Building a Career Beyond Just Playing Your Instrument, part 1

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In the beginning of October, Berklee held its annual Zildjian Artist in Residence series, this year with the legendary drummer Dennis Chambers. On the last day of Chambers’ visit, an all-star concert was held at the Berklee Performance Center featuring Mike Stern on guitar, Bob Franceschini on tenor saxophone, and Janek Gwizdala on bass. I had the great honor of meeting with Janek on the day of the concert for a talk about his life at Berklee and his career as a successful musician. The location: what better place than in the Berklee bass chair Steve Bailey’s office?

Tell me about yourself.
“Well, that’s a long one. I was going to say that you probably don’t have enough tape, but it’s 2015, so it’s all digital. Well it’s actually not so complicated. We are here in Berklee and in the office of the chair of the bass department right now. That’s pretty bizarre. When I was coming to Berklee I didn’t even know the head of the bass department at that time. It was a really different situation and I’m very happy that I’m such good friends with Steve Bailey, who is running things here and is doing an outstanding job. I was here 17 years ago and have basically spent most of that time split being on tour with different artists and being at home, working in the studio, and making my own records; that’s [basically] what I do and who I am and have been for about 20 years now.“

What’s your musical background?
“My dad played some piano and my mom played some guitar. We had a lot of records around the house and listened to a lot of music. None in my family were professional, but there was a healthy amount of music around the house. In my teens I was way into sports; I was kayaking on the British team and in my later teens I had to make a choice on what I was going to do. Was I going to be a professional musician or follow sports? There was a lot more work for bass players and not so much involving sports. By the time I picked up the bass I was 16-17; by the time I was here in Boston, I was 18-19 and I decided this was definitely it.”

Albums that influenced you?
“To me the instrument is completely secondary. When I finally went to my first live jazz concert there was this guy his name is Laurence Cottle, a big studio and jazz guy in the UK scene; that was the person who really influenced me to play bass in that moment. In musical terms, when I was five years old I had a big old cassette player and I had three cassette tapes: Glen Miller’s In The Mood, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, and George Benson Weekend in LA on the jazz and rock ‘n’ roll side; these kind of seeped into my self-conscious through my early years. In my teens I listened to whatever was on the radio, such as “Holiday” by Madonna and also Michael Jackson, Take That, and Spice Girls. When I finally got to play with Kenwood Dennard and Hiram Bullock at Berklee all those years ago, the first time I played with them Hiram came up to me, “Hey man, what did you listen to as a kid and where did you get that groove from?” and I said, “Oh, I listened to Michael Jackson” and he said, “Oh that’s it! There you go — that’s Quincy Jones, who picked some of greatest bassists ever,” so those were huge influences.“

Laurence Cottle Big Band
Hiram Bullock Band 
The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers
George Benson – Weekend in L.A.
Glenn Miller – In The Mood
Madonna – Holiday

Teachers you had in the UK?
“I did go to music school there for a year where I had to study some acoustic bass, so I had a couple of people teach me. But really it was learning from records, both listening and transcribing, which required waking up in the morning, doing that for 10 hours and going to sleep again and cycling the process. Going out seeing as much live music as possible — and starting to understand the interaction between musicians on the stage, and get a feel of what is actually happening when you are out there.”

How did you end up at Berklee?
“I was getting a bit bored at home, knew I wanted to operate on the highest level possible, knew what was available in America, and I could see what I was already doing in the UK — and I was already playing as many gigs as possible as a sideman in London. The next thing would be to become an artist and write my own music, but I wanted to do that particularly in New York. Berklee ended up being a gateway to come to the US, have a visa, meet a bunch of people, and to study. But I was a terrible student and would never go to class, since I was a lot on the road during my Berklee time, so it was a kind of gateway to get to New York. After three semesters, I quit Berklee and then moved to New York in 2000.”

Who were some of your teachers at Berklee back then?
“I actually just saw two of them today for the first time in 17 years, Fernando Huergo, bass player from Argentina, and Oscar Stagnaro, another great bass teacher here. Actually I don’t remember anything about bass from Oscar, but I do remember he taught me how to voice a major 7th chord in 4ths and I showed it to him on the same piano, in the same room where he showed it to me 17 years ago today. Dave Clark was also here today; I remember I took advanced sight-reading with him. Then my biggest influence here was Hal Crook, who I learned the most from; now he lives really close to my wife’s family in Rhode Island, so I actually get to see him once in a while when I’m home with her, and we stay in touch.

The biggest element in coming to Berklee was the network; I still work with people who I met here 17 years ago. I’m really hard pushed on going on a gig and find that there isn’t somebody who was in some way associated with Berklee. Maybe it’s the band driver, the promoter, or the booking agent, whoever it is. Tonight we are playing the Berklee Performance Center where half the band went to Berklee (myself and Mike Stern.) We went 20 years or something apart, but we both went to Berklee, so that’s the strongest network in music education I have ever seen.”

Mike Stern Band – Tipatinas

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          February 11, 2017