If you visit Walter Beasley’s website, you’ll find a listing entitled “points of note.” The most intriguing of these little factoids is this: “the best-selling full-time college professor and recording artist.”
“It took a lot of work,” he said when I called him at his home in Boston. “Duke Ellington once wrote a book called Music is My Mistress. I read it my first year in college and I said, ‘This is me.’ My love is music, whether it’s playing it, teaching it, learning about it. She’s ‘my first, my last, my everything,’ as Barry White once said. I just dedicated myself full-time to exploring it and teaching people how to do what I do, only better. I love teaching; I love helping to shape the future. I also love expressing it and I love bringing people joy during my performances.”
Beasley, who performs Saturday night at the Norfolk Jazz Festival in Town Point Park, left his California home after high school and headed to Boston’s fabled Berklee College of Music. He never left.
“I came east to Berklee to get a college education,” he said, “to become a studio musician, go back home, get married and have 2.5 kids, white picket fence and be done. I don’t know what happened. When I got up here, my classmates were Branford Marsalis, Rachelle Farrell; they say Diana Krall was here but I didn’t really know her that well. I was doing pretty well amongst those musicians and I said to myself, ‘wait a minute, if this is the best that the country has and I’m holding my own, maybe my sights should be set a little higher than just being a studio musician.’
“When I made the decision to become a recording artist, I made the decision to teach and to not move from Boston to New York like everybody else was doing because I felt there was a need at Berklee for those who were of African-American descent to be here when others came to learn the music. Berklee is very white, and it was interesting to see black people who come to study black music, and look up and see all white teachers. That’s what I decided to do and it’s been wonderful.”
He’s also become one of the top selling contemporary jazz artists, known primarily for his soulful saxophone sound, but also as pretty decent singer. He’s done it by drawing on the musical influences that first touched him, yet keeping up with changing trends in the musical marketplace.
“My first experience with being moved by music,” he remembered, “was with the Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway album called Where is the Love? I was about eleven. Then there was Earth Wind & Fire That’s the Way of the World, John Klemmer Touch, David Sanborn ‘Duck Ankles’—I can remember those like they were yesterday. I just wanted to do that. I sang and played in church, and once I started learning classical music and learning how to read, it was ‘put a fork in it,’ I was done. I wanted to play sports but I blew my knees out, and I remember the girls were gravitating toward the athletes or the musicians. Rather than keep blowing out my knees and getting surgery, I chose music.”
As one of the stars of the smooth jazz radio format, I wondered how he felt about the ongoing sniping from purists about what constitutes “real jazz.”
“When I was a little bit more arrogant that I am now,” he said, “I would just call people out: If so-and-so has a problem with smooth jazz, they can find me at Berklee College of Music and we can play ‘Moment’s Notice,’ we can play ‘Giant Steps,’ we can play anything you want because I know I can play well. I didn’t learn how to play from Kenny G or Boney James; I learned how to play from Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Grover Washington, Jr., Hank Crawford, Dexter Gordon, and I learned the classics. Then I started throwing in R&B stuff—King Curtis, Junior Walker, Earl Bostic. All of these saxophone players had something to say and I played them all. I think you become better by learning the good in everything. This is what moves me. Be the best you can be, and use the best of everybody to influence that.
“It’s 2007 and we have kids who play saxophone, trumpet, drums—they need to push this music forward. Just because they hear it different, they feel about it differently, doesn’t negate the fact that they are as talented, or more so, as we were.”
Since he’s teaching the next generation of jazzmen and women, how does he feel about the future of the music?
“I am cautiously optimistic,” he said. “There’s an old saying that every generation is smarter yet weaker than the last. What I see is that there is not much respect for music of the past, not just the music but the culture. Like the civil rights movement—music and culture; there would be no civil rights movement without Curtis Mayfield or James Brown. The culture actually came out of the music.
“I think that where we are today is you have more people leaning on technology than creativity. When you do that, you end up having artists who really don’t have much of a historical connection and their delivery is much less effective. So this is what I teach, that if you do this and this, people who don’t know anything about music can be moved by your playing. You can only do that by studying people who came before you.”
Norfolk Jazz Festival
Town Point Park
Friday, August 10
Joyce Cooling, 7:30 pm
Pieces of a Dream, 9:15 pm
Saturday, August 11
Jeff Kashiwa, 5:30 pm
Walter Beasley, 7:15 pm
Ramsey Lewis, 9:00 pm
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.