Time at Juilliard
“I went to Juilliard from 2008-2012. I spent two years with Carl Allen and two with the master himself, Kenny Washington: the one that everyone goes through, even if it’s only for one lesson. With Carl, it was great spending two years with him because he opened my eyes to things I didn’t even think about in terms of orchestration, sound and just things I had never thought about. Something we often would do is play back between one another. I would come in and he would say, ‘I know you did all of your technical exercises and now let’s just play.’ We would sit there and trade fours and eights for 30 minutes straight, which was really helpful to me, because I learned about call and response of the aural tradition; that’s the way this music was originally taught, passing ideas back and forth — really him passing more than me and creating ideas. He played back what I played to him and I would say, ‘Oh, that sounds sad. I know what I need to work on.’ It was really great studying with him. My technique got more together with him, but it was more so on the creative side.
Going to Kenny Washington I had studied out of Charley Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos book but I hadn’t REALLY studied out of the book. I couldn’t play it the way he did. He would come in and say, ‘Ok, one bar at this tempo (really slow),’ and he would say, ‘Stop! That sounds uneven and the 7-stroke roll was not tight enough.’ He breaks it down on such a micro level and that’s why he is one of the great teachers — because he gets you to pay attention on things like that. You really have to study the instrument, study the music and sound, and get it in your ear. It’s truly incredible. He starts at the very beginning. I remember before my first lesson where I was talking to a girl in the hallway and Kenny shows up at the drum room, ‘Alright; sorry lady, but we will see you later.’ He used to call me Mr. Sharpie because I would always dress well: ‘Mr. Sharpie! We got a lot of work to do.’ Everyone around me would laugh, because he was hilarious. He starts at the very beginning of drums; for instance: This is how you play the instrument; this is how you hold your drum stick; this is how you hold a pair of brushes, and this is how you attack your ride cymbal. He taught you very basic things that you need to be taught. You start to realize that you were never taught the right way. Really, for me, it was the detail he would focus on, and the sound. He also happens to be an encyclopedia and he taught jazz history at school as well. You can’t fake it with him; he would ask, ‘What are you listening to?’ You’d name the most obscure record and he would know every detail about it.”
Biggest lesson from your time at Juilliard
“Juilliard for me was a very rocky time where there was a lot of ups and downs. It’s a really high stress environment but has changed a lot. My three biggest lessons that I think I have learned are:
1. Learn to trust yourself. If you don’t trust yourself then others can’t trust you.
2. Accountability. Always be prepared, right on the ball. You don’t want to give anyone an excuse to have him or her point anything out about you. With accountability, when you make a mistake, fix it.
3. Individuality. Retain your own style, personality, or who you are — whether it’s in music or something else. Learn to persevere and remain yourself at whatever comes at you.”
Time after Juilliard
“I started getting in trouble (laughs) because I would start having gigs and released an album in my third year of college. I remember being called into the office and them saying, ‘We feel like you’re not paying enough attention to school.’ I said, ‘But I’m getting really good grades and not missing classes,’ but I made the conscious decision when leaving school that I didn’t want to be looking for work, but have a game plan together; I knew that my goal wasn’t to be a professional student, but a professional musician. That being said, I always had my stuff together where I wasn’t failing or missing classes. Juilliard, at the time, was extremely strict; if you showed up late for class, they would completely nail you down and you were in a great deal of trouble. In the professional world you can’t miss the lobby call, but you can be late at times for a sound check; however, you don’t want to do this. I was fairly good balancing gigs with school and wanted to be sure when I left that I wasn’t thinking, ‘What do I do now?’”
How did your gigs with Kurt Elling and Jazz at Lincoln Center come along?
“Basically, with Kurt, I followed him around and at the time about four years ago he had just moved here. I knew that Ulysses Owens Jr. had just left the band; Christian McBride swept him up, because they either were forming or had already gathered the trio, if I remember correctly. It’s all kind of a blur. I remember that Ulysses couldn’t do all those gigs so I followed Kurt and told him that I knew all of his music and I went and bought all of his albums and I memorized them. I went on YouTube and memorized all the live arrangements, just so if I ever got called with no rehearsal prior; that’s what happened when I got called for a show in the middle of nowhere in Appleton, Wisconsin at Lawrence University. My family came out. We were also playing with a college big band. We ran through one tune and they went, ‘Alright, you really do know the tunes.’
With JALC, right before I graduated, I got a call from the new education director and he told me they were starting this new thing called Jazz For Young People; they knew I liked to teach, but I said, “Yeah, but I don’t really want to be a teacher.” But they explained the program to me and I went with it. We went into the first production development and it was myself, pianist Christian Sands, and others. We were sharing jazz with young people who hadn’t heard a lot of jazz before and I feel that with what I’m doing now, it all kind of stems with what I do now and want to do. We are in our fourth year now. The kids are anywhere between kindergarten and 12th grade and this is what makes it really rough. We visit 6-9 schools around three times a year so we have our first group of students in October, our second in January-February, and our third in April-May.”