Tag Archives: professional musician

Denton Declares Jay Saunders Day

Jay-SaundersAt the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival in Denton, Texas, Mayor Chris Watts read a proclamation designating April 29, 2016 as Jay Saunders Day in Denton. In a short speech Watts highlighted the Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX) member’s career contributions to the University of North Texas (UNT) Jazz Studies Program. Denton Arts & Jazz Festival Director Carol Short also recognized Saunders and his wife Pat for more than 32 years of volunteer service to the festival.

Saunders earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at UNT, where he was lead trumpet for the school’s premier jazz ensemble, the One O’Clock Lab Band, during the 1960s. In his distinguished career, Saunders has played with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, US Army Studio Band, Dallas Summer Musicals, Casa Mañana Musical Theater, Dallas and Fort Worth symphony pop series, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Ray Charles, The Supremes, Henry Mancini, and countless others. He’s recorded 11 albums with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and one with Doc Severinsen. Plus he’s recorded music for documentary films and countless commercials on every major television station.

Saunders has served with distinction on the faculty of the UNT School of Jazz Studies for 16 years as a full-time lecturer and for seven years as an adjunct faculty member. He has directed the school’s Three O’Clock Lab Band for many years, has directed the Two O’Clock Lab Band for the past six years. He’s directed the One O’Clock Lab Band for two years, during which it received a Grammy nomination.

Neil Balm: Trumpeter’s Career Hits the High Note

nEIL-BALMNeil Balm of Local 802 (New York City) is co-principal trumpet of the New York City Ballet and principal trumpet for the New York Pops and Mostly Mozart Festival. All along, he’s demonstrated his virtuosity, recording with the Canadian Brass, as a soloist with award-winning conductor Gerard Schwarz of Local 802, and on tour in Europe with Louie Bellson’s Big Band. The experiences were revelatory for Balm, who hails from Hamilton, Ontario. He says, “They are such fabulous musicians!”   

Balm’s father was a high school music teacher who also repaired instruments. Balm picked up the trumpet and never put it down. He showed promise, and at 12 years old, when he formed a band, his father told him, “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. Let’s join the union.”

His father passed away before Balm entered high school. Balm, who at the time was studying with Ronald Romm of the nearby Canadian Brass, found an extended family. Romm became a father figure. When Balm entered the Juilliard School to study with William Vacchiano, it was Brass member Fred Mills (also trumpet coach for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada) who introduced Balm to top New York musicians.

In 1979, Balm was practicing concertos and orchestral music, in between his bachelors and masters degrees at Juilliard, when the phone rang. Peter Frampton of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) needed a horn section and somebody asked if Balm was available. He was hired based on references. Opening the four-month tour with the band in Flint, Michigan, to more than 7,000 people, Balm (who played lead trumpet and keyboards) says, “I had never been to a rock concert until I played that one. I couldn’t believe my eyes and the roar of the crowd. It was fantastic!”

“I was fortunate to have had rich exposure to such a high level of playing,” Balm says. His main teacher and chamber music coach, conductor Gerard Schwarz,  gave him playing opportunities which Balm says, put him on the map. On Schwarz’s recommendation, Balm became principal trumpet for the preeminent summer concert series Mostly Mozart Festival. This year will be Balm’s 33rd season with the 50-year-old festival.

Balm credits old friend Marvin Stamm of Local 802 for inroads to the jazz scene. “I went to recording sessions and got to see some of the great players, how they played and how the business worked. Eventually, I started covering for some of those guys.” For five years, he worked with Ted Weis, long considered the first trumpet of New York. Balm says, “He was a pro, and if you were observant, you could learn how to survive on the job.”

That’s where the union comes into play. He stresses, “It’s a team sport, not just on the stage or on the band stand, but also behind the scenes. It’s a mistake to think you can do it on your own. Without the union, negotiations, contracts, CBAs, and the fraternity that we have, we’d be making $50 a night the rest of our lives.”

The camaraderie he found in the union positioned him to help other musicians. Partnering with timpanist Jonathan Haas of Local 802, he formed Gemini Music Productions. The contracting and consulting firm provides educational and business outreach for musicians so they can build and use the area’s vast union-connected resources.

Between the New York City Ballet Orchestra, the New York Pops, the All-Star Orchestra, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart, and his production company, the 58 year-old Balm stays busy. He has no plans to stop working—but when he does, his investment in the union means he has a pension to cushion retirement.

Balm maintains, “If you can really play, you’re going to work.” He admits it may not be a 52-week contract with a symphony orchestra, but he says it’s easier nowadays for artists to create music, especially with today’s technology. Ever mindful of the shifts and metamorphosis of the music business with each decade or generation, Balm nonetheless proclaims it’s alive and well.

“After the ’40s, people said, ‘the big bands are done, the business is gone’; in the ’50s, when radio orchestras started dying out, people said it was over. In the ’70s and ’80s, when the jingle business dried up, people said, ‘the business is gone.’ But it’s still here. The music business changes, but it’s still here!” he says.

Johnny Cowell

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

Johnny Cowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keb Mo on cover

Keb’ Mo’: Modern Master of American Roots

keb moMusician Kevin Moore of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) paid his dues as a session musician, struggling to find his voice, before finally discovering the blues infused roots music he is recognized for today. When he debuted as Keb’ Mo’ two decades ago, he embarked on music that he admits is “too happy for the blues, too funky for folk, and too city for country,” building a successful career as a singer and songwriter in the wider genre of American roots music.

Mo’ recalls leaner times, and how hard he worked to establish himself as a Los Angeles studio musician. Then he got what he thought was his big break in 1980. “I had a nice record deal and it was a big flop,” he admits. “By 1982 nobody was calling me for gigs. So, I thought, ‘This is it.’”

He wasn’t thinking about giving up music, but he had his doubts about his ability to earn a decent living in the industry. “I was wandering around doing whatever—I played salsa music, blues, and I tried to play jazz,” he says.

Then something that he calls magical happened—though he didn’t know it at the time. He took a gig subbing for a friend in a blues combo at Marla’s Memory Lane supper club in Los Angeles. He continued playing that Monday night gig for two years, transforming himself in the process.

“That’s where I got my indoctrination into the blues; that was my fresh start,” he explains. Before then, Mo’ was resistant to playing the blues. “Growing up in L.A., in the pop songwriter scene and trying to do sessions, it wasn’t like I was going to get any traction playing the blues.” Or so he thought.

“I began to look at my gifts as they were, instead of what I didn’t have,” he explains about the transition. He says he’d always been a pretty good songwriter, had pretty good vocals, could play guitar, and had a good rapport with the crowd.

“The next thing I needed was commitment,” he says. “When I had commitment, that took me to another realm. I started getting a completely different reaction when I took inventory of myself and was willing to ‘die’ for my craft, so to speak.”

Keb’ Mo,released in 1994, earned gold-record status. For his second Keb’ Mo’ album, Just Like You (1996), he earned a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, as he also did with Slow Down (1999), and Keep It Simple (2005).

Mo’s blues infused, personal ballads come directly from his heart. “Songwriting has to be personal. I usually start with a thought,” he explains. “For instance, the funny little [song] ‘More for Your Money’ is a chronological look at the world of retail. “As a kid, I remember walking home from school in California. If I had a nickel left I could get a candy bar … a whole Snickers for a nickel.”

keb-mo-playingIt was the land of the brave, the home of the free, but some of our jobs shipped overseas;  … It was a high price to pay to get more for your money today,” recites Mo’. “They opened up a store that took a whole city block, whatever you need you know they got. But it was a hard price to pay to get more for your money today.

That song is on his BluesAmericana album released last spring, which he sees as a signpost of artistic and personal growth. “I really shared deeply,” he says, explaining how he expressed intimate feelings with a deeper understanding that comes from life experience. “It’s a deeper place, and a deeper sense of what you have to dig into to get yourself to the next place in your life.”

The album was nominated for the Best Americana Album Grammy, as well as Best Engineered Nonclassical Album, and its hit single “The Old Me Better” was nominated for Best American Roots Performance. Mo’ has credits on the album for banjo, guitar (acoustic, electric, resonator, and slide), harmonica, horn arrangements, keyboards, organ, piano, and tambourine. Plus, he produced the album himself with co-producer Casey Wasner.

“I want to stay in until the job is done to my own satisfaction and producers are expensive. Maybe I don’t have the budget for the producer that I would like to have, but I’ve got time on my hands, loads of time,” he says. “Maybe a producer could get it quicker, or they could send me down a path I don’t want to go. I have a clear path about what I like and what I think I am musically. I like to hold myself to the highest standard. I’m probably going to push myself further than a producer is ever going to push me.”

The album took about three months to produce, not including the songwriting. Having his own studio allowed him another advantage. He could set up the room exactly as he wanted. “Are you into feng shui at all? I set it up energetically. I wanted something really cool to happen,” he says.

The industry has changed a lot in the 20 years since his debut as Keb’ Mo.’ “You can’t stay in the way of change,” he concedes. “I’ve had to think differently and also pay attention to what is going on because it changes so fast. You really have to have one foot in the present and one foot in the future all the time.”

One trend that Mo’ is enthusiastic about is the resurgence in popularity of vinyl, something his audience seems to appreciate. He released a vinyl version of BluesAmericana this winter.

Aside from keeping up on all the changes, Mo’ says it is important to him to stay focused on his personal “dharma.” “I have to stay on the prime point of why I’m in the music business, which is to serve, to play music, to entertain, and to do my best as a person—to live my dharma and not do it for the sake of how many units I’m going to sell.”

keb-mo-albums“It always puts me back to [ask myself], ‘Why are you doing this? What if it all goes away? What if Spotify, CDs, vinyl, and everything goes away? What if the electricity goes away? What am I going to do then?’ I’m going to get my acoustic guitar and a cup and I’m going to play … unplugged,” he laughs.

One thing that Mo’ is certain of, no matter how the industry changes: roots music, like the blues will never go away. That means a lot coming from a man who dismissed the blues early in his career. “If you are a young person and having fun musically, at some point you are going to hear the blues. You may hear it before you hear it, but at some point, you are going to hear it and go, ‘Holy crap!’”

“Life is going to make you hear it. It might not be the blues, it might be old country, gospel, old folk music, but real music, real people,” he adds. “The blues is folk music, folk music is where all the classics and these things come from.”

“You can go and learn all your fancy scales and fancy chords and try to get the right beat and a hit record. It lasts for like two weeks and then you’ve got to get another one, but you can’t … But then you go to the blues, something real,” he says. “That’s why Van Morrison and B.B. King [of Local 71 (Memphis, TN)] can still work right now. There are a lot of artists who make a fine living who never had a hit because they dug into something real.”

The longtime union member, cites the AFM as an essential organization that has aided him in his career. “I was able to borrow money to get instruments, buy a car, and when I got poor, they worked with me to help me pay all my debts. And then there are all the ‘little things’—the recording fund, pension, and there are all kinds of benefits. If you work hard the benefits of being a union member will pay off and it will be a big key in your future when you are older, plus there’s the camaraderie,” he explains.

He says union membership is not just about the benefits; it’s also about the musicians decades ago who struggled to get fair pay and job protection for others. “You need to be a union member because the union is your heritage as a musician. People pay fair wages to musicians now because of the musicians union,” he says.

Mo’s advice to upcoming musicians, aside from union membership, is simple. “Don’t follow in my path, make your own path,” he says. “Be steady, learn all you can, learn to read, learn really good timing. Learn how to play a little bit when a little bit is needed and learn how to play a lot when a lot is needed. And always listen, listen, listen. Music is 90% listening and 10% playing.”



ron carter

Ron Carter: Jazz’s Elder Statesman

ron carter

Ron Carter

“I’m a reluctant star,” says Ron Carter, humbly. “I’m always surprised when projects are offered to me by strangers, even pop singers, whom I don’t know. I’m taken aback that they’ve heard of me and know enough about my integrity and professionalism to approach me.”

Then, somewhat surprisingly for a musician of Carter’s stature, he adds, “I always blush a little when I get those phone calls.”

One reason that so many young musicians, in and out of the jazz world, know Carter, a member of Local 802 (New York City), is that he is incredibly prolific. To date, he has recorded on more than 2,500 albums.

The Sideman

Another reason is that the roll call of front men and women Carter has played for includes some of jazz’s greatest legends: Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine, Stan Getz, and Milt Jackson, to name a few. A good website helps, too: at www.roncarter.net, fans young and old can listen to his work directly.

Then there is the fact that over the years Carter has built a reputation for lending his wisdom to projects outside of the jazz genre. He has played blues with BB King of Local 71 (Memphis, TN), funk with James Brown, soul with Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC), and even modern classical with the Kronos Quartet. “I’m always happy to broaden my horizons,” he says, “and people call me because they seem to trust my judgment.”

“I’ve played as a sideman all the way,” explains Carter, looking back on his 50-year career. “My job has always been to make the musicians around me sound much better. I have not minded subjugating my ego eight bars back if I know that I can contribute to a successful project.”

As an example of how he fulfills the role of sideman, Carter recalls one project with Stanley Turrentine when the group was searching for numbers to fill out an album. “At that point, someone had to step forward and make suggestions about tunes and arrangements, and I’ve been known to do that.” Carter then puts his role in military terms: “The frontman is like a general sitting at the desk, while I’m an officer in the field.”

Stepping Out

But everyone at some point wants to be a band leader, admits Carter, and in this latest stage of his storied career, he has decided to see if some of his own ideas about how to lead a band, learned by watching jazz’s greatest leaders at work, can come to fruition. Carter has recorded several albums recently as a bandleader, including The Golden Striker for Blue Note Records.

“I’m absolutely pleased with what I’ve done as a leader,” he says, adding that it’s still frustrating when club managers want to book bands that have a trumpet player or singer out front. “But I’m comfortable that my approach is the correct one,” Carter asserts.

In a way, fronting his own jazz combos–either a trio, quartet, or nonet–is a return to Carter’s earliest days as a jazz bassist, when he started up a quartet with like-minded musicians in his neighborhood, having left behind the cello as an 18-year-old in Ferndale, Michigan.

New Skills

After high school Carter attended Wayne State University, near Detroit, and soon heard about an audition for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. “I auditioned in 1955 while the recruiters were in my area,” recalls Carter.

Carter remembers his time at Eastman as a fabulous experience that gave him many chances to perform and gain valuable experience as a sideman. Eastman also gave the jazz player a classical music education (he played in the Eastman Philharmonic Orchestra), which extended his range. “Eastman’s classical music education gave me new skills and helped me become a more diverse musician,” Carter explains.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in music at Eastman, Carter went on to earn a masters degree in double bass at the Manhattan School of Music. Today, those two diplomas are joined by honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music, and in 2002 his alma mater recognized him with its prestigious Hutchinson Award.

Miles of Smiles

In 1960 Carter joined the all-union Randy Weston Quartet and began his professional career. After leaving Weston, he freelanced in New York City, where his reputation grew enough for Miles Davis to take notice. “In those day, Miles’ concerts were one night gigs for me,” Carter remembers. “Whenever Miles had gigs though, I’d be performing.”

The call from Davis proved fortuitous when Carter’s became one element of the latest sound the great trumpet player was experimenting with. “When I played with Miles, it was like having five men in a laboratory with the same goal,” he explains. Those five men came to be known as one of most legendary groups in jazz history: along with Davis and Carter, it featured George Coleman on tenor sax and Herbie Hancock on piano, both of Local 802, and Tony Williams on drums.

When asked what it was like when these musicians got together to rehearse, Carter replies, remarkably, that “we only had two rehearsals during my five years with the group.” What made it work, he says, is that there was absolute trust between the musicians. “It was a collective,” Carter continues. “The sidemen were all equal and Miles allowed us to be equal with him.”

While Carter was working at the Half Note in March 1963, Davis was reorganizing his road band and asked Carter if he’d like to join full-time. He agreed and began a new chapter of his life as a traveling musician, playing with Davis all over the country, as well as on the classic albums Four & More, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, and others.

Life on the road proved challenging, though, especially when Carter became a father. “I truly enjoyed working with Miles, but I had two sons born in 1962 and 1965, and playing in the band made me feel as if they were growing up without me,” he admits, “so I left the band.”

Sonic Presence

Today, Carter is recognized as a legend in his own right, a status measured to some degree by awards bestowed on him. He has been named Outstanding Bassist of the Decade by the Detroit News, Jazz Bassist of the Year by Downbeat magazine, Most Valuable Player by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and he received Grammys in 1993 for Best Jazz Instrumental Group and in 1998 for the Best Instrumental Composition.

The elder statesman is well-positioned to comment on the contemporary jazz scene. “There’s more of a responsibility put on vocalists and the media these days,” Carter observes. “In the past, when I was growing up, there were more clubs, radio stations, and more jazz in movies as well.” In other words, says Carter, jazz was more accessible in the ’50s and ’60s.

But that doesn’t mean jazz is a dying art. In fact, Carter is still busy mentoring the next generation of jazz bassists, previously as the Artistic Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies and these days as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of The City College of New York.

“Be prepared for anything that may come your way,” is Carter’s advice to his students, “then you can always find work playing music.” At the same time, Carter warns young musicians that the industry is a different game then when he got his start. Today, for instance, the need to make your name visible is crucial in a world flooded with new artists and new forms of media.

Talking about the technical side of his art, Carter explains that the situation for a bass player has changed in the past few decades. “One reason for this that is overlooked is the influence of electric basses and amplifiers,” says Carter, who experimented with the electric bass in the ’60s and ’70s before concentrating on the upright. “Now, a bass player has the same what I call “sonic presence’ as other members of a group. They can be heard equally, and with that a bass player can become more comfortable with the idea that his or her intent will get attention.” Through this, a modern bass player is given the courage to try new things, he adds.

As if to lead the way for his students, Carter is still trying new things, and dismissing any talk of retirement. “I’m continually performing,” he concludes, “I played both at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center recently. I’m getting better everyday, and I’m still growing in my career.”