The Jazz Scene: Observations, Transformations, and Other Thoughts

with Mark Gross

How did you get started in Jazz and what attracted you to playing alto specifically?

 In jazz? Wow, so my answers to your questions are like a trilogy, so I am going to start with part one.

Part 1: 

I got into music because my Dad played saxophone. I am the youngest of seven and I grew up in a household where music was always present. Being the youngest most days I was home with my mother. So, one day at the age of seven I was wandering around the house and eventually find my way into my dad’s bedroom, looked under the bed and saw a box. Inside this box was a saxophone. Years later I learned it was a Conn 10M. As the days passed I figure out how to put the instrument together, still thinking my Mom didn’t hear me. Eventually I finally got it and I start honking away. It was like I was in my own secret world. This went on for weeks until one day, while I was up there fooling around, I heard someone enter the room. I turned around and it was my Dad. I was thinking “oh my gosh… it’s over.” He said to me, “you know what you’re doing son?” I said “yes sir.” He said, “let me hear you,” so I played for him. Long story short I never touched it again. A few weeks later my father came home and handed me an alto saxophone and said, “this is for you…leave mine alone.”

Part 2: 

My Dad loved Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young, so he would have me listening to those kinds of people. My Dad was really the catalyst of opening that jazz world to me at a young age.

Part 3: 

My Dad took me to a record shop. He said we were going to buy me some records and to pick out whatever I like. I immediately began searching for Grover Washington Jr. records and Dad was searching for something too. I eventually found Grover Washington Jr.'s “Winelight” and when my Dad saw it he was like “nah you’re getting this” as he pulls out Ben Webster’s “Soulville.” At the time I thought that I didn’t want to listen to this “old time music” but little did I know right? So, we bought the LP, went home and listened to it. In high school, I realized how amazing this music was. I started hearing it differently. Through that early exposure my Dad had been persistent about having me listen. Through that, I found Charlie Parker, and through him I found Sonny Rollins, Cannonball, Johnny Hodges, etc. But it all started with a seven-year-old boy going through his Dad’s bedroom and finding a saxophone. 

It sounds like you learned a lot from your Dad.

My Dad was a bad dude. He could play piano and had a vocal quartet, singing like the Dixie “Humming Birds.” He was a tenor and man could he sing. This is probably the reason why when I think about saxophone, I am thinking of it as a singer as opposed to an instrumentalist. This is a point for all the young players out there. When I am playing, particularly if it is a ballad, I like to learn the lyrics. I do this for a number of reasons. I am learning how to play the melody, how to phrase the melody, the meaning of the song, and what the story behind the melody is and what it means to me. Sometimes when I hear young people playing melodies, they play them wrong. I think it is because there are so many recordings by many different people with different interpretations, which is cool, but it is a disservice for someone to learn a song and not learn the proper melody. You should at least listen to the original composer or singer singing it to really know the song.

"You should at least listen to the original composer or singer singing it to really know the song." - Mark Gross

How has the jazz scene changed in your lifetime? What are some of the observations you’ve made now that jazz is transforming?

When I came on the scene, I was very lucky. I graduated from Berklee in 1988 and moved to New York in 1989. When I got to New York it was amazing. Elvin Jones, Cedar Walton, and other legendary musicians that I grew up listening to on records were still around playing in local jazz clubs. I would often go out to jazz clubs and see these musicians perform. What would often happen is, for example, I would go to see Elvin Jones and Max Roach would be sitting in the audience. Then there was the night life. There was a club called Bradley’s where everyone would go to once their gigs were over. They would go to this local club and everybody would be in there hanging out. You’d see Roy Haynes, Hank Jones, and many more iconic musicians and they were approachable. So, I would walk up to them and talk to them about a plethora of things. Asked about the recordings they have done, the scene when they were my age. I did my homework so when I got to that point, they didn’t just dismiss me as some kid. They saw I was asking some interesting questions. For me at that point it was great because I was getting firsthand knowledge of all the things I’ve read and heard on records, books, and in movies. 

That kind of scene doesn’t exist anymore. When I talk to the younger musicians, my students in particular, I try to share my bit of knowledge from that perspective, having been able to rub elbows with these masters.

Another way the scene has changed is that these days everything is right here on your cellphone. You can download a tune or record and stream it. This makes it difficult to know who is on the record or the backdrop of the recordings, the liner notes, so much information.

"Another way the scene has changed is that these days everything is right here on your cellphone." - Mark Gross

You mentioned that Cannonball was a big influence. Did you ever get to meet him?

I never had a chance to meet him. The closest I came to meeting him was working for his brother. When we would play Florida, I would often stay at Nat’s house. I would stay in his music room all night. Can you imagine you're in your hero’s brothers house, you are looking up on the wall and there is his King Super 20 alto saxophone in a glass case on the wall. The horn that I heard oh so many records of, there were pictures, and home recordings of them practicing live gigs. Nat NEVER let me touch Cannonball’s saxophone. Mind you, it was in a clear glass case and the top of the glass case is open and it's on a shelf. You could just reach in and grab it. He was like "I understand you love Cannon... but nope." It was torture! It was killing me! So, the closest I got to the Cannonball was that. But for me that was enough because when I was in the band for 3 years with Jimmy Cobb, Walter Booker, and Rob Bargad. On the road with these guys for 3 years as they just told me all these stories with an abundant amount of information was unbelievable. I really got a sense of how close those guys were and what the music meant as well as the relationship between Cannon and Nat. 

What does a daily practice session look like for you?

At first, practice for me was about hours. I would be in the practice room for six hours, leave and think to myself “I didn’t learn didly squat.” It took be awhile to learn it’s about what you bring into that practice time. In the years I’ve been practicing, or playing, practice begins with knowing what I am trying to do before I even open my case. Most days, at best, I am getting 2 hours now. But I think in my formative years I was averaging 5 or 6 hours of good and focused practice because I would think about my practice session the night before and focus on what needs work. I would also keep a log of all the stuff I needed to practice. I would record myself and listen back to critique myself. Listening back can be brutal, but I think it is a helpful tool. Once you get past the beating yourself up phase, you can really analyze what you need to work on and that becomes an even more focused practice. Keep playing scales, learning tunes, improvising, until you get on the band stand. I tell my students you want to practice learning this stuff so when you get on the band stand you don’t have to think about it. You just got to be like Kobe Bryant. Keep shooting those free throws until it becomes second nature.

"Once you get past the beating yourself up thing you can really analyze what you need to work on and then that becomes an even more focused practice." - Mark Gross

What’s next on the horizon?

The next thing I am going to be do is record my next CD, 'The Gospel According to Mark' with the quintet, strings, choir, and a rapper. It is all going to be tapping into my spiritual realm through the lens of jazz, hip hop, funk, etc. through the story of Mark in the Bible. 

The first tune is going to be The Baptism. It's going to be that whole journey of Christ until the crucifixion and resurrection. Cannon did this record years ago, 'Soul of the Bible,' and he was just taking scriptures from the Bible, almost like an orator, talking over grooves and vamps then he would open it up. Cannon would have his solo then the guys would end it. That’s what I am trying to do. June we are going to head into the studio. I am also doing a Broadway show called 'Ain't too Proud.: The Life and Times of the Temptations.


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