Jazz interview with jazz clarinetist Joseph Howell. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Joseph Howell: – I believe it was during my junior high years that four things got me really into earlier forms of jazz: First I loved ragtime after seeing The Sting (with the clarinet being a prominent voice in the soundtrack version of The Entertainer); then I heard a great dixieland band in New Orleans Square at Disneyland; there was an episode of Young Indiana Jones wherein he meets Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and other famous early jazz musicians; and PBS aired Jazz ’34 which was like a 30 minute music video featuring the music acts from the movie Kansas City. I grew up in Porterville, California. In elementary schools there, at least at the time, students were required to take some sort of music class and I wound up playing clarinet, starting in 4th grade…though I had little to no interest in it until those things I mentioned above inspired me in junior high.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the clarinet?
JH: – I actually didn’t pick the clarinet. I picked the saxophone but the school district didn’t have a school instrument for me to play (my parents couldn’t afford an instrument at the time) and they only had clarinets available. When I got into jazz, I started noticing the doubling thing and was glad I started on clarinet because saxophone is easy to pick up if you start with clarinet.
JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the clarinet?
JH: – Before I went to college I was mostly self-taught. I practiced a lot and went online to learn little tidbits as I could (my family had one computer and it was dial up, and the internet didn’t have nearly as much stuff back then … but it was still great) … and would also look for books about the clarinet, or jazz, etc. As far as college went, my teachers at CSU Nortridge were very good at giving students a very no-nonsense set of skills aimed at getting-the-job-done. They made jazz students complete two years of full classical lessons and ensembles before letting them go into jazz. My clarinet teacher, Julia Heinen, was great and the best thing she gave me was a set of organized warmups that not only maintain but build your technique over time. The jazz program there was mostly about very strict voiceleading with guidetones and such. Overall, I’d say CSUN ironed out some of my weird imbalances from being first self taught. Then, for my Masters at SDSU, Rick Helzer was great at letting me feel free to play more colorfully and outside the box, which is more to my personality, especially at that time. I additionally kept my classical chops going then, and studied my doubles more. At New England Conservatory, where I completed my jazz doctorate, I got to study with Bergonzi and Garzone. Jerry Bergonzi is the biggest genius of jazz teaching on the planet. His approach is to thoroughly investigate every possible combo of everything, letting you decide, in the end, which of those things will bleed into your playing, etc. George Garzone had such a nice freeing vibe and was good at reminding me to leave space and play melodically at least some haha.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JH: – Although I’ve refined it over time, and the range of all of it has expanded over time as well, my sound has been the same since high school or so. To get to that point in high school, I used to spend hours in my bedroom staring in the mirror and playing long notes. I wanted a big clarinet sound with lots of overtones, and was obsessed with having a homogenous timbre from one note to the next. When you actually play music, all of the action (dynamics, articulation, leaps, etc) cuts down on your tone and the evenness, so the idea is to start with as good a canvas as possible.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JH: – The key is to do all warmups, technical exercises, and really everything, with a metronome. I do long tones for the air, scales for the fingers, tongued scales for the tongue, and then scale and chord patterns for the imagination-to-execution connection. All of these are done with the metronome, and all of these are repeated at many different tempos.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
JH: – I’ve studied all of the typical jazz harmonic vocabularies and I enjoy all of them. But one special area that I delve into from time to time, and perhaps unique—especially for a jazz clarinetist – is liberal application of diminished scale, augmented scales, and even double harmonic major scales. I’m an exoticist and love to paint with harmonic colors. I also enjoy using bigger intervals. Sometimes I’ll even play a bunch of stuff with mostly, if not all, major seventh and minor ninth intervals as melodic sources. Sometimes I find these within the chord changes of a tune (the 7th and 13th of a dominant chord would create such an interval for example) and other times I use them to create dissonance for it’s own color. I seldom, if ever, actually just randomly play “out,” I almost always have a scale to chord corellation in my head, even if it’s a bit of a stretch, such as playing Bb, A, and Ab major triads as a triad trio over a C7 chord.
JBN.S: – Which are the best ten jazz albums for you this 2017 year?
JH: – I’m honestly not following the new jazz albums much. I don’t feel like I fit in with the fads in NYC. My favorites will always be the Coltranes, etc.
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
JH: – Jazz is really only a business for like four people, haha. For the rest of us, it’s something you do on your own dime in your own time. It’s best to branch out and have plenty of different musical skills and musically-related skills to make money with. The easiest way to make at least some money is to teach music lessons.
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
JH: – I honestly doubt it. Jazz is an acquired taste. Most of the things I love are.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are over half a century old?
JH: – Our culture worries too much about young people as a target. Young people grow up eventually haha. Jazz is not going to be the “next hot thing.” I’m not interested in chasing the next hot thing, honestly. I’m interested in meaningful things. If something’s meaningful to enough people it has staying power anyhow. At least with improvising art forms you can breathe new life into, and even completely transform, older repertoire every single time you perform.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JH: – I’m not sure, haha.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
JH: – Unfortunately for those of us who have devoted huge portions of our lives to jazz, less and less people seem to appreciate jazz. Hopefully we can all find meaningful ways to financially support ourselves and our families while also finding people to play jazz with and projects to put out.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
JH: – My first CD, JAZZ CLARINET NOW, was a very ambitious album of originals, with a few that were very complex. My second CD, TIME
MADE TO SWING, is pretty much the opposite: a blowing session on swinging standards (although the solos build to points that are just as complex and colorful). For my next project, when and if I can afford to record again, I think I should either do something more in the middle of those extremes or make a two-parter. My strength as a jazz musician is my soloing over standards and how many colors I can build there … but people really seem to get something more from my colorful compositions, which are always a headache to solo on, haha.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
JH: – To my knowledge, while these other styles use improvisation, the language / approach is quite different. Some of them are really just adding ornamentation, others have such strict improvising rules that it’s not as open, etc. The focus on groove, and the freer, wilder, louder approach to wind instrument sounds—as compared to western classical – are some common grounds.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JH: – Let’s see, while doing cardio (the main time I listen to music) I’ve been listening to various selections by guys like: John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Jerry Bergonzi, Michael Brecker, and Oscar Peterson.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
JH: – I usually play on my Clark Fobes Cicero 12 mouthpiece, on my Buffet R13. If I need to play really loud I use my Vandoren 5JB mouthpiece. I also love my Ridenour Lyrique rubber clarinet: once I find time to get it fixed up again I might play it as often as the Buffet!
JBN.S: – And if you want, you can congratulate jazz and blues listeners on Christmas and Happy New Year.
JH: – Thanks for listening to, and supporting, jazz and blues! Hopefully, if you come across my music, you will like it! Happy Holidays!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan