Bob Mintzer: Amazing Reach
AAJ: What are you focusing on as an educator at the University of Southern California?
BM: Quite a lot. I'm the chair of the jazz department now. I'm the director of the top big band there. I teach arranging and composition. I teach a really great class to freshmen and sophomores, called Jazz Elements, an all-around jazz workshop where we talk about repertoire, vocabulary and theoretical devices, and really get inside the music. Everybody writes, transcribes, arranges, plays the drums and piano and gets a good head start on the lifelong skills you need to really refine your connection with the music. That's a lot of fun. And I take four or five private students on saxophone.
AAJ: How many students are in the jazz program at USC?
BM: There are about 85 majors, and there are minors as well. The faculty is pretty amazing. It's Peter Erskine and Alan Pasqua, Russ Ferrante, Vince Mendoza, Bill Watrous, Bob Sheppard and several other great musicians. Ambrose Akinmusire is a great young trumpet player who just signed on. So we have a working faculty, which is a great conduit for the students to have an entryway into the world of work in jazz. In fact, I took one of our trombone students, a junior named Eric Hughes, over to Japan with me in June. He did a wonderful job. He's already getting busy around L.A. He's playing with Bill Holman and a lot of other bands. So there's a lot of opportunity that way, being that the faculty are working musicians.
The philosophy at USC is to really get people well versed in the language of jazz but also to realistically acquire other skills that will allow them to work, not necessarily only in jazz but also by being an arranger, a producer, knowing about the technology of recording, using notation and, for that matter, being involved in other styles of playing. We have a big pop-music department, a flagship classical-composition department there, and there's one of the best film schools in the world, so there are many opportunities to explore other areas of activity and potential income while you're a student.
AAJ: Looking back on your own student days, your early jazz education included some work with Jazzmobile in New York, which Billy Taylor founded back in the 1960s.
BM: Yes, that was an initial opportunity for me to see up close what jazz music was like in terms of a live setting. It really had a profound effect. But I had several of those opportunities, being around New York when I was a kid. Another one was being 15 years old and going to the Village Gate to hear the Miles Davis Quintet and the Thelonious Monk Quartet. I was just so entranced by this musical conversation I was witnessing and how great it sounded, how interesting. I didn't understand a lot of what I was hearing, but it really drew me in and made me want to learn more about it.
AAJ: Earlier, you mentioned the performing arts academy you attended in high school, the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where you met Peter Erskine. How was that experience for you?
BM: It was wonderful. It was a life-changing experience where I got to study with some very fine teachers and rub shoulders with students who were living the life that one must live to become proficient as a musician. When I arrived there, instead of just casually exploring music, listening and fooling around with different instruments, I learned how to really focus my time and spend four or five or six hours a day practicing a variety of skills that pinpoint all the qualities one needs to be a dynamic musician. I got my habits up and running so that once I graduated from high school, I was able to really work in an efficient way and learn a lot.
AAJ: Did your interest in arranging and composing start at an early age, in those days?
BM: Yes. I think my interest in writing was linked to a keen interest in trying to figure out how music worked. So I would hear a song and sit at a piano and try to figure out how that song went and, in doing so, discovered various components of harmony, melody and rhythm. Inevitably I would discover that if I stayed with it, it would lead to something a little different and something that I could perhaps call a composition of my own. I started doing that very, very young, and once I got into school and started playing in bands a little bit, the prospect of writing for other musicians was very intriguing. As soon as I had my first experience doing that, I was gone. It was such a thrilling feeling to get kids to play something I wrote and see how they might interpret it. And to this day, I just love doing that-it's really gratifying.
AAJ: After high school, you worked with Jackie McLean at the University of Hartford.
BM: Yes. Jackie had just started teaching at the Hartt School of Music there. I went there as a classical clarinet major, actually. I didn't have a lot of contact with Jackie, but I had some, and he was very encouraging. He actually told me I should leave that school and move to New York. That's where the scene was then, so after two and a half years I transferred to Manhattan School of Music and started hanging out on the scene in New York. At that time, which was 1972 and '73, there was a big scene, the loft scene, and guys were jamming. Nobody was making any money playing jazz at that time. There were a few gigs, and they paid a meager salary. But we just loved the opportunity to get to play at all, just play for the sake of the music. At that time, to pay my rent, I would play wedding gigs, play in Latin bands for 15 bucks a night or do whatever I could to support my jazz habit.