When did you decide that you wanted to be a musician?
The profound moment for me was 11 years-old. I used to have a tape recorder and I ran into a Dexter Gordon, live at the Village Vanguard. I kept on playing it over and over and I was fascinated, not only by the playing, but you could feel the audience on those live recordings, so you can hear how the imagery was different and how he was connecting with people. At that point, I was fascinated with how big his sound was, but also, what he was doing as collective as musicians. It made me say this is what I want to do!
Who are the most influential people in your life?
My mother was a systems person where she got up every morning at the same time, she came home at the same time, she was just a human version of a robot! She was a person that understood the benefits of locking into a system and working hard. My mom immigrated from Jamaica and came here with a dream of providing a better life for me and she did it!
My other most influential person is a baseball coach by the name of Herb Alston. I was really good in sports and I played baseball. I remember one time I hit an inside the park home run. I was running around the base, so even though I was safe by a long shot, he asked me to slide and I didn’t because I felt I was safe. He kicked me out of the game! Never in history someone hits a home run and gets kicked out of the game, but what I realized was about doing things right. He always said,
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”
If you’re putting the wrong things into repetition, you’ll be a worse off player than how much you practice. He was big on doing things the right way. I never understood at that time why he kicked me out of the game when I was 15, but I got it later.
Fast-forward two years ago, his son, who was one of the best players on the team, is a pitching coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. I’m playing the National Anthem at the All-Star game, and his son and I both had a great moment of that baseball game memory. We took a selfie and sent it back to Mr. Alston. Me playing on the biggest stage at baseball, still being able to be in baseball but doing what I love was a real moment of understanding destiny and using his teachings to get me back to baseball – eventually!
It was all about technique and practicing. Those things resonated with music, especially the part where practice doesn’t make perfect but perfect practice makes perfect. Understand that what you put into repetition really makes you a better player, whether it’s sports or music.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a musician and how have you overcome them?
I know this sounds crazy but I view challenges as just temporary obstacles. I’ll never forget when I was 18 years-old and it’s extremely cold in New York – February. A guy from my church told me to come down to this club. So I have a thin jacket on, it’s the middle of February, and there’s this big bouncer there that won’t let me in because he says I’m too young. I’m standing there and he says,
“What are you standing here for? I told you, you can’t get in!”
He gets into a fight, meanwhile he’s fighting I walk through the door. That’s just an obstacle that’s just a temporary setback, it’s how you view them.
A couple of months later, Stevie Wonder comes to that gig and hears me play. I happen to be gigging with Stevie just out of that scenario. That taught me early – if I had let that bouncer shifted my whole paradigm if I went home and had been so discouraged because I couldn’t get in.
When you understand the power of letting something be an obstacle, that story in itself shows you they’re just temporary. There are some things where there are challenges in the music industry. When I first came out, there were a ton of records being sold. Now people are just listening to music and just streaming. It’s to the point where being able to adapt is very important. There comes a time where some things are not obstacles, you just don’t have the ability to adapt. It a combination between understanding the environment of what’s in front of you. It can be an obstacle or a situation where you have to change with the times. I can’t look at my sound scan and look at the same record sales as 2002. Am I going to complain or am I going to get my internet presence up to make sure that I get one million streams on the new Mike Phillips record. You’ve got to look at everything for what it is.
How do you change and adapt today?
You get inspired by the generation that’s happening next. I was the first musician to ever have a shoe deal to happen with Nike. How can you incorporate some of that into what you’re doing but still keeping the infrastructure of what made you in the industry?
On my new album “Pulling Off the Covers,” I had a whole bunch of feeling that I like to feel and I had a whole bunch of songs. I just randomly put the song with the feeling, put a hip-hop song. I wanted it to feel like “Manhattan Transfer” so I wrote some intricate horn stuff over hip-hop lyrics. So now you’re hearing vocal in the part that the guy would be spittin’ his rhyme, I had that being sung by 4 and 5-part harmony.
So the line between the song and the feel of what you like, that line is drawn and then what gets you from point A to point B is the creativity that you challenge yourself to change things up. Adapting, being open to change, being open to pushing the envelope, and also, being inspired by the things around you, they can only do but help.
Can you tell us the story about your deal with Nike as a musician?
I remember one time I got Michael Jordan really mad. I signed the deal and I still couldn’t believe it. After I signed, they said “We’re going to put you in some sports marketing situations.” Roy Jones, the boxer, was an endorser of Jordan. So they had Jordan in the ring, flown me down, and I was going to play the National Anthem but I go into a limo and Mike is in it. They mailed all of my clothes to the hotel. I didn’t get a chance to go to the hotel to get dressed. So now I have these shoes on and Reebok pants on, but the logo was right at the top. So I used my shirt to cover it. The shirt pulls up and Mike sees the Reebok logo and he goes nuts. He said,
“Didn’t he get a box for his clothes? I’m telling you man, you’ve gotten be loyal!”
And then he started getting on the people who were supposed to send me the clothes.
Since 2001, I’ve always had on Nike. And then years later, I saw it in his book. The last book that he did, he had a chapter on loyalty and went through this whole story on how he saw me with these sweatpants on. He’s all about loyalty.
To have one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball and one of the greatest business models. So if you’re hanging with him, you’re getting your daily dose of competitiveness. Him, Derek Jeter, these guys compete on the highest level. It’s the same thing I would do when it’s my time to play on stage. So you get fed off that but also, you feed from his business idea. So why not push the envelope and have my own saxophone company? What you’re around, you’ll eventually be. But you can’t be it, unless you’re influenced by being around it. The sneaker deal was cool, but having those relationships that Michael Jordan has his tentacles on, the information from the greatest business minds on the planet, and just having a conversation with him.
We had a great conversation on the National Anthem, me playing it, and he said man listen.
“What’s happening socially is good, but, after you get up from the knee, that’s what matters. Invest in your community. Do what you got to do to make a positive influence, which is music.”
If I wasn’t around Michael, I don’t think I would’ve pushed the envelope to want my own line of horns because that thing that he has is infectious.
When did your saxophone company start?
My first horn, they made the Nike jump man logo. That was my first horn. I did a shoe with a ship of music notes and then it shipped with a CD of my music. It was called the Air Jordan 17. I said you know what, I want to have a horn that’s close to a VI, but the finish has to be different. From a performance stand point, take looks out of it, I wanted to middle of the horn to have some pop, power, and me evenly distributed as far as the intonation was concerned.
How long have you had the company?
I’ve had this signature line for about 10 years now. The company’s been good because not only I get to have a signature line, we’re in business to make a profit, but also in business to make a difference. Some families that want to have music in their family, but they can’t afford the $1,500-2,800 price point for the horn. Anybody I do business with, I want them to understand my level of commitment to the community, and the fact that if I’m in bed with you, you have to be on board with helping me help the people that want to be involved in this great process of learning music. But, maybe can’t afford it.
One of the grateful things I can say I’ve been able to do; profit margins, numbers, that’s all cool, but watching the smile on a kid’s face when they have a new horn given to them by someone who they look up to musically, it’s priceless! Legacy is not what you do to make yourself better and make some extra money, but it’s how can you inspire someone to be better than what they are – that’s through action! Last time I checked, it’s still a verb.
The things you do already in the community, it really speaks to the passion and that’s really important. You look at it, there’s two things that have to be cross-pollinated: the blood, sweat and tears of the art form and then you have the business of the decisions that have to happen that make those things work. Oil and vinegar, those things have to be in the pot together. They are polar opposites. The blood, sweat, and tears of the art, and number crunching. They’re both separate things but they both need each other in order to have success in any business.
What I say is, to run any successful entity, both things got to be taken into consideration, highly, and then after the situation is done and everybody makes some money, the artists can be the artists and the business can be the business. They do have to come together sometimes. I’m happy I have a legacy that I can indulge into the business, but also I can leave that along and know when the kid is really good and I need to give them a horn.
I’m not trying to have the next Charlie Parker coming across. At the end of the day, it’s so much bigger than music. If you can understand the process that I’ve gone through: repetition – practice. The things that Mr. Alston told me, I would’ve been able to apply that if I wanted to go to school to be a meteorologist or a lawyer. The process is the same. We can’t get infatuated with the end result of what we want to be but we really got to indulge and understand the process. The process can be transferable. That’s why music is important because the process. We live in this social media world where you take a picture and you get famous and none of these kids are understanding the process. You have to practice two hours a day. This is not like John Madden football. Like if you want to be a real athlete, you have to lift. You’ve got to do these things. Now that we’re getting into this digital society, the lessons that music can teach us, is a little more important than before. We’re fighting against something – self gratification type of mentality. The fundamental aspect of what this teaches you, the journey you have to go through, the patience that you have to have, the dedication through repetition, these lessons through music’s transferable that anything these kids are doing in life. That’s why we have to put the instrument in their hands and let them know immediately.
The instrument is the gatekeeper for kids understanding: you’re not getting nothing free and quick. All the greats have understood that they can’t get anything free and quick. That’s even more important than what a great musician we’re trying to breed you to be. The process. If we get infatuated with the process, then the results of these kids will be bigger than musicianship, but they’ll be socially prepared for the challenges will face them beyond a Cmin7 chord or a Dsus#5. We get it, and they’re only going to be a few of those musicians that are going to break through and be those great musicians any way. So what are we going to do with the rest of the field? They still have to have music as the barometer to how they’re going to approach their lives.
More information on Mike Phillips' saxophone line here.
Subscribe to the We Are Vandoren E-newsletter (WAVE) to receive 4 weekly articles for Performers, Students, and Educators