Multifaceted Freelancers

Building careers on diverse interests and talents

No Nine-to-Fiver

One would be hard-pressed to find a freelance musician busier or more diversified in his pursuits than Michael Hatfield ’75. Since relocating from Boston to San Francisco in 1981, Hatfield has maintained a packed schedule as a performer; arranger and musical director; a partner in Hatfield & Walker (a sound, lighting, backline, and video rental company); a musical contractor and producer for major corporate events; a teacher; and a music director at a local church on Sunday mornings. No gig is too large or small for Hatfield.

Growing up in Columbus, OH, Hatfield played keyboards and drums in addition to singing, but his primary interest was the vibraphone. After winning a music competition in high school, he got the opportunity to spend a week at a summer stage band camp where vibraphonist Gary Burton was teaching. Hatfield later enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington, in a program would have prepared him to become a classical percussionist. He wasn’t overly enthused about his major when a chance to hear Burton’s band became a course-altering event.

“Gary was playing a concert in Bowling Green, OH, and got a ride up there with my buddies,” Hatfield recalls. “They left after the concert, but I stayed overnight, planning to ride back with other friends the next morning. Unbeknownst to me, they also left that night, so I had to hitchhike back to Bloomington.” As luck would have it, Burton was on the freeway that morning, and recognizing Hatfield, picked him up. During the long drive Burton told Hatfield about Berklee and offered to write a letter of recommendation for him. “He wrote the letter and I was accepted,” Hatfield says. “Once I got to Berklee and saw what was going on there, it was like nirvana to me.”

Hatfield dove into his studies, including courses with Burton. He played vibes with rehearsal bands and began leading groups for Boston-area gigs. During Hatfield’s senior year at Berklee, Burton asked him to join the faculty and he taught for five years. Hatfield was working with a Zappa-esque band called Booga Booga that played original music by Frank Macchia ’80. The group—made up almost entirely of Berklee alumni—decided to relocate to San Francisco en masse and make an album in 1981. After relocating and making the record, the band split up, but Hatfield was committed to staying in the area.

He took a job delivering meals for a catering company until he made enough contacts to support himself with gigs. “Back in my Berklee days, I always owned a van and a PA system,” Hatfield says. “Sometimes I’d get chosen for gigs simply because hiring me solved other logistical issues!” In San Francisco as in Boston, Hatfield started asking double pay for providing, transporting, and set-up and tear-down of the PA in addition to playing. “I never had a problem working a little harder than the others in the band,” he says. His appetite for hard work has served him well.

Hatfield and Larry Walker, a Bay Area drummer, decided to pool their gear and buy additional instruments, amplifiers, PA systems, lighting and video equipment and form an equipment rental company. Their equipment inventory ultimately filled a 5,000-square-foot warehouse. They bought two delivery trucks, and hired a crew.  For more than 20 years, Hatfield & Walker LLC has served big-name touring and local acts, fulfilling needs ranging from full A/V, lighting, and technical staff to an accordion for Bruce Hornsby’s concerts.

Hatfield freelances with countless cover groups, but has been a longtime member of the Fabulous Bud E. Luv Show, a campy Vegas-style lounge act fronted by comedian Bobby Vickers. The outfit has played in small-group or big-band configurations coast-to-coast with Hatfield serving as arranger, musical director, and keyboardist.

His work as a contractor combines his performance and business skills for huge corporate events for which he frequently supplies equipment in addition to handling all musical issues. Among his clients are Apple, Advanced Micro Devices, Silicon Graphics, and others for events in locations including Hawaii, New Orleans, Nashville, and throughout California. “A lot of times there are skits for these events,” Hatfield says. “I’ll write all the music to go with those and contract the musicians to play with me.”

For the past 15 years, Hatfield has also been the go-to guy for music at the Bohemian Grove north of San Francisco and the Bohemian Club in the city. Members of the exclusive men’s-only club include top figures in business, politics, entertainment, and the military.

“The Grove is very different from my typical gigs,” he says. “It’s really fun and there is usually top talent there.” The Bohemian Grove is a camp and among the activities are outdoor plays and musical performances that Hatfield coordinates. His work there has placed him onstage with Zac Brown, Marty Stewart, Kix Brooks, and many others.

Additionally, Hatfield teaches young students in his home and fields questions from parents wondering about music as a career. “Some parents think that you can’t make a living in music,” he says. “I always say, ‘Yes you can if you have the drive!’” Hatfield’s success comes from his boundless energy and being prepared for anything. He’s also fastidious about financial details with clients, the IRS, and in creating his own retirement portfolio.

“Freelance musicians need to have the mindset of an entrepreneur,” Hatfield posits. “You need to be able to say yes to a call, hang up the phone, panic, and then figure out how you’re going to pull off what you just agreed to do.”

Freelance Forever

Over the course of the past four decades, Larry “the O” Oppenheimer has cultivated a diverse set of skills enabling him to pursue a career drawing on his entrepreneurial spirit and ability to function in corporate environments when needed. Starting in his youth as a drummer, his subsequent experience with emerging music synthesizer technology at the State University of New York, Albany, and further studies in performance, composition and recording engineering at Berklee until 1977, set the course for a colorful professional journey. (In 2015, Oppenheimer later became the first to earn a degree through Berklee Online.)

After his early days as a bench tech and product demonstrator for Lexicon, he made his way to the San Francisco area, where he still resides. In 1984, he began working as a writer freelancing for Mix and Electronic Musician magazines and writing technical manuals and books. “During the period when I was writing a lot, digital-audio was in its flower,” Oppenheimer recalls. “I was at the right place at the right time. I got a variety of perspectives on the industry by interviewing such people as Beatles’ producer George Martin, loudspeaker designer John Meyer, and the ‘father of computer music,’ Max Matthews.”

Drawing on all his abilities, Oppenheimer played gigs in and worked at musical equipment repair, audio system installation, producing and engineering recordings, and sound and music editing for feature films and video games. During a stint at LucasArts, Oppenheimer helped with studio rewiring and oversaw construction of a new facility before moving into creating music and sound design for video games. He later jumped to a position as audio director for Electronic Arts, a leading games publisher.

While serving as a recording engineer, music editor, and sound designer for Russian Hill Recording, he worked on the animated TV shows Gumby and Bump in the Night. One of Oppenheimer’s most unusual credits came during the rerecording of the sound for the Gumby series. “The Blockheads were the villains in the Gumby show,” Oppenheimer says. “You always saw them snickering and laughing, but there was never any sound. I went into the booth did some snickers and chortles and became the only voice of the Blockheads—ever!”

During the past eight years, Oppenheimer has worked on a number of projects, producing written and audio content. Most recently he has turned his attention to producing more personal content and exploited his skills as a composer, instrumentalist, sound designer, recording engineer, and writer.

In 2016, he launched Ears Hear Now, a storytelling podcast that uses cinematic scoring techniques with music and sound design to support Oppenheimer’s own narration of stories. In his first episode, “Out of Body, Out of Mind,” he details a weird experience he had while playing drums at a biker bar in Manchester, NH, during his Berklee days. Working in his home studio, he recorded his voice and composed and played the music on guitars, bass, and drums, and added sound elements.

He entered the piece in the 2017 HEAR Now; The Audio Fiction and Arts Festival, and it was chosen as a platinum selection. The piece was premiered in Kansas City, MO, in June. He is currently working on a second episode titled “The Incident.”

Oppenheimer is working on the logistics of earning money from his podcast. “The idea is to find the intersection of the things you enjoy and the things people will pay you to do,” he says. “This market is exploding. Storytelling radio shows and podcasts have broad listenership, and audio books are a burgeoning industry. Why? Because the proliferation of devices means that many people are listening to audio on the go during commutes, walks, and other times.”

He is assessing his potential in the marketplace. “For my first story to be named a platinum selection at a festival tells me that I may be on track,” he says. “I’m trying to develop a rich way of telling a story. Developing it into a theatrical-style event that can be performed live would be a lot of fun. If I am being me, and I am the product, I won’t age out of it.

“I am leveraging the range of experience I have gathered working in manufacturing, live sound, film, albums, TV, video games, magazine writing, marketing, industrial-sound design, and various other angles I have pursued.”

Ever the freelancer, Oppenheimer continues to keep an eye on his options. “At the same time, these [podcast] projects I’m doing can be demos of my skills or for other things I might use them for.”

From New York to Savannah

The career path of saxophonist Jody Espina B.M. ’83 has twisted and turned, from performing and recording to heading education programs in Barcelona, Spain, and New York to establishing the internationally hailed saxophone mouthpiece manufacturing company, JodyJazz. These days, Espina balances all three by performing regularly around his hometown of Savannah, GA, touring globally for saxophone clinics and mouthpiece demonstrations, and overseeing the operations at his factory in Savannah.

The trail for Espina began in Tampa, FL, where he got his introduction to music at 12 years old. “My school offered band in seventh grade, and I wanted to play saxophone,” Espina recounted in a recent phone call from JodyJazz headquarters. “There was a clarinet in our house, so I started on that. “I got a saxophone a year later and played both throughout my school years.” Within three years, Espina was playing gigs three nights a week. His band directors introduced him to jazz, though they also offered caveats about the difficulty of making a living as a musician. Undeterred, Espina enrolled at University of South Florida (USF) majoring in classical clarinet, before transferring to Berklee a year later to pursue jazz as an alto saxophonist. He cites experiences with faculty members Joe Viola, George Garzone, John LaPorta, and Herb Pomeroy as pivotal in his artistic development.

With no gigs the summer after he graduated, Espina bought a Eurail pass and ended up in Spain. “I found a job teaching in Barcelona at L’Aula de Música Moderna i Jazz,” he recalls. “I led their big band and taught lessons.” His European sojourn also included a short stint touring with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. After seven months abroad, Espina moved to New York. “I took a job selling horns at Sam Ash Music and got some gigs from connections I made there. Later, I started teaching at the Hoff-Barthelson Music School in Scarsdale, NY, where I became the director of the school’s jazz program.”

Inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, Espina began pushing beyond self-imposed barriers. He sought out a mouthpiece maker named Santy Runyon in Louisiana, and wrote an article about the nonagenarian’s life’s work. “It was part of the journey I was on of being creative and not being afraid to do things because I felt I might not be good enough at them.” The article touched Runyon, and he invited Espina to come down to play at his 93rd birthday party, which he did. Before returning to New York, Espina picked out a mouthpiece from Runyon’s factory. But after playing it, Espina called Runyon with suggestions for improving it.

“He told me to come back and he’d reface it for me,” Espina says. “I went mainly for the opportunity to hang out with him again. He refaced it with sandpaper and files and it was amazing. I told him I loved it, and he said we’d call it the JodyJazz mouthpiece.” Ultimately, Espina began traveling regularly to Runyon’s factory to make the JodyJazz mouthpiece himself to sell to his students. Word of a great new accessory began spreading through an online saxophone forum.

“My quality control was higher than Santy’s and I repackaged the mouthpieces with a different ligature and raised the price,” Espina says. “I play-tested every mouthpiece—most manufacturers weren’t doing that.” Espina also prototyped a metal mouthpiece and began to expand his product line. Espina based his new business in his New York apartment and traveled several times a year to Louisiana to work a week during each visit in Runyon’s factory and with a local machinist for metal mouthpieces. Espina moved to progressively larger apartments until he decided to move his business and family to Savannah in 2008.

Through tireless effort in manufacturing and marketing, Espina’s JodyJazz mouthpieces are distributed throughout the United States and around the world. “We have about eight mouthpiece models for all saxophones made from four materials: silver- and gold-plated brass, hard rubber, polycarbonate, hard-anodized aluminum. George Garzone uses the aluminum mouthpiece that we call the Giant.” Espina’s products are noted for being carefully crafted. “I became obsessed with them being consistent and selling every customer a great mouthpiece,” he says. “We do hand work in the critical finishing phase.” Top saxophonists from around the world endorse the exclusive JodyJazz product line.

As for performing, Espina has a steady gig in Savannah every weekend, and recently recorded a new jazz album with Howard Paul, the president of Benedetto Guitars. Last spring, he completed a highly successful educational clinic tour of Asia.

Espina knows well that you can’t predict where your path in life will go, but he also cautions against spreading yourself too thin in too many areas. “You need to be really good at something,” he says. “Along the way as you learn other things, learn to do them well. Work hard, pay attention, and show up with a good attitude. A bad attitude will bite you in the butt.”

Composer, Software Developer, Recording Engineer, Performer

Working in New York City, Joseph Branciforte B.M. ’07 is something of a poster child for a contemporary mix-and-match music career. Sitting in Greyfade Studio, his mixing and mastering facility in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, he describes his work as a recording engineer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and software engineer.

“Part of the nature of having a freelance music career in New York is being open to doing a lot of things simultaneously,” Branciforte says. “One week, I might have a lot of audio engineering work mixing or mastering work at the studio, then a week where I’m preparing for a performance of my own, and then a week engineering a live record at a jazz club, then a few days off to compose and write.”

Adept at drums, piano, and electronic instruments, Branciforte composes and plays drums as part of the Cellar and Point, a septet specializing in “garage chamber” music, a mix of contemporary classical, jazz, post-rock, and electronics. Branciforte also writes and performs minimalist ambient music, both solo and in collaboration with artists such as experimental vocalist Theo Bleckmann. He draws on instrumentation including a Fender Rhodes piano, unusual percussion items, and an array of electronics such as loop pedals and modular synths, in addition to more low-tech components like cassette recorders.

In his “day job,” he does engineering, producing, mixing, mastering, and postproduction work for an impressive array of clients on the cutting edge of jazz, including Vijay Iyer, Nels Cline, Ben Monder, and Ran Blake.

“I’m of the engineering school of recording it properly and using the least amount of processing necessary for the finished product,” Branciforte says. “World-class musicians, a good room, a great microphone, and a great preamp are the foundation of everything I do.” His audio work happens both in the studio and at various locations for live performances. Branciforte recently spent two weeks recording jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel live at The Village Vanguard in New York and this summer, he travelled to Norway to work for acclaimed jazz composers Iyer and Steve Lehman.

Doing on-location recording offered Branciforte “a way around the traditional studio chain of command,” as he describes it. He broke into the industry by offering to work for free for musicians that he admired, many of whom eventually became or referred him to paying clients. “A lot of my gigs came about just from showing up and offering to help people,” he says.

For most, all this would seem like a full plate, but Branciforte is also a software designer, having spent more than three years developing interactive software for both composing and translating musical “data” into musical notation in real time. The software uses an Ethernet connection to link each performer in an ensemble to Branciforte’s laptop. It generates a score with the capacity to make changes on the fly, thereby redefining the whole concept of a “score” by building in unlimited compositional flexibility.

Branciforte says he began thinking of the idea while studying in Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design Department with professors Neil Leonard and Richard Boulanger. The software works by presenting musicians with a scrolling score, and in order to preserve flexibility for the composer to make changes during performance, the musicians see only one measure ahead—an arrangement that Branciforte acknowledges takes some getting used to. The implications are many, ranging from allowing a composer to adjust the music at hand to the acoustics or crowd reaction of a specific venue to creating instant notation of acoustic improv sessions, and more.

Given his software development, live performances, and multifaceted engineering work, it’s natural to wonder how he fits everything in. But Branciforte can’t imagine life any other way. Having passion for his work has served him well in New York’s competitive music scene. He attributes his success to being comfortable working without a script.

“There are a lot of people who want to make a life in music in New York,” Branciforte says. “I think the only way to survive is to be willing to invent a role for yourself. There are not a lot of pre-made jobs or paths here. That’s both the exciting thing and the tricky thing about New York.”

For Branciforte, the process of inventing his role is a combination of hustle, relationship building, and a boldness to say yes whenever possible. “I’ve gotten called for gigs where I wasn’t necessarily 100 percent confident that I could do it, but if it was a project I wanted to be involved in, I just said yes and then learned the necessary skills to fill the role,” he shares. “A big part of it is thinking, ‘If this is something I believe in, I’m just going to figure out a way to make it happen.’” So far, he’s figuring it out.