” says the Local 433 (Austin, TX) member. “I went to school and got a degree, and the whole time, I never thought of anything I wanted to do more than write songs and perform.”

Keen eventually did have friends at A&M and even played and sang in a little four-piece bluegrass band. One of his Aggie friends was Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member Lyle Lovett. Together they wrote “The Front Porch Song,” while jamming on the front porch of a rented house. “Lyle was a bit more advanced. He started playing when he was about 12, I think. It’s amazing the things he can do with words, especially the whole jazzy dialogue thing.” Both Lovett and Keen ended up recording the song on their debut albums.

Throughout his career, words have continued to come first for Keen. “This is still the way it is with my songwriting process,” he says, explaining that, to him, the words are the most important component. That process starts with a picture, he says, “Sometimes it’s something I don’t really understand. And what I see in my head doesn’t necessarily translate into the song itself.”

Keen’s best known for his witty tunes about American culture, like “Gringo Honeymoon,” “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Feelin’ Good Again,” and “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which make listeners both think and laugh. However, his latest album, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, deviates from the Americana music Keen is so famous for.

Keen says bluegrass has always influenced his songwriting. “‘Shades of Gray’ is a total bluegrass beat,” he explains, of the song he wrote years ago about the Oklahoma City bombing. “If you strip it down and take off some of the electronics, it’s a bluegrass song. There are so many [of my] songs that kind of work in that way.”

“I had thought about doing a bluegrass record for many years, and for whatever reason, I just never could get myself to do it,” he explains. “One day I bolted out of bed and said, ‘I gotta do this bluegrass record and I’ve gotta do it now!’ It really fell together in a great way. Everybody that I wanted to play on it, is playing on it. The way we set it up, the songs that we played, all came together. It was amazing.”

“I wrote down 100 songs that were primarily bluegrass that I thought would work. We recorded 28 songs, and from those 28 we picked out 15, then added another five for value-added bonus stuff,” he says.

Keen has been touring for the album since it was released about a year ago and the reception has been enthusiastic. “We started out playing just the bluegrass stuff, but I have found that playing the brand new record is always a little more difficult because you are putting stuff out there that people don’t know. So after we played Happy Prisoner on a few shows, I started adding songs that I knew people wanted to hear. But instead of retooling the band, we are doing it in a totally bluegrass fashion, with upright bass, dobro, acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin,” he explains.

Keen is proud that he’s had the same road and studio band for the past 20 years—Local 433 members Rich Brotherton (guitar), Bill Whitbeck (bass), Marty Muse (steel guitar/dobro), and Tom Van Schaik (percussion). He says the secret to keeping a band for that long is listening to what the musicians want and need.

“They all say almost the same thing: they get gypped when it comes to making a record, and they don’t have enough security. I thought I could fix all the problems,” says Keen whose band has been on every one of his records since 1998. The members are salary, get paid for every show, plus receive overages. They also get bonuses at the end of the year, plus Keen contributes to SEP retirement programs for them, and provides insurance.

In 2015, Keen took his philosophy to Washington, DC, to lobby for the Fair Play Fair Pay Act and performance rights at Grammys on the Hill. “I think that the industry is somewhat top heavy and that most of the money goes to people that are good with money, and in general, musicians and artists are crappy with money,” he says. “I’m pretty good with it, but I’m big on sharing it.”

“I believe I’ve done it differently and successfully. I’ve never had a major hit. I’ve had some major label deals, but never where I’ve gotten tons of money. I’ve just done the work, one step at a time—playing the gigs to writing the songs. I have a completely practical and real perspective on how you can work the music business,” he continues. “A lot of musicians are on the bottom of the barrel. I think musicians should be taken care of. Why don’t we have a better system?”

Keen advises young singer-songwriters just starting out to join performance rights organizations and make connections with other seasoned members. Also he says, “Be careful about signing things, and stand your ground as far as your songs and your voice go. Do your own thing really well. I believe if you hold out and keep believing in yourself, you really can’t go wrong.”

Another cause Keen has been active in is music education. Currently a resident of Kerrville, Texas, for about the past 10 years Keen has supported Hill Country Youth Orchestras by organizing annual benefit concerts to the tune of $50,000-plus per year.

“From about age six to 18 they learn how to play the instrument in a symphony or quartet situation. To me that’s what music is all about. My greatest joy has been to play with other people,” he says.