Jazz Monthly | September 2008
Jazz Monthly Feature Interview: Mel Brown
Interview By Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
Jazz Monthly: Well, when you talk about bass players, you must include my next guest. He is an incredible bass player, fantastic musician, he is a musician’s sideman, and when you say sideman, this cat epitomizes the true meaning of what that is. He has performed with the A-List to any other list you can imagine. He’s an astonishing producer as well. Please welcome the Grammy Award Winning, incredible and amazing Mr. Mel Brown.
Mel Brown (MB): (Laughs.) That’s a great introduction. I appreciate that, Smitty.
Jazz Monthly: Hey, my pleasure, my friend. Hey, it’s great to talk to you finally because as you know, I have been telling the world about you and what you have done over the past few years working with so many great artists and doing your thing out there on the road with some of the best in the business.
MB: Well, I definitely thank you for the good words. A lot of the projects I’ve been involved with have gotten favorable reviews and I appreciate it. I think I speak for everyone in Smooth Jazz when I say that you’ve been a big part of helping us keep this thing going, and I tip my hat to you for that, Smitty.
Jazz Monthly: Well, thank you so much. Man, that means a lot coming from a fantastic cat like yourself. With someone of your caliber that’s so talented in your craft and works so hard at being a fantastic musician, how did you decide on music as a career? Because it’s just not one of those things where you just get up one morning and say “I’m gonna be a musician.”
MB: Well Smitty, I don’t ever remember not being a musician. When I was a very small child, I remember one time sitting in the living room with my mother watching some show on television—it may have been American Bandstand or something like that—and we saw the Staples Singers. They were on the show doing one of their famous tunes and I distinctly remember seeing the person playing the guitar and thinking that it was cool, but really seeing the guy play the bass. I looked at him and I remember looking at my mother and saying “That’s the one that I do.” And she said “Oh, is that right?” And I said “Yeah, that’s the one that I do.” I don’t even think that I knew that it was called bass, but I definitely knew at that time that that’s what I did and from then on I gravitated towards it. Even though it wasn’t a real pursuit until I was in my teens, it seemed that in the back of my mind that I always had to get that going. (Laughs.) It was one of those things that I knew and loved but hadn’t been paying attention to as a child. It just seemed like it was always there for me.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and it’s just one of those things destined to happen.
MB: I believe so. It’s definitely been a good ride so far, I know.
Jazz Monthly: Do you remember your first bass?
MB: I remember the first bass that I ever got to have for more than a day.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
MB: My elementary school music teacher—her name was Diane Beer. She had a bass and she let me take it home for about a week and she showed me how to play a really basic jazz/rock/blues line. I took the bass home and practiced and practiced and practiced, and then she needed it back, obviously, so I was devastated.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
MB: But it got the fire lit under me. That was when I was in the sixth grade. When I went to the seventh grade, I took a guitar class — that’s when schools still had music programs—and I would actually try to run to class and learn a bass line before I actually had to do what I was required to do. (Both laugh.) So pretty much up until high school, that was my training, and then my family moved to the East Coast. When I was 14 or 15, my mother finally broke down and let me have one. It represented a pretty significant financial commitment, and you know parents, they don’t know if you’re gonna stick with it or not, but I stuck with it.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man, and aren’t we glad you did? (Both laugh.)
MB: I know I’m glad I did.
Jazz Monthly: Were you like most musicians where you’d go down to the music store and check out the bass guitars and play them and hope and dream and think along those lines?
MB: I sure did. If I could get into a music store and look, I did. If I could see guys playing music live, I did. I’ve just always been fascinated with music and the life of musicians, and I’ve always had a love for musicianship. I could always tell great musicianship. Yeah, so any time that I could get myself around some instruments or around some people playing, I definitely did.
Smitty: I can see your love for music and great musicianship because I’m gonna tell you, I want to share with you one compliment among many that I have heard over the years about you, because when your name comes up in a conversation, it’s always the “Wow Thing”.
MB: (Laughs.) I’m so glad for that.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, in fact, I just mentioned you to Steve Oliver today. We were talking.
Jazz Monthly: And I said “You know what I like about Mel is he seems always ready to throw down and he’s always prepared” and Steve told me this story. He said “Man, you’re right on.” He said “I remember when Mel was coming to play in a band that he was in” and he said “We had never met him.” You met them at the gig.
MB: Yeah, Steve Reid’s Bamboo Forest.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly, he said “You know, he walked in and he had a notebook with Steve Reid Bamboo Forest neatly written on the notebook, everything highly organized, he knew all the songs, he was ready to go.” And he said he was so impressed by that because that was not something that he had ever seen back then, and he said he couldn’t wait to work with you in the future after that gig because that was just so impressive that you were that prepared and well organized and backed it up with a great performance that night, so that’s just one of many that I’ve heard about Mel Brown.
MB: Oh, well, if you talk to Steve, tell him I definitely appreciate that and I’m happy that that kind of thing still stays on peoples’ minds. I take a lot of pride in the service that I provide as a sideman and in being prepared. A lot of times when a regular player can’t make the gig and you have to call someone that hasn’t done the gig before, the expectation is for a disaster.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
MB: Even if it’s someone that can really, really play, the expectation is for a disaster. But I firmly believe that songs are the common ground where all of us can meet in the middle. We can all look good, and if I know the songs well enough, I can come in, and even if it’s my first day, everyone can have a great time and the people in the audience will not feel shortchanged by me being the new guy. I’ve promised myself that no one would ever leave a show that I was on feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth. Not on my watch.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, well, I could attest to that because the first time I saw you was on Maui.
MB: Oh, that was a long time ago, Smitty.
Jazz Monthly: A long time ago, man. (Both laugh.) And I remember sitting in the audience, which is something I rarely do because I can’t sit still, but I remember sitting next to a promoter from England and I remember him saying—now, keep in mind this was an A-List day of musicians and bands.
Jazz Monthly: I mean, you name the A-List of Smooth Jazz artists, they were there for that festival, and I remember him whispering to me “That guy right there and Scott Ambush are the two best bass players here.”
MB: Oh, wow! I love Scott’s playing – he’s fantastic! What a great compliment. (Laughs.)
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I have many more.
MB: I’m excited about that. Well, there’s no way scientifically to determine who’s better or worse. Music is an art, so it’s very subjective as to what people prefer or like, but if someone said that, then it must mean that whatever it was that I or Scott was doing touched them in some positive way, so I’m grateful for that.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly. So it’s a thing where when you really serve your musicianship well and you really study your craft and you have the goal of getting better all the time and creative all the time, never think that it’s not recognized by your audience because they lock into that. People know a great musician when they hear one and when they see one, always.
MB: Yes they do, and I appreciate that. My goal is that the person in the front is served by me being there. I don’t ever want anybody to regret spending their money on Mel Brown. A lot of times if you’re performing with a big name artist and you’re terrible on stage, you’re not the person that they remember. They remember that the person up front put on a bad show or a less than quality show, and I just never want anybody who’s in front of me to take the hit. Right now I perform in Arizona four times a week with a lady named Khani Cole.
Jazz Monthly: I know her well.
MB: Excellent. You gave her her first interview is the word that I got.
Jazz Monthly: In fact, it was my first interview too. (Both laugh.)
MB: Well, the world is small. It’s really a small world.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man, in fact, that’s why I am doing this today. It was a very chance thing and it turned out well according to the audience and the masses out there, so I just, in simple terms, kept doing it. (Laughs.)
MB: I hear you. Well, on that particular show, with Khani, I’ve learned—well, I shouldn’t say that I’ve learned it, I’ve had it confirmed—that the love of the public is not a given. You can’t take it for granted.
Jazz Monthly: Right.
MB: Just because you get in front of people and perform or do what you do doesn’t mean that people are gonna like it. When I work with Khani, it confirms that people, when they like what you do, are loyal and will come and support you every week. People here come to see Khani perform and every week she’s just giving it to ‘em. Giving everything that she’s got to these people. If I’m on the gig with her, then I’ve got to be bringing heat in the same way. I’ve got to give them my best every time, without fail. I’ve seen bigger names do far worse.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, man. I love that approach. Now, here once again, you have appeared as a sideman, as a session guy, with an A-List of artists. Just to name a few, Wayman Tisdale, Dave Koz, Eric Darius, Bob Baldwin, Steve Oliver, I believe Al Jarreau.
MB: George Benson and Al Jarreau’s record that won the Grammy.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and right now we’re not talking about just the past because there are many for the past four or five years and beyond.
MB: Oh yeah. I’m having a good little run.
Jazz Monthly: But I’m talking about right now, today, as we speak, there are ten singles out there that are just blowing up the charts.
MB: Yeah, how ‘bout that? Is that a fluke or what? (Laughs.)
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, with Mel Brown doing his thing. Wayman Tisdale’s Rebound debuted at No. 1 on Billboard.
MB: It sure did.
Jazz Monthly: “Throwin’ Down” in the Top 10, the single.
Jazz Monthly: And this is Mel Brown doing his thing on Dave Koz, “Life in the Fast Lane,” one of the most added singles in the past few weeks.
Jazz Monthly: Eric Darius’ new record “Goin’ All Out.”
MB: Looks like his single’s gonna crack the Top 10.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly.
MB: Yeah. I’m happy for Eric. He really deserves it. He’s another cat that just gives it all he’s got every time.
Jazz Monthly: And I just did an interview with Bob Baldwin a few weeks ago and that great single from New Urban Jazz, “Third Wind.”
MB: Oh yeah. Bob is a mainstay in the genre. A real journeyman.
Jazz Monthly: And here it is blowing up the charts, Michael Manson’s Up Front CD. Steve Oliver, you know about the great project that he just released here this summer (One Night Live).
MB: Uh-huh. Michael’s a great bassist, and also an outstanding sideman. Respect to him. I think Steve is the most positive cat I know – and a one man show if he needs to be!
Jazz Monthly: And that great song “On the Upside.”
MB: Oh yeah.
Jazz Monthly: And this great new sensation, Jay Soto, Stay Awhile.
MB: An Arizona native, Jay Soto. Really solid player. Very ambitious.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, you know? And a great guy too.
MB: Oh yeah.
Jazz Monthly: And then the work you’ve done with Darren Rahn. I could go on here, but you mentioned the word “fluke.” I don’t think so, Mel. (Both laugh.)
MB: Well, I appreciate that. I gotta give credit where credit is due. First and foremost, a lot of those projects—Wayman, Dave Koz, Tim Bowman, Eric Darius, Bob Baldwin, Jay Soto, and Darren—those are all related. Darren Rahn is a very, very hot producer right now and it just happens that he’s been one of my closest friends for close to 15 years now. Way back when, Darren and I agreed to stick together in this business to really see what we could accomplish together – so I’ve been there for him, he’s been there for me. Together we’ve worked on all of these projects.
That’s Darren’s production and I definitely have to give credit where credit is due. He lets me play the way I wanna play, he doesn’t stop me from doing my thing. You should see some of the e-mails that he sends me. “Just do your thing,” are his instructions! He’ll leave me a message about cutting something and say that he needs to rap about it. I’ll be thinking that it’s gonna be some heavy conversation because he’s like “Yeah, I need to talk to you about this tune” and then when I get on the phone with him, he’s like “Yeah, so –uh- just do your thing.” And it really has worked. It’s worked for me and I’m very fortunate that it’s worked for him.
I’ve also gotta give some more credit where credit is due. There is another producer that is enormously talented. In fact, Darren and this guy are the two producers that I work with the most. There are several others, obviously, but the other guy is Michael Broening, who is here in Arizona. I met Michael when I moved to town from LA. The first record that we worked on was a Marion Meadows record called Players Club. A couple of tunes did really well on that record, one called “Sweet Grapes” and another one called “Suede”. Later we did Marion’s “Dressed To Chill” project. We also did Steve Oliver’s “Radiant” record together, and then we did two tracks on George Benson and Al Jarreau’s project.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, Givin’ It Up.
MB: And they’re actually starting a new Marion Meadows record right now. We just did Althea Rene’s record “No Restrictions”, a great new kid called Dominic Amato and the new Tim Bowman project. There are plenty of projects that Mikey B. and I have done and I just gotta give credit where credit is due. Michael lets me play and gets me up in the mix where I can be heard – so does Darren. Fortunately for all of us, they both do it in a way that serves the music. I’m glad that it’s worked for them and for me. I gotta give a shout out and tip my hat to Mikey B. and to D-Rahn for letting me play because they both had a big hand in helping me get heard on some recordings.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, well, I think that’s very cool to recognize them and you didn’t sugarcoat anything. These cats, like you said, they are at the top of what they do. I have always been impressed with Michael Broening. In fact, he came highly recommended for Althea Rene’s record.
MB: Oh yeah.
Jazz Monthly: And I’ve listened to his work for a number of years and have always just admired his talent.
Jazz Monthly: And Darren, I just really started to really pay attention the past four or five years and, man, he’s a fantastic producer.
MB: Well, you know, it’s funny. That’s really when we started hitting hard. The first project Darren and I did, was Darren’s record called Once in a Lifetime. It’s out now, so check out my boy! Anyway, that record was when I really started saying “You know, Darren, let’s try to get you signed on as an artist to one of these labels. I mean, we have the goods here. Let’s see what we can do.” Darren really wanted to see what he could do as an artist too so we did the record and he started shopping it around. Dave Koz and those guys over at Rendezvous were interested in Darren, but I don’t think that they were quite ready to do any signing at the time. On a visit to L.A., Darren was hanging with Koz, who just sort of mentioned to Darren that he wanted to do a single on Wayman Tisdale’s record. Wayman was just about to go to Rendezvous and he had his record called Hang Time finished already. It was done but they wanted to do another single. I don’t think that Dave Koz knew the tune “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead but he’d been introduced to it and thought it’d be great for Tis.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man.
MB: You know that’s the song from back in the day, man.
Jazz Monthly: Woo!
MB: You gotta know this!
Jazz Monthly: Oh Yeah.
MB: Well, Darren being the go getter that he is, he’s a real gadgety cat. I mean, he’s real gadgety! He’s worse than me with technology and I’m a full blown nerd! Darren gets his laptop out in the back of the cab, downloads the tune, immediately starts doing a production! He calls me and says “Man, do you know this tune?” And I said “Yeah, I know it.” And he goes “I’m gonna show Dave Koz that I can produce this. Can we make it happen?” And so we made it happen. Anyway he went back the next day because they were gonna just have lunch and he was gonna meet Wayman. Darren knew that Wayman and I were friends, and that Wayman liked my playing so I told him to tell Wayman that anything that he heard of mine that he liked to tell him that he did it. So Darren said “Man, you know, I’ve worked with Mel for a long time” and then he whips out this production. In the end he didn’t really need to drop my name because when they heard Darren’s production on that tune, they were blown away and Darren got the gig producing the tune! I don’t even think they were considering asking him to do it at first. At the time I had been really pushing trying to get my internet recording thing going and Darren and I had been exchanging files over the Internet for some time. So this Wayman single is how the whole internet recording thing happened for both of us.
Jazz Monthly: Wow, and it’s a dynamite tune.
MB: Well, it came out and went straight to No. 1. Darren & Wayman knocked it out of the park the first time, man.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed, man. We talked about that, Wayman and I, and once again you’re working with some great cats yourself and when you put that much talent in the pool, you know it’s gonna be some fantastic music.
MB: Yeah, we’ve been very, very fortunate in that way and, you know, what’s funny is that right after we did that, it turned into a flood. Nobody knows what makes a hit, Smitty, so when you get one, you’re glad and you’re grateful that it happened and you just try to keep doing what you’re doing. You ride that train as long as it’ll roll for you and knock on as many doors as you can while it’s hot.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and just keep putting your heart into it, you know?
MB: For sure.
Jazz Monthly: Tell me about the feeling of winning a Grammy.
Jazz Monthly: The reason why I’m asking you this is because before this record—and I’m speaking of George Benson and Al Jarreau doing the duet thing on Givin’ It Up.
Jazz Monthly: I talked to both of them it.
Jazz Monthly: And they both just showered praises on you. I didn’t have to bring up your name. They did it.
MB: Oh, wow. How cool is that? Please thank them for me.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and they were just talking about how you threw down on the record and how fortunate they were to have you perform on this record.
MB: Well, that’s an amazing compliment because you know Stanley Clarke and Abraham Laboriel and Marcus Miller are also dropping bass on that record, so like I was just gonna go ahead and take a beating for the team. (Both laugh.)
Jazz Monthly: No, man, you picked up a Grammy with the team.
MB: Yeah man. Well, I was very fortunate and when I was touring, there were a lotta times that I either worked on some music that might be played during a commercial at the Grammys—never anything that won or anything like that, just like bumper music. Or I played on commercials that were played during the Grammys and stuff like that. While I was touring, I was with a Latin singer called Marc Anthony. When Marc got nominated for a Grammy we got to perform on the show. It was the same night of the infamous JLo green dress affair.
So I was there and got to see what it was like. At that time I had never really thought about winning one because all I wanted to do was tour and stuff, but it was then that I made up my mind that, wow, it would be really nice to win one of these, you know? I’m not a lead artist so I knew that that was not a possibility, so I just thought it would be nice to participate in one song that actually won and get the statue and the whole thing. And believe it or not, I get this call from Michael Broening. Well, hold on! You know what? I need to set this up. I’m playing at my gig in town with Khani and the gig is good and in walks George Benson. He’s so cool that it makes you nervous because he’s a superstar and that’s one element about him that’s definitely to be reckoned with, but this guy is a real player too.
So while he’s being a superstar and you’re thinking, oh, “Gimme the Night,” oh yeah, “Masquerade’” and all that, it’s like, okay, that’s great, but this guy can really play too, so it’s scary on two different fronts. But he was really cool! He made me nervous, and I didn’t think I played well, but he was still very complimentary. We met and he says to me, he says “Look, I’m gonna do this record with Al Jarreau and I want you to play.” (Both laugh.) Now, Smitty, you know what I’m talking about, man. I’m like “All right, man, okay. You’re George Benson, you’re coming in here, you get to be big man on campus when you come up in the club. I get it. I saw him two or three times, and after maybe four or five months had gone by, I hadn’t heard anything. Then one weekend and he comes in to the club again and he mentioned Marion Meadows tune called “Sweet Grapes”. He said “Is that you playing?” And I said “Yes, it is.” He said “I knew that I was right. When I came here the last time, I came here to make sure that that was you.”
He says “I meant what I said. This thing is gonna happen with Al Jarreau and I really want you to be a part of it” and so I said “Okay.” Now, this time I believed him a little bit more, but it was still like “Oh, no, I know that I’m not gonna get on a George Benson and Al Jarreau record that easy!” I mean, the sidemen that are gonna be on that record are gonna be ridiculous. At first, George wanted me to go to L.A. I said to him, “Well, I’m pretty militant about not going on the road. I don’t travel because I want to be home with my son. I take him to school every morning, I’m home with him after school, and if doing this means that I gotta leave town, I can’t do it because I promised my son that I wouldn’t.” And George blows me away because he respected it. He says “Okay, well, however we’re gonna work it out, we’ll work it out.” Then a few weeks later my Mikey B. called and said “Man, John Burke hired me to produce this tune for George Benson and Al Jarreau, and George wants you to play.” I couldn’t even believe it. Well, Mikey B. ended up doing Mornin’ and another tune on that record, a cover of a John Legend tune called “Ordinary People,” and sure enough, Michael called me a few months after the project had come out, the album was No. 1, and the first single was Mornin’ and it was No. 1 too! Another little great side story about that is that I’m pretty sure that Abraham Laboriel was the original bass player on the original “Mornin’,” Al Jarreau did back in the day.
Jazz Monthly: I didn’t know that.
MB: So he’s on the record and that was just cool. There were all kinds of benefits on this record, and then later I get this call. Michael says “Are you sitting down?” I said “Yeah, what? What’s going on?” And he says “No, you gotta sit down, Mel.” (Both laugh.) And so I sat down. And he says “We’re nominated for a Grammy.” And I said “What?!” I can’t even believe it. A few weeks later I sat in a chair watching the Grammy Awards Show on TV with my son on my lap. It came across the screen that we had won! It’s an amazing feeling to win it, but what was the most amazing and when I was cutting that track, my son was sitting on my shoulders messing with me and all kinds of stuff. It was chaos here in my studio. The best thing was that at that moment in my life I was with the person that mattered to me the most, doing what I really should be doing with most of my time, and that’s kickin’ it with my little boy! So that made it really cool. Later I found out that the sidemen don’t get the statue, only the artists do. Sidemen get a certificate. But hey, I’ll take it any way I can get it. It still opens doors for me.
Jazz Monthly: But the other cool thing is you had been to the Grammys before.
Jazz Monthly: And so you knew what that feeling was like being there.
Jazz Monthly: And receiving a Grammy.
MB: It’s the bomb man.
Jazz Monthly: And so you still had that full import to a degree by having been there before and yet you were at home with your family, which is a cool thing.
MB: Yeah, it really was, and as a sideman, I’m proud of this accomplishment and I’ll try to use it to my advantage. Membership has it’s privileges. Not everybody can really go around and say that they played on a Grammy winning track. But again, as you know, there’s nothing scientific about it. The fact that it won doesn’t mean that particular music is any better or that I’m any better as a player. It just means that it spoke to someone at the right place and at the right time, and that award came through.
Jazz Monthly: Right, you were recognized for that accomplishment.
MB: Absolutely, and I’m happy to take that out in the world and try to do with it what I can as a sideman. See if it’ll open some doors and get me on some more records and help me keep it moving.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed, my brotha. (Both laugh.) Well, speaking of that, because it’s an excellent segue.
MB: All right.
Jazz Monthly: One of the things that in spite of everything you’ve accomplished, which has just been fantastic—you’ve had a stellar career, man, I mean, it’s one to dream of—one of the things that I am equally excited about is the level to which you have taken your appreciation and your knowledge and talent of this business.
MB: Ah, thank you.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, and I’m speaking of something that you talked to me about sometime back about doing a book that really talks about the business and how to get started in the business and how to not only get started, but how to remain in the business, how to keep yourself ready for those opportunities, all of those things. You have produced this great book. It’s called From Zero to Sideman in Five Steps.
Jazz Monthly: And I want to thank you once again for sending me the book.
MB: Ah, you’re welcome. (Both laugh.) Thank you for taking the time to check me out.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. I read the book, couldn’t put it down, and so many times as I’m reading, I’m saying to myself, you know, I had this thought but I didn’t take it to the level that you took it to in this book.
MB: Cool Smitty!
Jazz Monthly: This is a fantastic tool for aspiring artists that are trying to take those steps to get their music out there, to get it in front of people, to be noticed, to get their music into the right hands, and it’s a start to finish thing. I mean, this is like going from the garage to Madison Square Garden, which is the eventuality, and I’m not kidding you and I said this to Steve Oliver today. I said “You know, Steve, when I read the book, it was like Mel Brown having a conversation with me, helping me to get out there.”
MB: I appreciate that a lot man. That’s the best compliment you could give me. It’s really meant to be a straightforward, simple, pragmatic methodology from the time that you decide to be a musician in the music business to how to get it going, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Exactly.
MB: From start to finish, from zero to sideman. The thing that I checked out while I was trying to get my musical career going, Smitty, was that there wasn’t any guidance on how to go about it. There was really no book that I could go to…. musicians that you go to can sometimes be unwilling to share how they got into things because they don’t really want new competition, or don’t want to give you something they had to earn the hard way.
Jazz Monthly: Right.
MB: And those that are willing to share, it’s usually based on music, you know, learn how to play this scale or learn how to play that pattern. I didn’t really need music lessons. What I really needed were some basic job hunting skills in the music business. How could I take this musical ability that I had and actually transform myself into a commodity in the music business as a sideman? What I also noticed was that a lot of really great artists started as sidemen, so what they learned as sidemen really gave them a boost in being an artist. So throughout my sideman career, I’ve just sort of been making notes and keeping track. I had a very detailed plan about how I was gonna go about getting my own sideman career started. I didn’t want anybody to have to just kind of feel their way around in the dark trying break in to the industry anymore. I put the book out and you can start there. If you want to make it, buy the book.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and I must say, after reading this book, if I was an aspiring artist or if I was just playing in a garage band, I could get out there and make it. This book is so inspiring in that you use real world language. This is not polished up words that a person wouldn’t understand. It’s not terminology that a person wouldn’t understand. This is like Mel Brown sitting down after a gig and being real with someone that wanted to get started in the business.
MB: Well, that’s what inspired the book. I am very fortunate in that when people come to the performances where I’m playing they’re interested in speaking with me or trying to see if they can further their career through information that I might provide them. But as far as hanging out goes, I have a pretty hectic schedule. I don’t hang out a lot, I don’t really have a lot of time to just go hang out socially or anything like that. I’m a workaholic. (Both laugh.)
Jazz Monthly: I know what you mean.
MB: Yeah. I’m always willing to share, but I don’t always have time, so it rarely happens, and with the book, I thought, okay, well, these are the things that people want to know. They want to know how did you get into the business, how did you get started, who did you talk to, how did your first big break come, what did you do? All of the things they would ask me if they took me to lunch I put in a book. Now I say “Well, look, don’t spend your money taking me to lunch. Just get the book and I’m pretty sure all your questions will be answered in here.”
Jazz Monthly: I’m just going to give the audience just a sampling of some of the subtitles. For example, in the table of contents, first thing, what is a sideman? The work of a sideman? And I love the subject about what equipment you should have. What equipment will work for you?
Jazz Monthly: And you are very open in telling everyone what you use. This is not about fancy bells and whistles. It’s about what works, what will get your sound out there, what you can use that’s comfortable for you to do what your style and musicianship is all about.
Jazz Monthly: You explain what an EPK is. Some people, if you probably tell them, well, you might want to think about an EPK. The next question would be what is that?
MB: Sure. The Electronic Press Kit.
Jazz Monthly: You explained it. I mean, you didn’t use any terms that you didn’t explain, which I think is really cool, and you went so much further about behaviors in the band, how to conduct yourself, how to deal with other members of the band. Let’s say you’re the new kid on the block coming into the band.
Jazz Monthly: How do you work with that whole thing of group dynamics, working together, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Those are the things and there’s so much more here—I think there are things here—there is something for everyone in this book. Even if you’re an established artist, I really think that there are some things you can go back and look at and say, hey, you know? Hmm…
MB: Oh, I appreciate that very much. One of the main things that I hope the book can communicate—and it seems like it’s doing it, from the feedback that I’m getting via e-mail and some people in town coming to find me— is that you can actually do this in a simple practical manner. They’re like “Wow, where was that book when I was getting started?” I wanted to take a complicated process like career choice and simplify it. I break it down into a process which is, defining what that job is, choosing to accept the lifestyle that goes along with the job, equipping yourself to do the job, educating yourself about it, creating a demo by using technology to show the world that you know what you’re doing, and then take that out and give it to everyone willing to watch. That’s what the book does.
I was the first musician in the world to individually market himself with a multimedia CD ROM. When I moved to Los Angeles, I wanted to be able to showcase myself and not wait for the word to get around about me. I was moving to a new city and no one really knew me and believe me, nobody wants to hire a stranger. So I used this Enhanced CD ROM demo, that I called a Profile. An Enhanced CD will play in your car or home stereo like a regular CD, but if you put it in the computer, it’ll show videos and you can have your own word of mouth on it and all kinds of stuff so people can make an educated decision about whether they want to use you right then. And it worked. It worked like a charm.
Within a month I’d gotten a job playing bass with Gladys Knight. I’d learned that I wanted to be a sideman. So what I saw was that by making a plan, by being specific, by looking at what I wanted to do in the music business, by defining what that was, looking at and accepting all aspects of what living that life and doing that job entails, I’d take the gig with my eyes open, so to speak, and just to be very organized in my approach with it, and it paid off for me. I wanted to put all of that information in one place where someone could read it in very simple language and succeed if they have the willingness to do the work.
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Jazz Monthly: Exactly. Well, I must tell you that I have a special appreciation for the book for more than one reason, but one in particular is that I talk to musicians all the time that are really trying to get out there and we know how tough this business is.
MB: Oh yeah.
Jazz Monthly: And they are so sincere in looking for creative ways to get out there, to get their music into the hands of people that they want to hear it, and when I read this, I said “This is what I need,” and I must tell you that I will definitely use this book when talking to other people about how to get out there.
MB: Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate that, Smitty.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely.
MB: The book represents my first genuine effort to teach. The only thing that I feel more passionate about than music is teaching and sharing, and this book really does represent my first effort to legitimately teach. I hope that someone could get the book and come away with more of their questions answered as opposed to coming away with more questions. And the book is not meant to be a book that you read and then toss aside. It’s definitely meant to be one that you can refer back to and check on things that you may be going through in your quest to get started being a professional player. It’s meant to be a reference of sorts and hopefully people will view it that way. I’m hoping to get it into some colleges and get it into some real music educators’ hands. This is the stuff they don’t teach you in school. The word on the street is that when you graduate from music school, you may be able to play but you really have no clue how to get a gig. Sadly, by and large that’s true.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and this book talks about how to get a gig. You describe what a demo is and whether to use a PC or Mac.
MB: Yes. I highly recommend Macs. A Mac is the machine that you can buy that really can do everything, and unfortunately a few people have asked “Well, what did Apple pay you to say that?” They didn’t pay me anything. I had to figure out a way back in ’95 to try to edit video on a laptop, and back then you couldn’t edit video on a laptop. It wasn’t supported at that time. I found a way on my Mac. This was really important because if you really are trying to learn how to do something on the computer and you’re not really computer savvy, the learning curve is significantly less on a Mac. All the programs are integrated and work well together. On a PC you’ll have to shop around and finding a set of programs that work well together can be hit or miss. It’s a big task when you take on self-promoting and getting your digital life together as a musician and such. These are huge tasks and one thing that can be a big discouragement is getting on the computer and not know why it’s doing something after you pushed the button. (Both laugh.) It can derail your effort fast, so I definitely recommend Macs because you can get it done on a Mac that day.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man. Now, the book. How can people get it?
MB: People can get it at my Web site, www.fromzerotosideman.com. I send those books out directly. Those orders come directly to me. But they can get it at any major retailer. If you walk into any Barnes & Noble or any Borders and ask them if they have it, some of them may have it in stock but they’ll order it for you, too. And you can obviously get it at every major online bookseller as well: Target.com, Amazon.com. Pretty much everybody has it.
Jazz Monthly: Nice.
MB: So the ones that come directly to me, I always put my demo in there as well.
Jazz Monthly: Oh, how cool.
MB: So that people can see it. It’s not included in the price or anything like that. I just give them the demo so that they don’t have to e-mail me for it later. In the book I say “If you want to see what my demo looks like, e-mail me and I’ll send it to you.” I just look at it as part of my own self-promotion and publicity, so when someone orders a book directly from me, I slip my demo in there and a business card and off the book goes.
Jazz Monthly: Speaking of your demo, you just finished doing a feature in Bass Player Magazine which will come out in their September 08 issue, where you and your demo was well documented. I love that magazine.
MB: Yes they‘re actually just reviewing the book, a feature will come later. As I mentioned earlier in our conversation, I was the first musician in the world to use a multimedia CD ROM to market myself. I used it when I moved to L.A. I wanted to showcase myself in a certain way using video because I’d done some television stuff and using audio because I’d played on some records. I was on a Chuck Loeb record that was actually No. 1 called The Music Inside, and so I wanted to be able to show the best that I could do in one pop. My demo worked so well that it got covered in Bass Player Magazine. I think the cover of the magazine said The Future of Bass. So in my own book there’s a chapter called Make a Demo. I feel like I made a demo that actually worked like a charm, so why not share that information and contribute to the future of our craft? Now anybody could make a demo like this. You could make it using any CD that you buy at Circuit City or Radio Shack or Best Buy and you can take advantage of this technology. Why not share that with people? Let them know that it’s out there, give them an easy way to learn how to do it and give them a goal to use it so it has value to them.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, that’s very cool, man. Wow. Well, I tell ya, speaking of Bass Player Magazine, I have always admired the things that they do with that magazine. They are very cutting edge in the features that they have in that magazine, and they know about all the wonderful stuff coming out, the stuff that is out there, and I really appreciate that magazine a whole lot.
MB: They do a lot for the bass playing community in terms of staying up with popular trends. A lot of people say pop music these days, Smitty, and there’s immediately a negative connotation, like “Oh, that stuff.” Real serious musicians are like “Oh, God, turn that off.” But these people are not doing anything different than what we did when we were young. And they’re carrying the torch now. Bass Player Magazine has done a great job of keeping legitimate musicians in the spotlight and paying homage to our craft as bassists but also keeping the pulse of the street and what’s happening out there. That’s not an easy thing to do these days. Kudos to them for doing a great job at that.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. I love that magazine. And I think you hit it right on the head. They are right out there with what’s happening now and what more does a musician want to know about more than what’s happening right now and what’s on the scene?
MB: Well, sure. I have a funny story, Smitty. Well, it’s funny to me. Michael Broening and I had gotten together one day and we were having wine. We laughed at the fact that on that George Benson & Al Jarreau record that our names weren’t in any of the advertisements. We saw only the biggest names, but the song that we worked on won. It’s a funny story because it’s true. Tying that in with Bass Player Magazine, they will put that guy in there that actually does a whole lot of stuff and you’d never know or hear of the guy from the record companies advertising or the mainstream media. I’ve always kept a low profile on purpose. I call it an industry profile. People in the industry know who I am, but I’m not really so much into hyping myself to the public you know? Bass Player really does have their finger on who’s around, and they know who’s doing it in the trenches. The writer that wrote the review for my book actually wrote the article about my demo, I think, wow, that must have been ten years ago, Smitty. He knew everything that I’ve been doing lately. So they definitely follow up and keep in touch and they keep their finger on the pulse of what’s going on.
Jazz Monthly: Right, and I think that’s why they’re so popular because they don’t let up. I mean, they really put out there what’s happening and they are the real deal. I mean, they put the real out there for everybody to see.
MB: For sure.
Jazz Monthly: Very cool, man, very cool. Well, Mel, I must stay on top of all the fantastic things you’ve done and still doing.
MB: (Both laugh.) It looks like it’s going really good, plenty of projects coming in right now.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly. We’ve had a great time just kind of getting together here to talk.
MB: Oh yeah.
Jazz Monthly: But that’s a cool thing. But in spite of all of those things, this book, I think, is just a wonderful, wonderful thing that you have come up with and created, and I think the beautiful thing, too, is you did this for the right reasons and that’s why I think, too, it will be a hit with so many people across the country and perhaps around the world.
MB: I hope so and that will be in no small part because of you helping me get the word out about the book, Smitty. I can’t even thank you enough. It’s one thing to follow Smooth Jazz and to follow the music but you actually contribute something to help it grow, which is important because all of us have seen our business and our industry shrink a little bit.
Jazz Monthly: True, thank you.
MB: And I think that all of us as musicians, artists and people in and around the industry, I think that we all need to take a minute and pay attention to our craft, to instill the right knowledge in people that want to become a part of our craft, and give them some real legitimate tools to go about it the right way.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed.
MB: A lot of kids are coming up now that can’t go to music school because music is not offered in their elementary schools and by the time they’re adults, it’s past that stage where they would be interested in starting something like that. So our business, our craft, and music in general is suffering because of it to a degree. But if all of us can sort of take a second and try to impart some genuinely well-placed knowledge in the right places, I think that we can still see our industry and our craft prosper because of it, and hopefully this book will do that.
Jazz Monthly: Well, I really think so and I think it’s great for you to say that. Those were great words. And I think this book represents knowledge, like you mentioned, and education. It represents growth in the music world because here is where we start those new seedlings of artists that will continue to pass the torch and really perform well and recognize the responsibility of fantastic music.
MB: Sure. Well, I think that a lot of people—unfortunately, in our business I’ve met a few teachers in that way, Smitty, you know, they teach you just enough to where you need to come back for another lesson. (Both laugh.) Everybody’s trying to survive, but I’m looking at this like my survival is contingent on there being an industry to survive in.
Jazz Monthly: True that.
MB: And this book really does represent something that the interested musician, the ambitious musician can read and go straight out and do now. These are things that you can implement in your life, you know, right now to make progress. And you’ll see the results. I’m not a snake oil salesman – I’m giving you the real about making your career go. The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line and this book is a straight line guiding a player from zero to success as a sideman in the music business.
Jazz Monthly: Oh, man, that’s well put. I couldn’t have said it any better. That really sums it up right there because it’s so real world and it would be very difficult not to get it after reading this book.
MB: That’s a great compliment. I appreciate that.
Smitty: Yes indeed. Well, Mel, I thank you for spending some time with your boy to talk about this.
MB: It’s all good, man. Thank you.
Jazz Monthly: Representing the music industry with such a wonderful, wonderful tool, and I can say that you have truly given back with this fantastic book, and I thank you and applaud you for what you’re doing and wish you well in the coming years with this great book and with all the wonderful music that you’re associated with and all of the great artists out there along with you.
MB: Thank you so much, Smitty, and I appreciate you taking the time to check me out and to lend a helping hand.
Jazz Monthly: My pleasure, all right we’ve been talking with the prolific, the incredible and amazing bassist, Mel Brown. His great new book is called From Zero to Sideman in Five Steps. You can get it at any bookstore, major book outlet, and from his Web site www.fromzerotosideman.com. Mel, thanks again, my friend, and all the best to you.
MB: Thank you, Smitty. All the best to you too.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith