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Walt Weiskopf: All About the Sound

Bob Kenselaar By

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Joel Weiskopf: New BeginningThe mother in the family had a role in introducing young Walt to jazz, although very indirectly. "I had the idea from a young age that I wanted to play jazz, but I didn't really know what it was. I asked my mom to bring home some jazz records from the library. She came back with an Al Hirt record. I listened to it, but that wasn't what I had in mind. There was another record she brought home with one, though, a terrific record that I listened to a million times."

The album was David and Lisa: Original Soundtrack and Jazz Impressions (Mainstream, 1965). "The A side was the original soundtrack, and then the B side was 'Jazz Impressions of David and Lisa' by Victor Feldman. Later on, of course, I learned that Victor Feldman was with Miles Davis, and, obviously, we know the iconic tune he wrote, 'Seven Steps to Heaven.' On that recording with Miles there's a solo he plays on 'Baby, Won't You Please Come Home,' which I absolutely love. He was a huge influence on me, and an early influence."

Another Miles Davis work was a further point of entry to jazz for Weiskopf. "My Funny Valentine was one of the first records that I bought on my own. I was maybe 14 or even younger. I thought that all jazz was big band music. When I bought that record, I assumed that it was a big band recording, too. And when I listened to it, I didn't get it at all, but I kept listening to it. That's obviously a huge influence, and still is. Years before I had any idea what it was I was listening to, I loved that music."

After his early exposure to jazz through recordings, Weiskopf thrived as a musician under the tutelage of an inspiring high school band director, Ron Nuzzo, and he had some early opportunities to play jazz locally at Casa di Lisa in Syracuse.

Getting Schooled/By the Book

Weiskopf didn't venture far from home for college; he attended the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester. He finished his bachelor's degree there in just three years. Not one to boast about himself at all, Weiskopf quickly sets aside the idea that his speedy finish reflects any special ability on his part. "I felt that I had gone as far as I could go, and I looked at the requirements and realized that if I just doubled up on the academic courses in final year, I'd have enough credits to graduate. I had a lot of elective credits in jazz, but I was a legit major; there was no jazz major. And it was kind of a money issue. I was going to have to go into debt if I stayed for the fourth year. I figured, why do that if I can finish? I felt it was time for me to move on if I could. So I kind of did two years in one. Afterwards, they made a rule, of course, that you couldn't do that anymore." Much later, Weiskopf returned to school to earn a master's in clarinet performance at Queens College of the City University of New York, studying with one of the fathers of clarinet pedagogy, Leon Russianoff, and this led to performances on the instrument with the American Ballet Theatre and the American Composers Orchestra, among other ensembles.

Weiskopf collaborated with one of his Eastman professors, Ramon Ricker, co-authoring Coltrane: A Player's Guide to His Harmony, the first of several books by Weiskopf published by Jamey Aebersold. Here again, Weiskopf is very modest about his work. "I really didn't have any kind of aspirations to write a book, but when I was practicing those Coltrane chord changes and trying to understand what his process was, I began to write stuff down. Ray Ricker was really generous with his time, and we partnered on another book after that"—The Augmented Scale in Jazz.

Weiskopf's books—which have been hailed by jazz masters such as James Moody and Michael Brecker—have developed out of his own personal study. "In each case, I was codifying what I was practicing at the time. Somebody once suggested to me that you could practice triads over a particular chord change, so with that idea, I began to think, where I could take this and how could I organize this? So that turned into my book, Intervallic Improvisation. And I found that to be especially useful in teaching students and explaining to them what exactly bebop is. If they understand what a major scale is, you can explain to them that triads are extracted from scales, and if you understand which scale goes with which chord change, you can play material over a tune that sounds less linear than just playing a scale.

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