SJN: Are you from a musical family? When were you first introduced to music as a child?
Bob: I’m not from a musical family in terms of them being professional musicians. I had a grandmother who played piano by ear. My brother and I both played music. Music was prevalent in our house, so I started playing at a very young age and being exposed to different kinds of music. My exposure to jazz began in high school when I started listening to recordings and going out and listening to live music in New York City.
SJN: What instrument did you first play?
Bob: I played a series of instruments. Saxophone came later. I played guitar, piano, clarinet, drums, and bass. Whatever I could get my hands on. What I have played professionally in the last thirty years is woodwind instruments…saxophones, clarinets, flutes, and EWI (Electronic Wood Instrument). I write a lot of music so it is good to know about all these instruments as a composer.
SJN: You write music as well, when did you discover an interest in writing?
Bob: Very early on! Writing tunes in conjunction to figuring out what was happening in other peoples tunes happened simultaneously when I was very, very young.
SJN: During your senior year of high school you attended the Interlochen Arts Academy. How did that come about and can you tell us about that experience?
Bob: That is one of the premier arts high schools in the world. My folks saw that I had a keen interest in music and were smart enough to send me there for a year. It was an amazing experience to rub shoulders with other dedicated artists, in all the arts. I became close friends with Peter Erskine. It really set the stage for my musical training that was to follow.
SJN: You seemed to have attended several colleges in search of a good music school. Were there no schools offering the type of music education you were looking for in the early 70’s?
Bob: No that wasn’t the case. I stayed at Hart College of Music not far from New York City. I was a clarinet major and I studied classical music. Jackie McLean was there so I had some exposure to jazz music. I went there for two and a half years and I transferred to the Manhattan School of Music so I could be in New York City and the jazz scene, which was a good move. When you go to school in a place like New York, it gives you an opportunity to bond with people and musicians.
SJN: When did you decide to concentrate on Jazz?
Bob: I don’t know that I ever did. I’ve always been interested in all kinds of music. I’ve played with the New York Philharmonic, I’ve played in Latin bands, I recorded with Donald Fagen, Queen, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin. I’ve done a lot of studio work for all kinds of genres of music. I just love music, in general. I just had a lot of experience playing in jazz groups. I played with Buddy Rich, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, and now the Yellowjackets. I like the interactive quality of the music.
SJN: You are into Big Band, how did you get involved with the Big Band sound?
Bob: I played in Big Bands as a youngster, as I said I played with Buddy Rich. I had an opportunity to put a band together in New York. I called a lot of well known people at that time, David Sanborn, Mike and Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine who I was playing with already. Those band attracted lots of attention and we found ourselves with opportunities. I followed them up and before I knew it, I had a working Big Band.
SJN: One of your first recurring gigs was with Buddy Rich’s band. He must have had a big impact on your playing and writing?
Bob: He did! You hear a lot of stories about him as a taskmaster and an evil guy, but he really pioneered the cause of the young musicians and that was definitely true in my situation. He was very encouraging to me as a player, but most importantly as a composer and arranger. I had an incredible opportunity to write my first Big Band arrangements for that band. What a great vehicle to learn how to write, that’s not something you can learn in school! On the job training of the highest order. Buddy was very, very encouraging and I will be forever grateful!
SJN: What other musicians have influenced you in your career?
Bob: The bands I have played with have been huge influences, Thad Jones was amazing. After Duke Ellington, Thad Jones was one of the important Big Band arrangers and composers. Mel Lewis, Tito Puente, Jaco Pastorius and playing with the Yellowjackets is a huge influence. We learn and progress in music through osmosis. It’s a very environmental kind of thing. We try to surround ourselves with forward thinking musicians. I am fortunate that I have had that kind of exposure for a long time.
SJN: You replaced Marc Russo as the saxophone player in the Yellowjackets in 1991. Marc had a very distinct alto sax sound. How did you find your own sound?
Bob: I already had my own sound and it was a question of integrating what I do into what the Yellowjackets were doing. I came into this band with my antenna up and tried to really learn their music and see what they were about and how I could fit in to a preexisting and extremely up and running scenario. The thing about the Yellowjackets is that it is a very interactive band. The members are extremely gracious and welcoming to new members. When a new member comes into this band, it is an open slate. We try to see what the interaction will result in and go with that. It’s not a question of molding a new member to do a certain thing. It’s more of a situation where the new member brings something different to the table, that changes the equation and takes on a new direction. That was the case when I joined the band and I have seen that happen one other time.
SJN: I understand when you write, you often start with a visual image and translate that into music. Could you please explain this process?
Bob: Visual in terms of thinking up a situation, a sensation, a feeling, or a place that has a certain look or feel to it. Any of these things can be an initial germ for an idea for a composition. That’s really the beginning. The hard work comes from taking this initial spark and working it into a cohesive piece of music.
SJN: When the Yellowjackets write a new song. What process is used?
Bob: We all write individually and bring our ideas to a rehearsal. At such time, everyone else puts their three cents into the pot and reinterprets the music. The thing about that process is that you really have to surrender your tune to the Yellowjackets, because its going to change, sometimes dramatically. They are free to interrupt the original idea the way they see fit. Sometimes, a few of us will write together and it becomes more of a collaboration.
SJN: You taught at the Manhattan School of Music and now at the University of Southern California. Why have you decided on teaching and what classes do you teach?
Bob: I taught at the Manhattan School of Music for 20 years and I am starting this fall at USC. I moved a week ago to be able to teach at USC. It is an opportunity to do something very different and challenging. I will be teaching composition, arranging, conducting a Big Band, musicianship in a class called Jazz Elements.
SJN: You have also written books on playing the saxophone. Can you tell us about your books?
Bob: I wrote a book called Playing the Saxophone that is kind of a technical book that talks about all of the particulars of playing the saxophone. I’ve also written four jazz etude books that are used by students who want to expand their vocabulary. There are written pieces where they learn the material. There’s a CD with myself playing the etude so that you can really get a sense of what it should sound like. Again, some of the detail of how one might perform one of these etudes. Once you get it down you play alone with the rhythm section on the CD. I’ve run into people all over the world who have worked out of these books and they seem to be very helpful.
SJN: As a music professor, what advise do you give to your students about choosing music as a career?
Bob: I generally am encouraging to anyone who considers music as a career. I feel that it can be a wonderful pastime. Everyone who has the interest should at least try if they are passionate about it.
SJN: Computers have changed the way musicians write and record music. Have they made a big change in how you write and record?
Bob: Yes, very much so. About four years ago I started using this software made by a company called Sibelius. It is a music printing software. It enables you to play back the notes that you have written on the computer page, which is a great tool in terms of checking that there are no mistakes. Once I started using this software, my output quadrupled. Plus it is convenient, it’s easy. You can write anywhere. On an airplane, waiting for a bus or train. I travel with a laptop, whereas before I had my little corner in my house and I would write at a piano. Now I write out of my head using this software.
SJN: The music industry is changing rapidly with the advent of the iPod. Do you think that the CD format will disappear?
Bob: I don’t know. I think ultimately it may, but at this time people still like to hold this little package in their hand that has some information on it. But my son hasn’t bought a CD in ages. Young people don't seem to have that need. So, I don’t know where it will go.
SJN: Yesterday, you played for the San Jose Jazz Festival. How was it, did you enjoy the experience?
Bob: It was great. That is a wonderful festival I always enjoy playing there. I played with my dear friend Pete Yellin who has relocated out to the Bay Area from New York.
SJN: How do you spend your downtime when you aren’t involved with music in some form or another?
Bob: I am so busy I don’t have enough downtime. I was thinking today that I needed some downtime, but there’s none in sight at this time. The Yellowjackets did a month in Europe in July, then I was home for a day and moved out here. I was in the new home for a day, then came up here to the Bay Area. We get back tomorrow (Tuesday) and play at Catalina’s (in LA) Wednesday through Sunday. I really have to prepare for the teaching that I’m going to do because USC starts up at the end of the month. I’m not going to get a break anytime soon.
What we like to do when I have some downtime, ski, downhill and cross-county. We like to go hiking. One year we went to the Galapagos Islands at Christmas, which was absolutely fantastic. We like to go to museums and movies. We like to cook nice food and go to nice restaurants. I like exercise, and biking.
SJN: Are you married, with children?
Bob: Yes, we have a 19 year old son who is going to the New School of Social Research in New York City. He likes to write and read. He was a creative writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy last year, so he is in the Liberal Arts program.
SJN: Anything exciting coming up?
Bob: I have a new Big Band CD that just came out called Swing Out on the MCG Jazz label. I’m writing a piece for wind ensamble and tenor saxophone that will premiered in the spring (of 2009) at the University of Kentucky at Lexington. I’m looking forward to teaching at USC and playing with the Yellowjackets, my big band and a little jazz quartet I have. Life is good!