Mindi Abair: Defining the ‘It’ Factor

Trish Richardson By

Sign in to view read count
You have to give of yourself, you have to believe in what you are doing, and you have to be up there and be who you are.
It. What is It? How does one know if one has It? And more importantly, where does one get It?

It. Such a small, unassuming word, barely taking up any space on the page. But just what is It?

It. It is that almost indefinable, though easily recognizable "X" factor. It's quite obvious when someone has It—and when someone doesn't. It can be the difference between having a career in show business and not having one. Most people are not born with It. You can't buy It (if you could, there are some very rich people who would have purchased themselves successful singing careers). And even talent doesn't guarantee It. Talent may get you on stage, but It will keep you there.

So what if you don't have It? Can you still get It? Absolutely says saxophonist, vocalist and author Mindi Abair. She co-wrote, along with her father, fellow saxophonist Lance Abair, and Ross Cooper, the recently published book How to Play Madison Square Garden (Not More Saxophone Music, 2011). "I think some people are born with it, but I think most people are not. And it is definitely something you can develop. Some people just stand up onstage and they light up a whole room. They have that mystique as a performer or they know how to engage people with a charisma. You can definitely develop that in yourself."

Abair adds, "Maybe some people were born with it, but I think most of them paid a lot of dues and made a lot of mistakes. They've watched a lot of other performers onstage and studied them. They've had that music become part of them. And that's why they can light up a room now."

Abair has been a touring musician for over twenty years and has learned some things along the way. She said, "I've made every mistake you can make—five times." As for paying dues, Abair's road to success was not an easy one. "When I moved to Los Angeles no one was hiring me as a musician. Everyone had their people that they hired and their guys that they hired for sessions and their band members and everything. I was desperately trying to find my way in this community of music and find my place in it. I'd go to every jam session and try and fit in and meet people. I would get the L.A. Weekly, the local entertainment paper, and I would just scan it for any club that had live music or was hiring anything like I was. I would call them and try and get them to hire me. 'Oh, you need a quartet? I have a quartet. You need solo saxophone? That's what I do. Guitar and saxophone? Absolutely, that's my strength.' Basically anything. I'd be playing whatever I could try and cook up."

She paid her rent by taking a job as waitress, but it was something she quit in order to pursue her music, even if that meant street performing on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. "I was waitressing during the day and it was all just seemingly a lie to me. I was an awful waitress. I hated it. It sucked up so much time and I wasn't making that much money. I just thought, 'Wow, I have a degree in music. This is crazy! What am I doing? I've got to go play.' So I quit my job as a waitress and said, 'If they don't hire me, I'm going to hire myself.' I went down to the street and put my case down and started playing."

Abair's decision paid off—literally—and she wound up making more money as a street performer than as a waitress. "It wasn't something I was proud of. It wasn't something you would send out flyers to: 'Come see me on the street. Live!' But I went down religiously, and dollar by dollar, or every once in awhile I would get five dollars or ten dollars, or twenty dollars. I made enough money to pay my rent and live and I was playing music, not waiting tables."

Playing on the street worked itself into other gigs when pianist Bobby Lyle saw her and hired her off the street, "which was pretty awesome of him, I have to say. That snowballed into other things. I just think you have to get out there and do what you do. And take the lump of it not having it be the incredible, prideful, rock star experience you'd hoped it would be. But you just need to get out there and do your thing."

Getting out there and playing for an audience—any audience—is something that Abair feels is essential. In How to Play Madison Square Garden, Abair writes, "Trust me when I say that you can play and practice learning how to interact with an audience anywhere . And that's what you need to think of it as—practice and experience."

A musician needs to be able to play music for an audience, not just sit at home and practice scales. The audience interaction is invaluable. Early in her career, Abair willingly "practiced" interacting with an audience everywhere she could, which included playing for free along the L.A. Marathon and in the men's underwear section at Macy's department store.

In the book, Abair writes a lot about the role of the audience and how they are a crucial factor in determining a musician's success—and should be treated as such. After all, the audience are the ones who bought tickets to come to the show, they will buy your music and ultimately they will be the decision makers in whether or not you will be a success.

One piece of advice Abair shares in the book is that the performer needs to make himself or herself relatable to the audience. It is something that Abair does when she takes the stage and also something she admires in other performers. "That's something that I always thought was the most amazing talent in artists—when they sent you away from their concerts where you maybe knew them better. Or you felt like they gave a piece of themselves to you. That's what I always strive for onstage and I think that's a huge part of that "It" factor—you have to give of yourself, you have to believe in what you are doing, and you have to be up there and be who you are."

Abair is one who definitely has It, as millions of viewers noticed during her stint as a guest musician with contestant Paul McDonald on last season's American Idol. One of these fans included rocker judge Steven Tyler, who asked host Ryan Seacrest, "Who's that saxophonist?" The answer: Mindi Abair.

"I walked off the stage and one of the backstage production people asked me, 'Did you just hear that?' I said, 'Did Steven Tyler just say something about me?' And she was like, 'Yeah, he asked who you were!' I said, 'Steven Tyler asked who I was? Wow!' That's some rock and roll lore right there! I grew up on rock and roll; I didn't grow up listening to jazz. That's pretty much a trophy in my book."

So what was it like being on American Idol? "Amazing," according to Abair. "I got a call from Don Was, who was one of the producers working on the show. Don is one of my favorite producers in the entire world. In Hi-fi Stereo (Heads Up, 2010), Abair's most recent CD, was actually supposed to be produced by Don, but he was so busy doing the Rolling Stones reissue of Exile on Main Street (Atlantic, 1972), that timing-wise, we just couldn't make it happen. So for him to call me to do something on American Idol was just insane.

"He just called up and said, 'Hey, there aren't many rock saxophonists. Would you do a rock and roll solo on "Old Time Rock and Roll" for one of the contestants [McDonald]?' And I said, 'Hell, yes!' He told me, 'We are recording all day tomorrow, so just come into the studio.' I said, 'I'm playing Phoenix tomorrow in a festival. Can I walk offstage, hop on a plane and can you late night it for me?' He said, 'Yeah.' So that's what I did. I walked offstage; I got in a car, went to the airport, got off the airplane in Los Angeles and just went for it."

In How to Play Madison Square Garden, Abair likens being onstage to being on a first date. Many audience members are seeing you for the first time. And they actually want to like you (which is not always the case on some first dates). Confidence is crucial and as a performer, Abair writes, "Fear is a killer. If you doubt yourself at any turn, they will sense it. You have to commit fully to what you are doing and carry it through with the utmost confidence and belief."

Confidence and fearlessness are two qualities that Abair developed early on. "Looking back at my high school days, I was the only one with the guts to stand up and play a solo when I didn't know anything about what I was doing. I knew there were chord changes marked on the page, I just had no idea what those meant. But I just figured, hey, this will be fun! Maybe that was just sheer guts, and maybe that's what helps lead you to having the It factor."

Abair feels that she developed her own It factor over time. "I think it was just years of learning that created who I am onstage and my ability to engage an audience or make them feel something. I don't think I was born with it. I played saxophone and sang for so many years that it literally became an extension of myself." Being relaxed while on stage is an important part of it. "It helps to feel comfortable with whatever you are up there with, whether it's a microphone or whether it's your saxophone."

But so is getting out there and performing on a variety of stages and venues. "There were many, many years of me playing six or seven nights a week, in different environments, whether it was playing on the street to people two feet away from me or it was playing to sixty thousand people with the Backstreet Boys or playing with Duran Duran to a bunch of screaming women. Whatever I was doing, I learned from it and I bettered myself. After every show, I just thought, 'Well, that worked,' or 'That was just this incredible energy,' and I tapped into it. It was just this amazing experience. I have to experience that every night. I'm in control of that. That's amazing!

"That's a great step towards being successful on stage," Abair continues. "You know when someone is just up there making money. You know when someone is faking it and when they are not."

Two performers whose stage presence Abair particularly admires are Bruce Springsteen and Prince. "Just look at Bruce Springsteen, you knew he meant it. You knew he meant every note. Every syllable he would die for. The same with someone like Prince. He didn't get up there just because he wanted to make a few bucks. He needed to be up there, he needed to tell you what was in his songs and he was going to hop up on pianos and run across the stage and almost cry telling you these stories. It's just fantastic."

Of all the venues, why did Abair choose Madison Square Garden as the one worthy of the book title? "I think as a performer, Madison Square Garden just has this mystical quality. When my friends and I used to talk about what venue we most dreamed about playing, it was Madison Square Garden. All the rock and roll bands that I loved, you just knew when they were playing Madison Square Garden it was just going to be a better show. Madison Square Garden—that was the show you wanted to be at. You were in the middle of New York City and you were in the middle of it all. That was the place that I grew up thinking, 'I want to make it there!' Carnegie Hall? Yeah, I want to play there, but not as much as Madison Square Garden. The place has been there forever and everyone has played there. The ghosts of them are still onstage with you."

So has Abair ever had the opportunity to play there herself? "I got to play there, probably in the year 2000, with Mandy Moore. It was just unbelievable. I had put together Mandy's original band, but then had to go back on the road with the Backstreet Boys. At this point I was off the road with the Backstreet Boys and my friends, who I had given over the reins of Mandy's band, hired me back. We all got to play Madison Square Garden together.

"They don't have a huge sign outside advertising Madison Square Garden, so we got down on the floor and took turns taking pictures of each other with the Madison Square Garden sign," Abair continues. "I have this picture of me with bright cherry pink/red hair. The experience was huge, it was absolutely huge. And, hopefully, I'll get to do it again."

How to Play Madison Square Garden turns musical performance into a science. Abair discusses every aspect of stage performance, from how to develop your look before stepping on the stage to how to garner that always coveted standing ovation. "The important thing for the performer to note is that the standing ovation is most likely not the result of excellent technical execution. It is almost always the result of having developed a great relationship with the audience, in addition to a solid performance."

How to Play Madison Square Garden is an obvious choice for any aspiring musician or anyone else in a creative field. However, for those who don't dream of playing onstage, there is still a lot of valuable information in the book that pertains to everyday life. Everyone still wants to be able to light up a room when he or she enters it and exude confidence while showcasing one's talents, whatever they may be. So even if your next "gig" is center stage at the company board meeting, or you are being handed the mike at your best friend's wedding, or for you, perhaps being under the spotlight means on your blind date's front porch, the book offers practical, valuable advice to avoid stage fright at any level. Abair's experience and advice teaches how to shine in your own life, from developing your look, to knowing your audience, to developing the all-important "It" factor. We all have heard that "you only get one chance to make a first impression." How to Play Madison Square Garden tells you, step-by-step how to make the most of that opportunity.

Selected Discography

Keb' Mo,' The Reflection (Yolabelle International, 2011)
Mindi Abair, In Hi-Fi Stereo (Heads Up, 2010)
Mindi Abair, Stars (Peak, 2008)
Mindi Abair, Life Less Ordinary (GRP, 2006)
Mindi Abair, Come As You Are (GRP, 2004)
Mindi Abair, It Just Happens That Way (GRP, 2003)
Mindi Abair, Always and Never the Same (Self Produced, 2000)

Photo Credits
Page 3: Jeff Bender
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Mindi Abair

Post a comment


Shop Amazon



Read Ulysses Owens: Big Band, Big Sound
Read Nathaniel Cross: Deep Vibrations
Read Meet Gabrielle Cavassa

All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.