John Beasley: Everyone Loves John
If NASA or MIT were to invent a device that could measure creative and musical capacities, John Beasley would be one of the first artists to which they would hook it up.
The short biography would read; Grammy-nominated music director, producer, arranger, pianist, film/TV composer, who played with the likes of trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, along with some of the most influential musicians of the past 30 years. Beasley has led music, jazz and piano clinics and workshops worldwide over the past 25 years across the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Latin America, including The Grammy Foundation's camps.
He was the musical director for American Idol and just finished work on the new James Bond film, Skyfall.
All About Jazz: Congratulations on the release of your recent album, 3 Brave Souls (BFM, 2012), featuring drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler and bassist Darryl Jones. How did this project come together?
John Beasley: Michele Ito, from BFM Jazz, came to me with this idea for a funk record, so I found the two funkiest guys in LA who can write and improvise, along with some great guest artists, [singers] Sy Smith, Dwight Trible and Monet Owens, [harmonicist] Gregoire Maret, [saxophonist] Bob Sheppard, [Djembe player] Leon Mobley, [trombonist] Francisco Torres and [EWI player] Steve Tavaglione.
AAJ: Can you tell us more about the creative aspect of this album? Where did the songs come from? What ties them together? Was there a specific muse or creative inspiration?
JB: My notion was to make something organica new way to make a funky, rootsy jazz record. Each of us come from both jazz and R&B roots and have different writing styles. Ndugu wrote four songs, Darryl wrote two and he's singing on one, and I wrote five songs. Ndugu , Darryl and I got together, talked, went away to write, then went into the studio for three days to rehearse and record. Organically, while we played, we listened to each other's influences and improvised along the way. We built on the takes we liked. I was harking back to a Gulf-coast Jazz Crusaders/Meters sound, and then one song had influences from early '70s Ethiopian jazz.
AAJ: Where did the title, 3 Brave Souls, come from?
JB: Do you remember the three prisoners in the movie Shawshank Redemption? They called themselves the 3 Brave Souls, so we were thinking that, given the demise and big shifts in the record business, we would be courageous and finance a CD and make music how we want.
And, this courage has paid off. 3 Brave Souls was accepted in seven categories for the Grammy Awards: Best Traditional R&B Performance, "Wanna Get Away?"; Best R&B Song, "Love's Graces"; Best Improvised Jazz Solo; Best Jazz Instrumental Album; Best Instrumental Composition; Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s), "Wanna Get Away?"; Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
AAJ: How was this project different from albums that you have done in the past?
JB: It is the first band CD that I've done with each of us writing. My other projects were from my instincts.
AAJ: How would you describe the sound of the album?
JB: This record is more commercial in the sense that the undertones are funk and R&B, but it still retains the looseness of a jazz recordbasically a funk/R&B record with solos.
AAJ: What was the highlight or most significant and personal aspect of the project?
JB: Among the many highlights was hanging in the studio with Ndugu and Darryl and laughing, learning and getting to know each other musically. I've been an Ndugu fan since hearing him on [pianist] Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi (Warner Bros., 1981), and heard Darryl with Miles Davis and the Rolling Stones. Since all of us played with Miles but not together, we shared a lot of stories.
AAJ: Have you, Darryl , and Ndugu been able to perform together since the release of the CD?
JB: We are about to go on tour in Europe and are booking US gigs now. See my All About Jazz calendar for the details.
AAJ: It might be too early to ask but is there talk of a second album with the same players?
JB: Good idea!
AAJ: How did 2012 treat you?
JB: 2012 was multidimensional. The year kicked off with the mixing of 3 Brave Souls, then I got a call to work on ABC's new singing competition called Duets, featuring John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, Robin Thicke and Jennifer Nettles. My role was Music Director, and the main objective for any singing competition is to make sure that each contestant reaches his/her full potential.
There were a couple of breaks in the production so I went to Paris to direct the inaugural International Jazz Day concert for the UN, hosted by Herbie Hancock with about 35 all-star jazz artists. And, I managed to squeeze in a week in Senegal, Africa playing with Persian singer Sussan Deyhim.
In the summer, I went to London to join 10-time Oscar nominee film composer Thomas Newman at the historic Abbey Road Studios to work on the James Bond score. I did drum and synth programming and drank a lot of beer in the pub. In the middle of the work, I went to Sardinia, Italy to perform with Kip Hanrahan's band with El Negro Hernandez, Robby Ameen, David Murray, Carmen Lundy, Joe Fiedler and Junior Terry, Charles Neville, and 10 other musicians.
There were some other fun projects like writing a bra commercial with Siedah Garrett, finishing up a score for a documentary about to release called Patrolman P; the release of Exotic Marigold Hotel, another film I worked on with Tom Newman; playing with [guitarist] Lee Ritenour, the Miles Electric band at the Hollywood Bowl, a special Miles Davis concert with my quintet at Los Angeles County Museum, and arranging for the Luckman Orchestra, to list a few.
AAJ: What part of the world are you in right now?
JB: Just got back from Boston, so I'm in my Hive!
AAJ: What are you working on?
JB: I'm practicing with Dwight Trible to promote my other CD called Duality: Dwight Trible sings, John Beasley swings (BFM, 2012). We had the CD launch concert Nov 1  in LA at Vitellos.
AAJ: What did you do after the release?
JB: Headed to Europe to promote the 3 Brave Souls CD in Germany, Netherlands, Austria, and Italy.
AAJ: Where do you find the energy to do all that you do and stay on top of your game?
JB: I have a daily routine and try not to break it. After waking, I go into my Hive and chant, then practice. I get energy from the projects themselves. All are so creative that I really don't regard them as work, or doing a job. I'm so lucky to be doing what I feel is the only thing I can do. I would be lousy at any other profession.
AAJ: How do you find and maintain a balance between work, travel, and your home life?
JB: When I'm in LA writing, my home and studio are 25 feet apart in two separate buildings. So, I do feel like I'm going to work when I step out of the house, though I'm usually in my pajamas all day.
When I'm on the road I've have Skype to stay connected. I can work on multiple projects from wherever I am because technology allows us to email music easily. It is sad that musicians do less face-to-face projects.
AAJ: Let's go back in time. How did your adventure and interest in music start? Did you come from a musical family?
JB: I'm a third generation musician. My grandfather played in territorial bands. My other grandfather owned a Steinway dealership. My father was a professor of music at North Texas University, Santa Monica College and also played in the Forth Worth Symphony. My mother was a band director and a great brass instrumentalist.
AAJ: What was your first instrument?
JB: Drums, seriously, on pots, pans and luggage.
AAJ: When did you fall in love with music and know that this was something that was going to be a real part of your life?
JB: My parents told me that they would take me to Opera performances and sit me in the front row of the balcony so they could keep an eye on me from the pit, because they didn't have babysitters in those days. Apparently, I was alert the whole time with eyes wide open and probably drooling.
AAJ: How many hours a day did you practice as a kid, teen, young adult?
JB: Didn't practice much as a kid because I wanted to be a football player. As a teenager, I played endlessly along with whatever record I was digesting at the moment. Now, I practice more than I ever have.
AAJ: Who were your early mentors and people that helped shape your talent and career?
JB: My dad could play any standard and he was a walking encyclopedia and could answer any technical or practical musical questions. My mom taught me how to read music and play intuitively. When I was 22, I started touring with Freddie Hubbard. I learned so much over eight years because there were some long stretches when we played night after night. Miles Davis hired me in my late 20s. And, I was a sponge and absorbed every instruction, note, and experience. Walter Becker took me under his wing. I learned a lot in the studio with him. He produced my first two records with Windham Hill.
AAJ: Did reading music come easy for you?
JB: I learned to read music early so not really a problem except for music with crazy rhythms.
AAJ: Who were your early musical influences?
JB: Quincy Jones, because he was the master of every formatkiller record producer, film and TV composer, musician, jazz arranger and the coolest guy. And Herbie [Hancock] for his brilliant imagination. Miles [Davis] for his artistic courage.
AAJ: Who are your current musical influences?
JB: Today, I listened to Chico Pinhero that Steve Taviglione turned me ontoastounding harmonies, beautiful melodies, swinging samba which made me feel and laugh.
AAJ: What was your first professional job?
JB: I swept out U-Haul trailers. I lasted two months. I knew what I didn't want to do after that.
AAJ: What was your first big break?
JB: I played at Carnegie Hall with [flautist] Hubert Laws, [bassist] John Patitucci and [drummer] Joey Heredia at age 20.
AAJ: Tough question, but, you do so many things and you do them well. Arrange, produce, direct, compose, perform, etc. What is the one aspect of your artistic life that gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction?
JB: Performing before a live, attentive, festive audience. Nothing to compare it with.
AAJ: What do you do for fun?
JB: Discover innovative, talented chefs. I love to eat and have made it my hobby to find great food and wine everywhere I travel. I also took up scuba diving and seeing the aquatic world.
AAJ: How do you relax? JB: I cook when I can. And, chanting keeps me balanced and focused. I'm a [Los Angeles] Lakers fan and a long suffering [Dallas]Cowboys fan.
AAJ: What is a typical day for you like when you are on the road?
JB: If on tour: wake, chant, stretch, breakfast, check out the city/find a museum if I have time, sound check, concert, eat, drink, meet people, bed.
My James Bond schedule was wake, chant, stretch, breakfast, walk to Abbey Road (30 mins), work, beer at 5:30pm, work, eat late, bed.
AAJ: What is a typical day like for you when you are working at home?
JB: At home: wake, chant, breakfast, practice one hour, work, bike ride from Venice to Pacific Palisades and back, cook, drive to gig, hang with family/friends, bed.
AAJ: Can you name some of your most memorable live performances?
JB: I was in a band called Audio Mind with [drummer] Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Tavaglione, [bassist] Gary Willis. We had amazing gigs because we would improvise whole sets.
With [bandleader] Sergio Mendes, we played in this Roman amphitheater in Ceaceria, Israel, with the beach as the backdrop. [Singer] Dianne Reeves brought the house down when she sang "Bridges," by [Milton] Nacimento. With Steely Dan, we had audiences singing back to the band.
Last year, I was asked to direct the Monk Institute's 25th Anniversary Gala at the Kennedy Center. I arranged a 20-min medley of all Monk songs, which was performed by Monk Institute's winners over their history. [Singer] Aretha Franklin was the honoree, so I arranged another medley for [singers] Chaka Khan, Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Jane Monheit. The house band was a dream: [bassists] Christian McBride and John Patittucil [drummer] Terri Lyne Carrington, [trumpeter] PPAmbrose Akinmusire}},[guitarist] Kevin Eubanks with Gretchen Parlato singing backgrounds. The jazz icons also played: [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter, Herbie, [bassist] Ron Carter,[saxophonists] Jimmy Heath and Joe Lovano, [trumpeter] Terence Blanchard.
AAJ: What were some of your most memorable recording experiences?
JB: Steely Danthe musicianship and the aura from [Walter] Becker and [Donald] Fagen; John Patittuciwe would do all-nighters in the studio (7pm to 6am) to finish records; my Positootly record with [drummer] Jeff "Tain" Watts,[bassist] James Genus, and [[reed multi-instrumentalist] Bennie Maupinwe were in New York and we just jived; El Negro Hernandez and Robby Ameen records because we were always laughing; Producing Chie Ayado's 4 records in Tokyo; Working on live TV shows.
AAJ: Favorite recording studio or studios?
JB: Capitol, Stage M on Paramount movie lot, Rose at the Record Plant, Abbey Road. I used to do a lot of recording at the old Motown Hitsville.
AAJ: Favorite venues to perform live?
JB: Blue Note, Tokyo; Piazza in Perugia.
AAJ: Do you remember your early jazz influences?
JB: [pianist] Bobby Timmons, [trumpeter] Thad Jones / [drummer] Mel Lewis, Quincy [Jones] , [organist] Jimmy Smith, Blood, Sweat & Tears.
AAJ: How did jazz impact your life as a young musician?
JB: No groupies!
AAJ: How does jazz impact your life today?
JB: I cook the way I play!
AAJ: Who, in your opinion, are the ten most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century?
JB: Impossible...but here are some: [pianist] Jelly Roll Morton, [trumpeter/singer] Louis Armstrong, [composer] Jimmie Lunceford, [pianist] Duke Ellington, [singer] Billie Holiday, [saxophonist] Charlie Parker, [pianist] Bud Powell, [trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie, Miles [Davis], John Coltrane, [drummers] Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, [keyboardist Joe Zawinul, Freddie Hubbard, [bassist] Jaco Pastorius , [rapper] D'Angelo, [singer/keyboardist] Stevie Wonder, Irakere, Jimmy Smith, [keyboardist] Chick Corea, [bassist] Larry Graham, [singer/guitarist] Prince, [pianist Thelonious Monk, among others.
AAJ: The dreaded desert island question. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only bring 10 albums with you, which ten albums would you bring?
JB: Narrowing from a world catalog of centuries of music from different genres is always tough to do, but here's what comes to mind immediately: Miles Davis, Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967), John Coltrane, Crescent (Impulse!, 1964); Ivan Lins, A Noite (EMI, 2005); Quincy Jones, Walking in Space (A&M, 1969); Weather Report, Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977); Duke Ellington, Piano in the Foreground (CBS, 1963); Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis, Consummation (Blue Note, 1970); Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla, 1976), D'Angelo, Voodoo (Virgin, 2000); Bobby Timmons, Soul Time (Riverside, 1960).
AAJ: If you had the ability to play on stage with an all-star line up of musicians (past or present) who would they be? JB: Miles, [blues guitarist] John Lee Hooker, [alto saxophonist] Bird [Charlie Parker], [singer/songwriter] Joni Mitchell, Duke Ellington, Elvin Jones, Stevie Wonder, [singer Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter, Milton Nascimento, Ron Carter, [drummer] Bernard Purdie, Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy [Gillespie], [conguero] Patato Valdez, [drummer] Billy Higgins, Rolling Stones, The Meters.
AAJ: What songs would you play in this fantasy concert?
JB: Anything they would want to play.
All Photos: Scott Mitchell