Aaron Goldberg: Growing as a Band Leader

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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Jazz is not about copying stuff that came before you. It
Aaron Goldberg >Listening to <em>Worlds</em> (Sunnyside, 2006) makes one want to talk to the man behind the music. That's why AAJ contributor João Moreira dos Santos decided to meet Aaron Goldberg at the Hot Clube de Portugal, in Lisbon, determined to both find out more about this talented young pianist/composer/arranger and to hear his music live. His show drove the audience crazy, particularly aspiring young jazzmen, who reacted instantaneously to the song Worlds. Here, then, is the man and his music.

All About Jazz: What was it like growing up in Boston as a musician, has it helped?

Aaron Goldberg: Boston has a good jazz scene because of all the schools. Lots of young people come to Boston to learn how to play and basically it's a city of jazz pedagogy (we have Berklee and the New England Conservatory), and there are a lot of teachers who teach privately around Boston that also teach at Berklee, like Jerry Bergonzi, who I studied with. Some people move to Boston in order to teach and they also play around Boston in all the clubs. The club scene is pretty happening.

There are also people who move to Boston to study and obviously they never leave. There's a large contingent of people who come to Berklee from places like Portugal, and then they go back. Then there is another large contingent that comes to Boston from places like Portugal and move to New York. And then there is yet the third contingent of people that move to Boston to study and then stay. There are a lot of musicians in Boston. There aren't necessarily that many places to play, considering the huge number of musicians.

AAJ: Why is that?

AG: Boston suffers from the fact that most often the best and most ambitious musicians move to New York. The number of musicians is extremely high and the level of musicianship is extremely high compared to other places in the States, but not compared to New York.

There are two top-tier jazz clubs—Scullers and the Regattabar. They both had great artists coming to town when I was growing up so I was able to sneak in. I was too young to really get in legally, but I had some friends who worked at the door of the Regattabar. Actually, a good friend of mine, who subsequently got married to Ravi Coltrane used to work at the door of the Regattabar. I was sixteen and I would go there with my high school friends and she would sneak us into the corner. I remember sitting next to Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Barron, hearing all the greatest pianists. I was just a kid in the corner. They wouldn't serve many drinks but they let me in.

AAJ: So what you are saying is that growing up in Boston affected your attraction to jazz.

AG: I think if I hadn't grown up in a city with a sizable jazz scene I wouldn't have been fortunate enough to hear all those great musicians at such a young age and stay inspired. Also I never would have discovered jazz if I hadn't gone to my high school, because there was a guy who studied at Berklee, Bob Sinicrope, who was a math teacher at my high school and then started to teach jazz classes. I feel it is a great stroke of luck that I am playing music for a living and, if circumstances had been different, I might may be doing something completely different.

AAJ: You started studying piano when you were seven years old. What kind of piano?

AG: Classical piano.

AAJ: You weren't thinking about jazz by then?

AG: I didn't know anything about jazz, I had never heard a note of jazz. My parents liked classical music and they had a piano in the house. They both played piano when they were kids. The piano actually belonged to my grandmother, and my father played on and then when my mother's parents died they got their piano. Studying piano was just something like a little family tradition for two generations.

AAJ: And I guess you weren't certainly thinking about becoming a professional jazz musician.

AG: I know that my parents never imagined in their wildest nightmares or dreams that I would become a professional musician and I think it was just one of many things that I was interested in when I was a kid and one of many things that they were interested in me pursuing when I was a kid: sports and music and all the things that a lot of kids do.

AAJ: Were you a disciplined piano student?

AG: I was a good piano student but I certainly wasn't passionate about it. I practiced, my parents told me to practice, and that was the right thing to do. I think that I liked the feeling of accomplishment that came with learning pieces. At some level I think I appreciated the music but I surely didn't understand the classical music that I was learning when I was eleven or thirteen years-old. I didn't understand how songs were written, I didn't understand the relationship between symphonies and sonatas, I really didn't know anything about classical music but I knew how to translate dots on the page into sounds. That was a skill that I had acquired. It wasn't until I studied jazz in high school that the whole world of music opened up to me and I started to feel an emotional connection to the music I was playing.

AAJ: In Portugal we don't have jazz classes in high school. How does it work in the USA?

AG: In fact in the States it's very much the same. Again, it was just a stroke of luck. If you look at the ranks of professional jazz musicians in the United States, the Americans that went on to become professionals at high level, about 75 to 80 percent of them all came from the same fifteen or twenty high schools around the country, and those were the high schools with the strong jazz programs. The majority of high schools don't have jazz programs at all; they may have a little bit of music instruction but it's usually something like a concert band or maybe a small orchestra. The number of schools that have jazz program is very small and the number of schools with excellent teachers is just a handful in the entire country and consistently these high schools produce top level professional jazz musicians.

All my friends went to the same high schools in Houston, Saint Louis, Seattle, Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, Chicago or Boston. There is a tradition at those high schools where the younger students look up to these older students who then go on to make CDs and become famous and so they know it's possible to do that. Eric Harland and Robert Glasper both went to the same high school in Houston. I'm giving lessons to a drummer from Houston, who went to that same high school as Eric, and there is a tradition of drummers that go to that high school and they all become professional musicians and talk to each other and learn from each other. I asked him: "Why there are so many good players from this school? I expected him to say because there is a great teacher but really the answer was because there is a good teacher but also the tradition of musicians teaching each other.

AAJ: What is the role of Bob Sinicrope in teaching jazz at your high school?

AG: Bob Sinicrope is one of the greatest jazz teachers I have ever met. He just won an award from IAJE [International Association for Jazz Education]—the John LaPorta Jazz Educator of the Year Award—and I was so ecstatic about it because he really deserves some recognition for his hard work. His efforts have gone into teaching students to love jazz, not to become professional musicians because most of the students that go to my high school go on to become doctors and lawyers, urban professionals of all kinds.

AAJ: You were the lucky exception.

AG: I was the exception not necessarily because I was better—in fact of the musicians that I started to study jazz with I was by far the least experienced and in some ways the most hopeless—but I just fell in love with the music, maybe more deeply than some other people did, and I had the courage to take an alternate career path from some of my friends who I am sure would have loved to continue to study music, but it wasn't really in the realm of possibility. For me, I forced it into the realm of possibility.

Aaron Goldberg ><strong>AAJ:</strong> What were you listening to in high school?<br /><br /><P><strong>AG:</strong> The first notes of jazz I heard were because Bob Sinicrope made me a mixed tape of all his favorite music that he considered most important for us to know at that early age. So we heard <em>Kind of Blue</em> (Columbia, 1959), <em>Milestones</em> (Columbia, 1958), <em>'Round About Midnight</em> (Columbia, 1955), all those early Miles albums. We heard a few Charlie Parker things and John Coltrane things, some Horace Silver—stuff that he considered to be important but also accessible to kids who didn't know anything about jazz.<br /><br /><P><br /><br />The first songs we learned were songs from those albums and he was smart enough to realize that the most important thing for a kid who wants to learn jazz is just to listen to jazz all the time because we grow up listening to bad pop music and you need to fill your brain with good sounds. You need to hear a language in order to speak a language. He just encouraged us to listen, listen, listen and I fell in love with the music so it didn't feel like work to listen to the music; I just listened all the time.<br /><br /><P><strong>AAJ:</strong> That brings us to the inevitable question of which piano players have influenced you.<br /><br /><P><strong>AG:</strong> The first pianists I loved were Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Sonny Clark and Tommy Flanagan. I remember falling in love with Kenny Barron and then I discovered Mulgrew Miller. Around the same time I started to discover Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. I went through a period of time when I really wanted to sound like Kenny Barron, I went through a period of time when I really wanted to sound like Herbie Hancock and I went through a period of time when I really wanted to sound like Mulgrew Miller.<br /><br /><P><br /><br />So probably those three would be the most influential but of course I loved Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Lennie Tristano. I have also been very influenced by my peers, my friends; some of them are pianists, some of them are not: Jacky Terrasson, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Omer Avital, Ali Jackson, Eric Harland—the people that I had longstanding musical relationships with. And of course playing with people like [drummer] Al Foster, older but still living masters of music, has also had a big effect on my career.<br /><br /><P><strong>AAJ:</strong> If you had to point the most important or most influential pianist in the whole history of jazz—the most important, most innovative, most influential—who would you name?<br /><br /><P><strong>AG:</strong> Most important you probably would have to say Duke Ellington followed by Monk. If you want to say most innovative you might have to say Art Tatum, Monk would be on that list too, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell.<br /><br /><P>        </div>
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