A few weeks ago I had the fortunate opportunity to serve on the faculty at New England Conservatory of Music’s “Jazz Lab,” a one-week intensive jazz program for mostly high school students (some a bit younger).
To my surprise, I was asked to do a master class on “Entrepreneurial Musicianship.” This was a great honor to me, that the managers of the camp saw my career worthy enough to inspire young students find their path, but certainly felt a little bit intimidating as I still feel like my career needs to expand and grow quite a bit from now. Nothing stressed my out more throughout the week than thinking about what do say to these young students, who could be our future’s musical leaders.
I finally decided that if was going to tell them about anything, I need to tell them about what I did when I was 14 years old that taught me more about the music industry than anything in my entire life, The Eastern Jazz Project. Based in the Worcester area, where I grew up, we played any and all music I thought was awesome that I was able to transcribe. There was some Horace Silver in there, poorly transcribed Michael Brecker music, and we even recorded the high school jam that has stood the test of time, Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon.
Though, I admit, I’m a little bit embarrassed to hear what my playing was like when I was 14 to the point that I probably won’t post on this website, the lessons I learned from trying to lead a band at a young age are lessons I still apply today. Skills like how to dress for a show, how to speak in front of an audience, how to get the attention of a club owner, how to describe your music in 10-15 seconds, how to understand your value and put a price on your art, how to promote a show, matching up with appropriate venues that can bring you the most return (which often is much more than the money) and the demeanor you need that in order to get the most out of your bandmates are skills that really can’t be taught. I’ve thought about trying to offer a class at Longy on something like this because I think even college kids would be interested in it, but the fact of the matter is I don’t think you can speak a whole semester on it, let alone assess the understanding of the material with a grade. These are things you just need to be in the real music world to do, and I don’t think there’s any other way.
The good news for students, is that literally ANYONE can get into the music world. You don’t necessarily need to be good, or at your very best, you just need to be willing to be out there. Where students struggle I believe, is that the fear of failing. The potential rejection of not getting that gig, or not impressing your audience or even your peers in your band, keeps them, even the most technically talented of students, from starting their own projects. Many musicians, even professionals have an attitude that they don’t want to release anything with their name on it until its perfect. I guess I have to disagree with that mentality. The Eastern Jazz Project certainly doesn’t even come close to representing the artist I am now, but I sure do credit that band for giving me the knowledge of what do, and maybe more importantly, what not to do now that I lead bands as a working professional. Though we didn’t win any grammys, make a lot of money, or get strong press accolades, I know that I am 10 times the performer, the musician, and businessperson I am today because of it.
Not for nothing, if you look at where the members of the Eastern Jazz Project are now you’ll see some impressive credentials. If you’re on this website you probably know the work of my brother Glenn Zaleski who’s worked with Ravi Coltrane, Lage Lund, and Robin Eubanks just to name a few. Corey Bernhard was involved with the band who now is Bilal’s keyboard player. Max Zeugner, who was a crushing electric bass player at the time, is now a double bassist in the New York Philharmonic.
I guess the message I have to students is this; as much as I am a big supporter of honor bands and camps where you can go and meet many peers that share the same passion as you have, don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re going to need to create your own opportunities at some point in your life. There’s absolutely no reason not to start that in middle or high school. Sure, you probably have a long ways to go as a technician on your instrument, a songwriter, and just need to grow up and have more real life experiences before you really have your most powerful statement to offer, but you definitely have a lot to say now that you won’t be able to say later. When you’re older, there’s more risk involved, now you have nothing to lose. Get out of your district/all-state band, school band, and music summer camp shell and go try to say something to a complete stranger at a coffee shop, or club, or church, or VFW hall that will have you in your area, and you will prepare yourself more for the real music world than any youtube master class will.
I’ll conclude with a short shoutout to the NEC “Jazzlab” students. You were a wonderful audience, super respectful, and I learned so much from you. I can’t wait to see where you all end up. Now go start a band, do it now!