Issue 134, INTERVIEW with Dr. Ira Wiggins
As soon as the first few notes issued forth from my speakers, I knew that Ira was someone I wanted to interview… not only because he’s the Director of Jazz Studies at North Carolina Central University (NCUU), but because his playing felt so “natural”… I want to thank both the promoter and Dr. Wiggins, not only for pulling this insightful and revealing interview together, but for doing it in such a short time span. Read on and learn more about this excellent jazz educator & player! Oh, you can purchase this CD, “When Freedom Swings“, at CD Baby (as well as Amazon & other outlets)
Zzaj: Our readers love to get to know artists we interview here on a kind of “personal” basis; please give us a spontaneous “bio” of where you came from, where you grew up, where you’ve been & where you believe you’re going.
Ira: I grew up in small farming community in rural Grifton, North Carolina where my parents were sharecroppers. In this environment, creativity was a necessity from making baseballs from the twine that was used in harvesting the tobacco crop to gloves made from the burlap sacks which were used to bag fertilizer and seeds. This was in addition to the basic survival necessities of living. My mother once told me that if we profited $200 for the entire year, that was a great year. As I state later, music was an essential part of our family outside of the farm work. My father passed away when I was seven and we moved to Kinston, NC three years later. My musical experience continued when I played with my brother Robert’s band from age 16 through my college years. Also, there were many great bands and musicians in Kinston including Maceo Parker and Nat Jones associated with James Brown as well as many local musicians who were in my peer group. The faculty in the Department of Music at NCCU was essential in my formal music education because I had no formal training before entering college including not being able to read music. Future plans include continuing to improve as a musician and teacher and have a positive impact of those with whom I interact.
Zzaj: I noticed that you have 15 (or more) albums with you on them… were those all after you joined NCCU, or were some of them before that? Either way, please give us a bit of insight as to how all those projects came about.
Ira: Most of these recordings happened after I returned to teach at NCCU.
Some of the projects resulted from being a session performer with members of the NCCU Jazz Studies faculty, local artists, a North Carolina based jazz repertory orchestra, sessions as a soloist for a local studio, and recording sessions with nationally known recording artist Nnenna Freelon.
Zzaj: In my view, the teaching of music in schools is one of the most important things in our culture; if you share that view, please tell us why… if not, or if you don’t think it has “that high” a priority, tell us why, please.
Ira: In the current educational and cultural climate in the United States much of the emphasis is being placed on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines. It is acknowledged that these disciplines are vital in a technological society, but I believe that a culture devoid of the arts affects our total humanity in a negative manner. One’s imagination, creativity, vision, compassion, expression, emotion and appreciation of diverse cultures are just a few experiences that are enhanced through the study of music and arts in general. Scientific research supports the fact that students who study music excel in whatever disciplines they eventually pursue. Therefore, my 26 year plus career of teaching at the public school and university levels has been vital to my development as a musician and person, and there is nothing more noteworthy than inspiring students through the study and performance of music.
Zzaj: What were your strongest musical influences when you were growing up? How did they change you as a person & as a player?
Ira: Growing up, my strongest musical influence was the family. My father was the manager of a group call the Red Toppers which included brothers Robert on drums and Marvin on saxophone. My brothers were teenagers and I was around five years old when the group would practice on our front porch. This was ongoing, for several years and I was always paying attention or in the way (smile) during the rehearsals. Ironically, between age six and seven, the group left a guitar behind one night and I began to pick out the melody to the tune Honky Tonk, a composition that they rehearsed many times as I stared at the guitarist. My mother did not ask me to put the instrument down so I continued. Ten years later, I played guitar in my brother Robert’s band (The Uptighters) at age sixteen at a time when I needed direction from many of the potential negative distractions that faced adolescents. This gave me focus and ambition. Robert posed a situation one day about making a living through music and going to work with my instrument. I decided to pursue a music education from that conversation. The experiences rehearsing and performing in Robert’s band along with coaching from my brother Marvin were as essential as my formal music training.
Zzaj: From all the things I’ve read about you, it seems that you love teaching music… how do you deal with someone who doesn’t really have a lot of musical talent… or do you believe that everyone has something to offer?
Ira: There are various levels of talent from genius to very little. The great equalizer is the discipline involving long hours of study and practice to maximize your skills. Over the years in my teaching at all levels, I have taught students with amazing ability and those who have minimal ability within the same ensemble. To insure that everyone had a positive experience, I tried to make sure that the total group concept allowed everyone to see their role as vital to the highest level of performance possible within a given performance. This teaches them that the group is more important than the individual while allowing them to realize that their contribution is important.
Zzaj: What new musical projects (NCCU-related, or just on a personal level) are you working on right now (& over the next couple of years)?
Ira: There are plans to record the NCCU Big Band and Vocal Jazz Ensemble during the 2013-14 academic year. Also, plans are in place to produce a live recording from the 1999 Montreux Jazz Festival performance in Switzerland and the 2009 Newport Jazz Festival performance. Additionally, I am working on a concept for my second recording. I have begun to compose and revise some compositions that I initially thought about including on the first recording.
Zzaj: I noticed (in your bio for NCCU) that your parents first bought you a drum set… how did you get from drums to reeds? Why?
Ira: My parents bought me a drum set at age five because they noticed that
I would often sit and watch Robert practice on the porch. This was the equivalent of a toy set but it was functional. From that point, every time that Robert would practice, I would set up beside him whether he wanted me to or not (again, in the way). Eventually, in our farming community, I was known as the little boy who played the drums. As stated above, the guitar started about two years later, and the saxophone began when my brother Marvin showed me some notes on the alto saxophone around age nine. I did not play the saxophone seriously until my freshman year of college. I originally intended to major on guitar but the guitar teacher was on sabbatical my freshman year so I decided to pursue the saxophone.
Zzaj: One of my most poignant musical experiences was an African “drum circle” in Richmond, Virginia, of all places… it was part of a poetry show there; I believe spoken word has a very important relationship with music of all sorts, but particularly jazz… do you agree with that? If so, give us a bit of explanation. If you don’t, please tell us why.
Ira: I spent six years in Richmond, Virginia pursuing a Masters in Performance at VCU, teaching and performing in local clubs (1980- 86). It was a great environment for me and an important training experience (“Hail to Richmond”). There is and always has been a strong correlation between music and language. History documents the significance of the talking drum in West African culture and jazz is a natural fit for the communicative and improvisational aspects for the collaboration of African drum, spoken word, and jazz. The spontaneity of the drum, poetry, and improvisation heightens the communication when all are combined. I strongly agree with your premise.
Zzaj: Where do you feel more comfortable? In a classroom teaching music? Or on a stage (or in studio) creating music? & if that’s a “ridiminous” question – please just say so ha! ha!
Ira: I feel comfortable in the classroom and the stage equally especially when I am prepared. I have to prepare for my lessons, ensemble rehearsals, composition and arranging courses in the same manner that I prepare for a live performance from my professional group. Although, I have been doing this for a long period of time, the confidence I need comes through constant practice, review, refinement and continual search for new ideas for performance. I am always searching for a variety ways to reach and adapt to new or diverse learning styles of students.
Zzaj: We have many aspiring artists in our reading audience… please give them a few words of advice about whether music (as a career) is worth the pursuit… and, if you have any views on it – what might make them successful?
Ira: In many cases, music chooses you for a career. I believe that eventually a commitment to music has to be long term and life-long. I encourage all students who have the musical talent, aptitude, desire, love, and discipline to pursue music as a career. All of those elements have to be considered in one’s decision making. Everyone is not going to perform like Coltrane or compose in manner of Ellington and that’s okay; there are plenty of successes at varying levels of the music profession. Initially, I never wanted to teach because of the allure of performance. However, I discovered while teaching in the K-12 public school system for three years that I had a knack for reaching young minds and inspiring them to succeed. Eventually, I discovered that the better teacher I was, the better performer I became. So, there are so many paths one can choose through music to make a difference in your life and others.