Originally posted in encore magazine on March 24th, 2010.
Even the most celebrated of artists don’t always gravitate toward their calling on the first try. For world-renowned saxophonist Chris Potter, the discovery became an acquired taste. “I remember that before I heard jazz records, I didn’t really like the saxophone,” he revealed last week, during a phone call to encore from his home in New York City. “It wasn’t until I heard some jazz records that I heard the possibilities. It turned into something like: When there’s a food that you really didn’t like as a kid, and then you get older and try it one more time [only to discover] it’s not quite as disgusting—that’s kind of how the saxophone was for me. But by the time I was 10, there just became something about it, and I bothered my parents until they got me one.”
For Potter the saxophone wasn’t his first foray into music. Born in Chicago and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, he was already something of a musical prodigy by the time he was able to stomach the sax, having already become proficient at several other instruments. Although Columbia, by most peoples’ standards, is a large enough college town, with presumably above-average opportunities for a young musician, Potter was discovering that his love for jazz was difficult to foster with little peer support and influence. So, at 18 he moved to New York City to study at the New School and the Manhattan School of Music.
“The fact was: As a kid I was the only person my age who was interested in this music, so I was really off by myself,” he said. “Moving to New York really gave me the opportunity to meet a bunch of like-minded musicians at a very high level—it was extremely stimulating. People know that when they come here to study jazz music, the point is to be here, which isn’t to say anything bad about the schools themselves. That’s just how it works.”
Potter says that although his educational experience was extremely valuable, he doubts he would have become the musician he is today had the schools been in any other city. The New York City jazz scene is something in and of itself.
“This is probably the place where there’s the most jazz activity—it’s probably the place where more greats live than anywhere else,” he noted. “There’s more energy about it—there’s more people getting together and playing, and there’s just a lot of ideas floating around. The way jazz has always functioned is that there has to be a scene. There’s no art form that develops in a vacuum but especially not jazz music.”
Yet, the paradox with jazz, Potter explains, is that it’s simultaneously one of the most collaborative and individualistic forms of artistic expression. There exists celebratory improvisation and personal exploration, and the real need for structure both onstage and in a larger context.
“The whole point is to learn to improvise together and to make music together that’s probably based on some kind of formal idea. But within that each musician has a huge amount of latitude about what to do next,” he explained. “It’s a very social and collaborative process. I think sense of community is important in all of the arts but especially jazz music. You really need to be surrounded by very high-level musicians to keep growing yourself.”
Although Potter spends most of his time exploring those artistic communities in clubs all over the world, he says he does on occasion dive back into academia, offering workshops and clinics in universities across the country. In fact, he’ll be conducting one such jazz clinic and an additional Q&A session in preparation for his concert at UNCW this coming week. Although he admits being a clinician is a whole different experience than performing with his band in a club, interacting and influencing young musicians has its own payoff.
“It’s truly gratifying to see and be a part of,” he said. “It’s great to see the amount of energy the students have—they really want to know and learn. So you can hope that you can come in and say something that’s useful for them to hear, but you often never know. It could be months down the line when a student does something and says, ‘Oh, that’s what he was talking about.’ It’s hard to even count the experiences I’ve had like that as a young musician myself. Seeing a musician that you’ve listened to on records actually play—seeing how they physically relate to the instrument—can, in a certain way, really teach you a lot, even without saying anything. Then, when they actually do speak, I find it’s a huge source of insight into how they are as a musician, too.”
Whether it’s an academic environment or a jazz club, Potter understands that these interactive and precious moments of sharing a craft he’s dedicated his life to are the building blocks to understanding jazz itself. It’s collaboration that brings out the most in jazz music, both in appreciation from the audience and in the never-ending growth of the artist.
“That’s a lot of what it means to really teach jazz; to be around people who have dedicated their lives to it and see how they approach it,” he said. “Because it’s not something where you can just read a book and get the information. Even beyond the words that I’m saying, my hope is that maybe [students and audiences] can get something out of my attitude toward it, and experience where the music is really coming from at [a] deeper level.”