Issue # 119, INTERVIEW with Scott Ramminger

As you’ve heard me say (a million times) – we are truly blessed with high-talent players consenting to reveal some of their innermost thoughts about music, bands, recording & the list goes on & on… this interview with Scott Ramminger is a guaranteed good-read, particularly if you’re in to jazz with a “blues touch”… many THANKS for takin’ th’ time to tell our readers a bit about yourself, Scott!

Zzaj: When I read your short bio in the “about” section & saw D.C., I couldn’t figure out where you got that authentic southern roots blues feel from… then I googled some more & realized you were originally from one of my old haunts, Huntspatch, Alabama (I lived there off & on from ’68 – ’86)… please give us an expanded bio sketch that tells us how in “L” ya’ trekked all the way from Rocket City to D.C.

Scott: I actually was born in New York State, though you wouldn’t know it by my accent.  I moved to Huntsville, Alabama when I was five.  My dad worked for IBM, in the division that was involved in creating the computers used in the manned space flight program.   It was a great place to grow up.  Lots of people moved there from all over the country to work on the space program.   They got some of the Model Cities money that the government was doling out back then.   A fair bit of music was going on.  I saw the Count Basie Band, Dave Brubeck.  Elvis came through town.  And Huntsville is only an hour-and-a-half or so from Nashville, so there was lots of country influence of course.  It’s pretty close to Atlanta, and my folks used to take me to the Atlanta jazz festival.   I played sax in high school and had a band with my brother and a couple of friends that gigged around town.  We would take any gig that came along, not matter what kind of music they wanted.   We all read.  So the piano player and I would write out charts and we would play the gig.   Everything from enlisted men’s clubs where we would get threatened with bodily harm if we couldn’t play “Sweet Home Alabama,” to private gigs where they wanted us to play standards in the corner.

I originally intended to study music in college, but once I got into college I got it in my head that I was going to be a novelist.  After touring through several different majors I wound up as a journalism major.    While I was in college, my dad got transferred by IBM to the Washington, DC area.   I got engaged to my first wife in college.  (I’m now on my second and hopefully final wife.)    My first wife was also a journalism graduate.   I had worked at a couple of newspapers during college and so had she.  But we figured to both get jobs, we better head to a big city.   I came up here, got a job, established a beachhead so to speak.  She graduated a few months after me and moved up here when we got married.   The rest, as they say, is history.   I think of the DC area as home now, and my wife Clare is from this area.

Zzaj:  Is “the blues” your mainstay, or are the jazz influences I hear on your debut CD more “out in front”?  In your opinion, tell us why both forms of music are important…

Scott:  I would say that for me, blues is the bedrock, the foundation of what I do.   And really, if you go back to the very beginnings of jazz, the blues was where it all started.  A lot of country music is really influenced by the blues, as well though many people may not think about that.   I’ve always listened to jazz, grew up listening to it.  It was on in my parents house all the time.  They took me to see some great live jazz – Ella Fitzgerald,,  Charlie Byrd,  Shelly Mann,  Dexter Gordon.   And – at some level – though I would not call myself a jazz musician per see, I have always also played some jazz, and I’m actively studying it now.  I played in the high school big band, and my brother and I had a band that played some jazz standards.   I have a steady Sunday brunch gig where we play mostly jazz standards. I have a steady Tuesday gig where we play some jazz.   So I think it has informed my playing.   But, as I said, especially in Washington, DC — which is loaded with great jazz players, because the top armed forces jazz bands are here — I certainly don’t go around representing myself as a jazz musician. I am not a very technical player, and I’d describe myself as a student of jazz.  I dig all kinds of music as long as has soul, emotion and feeling – blues, R&B jazz, rock, country, folk, world music, classical.  I like music that has an improvisational element to it.  I’m drawn to music that moves you emotionally and physically  – whatever the genre or label – that makes you tap your foot and think about dancing.   I say “think about,” because I’m a horrible dancer.
Zzaj:  What other instruments (if any) do you play besides that stellar (& gutsy) saxophone? 

Scott:  I play some guitar.  I studied classical guitar as a kid and have always noodled around on it.  I’ve started working on that a little more.  I have yet to play guitar on any of my gigs, but at some point I might.   I don’t play piano, but can use it to work out harmonic ideas.  I know a little music theory and actually wrote some big band charts when I was young.  I wish I could play piano.  I should have listened to my parents and stuck with those piano lessons.   I read somewhere that someone asked Miles what they should do to improve their solos.  His answer, supposedly, was “learn to play the piano.”  There is certainly truth there.  All the harmony is right there in front of your eyes on the piano.

Zzaj:  Is your “home-base” in Washington, D.C., now?  If so, how do you deal with all the traffic there?

Scott:  Well, I’ve lived here long enough to learn a few short cuts.   It’s a great town.  There is a lot of culture of all kinds here – music, art, theater.   There is a big multicultural influence because of the embassies.   I guess with every upside there is a downside.   One of the DC area’s downsides is the traffic.  But you just get used to it and allow yourself some extra time to get to the gig.  I have been playing more in downtown DC, and finding parking can be a challenge.  But somehow it works out.

Zzaj:  One of the things my readers love to read about, particularly with a debut artist, is what new musical projects you  may have coming up?  Tell us about anything you have coming up in the next few months or so?  If you’re working on a CD,  are there samples somewhere that my readers can hit?
Scott:  I’m glad you asked.   I’ve actually started writing for the next CD.  I don’t really have anything ready for your readers to listen to.   The tunes are still being written.    For the first CD, I used all local DC/Baltimore players.   I am actually considering going out of town to a couple of places to record some of the next one.   New Orleans is one of the places I’m thinking about.  Because I love pretty much anything from New Orleans – jazz, R&B. blues, you name it.   And I have also been talking to some guys in Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Alabama about coming down there to record some as well.   I also imagine there will be some tunes on the next one that are recorded here as well.    I have no shortage of ideas.     At some point I would like to record in Austin, Texas as well.

Zzaj:  Tell us some more about your group, “The Crawstickers”, please… you know, the “5W’s” – who, what, why, when & where.

Scott:  Well, you asked before about jazz influences.  I would say the nature of the band is one thing that has been influenced somewhat by the jazz mindset.   I mean that in the sense that I have several players in every category that I call for gigs.  I try to use the best guys in town.  And, of course, that means that they are busy.   So I might have a different bass player next week or a different guitar player, than you saw me with last week.   That to me is more of jazz sensibility.    The guys on the record – Dave Chappell on guitar, Brian Simms on keys, Claude Arthur on bass, Pete Ragusa on drums, are some of the guys I use.   I also use a very good drummer named Barry Hart, a monster jazz guy in the mold of Buddy Rich.   Several other guitar players, including a very young guy named Andy Poxon,  who I am sure you will hear more about.   A couple of recent Berklee grads – Joe Poppen on guitar and Chris Brown on bass.   I use a guitar player named Keith Grimes, who played with Eva Cassidy, among others, and another guy named Dan Hovey when I can get him who is a monster player who went to Berklee, played with Root Boy Slim, and spent a long while in New York doing a little of everything.  There is a great organ player and singer in town named Tommy Lepson who has played with me some.   I call Vince McCool on trumpet if the gig pays enough to make that work.   I am leaving a bunch of people out, but I guess I have to stop somewhere.

The fun thing is that I try to get another guy beside myself – usually the guitar player – who sings.   Claude Arthur sings as well.   Pete Ragusa will sing a few when coaxed.  Everybody brings their own bag of tunes and tricks to the table.   That keeps things interesting.  I adapt what we play to the venue and to the players on the gig.  Dave Chappell, in addition to being a great rock and blues player, is a great country player.   So we might be a little twangyier if he is on the gig.   When Barry Hart is on  drums , we tend to play a bit more jazz.    It keeps things interesting.   That is one of the things that people tell me they like about the band.    We mix it up.   We might play a couple of my originals, a rocker, a Hank Williams song, and “Cold Duck Time,” or some jazz standard all in the same set.

I’m gigging two or three times a week with the full band and doing a standing guitar/sax duo thing every week.  One of the steady band things is a Tuesday gig where we are prone to go out on a limb and play down new tunes and play more jazz oriented material.

Zzaj:  Do you prefer studio performance, or is live playing better?  Why?  (or Why not?).    

Scott:  I like both.  But if forced to pick, the nod goes to playing live.   I actually started making the CD because I wanted to elevate the quality and caliber of the gigs I could get.   The better the gig, the more likely the person booking it is to ask for a CD.  People were asking to buy CDs on gigs, and I had nothing to sell.    I know guys who would be just as happy just playing in their basement or recording.  That’s not me.  I want to play live.  I like playing in bars where the people are close and you can interact with them – where you can see feet starting to tap or see people get up and start to dance.    That said, I really did enjoy making the CD.   And in today’s world it is cool to know that someone half way around the world has heard your music and is digging it.   The digital revolution has been good for guys like me in that regard.  So I plan to keep writing and making CDs.   At this point, I would like to have a new CD every year.

I have a small recording studio in my house.   I go to a real studio to cut rhythm tracks.  But it is great to be able to demo the songs and cut the vocals and the horn parts, and some instrumental overdubs at home.   Some of it I do with and engineer.  Some of it I do myself.   It’s cool to be able to experiment with ideas.  And it also saves some money – at least that’s what I told my wife when I bought all the recording gear.

Zzaj:  Who are your musical heroes?  Have you been able to play with any of them?  If so, who?  If not, when?  

Scott:  Starting with sax players: Dexter Gordon,  Stanley Turrentine,  Gene Amonns, Pete Christlieb, an LA studio guy who also played for years in the tonight show band, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Bird. Zoot Simms, Phil Woods.     On the rock/R&B/blues side of things:  Lee Allan, Junior Walker, King Curtis, Bobby Keys, Lenny Pickett, all the horn players in Tower of Power.  Also a guy right here in DC named Bruce Swaim.  He is a fabulous jazz player and a great rock/blues player.  He’s got several CD’s out.  You should check him out.  He’s one of my saxophone heroes.

I have a whole bunch musical heroes who tend to be writers or writer performers like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Randy Newsman,  Warren Zevon, Lieber and Stoller.  Really, I could spend a pages and pages listing them – in all categories of music.

One of them is Delbert McClinton, who is a great performer and writer, and has a killer band to boot.  I did actually get to play with him recently.   He runs a music cruise every year.  I was on the cruise as a guest last year.  But I brought my horn and wound up playing all night long every night with guys from the bands that were on the boat.   Guys from Cyril Neville’s band, Tab Benoit’s band – and Tab himself, who is a fine drummer in addition to being a great guitar player and singer.    Guy’s from Delbert’s band.  Guys from Tommy Castro’s band and Marcia Ball’s band.   The first night, I was playing in a lounge with some guys and the power blew out.   We all went down to a big club on the boat where the heavy guys were playing.   Delbert was up there with Marcia Ball,  Tab Benoit, Gary Nicholson, Glenn Clark, David Milsap and LeRoy Parnell, all up on stage together.    Some guy who I though was an official of the cruise said to me:  “Hey man, I just heard you upstairs.   Get up there with those guys.”   I said: “Thanks, but are you sure that’s cool?”   He emphatically told me it was.   I thought he was somebody in charge.   So I went up during a break and asked Delbert if I could play.  He kind of looked me up and down and then said ok.   I  swung for the fence on the first solo and fortunately did not foul out.  I got a nice round of applause and stayed up there a while.

Scott Ramminger (left) jamming with some of his musical heroes: (L to R) Leroy Parnell, David Milsap, Glenn Clark, Delbert McClinton, Marcia Ball, and (not pictured) Tab Benoit on drums. 

I later found out that the guy who sent me up there wasn’t with the cruise at all.  He was a judge and friend of Delbert’s from Texas.    Had I known that, I would have never asked to sit in.   But that was the first night.   And I think some of the folks just assumed I was in one of the bands.  My wife and I would get up at 11 a.m. and listen to music until midnight.  Then I would go out and jam all night in the various bars on the ship with all these phenomenal players in the bands.  Go to the cabin and sleep from 5 a.m. until about 10 a.m., and then start all over.  It was fantastic!
Then, finally, some of my musical heroes are the guys I play with regularly.  These guys – like Dave Chappell, Brian Simms, Claude Arthur, Pete Ragusa, Barry Hart, Vince McCool are fantastic players who are out there slugging away at it, making great music.  I learn from these guys every time I play with them.

Zzaj:  How “formally” are you educated in music?  Is that important for a player to be successful, or is “the feeling” more important?  Or is that just a “silly” question?

Scott:  I don’t think that’s a silly question at all.   Feeling and emotion is paramount.  I don’t think I can state that enough.  There are guys who spend lifetimes playing with knowing much at all about music theory or understanding any of the technical aspects of music.   That said, it is sometimes hard for me to fathom that some of these guys don’t seem to want to keep learning.   I think at a certain point lots of people become afraid to learn new things.  That’s something I try to guard against in all areas of my life.    To try something new, you have to take a risk.  You might fall on your butt when you try it on a gig.   I had some formal musical training as a kid.  And I have always read lots of books on music theory, jazz, songwriting, etc.   I think that stuff can inform your playing and writing in a good way.  Looking at some tune and thinking to yourself:  Wow,  that is a strange chord to have in there.  Why does it work?   But, as I said earlier, emotion and feeling is what is really important – at least to me – all the scales you know and all the music theory you know doesn’t mean anything to me unless the feeling is there.

Part of my musical training really has been to jump in the shark tank on a regular basis with players who are a lot better than I am.   Those are the guys I hire.  That has definitely helped my playing.   The best players keep working at it.  I was at a seminar with Sonny Rollins a while back.  He is over 80 and he still practices every day.  He is still trying to learn new things.  That’s why he’s one of my musical heroes.

Zzaj:  Despite the availability of all kinds of technical tools for making music these days, I still think that there has to be a degree of “talent” in a performer before they will ever make it… what do you think about that & why?

Scott:  There has to be some talent.   You can’t replace talent and hard work and emotion with technology.

On the positive side, technology had made recording a lot cheaper.  You can spend even a few hundred bucks on recording equipment and if you are really dedicated and bone up on some things, you can make a record.  You can distribute it digitally for almost nothing.   So technology has leveled the playing field in many ways.

Even 10 or 15 years ago, that wasn’t really happening.    I certainly benefited from technology when trying to make this record.  I was able to record some things at home and fuss around with the songs and experiment.

You can also use technology to study music and learn more.  There are all kinds of music lessons online.  There are tools that let you slow tunes down so that you can learn them.  All sorts of stuff.   But you still have to dig in and do the work.  If you do dig in, there are tools out there that can make it easier than it was 20 years ago.

I think the real problem is that technology has raised our expectations in terms of how quickly things happen.   More people want things instantly.  They want to be good at playing an instrument instantly.  That’s not going to happen.

Also, from a consumer standpoint, because of technology the amount of entertainment options available to are enormous.   I think that has impacted people’s willingness to get in their cars and drive out and hear live music, which is kind of a drag.    Though sometimes lately I felt like maybe there is a positive backlash, and more people are deciding to put down their computers or smart phones and go out and here some real people playing live music.   A few new clubs have opened up in DC that have live music, and things seem to be picking up a little.

I’m an optimist by nature.  I generally think advancing technology is good thing.  And even if it’s not, we are stuck with it, so we might as well make the best of it.

It’s not a new argument.  Probably some folks were having this same discussion when the phonograph and electric guitars came along.