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new reality

The New Reality for Musicians: How Our Union is Working For Us and How We Can All Adapt to the New Environment

new reality
Dallas Symphony Orchestra

We are more than two months into the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide quarantine, with just a glimmer of hope beginning to shine that society and the economy may start opening back up soon. But even a Phase 1 reopening will not much help musicians, whose profession relies on people in close contact, whether it is in studio, onstage, in a restaurant or bar, or at a large outdoor live music venue. Musicians practice a communal craft, and, currently, musicians are nearly 100% unemployed.

But that does not mean musicians have been forgotten or neglected, that their interests are being ignored. The AFM—at the local, national, and international levels—has been fighting tirelessly for its members’ rights and needs.

It also does not mean that union musicians have no outlet for their creativity. The new reality is a digital one, in which musicians have transitioned to online existence in order to keep creating, marketing, and sharing their music.

Our Union on the Job

The April issue of International Musician detailed what the AFM had done up to that point to respond to the coronavirus crisis and to assist and protect its members. Since then, union members have relentlessly continued working: lobbying state and federal legislators to include musicians in all relief legislation, ensuring financial and health assistance is available for its members, directing members to further assistance, keeping track of employers and holding them responsible for adhering to union contracts for pay, benefits, and residuals; and creating new, necessary side letters and contracts to expand flexibility in existing contracts, thereby ensuring nobody gets left out of the new reality of the music and entertainment industry.

As President Hair and AFM Legislative Director Alfonso Pollard have explained and will continue to explain every month in these pages, the AFM has been on the front lines in Washington fighting for musicians’ recognition as affected employees in the US economy. After the first national coronavirus relief legislation became law, the AFM, joining with other industry unions and organizations, decried the egregious absence of freelancers, independent contractors, and part-time workers—or W2 wage earners—from the bill, and fought to remedy the situation the subsequent legislation. The AFM is also fighting to ensure that once a return to work is underway, musicians are not forgotten in terms of opening venues, limiting audiences, and ensuring healthy workplaces.

Up north, the Canadian office likewise fought for employment insurance for gig workers, joined a task force to fight for the entertainment industry, and participated in a second coalition of organizations to identify long-term issues of wages, benefits, and safety once musicians return to work. The AFM is present in talks at the highest levels, as shown in Vice President from Canada Alan Willaert’s column last month, in which he was on a conference call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

On the symphonic side of things, with regular season concerts completely suspended and cancelations for summer seasons beginning to roll in, symphony orchestras in the US and Canada have turned to digital means to maintain connection with their donors, patrons, subscribers, and local communities. The most creative and effective of these strategies capitalize on each orchestra’s unique place in its community and help reinforce the orchestra’s existing “brand.”

new reality

Many orchestras are using content for which musicians previously received payment under the Symphony, Opera or Ballet Integrated Media Agreement (“IMA”) or other AFM agreements and which is still in a “rights period” during which the employer is entitled to distribute it via streaming. Other symphonic employers are availing themselves of streaming opportunities pursuant to a COVID-19 IMA Side Letter, which provides flexibility to stream archived concerts via a private link, password-protected site, or to individuals who provide contact information and agree to receive marketing from the employer. Some are taking advantage of both paid-for media and archival streaming pursuant to the Side Letter.

The IMA and COVID-19 Side Letters also allow for the creation and distribution of more informal “promotional” content, including pieces that rely on the over-layering of individual home recordings to generate a virtual ensemble. Individual orchestra musicians (and the numerous musician couples sheltering together) speak and perform directly from their living rooms and home studios, reaching homebound audiences with an unprecedented degree of intimacy, despite the physical separation. These projects have artistic value but function most vividly to reinforce the shared experience of musician and concertgoer, both temporarily exiled from the concert hall. While these conditions are not ideal, these smaller, individual offerings are unique and let our audiences see and hear the talents of our exceptional musicians in a way they probably never have before.

AFM agreements to expand flexibility for streaming during this crisis period are predicated in every case on the employer continuing to compensate musicians pursuant to the terms of the CBA, whether or not services can occur. Orchestras that have over the years accumulated significant recorded archives are taking this opportunity to share historic performances with their audiences. Some are building more robust digital platforms that will also host newly created content when musicians return to their stages and orchestra pits. The current expansion of digital distribution will have a lasting effect on how orchestras and their audiences interact.

Similarly, projects recorded under AFM agreements administered by the Electronic Media Services Division can and have resulted in much needed income for musicians. As EMSD Director Pat Varriale explains in his column this month, re-broadcasts of daytime talk shows and taped performances done under union contracts, as well as documentaries containing clips licensed from signatory companies, have resulted in significant reuse payments to the musicians on those shows, which is a great boon during the current pandemic.

The AFM and its members are also doing their part to help raise funds for their brothers and sisters (both inside the union and in their own communities), whether it be by participating in large fundraising events or by hosting smaller online livestreams. On April 26, a historic all-Canadian special television broadcast, Stronger Together, Tous Ensemble, raised more than $8 million for Food Banks Canada. The 90-minute special—done under an AFM contract—was broadcast on hundreds of TV, radio, streaming, and on-demand platforms and featured nearly 100 Canadian artists, activists, actors, and athletes, including union musicians such as Sarah McLachlan of Local 145 (Vancouver, BC), Geddy Lee of Local 149 (Toronto, ON), Charlotte Cardon of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ), Sam Roberts of Local 406, Randy Bachman of Local 145, and Jann Arden of Local 547 (Calgary, AB), among others.

On a smaller scale, 30-year AFM member Ray Chew of Local 802 (New York City) hosted a four-part virtual series on Facebook Live to raise funds for union freelancers who have been impacted by COVID-19. Each episode featured music by and interviews with some of music’s greatest artists. The series was done in conjunction with the AFM, and was also promoted by the AFL-CIO.

New Performance Reality

new normal
Boston Pops Orchestra

Since social gatherings are prohibited across North America, the new performance reality for musicians is digital. Like Ray Chew, many musicians are taking to Facebook and other social media outlets like Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, and more, to not only showcase their music, but to support their fellow musicians and human beings, and hopefully to even make some income.

The Boston Pops Orchestra, under the direction of Keith Lockhart—all members of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA)—recently posted a musical video tribute on YouTube, Summon the Heroes, featuring the work originally composed by John Williams for the 1996 Olympic Games as a tribute to first responders. John Williams, also a member of Local 9-535 and Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), joined the virtual tribute with a musical and spoken introduction taped from his home studio in Los Angeles.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra—like so many orchestras in the US and Canada—put on a virtual orchestra performance about one month after quarantines started.  They performed the final movement of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and did it under the volunteer promotional provisions of the IMA.

DSO harpist Emily Levin of Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX), wrote about it in the Dallas Morning News, and came away from the experience inspired by her colleagues. She stated she expected everyone to just record their parts at home and send them to her for editing, but instead she found the string players worked together to coordinate their bowings, the woodwinds came up with recording systems that allowed them to tune to one another, and players recorded multiple takes and created videos of the highest musical and technical quality.

“They went to extraordinary lengths to make the project a success,” she wrote. This made her realize that her fellow musicians were committed to the same level of artistic excellence they strive for every week while playing live. “That spirit of camaraderie was still thriving in the DSO, even though we had to stay separate,” Levin wrote. “The virtual art we created may be only a taste of the joy that comes from being enveloped by the sound of a live orchestra, but I hope it reminds us all of what we can look forward to experiencing, once we are together again.”

Numerous orchestras across North America are turning to the internet to post virtual concerts to keep their fans happy and their brands alive and relevant. Thomas Derthick, principal bassist with the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera and president of Local 12 (Sacramento, CA) told Sacramento Magazine that he encourages supporters of the arts to help keep music alive by donating the cost of tickets that have already been purchased back to the respective orchestras.

“That cash will help keep the doors open for the arts organizations. This is true for theater, for dance and for anything else,” he said. “The sooner we can share our work in person, in the flesh, in the room with an acoustic, with people, the better for humanity.”

While virtual concerts are keeping musicians playing, they are not paying the bills or promoting musicians the way gigs did before quarantine.” Derthick said he has seen the “heartbreak” from his fellow union musicians across northern California. “Our local, like so many in the Federation, is facing major challenges as our work dues income has now evaporated. In the meantime, the work continues as we seek PPP monies from employers for our members,” he said.

In an interview with WUTC 88.1 Chattanooga’s NPR station, Taylor Brown, principal bass of The Chattanooga Symphony and Opera and president of The Tri-State Musicians Union, Local 80 (Chattanooga, TN), said how musicians endure the current crisis of their profession depends on their individual situations. Some musicians do nothing but play and perform, while others have additional forms of income that are still viable. Brown is in the latter category, but still, he says, the future is “concerning.”

“When all of this started many of us lost about a month of work in a day, and now it’s stretched on for a few weeks, and I personally have lost five months of work,” he said. “And it takes a long time to get that stuff accrued, to become in demand and go to just so you can have a year of work; and very quickly it went away.”

new normal
Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Brown says that turning to the internet to produce music, as many musicians are, is “helpful” and “a good option to have right now,” but nothing can replace in-person contact, performance, and collaboration. “I’m very concerned about 1) when will we get to go back to work, and 2) what will that look like? Large gatherings are crucial to music-making and art-making. I wonder when will we do it, and will people be hesitant to gather again? I certainly hope not, but it would make sense,” he said.

Guitarist and singer Phil “The Tremolo King” Vanderyken of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) also wrote about his concerns in a recent opinion piece on
www.godisinthetvzine.co.uk. “Streaming took away our ability to sell recorded music, and Corona took away our ability to gig and tour for God knows how long. So, strictly speaking, we have lost all our streams of income,” he wrote. “But giving up won’t do. We must find another way. We have to rethink the entire industry … along lines of solidarity and cooperation.”

Vanderyken stated that not only do musicians need to work together, but so do musicians and business owners and tech companies. He believes musicians need to embrace the idea of new business models: co-op venues, co-op labels or management companies, pooling resources to increase efficiency and reduce overhead. Also, streaming rates need to be raised, consumers need to be educated about the economic realities of streaming for musicians, and musicians need to look at owning their own tech infrastructures and start-ups and thereby cut out the companies that give the content creators a pittance as a handout.

Interestingly, just last month, Facebook announced plans to allow users to charge for livestreams, which would provide a way for musicians and other creators to monetize their performances and events on the platform. The company also announced it will be expanding its “Stars” tipping system to musicians, although, as Variety.com pointed out, with a $.01 tip per star, “a bag of groceries will require a galaxy of stars.”

Some musicians have moved from livestreaming on Facebook to creating subscription-based Patreon platforms so they can make some sort of income off their craft. “The response to the livestream has been overwhelming and very touching …  but I, and all of my musician friends, have begun to realize that it may be up to a year or more before people are comfortable sitting in a jazz club or a concert hall,” stated Local 802 jazz pianist Fred Hersch when announcing his recent switch to the Patreon platform.

Professor Gigi Johnson of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and host of the Innovating Music podcast says the new quarantine reality is rapidly changing the music industry on numerous fronts. The first and most obvious change regards performance venues. Virtual concerts and drive-in concerts—such as those happening in European countries—are the new normal. The “tremendous consumption of online content” is “creating new ways for musicians to connect with fans and audiences often without an intermediary,” Johnson says. This can actually increase artists’ branding, sales, and exposure in ways they may not otherwise have achieved simply by playing live gigs.

However, the new question now is not just when will we go back to live performances, but what will consumers want to do when we can go back? Will outdoor performances become more prevalent because the risk of coronavirus exposure is less than in indoor settings, or will virtual performances be a greater draw because that has become the norm?

Johnson says she also sees union organizing increasing, especially in European countries, during this time of pandemic because the “really important question” currently for creators is: How do I have a voice in this new environment? She says numerous organizations are now “stepping up” to better serve their members with online availability, training, and community access. This is also leading to a massive transformation of music education in terms of how music is taught, what size and type of audience can be reached, and how to manage online teaching as a growing revenue stream.

Johnson’s advice to musicians during this time is to 1) focus on your mental and physical health, which may necessitate a reconfiguration of your creative processes; 2) reevaluate your skills and don’t be afraid to pick up new ones, especially technological skills, now that so much of music and performance is online; and 3) realize that people are at home and are therefore immensely more reachable. Invest in your “ecosystems”— it’s more important than ever to stay in touch with your colleagues and peers, and thereby expand your audience through artist cooperation and collaboration.

rum ragged

Rum Ragged: Spreading the Living Tradition of Newfoundland Folk Music

The members of the Canadian band Rum Ragged say they actually prefer whiskey to rum when the drinks get poured after a gig, but it’s the “ragged” part of their collective name that rings true: They are indefatigable performers and purveyors of the musical tradition of Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost province of Canada that lies on the Atlantic Ocean. It is an area rich in oral tradition, where the folk music tells stories about the people, the place, the history, and the culture.

The members of Rum Ragged were brought together by their shared passion for collecting and arranging these undiscovered traditional songs and tunes of their home. Their music, according to band co-founders Aaron Collis and Mark Manning of Local 820 (St. John, NL), always “attempts to capture dying songs that have not been recorded … and make sure they don’t end up in the ground with the people who have preserved them as long as they have.”

The traditional folk music of Newfoundland and Labrador comes from a Celtic inheritance, with the region being settled by English, Irish, Scottish, and French immigrants over the centuries. The “traditional music” label applies not only to melodies and songs passed down from previous generations; it also identifies new music that is steeped in those time-honored influences, according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website. For many, the music is a proud and powerful manifestation of the “unique Newfoundland and Labrador character.”

rum ragged

All of this lays the foundation for the passion behind the music of Rum Ragged.

“For me it’s the stories, and to be able to take a stage not only with the music you like and enjoy, but also the music that means so much to you and your past and your history,” says Manning. “We step back through our families’ histories and find singers and players and songwriters—and to be able to go to places all around the world and find new audiences and explain that, explain the story of Newfoundland and Labrador … it’s all just a part of what we are.”

Collis and Manning started playing together, in fact, because they share this love of traditional music. They both grew up in Newfoundland and were influenced early on by the traditional music, even though, as they grew older, they found the old music being replaced by newer music people were finding on iTunes and other music apps. As musicians, the two men would play sessions together in the various bars and pubs along George Street—the two-block area in Newfoundland teeming with live music.

“Once, we were at a session and we both kind of realized that we had traditional music in Newfoundland that hadn’t been recorded. We always thought everybody knew them, but when we got to those sessions, not everybody knew the traditional songs. That’s when we decided to start the group,” Manning says. Rum Ragged’s songs are flavored by bouzouki, fiddle, bodhran, banjo, guitar, and button accordion. While Collis and Manning are the core of the group, other musicians join in the band. Currently, Colin Grant of Local 355 (Cape Breton, NS) is their fiddle player.

rum ragged

By 2016, one year after forming, Rum Ragged recorded their eponymous first album, which was hailed for its signature brand of Newfoundland folk that includes a reverence for their roots combined with a creative, contemporary edge. “We have interest in everything from rock music to rap music to punk music to everything in between. We try to have little pieces of all these in our arrangements, and our thought to the songs, and how to bring them into a modern light,” Manning says. “But, at the end of the day, it’s Newfoundland/Labrador music that we like the most.”

According to Collis, a lot of the band’s songs are old tunes they learned by word of mouth from family and friends, from hearing someone sing at a house party, from meeting someone who had been passed down an old song, or even going to local archives and finding traditional songs preserved there. For example, the song “Work Boys Work” on their new album was sung to Manning at a house party by a man who had heard it from his father who had learned it from someone else during World War II.

“If you weren’t looking for [such songs], you’d probably pass over [them]. I think it’s just because there’s such an interest to us when we go to those parties, we focus on that,” Manning says. “And when we go to those towns and somebody tells us about this elderly lady down the road who has some songs there that we should probably go have a listen to, it’s something that we make a point to go do, no matter where we are.”

Rum Ragged’s new album, The Thing About Fish, continues celebrating the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador by weaving its musical tapestry around the area’s biggest industry: fishing. The title track, “The Thing About Fish,” (written by Newfoundland singer-songwriter Jim Payne, also a member of Local 820, for the band) delves right into the cultural heart of the region:

“What is it about fish
And how our story has been told;
Now it’s all about oil,
Hydro iron ore nickel and gold;
They don’t smell like fish
It brought us here from distant lands;
Now we’re under the flake
Trying to scrub the smell off our hands;
That’s the thing about fish.”

Other songs on the album include traditional tunes like “A Mug of Old Ale,” “I Didn’t Drink the Rum,” and “Shady Brookside;” as well as original songs and traditional songs arranged with hints of modern influences.

“We’re finding ourselves interested in writing, but we try to write and find writers who are in the vein of those old times and to be able to discuss the topics that pertained to the history of Newfoundland and Labrador,” Collis says. “The Thing About Fish we believe captures the reliance that we’ve had on the fishery for so long and how we’ve kind of, since oil came on, turned our backs to it, and how we have to be able to know that it’s such a major part of our history and our future.”

Just like the music they play and the songs they sing, Collis and Manning find that joining together with fellow musicians in union is all about community.

Photo: Chris Ledrew Photography

“I didn’t realize until I started playing professionally what a great community there was and what great support there was for musicians. I didn’t know that was even there until I joined our union,” Collis recalls.

“We both come from small towns, so the idea of community is a major thing in everything we do,” Manning adds. “So when we moved to the city, you kind of feel like you’re a small fish in a really big pond. But then we came to know the union, and even the idea of it was a bit far-fetched to us, like, I can’t believe there’s somebody going to be there and be a voice for us and support us and know that if anything goes wrong, we have people there who are going to answer a call and help us out and put us into a particular direction. But that support and community has been such a real grounding factor in continuing to play music. And we know that it’s going to be such a major part of everything we do going forward, no doubt.”

For the boys of Rum Ragged, they have found in Local 820 a great community of fellow musicians—musicians who congratulate each other, watch out for each other, participate in fundraisers and events together, and even just offer a friendly word on the street.

One of the ways that Rum Ragged participates in their local is in working to encourage the local bars, restaurants, and music venues to have performers under union contracts. “We not only talk to those venues, but also to different musicians who play in those venues who are not necessarily part of our union at the time,” Manning says. “We’ve been able to sit down over a meal with those people and explain the benefits of the union and all the great things that come from it, and how things are just going to be done more fairly. You know, just having things written on paper instead of a random word agreement—the way everything has gone for a very long time here.”

rum ragged
Photo: Jacob Manning

Also, Collis says, they often tell non-union musicians their personal story of getting stranded for 14 days in northern Labrador due to weather. It was August, the height of festival season, and the band was worried about canceling shows, he says. “But we called up our local and in no time they had support prepared for us,” he says. That support came from the local’s emergency fund to help members in need, and a planned benefit concert. Manning says the band’s financial losses were “massive,” but they actually were able to make up the work they lost when they returned home, so they did not need to take any emergency funds from the local—but knowing that assistance was there for them made a huge difference.

“I boast for the union all around to everybody, members and nonmembers included,” Manning says.

With the release of Rum Ragged’s newest album in November 2019, the band is now looking to spread their music into larger markets: down into the US and around the world. “This is a very unique living tradition of music and something that we want everybody to hear and know the stories about,” Manning says. “So what’s next has been the same since we began: Just anything and everything when it comes to festivals and venues that we get to play. Mainly, we just want to play for whoever wants to listen.”

vijay gupta

Vijay Gupta: Encouraging Musicians to be Empowered by Their Artistry

vijay gupta

Sometimes, it can be terrifying when your dreams come true and you are able to honestly ask yourself who you want to be in this world.

Violinist Vijay Gupta of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) would know: late last year he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and received a $625,000 fellowship; he subsequently resigned as a member of the first violin section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and devoted himself full-time to Street Symphony, the non-profit organization he founded in 2011 that “places social justice at the heart of music making” by bringing great music to marginalized people in Los Angeles County.

Gupta decided to dramatically alter his life because he believes musicians can help “explore humanity through music,” and perhaps help the outcast and downtrodden to discover their transformative musical—and human—story. “I believe that the values of artistic integrity go hand-in-hand with the values of service,” he says. “As performers, we’ve been told that our only value lies in being a perfect artistic product. I think we need to reconnect with our humanity if we really want to share the impact of the music we play and love.”

For Gupta, reconnecting with his humanity started not long after he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 19—a career he pursued instead of going to medical school. After a few years of playing in huge venues in LA like The Forum, The Hollywood Bowl, and Walt Disney Concert Hall, he began to see that certain locations around the city were places he and his colleagues never went. One of those places, within two miles of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, is the largest population of unhoused people in the US today—Skid Row.

vijay gupta

The 50-square-block Skid Row area in downtown Los Angeles comprises predominantly people of color, most of them poor, mentally ill, or formerly incarcerated—or a combination of these. “Within two or three years of joining the orchestra, I asked, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ What does LA need with another conservatory-trained classical violinist when I could have actually been healing people and helping people?” he says. “And so my heart kind of shattered; it didn’t feel right to me to only be on the stage of the concert hall when there was so much pain surrounding the city.”

Around this time, Gupta became close to fellow violinist Mitchell Newman, also a Local 47 musician, then-LA Philharmonic Director of Public Relations Adam Crane, and Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard-trained musician living on Skid Row whose story was told in the book and the movie The Soloist. Gupta says he and Crane became particularly close to Ayers, and they decided not only to visit him more often (rather than occasionally bump into him on the street), but they also realized that “there were other Nathaniels out there; that there were other places where people crave connection, and that music could provide that connection,” Gupta says.

In November 2010, Gupta and many of his symphony colleagues played a free concert of Beethoven at a mental health clinic on Skid Row. “The impact of that concert never left me because it was clearly not [just] a concert,” Gupta says. The men and women in the clinic listened, certainly, but they also interrupted, asked questions, didn’t care whether every note was perfect or not. “They wanted to know why we cared, and that opened up a very human conversation,” he says. And it made the musicians feel compelled to go back. “This experience came from this place of relational mutual exchange between musicians and the audience. We were not doing this because management told us to; this was driven by the musicians for the musicians.”

This was the beginning of Street Symphony, Gupta says, a program that shares music with the dispossessed in jails, mental institutions, and shelters and seeks to restore some dignity, hope, and humanity to their lives. It is also a program to create an environment for professional and emerging artists to become agents of cultural change through community engagement. But Street Symphony does not only play free concerts for severely disadvantaged communities, it also offers numerous other programs, including bi-weekly “music labs” in which professional artists pair with musicians from Skid Row for intensive lessons. Those community musicians, called Fellows, perform throughout the year at Street Symphony events, and as soloists and featured artists at the year-end Messiah Project event (which presents excerpts of Handel’s Messiah while also featuring stories, music, and performances from Skid Row community members). These lessons are a way of forging real, meaningful, one-on-one relationships between professional and community artists, Gupta says.

vijay gupta

Street Symphony came to fruition only because Gupta had a network of colleagues who believed in the work as much as he did, he says—and a large part of that support and foundation also came from union musicians. “In the very beginning of Street Symphony, no one was opening doors across LA County because I was starting a nonprofit; they were opening doors because these were professional musicians who were coming in to offer the best of what they had to offer and, in my mind, being professional means being part of a union,” Gupta says. “When I signed my very first dues checkoff card to join Local 47, that’s when I became a professional; it’s not when I won the audition with the LA Phil. There was a deep sense of pride in joining the local, as much as there was in joining the orchestra, because I was becoming a part of a network of people who had dedicated their lives to exploring humanity through music.”

Gupta explained that every single musician, including members of the Skid Row community, are paid union wages. “We honor their music making by paying them union rates, even though every single one of our concerts is free.”

“Our union, to me, is a perfect example of democracy in action,” Gupta continues. “A union of musicians allows for the individual agency of every musician, as well as their dignity, to be honored and to be brought into the conversation as vital as their artistry is. Our union allows us to be whole and integrated as people as well as artists.”

Gupta says being part of a union allows musicians to protect their physical, psychological, and spiritual health. “Musicians are not commodified products,” he says. “Burnout is real in musicians; fatigue is real. [Our union] connects us to a wider community and reminds everyone that their dignity, their health, and their well-being allows them to be the artists that they are.”

Union musicians belong to a community and, for Gupta, it is within our own communities where we can make the differences we seek. He applauds his musical colleagues across the US who are working to make such a difference, such as percussionist and Local 4 (Cleveland, OH) member Chester Englander’s Access Music program in Cleveland that provides musical offerings to communities whose access to music is most limited; and bassist and Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) member Joe Conyers’ Project 440 in Philadelphia that uses music to engage, educate, and inspire young people to become civic-minded, entrepreneurial leaders. (Conyers was featured on the July 2017 cover of International Musician.)

vijay gupta

“I would encourage my colleagues across the country to follow what calls them, to follow what moves them, and to know that their music making is far more than a product that can be bought and sold on stage, but that their music is literally the voice of their humanity and that our world needs us,” Gupta says. “Our world needs musicians and artists now more than ever to be the leaders in civic and social engagement.”

Since being named a MacArthur Fellow and dedicating himself full-time to Street Symphony, Gupta has opened office space and hired multiple team members for the nonprofit, including a formerly homeless musician who now serves as the organization’s director of community engagement. The organization is now preparing for the fourth performance of its Messiah Project, developing a new series of workshops to offer in California state prisons, and focusing on building a sustainable organizational structure to educate musicians interested in social impact and community engagement.

“It’s really important to us that we share with our colleagues across the country that they are empowered to do this work in whatever form they want to define it as,” Gupta says. “If someone is interested in this work, the first thing I would say is to connect with your own community. There are people who work with veterans, with people experiencing homelessness and addiction in your community, right now, today. And if you’re interested in learning how best to help those communities, show up without your instrument and with your whole heart.”

For more information about Street Symphony, visit www.streetsymphony.org.

dave eggar

Cellist Dave Eggar on His ‘Pandora’s Box’ of Creating Music

Photo: Simon Peter Henry

Cellist, pianist, and composer Dave Eggar has been given many labels—including prodigy, virtuoso, musical genius—but he prefers to see himself as a storyteller. “It’s going to sound kind of funny, but I really don’t know what it means to be a good musician,” he says. “I think you’re like a storyteller: you’re always growing, and everywhere you go, you collect stories, you collect ideas and the many kinds of opportunities you have. I feel like that growth is really important because, as an artist, you always want something new to rejuvenate your playing and then you bring that to every scenario.”

A three-time Grammy nominee, Eggar has been a member of Local 802 (New York City) for more than 20 years. During that time, he has toured the world playing live and working on hundreds of studio albums for artists of all genres, orchestras and operas, television and movie soundtracks, and commercials. Eggar seeks to “not just cross over, but to cross through” multiple genres of music; and he is as at home playing reggae, bluegrass, jazz, pop, or world music as he is playing classical, the genre in which he began.

“I’ve been everyone in this business. I was signed to Virgin Records when I was very young as a pianist. I’ve been a producer; I’ve been a songwriter; I’ve been the cellist; I’ve been the member of the orchestra; the contractor; and I’m the arranger now. I do a tremendous amount of orchestration and arranging on Top 40 records, so I’ve related to the union from all these different positions. That’s been very powerful because it’s made me realize that it’s so incredibly important for musicians to work together,” he says. “I think a lot of young musicians don’t realize that because there’s such a competitive energy right now. There’s an energy that’s about ‘I’m going to win on social media’ or ‘I’m going to charge less than that person,’ or ‘I’m going to overcharge more than that person,’ or ‘I’m going to get ahead’ or ‘I’m going to brand myself.’ And what a lot of people don’t realize is that when musicians fracture, the value of what we do is significantly disrupted. We’ve all trained for so many years to do this beautiful thing that touches people, and by coming together as a collective and by standing behind each other, by having standards, that’s the way we teach people who are music consumers to value what we do as well.”

Dave Eggar began playing the cello and piano at age three, performed on Broadway and with the Metropolitan Opera as a singer at age seven, and debuted at Carnegie Hall at age 15. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the Julliard School’s Doctoral Program.

dave eggar

Eggar played nothing but classical music until he was in his 20s, when he started to become fascinated with the use of cello in other music. “The cello is like a huge bowed fretless guitar—and I found very quickly that I loved the idea of re-imagining the instruments in different styles (jazz, rock, Persian music, South-East Asian folk music),” he once told an interviewer.

His biggest development and expansion as a cellist occurred when he started playing with iconic jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker—what Dave Eggar calls his “first big step into the Pandora’s Box of all the different things I’ve done.” Those things include performing in various styles and genres with numerous renowned artists, collaborating with the Attack Theatre dance company of Pittsburgh, composing and producing records, working on television and movie scores, and, while touring the world, taking side trips to learn local and indigenous music from communities across the globe.

Much of Eggar’s career has occurred in the studio, where he has worked on hundreds of records as musician, arranger, composer, and/or producer. He’s learned many lessons through the years of the importance of belonging to a union. “Musicians are rewarded for their hard work and not just the people sitting in an office at a record label,” he says about why he records union. “I think that’s one of the most important things that young musicians don’t get about the union, that if we remove standards there will be no standards.”

Having standards often means having conversations—sometimes difficult conversations—with producers and executives. For example, he says, a movie studio will ask why $500 is not a big enough budget for a full orchestra to record a five minute section from Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” or producers will ask why music students can’t just play the parts, or why there are not samples for the pieces they want. He says that having that “gentle conversation” about musicians’ rights, and having musicians stand together, allows these producers or big studios to see the value of artists’ work. Often, when he gets questions about signatory status or what pay rates should be, he sends the person to the AFM website where they can find information on contracts and pay scales. “And then you get a very different second call,” he says, where the person will now realize why substandard wages are not acceptable to pay professional musicians.

“It’s so important as musicians that we take pride in these very refined and very emotionally important skills that we have, and it’s so important that we stand together on how we value that skill. I think our union becomes in many ways the first line of protection for how we are able to stand stronger with that in a time when our industry is changing so much,” Eggar says. “It’s sort of on us as musicians to teach a new kind of music consumer about how to value what we do. And I think that our union becomes a very important tool in helping people understand that we are professionals, that we are artists. We’re not just contestants on a reality show, because that is the perception.”

Another important aspect of studio work is having relationships with the artists you work with, Dave Eggar says, because it helps you have relationships with artists down the line, whether on future recordings or playing live on their tours. For example, if artists do not want, or fights against, a union contract in the studio, then you have to question if you want to go on tour with that person. “What does that really say for how they’re going to be on tour, where you’re giving away months of your life,” he says. “So it’s very meaningful when you work with artists who really want to know how the union system works and want to make sure that everybody’s taken care of.”

dave eggar
Dave Eggar appearing with Attack Theatre, a leading contemporary dance company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eggar has worked as an occasional music director and musician for Attack Theatre for years. “It’s very creative and always fun to be a vital part of their productions on stage,” he says. “They’ve challenged me to do all sorts of crazy choreography; one time I was carried and flipped upside down while playing Bach on the cello.”

Union contracts are also important on the arranging side of music, according to Dave Eggar and his arranging partner Chuck Palmer of Local 802 (New York City). “For me, it feels really secure; I absolutely love the arrangements we do under a union because it comes on a strong foundation,” says Palmer, who is also a percussionist and conductor. “[The contracts] help us make sure we capture all the potential revenue streams that should exist within every contract—so musicians are not just paid for the session but also for secondary markets and film and television.”

In the studio environment where time is money, things can move fast, and you have to be on your A-game, being positive and creating a supportive environment fuels the best creation, Palmer says. And allowing that creativity to flow and realizing there is not one single way to do things is Eggar’s advice to musicians doing studio work. “I think one of the secrets to me having done so much studio work is that I really treat every artist the way an actor would treat a different film. I listen to what the artist is saying, I ask questions about what they listen to, and I sort of re-devise details of my playing to fit that story. So I would say don’t try a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “Really listen to the artists and listen to the story they’re trying to tell and enjoy that you get to make this unique contribution because it’s so exciting and it’s so fun.”


Musicians United! AFM Leaders Build Organizing Skills to Build a Movement


Beginning in the fall of 2016, the AFM launched a comprehensive local officer training program—the first of its kind in several years—under the guidance of the AFM’s Education Committee (currently comprising International Vice President Bruce Fife, Vice President from Canada Alan Willaert, International Executive Board Member Tina Morrison, Director of Symphonic Services/Assistant to the President/Special Counsel Rochelle Skolnick, Assistant to the President Ken Shirk, and Director of the Organizing and Education Division Michael Manley). While much of the training focused on nuts-and-bolts content that every local officer needs to succeed, the three-day retreat is geared toward leadership development, organizing fundamentals, identifying local organizing targets, and building musician worker-leaders.

“While the IEB had been discussing an officer training program for some time, it was a resolution from the Canadian Conference at the 2016 convention that pushed it forward,” explains Fife. “President Ray Hair put me in charge of the education committee, and together, we developed all the components of the program, including the twice-a-year, three-day training. I believe the organizing and strategic planning training that we present there is critical to how we, as a union, approach growth in both membership and workplace campaigns.”

On April 28, the fifth “class” of AFM local officers, staff, and musician leaders—19 in all—made their way to the Tommy Douglas Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. Coming from as far away as Orange County, California, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, these musician leaders settled in for three days of intensive and active learning from AFM and AFL-CIO Organizing Institute staff. Beginning on day one with an AFM “History Game” and ending three days later with work plans for specific local organizing projects, the current Leadership Development Program—like a well-prepared performance—is the product of a lot of offstage planning, trial-and-error, and plain hard work.

Building a Program to Build a Movement

The initial three-day retreats were centered on labor history, leadership skill-building, and high-level problem-solving. “While the first two rounds of our program covered a lot of ground, we felt like we could do more—especially around organizing and building other leaders,” says Manley. “This is really core to being a labor leader. We wanted this learning to be really dynamic and interactive as well.”

In looking to inject these key elements into the curriculum, the AFM turned to the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute (OI) staff for help. “Going through my first OI three-day training, I was really impressed by the work of OI staff Tiffany Bender and Patricia Recinos,” Manley adds. “I knew we had to reach out to the Organizing Institute to help us build the program we needed.”

Under the guidance of Organizing Institute Director Patrick Scott, AFL-CIO OI staffers Bender and TJ Marsallo worked closely with Manley and Fife to construct a dynamic three-day training with a greater organizing focus. This was no small feat; while the OI has many detailed scenarios that are ready-made for their own trainings, they are focused on non-musical workplaces such as hospitals, schools, or retail stores. While the key points and principles are the same regardless of the workplace, the team agreed that AFM attendees would best learn from tools that were specific to musician workplaces. Thinking there would be no better place to start than at one of our own locals, this team of AFM and OI staff met with Ed Malaga (president, Local 161-710) and Marta Bradley (secretary-treasurer, Local 161-710) for an in-depth conversation about their own work and the working lives of DC musicians. The recent opening of a major gaming resort in the DC metro area provided a perfect model from which to draw.

The results are two detailed organizing project scenarios—one a symphony orchestra, the other a casino resort—from which participant teams must build organizing campaigns.

Roderick Paulin of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) and Ephriam Wolfolk, executive board member of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) discuss strategies for organizing campaigns in their home locals.

“The work that the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute and the AFM have been doing together to create and run this training program is really based in the fundamentals of good organizing,” says Marsallo. “We’ve developed training around recruiting and developing leaders and building organizing committees. This required a strong focus on the one-on-one organizing conversation, as well as charting and mapping non-union workplaces and groups.”

“These are skills are the foundation of successful organizing, whether with a group of musicians or anyone else,” Marsallo continues. “It has been a rewarding experience for us to work with the AFM on this project, and it’s been great to see so many local union leaders investing their time to learn new skills and techniques that will help build the organizing capacity of the AFM.”

In addition to the active role AFM staff played in designing the program, they realized they needed to be active in the teaching process as well. At the latest training, Alex Tindal Wiesendanger, who came on staff as the AFM’s international lead organizer in January, joined Manley and Fife in co-teaching the program with Marsallo.

Nearly 80 AFM leaders have gone through the program so far, including local officers, board members, member leaders, and AFM staff. “We felt it was really important for this learning to be embraced by everyone, even key AFM staff,” says Manley. “Many challenges local officers ask us for help on—member apathy or low membership, a plan of attack for a contract campaign or non-union workplace, unionizing freelance musicians and clubs, or a lack of new leaders to take over from retiring officers—ultimately, these are all organizing challenges.”

From Transaction to Transformation

A major goal of the training is to change how we view our union, seeing it not as a third-party service provider (or worse, dues collector)—a favorite tactic of anti-union bosses is to portray us like that, by the way—but rather as a movement of working musicians building collective power to win fair treatment and respect in every workplace.

“I was really challenged to flip my script, from thanking musicians for paying their dues and completing transactions to a much deeper and transformational conversation,” says Local 7 (Orange County, CA) Secretary Tammy Noreyko. “It’s changed the way I approach everything I do now!”

Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) member Roderick Paulin has been shining a light on the issues facing jazz and club musicians in the Big Easy. “I realized that the issues we face as New Orleans musicians are the same that others are facing; we are not alone in our fight,” he says. “I also learned that having an organizing conversation, while challenging, is really the key to moving people to take action. Folks have made a lot of noise in my community about unfair treatment, but making a clear organizing plan showed me how I can truly make an impact locally. I feel much more confident, comfortable, and clear about the work we need to do in New Orleans.”

Local 7 (Orange County, CA) Vice President Edmund Velasco shared his take-away: “I learned things I didn’t know I had to learn. Knowing that you have to really get another person’s story to find out what moves them to action—that was great. If we allow workers to tell their story, then get them to face their fears, we can help them motivate themselves into action.”

AFM staff graduates had their own points of discovery as well. “I had a light bulb moment during our group discussion about dues, when it finally occurred to me that we pay dues not ‘to the union’ but to each other, as a tangible marker of our commitment to each other,” says Skolnick. “We pay dues so that we, the collective, have the resources to support each other.”

Alex Tindal Wiesendanger (International Lead Organizer, AFM) leads a discussion on building organizing-focused local unions.

Richard Sandals, associate director, Symphonic Services, Canada, realized he would have to change his game in his own staff work. “Because I work for the AFM’s Canadian Office and not a local, my assumption was that this training would give me some tools that might be useful now and then,” he says. “What I hadn’t expected was that the underlying ideas we explored would shake up my whole concept of how I do my job. Working for members is very rewarding, but working with members is even better. And building solidarity and a sense of common purpose shouldn’t stop the moment people sign their cards. Instead of telling people what they get if they sign up, we should ask them what they want and help them go get it!”

“What I learned was how to take big organizing projects—which can seem overwhelming—and break them down into winnable chunks,” says Local 149 (Toronto, ON) Executive Director Michael Murray. After attending the December 2018 training, he realized that his local needed more resources to tackle the important work. Local 149 then brought on two staff organizers, who are currently building a theater campaign. 

Taking the Work Home

Key to the training is that participants identify and craft a plan to tackle a real-world target in their own locals. A follow-up team then tracks the progress of each participant and target and provides guidance. International Representatives Allistair Elliott and Dave Shelton join Wiesendanger, Manley, and Symphonic Services’ Organizer/Negotiator Todd Jelen in forming this follow-up team. Projects so far include non-union orchestras, theaters, clubs and showrooms, and even churches.

Developing New Leaders

Just as a conductor can’t do her job without an orchestra, organizing doesn’t work with just one leader. While focused on local officers, the program has recently welcomed board members and musician leaders as well. The complaint of “I’m only one person—I can’t do it all!” is, of course, true, and the answer to this is: “You’re right—now who’s with you?” From building a committee to organizing a non-union workplace to having a succession plan for retiring local officers, the need to identify and develop new leaders is constant.

The next Leadership Development Program will be held in early October 2019. Know a great local officer, board member, committee chair, or member activist? Contact Organizing and Education Director Michael Manley (mmanley@afm.org) to learn more.

john carter cash

John Carter Cash: Musician, Producer, Writer, and Guardian of a Legacy

john carter cash

John Carter Cash of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) spends a lot of time in Cash Cabin Studio, where he’s produced hundreds of recordings for dozens of artists. Steeped in the legacy of his family, Cash Cabin is the same studio where his father recorded hundreds of songs.

In addition to his role as overseer of a music dynasty, John is a Grammy-winning producer, a working musician, and an author. The only child of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and grandson of Maybelle Carter, he has produced albums for both his parents. In 2016, he produced Loretta Lynn’s critically acclaimed album Full Circle.

Cash still recalls when he first joined the union at the very start of his career. He says he was proud to be one of only two autoharp players on the roster at the time. The other was his mother.

His introduction to record producing and his “school of production” involved watching the pros, like Jack Clement and Rick Rubin. “From them, I learned to dream and not be afraid to take chances. I learned to keep my mouth shut and let the artists do what they do.” Having produced music since the 1990s, Cash has developed his own idiosyncratic techniques.

“I let the artists have their own voice to create something beautiful and unique. I like to record wide as much as possible,” he explains. “I sit on the floor, in the middle of the musicians, when I’m in my sessions, I don’t sit behind the glass. I learned that from Rubin—to feel like I’m more connected with what’s happening musically and with the energy, the artists, too.”

An accomplished musician in own right, Cash has released three albums: Bitter Harvest (2003), The Family Secret (2010), and We Must Believe in Magic (2018). Each project was a slow process because of his many creative roles, including actor and film producer.

“I’d still be working on We Must Believe in Magic right now if I didn’t decide to be finished,” he says. Cash’s many industry connections led to a huge list of guest musicians on the project. “I have the opportunity to work in the studio with master musicians on a regular basis. I’m continuously writing my own music. Sometimes, my music sort of gets set off to the side, but then I’m in the studio with those master musicians and I say, ‘Hey, next week, let’s record some of my songs.’”

“I just follow my heart,” says Cash. “I’m not out for the next big album; it’s about a movement, a certain period in my life—a matter of love.” About halfway through this project Cash says he settled on the title. “I always loved the song ‘We Must Believe in Magic.’ Jack Clement, one of my dad’s best friends, introduced me to it. He lived it as a creed: We, as creative individuals, if we believe in magic, we are connected to a greater power in life.”

“I was inspired by that notion, especially when you bring together a group of people. It became sort of a life motto in the studio for me,” says Cash. The album includes many of Nashville’s most recognizable stars and session players, including Local 257 members Sam Bush, Shawn Camp, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Tony Harrell, Rob McCoury, Charlie McCoy, Bob Moore, John Prine, and Dave Roe, plus The Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The Strength of His Words

“My dad wrote all throughout his life. Some 2,500 pieces of paper were in his office, storage rooms, cabinets, shelves. It became my duty to go through these and evaluate what was there. Every word he wrote was poetic, but there were many things I believe he wouldn’t have wanted to share. There were unfinished fragments and beautiful pieces of poetry, and there were other pieces that were evidently song lyrics.” 

Forever Words: The Unknown Poems is a collection of his father’s writings unearthed from those papers. Edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, the pieces were whittled down from the 200 poems Cash wrote dating back to the 1940s. When making the selection, Cash says that he, Muldoon, and co-producer Steve Berkowitz each sat in different rooms and came up with a list of the strongest possibilities. Cash says, “Those lists were 80% the same,” adding “What was there was beautiful—to us, undeniable. Those needed to be the ones. They just called out to be heard.”

Cash also produced and released an album that complements the book titled Johnny Cash: The Music, Forever Words. He carefully chose artists to set some of his father’s words to music. “My main criteria was that they were the type of person and artist that my father would have connected with as a person. Some were his old friends and family members. I mean, blood relatives, but also people he worked with on the road who were like family to him,” says Cash.

john carter cash

Lending his father’s words to another musician was a generous gesture, but Cash says, “That’s the way he lived his life—he took a chance.” He provided guidance to musicians, helping them choose a song to which they had a heartfelt connection.

For example, Johnny Cash had recorded Chris Cornell’s song “Rusty Cage” in 1996, so John reached out to Cornell to contribute to the project. “He was excited, very careful and thoughtful. He considered it a great honor,” says John, who showed Cornell the lyrics for “You Never Knew My Mind.” “When he looked at the lyrics, he had his guitar in his hand and what came out was note-for-note what we hear on the album.” It ended up being the first Cornell song released following his death in 2017.

Cash recalls the same spontaneous interaction with Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member Brad Paisley recording “Gold All Over the Ground” and Local 802 (New York City) member Elvis Costello’s recording of “I’ll Still Love You.”

“I know my father probably as well as anyone who’s still alive. I just intuitively feel he would love this album,” says John Carter, adding that he’s already recorded a second album that will be available as a box set.

As producer, John chose not to perform a song on either album. “My wife, Ana Cristina Cash, is part of the next group,” he adds. “I co-wrote one of the songs with Jamey Johnson, and I’m probably playing guitar on it somewhere.”

Lost but Found

With the responsibility of his inheritance comes the sometimes onerous chore of revisiting the past. Retelling his father’s personal history is something with which John has long reconciled. He says the process of reviewing the writings and creating the book and albums was therapeutic and healing. “I was back in touch with my father in many ways that I hadn’t been for a long time—almost like I heard his voice again,” he says.

In 2012, John discovered an album his father had recorded in the early eighties. Tucked away in the vault at Columbia Records was the never-released Out Among the Stars. For the younger Cash, hearing the familiar rumbling baritone was reassuring. The album, recorded post-addiction, presaged Cash’s resounding comeback in the 1990s.

“Being part of the legacy of Johnny Cash is an important aspect to my life, but there are so many other things that make up my rounded sanity,” says John. He’s penned several children’s books and a novel, Lupus Rex, a tale of adventure in the style of Watership Down. His most recent book goes back to a different family tradition, their love of cooking. The Cash and Carter Family Cookbook was published in 2018.

Cash admits, “I absolutely love to eat and my dad and mother made really wonderful food. There was diversity of flavor—Southern, but we traveled the world,” he says. “I began cooking when I was eight or nine years old. I’d go into the kitchen of different restaurants, from London to Prague to Rome, and talk to the chefs and ask questions. At home, I’m the short order cook.”

“I had the desire to share these family recipes with all the other young Cash and Carter children and for future generations to come and, of course, all the world,” he says.

One of Cash’s favorite food memories from childhood was his father’s chili. “You could always tell when he had been cooking chili, because there was typically corn meal spread all over the counter,” he recounts. “The way he determined the amount of cornmeal that was going into the pot was to grab a handful, close his eyes, and throw it at the pot. One time he got a cup in, the next time it was three tablespoons.”

Living Music History

John recalls vividly the exact moment the supergroup, The Highwaymen, was formed. He was in the room when the idea came up. His father was doing a Christmas special in Montreaux, Switzerland, and he had invited Willie Nelson of Local 433 (Austin, TX), Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) to be on the show. “They looked around at each other and said, ‘We should form a band.’”

john carter cash

It was a typical experience for John, whose entire life was shaped by pieces of music history. By his own admission, he took much for granted. After all, he toured with his parents from the time he could walk. He sees things differently now, through the more powerful lens of the Cash-Carter heritage. “It’s a journey of understanding and growth. I learn new things about my family all the time. The love that my parents had for each other was inspiring. They had a lot of struggles, but they were very accepting and honorable, and so forgiving.”

Cash is executive producer for a new documentary about his dad’s life called The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, which debuted in March at South by Southwest. He also plans to release a hard rock album in the fall tentatively called Hay Crow!

As caretaker of his family musical legacies—and the Cash brand—on occasion he’s had to step up to make sure his father’s image is not misappropriated. He and sister Rosanne Cash of Local 802 (New York City) found themselves on the front line when the white supremacist, anti-Semitic Stormfront radio tried to use a Johnny Cash recording as theme music and another white supremacist was photographed wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt.

“My father wouldn’t allow his name and his likeness for the use of anything that had to do with hate. My dad was a man of love and he was apolitical, but supported the Anti-Defamation League; he fought for the unity of all people, no matter the race, creed, or gender. Everyone seems to claim my father and he would have loved them all. He would have called them in for coffee and read them the Bible, if he didn’t agree,” says Cash.

“He rose above so many things having grown up in the South, going through the ’60s and the Civil Rights Movement, and coming into a greater way of thinking. If it’s something that we, my sisters and I, just know in our hearts he wouldn’t have wanted, we step in,” he says.

jennifer montone

Jennifer Montone: Mindfulness and Commitment Drive Success

jennifer montone
Photo: Sue Burrough

Jennifer Montone of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) became principal horn for The Philadelphia Orchestra in 2006 at age 29. She teaches at two of the most prestigious music schools in the country and is an acclaimed soloist and chamber musician. She speaks enthusiastically about all of her work and the constant challenge of maintaining balance in her life.

Montone first picked up the horn in her school band program in northern Virginia and her passion grew from there. “I just love the way the orchestra rep is written for French horn,” she says. “I find the role that we get to play fascinating—the different voices and characters. It’s so gratifying to have solos where you can show your own personality and be creative.”

She says her favorite composer is Mahler. “I think his emotions and storytelling are very clear. It’s full of little nuances and details. There’s a ton you can learn from others, but you can also add your own experiences. It’s very layered and you can interpret it many ways,” she says.

A graduate of The Juilliard School, Montone was previously principal horn of the St. Louis Symphony and associate principal horn for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “I like the idea of being a lifelong learner and always growing and being challenged and improving. In my particular role in the orchestra it is easy for me to see my career that way,” she says.

Principal Horn

Being part of The Philadelphia Orchestra is a dream come true for Montone. “I fell in love with the Philly orchestra sound and listened to them quite a lot growing up. I really respect the history. The belief system behind the orchestra is strong and authentic. It’s a special group.”

Montone says she’s also experienced a metamorphosis under conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ) who took the post in 2012. “He brought new life to our institution—sort of a new musical soul to the ethos underneath the band,” she says, adding that she also has a fondness for the audience. “The community of Philadelphia has always supported its orchestra in a special way. Music lovers in the city care very deeply. A lot of audience members grew up listening to the orchestra. It’s musically and personally gratifying to be part of that.”

Montone says she sees her role as that of connector. “As principal, I get to connect the horn section to different instruments.  Horn parts alternate roles so much: between section tutti and interweaving solo passages, being chordal with the brass, supporting the woodwinds, attaching to the rhythm of the bass lines. It’s very creative and always challenging.”

While she enjoys the role of leader, she says it was intimidating when she first became principal for St. Louis Symphony at age 26. “I was rather self-conscious about how I should lead—how to be respectful but also do what the chair requires. You have these incredible legacies of people who held the chair before you. It’s scary and daunting.”

“I was hemming and hawing and being super cautious, and the associate principal put his hand on my arm and said, ‘You’re right; just say it.’ From then on I thought, nonchalant is good, but I also shouldn’t be scared to have an opinion,” says Montone.

“I think any young person in a position of leadership is going to step in a hole here and there, even when we view all our colleagues with respect and admiration,” she says. “When transitioning from student to a professional role, you have to keep chugging along and trying your best. Always check that your motivations are honorable and you are trying to make the orchestra the best it can be. Leadership usually works better if you do it by playing and being prepared. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of talking involved.”

Montone was awarded the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2006 and made her Carnegie Weil Hall solo recital debut in October 2008. She’s been a soloist and collaborator with artists such as Emanuel Ax of Local 802 (New York City), Eric Owens, Christoph Eschenbach, Shmuel Ashkenasi, Joseph Silverstein, and David Soyer, among many others.

Her recording of the Penderecki horn concerto Winterreise won a Best Classical Compendium Grammy in 2013. A bit of a rarity for a horn player, the opportunity to make that recording, she says, “just plopped into” her lap.

Composer Krzysztof Penderecki and his wife happened to be in the audience for one of her Penderecki sextet performances. “I got a random call from Mrs. Penderecki about a year later asking if I could come and perform his piece with the National Polish Radio Symphony in Katowice. Radovan Vlatkovic, who I idolize, was the only one performing the piece regularly because it was quite new. But he was already contracted to play it elsewhere.” Later, she performed it with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra at home and was invited to make the recording in Geneva with the Warsaw National Philharmonic.

“It was incredibly special and I am incredibly grateful,” she says. “His music is so evocative and powerful.”


Her own teachers are great examples for her, in particular, Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 802 member Julie Landsman at Juilliard and Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) member Edwin Thayer. They demonstrated how to tailor teaching style—from nurturing to challenging—to meet the specific needs of students at any given moment.

Montone is on faculty at both the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School. “Just being a part of anyone’s development or growth is truly an honor. The creative growth that happens between ages 16 and 26 is so powerful. I’m floored by how young people overcome challenges and push themselves. They are resilient, driven, enthusiastic, creative, and open-minded and it is such a true privilege to be around that. It feeds my playing, my soul, and my parenting,” she says.

jennifer montone
Jennifer Montone of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) works with a student at the National Defense University in Ulaanbatar, Mongolia.

“Teaching is a layered thing. I like to look at students’ current strengths and weaknesses and their individual personalities,” explains Montone. “Undergrad students tend to want help in how they should play things. Master’s students use me more as a resource.”

Two topics she is passionate about are audition preparation and performance anxiety. Her advice for students hoping to win their first professional job is to have patience with the process. “I think it takes a lot of tries to perfect the art of auditioning and that’s separate from how well you play. We spend a lot of time getting really good at our instrument and understanding the repertoire, but then to be able to sit down and nail it in our five minutes of fame is excruciatingly hard.”

Winning an audition takes mental fortitude. To that end, she suggests several helpful resources: Noa Kageyama’s bulletproofmusician.com, A Soprano on Her Head by Eloise Ristad, Don Greene’s books and coaching (see his article here, and The Inner Game of Music by W. Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey. She’s detailed her own sample audition preparation plan on her website (www.jenmontone.com/sample-audition).

“These resources help us with the mental aspect, in addition to meditation and yoga. I think there’s a mindset behind all these resources where the process is more important than the outcome. Strive to circle your mind back to how you will play the excerpt—what it is trying to show technically and musically. For me, this includes writing a lot of adjectives on the top of the page,” she says.

Self-compassion also plays a role, says Montone. “Do a metta meditation and tell yourself: ‘I’m doing the very best I can right now. I am a lovely musician and I am going to continue to grow and learn. Whatever happens in this audition cannot change that.’ It’s about being very compassionate and self-loving with this process. That’s probably the hardest part, but may be the most important.”

Protection of a CBA

Montone first joined Local 802 (New York City) in 1997 and has been a member of five different locals, including 2-197 (St. Louis, MO), 16-248 (Newark-Paterson, NJ), and 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX) as she advanced in her career.

While serving as principal horn for St. Louis, around six years into her career, Montone was injured in a car accident. For about eight months she was unable to work due to a jaw injury and another six months had her sidelined for a back injury. She is thankful that her collective bargaining agreement protected her job while she healed.

“I can’t express how much reassurance and confidence that gave me coming back. Knowing that I was protected and that I could take the time to heal the healthy way and not have to rush back. I think, whenever you are coming back from an injury, there’s such a psychological—pain, fear, frustration—component. Not to have to worry from a survival standpoint is huge and I’m very grateful for that,” she says.

She says the support system she discovered—colleagues, friends, and online resources—were heartening and inspiring. For both injuries she was treated at the Center for Performing Arts at the Cleveland Clinic, led by Richard Lederman, MD. “Finding practitioners that know something about music is an incredible help,” she says.

Montone says that she took advantage of the time to work on other aspects of her career. “I was determined to use it as an opportunity to rebuild and stabilize my technical and health foundation underneath my playing. I knew I could bring more maturity and knowledge to the original foundation built at age 10.”

Finding Balance

While healing, she found a better balance in her life. Prior to the injuries, she says, she had been defining herself almost entirely by her success on the French horn. “I felt like I needed to regain belief in myself as a person,” she says. “That, of course, helped me with everything else.”

jennifer montone
Photo: Sue Burrough

“Every musician would agree that the balance of personal and professional, and even different things within the professional, is difficult,” she says. “That might be the transition that I hear the most questions about from students who are new to the profession.”

Aside from juggling teaching, performing with The Philadelphia Orchestra, and other solo and chamber engagements, Montone is mom to two young boys.

“When things don’t work, I make a little shift and try not to give myself too hard of a time. Finding balance is trial and error, but I also want to be committed to everything I am doing, so I compartmentalize quite a lot. Whether I’m switching to teaching or parenting, I will completely jump into that role,” she says. “I take a moment to just look at the situation I’m in and determine what the situation needs.”

“When I travel from one place to another I use that time, not only to get things done, but to switch my brain,” she says. “How do I honor this new situation? There’s a certain amount of mindfulness needed for a busy life in music.”

jim self

Jim Self: The Tuba Takes Center Stage

jim self

Jim Self of Locals 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 7 (Orange County, CA) has performed internationally as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral tubist, and studio musician for 43 years. He’s recorded on more than 1,500 soundtracks and has performed tuba solos for major films and hundreds of TV shows. His skills as a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, doubling on string and electric bass and bass trombone earned him a reputation as an exceptionally versatile player. At 75, he is principal tuba in four orchestras—the Los Angeles Opera, the Pacific Symphony, the Pasadena Symphony, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. This month, he will release his 15th CD of original classical scores, titled Flying Circus: Music for Brass Quintet.

Self, who routinely works with union players in Los Angeles, says all his albums have been produced on Limited Pressing Agreements, adding, “It’s the fair and right way to do it; I’ve been a strong union person my whole career.” 

A protégé of the great tubists Harvey Phillips and Tommy Johnson, Self has been part of the movement to elevate the status of the oft-caricatured tuba from its anchor at the back of the band to one of distinction as a solo instrument, front and center. As a young tubist Self entered a small, exclusive world of enthusiasts, who would go on to make big changes for the tuba in the brass world. He says he owes his career to Johnson, his University of Southern California (USC) professor and the first tubist to play solos on film scores. He was inspired by William Becker, trumpeter at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his first brass professor, and Phillips, who was his teacher in the mid-1960s. Phillips was behind the now worldwide TubaChristmas tradition, in which hundreds of tuba players descend on cities around the globe to play free concerts.

Self grew up in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where he started playing tuba in junior high. He entered Indiana University of Pennsylvania initially to become a band director. In 1965, he joined The US Army Band, where he met Dan Perantoni of Local 301 (Pekin, IL), Chester Schmitz, and Bob Pallansch, all tuba players who would not only go on to have distinguished careers but whose mastery of the tuba would educate listeners and elevate the status of the instrument.

During that time, Self received a master’s degree from Catholic University, and for five years he taught at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In the summers, he began doing coursework with Johnson at USC, working toward his doctorate in musical arts. Eventually, in 1974, Self moved to LA to finish his residency. In the meantime, he was doing gigs, dances, and casuals. “I was making more than I was as a professor,” he says. Only two weeks after relocating, he got a call to sub for Johnson on a TV show. From then on, and throughout the ’70s, he was busy doubling on bass and bass trombone. He says, “It was a period of growth for me.”

In 1976, Self was again called to sub for Johnson on a new film John Williams of Locals 47 and 9-535 (Boston, MA) was scoring for Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As it turned out, his tuba would famously voice the mother ship in the communication sequence with the oboes and contrabassoon. “That one day’s work turned into a huge boost to my career. It helped me work with all kinds of other composers and do more film work.” It also launched a 40-year working relationship with Williams (25 years as principal tuba). He says, “Jerry Goldsmith’s Dennis the Menace was a big score for me tuba solo-wise, as were several other Williams’ films, like Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Jurassic Park, and Hook.

Beyond Oompah

Self says, “Back in the ’50s, [the tuba] was just oompah, a band instrument and almost no one would play it solo. Now, because all these players are coming up and all these great solos are being written, there are composers writing interesting tuba parts in symphonies. The great composers of the 19th century, they might’ve had tuba parts, but they were not solos, ever. Apart from Stravinsky, those kinds of pieces were not written when I was young.” He says, “Later, there were only a couple famous works. Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto in 1954, and then in 1955, Paul Hindemith wrote the Tuba Sonata.”

The renaissance really began, he says, in New York with Bill Bell of the New York Philharmonic and the much-celebrated Harvey Phillips. “There’s the old guard, like Roger Bobo—the famous LA Tuba player who was part of it. In the ’50s and ’60s, they were soloists who got the whole movement going for tuba.” The International Tuba and Euphonium Association (ITEA) originated at McSorley’s in the East Village, where all the tuba players would hang out after concerts. Today’s players in New York City include Marcus Rojas of Local 802 and Ibanda Ruhumbika of the house band Stay Human for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

“Roger and Harvey were the leaders of solo literature for a long time. They took things to new levels. And then, of course, every generation after that has just improved upon it. Now, colleges have tuba departments and faculty members,” says Self.

In his position at USC, Self has been active in the crusade to advance tuba in the brass world. He says, “The tuba is as important as the trumpet, the trombone, or the French horn, as far as I’m concerned—especially in the hands of these players that we have all over the world now.”

In short, the tuba is regaining momentum. According to Self, “There are great tuba players in Japan, China, Australia, and all over Europe. Sergio Carolino, from Portugal, is phenomenal and Roland Szentpali, of Budapest.” 

Since the ’70s, Self has been campaigning for tuba players to “reclaim their heritage.” He explains, “There were a lot of tuba players working before the war. Then, the electric bass came along, and amplification, and the tuba just kind of got buried in the popular music world.”

As professor of tuba and chamber music at USC, Self has taught some of the best tubists playing today, including USC professor and Local 47 member Norm Pearson, principal tuba for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and top studio tubist Doug Tornquist of Locals 47 and 7.

“In jazz, the tuba is still coming into its own,” Self says. Great proponents of the tuba in jazz, like Red Callender, Howard Johnson of Local 802, Bob Stewart, and a number of “trad” and street players have made pioneering efforts in showcasing it as a lead instrument. Self has added much to the idiom. “I’m pretty busy as a classical player. As an artist, I’m making jazz records. I’m passionate about improvising and playing tuba so I started making records and all kinds of cool things with jazz and this is how the majority of people outside of Los Angeles know me—as a jazz musician.”

A few years ago, he invented the fluba, a tuba-sized flugelhorn. Self explains that he designed the instrument so the sound would go directly out toward the audience, instead of upward. “I just thought it would be a really fun solo instrument, like a flugelhorn would be for a trumpet player.” Laughing, he says “Somehow when I pick it up, I just sort of pretend I’m Art Farmer or Clark Terry, one of these great players.” 

On Composition

With the TV strike of 1980, work dried up for studio players. Self says, “I went from doing 39 movies in 1979 to six movies in 1980. It didn’t pick up again until 1986.” During that time, he began dabbling in solo work. He had always wanted to be a jazz player, saying, “I had learned to be a good improviser on tuba.” 

“I’ve always felt that the real art in music is composing and improvising. It’s very interesting, I didn’t start composing until I was almost 50 years old. I had this mistaken idea that I had to be Mozart or a genius to write music,” he says. “But I started doing little things and pretty soon I was writing for all my albums and then I started writing chamber music for friends and groups.”

Self says he wants to write music that reaches listeners. “If I write music that’s fun to play, not boring, and not too far out harmonically, audiences like it. A lot of my music has a sort of dance quality to it. It drives my music. The number one thing in my writing is rhythm—complex rhythms, often shifting meters and odd meters.”

He’s composed 65 different pieces of music—for brass, tuba duos, and woodwind and string quintets. His most important work is a 13-minute piece written for the Pacific Symphony, Tour de Force: Episodes for Orchestra, which has been transcribed for wind ensemble and co-premiered by the USC Thornton Wind Ensemble and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Wind Ensemble.

When describing his work, Self uses terms like eclectic and versatile, which extends to his use of instruments. He and Johnson were the first players to introduce the cimbasso in recording sessions. “Now, it seems like half the movies that you play on, you play tuba and cimbasso. It’s a double; it pays more money and a lot of these people like to have this loud, edgy kind of a sound,” he says.

“I love classical music and most studio work for me was classical, but with a commercial bent.” For his last CD, Floating in Winter, he partnered with guitarist John Chiodini of Local 47. Before that, with trombonist Francisco Torres of Local 47, he produced a Latin album titled ¡Yo! “He’s a wonderful trombonist who knows the Afro-Cuban style intimately—and the trombone player and composer for Poncho Sanchez, who as far as I’m concerned, has the greatest American Latin jazz band.”

Self was greatly inspired by the playing of trumpeter and band leader Don Ellis, whose complex stylings he draws on to compose. After decades of studio playing, the odd and shifting meters—unusual time changes that Ellis used—had become second nature to Self and are now a major part of his writing technique. “It made me a better reader. Jazz and jazz harmonies often show up in my music, as do many dance forms.” Self, who has played virtually everything—symphonic, opera, ballet, jazz, and rock n’ roll—likes to create interesting challenges for performers. Naturally, the tuba parts are never simple bass lines or whole notes. In a Jim Self quintet, all parts are equal.

Down to Brass Tacks

jim self
Self playing the fluba he invented for jazz performance.

“When I teach I emphasize learning to use your ears, to play what you hear in your head, to learn melodies, to improvise—and to compose.” He insists that his students learn to compose as well. He says, “I waited 30 years and I don’t want them to fall into that same trap.”

“I’m trying to make [students] more than just tuba players. I’ll let the other teachers teach them the basics: all the literature and orchestral excerpts. When I teach, I focus on training their ears, because tuba players are notoriously bad at that. They’ve come up playing in high school bands. They never get any cool things to play. I try to make them do what it took me 50 years to learn. I do think that improvisation in itself, whether jazz or any kind of improvisation, is a new level for tuba players to reach—and to play well. It’s always been a part of my DNA and I want it to be part of every tuba player’s DNA.”

For the would-be studio musicians in LA, Self says they must be classically trained, but obviously able to play wide-ranging material, including commercially viable music. He says, “Be able to read anything. Be able to  sometimes play changes, improvise, and transpose on sight. Ninety-nine percent of the time you never see solos before you get there. When you’re starting out, at an early age, learn melodies and learn piano.”

Self imparts some practical marketing advice: “Like Harvey Phillips taught me, you’ve got to get out there and ‘politely’ promote yourself. You’ve got to put yourself in situations where you’re heard; you may get the break.”

A Legacy of Work

Self is happy to let the young guys do the studio work these days. “When I was in the studios I was working three jobs a day. It was really just crazy for many years. I have a little more time to commit to composing. I have a nice pension, thanks to the union, and because of that I can afford to make records,” he says.

Admittedly, he says, “I’m a music-holic. I don’t know any other way to live.” Years ago, he bought a Piper Arrow small plane­—and had a tuba painted on the tail. “I used to fly Bill Booth, my buddy who’s a great trombone player [of Local 47], to the Pacific Symphony from time to time, which is 50 miles away.”

Self has cut back on his teaching. “I want the connection with the kids—that’s important to me,” he says. “I sort of planned my career this way a little bit. I wanted to keep my tenured orchestras. I play almost every week in one of those ensembles playing great music in great halls.”

Self and his wife Jamie have endowed multiple scholarships for young players. He says, “I’ve had a successful career and have all I need.” They plan to continue to sponsor scholarships and musical projects. He’s endowed a creative award at the ITEA, as well as a tuba and a brass quintet at his alma mater Indiana University of Pennsylvania and University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he was on the faculty. He’s endowed scholarships at Tennessee Tech University, the University of South Carolina, and Indiana University. “This year, we are setting up one at the University of Kansas and the University of North Texas.” And he adds, “There will be more. I think it’s a way to push things forward.”

orbert davis

Orbert Davis: Opening Minds with Third Stream Music

orbert davis

While Orbert Davis developed his musical training and early career around studio work, for the past 15 years the trumpet player has made a huge impact on the lives of students in Chicago. A longtime member of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), Davis is artistic director, conductor, and co-founder of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and co-founder of the CJP Jazz Academy, as well as the school program Discover Music: Discover Life (DMDL). In addition, he keeps on top of the local and national jazz scene through his three-hour weekly radio program, The Real Deal with Orbert Davis.

Growing up in a small town one  hour south of Chicago, Davis’s introduction to music came through his school band program. He took to the trumpet right away, showing genuine talent and dedication. “I was a serious practicer,” he says. Fourth grade teacher Chuck Danish took note and made the commitment to help Davis succeed.

“He is one of the most incredible people in the world. When I was in eighth grade, he heard me play and vowed to my parents that he would take me to trumpet lessons when I entered high school. Every weekend throughout high school he drove me 70 miles. The only payback he wanted was that I would help others; that definitely planted a seed in me,” says Davis. In tribute to Danish, he later created the Charles Danish Scholarship to provide a year of mentoring and private lessons to promising young students.

Davis took private lessons with Mark McDunn who taught at DePaul University. “Mark was a studio trombonist with the CBS Orchestra in Chicago and he sort of carved a path for me to be a studio musician,” says Davis.

When Davis got into high school he discovered jazz and met his best friend and later business partner, Mark Ingram. “We were both obsessed with music and performing; we fell into jazz because of the challenge of it,” says Davis.

Studio and Studies

As he headed off to college, Davis joined Local 10-208 and began doing studio work. “Our union is a community,” he says. “It provides a level of accountability and the highest standard of excellence possible. A lot of the union officers are friends of mine that I’ve known and worked with for a long time. I’ve watched their careers blossom.”

Studio work led to opportunities to play on stage with many accomplished peers. “There was a jazz club around the corner from DePaul called The Wise Fools. On Monday night all the really busy musicians formed a big band and played there. I got to play with musicians like Bobby Lewis and Art Hoyle. That really set the pace for me to learn what it meant to be a musician. I worked extremely hard,” says Davis.

Davis’s love for Chicago and its music scene grew from there. “Chicago is the type of place you always call home,” he says. “It has always been an incubator. If you go to any major city in the world you will find musicians from Chicago—trumpet player Marquis Hill, vibraphonist Joel Ross, singer Kurt Elling, guitarist John McLean.”

“Chicago jazz epitomizes the art of innovation,” he says, describing the warm, rugged tenor saxophone sound of Chicagoans Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman, Fred Anderson, and Ari Brown. “It’s the home of avant-garde; AACM [the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] was born in Chicago. There are also the remnants of the spirit of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, when they came here. It’s the hub of the Midwest and the center of the nation. There are many institutions and universities focused on jazz and a sense of tradition. I’ve never had a desire to live anywhere else.”

When he finished college, Davis was hired by William Russo (former arranger for Stan Kenton) to teach at Columbia College Chicago. Davis taught trumpet and jazz history, and was Russo’s right hand man for the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Davis says he first got into teaching for selfish reasons. “I was so aggressive in my quest to be perfect with this instrument that I felt teaching would allow me to forever be grounded in the basics.”

Discover Music: Discover Life

orbert davis

“After 14 years at Columbia, Mark Ingram and I started to look at the landscape around Chicago. I had always wondered why I never had many minority trumpet players as students at Columbia,” he says.

He and Ingram went on a fact-finding mission, interviewing high school band directors. “We found that the biggest issue was that the inner city/urban music programs began in high school,” he says. Without earlier band programs, there is no way for students to develop technical skill, let alone the perseverance, to achieve a career in music.

Chicago elementary schools had little music at the time. Initially, Davis and Ingram developed a program called Music Alive, which would re-establish music in the elementary curriculum. It proved to be a hard sell, Davis says, “Principals said they had gotten rid of their music programs to focus on reading and math.”

“Every brick wall we ran into became an opportunity,” says Davis. “We spent a year studying music advocacy. If the benefits of music education were true, kids involved in music programs were smarter in the core subjects and more likely to stay out of gangs and off drugs; music must be used as an antidote rather than a byproduct. So we developed a program called Discover Music: Discover Life that teaches reading and math skills through concepts of music.”

Their proved the premise. Chicago students now have music in their classrooms and they are doing better in other subjects as a result. “Most of the students in the program were deficient in core subjects. We guaranteed through our methodology that, within a year, their grades would improve,” he says. “We are teaching students how to listen, how to decipher, and how to connect.”

Davis now sits on the board of Ingenuity, Inc., which is focused on getting arts instruction back into Chicago classrooms. “Funding is getting better and more students have access to the arts. My goal is that, one day, every student will not just have access to arts, but music will be part of the fabric of every subject. Music provides a soundtrack for any moment in time—an aural snapshot. Today’s students are interactive—hearing and seeing things at a pace far different from when we were children. We can reach them through music,” he explains.

Chicago Jazz Philharmonic

In 2004, a few years after co-founding Discover Music: Discover Life with Ingram, Davis received a call from the director of the Chicago Jazz Festival inviting him to headline the festival and challenging him to “think big.” Davis, who had been doing some composing that blended jazz and classical music, said, “Great, I want to do a symphonic orchestra at the jazz festival. She sort of laughed and said, ‘Good luck with that; we can’t afford it.’”

Undeterred, Davis set to work raising funds, in particular securing funding from the Boeing Company, which had just relocated to the city. From the beginning, they knew the “third stream” Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP) would continue beyond that first festival, given the aesthetic of what happens when you combine jazz and classical, says Davis.

In the 1960s, the term “third stream” was coined by composer, conductor, and French hornist Gunther Schuller who lived in both worlds, explains Davis. “It’s a third branch of music connected to classical and to jazz—a genre all its own. Schuller played with the New York Met and in the evening he was hanging out with Miles Davis and was good friends with Duke Ellington.”

CJP now comprises about 60 professional musicians and Davis says it goes beyond the third stream musical designation. “Our musicians are versed in both genres. It’s amazing how they respond. It’s about listening, adapting, interpreting, and most importantly creating,” he says.

orbert davis
Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) member Orbert Davis conducting a Chicago Jazz Philharmonic performance at the Auditorium Theatre in 2016. The performance featured 35 music students from Havana, Cuba.

Davis calls the CJP musicians family. He says the organization operates as democratically as possible, especially in terms of identity, inclusion, and importance. “There is no hierarchy. Although there are section leaders that I depend on for advice and leadership, if someone is sitting in the last chair of the second violin section they have every right to ask me a question.”

For CJP’s first 10 years, Davis conducted the group, was a pro bono guest soloist, and composed all of the music, but there’s now a team of arrangers and composers to help. Co-founder Ingram, also a member of Local 10-208, is the producing director. The longtime executive director is Birdie Soti. Davis stresses CJP would not be successful without his team.

Additional sponsors support CJP, including the Music Performance Trust Fund, which has helped fund the summer concert series at Millennium Park, as well as educational concerts.

Chicago Immigrant Stories

The process Davis uses to compose is similar to the process he uses to write curriculum. “It’s very visual and all inclusive. For example, when I repositioned Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain for Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, before I composed a note, I took a trip to Spain through National Geographic’s images, basically composing soundtracks to each picture. By connecting the elements of art to the elements of music, I was able to create music that was authentically Spanish,” he says. “I always say that my process is 80% research and 20% composing.”

Like all of Davis and Ingram’s projects, CJP’s impact goes deep into the community. “Every time we are on stage or in the classroom, change happens—a change in the creative process, a change in the dialog, a change in lives, and a change in communities,” he says. One outstanding example was last year’s Chicago Immigrant Stories concert series that brought together some of Chicago’s disparate ethnic groups.

“I’m extremely sensitive to propaganda of fear and marginalizing people and the results of the immigrant ban,” says Davis who has many friends who came to the US seeking better opportunities. “I have a friend whose ancestors escaped the Holocaust and friends whose ancestors, like mine, were stolen from their homes to become slaves.” But it was a Facebook post from harmonica virtuoso and Local 10-208 member Howard Levy about his ancestry that inspired Chicago Immigrant Stories.

orbert davis
A 2015 Chicago Jazz Philharmonic performance at Symphony Center Chicago celebrated the life and works of Gunther Schuller. (L to R) are: Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) member, CJP Co-founder, and Producing Director Mark Ingram; Executive Director Birdie Soti; Schuller, and Local 10-208 member, CJP Co-founder, Artistic Director, and Conductor Orbert Davis.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life and I never learned so much. It wasn’t just about hiring musicians from three Chicago immigrant communities,” Davis says. It started in October 2017 with jam sessions and 50 to 60 hours of conversations with musicians. “I recorded every minute of our conversations, edited the tapes, and composed music based on the jam sessions.”

Chicago Immigrant Stories included three musicians from the Chinese American community on moon guitar, zither, and erhu; Asian Indian musician Kalyan Pathak of Local 10-208 on tabla; three West African drummers; and dancers.

The project culminated with a free concert premiering the full orchestral arrangement in Chicago’s Millennium Park. “I wanted the audience experience to be that they are not looking at strangers playing music,” he says, “but their own community members.” A follow-up is in the works for this summer, which will include Greek American and Mexican American music.

Davis has long been interested in understanding the cultural characteristics of music. He went back to school to earn a master’s degree in history from Northwestern at age 37. “There were so many gaps in my education in terms of understanding where jazz came from and not understanding at all the evolution of African American music from Africa and why music of North American African ancestry sounds different from Central and South American,” he says.

Chicago Jazz Academy

The educational offshoots of CJP, Chicago Jazz Academy and its youth ensembles, serve to inspire the next generation of jazz musicians. In its 11th year, Jazz Academy is a two-week summer camp at Chicago State University for students aged six to 18, plus a Saturday afternoon program. Davis credits the academy’s success partly to its teacher and student retention rate. “Last year, every one of our 12 counselors were former students and we have four or five teachers who are former counselors,” he says.

All instruments and all levels are welcome. “We are very much jazz based; improvisation is a must and each day ends with a major concert, but only 60% of what we do is music,” he says. “The rest is connecting music to other things.”

orbert davis
Local 10-208 member Orbert Davis conducts Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in a 2018 Chicago Jazz Festival performance at Millennium Park that featured jazz artists Tammy McCann and Kurt Elling.

Though many of the 150 students who walk through the door each summer think they want to be professional musicians, Davis tries to help them see the reality. “I’ll ask the students, ‘Who wants to be a professional musician?’ Then, I tell them, ‘Great, find something else to do, unless you have no other choice. Being a musician is not an option, it’s a necessity.’”

“Part B,” he says, “is to practice like you’re going to be a professional and apply everything you learn to whatever you do. The skills that are found in music apply to everything—self-discipline, goal setting, creating strategies, and problem-solving—that’s what life is about.”

Today, Davis’s vision goes beyond Chicago’s city limits. “Musicians have to be multi-lingual in terms of music,” he says. In 2014, he took CJP’s rhythm and jazz sections to Cuba where they put together a 60-piece orchestra with Cuban students at the Universidad de las Artes in Havana. Then, in 2015, 37 Cuban students came to Chicago to perform with CJP.

“My goal for the next three to five years is to travel throughout the country and work with student orchestras, basically teaching third stream so that musicians become more diverse,” says Davis. “I tell classical musicians: ‘You do not lose your classical sensitivity by learning jazz’ and I tell jazz musicians: ‘You do not become stifled by understanding and performing classical music.’ This is America and this is who we are as Americans, you know?”

“I think that’s something that every union in the country would applaud. The more diverse the musician, the more diverse the audience,” he says.

shooter jennings

Shooter Jennings: Child of 1980s Rock Culture Comes Home to Country

Shooter Jennings’ career is accentuated by shifts in style and retro flashbacks that eventually led to his latest album, Shooter. An homage to 1970s-1980s country music, he returns to work with Grammy-winning co-producer and Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member Dave Cobb who produced Jennings’ early albums.

Of the appropriately self-titled album, he says, “It just felt like, out of all of the records, it was the center, kind of the most simplistic version of the music I make—and it’s like turning a page.” From his start growing up in Nashville to seeking fame and fortune as a rock star in LA, he’s come full circle to the first music he ever heard.

Promos for the new album, like many of the Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member’s projects, are punctuated by references to pop culture from the 1980s. “Hey Shooter” variety show promo videos introduce songs with skits that mimic scenes from Hee Haw and close with a parody of the Freedom Rock commercials.

“I love embracing my childhood,” he says. “I love being an MTV kid, a He-Man kid, and a GI Joe kid; I love being a first-generation Nintendo kid. The culture of the late ’80s and early ’90s is just in my blood.”

Born in 1979 to country music legends Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, Shooter says, “I had great parents; my mom and dad were very close and I had a fun childhood. We traveled all the time.” He recalls spending time on the road with the families of The Highwaymen, legends Willie Nelson of Local 433 (Austin, TX), Kris Kristofferson of Local 257, and Johnny Cash.

“As I got older, it really became apparent how lucky I was, especially when I started my first band,” he says. “My parents never pushed me in that direction, but they were supportive of whatever I wanted to do. And as I get older, new reasons to feel fortunate pop up, even in raising my own kids.”

Having parents who were seasoned musicians also meant Jennings’ eyes were open to the possible pitfalls of the industry. As soon as he decided he wanted to pursue a career in music, Jennings joined Local 257 (Nashville, TN).

“I was very aware of the struggles [my father] went through and his journey with record labels and Nashville. He had overcome so much. When I was young, I remember him saying, ‘Have a lawyer, a manager, and an accountant and make sure they are not friends’ and other tidbits of knowledge. I was pretty hyper-aware of how it all worked, but I had to go through it myself to understand what he was saying.”

That journey began with Shooter leaving for LA at age 20. “You either went to New York or LA, if you wanted to play rock and roll back then. A lot of my favorite musicians were here—I was a big fan of Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Guns N’ Roses, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, and Danzig,” he says.

“It seemed like there was something bigger, grander, and more wild in LA. Nashville felt very small to me and I wasn’t into country music,” he says. “I wanted to come out here, find a girlfriend, and play rock and roll; I had all these crazy dreams.”

“In retrospect, when I came out here, I was just like everybody else. I wasn’t Waylon’s kid because nobody really cared. I had to find my own way,” he says. “I remember my dad saying that he was worried. ‘You are a big fish in a little pond here in Nashville; you’re going to be a small fish in a big pond in LA,’ he said. And he was right, but it was exactly what I needed.”

In LA, Shooter launched the rock band Stargunn, and over the next three years built a loyal following. Local 47 member Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine became a friend and mentor. “He started coming to our shows,” says Jennings.

“I remember talking to him when my band wanted me to fire our manager,” says Jennings. “I didn’t want to let the manager go because I loved the guy. The band thought we should get some superstar manager. Tom gave me an analogy: ‘Rock and roll is like a hotel and it kind of doesn’t matter what floor you are on.’ He said, ‘You just need to find people you can trust.’” Morello also helped Jennings with songwriting and arranging and produced the band’s early EPs.

In 2003, Stargunn broke up and Jennings embarked on a solo career. “There was a point in time where I couldn’t write anything and [at the time] I didn’t understand that it was because the environment wasn’t correct,” he says. “I had to continue to evolve and change and find my happy medium—somewhere in between rock and roll, songwriting, and country. I needed to be surrounded by people that could execute those ideas. Ever since then, I’ve never had writer’s block.”

In 2005, he released his debut solo album, Put the “O” Back in Country with Universal and its hit single “4th of July.” Electric Rodeo (2006) and The Wolf (2007) followed. The compilation Bad Magick: The Best of Shooter Jennings and the .357’s was Jennings’ last release before he left Universal.

He founded his own Black Country Rock Records label and released a drastically different project in 2010. The dystopian concept rock album Black Ribbons (2010) included dialogue and narration by writer Stephen King. The next two albums—Family Man (2012) and The Other Life (2013)—returned to a country sound. Countach (For Giorgio) (2016) was a nod to the 1980s film compositions and electronica of Giorgio Moroder.

A self-proclaimed studio nerd, Jennings has always greatly preferred production to stage. “I was attracted to the studio from a very young age. I loved going in when my dad was recording,” he says. “I love to sit in my room and make stuff and work with people in the studio. That’s where I really light up.”

“The concept of performing in front of people gave me massive anxiety and still does to this day. Being on the road is like creating a painting and then you make 50 other copies of it. It’s not exactly the most inspiring thing to do,” he says. “But, I enjoy it and I’ve been doing it a long time and there are great, fun, experimental moments. I understand that it makes fans happy and I dig that part of it.”

Given his attraction to the studio, it’s not surprising that Jennings has developed a very successful parallel career as a producer. He teamed up with old friend Dave Cobb to produce Brandi Carlile’s 2018 release By the Way, I Forgive You, which was nominated for six Grammys this year.

It was after working together on Carlile’s album that Jennings decided to make Shooter with Cobb. “We really learned how to do this together back in the day. He’s the kind of old friend where I might not see him for a long time, but then we get in a room together and it’s like no time has passed—and that’s how we are musically as well. We had a great time making this record,” says Jennings.

He marvels at the advances in recording that have made the process so much simpler. “I’m somebody who loves to work with older gear in the studio, but nowadays you can zoom through so many tasks. Protools even has a plug-in that rides the vocals for you,” he says. “It’s wild what you can do with just a laptop.”

New technology also makes it simpler to put people at ease in the studio, reminding artists they can redo it 100 times if necessary. Adding vocals is sometimes the most nerve-wracking part, he says. “I prefer to do all the vocals later, or I’ll even send them home to cut vocals on their own time. I remind them that they have time to take it slow, but not to over-think it. When you settle on it, commit to it, and move on.”

“I’ve got a bunch of records that I’m producing for 2019. A Duff McKagan [Guns N’ Roses] record that we’ve worked on all year is going to come out. It’s an awesome record and totally not what people expect from him,” says Jennings who is also working with Carlile to produce a new Tanya Tucker album.

Whether he is creating his next album or producing another artist’s release, it is clear that Shooter Jennings is heavily influenced by his happy upbringing as the son of two country music icons.