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On the Scene: John Daversa and Bob Mintzer

Jazzed Magazine • April/May 2018NewsSpotlight • May 7, 2018

From the generation that brought us the likes of Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, Michael Brecker, and numerous other big-name, impactful musicians, Bob Mintzer has been an influential figure in jazz since the ‘70s. He’s worked with everyone from Jaco Pastorius to Peter Erskine and The Yellowjackets and, outside the genre, Queen, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin, among many others.

Trumpeter/composer John Daversa is no less accomplished, having recorded or performed with Herbie Hancock, Joe Cocker, Regina Spektor, and those same Yellowjackets.

Both also have feet firmly planted in the world of jazz academia, having studied music since childhood and now serving as jazz chairs at major universities – Daversa with Frost School of Music, Mintzer with USC.

After the release of Daversa’s newest album, Wobbly Dance Flower (featuring Mintzer), we spoke with both about their approaches to playing, learning, and sharing music.

Can you talk a little bit about your early exposure to music? Who were some of the artists who first inspired you as a child?

John Daversa: Since I can remember, music was playing in my head and heart as I woke up in the morning and at night as I fell asleep. It fills me up and makes me feel alive. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I would sit in my room drumming on pillows, pots, and pans, playing along with Earth Wind, & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and The Beach Boys. I’m fortunate and grateful to have had parents who are both musicians and, more importantly, music-lovers. In the house, I was hearing Miles Davis, Chopin, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Beethoven, Smokey Robinson, Luciano Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson – you name it! Not to mention, topics of conversation commonly revolved around music or the business of music.

Bob Mintzer: My first exposure to music was through television, radio, and a few long-playing records that my parents had in the house. I participated in school music programs and sought out kids who were interested in playing music. All the music I heard fascinated me and I was eager to learn how to play things on the piano or guitar – or any other instrument for that matter. I wanted to find out how great music worked. 

I loved to spend hours at a piano experimenting with chords, melodies, and rhythms. I was amazed at how you could shift notes around in a given chord and create something very interesting and colorful. 

WNEW FM in New York played all kinds of music, from Miles to Coltrane, Hendrix to Sly Stone, to James Brown, to the Beatles. I loved all of it! Still do. I will never forget the Beatles playing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the early ‘60s. What a great sound! 

The next big revelation was hearing Jimi Hendrix live in concert. I had all his recordings and learned his repertoire.

A friend played me one of the Coltrane Impulse recordings in the mid-‘60s and it turned me around something fierce. To me at the time, ‘Trane sounded like an incredible confluence of all musics of the world – from rock to jazz, to blues, to Indian ragas, to classical chamber music. 

In 1968 some older guys took me to the Village Gate in NYC to hear Miles and Monk with their respective bands, back-to-back. Another incredible bout of inspiration! I was 15, and wanted to learn more about the music. I started to purchase LPs of the jazz greats, rock and blues artists, and whatever else, one at a time. It was a big deal to go out and get the next Miles recording – an event of consequence. We would wear out these LPs and learn every note.

At 18 I started hanging out in New York and checking out all kinds of music. I heard Miles, Monk, Dizzy, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Stitt, Thad and Mel, Dexter Gordon, and Rhassan Roland Kirk. Around that time I began playing in Afro-Cuban bands, playing and studying classical music, doing R&B gigs – basically playing any and all kinds of music. I was curious about the similarities and differences between different genres of music. I attribute some of this curiosity and drive to the fact that New York had a wide variety of cultures and their inherent music and art forms. 

Similar question, but this time focused on teaching: who were some early music instructors who had a particular and lasting impact on you?

BM: Neil Slater was a major mentor of mine from age 14 on. I went to a small jazz workshop he conducted after school in the mid-‘60s where I learned about jazz theory, repertoire, and got to play with other students. Later, I went to a music camp where Neil led the big band and wind ensemble. I owe a lot to Neil, who was always encouraging to me. I later encountered him at the University of Bridgeport, where he was jazz director prior to taking the position at University of North Texas. I would drive down and play in his big band once a week for a while and later did one of the fall concerts at North Texas. We’ve kept in touch all these years. 

Buddy Rich, Thad Jones, and Mel Lewis were all important mentors. They were so encouraging to me as a player and arranger. I am forever grateful to these men for pushing me to write, play, and become a bandleader. Mel, in particular, was instrumental in putting my big band on the map. We used to play the Vanguard when Mel’s band was out of town. 

JD: The one who has been ever-present is my father, Jay Daversa. We never had formal music lessons, but he was always present as a creative example and influence. I observed and listened, and he knew it. My mother, Mary Ann Daversa, started me on piano and later was my choir director in middle school. She has been a constant support in my musical life. I began trumpet in sixth grade at Ada Middle School (Ada, Oklahoma) with a dedicated music educator, David Vandewalker and then later with band director, Bronson Warren. When I became more focused on jazz, the family had moved to Sacramento. There, I got to work with Craig Faniani at Rio Americano High School. For my last two years of high school, I was under the direction of Sid Lasaine at Hamilton Academy of Music in Los Angeles. During my undergraduate days at UCLA, I worked with trumpet masters Mario Guarneri and Malcolm McNabb. As a graduate student, I was mentored by David Roitstein (CalArts), Shelly Berg (USC), and Bob Mintzer (USC). I watch how everyone leads their lives, their music, their bands. I’ve learned so much from everyone aforementioned… and there are so many more! The common denominator with all of these master educators is an unwavering support and belief in me. They have all made me feel like there’s nothing I can’t do as well as encourage me to find my own path in life and in music. 

Bob, can you talk about the effect of Jazzmobile on your evolution as a music fan, scholar, and player? Was that how you first become exposed to jazz?

BM: When I was a sophomore at New Rochelle High School, Jazzmobile sent a quintet to our school to play for us. Dr. Billy Taylor played piano, Ron Carter on bass, Grady Tate on Drums, Blue Mitchell on trumpet, and Harold Land on tenor. I was 15. I marveled at how gracefully these five guys played together and made such an incredible sound. The seed was planted at that time. My desire to play the music I heard was overwhelming. I later played at a few jazz mobile concerts with Ray Mantilla, Joe Chambers, and others. 

What experiences or influences first brought jazz to your attention, John?

JD: First, my father is a jazz musician – there’s no escaping that influence. When I was very young though, I just fell in love with the groove, the feel, the rhythm. I remember listening to Disney’s Jungle Book with that bass flute opening and Phil Harris and Louis Prima. I listened over and over and over. I loved the feel and the freedom. I also remember my dad playing Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain on the record player. It was one of the most perfect pieces of music I’d ever heard! It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it now.

Can you both share a little about your later music and jazz education at both schools and camps? What experiences and educators were most influential and why?

BM: I was fortunate to attend the Interlochen Arts academy senior year of high school as a clarinet major. But I was also playing tenor sax in the big band (Peter Erskine was the drummer), playing guitar, bass and piano, and writing tunes. Dave Sporny was the jazz band director, and did a fantastic job as far as exposing us to a wide variety of great large jazz ensemble music. 

This trajectory continued into conservatory study, initially at Hart College of Music (Jackie McLean had just joined the faculty) and later Manhattan School of Music. I was still studying clarinet, but getting more involved with playing saxophone outside of school with local musicians. Jackie was a great mentor and roll model. He was still performing a lot and would play with us on occasion. Jackie insightfully suggested that I move down to New York City to be in the jazz scene there. I transferred to Manhattan School of Music as a clarinet major. In New York I began to jam with musicians in earnest and gravitate away from clarinet and classical performance. However, the classical training I experienced proved to be invaluable on so many levels when it came to general musicianship. 

School for me was an important entry into the world of playing with people and learning how to “be on the team.” I developed good habits as far as how to play in tune with a good sound, how to play in an ensemble with a sense of blend and purpose. By and large the bulk of my jazz playing took place outside of school. I got fairly involved in the jazz scene in Hartford, and later in New York City. 

Buddy Rich was a huge mentor. He encouraged me to write my first big band arrangements for his band. He pioneered the careers of young musicians like myself by offering the opportunity to play every night. 

Thad Jones and Mel Lewis were also important mentors for all the same reasons. Michael and Randy Becker were great supporters of people like myself. They were the proprietors of a NYC club called 7th Avenue South. I started my big band in that club and was able to bring various projects in there. 7th Avenue South was one of the few clubs where you could play any style of music during the early ‘80s. 

Tom Jung started one of the first CD labels called Digital Music Products. I did 12 big band CDs for Tom over a 20-year period. This was a major component of my development as a player and composer. 

Suffice to say, the bulk of my jazz development and education took place on the scene, where I had ample opportunity to play, write, and work things out on the bandstand. 

JD: One of the most valuable things about school and educational gatherings is the community it inherently creates. I still play with musicians I went to high school, college, and music camps with because we spent so much time together playing music during those years. That bond and trust is irreplaceable. From an educator’s perspective, I closely observed my instructors in the classroom and the rehearsal room. I witnessed various styles and methods of teaching and extracted what worked for me. I observed that each individual student has a different way of learning. Being malleable and flexible while keeping a method of structure in place seemed to be a working formula – balancing cognitive with the intuitive.

In order to move forward, it’s important to surround oneself with mentors who are masterful at what you want to do. Being “on the scene” does that. Being in school also provides that opportunity within a nurturing, safe environment.

 How and when did you get to know one another? Was your first musical collaboration in The Yellowjackets?

JD: I grew up listening to Bob. He is a musical hero of mine. I admired his playing from the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, Bob Mintzer Big Band, and The Yellowjackets. The first Yellowjackets album that Bob played on, Greenhouse (1991), I must have listened to twice a day for about six months. Everything he played seemed synchronous to my own aesthetic. We didn’t get to know each other until roughly ten years ago, when he came out to L.A. Our friendship and mutual musical respect grew quickly, though, as if we had already known each other a long time – that’s the way it feels to me. Since then, Bob has invited me to play on a couple of his projects and he’s played on a couple of mine. Having the opportunity to play on a Yellowjackets album and perform in the Bob Mintzer Big Band is most definitely a dream come true for me.

BM: Initially I ran into John when I guested with the UCLA big band back in the ‘90s. In 2006 we met again at USC when I went out to interview for a teaching position there. He was playing in the big band, and I had the opportunity to rehearse the band and play a few of my pieces. John soloed on one of the tunes, and sounded really great. 

John was my first teaching assistant at USC after I moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2008. He was working on his DMA, and was already such an accomplished musician and a wonderful teacher. It was a great experience for me to work with John. It was then that my approach to teaching evolved into an ongoing collaboration with my teaching assistant. This approach has continued to develop.

John is a complete musician. He knows the big picture, and is a welcome asset to any musical situation. We play on each other’s projects and have high respect for one another. John is an excellent example of what we advocate at USC: Develop the skills to play, write, and teach. 

In addition to big names from the world of jazz, you’ve both collaborated and performed with some heavyweights in other genres. Do you approach working with the likes of Fiona Apple, James Taylor, or Joe Cocker differently than with folks like Buddy Rich, Herbie Hancock, or Jaco Pastorius?

BM: The main focus when approaching working with a band should be to learn the repertoire and develop a sense of what goes on in the details of the music. I start by studying to the music at hand. Once I have a solid grasp of an overall approach, then I can start to consider what I might do to put my stamp on the music. More often than not, my contributions emerge out of playing with the band, finding my own particular way to interact and join in the conversation.

Inherent in this process includes being diverse, having a grasp of many different ways of playing. You aren’t going to play the same solo on an R&B track as a straight-ahead, up-tempo track. Nonetheless, I do think that one can develop a sound and style that works well in multiple genres. The ultimate example of this would be the great Wayne Shorter, who has played on tracks by Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Weather Report, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis, and seemingly doesn’t change his approach very much between artists. It is definitely Wayne in each case. 

JD: For me, it’s all about serving the musical moment. There’s no ego, just pure service to the music. You draw from the musical tools and life experience you’ve accumulated to that point in time, and to the best of your ability, deliver the most integral sounds, intention, purpose, and meaning for that particular moment. No judgment, no ego – just music.

You’ve both received numerous accolades – Grammy nominations, awards, et cetera – and you’ve performed with true giants. What achievement or “milestone moment” in your careers so far stick out as something you’re most proud of?

JD: I feel that I’m here on this Earth to be of some service, some inspiration, and to lead communities in a loving, harmonious, inclusive way. When I observe reflections of this echo back at me, I see it as a divine indicator that I’m on the right track. As I aim to live my life with presence, gratitude, humility, integrity – with no expectation – pride of accomplishments or the past is honestly not something I pay much attention to. It’s about gratitude for the “now” and excitement for what’s to come. However, I understand what the question is intending. To that end, I will trumpet that I am immensely proud of my family, my wife, my daughter, my students, my colleagues, and my brilliant and ever-loyal band-mates. I’m proud of everything we all co-create together.

BM: This is a hard question for me to answer. I am extremely “work in progress” oriented. 

I guess what I am most proud of includes doing 20 big band CDs, 10 small group CDs, playing on over 1,000 recordings, being a 27-year member of the Yellowjackets, chief conductor of the WDR Big Band, helping musicians the world over through teaching, published books, arrangements, and mentorship situations, and shaping the jazz program at the USC Thornton School of Music as chair of the department for the last four years.

I have been so very fortunate to play with great musicians, from Tito Puente, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Jaco Pastorius, the Yellowjackets, my own bands, record with all kinds of artists, in multiple genres, play in orchestras, play with musicians all over the world. It has been a wild ride! All these experiences are the connective tissue in forming the grid of my musical and personal development. It is hard to single out any one of them. I will say that my parents relaxed a little when I got the gig with the Buddy Rich band. I haven’t relaxed yet. There is so much more to learn and do. I am grateful for this, as it is a compelling reason to get up every morning. We get another chance to do better. I have come to realize that the ability to realize the music I hear in my heart in playing situations and recordings is an incredible gift. 

John, can you talk about what led you to the Frost School of Music and describe what your present-day duties in your role as chair entail?

JD: The highly acclaimed Frost School of Music, University of Miami, has been a powerhouse for decades. Both the faculty and students are legendary, none more so than my predecessor, former chair of Studio Music and Jazz, Whit Sidener, who led the department for four decades. Before coming to Frost, I had been teaching for two years at California State University, Northridge and two years at USC prior to that. It was a special period. I loved my time and colleagues both at CSUN and USC, as well as my creative world of possibilities and musicians in Los Angeles. However, when my former mentor, dean of The Frost School of Music, Shelly Berg, asked me to consider applying for the Frost Studio Music and Jazz chair position, I knew in my heart that I had a new journey on which to embark. The faculty, students, opportunities, and resources at Frost are at an elite level. It is abundant soil. The possibilities we share as a community of co-creators is limitless. I feel that whatever we as a school can dream, we can manifest.

My service at Frost entails several facets including directing the award-winning Frost Concert Jazz Band, leading small jazz ensembles, and teaching improvisation and jazz composition. As the chair, I administrate the general running of the department, budgets, meetings, coordinating guest artists, Jazz Forums, our community “Monday Night Hangs,” numerous school committees, masters/doctoral committees, et cetera, as well as recruiting. 

What formats of teaching do you prefer – one-on-one, classroom, master class – and why?

BM: At USC my teaching assistant and I teach classes together. While I develop the curriculum, I also welcome the TAs input. This is not the standard paradigm, which, more often than not, has the TA doing the grunt-work – grading papers, photocopying handouts, et cetera. My thinking is that two heads are better than one. During classes my TA inevitably spins an answer to a question in a way I may not have thought of.

My favorite master class situations are in quartet configuration, with the Yellowjackets or any other quartet, where four of us work together to weave a picture of how a small ensemble works and what each person’s roll is in the bigger picture.

I also enjoy private lessons where I will play piano or drums with a student, demonstrate things on the tenor or trade 8’s with the student. My objective here is to slow things down, so as to give a student a chance to actually execute the things we focus on with some sense of mastery.

My general concept for teaching jazz is a three-part process: 1)Think of it; 2) Practice it; 3) Find a way to plug it in. 

JD: I don’t have a preference. I love teaching. I love learning. I love talking about, analyzing, discovering, and sharing life through music.

What do you find to be most rewarding about teaching young musicians?

JD: Seeing the proverbial “light bulb” turn on! I love assisting and observing anyone finding their unique, musical voice. To witness their joy of shifting to the next level, higher and deeper – the “a ha” moments.

For an ensemble, I love seeing a group play for each other, for a purpose greater than any one individual. The more I give, the more I serve, the more it comes right back at me – it’s the law of the universe.

BM: Working with young musicians is inspiring on many levels. Firstly, the experience acts like a mirror, where I have to take a good look at how I approach the subject matter. I inevitably learn something from the student’s approach, which is often different from my own. It is always rewarding to watch a student take information you impart to them and work it to the point where they are able to make it their own. Again, a different spin frequently emerges, or leads to another idea that we both benefit from. 

As performers, we try to get to a place where we are feeling rather than thinking about the music. In the teaching process we slow it all down, take it apart, and see what the ingredients are and how they all fit together. 

What do you find to be most frustrating?

BM: I don’t look at teaching as something that is particularly frustrating. Rather, I like the challenge of trying to figure out how to best deal with a student’s problems in a sensible, kind, and firm way. I find that I made some of the same mistakes my students encounter when I was their age. If a student is falling behind due to lack of focus, a particular deficiency, or having been placed in a situation beyond their experience level, I try to make adjustments and offer advice with kindness. Exercises that pinpoint a problem area are always good. I try to stress that to become a successful musician requires an “all-in” mindset, where we go to any and all lengths to progress. Progress is generally not in a straight line, and students may encounter frustrations and roadblocks along the way. 

The fact is that we are all in this together, trying to stay on the lifelong journey of being the best musician/person we can be. The best encouragement a teacher can offer is love, support, and freely sharing how they did it. We hope to inspire our students to learn how to ultimately teach themselves for the rest of their lives. 

JD: Within our society as a country, we share serious challenges as it relates to the devaluing of music and music education. Most every ancient civilization I’ve learned about recognized the importance of music and art in society. Yet, within our modern matrix, music and art budgets are the first to be cut. There are courageous educators “on the ground,” in many cases volunteering their time and expertise, to bring music to our youth. It is a minority of our population that is provided proper exposure, support, and music education.

“I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning” – Plato.

I am fortunate to be teaching within an institution that has stellar students and faculty that are serious about their music. However, reaching young students with diverse backgrounds, ones that may have never even heard or seen something like a trumpet, is a great challenge.

Any advice for other jazz artists and educators??

JD: Only what I would tell myself: Time is an illusion. The past no longer exists. The future doesn’t yet exist. The only true reality is the “now” – so, stay present.

  • Live with immense gratitude for every moment.
  • Live in true, sincere humility.
  • Live with honor and integrity. Know you’re a badass! No one can be you like you can be you!
  • Have goals and intentions, direction, purpose, meaning – with no expectation.

BM: For aspiring jazz artists: Master your instrument. Learn how to play piano, drums, guitar, and bass. You will be conversing with these instruments – might as well know their language. Know how the big picture works. 

  • Develop a vast repertoire and vocabulary in a variety of genres. Give thought to what you would like to say with your music, how you will say it in terms of the detail in the way you play and write. Work on composition/arranging! This is the best way to have the ability to frame your playing. 
  • Develop a strong sense of time management. A solid 45-minute practice of one device for several days in a row will yield better results than practicing four hours of too many different things. 
  • Learn tunes in all 12 keys. 
  • Develop a vocabulary for all chord qualities. (scales, patterns).
  • Learn how to play in the style of the great players on your instrument (and other instruments as well) with some level of authenticity. 
  • Pay lots of attention to detail in everything you do. 
  • Practice slowly and stay with one thing for seven-10 days. It will be more likely to stay with you. 
  • Keep a record of things you work on. 
  • Think of things that you are passionate about that may serve as the inspiration for musical works. (Environment, politics, ethnicity, paintings, sculpture, history, et cetera) 
  • Your musical expression is a reflection of your person. One must develop spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically to offer an attractive and compelling message musically.
  • Practice gratitude, generosity, empathy, and humor in all that you do. 

For aspiring educators: Consider all of the above. Lead by example. Teach from experience. Keep an open mind. Watch how great teachers teach, and see how you might incorporate aspects of those teaching methods into your vocabulary. Try different approaches. Don’t load up students with too much to do at one time. Have them work on one or two things intensively. Slow and steady is the key. And finally, make sure students are out playing with other musicians. The practice room is for practice. We all need to get out and play!

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