“You need to be playing the Festival”

Alumni Perspective: Ben Roberts

Berkleejazz.org talked to Ben Roberts, a current Berklee student majoring in Piano Composition and a four-time alum of the High School Jazz Festival with Lexington High School in Massachusetts. Ben won MVP honors in his combo and was awarded the Outstanding Musicianship Award in his senior year.

Ben Roberts performing at the 2009 Berklee High School Jazz Festival

Where are from? Do you come from a musical family? What was your musical background as a kid?

My dad studied piano and loved jazz but my parents aren’t musicians. It was my grandmom and aunt, who both played piano, who managed to get an old NYC jazz pianist to donate a piano to me. My parents started me taking classical piano lessons at 7 years old — I just wanted to make noise — but that first teacher made me play a lot of Bach.

I grew up in Lexington, MA and am lucky to have had such a great jazz program to grow into.

Why jazz and who’s your biggest influence

My dad introduced me to Weather Report and when I heard Joe Zawinul, I loved it after one second. I knew I wanted to play jazz,  I was inspired that something so complex could sound so good. I love Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea; and the Miles stuff like ‘Sketches of Spain’ – I really like Eric Johnson, too.
[pullright]I saw new ways to play, new and different voices, and realized that jazz is alive and thriving. I looked at the Berklee students on stage with her and thought ‘I want to be that guy, right there.’[/pullright]

I listened to Herbie being interviewed several years ago and he didn’t even talk about jazz. He was talking about Debussy and music from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. That was a revelation; I love those big, thick, dirty voicings. I realized that the Bach I had been playing as a child was really helping me understand what guys like Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans were doing.

Tell me about your high school school jazz program and your bandleader.

Jeff Leonard, a Berklee alum, he was one of the first dual-majors at Berklee. He studied composition and music education and is the hardest working guy ever. He started the program at Lexington, both the camp and the high school program. He gave me the ladder that I’m still climbing today.

Two things that Jeff gave all of us are still with me today: a sense of family among band members, and a deep respect for tradition.

Musicians in a band need to relate, they need to know, care, and think about each other. The music comes from supporting each other and not letting each other down – like good comping.

The other thing is tradition. Jazz has a rich tradition yet is always reinventing itself. Jeff taught us about vocabulary in the context of tradition — how tradition informs modern music.

The HSJF welcomes more than 200 jazz bands and thousands of high school jazz musicians, as a young musician what was that like the first time? was it different than you thought it might be?

It was very different than I thought it would be. Everyone around Boston kind of knows about Berklee, but when I walked into the festival, saw more than 3000 people and 200 bands, saw how unbelievable the bands were, I mean professional – handing out business cards and talking about where they’d toured — I was completely wide-eyed.

[pullleft]That’s the thing about the High School Jazz Festival, it takes you where you are as a musician or a band, I mean any jazz ensemble can participate, and it introduces you to a whole new world – a whole new way of thinking, playing, and understanding what you are a part of.[/pullleft]

I think the biggest thing I took from my first experience junior year was the drive to get better. Seeing how talented the other bands were made me resolute. I also realized that jazz is a lot bigger than just Lexington, MA.

How was the second time different from the first?

That’s a really good question, because it was a lot different, mostly because of the first time. I was determined, we as a band were determined.

I went into that Festival ready to play. We took second place in the combo that year and were pretty happy with our playing. That year I did a lot of networking to meet other players from around the country. Currently at Berklee, my drummer is a friend I met during that second festival and we’re great friends. We’ll be playing together for a very long time.

You won a couple of awards during your second Festival — tell me about those. What did it mean to you to win those awards?

The judges voted me the MVP in my combo – an award I think should have gone to our bass player, but it was great to be recognized. It was later when I learned that the judges also awarded me the ‘Outstanding Musicianship Award’.

I actually had left the Festival to play a recording session in Boston, but those awards convinced me that Berklee was the place where I would continue my music studies.

Berklee runs clinics during the HSJF, did you take in any of those?

The clinics are amazing! I had never been to a really good clinic before. My first year, I saw Terri Lyne Carrington lead a drum clinic. There she was on stage with a bunch of Berklee students and she didn’t talk about drumming at all. She talked about music, music beyond the drums, beyond the old standard ways that we think about it.

I saw new ways to play, new and different voices, and realized that jazz is alive and thriving. I looked at the Berklee students on stage with her and thought ‘I want to be that guy, right there.’ I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician, but that day I realized that I wanted to be a musician AT Berklee.

[pullright]You need to be playing the Festival. The most important thing you will learn in the next step of your career is networking, and I mean networking with other musicians.[/pullright]

My senior year, I couldn’t wait to see the clinic put on by The Greg Hopkins band. I got to hear Greg talk and listen to his band play a student composition. I still want his band to play one of my compositions someday.

I had heard about Greg, how he was this kind of mysterious composition genius, and to actually sit there and listen to him talk for the first time was the most inspiring thing in my entire career. I am studying composition now at Berklee, in part, because of what I saw and heard that day at the festival.

That’s the thing about the High School Jazz Festival, it takes you where you are as a musician or a band, I mean any jazz ensemble can participate, and it introduces you to a whole new world – a whole new way of thinking, playing, and understanding what you are a part of. My band had played a lot of gigs and done recording sessions, but there is absolutely nothing like the Berklee High School Jazz Festival for a young jazz musician.

You’re currently a Berklee undergraduate, did your participation in the HSJF inform that choice.

My first year made me realize what Berklee was. My second convinced me that I would study jazz at Berklee.

One of the cool things that all the bands who participate get after the festival is a recording of their performance and a detailed score card and comments from the adjudicators. I mean really detailed like, “during the second bar of the third chorus of your first tune, the tenor was slightly flat”.

That kind of insight was invaluable and my combo spent every practice session for a week listening to our performance and discussing the feedback from the adjudicators. All of us became better musicians by having the ability to discuss what faculty at Berklee felt about our performance. That’s so important.

To high school jazz bands that aren’t yet competing in the HSJF, what would you tell them they’re missing; why should they join us?

You need to be playing the Festival. The most important thing you will learn in the next step of your career is networking, and I mean networking with other musicians. There’s no other event anywhere that brings the best high school jazz bands together to compete in one place.

Looking back at my festivals, it was the ability to hear all those other bands and develop respect for my musical peers that made me realize that I wanted to play at the highest level.

What were your favorite memories of the HSJF — looking back, what has it meant to you?

We’re at Berklee right now, I have to run to class soon. That’s what the High School Festival meant to me. I am at Berklee because of what I was introduced to during my two festivals.

I am studying composition at Berklee because it allows me to bring more to the table since I can compose for my group. My passion is to understand the instruments, all the voices, and how to make them sing. Terri Lyne Carrington started me thinking that way, and Greg Hopkins helped that idea evolve. They changed the way I approach music and I have the festival to thank for that.

My experiences at the high school jazz festival have become interwoven into the fabric of my music.

          February 10, 2018