Photos: Courtesy of Bob Sheppard
The Saxophonist: I think one of the things that have I've enjoyed about getting to know you over the years is discovering that you are such a fan of other players. I mean, you are like a student in your appreciation of other musicians. I think too often we see people of accomplishment, like you, and forget that you are a fan of the music like we are. Can you talk about achieving what you have and yet remaining a fan through the process?
Bob Sheppard: I think there's a lot in that question especially concerning how things have changed. I guess that is just how I grew up, in a culture with a built-in humility and an understanding that we learn from the older guys around us.
TS: Do you feel we have lost humility in jazz music?
BS: Humility in jazz is a fascinating topic in itself. I think it's a broad topic. Some people are humble to a fault. It’s as if they don't believe in themselves at all, They’re just amazing players but their self-esteem, if you will, is not aware of their abilities. You see it is prevalent among musicians. "I'm just never good enough; I'm never going to make it. All these people around me are better than me, and I'll never get there. I don't have what it takes." That's one extreme. However, there's a built-in humility, especially in the jazz community. There is a reverence for how the music was accomplished, formulated over time and given to us by these incredible geniuses. Their work radically changed our lives.
TS: So it was an instilled sense of humility that has made you who you are.
BS: Yes. Jazz changed my life when I heard certain people play it. I said, "Man, I want to do that.” Nobody decides they are choosing to be a jazz musician; the music picks you. We were handed information on how to play through the natural occurrence of being around older guys. By playing with them, we learned how to be humble. You become humble by merely being around humble people, right? No one acted like they were the best or took an attitude, it was an unspoken thing. I would relate it to how you would learn, as a kid, in your household by watching your parents. You don't know how to act, you don't know how to be– but you observe your parents, you listen to them talk, you see how they work around other people.
TS: You are referring to learning on the bandstand.
BS: Exactly! Jazz musicians learn what to do from each other. "Oh, I see this is how you act on the bandstand...this is how…" You learn how to revere and appreciate other musicians for what they have. You're not comparing yourself; you're just trying to extract the beauty and the knowledge in whatever way you can. That’s just how I grew up, that's how all my friends grew up. We didn't talk about ourselves; it wasn't today’s Facebook world of self-indulgence and thinking, where people think they deserve to be a big name star. No one thought that way when I was young. The process was more the personal, more organic. It was a desire to get better and work towards something that you saw possible. If I were listening to Horace Silver's band, I would think, “It would sure be nice to play that music.” Seeing Mike Brecker or Bob Berg and knowing they had the chance to play with Horace Silver inspired me to keep getting better. Not to be famous or feel important, but a simple hope that someday, maybe I could get that gig.
TS: So the goal was being creative as it applied to do a craft. Today it seems, with social media, that everyone is unique and everyone is doing something great. Do you feel that this new platform as somehow bypassed the process of, how should it say it...?
BS:...doing the hard work? In some cases, yes. For me, growing up in the music scene, it wasn’t about marketing. No one talked about marketing. I mean if someone was lucky enough to get a record deal, the company did that for you. You had to take care of the music, and you had to be personable and be savvy about trying to develop your talents, etc. I am not saying you shouldn't market yourself, but it’s a very touchy subject about how the culture has changed. If I were in front of a group, like I was yesterday, I would ask, “How do you see yourselves? What do you feel about your playing?”
Back in my day, when I was sitting in a classroom, I was like “Man I suck.” I knew I had talent and everything, but I never thought that I was anybody yet. I wanted to be good. I wanted to be respected by my colleagues. I never had this impression in my head that I made it, but sometimes I get the feeling, from college kids, that they live in their little bubble. They have their little world that they created in their mind. It's almost like the American Idol thing where it’s like "I'm good, and I'm gonna hit it big." It doesn't work that way in jazz. It's a long road, and that path has a lot of twists and turns. You have to make it down these paths before you get to anywhere and that's a different process.
TS: This reminds me of what we were talking about over dinner last night. When I mentioned asking Jerry Bergonzi who I should bring in, and he brought up your name, your reaction was one of honor.
BS: Absolutely. To know that Gonz thought enough of my work to recommend me, man it's like the Grammys or something.
TS: I agree entirely. He told me once that I had a fantastic sound. I was like, "Well, that's it, I have achieved all I need to achieve."
BS: I know the feeling. Well, Jerry Bergonzi is a beautiful example of a guy who doesn’t care at all about celebrity or people knowing who he is. He’s always been involved in learning and is about just getting better and playing the music. That’s enough for him.
TS: You were talking about this very subject regarding Herbie Hancock. You said the last thing Herbie’s thinking about is being Herbie.
BS: That’s right.
TS: Do you think they're many people who are– I don’t want to say self-centered – but today’s scene has forced them to be centered more around their universe, and their positioning, than focusing on the greater picture? I remember once hearing James Moody say that a player’s aura was too dark and self-serving to make good music.
BS: Yeah, I can hear Moody saying that! You see guys like what you described come and go. Moody was about the process. Guys that are real jazz players care about the process. Within the process, you get better, and you gain notoriety through getting better. They leave it up to other people to process their status. It's like "Okay that guy's great, now we're going to think of him as the next thing." It's outside factors that make people seem larger than life and celebrities. Not to say some musicians don't do that. There are indeed musicians that look at themselves that way and certainly in this world; it's an integral part of how to get your career going is self-promotion. However, self-promotion was never part of the process.
TS: Again, that goes back to the bandstand right? I was probably one of the last generations to get that type of “on the job” training, playing with all the little 13-piece bands that were around Nebraska growing up. I often wonder how some of my students would deal with the personalities I encountered. I remember one old player telling me, “When you decide to learn how to play as part of the group and not a hotshot, the music will sound better.”
BS: We weren't taught to be individual. It was frowned upon. If you were talking about yourself and counting yourself, cats didn't like that. They would've said, "Man, who the hell do you think you are?" It was shunned. So, it's how that's changed over time is quite dramatic, but it's a reflection of our society. Within the jazz world, we can see this because that's what we live in, but it's a reflection of a more prominent part of our culture.
TS: Do you think the dwindling gig and venues that promote jazz forces the modern player to turn to the social media for the promotion?
BS: Perhaps, but the world today is all about the “self.” It’s a narcissistic world that we live in and social media certainly has helped magnify this narcissism to the point where it’s a joke. You see it playing out in very negative ways. That’s why I love the jazz world; it's self-governing. In this world, purely about who can play or who can’t. People on the outside will judge, criticize, inflame or whatever they want to do. But the cats that can play do it, and that's the beautiful part of it. We support each other because we know how the process is. It’s about love and dedication. So we help each other understand it’s about getting inspiration from people around us. That’s how music is passed. That’s how we learn. So, we want the information; we want the inspiration. Personally, I need inspiration desperately. I realize when I don't get it, and I'm sort of in my
own world of working and doing stuff, it's like I lose something. I lose motivation. its
As soon as I hear somebody who can play, I want to pick up the horn and shed. And I know that you’re the same way. People who care about playing, need inspiration. That’s music, that's art, and it requires motivation. You cannot achieve this living in your head. A lot of young players know they don’t spend enough time with each other playing music, they don’t jam. I mean, when I grew up, as I was saying yesterday, we were doing gigs. We were all doing gigs; we were all in bands. Whether it be a rock band or a funk band or a wedding band or something, we were trying to do it. We were trying to do it, but many of those entry-level gigs are gone now.
TS: I think that’s one of the biggest challenges I face as a teacher. What gets me is trying to get younger players to realize that if they want to be doing gigs, then they need to play. My kids are really into tennis, but they know lessons and drills won’t give them everything. To be a great tennis player you have to play matches.
I think it’s the same with music. Find a room, get together and play. Then approach a club and ask “Can we play here.” They’re waiting for someone to call. It’s like I have students who are studying to become music teachers. I asked them, “Do you have any private students, do you teach any private lessons?” The answer is usually no. I always ask, “How are you ever going to practice teaching?” I always say that this generation seems to be the greatest factory worker. Meaning, they do what you tell them because we put everything into rubrics for them. How do you try to get your students to be explorers and be creative?.
BS: It is a challenge. There are certain personality types, you know. School, to a lot of young players, is their entire universe. Often they haven't been told the truth about what they're going to learn in school. You’re going to learn a lot of stuff that you may or may not deem useful. Some kids think that they’re going to go into school for a degree and at the end of that degree, they’re going to be working jazz musicians. Whoever’s telling them that needs to stop. I get furious at that stuff. The people that draw unsuspecting students into a program, to feed the coughers of a university, are blatantly lying to them. It’s great that there are programs that people can go into to study music, but when I was growing up, we knew we had to learn to play, sometimes, in spite of school. We thought the school was in our way. Listen, its good to be around like-minded people, play in ensembles and get some direction, but most of my education was getting my ass kicked on the bandstand.
TS: It’s a quick but essential lesson is it not?.
BS: Yes, and we all knew that. I didn't ever want to come back to the bandstand and make the same mistakes I made last time. So, I went home and practiced my ass off and tried to figure out what was doing. That’s the way jazz music has always been passed down, By doing it. Until that happens, you're not sure how you compare to what you need to do.
TS: That reminds me of story Branford Marsalis told when he was here. He talked about being in a funk band, as a kid, that thought they were pretty creative. They finally got to play a club and thought they were doing great. Then the club owner came over and said that nobody was dancing and that they had 30 minutes to figure it out how to fix that or they wouldn’t be playing that club anymore. He said it was a quick and direct life lesson.
BS: Exactly, that’s “on the job” training.
TS: Let’s switch subjects for a moment. You have such an identifiable sound on all the different instruments. Do you feel that the concept of sound has taken a backseat on the saxophone in recent years?
BS: Well, you know, it's an excellent question and something to think about. I’ve always been hyper-aware of sound, what certain guys had in their sound, and how that appealed to me. I’ve always been a person that was brought in by the sound of an instrument. Again, growing up this was something my friends and I would discuss.
Has that changed over time? Yes, I don't think younger players are scrutinizing there sound the same way we did. They're accepting what they produce too quickly. It's like "Well, this is what I do, so I guess it’s fine." They are giving themselves a pat on the back because they play the saxophone, but pay little attention to what they really sound like. They're not giving themselves a critical analysis compared to what's good. You don't know what's good until people point it out to you sometimes, so I think that's part of it. I will often ask students, “What is a good sound?”
Of course, it is subjective. When I was young, and I heard Wayne Shorter, I was not too fond of his sound; I didn't get it. There was quirkiness about it that bugged me. I was more attracted to maybe the refinement of other players. But the older I got, the more I came to understand Wayne Shorter for his quirkiness. So, my taste has changed a lot in the fact that now when I hear someone, I’m looking for personal expression rather than someone that sounds like Mike Brecker or Trane. I don't like to listen to a copy of a player. I want someone that sounds like themselves, and that takes a long time to achieve.
TS: All my teachers told me to listen to Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster growing up. But I never liked Coleman Hawkins as a kid. I mentioned this to Lew Tabackin, and he told me he would never have a kid start with Coleman Hawkins. He called his playing “advanced listening." That resonated with me because I've gone back and listened to him— especially those Youtube videos from old Dutch Picture Company and I suddenly get it. I don't know if you've seen these; they found the video reels from the Dutch Picture Company of him playing, and the audio's better than the standard mono recording of the day, and you get a real sense of his sound.
BS: I’d like to hear that.
TS: So, I'd like to talk next about developing technique. We have scale books, pattern books, and stuff like that, but how do you make the technical, musical?
BS: Well I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. Both technique and musicality are necessary as a musician. A lot of the technical foundation of the instrument has to be accomplished at a young age. It’s challenging to get that together. People, as they mature, life takes over, and they lose the ability to stay with something that's so boring, and tedious. What I find is that a lot of students have not done enough fundamental practice. They needed to get the basics of their instrument under control when they were younger. Sometimes it's no fault of their own. There’s a lot of reasons, but that has to be done, or you're not going to play jazz.
Many people are studying advanced concepts but don't have the facility to play stuff they are studying. I became an excellent musician on the saxophone and clarinet because I practiced the shit out of them. I had good teachers, and I was always up and down scales and arpeggios. Man, hours on the clarinet and saxophone trying to get that stuff together. Being a great player means taking the time to deal with the things that are not that sexy.
TS: We hear the same thing with music majors. We will ask, "Why do you want to be a music education major” and the common answer is “Because I love marching band.” That’s the answer that scares me. I want to say, “Okay...Are you aware of what is required of you? Has your director told you what goes into teaching music? How much do you love kids? How much do you love the music that you’re doing?”
BS: What I try to do, once I see that someone need to get the necessary chops going on an instrument, is figure out how to get into their mind. I try to figure out how to get them to approach things in a way that interests them. They're not going to sit there all day for three hours and play scales and arpeggios. If they do, they don't know how to relate it to music.
I try to teach scales, modal scales, in one key and they are supposed to do it. You need to be able to do that to improvise. You need to be able to move intervals around freely and make the changes. So, what if we just worked on minor thirds and got that smoking. Now let's take a blues or a tune and try inserting that into the song. I try to get them to practice something, really solidify it and then try to apply it musically. That's what we're ultimately trying to do. That way you are connecting material that you're going to be able to use in your jazz playing. The idea of using stuff that they already can play and have already practiced and use it in something that's easy. That way they bridge the gap between music and the exercise.
TS: The other day one of my students asked, “Did you study a lot of licks and patterns?” My answer was, “No, and I'll tell you why: the way my brain works, I could never remember it and the ones I did remember, were the ones that sounded good to me. Personally, it was more about sound.
BS: But that’s your experience of how you first did it right?
TS: Oh most definitely. I finally figured out how I learned and used that to my advantage rather than beating myself up because I couldn’t learn the way someone else did.
BS: Right, if he’s into playing patterns and working that out, man that’s cool. As long as you’re going after it and liking the process, it’s knowing how to play the patterns, so they are clean and useful. A lot of these people think they're playing a pattern up and down the horn and then they try to change it to a different key, and it's not there. Taking something like that and using it as a vehicle to show them how to practice is one thing, but they get to bogged down with a lot of…how should I say it?
BS: YES! Math jazz! They learn them but never learn to apply them. Okay, you've got that pattern, what is it, where does it fit?
TS: When I was in college, I remember attending a Wynton Marsalis clinic and a little junior high kid asked if he [Wynton] ever got scared playing with so many famous people. Everybody in the clinic laughed, but I thought it was a great question. This question came to my mind after watching a video of you playing with Herbie Hancock. Do you ever have to deal with dear or nerves like that?
BS: Almost every time. Virtually every time. That is another vast topic that a lot of people don't discuss. Sometimes, it separates people that do it from people that don’t do it. It’s such an inner neurosis that reflects on how you think of yourself. There’s a lot of things that enter into the stage fright or with or around people that you put on the highest pedestals. You think, "What am I doing here?" All those things enter into a musician's ability to play, and we all have it. If you don't have that, then something's wrong with you. It exists because we care about the music. The reason we become good is because we care a lot about sounding good and you are using a lifetime of inspiration and a resource. That's what we do to learn.
Man, I wanted to be as good as Mike Brecker, and I want to swing like Sonny Stitt. If a painter's in a museum looking at Matisse's painting, he's thinking "God, like I have a lot of work to do or how do I paint like that?” When I first moved to LA, and I started to do some session work, I had no idea how I got the call. I remember I was on a TV call, over at Universal; I had no idea how I got it but I was in this section with Jack Nimitz on baritone, Bob Cooper on tenor and I think it might have been Lanny Morgan. I was sitting in this section, and I said, "Man, these guys are on records that I have in my collection." They're famous guys for me, and now I’m sitting here playing with them. I was afraid and scared. Same thing with being on stage with Freddie Hubbard. Freddie Hubbard, are you kidding me? Every time I got on stage with Freddie Hubbard….
TS: That must have been like riding a rocket every time.
BS: Absolutely. It was frightening in every way, yet it was exhilarating. Somehow I made it and learned to control my fears. I always tried to play and listen as well as I could while trying to negotiate his personality and figure out what he wanted of me. Talk about a lesson every time I got on stage with him. I don’t care who it was that played with Freddie, we all felt like that way. Freddie was so powerful. But when we made music, he would let you know he dug you. If you got called back, then you knew you were okay but he never outwardly told you. Ha, I remember If he didn't like what you were doing he would just cut you off.
Fear is encountered countless times as a professional. For me, absolute terror is sitting in a movie session, with the red light going, playing with a 90-piece orchestra. It's not that hard, but you have to come in and nail it the first time and that, in and of itself, is frightening. Or, you've got a little solo, maybe it’s four bars in the middle of a chart with a full orchestra, and it's your time to shine!
You have to do your stuff, with people turning around and looking at you. It's frightening because you're under a microscope. So I used to be frightened a lot; I've gotten better at it, but it used to psych me out to the point I thought I sucked. But I came to realize that I can play well enough to hang.
Maybe the answer would be different if you could ask someone like Stan Getz or if you were to ask Gonz [Jerry Bergonzi] the same question. It would be fascinating for me to hear Jerry’s thoughts because he was always someone I have high on a pedestal. Getting to know him over the years, he seems to have this laissez-faire, easy-going attitude about it.
TS: Yeah, the closest I got to ask him about the subject was when I asked him about being in the Brubeck generation. I wondered if having to play Take Five to an audience that grew up listening to Paul Desmond made him nervous. I remember his response was just so beautiful. He just said, "You know, I never thought about it. I guess if I had thought about it, maybe it would have bothered me, but I never really cared. I never really thought whether an audience liked it or not. That’s not why I play music.”
BS: That is beautiful. Gonz has such a strong sense of who he is and that is still something I hope to emulate.
TS: I agree. I remember his comment, "The music is out there in the universe, and I grab it and do what I do. If you dig it, great and if you don’t, I respect that too.” My first thought was “How do I get that enlightened?”
Well, Jerry is very philosophical, and I think that's the right way to look at it. You know, Mike Brecker had a great insecurity problem and beat up himself a lot. This guy that had the ultimate command of the instrument and had his own voice was entirely down on himself. But he always projected the utmost confidence and ability on stage. The power of what he could do transcended it all, but his personal feelings about it : BSwas different from the reality. Jerry's existence is not about that self-doubt thing. So, it’s an individual thing about how guys think about music. For me, it is about discovering, improving, finding new things. I am too busy trying to find out what that next inspiration is to be to be worried about what people think. I am always a student, and that is the way I will be until the end. I wouldn't have it any other way.