January 24, 2019

Litchfield Jazz Festival’s Artist in Residence, Gary Smulyan


Q: How do you feel about having been asked to be the Litchfield Jazz Festival’s AIR? 
A:  It’s a total honor and a privileged to be asked to take on that role.  Last year was the first year I was involved both teaching at Litchfield Jazz Camp and performing twice on the festival over the weekend with the Joe Lovano Nonet and the Jimmy Health Big Band.  I was really impressed with how everything was run and the level of musicianship and talent among the Jazz Camp faculty and Festival performers.  Everyone went out of their way to make me feel at home and I really felt like part of the Litchfield Jazz family.  To be asked to be this summer’s Artist-in-Residence is something I was certainly pleased about.  I hope I can do a great job and live up to the standard that Matt Wilson set having been the AIR in 2010 and 2011.
Q:  You will be moderating Artist Talks.  What should we expect?  What are you looking forward to here?
I’m looking forward to interviewing festival performers, to learning more about them and to giving the audience a look into their lives and experiences.  In particular, I’m very excited about moderating a discussion with saxophone players Miguel Zenon, Donny McCaslin and Don Braden.  It will be a round-table style discussion with a number of people who all play the same instrument.  I’m eager to see where that goes.  I’m really looking forward to the entire weekend’s performances, artist talks and interactions with the audience. 

Q: Having spent time on the faculty at Litchfield Jazz Camp, what are you looking forward to as a teacher at the 2012 Litchfield Jazz Camp?
A huge highlight for me last was working with my combo class.  I was able to get the music from the George Coleman Octet book which is very challenging music that most young musicians wouldn’t be accustomed to playing.  It really stretched them and they excelled.  This summer I’ve gotten the music from another one of my heroes, Lee Konitz.  I have arrangements from his Nonet which I’ll have the Litchfield Campers study and play.  I’m excited to give them something to aspire to and look forward to during our class.

Q:  Check out this video of “Body and Soul,” from a faculty concert at last summer’s Litchfield Jazz Camp.  How did this George Coleman evening come together?  Is this how you ended up putting this band together for the 2012 Litchfield Jazz Festival?  Tell us what we can look forward to at your performance.
I had used the George Coleman music with my student combo, and thought it would be great to present a mini-produced set at a faculty concert.  The faculty at LJC is at such a high level and the musicians play so beautifully, I thought “let’s play these few tunes.”  It was very well received by the audience and Vita Muir, the Founder/Director.  She got on stage after we played and said, “How would you like to hear this music on the Litchfield Jazz Festival next summer?!”  Everyone was so excited.  Vita had previously expressed an interest to link the camp and festival more closely and get the faculty more involved in the performances at the festival, so this was a great opportunity to do this.  The band will be made up of all stellar faculty members.  The special guest was a natural choice — saxophonist Eric Alexander is such a close affiliate and associate of the great George Coleman and he had been introduced at the second Litchfield Jazz Festival in 1997 performing with Rufus Reid & Friends.

Q:  Tell us about your time performing with George Coleman?  How did you end up in his band?  What did you learn from him?
I played in George’s band for a number of years.  George had heard me play somewhere and then the baritone chair in his band opened up and he asked him to join the band.  It’s that informal — the leader hears you play or someone mentions you and you fill the spot.  If it’s a natural fit, it feels right and there is good chemistry on the bandstand, then you’re hired.  It’s a very organic process.  I learned so much from George both by example and through his expectations of us.  He taught me that you have to step up to the plate every time you play.  He never “phoned it in,” he was always digging deep, playing hard and was very creative.  There was definitely no slacking off on the bandstand with George.

Q:  You’ve played with so many greats — Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, Tito Puente, Ray Charles, B.B. King and Diana Ross.  Tell us some stories from these experiences.
I’ve been so lucky to play with so many talented musicians, jazz and otherwise.  For me the kind of music they play doesn’t matter — jazz or pop.  It’s the level of musicianship – what the leader brings to the table.  B.B King’s artistry is so high.  He’s not a typical jazz musician as such, but in his music — the blues — improvisation is key.  He plays with a feeling so deep, and the level of musicianship is so high, it was fantastic to play with him.  Diana Ross too, she has a jazz and blues sensibility in her style that really comes across.  She can sing anything because she’s an amazing musician.  Tito Puente was a Julliard-trained composer, he wrote and arranged most of the music in his book.  I could only aspire to be a millionth of the musician Tito was.  It has been a privilege and an honor to share the band stand with these people who are my idols.

 Q: We LOVE your passion for jazz and your joy to perform and teach.  Where does your inspiration come from?  Your childhood?  A concert you heard as a young musician?

A:   When I was coming up as a young musician in my teens I was fortunate to have mentors who took me under their wing and really gave me the tools I needed to survive, both musically and professionally – how to get a gig, get my music out there and so forth.  Sadly many have passed away recently.  Billy Mitchell, a bebop tenor saxophone player who matured in the Detroit jazz scene of the 1950’s and grew up with Thad Jones and Kenny Burrell, happened to live on Long Island where I grew up.  A few others who mentored me were trumpeter Dave Burns who played with Dizzy Gillespie and reed player Joe Dixon who played with Artie Shaw.  Neither are household names now, but were major players.  I was fortunate to have great teachers and have been lucky in the jazz world.  I’m able to stay busy working as a musician and  it’s my obligation to share my knowledge and what I’ve learned just as I had that experience growing up.  Teaching to me is very important.  Teaching in a real and organic fashion, giving young players the tools to survive as a musician, having to figure that out for themselves, leading them in the right direction, the music, business, getting yourself out there etc.  Teaching is a huge part of my life.  I give master classes at high schools and colleges all over the world and am affiliated for 12 years with William Patterson and teach jazz saxophone at Amherst College.  I’ve been teaching a long time and hope to continue as long as I am able.

Q:  Anything else you think the Litchfield Jazz Festival audience should know before they arrive?

A:   I encourage you to come with your ears open and ready to have an enjoyable weekend.   The Litchfield Jazz Festival has a strong tradition of presenting great music and this year will be no exception.  I’m excited to lead artist talks with the Festival Host, WBGO’s Michael Bourne.  He has nice chemistry going – the two of us will bounce well off of each other and really engage the musicians in a lively and fun dialogue.  When hosts talk with another person, it takes the responsibility off just one person and it becomes more fun and a lot more improvisational.  Michael is great, a natural and knows so much about the music.


PERFORMER PROFILE: To learn more about Gary Smulyan check out his profile here.  See him perform on Saturday, August 11 at 5:30 pm with his George Coleman Tribute with special guest Eric Alexander and a stellar band of Litchfield Jazz Camp faculty members.
TICKETS:               To get your tickets for Litchfield Jazz Festival Aug 10-12 click here.
WEBSITE:             www.litchfieldjazzfest.com

FACEBOOK:        www.facebook.com/litchfieldjazzfestival

TWITTER:             www.twitter.com/litchfieldjazz

PHONE:                860-361-6285