Saxophonist and educator Julius Tolentino has been a staple of the New York jazz scene for over 20 years. A graduate of the Hartt School of Music, Julius studied with NEA Jazz Master and alto saxophone legend Jackie McLean, who introduced him to his second musical father, Illinois Jacquet. He has played in top jazz venues and festivals throughout the United States.
Renowned as a gifted music educator, “Mr. T” has worked with hundreds of students nationwide. He joined Newark Academy in Livingston, New Jersey, as jazz director in 2007, and currently conducts five nationally known student ensembles.
What inspired you to start playing music and continue to this day?
My first inspiration to begin playing music was making music with others. The feeling of creating something out of nothing with other people drew me into playing music. This still holds true today and I have found so much inspiration in the people I’ve played with and have studied with. I’m also inspired to give students those inspirational moments to play music.
I remember one particular inspirational moment as a younger player with my mentor Jackie McLean. He took me aside and told me that hard work will always trump talent, which gave me more inspiration to continue to work hard. He would tell a story of John Coltrane working his stuff out during this double header week he was playing with him. This has always stuck with me and is something I think about in everything I do, not just music.
Have you ever thought of quitting or doing something else?
Perseverance is something every musician has to have to be successful. I remember wanting to throw my saxophone off a bridge my first week of music school and calling my parents pretty distraught about all the talented saxophonists and musicians I heard and how far I was behind everyone. It didn’t take long for me to realize that there was a lot of work to do to reach my goals. I think it’s also important to be aware of where you need to improve and approach that in a healthy, balanced approach. Some students aren’t aware of where they need to improve or some do and don’t have a good plan on how to reach their goals. That’s where a good teacher can help.
What sort of opportunities has music afforded you over the course of your life?
Perseverance, hard work, and inspirational moments are what allows us to keep improving, keep our drive, and hopefully help others achieve their goals too. Music has allowed me to travel the world, play with some of my heroes, make music with some of the greatest musicians, and teach some of the most talented students. I’ve dedicated my life to playing and teaching jazz music. This is a special art form that is an amazing vehicle in self-discovery, creativity, communication, and everything beautiful about music.
What advice would you offer your younger self, or other young students getting started today?
My advice would be to learn to be your own best teacher. Here are some ways to develop that. Always be self-critical but not too harsh, always listen to others before offering to speak, record yourself often and listen objectively, ear train and sing every day, work on your deficiencies first in your practice routines, and always pay it forward - meaning help others along the way.