Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"If You've Got a Gig, Life Is Good": An interview with pianist, composer, band leader Steve Elmer

KIRPAL GORDON: You’re known as a pianist of great renown in New York jazz circles, but the larger and less known fact is that you’ve been in the music game at just about every level over the last fifty plus years: playing drums in your junior high school band in Brooklyn, and upon high school graduation, the Concord Hotel in the borscht belt where you drummed for every possible stage act; studied under Mo Goldenberg at the Manhattan School of Music; joined the trio of Pepe Morreale, Carol Channing’s musical director and pianist; toured with the All American Big Brass Band in sixteen African countries in ’64 followed by two years as drummer with cornetist Bobby Hackett, an incredible player, before taking your first piano lessons with Lennie Tristano while earning a BS from Hofstra in Musical Education in ’67 and an MA in Composition from Queens College (CUNY) in ’71 where you wrote “Emily Dickinson Songs for Soprano and Orchestra” based on ten of her poems and four years later you became Director of Jazz Studies with Frank Foster, the legendary composer-arranger-saxophonist for the Count Basie band. Let me stop here and ask:

What was it like touring Africa in the Sixties?

What was it like being on the road with Hackett?

What inspired the change from the drum kit to the piano?

What was it like studying with the blind and one-of-a-kind Tristano?

What was it like building the Queens program with Foster?

What has been your favorite learning experience?

What has been your favorite teaching experience?

STEVE ELMER: My three-month 1964 tour as one of three drummers (I was the jazz man) with the All American Big Brass Band was spectacular.  We played all kinds of music for all kinds of people in all kinds of indoor and outdoor places.  We saw modern cities and primitive villages.  We saw prosperity and poverty.  The people were friendly and receptive and the human spirit was on display every step along the way.  When I got home, however, I realized for the first time in my life how lucky I was to live in the United States of America.

The two years I spent playing drums with Bobby Hackett were wonderful.  He was a warm and lyrical player and a modest and soft-spoken man who treated me with respect and kindness.  I loved him and his music and I learned a lot playing with him.  The road is the road and is always difficult.  If the music is good, then everything else is bearable.

The switch from drums to piano came as a result of a number of different experiences.  I loved playing the drums as a rhythm section member and as a soloist.  But the relationship between the drums and me had always included playing music to make a living.  I started playing at age thirteen and my first gig came a short time later.  By the time I was twenty-five, I was tired of the music business and the life of the business of music.  So my goal was get a college degree, become a music teacher so I could have a more stable life, study piano, and eventually stay home and play Mozart sonatas.  I made that choice around 1965 and it turned out to be a much more complicated decision than I could have ever imagined.

I met Lennie Tristano through a wonderful bass player named Sonny Dallas.  Sonny was Lennie’s bass player at the time (1964) and recommended me for a gig with Lennie’s quintet to play at the Half Note.  I went out to Lennie’s house with my drums and played with Lennie, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Sonny.  As it turned out, I couldn’t do the gig because I was leaving for the Africa tour and it conflicted with the Half Note gig dates.

So in early 1965 I started studying jazz piano with Lennie Tristano.  Lennie was a brilliant man who developed a uniquely comprehensive method of teaching how to play jazz.  He was also the most well-read person I had ever met.  It was he who introduced me to the poems of Emily Dickinson and a number of other literary figures ranging from Sappho to James Joyce.  My musical studies included learning scales and chords, ear training, listening to and learning to absorb the music of the great jazz masters, and discovering the meaning of commitment to one’s chosen art.  It was an extremely important period in my musical development.  After six years of studying with Lennie I decided to go my own way, a decision I’ve never regretted.  

I wrote the four-year Bachelor of Jazz Studies curriculum at Queens College in 1974 and asked Frank Foster to join me as the second faculty member. Frank focused on arranging and composition and I focused on improvisation and theory as well as my responsibilities as the program’s director.  Frank was a wonderful tenor and soprano sax player and a fine composer.  He was also a very lovely man, soft spoken and sensitive. Beginning in September of 1975 we began teaching the first B.A. in Jazz Studies majors at Queens College.  During the spring and summer of 1976 there was a budget crisis in New York City, all non-tenured faculty of the City University of the City of New York were fired, and all new programs, including ours, were cancelled.  That was that.  We taught the program for one year and were out of a job.

My favorite teaching and learning experience was when I taught music appreciation at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn in the evening division.  I’ve always loved teaching, especially general music or music appreciation, music for students who don’t know a lot about music and are waiting to be introduced to the great pleasures of the art.  In this particular instance I used one class session to play a video of Puccini’s La Boehme and asked the class to give feedback on their impressions.  One student loved the opera and was particularly touched by the idea of the tragedy of friendship’s being truly realized only after the death of the main character.  Another student argued that La Boehme was simply a tragedy of life and that Madame Butterfly was a real tragedy.  The discussion lasted quite a while and sides were formed.  There was no resolution but the interaction was priceless.  Sometimes musicians forget what their audiences are actually experiencing. 

KIRPAL GORDON: In 1976 you took a break from playing professionally? What brought you back to music in ’91?

STEVE ELMER: After I lost my job at Queens College I became the house drummer/piano player at a loft jazz place called Jazzmania.  It was a wonderful scene for quite a while, a sort of ongoing open jam session for instrumentalists, singers, poets, dancers, and a variety of aspiring artists from all over the world.  But the scene’s dynamics began to change with the business side getting more attention than the creative side, and I started looking for something else to do.  I heard about something called “court reporting,” a profession where you could work only a few days a week and earn a full-time salary with plenty of flexibility to pursue your more creative needs.  So in March of 1977 I entered court reporting school and learned how to use the stenographic machine to take down the spoken words of various speakers in a shorthand that I and some trained typists could read.  I ended up being a free lance court reporter for ten years, taking down the words of people as varied as Phoebe Snow, Bob Guccione, and Richard Nixon.  I also became the chief contract negotiator for the court reporter’s union and had many interesting experiences learning many things that I never knew existed in the world.  As it turned out, the idea that I could do this job only when I wanted to work was a complete illusion.  First of all, the work demanded skills on the machine equal to those of playing the piano.  I had to practice the machine to keep my speed up just so I could keep working.  I managed to keep playing the piano but it was not on what you would call a professional level.  I enjoyed the ten years, met many interesting people, got to travel some, and made many court reporting friends.  But in 1987 I started to look for another way to make a living.

I got married to Olivia Stockard in 1986 (more about that later) and my life changed dramatically again.  Olivia had originally played piano and violin, had a beautiful singing voice, and was a first class musician.  She too, however, wanted a more stable life and had switched from being a violin major in college to getting advanced degrees in English.  Her ambition was to become a college professor but she ended up working as a training specialist for a major bank in New York City, wrote a book about business writing, and started her own training and communications consulting practice.  I began helping her with sales, eventually learned how to do word processing and graphic design to some extent and ended up becoming her partner in a training and communications consulting firm called Stockard-Elmer & Company, Inc.  The company offers training seminars in business writing, presentation skills, and other workplace training subjects. We incorporated in 1990 and have been in business ever since then. You can find our company on the web at http://www.Stockard-Elmer.com.

All through these years I continued playing whenever I could but did not do many gigs.  One exception, however, was that I played at an annual fund raiser for The Brooklyn Heights Music Society and The Brooklyn Heights Orchestra.  I became involved with them because Olivia was playing violin in the orchestra and I actually took over the management of the organization for a while.  So I was playing a solo piano spot at this fund raiser and Myles Weinstein, a young drummer who liked my playing, asked me if I’d be interested in getting together to jam.  I agreed, we played, and that led to putting together a group called The Jazz Mentality featuring a young Chris Potter on saxes, Myles on drums, Ralph Hamperian on bass, and me.  That was the first time I started playing professionally after a long hiatus.

KIRPAL GORDON: What was it like playing and recording with The Jazz Mentality? A few years later you made three incredible CDs with your own jazz trio which featured Hide Tanaka on bass and Shingo Okudaira on drums playing your original compositions. I’ve played those CDs, well reviewed and highly regarded, over and over and I’ve seen you three play in all kinds of settings. If a jazz trio, following the approach of Bill Evans, is at its best when all three work so well they create a fourth “player” or element, then you, Hide and Shingo are right up there. How long was your run together?

STEVE ELMER: The Jazz Mentality was a wonderful quartet playing jazz standards and many of my original compositions.  We recorded two CDs, “Maxwell’s Torment” (VAI,1992, http://www.allmusic.com/album/maxwells-torment-mw0000111307 ) and “Show Business Is My Life” (Koch Jazz,1997, http://www.allmusic.com/album/show-business-is-my-life-mw0000018962).

Myles knew about Chris Potter, that he was a young saxophone player who had just come to New York and was clearly a special player.  I had known Ralph for a number of years and always liked his playing.  It was a great experience for me in a number of ways.  First, I got to play with people I enjoyed playing with, hard swinging improvising jazz musicians.  Second, I had a working group to try out many compositions I had written in the past and many new compositions I wrote because I had a group to play them.  We played together for a few years and had a great time.  Chris went on to gain the accolades he so richly deserved.  Ralph is a busy bass/tuba player in New York and we play together every once in a while.  Myles became president of Unlimited Myles, an International Jazz and Booking Agency, a business he started on his own and built into a successful operation.  The Jazz Mentality had a lot of fun and made a lot of good music.  It was a real treat to be part of the group and the experience motivated me to continue playing and composing.

The Steve Elmer Trio was formed in 2005 and we played our last gig together in July, 2010.  The time between was a very creative time for me.  I’ve known and played with Hide Tanaka for many years.  He introduced me to Shingo Okudaira and after we played together as a trio a few times, I knew I was musically happier than I had been in a long time and I wanted to play with Hide and Shingo regularly.  The trio  recorded three CDs together, independent recordings, no label.  Each CD features my compositions exclusively, something I’m  particularly proud of.  The conventional wisdom is to record albums that include standards with a few originals, if any.  But I have written a lot of tunes, I like them, Hide and Shingo liked playing them, and I decided to do what I’d be happy with.

We recorded “I Used To Be Anonymous” in 2006,  “Fire Down Below” in 2008, and “Jazz Life:  Live at Cleopatra’s Needle” in 2012, a few days before Shingo moved back to Japan with his family.  You can hear samples of these three recordings at http://www.cdbaby.com/artist/TheSteveElmerTrio.

I really enjoyed the five years we played together.  We made a lot of creative music.  But our three-week tour of Japan in 2007 was a unique experience and a special highlight for me.  Wherever we played we had a recently tuned grand piano, a first class sound system, and audiences that were made up of true jazz lovers.  We had a terrific time and were treated with great respect and admiration.  I still play with Hide frequently and hope to play with Shingo again in the future.  It was a wonderful trio, swinging and musical, and everyone got an opportunity to stretch out and explore.  I’ve never thought about the ‘”fourth player or element” before and really appreciate your comment.  I certainly have felt that, playing in a live setting, but have missed the thought when it comes to recordings.  Thanks again for the insight.  Hope other listeners will feel the same when they get a chance to hear what we’ve done.


KIRPAL GORDON: Let’s talk for a minute about the intersection of jazz and classical. In addition to all the works already cited, talk about your incredibly talented wife and life partner, Olivia Stockard. How long have you two been together?

STEVE ELMER: Olivia and I met in August of 1985 at a chamber music camp for adults in Bennington, Vermont.  She was there as a registered student playing violin in a string quartet.  I was there as a paying customer with no affiliation but trying out the idea of playing piano in a classical setting.  I was at breakfast the first or second day when Olivia stopped by and casually demonstrated some technical detail to the people I was sitting with.  I was hooked and followed her movements for the rest of the week waiting for an opportunity to speak to her.  As it turned out, the last night of our week at the camp there was a party and I was playing some solo jazz piano.  She passed by, said “you play very well,” and walked out of the room.  I stopped playing, ran after her, got her number, and we were married a year later.

Yes, we are partners in every way -- marriage, music, and business.  Olivia is a first class violinist and pianist and she and I have played chamber music together and with other players from time to time over the years.  She has always had a beautiful voice and in 2009 decided to seriously pursue that path and began studying with a voice teacher in New York.  I have become her “live-in accompanist” and my musical life once again has been completely transformed.

I’ve always liked classical vocal music but have never really paid  much attention to it.  Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Helen Humes, Billy Eckstein, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, and jazz singers like that are the ones I’ve heard the most.  But discovering the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss and the poetry they’ve used as texts for their compositions (not to mention the operas of Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi) has simply blown me away and given me a very new musical outlook.

So the intersection of jazz and classical, as you put it, has become deeper and more entwined between Olivia and me more than ever before.  It is a blessing that I have a wife and partner who I can be so completely compatible with on a day-to-day basis, one who appreciates our differences and similarities and is able to ride the roller coaster over and over again.

KIRPAL GORDON: I also know that for many years you’ve been playing locally in restaurants around your home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, both as a solo pianist and with bands. What’s that been like? You also play Dixieland music with the Creole Cookin’ Jazz band at Arthur’s Tavern in the West Village regularly, yes?

STEVE ELMER: Well, I love to play, period.  I’m happiest when I’m making music.  As most musicians know, professional opportunities are hard to come by and the life of a working music is not an easy one.  There is always a big gap between the music business and the playing of music.  Unfortunately, if past history is any indication, these two components of a musician’s life seem destined to be linked together forever.  So for most professional players it’s simple:  if you’ve got a gig, life is good.  If you don’t have a gig, life is not so good.

I never played or was particularly interested in Dixieland.  I listened to Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, James P. Johnson, and many, many others as part of my development as a jazz piano player, but basically the two periods of jazz that formed my musical foundation were swing and bebop.  So when I started playing with the Creole Cookin’ Jazz Band in March of 2001, I was pretty ignorant of the repertoire.  I did my homework to some extent, learned a lot of tunes I didn’t know, and found that I loved what I was learning and what I was playing.  First of all, working with the same core group of musicians once a week, year after year, allows you to develop and grow, to try things out and discover and refine your own voice in a style that is not initially yours.

The things I’ve come to discover about the music of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, which is really what we play in this band, is that there is an incredible amount of variety beyond “When The Saints Go Marching In.”  Actually, we rarely play that tune.  But we do play tunes by W.C. Handy, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and Hoagy Carmichael, to name a few.  So I’ve had this steady Sunday gig, playing on a real piano from 7:00-10:00 at Arthur’s Tavern most Sundays since 2001.  It continues to be a fun place to play and an ongoing source of personal development and satisfaction.

KIRPAL GORDON: So what’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed over the years in music---performing, training, cultural impact, quality of life, touring, composing, arranging, recording, leading a band, being a sideman? In what directions do you see the future of jazz going?

STEVE ELMER: The biggest change in jazz training that I have seen has been the growth of degree-granting jazz programs at the college level.  My impression is the students who come out of those programs are knowledgeable of jazz history, highly skilled in instrumental technique and harmony, and well aware of the business side of music and its many challenges, and seem enthusiastically willing to take on the reality of the marketplace.

As far as changes in performance, I think knowledge is a good thing but experience is a far more important element in artistic development.  My concern, one I’ve had for a long time, is that it’s hard to find a fresh voice or a lot of variety in the midst of all these well-educated young  jazz players and singers.  Sometimes a lack of formal knowledge can be an asset, forcing an artist to rely on instinct and what sounds and feels good to him or her rather than something that can be explained with a detailed analysis of the form and chord structure.  Let me say simply that I believe in the old fashioned approach to jazz which is basically play the melody, improvise, tell a story, and make it swing.  I also believe that any great art comes from artists who have something to say.  In my mind, there is a tradition in jazz linking one era to another, each new era building on elements of the era that preceded it.  I don’t think we have an era right now, just a lot of people trying a lot of different things and calling it jazz.  Hopefully, one of these days someone will revisit what came before and discover something that inspires them to create something new.

KIRPAL GORDON: How can Giant Steps readers stay in closer touch with all that you do?

STEVE ELMER: Thanks for this opportunity to let people know about me and my music.  I really appreciate it and hope readers enjoyed the interview.

On YouTube you can find me at http://www.youtube.com/user/bebopelmo.

And you can find my CDs and MP3s on CD Baby, iTunes, CD Universe and many other music outlets on the internet.

I’m also on Facebook and readers can find me there too.



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