“Jazz Inside” Magazine – Scott Healy Interview – September, 2013
<ed: In the print edition the author mistakenly describes me as “Musical Director on the Conan O’Brien Show on network TV.” We all know that my good friend, the brilliant Jimmy V is the MD, and Conan is decidedly not on network TV. Do your homework Joe!>
Scott Healy – Interview by Joe Patitucci
JI: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about business and the music business in your travels as studio musician, touring sideman, and or independent artist?
SH: I think the most important lesson I’ve learned about business is to try to establish strong personal relationships with as many people as you can, whether it’s employers, potential employers, peers, crew, and perhaps most importantly, yourself. How you treat yourself and your outlook about what you do is important—a positive outlook and vibe is really going to serve you well. I think everyone struggles with this, especially when first starting out, whether it’s worrying too much about money, or the quality of what you’re being paid to do, or the personalities of those around you. It is a struggle to keep going sometimes, looking forward, being positive and happy. It’s only when you’re feeling good and productive and involved in the scene that you will be open to new opportunities that pop up—and opportunities do appear, usually in the most unexpected and unpredictable ways. I always use the example of how I got the gig on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1993. The cliché is true: it was not what I knew, but who I knew, and if there had been an audition I would have never gotten the gig. I had however been playing weddings and various small club gigs with two members of the band. So who knew that playing small and ostensibly insignificant gigs would be that thing that gave me the opportunity of a lifetime! In the studio, it took me a while to learn a major lesson: give them what they want. It sounds simple, but focusing on someone else’s’ musical vision is a selfless skill which has to be developed. Remember, they hired you to do what you do, but what is it they think you do? I used to play on a lot of commercials on piano and B3 in NYC, and figuring out exactly what style or genre they wanted was really important. What they might consider “jazzy” could mean a multitude of things, from a quiet Basie style, to lounge piano, to bebop, to funky gospel. Figure it out on the spot and give it to them simply and directly. As an independent artist? Who knows, I’m still figuring it out. I do know from experience that it’s really hard to have the split personality of a sideman and an independent artist. Being faced with the blank page is a much different feeling than collaborating with someone who has hired you for a specific gig. We’re at a great time in the business for an indie artist, with the internet we can find our audience, and digital media and distribution enables us to publish just about anything for practically no money. It’s great, but it requires time, perseverance, and a vision, all which are hard to get together when you’re doing gigs, traveling, or in the studio with someone else. Ask me again in ten years.
JI: Could you talk about how your work as keyboardist on the network TV show, Conan O’Brien Show has challenged and or supported your artistic pursuits and artistry?
SH: Again, managing an independent career while holding down a fulltime TV gig has been a challenge. But the show is so fun and engaging that I hardly notice the conflict anymore. Being on TV every night makes me well-known in certain circles, my increased profile has really helped me in many situations. On the other side of the coin however, I play so much rock, funk and R n B on the show, that people don’t know that I play jazz, classical, and most never even suspect that I’m a composer. So I have to keep putting myself out there in the community, leading various bands, writing for performances and other artists, all to show people what I can do, and what I want to do.
JI: What did you discover about leadership, and about leading a band as a result of your work with music and pop stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, BB King, Jackson Browne, Levon Helm, Son Seals, Hubert Sumlin and Tony Bennett and others?
SH: I worked with a few of these artists on the Conan show, and I learned how to play a specific part, and play it well from a cold start in front of two million people. Again, focus, directness, and a real knowledge of styles is really important to being a sideman, especially in a live situation. With Springsteen I had to learn 35 tunes in just a few days, some of which I sort of knew, but most had very specific piano and organ parts I had to learn and nail. Watching Bruce I could see his total dedication and focus, and he’s not afraid to rehearse—a lot if necessary—to get things right, just the way he wants it. It’s worth taking the time to get the best out of a tune. Levon Helm taught me to listen to the drummer, that the piano and the drums have a link that’s got to be strong. There’s a difference between a Chicago shuffle and a Texas boogie, and Levon could show it you on the bandstand, but you have to be receptive to it. When you locked in with Levon, he’d lock eyes with you and smile, and you knew you were in the pocket. From all these great artists I learned that you can show your sidemen what you want, not specifically how to play it, but that a good leader knows what they want and can somehow communicate it to the band.
JI: Having attended the Eastman School of Music, what are your opinions about the benefits or shortcomings of pursuing the academic route versus performance and apprenticeship in the music industry that have in the past pathway to a performance career in the past?
SH: I think that just going to music school doesn’t necessarily mean you’re pursuing an academic route. Obviously, being an apprentice in a band, on the road, or hanging in the studios as a nineteen year old would be an arguably better education than going to school, but I did learn things in school that I could get nowhere else. Plus, at Eastman, everyone was better than me, and I was pretty good. Or so I thought. A good music school enables you to take the time to hone your craft and get better fast, but also shows you the work ethic you need to compete in the music business. For me, it also gave me innumerable contacts. Also, I had the great fortune of studying arranging and composition with Ray Wright, in addition to my regular classical composition lessons with my regular teachers. Ray’s assignments included writing and arranging music for 65-piece studio orchestra, having it read by a live band, and hopefully performed in concert, all very quickly, just like in the “real” world. After you do a few of those, write some big band charts, arrange vocal music, and write your regular “legit” modern classical music, you’ve just had a very compressed and intense apprenticeship. Not to mention studying theory and counterpoint, music history, piano, accompanying other instrumentalist, jamming and playing in bands, and practicing. My first writing gig out of college was writing pops arrangements and back-up charts for symphony orchestra, my second was arranging music for commercials. It was all a piece of cake compared to Ray’s advanced arranging classes. I could conduct, read a transposed score, write for orchestra– I was ready, and I give Eastman all the credit. Plus, where else are you going to write a fugue and rehearse Stravinsky, all before lunch?
JI: How did your work as an educator at Sarah Lawrence College challenge or benefit your development as an artist and provide clarity about your own music and creative pathways?
SH: As far as learning literature, styles, and the jazz tradition, I now see my teaching at The New School and Sarah Lawrence College as a huge influence, and I wouldn’t be the same writer or player if I didn’t have to teach jazz history. I always had a lot of records, and I learned to play mainly from recordings, but my influences and the records I bought really were the usual—Bill Evans, Miles, Trane, Blue Note stuff, Thad Jones, Gil Evans, fusion from the seventies, a smattering of swing. I learned a lot of Monk and Ellington tunes, tons of standards, and most of the usual repertoire that players learn. Teaching jazz history forced me to really learn everything for real—not just what I liked to play or listen to—including early jazz, which really opened my head up. I always had to stay a week ahead of my students, and in the beginning I was flying blind. But I rediscovered or discovered for the first time, tons of music which I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know was there. Learning Jelly Roll Morton got me into James P Johnson, Willie “the Lion” Smith, and Earl Hines. Wow. Hearing early Louis Armstrong, and listening critically to what these young guys were doing in the 20’s, in their 20’s was mind-blowing. Discovering New Orleans polyphonic music got me into that tradition, but also gave me an appreciation for everything from blues and boogie, to the Chicago and Kansas City groove, to the roots of rock n roll, to the polyphonic sound of Ornette and the “New Thing”. And then I “rediscovered” Duke Ellington. He was so multi-faceted, and his long and productive career gave us such a variety of music that it’s a study unto itself, and exists in parallel to the swing-bop-post bop continuum which we all know. That lead me into learning music not just from Ellington and Strayhorn, but also lead me back to mainstream swing music, then to Sun Ra and progressive and free players who suddenly jumped off into the stratosphere. All these great players informed my playing and my writing, and it’s only because I had to teach, relearn, and in some cases learn for the first time, great jazz from all eras.
JI: What kinds of advice, suggestions, words of wisdom have you received from a teacher or mentor that has influenced your artistry and or life perspectives?
SH: Playing on TV and with rock stars taught me the importance of playing “a show”, communicating directly with an audience with no pretense, and without expectations. I’ve found that good teachers and mentors don’t really teach you anything, but they guide you in the right direction. Ray Wright would never tell me what to do, just see what I’ve done and tell me other options I had, what opportunities I may have missed. He did give me the most important piece of advise I’ve ever gotten, which it that a writer must respect his players. They’re the ones who make your music happen. They’re the ones you should be writing for. That’s a lesson I learned from Ray, and from Ellington, and one I think of every time I pick up a pencil. Also, if someone tells you that you’re rushing, go home and practice! As a player, the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten is to do your homework. Show up knowing the music so well that you could teach a class on this guy’s tune. So, with the proper amount of humility, preparedness, good attitude and ability you’ll do well. Plus, in order to be in the right place at the right time, you have to be somewhere, so don’t say “no” to anything. You never know what wedding will lead to a 20-year gig on TV.
JI: Could you discuss the jazz artists and or recordings that most influenced your interest in this wide-ranging improvised music?
SH: Recently it’s been course Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, George Russell, Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer— before it was the great free jazz that was happening in NYC in the 1980’s, and when I was starting out it was the usual, Chick, Monk, Trane, Miles, and all the pianists, but probably mostly Herbie Hancock. He built so many bridges between styles and eras of music, including electronic jazz, and gave us what seem like half of our modern jazz harmonies. I think that Bill Evans’ musical vision is tremendously underrated, the progressive ideas like modal playing come directly from Bill. Billy Strayhorn? Recently a huge influence. But I listen to everything, not just jazz, and I know that other players and writers I know also have many influences, so many in fact that’s it hard even to list them all.
JI: Is there anything you’d like to promote or discuss that I haven’t prompted you about?
SH: I’d love to promote my record, “Hudson City Suite” by the Scott Healy Ensemble. It’s nine original works for 11-piece ensemble, woven together thematically into a 56-minute suite. I was thinking a lot about Ellington when I wrote this music, but it’s not in a classic jazz style. I was definitely thinking about Ellington’s process, and the way he wrote “about something”. This is something I’d never done in my writing, and working on this piece over time opened my head up, I think it changed my perspective about the composing process. I formed a record label to distribute and market this and some o f my other release— HudsonCityRecords.com. However, I’m trying not to become too consumed with marketing, social networking and the record business, so I can spend more time writing, practicing, and gigging.