Miles Okazaki: Cleaning the Mirror
Beyond his involvement with his working groups, Okazaki has been seen as a regular assistant in Coleman's master classes taught at New York's Jazz Gallery. Coleman's classes incorporate everything from introductions to his special brand of rhythmic theory to comparisons of music to other movements and cycles in the universe. Okazaki explains, "You may not think of the rotation of heavenly bodies as a type of rhythm. Even though they're moving slowly, there is a rhythm there."
Okazaki's composite interests have been something of a cycle itself. Before guitar, the young Okazaki had exposure to numerous facets of both music and expression. Born in the small town of Port Townsend, Washington, Okazaki was encompassed by both the visual beauty of the waterfront community and by the creativity of his parents.
"My mother and father were both visual artists and my stepfather was a builder," Okazaki explains, "so I was into making things very early, making drawings, objects, carving things, little sculptures, things like that. I got into music when I was about seven. I was pretty much self-taught. I had one teacher that showed me different kinds of music, some of it jazz like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, but also African and folkloric music. So I was pretty into the idea of music coming from all over the place."
Okazaki's first training was in a program now referred to as The Centrum Jazz Workshop, located right in Port Townsend and, at the time, run by saxophonist Bud Shank. "That was starting when I was about 13," Okazaki says. "I got to study with some great guitarists, one big influence being a guitarist named Emily Remler. I also got to study with people like Larry Coryell, Joe Diorio, John Stowell and all these guitarists had different approaches. George Cables was there every year, which was great."
Outside of the camp, he started to hone his chops as a gigging musician and solidifying his interest in jazz standards, one he still holds to this day. "I was playing solo guitar gigs when I was about 13, playing for food and tips at an Italian restaurant. I eventually branched out into playing with bass and drums and things like that. That was actually a really good experience, doing five years of steady gigs when I was a teenager.
Okazaki left Port Townsend at 18 to study at Harvard University, where his interests were still fairly heterogeneous. "I was interested in math and physics, but I was kind of self-taught; I didn't really have the formal experience that some of the prep school kids on the East Coast had," Okazaki explains. "I had taken these advanced courses with no teacher, so when I got there I was a little overwhelmed. I kind of didn't understand the classroom approach. I turned away from that and focused on things like music and film. I kind of became default English major and studied languages also. I got a very broad and quality liberal arts background."
Though he wasn't studying guitar at the time, Okazaki kept up his interest in music with visiting professors like pianist/composer Anthony Davis and artists like saxophonist Steve Lacy, while also playing in stage band. "[Davis and I] were studying specific figures like Monk, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, etcetera," says Okazaki. "He showed me where the music came from historically and culturally. I met Steve, who I really admired for his discipline."
Despite his strong interest in music, it wasn't until after his undergraduate studies that it seemed to become a path. "When I was there, I wasn't really set on music, I was kind of bouncing around things and when I graduated I had to decide what I wanted to do. I decided on music and I gave myself 10 years to see if I could get something going," Okazaki says.
The process started in New York in 1997, when Okazaki enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. It was here that he'd encountered one of his most significant teachers, guitarist Rodney Jones. "I moved to New York because I wanted to meet some people; I didn't really know anybody," says Okazaki. "There were three guitar faculty members at the time: Jack Wilkins, Chris Rosenberg and Rodney Jones. I went to the audition and played some things for them and they graded me. They asked whom I wanted for my teacher and I said I didn't know. I went to look at the comments and I got two A's and one C-minus. So I said, 'Okay, give me the one who gave me a C-minus,' which was Rodney."