Alumni Interview with Jason Goldman
As a student at Berklee, what were the factors that influenced you to major in Jazz Composition?
I have been fascinated with big band music since I was in middle school. In high school I had composed a bunch of combo tunes and a big band chart, which was interesting to say the least. When I arrived at Berklee in the fall of '93 I was not quite sure what I was going to major in. The only thing I knew was that I loved playing jazz and loved playing jazz music.
After taking the first couple of arranging courses, I found myself really enjoying the arranging aspect of jazz. So I decided to continue with the arranging and take the class Chord Scale Voicings for Arranging which, at that time, was taught by Phil Wilson. It was that class that really sparked my interest in the jazz composition department. The clincher came when I was asked to play the lead alto chair in Greg Hopkins big band. This is where I was able to hear and play a lot of student compositions and that's when I decided that I had to major in jazz composition.
I understand that while you were a student at Berklee, you were very proactive as a musical leader on campus. Can you tell us some of the things you accomplished at that time?
The greatest experience at Berklee is being surrounded by many of the world's greatest young jazz musicians. I wanted to play with all of them and they inspired me a great deal. So I decided that the best way to get a group of them together was to form a big band. So my friend, Dan Pratt, '98, and I decided we would put together a rehearsal band. We had this band for about 2 semesters rehearsing twice a month. We played music exclusively written by students and faculty.
That band eventually faded out and I decided that I would like to start my own band. The only drag about having a great band was not getting to play for anyone. One of my favorite big band writers is Jim McNeely. So I put a proposal together for the school and was able to arrange a concert at the Berklee Performance center with Jim and his music. It was a wonderful concert.
I also was able to get funding through the school to take my big band on a weekend road trip down to Norwalk, Connecticut. There we taught clinics for most of the day to 5 different high schools and closed out the weekend with a concert, which featured my music as well as other members of the band.
After the weekend tour the big band played at my recital and then was asked to play on the Summa Cum Jazz album, the first Berklee album to be released on a major label. I believe we were one of eight groups chosen to represent the school. It was a great honor.
One of my final accomplishments at Berklee was winning the Presidential Achievement award for outstanding leadership as well as winning the Wayne Shorter and Toshiko Akiyoshi award, both for performing and composing.
In the short time since you graduated from Berklee what are some of your major professional achievements?
- Graduating from Berklee, Cum Laude, with a dual major degree in Jazz Composition and Film Scoring.
- Being accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz
- Performing with numerous jazz legends such as Wayne Shorter, Christian McBride, Terence Blanchard, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, Phil Woods, Jon Faddis, Peter Erskine, Nat Adderley, Bobby Watson, Terry Lyne Carrington, Kenny Barron, and Jim McNeely
- 2 week tour of Egypt with Herbie Hancock and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Quintet
- Performing at most of the major jazz festivals around the world
- Winning the 2002 IAJE/ASCAP Billy Taylor commission
- Recording my first album The Jason Goldman Nonet - The Definitive Standard, which will be released in the Fall 2002.
- Graduating from the University of Southern California with a Masters of Music in Jazz Studies
- Being hired to become a faculty member at the University of Southern California
- Being named Director of Jazz Ensembles at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts
What are some of the steps in the jazz composition process that you employ?
When I am beginning to write a new work I always keep two thoughts in my mind all the time: Use tradition as a foundation to move forward and think outside the box. Using tradition as a foundation to move forward – Most of my music is always swingin'. I don't necessarily mean swing in the traditional sense of the word all the time but I am talking about the feeling. This is kind of hard to explain verbally but when you listen to the music you will understand. Thinking outside the box – What I mean by this is not to do the same cliché things found in so much of the music today. For example, if I am writing a big band chart instead of writing a traditional short chorus I might write challenging unison lines for different sections of the band forming a nice contrapuntal effect. The point here is that I am always trying to do new things. I am never settling for the easy way out!
For a commissioned work, are you given a blank canvas to work from, or are there specific instructions that accompany the commission?
Well it happens both ways. If I receive a high school commission I always need to know the lead trumpet range, who the strong soloists in the band are, and what kind of chart they are looking for, be it up-tempo, swing, ballad, etc., and how strong each section of the band is. Then I am fairly free to be creative after that point.
When I receive a college or professional commission, things free up a little more. Many times they will just tell me what style tune they are looking for or they will tell me that they would like me to feature a particular member of the band. So for these types of charts I am free to be as creative as I like. This is one of the best aspects of writing jazz music. I can't think of any other musical form where you have this much freedom.
If I am doing any other commission like film cues, orchestra music, marching band music, or any other style of music, there are usually many more restrictions.
How did your education at Berklee prepare you for what you are doing today?
Being at Berklee was a wonderful experience. It taught me the basics of writing music. Many of my mentors at the school, Greg Hopkins, Ted Pease, and Ken Pullig really helped me get the basics together. When I was at Berklee I was a “safe” writer. I didn't write anything that was really out of the ordinary. It wasn't until I finished Berklee and really had the chance to go over all the things Greg had given me in his classes that I started to strive for new ways of doing things. This combined with really having time to practice my horn and listen to a ton of records have helped my writing tremendously.
Can you take us through (step by step) what a normal day (or week) is like for you?
- Wake up around 10 a.m.
- Make lead calls for gigs
- Check calendar for which schools I will be teaching at on a particular day
- Practice about an hour
- Usually I will go to LA County High School for the Arts and teach the big band around 2:30
- Teach private lessons at LA County High School
- Go to USC to teach private composition and improvisation lessons
- Teach USC combo
- Come home around 8:00 p.m.
- Have dinner and relax
- Around 10:00 p.m. I start one of two things: I either start to write or I try and learn a tune and listen to a new record. If I am writing I usually finish around 2 or 3 a.m. If I am learning a tune I usually go to sleep around 1 a.m.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job as a jazz composer, performer, and educator?
The toughest part hands down is trying to balance all 3. I go through weeks when I am writing almost around the clock and just play my horn at gigs or when I am teaching lessons, barely having time to shed. On the other hand, I might go for weeks practicing and playing a lot and not writing that much. The great thing about being an educator is that I am usually dealing with playing and composing everyday when I teach. This way I am always being refreshed and dealing with both each day.
Another challenging aspect is that I am a leader of my quintet. So I have to stay on top of trying to get gigs and rehearsing the band. It's real tough when you spend all morning on the phone talking to club owners and festival organizers and trying to handle all the logistics. It gets real tedious!
What are some of the tools you use as a jazz composer?
When I am writing jazz music, be it small group to big band, I ALWAYS use the pencil and paper. When I do other styles of music (such as film or orchestral music) I use the pencil and pad for the score and copy the parts using a computer notation application called Finale. But I am not a big tech guy, especially for jazz. It's not as personal!
How have your abilities as a composer affected other aspects of your music career?
Being a composer has pushed my playing to a new level. I am trying to think, as I stated before, outside the box. I am always trying to create rather then constantly recreate. I feel that being a jazz composer was the best choice for me. Every time I write other styles of music, they seem to come much easier.
What have you enjoyed most about your career journey?
I reaaly enjoyed playing with Herbie Hancock for two weeks in Egypt. It's amazing, playing with him those two weeks changed the way I look at music and life. Its not even that he made many comments about my playing, it's just that he pushes you every time you play with him. Just when you get to the edge, he pushes you over. It's hard to describe in words.
I have also enjoyed working with Terence Blanchard. In my opinion he is one of the best jazz educators on the planet. He is another who really pushed me to the max every time we entered the room or shared the stage with him.
I have enjoyed playing and touring with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz quintet. We have grown together and continue to play together each week and grow musically and personally. We have performed with and learned from some of the greatest jazz masters that have ever played this music. They are a great bunch of guys and they are very dear to my heart.
Another real high point in my career that I have enjoyed so far was recording my album. The album has such a great vibe and I was so fortunate enough to do it with some of my closest friends.
What are some of the skills that you are called upon to use daily in your work?
Most of all is improvisation. I teach a lot of beginning and advanced improvisation. It's great because I am constantly learning new things in the process.
Compositionally speaking, I often show many of the basic techniques of writing I learned at Berklee to my beginning students. With the advanced students, I work on developing their own individual style.
What are some of the current trends in the music industry that will most likely affect you and/or the future of the music industry?
Right now the toughest part of the music business is the record companies having problems. Since Tower Records announced that they were in trouble, record companies, both the indies (i.e. independents) and majors, have really cut back on signing artists. Many of the indies are not taking chances on new musicians and they are looking for people (i.e. female jazz singers) that can really sell a decent amount of records. This will end up hurting the more creative composers and performers.
What do you think are the requisites for someone entering the music industry as a jazz composer?
My personal opinion is that the main requisite for being a jazz composer is that you truly love to write jazz music. You don't go into this field for the money. You go into it because you love to hear your music performed and love to make music with other people. You should always be striving to further the music and take chances, especially when you think you shouldn't. As Terence Blanchard said to me “The way your composing gets better is by practicing your instrument.” The more you practice your instrument the better your writing tends to become.
I think the biggest weakness in younger composers is that they do not know the basics. Learn how to improvise! It will help you a great deal. Too many times I hear new composers who do not have a strong foundation in the tradition and you can definitely tell immediately that there is something missing. The more young players become familiar with rhythm and motion the better writers they will become. Listen to records!