Meeting the jazz community: Brent Rose interview (Part 3)

Brent Rose playing saxophone at the Crescent City Brewhouse. Photograph by Drew Fink.

Drew: Just forgive me if I stutter like an idiot, I’m not good at this. [Brent agrees. Drew proceeds to stutter like an idiot. He should feel bad.] Okay, first question. Let’s pretend I don’t know this, what do you do for work?

Brent: I am a musician who performs mainly on saxophone, but some flute and some other instruments, and I am a professor at the University of New Orleans, teaching Music Theory, jazz history, and some private students.

Drew: Yeah, take his classes, they’re great. How long have you been teaching?

Brent: I started as adjunct faculty here in New Orleans in 2002, and I worked my way into the full-time ranks for about the past five years.

Drew: Pretty good. Were you born here, or if not, where were you born?

Brent: I was born in Southern California, moved up to Seattle, Washington when I was about eight years old, finished high school in Seattle, and then came to New Orleans.

Drew: How long were you in New Orleans, then? Do you have a rough date?

Brent: I got here in August in 1991.

Drew: So, sixteen years? [Basic_arithmetic.exe has crashed]

Brent: [Mockingly sheepish] About twenty … six-ish.

Drew: [Beat] I am very tired. [Brent laughs. At Drew, not with him. He deserves it.] That’s good to know. How long have you been playing saxophone then?

Brent: [Another beat] I started about a week ago [We laugh] on the tenor sax. No, I started when I was eleven years old in seventh grade. First day of seventh grade.

Drew: Who are your influences, either direct or indirect?

Brent: Well, my favorite saxophone players in no particular order would be kind-of the giants of jazz, so to speak: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, obviously. I’ve never progressed much further than the sixties as far as being influenced as a musician. I enjoy listening to modern jazz music, and I enjoy the Chris Potters, the Joshua Redmans, and the Branford Marsalis [Only one of him]. I love Branford’s playing. But as far as what I transcribed and dealt with harmonically, it was kind of the people from that classic jazz era. Obviously, Ed Petersen was a big influence on me because I studied with him for about four years.

Drew: Who would you say you take after the most stylistically then?

Brent: I think my heaviest influence relies on Dexter Gordon vocabulary. I spent a lot of time listening to and transcribing him. I like his sound and style of phrasing, but I think that ultimately I have a very Brent Rosey sounding sound and don’t really sound like somebody who studied or falls under those typical categories.

Drew: Makes sense. That’s what we all try to attain, during our playing, trying to attain a very Brent Rosey sound, except replace the “Brent Rose” with your own name.

Brent: “Drew Finky.”

Drew: That just sounds weird. When did you start breaking into the New Orleans jazz scene then?

Brent: I was in New Orleans for about three years before I started playing here. I was playing in the Marine Corps Band while I was stationed down here. I would occasionally go to jam sessions and I started studying with a local tenor player named Eric Traub. Around the end of the first summer at UNO, in the summer of 1994, I started playing gigs regularly.

Drew: Was the New Orleans jazz scene much different back then than it is now?

Brent: Yes and no. Certain genres come to the forefront at different times. Right now, there is a lot of traditional jazz being performed on the street. There’s all the convention work and the weddings, and some of those kind of stock stuff that never changes. There’s a rise and fall in New Orleans funk bands, and Latin bands kind of ebb and flow. Obviously, Frenchmen Street is drastically different than what it used to be. There were three music clubs on Frenchmen in the mid-nineties: Café Brazil, Snug Harbor, and Café Istanbul, which was sometimes called the “Dream Palace.” Now there’s 15-plus.

Drew: Why do you think that is?

Brent: Well, New Orleans has always been known for its music. People come here to hear good music, and so the tourist center of the French Quarter, and Bourbon Street specifically, is catering to one type of person. People who were in search of jazz, funk, and more creative music were looking, and Frenchmen Street became the place for that.

Drew: Well, I try to make it no secret that I very much look up to you as a kind of mentor for me, both as a teacher, as a saxophone player, and as a guy I can depend on [Aww …]. Back in the day, did you have someone to depend on like I depend on you?

Brent: [Visibly thinking about it] I would say [Audibly thinking about it] that’s a tough one to answer. I had some people I looked up to musically. My first music teacher, Eric Traub. There was a trombone player in the Marine Corps Band, Dan Price, who was really good at jazz and I looked up to musically. As I got to school, there was obviously Ed Petersen. Personally, on a non-music level, I’ve always kind of been more of a leader, and more people were leaning on me more than I was leaning on people. I had older friends who I would ask for advice, but I was on my own at a young age so I learned to fend for myself musically, for sure.

Drew: Well, I would once again like to say thank you for all you’ve done.

Brent: You’re welcome.

Drew: .Could you go into a little more detail the gigs in New Orleans?

Brent: I think the cool thing about the New Orleans music scene is that there’s a lot of different types of music you can play. You can play a traditional jazz gig: Hello Dolly,When You’re Smiling, When the Saints Go Marching In, and then you can play a modern jazz gig, a funk gig, Brazilian music, Latin music, brass band music, and there’s all these great kind of subgenres of jazz that have improvising at their base, but have a different feel to them rhythmically. And that to me is one of the coolest things about New Orleans is that it’s not just one type of gig. You go to smaller towns and there might be two or three bands playing jazz standards, and some cover bands, and here there are so many different types of jazz being played. It’s all over the map, but they all have the same thing in common, and that’s improvisation.

Drew: Mhm.Could you get a little more into detail about the people you play with?

Brent: Everybody works so much down here that you’ve developed the ability to not rehearse. You go to other places and there’ll be a lot of rehearsing for one gig, and here it’s almost the opposite: We do a lot of gigs and very little rehearsing. They both have their merits, but musicians in New Orleans listen really well to each other and there’s a certain repertoire that musicians need to know; a list of certain songs in all twelve keys. Some people pigeonhole themselves into one subgenre, but myself and a lot of people I play with do a different gigs across a number of different genres of this music, and so we know this huge number of songs and we’re not so concerned about how they begin or end. We listen to each other and have this dialogue.

Drew: That’s very cool [Drew stutters like an idiot], and now I’m stuttering like an idiot [His shame isn’t deep enough].Are there any problems or hardships you have to deal with either big or small in the New Orleans jazz scene? And for the record, dealing with me DOES NOT COUNT, that’s a given.

Brent: [Laughs, this time with Drew] [Takes a drink of water] Maybe the one drawback to the New Orleans music scene is the number of musicians who can drive the wage scale down. You know, if there’s always another band behind you ready to do it for five dollars less. But I don’t find that to be super true. Overall, as you progress as a professional musician on the scene, you get more gigs that pay better money. There’s a lot of supply and a lot of demand, so it kind of just hovers around a certain thing. Otherwise, no [Brief pause, like 1.5 seconds] Drew Fink.

Drew: That’s the main problem?

Brent: That’s the main problem [Laughs].

Drew: [Also laughs] Yeah, because I don’t have a lot of experience in that regard myself, I come from South Carolina where jazz is much more of a niche.So [Forgets how to speak momentarily, only forming random consonants] what little gigs we have is kiiiiiiinda clique-ish, so they perform with whoever they want to perform with, regardless of who’s better or not, and they can do that because there’s not much demand for it. Speaking of other jazz scenes, have you had any experience in other jazz scenes like Chicago?

Brent: No, not really. I played some music in Seattle before I left, but it was mostly gospel music.I played big band music in high school, but I never really got on the scene there. I graduated at 17, so I never really got out on the city, so to speak. I left there and except for a brief stay in boot camp, and a school of music in Virginia, I’ve been in New Orleans basically since I graduated high school.

Drew: I myself went to Chicago, but didn’t have much experience there. Do you ever regret not doing that?

Brent: Not going to a different scene? No. I’m not one of those guys that thinks the grass is greener always. You know, the general thought is that everybody goes to New York to try and make it, but I’ve been really lucky in New Orleans to play a lot of cool gigs and feel pretty blessed, and done a lot of travelling, and whatnot. I’m happy here. [Drew and Brent nod] Indeed. [Context: “indeed” is a word Drew says a lot to the point of almost being a verbal tic].

Drew: Indeed. We’re nodding. For the transcription, we’re both nodding.

Brent:We’re nodding. Nodding off, because it’s so [Mimics snoring].

Drew: [Drew and Brent laugh] I’ve been doped up on ben – not Benadryl, but decongestants for the last three days, so. Uh … Soo [pronounced “Sue”], as one might have guessed from the interview, I am a student of yours. Wwhat precisely is it like seeing students of yours making it big on the jazz scene, or making an impact on it?

Brent: It’s probably the most satisfying thing about teaching is helping younger people achieve their goals, you know, whatever they may be. Sometimes, it’s just becoming a player on the scene, and sometimes it’s just figuring out that they want to be musicians, or that they don’t want to be musicians. Everybody has their own path and so it’s always joyful to be out in New Orleans playing gigs and see people that you’ve taught in some capacity rising to the level that you’re at. Figuring it out, or … I guess pride, that you were able to help them [Brent and Drew nod].

Drew: Do you ever perform with your former students?

Brent: All the time. One of the more unique things about teaching music in a college setting is that you end up working with a lot of your students and former students more than, say, a math or a science teacher would. I did a gig yesterday and the bass player was a former student of mine, and the piano player is a current student of mine.

Drew: Is there anything particularly difficult to deal with in the jazz community? I don’t know, actually. I don’t have much experience.

Brent: I think the issues for myself would be different for people like you in that when you’re dealing with younger musicians that aren’t seasoned, maybe they don’t know many tunes, or maybe they don’t listen very well yet or maybe they haven’t learned that they need to be on time and do X, Y, and Z. A lot of the guys I play with now have been on the music scene for 20+ years. They do what they’re supposed to do, when they’re supposed to do it. It’s a job. It’s a creative job, but it’s a job, and so the cats that I’m working with these days are more together than the cats I worked with when I was 21 years old.

Drew: Right, so what’s the ratio of young people to older people? Do you usually work with people my age, or a little older, maybe a little younger? Or do you mostly work with people your age or older?

Brent: No, it’s a good mix. What you’ll find is when you’re younger you work with people that are older than you, and as you get older you’re working with people that are younger than you. I don’t work with too many under the age of 21, you know because most of the clubs you have to be 21 to go in, but every once and a while there’ll be a musician that comes through that is you know, a prodigy or something, that might be 18 or 19.

[Brent Rose at his office at the University of New Orleans..

Drew: Wait, I think I was under 21 when I started playing Tuesday nights with you. Do I have to arrest myself?

Brent: No, but you can call yourself a prodigy now. [Drew chuckles] Indeed.

Drew: Always been my life’s dream.

Brent: We’re nodding. [They’re nodding]

Drew: We’re nodding.

Drew: For future me. Also, sorry future me, you have to listen to me talk. [I don’t forgive me] Do you have any advice or precautions for people who want to do what you do?

Brent: Once you get to a certain level as a musician, there are a lot of factors that go into being successful that don’t have to do with how you play. Things like, “Are you easy to get along with?” “Do you show up on time?” “Do you call people back right away?” “Are you wearing the right, appropriate clothing?” “Is it clean? Are you clean?” Those kinds of things people forget about that when they want to be musicians. They think it’s all about the music, and to a degree it is, but if you don’t show up, or are late all the time you’re not going to get the gigs. Or if you show up on time but you’re a jerk, you’re gonna lose some gigs and maybe not get the gigs.

Drew: It is good advice. Something I think you’re trying to emphasize here is that ultimately, music is art but music is also a job. Kind of like accounting or being a pencil pusher.

Brent: You can do any job and do it either well or poorly. You can be a painter, or an accountant, or a social worker, but the things that make you do that job well are your commitment to it by showing up on time, getting along with people, communicating well with people. Those kinds of things cross all jobs. It’s what you do if it’s your career, but do you do that well, and not just from the standpoint of “Do you play your saxophone well?” “Are you a good person to hire for a bevy or reasons?”

Drew: That’s a lovely word, “bevy.” I’m partial to “myriad,” myself.Do you have any funny stories about just being out on a gig?

Brent: Well, New Orleans is known as the “Big Easy” and that is in reference to the laid-back attitude here. People are very casual and relaxed.The first gig that I had at the place that you sit-in at, the Crescent City Brewhouse, I was freshly out of the Marine Corps Band where to be early is to be on time and to be on

time is to be late. For the six o’clock gig, I got there at 5:30, got my saxophone out, warmed up a little bit, put it on its stand, and sat at the bar. I was checking my watch and wondering if I had the date wrong, and 5:55 I was starting to, you know, kind of panic a little bit, nobody’s there. And around six o’clock the rest of the band just comes casually strolling in. The big easiness of the music scene took me a minute to get used to. There are some gigs you have to show up on time for, these convention gigs and weddings, but learning the routine for some the club dates was a little bit funny for me.

Drew: Right. Do you see yourself anywhere else in five years?

Brent: No, my progression is not to be in a different place, but to be better at what I’m doing now. Maybe teaching other classes, or having a better handle on the ones I teach, to keep composing and writing, and recording my own music, and have bands that become more and more successful. But you know, in essence still here in New Orleans, still playing gigs and still teaching music.

Drew: Are there any takeaways from this you want to emphasize from this interview?

Brent: My main points would be that once you get the playing part of this gig down, you have to learn the repertoire of the town you’re in, and New Orleans has a large repertoire of music in several different genres. Traditional standards, some funky jazz, some New Orleans tunes. You learn to play your instrument, you learn to play the tunes that people here play, and then you realize that this is your job and you to do your job at a high level doesn’t just involve playing your saxophone. And those would be my main things I’d like to get across.

Drew: Any takeaways about the jazz community in general?

Brent: I think it’s a diverse community from a lot of different places, not just New Orleans. People come here from all over to be part of this community. We’re both from different places, a lot of the people I play with are not necessarily from New Orleans, but many of them are. It’s a small community, but a lot of people in it. New Orleans has kind of a small-town feel.

Drew: When I first came here it was not the best impression, but when I got more integrated with it I was like “These are some pretty chill dudes.” [“Chill dudes?” I do not remember ever saying that.] I still will never forget my first day just walking down New Orleans thinking “Wow, those are a lot of topless women on those T-Shirts.” [Brent laughs] “Is this Kosher? This would never fly back home.” Well, thank you so much for doing this interview, again.

Brent: Thank you, future Drew Fink.

Drew: We’re shaking hands, for the transcription, we’re shaking hands. [Drew Fink and Brent Rose clasp hands as brothers-in-arms, cementing the mighty bond they share.]

[Brent laughs]

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.


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