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Spotlight: Jim Snidero

By Victoria Wasylak

2020 could have been a “nothing” year for Jim Snidero, and it would have been totally understandable. For many musicians, last year was exactly that – a period of little time spent with bandmates (if any at all), and little time devoted to performing. With the COVID-19 pandemic putting most musical ways of life on hold, how could 2020 have gone any other way?

Yet it was far from an uneventful year for the alto saxophonist, recording artist, and music educator, who released not only a live album, but also a book series in 2020. Both Live at the Deer Head Inn and The Essence of Bebop draw from places of inspiration and awe, even in these darker times. The Essence of Bebop is just as much an homage as it is an educational tool (“Bebop is the foundation of who I am as a jazz musician,” the foreword of the book explains), and Live at the Deer Head Inn exemplifies a special kind of musical fortitude: the kind that comes after a months-long creative-standsill-turned-practicing-spree, spurred on by a pandemic. Despite the eerie silence of 2020 (especially regarding cancelled celebrations for Charlie Parker’s much-anticipated 100th birthday), each project is an exercise in raising joyful noise despite the circumstances.

Snidero likely needs no introduction for fellow music educators, but his many credits in the jazz world bear repeating. Raised in Camp Springs, Maryland, he knows how to play and teach because he himself learned both skills from another jazz standout: Phil Woods. His time at the University of North Texas brought him play as a member of One O’Clock Lab Band.  After learning under Dave Liebman, Snidero relocated to New York City, where his career as a sideman began – and quickly skyrocketed – after working with Brother Jack McDuff. Since then, he’s worked as a sideman on albums with Frank Sinatra, Toshiko Akiyoshi, the Mingus Big Band, Eddie Palmieri, Brian Lynch, and countless others. As a bandleader, he’s released over 20 albums, including his 2020 effort Project-K.

Snidero’s career in publishing began in 1996 with his Jazz Conception series, which now spans over 40 books. His series The Essence of the Blues was released in 2018, which set the stage for The Essence of Bebop. As an educator, he currently is an adjunct faculty member at The New School in New York, and has been a visiting professor at Princeton University and Indiana University.

“I couldn’t have done it alone, that’s for sure,” he reflects. “There are great people at Advance Music and Savant Records that believe in my work, and helped me see these projects through. It’s important to have vision and a strong work ethic, but you’re always better working as a team with talented people, and that of course includes all the fantastic musicians involved in these two projects.”

“As for 2020, I’m a longtime New Yorker, and my heart was completely shattered seeing all the death and suffering in the city,” he adds. “It was just so scary and real, even worse than 9/11. I just happened to be able to find a certain amount of solace in my music.”

Read on to learn more about both Live at the Deer Head Inn and The Essence of Bebop.

Was working on this series a natural progression for you, after releasing The Essence of the Blues? How long have you been working on this series?

In 2017, my long-time publishing company Advance Music asked me to write an etude book focused on the blues. There are many ways to play a blues, but it’s still a fairly specialized subject with mostly the same song form. So yes, it seemed logical and natural for me to expand the scope to bebop and hard bop. It’s something that I’ve studied and thought about for a long time, and have had a lot of experience both playing and teaching, so I felt comfortable with the subject matter and was actually quite enthusiastic about the project.

In the summer of 2019 I began composing, then recorded all the play alongs that are included with the series in December at a great studio in New York. The series currently has six different instrument editions- alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, flute and clarinet – so it’s a pretty involved recording process (a piano/guitar edition will be released this summer).  Fortunately, we completed the play alongs before the pandemic, and the musicians sound incredible. It’s just so fun to play along with these tracks, very swinging and real.

Somewhere along the line it hit me that if I wrote a fairly in-depth analysis for each etude focused on improvisation that it might be more useful to both individuals and improvisation classes, so I finished up writing all of that in January 2020, then went on tour for a month with both my own group and Veronica Swift. When I returned home in March, all hell broke loose in New York with the pandemic.

Did the pandemic impact the rollout or creation of this series at all? 

Absolutely! We were originally going to release the series around Bird’s 100th birthday anniversary in August, but all production was halted at Advance in March, and it was questionable if the series would be produced at all in 2020. I wrote to the publisher explaining why I thought the project should move forward, and I was pleasantly surprised that they agreed. We started back up in July and released the series in December.

The 10 etudes are inspired by bebop legends – how did you pick who you wanted to model them after?

Obviously with ten etudes you’re not going to cover everything, and the book is actually divided equally between bebop and hard bop, so that’s an even broader time frame. But there are a few artists that were super influential as both improvisers and instrumentalists, which was my basic criteria, so it’s possible to cover quite a bit.

  Without question, Bird had a profound impact on virtually everyone, so no matter who you chose, one way or another, Bird’s concepts are going to be part of the music. The other “pure” bebop giants are Dizzy, Bud, and Monk – each of which influenced both the music and their instrument.

Miles and Rollins straddled both bebop and hard bop, and were some of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, so that was clear, but the last four were a little more subjective. In the end, I chose Trane and Freddie Hubbard, both of which were leaders of the hard bop movement before moving on to incredible things, and then two hugely important hard bop groups; The Jazz Messengers and Horace Silver’s quintet. So many giants passed through these two groups that are personal favorites of mine- Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson, JJ Johnson- the list goes on and on, so I felt I could include some of their concepts in these two etudes.   

I saw there were some features in the book, like alternate simple riffs, to help less advanced players. Who is the “ideal” reader or student for this series?

As is the case with all of my educational materials, I strove to make this series as accessible and fun to the widest range possible. Bebop by definition is going to have technical challenges, but we’ve included alternate riffs during double time passages and slower versions on the play along for the two most difficult pieces, which will help with technical issues.

However, the inclusion of analysis, exercises, practice suggestions and historical perspective will be helpful to virtually any level. The great tenor saxophonist George Coleman mentions in his endorsement that he recommends the material to both students and professionals, and I think that has some merit. It’s as much an improvisation book as anything, and there’s plenty of theory, but it goes beyond the math.

For example, something I talk about is the solo “arc,” meaning the way a solo unfolds and progresses in a musical and effective manner. That applies to any level. It’s not a concept that is discussed much in jazz education, but many great players think about solo construction and develop those concepts on the bandstand. And even if they haven’t consciously thought all that much about a solo arc, they’ve developed the instincts to put it together.

What first drew you to bebop as a young player? Tell us more about your relationship with this specific style.

Honestly, I didn’t know that much about bebop when I was a teenager. But I loved Phil Woods, got to study with him a bit, and just tried to play like that, which of course is bebop. I mean, we worked on basic bop chord progressions, but I didn’t really get deep into it until I went to The University of North Texas, where I was introduced to all the great players and language.

The real game changer for me was when I moved to New York and started touring and recording with organist Jack McDuff. Here I was traveling around the country with a jazz legend, working like 300 days a year making a living playing real jazz. But the gig mostly called for bebop and hard bop, very little “outside” music, so I had to dig deeper.

On top of that, I was hanging out and playing with some incredible peers and older practitioners, and they were very generous with their knowledge. Guys like Tom Harrell, Frank Wess, Brian Lynch, and many others. Between gigs and hanging out, it was a serious immersion into the music.

Making a live album is absolutely an art form. You decided in two days that this rebooked show was going to be a live album. What pushed you to decide that? How did you prepare?

Well, I saw it as an opportunity to fight back against this horrific pandemic. The Deer Head Inn is located in a fairly rural area just over the New Jersey border in Pennsylvania and had a much lower infection rate than New York, allowing venues to operate at 50 percent capacity. It’s a pretty big room, so the crowd was spread out and not too near the stage, which gave me confidence that everyone would be safe. The Deer Head is actually the longest continuous operating jazz venue in the country, and several live records have been made there including Keith Jarrett and Phil Woods.

The thing was that it would be exactly eight months since I had stepped on stage, which was a little scary, and the band members- Orrin Evans, Peter Washington and Joe Farnsworth- were in a similar situation. There’s a certain flow and confidence that comes with performing live, so to counter the lack of gigs, I went with a set of standards, which I thought would allow us to relax and take more liberties with the music. And man, the music is pretty good. We were all just so damn happy to get in front of people, and the band is so on it, very swinging and interactive. On a couple of levels, it took some courage from both the band’s and audience’s perspective to do this live date, but it was totally worth it.

I was pleasantly surprised to read in the liner notes for your album, that upon reflecting on all the new time you had to practice once COVID-19 took hold in the states, you commented “I somehow felt inspired.” I would love to hear more about why you think that time inspired you, and what that inspiration did for you, musically and mentally.

It was about having the time and space to discover new possibilities with the music. Most good musicians have periods when they’re practicing just to maintain their chops, and periods of true growth, and this happened to be the latter. There were months when I had nothing specific to prepare for, so that gave me the freedom to start cutting certain ideas loose and develop new things in my playing. It was a unique opportunity, and honestly, I haven’t been this excited about growth in a while. For example, there are moments on “Autumn Leaves” that are new for me in regards to harmony.

What was it like to perform with Kim Parker in the audience?

Oh man, it was like God’s daughter was in attendance! There was a time when I was obsessed with Bird; his music, his life, his voice, you name it. Years ago I remember strolling by old buildings in midtown Manhattan and thinking “Bird was probably walking here, looking at this building.” Having a person right there in front of you that shares Bird’s genes, that was beyond description.

Kim is the sweetest lady, so encouraging and complimentary, totally puts you at ease, and happy to talk about life with Bird. She was at the club all night, and you can actually hear her yell “yeah” on the recording after we finished “My Old Flame,” one of Bird’s signature ballads. After the gig, we sat around and talked for about an hour, a dream come true. I’ll cherish those moments forever.

Live at the Deer Head Inn will be released on March 26; all editions of The Essence of Bebop are available to purchase now at
www.jimsnidero.com.

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