Job security and fat paychecks aren't obvious perks of a career in jazz. In St. Louis, as in most cities around the country, jazz is a niche market, a tiny section of the live-entertainment scene. Too many good musicians compete for too few jobs -- and too few venues exist to book them. Not surprisingly, this situation leaves a lot of local talent frustrated, and the more ambitious often end up elsewhere.
Rob Block: "St. Louis is really where I got my ears together, playing with great musicians."Rob Block's been relatively successful, despite all the challenges. In addition to locking up long-term gigs with the likes of Willie Akins, Hugh "Peanuts" Whalum and Dave Venn, Block was named Jazz Artist of the Year in the 1998 RFT Slammy Awards. He's also been teaching as an adjunct instructor in Webster University's jazz-studies program since 1991. But like so many of his talented peers, he's decided to leave his hometown for greener pastures; later in February, he and his wife, pianist Tomoko Akiho, will head south to New Orleans.
Local jazz aficionados will certainly miss him. As a guitarist, Block is known for his impeccable phrasing and his rare balance of blazing technique and concise, on-the-mark improvisation. "Rob is an amazing musician," says Steve Schenkel, one of the area's best jazz guitarists and a professor at Webster University. "He's a world-class guitarist, and his touch, tone and time are impeccable. I consider every concert that I play with him like a free guitar lesson."
As a pianist, Block has made an impact on both the jazz and Latin-music scenes, working with an array of groups. He also led his own Latin jazz band for several months at Club Viva! on Monday nights. In the process, he's become so proficient at the keyboard that some knowledgeable jazz fans -- if forced to choose -- would opt for his adventurous piano playing over his dexterous guitar work. "One of the things that makes Rob such an accomplished musician is his skill on both piano and guitar," explains pianist Venn, who's played with Block for several years. "He has the experience and understanding to really appreciate what I'm trying to do on piano, and that enables us to work together with such great empathy."
Block's St. Louis musical career began in 1987, after he returned to his hometown from California, where he studied jazz composition for almost four years at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. "I had just gone through a broken love affair at school and decided to come back and take a semester off," Block recalls. "I ended up playing with Willie, then getting married, and the city just sucked me in."
The newly arrived Block was looking for places to sit in with local musicians, and Joe Schwab, owner of Euclid Records, told him to check out a sax player named Willie Akins at the Barbary Coast. "I went to the club and eventually sat in," Block says. "I was really nervous, of course, because Willie is very good. I don't think he was that impressed, but Pauline Stark, who put together bookings for jazz players, told me she was going to book Willie and me together on a gig. She did, and over the course of an entire evening, Willie had a chance to hear what I could do. Luckily he liked it, and I started playing in his band."
Block's six-string skills became a standard feature in Akins' lineup, and that opportunity led to the formation of another band, the Kirby-Block Project. Bassist Steve Kirby, also a member of Akins' group at the time, began working with Block as a duo when they weren't performing with Willie. Kirby and Block eventually expanded the group and ended up playing almost every night, sometimes cramming two gigs into an evening.
That exposure led to regular jobs at Just Jazz and to steady work with veteran sax player Whalum at the Adam's Mark Hotel. But the regular paycheck for that gig had its trade-offs for Block. "I knew that after Jan. 1, when the bottom falls out for most musicians, I still had a gig," Block says. "And playing with Peanuts and musicians like Charles Fox, I picked up on so many tunes, was forced to hear faster and to learn how to transpose really quickly. But the bad thing was that I was there for nine years, and that made me almost invisible on the club scene."
Combined with the teaching job he picked up in Webster University's jazz-studies program in 1991, Block found he had little time to lead groups, which was frustrating because he'd built up a stack of his own compositions. When he did find the time to perform, Block discovered that there was less demand for groups that focused on original compositions rather than the standard repertoire. "It can be really rough," he says. "What a lot of people think of as jazz really isn't, in my mind. So you assume there are a variety of venues to play, but when it comes to real jazz, there aren't. And I've also seen a decline in the number of those places over the last couple of years. Plus, when you're playing original music, you have to get the musicians in your band to do rehearsals. If you're not getting that much money in the first place, it's difficult to ask them to make that commitment."
These are problems all musicians face, whether they live in St. Louis or not, but Block and his wife are expecting a child, which forced them to take a hard look at their financial situation. Block, who doesn't hold an advanced degree, is limited to an adjunct teaching role at Webster, which means a limited salary and benefits. Having made important contacts in New Orleans, a city with a stronger music scene and equally impressive academic opportunities, Block decided to relocate.
"I discovered I was pretty good at teaching," he explains. "And I enjoyed doing it at Webster. But I realized I was going to have to get a master's to really get anywhere in the field. The University of New Orleans has a great music school, and Steve Masakowski, who's a tremendous guitarist, teaches there. In New Orleans I'll also have a greater opportunity to work with players doing original music. People there seem to be more accepting of that in clubs."
Looking back on his experience in St. Louis, Block acknowledges both the positive and negative aspects of life as a jazz musician. What sticks out most for him are the benefits he's gained from working with talented musicians he believes most St. Louisans overlook. "In retrospect, it's been great," he says. "I don't remember what I was playing like when I first came back, but it's definitely on a much higher level now. St. Louis is where I really got my ears together, playing with great musicians like Willie [Akins], Dave Venn, Freddie Washington, Eddie Fritz and others. There's some really great players here that people have gone to sleep on."
The same could be said of Block himself. But even if the city at large is snoozing, other musicians will miss him. Carol Schmidt, a member of the defunct group Jasmine, has taken jazz-piano lessons from Block for the past four years. "I've known a lot of great musicians in my life," Schmidt says, "but I can count the musical artists I've met on one hand, and Rob is one of them. He doesn't use acquired skills and musicianship to re-create a style. Instead, he's one of those rare artists who actually creates something new."
If you want to witness such rare artistry for yourself, you'll have plenty of opportunities over the next week. Block and Schenkel perform as a duo on Monday, Feb. 11, at Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium; the guitarists will improvise on tunes submitted to them by the audience. On Wednesday, Feb. 13, Block brings together many of the musicians he's performed with over the years for an official farewell concert. And you can bet that whether he's playing Cuban jazz, bop or Brazilian samba, he'll be throwing plenty of his original compositions into the mix.
Musician/composer and BMI songwriter, Rick Hirsch's roots are imbedded in the antebellum South, Georgia and Alabama to be specific. It was there, on the Gulf Coast, that he grew up in the land of Drivin' Miss Daisy and down the path from Forrest Gump, as a yung'un always falling asleep at night with guitar in hand.
After graduating from the U. of Alabama with his degree in Biology/Chemistry, he did the obvious and began to play guitar professionally around the South. And quite soon in 1969, he helped found the Seventies rock and roll band eventually known as WET WILLIE, a group on the Capricorn label sharing the roster with several other bands including the Allman Brothers (the original ones). Wet Willie enjoyed some nice successes during the band's tenure on Capricorn, eg. a Billboard Magazine top 5 hit, Keep On Smilin' and a dozen or so albums. By 1976 though, "thrill turned to chill", or was at least put on the back burner, and Rick had an opportunity to record and tour with Cher and Gregg Allman, who were preparing to do their duo album, Allman and Woman. He did so and subsequently moved to Los Angeles in 1977, where he resides today.
He has worked with numerous acts as a guitarist including Billy Vera and the Beaters and is a published songwriter, having had his songs and music performed and recorded by various artists as well as being featured in film and television. Today, he perseveres in the capricious world of music.
From a hard working teen on the scene in the `70s to A-list session player and world touring Guitarist/Musical Director in the present, Ray Fuller has earned the enviable title of the chosen few in his profession: that of "musician's musician." For three decades, Ray has been honing his skills in the service of some of the greatest, most diversified artists of all-time. His resume includes legends Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, The Staple Singers, Nancy Wilson and "Mr. Motown" himself, Berry Gordy. It also includes all-around musician/producers such as George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, David Foster and Mike Post. It includes vocal divas Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker and Oleta Adams. And it includes Contemporary Gospel royalty The Winans, Kirk Franklin, Tramaine Hawkins and Yolanda Adams.
Ray was gently pushed into this more foreground position by several ‘key’ people who recognized his greater potential as a lead artist. One was Boney James’ late artist manager Howard Lowell, who told Ray he envisioned him playing beautiful melodies. Peer saxophonist Everette Harp keenly elaborates, "Ray’s ability to subtly emote through his guitar is merely an extension of his soul. With the exception of the late, great Eric Gale, I have never heard anyone play this style. And 'The Weeper' has taken it a step or two further."
Perhaps the biggest push came in 1997, in the form of some tough love from Ray’s frequent employer and close friend, George Duke. When Ray asked him to produce some music for him, Duke said, "No, because you already know what you want. All of the choices that you make around for me are the same ones you need to go ahead and make for yourself."
The making of "The Weeper", his first album as a leader, is something Ray Fuller sums up with a tired but happy shrug as a challenging but much needed and appreciated "process." The sheer determination that Fuller had to finish this project in the face of ceaseless personal distractions is a shining testament to his commitment to seeing it through.
Ray worked his magic on two Motown classics. First there's "If You Really Love Me," a Stevie Wonder & Syreeta Wright composition from Wonder's1971 album Where I'm Coming From that is renowned for its dual tempo and ride and fall dynamics. Then from ten years later (1981) is singer/songwriter Teena Marie's "Portugese Love," a soulful Latin Jazz rendezvous of breathtaking romance. In both cases, Fuller tastefully tempers the dynamics and adds subtle nuances that will surprise and satisfy fans of the originals.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio on October 11, 1955, Peter Sprague was raised in Colorado until 1963, when his family moved to Del Mar, California. Inspired by his father's love of jazz, he took up the guitar when he was twelve. By the age of fifteen he was devoting all his time and energy to learning music. He studied with San Diego jazz guitarist Bill Coleman, played in his high school stage band, and formed his first group, the Minor Jazz Quartet. Following a year's study at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Sprague studied privately and performed around the San Diego area until 1976. That year found him moving to Boston to study with many notable musicians including Pat Metheny, Madam Challof and Albin Czak (a classical guitarist).
Peter returned to San Diego in 1978 and formed a jazz group called The Dance Of The Universe Orchestra that featured Kevyn Lettau, John Leftwich, and Peter's brother, Tripp Sprague on saxophone. Peter has recorded many of his own albums on the Concord, Xanadu, and SBE record labels and has been a guest artist on many other records. Chick Corea, Hubert Laws, David Benoit, and Sergio Mendes are only but a few of the many great artists Peter has worked with. His debut with the Chick Corea band was a series of concerts at Disneyland on Memorial Day weekend. In a review the following day in the Los Angeles Times, Leonard Feather called Peter "...One of the emergent great guitarists." Peter also worked with Chick on the film score to the movie "The Cat Chasers", starring Kelly McGillis. Peter is active in the music book world having self-published nine of his own books, (The Sprague Technique, SpragueSongs, Soliloquy Songbook, Blurring the Edges Songbook, BrazilJazz Songbook, Soliloquy Songbook, Jazz Solos of Charlie Parker, Jazz Solos of Sonny Rollins, Jazz Solos of McCoy Tyner, and Assorted Jazz Solos).
Peter's The Jazz Solos of Chick Corea is published nationally with Sher Music. Sprague also is the chief organizer and transcriber for Chick Corea's music books. Hal Leonard Publishing has released Chick Corea's Light Years, The Eye Of The Beholder, Inside Out, Chick Corea Collections, Beneath The Mask, and Paint the World, all books executed by Peter. Peter has been involved with GRP Records on a number of projects. He arraigned Chick Corea's song "Spain" for the GRP All-Star Big Band record and video. This tune was played by the likes of Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour, Dave Weckl, Ernie Watts, etc. Peter was featured on David Benoit's GRP releases "Letter To Evan" and "Shaken, Not Stirred". Peter toured with pianist David Benoit worldwide for three years. Also on GRP, Sprague played with Eric Marienthal, Russell Ferante, Jimmy Haslip, Alex Acuna, and Ivan Lins on Eric's GRP record "One Touch".
Sprague taught music at both Musicians Institute in Hollywood and California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles for three years. Peter currently is involved with a group called "Blurring the Edges" whose self released CD was awarded the best contemporary jazz recording of 1994 from the San Diego Music Awards. Peter also has his hands in producing other artists and has been part of over one hundred CD projects. He runs a recording studio called SpragueLand and this is where you'll find him wearing the hat of producer, engineer, guitar player, and arranger. His latest CD release is "Nikki's Rose" on SBE Records. Sprague was recently voted the Best Jazz Musician of the Year 2000 by the San Diego Music Awards organization. Peter wrote and performed a twenty minute guitar concerto composition in May, 2000 with the Grossmont Symphony Orchestra.
neer, guitar player, and arranger. His latest CD release is "Nikki's Rose" on SBE Records. Sprague was recently voted the Best Jazz Musician of the Year 2000 by the San Diego Music Awards organization. Peter wrote and performed a twenty minute guitar concerto composition in May, 2000 with the Grossmont Symphony Orchestra.
Great bass player who worked with Michael Hakes at the Baked Potato.
Paul Jackson Jr.
Guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. keeps an intense, breakneck schedule.
In addition to the demands of being a Grammy nominated solo artist, Jackson is a highly in-demand sideman and session player. In the two years since he released The Power of the String, his last Blue Note recording, the popular guitarist performed in the television special Diva Las Vegas (behind Cher, Shakira, Mary J. Blige and Whitney Houston, with whom he toured throughout the Nineties), participated in the Billboard Awards tribute to Jam Master Jay, composed music for the film Undercover Brother with Stanley Clarke, and contributed to the TV hit Cedric the Entertainer. In the midst of all that activity, the deeply spiritual Jackson continues to seek quiet time in which to listen to the “still small voice” of God. Those moments played a key role in the creation of his sixth solo album, so it was only “super” natural that he titled the extraordinary project, Still Small Voice.
A great benefit of being on the short list of top-flight versatile session and live performance musicians is forging relationships with the best producers and performers in his chosen genres. His 1996 classic Never Alone/Duets featured high profile collaborations with legendary pals Kirk Whalum, Joe Sample, Jeff Lorber, Earl Klugh, Ray Parker Jr. and Gerald Albright, while The Power of the String included guest spots by Boney James, Mervyn Warren and Patrice Rushen.
While majoring in music at USC, Jackson—who got his first guitar at nine, started playing seriously at 12 and decided to be a professional musician at 15—met noted jazz pianist and pop singer Patrice Rushen, who became a mentor and introduced the young guitarist to many musicians who would later hire him. “Success as a studio musician comes from knowing that your number one priority is making the artist happy and developing a reputation for giving those who hire you what they want,” he says. “I still practice and love all the late nights and early mornings in the studio, trying to get things just right on my own projects and those of the artists who hire me. I keep all that balanced with my faith journey, and every so often will turn off the mix of be-bop and oldies I keep in the car and just drive in silence…listening once again for that still small voice. God will speak to you if you allow yourself to turn down the volume.”
Patrick Tuzzolino is a critically acclaimed vocalist, composer, pianist, guitarist and jazz producer. Most recently Tuzzolino played guitar and sang background vocals on Keely Smith's Swing, Swing, Swing CD and is a featured vocalist on Ray Anthony's big band CD The Swing Club.
He has performed and recorded with such jazz legends as Jon Hendrix, Joe Sample, Herbie Hancock, Carl Fontana, Sam Most, Sam Butera, Branford Marsalis, Sheryl Lee Ralph, the Count Basie Alumni Band, Stevie Wonder, Frankie Capp's Juggernaut Big Band and Sarah Vaughn.
Patrick has composed music and performed featured songs for many film and television productions including Guess Who (the recent remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" for Sony Pictures), Weapons of Mass Distraction - HBO, Stag, Tree's Lounge (Steve Buscemi, Director, MCA soundtrack album & film), Second Day of Xmas (ABC Films), Strays (Sundance dramatic competition, Vin Diesel, Director), I Think, I Do, Just In Time, Eight Days a Week and Fall (Eric Shaeffer, Director). Other credits include Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde on HBO, Mr. Atlas, Death Wish Five, and New Attitudes on Fox. Patrick has also made live appearances on Terry Bradshaw's Home Team, UPN's Moesha with Sheryl Lee Ralph and King of Queens 2004-2005.
Patrick (S.A.G.) has acted in supporting roles for two episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Blood Money with James Brolin, Billy Drago, Pistol Blues with Nick Cassevettes and the upcoming Sleepless.
Tuzzolino was a featured act at the 1997 Playboy Jazz Festival with the legendary Sam Most and Carl Saunders. He is currently performing in the Los Angeles area with this band.
Tuzzolino has sung and created musical arrangements for many recent nationally televised commercials including Nike, Miller Lite, Bud Lite, Skintimates, Cheetos, UPS, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, E-Bay, Lexus and many others.
s also been a regular performer at many top nightclubs in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Las Vegas.
Patrick Tuzzolino is an accomplished musician who is equally at home behind a keyboard or a guitar, or a vocal mic. Performing all over the place with his setup of piano for his right hand, bass synthesizer for his left hand and a microphone for his crooning smooth voice, he plays often with Sam Most on woodwinds and Frank Capp on drums.
Patrick's standout vocals can be heard on numerous national commercials and soundtracks, and he is a strong crowd favorite as he really loves to perform for his devoted audience.
Guitarist Pat Kelley has recorded eight CD's as a leader, toured in more than thirty countries, worked as a Los Angeles studio guitarist on hundreds of sessions for records, television, commercials, and motion pictures, and composed more than a hundred songs that have been commercially recorded.
Pat has performed with George Benson, Tom Scott, David Benoit, Dave Brubeck, John Pisano, Herb Ellis, Rick Braun, Jeff Lorber, Richard Elliot, Dave Koz, Al Jarreau, Nickel Creek, B. B. King, Ronnie Laws, Hubert Laws, Jose Feliciano, Eric Marienthal, Olivia Newton John, Stix Hooper, Randy Crawford, Melissa Manchester, and Burt Bacharach.
He was the house guitarist for several years on the Merv Griffin, Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers, and Carol Burnette television shows and has performed with symphony orchestras in San Francisco, San Diego, Houston, Atlanta, Tulsa, Denver, San Antonio, and Toledo.
In 2002, Pat founded the Artsong Music CD label releasing four CDs to date.
In June 2003, Pat was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, being honored by his home state, in his hometown of Tulsa. Other past inductees have included Charlie Christian, Chet Baker, Barney Kessel, Oscar Pettiford, and Lester Young.
Currently Pat holds a full time teaching position in the Studio/Jazz Guitar Department at the University of Southern California and is also an active guitarist, songwriter, producer, and engineer.
This show features Nik Simon Band at the 2002 San Diego Volkswagen Bluesfest at the Embarcadero Marina Park South at the San Diego downtown waterfront. Featuring Nik Simon on lead guitar and lead vocals, Karl Dring on guitar and harp, Mark Bentley on keyboards and lead-backing vocals, Val L'Heureux on bass and Mike Kirkpatrick on drums.
NSB can be characterized by its commitment to a musical style designed to move its audience. Although the band uses a solid and recognizable Blues foundation, much of its repertoire borrows liberally from funky rhythms that refreshingly update the traditional Blues grooves. The NSB players are all veterans with a heavy dose of musical experience. Players in the band have worked Internationally as well as throughout the U.S.
Among their credentials, are openings for such blues luminaries as Koko Taylor, Etta James, Gatemouth Brown, Dr. John, Jimmie Vaughan, Elvin Bishop, Coco Montoya, James Harman, Carey Bell, Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater, and the King himself, B.B. King.
With the release of their latest CD, “On a roll”, NSB is enjoying airplay on several Local and National radio stations. NSB can be seen monthly in the Gaslamp District at Patrick’s II and various other Southern California venues.
Nate Wood graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with Jazz luminaries Charlie Haden and Joe Labarbara. After graduating Nate toured the world many times over with pop/rock band The Calling. When he came home he made his first solo album, Reliving. The record is truly self-made, featuring Nate's compositions, singing, engineering/producing, and him playing all the instruments. Lately Nate has been using his talents on guitar, drums, and bass with Maverick recording artist, Keaton Simons.
We recently caught up with Nate at Cafe Metropol playing drums for Brian Green.