May 24, 2024

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Interview with Greg Ward-Responses: Jazz has so many influences and facets today: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist, composer Greg Ward-Responses. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Greg Ward-Responses: – I’m originally from Peoria, IL, and was born into a musical family. My father was a saxophonist and is still a keyboardist and happens to be the musical director for a church in my hometown.  I grew up hearing gospel at different church services and events we would attend.  Eventually, I was in the family gospel group with my cousins.  My uncle, who was also an incredible gospel musician, would teach us songs to sing and we would perform at weddings or other church events.  I was 3 and didn’t like this much but imagine this had a big effect on my development in music later on.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophon?

GW: – I really wanted to play the drums but we couldn’t afford them. Also, I really wanted to play the trumpet, like my grandfather, but we couldn’t afford that either.  We did happen to have my dad’s alto sax in the closet at home, so, I played alto sax.  I still remember, before I started band classes, when my dad took the alto sax out of the closet, put it together, and then played fast lick for me.  I was amazed!

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophon?

GW: – At first, John Hardesty, was the band director at my middle school and I studied in traditional 5th grade band. Soon after that, jazz band was offered from the Peoria Park District, which got me even more interested in playing music.  From 6th grade on, I participated in the jazz band that was offered at my school.  The next big leap in my development happened when I heard an incredible young saxophonist, Doug Stone, who was only a year ahead of me in school but was already playing professionally.  He was and still is incredible.  My dad asked me, “Do you want to play like him?”  Of course, I said, “Yes!”  We found out who his teacher was and sought him for lessons.  It was a saxophonist/clarinetist named Larry Harms that was teaching at the local community college in Peoria, Illinois Central College.  I worked with Larry through high school and learned an incredible amount of information.  He is an amazing teacher!  In college, at Northern Illinois University, I had the pleasure of working with Stephen Duke.  This is where I really learned how to play the saxophone.  What an amazing problem solver he is.  He, along with the rest of the professors at NIU, equipped me with the tools I needed to become the performer I am today.  Some other big influences on my development at NIU were Joey Sellers, Fareed Haque, Ronald Carter, Willie Pickens, and Art Davis.  During this time, I was also spending many nights playing in Chicago on the vast music scene.  I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to hear greats like Von Freeman, Willie Pickens, Fred Anderson, and Bobby Broom on a regular basis.  Fred Anderson actual became a very close friend and mentor who gave me a steady night at his club, the Velvet Lounge, for over 4 years.  A few other important teachers I worked with while spending time in Chicago were, saxophonist Steve Coleman, conductor/orchestrator Cliff Colnot, and composer Sebastian Huydts.

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

GW: – I once sent an email to Branford Marsalis when I was 18 asking him how to find my own voice. He gave me some very good advice that took me a while to understand.  He said, “You don’t find your voice.  It finds you.  Practice your craft.”  I believe this is very true.  The better we are at our instruments, the easier our ideas while flow out of us.  Eventually, your voice will come through.

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

GW: – Regarding practice routines, I try to balance things between maintenance and creative work. Part of the time will be spent working on the horn so that all of my ideas will continue to come out easily.  This work can include harmonic/rhythmic/melodic practice and development.  After that, I move on to different ideas and concepts that I’m currently exploring.  Lastly, if I’m preparing for a concert or a tour, there’s music to learn and internalize in order to prepare for these events.  I also work a lot on composition and spend an equal amount of time exploring on the piano.

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

GW: – I happen to be a big Gustav Mahler fan and enjoy exploring his scores. I’ll find a melodic phrase that I like and try to internalize it and put it in different situations.  My thought behind this is that his melodies, along with a lot of other great composers, were so well constructed that it if I can incorporate these into my playing, maybe they will have an influence on how well I construct melodies in the moment.

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

GW: – I don’t know if I listened to 10 new records during 2017 but I did enjoy: Makaya McCraven’s Highly Rare and Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die.

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?

GW: – Practice your craft so that your voice will come through. Learn how to produce a project from the idea phase to presentation.  Figure out how your music community works or any communities that you’d like to be involved with happen to work.  Grow an audience by taking your project to the people in the best form possible.  Be patient and persistent, this is a marathon.  Seek mentorship, always.

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

GW: – This is a business. Now, more than ever, it’s in the hands of the artist to figure out how to navigate their own situations.  I mean that there isn’t a lot of help out here from record labels or other institutions like that.  Build an audience that loves what you do and no one can take that from you.

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

GW: – Jazz has so many influences and facets today.  Musicians are incorporating many popular forms of music and new audiences are really developing.

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

GW: – I feel very fortunate to have experienced situations in music that are indescribable. Magic, really.   There’s something uniting about sound and how we all experience it.  I remember a moment from when I was first starting to play on the Chicago jazz scene regularly.  I was playing with Harrison Bankhead on bass and we were improvising freely to a room full of people for the Chicago Jazz Pub Crawl at a club called the Empty Bottle.  We were playing for 30 minutes straight and I had this thought, as we were getting ready to finish, that no one was going to understand what we were doing.  As we finished this segment, the entire room exhaled together.  I couldn’t believe it.  This taught me to never underestimate my audience.  Also, we were all together on this journey, even if just for 30 minutes.  I think that experiences like this are very important.

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

GW: – I hope that people find joy in refining their crafts and being the best they can be at whatever it is that they do so they can serve their communities with their gifts. Unfortunately, we don’t see people living their lives this way largely.

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

GW: – I’m continuing working as a composer, saxophonist, producer, and educator. I want to be better in all of these facets and continue to put in the time to do so.  One new thing I started to pursue is singing with vocal effects.  This is something I’ve been excited about for a long time and, recently, on a tour with Makaya McCraven’s band, I had the opportunity to debut these ideas in front of an audience.  It was awesome!

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

GW: – These are all forms of folk music. I’m with the opinion of Duke Ellington when he said there’s only good music and bad music.

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

GW: – I like listening to Colin Stetson, Miguel Zenon, Ambrose Akinmusire, Rob Clearfield, Matt Gold, Quin Kirchner, Dave Miller, Matt Ulery, Mike Reed, Ron Perrillo, Chris Foreman, Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, and many others.

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

GWR: – I currently play on a Selmer Super Action 80 with a Meyer 6M mouthpiece. I use Vandoren Blue Box #3 and Vandoren Optimum Ligatures.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan


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