I was distressed when Eric Lewis left a negative comment at A Blog Supreme bouncing off of my criticism of the Monk Institute Competition. After I said as much, Eric and I connected through Twitter. We agreed that I should ask him some questions for DTM.
It's an honor to present such forthright contemporary history on my blog!
1. I first heard you playing wonderfully well on The Magic Hour with Wynton Marsalis. Describe your path of your earlier, “straight-ahead” career and how you got to play with Wynton.
I started classical piano lessons at home at the age of 2 or 3. I first met Wynton at a concert of his in my hometown of Camden, NJ when I was about 13. At that time, I didn't know how to improvise effectively, however, my teacher, Gerald Price, and I worked out an arrangement of "Lush Life" for me to perform and look hip while I was waiting for my Jazz teeth to come in. So after getting cussed out backstage, in the band trailer, for proclaiming that I liked Chick Corea's Electric Band record, Marcus Roberts was assigned to listen to me play and give me a critique. So I played "Lush Life" and was told to check out Bach's Well Tempered Clavier and Monk's music after receiving a bit of a pat on the back for my embryonic playing. I was deeply affected by how the mystique of New York meshed with the expensive suits and the high minded, semi-militant Afro swagger of those jazzmen -- as well as the fact that two of the prettiest cheerleaders from the high school I was illegally attending (out of district by 40 miles) had come to Camden to see young Marsalis swing.
So from then on I was sold on New York and Monk and suits. And I wanted to prove to Wynton that I would become a bad mofo on my instrument, even to the point of playing in his band. And it all happened.
Here's a photo from that fateful night:
If you manage to scour through the Origins of ELEW pt 1 and pt 2, you will find shots of me with everyone from Billy Eckstine to Kenny Kirkland to James Baldwin.
Here's what a typical Marsalis Youth moment looked like:
Notice I went from sweatshirt and baseball cap to suit and tie. I was into the change, at the time.
Moving forward, I won the Rodger's and Hammerstein Full Scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music and was accepted into the studio of Jaki Byard, with whom I studied. I kept in touch with Wynton and following graduation and a tour with Cassandra Wilson, drummer Ali Jackson (who I'd met during my tenure as house pianist for the epic Craig Bailey jam sessions at the Dean Street Cafe in Brooklyn) recommended me to play with Wynton's unit. I became one of Wynton's pianists. Over time, I recorded 6 or more small group records with him and some film scores and J@LC Orchestra recordings. My Magic Hour work with the Skain-ish One is a fine example of the types of contrapuntal and micro-polyrhythmic initiatives I favor, experimenting within Swing (...especially when things aren't swinging that hard for whatever reason). A good example of my swingingest work with Wynton can be heard on his Live at the House of Tribes gem. My solo on "What Is This Thing Called Love" was pretty well done. (Video is on YouTube.)
I'd also recommend checking out my work with him on his poignant Jack Johnson document, Unforgivable Blackness.
Along with recording and touring with Cassandra Wilson (Traveling Miles was a fun record and HBO special), I toured with Jon Hendricks, who told me great stories about growing up in Toledo with Art Tatum as a neighbor and boyhood pal. Touring with Elvin Jones for two years was beyond epic. Whole different conversation to be had there. After Elvin was Roy Hargove briefly before finishing up the apprenticing with a final bit of Marsalis/LCJO work.
2. When Ted Panken played me a track of you and Clark Terry together for a blindfold test, I couldn’t guess who it was: You were playing virtuosic stride piano, and I hadn’t heard you play that way yet. Is it important for all jazz pianists to learn some stride?
"Importance " as well as some of the other words that are going to come up soon, set the tone for debate. Debate is such a luxury at times.
Suffice it to say that if a pianist wants to get the comfy, well-paying gig with Wynton, they will first need to accrue the physical and emotional acumen to execute stride piano playing. And, if they happen to get the Wynton gig and are subpar in the stride piano department, their employment will be put at risk by some other pianist who can play stride piano. The point is ....tools do what tools do. The usage of the term "Importance " to me implies something pursuant the endeavors concerning human survival or artistic achievement. Having made a point about keeping a rent gig, when it comes to artistic achievement, stride piano provides a useful foundation for genre - centric left hand implementation. Left hand Oom-Pah derivatives and comping variants are rather ubiquitous in jazz piano performance practice today, so one's assimilation of said proxy and protocol remains a factor in determining the extent of one's success in efforts of contrapuntal synchrony or the efficient delineation of tension harmony, as in the Blues. Powell, Monk, Garner and Tatum employed left hand configurations with rhythmic acumen and idiomatic aplomb. It came from Stride. And also Boogie Woogie. Which are both technical forerunners of my Rockjazz piano method.
3. I’ve heard it said that you were the favorite for winning the Monk Institute Competition. Tell us how you worked on winning the comp, how the judging went down, and what happened for your career as a result.
I didn't know or think that I was considered a "favorite" in the political sense. In the aftermath of it all I was inclined to believe that I was not the "favorite" but overcame the politics of winning the prize thru the sheer force of compelling playing. But let's save that for a moment.
My preparation was multi-platformed. I had a home-made international spy network sending me bootleg recordings of the other competitors so that I could analyze their strengths and weakness. I studied the playing styles of the judges to best guess what kind of playing they would want to hear. I mentally conditioned myself to believe that everyone in the contest would sound as emotionally compelling and technically dominating as Art Tatum. I designed my repertoire based upon the idea that most would try to impress the judges with obscure Monk tunes. So I prepared the most famous Monk tunes. I figured most would do 2 songs with the rhythm section, so I only used the rhythm section on one song. I figured most would use the rhythm section for their uptempo piece so I did my uptempo piece solo (which clinched me a spot in the Finals. It was my rendition of "Cherokee"). I figured most would play one Monk tune and then play other composers' pieces, so with the exception of "Cherokee," I played all Monk tunes. I played my medium tempo tunes as fast as everyone's uptempo tunes, and my uptempo was faster than that and it was solo piano with stride to boot. My slow tempo was also slower than everyone's. I was the only one to play a Monk blues and it was "Blue Monk" which was a big hit at the finals. For the cheering audience at least.....
Here's the arrangement of "Cherokee" with me in my LCJO Brooks Bros suit, overweight, with a campy intro from Wynton and a primitive video (more about that in a minute). And yeah, yeah, I know. Notes notes etc. Whatever. I won with it. And I certainly needed that win....
The judging process was a bit nerve-wracking and I'm glad that it worked in my favor. When I was on America's Got Talent I was reminded of that feeling. I was a chess gambler at the time of my Monk trial and had a sizable debt waiting to be paid as well as at 26, I had just quit Wynton's band amid frustration with his way with me, depression and panic attacks. With no big gigs happening, I needed things to go my way and the process of watching others decide my fate was a bit creepy.
Following the win, shaping forces came into my career that finally would lead to ELEW. I was led on and blown off by Herbie regarding some deal he was going to set me up with. The then-president of Verve, Richard Seidel, who approached me at the competition, never followed thru with me. Bob Belden, who was at one point doing A&R for Blue Note, had already seen to officially blowing me off after I had met with Bruce Lundvall so the Blue Note avenue was already closed by the time I won the Monk. (At the office, Belden played Kevin Hays' record with Dejohnette and was smugly explaining to me how my homemade demo didn't sound warm enough...) The Times' article on my Monk win was unenthusiastic. Jazz journals made no real feature about my win. So....that was that. No-one was impressed. I did get called to record a track on Clark Terry's One on One ("Liza") and maybe a performance at Wolftrap.
After I paid my street debt, I got the Elvin Jones call and life was moved forward. Two years of father and son exchanges. I was the Sorcerer's Apprentice. But I was getting close to 30 and while Keiko and Elvin were tranquilly just finishing out his career, I had yet to truly get mine going as a leader. I had to quit that band amid the unfulfilled promises of recordings with Elvin and a Yamaha Piano endorsement. I ran into Hargrove at a jam session and learned he needed a piano player. So after we recorded Jimmy Cobb's "Purple Haze" record with Michael Brecker, I joined his band. It was an educational, exciting, turbulent and sophomoric 3 months before I quit amid differences with management. I rejoined Wynton and the LCJO for the last time, having mastered my mind and instrument far more, thanks to Elvin, and the former adolescent clashes with Wynton subsided..... mostly. I was able to do some good work for the man and have always and conceivably will always, along with a host of others, appreciate him as THE Jazz Artist of the Turn of the Century.
But the Monk win has been a saving grace for me at the authenticity level. While the jazz gatekeepers and covert naysayers have done their filibustering, suppressing and dismissing of my work, none can argue or dilute the fact that I won the Monk Competition, and no matter who I mention that win to, it carries decisive, validating weight. Had I not won, the ELEW brand initiative would have had much tougher weeds to cut back in the outside world where people only care about winners, solid credentials and capitalistic bottom lines.
Four years after the Monk, I actually made a record called Hopscotch which was pretty cool in places but the indie producer/label president screwed up the distribution and humiliated me with his video techniques. I became more desperate than ever after that debacle. I was pretty overweight too.
Here's "Pinocchio" (brace for humiliating video work).
4. Many in the jazz community were astonished by the emergence of ELEW. To many, it looked like you were selling out and going for the money, but I suspected you were actually embracing something you wanted to do all along. How did ELEW happen, why did you do it, and what has happened for your career as a result? If you feel like talking about this, who has accepted ELEW and who hasn’t?
OK, let's see if I can convey this information efficiently. There is a lot to categorize and many points of reference to integrate succinctly.
A. Key challenges - Age, glass ceilings, Physique
While in what would be my last contract with Wynton's LCJO, we played in various millionaires and billionaire residences etc. He was doing fundraising for the Time - Warner Headquarters. It was my first time being around individuals with that type of wealth. In Wynton's band you get to meet people from Hollywood to the White House on out to International politicians and captains of industry. But having just gotten out of chess debt (for the last time) I was far more sensitive than before to the economics of Life. I was turning 30 and my twenty-something-major-label-jazz-record-deal-getting chances looked deader than Dillinger. Which pissed me off. Because I was getting hard-earned respect from Master musicians and thrilling audiences yet getting no shots for an independent career from the jazz gatekeepers who were passing on me.
And even when Wynton got around to feeling enough conviction to stop calling me crazy and somewhat champion my cause, it was ineffective. He once brought me to George Wein's apartment to get that guy to give me a shot, and afterwards nothing happened.
Consider my astonishment. How could I win competitions, thrill audiences, tour and record with the Masters yet be regarded as a bum steer by the jazz industry heads? Of course, there were certain musicians creating blocks behind the scenes at the social level. I was more into the Music than keeping up with the social needs of the industry execs and their sycophants. While hanging at the Zinc Bar, A&R men would try to get me to disclose personal things about other musicians etc. I NEVER played that game with those types and since they had corporate position and influence they punished my blowing them off socially, by blowing me off professionally. Plus there were plenty musicians that were fine and mellow with being social with those touristy types so I wasn't missed. Or needed for that matter.
Oh, yeah. Let's not forget. I was overweight. Not marketably like Cyrus Chestnut I suppose, but fatter than most all of the signed pianists. I didn't want to believe it could be that shallow. Never wanted to believe that for all the meritocratic rhetoric about jazz INTEGRITY, it was just about powerful friends and/ or projected sexiness, no different from the Pop industry. Now this component of the music business doesn't have to be demonized, but I think the people who never bothered to tell me where I was going wrong, suck, frankly. (I look good now tho. Sexy even. Took a while.)
B. Pivotal individuals - the Aspirant, the Eccentric, the Mighty One
On one of the Marsalis fundraising trips to LA I met the husband of a very rich lady. He was pretty demure. The next time I saw him was at the grand opening of the J@LC facility. He was freakishly Eccentric. His wife had passed away and he was partying like a rockstar with the money. He caught me backstage and complained that Wynton didn't let me really show my talent on the show and that he wanted to hear me play the way I had at his wife's home, where I really opened up on everyone and just plain threw down. So by this time, all of the chess hustler training was deeply ingrained in me, from spotting opportunity to exploiting it. I was still running the jam session at Cleopatra's Needle so we jumped into his limo and hung there. After that, he introduced me to his rich lady friend who in turn introduced me to Lee Iacocca. Suddenly I was socializing with icons and wealthy individuals completely outside of the Wynton sphere. But this time I had enough understanding to make sure I took care and jubilantly fostered those non-music relationships.
Meanwhile I had a young fellow by the name of Rylan Smith, become a fan of mine. There is a club called HR-57 in DC that kept me working during the period just before and right after the break from Wynton. I sometimes would sleep on the couch there after the gig to save on hotel costs etc. Anyway, Rylan was the Aspirant. He was a college kid per se but he was also a salesman. He refused to accept that I should give up my dreams of a big phat solo career and he wanted to be a part of it and get us highly PAID thru it. He became my first manager. Entourage was on TV and we began to act like we were living it. That optimistic camaraderie helped my wounded self-esteem.
While still at the LCJO, I lost a bunch of weight amid a breakup with a girlfriend. I was looking good and started getting some rhythm from a lovely lady in the office. She was just flirting but I still was game to chase her. She expressed her admiration for my energetic performances nite after nite with Skain and coyly hinted that there had to be some way for me to get my career going. One night she invited me to a lounge and when I walked in, she was dancing with the individual who would change my life most profoundly. The Mighty One. Nancy J Hirsch. The young lady from the office used to work for her at Nancy's PR Firm. Nancy had already been told of me and wanted me to perform at J@LC in some clothes of one of her fashion clients. That basic collaboration led to more and more collaborations and familiarizations with her company and my skill set.
The Aspirant didn't last as my manager due to a gross screw up that the Mighty One had to fix for me. Shortly thereafter, Nancy became my manager and Publicist. The Eccentric has disappeared.
C. the ELEW Initiative - mechanics, implementation, backlash, success
So. I have to believe that I've given adequate attention and detail regarding the not-so-ideal harmony between my former jazzworld ambitions and the receptivity of that pre iPod, Tower Records, jazz community/industry. Should be clear.
Moving forward. After quitting LCJO for the final time amid indifference and apathy towards my attempts to make an independent name for myself, I went to war. I quit mollycoddling my fear of reprisals from the "jazz community". The idea of being broke but rich with "jazz integrity" became beyond abhorrent to me.
ESPECIALLY SINCE PRETTY MUCH ANY AND EVERYTHING SWINGING AND NON_SWINGING HAD PASSED FOR JAZZ FOR QUITE SOME TIME BY THEN.
I come from Camden, NJ. Brutality and Poverty are native to the city. There was a child beheaded by his suicidal dope fiend mother around the corner from my mother's house. Crackheads stealing copper wires out of the lampposts. Machine gun deaths in the alley behind Mom's home. That kind of stuff is a vivid reminder that at the end of the day, I either have people helping me or leaving me to the wolves. So I became determined to take care of my primary investor, Nancy, and to Muspelheim with the rest.
Now, after I noticed that the rock angle was the way to go for me, given my emotional connection to the cutting lyrics found in it, along with the genre's marketable use of blazing instrumental improvisation, and because Mehldau and the Bad Plus had gotten such industry kudos for their deconstructionist spins on mainstream covers, I knew that I would get all kinds of "jazz community" backlash etc. when I finally began to get my more mainstreamy, straightforward versions of the fusion going.
So I went underground, as Wynton put it. To physically master my conception, to experiment with various instrumental formatting of the playing style (the Ratliff NYT article documented a less academically successful night during one of those band experiments before the concept was very ready for critical evaluation. However that is the nature developing a concept in public. Some will be somewhat more patient with failures than others but that fact is a thing to experience and celebrate as a mature participant in the Arts, no matter the degree of initial dismay), to prepare the industrial attack and bide my time like Ivan the Terrible. For a couple years. And by the way, I never moved to LA. Please smack R. Glasper for spreading that rumor because it's all I hear: "Hey man, I heard you moved to LA."
What happened was that while most assumed I had dropped out of the scene to professionally languish in post Marsalis limbo, I was quietly absorbing and being absorbed into the worlds of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the Obama Campaign, Nascar and High Fashion. It was those quiet alliances that continue to provide my team with opulent business opportunities.
Anyway, it was all starting to crystallize by the time I went sans band. Playing guitar power chords on piano was physically reminiscent of playing McCoy Tyner. Playing rhythm guitar patterns and rock singer screams was physically reminiscent of playing Erroll Garner. Plugging in emotional content was no problem. All else was technically echoing blues piano or Euro-classical preludes and fugues. Rounded out by Ragtime/parade oriented duple beat patterns, where the endurance developed in stride piano training came in handy again. The lyrics and energy of the rock tunes facilitated my sharing of pain, loss, joy and defiance thru a medium and a sound that was immensely gratifying to mainstream audiences.
The familiarity of the tunes brought the audiences' perceptual ears into a position to further appreciate my variations in the music, no matter how slight. I could improvise for 2 minutes or 2 seconds and be equally appreciated as an improviser. With the increasing momentum around my conceptual shift, I pursued more experimentation with the art of Branding and Marketing. I changed my name to ELEW in accordance with a branding book, to be further absorbed into the mainstream psyche like other celeb instrumentalists such as Kenny G, Yanni, Liberace -- or even Rachmaninoff and Liszt for that matter. I named my extroverted post-Boogie Woogie, piano centric genre, Rockjazz, to distance and distinguish it, for my potential clients, from the either nostalgic but geriatric brand image of jazz or the achingly academic yet snobbishly casual brand image of jazz. I donned Armor and began to adopt a benchless Stance to be in associative brand congruence with the rock guitar player tradition. The photographers loved it. And suddenly my audiences became more and more diverse. Hollywood celebs started showing up. Supermodels. Silicon Valley tycoons. But also construction workers, social workers and military personnel all looking to rock out with the ever stalwart ELEW. And then more calls started coming in for high-end private performances. I was finally able to earn my compensation in a way that surprisingly became just as gratifying and academically interesting as the former ecstasies I had known with Cassandra and Hendricks and Wynton and Roy and Elvin.
Nancy and I became busy little bees during those two years before the CNN feature on me awoke my native "jazz community." The critical backlash from the jazz world finding out in full what I was into was upsetting at first, mainly because I was still working on making the style sound really good and smooth so I knew what they were hearing but couldn't fix it. But I also knew that the vitriol had its roots in competitive dispositions. I was stepping on the toes of Authorities who felt comfy being in charge of classifying stuff in Jazz. I had hacked the socio-economic mainframe. And the Rockjazz brand was mine. My business technique was being furnished with a premium level of mainstream media recognition. Egos, hubris and opinions vainly spiked for a short moment, etc.
People don't often realize how powerful a thing is until they experience the results of neglecting to effectively employ it. Branding. A completely essential, overwhelmingly powerful tool. The ancient Africans were the last to discover gunpowder. They paid dearly for their lack of information regarding the technology that would eventually be used against them. Kenny G outbranded the traditional jazz players so severely that he became the populace's idea of what or who a Jazz player was, much to the impotent chagrin of the Jazz community. And they didn't learn from his success either. The IAJE brand managed to go broke, depriving the jazz world of a sorely needed outpost while Kenny G sold hundreds of millions and bought a plane. And Starbucks.
ELEW Rockjazz Vol. 1 was the top selling jazz cd for CD Baby. We had no major American distributor but we did have AVEX in Japan. It was on my label, NINJAZZ. I toured it internationally and made fun videos. After becoming a Paradigm Agency artist and appearing on America's Got Talent, Josh Groban selected me to open for him in arenas throughout North America. I had the great impish pleasure of playing "Inner Urge" at Madison Square Garden in front of traditional American grandmothers and mothers and girls dolled up to go to a cotillion. Oddly, Lil Wayne's people got wind of me from that tour and checked out my new record. And so now our duet will be heard on his new record I Am Not Human 2.
ELEW Rockjazz Vol. 2 is out and pleasing the fans. And sounds great. There's lots of cool video stuff happening plus I'm in my best physical condition ever and playing great. And the fun just keeps comin.
So in the end, everyone has played their part right out of a movie script: angel investors, stalwart supporters, masters, fans, haters, paramours, mentors, rivals, critics etc.
As far as who likes me or my work and doesn't, my latest recording and my Facebook page photos will give anyone interested a fair taste of what my current music and lifestyle is composed of. And who likes it. My detractors have been pretty public so a Google search or Twitter search will reveal them rather neatly.
I'm a regular at NY jam sessions but I've never had an actual encounter with a musician or critic bluntly attacking me etc... but I'd probably like it.
Anyways, Jazz beefs tend to get sorta pathetic. Mastercard, take me away. I scare some NYC taxi drivers because of what they interpret about my intentions towards them, as a so-called Black guy. So they don't pick me up. Some pick me up and take me where I want to go with no hesitation or fear. So it is and so it shall be, conceivably. I'm happy to talk piano technique, jazz theory and the occasionally incisive debates about what I'm doing are super fun. Im also happy to not suit some peoples tastes, at times. I don't suit my own tastes, at times. No big deal.
5. I wrestle with this last question myself: What are the dangers and benefits in playing many styles and many ways?
Exercising the fingers along with perceptual reflex pathology is good regardless of musical format if we are purely talking piano for piano's sake. Try it all, I say. In every direction there is knowledge. There is only benefit.
Danger comes when we introduce the element of branding. Are you tired of hearing that word yet? I am tired of saying it. Trying to manage the marketplace expectations is more than a slack notion. It is a critical skill.
The customer wants to know what to expect from the vendor. What are you selling?, says the customer. The shrewd vendor needs to quickly and ever efficiently, disambiguate themselves to their potential customer before the potential customer works with a different vendor.
I consider anything that can bring a threat to the implementation of my industrial tools, a Danger.
I thank you Ethan for your invitation to present my sentiments and reflections.
I dig your blog and how you truly endeavor to Do the Math on our beloved Art form, Jazz.
Best to you, Broheim