Justin Kauflin: Humble Beginnings

Marshall Taylor BY

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If there is one thing I want to resonate, it is my spirituality. That is something extremely important to me in my own life and something that I want to share: music, whether you are religious or not, is a spiritual experience.
The beauty of music lies in its subliminal spirituality. Religious or not, few can argue the effects of music on the human emotions and how it impacts our perception of things beyond what is skin-deep.

For 24 year-old Justin Kauflin, a New York-based pianist notable for his work with Jae Sinnett, and for his freshman release of Introducing Justin Kauflin (Self Produced, 2010), the interconnection of music and faith is not only a sure conversation-starter, but also a great indicator of the young musician's sincere humility.

From being blind and independent in the Big City to the growing pains of taking a record from concept to product, Kauflin counts his blessings by taking it one step at a time—both in his musical career and life in general—in what has undoubtedly been a humble beginning.

All About Jazz: How did you go about collecting the tunes for your first album, Introducing Justin Kauflin ? Was there a particular theme?

Justin Kauflin: No. When I decided to record the album, I had some general idea of what I wanted the album to sound like. Before we recorded, we had a good number of tunes on the list, around 20 or so; we had tunes written by myself as well as others written by band mates and various other artists.

We went into the studio for a couple days, and I think it really started to come together as I listened to the takes. I found the material that melded in some way, and it ended up centering around some sort of theme. That is kind of why I decided to title [the album] Introducing [Justin Kauflin]: there were a lot of things I wanted to incorporate into it, so it wasn't really theme-based, I would say.

AAJ: How does the writing process work for you? Do you have any tricks when developing a composition?

JK: [Laughs] Not really; it is just a long, painful process for me. I am still just trying to come to terms with my own writing process.

When practicing or just sitting at the piano, I always take time to develop sketch patterns. That is really how "Exodus" came to be; I remember it becoming an idea, and it just sort of came to me without too much work.

It really just comes in different ways. I guess that is what I have to realize: there is no one way for me to get my ideas out in a cohesive manner. It all just depends on the moment.

AAJ: Listening to the album, there are a lot of different time signatures, like five and seven.

JK: The past few years, for whatever reason, when I was in school, it was sort of the thing that everybody wanted to do. Everybody wanted to play the standards in odd times; it was "super cool." I'm sure that had somewhat of an influence, but to be honest, when I'm fleshing out ideas for songs, certain times just feel really good to me, five especially.

In "A Day in the Life," for instance, there's one part where I split [the 5/4 bar] in half, so it is like two groups of five eighth notes. I just love that rhythm, and it comes out all the time. It wasn't an "Ahh, I want this to be in five," or "I want this to be in seven" kind of thing. It is really just about what feels good.

AAJ: What enticed you to do a rendition of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life"?

JK: Like a lot of people—to be honest—I got into The Beatles in high school. I had actually done that arrangement in high school, and I really chose that tune because it was just fun to play. We also did a cover of "Strawberry Fields"—which I had been performing a lot live—during the recording sessions, but it turned out to be a little long.

I am really just big into The Beatles, and I try to do the stuff that isn't always covered; everybody does "Norwegian Wood" and a lot do "Blackbird," so I was happy to do "A Day in the Life" because I hadn't really heard anybody else do it. I'm sure other people have done it, but it is not one of the more common Beatles covers, just like "Strawberry Fields."

Their stuff is just a lot of fun to play. Like a lot of people, you get an emotional attachment to these tunes, and you can't help but want to play them.

AAJ: Do you see more renditions of non-jazz tunes in the future?

JK: Yeah, probably. I wouldn't say I would make that the censor, but I think it is pretty important to do that.

It is a real shame that it seems almost odd to do that. [Pianist] Brad Mehldau seems like this special guy because he does a lot of covers: he does a lot of Radiohead, Nick Drake. He does a lot of that. But really, he is just doing what jazz musicians have always been doing. All of the standards are based on what was popular in the day, so it is kind of weird how it's this special thing when somebody does it.

I feel it should be the standard practice; we should always be doing it. It shouldn't be a marketable thing to play jazz renditions of the days' popular songs. So yeah, I would want to keep on doing that.

I was also thinking about covering other jazz musicians' tunes. There are a lot of compositions that I really admire, ones that I have always been listening to. I mean, the only way a song becomes a standard is by a whole bunch of people playing it. Wayne Shorter wrote a whole bunch of tunes in the '60s, and a lot of people started playing his tunes. And it's like, I wonder why we don't do that as much anymore? There is the standards book that everyone plays from, and then everybody plays their own tunes.

So yeah, those are a few things I would always like to have added as part of the repertoire.

AAJ: Your style is very traditional and contemporary, but your original compositions show hints of a more modern approach, especially with arrangements like "Lucid Thoughts."

JK: [My style is] a hodge-podge, I guess. I would say—as far as what I write and how I try to play it, I don't really think in categories.

I never know what might come out any given day. I listen to a lot of stuff, and I am usually surprised at what actually comes through in my playing. I will go a long time without listening to somebody, and then a month later something will come out in my playing that is from them. And it's like, where did that come from?

That is a good way to have it; it's more organic, and whatever comes will come. I would say there are no boundaries that I lay for myself, as far as what I might get into in the future. It all depends on what I am into at the time. I am obviously influenced mostly by traditional acts; my go-to people are usually Mulgrew Miller, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, as far as piano players are concerned. It is definitely in the traditional vein, but that is not to say that I don't check out a lot of different stuff.

I am actually a big fan of Brad Mehldau's work with Jon Brion. I really dig that whole idea. It is just so sonically cool.

Who knows, you know? [Laughs]. Music is music, I guess.

AAJ: Jazz arrangements of hymns such as "Be Thou My Vision" seem to be uncustomary. Is this something you wish to exercise more? Does your faith play a large role in your musical decision-making?

JK: Yeah, it does. Like I said, the first of this album wasn't really planned; things just sort of came together, I guess. And those things just kind of rose to the top.

As far as faith is concerned, it is pretty integral for me. It is all pretty interconnected. I want to become a better musician, obviously: we always strive to be better musicians, even though we will never reach that point—at least I know I will never reach that point— where we'll say, "Man, I'm perfect." There is always room for improvement. You will always be approaching perfection, but you can never get there. And it's the same with life in general, just growing as a person. I guess I like them to be interconnected.

My faith life is the same as well; I am trying to grow spiritually. It only makes sense to have music be an extension of that. Because [my faith] is something that is so important to me, it is something that I want to show in my music, whether it is blatant with the songs that I choose or just in the spirit that I play the music in.

I am actually developing the ideas for my next project, and that is going to be pretty much exclusively a faith/spiritual-driven album. The theme, I guess. The one thing I wish I could have had a little more of for the first album was a central theme. So that is definitely what I want to revolve around. I am doing some digging right now for some more hymns that resonate with me, as well as writing tunes that are specifically based on my own spirituality and my own faith.

Definitely big stuff. [Laughs]. For me, at least.

AAJ: How did you feel about your first full-length recording project? Did you learn from anything? Anything that you might have done differently?

JK: Oh yeah, there are a lot of things I learned [laughs]. Like I said, we pretty much just jumped in. My mom actually ended up helping out a lot. Me being blind, it is hard for me to deal with some of the logistics, so she stepped in and helped take care of a lot of things.

It was basically like going back to school. Dealing with the business aspect of it, I had no idea what I was getting into as far what to do after the CD was done. I was like, "Okay, I recorded it; that's that." But no way, man. After that is when the work starts. We didn't even know that we had to register with the jazz radio and Billboard charts. That is something that matters when you are trying to get radio airplay. We really just went from the ground up as far as building contacts in the radio industry and getting [the album] played. We basically did it on a personal level; we shipped it to the DJ, and if they wanted to play it they could. It actually went pretty well, but now we've learned a lot of things. I think, for the second CD, we will know what we're doing. So we will basically just have to go down the checklist of, "okay, we did this, we did that," and so on.

As far as the recording process is concerned—now that I have been there and gotten one under my belt—I think I can take a little bit of time now to solidify what I want to do before I even start rehearsing with the band. This [album] came together in a short period of time, but I have done it and I have a little bit of experience of how to run the session effectively and not waste time and not butcher a song by playing it too many times. [Laughs]. You have got to make time for breaks. I was like great, I've got eight hours; I'm going to use those hours! But you have got to take some breaks, man; people can't play for eight hours straight.

Now that I have done it, I think I can take time to just be really prepared for the next one. I am not going to be as prepared as I would like to be—that is just the way it is— but I have a theme now and an idea of what I want to get across. I think I have grown a little bit in my writing, and at least I am not hating my stuff as much as I used to.

I am excited. I am hoping to get the next project done within the next year. We'll see, we'll see.

AAJ: Have you considered expanding your live performance to areas outside of the North and East Coast?

JK: I think absolutely. I would definitely be interested in doing a bit of traveling; it is just a matter of forming the contacts to make that possible, and making sure I am in a financial state where I can afford to lose money. [Laughs] I think that is why I have been focusing on doing another project: so I can have a little more material to draw from, as well as to have more things to throw at people to establish some contacts and set up some mini-tours in different areas. I know I would be into it, and I know the group would love to play.

It is more of an independent project because I am doing this all on my own; I am not dealing with managers or agents or anything like that. It is very homegrown, and if we can form the contacts within that industry to make it possible, for sure. Definitely.

I am just taking my time. I definitely do not feel any rush to make anything happen. In jazz, you are not really in it to be a star or anything like that. I have no problems taking this very slowly.

AAJ: Do you recall a moment in particular when you realized music as a career was meant for you?

JK: To be honest, it probably came shortly after I lost my sight at 11. Music had always been in my life. It was all stuff that was there, but it wasn't like, "I'm so into music." It was more like, you know, I had lessons; it was just like school.

When I lost my sight, it wasn't like, "Oh no! I can't be an astronaut," or something like that. I had been playing music for a while, and I gravitated—naturally, I guess—toward playing the piano a little bit more because I didn't have all of the peripheral things that were essentially distractions; I didn't have PlayStation and basketball to take up a bunch my time. I think it just came about naturally, and the way [I got into jazz] was when I went to high school and got into the magnet program for the arts in my area. That is where I got into jazz band.

Once I started learning jazz, and realized how it worked, and found out that it is essentially an auditory music—it is all about what you are getting aurally—as opposed to passing out sheet music and reading it down, I realized this was something I could do; it is not dependent on my ability to see things. This was something I could do and make money at it, and as far as playing the music, I was not at a disadvantage. There are other ways that I am at a disadvantage—[such] as the business aspect and getting around—but as far as the music is concerned, we are all on level ground. That appealed to me a lot, so I [decided] I was going to do this. I have never really thought of anything else since.

[Music] is a very leveling type of thing; it brings people together. Language barriers and any type of cultural barrier can be extinguished through music. It is a very universal thing.

AAJ: Who are some of your biggest heroes as a jazz musician/pianist?

JK: I would probably say Mulgrew Miller is my number one guy, for a number of reasons. First of all, I love his playing, obviously. He is very much a traditional pianist but his playing is so fresh. I feel the way he approaches playing music is perfect for jazz; he is very much acknowledging the things that went before him, and understands the importance of those things. Like swinging, really swinging. He is not super experimental, but his approach to playing standards is just so fresh to me; I love it. His personality [also] shines through. I got to spend a few years with him at William Patterson [University] because he started running the program there, and I was able to just spend time with him. Just who he is speaks volumes. That is almost more important to me; your ability to play with others is more based on who you are and your willingness to work with people. He has this great spirit that I just love.

From left: Justin Kauflin, with James Gates, Mike Hawkins, Billy Williams

As far as playing jazz piano, I am [also] super into Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. They are pianists who play with authority and just have that feeling. I feel like that feeling gets a little bit lost nowadays because there is so many other things going on. They really embody that intensity you get when playing jazz.

I am obviously big into Bill Evans and Chick Corea, and with the younger pianists, of course I am always going to be into Brad [Mehldau] because he tackles so many things that astound me. Every time I hear him live it seems like he is doing something new, and it is always really subtle.

I am also a big fan of Robert Glasper. I like his music a lot, especially his earlier music, but I love how he knows how to be a performer. It is a fun experience every time I see him live; he knows how to have fun. I almost feel like that gets lost. People are so busy trying to be ultra hip and they forget to actually talk to people in the crowd and just make it a good show. You can't forget: we are performers. He is a clown; he knows how to have a good time. He is also very influenced by gospel and hip hop, which I am into as well.

Another person that is been a big influence on me is Clark Terry. He has been very helpful in showing me things that are important in being an all around musician; not just being a pianist, but being somebody that understands all the other aspects of being a good performer. Clark Terry is just the consummate performer; he knows the dynamics of putting on a really great performance. I went to go see him at the Blue Note—this was to the end of his playing out—[and it was] packed. Every night. It was completely packed. He was probably 87 or 88 at the time, and he was playing for a packed crowd. That is just awesome, and it's because he knows how to be a performer on and off stage. He is a professional. Not to mention the fact that he is just an incredible musician. He has a career behind him with which not many people can compete.

Being able to spend time with somebody with that kind of experience, that actually lived through all the most important times in jazz development, and seeing his humility and his willingness to share knowledge, has been priceless to me.

And I just love his eighth notes. He knows how to play eighth notes[laughs]. They swing so freaking hard.

So yeah, I guess that is the gamut.

AAJ: What is currently going on in your musical endeavors, other than the new record?

JK: Right now I am pretty much just working on the networking game; especially in New York. I have been there for a couple years, but I haven't really been able to get out much. Mainly because mobility is such an issue for me. Getting out to the clubs isn't the easiest thing. If I could see, that is the first thing I would be doing: spending every night at the sessions and stuff. I have just recently been able to really do that and make more connections with folks.

Right now I am not really playing with anybody or working regularly with one particular person, but it is kind of on the agenda. I am basically starting right now on making those connections. Hopefully I will be able to make some connections and be able to play with some folks if things work out well.

I am really just trying to tackle that whole independence thing. Like getting to the subway. It has been a learning process for sure. That is actually why I ended up getting the seeing-eye dog: to help tackle the traffic and people everywhere. There were a lot of things I wasn't actually prepared for; I wasn't really anticipating how much learning I would have to do just to be able to get to these clubs.

It has been crazy. It's been really good; I am really glad I'm doing this. Now that I feel like I can get around New York City, I am pretty confident I can go anywhere. The whole traveling thing is going to be a lot less stressful now that I have tackled things like the subways and not always having to ask for help. Half the people in New York don't speak English, so it is almost a gamble. I am standing on a street corner [asking for] somebody to tell me where I am, and it's like, "No English!"

It has been great. I am glad I did it because I've learned so much more aside from the music. Now that I have tackled those issues, I am ready to just be out there and hopefully make some connections and be able to play more.

I guess I am doing a lot. I'm really big into recording; not just jazz but with music in general. I am obviously huge into jazz—and that is like the number one thing—but I love a lot of other things, and I have been getting into a little bit more with production. I am teaching myself a lot of how this stuff works.

I am [also] trying to write some songs as opposed to compositions. I am just big into that; I spend just as much time listening to good singer-songwriters and good songs as I do listening to jazz. I consider it more of a hobby than something to make money from, even though I wouldn't rule that out. But it is something that I enjoy, so I have been doing a lot of that.

AAJ: So do you think it is important for jazz musicians to listen and venture outside the jazz idiom?

JK: Like I said, music is music; it proves its worth in the people it connects with. If you are writing something and it is not connecting with anybody, well, what are you writing it for? That is the beauty of the people that write songs: they tell stories to which people can relate. Obviously, a good jazz musician knows how to improvise and tell a story through what he is playing in the context of that idiom, and when people know what to listen for, it can also connect with them.

They all connect in different ways, I think. A great jazz musician can connect in a deep, spiritual kind of way that is hard to explain, and that is very powerful, obviously— or else we wouldn't be into it—but then on a simpler and not any less significant level, somebody who writes a good song that connects with people is just as important. It is a matter of making that connection with people and having them feel what you are feeling.

I am dabbling in it because I enjoy it and also because I hope to incorporate that into my own writing in the jazz idiom: just writing things that are simple and connect with people who might not know what they are listening to. There is always this magical fantasy that I have: where I can write a jazz piece that is hip, but not so hip that it is above everybody's head. [I want] people who don't listen to jazz to dig it.

Going to school for four years and spending a bunch of time with a bunch of jazz nerds, it's like, what do I do when I go home and want my friends to [hear] my music? Do they understand what I am doing, or can they appreciate it? More times than not, no, they cannot. I remember [when] I went home and did a show and a lot of my buddies were there, and somebody came up to me and was like, "Man, it was so awesome when you took that solo."

I was like, "Which one?" [laughs] "What exactly did you hear?"

One thing that has always been important to me is being able to write a jazz composition that people can still grab onto. I remember being a novice and not knowing a lot about jazz, but I found stuff that still sounded cool to me. Then it would get into the solos and I wouldn't really know what was going on.

One thing that is specifically ringing out to me is Chick Corea's album, Past, Present & Futures (Stretch, 2001). He did this really cool arrangement on "Footprints," called "Fingerprints." The beginning is super hip, and [I remember] thinking, man, what is this? This is the coolest thing. Then he got into the soloing, and I was like oh no, that is kind of weird. But it was something that was awesome sounding. I don't think it really matters if you know what is going on or not; it is just something that sounds cool and something that you can grab on to. That gives people reason enough to actually dig in and see what is going on in the next part.

AAJ: Where do you see yourself and your musical career in five years?

JK: I am pretty open. I understand that things are constantly changing, as far as with what is happening in my life and what is going on around me. I would like to have a couple more albums recorded in five years. I enjoy that process. It is almost this selfish thing with me. It is not because I think I am going to sell all these records, it is just a nice process to go through. I think everybody should do it just for the process.

Somebody [asked] me, "Why are you waiting to record your CD? Just do it." You are never going to be at a point where you feel ready because you [feel] good enough. You have to do it mainly because you want to take a snapshot of where you are at that time. When I think about it that way, I want to do one at least every year or two.

I hope to solidify things for myself, as far as just what I am doing. Hopefully in the city, maybe not; I don't really care where I am as long as I am playing for people that are appreciative.

I would say it is pretty simple. I want to be playing music until I am gone; if it is for a big audience, that's great. If it is for a small audience and I am still able to live, I will be happy.

Playing with folks that I really enjoy playing with is big. That is how you make the best music.

I don't have big goals or anything, but I guess I like to keep it simple. We will see what is going to happen; I am just kind of taking it as it comes.

AAJ: What is your ultimate "goal"?

JK: If there is one thing I want to resonate, it is my spirituality. That is something extremely important to me in my own life and something that I want to share: blatantly or just through the experience of the music I am playing. I feel that music—whether you are religious or not—is a spiritual experience. I think that is a big proponent of why music is so effective. I hope to ultimately be able to inspire people in any level of that. Just to bring people to a higher state, I guess. I hope people can recognize that that is something important to me without me having to tell them and without me having to put a whole bunch of songs that are blatantly religion-based [on the record].

That is something I want to communicate. I am going to try and grow and hope that presents itself.

Selected Discography

Justin Kauflin, Introducing Justin Kauflin (Justin Kauflin, 2010)

Jae Sinnett Trio, Theatre (J-Nett Music, 2010)

Jae Sinnett Trio, The Sinnett Hearings (J-Nett Music, 2005)

Photo Credits

All Photos: Courtesy of Phyllis Kauflin

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