Adventures in Saxophonisity
Thanks for stopping by. Here’s the hub for my musical activity. This is a new version of mikeleejazz.com that was rebuilt in February of 2018. I’m promising to provide more content than ever including newsletters, video, blog posts about jazz and improvisation. My calendar will keep all of my music related itinerary easily accessible, and soon we’ll be offering downloads and hard copies of my new CD! Header photo by Kelvin Slade, photographer extraordinaire.
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For the past six years I’ve been playing regularly in the Loston Harris Trio. I started subbing in the band at Bemelman’s bar at the Carlyle Hotel and then doing most of the band’s road work and finally becoming the regular saxophonist about three years ago. I’m surprised that even though I play about 80 gigs a year with Loston,many people with whom I interact often aren’t aware of this trio or our regular venue – Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Here’s the low-down:
Loston is brilliant. As a pianist he is exceptional – Early in his career he toured and recorded with Wynton Marsalis. On our instrumental selections he plays with fire and technical facility that would rival any pianist. As a vocalist he is sublime with a deep affinity for Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. He deals with the nuance of lyrics and standard repertoire with a professionalism and ease that makes him one of the brightest stars of jazz and the American Songbook.
The gig at Bemelman’s Bar is magical. Named in honor of Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the classic Madeline children’s books, the club features his artwork on the walls and even on the lampshades at your table. We play jazz. We play some instrumental tunes every set from Thelonious Monk, Benny Golson, Dave Brubeck and many others. The vocal selections also can have long solo sections where we stretch and “work it out” on the gig. We’re set up in the middle of the room where we are part of the crowd. The crowd is part of the atmosphere. Movie stars, musical celebrities, political figures show up with great regularity. By no stretch is this a “listening” room, but every night we “win” the room by turning the boisterous crowd into an appreciative audience. It feels like a throwback to the 1930’s with an adoring crowd cheering, shouting, and having great merriment.
This is a musically demanding situation. I’ve learned more from this gig than any other gig or situation in my life. Playing night after night, learning the ins and outs of so much amazing repertoire with two inventive intelligent, enthusiastic band mates (the great Gianluca Renzi plays bass!) has caused me to dig deeper and hear more music than I ever thought I would at this advanced stage of my career. There is no teacher like a nightly gig. Playing at Bemelman’s 3, 4, or 5 nights a week for two and a half months twice a year has been a revelation.
It’s not cheap. There is a $25 cover weeknights and $35 on the weekends ($15 at the bar) and the drinks are expensive. But I feel every music fan needs to see this place at least once to see music in close proximity to a real engaged crowd.
This is the first in what will be a series of articles about some of the amazing musicians I work with.
Guitarist Dave Stryker has built an exceptional career as a performer and band leader by presenting music which grooves hard and emphasizes melody while simultaneously evoking the most virtuosic qualities of jazz. He brings in listeners to our world who might not otherwise listen to this music but at the same time wows and entertains the most serious jazz devotees. His career has blossomed in the last few years because of his music’s exceptional quality and his unwavering work ethic. He has worked with everyone from Jack MacDuff to Kevin Mahogany and through his extended tenure with the great Stanley Turrentine, has performed with luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard.
Dave has been so important in my recent musical development and success, I’m writing this post in part to highlight our upcoming gig at Nighttown in Cleveland as well as presenting a public “thank you” to Dave for all his efforts on my behalf.
I first met Dave in about 1984 when I arrived in New York City. He was already off and running on a great career. We played together in some informal settings in and around Brooklyn and I looked up to him as an already established player. We reconnected in Jersey in the early 2000’s through some educational programs, including Jazz Connections and Jazz House Kids. We were also regulars on the Cecil’s Jazz Club scene in West Orange sitting in and performing together in a variety of situations.
When Cecil’s closed in 2012, Dave was proactive about finding another venue and connected me with another local club where I was able to start my weekly jam session. Dave still plays with us on Wednesday nights on the rare occasion that he is in town and available. This session has been a launching point for my musical vision and a meeting place for the great North Jersey musicians. We are currently hosted by SuzyQue’s in West Orange.
Shortly after that, the position of Adjunct Professor of Jazz Saxophone at Montclair State University opened up and Dave was instrumental in recommending me for that position. I’ve just started my 6th year at this wonderful program.
The following year, Dave asked me to help him program music for the album he recorded as a tribute to master saxophonist Stanley Turrentine entitled “Messin’ With Mr. T“. I played many rehearsals and helped with arrangements and copy work. For the date, Dave hired 10 different tenor players to each play one of ten tunes associated with the great Stanley T. To say I was (and still am!) honored to be part of a lineup that included Houston Person, Jimmy Heath, Chris Potter, Eric Alexander, Bob Mintzer and Javon Jackson would be a massive understatement.
I continue to play with Dave in a number of settings. He recorded with me last fall for my upcoming release “Song For All of Us” and I play in his group from time to time. Next Friday, October 5th, 2018. We’ll be returning to my hometown club Nighttown in Cleveland Heights, OH. We’ll be joined by the great Ohio musicians, Bobby Floyd on Organ and Reggie Jackson on Drums. We’re going to play some great tunes from Dave’s “8-Track” CDs and other favorites. Hope to see you all there! Click here for tickets.
We recorded last week as a promo for Radam’s CD release party this past weekend.
This is the band from the “Smooth” side of Radam’s new release.
Radam Schwartz on Hammond B3, Mike Lee on Tenor, Bryan Carrot on Organ, Andrew Atkinson on Drums,
Last night I had the immense pleasure of giving my annual college talk at Jazz House Kids. The organization calls this “Jazz House Kids goes to college – part I” and offers it to all of our high school juniors and seniors and their parents. I started doing this about 5 years ago after my son, Julian, with lots of parental assistance, successfully managed his entrance to The Juilliard School. Helping Julian with all of his applications, navigating all the various deadlines, applying for financial aid, and negotiating for more scholarship than was initially offered, was one of the most stressful endeavors of my life. This being our oldest child, it was our first experience of this entire process and we frankly felt bewildered and overwhelmed by the task. Once we were through this very complex process and had succeeded in achieving our goal I decided to try to pass on our hard won knowledge to the next class of parents, and have done so each year since then.
While my experience as a parent is the most important of my qualifications, I have also helped many other private students and Jazz House participants with their successful applications to Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, Berklee, William Paterson, Northwestern, University of Miami, Rutgers, Oberlin Conservatory, and other schools. Additionally, as an adjunct professor at Montclair State University, I have been part of the process of auditioning and recruiting high school students to our program. And yet with all this experience I still don’t hold myself as an “expert” on the topic, but at least I can help parents and prospective students with a list of good questions to ask. Every year, I am asked questions that make me think about the topic in new ways and I’m usually given some useful information from the parents in the audience who have gone through this with an older child.
The general topics covered last night were:
- Determining which schools are best for you
- What schools are looking for in a prospective student
- Developing a college requirement spreadsheet
- Prescreening audition tapes
- Live audition preparation and timelines
- Scholarship and financial aid
Here are some important tips from my workshop:
- Even the most conscientious, organized, dutiful student needs HELP navigating this process. It’s overwhelming, it requires reminders of multiple deadlines for EACH school. Set up reminders in a calendar app that will keep you on track with all of the dates for submission. If you apply to 8 schools (a recommended number) and they each have 5 due dates to track, that’s 40 dates to remember.
- Make a spreadsheet. It will have about 10 columns with all the deadlines: deadline for university application, deadline for music school application (yes many schools require separate applications), deadline for pre-screening, submission, deadline for scheduling interview/school visit, financial aid deadline, FAFSA deadline. Additional columns will contain contact info for the admissions department, Director of Jazz Studies, instrumental teacher contact, tune requirements, and more.
- Don’t take on huge debt. I cannot imagine starting life as a musician with a quarter million dollars of school debt. Go where they give you money.
- Grades and test scores don’t have a huge influence on your admittance to a music school but may have a huge influence on non-music related funding available at a school. Universities usually have extra scholarships for high academic achievers.
- All the advice we parents get about the importance of our children having a wide range of extra-curricular experience and community service doesn’t matter to music schools. I have found that these activities only detract from a music school applicants main job in high school – practice!!!
- The most important thing a student needs to do to get into music school and receive scholarship is to practice. 3 to 4 hours a day minimum and hopefully even more than that when possible.
- Narrow your pre-screening audition tape tune list to as few as possible to fulfill the requirements of all schools. Use your spreadsheet to figure out which tunes are necessary.
- Hire young professional musicians to play on your audition tape. I know your friends are the greatest, but intros, endings, and other details are learned well only from EXPERIENCE and are going to be essential to making you sound your best.
- Hire a producer for your session. Your private teacher or another trusted mentor can help manage how many takes of each tune are necessary and help keep the session flowing.
- You don’t know what the auditioner is looking for. Play pretty, play soulfully, – you are probably not going to “impress” a college professor but you may turn one off by playing your hottest new lick and sacrificing time or artistic flow to do so.
- The Financial aid process will kick your butt. It’s like filling out another tax return. Get advice and assistance from your financial advisor and accountant starting now and get all your ducks in a row. This is not the year you can file an extension.
- Take each application and audition seriously. Even if you really don’t want to go to a particular school – the scholarship they offer you may work as a bargaining chip to get the scholarship you need from your first choice.
- Scholarships are negotiable.
- Schools don’t like to offer scholarships to students they think are not going to accept them. When negotiating make it clear to your first choice school that they are your first choice and if you receive the requested scholarship you will commit.
- Don’t tell a school they are your first choice when they’re not, but you don’t need to advertise that you’ve got another favorite. Once you have accepted an offer from one school, let any other schools know that you are going elsewhere – this releases the other schools from any scholarship money they offered you and they can then offer that money to another student.
It was a tremendous joy to record with the great Radam Schwartz for Arabesque records. The result is a fabulous representation of the Hammond B3 Organ, Two Sides of the Organ Combo played by master organist, Radam Schwartz in two settings – “Smooth” (as in “swinging”) and “Groove” (as in “funky”). I appear on the first five tracks of the CD representing the “smooth” side. We play a couple of standards and a few Radam originals. The quartet is exquisite, featuring Brian Carrott on vibes, Andrew Atkinson on drums, yours truly on tenor, and, of course, Radam Schwartz on Hammond B3.
For those that don’t know, Radam is a stalwart of the Northern New Jersey/New York City jazz scene. He is a huge advocate for the B3 Organ – which is oddly absent from many teaching environments and “jazz education” curriculum. He is a master educator having trained generations of great New Jersey musicians.
More about Radam Schwartz:
Radam Schwartz, Hammond B3 Organist and pianist, has built his reputation over the last 30 years playing with such great musicians as Arthur Prysock, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Al Hibler, David Fathead Newman. He continues to make music today. Radam’s prolific career has led to many successful recordings. His recent recordings as a leader are Organized (1995 was mentioned in the B3 Bible as one of the essential organ records of all time, #28 on the national charts), Conspiracy for Positivity (2005, #15), Magic Tales (2007, #11), Blues Citizens (2009, #9), Songs for the Soul ( 2010, #23)
Daily habits. It’s a well worn notion that our daily activities determine what we accomplish and who we become. Count me among those that believe talent is over-rated and hard work is underappreciated. And even though I know this, it still is surprising and seems somewhat miraculous that an activity practiced twenty minutes a day over the course of a month or two can change my daily experience drastically. I find this true in everything from how I get along with my kids, to how I deal with stress, to the way my body looks and feels, but most importantly in my chosen career. As a musician, 20 minutes a day on a particular skill can change the way we are perceived in our field and 2 hours a day can change the whole arc of our career. This week I am preparing for my fall season of practicing and teaching by reinvesting in the study of arguably the greatest improvising musician in history, Charlie Parker.
I was recently flipping through some old practice charts – I’ve always liked documenting my daily practice. I remember a time in the not too distant past when I was practicing playing through several “Bird” solos daily as part of my warm-up. So I was interested when I came across the practice chart in which I recorded this daily activity. I was a little alarmed when I saw the date of these entries – 2011. 2011?!!! I had the notion that this period in my development was much more recent. Then I remembered the impetus for this practice. It came about twelve years ago from a friend who is one of the great improvising voices on the scene today, who, while giving me a much appreciated compliment, suggested I learn some improvised solos of master jazz musicians. It was a comment that I had trouble processing. The compliment was juxtaposed with an apparent assumption that I hadn’t already learned many such solos, but I had. The realization that a musician whom I greatly respected did not hear in my playing that I had done transcription work for years was a wake up call to say the least. But rather than get offended, I asked myself how many solos I could play from memory at that moment. The answer was approximately zero. It honestly had been years since I had done extensive transcription work on my own. And that work was devoid of what I now know is an essential element in the transcription process: to imprint the solo permanently into our working repertoire. Heretofore I had always considered transcription important because it was a way to gather language in small chunks – a phrase or a lick here or there, to consciously adopt the vibrato, articulation, swing feel, and other sonic elements of the artist being transcribed, and to develop technique in general. But being responsible for knowing all these masterpiece solos by heart? That seemed a little out of my reach.
I know there are musicians with perfect pitch and/or tremendous musical recall who learn solos permanently on their first attempt. That just isn’t me. I had to learn to apply my daily habits and high level of discipline to replicate the mastery that some musicians have gained over the material with (apparently) much less work. And the answer is repetition. Play something from memory every day for a month or several months on end until it because as familiar to you as your favorite song. This process takes all the advantages of transcription and multiplies it by 1000. After a year of more disciplined transcription, the reception I received as a musician changed drastically. I have had the great fortune in the past few years of being hired by some of my heros. They hear musical detail that was lost to me until I started taking transcription to this next level. Improvising musicians who seek to make their own mark within the umbrella of jazz music must learn their repertoire so thoroughly that it oozes out of them spontaneously as their own. Having Charlie Parker’s language so completely under you fingers is like an author having all the great writing of Shakespeare, or Dostoevsky completely accessible throughout their writing process.
The goal for this next two weeks is to refresh about ten important Bird solos to the point where I can play through them up to tempo. This will entail a lot of work. But once accomplished, the practice of playing through these ten solos will probably take less than twenty minutes. Then the goal will be to play them everyday first thing in the morning like a cup of coffee. I plan to continue this daily through the end of the year. I hope my students are ready to be all about Charlie Parker this fall.
Here is my playlist if you’re interested:
As I started out saying yesterday, several situations have caused me to want to reevaluate aspects of my career and attempt to define where I am and where I want to go. The first situation, investigated ad naseum in yesterday’s post, was the request to submit a bio. Second, my entire website had to be taken down over the weekend due to being overcome by malware. I don’t know why people, or internet bots are constantly trying to hack into my website, but they are. It’s crazy. Now that I’ve gotten a little bit savvy about website security, I can see that there have already been almost one hundred attempts to hack my website. As if there’s something of value under the hood. You want to spam my mailing list that badly? Whatever. Trying to stay up on it now. Anyway, in that process I’ve had to build a new website. I do it myself. It’s easy now with WordPress software. But since I’ve built my own site from scratch in that past I get incredibly picky about every minute detail. If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking at my website now and, for a DIY job, you gotta admit it’s not terrible.
So building a website is interesting. What do I want my online presence to be? I know with social media the personal website can be a little less important than it was ten years ago, but still this is the place people go who want to book me or my band, want lessons or clinics, or need a bio or a photo for a gig they’ve already booked me on. As I mentioned yesterday, I’m trying to transition from private journaling to public blogging and it’s not that easy. After writing yesterday’s entry, I went back and read a couple of my private posts from last month and earlier this month and I realize a lot of it is appropriate for public consumption – just remove a couple of curse words here, use an alias for someone I’m complaining about there and, “voila” instant blog post. Plus I found that I can back date posts so for travel related posts, I can make it look like it was posted on the day it was written. Look for that in the “travel” category soon.
So the question that arises when planning and developing the new site is “who am I?” and/or “who do I want the world to see?” and the tension between these two questions is a third question: “how vulnerable can I be”. I have a tremendous respect for people who post everyday on line. Friends of mine like Mike Ledonne, the great pianist, Corey Wallace the trombonist, and saxophonist Bruce Williams are very active and it is extremely impressive. It takes a lot of time, and sometimes I see them getting into some seriously heated discussions on line which takes even more time and I think to myself, “do I really want to get into it like that?” Do I want to stumble into some argument that takes me away from playing music? The answer to all these questions is, “we’ll see”. Just like listening to old recordings of myself, I find distance makes me less critical and less afraid if people hear it. To that end I’ve already posted a couple of clips from YouTube from a few years ago and I am much more enthusiastic about people listening to them now than I was when they were first posted. Having this huge backlog of private journal entries will afford me the opportunity to go back and clean up some of these writings and post them here.
The third situation that is causing me to seriously reflect on what I value is the opportunity I have later this month to record my own “record”. I’ve got many ideas about what I can record, what I “should” record and what I want to record. I’ve got a bunch of original tunes from the past 5 or six years since I’ve recorded. I have a lot of trio repertoire (chordless) from my 6 years of Wednesday jam session house bands, and then all sorts of music and styles and ideas from the wide variety of musicians I’ve had the honor of creating with over that time. So there’s a lot to draw from and again the question “who am I” becomes very significant in this process of music making. Like writing a bio, this can be a painful self-investigation that bumps into and hopefully flushes out the thought patterns that have hindered me from presenting my own sound vigorously.
This is a video from a couple of years ago that I just stumbled upon on YouTube.I miss playing in this band! Josh is an incredible force in the music.
- Josh Evans- Trumpet, Arranger
- Bruce Williams- Alto Saxophone Solo
- Mike Lee- Tenor Saxophone Solo
Bruce Williams, Yunie Mojica- Alto Saxophone Stacy Dillard, Mike Lee- Tenor Saxophone Frank Lacy, Stafford Hunter, David Gibson, Max Seigel- Trombones Tony Sisson, Linda Briceno, Vitaly Golovnev, Marquis Hill- Trumpets Theo Hill- Piano Ryan Berg- Bass Kush Abadey- Drums
I typed this the other day in anticipation of being asked:
“How do you balance being a performer and educator?”
There isn’t really much balance. I can’t treat them as opposites. There’s usually a misinterpretation about educators. Dizzy Gillespie was the greatest educator. He had a message and he wanted to share it. This is great music. It’s about the struggle of America to overcome it’s horrible sin of slavery and continued oppression. Learning the notes is part of it, but educational institutions in this country founded and constructed on a European model often try to pluck the notes out of the music and leave the rest behind. In this model learning happens in the University and performing happens in the club or concert hall or jazz festival. If we look at ourselves as either “educators” or “players” we shortchange both activities. Educators who teach without a real connection to the practice of performing are at a disadvantage. I was like that. But I tried to keep the passion of a performer as I was getting pigeon-holed as an educator. But now as a busy performing musician it’s much easier for me to instill the reality of jazz performance in a traditional educational venue – classroom or private teaching studio. Some of the best lessons, my students tell me, is when I have a lesson to teach and I’m supposed to be preparing music for a gig. So I teach the music to the student. They get to see TS Monk’s book and read through the tunes. Or I’m memorizing some of Nat Adderley’s book while they’re sight reading – I’m teaching them to sight read while they’re helping me memorizing a tune. This is where teacher and performer are one. By the same token, the bandstand has to educate, too. When we’re on stage we have to communicate what is happening, who has soloed, why the tune is significant. Jam sessions are the ultimate educational tool. If a jazz musician can function at a jam session, they are ready for so much more. I try to play with the students and for them. I want them to look for challenges. To strive to know enough tunes that they can function without having to be spoon fed. I want them to be aware of the economics of the club, how we strive to invite in and entertain the lay people. There’s so much learning that goes on in the club that never would get translated into the classroom.
I’m honored and humbled to be a working jazz musician in New York City. This is not an easily attainable goal, in fact I often wonder if it’s a reasonable goal. To me the goal has to be to play music as often and as well as possible; to lose oneself in the pursuit of mastery. Having practical goals isn’t bad, but it can’t be the reason. If you’re goal is to put food on the table and get health insurance, there are better ways. But if you’re looking for spiritual fulfillment and to give your life meaning – there’s nothing greater than this music. It’s been quite a journey and with all the years of frustration I experienced, it’s easy for me now to see what a blessing my life has become. A working saxophonist and respected teacher.
I’ve read posts on social media lately by young musicians complaining about the way things are. Older cats don’t give them a chance. I know that sometimes I’m included in north Jersey scene as being an “insider” and being one of the people keeping other people from working. But I want to tell the younger musicians (and sometimes disgruntled musicians of my generation) that every moment you spend looking at what isn’t being done for you or looking to assign blame for your lack of success to someone else, you’re missing an opportunity to give of this music. You’re missing an opportunity to listen more, practice more, you’re removing the joy that got you caught up in this music in the first place. I feel I was usually successful at responding to every slight by rededicating myself to the music. Practicing harder. Learning how to prepare for and get a call from a band leader and then later, how to keep that gig and get return calls. It’s hard and it doesn’t make much sense. There are fewer and fewer bands that actually have a chair for a saxophonist. And if you’re working 30 dates a year with a band, that’s outstanding. There are no more 50 week a year gigs.
At some point, hard work makes you valued. To feel valued for what you do, when you’re doing what love is an incredible gift. I remember for years wishing I had more private students, more classes, more gigs and more teaching opportunities. But it seems that overnight that changed. I had to trim back my teaching activities, I find myself relieved to have a Saturday night off. I don’t ask often how much a gig pays. I do it if I know the music will be high level and I’ll be challenged. If not, I don’t need to even worry about it. I’m not going to destroy my inner peace playing in a situation that doesn’t support my musical vision.