You could call him a prodigy. And sure, if Nature and Nurture were to pirouette from fisticuffs to tango, Jeff Richmond might be their musical love child. But all of that chemistry would mean nothing without the hours of daily practice Richmond has devoted to his craft since kindergarten.
With both of his parents being music educators and his father a trumpet player, Richmond could have easily rebelled. Instead, he embraced music as his native language. At five, Richmond progressed from dabbling to serious study of the trumpet. Two years later, he began composing. And by 18, he was playing a gig for a crowd of 20,000 at Orlando’s Universal Studios.
Today, Richmond is one of the most respected modern jazz composers, trumpet players, and music educators in the country and indeed the world. He was a featured speaker at the 2008 World Conference of the International Society for Music Education in Bologna and the 2010 conference in Beijing. That same year, he served as the featured clinician for both the North Carolina All-State Jazz Directors’ Clinic and the All-State Jazz Big Band Reading Session.
Richmond is at the forefront of the Third Stream pedagogical movement. Encouraging freedom of expression, this postmodern compositional approach draws on an eclectic range of traditions. That diversity not only appeals to generations whose musical tastes know no temporal nor cultural boundaries, but it also sparks rich and creative innovations unrestricted by the idiomatic gestures of a particular genre.
As a jazz and classical composer, Richmond puts these principles into practice daily. His works have been commissioned for stage and television. Equally fluent in manual notation and digital composition, Richmond has mastered nearly every music software product available.
Some of the world’s finest musicians have joined forces to perform his compositions as the Jeff Richmond Jazz Orchestra (JRJO), a rotating 17-piece big band whose members have included such luminaries as Gabriela Richmond (née Praetzel), Danny O'Brien, Chris Stelling, Brandon Holloman, Sean Murphy, and Paul Krueger.
Jeff has also had an opportunity to collaborate with some of those who mentored him while he was earning his bachelor of music degree in composition at the University of South Florida-Tampa. There, he studied composition with Paul Reller and Guggenheim Fellow Chuck Owen as well as jazz performance with Tom Brantley, Jay Coble, and Jack Wilkins. Richmond completed his master of music and doctor of musical arts degrees in composition with a cognate in jazz studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied composition with Eric Richards, Randy Snyder, and Tyler White and jazz performance with Paul Haar, Peter Bouffard, Stefon Harris, and Darryl White.
For his dissertation, “Human Nature for Jazz Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra,” Richmond composed an ambitious and emotionally complex piece for symphony orchestra and jazz ensemble. More than 30 of his compositions have been published by major music distributors across the nation, including UNC Jazz Press, System Blue Publications, Row Loff Productions, Dorn Publications, and Walrus Music Publishing.
His passion for performance and intimate understanding of the compositional process lead to electrifying experiences in the classroom. In addition to teaching music theory, jazz, applied trumpet, and composition, Richmond also directs the SOU Jazz Band.
For Richmond, mastery is a lifelong pursuit, a joyous spontaneous journey through authentic musical expression. Many of his most sublime creations will never be heard, never be repeated again. They are born out of Zen state of pure, ecstatic flow, a solitary performance perpetually attuned to the rhythm of now.
Conversation with Jeff Richmond
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in fall 2012
Hep cat takes five (courtesy of Jeff Richmond)
MM: What is your first musical memory?
JR: I grew up in a musical household. I remember there always being music. My father got his PhD in music education and the law from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and my mother taught elementary school music for 14 years in Florida. Now my dad is the director of the School of Music in the Hixson-Lied College of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
I remember starting trumpet when I was five (though I had dabbled before then). One of my strongest memories is being given my first music composition software. I was seven, and my parents decided composition software would be a better use of my time than video games, so I started composing incessantly. To be sure, this was the impetus for the journey toward becoming a professional composer.
Halcyon Days (composed by Jeff Richmond)
MM: Why do you think you gravitated toward the trumpet?
JR: My father is a trumpet player. We used to listen to horn bands (Chicago; Tower of Power; and Earth, Wind, & Fire) in the car all the time—loud and with the windows down. I thought this was so cool, and I remember when I had the chance to try my dad’s trumpet, I was hooked.
When I was an undergrad at the University of South Florida, I had so many performing opportunities outside school. I played frequently in large venues like Downtown Disney and Universal Studios. Growing up around tourism, you learn to play music in many different styles. When I was 18, I played a show at Universal Studios in Orlando for about 20,000 people with a funk horn band Universal had put together with local players. These guys were amazing players, and I had to hang on for dear life. That gig really stands out because I remember talking to the drummer, a long-time pro in the Orlando music scene, after the gig. He had so much great advice for me. A lot of the old pros are really hard on young players, but he was helpful and inspiring. He really made me want to get better. I am sure that plays a role in my teaching strategies today.
Joy Dance (composed by Jeff Richmond)
MM: What is it about jazz in particular that speaks to you?
JR: There is nothing more free or more honest than improvising as a composer. There is a certain beauty in not being able to edit after the fact. Frankly, jazz was not even my first love. I tend to present at conferences about Third Stream pedagogy—a term coined by Gunther Schuller. This type of composing and improvising borrows from plural musical vocabularies and allows for a more free range of expression that is not idiomatically restricted.
My wife and I listen all the time to jazz, classical, hip-hop, R&B, soul, funk, fusion, and a lot more. I get inspiration from all of these sources.
Free play in front of Hannon Library (by Steven Babuljak)
MM: Are you familiar with the book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art? As an improvisational violinist, Stephen Nachmanovitch understands that inspiration occurs at the intersection of work and play. He writes that the “moment-to-moment nonstop flow” experienced during a creative act “is what many of the spiritual traditions refer to when they speak of ‘chopping wood, carrying water’—bringing into the humdrum activities of daily life the qualities of luminosity, depth, and simplicity-within-complexity that we associate with inspired moments. We can then say, with the Balinese, ‘We have no art. Everything we do is art.’” Do you feel playing jazz has not only influenced your relationship with music but also with life? Has it taught you ways of being in the world that have changed who you are as a person?
JR: Creative expression will always change someone. I think this type of change happens organically. I compose music as a means to creating music but also frequently as a practice in and of itself.
The same is true of playing trumpet. Most of the playing I do on the trumpet will never be heard. It won’t be recorded or catalogued; it just exists, and then it is gone. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the sand mandala of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Music is created, and then it is gone. Jazz, for me, is the ultimate personal expression tied to a moment in time.
With the SOU Jazz Band (by Steven Babuljak)
Techno Tron (composed by Jeff Richmond)
MM: You primarily compose jazz, but you also write classical music. How does the composition process differ for each genre? No doubt improvisation plays a more pronounced role in the jazz composition process.
JR: It is true that improvisation is more influential in jazz composition than in classical style composing. I have found over the past decade, however, that they have grown much closer as a practice. Composing is improvising on paper. When I am composing, I allow myself to edit, though I do not force myself to do so. Functionally, I think my music tends to grow out of my listening practices. If I have been listening to some particularly compelling sonatas, I start writing. It is not a choice, really; I find the music simply follows my ears.
Ockham’s Razor with Dr. Nelson Neves performing (by Jeff Richmond)
MM: Although the process may differ somewhat, I can definitely feel the influence of jazz in your classical compositions. I may be off the mark since I’ve just listened to a few clips from Okham’s Razor, Paradox, and Symphony of St. Elizabeth, but I sensed an affinity with composers like George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Who are some of your artistic influences, and why?
JR: I am inspired often by the music of Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza. These are both composers who seem to authentically bridge the gap between classical music and jazz. Their music is steeped in creativity, tradition, and musical history.
MM: Tell me about your dissertation, “Human Nature for Jazz Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra.”
JR: It was a work written for symphony orchestra and jazz ensemble. This was an ambitious undertaking given the large amount of orchestration necessary. Conceptually, the work is a musical journey through a human life—from birth to death. The work is not jazz, though. It employs improvisation but in a more organic and not idiomatically bound context.
Performing with a jazz combo at a North Carolina gig (courtesy of Jeff Richmond)
MM: That sounds quite poignant. What is the most profound project you’ve worked on to date?
JR: I enjoyed writing for my own professional ensemble, the Jeff Richmond Jazz Orchestra (JRJO). In 2009, I pulled together all of my favorite players from around the country, and we recorded a live concert of six charts, which are available for free download at my website. This was a great experience because the caliber of musicians in the group was so high. I had players from Chuck Owens Jazz Surge Big Band in Florida and Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra in New York fly out to play in my group. Given that so much of what I do as a composer revolves around distributing compositions through major publishers, I wanted to create reference recordings that captured the compositions most accurately. I also wanted the recordings to be live as this tends to create a more exciting and organic musical performance than a studio set might.
The compositions written for this ensemble represent a long journey for me in crafting a new compositional voice that emphasizes jazz and improvisation but also borrows from other musical vocabularies. It was important to me to be able to utilize this hybridized Third Stream approach to musical composition while also crafting music that would draw and sustain an audience.
Conducting the SOU Jazz Band (by Steven Babuljak)
MM: At the 2008 and 2010 World Conferences of the International Society for Music Education (ISME), you were a featured speaker on issues related to studio composition pedagogy in the Third Stream movement. Can you talk a little bit about this topic?
JR: I am passionate about developing musical polyglots. The ISME conferences, which represent the musical arm of UNESCO, seemed the perfect place to make these arguments. In Beijing and Bologna, I presented both a case and a method for composition instruction in the Third Stream. The traditional definition of Third Stream has generally been used as a music that exploits both jazz and classical. In my presentations, I attempted to argue that many more musical traditions must come into play and it is both possible and preferable to teach composition and improvisation in the Third Stream.
Gunther Schuller coined this still-controversial term for the convergence of Western classical (“First Stream”) and jazz (“Second Stream”) styles in music composition and performance. Improvisation is essential in Third Stream music practices. Music educators interested in teaching students to compose and improvise within the Third Stream tradition must concern themselves with encouraging and liberating an authentic voice in the student composer while ensuring stylistic integrity concerning the music vocabularies being harvested as source material. Failing to do so is to ensure banality and trivialization of the composition process and product. Thus, musical instruction concerning the Third Stream must include a studied approach to both jazz and classical music interpretations of harmony. The harmonic vocabularies of jazz depart from the traditional dominant-tonic–based harmonic construction of classical music but still remain within the tonal realm.
Composition pedagogy continues to occupy the attention of the music education profession internationally. As music pedagogues strive to account for the diverse musical styles that interest composition students today, it seems fruitful, if not essential, to consider exemplars who have succeeded in attending to multiple musical styles in authentic, integrative ways. Whereas there may have been a time when composers could thrive in well-defined stylistic silos, composition students today are less allegiant to a single musical tradition and more interested in creating original music that draws on a broadly informed, eclectic sensibility. Third Stream composition is perhaps the single-most successful and conspicuous attempt to do just that.
At ISME 2008 in Bologna, I proposed a Third Stream paradigm of composition pedagogy as a way of infusing new energy into composition teaching at the secondary and post-secondary levels for both classical and jazz composers. Jazz composition pedagogy offers emphases on listening, transcribing, and improvisation that are often conspicuously absent in classical composition curricula. Classical composition pedagogy offers emphases on complex forms (structural, imitative, and archetypal) and much more diversity and complexity in instrumentation and orchestration than is typical in jazz composition practice. The principal aim of my presentation at ISME in Beijing in 2010 was to provide the curricular specifics for this instructional model.
Chatting with a student at the Hannon Library coffee shop
(by Steven Babuljak)
MM: Having studied with such an impressive range of mentors in both composition and jazz performance, what would you say are the defining characteristics of a great mentor? How did your best mentors instruct and inspire you, and how do you in turn inspire your students?
JR: A mentor should be patient and be able to inspire his students to want to achieve excellence. My mentors did this. They never told me how to do anything; they made me want to know how. This is so much more powerful than teaching anyone anything. If the student becomes passionately curious, the mentor’s role becomes gradually less and less important over time. My mentors did this—they opened doors to new information and then stood back to see if I might choose to explore and grow.
Pedagogy into practice (by Steven Babuljak)
MM: How would you sum up your teaching philosophy?
JR: Music education should be geared toward stimulating questions, not providing answers. Students should be encouraged to develop inquisitive spirits. This will inspire them to be lifelong learners. We can inspire our students by setting an example of excellence in our academic, professional, and musical pursuits. We can expose our students to new, interesting, and compelling art that changes their perceptions and informs their decision-making processes. Finally, we can set a positive example by being lifelong learners who are constantly acknowledging and reacting to the changing landscape of music.
Clark Terry, the great jazz trumpeter, said the three stages of mastery are imitation, assimilation, and innovation, in that order. Students learn to imitate by listening and copying. Assimilation occurs when the imitated material starts to become intuitive (being able to think with instead of thinking about). Finally, innovation takes place when the musician’s personal experience begins to influence musical decision-making in an honest and authentic way. This constant pursuit of mastery is the great challenge and lifetime journey of musicians.
MM: What are you most looking forward to experiencing at Southern Oregon University?
JR: I am very excited to learn the culture of southern Oregon. As a musician, I find the culture of a place really defines the values and interests of the population—musically and otherwise. As I get to know SOU and Oregon, I will be more in tune to the needs of the students and the community. Over time, this will make me a stronger faculty member.
JR: Everyone on the music faculty has been very inviting and helpful. The caliber of my colleagues here is evident in the significance and magnitude of each faculty member’s individual achievements. There is consistent excellence and achievement across all sub-disciplines within music, and I look forward to adding to an already impressively well-accomplished faculty.