Issue 129 interview with Mark Masters (American Jazz Institute)

Mark Masters’ compositional works have been reviewed in our pages many times, but I hadn’t interviewed him, particularly in regard to his role as President of the American Jazz Institute.  Enjoy yourself as you read through his revelations about both composing and directing music!  Thanks for taking the time to do an interview with us, Mark!

Zzaj:  Mark, our readers like to know where a player “comes from”; please give us an idea how you wound up in California all the way from Indiana.

MM:  Moved to Redlands, California in the early 1960’s from Gary, Indiana.  Went to high school in Redlands, community college in Riverside, California where my first musical mentor, Roger Rickson, was teaching & then on to California State Univeristy at Los Angeles, where I studied with Bob Curnow.  I’ve lived in Pasadena, California since the early 1980’s.

Zzaj:  One of your bios (somewhere) indicated that you played trumpet; how did you wind up as a musical composer/director, as opposed to a player?

MM:  I played the trumpet for many years.  Roger Rickson knew before I did that the trumpet was not where I would end up.  He knew I would be putting notes on paper…. before I did.  The directing part is out of necessity, to get the music where I should like it…

Zzaj:  I would imagine that being a musical director has it’s share of challenges; how do you pull all the pieces together for a performance/piece?

MM:  Once I determine who is right for any given project, I become a travel agent and do my best to get all the right people together at the right time and in the right place… the project itself dictates who is required, and from there I narrow down the players to the ideal personnel

Zzaj:  I read in one of your bios that you also teach music.  Give us some insights into that.

MM:  Not teaching at the present… I was a guest lecturer at Claremont McKenna College for most of nine years. The administration had bigger plans which did not include a jazz history program for liberal arts students… I read that the school recently received tens of millions of dollars to follow their dream of becoming an athletic powerhouse

Zzaj:  In reading through your materials, I note that there is quite a bit of online marketing material out on some of your projects.  How involved are you in that?

MM:  With regard to the technical aspects of marketing, I am comfortably settled into the nineteenth century… others look after this part of the music business

Zzaj:  Since you founded “The American Jazz Institute“, I expect you’re the right person to ask… give us a bit of insight as to how AJI works.

MM:  The American Jazz Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, tax-exempt corporation that has existed since 1997.  The AJI’s efforts are to advance and promote jazz music throughout the world.  We maintain an ensemble (that changes, obviously, depending on the musical requirements needed) that plays mostly new, but in some cases archival, music.  The AJI’s office in Palm Desert, California archives printed music, photographs, taped interviews (oral histories), books, recordings, artwork and other jazz related materials.  The AJI raised money through three different series  (Pete Carlson’s JAZZ FOR JAZZ LOVERS, VICKY’S OF SANTA FE JAZZ SUPPER CLUB and THE LIVING DESERT:  JAZZOO) to provide scholarships to Coachella Valley music students.  The AJI has an internet radio site (at that board member Alan Schultz oversees, and the AJI supports REAL MUSIC COMES FROM MUSICIANS, an educational/awareness program that seeks to make the public aware of the increasing use of electronically generated music in genres and venues in which live music was once a very important factor.

Zzaj:  One reason our readers keep coming back is because they often get insights from the artists being interviewed into “what’s coming up”; please give us such for any project(s) you may have coming up.

MM:  The next project is the music of Walter Becker and Donal Fagen in a setting that includes soloists Tim Hagins, Billy Harper, Sonny Simmons, Gary Foster, Oliver Lake, Gary Smulyan and Peter Erskine with brass and woodwinds.  I have reconfigured their music into an often harmonically free setting.  The recording includes several of their iconic songs as well as some of the lesser known material.  The recording also features, on several tracks, the very unique vocalist Anna Mjoll, from Iceland.  I endeavored to not just arrange Becker and Fagen’s music for a big band, but to essentially start over with just the melodic material and re-compose so everything is a new statement.

Zzaj:  What’s your motivation?  Is it the money or the love of music that drives you in the directions you take?

MM:  Yes, it must be love of music that continues to drive all this… I have yet to see the money… Jimmy Knepper told me many years ago that “the worse the money, the better the music.”  Speaking of Jimmy Knepper… yes he is a musical hero as is Billy Harper (a very under-rated composer).  I had a chance to work with Jack Montrose quite a few times before he passed.  Jack was very influential in that in our conversations; we discussed what “the creative process” was and Jack is the one who really allowed me to think in different ways about musics that were, and continue to be, very important to me.  Bill Russo was very important to me at the beginning.  I think Russo was one of the true giants in orchestration and composing.  John La Porta was a friend as was Dewey Redman.  Gary Foster is a wonderful mentor and a friend.  Gary’s solo on the Becker/Fagen recording coming out in the spring of 2013 is beyond magical.

Zzaj:  Do you believe, as I do, that music is a very important cultural force?

MM:  Yes, I do believe that music is a very important cultural asset!  It’s too bad that more people are not exposed to beautiful music…. when was the last time you came to a stop light and the car next to you was playing Bartok’s CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA… never?  Well, there’s your answer.  I think we can reach young people and at least give them the option of positive music, but as a stoic, I’m not sure we’re not like salmon swimming upstream trying to avoid the guy with the club.

Zzaj:  Would like your advice for any in our readership who are thinking of pursuing music as a career.

MM:  I’ve found that giving advice is not for me!  But… if anyone feels that making music is their calling then they must find a way to answer… it may not be as a full time player trying to make a living at it… there are many people who are wonderful players who do not count on music to pay their bills. One has to find their niche...