My first guest is a dynamic young man who joined the staff of the GRC as our new woodwind teacher in 2013, Ben Jones. Ben has an amazing musical history and is relentlessly positive and upbeat (pardon the pun!) about what he does and why he does it. As a result he is gaining more and more students. So, I decided it was time to find out what makes Ben Jones tick.
PSW: Ben joined the GRC last year as our woodwind teacher.
BJ: Yes, I started in Term Three I think.
PSW: So I guess my first question is, where did you begin? What got you into music?
BJ: Well, when I was two, Santa got me a plastic saxophone, which I proceeded to blow my lip on that night!
PSW: How does a two year old know about a saxophone?
BJ: My Dad was a musician. He gave up when I was born. They owned a record store so I grew up around music. I started working in the record shop when I was seven, and by the time I was twelve I'd saved up enough to buy my own alto sax! So that was pretty much my path from two to twelve.
PSW: Where did you grow up?
BJ: In Toronto, near Newcastle. A little place near Newcastle called Fishing Point.
PSW: You started playing a toy saxophone at two, then got a real one at twelve. What happened in between that time? Did you do music at school?
BJ: Not really. We did recorder and the fingering for that is similar to sax so that was a pretty good start. We were always listening to music and were around music, so when I got my hands on a saxophone, I treated it pretty much like a recorder at first. What I did though, was look at record covers with sax players and studies they way they looked when they were playing and tried to copy that. I called the notes the same as on the recorder, regardless of what key I was in because I really didn't know. So I kept going like that and when I was thirteen, I did my first gig.
BJ: Dad started a band again because I was so keen. I was playing all the time. So he started playing trombone again and put together a little six-piece "Trad" band with a bunch of young guys. A little six-piece Dixieland band.
PSW: I was wondering where the interest in jazz came from in a kid of that age? It's not the most usual direction to go in?
BJ: I don't really know, but I can only presume that it was because of the good feelings I got from being around the musicians that Dad used to work with, before he decided to be a father and be "responsible". I know that mum used to go to his gigs when she was heavily pregnant with me and I've wondered whether that had any effect!
PSW: There is an argument that music can definitely have an influence in utero.
BJ: Yeah – and Dad recently unearthed a cassette recording of me when I was three singing "Pennies From Heaven" in the bath! It's just something I've always done.
PSW: So do you do many gigs in the bath these days?
BJ: (Laughs) Not many, no.
PSW: So what was your first gig like? You mentioned your first gig at thirteen.
BJ: The very first gig ever – there were about four people there, at the Masonic Bowling Club in Newcastle.
PSW: Tough crowd.
BJ: Yeah. It was nerve wracking. Then we went out to the Parkes Jazz Festival. It was at Parkes when we were playing in the lobby of a hotel – not really as part of the festival – we went out there just to be involved, and Johnny McCarthy, a well known clarinetist with Bob Barnard, came in and saw me. At that stage I had big round glasses and was quite small-framed, so I was this little kid playing Trad clarinet, and he just immediately took to that. So the next night we ended up finishing off the main concert with me and two of my friends getting up at the end and playing with Bob Barnard in the concert. That was pretty much it for me. I was so hooked after that that I just worked really hard and asked everyone so many questions and bugged them like crazy!
PSW: Did he become a mentor for you?
BJ: Johnny McCarthy did – he became very much like my grandfather. The clarinet I play is actually Johnny's. John passed away last year, but he lent it to me about twelve years ago and every time I went to give it back he said I should just hold it for a bit longer.
PSW: That's a lovely thing.
BJ: And he introduced me to Tom Baker, who became my biggest mentor. He opened my mind to so much more and got me thinking about technique because Tom was a multi-instrumentalist so you had to learn how to switch your brain over between the different disciplines. That really got me started, and then I met Gordon Brisker, from New York who was a friend of Joe Allard (who invented the modern saxophone and clarinet embouchure). I went from being completely self-taught and having no idea about anything, to rubbing shoulders with these guys that were giants in their field. Because of my enthusiasm they willingly imparted a lot of knowledge.
PSW: Would you describe your music educational process as a "learning through doing" process?
BJ: Absolutely. I think listening to things I've done from a very young age I can actually hear the progression I have made in my own playing. I'm certainly not playing "Avant garde" music these days by any means, but there has certainly been that progression. As you get more knowledge, it does build.
PSW: Can I just go back for a minute? When you were thirteen you were in secondary school then and we know that this is the period when many kids can lose their focus on music. You didn't do that?
BJ: No. I think for me it became more exciting as I was getting more gigs and playing. I had a great peer group who continued through playing music with me to about eighteen.
PSW: Which school were you at?
BJ: We were at Toronto High. We didn't really have a music program but we had a wonderful music teacher who, against all odds, managed to keep us interested in music.
PSW: Who was that?
BJ: Sue Donnelly. Unfortunately she's no longer with us, but she was a wonderful lady with an amazing energy who was part of continuing my "want" to be involved. It was just a very rewarding experience.
PSW: You got to Year Twelve and hit the next big transition point. What happened then?
BJ: Well, nothing really. Nothing really changed. I obviously majored in music for my HSC. We could only do the standard course but I did a split major of performance and composition. I came in the top 5% in NSW. But nothing really changed. In fact, before I did my HSC English exam I got home at 2am because I'd had a gig! So that pretty much tells you what was going on! It would have been about 1995 when I met Gordon Brisker who really changed me around. I'd reached a point where I wasn't going to improve any more.
PSW: Did you go to Uni?
BJ: No. I got accepted to do a communications degree and I deferred and never continued that. Then I met Gordon who had just been brought out to head the Sydney Conservatorium Jazz Course and he told me I'd really benefit from getting in there. So I went to the audition and they asked me a heap of theory questions about which I had no idea! They said, "Play these scales!" and I said, "Man, I don't know what that is!" So Gordon got on piano and got me to play along with him and I got in on the strength of my playing. I found out later that the panel had actually said no to me, but Gordon pushed for me to get in and won. He said "Here's someone who can play and doesn't know why. We should be teaching him why rather than teaching someone who knows all the theory but can't play!" So it was very lucky for me that Gordon was there. I spent two years studying with him, Mike Nock and Judy Bailey. That's where I got all of my theory training. I had to learn very quickly because I was behind everyone else.
PSW: Did you feel like it was the right time for you to be doing that?
BJ: I definitely think in one respect it was, because I really had reached a point with my playing where it wasn't getting any better. From another point of view though it was a very difficult period for me, because, even though Gordon had been brought out to run the course, the actual Head was Dick Montz who saw things very differently from me, musically. As a person he was always really good to me but musically we were at constant loggerheads, so it was a very tough time emotionally for me dealing with that. It was very hard for me and I got to the point where I almost stopped playing. I came out of that wondering what to do and where to go. A week later I got a call from James Morrison who invited me to be part of a six piece band working with Ed Wilson and Emma Pask, doing a tribute to Louis Armstrong. So that was like a new lease of life for me then.
PSW: With the benefit of hindsight, what do you feel you took away from that time at Uni?
BJ: To be honest, I don't think I was really ready for it in a lot of respects because now, looking back, I can see that of course that was what I needed, but I think at the time I was just too close to wanting to do my own thing and feeling like I was always hitting a wall.
PSW: Do you think there was a bit of the arrogance of youth?
BJ: Yep, quite possibly. I've never thought of myself as a stubborn person, but I guess I can be. Yeah, I was very determined about what I wanted to do.
PSW: So given the kind of career that you've had, bearing in mind that you're still a young man with many years ahead of you, how would you describe what your career so far has been like?
BJ: I would have to say, "right place, right time" would be my first comment. If we didn't go to Parkes and I didn't meet Johnny McCarthy. That whole chain of events has just been about being in the right spot at the right time, a bit like my association with Janet Seidel (*note: Ben will be appearing with Janet Seidel in July this year at the Goulburn Club).
PSW: So, a lot to do with the links within the jazz community in Australia.
PSW: So what have been the one or two real highlights for you in your career so far?
BJ: Playing on and performing at the Opening ceremony for the Sydney Olympics was pretty cool. It was all pre-recorded you know – no room for error in a live event! We were in the studio prior to the event for days until the early hours of the morning. That was really fun and stepping out there at the Opening Ceremony and seeing all the people and cameras was pretty cool. Getting to meet and befriend a lot of iconic jazz players has been amazing too – again through Tom Baker when he took me to Europe. So I've played with Eddie Locke. Arvell Shaw – Louis Armstrong's bass player - we've worked together, Harry Connick Jr and all of his band. We're actually quite close. In fact one of his trombonists, John Alred, has recorded a tune that Tom and I wrote on one of his albums. Then of course working with Janet has been a highlight too.
PSW: So, what lies in the future, career-wise? What is the dream gig?
BJ: Ok, dream gig would be, my own big band of hand-picked people I guess, to try and get music that's got a lot of energy and fun. I feel sometimes, the way jazz is progressing at the moment, a lot of the fun is taken out of it. For me, when someone says the word "jazz", the first thing that comes into my head is "Fun"! Wanting to keep that. I get really angry when people treat jazz frivolously. So, a band with energy, fun and forward thinking while keeping the traditional approaches. Gordon used to say "tradition breeds innovation breeds tradition". So to have my own big band to tour would be great. I do miss touring, but in saying that, I'm finding being an educator has been a really wonderful chapter and I think will probably be the main chapter for the next ten to fifteen years!
PSW: Well, we're glad you're not touring! My final question: given your background and experience, what do you think you bring as a teacher, to your students?
BJ: I think I bring the awareness of what it's like to not know what you're doing but realising the importance of knowing what your doing and not coming at it from a strictly theoretical side, I'm a little more open to finding different ways to learn the theory as, to me, I find it really interesting, I get quite excited talking about theory, with harmonic stuff, I get quite excited teaching that. So hopefully what I bring is enthusiasm because as you can tell, it's all I've ever wanted to do, and also the actual "on the road, in the studio, on the stage" perspective. Music in the trenches. Sharing some of those things can help young musicians prepare for what to expect in the industry. They still have to go through it themselves but just be a little forearmed!
PSW: Well thank you, Ben. This has been very interesting and informative and I'm sure our students will really enjoying reading your story.
So begins our "In Conversation With..." series for 2014. I hope you have enjoyed the first installment featuring the immensely talented Ben Jones.
If you wish to send through feedback or comment you are welcome. On with the show!