Friday, May 30, 2014

Nastos Interview: Part Two (getting personal)

In this segment of my interview with John Nastos we talked about the definition of "jazz", the married life of a musician, and then he turned the tables and asked me some questions!

Levi Downey: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?
John Nastos: Yeah. I mean as a saxophone player, it’s pretty hard to escape that. Not that I want to escape that. You know, it’s kind of what we do. I do really love Jazz. I get that people stay away [from “jazz”]. Do you know who Ben Darwish is?
LD: Oh yeah! You work with him? I’m familiar with Morning Ritual. Bill Marsh is a killer guitar player in that project. What kind of work do you do with him [Darwish]?
JN: I’ve played a lot of stuff with him. We haven’t done anything for a while but he had a band called Commotion that I was in for a bit. [Darwish and I] played in Damian Erskine’s band together. There’s a drummer named Drew Shoals, we were in his group together. I think if you asked [Ben Darwish] if he were a jazz musician, I don’t know if he would say yes. And I don’t know if he would want to be identified that way. Because, for what he wants to do it’s almost a disservice. For certain crowds if you advertise yourself as a jazz pianist, it could actually hurt what you’re trying to do. They will be turned off by that. And I totally get that. But, for me it just kind of makes sense.
LD: Yeah, you know Robert Glasper and the Robert Glasper Experiment?
JN: Yeah definitely.
LD: It’s along the same lines right? He got a Grammy for the best hip hop album of 2011 and that couldn’t have happened if it were the “Robert Glasper Jazz Experiment”.
JN: Yeah, that’s probably true.
LD: I’m curious about that because some of the people I talk with treat the “J” word like it’s an insult. Then, there are the people that are pissed at those people who want to distance themselves from that “J” word.
JN: I always think that it’s kind of funny when people try to define what jazz is. And thus, I find it kind of funny to get upset about being defined as it… because it’s kind of undefinable.
There’s this kid on Facebook that was putting down this group, the Jam of the Week group. Don’t know if you’ve run into that yet? But, this trumpet player in town, Farnell Newton, created this group where they focus on one tune per week and you post a video of you taking one chorus of a tune and get advice from the musician community. The first tune was blues then “Just Friends” then “All the Things You Are”. And so there’s this kid who grew up here and now lives in New York and always has very strong opinions about music… he was like, “This group goes against what jazz stands for.”
And that it doesn’t fit the ideals of the music. I wrote back saying that I get pretty skeptical when someone starts trying to tell me what jazz is and whether it fits. And he was like, “Well, it’s about improvising with others”. I agree that’s a great thing [about jazz]. But, I wrote back asking if that’s true, then is a solo piano album not jazz? And he just wrote back saying, “Jam of the Week is not a solo piano record!"
LD: Wow, people get very touchy about this stuff.
JN: Yup. I think actually the word Jazz, if anything , lets a lot more people have a living doing this. See there are these things called Jazz clubs. And, they are going to hire, more often than not, Jazz musicians that identify in “Jazz” ways. In other genres there aren’t necessarily venues that gear specifically toward what you are doing.
You know, if you go out for dinner at the Heathman or the Benson, there’s going to be a jazz band there. You’re not going to see a rock act, normally, at a place like that.
I think the word Jazz has helped a larger base of people get a larger pool of jobs. But, I’m sure some people vehemently disagree with me.

Nastos plays and teaches alto sax and many other woodwinds.

LD: I’m sure they do! So, a little more personal question; the work life balance of a musician doesn’t seem to usually involve living in one place with a marriage and a family. Not to say that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but you are someone that has made it work. What have you found to be some of the keys to that?
JN: Well, my wife is very understanding about what this life is like. She knew what we were getting into from the very beginning. Not to say that we haven’t had our issues related to it. Especially in the beginning. You know, she would want to go on vacation and plan it out far in the future. And I wouldn’t want to do that because what if I get a gig that night? Especially then, when I wasn’t working as much. You know, I couldn’t turn down a gig for any other reason than I have another gig. And I think she understands that now more than before.
That’s actually very important in this business. If the phone rings, you want to do pretty much whatever you can to say yes because whether or not it’s a “legit” excuse people get a perception really quickly, “Oh, I tried calling them, but they couldn’t do it.” Next time, when they think about calling you, they’ll remember you couldn’t do it and this other guy could. Even if the other guy doesn’t play as well, it’s easier.
And there are a lot of facets to that. It’s also like -- not so say you should take a gig for any money that’s offered -- but they could call up and offer x amount of dollars and you say, “Oh, well I only work for twice that”. If you get lucky, they’ll find a way to do that. And if you don’t get lucky, they just won’t call you again. And then say you’re in a financial situation where you would take that gig, but they’re not calling anymore; it becomes a problem.
But, anyway, that’s not directly related to your questions. I try to make time. If I weren’t worried about spending time with my wife I would take on five to ten more students, but [our time together] is important. I don’t teach much on Wednesdays or Thursdays. I have only one student on Wednesdays because her weekend starts then. So I keep the schedule pretty clear. I still take gigs on those nights when they come up.
LD: That’s really cool that you’ve found a way to make it work. It’s great, you know, my sabbatical has brought up a lot of things that I haven’t figured out yet, and it’s really great to have someone to point to that’s making it work. I can say, “Hey, look at John Nastos he’s making it work”!
JN: Hah! Yeah I guess.
LD: So your wife works full-time. Is she a musician too?
JN: No, she is a nurse. And she does work a lot, and a lot of late hours. And there are times where that is hard. Because I have made those commitments like, okay I’m not going to schedule these days for lessons.
But, I know she makes compromises too. [For example] if we were going to spend an evening together, but then I get a call for a gig -- she’s really understanding with those last minute sub calls.
LD: How long have you been married?
JN: Just over a year. January of last year.
LD: A winter wedding.
JN: Yeah, she wanted a winter wedding and I was like, that sounds great to me! I really didn’t care what season… except that winter made it a whole lot more convenient for not missing as many gigs. It was great. We did it on a Saturday during the day so that my musician friends wouldn’t have a gig and her colleagues could make it too. It was really nice.
LD: Great. Thanks, John. I just want to check to make sure I asked all my questions…
JN: So, let me ask you some questions. I’m sort of intrigued by your project here. So when did your sabbatical start?
LD: Started the beginning of February. I had some dancing back and forth with work.
JN: So is it legitimately a sabbatical in the sense that in August or whenever, you have a job waiting for you? Or is it more, “This is how much time and then we’ll see in August. If I’m not making a living I’ll ask for my job back or look for some other gig”?
LD: Pretty much the latter. My dream scenario would be to find some way to have music be my new income source. But, I just don’t know what that would look like; hence the whole project. So I will need to have -- and this is a bare minimum -- about $1,500 of income coming in by the end of summer. I did get offered a chance to return to the position I left. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up back where I was. It was a really a good job to have.
But, in order to improve to the point where I’d need to be to make a living, it was clear to me that I needed to be devoting a lot more time than I could while working full-time. So I guess that’s why I decided to call it a sabbatical.
JN: I see. So what is your “ideal” situation and what does your somewhat “realistic” situation look like?
LD: Well, my ideal would be to be at the top of the local call list. You know, like pretty much what you described. I’d like to be somewhere near where you are. I love the idea of getting an unexpected call for an exciting or completely new gig. Playing live as much as possible. But, I’d really like to learn more about production and arranging too. If I could pick it now, I’d want to do more than 50% of my time performing and then the other less-than-half divided into other creative projects related to music -- like recording or composing or teaching.
Then, the realistic version would be more heavy on the teaching because it is the primary income source for everyone whom I’ve talked with so far.
JN: Yeah. Interesting.
LD: I’d really like to build something like what you’ve done with your Metronomics App. Something that’s related to music and something that I’ll probably be doing anyway and might make a little extra money. You know, I’ve been doing a little booking for a big band I’m in and I know enough people from my past job, that it might make sense to take on some management role.
JN: Yeah, that’s definitely a huge need. It’s a good skill and it’s one that most musicians just don’t seem to have. I mean the fact that my metronome app sells at all is almost pure luck. I will rarely even tell people about it. I mean, if I have a student or maybe a colleague that I’m pretty close with, then I’ll mention it. But if it’s like a one-off gig or something… For example, I had this gig with Diane Shuur in Vegas. We had this bass player on the gig who I hadn’t met before. And he’s this pretty heavy New York guy -- teaches at Juilliard -- a serious dude.  And, I don’t have the self-promotion sense or maybe the lack of shame to tell him about it. Maybe he would like it and then tell some of his students at Juilliard about it and that would probably go really well.
LD: Yeah I’ve noticed that. It’s really a totally different skill set. The business and promotion side can be hard to deal with for the creative individual trying to focus on their craft. In fact they seem to work better when separated.
JN: A challenging field no question about it.
LD: So, do you have any advice for my situation? Now that you know a little more about what I’m doing and why.
JN: I have no idea! Haha. I mean, okay... So I listen to a lot of comedy podcasts like the Adam Carolla and Nerdist. Part of the reason I started the metronome app was because I was seeing a lot of young musicians burn out because they were spending every waking moment on music. I’m not the kind of guy that will get in my car and immediately turn on music. If anything, I’ll turn on a podcast. And one of the things I always hear stand-up comedians say is: Under no circumstances should you become a stand up comedian, unless that’s the only thing you can do. Not meaning that you don’t have any other skills. Meaning you won’t be happy unless that’s the only thing you do. Because it takes that amount of drive to get up on stage and survive the hecklers and to live the sort of miserable experience it takes to build up enough work to get going. And that’s something I’ve struggled with telling my high school students. Because, much more so than when I was in High School, there are all these Jazz education programs and all the kids say they want to go to Manhattan School of Music or Berklee and NIC or NYU or the Jazz Department of NYU. They all want to go to a conservatory. And part of me thinks I should say, “Well, yeah, I did it and it can be done”. And part of me wants to say, “You’re not going to make it, you shouldn’t do it”. Because the ones that really want it, that’s not gonna stop them.
So, it’s a weeding out process. Like in med school it’s first year chemistry. It’s like 30% of the people don’t make it past. But, it’s not really even a very practical class for becoming a doctor; it’s more of a bar to see how bad you want it. I can never decide what kind of personality I want to be. So usually what I say, “Music school is great, but don’t pay any money to go there”. If you can get a full ride to Berklee or whatever, then you’re talking about four years where you can have an experience unlike any other. Because I do think it’s important to have that drive. And I think that’s part of why I never got a “job.” Sure, I could have taken a job at some point and made a lot more money but I really really wanted the music thing and I made it happen.
I think your step of deciding, “Okay I’m making decent money, I have a job and I’m going to sort of throw that away and try it”. [It was] a good step in that direction because you’re willing to make a sacrifice. Whether or not it will work? I have no idea!
One of my favorite things about music is that when I started I thought there were more magical elements than there really are. As I spend more and more time around musicians, it almost invariably turns out that the people that spend more time are better than everyone that doesn’t spend as much time.
And that spills over to promotion too. The people that spend the most time promoting their shows have the most people show up. Renato Caranto sounds better than everyone because he spends the most time practicing saxophone. It’s true on the micro and macro level. The guys that have spent the most time on ear training are better at hearing.
So you’re idea of, ‘I’m taking time to devote to playing music.’ Is exactly the right thing from that perspective. But, if you subscribe to the 10,000 hours of being an expert theory, then you’re pretty short. You need 5 years, not six months.
LD: Yeah. I hear you. Thanks for your thoughts on this.
JN: Hah! I don’t know if you should be thanking me for that. I don’t know if any of that was helpful. Or even true for that matter!
LD: Haha. Well, I guess I thank you for your perspective then.
JN: Well, yeah. And to add to what I just said, you mentioned earlier that I must have had very supportive parents; I really did. I applied to half computer science programs and half music programs.
LD: Really?
JN: Yeah, and it was basically because I didn’t know if I could make a living doing this. And I thought, “Well, maybe I should do this computer science thing because I’m kind of good with computers”. And it came down to me getting a decent scholarship to do the music thing. And since I didn’t have to pay a bunch of money out of pocket, I thought I’d think about it more seriously. I did have a lot of momentum. In high school, I practiced a ton. More than I have ever practiced since.
But, I asked my parents what I should do. And they said I should do the music. Because if I really needed to, I could always go back and get the computer science degree later. And, yeah that was a useful thing. I don’t know what I would have done if they said, “Oh, I don’t know... this conservatory thing seems like a bad idea. You should probably get the computer science degree.” Yeah, so that was a useful thing to be able to do.
Not that I think a music degree is required to be a musician; it’s not. It just afforded me a couple years where I could really make that my concentration.
LD: I’ve heard a lot of people that have been to music school say a similar thing; it’s more about the dedicated study and practice time. And then there are the people you are always surrounded by.
JN: Yeah. I’d say that’s even more important. I think I got more out of the Jam sessions. The first year I was in the dorms and we had these practice rooms where you can jam 24 hours a day. Yeah, I’m sure I learned more in those jam sessions then I learned in “Jazz Theory 101.”
Yup, It will be interesting to see what you come up with!
LD: Well thank you so much for hanging out!
JN: Yeah, you’re welcome.

 Nastos vs. Renato Caranto in epic sax battle, an oldie but a goodie.