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Hypnotized by the Rhythm

By Victoria Wasylak

When young Jason Goldman surveyed his future – long before he’d earn the nickname “Spicy G,” or work extensively with Michael Bublé, or nab credits on a multi-platinum record – he saw only one viable career option: playing jazz music. Little did teenage Goldman know at the time that the years ahead would mold him into so much more than just a great instrumentalist. Instead of merely mastering the saxophone, Goldman blossomed into the producer, arranger, composer, and educator he is today, serving as a multifaceted example that modern jazz students need.

Despite 2020’s endless supply of curveballs for music professionals, Goldman’s still found himself at a momentous point in his career. After taking Bob Mintzer’s seat as chair of Jazz Studies at the University of Southern California, he released his EP Hypnotized this past summer, sharing his own takes on Great American Songbook standards (and even adding one of his own). Chatting with JAZZed earlier this year, Goldman spoke on his earliest memories of jazz, his eventful year, and what he hopes to impart to his students at USC – and everywhere.

Congratulations on becoming chair of Jazz Studies at USC! How did that come to be?

Jason Goldman: Bob Mintzer had been chair for the last six, seven years, and he just felt it was time to step down. He recommended me and the department all agreed, and the dean agreed. I actually ended up taking over a little bit towards the end of spring semester, believe it or not, right around when all this [COVID-19] happened.
What fascinating timing. I would have been so happy but so frustrated at the same time!

Yeah. I mean, I had been doing some of the chair job [already]. It was kind of almost like a… I wouldn’t say a slow phase-in, but they had been asking because Bob used to travel a lot. I had been doing a lot already, so it wasn’t brand-new. I’ve kind of had my thumb on the pulse for a while now.

I’d love to hear about your first experiences with jazz. What started you down this path that you’re on right now? 

I guess I have a little bit of a different answer. I went to school at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Connecticut. Actually, it was middle school now that I think about it, Westbrook Middle School. I had a friend there named Patrick Large and we had a jazz band in middle school that was a decent jazz band for middle school. I went over his house and he played this record for me of Doc Severinsen and [the] “Tonight Show” Band playing the song “Begin the Beguine.” It was the first time I ever heard a trumpet player play super high and the first time I heard a real big band. I was just blown away. That was when I fell in love with it, almost instantaneously.

What made you decide that it was something you wanted to do with your life? 

For me, I tell my students a lot of times, “Don’t go into music unless you have to.” They first, of course, look at me, really shocked. I say, “Well… What I mean by that is, for me, there was no option.”

Everything in my head was always constantly music. Everything I think about is music. If I hear a song on the radio, I’m like, “Oh, that’s an interesting, cool harmonic progression.” If I hear a strange sound, I’m like, “I wonder if I could sample that and put that in some music.” If I hear someone tapping on desks, I think of rhythms and interesting ways I could shift the rhythms around. That’s what I mean by that – there wasn’t really another option for me. I just was always fascinated with music.

Being from Norwalk, Connecticut, I was 45 minutes outside New York City, so we would have access to pretty good jazz, to say the least. I applied to one college, Berklee College of Music. I had already gotten a scholarship before even going there. By the way, I don’t recommend that to anybody, just applying to one school.

It’s hard enough to make a living as a musician in general, but to make a living as a jazz musician is much harder. What has that been like for you? When you’re in your position at USC, how do you convey optimism to these kids?

I’m very optimistic about it in general. This is something I tell the students all the time: you just have to be very organized. I go back to my original saying, “only unless you have to,” because you want to do it so badly that you have to find a way to make it work. Back, 20, 30 years ago, you could do one thing as a musician. You could just play jazz, or play music, and you could be successful, or you could be a composer and you can be successful by doing a lot of writing, because there was a lot of work. Today, though, it’s different. You have to be able to be a great instrumentalist, composer, arranger, orchestrator, teacher, engineer, producer. The more things that you can do as a musician, the more likely you are to have financial success. I keep saying “financial success” because everyone views success differently. But at some point, it does come down that you have to put food on the table.

It’s definitely a possible thing to do. We have a program of about 80 students. I would say the majority of them do come out and maintain careers in the music industry. I’m always really proud of that. Gerald Clayton, Taylor Eigsti, Eldar Djangirov. I’ve been there for 18 years now. But today, I try to make sure that everyone is prepared. Part of this pandemic, it’s obviously depressing, especially being a jazz musician, that you can’t play with other people. But there are some good things that are coming out of this from a different point of view, which we’ve been talking about a lot with our students. What I’ve been doing for the last 10 years is producing music, being able to record yourself, getting a good sound, really understanding a different side of music. They have to be able to record themselves and have some decent gear and be able to get a decent sound on their recording setup. Back then, even 5, 10 years ago, I was like, “Oh, well, I don’t really have to worry about it,” but these are some things that now we’re having to look at as musicians. It’s not something where it’s like, “Yeah. I just kind of mess around with recording.” Now this is something that’s important where you can save money by, instead of going into a studio and paying $2,000 a day for a lockout and then paying musicians, you could send your part to a drummer who’s got their own setup at home. And sure, you may be paying a little bit more for the drummer, but overall, it’s probably way cheaper than going into a studio and doing it. These things are necessities. I think that as a musician, you need to be able to do a lot of different things now, as opposed to just one element of the music industry.

It’s challenging to get one of those things down to a level of mastery and it takes a lot of time. You have so many of these different skill sets. How is that able to coalesce?

Everything was about playing for me in the beginning, just playing my saxophone. Everything was saxophone, all high school. I wrote a chart in high school, which was interesting, to say the least. Being in high school, I didn’t really know too much about big band writing yet. But then I got to college and I started really getting into a lot of writing and arranging music. Halfway through college was the first time that I asked myself, “I wonder how I’m going to make a living being a musician?

All of a sudden in my junior year, I was like, “Man, I’m going to have to pay my own rent and buy my own food.” So I said, “Okay. Let me do film composing because Berklee has a good film composing department as well.” I love film, obviously, and TV. I started studying a lot of scores and I did a dual major in jazz composition and film scoring. The back half of my college experience was a lot of writing. During that time, I was still doing a lot of playing, so the playing and writing portion of it kind of happened together. Then when I went to USC, I applied for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which is this advanced performance program, as you may know. I think now it’s called the Herbie Hancock Institute. I applied and I got into that.

I was doing, again, a lot of playing and a lot of writing. Terence Blanchard was our artistic director. I would have private lessons with Terence and he would say, “Your writing is good, your playing has got to get better.“ And I was like, “Well, what do I need to do?“ He’s like, “Man, keep writing. The more you write, the better the playing is gonna get, and vice versa.“ I just kept doing both back and forth. I went on tour with Bublé for the first year and a half of his career. Then I got off the road, and it turned out my college roommate [was] one of the biggest pop producers – this guy, J.R. Rotem. He’s a fabulous jazz piano player, too. He called me one time, he said, “Hey, you wanna just play a couple of jazz gigs?” I was like, “Oh, sure,” thinking “Why is he playing jazz gigs?” He just wanted to do it for fun. We went out and I asked him about how his career was doing. He was doing a bunch of Britney Spears records at the time and a Beyoncé thing. I said, “Man, I always thought about producing, but I don’t really know much about it.” He said, “Well, why don’t you come into the studio and I’ll show you?” I spent one day with him, a 10-hour day. He showed me everything. He gave me access to his high-level managers and everything.

I spent, eight to 10 years [learning about production]… I mean, still [am] currently. I’m always working on production, just learning how to produce music. The college years just focused on writing and playing, and then my postgraduate years were just a lot of producing and teaching.

I suppose where you are now, your hope would be to get kids on that path a little bit sooner than you had.

Exactly. Just really understanding that you can really have a nice, vibrant career. You just have to be very organized and be able to do multiple things. There’s always the other school of thought, which is, “No, you just need to be really great at one thing.” But I feel that, especially in these times, that’s a little dated and it doesn’t really work that way, because there’s not a lot of bands right now that are touring. But even in “normal” circumstances, there are not tons of jazz groups that are touring. There’s only one major big band in the country, which is the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Of course, there’s others that play in New York City, but I’m talking one that provides salary benefits and retirement; there’s only one, unlike classical [music] still has orchestras in every major city. It’s always still surprising to me that jazz – we don’t have that in every major city.

Right. I would imagine that the kids you work with, when they meet you and they learn about what you’ve accomplished, they must have little stars in their eyes. Again, music is such a hard career choice no matter what, but to achieve what you’ve achieved with under a jazz career… what are the odds? 

I just feel I’ve been lucky. I mean, that comes along with the territory – right place, right time kind of stuff. Obviously, the talent, luckily, has been there. But for my students, I can tell you now that half my students at this point are production students also. They’re studying Logic and working on tracks. Some of them are working on how to incorporate pop elements into their jazz projects. Some are working on crossover smooth jazz music. The environment is changing. And USC in general is very good about that. We are a close-knit kind of family, between the jazz and the pop, and everyone sees each other constantly in the quad. Students come out with a very positive attitude about what’s going on in the world. Everyone has to take music industry courses, intro to music business, music technology courses. Even though it’s not necessarily straight up jazz-related, [this is] something that was really lacking, and jazz was behind in that for quite a while.

You said you had been there 18 years. What changes have you seen in the curriculum over the course of that almost two decades?

Well, one thing that hasn’t changed is that we still, obviously, encourage strongly the high-level of playing ability, trying to get students to play well and write well. It’s such a fundamental thing. Especially in jazz, it’s such an acoustic music from its foundation, that we still encourage that quite a lot.

What’s changed is, I was just mentioning that we now require students to take introduction to the music business/ music industry, which is talking about legal aspects of the music industry. Like, “Okay. How does copyright work? What protections do I need when I write a song? How do I get paid for a song?” These are questions that most jazz programs… No one really knew about it. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, there’s mythical companies called ASCAP and BMI that they’re supposed to sign up to get money.” You just pray that you get something. Now everyone is starting to understand what music publishing is and how it works. We also now require that students take four semesters of technology. They can choose what type of technologies: working on music notation software, working on recording engineering programs, working on even stuff as far as website building and building up your portfolio. These are classes that are now integrated into what we’re doing because they’re so important. The good thing about today’s age is that you can get your music to anywhere. With a click of a button everything’s out there. Now, of course, the contrarian in me is saying, “Well, that’s true, but the market is so saturated and it’s unbelievable.” 

But these are still important to show people to how to market themselves. I mean, when I was in college, in jazz, no one said, “Well, how do you intend to get a gig besides just word of mouth that you’re a great player?” No one ever said that to us. Now we’re talking about “Hey, look, you need to get your YouTube working, get your socials together. Try to draw attention to what you’re doing so people can actually see what you’re doing and slowly build up this fan base, because it takes a while.” Those are the new implementations that we have been really working on, as well as our traditional things, which are still foundational elements, like playing and composition. And we still bring in, of course, top-notch jazz guest artists all the time besides our faculty.

Do you ever see kids who are forced to take these technology classes and marketing classes, who roll their eyes when they start it, but by the time they come out, they’re saying “Oh, wow, I needed that. That was very helpful”?

Honestly, I don’t. I see people craving more of it. I rarely see anyone say anything negative about it, because it’s so eye-opening when you just first learn about, like, copywriting. Well, you wrote a piece of music, don’t you want your music protected? Don’t you want to get paid for your music? Don’t you want to know how to put your music on iTunes and Amazon? So, no one has really ever said anything negative. If anything, it’s just like, “Wow, I have options now. I didn’t know I could even do these things.” Again, it was this some sort of a fantasy thing: “Well, I didn’t know just anyone can put music on iTunes. I thought you had to be, like, on a record label. Do you even need a record label anymore? And is it worth it getting a record label? And what is an actual record deal these days?“

What does a typical week look like for you? Or maybe, what does a week look like for you back in February and January before the world fell to pieces?

During the school year, which is September through May, typically my Tuesdays and Thursdays are completely filled with USC. I kind of packed two days so that I can really get most of my stuff done on campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m there usually from 10 to 10 at night, so a 12-hour day.

Then I usually will go in on Wednesday, just in the morning. But usually, my Mondays, afternoons on Wednesdays, and Fridays are devoted to all my other side projects and projects that I have going on. It could be arranging, depending who wants music. Right now, I have some songs I’m doing for Bublé, I have some songs I’m doing for another client. I just finished a project for this crooner in Georgia. I’m always in my studio on those off days, Monday, Friday, and then the afternoon on Wednesday. Typically, I don’t work too much at night anymore. I used to work non-stop, but that was kind of wearing me down just a little too much. Unless there’s a project or a deadline that I have to meet, I can keep most of it to Monday, Wednesday, and then Friday. Then once the summer comes, I’m at the studio every single day that I have here in L.A. Weekends, I don’t usually work too much on the weekends. I’m a big European soccer fan. I rarely leave California. The only other place that I go is when Michael [Bublé] brings me up to Canada. If he wants to work face to face, then I’ll just fly up to Canada in Vancouver.

What’s your relationship like with him?

He’s one of my best friends. We talk probably three, four times a week.

How did you first like meet him and get involved with working with him?

Well, he was putting a band together. Warner Brothers had just finished his first record, and they needed to put a band together. They put out an open call to Berklee College of Music and all the major colleges, and they were looking for a young group of musicians to play in his band — particularly guys at the time. They called Berklee College of Music and they were like, “Oh, do you have anyone who plays saxophone?” and they recommended me. Then they called USC and they recommended me. And then Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz recommended me. I got lucky, I went and I took the audition for Michael and David [Foster]. It was more David, and Michael was there singing, but David Foster was there. He called the tune and we played a tune. After that, the next day, I got a call: “Hey, do you want to be in this band?” I was like, “Sure.” And they were like, “Okay. Can you put most of the band together for us?” So, we got most of my friends in the band.

That’s the beauty of it! You just hire a bunch of really talented friends and it’s a win-win.

It was really a dream come true at the time, because I just literally hired all my closest friends to be in the band. We just toured for a year, a year and a half, with my friends all over the world. That was kind of fun, to say the least. Even though we still had to share rooms for the first six months, it was two to a room, and we were only making 800 bucks a week or something like that.

The thing with me is I had just gotten engaged when I joined the band. At one point, I had to make a choice, though, because I’m going to have a wife and family. You can’t be on the road. It’s just too difficult to do that. Mike and I had talked about it. At that time, I had already embedded myself with him and grown as friends and embedded myself as an arranger in that band. Even though I left the band, I still continued to arrange music for him, and we stayed in touch. It wasn’t until I got back in close contact with him when I did the Nobody But Me record, which I co-produced with him, that we became really, really close friends. We were always good friends, but not to the point where we were talking all the time. Now we’re just talking all the time.

Looking at your own music and the EP you put out this year, you had said, “This recording contains everything I do on a daily basis in music in one project.” That’s a lot. Was that really overwhelming?

Being a producer and an arranger, orchestrator, my job is always in service of other people. Before I even started [the EP], I said, “I just want to do something that I can control the artistic direction of, that I can make the changes to.” Because when I’m always collaborating with people, which is the typical thing, eventually I’ll have to acquiesce at some point – it’s up to either the artist or the label or whoever is hiring me to do something because I’m in service.

But in this particular project, I just said, “I’d love to do something on my own.” I said, “Well, what would be interesting?” I had released two records early in my career, a nonet record, and then also just a quartet playing record. The first record was kind of heavy jazz with a nine-piece group. The second record was just a jazz quartet with some of my originals. I wanted to do something that really captured everything that I do, and my favorite type of music, which is American Songbook music. So, I said, “Well, I wonder if I’ve learned enough skills to really be able to do the entire process all on my own in my little studio. Could I possibly do something like that?” Because typically to record a song with a big band and orchestra, you’re talking about anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 probably for about five to 10 songs, minimum. I would say a 10-song record with a big band and orchestra, you’re probably talking about a quarter-million dollars. One of my things was, “I wonder if I could do this on my own and really just do a project that I can kind of lead.” I knew I wasn’t a singer. Obviously, I’m not a singer. I said, “Well, let me just find voices that I love. And let me just write the arrangements that I want to arrange and just kind of do the project that I want to do.” That’s how I ended up doing this. So, the main genesis was to do everything that I like to do and know how to do in music, all in one small EP of 15 minutes of music.

The EP is standards, with one of your originals sandwiched in between. How did you decide that was the way you wanted to do it?

Well, in the American Songbook world, it’s very hard to break in. I knew that when we wrote “Hypnotized,” it sounds like a [jazz] standard song. I was like, “Well, I know if I do a record of all originals, people will be like, ‘I don’t know these songs.’” Especially in this particular songbook world, typically the people that listen to this type of music are 40 and older. So, if I did all originals, it wouldn’t get much traction in that world. And then if I did all covers, to me, I’d be like, “Well, then I’m missing my opportunity to put something original on [the EP] that sounds similar to creating this new songbook kind of thing.” So, that was the idea, to at least put one original [on the project]. I’ve already started, actually, on my second record. I’m going to put two or three originals on this next one because I have some ideas in mind, along with some more covers. This one will be probably more like a seven, eight-song record.

Wrapping everything up, what are some of the key tenets to what you try to pass on to the students that you work with?

There’s a bunch. I would say be creative, be exciting, be invigorated. Find unique things to do within the system that exists for the most part. And then, of course, you can always break that, but I always like to tell people to start with what’s there, and then you can expand from there, and then you’ll find your comfort zone. I think that’s one of the big things. And also, be very versatile in what you’re able to do. I know that that’s a hard thing because it’s very hard to learn. You’re learning your instrument, then you’re learning how to write music, and then you have to now go into the computer world and learn how to run the engineering software. It’s a lot to handle as a musician, but it is doable. I think those are the important things that I always try to impart on all the students. Part of it too is you have to have fun doing it. I’m always aware that it’s like, yeah, you have to pay the bills and you have to eat, but you don’t go into music for the money, for the most part.

I’ve been fortunate and I totally recognize that, but you have to go into it with that sense of “Okay. I’m sacrificing, probably financial means somewhat, in order to enjoy something that I’m doing.” You have to make sure that they’re enjoying the process and enjoying what they’re doing and enjoying putting out music for people to hear, digest, and feel.

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