March 4, 2024

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Interview with Jim Shearer: The music I make brings people joy: Video, new CD cover

Interview with Jazz tuba player Jim Shearer. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off?When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Jim Shearer: – I grew up in Water Valley, Mississippi, in a family newspaper business. My father was a fantastic jazz musician on the side, and it also stuck with me. In many ways, I’m getting to live out the career dream he never got to do. I can’t remember a life without music; it’s all I’ve ever done. I went through the typical middle school, high school, and college music programs, and from there, I went right into college teaching. There’s never been a time when I wasn’t performing, but I’ve also never made my full living strictly as a performing professional musician. Classroom and studio teaching have always been a big part of my life and still are today.

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JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

JSH: – As a classically-trained tubist, my music crosses many genres. I live a life in academia, which gives me the freedom to explore many different kinds of music, but it does not allow me to do the kind of extended touring that would help me create a more serious fulltime presence in the jazz community. I love the freedom to jump back and forth between classical music and a wide array of jazz styles, but deep in my soul, I’d be really happy playing tuba in a world-class traditional jazz band the rest of my life!

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

JSH: – With years of classical training, I’ve put in my 10,000 plus hours getting my chops together. I am a disciple of Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan and the Brass Gym and Breathing Gym methods. That’s the start of every practice routine for me, followed by learning changes and tunes in the jazz world and/or working on the current repertory I regularly must prepare for upcoming classical shows. That never ends…

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any changes or overall evolution? And if so why?

JSH: – With my career ability to go between musical genres, my “evolution” is typically going in the opposite direction from one project to another. My first three commercial recordings were jazz/classical hybrids with the El Paso Brass Quintet, made in the 1990s. Since then, I’ve made three commercial jazz recordings and three classical albums for Summit Records, along with two classical digital singles with companion videos on the same label.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

JSH: – All of my recordings have been the result of close collaborations with musicians and, for my classical projects, composers. The music has always been performed live extensively before it ever makes it onto a commercial recording. Stamina is rarely an issue for tuba players, though, like any recording process, after a certain amount of time in the studio on a given day, you begin to hit that place where mental focus begins to weaken and you’re just wasting tape and everyone’s time. At that point, it’s time to go out for a cocktail and start again tomorrow!

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album in 2023: Jim Shearer – Cloud Bowling with Claude Bolling: Music for Tuba and Jazz Trio, how was it formed and what you are working on today.

JSH: – I’ve wanted to perform and record Claude Bolling’s Flute Suite, played on tuba, of course, since my college days in the early 1980s. I’ve been working on it off and on for over thirty years. During COVID, I had the time to fully commit to woodshedding the music, and I found myself with access to an amazing jazz trio from the faculty at the University of Texas-El Paso. The deal from the piano player, Chris Reyman, was that he would only go to the trouble to relearn the Claude Bolling piano part (difficult reading for the pianist in some places) if I’d let him write a new companion seven-movement suite that delved much deeper into a wide variety of jazz styles. That work become the second suite on the two-CD set, titled Cloud Bowling. Of course, I was all in! Now that the CDs are released and streaming everywhere, we’re working on a series of live concerts to support the project. Beyond promoting this new CD, I’m back to playing classical chamber music and orchestral concerts, along with jazz concerts whenever I can get them booked. Jazz in New Mexico is not like living in a big city where gigs are plentiful. We really have to fight for regular bookings these days without going out on the road where jazz is more readily accepted.

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JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

JSH: – The players on this new recording are fantastic colleagues at the University of Texas – El Paso, just a few miles down the road from where I teach at New Mexico State University. I’ve played gigs with them in various settings for several years now, and the bass player, Erik Unsworth, I’ve worked with for almost 20 years. We’re just great friends making music for the sole reason that it’s something we want to do. We’re never going to get rich playing this kind of music, but it sure is fun! And, coming from the world of academia, these recordings and performance projects count toward the promotion and tenure process. My recordings, just like writing books and articles in other academic disciplines, are considered my international publications and scholarly pursuits.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

JSH: – Years ago, I hosted a cultural series at New Mexico State University where we featured world renowned visiting artists. We had blues legend Eric Bibb in a few times, and I got to know him and shared my playing with him. He asked me to perform on a few tracks that become part of his Telarc recording “Diamond Days.” At first, I was supposed to travel to Austin, Texas, to record live with him, but that session didn’t work out. To make a long story short, I ended up in my hometown studio in Las Cruces, New Mexico, tracking with him via the Internet while he was in Switzerland. I’m really proud to have been on that CD, but I think I got the fuzzy end of the lollypop not getting to hang out in Europe while making the record!

My best classical gig was perhaps with the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1990. We did a 21-day tour of Japan, where we made a record titled “Live In Osaka” for Sony Classical. It was the only extended tour I’ve ever done where I never had to carry my own horn, take care of my own wardrobe, or deal with any travel plans. It was true “rock star” time, so I guess I peaked at 26 years old!

No, seriously, my “best life” is the fact that over the past 30 years I’ve toured extensively with wife and fellow musician, Celeste, who is an amazing and musically intuitive French horn player. We’ve made two recordings together. The first was a true trio album titled Haunted America Suite, and I mostly produced her second project, Sultry & Eccentric: The Music Of James Grant, which was more of a solo horn project for Celeste, with just one big trio piece that added my tuba. I’m very proud of those recordings and the fact that I regularly get to make great music with my wife! Beyond that, I made what I’m pretty sure is the first ever full recording of music for tuba and string quartet, which includes a rare “classical” piece by jazz composer and arranger Manny Albam. My other two jazz recordings, The Memphis Hang and Secret Frets, were both results of the great musicians I was getting to work with at the time they were made. Each project is like a child and has a special place in my heart.

I also played tuba in a rodeo band for three years (it’s kind of a subset of playing in a circus band here in America), but those are stories to be told in private over many, many drinks!

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JSH: – As a classically-trained and over-educated musician (got to have that DMA to get a college gig), sometimes I clearly overthink my jazz playing. On the other hand, I think my jazz playing really informs how I function in the classical world, and it makes me a better all-around musician. Charlie Parker said it best: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

JSH: – Absolutely! Tuba (and horn for my wife) are rather “niche” instruments. We always talk with the audience, making it a point to explain what we do and why we do it, and bring them along on our musical journey. I’d say that’s the same for my jazz playing. The nicest compliment I get is when people say, “I had no idea a tuba could do something like that!” I tend to focus on more accessible music in both my jazz and classical playing, and if I’m going to do something more “outside,” I always tell the audience about it first, and again, hopefully, bring them along for the ride.

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

JSH: – Get them to listen! A big part of my “day job” is teaching jazz appreciation courses to non-music majors. Jazz sells itself if you can only get them to take the time to simply explore the music. After over 30 years in the classroom, I frequently have former students come up and tell me they are still jazz fans, still go to live shows, and still have that Kind of Blue record I told them to get (or stream in more recent times…). These days, I work hard to start with groups such as Lake Street Dive, Snarky Puppy, Postmodern Jukebox, Jacob Collier, Jamie Cullum, and Esperanza Spalding, etc. These are artists bridging the gap between the pop and jazz worlds, and that seems to go a long way toward helping students understand that good music is good music. It’s just that simple!

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

JSH: – When I play traditional jazz, that’s where I feel closest to true “music as spirit.” There I can leave my mind behind and just become part of the music. Everywhere else, I’m still just trying to make the changes, or in the classical world, play the right notes, play clean, and still try to say something meaningful. Dixieland is in my blood!

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

JSH: – We need more music education programs at the elementary and middle school levels. How will we ever build a new generation of music fans if they don’t even know these styles of music exist?

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

JSH: – I’m a huge Chet Baker fan. Both his playing and his singing really speak to me, and they have for many years. Louis Armstrong is a very regular part of my life, and more days than not, I’m still listening to Leon Redbone. I always dreamed of being his tuba player one day, but, sadly, that gig never came to pass. In a broader sense, as a teacher of jazz appreciation, I literally go from blues and ragtime, through traditional jazz, swing, bebop, cool school, hard bop, free jazz, fusion, and right up to whatever was released last week every fall and spring semester of my life. I love it all, and I try to share that love with my students.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

JSH: – Oh, to hear Django live with the Hot Club Quintet would be a great dream of mine. And, of course, to see Louis Armstrong live during his Chicago days, or to have been in the room the night he jammed with Bix. That would have been amazing! Perhaps to be in a bar and hear Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers when they were in their prime…..very special music there! I think Jelly and his music are sadly overlooked these days.

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JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

JSH: – Joy. I hope the music I make brings people joy.

JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

JSH: – Well, the big question for me is, “how did you end up deciding to make a career playing the tuba?” The answer is:

I learned piano at a very young age, then I started on flute in the third grade. When I really started in a formal band program in middle school, I was way ahead of the other students. My dad was friends with the local band director, and I got suckered into playing the tuba because I could read bass clef and no one else was willing to play the instrument. I was only supposed to do it for a little while to help out with the beginning band. Two years later, in the seventh grade, I was going to high school honor band clinics, and I’ve been a tuba player ever since. I just never switched back. I think the horn shapes the personality of the player to an extent, and these days, I’m definitely a proud tuba player in every sense of the word.

JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

JSH: – As a music educator, I regularly take part in free or reduced fee musical events, educational outreach concerts, and such. In the past 35 years it’s estimated that I’ve played for well over 500,000 students in both jazz and classical educational concerts. I don’t mind making money, but as a college professor, it’s not always my main goal (or privilege) as a professional player.

As for my expectations from this interview, this new project, Cloud Bowling with Claude Bolling, is the culmination of my recording career. This will be my last major project. Without a promoter, proper management, press agents, etc., I’m just trying to do everything I can to get the word out that this recording exists. I’d be most grateful for any help you can offer by sharing with the world that we’ve made this record!

Interview by Elléa Beauchêne

P.S. – JBN: – By editorial։ Since its inception in 2012, JazzBluesNews.com has become the leading Jazz and Blues platform in Europe, United States, Asia, Latin America, Australia, Nordic countries, Afro – Eurasia.

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