The Jazz Column By Marty Erickson, Associate Editor for Jazz
Catching Up With…Sam Pilafian
On April 15, 2000, during a break in rehearsals with the Brass Band of Battle Creek in Battle Creek, Michigan, I had the opportunity to catch up with Sam Pilafian. Sam is our Immediate Past-President of TUBA and Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at Arizcma State University. We talked about how he started playing jazz and about his lessons with Connie Weldon (Associate Dean and Professor of Tuba at the University of Miami) and Jerry Coker (Director of Jazz Studies at Miami), his group, “Travelin’ Ligjit,” and more. One learns quickly that Sam is passionate about playing, teaching and learning, and hopefully this interview will inspire many of you to explore the world of jazz and jazz improvisation. Read, enjoy and “listen.”
ME (Marty Erickson): This series is entitled “Catching Up with…” While most everyone knows who you are through your work with Empire Brass, Summit Brass and as a recording artist, for our purposes in the jazz column let’s check in with your group “Travelin’ Light.” How did it start and where do things stand now?
SP (Sam Pilafian): At the end of (my time with) Empire Brass there was a recording session which caused the formation of “Travelin’ Light,” and it was because the record was done a day early with Empire Brass. The producer said to me, “Why don’t you keep some of these people and go ahead and make another record? What are your favorite tunes to do?” So, we wrote a bunch of tunes on the back of a business envelope – a used business envelope. The next day, at 9:00 we started recording with piano, guitar and tuba, and, later in the day, we flew in a rhythm guitar player, Frank Vignola’s teacher, and we did these tunes in kind of a “Hot Club” instrumentation. It was a little swing group and the record was very successful. This eventually spawned five “Travelin’ Light” CDs and one educational CD to help people learn improvisation. That sound started to become successful as a live act and we got management. After a while, we knew other sounds needed to happen, and Frank started doing solo albums and began using different guitars. Then I started to see really interesting directions that I needed to go so we sort of stopped the whole thing. That’s what happens. You go into “regimes” of sound and begin to modulate them.
ME:One of the things I enjoyed with “Travelin Light” was the addition of clarinet to the sound. What a great blend with the tuba! Was that something you added because you wanted the clarinet sound or because you wanted to work with Ken Peplowski?
SP: Yeah—Most of my thoughts come from the aspect of writing, almost like an orchestration thing. The banjo, guitar, tuba, clarinet thing works because everybody can stay out of each other’s way, while they still compliment each other. I discovered by accident when I was doing a wind ensemble recording called “Silks and Rags” for EMI that the arrangers were using a lot of clarinet and tuba together. The instruments actually have a very similar “sound picture.” The clarinet can go down into our range and we can split apart and it still seems like a “family” of sound. That project started about 1990, and then we began to add that sound in an improvisational way later, and Peplowski is a brilliant player. So we got in on this Telarc recording session and there was this instant mix with the clarinet and tuba, so there was a surprise. That first disc got into the hands of Lionel Hampton, who totally flipped for the sound and wanted the vibes in there. It’s an amazing thing to get a phone call in the middle of the day and the voice says: “Hey… it’s Hamp! I want you to go to Europe on November 9!” He heard the tubular/bell sound in his head, and you know that the vibes, tuba and clarinet sound is a successful orchestration.
ME:I do understand that. There were some sextet things done for me which featured vibes, flugelhom and tuba, which is another one of those tubular kind of sounds which works beautifully.
SP: Right. So I think maybe (the reason) why instruments will band together is because of this orchestration thing; something they might have heard before. Lionel Hampton had a vivid imagination anyway, but he heard that. Red Callendar also had a group with vibes.
ME:The first jazz tuba album I owned was actually George “Red” Callendar’s called “Speak Low,” which had “Dam that Dream,” “A Foggy Day,” and more on it.
SP: Wow! That reminded me of the first tuba symposium—you and I were there, and so was Red. Red sat me down there and told me never to give up my bass playing. (I know you’re a bass player too.) Red said not to quit because you need the rhythm section mind to use on tuba, so that was an important half hour I got to spend with him.
ME:This (reminiscing) is fiin, but let’s jump back a bit. Who were your earliest influences? Who did you listen to, or what made you think “I’d like to get into some jazz playing?”
SP: I grew up in Miami, and that’s a good place to be exposed to jazz. I was taught tuba by Connie Weldon, the legendary classical teacher. She had an incredible habit of listening. She was able to envision the future because she was such an adventuresome listener. She used to take me to hear Johnny Dengler, who was an old New York jazz tuba player. He used to bring ten instmments in a VW bus to a gig. He was Bill Bell’s favorite jazz tuba player. Bell would go anywhere to listen to him. Besides that, Connie would get out the old Stan Kenton records and listen to how the mellophones and tuba worked together, so she was a big influence. (I was 15 at this time.) Jerry Coker took the job at the University of Miami around this time and started a city of Miami jazz band for high school kids. I was the bass player! Coker found out 1 played tuba and said “bring it.” Some of the other people involved were Will Lee (the bass player on the Letterman show) and Jaco Pastorius. So, then I wasn’t the bass player anymore (laughs)! And that’s when I learned bass trombone. I mean Pat Metheny’s bass player was in the group and more! All of these brass players became bass players because there were so many great bass teachers down there. So, when 1 went to (the University of) Miami, I wanted to quit bass because there was a lot of heady stuff going on there in tuba. The beginning of the tuba ensemble with Connie Weldon was happening, and Fred Fennell was there with the wind ensemble, so I wanted to play just tuba. Jerry wouldn’t let me quit. 1 was the bass player in the fourth jazz band, and then the third (and my last) year, I played in the first band. Doubling was trouble, but also a good thing. I’m talking to the right guy here, because you’ve done it. It gave me more gigs too (laughs).
ME:Right, and 1 think you’ll agree with me that one of the immediate benefits (besides the extra bread) was that the bass gave us access to a whole other world of musicians to work with that we would have missed otherwise.
SP: Right! And then they say “bring the tuba.” I’ll give you another brief history. This school (the University of Miami) also had Alfred Reed and Clifton Williams on the composition faculty, and they got me into writing at a young age. Also, theband called “Your Father’s Moustache” came to town and the tuba player needed to go back to New York, so 1 got a gig with them. It was a dixieland review show band, and that changed everything for me.
ME:The tuba was “out front.”
SP: It Wcis out front, and it was learning how to deal with an audience when nothing was written down. The leader would come over and say “you say this and you say that” and it was all done aurally. That was the begirming of “ear days.” I paid a lot more attention in theory after that! So that started another thing. I would travel to New York to play. One day, I signed myself out of school and when they asked why, I said “I’ve gotta go play on the Ed Sullivan Show tomorrow night.” This was the second semester of my freshman year. So Alfred Reed (the theory teacher) says, “Okay, you can go but for your final exam you have to do an independent study. You have to arrange “London Bridge” in the form of every chapter of the Persichetti Twentieth Century Harmony book for brass quintet.” I said, “What is that?” I’d never heard of a brass quintet before. Reed said, “It’s two trumpets, a horn a trombone and a tuba,” and he wrote down the practical ranges of those instruments saying, “Okay, don’t exceed this, and remember, they have to rest.” So I did 28 variations for the 28 chapters of the book, and they were really, really lame, but at least I passed. Actually, Reed was so taken with the idea that he wrote a set of variations, got them published, and said thanks to Sam. Thank God he didn’t publish mine! Anyway, it all comes back to playing bass in the rhythm section. It keeps you in the nucleus of the music and grounded and causes a great deal of knowledge to happen.
ME:Don’t you think that the bass playing helped you as a tuba player, particularly in moving in and out of syncopations more comfortably because you felt “grounded?”
SP: Of course – much more, and it paid off later in Empire Brass because you realize, yeah it’s five horns, but you’re the bass player again! The propulsion of time and laying down bottom sounds so other people can create harmonies above you all comes from bass playing. I still try to teach my students to double on instruments that are complimentary: piano and tuba, tuba and bass trombone (if it’s comfortable), and bass and tuba are great.
ME:What about those New York experiences and Empire?
SP: In that post-college time, the most important thing was listening, and meeting New York musicians who would do like you did with that CD you gave me today, “Hey, listen to this!” That becomes your teacher – recorded sound and the live experience. That’s where “taste” comes from and the desire to keep learning and improvising in sessions. Wow – 1 know this is supposed to be “Catching up with…” so we’re coming around the backside, but when people get heavy exposure in a certain area., you never know what their background was. For instance Arnold Jacobs and Abe Torchinsky were very successful bass players.
ME:Right, and Wes Jacobs (tubist with the Detroit Symphony) was the bass player for “The Carpenters.” Well, we’re getting distracted again so let’s “fast forward” to the present again. Let’s go into your improvisation. When you solo, do you hear you or just the changes or are you influenced by another jazz player’s sound?
SP: Yeah, well when it comes to soloing. I’m always transcribing, and that used to be for writing, so I’d know how to write these things down. Then later, Jerry Coker got me to stop writing them down and to start internalizing the ideas so I could play them back and transpose them into a different key so that I was developing a much more “soloistic” way of transcribing. Jerry had us model bebop trumpet players because of the valve thing, and then trombone players, which (in Jerry’s logic) was closer to my octave. In a way, he was working without a map, because he hadn’t worked with tuba players. After that, we listened to the sax and rhythm player solos. Actually, Connie Weldon did the same thing, saying to imitate the flute player or play like an oboe in classical music. So, it was the same thing. I tried to chase the goal of being as “fleet” as a saxophone player. I’m a lifelong learner, so now I’m learning to be a “harmonist” through a great educator at our school. Chuck Maronic. I’m hearing things completely differently than I did twenty or thirty years ago. I have a mentor now who is getting me to hear “re-harmony” all the time! The word “or” is all over my head these days! Or, or , or , or – but it’s helping the writing and the playing. I’m also into doing the Kenny Werner thing of letting go – like playing just happy, or jump off the bridge and see where you’re going to land.
ME:Now, there’s a recommendation for everyone-Kenny’s book called Effortless Mastery. Go get this book!
SP: Great, great book! So many great exercises to just release. So yes, there’s a lot of lifelong growth in studying improvisation. It takes so long just to learn how to play the tuba, and then you want to relegate that all the way to the back of your head so you can start making up things as you go along. You’re talking about some serious, time-intensive study!
ME:Sure – and that leads me to something that may be a little away from the subject, but it’s the issue of tuba players settling for mediocrity in playing. We stop learning or producing to a point simply because we can get away with it. The general public is still naive about the capabilities of our instrument, and too often we can play into that trap. As you said, you’re a lifelong learner, and one of my favorite quotes is, “Good enough rarely is.”
SP: Yeah, we should talk about that now. I’m very into the idea of continuing to grow and to have the voice of the tuba in jazz transcend the tuba itself. When you think of Gerry Mulligan, you don’t really think of the instrument he plays. You’re thinking of the sound you call “Gerry Mulligan.” We need to get to the point where there’s a signature sound. I’m also very influenced by the people just before me. Rich Matteson used to say that as soon as he played the tuba, he knew that it was a gimmick, because as soon as he played it, the people would say, “Wow – 1 never heard a tuba do that.” So he felt his job was to play music so that in that one listening experience the audience would go from “Oh wow, wasn’t that unusual?” to “Wow, that was really great music.” Then he knew he had done his job. The other person was you. You used to say all the time that you’ve gotta make your best sound when you play jazz. In other words, don’t play with a crappy sound. We’re from an era when some people didn’t play very well on trumpet or trombone and would call their sound aberration “style.” (Both laugh) In a combo, a bad sound won’t allow the other sounds to be pulled into it and make a “signature.” So it is an important concept that you gave me, because I do mix wild sounds, but it has to be based on the characteristic tone of the tuba. We get so far into our instrument that we forget how other people perceive us, and they think the tuba sounds really beautiful. We should never forget that.
ME:Thanks for addressing that because I’ve heard so many guys play solos and orchestral excerpts with a big, warm sound and then when they play bass lines in a combo they close up their lips or “fuzz” the sound for the effect. I’ve asked them, “Man, why don’t you play jazz with that big sound? Guys like Jim Self do a great job of playing with a great sound all the time, and there are more that do.
SP: This is a neat time to be talking about this because so many young people are serious about this and playing so well, and they are playing with virtuoso sound and technique. A lot of new bands are forming with different instrumentation that includes the tuba. So, the new thing I’m doing is an experiment to move harmony around in a whole new way. It’s saxophone, tuba and drums and it’s called “Meltdown.” We’re doing the World Saxophone Congress this summer and it has already had success as a record. It’s already made its money back, which is a big deal in our business, (laughs) But it’s interesting to have the bass function in a harmonic way, and it’s a musical place j for the drummer to be. It’s just great chamber music. A second CD will be | out this summer. Now another thing which is just fan- ■ tastic for me is the 50th anniversary of | “The Birth of the Cool.” This caused | Greg Hopkins, head of jazz composition at Berklee to form a nonet, comprised mainly of Berkley faculty. It was very close to a chamber music experience. They would play with a jazz trio and six horns with a feel like Empire Brass. It was all melted and mixed and it was meant to be sort of a baby Claude Thornhill band, which features colors and timbres in the jazz writing. Besides the older things, Greg started writing some really modem things. He was influenced by the nonet of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. For the 1999 lAJE Convention Greg wrote a 40-minute suite that celebrated this orchestration. My hope is that this will proliferate, because it puts the tuba chair in the front row and it’s written with horn, trombone and tmmpet and two reed doublers. We just did a second CD and it is all original material with no historical reference. It’s very exciting. ME; We’ve talked about two things that are common to our background; the bass, and playing “trad” in the dixieland bands.
SP: Yeah, I studied with David Baker too (Director of Jazz Studies at Indiana University), and he felt that the traditional background taught me to hear root movements and chord movements which are so prevalent in that music. Baker felt that it was a good basis to be able to hear instead of getting into the longer forms like modal jazz that go on for longer periods of time on one chord. Interesting, because it doesn’t bother people with a traditional background to hear a lot of chord changes, and it must seem like climbing Mt. Everest for students who have started with slower-moving chord progression situations. Of course, it’s important to do both. You’ve gotta sit on one chord and see how many melodic idetis you can come up with linearly. There’s a double pathway to learning. The first path is the study of theory and aural harmony, and the second path is learning your instrument. The fusion of the two is creates a “kinetic” path, where you do it all in real time and that’s the gap you’re always trying to close.
ME:You know, we keep coming back to Rich Matteson, but why shouldn’t we? Anyway, in a clinic he would play an F# on the piano and say “Sing the National Anthem.” Of course, there was no problem. Then he would have the audience pick up their horns and play it in F# and it was a mess!
SP: Yeah, it’s important to know that I came up from a lot of mentoring by Rich, and now I teach what we call a scale class, but what we do is play songs in twelve keys. They’re doing this everywhere so we can get down to this playing by ear. That has to be a part of everybody’s day. There should be no fear to play in any key because you might be interfacing with a guitar player or a singer who doesn’t care -^Summer 2000 about a key and you don’t want to be stopped by that. I teach my students to always be able to say “yeah.” If they say; “Can you do this?” “Yeah!” Your first jobs aren’t chosen by you. You’re put there, and if you succeed, you’ll continue to work, and if you can’t do it, you won’t reach your goal.
ME:That’s right. I’m sure this has happened to you, but I’ve been in the studio finishing a date and was stopped by the engineer who said: “Hey Marty, there’s a Reggae band next door trying to finish a demo CD and their bass player didn’t show up. Can you help out?” To make a long story short, I played the bass line, which was a reggae/frink line in B major and the engineers worked some magic to make the sound more electric, and I made some extra money.
SP: You never know! In fact B major just happened to me. There’s this group called the Thompson Brothers on RCA Country in Nashville. They came to Phoenix to do a CD and wanted tuba on a vocal number. So, number one, there’s no music, and number two, they do it in B major because that rocks for guitar! After that, they went back and I got a call from them saying let’s do another one. Happens all the time. What if it was in the key of B and you couldn’t function?
ME:Another example of this business of saying “yeah…” I was asked to play on this Grade B film soundtrack; the kind of film that shows fifth of five at the drive-in theater. No music, just could I play something sort of “Southern” – lazy and funky sort of like a guitar? So, I came up with something and they liked it.
SP: Right! I used to do jingles in New York where the writers make a lot of money, but the music isn’t always written down. So I did this thing for Ideal Toys. The commercial was for this little toy car for kids. We get in the studio and this guy shows me the film and says, “Play the car.” (both laugh) I played the car and he made the money.
ME:Sure, my kids used to sit at the piano with a storybook, and when I asked them what they were doing, they’d say: “I’m playing the trees and the ducks.” From the mouths of babes!
SP: There it is! We need to play by ear and we need to use our imagination. This is one of the things Kenny Werner suggests I use with all my students, no matter how advanced they are. We do all the things we need that build up our ideas and freedom to improvise, but we also finger-paint every day. We may only do 5 or 10 minutes of this so that those true sparks of creativity are still in the fun of playing the “trees and the ducks!” Otherwise, you can “theory yourself out” and become crazed.
ME:What about Arizona State? You’ve been directing a big band for a while now.
SP: Well, I’ve been doing a lot of writing because four and-a-half years ago I took over the concert jazz band at ASU. We’ve gone a long way as a group but it’s been a vehicle for me to write. I have a big band to write for! The biggest thing we do there is to promote the student writers from within. You gave me a jazz CD today, and I looked on the back and saw that every arrangement for big band was done by players in the band. That’s job power, and I think improvising leads to writing and arranging. That’s job power and artistic power, if you can write. Writing is improvising with the luxury of erasing! (both laugh)
ME:What do you say to a student who wants to learn jazz but feels like it’s an impossible dream?
SP: The main thing is to develop desire by developing awareness. It’s the responsibility of those of us who are older to guide the listening of that student. We need to be there right at the point they become involved emotionally, because they like the music and want to play it, and we have to set up the awareness and desire. It’s time to get down to business. Now they need to learn the tools of improvisation and build their tool kit. Theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge, knowledge of the chords and scales being used, and how they’re arranged into progressions. There’s a sequential learning and listening thing that goes on. There’s a piano teacher in New York I know who will take students only when they promise to listen three hours a day! Transcribing is also a part of it too; not the transcribing of solos so you can spit them back out again, but learning the nuance and the vocabulary of jazz. Transcribing is an activity to begin listening deeper – the deepest. The next step is to map your journey and find a mentor. That mentor does not have to be a player of our instrument, but someone who understands the mapping of a quest and they’ll set you up. So, number one is listening, number two is practicing this other language (and you’ll be so happy on your classical jury when somebody asks you to play scales, because you’ve already been in so many crazier swamps!). Looking back, I can say that the jazz training was the most important thing to ever happen to me. It was the ability to go past the curriculum. We’re way the past the curriculum you and I were taught. The range is higher, the tempos are faster and the virtuosity and technique is further.
ME:I totally agree. In the Navy Band or some “legit” gigs, we would have guest singers who would need to do an arrangement we had in a different key. Most of the musicians groaned, but the people with jazz or gigging background had no trouble at all. They understood relationships and just did it. It was second nature. So as you’ve indicated, the study of jazz strongly benefits your legit playing as well.
SP: Yeah, it’s all hooked up. So, when you ask what I’ve been doing. I’ve been teaching! I’ve been teaching preparedness, and we’re getting close and closer to the future where they’ll say, “you take a solo here and improvise there.” I was on a session in New York where they had six of us stay after the last call and told us to improvise on the tune “Valencia.” Urbie Green was there and here’s Sam sittin’ there, but you know what? I know that tune, because I grew up in Miami Beach with a lot of bald musicians that would play all these tunes by ear, and I learned painful lessons on gigs about playing these tunes. I was thinking, you know what? In my first four years out of school. I’ve used every single thing that I learned to survive the beginning of my career. So, back in the studio, what happens if they call “Valencia” and I say, “Uh, I don’t know it.” It’s a bad feeling.
ME:That would be one other call you’re not going to get. I noticed you said bald-headed guys…
SP: (laughs) Yeah, now we’re the baldheaded guys.
ME:When I was in my twenties. I’d go over to these clubs to sit in, and playing with the guys in their sixties and seventies was some of the most valuable time I’ve ever spent playing and listening!
SP: I can tell you that the mentor system exists. The old guys lent me records and said, “Take this home and listen to it and bring it back tomorrow.” The next day it was: “Okay now, take THIS home and listen to it.” So those “old guys” were an absolute gas to work with. Also they came from an era when doubling was important. Not just like tuba and bass, but winds and strings doubling. So with no music around they could sit around and play Strauss waltzes for dinner on strings, and then after dinner turn around and play the big band thing. And, I know you saw this in Washington D.C., but there would be a 20-piece big band with no charts, playing sax soli things and playing all the parts! I’m sitting there with my tuba saying “I’m going to be working on my ear until they close the box on my head!” They were hearing second and third parts built on a lifetime of listening. If a tuba or euphonium player is working on their ear to the level we’re talking about, they can make their intonation irrefutable (#1) and can hear their part before they play it (#2), AND they can hear everyone else’s part while they’re playing their own part, and everything comes into perspective. For a conductor to sit in front of a group like that!! (long whistle).
ME:A “game” I encourage my students to play if they get bored in rehearsal (or preferably anytime!) is to get their head out of their part and just listen to the second clarinet for a while, or the third comet, or the bassoons. Work to hear how the parts fit together or see who you’re sharing a line with.
SP: Yeah, at the very least, if you are in high school and playing this game and the conductor asks who has the melody here and the tuba player answers the question, he or she’ll get an A+ for that semester! So, it’s an “ear-based” world where we can improvise, and it’s an adventuresome place for tuba players, especially in a melodic sense, because we don’t have enough chance to do that. Now, thinking about euphonium players, many get intimidated because trombone players who are conversant in jazz switch over to the valves and play. So, legit euphonium players tend to back away thinking it’s a doubling thing. But, it’s not! The characteristic sound of the euphonium is an amazing voice and needs to be heard.
ME:Well, we’ve lost our dear friends Rich Matteson and Ashley Alexander. Who do you listen to today?
SP: Marc Dickman, of course, and Jukka Myllys plays some jazz. Jun Yamaoka has got this beautiful kind of “Clifford” existence. Maybe he’s the Chet Baker of the euphonium. I’m not sure, but it sure is great to listen to him.
ME:There are a batch of players down in the Orlando area. Doing a “TubaMania” thing for Gail Robertson, we had several sit in, including Marc and they were amazing!
SP: That’s important. Euphonium players need to take it as part of their world too and not be intimidated.
ME:So, we’re officially “caught up” and more. Anything else in your immediate future?
SP: It seems to be going more and more toward writing, and the improvisational things keep coming up. I just did a thing with full orchestra and jazz trio. Wait and see I guess. I look forward to the ITECs and the Washington D.C. things to see who’s playing what, and every single time it’s gone to a higher level in tuba and euphonium. It’s incredibly exciting. I guess my mission is to get cross-trained people, to turn that comer, to get brave and jump in.
ME:I remember Harvey Phillips said to me one time, “We need a Clark Terry of the Tuba,” and I think with all these wonderful young players out there, the sky’s the limit. They just need to learn this different language.
SP: It’s a different language, and it requires more practice, but if you’re dedicated and feel like you’re “maxing out,” I’ve got a message for you. There’s a thing called the “law of accommodation.” If you turn the heat up on a stove on a lobster when you put him in cold water, and you keep turning up the heat, pretty soon it’s dinner time. You can do the same thing with practicing. You add twenty minutes a day and then twenty more and before you know it, you’ve doubled your practice time when you thought you’d maxed out. These are the years in the developmental time of people where the time should be invested, because the rewards are great, but it’s hard to stop later on and say, “I’m going to do this now”. It’s not that they are too busy, it’s just what they’re doing now.
ME:People are more accessible now too. So many great players in our business share their talents or are willing to talk to young players. We have e-mail and a wide-open communication line to opportunities.
SP: Yeah. We have the information age and plenty of educational materials. In the old days, you could run out of material. Here I am in the desert, and I’m in instantaneous touch with everyone all the time. Sharing things on web sites will be the thing. Maybe we should put solos on web sites so people can practice them, and then you’re learning some of the language.
ME:Well that’s about it. Any final thoughts?
SP: I think that if you look back at where people are in terms of their development as players, where would you add the jazz? It’s at any point you become interested. Absolutely! Whenever the bug bites you, and the “bug” will bite anybody who is exposed to the music, because it’s part of the culture of our time and one of the forms of musical expression. You’ll go only as far as your ear develops, so I guess that’s the last thing: develop your ear-it’s the most important thing you’ll do.