Gregg Field: Multi-Task Master…

December 1, 2011

Lifelong Jazz Man Gregg Field Has a Career That’s Touched on Every Aspect of the Music Business. Here’s Why Young Musicians Should Try to Do the Same.

Gregg Field’s recent itinerary was a doozy. He started things off with a late-summer stint in Florida with the Disney All American College Band, then he took a trip back to California to work in the studio on the new Gypsy Kings record. He took to the sea for the annual Dave Koz Jazz Cruise in Alaska, then flew to Brazil to perform at a concert with his wife, Monica Mancini, later hopping up to Buenos Aires to produce an album with Cuban legend Arturo Sandoval with Argentina’s Teatro Colon Orchestra. After a few days of down time, he caught a plane to London to record with the Shelly Berg Trio and the Royal Philharmonic.

Do you want this job yet? Field laughs it off. “It looks great on paper, doesn’t it?” he says over the phone from Los Angeles, counting the hours before his next several project deadlines. “It’s always a double-edged sword. Right now I’m wondering how I’m ever going to have time to get my records done.”

Nevertheless, Field knows that his broad career in performance, education, production, and record label management serves as a constant beacon to young jazz acolytes trying to find a foothold or two in a job market that’s more competitive than ever. The advice he gives to students all the time: find as many things as possible that you love doing and do them. Diversify. He certainly leads by example.

Field grew up in California, in the Bay Area, obsessively listening to jazz records and going over drumming patterns in his home and hanging around jazz clubs in the city to see legends perform whenever he could. He attended music camps as early as he could as a teenager and began teaching drums in high school. After a few chance encounters, he found himself working regularly as the drummer in Count Basie’s Orchestra, parlaying contacts through that gig into session jobs and, whenever possible, audio engineering assignments. He’s since performed with a long list of jazz and pop stars like Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Liza Minnelli and more.

He’s held positions at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles since 1983 and currently holds a place on the school’s board of directors, watching the its jazz program grow exponentially. In the meantime, he helped take the mantle of Concord Records from founder Carl Jefferson and turn it into one of the most widely-visible labels in the world through a partnership with Starbucks Coffee and a steadily impressive list of new releases by classic artists like Ray Charles, Cannonball Adderly, Paul McCartney, and James Taylor. In 2009, the company received a record 38 Grammy nominations. He has pioneered new techniques in recording by jumping onto digital audio workstations like ProTools when they were in their infancy, and has made waves with innovative new album concepts.

Throughout, he points to a passion for music as the only thing that continues to make any of it possible. JAZZed caught up with Field recently to talk about the lessons he’s learned while on the job and in the classroom throughout his career.

JAZZed: Great to speak with you, Gregg! Let’s start off with your work at USC, which began in ’83 right after you left Count Basie’s Orchestra. How’s the landscape changed since then, in any aspect?

Gregg Field: It’s completely different. In 1982, there never would have been a thought of a pop music curriculum and the jazz program there was pretty limited. It was still really a classical school and an opera school. Over the next ten years it started to grow a little bit, then Shelly Berg came in and everything changed really quickly in terms of the respect of the jazz school. He made vast changes and when you got ten years on, the program had really found its stride.

But the larger question I think you were asking was how things have generally changed in teaching. It’s the opportunities for working as a musician that are a challenge for us to prepare students for. The same types of opportunities just aren’t there like they were when I first started at USC. So we see that and we’re adapting our curriculum to stay ahead of the curve. Part of that is expanding the awareness of the music business outside of just being a creative instrumentalist. That’s worked wonders for me because I have a career as a music producer, musician, and business person with Concord, which keeps me really busy. I encourage students to move beyond their instruments to expand their opportunities. They might say, “Yeah, I love playing sax, but talk to me about producing,” or “What is it like to be an engineer on a session and learn ProTools?”

JAZZed: So you think the key is just getting students involved in any fields that they can?

GF: Where they’re attracted, at least. For me, opportunity comes where your passion leads you. I had a real amazing thing happen when I was a kid – I was obsessed with Count Basie’s band in junior high school and high school and I’d go see them any time they’d come to San Francisco. I would come home and practice to the records for hours and hours and hours, every song I could find on a recording of Basie. I was a senior in high school in ’73 and the band was playing in San Francisco. I found myself backstage and I got introduced to Basie. And the band’s getting onstage and Sonny Payne, the drummer, didn’t show up. And I ended up playing the concert as a senior in high school. It was incredible. The synchronicities that had to line up for me to be at that moment in time were remarkable.

But what I’ve learned is that I had a lot of passion to play that music and what I’ve learned is that wherever I find myself really getting excited and passionate over wanting to do something, I find the doors starting to open up. I wanted to work for Sinatra, wanted to work with Ella, wanted to record for Luther Vandross, wanted to work with Arturo. You can keep naming them – before I worked with them, I wanted to work with them. I was a fan. And I tell students that. You’ll find that opportunity doesn’t knock once – it’s always knocking. If your passion is there, that will drive you to opportunity and I’ve seen it over and over for many years. It’s a technique for me. If I have my sights on something, the success will come.

JAZZed: At the same time as starting out as a teacher, you were also beginning to learn the ropes in record engineering, right?

GF: They were both coming at the same time. I was always attracted to the recording process and production. In the early ‘80s, I had a little computer with a little sequencer and I would try to recreate with the sequencer hits that I was hearing on the radio. Around that time, my recording career starting taking off a bit and I was actually making R&B records. My first real record session was with Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds. It was Wah Wah Watson on guitar and Greg Phillenganes playing piano. I was so unprepared. I was 21 years old and suddenly found myself on a big session in L.A. My drums sounded horrible and I was fired off the session almost immediately. But it was the best thing that could have happened! I learned a lot and fortunately those guys both stepped in and helped, especially Wah Wah. I was curious about recording. When the predecessor to ProTools came out, called SoundDesign, I learned it. I got it, took it home, really woodshedded it, and then would just asked engineers, you know, “How do you get this reverb to work,” or “What mic do you use on the vocal?” I was just being a curious guy and a pain in the ass to a lot of engineers!

Bit by bit I developed a little skill and was hired to produce my first record around ’83 or ‘84, somewhere in there. That led to Concord records founder Carl Jefferson and John Burk sending some producing work my way. It was a great opportunity!

JAZZed: Is that how you first got involved with Concord, then – producing? 

GF: Oh no, I actually go back with Concord longer than anybody else. Carl Jefferson, who started Concord Records back in the 1970s, was a Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Concord, Calif. – Jefferson Motors. My dad used to buy cars from him. In 1972, he did something that was so cool – he hired Louis Belson and Barney Kessel and Mill Hinn (bass player, drummer and guitar player) to do a jazz camp in Lake Tahoe for a week. They took ten drummers, ten bass players and ten guitar player students. I got to study with Louis and Grant Geissman, the great guitar player. So that started a relationship with Carl Jefferson. As time went on, the relationship kept up and I would call him once in awhile or he’d call me – he was a really wonderful guy. This went on for a long time.

JAZZed: How did you become a label owner?

GF: Concord was sold by Carl in 1994 to a conglomerate that ultimately had financial difficulty. Concord was a pretty small label at that point and came up for sale. My friends Norman Lear and Hal Gaba loved music, so I introduced them to Glen Barros and John Burk, who were running Concord.  We put together the financing and I became one of the owners. Norman and Hal along with Glen and John and our general manager Gene Rumsey, have really been responsible for the growth of Concord.

JAZZed: How did the deal with Starbucks come about?

GF: It was our chairman Hal Gaba, about the nicest guy anyone has ever met, who was at a party with Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz. Starbucks was basically selling CD compilations out of the stores. You know – music that had been released already.

Hal approached Howard and said we could do a better job with his in store CDs and Howard was intrigued. He said if we could sign Ray Charles, we’ll do a deal with you guys. We approached Ray Charles with the idea of doing an album and of course I’m sure you know the history – it sold 8 million copies, won every Grammy it was up for, and we were suddenly a real record label with serious growing pains. Everything changed at that point. We started acquiring other labels and it brings us to today, and I’m happy to say that in spite of the challenging environment we actually had our best year to date!

JAZZed: That’s not something too many labels can claim. 

GF: Yeah. One of the reasons is – we embrace artists that major labels don’t see a value in anymore. We have the new Paul Simon record. Frankly, I don’t think Warner Brothers knew what to do with him anymore. Ray Charles, James Taylor, Carole King, and Paul Simon are legacy artists that we value! That’s proved a really good formula for us. And we’re still making as many or more jazz records than we’ve ever made.

JAZZed: What do you tell students now, after getting all these serendipitous breaks – playing with Count Basie in high school, getting involved with Concord as a teenager, meeting Phil Ramone – it can’t possibly be that easy for people anymore, can it?

GF: It wasn’t that easy back then! [laughs]. I’m telling you, if you’d asked me in high school, “Who do you want to play with?” I could have named five guys instantly. I go to schools sometime and pick out a musician and go “Who’s your dream to play with? What’s your dream gig? What do you want to do?” and they don’t have an answer. That’s a problem. That’s not the passion that you need to drive the success and keep you hanging into the game. Honestly, I think the opportunities are there, but it’s sort of how you’re wired and where you put your efforts.

JAZZed: What attracts you to new artists or students?

GF: Virtuosity will certainly get your attention. I had a meeting with a singer yesterday named Barbara Padilla. She’s an opera singer who on the 2009 season of America’s Got Talent where she came in second place. 15 million people voted for her. She’s this beautiful woman who is unbelievably talented and is so excited about making a great record. And that enthusiasm has helped her get on a major television show and get a lot of attention! So the talent is one thing and then the reality of can I create a successful recording with all the external forces at play with a new artist is also a consideration. Are they in a position to tour? Do they have management and an agent, etc? It’s a combination. As for students, I look for the talent and enthusiasm and try to evaluate can I be effective in helping their development as a musician.

JAZZed: On the other hand, is it becoming more difficult to get younger artists interested?

GF: It’s a challenge. But our young artists like Christian Scott, Spencer Day – they’re working. They’re out there making noise. Listen, it’s a challenge no matter what level you are, but as long as you’re creative, you can figure out a way to be successful.

JAZZed: Does it seem like more now than ever you have to have a good business background?

GF: Absolutely. It really helps. You know if you’re a musician and you want to play a gig and you go to negotiate your salary with the club owner or label, it doesn’t hurt to have a little business background. And the other side of that is that it’s not just about what you can get out of it. It’s how you can also make it good for that guy? That’s kind of how I come into business deals. I know that if I make it a winner for the person across the table from me, then it’s usually a winner for me too.

JAZZed: What about your mentors growing up?

GF: I’m still growing up! Louis Bellson was such a mentor, not just as a drummer but as a guy – an example of a guy that was so loved and so willing to help people. I ended up producing his last three records and learned SO much watching a guy operate from a creative place in his life. He just thought differently. He used to design his own clothes. He was living life with an expanded awareness that I found that intriguing and attractive.

And then certainly from the business aspect, my good friend Hal Gaba. I really knew nothing of the business world and Hal was a huge mentor and was really helped me understand the record business and just business in general. And of course from producing, Phil Ramone. Without a doubt a huge mentor and friend! I always felt mentored by Basie. He was a really wise human being. Watching the way he would go about his life was a lesson. There have been so many lessons and I am so fortunate to have been around people that have guided and helped me along the way. I hope I can do the same!

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