May 18, 2024

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Interview with Steve Hobbs: My release is skyrocketing: Video

Jazz interview with a bad musician, as if vibraphonist, problematic person Steve Hobbs. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Steve Hobbs: – Born and raised in Raleigh NC in 1956. ? My parents were professional ballroom dancers and I was exposed to Latin Ballroom music and Top 40 dance music and dance at a young age. I left priat Catholic school in sixth grade to pursue public school band programs which were top notch at the time.  My parents had a weekly TV show they hosted on WTVD/Durham that was a teenage dance show.  My friend down the street father played piano in a popular Dixieland Jazz Band in Raleigh.  My friend Al and I were accompanying his dad by our early teens and were playing in various rock bands around town.  I  Left private Catholic school in sixth grade to pursue public school band programs.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the marimba and vibraphon? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose theyour musical instrument? 

SH: – I was a trumpet player and percussionist in school bands. Xylophone came easy because of my trumpet background.  With my trumpet background my sense of melody transferred to vibes via melodica very well.  My high school drum set teacher Steve Clements let me play his vibraphone my senior year.  I loved playing that thing!  I was salivating all over the instrument!  Once I decided to pursue vibes   I used melodica as the transfer medium between trumpet and vibes because it required breath and phrasing like trumpet.  I was playing melodica in ensembles at Berklee as well as vibes.  Having to blow in to trumpet and melodica forced me to breathe leaving space between my phrases, a characteristic that many, even some of the leading vibraphonists don’t have.   I think I was the only vibraphonist at Berklee that did not study with Gary Burton.  Although I loved his playing I thought all his students sounded like cheap imitations of him which made me fear that my original style might get crunched.  There was only one other vibist from Berklee that got a good record contract besides me.  That was Phillipe Saisse with Polydor.  I was with Candid/Warner Brothers.  Neither of us sounded like Gary.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound? 

SH: – I began playing by ear on trumpet and vibes with Allman Brothers, Kool and the Gang, Earth Wind and Fire records, George Benson funky jazz records (Body Talk and Beyond the Blue Horizon)… as my ears began to improve I transcribed a lot of Chet Baker, Chic Corea, Michael Brecker  and Woody Shaw.  There were two pianists who influenced me in my hometown, Elmer Gibson and Chip Crawford, as well as tenor sax man Rodney Marsh.  Aside from Coltrane Marsh was the best sax man to come out of North Carolina.  He was doing Michael Brecker stuff before Michael….. and of course the late great tenor titan, Jim Crawford, who was also  based in Raleigh.  So between early playing and listening to records it was evident pretty early on that I had my own sound.    In fact  Jim Crawford who was my first real music mentor, was concerned that I would lose my sound if I went to Berklee.  I am not sure why but some players just seem to have their own sound even before they start studying theory.  Other players on the other hand are mimickers……some are in between.  But most I have found are one way or the other.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

SH: – I am blessed in that I was told to work with a metronome early on.  I work with it in many ways….clicking on all beats, clicking on 1 and 3 in 4/4, time, clicking on 2 and 4 in 4/4 time and just clicking on beat one in any time signature.  I try to hide the click when playing notes on the beat.  I also can subdivide my Dr. Beat into eighth notes and triplets.  I can play with a musician for less than a minute and I can tell whether or not they work with a metronome.  There are people with perfect pitch, but nobody has perfect time, not even Keith Copeland, or Stevie Wonder.   In my youth and middle aged years I practiced a lot of arpeggios, and working through major and minor II-V-I progressions (always with a metronome of course).  I played along with records.  I played gigs all the time….anything from playing in front of 25,000 people to playing the grand opening of a McDonald’s restaurant.  Play, Play, Play….I also sat in with older players when invited.  I spent a LOT of time learning standards and playing them in all keys.  I read the lyrics, and often memorize them and sing them before learning the tune.  Mike Mainieri is the only vibist I have met that probably knows more standards than me. Currently,   In my 50’s and 60’s I have rarely practiced on vibes/marimba at all, but continue to compose and learn tunes by ear with CD player and piano….piano transfers nicely to vibes.  I also transpose tunes in my head when I am driving.  My ears have gotten so good over the years that I usually can hear a chord progression without needing a piano or vibe to figure it out.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? 

SH: – I am currently studying the Messian modes…..very exotic.  I had actually been playing lines derived from these modes for years by listening to Woody Shaw, Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton, George Cables, and Chic Corea without realizing the ideas originally came from Messian.   As of late I have been on line checking out my old composition teacher Ron Miller.  He has interesting concepts on piano.  I also like the Dean of Music at University of Miami, pianist Shelly Berg….I love his trio playing and the way he shapes solos.  I also experiment a lot with chords over chords in a pan triadic format, but most of all I just play in the moment using my ear to extrapolate from what other guys are playing or to develop my first few unplanned notes in motives.   I also trade harmonic ideas with a pianist here in Raleigh named Austin Johnson, who is a 34 year old monster.   When I get on stage, I don’t think about what I practice.  I don’t practice on days of gigs … cause if I do I end up playing premeditated stuff instead of forming my lines off what the bass man, drummer and chord player (if there is one) are playing.   Practice is good, but I don’t do it on days of gigs, unless I have to play some brand of vibraphone that I am not used to playing…..if I have to play a brand of vibraphone other than Yamaha I will run scales and riffs without looking at the bars to get a feel for the instrument just before show time.   I can play my Yamahas with my eyes closed and often do…. Yamaha, Musser, Deagan, Premier, and all the other vibe companies all have different sized bars which is totally insane.  The various piano companies all make the piano keys the same width.  Why mallet companies are not universal is beyond me…..I have been suggesting to Yamaha (who I endorse) to come to terms with other companies …

JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you this 2017 year?

SH: – Wow, that is so hard to answer… I am leery about using the word “best.” All I can say is  I think Steve Nelson’s Brothers Under the Sun is very good.  Like me Steve’s playing has honesty and vulnerability.  He can do all the harmonic stuff and chops stuff like some of the trendier players, but his melodic and I stress melodic and motific development make him one of the most musical vibists of all times. I am not sure this can be learned. Any player can learn sequences and patterns… I relate to  Steve’s playing the most of any of the living mallet players that I have heard. I would love to do a recording with him on vibes and me on marimba … We are both way too musical to turn it into a silly mallet cutting match.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us? 

SH: – 1) Well I already shared my experience in the studio with my latest release.

2) I did a salsa jazz gig that was cooking so hard in the 90’s that some of the dancers began stripping off their clothes one time and that was wild!  At the time it did not seem inappropriate, everyone was caught up in the moment, I guess you had to be there….

3) one of several times I was recording with Kenny Barron in NYC around 1993 I asked him if he would teach me some lessons and he said “You don’t need no lessons.”  I did not believe him but it boosted my confidence a bit.

4) There was a time in West Virginia long ago in 1979 when 4 big coal miners in the audience referred to the black bassist in the dance band I was touring with as a n – – – – – and me as a pretty faggot.  We got the jump on them and there was broken chairs and gun shots when the two of us left the club walking on our own, without help…I am definitely a road warrior and survivor, that’s for sure.

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?

SH: – Wow great question, great question. Hmmmm. Be spiritually and physically healthy to keep a positive attitude. Being positive takes work! Also regarding money, a lot of well known musicians I know have another job, Kenny Barron, for instance teaches, Austin Johnson (Raleigh pianist who just finished 8 years with Jason Marsalis) designs websites, I taught for a long time…. So find a second way to make money that does not take up a lot of practice time.  Also don’t get caught up in negativity.  Be positive.  And most important, don’t get caught up with players who use drugs and drink a lot, because it can lead to a problem down the road.   Also don’t try to play a lot of styles or you might  wind up being in that lame wedding band that butchers “Moondance.”  You would be better off in my book learning another way to make money and playing strictly jazz.  The best rock players play only rock, the best reggae players play only reggae and for the most part the best jazz players play only jazz. If you want to be good in jazz be true, no two timing!

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday? 

SH: – Yes. I was watching a bari sax player on facebook dancing his butt off with his fancy clothes and purple hair, and playing pretty good while wooing the crowds….whatever works….but do what’s in your heart,

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you? 

SH: – I think my relationship with Professor Whitt Sidener at the University of Miami was my one most important collaborations early on.   He pulled me out of an advanced improvisation class at University of Miami that consisted of maybe 20-25 students and taught me private for an entire year three times a week.  I learned so much theory and applicable stuff from him it was not funny.  He was a sax man who could manipulate piano.  Another important collaboration was with compostion professor Ron Miller who spent extra time answering my many questions about composition class at University of Miami.  Both Ron and Whitt encouraged me to pursue piano and I did once I graduated.  Piano is a great tool for composing, transcribing and performing. There is a new dean of music there at University of Miami named Shelly Berg who is a fantastic pianist.  I am thinking about going back to finish my doctorate to study arranging with Gary Lindsay, and maybe take some improve lessons with Shelly.  I am a strong small group arranger but I am hearing some big band arrangements with strings, even film scoring.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old? 

SH: – I sometimes cover newer tunes … but you can take older standards and put more contemporary rhythms to them.  I have found you can draw young audiences in with energy based improvisation….not the more introspective stuff I do with real jazz and often older audiences.   But getting the young ones to come hear us live seems to perk up their interest the most when they see mainstream jazz performed in a classic way.   Many young kids who hear me say they like watching my music live but not necessarily on record…..nothing new there, ain’t nobody buying records ;).

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

SH: – Wow … I believe in the spirit of the Universe which I choose to call God.  Some refer to this spirit as a Higher Power, God, and many other things.  What I do know is that to be in the sunlight of the spirit one must give to others and not focus on themselves.  Once this is truly put as a priority for living everything else falls in to place.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

SH: – I live in the moment. Thinking of the future is what causes me anxiety.  Was that supposed to be a trick question (wink)? Today I will stay clean, I might practice.  Living in the future in past years is what caused anxiety leading to addiction issues.   I wake up every morning asking God to help me not be an asshole and to help others just for that day.  I have made many personal and some professional mistakes in the past that I can’t change so I don’t dwell on the past.    When I stay in the moment and help others everything else falls into place,.  For example you reaching out to interview me today was a pleasant surprise.  I can’t ask people to interview me in major jazz publications and newspapers…..good things just happen for me when I live in the moment and help others.  People are coming to me for interviews from major publications like yourself.  My release is skyrocketing.   Agents are coming to me for gigs.  I just focus on being a nice guy and that spirit you mentioned takes care of me.  .  There is no point in worrying about the future because now is the time, just like Charlie Parker said.   Many who read this will not believe what I say but it’s real.   Again, people like you are asking for interviews and agents are calling me for gigs most every day.  Reliance not defiance is the key.  Whether that reliance is a positive peer group or God or both one cannot worry about the future or isolate to be happy and successful.  I learned the hard way.  Some people learn earlier in life.  I am glad I learned this and that I am alive to help others find this truth. I don’t see myself as an artist, I am just a simple guy that is a channel for music. When I use and get out of the sunlight of the spirit the charge is disconnected…..Reliance not Defiance.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?  

SH: – I would have taken up acoustic bass….it’s my favorite instrument. It is a gorgeous sounding instrument and I love the multi faceted role it plays in jazz music.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you? 

SH: – Not sure … probably extended touring to promote this record … getting lots of offers, but I need to focus on now.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music? 

SH: – Yes, if they are played by real artists and not imposters they all have soul.  I cover Bob Dylan’s folk classic Blowin in the Wind on Tribute to Bobby. All three styles are often played acoustically.  All three styles often feature improvisation.  I think the similarities of the jazz I choose to play is also close to the Blues and Bluegrass.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days? 

SH: – Steve Nelson, Dave Holland, Austin Johnson, Chip Crawford, Ray Charles, Mike Mainieri, Roy Ayers (older records when he was still playing jazz), Anything with Peter Washington,   Bill Charlap, Bill O’Connell, anything with John Riley, Victor Lewis, Diana Krall, Kenny Barron, Jeff Clayton, so so many…..I still listen to Chet Baker all the time….I think Charles Lloyd is one of the most musical living sax players.  I also like Sonny Rollins.  As a matter of fact, my road manager, an eighty pound pit bull is named Sonny Rollins.

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

SH: – Current Yamaha 3700 Vibe Frame and Resonators with 1991 Yamaha 3400 bars custom tuned to A440, and a 1942 Deagan Diana Marimba.  I quit using pic ups over 12 years ago, they are a drag!  Vibe companies come and go, and people can say what they want, but Yamaha vibes have the best projection of any vibe made.  Warmer vibes are great for solo playing, but where is that going to get you in live performance if you don’t like using  pic ups? I don’t care for pic ups so I need an axe that can cut.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

SH: – I would want to go to right here right now.  I love communicating with you in this interview in this moment…The future is a dangerous neighborhood for me but if I must speak about the future, I just want to get on the other side of the River Jordan at some point to see my God,  all my dogs, family and musician buds who have gone before me, like Bobby.  I would love to meet King and Gandhi, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob.  But until then I need to keep trudging daily to the road of happy destiny…..Track 8 The Road to Happy Destiny sums up my philosophy of life.  I am attaching the song lyrics for your review.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …

SH: – Did you know early on that you were going to write?  What’s the best lesson you have been taught in this life that you could share with me and others?  I bet you were involved with music, right?   Where do you live?  Are you a Red Sox Fan?  Would you tease me about my southern accent like everyone else up there?   I lived at 51 Park Drive.  The classical marimba player Nancy Zeltsman lived right down the hall.

JBN.S: – Yes, of course, I prefer and do not prefer musicians and their CDs, so I define them in turn. Jazz improves life and negative moments in it. Love and listen to the best jazz and blues. Of course there are some who dishonor the best and conscientious jazzmen and so far remain unpunished. No Unfortunately. I live in Boston, MA and in Yerevan, Armenia …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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