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Jeff Coffin Takes on Jazz Clinics

Jazzed Magazine • October 2013Spotlight • November 8, 2013

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fleck-jazz-1By Matt Parish

The star saxophonist of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Dave Matthews Band, and the Jeff Coffin Mu’Tet talks about his growing contributions to the world of jazz clinics.

It wasn’t long before Jeff Coffin’s first-ever pedagogy jazz clinic that he finally realized what he’d actually be teaching.  “I had thought about it for about nine months and I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” says the veteran saxophonist over the phone from a gig in Amarillo, Texas.  “I was standing in the shower the morning of the clinic thinking, ‘I’m screwed.’”

But then it came to him – fundamentals.

Coffin realized that to get nearly any student on his or her feet, he’d only have to get them to focus on a few broad concepts that could, in turn, open pathways to almost every corner of jazz.   “I came up with what I call ‘The Big Five,’” he says. “At the top of that is listening, which is the blanket over the top. The other four are tone and dynamics, rhythm and time, harmony, and articulation. I’ve yet to find anything fundamentally that doesn’t fit under one of those things.”

Coffin established himself as one of his generation’s premier saxophonists years ago as a member of the pioneering jazz/jam-band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.  He’s since formed his own stellar group (the Mu’tet) and become a regular member of the Dave Matthews Band.  But in recent years, Coffin has also built a reputation as great jazz clinician. With his streetwise sense of performance, real-world experience, and affirming attitude toward all hopeful young jazz musicians, Coffin has become a model for professional performers looking to reach out to the next generation.

“I call it ‘corrupting America’s youth,’” he says with a laugh.  “We’re trying to help shape them. We’re trying to give them some tools, so that when they get out there in the world, it won’t be a huge shock to them.”

Coffin has lived in Nashville since 1991, traveling the world with a number of different groups ever since he moved there. He graduated with a music degree from the University of North Texas, performing with that school’s famous One O’Clock Lab Band and studying with Joe Lovano on an NEA grant.  He began touring with Béla Fleck in 1997, going on to win three Grammy awards with that group as well as having his song “Zona Mona” nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Composition. Coffin joined the Dave Matthews Band in 2008.

Throughout that time, he collaborated with everyone from Branford Marsalis to DJ Logic; Maceo Parker to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In 2001, he branched off into education after a few colleagues had contacted him about the idea. Caleb Chapman was an early motivator, and Coffin still works closely with him. “I did a few classes early on and felt like I was connecting with the students pretty well.  I’d go from Coleman Hawkins to Ornette Coleman and talk about the recordings and what they were hearing.”

After working with Bob Mintzer in learning how to get his own tunes published as big band charts, Coffin began emulating that veteran educator in his clinics. “Bob is such a warm and gentle human being,” he says. “The way he interacts with people is really inspiring as well. He’s what we call a triple threat – composer, player, and teacher. I’ve tried to round out all three of those areas to be able to present my music to people and to present my ideas and educational thoughts, and it’s really worked out well in that sense.”

In fact, the most difficult part in his evolution as an educator still seems to have been that first clinic, which was a breeze once Coffin realized his concept of the “Big Five.”  “I remembered something I heard from John Whitman, who is a great friend from Yamaha, which I endorse and act as one of their performing artists and clinicians,” remembers Coffin. “He said that students can remember three main things when you present a clinic to them.”

In keeping with that attitude, Coffin designs his presentations and interactions with students with as much positivity in mind as possible:  No berating students; No being down on the scene.  “It’s one thing to be honest and tell kids that this is going to be difficult,” he says.  “But it’s another to just tell people they shouldn’t try. I come from a place of real positivity and encouragement and advocacy for the students.  I don’t like the negativity that surrounds certain clinicians, as if they somehow hung the moon. They didn’t. None of us did.

“I want the students to know that I’m going to work just as hard as they are and that it’s me that owes them something, not the other way around.”

In turn, Coffin suggests that artists thinking about moving into the world of jazz clinics seriously assess their feelings toward the idea.  “For me, it’s been a calling and I feel it’s the most important thing I do,” he says. “I think sometimes musicians get called in to do these things because they’re well known, and it can be detrimental sometimes.”

feck-jazz-3Coffin brings along the members of his Mu’tet to the clinics whenever possible, meaning participating students have the opportunity to interact with not only Coffin but a variety of world-class musicians, including Roy Wooten, Felix Pastorious, Bill Fanning, and Chris Walters.  The experience helps to roll up expertise in several areas – performance, education, and the unique skills require as a clinician – for every member of the band.

It’s been a career changer. The Mu’tet has steadily gained experience while Coffin has racked up over 300 clinic appearances from Maine to Rio de Janeiro (and even as far as Perth, Australia).  Coffin has also recently finished up a new method book with Caleb Chapman for Alfred Music Publishing titled The Articulate Jazz Musician. It’s full of new tunes that utilize Chapman’s “syllabic method” of education [see JAZZed’s cover story on Chapman in our September 2011 issue] and comes with an accompanying CD with backing band performances by  Roy Wooten on drums, Chris Walters on piano, and Victor Wooten on bass.   

“This thing will revolutionize how jazz bands sound in schools,” he says.  Chapman has been using the method for years at his renowned jazz school in Utah.

But regardless of where the students are, Coffin finds that they’re all looking for the same thing.

“They want to be recognized and they want you to know that they can play well,” he says. “They’re just barely out of childhood and trying to gain momentum personally and spiritually and musically and artistically.”

Beyond that, Coffin notes that some of the best education will come once the students venture beyond the classroom walls.  In effect, it brings his role in a student’s development full circle.  “I tell them to get out there and experience and about the ‘power of yes.’”

“I mean, I’ve played some terrible gigs, man!” he says.  “I rode on a road case with a cape while someone shot confetti over the top of me with a snowblower. I mean, I’ve done some bad gigs. So I tell [students] that whatever you go up there and do, it’s an experience. Sometimes the bad ones are the best because you don’t want to go back to them.

“It’s a motivational tool, for sure.”

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