Tips from a Road-Tested Bebopper
Rhode Island-based saxophonist, flutist, and jazz composer Greg Abate '71 has enjoyed a busy career as a jazz sideman and headliner for more than three decades. He averages 150 nights a year on the road playing in several European countries and throughout the United States. Abate plays modern and hard bop, and in 1991-after years of touring with the Ray Charles Orchestra and then the Artie Shaw Orchestra-launched his solo career.
His auspicious recorded debut, Live at Birdland, features Rufus Reid [bass], James Williams [piano], and Kenny Washington [drums]. Evolution, from 2004, garnered four Grammy nominations. He has released a dozen discs to date, including his latest, Wave Street Sessions, coproduced by Dr. Herb Wong (visit www.gregabate.com for a full discography).
In addition to performing, Abate gives clinics around the world and is an adjunct professor of jazz studies at Rhode Island College. He endorses Conn-Selmer woodwind instruments. Below he shares insights gained from performing, teaching, and recording.
Did your work with some of the greats in jazz help get your solo career off the ground?
I've gotten to play with a lot of the great cats that brought the music to where it is today, and that really set the wheel in motion for me. I've played with James Moody, Kenny Barron, George Mraz, Dave Liebman, Richie Cole, Mickey Roker, Red Rodney, Bob Cranshaw, Barry Harris, Nick Brignola, and so many more.
Have any of these musicians shared tips on how they make their living?
I've gotten some advice, and some players have given me contacts, but they don't make the connections for me. It's up to me to make the calls.
In addition to jazz clubs, what other kinds of venues do you perform at?
I play at festivals in Europe and over here. In June, I played at the Marblehead [Massachusetts] Summer Jazz Festival with a quintet with Greg Hopkins, John Lockwood, Tim Ray, and Gary Johnson. I also perform with community bands in some of the places where I do educational clinics. I just played an outdoor concert with the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra. I have a book of about 18 big-band charts.
How involved are you with lining up your own gigs?
I have an agent in England who helps me with gigs in Europe and some people in the U.S. that book me occasionally. But really, I book a lot of things myself. Networking is very important. Some people will see me play and later contact me about gigs. Those [networks] can lead to other connections.
I do a lot of clinics and workshops at schools and usually book those gigs myself. Sometimes I'll book gigs around the clinics. Let's say I'm in Denver at the Lamont School of Music or at the Lionel Hampton School of Music in Idaho, if I'm going to be there for a few days, I might book some gigs at night. I'll rent a car to get to the gig and then I'll be back at the school the next morning to teach. When I'm at schools, I play with big bands and small ensembles as well as faculty bands.
How big a component is teaching for a career jazz performer?
I think it's big: between a third and a half of [a musician's] career. I play a lot of gigs, but I also do a lot of teaching at schools all over the world. As a clinician for Selmer, I do a lot of clinics.
How do you approach the material you teach at workshops where there are students of varying abilities?
I try to get a feel for the level of the students by talking to them and taking questions. If I'm at a school, the band director may tell me a subject the students want to learn about. I always stress to them that improvising is about really playing in the moment, not playing licks. They may begin by playing licks and copying other players, but they have to learn to put things together so that there is a flow through the tune. I tell them that when you do that, you're composing in the moment.
There are a bunch of YouTube videos online of you playing. Do you post these?
No, I haven't put any of them up. I hear from people all the time that there is a bunch of stuff out there on me. I don't look at the videos, because a lot of times I don't like the sound. There are a lot of videos that have been put up by fans rather than artists. You can find videos of some musician playing at his sound check. People like that. They show that the audience likes to see what musicians do before they come out to play. It's kind of a glimpse at their life-as if you were hanging out with whoever the artist is.
In the current climate with people so download oriented, can you sell your recordings?
Yeah. The CDs are pretty well distributed. I also sell a lot from the stage after gigs. For digital downloads, the royalties are minimal. But I also get annual BMI royalties for airplay of the recordings of my original songs. For a time, my record company was tracking the airplay and sent me statements showing where I was getting heavy, medium, or light play. I would send those playlists to BMI. They don't track jazz airplay, but after I documented it, BMI started sending me a nice check each year.
When you go to Europe, do you generally play with local rhythm sections?
I do a lot of that. I have a book with my versions of standards. If the players are good readers, we'll do those and some of my original compositions. If they're not great readers we just play standards the way they are used to doing them. It's better to play it safe sometimes. In the end, it doesn't really matter. Once you are into the tune, that's the moment. You don't think of what it could have been. Sometimes there's a different rhythm section each night. I just show up and meet the people, and we play.
Working with musicians I don't know well takes some adjustment. On one gig there was a drummer who played a triangle throughout the piano solo. Before my solo, I leaned over and very politely said, "No triangle for me, just brushes." He looked at me like I'd said something bad. He was expecting that I would love it. It's all part of getting used to each other on the spot.
In all your travels, have things ever gone wrong and prevented you from making it to a gig?
Actually, no. I've been very lucky. I have never missed a gig. Sometimes a flight or train has been late, but I've always gotten to the gig. I haven't had any language problems either. I get by in France and Italy with some phrases I've learned. The promoters tell me to just speak English when I am announcing tunes to the audiences.
As you think about your career experience, do you think there are good opportunities awaiting young people who want to become full-time jazz musicians?
It is probably going to be a bit harder now than it was for me and other players I know. But I think young people can do it if they are really focused on being jazz musicians. Once you get established through recording and live playing and build a reputation as someone with something to offer, you can approach band directors about doing clinics at schools.
There is no set way to do this, though. A person really needs to know how to network. You have to learn to be persistent without becoming overbearing. I tell my students that they have to get used to the idea that they are not always going to get a positive response. There will be politics and competition for gigs.
Do you have any reflections to share at this stage of your career?
Music is a really powerful thing in my life. When I'm playing now, I feel like I'm really zoned in. The horn's vibration and buzz feel really good to me. It is kind of a Zen thing. Playing now feels effortless, the ideas just come through. As I try to relax with my playing, I can play more of what I hear. I'm not trying to hear something; the lines just come to me. I don't know where they come from.
Looking back, I feel things have been good. I've reached a point where my playing is consistent. Some gigs are better than others, but I always feel good about my playing. I'm getting a lot of work, and I've played with so many jazz greats. I've been able to make a living. Sometimes I wonder how I do it, but I am doing it.