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Peter Epstein: Effortless Precision

Stephen A. Smith By

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AAJ: What role do you see it providing?

PE: I see it providing interaction for student musicians with full-time, working musicians—sort of going back to more of an oral tradition. The whole time I was in school, there was kind of this idea that what you do in school is a particular thing, and it's not really valid until you get out of school. I think a lot of "jazz musicians" will go to schools because it's the only thing they know to do to have access to the kind of people they want to study with. I don't know if I would encourage somebody not to go to college; but on the other hand, my Bachelor's of Fine Arts has done nothing for me. There's far more value to the knowledge I gained at Cal Arts than there is to the degree I got from Cal Arts. There's no comparison. So if there's some way to get to some of that same information, without having to go through that, then I think that could possibly fill a real need for people. I think it's perfect for somebody who has maybe been in school, and doesn't feel quite ready to go all the way into it and pick up and move.

AAJ: Maybe the net effect would be to free people up to direct their collegiate studies elsewhere.

PE: The whole time I was in school, one thing nobody wanted to talk about was how anybody's going to live after school. In a way, that's good, because it was about an artistic pursuit, and I guess it's good not to bum everyone out. [Laughs]. I remember having a conversation on tour with Brad Shepik, lamenting my loan payments. I guess it was worth it, to go to a conservatory; but was it, in the face of this continual chipping away at what little I have? That time, that energy, and that money maybe could be better spent some other way—facilitate making money with music, or making money with something else. Because for almost everybody, money is the primary issue; it determines whether you get to keep doing it or not.

AAJ: How aware are you of the commercial aspects of the music? Is there a sense that you and the 'big names' are competing for the same dollars?

PE: No, not really. I am aware that there are a lot of musicians who are making a great deal of money now, in jazz. There are more people who are demanding higher fees. And well they should. However, for the rest of us, who are trying to break in, there's just so much less left over. And when you contact a festival, and they can't even put the money together to fly you to the festival, let alone pay you, because they spent all the money on the headliners... So not directly, but I am aware that that does have an indirect effect on things. Budgets are spent quickly.

So in that sense, I don't know if I'm affected at all by the fact that people maybe have a little bit more money in their pockets. To be kind of cynical, I think that probably what ends up happening is that people buy a lot of records by people who are on these really good labels, with really good marketing. It seems like jazz is pretty popular right now. The music industry knows that there's a certain amount of money that can be made by marketing a particular kind of product. I think that at the moment, that's probably a pretty successful venture. But I don't know that it really affects what I'm doing on a day-to-day level. Sometimes I wonder if it's not hurting, in terms of the strength of the economy. My rent's gone sky-high, everything in general is more expensive. And then because most of the work happens in Europe, you go to Europe, and you get paid decently, and then you convert that into dollars and it's just nothing. It's kind of a particular problem, but it's a big part of jazz musicians' lives. Ninety-five percent of the money I've made playing music has been from playing in Europe.

AAJ: One thing I hear a lot nowadays is the advice, "Don't choose a career in music unless you feel absolutely compelled, as if you have no other choice." Hal Crook wrote an entire chapter on this in his last book, and I came away feeling as if he had compared musicianship to seminary duty. Do you feel a sort of "calling"?

PE: Yes. That would be a good way of describing it. It's something I connected with very young, and it kind of saved me early on from I'm-not-sure-what. It gave me a grounding, and gave me a pursuit to fill. It became the thing that I was most comfortable doing, the thing that I was good at. I wasn't good at a lot of things, so when I found this thing that seemed to come pretty easily, it was just natural to go into it. It didn't take very long before some of the deeper stuff started happening—some awareness that there could be a life playing music. My father is a saxophonist also, and even though I didn't really grow up with him, that reality has always been there. I would say by age fourteen there was no doubt that this was what I would do—except a couple years later, when I thought about law school! [Laughs.] But yeah, it happened pretty early, in terms of some awareness that it was going to take a lot of work, and that it was a long thing.

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