Gordon, I know you are currently based in Los Angeles, however I’ve also read that you grew up in Kansas. Tell me about that.
I did spend the first two years of my life in Kansas but we moved out here to California when I was pretty young.
Is it true that many members of your Big Phat Band also grew up in California and played together at a young age? I believe that is something Sal Lozano told me at one time.
I grew up in La Verne, CA. I think Sal grew up in the Orange County area. There are definitely a lot of guys who are working heavily in the business now who were coming of age at the same time. Dan Higgins and I would see each other at festivals all the time. He was “that other alto player from Long Beach.”
I watched Dan grow from an adequate player – maybe that’s a bit harsh – He was clearly an accomplished player but he wasn’t yet “Dan Higgins.” I watched him leap frog all of us from his last year of high school and particularly his first year of two at North Texas State. He came back from one year at that school as a completely different musician. He left us all in the dust and we’re still chasing him today. Dan Savant, my partner in the Big Phat Band who plays in the trumpet section is another example. I met him in high school in the All-Southern California Band. It’s amazing man, when you look back and realize these relationships were formed so long ago and we’re still hangin’, working together and playing music.
It is interesting to realize how many players in the L.A. studio scene are actually native Californians in addition to those who relocate out there. Many of you played together in high school and college.
That’s what I tell kids today when I do clinics. You’ll never forget some of these experiences. You are going to have lasting relationships that come out of these bonds formed when doing something you love like listening to jazz or playing music. We all move on from our high school friends but when you get in the trenches together in a band, it’s a whole different level of interaction.
There are some great pictures I’ve seen of you and Dan Higgins at a local jazz club when you were both much younger.
Yes, that was Donte’s. Sadly, it’s a used car lot now. That place and Shelly’s Manne Hole were both great jazz clubs. Shelly’s was before my time but I got to play at Donte’s toward the end of its run and it was just magical.
Now you have a very successful jazz big band in The Big Phat Band. I would imagine your record sales reflect your commercial success.
Well yeah. (laughs) It’s kind of a moving target. Selling 25,000 records, which is about what we do, is pretty huge for a jazz or big band record. That’s actually somewhat insignificant for any other kind of music. It remains the challenge to record this music in the way that we would like to do it. It’s not really cheap to record this way. It’s not like I can throw a couple mics up and count the tunes off and we have a record. It takes a little more planning than that. We’re pretty careful about our marketing and we try to treat it with as much respect as we think it deserves. Can we make our money back? Even with selling 25,000 copies, the answer so far is “no.” That’s the trick. You really have to have a group of guys and a record label that have a real affinity and love for the genre in order to keep doing it. It occupies so much energy and time, yet you are losing money.
So do you literally self-finance these records or does the label take care of that?
Well, it’s a little of both. I paid for the first two records myself and the record label paid for the second two. The way a record deal typically works is that the artist pays for everything anyway, eventually. The record company doesn’t pay any royalties until it makes every penny back that they have spent. This includes every penny spent on marketing and production, which is charged back to your account before they pay royalties. So most artists never see a penny in royalties. That’s just the way the record business is structured. If they don’t sell enough records to recoup the expenses, that is the record company’s loss. In that case, they don’t come after you for those losses. That’s a reality. But nowadays it’s a whole new paradigm. Where do you sell a jazz record? Our records are in Borders, Barnes and Noble and Best Buy but do jazz fans go to Best Buy to buy a record? I don’t think so. They go to Amazon.com or iTunes. That’s a real question for a lot of guys. They are asking themselves, “Why do I need a record label?” The old thing was that the record label would advertise, promote your music and get them into these stores. There are no stores left that want jazz music anyway. Most of us can now, as individuals, get our music on iTunes, Amazon or CDbaby or whatever. You can sell them on gigs. There’s a lot of ways to do that on the Internet with social networking sites. It’s kind of like the Wild Wild West out there as far as marketing our music. This is complicated by the fact that we have a whole generation of kids who have grown up thinking that it not a problem to download the music without paying for it.
That is a huge problem today. I guess in the end making big band jazz records is a labor of love for you and the band.
It would be a labor of love if I was getting rich off of it too, which is really cool about it. The pictures you saw on my Facebook page were from the first days of dipping my toe in the water. I was trying to lead a band and get gigs for it. It was a rude awakening. I now have additional respect for the guys that hung in there and kept their bands going. Buddy, Woody and Basie – all those bands – it was never easy for any of them – even those guys. I actually put my band on the shelf for 10 years. I said, “Man, I’m not up to it.” I didn’t think that I had the leadership ability or the marketing acumen. I had some doubts about my music and its value. In response to that I immersed myself into the commercial music world. I did gigs on saxophone and piano, started to do commercial writing gigs for television and film. I was doing top of the line work but then I realized – this goes all the way back to 1999 when I put together the first record. It wan only then, pretty late in my career that I thought, “What am I doing? What does this stuff mean?” I was working on some good projects. I was getting paid well but they were all so disposable. It was me doing what the producer or director of the project wanted. It wasn’t me writing what I wanted, music that defined who I was. At some point when you realize there might be a little more road behind you than ahead of you, you start to become a little more cautious about how you spend your time. So when I finally decided to do what I had loved since 7th grade – big band jazz – I finally decided that is who I am and that’s what I was going to do. My life came into balance and a became a more relaxed and confident person. What’s ironic is that I started to get other gigs because of the Big Phat Band. I started to get better opportunities in the commercial world. It’s kind of a cliché we have heard a thousand times. You have to do what you love. It took me a lot of years to learn the basic truth to that.
You mention confidence in your writing. I’d like to talk about that some more. I first met Sal Lozano at one of your Big Phat Band gigs here in New Jersey. That was the first time I had seen you live. You were very confident on stage and showed that you are a bit of a showman also. You understand how to entertain an audience.
I hope that your readers don’t perceive that as a negative quality, which I think a lot of people in the jazz world do. One of the things that I beleive is that jazz doesn’t have to be visually boring. It can be accessible and … entertaining. I actually struggle to use that word “entertaining.” That word has a negative connotation because the assumption in the jazz world is that if you are entertaining you are not serious about your music. That’s the thing that we push back against because everybody in this band is deadly serious about playing at the highest level we can. We have such a great time playing together that I think that it is fun for an audience to see that.
You played that trivia game with the students in the audience. They seemed to really enjoy that and it was a way to connect beyond listening to your music.
It’s fun for the kids. We give them some swag on stage and then give out some CDs and posters. It also gives the guys in the band 5 minutes to rest their chops! Every chart we play hits them over the head pretty hard.
Yes, the Big Phat Band play-along book and cd demonstrates there is a lot of blowing on your charts. I bought those with the intention of using them with private students. It was kind of modeled after the Music Minus One or Aebersold stuff that was around when we were coming up. It was done with the idea that you could play with, and learn from Wayne Bergeron in the section.
When I sat down to sightread the charts, I found it extremely challenging. The lines don’t always go where you think they might or necessarily lay in the fingers as you would like. Is that by design?
It’s not conventional, that’s right. But all I do is write music that sounds good to me. I also am aware of who I am writing for. So if you’ve got a Wayne Bergeron, an Eric Marienthal or an Andy Martin in your band, what are you going to write? Are you going to write something that can just be sightread? I’m not saying that isn’t something to strive for – frankly, sometimes I breath a sigh of relief when I write something that I know the guys can just sightread. But the guys in this band can pretty much sightread the hard stuff too! The reading is never an issue. For me the issue is getting past that, so that whatever the figure is, easy to play or less conventional – it still FEELS right. I’m talking about the level of nuance that comes from playing the same music where you are not reading anymore, you are just playing music. That is our challenge.
You have a cogent point about the writing not being conventional. It is nothing that is contrived. I just go where it sounds right to me. Having said that, there are plenty of times where I look at an arrangement I wrote from years before and think, “What the H#%# was I thinking? Who wrote that? I don’t know why I would make that choice?” I do know that I felt confident about it at the time that I wrote it. That’s o.k. That’s how we get better. We look at ourselves, judge our work and hone our intent as best as possible. I’m also a guy who never saw so called “political flip-flopping” as being a bad thing. I see it as a sign of a flexible mind. That’s kind of the approach that I have taken to my music. Sometimes it is going to be pretty good and sometimes it is going to suck. Over the course of a career, hopefully more will be good than bad. Once you get to that point as a writer or player it is really liberating.
A good example is an athlete like Kobe Bryant. One night he may miss 8 shots in a row, however when he needs to make the game winning shot in the fourth quarter he makes it! He just forgets about those 8 missed shots and makes that last basket.
No one ever taught me that skill. A lot of young players who make a mistake while improvising may shake their head in disappointment. They need to understand that they need to let go of it and move on, bring the rest of the solo to a higher level.
When you write and arrange, is the music already in your head? Do you write at the piano or computer? Tell me about the process.
It’s a combination of all of those. Most of the time it is in front of the computer nowadays. Usually I compose in Digital Performer and then I go into Finale. I also am still a paper and pencil guy. I usually print my blank score paper out from Finale with the key signatures, meter changes and all that stuff. I still like the connection from my mind to my arm to my pencil. I feel that when look at someone’s hand score in jazz or classical music, you can see the personality of the composer. I can look at a hand written score and my eye goes right to the melody. I can see the dynamics of the music – the ebb and flow – whereas when I look at a Finale score, it all looks bland to me. I have to look closer at where the music is living at the time. I do work in both Finale and Sibelius but it intrudes on my process a little bit at times. I’m pretty comfortable as a pianist so I can get my ideas into Performer pretty quickly.
Melodies will also pop into my head at times when I am away from my studio. In those instances I’ll just grab my cell phone and sing the idea in a voice memo to myself. Because I can’t remember ANYTHING anymore. It used to be that I could write a song and two months later it would be up there in my head for immediate recall. Now there is too much crap up there in my head so I have to capture it somewhere else!
I too have used the cell phone to document my melodic ideas which otherwise would be lost forever. It’s a great tool indeed.
I think the melodies that have the most integrity are the ones that come to you that way. I can sit down at a piano and craft a melody that works really well. But it can be a backbreaking process to acquire that melody. I remember reading an interview with John Williams and he spoke about writing the theme to “Close Encounters.” (sings “Close Encounters” Theme) He went through hundreds of variations of those pitches. (plays two variations on piano) He then sat there with Spielberg, going over and over the variations until they didn’t know up from down. He also talked about how he agonizes over the great melodies he writes. He says he works and slaves until they are just perfect. Not all of us are George Gershwin where we just have a great gift and the great lyrical melodies just flow out of us. But when you get a good one, boy there’s nothing like it!
The piano is central to many composers and arrangers. I’ve also heard you play quite a bit of jazz piano with the Big Phat Band. When did you begin to study piano?
When I was in kindergarten my folks said, “You’re going to play the piano.” I didn’t like it. I don’t think I liked it until fourth grade. That’s when I learned to play the “Batman” theme on piano. Learning that song kind of opened it up for me. I could play it for the kids in my class and thought that was cool. It was a seminal moment in my life when I realized that music might be my thing.
Later in life I met Neil Hefti. I told him this story and told him how much I appreciated the “Batman” theme. He just kind of rolled his eyes as if to say, “Oh great – of all the stuff I’ve written – it’s Batman.” (Laughs)
I was fortunate to have a piano teacher who saw that I had a gift for writing little melodies. That became my assignment as a 1st grader. She’d say, “Write me a waltz.” I then wrote a little 8 bar waltz. She’d say, “Good. Now next week write me a march.” She got me used to the idea that I could create my own music at a pretty young age. She would give me a different style every week and I was forced to look at the building blocks of music. I’m pretty sure these pieces written by a first grader were…lame! (laughs) They probably all sounded the same.
I’m sure your parents loved them! (Laughs)
(Laughs) They probably did. She did plant that seed pretty early in my life and I owe Janet Hodges a dept of gratitude.
Tell me how you got started on saxophone.
After piano, I started playing clarinet in the concert band. I had my hands reversed for the first two weeks! Although I was first chair clarinet, someone had to point it out to me that it might be easier if I put the left hand on top. (Laughs) I picked up alto saxophone in 7th grade. My band director, Robin Snyder said, “OK- Herb Alpert’s great but you need to move on. Listen to this.” He played me a record called “Basie Straight Ahead” with arrangements by Sammy Nestico. I remember the first tune he played was “The Queen Bee.” It hit me between the eyes in a way that I cannot even express.
At the time I was a huge fan of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. That was another huge influence for me. I had a little Tijuana Brass band and became enamored with the shuffle groove. They did a ton of those. Later when I traced back I realized the shuffle influence in my music came from two things – the Tijuana Brass and the Disney film “The Jungle Book” with Louie Prima.
Here’s one of the most amazing things that I’ve been able to do in my life. We’ve talked about three very influential people at the beginning of my musical life – Hefti, Herb Alpert and Sammy Nestico. I’ve been able to express this to all three of those guys. I’ve actually become good friends with Sammy. I’ve been able to tell him what that song meant to me. How often to you get a chance to do this? We don’t have the chance to go up to Charlie Parker, Cannonball or John Coltrane or and tell them what an inspiration they were to us. I was lucky that I was able to do that with these three guys.
I’d like to speak more of your writing for the Big Phat Band. Following the concert I attended where you played a variety of tunes including your very popular “Hunting Wabbits,” there were a couple of reactions. The general consensus among local musicians was that it was great to see and hear L.A. studio musicians play live at such a high level of precision. Some detractors made the comment, “It’s not jazz.” How do you react to that?
It’s funny you would mention Hunting Wabbits in that context. I got the same reaction from a big band leader out here on the West Coast. He is the leader of a band that still plays Satin Doll and Take the A Train. I don’t know what to say other than, “You should probably not listen to our music.” Hunting Wabbits came out of a love of the music of Carl Stalling who wrote all that wonderful music for the Bugs Bunny cartoons. My thought was, “How would that sound with a big band?” It was also partly inspired by playing in saxophone quartets while in college. That’s an idiom that I love and miss. Playing in quartets is especially rewarding when you get four guys together who are tight and work together as a group. There are some great pieces that I remember playing in college that I wanted to try to replicate. Both of these concepts ultimately combined into my little tribute to Carl Stalling. The piece took on a life of its own after the first audience responded to it so strongly. But if people don’t like it, they have that right.
Since we play a lot of styles we do get push back. I get push back from people who are more pop influenced. They say, “A song should be 3 minutes, not 7 minutes.” They don’t understand compositional development and shout choruses as we old jazzers would. On our last record we hired a smooth jazz promoter to promote the tunes that leaned that way. We also hired a more traditional jazz promoter for the rest. The smooth jazz guy even got some push back like, “What’s a big band? What do we do with that?” People do get a little hung up on categories and “what box do we put this in?” That’s a challenge we have in marketing this music.
I like doing a tune like September with Patti Austin. I think that’s great. I also like doing straight ahead things. It all means something to me. That’s the kind of record I want to put out – one that takes you on a journey.
Here’s the place where it becomes a little destructive to jazz. It’s when that attitude you mention permeates portions of the media, promoters, or club owners. We have some problems getting booked in New York. They won’t book us in The Village Vanguard. There is no way she is going to book an L.A. big band in there. That becomes a problem for us in getting our music out to the East Coast to the people who do appreciate it out there.
How many times do you go out on the road each year?
Our busy times are in the spring and summer. I’m going to say we do about 30 dates a year.
That must be tough to get all those busy studio musicians together to travel.
It’s a huge challenge. However much I can pay these guys – and we pay pretty well for a big band gig – they are often going to lose money. I’ll have the band booked for a date in March and come February three of them get called to play the Academy Awards. What am I going to say? They will get a week’s worth of work, recording sessions, the telecast and they make $5000 that week. What can I possible say to those guys? Am I going to say, “Stick with me and I’ll pay you $1500 over 3 or 4 days.” These are guys who have families to support and that whole thing. It’s a balancing act for all of us to keep it going. Fortunately we have subs on almost every chair. Some of these guys are pretty hard to replace but we’ve been able to keep it going so far.
Do you do a lot of local gigs around Los Angeles?
We do, although that is becoming a little more problematic as the profile builds. We just did the Hollywood Bowl in August with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band and Roy Hargrove’s Big Band. There were 3 big bands and it was a fantastic night. Whenever you play The Bowl, or a big venue like that, there is a 90-day blackout before and after the gig. That’s a long time we can’t play here in L.A. if we take a gig like that. We ended up actually playing a charity gig at the Catalina Bar & Grill and The Hollywood Bowl understandably agreed to that. We would like to play in town every month to keep the band fresh and play new music, but that is a consideration.
When you record a new album how do you schedule the session and/or rehearsals leading up to the record date? Do you normally have rehearsals for the new music prior to the actual session?
The best case would be for us to have been working out the new material on live gigs for a while. This way when we get in the studio the music is nice and lived in. In the case of having guest artists sometimes that’s not possible. We don’t know who the guest will be or what they will sing, or play. The arrangements might have to be written just before the session. If I can get everybody there we would try rehearse. That’s a challenge to get all the guys in the same room at the same time. We probably rehearse 4 or 5 times a year.
At some point did you decide for yourself that you would focus more on your writing rather than saxophone? Tell me about that.
Yes, I did make that call. It was a gradual thing though. I was a classical saxophone major in college. Which is, of course, a truly acquired taste. (Laughs) By the end of college I actually did like it quite a bit although I didn’t see that I was going to do much of it outside of college. Although I got pretty good at it, I definitely wasn’t as good as some of the other serious classical players at USC and elsewhere. It was good for me in terms of breath support, sound and things like that. As I got out into the working world I started to recognize something. I never had the commitment to keeping that horn on my face like Dan Higgins, Eric Marienthal or Sal Lozano. I started to realize there were plenty of guys who could play saxophone, but there were fewer guys who could write music and make that the focus of what they did.
You were in your 20s when you made this decision to focus more on writing than saxophone?
No, It was probably when I got into my 40s that I finally decided this. The clarinet was the first thing to go in the closet. That was a good call. (Laughs) That thing just takes a real man to confront it. It was such a relief when I didn’t have to worry about that instrument anymore. Along with that was the decision where I wasn’t going to take any more sessions where I have to play it. I did enjoy playing the flute because I enjoyed playing flute in a few bands like Clare Fischer’s Salsa Picante band. I remember the session I took that convinced me that it was time to put the flute away. It was mostly tenor and a little bit of flute. They said, “Just bring your flute.” I had a pretty good sound, not the best, but I could play in tune. I could tuck in there and hide behind Dan Higgins or whoever was there. I got on the session and they told me there was a little alto flute solo. I don’t even own an alto flute. I borrowed one from somebody else in the section. I got the flute up and looked at the part. It wasn’t a little solo. It’s a BIG solo, long, windy and sustained – and I was in trouble! I’ve been on other sessions as a flautist where I had to improvise and play a Latin solo. I’d be sitting next to a legit flute player and they would say, “How do you do that?” I’d say, “How do I do it? How do you do THAT!? You have such a beautiful sound.” (Laughs)
Anyway, regarding that alto flute solo – my personality and improvising wasn’t going to save me this time. I had to be able to sustain that tone and hold those notes out. It was terrifying. Somehow I managed to get through it but it was clearly B- level playing. I said, “I’m not going to do that anymore.” Part of it was their fault. They should have told me. I could have said, “No, better let someone else play it.” For whatever reason, we weren’t organized enough to figure that out.
Nowadays I play the soprano and tenor a lot. Even with the Big Phat Band I play one solo a night because I’ve got 5 amazing saxophone players sitting up there and I want to give them room to play and do what they do.
Yes, you are a very generous bandleader with the spotlight on stage – despite being a formidable saxophonist yourself. You are the only piano player in the band aren’t you?
I am. When I put the band together I knew that I didn’t want to stand up there and wave my arms. I didn’t think that made sense. I wanted to be in the trenches with the guys. I had always kept the piano in reasonable condition. I make sure the chops are good to go and that I can hang.
Do you have a daily practice routine on saxophone or are you more motivated to practice by what is coming up on the calendar? Tell me about that.
I have to be judicious about it. Right now I’m coming off of a gig in Nashville with Take Six at the Grand Ole Opry. On that gig I played soprano and tenor. They are back in the cases now because I’m writing a TV theme and it’s been a week since I’ve touched them. I’ve learned to focus my intent now. I’m lucky I’m not a trumpet player where it’s a real physical thing and you need to have it on your face. Even when I’m in good shape I will go to a gig where I may be Mcing for thirty minutes and then have to pick up the horn cold. I need to be warmed up, even if I’m not! I’ve found that it is more of a mental thing to be able to pick up the horn. Don’t make excuses. Just go out there and do your best. That’s what I’ve started to learn to do.
Hearing how you balance your time between writing and playing speaks to your dedication to both.
We all have balance issues in our lives. We have families, jobs and our music. It’s all about maintenance, isn’t it? The relationship with our wives and kids all require maintenance. I’ve learned to just trust that if I haven’t touched an instrument even for a couple weeks or more, you can get back to where you were – at least on the saxophone. There are no shortcuts, but by doing the work you can get it back
Tell us what you are working on in the near future.
We do a summer jazz workshop each year. In 2010 it looks like we’ll be at the University of Florida in Gainesville. We’ve done a couple camps out here in L.A. modeled after the Stan Kenton camps I went to as a kid. It was such a turbo-charged experience for me to hang with the guys in the Kenton band. I’d learn more in a week than I would learn in the whole year.
I’ve got about 10 or 12 new charts to pick through for a new record. 2009 was a little slower due to the recession although we did go to Japan twice in the last year. We have a lot more trips planed for the spring and summer. We will continue to play a lot of high schools as well as colleges.
You are dedicated to exposing younger jazz musicians to your music and philosophy regarding the music business. Any final words of wisdom you would like to share for the up and coming saxophonists out there?
To watch Eric Marienthal play in our band, I have witnessed that every time he picks up the horn, he is 100% committed to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a soundcheck, at Cherokee High School or the Hollywood Bowl. I think he realizes that playing music is an amazing gift. Appreciate it, cherish it.
I did a clinic recently with some kids. They were playing o.k. but it didn’t sound great. And I encouraged them to play it as though it were the last song they were ever going to play before the end of the world. I said, “This is your last chance to play your instrument. How are you going to sound?” However morbid that is, I use that thought whenever I’m feeling a bit droopy. That has become a great motivator for me. Excellence is a habit.