Walter Beasley jokes that back when he was a student circa early 80s at the Berklee College of Music, he was so serious about his jazz studies that he was like “an old man, never going out and having fun, just practicing, doing research and writing.” On the rare occasions when he did socialize, the California native took the opportunity to learn from some of the genre’s future greats who were fellow students at the time — Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, Rachelle Ferrell, Mark Ledford and Kevin Eubanks. In fact, the restless saxophonist — who was in love with traditional jazz but wanted to study more contemporary, R&B influenced styles as well — says that he gained more insight from his peers than any of his professors during his time there.
“The teachers there were good, but we were coming of age at a time when the market for bebop and older forms of jazz was dying, and the curriculum was too focused on the ways of old,” Beasley says. “As much as I appreciated the past, I didn’t want to graduate and try my luck at a genre that wasn’t viable, so I chose to educate myself and ultimately found the perfect balance.”
Tapping into the groove oriented pulse of the emerging genre that came to be known as smooth jazz, Beasley has amassed a solid catalog of hit albums since his self-titled Polydor debut in 1987. After a four disc stint from 1997-2002 at Shanachie and a single disc (Go With The Flow) on N-Coded Music, he’s still at the top of his game both creatively and commercially on his Heads Up debut For Her. While he claims to be one of smooth jazz’s top selling saxmen since the late 90s, he’d probably be even more famous if he wasn’t still so busy teaching at — where else? — his alma mater, where he joined the faculty in 1984.
His first classes were rhythm section ensembles and jazz improvisation, and as the school accepted more vocal students, Beasley — whose recordings often feature a few of his own lead vocals — became a voice coach as well. Currently, he divides his time between vocal rhythm section ensembles, saxophone classes and private horn lessons. This year, he joined the brigade of teacher/musicians with instructional DVDs as well, releasing Hip Hop Improvisation and Sound Production for Saxophone on Warner Bros. The second of these addresses the fine art of “embouchere,” or proper mouth and lip placement around the reed.
These projects are simply the latest extracurricular outgrowths of a mission he felt called to shortly after he graduated. “A lot of what initially drew me into education was culturally based,” he says. “All the other black sax students were leaving, and I felt compelled to stay in Boston because there was no one else there to help younger black musicians who needed the right guidance. I felt that a curriculum that was good for the development of black youth is good for all young people. The struggle is still continuing, but I’m excited about being involved in Berklee’s new Presidential Scholarship program, which offers a free education (20 this year, 25 next) to kids who are extremely talented but don’t have the financial wherewithal to attend otherwise.
“I’m also on the board of the Association of Faculty of African Descent, whose mission is to increase the number of African-American faculty members and students,” he says. “While I’ve loved making records, my goal has never been to be the highest selling saxman. It’s more important that I am honest and balanced, and make a difference in people’s lives.”
Beasley is only too happy to plug some of his student success stories, from singers Lalah Hathaway and Tim Owens to saxophonists Walter Smith and Ian Rypien, the latter of which is, in the teacher’s eyes, potentially the next Joshua Redman. Well aware of the commercial marketplace based on his career as an artist, he’s committed to preparing them for the future, even as they study jazz forms of the past. Beasley believes that 60% of the instruction for modern music students should be business related, and he’s grateful that while Berklee dictates the overall curriculum, he is also free on occasion to create his own. Current tensions regarding the instruction of hip-hop related styles led him to embark on the instructional video venture.
“I feel that music did not die with Miles Davis, and my responsibility is to teach students to survive in the world they live in, rather than the one I live in,” he says. “I’ve always tried to remain current, and my recording career has helped a great deal. As hip-hop has progressed and become more popular, I’ve incorporated it more into the agenda. If you teach groove related material appropriately, students will be prepared for anything.”
Although Beasley himself enjoys the double blessing of a loyal fan base and 20 years of tenure to support his outside musical endeavors, he’s constantly concerned that a shrinking marketplace may hurt his students’ chances to succeed as he has in the real world. “What gives me hope is that I get these great, eager students every year, and I know they’ll go out and make some noise,” he says. “But as recording opportunities become more limited, it becomes my job to help them break the barrier of self-expression and give them the fundamentals they need to deal with what’s out there. My advice is always that they create a market for themselves. My responsibility is to educate, focusing not on what I’ve accomplished, but what they’re going to accomplish.”
After six successful albums on Heads Up, bassist Gerald Veasley celebrates the bustling jazz/funk energy of his ever-evolving live show on At The Jazz Base!, a recording culled from two nights of performances in November 2004 at the intimate nightclub named for him (Gerald Veasley’s Jazz Base) at the Sheraton Reading near Reading, Pennsylvania. “One of the most elusive qualities of studio recordings is the sense of being in the moment, being spontaneous,” says the Philly based musician. “It’s much more fun to let these tunes breathe and see what develops naturally in front of a live audience, with an approach of no redo, no undo, just do. Going on the ledge a little bit creates an exciting end result.”
Every March during the Berks Jazz Festival, Veasley’s Jazz Base also hosts a show put on by select students of all ages who participate in his annual Bass Boot Camp — an intense 30-plus hour program held the first weekend of the festival and open to amateurs and accomplished musicians alike. Among its 300 alumni are kids who just got their first bass for Christmas, professionals who let their hair down playing in bands on weekends, and even a retired coal miner.
Veasley, who also holds the title of “Master Lecturer” at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts — where he began teaching in 1992 — launched the program in 2002 as a way to encourage breakthroughs for developing bassists who hit creative plateaus. “Our goal is to help them get unstuck by giving them concrete information and hands-on guidance,” he says. Boasting a ratio of no more than 15 students per teacher, classes are held at the Institute of the Arts near Reading; students can also take individual lessons in the evening. Past instructors read like an all-star “who’s who” in contemporary jazz/fusion: Victor Wooten, Gary Willis, Brian Bromberg, Michael Manring, Jimmy Haslip and Doug Wimbish of Living Colour. The next Bass Boot Camp will be held March 17-19, 2006. Information is available at www.geraldveasley.com.
1) Turning Point, Matador (Native Language) – Celebrating over a decade as a dominant force on the Phoenix club scene, the five piece band’s Latin-fired, ethnically eclectic breakthrough project brilliantly captures its crackling evolution into a jazz/rock instrumental powerhouse.
2) Ringo Starr, Choose Love (Koch International)
3) Bo Bice, Inside Your Heaven/Vehicle (RCA)
4) Daniel Rodriguez, In the Presence (Blix Street)
5) Alison Moyet, Voice (Sanctuary)
New and Noteworthy
1) Andre Delano, Full Circle (7th Note)
2) Warren Hill, Pop Jazz (Pop Jazz/Native Language)
3) Najee, My Point of View (Heads Up)
4) Paul Hardcastle, 4 (Trippin’ N Rhythm)
5) Brian Culbertson, It’s On Tonight (GRP)