Justin Kauflin: Humble Beginnings

Marshall Taylor By

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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.



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