On This Magnetic Field Called Jazz
Two local jazz linchpins discuss their love of music and the local scene.
What does it mean to be a jazz musician in Tampa Bay today?
Creative Pinellas spoke to two musicians from different generations who occasionally perform together and love the art of improvisation.
Mark Feinman plays drums for La Lucha, O Som do Jazz (Manson’s bossa nova band) and has toured with Whitney James and Nate Najar.
The music of SPC professor, trombonist and bandleader Dr. David Manson has been featured on various TV programs and has been performed by The Florida Orchestra.
How successful has been the local jazz scene in your opinion?
David Manson: It’s a good scene here, with a strong and lengthy history. The big challenge (here and everywhere) is to develop a younger audience. It’s a niche music and I don’t expect that will change in the future. I think that the jazz scene here, is better than Miami, Orlando and even Atlanta, in many ways. There are dozens of extremely talented jazz musicians living in the Tampa Bay area. I would name them, but the list would go on for pages.
The economic crisis of 2007, has had a profound impact on music rates for local artists in the Tampa Bay area. They still have not returned to 1990 rates for some reason since everything else has inflated in price. A lot of the time, I am figuring how to create opportunities to feature area jazz artists in performances through my nonprofit presenter organization, EMIT. We’ve presented over 400 concerts and workshops here since inception in 1995.
Mark Feinman: The jazz scene through my eyes is very healthy and successful. I’m kind of a younger jazz musician; “young blood” as legend trombonist Buster Cooper would have said, so I’m not as old as some of my mentors, they have been in the community longer than me. But from what I’ve experienced there are three things that have made the greater Tampa Bay area an incredible jazz scene: The first thing the kick-ass musicians that we have all around. They are performing at high levels of excellence and professionalism. I think that there’s a magnetic jazz field in some major cities around the world, and we happen to have one.
To be specific that magnetic jazz field is probably under what used to be The Garden, where Buster Cooper used to play, he was a staple for jazz here in St. Petersburg; he actually went to school at what is now Gibbs high school. He studied under a great manager here in the area named Al Downing; our jazz association now is named after him, he was a great mentor to lots of musicians in the area as well. (Al Downing Jazz Society).
Buster Cooper traveled with Duke Ellington for like 10 years, living in New York, traveling to L.A., doing film scores and we are so lucky to have had him as a mentor, we all learned from him; how to play a tune, how to be cool. I went to the Buster Cooper School of music that’s what I say. And anybody who was in town flocked The Garden to see him play.
Reason No. 2 is that we have the best audiences in the world. For a number of reasons, we have a really wide demographic. College students, high school students, the old school jazz fans and also snow birds, which are at the perfect age to appreciate live music for at least 6 months out of the year
The third reason is the many incredible venues that Pinellas has: The Palladium — upstairs, downstairs, Side Door. The Studio@620, Bob Devin Jones and his team are always presenting musicians, Tampa Jazz Club, WUSF, WMNF they are doing great things. FreeFall Theater, NOVA 535, Venture Compound are always presenting some wild stuff. American Stage is always presenting jazz. You have music venues in every museum, from the Dali to the MFA, the Chihuly, I’m always seeing jazz series there, or partnering with some organizations like Suncoast Jazz Classic. Let’s not forget Ruth Eckerd Hall, Mahaffey and even the Florida Orchestra which recently presented Carmen Bradford, who is fantastic. We cannot forget: the Jazz Club of Sarasota, the South County Jazz Club — just to name a few.
How much do you improvise on stage?
DM: Quite a bit… improvisation is an important element of jazz. The Helios Jazz Orchestra has more written material, but there are always soloists who improvise. I’ve worked with totally free improvisation in groups like SHIM, but my preference is a combination of construction and improvisation. The composed material often sets the stage for the improvisation. I write for and play in O Som Do Jazz (a Brazilian Bossa Nova, samba and MPB group), the Helios Jazz Orchestra (an 18-piece jazz big band), MIFU (the Mobile Itinerant Funk Unit – a street band) and recently the SPC Jazz Profs (a faculty jazz quintet). When I compose, I tend to swing between styles that are either very experimental or very simple and heartfelt. I respect both approaches.
MF: It depends. I write music for our band La Lucha, I might start with a simple melody I record in my phone, usually sounds horrific, just like a rough track and we take it from there. At least when I’m writing a song, the drum line is the last thing that I’m thinking about. Sometimes Alejandro Arenas (bassist for La Lucha) might bring something with a Latin influence, and we try different things, but in rehearsal you never play the ten minute version that sometimes arises in a live show. We are basically working on sections and when we play it live it expands to a different place, through the audience and the venue. … The key or the harmony might change on a specific song, and it might influence me to do something different. I’m not playing a harmonic or melodic instrument (Feinman is a drummer) but I’m definitely influenced by those factors. And I’m always exploring and finding new things, always asking questions. I’m always challenging myself every time I think I know something. I arrive at the deeper end of the pool where I have no idea. And that’s how I like to progress forward.
Tell us a little bit about your musical path — what do dedication versus challenges and practicing your instrument mean to you?
DM: I continue to explore and hopefully grow as a musician and composer. Time management is always a challenge. To even attempt to play the trombone, I have to practice a minimum of two hours per day. It’s a merciless instrument and even if you play it well, no one seems to care — awwww. I also need to compose and arrange daily, work with recording technology and find performance opportunities for the bands. It’s also nice to get a little time in on the piano, flute and Brazilian hand percussion.
On top of that, I manage a nonprofit presenter (EMIT), St. Petersburg Jazz Festival and teach at St. Petersburg College where I routinely stand in front of a class 18 hours per week. Teaching also requires about the same amount of time in class preparation and meetings per week. This year, I am directing more time toward composition.
MF: I think what you practice and how you practice is huge. Because you could spend eight hours a day in a practice room and get nothing done. I’ve found a routine that has helped me organize my practice. Whether it’s coordination or technique, I listen to a lot of music and I think that’s huge in practicing. I don’t think anybody can be a musician without listening. You know there’s so many people that do ear training and they develop close to perfect pitch, but unless its cultivated it doesn’t mean anything. For example, a singer that can hit all these intervals, which is great but doesn’t really understand in a scientific way why music is constructed the way it is.
… One of the things that’s regular is that I go to my practice path and I work on my hands. That’s something I do. It makes me feel comfortable. It’s a great warm up in the morning.
I’m not big into (drumline) transcriptions. I always find my own way to play a particular song, but I’m really big on being able to play what I like to hear or respond to it, playing along in a new and creative way.
As far as challenges go, there’s no end goal. … We’ve fallen in love with the journey instead of focusing on the end goal. It’s about having a passion for what you are doing at that moment. So having a challenging practice is great. … You always have to remember to have fun, that’s what we did in the first place.
A good point to make is that you don’t need to practice for eight hours to be able to learn to play jazz. Always make your practice worthwhile, really focused, organized, and with some sort of idea of where you are going.
Any other details or anecdotes you’d like to add?
DM : I wrote an interactive performance piece called SWARM! with Wojtek Sawa providing visual elements. It was a blast to take 18 trombonists and have them nest in the Salvador Dali Museum, mimic insect behaviors and then swarm outside with the audience following. (Click here for Youtube footage.)
MF: I must mention David Pate, he is a great mentor, very encouraging, and he really drew a line on what really means becoming a musician. I always say, if you need a story you have to ask David Pate. And David Pate is going to say that for the best stories you have to ask fantastic percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, and I’m sure Gumbi is going to send you to somebody else, like Michael Ross probably.