DIVA Latinoamerica Magazine Interview

You're recognized as one of the best saxophonists in the world, and have participated in important tours of great artists. With the crisis in the music industry, what possibilities do you see for developers of this art?

First, let me thank you for your kind words!  I feel as though I'm the luckiest man in the world, because I am able to make a living doing what I love, and it makes people happy.  I am extremely grateful to be allowed to do what I do.

I think artists should never confuse music with the music industry.  Artists get into trouble when they focus on pursuing financial success or fame, instead of creating honest, expressive art.  If you try to give people what you think they will buy, you're lost before you've even begun.

Photo by R. W. Firth

Creating with honesty is the great challenge of making music that moves an audience.  People are more alike than they are different, and it's the artist's job to give voice to the things we all feel—to express the innermost feelings common to all humanity.  I can only do that when I'm honest with myself, on a very deep level.  It takes courage to stand before the world, with completely naked thoughts and emotions, but that's what the artist must do, or his work isn't of value.

I try to give the audience a transformative experience.  I want them to come away changed for the better.  I want to give them the courage to be themselves, to feel confident that they're good people (even if the boss yelled at them), to be a better husband or wife, to somehow summon the courage to keep going when things seem hopeless.  If someone pays his hard-earned money to hear me play, and my performance doesn't accomplish this, I feel I haven't done my job.  This has always been how I treat each performance; it doesn't matter if I'm playing in a stadium filled with 60,000 people, or in a small jazz club.


The business side of the industry is different now, certainly, and in my opinion, that's more good than bad.  Recording labels have always taken unfair advantage of artists, and label managers chose to ignore the reality of technological developments, especially digital download formats, and address these business issues in a responsible way.  (That being said, it's important that everyone supports artists by actually purchasing music, instead of illegally downloading it.)

It's true that artists can no longer count on a label to develop their career.  But labels represented only very few artists anyway; there have always been thousands of fantastic artists who never got that chance.  But now, technology has made it easier for artists to be in control of their own creative process, and then get global exposure and distribution—so artists today have more control over their own careers than ever before. 

People will always need music and art.  If the artist creates from deep inside, with honesty and passion, he will always find an audience.  With this philosophy in mind, I believe that these are actually exciting times for music.


What is your opinion of the new musical trends?

The great jazz composer Duke Ellington said there are only two kinds of music; good and bad.  Of course, everyone has a different opinion about what is good or bad; for me, good music is any music that is created to honestly express the human condition, instead of being created only for the sake of commerce.  Obviously, everything is not black and white; there are shades of gray. There is some commercial music that I like, and there is some “high art” music that I don't.

Originality and innovation are always welcome to my ears.  I'm especially fascinated by some of the music that uses technology as an equal member of the orchestra, because there are some lovely new electronic textures being painted into a new soundscape.

Also, with the internet, there is more cross-pollination of world music influences than ever before.  I find this trend enormously interesting and the results rewarding to listen to.

The key to my interest in any music, new or old, is whether it was created “consciously.”  Is the artist trying to say something of value, or is he simply following a formula devised by someone else?  Again, it's the question of art for art's sake, instead of commerce.  And of course, my taste is my own; everyone is different.  Indeed, my taste today is very different than it was 20 years ago; what moves you today may not move you tomorrow, as your taste matures and becomes more sophisticated.  As the saying goes, “Art won't come to you; you have to come to art.”  In other words, every child likes candy, but it takes an adult to appreciate fine cuisine.  I don't listen to music with too many carbohydrates and empty calories.


Do you think society today needs more culture, such as music, or should we focus more on business and the economy?

Photo by R. W. Firth

There have been several recent scientific studies that show a direct relationship between music, and brain development.  Students have been shown to score higher on tests after listening to Mozart.  Even more importantly, science has proven that the study of a musical instrument has a physical, quantifiable benefit to brain development in young children; practicing an instrument results in actually growing more neural pathways in the brain.  So if we want our children to grow up smarter, with better critical thinking skills, and better able to solve the world's problems, studying music is at least as important as any other subject, and maybe even the most important.  Society should regard music and the arts as fundamental, rather than secondary.  Art is not a luxury; it is the consciousness of any society, and is absolutely essential for a society to function at its best.

Art also inhabits a bigger context in the modern world.  Historically, periods of unrest and turmoil have also been periods of explosive musical creativity; the two are forever linked, as yin and yang, as light and darkness.  When people suffer, they need art more than ever.  Would America have gotten out of Viet Nam if music did not play a role in unifying public sentiment?

Art defines who we are as human beings; business only defines our economy. Economy is only one aspect of our lives; it is not our entire human identity.  And if more economists studied music, perhaps the world's economy would be managed better.


What's the relationship between jazz and Latino audiences?

Jazz and latin music are twin children of the same parents.  Both types of music spring from African rhythms, imported via the slave trade to the new world, and the harmonic tradition of Western Europe.  As it is only natural for jazz and latin music to borrow from each other, so can also be said of both styles of music and the public.  Americans love latin music, because it is similar to our own music, but expresses a culture different enough to feel exotic to us.

In my experience, Latino audiences are warm, open, and sophisticated listeners of all types of music—more so than Americans.  And I think Latinos have a natural appreciation for jazz; jazz is the most ephemeral of all music—it is composed spontaneously through improvisation—and there are no people on earth who live in the moment as well, and as passionately, as Latino people. So it's a very natural connection between jazz and latin audiences.


You're a veteran of the saxophone. What's your strategy to bring jazz to younger generations?

There is a common misunderstanding that jazz must be understood to be appreciated, but that simply isn't the case.  Of course, it can be said that our appreciation of anything grows with more understanding, but appreciating any kind of music is mostly a matter of exposure.  The more we're exposed to anything, the greater our appreciation of it.

This is another reason why schools should include music study in the curriculum; besides the intellectual benefits I mentioned earlier, the study of music helps students' understanding of the world around them.  Jazz, like travel, helps develop an open, vigorous mind, which is why jazz was feared and discouraged by the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. 

I'd also like to see more jazz programming on major media outlets, and I think media programmers should give more credit to the intellectual level of audiences.  At my home in California, I have a satellite TV dish, with thousands of networks to choose from--yet there is nothing worth watching.  Programming on TV and radio is intended for the lowest common denominator, however, on internet radio there is a wealth of fantastic new music, much of it jazz, from all over the world.  There are dozens of these internet stations, playing incredibly high quality music, created by amazing musicians everywhere, who are learning their craft—including jazz-- in conservatories all over the globe. 

With all these young, capable jazz musicians graduating from conservatories every year, and more internet radio jazz stations being launched all the time, there is obviously a market and desire for jazz (and many other high quality art forms)--so there is a disconnect between what audiences hunger for, and what media programmers give us instead.  We need nutrition, but they give us fast food.

What can I do about it?  How can I help bring jazz to young people?  I'm just one saxophone player, and I'm not able to change global media or education strategies.  But what I can do is give people honest music, and maybe help people feel better and think better as a result.  I try at least not to add to the world's confusion, and if I can add a bit of clarity to the world, maybe one saxophone player can make a difference.


Elegant, warm and sweet.--would you attribute the perfection of your sound to your natural talent, years or decades of studies and practice ... or is it essential to have a mixture of all of the above, to achieve a unique sound?

You're very kind, thank you.  When you hear any great musician, only about 10% of what you hear comes from his innate talent.  Yes, you must have an aptitude to be successful in music, but the other 90% is hard work!  And by that I mean, yes, decades of practice, but that's just putting in the hours.  That's necessary, and there's no short cut around it—but there's more to it.

Becoming a good musician requires constant focus.  You must analyze the music of past masters, absorb those lessons, then transform the knowledge into something uniquely your own.  You must constantly examine your own personal psychology, seeking truth and meaning.  You must train your mind to visualize mathematical matrices, apply them to harmonic implications, and execute them instantly—in front of an audience.  You must always question yourself, but have the confidence to follow your instincts.  You must be in intimate contact with the world within, but be aware of the world around you. And throughout all this, you have to communicate your thoughts and emotions, through your instrument, and try to help the listener feel something.

If that sounds overwhelming, it is.  That's why even the elders of the music, like the legendary, 81 year old Sonny Rollins, are still trying to improve. It's a journey, not a destination.

To become a great musician requires at least as much time and effort as becoming a great surgeon.  It's a career no sane person would attempt by choice.  But it is a calling, which every musician will tell you. Musicians often say “I didn't choose music; music chose me.”  It would be hard to find a professional musician that didn't agree.


What do you think of the theory that music is the best therapy for the soul?

Yes, absolutely, but not all music.  Earlier, we spoke at length about music transforming the listener. That can go both ways; some music can make you feel worse! But generally, yes, music of great beauty can heal in ways nothing else can.  Is there anything in life more beautiful than music?  Even love is more profound when shared through music.


What are your upcoming projects and performances for the rest of this year?

Yesterday I finished a few days recording an album by a new young pop artist, then went to perform with a jazz big band, that same night, at an LA jazz club. That's fairly typical in the life of a musician.  I also recently did some tracks for my eleventh album with musical comedian Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine.  An African High Life album I appeared on, Mangasa, by Nigerian artist Jerri Jheto, will be released soon.  Like many musicians, my career is a mixture of live concerts, and recordings for television, film, and musical artists' CDs.

I belong to a few bands in Los Angeles; Billy Vera & the Beaters, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, and my favorite, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, a jazz big band.  Gerald is 91 years old, and is still incredibly modern in his thinking.  Working with him is a rare privilege, because I get to experience the mind of a giant, developed in another era.  It's as if a painter could study with Claude Monet today.

When I was touring with Luis Miguel, I became instant friends with the other members of the group.  Although I'm not touring with Luis now, I'm constantly collaborating on several projects with various members of his orchestra.

I've written and submitted a few new songs to some artists, including Luis, and I write music for Amazonas, my own Brazilian Jazz group. I'm also writing a university-level textbook about the acoustical physics of saxophone.

Of course, I have no idea who will call tomorrow with an interesting project.  One of the wonderful features of a music career is that you never know what you'll be doing next.  Los Angeles is an artistically fertile environment, with incredible artists everywhere, and I'm always amazed-- and gratified-- by the level of creative interactions I'm fortunate enough to have with fellow musicians. 


The name of our magazine is DIVA Latinoamerica.  With your experience in fashion, who is the greatest Diva of all time? Someone remarkable, imitated, unique, and who has made history?  Also, what are the four secrets that make a woman a DIVA?

To me, a compelling woman—a DIVA-- is a woman whose beauty comes from inside, not from the clothes she wears.  She dedicates herself to helping the world and people around her, rather than obsessing about herself.  She has a profound sense of justice and fairness, and empathizes with the suffering of those less fortunate than herself. She is driven to contribute, rather than to take.

History is full of so many beautiful, inspirational women exhibiting these qualities, that it's hard to choose just one.  Rachel Carson, the American scientist, comes to mind.  She was a marine biologist, who wrote several books describing the beauty of the world beneath the sea.  Later, her research was the first that documented the dangers and long-lasting presence and effects of pesticides (specifically DDT) and other toxic chemicals.  The agricultural chemical industry aggressively tried to crush her, but she pressed on, and laid the groundwork for the environmental movement to follow, which is why she's known as the mother of the modern environmental movement.

Her personal life also exhibited a giving heart.  She lived with, and supported her mother.  When her sister died, she adopted the two orphaned daughters. Later, one of those nieces died, and Carson adopted the orphaned son.

She was a woman driven to make the world a better place, at the cost of great personal sacrifice. 

And that's HOT.