The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival (XRIJF) begins today, June 23, and runs through July 1. Along with musicians from all over the world, Eastman jazz players and composers – faculty members, students, and alumni – will be very busy during the festival. Freelancer Dan Gross will be interviewing some of them for Eastman Journal during the the festival. He begins with drummer and composer Aaron Staebell. Aaron has two degrees from Eastman; Bachelors in Jazz Performance and Music Ed (2005) and a Masters in Jazz Performance (2010). (See below for details about Aaron’s XRIJF shows.)
By Dan Gross
You come from a very musical family, and if memory serves, you started on violin! That’s hard to picture now. When did you switch to drums?
I switched to drums when I was in third grade and school band became an option. It’s weird, because I stopped violin when my teacher had some kind of accident and couldn’t keep teaching, and then I switched from classical percussion to drum set in tenth grade, because my teacher moved away. Maybe if I had had more consistency, I would not be where I am. But yes, that’s right.
My dad [William Staebell ’76E] is a great bass player, my mom played drums for many years, my sister is an orchestra teacher outside of Buffalo, and my brother is finishing his Doctorate in Opera at the University of Minnesota.
How did you find yourself in the jazz world?
As I mentioned above, I was studying hard to be a great classical percussionist. I wanted to be in the London Symphony. My teacher, Jack Brennan, left Buffalo and took a job in San Antonio, and I had no teacher. My dad had a connection to Rich Thompson, and brought me to him for a lesson. I remember playing a snare drum solo for him, and then him saying pretty much right away that he didn’t really teach that kind of stuff. I was flexible and impressionable, so I kept playing that stuff in school and on my own, but really I became a jazz drummer at that point.
Tell us about your time at Eastman. What was so valuable about it to you? Is it true that your first official piece of written music was for the Jazz Ensemble your senior year?
Eastman was and still is an amazing place. It was such an adjustment for me to go from being the best musician in my high school to being – almost literally – the worst at Eastman. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. The way people were practicing, the level of thought and depth to people’s pursuits, the sheer amount of music that I had never been exposed to; every day was an eye-opening experience.
I think that as I encounter people who didn’t get that same education somewhere else, I realize that Eastman taught us to try to be the best regardless of the circumstances. And not just the best at one thing, but details matter too. You can tell by the way someone presents them self whether or not they are an Eastman grad.
I also regularly remember a moment when one of my classmates was complaining about how hard things were, how little time there was to practice because of the academic rigor, and the amount of rehearsal time, and everything else. The teacher very clearly reminded us that it was designed to be hard, and that when we left school, we would always be able to look back and say THAT was the hardest thing I had ever done. He has been correct so consistently with that statement.
Whether I’m working at school, or dealing with two little kids at home, or anything else, it still doesn’t feel like I’m carrying a huge weight, and I think that’s because of what Eastman taught me. My wife is a multiple time Eastman grad as well, and we talk about this a lot; about how very completely prepared we were to face challenges in the real world. I don’t know how to fix a leaky showerhead, but luckily my dad does! He’s also an Eastman grad, by the way!
And I don’t know about first official piece, but yeah, the first time I had a concert with only music that I’d written, was not only my senior year, but the LAST day of my senior year. I always joke that even if everyone hated it, I’d never see most of them again, so it was pretty low-risk.
You’re now an educator at Greece Olympia. I know you have a philosophy on jazz and its level of stuffiness/ seriousness that it has acquired. Tell us about your work and process there.
Yes completely right! [Jazz can be] so serious, and so self-righteous and self-important. Listen, I love jazz, and I love creative music, but I think that level of rigidity scares people away! It is a similar problem that the classical world deals with. If someone needs to rent a tuxedo to go to an event, that’s probably a little too much. I remember seeing guys in school and we’d have these Jazz Forum performances, 11:30 on Wednesdays, just for each other, and cats would show up wearing what I call “the costume”: full suit and tie! I was intimidated! And they were my friends!
I guess the point they were making was that they took what they did seriously, and cared a lot, and details matter. But I think there was also a portion of it that was a nod to history. Seeing photos of count Basie’s band wearing suits or something. But no, man. That’s too much. It creates a barrier between the audience and the music. I also feel like people play the “I’m too smart for you to get it” card a lot, or “What’s happening up here is so hip that you don’t understand it.” That’s sad too. I like when people let the audience in, explain to them, teach them, and that’s what I try to do with my kids.
We are lucky because WGMC is right in our building at Olympia, so we have a monthly radio show. We pick a topic, and the kids do research on the music. Then they present it on the air, and it’s been a great success. Finding ways to let them into the music has been a big goal. I also try hard to have them perform at least 50 per cent music that has been written within the last 30 years, but is still legitimate music for the ensemble. There is SO much great music out there for the big band instrumentation. It’s a shame to me when we are subjected to arrangements of songs people know, just so that we please the audience/students.
One of our radio shows this year was “Holiday Jazz WITH INTEGRITY”, and we talked about why I like the Bobby Timmons Christmas jazz album but not the Kenny G one. What kind of improvisation is happening, how involved is the rhythm section, is this harmonically rich, all of these things and more… I’m excited to see the kids getting it, because the kids aren’t always used to looking at things with that level of detail.
So on one hand, I disparage the suit-wearing, never-smiling jazz snobs, but at the same time feel it’s important for students to understand whether what they’re hearing is good or not. I marry those two ideas by imagining that if a kid gets what’s going on, and then they have an honest ability to reject that which is nonsense and embrace what is true. And nonsense can – and does – exist on both ends of the spectrum!
Rochesterians probably know you best from your group “Normal People.” Can you tell us about it?
Normal People is a fun group; we play music that people would know, but with my own spin on it. I felt like I wasn’t getting anything out of playing the “jazz classics” when I was in grad school. Lighting might strike me down or something for saying that, but it got to a point where it didn’t matter what we were playing, everything sounded basically the same. It was a perfect example of “uninspired.” It was school.
So many amazing groups existed in the real world, and I was checking out all of this music, and NONE of it was just a bunch of medium tempo tunes by Tadd Dameron. My first band was “Bending and Breaking”; that band existed for almost ten years and we released an album. After a while, I think that ran its course, and I started another thing called “Under Open Sky.” I’d like to revisit that someday. That was similar to Normal People in that we had two guitars in the band, and also in that it was my own quirky arrangements of pre-existing material. This time it was American folk songs. We had a few concerts and then I started this Normal People stuff.
It is so much fun for me; it is a great balance of completely improvised music and very explicitly notated material. I love the freedom that we have in spots. I love the textures that can be created with either multiple keyboards or guitars. And really, I love playing songs that I think are fun, that have a connotation that I can relate to.
I always think about something our friend Dave Chisholm once said. He was playing a blues and the teacher was talking about how it wasn’t soulful enough, and I think it eventually boiled down to the fact that it might not have been “black” enough. Dave is this nerdy white dude from Alaska by way of Utah, and he was told “Dude, I’m not black enough”…
We have to play what we are and what we know. Normal People is that for me, music I like processed through my own mental filter.
Can you tell us about Alexa Tarantino? What will you be playing with her? What’s the Music Educator’s Jazz Band? What will you be playing with them?
Alexa is an old friend from my grad school days. She is making quite a career for herself already, which isn’t surprising in the least. She’s always been a really special musician and person in my eyes. She’s a super honest player, great sense of melody and line, tons of patience, and a great human too. The music is a mix of Alexa’s originals and other hip tunes from the tradition.
The Educators band is run by Bill Tiberio and it’s associated with Eastman through the community music program. I am not always a member, but I’ve done a couple of concerts with them. It’s all great educators from around the area (we have SO many talented musicians teaching in our schools, it’s really amazing). Bill has taken the band down a path that has led to it being referred to as “Not your Grandfather’s Big Band.” Right in my wheelhouse, right?
Bill is such a positive force on our music and educational communities. He is one of these guys who really gets it. I’m lucky to call him a friend and mentor. There’s usually at least one piece by band member Tom Davis as well, and he’s another Eastman grad who has been a big inspiration to me as both a writer and a teacher. It will definitely be a great band and a fun concert.
Also worth noting, I think: I’m doing a show on WGMC mornings during jazz fest week, where I am going to interview friends who are in town to play the fest in a more long-form format, asking some of these same kind of questions of them. I’m hoping to hit ESM grads Mike Cottone, Nick Finzer and Jared Schonig, among others.
Aaron’s shows with saxophonist Alexa Tarentino are on Tuesday, June 27 at the Rochester Club. The Rochester Music Educators Band performs on June 28, with shows at 7:30 and 9:30 on the Jazz Street stage. Aaron adds, “My students from Greece Olympia High School are playing on the June 30 on the Jazz Street stage at 4:30 p.m. It will be a program that includes music by Tom Davis, Ike Sturm (ESM grad), Kenny Wheeler, Duke Ellington, Bon Iver (arranged by Dave Chisholm), and Thad Jones.” More information on Jazz festival shows is available at rochesterjazz.com.