Playing for a higher purpose has been saxophonist Gregory Groover’s modus operandi since he was a teenager. Groover, the son of a pastor, picked up the saxophone after hanging around worship band rehearsals at church. This experience prepared Groover for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute’s unique mission.
“The values the institute emphasizes were ideas that I grew up with coming from a church band,” says Groover, a Boston native who is studying music education and performance.
How did you get into music initially?
I come from a musical family. My sister plays piano and she’s a Berklee alumna. My father also plays piano––he’s a pastor at a church here in Boston––and he’s always loved music. It was always around the house––everything from the Carpenters to Stevie Wonder to Michael W. Smith and Fred Hammond. Plus, there was jazz. You know, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
So I heard a lot of interesting stuff and, growing up in church, one of the most interesting experiences for me as a kid was hanging out and watching the musicians. I eased into that and, before I knew it, I was playing saxophone in church.
What made you decide to attend Berklee? Did you sister’s experience affect your decision?
The more I think about it, I think that did have a role in the decision that I made. When you look up to someone like an older sibling you see all of the cool things they do and you think, “Man, I would love to do that.” I was in awe of it.
Plus, Berklee was such a big part of my upbringing. I took lessons from a Berklee saxophonist who happened to play at our church. We would meet and play saxophone for like 20 minutes and then we would play video games for another hour. I really looked forward to the lessons because I had a friend I could hang out with.
When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I joined the Berklee City Music Preparatory Academy. That was housed at the Boston Arts Academy, which is across from Fenway Park, so I began frequenting the area.
Berklee was this magnet for me. My sister had a lot do with my decision but I also believe that the path of life brought me here. I didn’t think about going anywhere else.
How did you connect with the Berklee Global Jazz Institute?
I had this friend, Nahum Carona, who graduated from the BGJI in 2011––an amazing drummer and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. During my junior year of high school, I started playing this weekly gig with him at Wally’s Jazz Cafe.
It was huge for me. When I was a kid, I got my hair cut across the street from Wally’s so I was always curious about it. I had also seen a couple jam sessions there.
Nahum was cool because even though he was doing an unpaid gig with high school musicians, he would put in the same effort he’d put in on a gig with anyone else. He was invested in me and the project. John Patitucci always says it’s not about who’s playing something wrong but how you can make everything sound better and Nahum was practicing that. He was taking BGJI’s message of community and giving back, and he was acting upon that on a weekly basis.
Also, for City Music we would play the Berklee Gala and one year, the Global Jazz Ambassadors played. I remember being like, “Wow.” That was my senior year of high school.
Nahum made me see that the values the institute emphasizes––thinking about community, playing for a higher purpose––were ideas that I grew up with coming from a church band. He saw that the BGJI would help me flourish as a human being.
What has your experience been with the BGJI’s outreach efforts?
It’s always great to feel like you’re doing a valuable thing by contributing music, whether it is at a homeless shelter or nursing home, like Susan Bailis Assisted Living down the street. It’s sort of nerve-wracking, though. For instance, the men and women at Susan Bailis have lived [jazz]. They might know more than some of our teachers. To them it’s not about how you played on that dominant chord but how you played on that dominant chord, you know what I mean? It’s not about the notes. It’s about playing in a way that accurately represents the music as a whole.
The other thing is, you want to uplift people. You’re aware of how important this work is. You’re trying to carry on this music. You’re learning from these people. It’s a huge thing. Honestly, I feel like some of my worst performances have been there because I go in with so much on my mind.
Danilo Perez always reminds us that we’re not only going in to help these people but we’re also doing this to help ourselves. If you open yourself up, you leave with something, as well.
As a member of the BGJI cohort, you also go on international outreach trips. You usually host clinics for kids and local musicians on these trips. Can you talk about the clinics and what it’s like to pass on your craft?
We went to Panama City a couple months ago and there are still two or three students who contact me about music. The passion these kids have for music is amazing.
We were all nervous about the clinics. For my clinic, I brought it back to what was important for me: what is the purpose of the saxophone? Most simply, the saxophonist’s job is to deliver the melody. I also taught them how to apply that idea with sound exercises.
I had my clinic at 9:00 a.m. so I was a little worried about attendance but when I got there, the room was full of students, which was heavy for me because I’m just a college student and these kids want something valuable from me. It was strange but amazing and I left feeling happy that I was able to participate in something like that.
These kids looked at me the same way they looked at other musicians on the trip. The students were looking up to us and Danilo Perez and John Patitucci and Brian Blade. We’re looking up to Danilo, John, and Brian. And then, at the same time, Benny Golson and Buster Williams are there so Danilo and Brian are looking up to them. There was such a great energy.
We also did an ensemble clinic and we played one of my tunes. A lot kids were singing it afterwards and there was this one student, who I sent the music to, who’s been practicing it and asking me about the piece over email. It’s a heavy thing.
We also focused on the blues. At one point, in order to get them to participate, we had to put ourselves out there so one of the other members of the ensemble, our guitar player Tommaso Gambino, sang a chorus of the blues. That helped break the ice. He was sort of embarrassed but it helped make the clinic an awesome experience for everyone. That was really powerful.
How has the institute affected you musically?
It’s gotten me to think less about myself. I over-think all of the time. That hasn’t changed much but my experience here has allowed me to sort of recognize that I do that and catch myself.
How can I play lines that make the ensemble play with a deeper and wider dynamic? These are the types of things the BGJI pushes you to think about as a musician.
It’s also opened me up. I’d always felt I’d been open, especially growing up playing music from church, whether it was negro spirituals, traditional gospel, hymns, jazz, or pop. You know, I always thought I had a wide spectrum of abilities. My sister writes folkloric Latin music so I picked up salsa and bomba, as well. I was bringing all of this to the table.
Then, you go to the institute, and you meet a guy from Venezuela and woman from Brazil. Another person from Japan, someone from Korea. So there are people from across the world bringing their music into the ensemble and I’m incorporating that into my playing whether I realize it or not. It’s becoming a part of me.
It’s not about me when I’m playing, even when I’m taking a solo. It’s about what I’m contributing to the music. It’s a team thing. Danilo says that if you want to get somewhere fast, go alone, but if you want to get somewhere meaningful, go with everyone. That’s how we should think about music.