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Insights from the Leader of the Band

Leading a band is no easy feat. Any band leader knows this. Being a drummer/leader is even more difficult because we don’t play the melodies. Same with bass players. There is a level of expectation that the leaders are the ones playing the melodies. I can’t tell you how many times, for people that have never seen me before and are hearing my group for the first time, think the piano player is me. Many are surprised when they find out the leader is the drummer.

Years ago I decided that I wanted to play MY music and form my band. How could I do that when I don’t play the melodies? Being a band leader is about much more than who is playing the melody. I write the music, book the gigs and hire the musicians. The leader also sets the conceptual direction for the band, and ideally you want musicians that are willing to participate and make that idea a reality. You’re also a producer of sorts in that you have to find the musicians that can articulate your concept for the music. Then there are the potential egos that can get in the way.

These days there are many musicians that aren’t comfortable as the “sideman.” They take the gigs because of a check and necessity unfortunately, and in those cases band leaders usually get the minimum amount of effort. There has to be a strong trust between the people you work with because if not, someone might feel they’re somehow being taken advantage of when no one is in reality. Perceptions get twisted. Again, egos. They could care less about YOUR vibe. It’s all about them even on YOUR gig. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with much of this kind of nonsense as a leader but over the years there have been times. What’s even more interesting is when you hire musicians and they demand all this money but can’t play the music. Hmmmm….really?

I’ve been leading my bands for a long time now. Almost 30 years and that longevity has built a following. Mostly with two outstanding pianists…Allen Farnham and Justin Kauflin and bassist Terry Burrell. There have been others over the years but these guys have been the core of my group. I’ve been fortunate to have had the same players for many years, off and on which is extremely important in developing your sound, and we’ve grown tremendously as musicians in this setting. I’ve been able to create a highly artistic environment where musicians can play at a high level because I’ve always given the players much room to stretch. I’ve always encouraged them to reach for it. That’s how you grow and develop. I’m very proud to have created a foundation for musicians to learn and grow and it’s been done with respect. I’ve always treated the musicians that have worked with me fairly. They’ve always gotten paid. They’ve always been talked about in very positive ways and promoted. I put their names out there too.

Smart band leaders know too that they have to be resourceful in this business because it’s a very selfish business and that’s why outside of rock you don’t see many “bands” anymore. Definitely in jazz you don’t. It’s a drag really, but again it’s all about the individual now, however, you need musicians to work with you. When you can find them, cherish the situation as a leader. Loyalty is very important. You can’t underestimate it and we have to help each other. When you are doing it for the music first, you will always have those meaningful relationships. When it’s about something else, like the ego, it won’t work over the long haul. – Jae


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— M.S.