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The Power of Listening – Nick Phillips

Jazzed Magazine • Lessons LearnedNovember 2006 • November 1, 2006

The Power of Listening


In a certain sense, American popular song has long paid lip service to the subject of education. Think of “Teach Me Tonight” or “Learnin’ the Blues,” though you might choose to omit Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” or Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” from the syllabus.

All joking aside, though, the learning of fundamentals, familiarity with the great works, and a basic understanding of traditions and innovations continues to be a very real concern within the music community – and perhaps nowhere as thoroughly as among jazz musicians. For some whys and wherefores, JazzEd approached Concord Records’ Nick Phillips. The 41-year-old vice president of Jazz and Catalog AR has been with the esteemed jazz label founded by Carl Jefferson for almost half his life. Joining the company in 1987 as an all-purpose go-fer, Phillips quickly ascended to assisting Jefferson in the recording studio; his first project was Carmen McRae’s Fine and Mellow: Live at Birdland West, which received a Grammy nomination. He’s since remained busy producing compilation and reissue projects from the rich jazz catalogs of the Fantasy, Prestige, Milestone, and Riverside imprints, and has produced numerous recordings by such artists as Nnenna Freelon and Karrin Allyson. A graduate of California’s University of the Pacific’s Conservatory of Music in Stockton (with a B.M. in Music Man- agement/Business), Phillips also plays trumpet and composes.

“My general feeling is that education is important in anything you do,” says Phillips, “and there are many ways to get a musical education: the formal, institutional way, which is very valuable, and also the informal way. I think that, in jazz, every opportunity to experience music live or hear the great masters on CD is worthwhile. One of the key components of jazz education is listening. The two [of education] go hand-in-hand. There are certainly instances of great jazz artists who didn’t have a lot of formal training, but really had a good ear. Chet Baker’s a good example.”
Have changing times placed more of an emphasis on the formal, jazz-studies approach in recent years? “Yes,” Phillips says. “We’re no longer in an era where there are countless professional big bands touring and being the incubator for those kinds of apprenticeships for artists, so that’s where the educational programs at the college level come in. Nowadays, a lot of universities do have programs that, for instance, give young musicians opportunities to perform within ensembles, the way the old big-band circuit once did.”

Programs such as NARAS’ Grammy Career Day, of course, cater to even younger musicians. The Bay Area-based Phillips has been active for over a decade in the annual series, which in his chapter draws high school students from all over the region to San Francisco State University.”There’s always a jazz component,” Phillips explains, “with workshops on composing, on engineering, business.”

Do today’s aspiring artists come in with overly great expectations, or are they less star-struck then previous generations? “It’s a combination of both,” Phillips answers. “What I’ve witnessed is a lot of light bulbs going off. When they get there, these kids realize the possibilities are much broader than they imagined.” In addition to Grammy Career Day, he notes the value of the organization’s annual Grammy Camp. “Like Career Day, workshops are broken down into composing, performing and so forth,” he says, “but it’s for a prolonged period. Students are living and breathing all of this while they’re there.”

Concord itself, he points out, is a patron member of the International Association for Jazz Education;label president Glen Barros serves on the board of the Jazz Alliance International, the organization’s advocacy wing, and Phillips has accepted an invite to be on the IAJE’s Resource Team. Artists on the label are likewise involved in jazz-education efforts. Trumpeter Christian Scott, Phillips notes, is a Berklee graduate who regularly participates in workshops at his alma mater. “Also,” he adds, “the young pianist Taylor Eigsti, who’s from the Bay Area, has been active in jazz clinics and workshops at The Jazz School in Berkeley, California. Clinics are something that a lot of our artists do: [organist] Joey DeFrancesco, [bassist] John Patitucci, and Nnena Freelon too. She makes it a big priority to do educational outreach whenever she’s touring; she’s set up workshops in high schools and junior-highs, even with younger kids. She’s a real evangelist for jazz education.” As perhaps the most prominent jazz artist involved in education, Phillips cites our inaugural issue’s cover-subject, Gary Burton, who, though now retired from the post, maintained a full touring and recording schedule while serving as dean at Berklee College.

Phillips himself finds that “continuing education” is a regular aspect of his day-to-day gig. “There are cases,” he explains, “where we’re working with a new or established artist, developing repertoire and a concept for a record. There may be instances where the artist may not have heard a particular version of a piece of material, so we expose them to it. Every listening experience is an opportunity to become more educated. One of the things I’ve said at clinics and such, talking about producing records, is ‘The most important piece of equipment in the studio is your ears,’ and I really believe that.”

Among Phillips’ current projects are two CD series whose intent, while commercial, can also be seen to carry significant educational weight. Each volume in the Profiles program offers artist-specific anthologies from the Milestone and Riverside labels (Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Cannonball Adderley) coupled with a bonus disc; the latter exposes the consumer to selections from a half dozen other artists from the two classic imprints. Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz series, released through Concord’s Jazz Alliance subsidiary, packages the pianist’s long-running National Public Radio broadcasts, which feature performances and conversations with a variety of music figures (Bill Evans, Shirley Horn, Mary Lou Williams, Oscar Peterson, Elvis Costello and Steely Dan). “Marian interviews the guests, they play and discuss the music,” explains Phillips. “It’s great edu-tainment.”

In September, Phillips was also set to participate in a workshop with the Brubeck Institute at his old school, UOP. “They received a grant from the NEA to do an educational exchange program with students from Russia,” he says, “and they asked me to deliver a lecture and talk about the recording process, and the next day the students will record.”

And what about that side career as a jazz trumpeter? “I play less these days,” Phillips says with a smile. “There was a time when I was gigging two or three nights a week. Now it’s mostly for fun, and I still find time to do some composing too. That continued development serves me well as a producer. It’s all education.”

Gene Sculatti has been active in the music business for three decades. He served as editorial director of Warner Bros. Records, director of Special Issues for Billboard magazine and was most recently managing editor of Ice. He’s the author of five books, including The Catalog of Cool and San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip.

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