Many may know Fred Lipsius as the original saxophonist, arranger and conductor with Blood, Sweat & Tears (1967-71). While with BS&T he earned several Gold Records as well as two Grammy Awards for his arrangements with the band. In addition to his official accolades, many jazz historians credit him as being a pioneer of jazz-rock saxophone.
In the years since Blood Sweat and Tears, Fred Lipsius has performed with Simon and Garfunkel and a host of name jazz artists such as Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk and Zoot Sims. Originally from New York City, Fred resides in Boston where he is an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music.
I’d like to find out more about your background and beginnings in music. Did you come from a musical family? Tell us about that.
I’m the only musician in my family. I’m the middle child of three kids. One of my mother’s brothers played piano, but not professionally, and one of my Dad’s brothers played too, but he just read piano sheet music. So I sort of felt like the ‘ugly duckling’ (the ‘different’ one, who chose to be a ‘musician’) out of everyone in my family. I was always deeply moved by music as far as I can remember. It’s always been a very pure thing for me. When I was about seven I saw Louis Armstrong and his band on TV. I didn’t really know what jazz was at that time but I told my mom that I want to do that.
In public school, all of the 4th graders took a music test to see which of us had talent in that area. I passed the test and was put into a special music class in my 5th and 6th grades. I played clarinet and was basically the worst clarinetist of about 20 kids. I only practiced 20 minutes a day (this included putting the clarinet together with cork grease and taking it apart and swabbing it)! Back then, I was more interested in playing basketball. But in the 6th grade, for some reason, I improved and became first or second in my class. I bought a few Benny Goodman records and was able to copy just a few of his licks by ear, although I really didn’t have much of an ear back then. My ear did develop into my teens, from listening to and transcribing solos of my favorite jazz players (mostly saxophone and piano). My favorite alto players were Bird, Sonny Stitt and CannonbalI. I also listened to Rollins and Coltrane on tenor. I still have a copy of all the solos and licks I transcribed. They’re now in a big loose leaf book, neatly re-copied. I show this book to my private students at Berklee to encourage them to do some work like I did.
I recall that you are from New York. How long have you been living in Boston?
In 1961, I attended Berklee School of Music, just for a short few months. I got the gig teaching at Berklee in 1984 and have been teaching there full-time ever since. I don’t teach during the summer, but often have used that time to write jazz improv/reading books (some with CDs) and get them published worldwide.
What do you say to someone who’s trying to develop their own individual sound and be an artist above all else? – particularly in the current economical climate.
I talk a little about what I went through regarding certain problems I had, but then finally mastered. I always try to use any and everything I can (different experiences and insights) to help students grow. Students learn a lot from hearing me play my horn and hearing the tone I produce. Then I’ll have them mimic a note or short phrase that I just played. It’s not about copying me, but more about them getting the feeling of what a good sound is from proper usage of air and lip pressure. Once they get a good, free sound on just one note, they light up. Then they know how to do it. They then have learned the most basic secret. So now they know what to look for when practicing at home- that they shouldn’t just play, but really listen to themselves and always try to play with beauty and expressiveness. I also emphasize the importance of getting an evenly-balanced sound, whereby one note doesn’t get played louder than another, irregardless of the range on your horn. Perhaps, they’re pinching too much, thus cutting off the full volume they could be achieving. Most students aren’t aware of this. If a student is having a hard time the basics I don’t discourage them from following what’s in their heart, if becoming a musician is their dream. I’ve told my Berklee sax students that it wasn’t until I was about 30 years old that I really started to enjoy my sound. Before that I hadn’t felt that comfortable or consistent with my sound.
When I was first studying sax in the Bronx with Bill Shiner (Stan Getz’s teacher), I did a lot of things wrong regarding my sound. Bill had this beautiful sound on any woodwind he played. Bill also had a very good method of teaching how to produce a good tone. I did a lot of unnecessary things with my embouchure and tongue whereby I choked off the sound. Basically, I was tightening my lower lip too much, thus cutting off the natural flow and vibration.
Getting a good sound is SO essential. I tell students “You can choose whatever style of music you like, but if you don’t get a good sound on your horn I’m not going to buy your CD”! All the great players have their own unique sound or tone. You can immediately recognize who the player is, just from hearing one or two notes.
You clearly have a passion for playing jazz. Do you limit your work to artistic endeavors or do you also play Club Dates/Private Parties?
I’ve played Club Dates going back to my years as a teenager, playing mostly tenor. I’ve done all kinds of gigs over the years. Since around 2004, I’ve played over 100 nursing homes, mental hospitals, and senior citizens homes, performing on alto and piano and just talking to the people. It’s been most rewarding!
What is your routine like now as far as warming-up and practicing? Is there a routine?
I just love to play when I do practice, but that’s not all the time. I don’t play every day, and haven’t for many years. I play when I want to and need to. I mentally get myself right into playing without any warm-up. I just imagine playing with a beautiful sound. That usually works for me. What you imagine is what you get. If I think I’m NOT going to get a good sound, then I probably WON’T get a good sound.
I don’t worry about technique. It always seems to be there for me – pretty much whatever I’want to play I CAN. I’m not being cocky about it, but rather, feeling confident. Of course, really difficult lines and patterns absolutely need to be worked out slowly at first. If I need to learn or work on a particular tune for a recording session or gig, then I focus on that. I might play freely – anything that comes into my head, or improvise for 10-20 minutes on the changes to a standard tune, or play a ballad as beautiful as I can. Of course, I can’t do this if i have a bad reed. The reed determines whether or not I even want to play my horn. I do have one particular routine that I’ve been doing for quite a while now… It’s very brief (maybe 20-30 seconds) and is done BEFORE actually blowing my first note of the day: I play a chromatic scale, quickly, up and down the full range of the horn from low Bb up to high F and down to low Bb. I repeat this a few times… But I don’t blow through the mouthpiece. As I run up and down the chromatic scale with my fingers, I SING into my mouthpiece the word HU (pronounced like “hue”) using any pitch. HU is an ancient name of God which, when sung, can bring many good things into one’s life, such as: an expansion of awareness, the experience of divine love, a better understanding or insight into a problem, a spiritual healing, or a feeling of peace or calmness. For me, this simple routine prepares me for whatever I happen to play during my practice session. It puts me in tune with Spirit – resonating (within) with a much higher frequency than my mind can comprehend. And that’s it! I have total confidence that everything will be, and IS, as it should be. Thus I rarely stress over playing my horn, unless, of course… the REED is BAD!!!
Tell us about the instruments and set ups you currently use.
My tenor is a Mark VI (serial # in the 70,000s) which I bought from my old sax teacher, Bill Shiner. He had it as a 2nd horn, so he hardly ever played it. It had and still does does have a beautiful, rich gold color. My tenor mouthpiece is an Otto Link Super Tone Master # 6 or 7 opening I bought from Bob Mintzer for $26 around 1976. We were both subbing on tenor in the hit musical “GREASE”. While warming up, before the show, we would play some ‘hip’ jazz licks for each other. I learned a few of his licks and vice versa. I had the mouthpiece re-plated (in gold) years ago, because the silver and gold was coming off, plus his teeth marks were on it.
My alto is a Mark VI (# 90,000) which I bought in 1961 from repairman Emilo Lyons at Rayburns in Boston. My mouthpiece is an old New York Meyer #5 I bought at age 16. I’ve played other mouthpieces (a few metal ones) in my life, but I came back to the Meyer. It gives me all the colors I like. It allows me to express myself instead of the mouthpiece dictating the kind of sound I get! I mostly use Vandoren and Rico reeds. I’m not over;y concerned with ligatures. I never got crazy with trying all kinds of mouthpieces and different horns. I’m happy with what I have and don’t waste my time with all that. I’m just not interested.
Do you have hobbies outside music?
Since around 2004, I began creating digital art using Photoshop. I’ve created over 4,000 digital art pieces, many, influenced by my dad’s art work. He was always drawing pictures with poems at home. His ongoing creativity and love of drawing inspired me tremendously. I remember now, that he bought me a really large box of crayons to bring to my first day in Kindergarten. There’s something to be said for early influences! At age 70 I still play basketball. I play alone for perhaps a half hour just to shoot some hoops. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone. I simply enjoy being outdoors in the park with the surrounding trees and nature. Sometimes, I feel like I’m 12 years old again.
Fred Lipsius recently released his new jazz sextet CD, Rhythm, Catch 4. It is available on Amazon, CD Baby, iTunesYou can find out more about Fred Lipsius and his new CD at fredlipsius.com