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John Beasley: Master of All Trades

Jim Worsley By

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Monk's music will always be with us because we have finally caught up to his genius. Back when he was writing and playing people weren't open to where he was taking them. —John Beasley
In today's busy world, sometimes you just can't do it all. Apparently, John Beasley never received that memo. The pianist, composer, arranger, producer, music director, and film and TV composer is in high demand, and has an enormity of projects that would seem to belie the twenty-four hour day reality. It is perhaps the variance in scope and style of these collaborations that heighten the bar and, frankly, boggle the mind. The Louisiana born Beasley has a non-stop schedule (outlined in the following interview) that impressively involves a multitude of musical genres and an array of sophisticatedly talented artists.

Taking on many facets came naturally to Beasley as he learned to play the drums (starting on pots, pans, and luggage), trumpet, oboe, piano, and saxophone in his youth. At age twenty he had his first big professional gig at Carnegie Hall with Hubert Laws, John Patitucci, and Joey Heredia. The education broadened in his twenties as a side-man for several years with Freddie Hubbard and later with Miles Davis. He was a sponge, soaking in all the notes and instructive elements those experiences had to offer.

Over the ensuing years he has refined his craft and reached the ultimate successes referenced at the outset. Along the way playing with a cross section of musicians including Lee Ritenour, James Brown, Steely Dan, Bobby Hutcherson, Dianne Reeves, Wallace Roney, Ron Carter, Chaka Khan, Mike Stern, Kenny Garrett, and Sergio Mendes. In 2012, he was chosen as the musical director for the inaugural International Jazz Day in Paris, which was hosted by Herbie Hancock. Beasley has been the director each ensuing year and is gearing up for this year's event on April 30th, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. He talks about that, his MONK'estra Big Band, his musical family, his new radio show, his renowned workshops and clinics, and much more in this recent conversation with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: Top of mind is your MONK'estra Big Band. What drew your attention to the music of Thelonious Monk? How did you go about reinventing his music? Did the project meet or even surpass your expectations?

John Beasley: I've been listening to Monk since I was a kid. I was drawn to the music because his writing displays so much audacity, surprises, grooves, and it swings so hard. After all these years, I am still drawn to his sense of boldness and freedom. So, I took my years of writing, arranging, and playing jazz, Brazilian, Cuban, hip-hop, classical, pop, and film music, and then wrote new arrangements for big band. I was surprised how organically my arrangements can be played and interpreted by the musicians after I wrote the charts. We recorded two albums and called the band and albums MONK'estra, Volume 1 and Volume 2. These recordings earned four Grammy nominations and the band has played over thirty-five concerts around the globe.

AAJ: I hear a freshness of interpretations in the music that represents today's culture and sound, along with charts being punched in the mouth. Were the arrangements adroitly implemented as you proceeded with the project, or did you pretty much already have it all in your head going in?

JB: I wrote some of the music while walking the streets of New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo, and wherever I am. When it's playing in my head, I whip out my iPhone and sing in what's on my head, then go home and write it out.

AAJ: What do you think the iconic Monk would have to say about these arrangements and the resurgence of his music in general?

JB: Thelonious Monk's son, T.S., saw MONK'estra a few times. After our Portland concert, he said "You're doing what my dad wanted people to do with his music, play it like you want to hear it." Monk's music will always be with us, because we have finally started to catch up to his genius. Back when he was writing and playing, people weren't open to where he was taking them. He was evolving jazz but its human nature to want what you are familiar with.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing you with the Peter Erskine Quartet a few months back at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. You and Erskine have a chemistry together. Perhaps you could talk about that and how it factors into the music. You all seemed very relaxed, which lent itself to some tasty improvisation.

JB: I met Peter at a Stan Kenton band camp when I was fourteen. He was a bit older than me and I was drawn to him. He's one the greatest drummers in the world, not just because of his technique but because of his unique way of improvising. We are like-minded that way. We love to listen, and play off each other. We have so much fun on stage that half the time we are smiling and laughing at our improvised musical conversation. The past three years we have gotten together and made three albums, Dr. Um, Second Opinion, and On Call. All Peter's titles, so you see his cheeky humor.

AAJ: The variance in your upcoming schedule duly represents the many areas of expertise and aspects of your musical career. Which entity do you find most challenging? Do you find any to be more fun and rewarding than others?

JB: Each role is a different skill set but relies on a sound musical judgment. It's like a pasta menu. I like all the shapes of pasta and the different sauces. I can't choose because each role is creative, exciting, and fulfilling, especially when you are working with very talented people. This month, Jazz Appreciation Month, I will be playing all roles and loving every minute. MONK'estra at the CA Jazz Foundation fundraiser, supporting musicians in need of medical and financial assistance. My quartet, with Bennie Maupin, Mike Gurrola, and Anthony Fung, will perform at the World Stage in Leimert Park. This is a music community center founded by Billy Higgins that birthed and nurtured so many musicians. I will produce a record and record my arrangements of Fado songs performed by a Portuguese-Dutch singer named Maria Mendes and the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam. At this new spot, Mr. Musichead, I will be playing with another quartet of mine, with Ralph Moore, Eric Revis, and Adonis Rose, and then as a side-man to an exceptional harmonica player, Gregoire Maret. I will also conduct the Frankfurt HR Big Band with the impressive vocalist, Somi, singing my arrangements of her album Petite Afrique. Later this month, I will once again produce and direct International Jazz Day's global concert in Melbourne. I am looking forward to joining Peter Erskine's tour in Europe and to conducting the Ivan Lins Big Band at the Hollywood Bowl. I will be writing music for my next MONK'estra record and preparing for a MONK'estra European tour, as well as working with the award-winning Thomas Newman on a film at Abbey Road Studios in London and see what else comes along the way.

AAJ: Along the way there have been Grammy and Emmy nominations. The latter for your work at the White House. How do you approach a project of that scope and magnitude?

JB: It's a jigsaw puzzle and even blue skies have clouds, but they disperse. The most wonderful thing is that we are spreading the music of jazz, the music of freedom, of diversity, of community, of listening with a call and response, and of acceptance.

AAJ: What is this new show that you have on Sirius XM radio?

JB: Long-time and respected jazz radio host, Mark Ruffin, has been playing my MONK'estra albums these past few years. This led to him offering me a show on arranging. We called it Flipped. It will start April 5th and air every Friday 5-7pmEST, with a repeat on Saturdays from 6-8pmEST. This will run every week in April, which again is Jazz Appreciation Month. I play popular songs and show how jazz musicians creatively interpret them in different ways. "My Favorite Things" from the file The Sound of Music and John Coltrane's version. The Carpenters version of "Close to You" and Jacob Collier's interpretation. Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad Girl" and Herbie Hancock's take on this.

AAJ: Tell us about your formative years. What was it like growing up in a musical family?

JB: I'm a third-generation musician. My grandfather played in territory dance bands and was a jazz educator. My mom, Lida Beasley, was a brass instrumentalist and, also a music educator and conducted junior and high school bands and orchestras. She had me fill in whatever sections were weak in her bands, so it helped me to appreciate these instruments and it has helped me be a better writer. That's also why I use a lot of brass instruments in MONK'estra. My dad, Rule Beasley, was a professor of music at North Texas and Santa Monica College. He played bassoon and piano and was composer. I run my musical ideas by him. Last year, I won a composition international competition hosted by an Austrian music university called JAM Music Lab, for a jazz symphonic piece. It was the first time I had to write for a 75-piece orchestra. My dad always helps me out of writing jams.

AAJ: Your work as a clinician on a host of workshops is well documented. Perhaps you could talk about these educational workshops and how rewarding they are.

JB: There's a saying, "The day you plant the seed is not the day you eat the fruit." So, when I'm in a classroom I think about how I'm planting seeds with music students. You see how a plant grows from the seed into a tree fed with plenty of sunshine, pollination from bees, and precious water into an abundance of fruit. As a teacher, students force you to think through things with their questions or ideas. So, they feed you too.

AAJ: I'm sure you are looking forward to International Jazz Day later this month and that there have been many great moments over the past few years at the Jazz Days. What is especially unique and exciting about this occasion?

JB: I've been lucky to be the music director for International Jazz Day global concerts organized by the former Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute, now called the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz, since 2012, the inaugural year. Each year there are great moments because of the international roster of artists, some meeting for the first time to perform together. As the musical director, I decide on the combination of artists and arrange all the music. The delight is to see how musicians influenced by their culture, but that studied jazz, the original American music, perform, improvise, and interpret standards. There are so many awe-inspiring surprises. The venues are breathtaking because they are usually UNESCO heritage sites in global cities such as Hagia Sophia (537AD), the Osaka Castel Park (1931), or the White House (1792). This year the event will be at the renowned Arts Center Melbourne. This year the roster of artists include Chico Pinheiro of Brazil, A Bu from China, Till Bronner of Germany, Cieavash Arian from Iran, Eli Degibri from Israel, Eijiro Nakagawa of Japan, Tarek Yamani from Lebanon, Antonio Sanchez of Mexico, Tineke Postma from Netherlands, Igor Butman from the Russian Federation, Mark Nightingale of the United Kingdom, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Ledisi, Eric Reed, Somi, Liz Wright, and Co-Artist Director Herbie Hancock from the United States, and from host country Australia, Co-Artist Director James Morrison, Matthew Jodrell, William Barton, and Nathan Schreiber.

AAJ: Lastly, and just for fun, apparently once upon a time there was a band you were in with Vinnie Colaiuta, John Patitucci, and Steve Tavaglione called Audio Mind. That had to have been a blast of fusion! What can you tell us about that? Are there any recordings of Audio Mind out there?

JB: We still carry that 'audio mind' sensibility. We are life-long friends and know that those days were surely formative years. We were known for improvising whole sets which was unusual in that time in the LA fusion era. We learned how to be free. Free from judgment, jazz police, standards, and commercialization. We played for ourselves. Yes, there's a bootleg recording out there that I have. We should have a reunion one day soon.

AAJ: Indeed, you should. That would be outstanding. I look forward to that day and am most appreciative of your time today.
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