Justin Kauflin: Humble Beginnings

Marshall Taylor By

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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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