Justin Kauflin: Humble Beginnings
JK: I would probably say Mulgrew Miller is my number one guy, for a number of reasons. First of all, I love his playing, obviously. He is very much a traditional pianist but his playing is so fresh. I feel the way he approaches playing music is perfect for jazz; he is very much acknowledging the things that went before him, and understands the importance of those things. Like swinging, really swinging. He is not super experimental, but his approach to playing standards is just so fresh to me; I love it. His personality [also] shines through. I got to spend a few years with him at William Patterson [University] because he started running the program there, and I was able to just spend time with him. Just who he is speaks volumes. That is almost more important to me; your ability to play with others is more based on who you are and your willingness to work with people. He has this great spirit that I just love.
From left: Justin Kauflin, with James Gates, Mike Hawkins, Billy Williams
As far as playing jazz piano, I am [also] super into Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. They are pianists who play with authority and just have that feeling. I feel like that feeling gets a little bit lost nowadays because there is so many other things going on. They really embody that intensity you get when playing jazz.
I am obviously big into Bill Evans and Chick Corea, and with the younger pianists, of course I am always going to be into Brad [Mehldau] because he tackles so many things that astound me. Every time I hear him live it seems like he is doing something new, and it is always really subtle.
I am also a big fan of Robert Glasper. I like his music a lot, especially his earlier music, but I love how he knows how to be a performer. It is a fun experience every time I see him live; he knows how to have fun. I almost feel like that gets lost. People are so busy trying to be ultra hip and they forget to actually talk to people in the crowd and just make it a good show. You can't forget: we are performers. He is a clown; he knows how to have a good time. He is also very influenced by gospel and hip hop, which I am into as well.
Another person that is been a big influence on me is Clark Terry. He has been very helpful in showing me things that are important in being an all around musician; not just being a pianist, but being somebody that understands all the other aspects of being a good performer. Clark Terry is just the consummate performer; he knows the dynamics of putting on a really great performance. I went to go see him at the Blue Notethis was to the end of his playing out[and it was] packed. Every night. It was completely packed. He was probably 87 or 88 at the time, and he was playing for a packed crowd. That is just awesome, and it's because he knows how to be a performer on and off stage. He is a professional. Not to mention the fact that he is just an incredible musician. He has a career behind him with which not many people can compete.
Being able to spend time with somebody with that kind of experience, that actually lived through all the most important times in jazz development, and seeing his humility and his willingness to share knowledge, has been priceless to me.
And I just love his eighth notes. He knows how to play eighth notes[laughs]. They swing so freaking hard.
So yeah, I guess that is the gamut.
AAJ: What is currently going on in your musical endeavors, other than the new record?
JK: Right now I am pretty much just working on the networking game; especially in New York. I have been there for a couple years, but I haven't really been able to get out much. Mainly because mobility is such an issue for me. Getting out to the clubs isn't the easiest thing. If I could see, that is the first thing I would be doing: spending every night at the sessions and stuff. I have just recently been able to really do that and make more connections with folks.
Right now I am not really playing with anybody or working regularly with one particular person, but it is kind of on the agenda. I am basically starting right now on making those connections. Hopefully I will be able to make some connections and be able to play with some folks if things work out well.
I am really just trying to tackle that whole independence thing. Like getting to the subway. It has been a learning process for sure. That is actually why I ended up getting the seeing-eye dog: to help tackle the traffic and people everywhere. There were a lot of things I wasn't actually prepared for; I wasn't really anticipating how much learning I would have to do just to be able to get to these clubs.