Happy International Jazz Day!!! 

Happy International Jazz Day! I have to confess I'm not super driven to shoot video of myself playing jazz at home right now, I'm itching to move some air in the same space as someone else. So instead I offer this, ten musicians who directly changed my jazz life not named Occhipinti (because there's no question that my brother Roberto Occhipinti, and Peter, and my cousin David all helped shape my early interest in music): 

In no particular order and for no particular reason (and to clear, this is a far from complete list that leaves out many of my closest musical friends - you know who you are), today I want to give a shout to these jazz folks: 

1. Hugh Fraser. Hugh was the Artistic Director of the Banff Centre for the Arts, and when I auditioned to go there in my 3rd year at York University, I was itching to play some of my original music but I wasn't getting a lot of opportunity at school (that's not a diss, it's just that the ensembles were really about learning the standards/bebop repertoire so there wasn't really much of a chance to bring in original tunes). At the live audition, I played two original compositions, and Hugh was just over the top enthusiastic and told me what I was doing was exactly what Banff was after. That kind of affirmation meant so much to me, and going to Banff changed my whole outlook on the world (because there were so many great jazz players there from everywhere) and my own playing and what I wanted to do with my career (my two summer Banff workshops and one winter one would really demand a subcategory of influential musicians/instructors). 

2. Kenny Wheeler. Ok, he was one of those Banff teachers, but no question that when I heard his Music For Large and Small Ensembles I was hooked, and though Ellington, and Gil Evans, and Mingus were also making me think about larger ensembles, Kenny's was the first big band I heard where the guitar was one of the front and centre melodic voices, but his writing was just his, beautiful and powerful. 

3. Don Byron was a hero to Paul Neufeld and I for his Music For Six Musicians and his work with Bill Frisell, and he was at the top of our list when we thought about an ideal guest soloist for our group NOJO. Don was such an imaginative musician, and he really made me appreciate how a top level musician has the ability to shape music by the strength and uniqueness of their voice, and like a great hockey or basketball player, he made everyone around him play better too. Having Don play on multiple albums and tour with me has been a great stamp of approval that I continue to be honoured by. 

4. Paul Neufeld. Speaking of NOJO, 5 JUNO nominated (1 winner) albums of original music don't happen without me becoming friends with Paul our first day at York University. Paul always flipped me cassette tapes of music he thought I should check out, and after university it was Paul who suggested we put together a rehearsal big band so that we could hear the big band music we'd written for our final assignments at York University. The early days of NOJO produced a lot music and some great press very quickly, and in large part that happened because Paul and I were a great team in terms of dreaming and then chasing our ideas by giving each other tasks to do and report to each other on. 

5. Bernie Finkelstein (and by extension Bruce Cockburn) 

Ok Bernie isn't a musician, but in 1998 he released NOJO You Are Here (with Don Byron) on True North Records. True North was of course known as the home of Bruce Cockburn (and many others), and not known as a jazz label, but Bernie was releasing some Lennie Breau recordings and thought that our music deserved to be heard and supported (and our producerJonathan Goldsmith deserves credit for connecting us to Bernie and for shaping four of the albums I did for True North). I don't think Bernie thought for a second he was going to make money from NOJO, but I guess he figured he wouldn't lose much either, and I loved that he was a fan and was motivated by his interest in our music. Not only did he help get NOJO way more attention and distribution than we'd ever had, but he gave us access to free CDs from the True North promo room. 

6. The Toronto Guitar Scene (ok that's many people): We live in a pretty great guitar town. I saw Lenny Breau (thanks to my brother Roberto Occhipinti) at Bourbon Street when I was really too young to be there, and I stole some licks from Robbie Robertson before I realized what a guitar hero he'd been here in the early 60s before The Band went off to be The Band. I used to see Ed Bickert a lot at George's Spaghetti House (where I was briefly a busboy), and people like Rob Piltch or Ted Quinlan who I used to see a lot in different settings. I was lucky to have teachers like Carlos Lopes, Pat Coleman, Geoff Young, and Lorne Lofsky all of whom impacted me, though I guess I spent the most time with Lorne. I have to give a big shout out to Geoff actually, because I took lessons with him for a short while as I was trying to get ready for my university audition, and then one day he told me not to come back. It kind of threw me for a loop until I thought about it later, but he said "you don't need to take lessons, you know everything you need to know, you just need to go buy some records." 

7. Jeff Coffin. When I first met Jeff many years back, it was for a spontaneous breakfast. Out of that first meeting we made plans to stay in touch and eventually make some music together, and I've appreciated his remarkable openness to creating music with so many different people and his generosity as an instructor, and if I had a bit of his energy I could maybe do it to the degree he does. His energy is infectious, and every time I play with him I feel like I'm pushed to come up with new stuff. And the group In Orbit, which came out of Jeff's usual annual stops here with Dave Matthews, is just a blast and connected me to Felix Xavier Pastorius, and Tom Reynolds, and Davide Direnzo. 

8. Elizabeth Shepherd For most of my career I didn't really work with jazz singers much, but Elizabeth is so much more than that term describes anyway. She's a great writer, pianist, and bandleader, and over the last decade I've done so many wonderful tours with our various projects (and we would be heading out on one this summer if not for Covid). 

I get to do some guitar stuff with her that I just don't get to anywhere else. 

9. Barry Romberg. I used to love to go out and hear the Barry Romberg group (usually featuring guitarists like Geoff Young or Ted Quinlan or Mark McCarron), and it was a really big deal for me when I finally got to where I could hire him in my quartet, and the first tours I did were made a lot more fun by him being there and I learned a lot. 

10. Time Warp. One of the bands my friends and I loved to go see when we were in university was Time Warp, under the direction of Barry Elmes and Al Henderson, and featuring Mike Murley and Kevin Turcotte (who replaced Bob Brough). Not only did I like the writing in the band (and I was impressed that they were a band doing original music), but it was where I discovered Mike's wonderful sax playing (I mentioned it was a big deal when Don Byron came into NOJO, but before that, when we were just getting going and nobody knew of us, it was a big deal for us that Mike Murley played on our first album). Kevin's trumpet playing impressed me so much that I've used him on pretty much every recording I've done.

Upcoming Gigs All Canceled...Fingers Crossed For When They Happen Again! 

Well, I've taken down my "Upcoming Gigs" page for now, just because everything is either canceled or on hold for now.  Elizabeth Shepherd and I are supposed to be on tour from June 20-July 12 doing Canada's Jazz Festivals and other shows, and while they haven't been canceled, I can't say for certain they'll proceed.  The next few weeks of social distancing and isolation and what they do to the covid 19 virus will probably decide.  The good news is I've been succeeding in my goal of writing at least a couple of bars of music every day, and practicing the guitar more than I probably have in twenty years.  Maybe at the end of all this, I'll have a lot of new music and some new guitar licks, but on the other hand nothing beats playing and creating with other people, so maybe I'll just be maintaining what I can do the way all the basketball players trying to stay game ready are doing.  But creating seems to be good for my mental health, and it's nice to take a break from answering/sending emails, which is such a big part of being self employed.  If you're creating something, and want some guitar or collaboration, let me know!

Covid 19 

Well, with my wife having returned from a trip to Cuba, we're following Toronto Public Health's guidelines and self-isolating (and Toronto in general is doing that).

Like every musician I know, my gigs and teaching have been canceled (except for some video guitar lessons), and we're all looking forward to the federal government announcing some financial relief measures.   We're all missing our contact with other musicians and friends, but I'm trying to stay positive and use it as a time to do things with my family we don't always get to do, and to commit to creating music every day.  So far I've just been recording ideas into my phone, everything from 2 bar riffs to what seem like they'll turn into instrumental or vocal songs pretty easily.  But I'd love to lay down guitar tracks for other people, or write music together (send me a beat, a bass line, a lyric!), or find some other way to be creative with other people.  Whatever you are doing, I hope you can stay as positive as the Italians singing on their balconies

Agents - the Good, the Bad, The Ugly 

Ok I'm a musician first, but since I am booking shows at Hugh's Room Live, I do get to see things from a different perspective too, and I'm learning a lot about agents and what I like/don't like. Maybe these general thoughts are useful to those of you with agents, or seeking an agent, or maybe if you are an agent. 

Some agents literally write me " JOE SCHMOE(name of artist). Interested?" 

I have to admit, I'm usually not interested if that's all the agent wants to share with me, unless we're talking about an icon ("Stevie Wonder. Interested?" would work). No link to a video or audio or bio? I don't need a long pitch, but how about a complete sentence? 

On the other hand, some agents write me very enthusiastically about how their artist is on tour at a specific time, and they are routing close by, and they mention that they either know the club or have heard about it or they've clearly done their research. That agent is great because not only do they get my attention, I'm now going to take a look at the other acts they book because I think I'll like dealing with that agent. 

Of course, I spend quite a bit of time writing emails to agents myself because I want to book their artists. As far as I'm concerned, those agents should be quite happy to hear from me because ultimately I'm offering to put money in their pocket and fill another date on their artist's calendar. 

The agent I like is the one who emails back, "can I call you?" because that is so RARE, and we'll get it done pretty quickly if we're going to get it done, avoiding an extra ten emails. But I also the like the agent who just asks for the seating numbers and average ticket price, because they're clearly going to do some math and figure out a reasonable offer for the circumstances (or if we are even in the ballpark for their artist depending on who it is). If that agent is fast with email, that will get booked pretty quickly too. 

On the other hand, some agents just email me back asking me to fill out their attached offer sheet. That's it, nothing else in their email, and no indication of enthusiasm. Not even a confirmation of whether the artist is available when I want them. Really? You're not going to tell me basic details like if the date I have in mind works? Not any mention of the group the artist is touring (because many people have different album projects or perform both solo or with a band). How can I blindly fill out a generic offer sheet without being told what I'm buying? If I'm covering expenses, shouldn't I know that it's not a solo act but a 5-piece band (because of course they want hotel rooms)? I can't tell if that's laziness, lack of time, or arrogance, but it inevitably means 4 more emails back and forth, each one only answering one specific question with no anticipation of the next question. And these are pro agents, so surely they know those questions are coming in the next email. What is the upside to this approach? Is it a way of filtering out the gigs they don't want? 

Finally, some agents respond to me enthusiastically but then are either so overworked or disorganized that they forget to follow up, and I end up having to chase them so that they can take the gig I'm offering their artist. Except of course, sometimes I don't followup I just move on to someone else. If I'm that agent's artist, I'm probably not working as much as I could be. 

It's all common sense right? Be enthusiastic, mind the details, and try to be timely because we're all overworked and distracted so it's easy for things to just move on.

Inside My Concert Booking Mind: Feel Free to Propose Shows & Send Suggestions! 

I've been one of the programmers at Hugh's Room Live in Toronto for a few months now, and while we got off to a slightly shaky start because a few of the other new team members decided they couldn't do it afterall, Blair Packham and I, together with manager Mary Stewart, have settled into a great working relationship.  We're constantly trying to improve things and attract new and younger fans as well, which is why we introduced student pricing for certain shows.  The Hugh's Room Live menu has had an overhaul (it's not my department, but I'm sharing the news) and the quality has gone up, and Mary deserves full credit for initiating that.  Some really magical shows have happened, we've had a really pleasant surprise in how incredibly popular Mike Daley's monthly artist talk/shows have been, and Jully Black blew the doors off the place a few weeks back.  The spring/summer is shaping up with some really special things, including a fantastic show on April 30th for International Jazz Day that I'm happy to part of it, supporting the new web radio station Jazzcast.ca  

Tickets for that one, and everything else are at www.hughsroomlive.com

We'll be announcing most of the summer lineup, including our first ever GUITAR WEEK (July 12-19 with some great names) very shortly.  Hugh's has a legacy of booking great singer-songwriters, great acoustic, folk, and bluegrass, electric and acoustic blues, groups performing music from all over the world (as opposed to always lumping them together as world music), and jazz and r&b and beyond (I'd like to get more chamber music in too).

The challenge for Hugh's Room Live is it is a big space (seating 180 at tables, 220 once the bar stools and standing get factored in), and it is very much a concert venue that happens to serve dinner and drinks (as opposed to a restaurant that decided to have live music).  The crowds come based on who is playing there, so it does not have the same kind of drop in crowd as other venues that are smaller and focus on one genre only.  This means that every time we book a show, we have to consider the potential draw, ticket price, and also what is programmed next to it because if there are only so many jazz or blues or folk fans, it doesn't necessarily make sense to put too many of the same genre's shows back to back.  Sometimes a group is really big in one market, but not yet known in Toronto, and from my end that usually means doing some research on where the are playing, when they were last here, and taking a guess at how they will do.

On June 25th for example, I've booked a great band called Over The Rhine, and if you go to You Tube you'll see they tour all over the United States playing theatres, do all the key radio/tv/internet shows frequented by singer-songwriters, and work with some great names.  But they aren't really known in Toronto from what I can see.  They approached me for a date because they are close by at the Rochester Jazz Festival, and I like the music so I wanted to make it happen.  I've had to negotiate with their agent in a way that comes to terms with the fact that they aren't as well known in Canada (and luckily their agent gets it.  Some are not so cool).  Ideally every negotiation is a win-win for the club and artist, and as a musician myself I recognize the work it takes to tour and the fees that are fair or appropriate.  As a talent buyer, I have to balance my pro-musician brain with not risking to much of HRL's money if it is a slow night.  My programmer head is always balancing the music I want to hear against the financial ramifications of each show.  And ours is a fickle business, where something you didn't commit a lot of money to and don't expect too much from sells out quickly, and another act that sold out the last time (so you commit to a big fee) has a really bad night. By the way, tickets for Over The Rhine are going on sale shortly, and if you want to hear a great singer and some beautiful songwriting, I hope you'll join us June 25th!

I'd love to hear from people about the acts they'd like to see come through Hugh's Room Live, or of course for them to pitch me on their own group (if it's a pitch, please use michael@hughsroomlive.com thanks).  There's a lot of music in the world, so it's good to find out what people are listening to.  I had a student tell me that she goes down to Buffalo to see certain bands because they don't come up to Toronto, and I thought "why isn't that band routing through Toronto?  I should make that happen."  So help me make stuff happen and send me your suggestions anytime!

How YOU can support live music! 

Social Media doesn't have to all be about lousy politicians, sometimes you discover great information and comments.  Such is the case with this great post from singer Willa Mamet on how YOU can support you local musicians and music scene.  It's a great read, but hopefully you make note a few of the suggestion and take action!  https://www.willamametmusic.com/no-word-wasted/2018/11/16/how-to-be-a-hero-for-independent-music?fbclid=IwAR0KTvEc-y8SQIpSMk4kq20h6YFRC5NMiqKLYpZwbNGJcxrdo3n3i_5sIR4

I'm Now Booking Shows at Hugh's Room Live in Toronto 

Over the years I've had the chance to serve as Artistic Director for Lakefield Music Camp and the Markham Jazz Festival, and I'm excited to now be part of the Artistic Team booking shows at Hugh's Room Live in Toronto.  It's one of the best clubs around, with a great listening audience and fantastic sound and sight lines.  The booking as always been eclectic, featuring singer-songwriters, blues, world and jazz groups, and large tribute shows that bring together diverse musicians.  I'm happy to be the main jazz/world/chamber/blues crossover booker (meaning that traditional folk and songwriters is primarily the domain of my colleagues Cheryl Praksher and Blaire Packham).  If you're interested in performing, the email for me is michael@hughsroomlive.com.

Meanwhile, 

Please get those calendars out and make note of some great shows I'm happy to have booked at Hugh's Room to kick off 2019. If you love Hugh's as a venue, please support it in the best way possible - Come to a show or buy someone else a ticket! http://www.hughsroomlive.com 
-David Buchbinder's Odessa Havanna January 16, 
- Eliana Cuevas and Jeremy Ledbetter doing a double bill on January 24, 
-Autorickshaw with Suba Sankaran, Dylan Bell, and Ed Hanley's on January 30 
-Richard Underhill and the Shuffle Demons January 31, 
-The Ward Cabaret (doing a club version of the show we did for Luminato last June) on February 5th with Derek Kwan, Laura Campisi, Laurel Tubman, Aviva Chernick and Louis Louis Simão (including me and David Buchbinder), 
-Timothy Booth's Jazz Orchestra Feb 18th, 
-Robi Botos and George Koller and Romani Jazz Feb 25, 
-A double bill with Sundar Viswanathan's Avataar and Larry Graves' Sure Fire Sweat March 14. 
I'm also going to have Mike Daley coming in to do some of his excellent artist profile talks and performances on the last Monday of the month through to the spring. Stay tuned for more!

Flying with Guitars 

As I look forward to touring in Europe with Elizabeth Shepherd later this month, I also have to plan for a few discount airlines where I'm doubtful of geting my guitar on board in its gig bag the way I do in Canada with Air Canada (I hear lots of complaints about Air Canada, but they have my loyalty over Westjet here simply because their website says that guitars in soft cases are allowed as long as they fit in the overhead, and since then I've had no issues other than once or twice having to direct the staff to their own website. WestJet on the other hand made me gate check it, actually coming and taking it out of the overhead above my seat where it was happily surrounded by purses and backpacks because it was a full flight and someone boarding later than me's suitcase couldn't get on the plane. Hmmm, suitcase vs guitar....). For the record, I've yet to fly a plane, even the tiny one I took to Nashville, where I couldn't fit my guitar in the overhead (another reason I'm a solid body guitar guy).

Last year I bought a new Godin guitar for the express purpose of unscrewing its neck (inspired by my friend Marc van Vugt). Grant at the Twelfth Fret in Toronto shaved the inside of the very snug neck joint just to make it a little easier to take out, but basically I put a capo on at the 2nd fret (so that I don't have to change the strings), unscrewed the neck (buying a very small screwdriver that is allowed in carry on luggage), wrapped it to the body with bubble wrap, and stuffed it in a small backpack surrounded by sweaters. It worked out very well, as security didn't seem to mind (without the strings maybe the neck would be seen as a weapon on its own, but since it was all wrapped together and attached by strings it didn't raise any issues) and it was great to walk on like anybody else. The guitar always played great, but it did mean putting it delicately under a seat instead of the overhead as there's little protection. Indeed, I did get a few minor dings in the neck over the course of a few flights so I'm re-examining the backpack and looking for some other light material to put around the neck. But the trade off of course is having to assemble the guitar and hoping the action and intonation are the same. I also have to sacrifice some packing space to bring a thin gig bag along and I don't get to play the Ernie Ball Reflex that I normally use, unless I decide to take its neck off.

Learning solos 

I attended the jazz workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1991, and the amazing saxophonist Bunky Green was one of the faculty that year.  Bunky suggested that we take a song or an album that we liked, and learn every solo on it (he wanted us to go so far as to know what the drummer was doing on his cymbals).  I took his advice when I was traveling around Europe and working on a cruise ship, only bringing a couple of cassettes (Walkman days!) with me so that I would have to get really familiar with the albums I chose.  I didn't quite transcribe or learn to play every solo, but I think I could sing every solo.   I've certainly transcribed quite a few solos over the years, and am glad to see some of them on the list of essential solos JazzTimes just put out at https://jazztimes.com/features/40-essential-solos/

If memory serves, the handful of cassettes I listened to over and over included these albums:

Hank Mobley:  Soul Station

Lester Young w. Oscar Peterson:  The President Plays

Dave Holland:  Extensions

Kenny Wheeler:  Music for Large and Small Ensembles

Miles Davis: Live at the Blackhawk

Billie Holiday: The Silver Collection (which featured selections from the last small group recordings she did with Ben Webster, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Barney Kessel.

Concert December 9th! 

The VOCA Chorus of Toronto invited me to perform with them and to do an arrangement.  Really happy with the way my arrangement of Bruce Cockburn's "Waiting For a Miracle" is sounding, hope you'll come here its debut and me alongside a wonderful choir under the direction of Jenny Crober.   Here's the link for tickets:

Tickets now available!  https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/the-great-canadian-choirbook-tickets-38312305136