JAZZed In the Classroom

February 6, 2009

Ira Nepus is one of the quiet heroes of today’s jazz world. He has performed and/or recorded with some of the greatest names in jazz, including Benny Carter, Woody Herman, Quincy Jones, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, and Cab Calloway to name a few. He was one of the founding members of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and continues to perform with them after over 20 years. He has recorded in every major Los Angeles-area recording studio, and can be heard on soundtracks for movies and television shows from Remember the Titans to X-files and from Family Guy to Jeopardy.

We are so fortunate that he is willing to spend some time with us at JAZZed In the Classroom.

JAZZed: Welcome, Ira.
Ira Nepus: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

JAZZed: You’ve had the opportunity to see and be a part of so much of the history of this great music.I’d like to start by asking for a story. Would you be willing to share a favorite memory with our readers?
IN: One of my fondest memories as a professional musician was when I was in Woody Herman’s band, in 1969 or 1970. We were in New Orleans working at Al Hurt’s nightclub for two weeks. We would do two shows a night, and would have up to two hours off between shows. So, I would run across the street in the French quarter and go sit in with all the old New Orleans guys, like Sweet Emma, Louis Catrell, and Punch Miller over at the Preservation Hall. Then I’d go back and play my sets with Woody Herman two completely different genres.

After we left that gig’ we flew to New York City, where we were working at one of the major hotels. We’d do our jazz set there and on our breaks I’d run over and sit in with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. In a relatively short period of time I went from the very beginning of jazz, in New Orleans, to sitting in with the most contemporary big band in the world at that time. Being able to cross over like that was like going through a musical time machine.

I think it’s important for young players today to really understand the entire history of jazz, and to be able to know and play the repertoire. I didn’t go into Preservation Hall with lead sheets and a fake book. Whatever tune they’re playing is the tune I had to be able to play the tunes those guys played every night. But then to go and sit in with Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and read the very sophisticated charts they had stretches you to the max. You’ve got to be at their level, as well. It really stretches you, and makes you a better player.

That was one of the greatest memories of my life.

JAZZed: Incredible, Ira.
IN: It was just amazing. And then there were those three weeks at Caesar’s Palace in Los Vegas with Woody Herman and Duke Ellington’s Orchestra on the same stage, every night. We were trading tunes: Duke would play a number, and then Woody would play; then Duke, then Woody. Then we’d move over across the stage and play Ellington’s music, while Ellington’s guys moved across the stage and played Woody’s music. And then we’d end it all with the really grand finale: both playing at the same time. We did that for three weeks all the way through Christmas and into New Year’s Eve. It was one of the most memorable gigs of my life. One I’ll never forget.

JAZZed: Now you’ve got a great relationship with that horn of yours. What do you love most about it?
IN: I love that I am still discovering the instrument: still learning how to play, and still learning about the music. I don’t ever feel like I’ve arrived; it’s an on-going process. And, I truly love the trombone. I’ve loved it from the day I first opened up the case in elementary school, and fell in love with the sound of it listening to professionals play: it just gave me goose-bumps!

JAZZed: What advice can you give to our readers with regard to playing the trombone?
IN: Well, I’ll tell you: it isn’t as much about playing scales as it is about the way they get around on the slide. You need to memorize your major scales in several octaves and play them is if they were the finest piece of music in order to ultimately free yourself from the physical-ness of playing the instrument to allow playing to become more of a natural process, like walking down the street. Rather than trying to move perfectly from position to position, it should be a kind of flow-of-the-slide: so that instead of moving from first to second and from second to third, you are moving from all the way up the slide to all the way out the slide, passing the positions along the way. I’m very much into the classical world, as I am the jazz world, and have watched some of the greatest classical trombone players. The ones that I admire the most are the ones whose slide just flowed, without stopping on every position in order to make the notes come out

JAZZed: Thank you, Ira. Tell me: What is it about jazz music that makes it so special?
IN: The great thing about jazz is that every performance is different. No two solos are alike. Of course, it is true that, for instance, Chick Corea sits down at the piano and works out solos for hours beforehand. Now that doesn’t mean that when Chick Corea performs he is going to play the same solo note-for-note, but he is going to work out certain things in his solos that he is going to be able to draw on when he performs. You build up a reserve of little ideas

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