Interview conducted by Rebecca Scholldorf
When did you decide you wanted to be a musician and what drew you to the clarinet?
I decided I wanted to be a musician was the same time I started the clarinet - and that was 24 years ago when I was 4. I come from a non-musical family, so why I decided to play music, I don’t really know but decided I wanted to play music. My parents took me local music shops to try every instrument out there and came across the clarinet and pretty much instantly decided that’s what I wanted to play. Started on a plastic C clarinet and then moved up to Bb pretty quickly. It was always something I enjoyed and I never thought about having a career - it just in some ways sort of happened. Before I knew it, I was doing what I enjoy as a career and that’s a cool thing.
Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to become a performer?
I really knew I could do this as a career and be a professional soloist back in 2002 when I played for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. To have the honor of being asked to play for the Royal Family is amazing, let alone for a huge audience as well and being on television and celebrating the golden jubilee. It was after I finished that concert then I looked out to the audience and realized all of these people are applauding for what I’ve just played and that’s a pretty cool feeling. It was in that moment I thought this was possible - I could do this! Like I say, I never had that connection between the career; I just enjoyed doing it and it sort of happened in some ways.
Who have been some of the most influential people in your life?
Most recently Sabine Meyer who I studied with for a number of years was incredibly influential. She was a very tough teacher. She took me back to basics and made me do long tones, articulation exercises and all of that stuff that you should do but these days we want to play music - we want to play the pieces. A lot of people don’t realize is that you have to have all of the technique in order to do that well. When I went to study with her we did months of long tones and that sort of thing. In the end got to play music and I’ve really valued that experience. I don’t think I’d have a career had I not studied with her. She was an amazing person. She taught me other skills other than playing clarinet. She taught me how to cook (which is pretty useful)! Other than Sabine, all of my other teachers have impacted me in different ways but also people that I’ve met along the way.
Most recently, Wayne Shorter - the jazz sax legend. I’ve had the honor of being able to meet him a couple of times. He’s actually writing a clarinet concerto for me which is pretty awesome. And just even to sit down and talk with him what can end up being a couple of hours, the stories he has and the way he looks at life in the music industry is really amazing and refreshing. His really good friend Herbie Hancock, I got to meet as well. He’s very much the same - very chilled out. But the ideas he has and the ways he talks about music and what he loves doing is amazing. It really inspires you to work hard.
How did that get started?
I’ve always been a bit brave in certain respects. I decided I wanted someone to write me a concerto but I decided I wanted to do it a little bit different. I’ve always loved jazz and I’ve always loved Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. I grew up with that - especially in the last 10 years, listening to a lot more jazz. I can’t remember which album it was I was listening to, but, I thought, hang on, how about if Wayne wrote a clarinet concerto? It’s a bit of a crazy idea, but I thought, if you don’t ask, you never know! If you don’t give him a chance to answer either way. I was going to the NAMM show which is in January every year and I got in touch with him and actually got the chance to go to his house and meet him. I was a little bit star struck, knocking on his door and there he is. We went in a sat down and finally it was a good point in the conversation to say, hey, do you want me to write a clarinet concerto? And he said ‘yeah, let’s do it!” He started on clarinet originally so it brings back a lot of memories for him. He said he was inspired to get his clarinet out again and have a play with it. It’s been a really nice experience working with him. Like I said, I just plucked up the courage to go meet and asked him - he obliged and here we are. He’s a really cool dude!
What has been the most fulfilling aspect in your life as a musician?
Most simply being able to - and it sounds very, very cliche - but to bring happiness and inspire young musicians. Going into a school and talking to the whole band and if you inspire one of those kids to go home and practice or maybe consider a career in the music industry, that’s really fulfilling. When you do a concert and you see the audience enjoy what you’ve done, appreciate what you’ve done, that’s really fulfilling. For me, it’s the inspiring and educating the young - the next generation. These are the kids at the moment who are going to be taking over from us. To give them an insight of what I went through and some practice tips, that’s the most fulfilling part, to give back to the next generation.
Why do you think clarinetists are never taught jazz?
It annoys me! When we learn music theory, surely we should learn music theory not classical music theory. I understand these days time is of an essence and to add in a whole ‘nother chunk of music theory makes life a bit difficult, but it all comes from the same thing. To learn the modes and how chords work surely gives you more knowledge and a better musician, whether or not you use that or not. So I found when I decided I wanted to play jazz and there’s this ancillary bit of theory you have to learn now I said, hang on, why didn’t I learn that when I was a kid? People have seen them as very separate things and skills (and yes they are) but, there are a lot of similarities. When I play a concerto, I’m still improvising. You’re improvising the intent, the direction, the character, the feeling, and it depends on how you’re feeling that day, how the orchestra is feeling that day as to how it sounds. The only thing obviously you’re not improvising (hopefully) are the notes on the page. So in jazz you have that extra bit freedom.
What I like that classical brings to jazz is the technical aspect but vice versa, what the jazz brings to classical is the feeling of freedom. If you can play classical with freedom, that’s really what it’s supposed to be. It’s not really supposed to be very serious. Classical music in some ways has a bit of an image problem. Sometimes you feel that you have to dress in a certain way to go to a concert, you can’t clap in certain points in the piece, people glare at you, there’s all these rules. In jazz, there’s none of them! Actually, the more noise you make, the better (in some respects). I don’t think we’re ever going to really change this but certainly for me, I just like playing good music. But I do think that as when we grow up, students should be taught the jazz side of music theory as well as classical. And if they ever want to do it, they’ve got it!
Julian Bliss is one of the world’s finest clarinettists excelling as a concerto soloist, chamber musician, jazz artist, masterclass leader and tireless musical explorer. He has inspired a generation of young players as guest lecturer and creator of his Leblanc Bliss range of affordable clarinets, and introduced a substantial new audience to his instrument. Born in the U.K., Julian started playing the clarinet age 4, going on to study in the U.S. at the University of Indiana and in Germany under Sabine Meyer. The breadth and depth of his artistry are reflected in the diversity and distinction of his work. In recital and chamber music he has played at most of the world’s leading festivals and venues including Gstaad, Mecklenburg Vorpommern, Verbier, Wigmore Hall (London) and Lincoln Center (New York). As soloist, current performances include concerts with the Sao Paolo Symphony, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Paris, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia and London Philharmonic. In 2012 he established the Julian Bliss Septet, creating programmes inspired by King of Swing, Benny Goodman, and Latin music from Brazil and Cuba that have gone on to be performed to packed houses in festivals, Ronnie Scott’s (London), the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam) and across the U.S. Recent album releases receiving rave reviews from critics, album of the week spots and media attention, include his recording of Mozart and Nielsen’s Concertos with the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Recent chamber discs include a new piece for clarinet & string quartet by David Bruce – Gumboots – inspired by the gumboot dancing of miners in South Africa, and a recital album of Russian and French composers with American pianist, Bradley Moore.