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Learning how to play jazz is a long and hard way

Evilena Protektore

To meet Jamey Aebersold, share a cup of tea with Vince Mendoza, chat with David Baker about Freddie Hubbard — all of that possible only in the States

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Continuing the topic about those «lost souls» who went away in search of knowledge and never came back… This time my conversation buddy was a mighty fine trumpetist Konstantin Jemeljanov. His name in Latvia is pretty well–known because he’s not a completely «lost soul», he does come to visit us from time to time, and not just with some simple family visits, no — he leads workshops and plays concerts, that’s why his every visit is spectacular. I had no doubt that his story would be fascinating, and it turned out I was right. Just imagine — sharing a cup of tea with someone who played with Freddie Hubbard? Or being closer than and ocean away from the one and only Jamey Aebersold? How amazing is that?

Well, I hope you’ll enjoy our chat just as I did!

Konstantin Jemeljanov!


Where did you come from?

In short — from Riga. Born and raised here, attended music school in Jurmala. Then I moved to Ventspils, spent three years there, after that I came back to Riga. I wasn’t accepted into the Academy of Music, so I had to find other options.

There was no jazz department yet at that time, right?

Yes, that’s right. It was just established in Riga Cathedral Choir School. It was, maybe, 2005. So I went there and spent 2 years learning, at the same time I worked in Liepaja Symphony Orchestra. After that I went to RPIVA (Riga Teacher Training and Educational Management Academy) and spent there a year and a half and then I took a vacation for half a year. Then I got a scholarship to Berkeley. Then I came back again to RPIVA, because finalising all the papers took approximately a year, so I studied in RPIVA for maybe a month and said — that’s it, I’m leaving. Moved to Boston, I received a scholarship for 2 semesters but it turned out that if you’re a good student, you can extend it. I didn’t know that, but I had an opportunity to stay there for the full term. There was also this option called «Test out», because of that I got rid of a lot of classes and graduated in two and a half years. I didn’t go home, I studied through the summer as well.

But it was too fast. If I stayed there for two more years, i’d have more contacts, better bands. Age–wise it was too fast for me. There were a lot of bands where I went for auditions, all young and inexperienced, a boy who doesn’t know anything, doesn’t understand a thing, and opposed to me there were such trumpetists as Billy Buss — my good friend, we studied together, Jeremy Sinclair. The three of us, we were the most sought after trumpetists there, but I have no idea how I got in that stream… They were there for two years before me, and then we graduated together. After that I took the Optional Practical Training in Los Angeles, spent a year there, realised I didn’t like it, because everything was based on big bands. But while there, I met a man named JB Dyas, head of Thelonious Monk Institute, studied with him, he invited me to go to Jamey Aebersold’s jazz camp.

Don’t tell me that you’ve met THE Jamey Aebersold!

I did! At the time it was the best cam there was, all the teachers were top notch! There were no minuses to that place, at all. I came there, went to the audition and was placed in the best combo — with David Baker. I played there for a week, after that he comes up to me and says: «I like the way you play! I want you to become my PA» And I’m like — no problem! Started doing all the paperworks and at the last moment I received a call from my schools administration with the news that I need to get my TOEFL certificate. I didn’t have one, but I said that I’d do the test tomorrow. Went to some place in the desert, 4 hours on the road, did the tests, but the results were due only in a months time, so I didn’t get the job because of that. My visa expired and I said I’d be back in December. I had to go back to Latvia and stay there for half a year. Then I returned to Indiana and started studying there. I received the highest scholarship there was, but it still didn’t cover everything. University of Indiana is considered to be very respectable, Randy and Michael Brecker studied there, other musicians as well. I spent there half a year and then told David — nothing’s happening! C’mon, teach me! But he was 85 already, old and tired… He had too much work to do, too many classes, and that’s when I said that I don’t like it, I don’t feel like it’s the right place for me.

At that time one of my classmates was a cool saxophonist Josh Johnson, he was doing a bachelor program, later he enrolled into Monk Institute. In short, all this «mafia», David knows everyone, a serious man. His approach to things was the right one, and he liked how I played, I still can’t really believe it. We became friends, conversed. Then, after a while (two years ago, actually), we met, but he was already so frail… His wife recognised me, otherwise no one would’ve let me approach him, but I got a chance to shake his hand, and after a while he passed. At least I got a chance to know the legend, was a guest at his place, shared tea with him, talked about music, he told me stories about Freddie Hubbard, said he used to call him and say: «Freddy, you know those high notes that don’t work? Don’t do them, man! You know, David?» And Freddie would answer: «That’s who I am, I play hard, man. That’s who I am, that’s it, buy!»

After that I made a call to JB Dyas, said I wanted to transfer to another place, and he said to come to the University of South Carolina, said to call Alan Pasqua, who then said — come on over. So I did, played a couple of tunes for him, and he said — Great! You’re admitted!

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So basically you had a private audition?

Yes, because usually if you want to apply for the Autumn semester, the auditions take place in March–April, but I came in August. I was accepted on my own. So, I enrolled, started playing in Bob Mintzer’s class, after a year I realised that it’s not going very well, so I switched to Arturo Sandoval, spent half a year with him and it also didn’t feel right, didn’t like it. Bob Mintzer is an interesting guy… I didn’t learn a lot from him, but at that time there was a big band in our school, I played there, and it was considered to be the best in the US, you could learn a lot there, the guys are amazing, how they play… Anyway, then Arturo left and I spent another half a year with another trumpetist, don’t remember his name… During my last year I took a composition class with Vince Mendoza, and also Ambrose Akinmusire came to school to work, I’ve spent a year with him. Those two guys gave me half of my knowledge. Their relationship with music and life is straight forward, without any bullshit, they speak their minds. In fact, I’m still in contact with them. Haven’t seen Ambrose in a while though. I’ve met up with Vince half a year ago, came to his place for a cup of tea.

Anyway, after that I got married. We did it in Europe, and because of that I had to wait for a year to get the Green Card, that year I stayed in Latvia. After that I went back to Los Angeles and lived there for 4 years. Now I moved to San Francisco. Because the city was too big, a lot of competition. But I got lucky, I played with two major big bands, one was lead by Clare Fischer and another by Bill Holman.

I played with many different big bands, but now I live in Sonoma, it’s 40 minutes away from San Francisco, I finally have time to write music, I have a new job. There’s this project, «Battle of the Big Bands» — two big bands share the stage, one plays Glenn Miller, the other Tommy Dorsey, two vocalists (a boy and a girl), each band takes turns, in the end the audience with their applause decides who won. Miller, of course, always saves «In The Mood» for the last, because of that Dorsey had only one win. The project is 4 years old already, each year the number of concerts grows. I’m a librarian there, I also do promotion for the show. Gotta do whatcha gotta do.

Why did you decide to leave Latvia in the first place?

At that time there was no one to teach the trumpet. I received a full scholarship, not the presidential one, where they fund absolutely everything — living expenses, transportation, food… but still. I was always interested in jazz and I didn’t want to miss that chance, that’s why I left. I wanted to come back, but when I came here and saw what’s going on, I figured that the situation is a bit dire. People didn’t want to learn anything. There was only one question in the air — how much did you pay? As if that’s the most important thing in life. We can get the same knowledge here for free, they said. That’s why I moved back to the US. And then I met a girl.

Why the States exactly?

Because that’s the homeland of jazz. Because that’s where you can learn properly how to play it. Not school–wise, but life–wise. For example, in those 4 years I spent playing in different big bands I’ve learned a lot of things. The attitude towards your work, towards the playing — the do’s and don’ts. It’s a hustle that goes on from dusk ‘till dawn, sometimes I had three rehearsals per day. I never said «no» to anyone.

There’s a story that once happened to me. I got a call from Lee Thornburg, he heard me playing at some point), and he said he needed a sub for the rehearsal. And in the States everything is serious — no one misses the rehearsal, not like here, where you find yourself missing three trombones, a drummer… There if you can’t make it, you find a sub. Anyway, I came, started playing, and there was this trumpeter John Thomas, son of Don Thomas), and he turns to me and says — Keep that time! I’m already… Then he turns to someone else and says — These kids nowadays, they don’t know how to play… So, anyway, I got a tongue lashing. And then after half a year, I receive a call from Lee, asking to sub again. I come to the rehearsal, play the first tune, the second, the third, then during a break John comes up to me and says — «Hey! What’s your name?» Me — «Konstantin». Then him again — «Nice playing! Are you new in town?» Me — «No, actually I’ve played with you half a year ago…» Then him again — «Really? I think I would have remembered you, you play good!» And that’s how it’s possible to train yourself in just a half a year, because you’re surrounded by it, you just suck it all in like a sponge.

And the USC is a good place because it had Mendoza and Ambrose. Those two are monsters! You come to Vince for a lesson and he says — compose something. Well, I did 4 pages of music, returned to him and he’s looking through the scores, saying: «Bullshit. Who writes like this? Oh! This idea is good, keep it! Boring. Heard that before. Boring. That’s it?» Yeah, man, I wrote every day! But he’s like: «It’s not enough, go home, write something more.» Then you come to the lesson and he starts again: «Not enough impact, too much impact, keep the time, don’t do this, do that» — everything straight to the line. Same with Ambrose, his approach to music, to jazz is — yes, we’re jazz musicians, we have to stand against! But! You have to know the tradition. He can play like Dizzie, but he won’t. And this attitude — you have to stop caring about what people think of you. Your solo is a reflection of your thoughts. If you’re standing on the stage thinking «I hope this guy likes my solo»… He used to repeat that to me every day for the whole year. On my first lesson I started playing something, but he stopped me and asked what I was thinking of at the moment. And I said, naturally, that of the form, the time, ideas… He said: «Hey, you can’t do two things at the same time. You either think or play the trumpet.» That means that while you improvise, you have to find that moment when you think of nothing, when you’re submerged into music completely, when you let it flow through and out of you. But to reach that state you have to study a lot and suffer a lot. Something like that.

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I had a conversation with Max Perepelica, he said that the best place to play jazz is New York. What are your relationships with that place?

I have none. We couldn’t decide where to move to, I wanted to go to NY, wife wanted to Nashville. But Los Angeles has a lot of stuff going on right now too, a lot of young people move there FROM New York, because that city is way too expensive. It’s the most expensive city in the US, that’s why people started moving out and to LA. I’m not there anymore though, but I don’t think that you have to be here or there exactly. The world is open, we have internet, information, all that.

Tell me as someone who can freshly observe things, do you think that the situation in Latvia is improving?

Yes, but slowly and painfully. Everything is happening with a huge struggle. People are not looking for joy in music, but for some problems. Instead of pointing out some good stuff, they complain — it’s bad here, bad there. We are distracting the people from music, instead of luring them into it.

What can be done about that?

Changing the attitude. You have to see the good things and bring those to attention.

If you came here to do a workshop, what would you teach us about?

I do workshops sometimes. Usually I teach the elementary stuff, because you lack the basics. The musicians here approach the improvisation from the wrong end — start with complicated things, then the students start to struggle, get scared and in the end they leave music, because it becomes too complicated, too hard for them. And if you start from another end, when you analyse the music and see that it’s quite simple… David Baker has a couple of books on playing jazz, it’s very well written. You can find information about how to view the solo, how to learn the feeling, it has everything. But for some reason nobody uses those books. I try to demonstrate that you can learn everything easily and more productively. The situation is way better now than it had been 8 years ago. Back then a student asked me — why do I need that? I said — to make it sound more interesting. And he said that he can do it without whatever I was trying to teach him. Now you don’t have that anymore, and it’s a good thing. Although in this trip someone wanted to give me a workshop about how it’s done in Latvia. Like — you in your States have a lot of competition, and we here have to bully everyone and then you’ll have it all. You can’t do that. In LA I’ve learned that when you join a band, you assume that every musician is doing their best, that every one of them wants to be there and that’s the way you have to treat a student. They say that it’s different in Latvia, but no, I see the students, the new generation, and I see that they are interested, motivated, find their way in life, write their own music, search for their unique style, a lot of people like that. And if we bully them from the start, nothing will improve, right?

How do you feel being a foreigner in the land of immigrants?

Very well in fact. Especially if you’re from Europe. You come to a black big band and they look at you as if you’re some jerk. And then you say you’re from Europe and they’re like — wow, cool, awesome!

Why is it like that?

Because I’m not local, they have no problems with me, I wasn’t the one to discriminate and torture them. It is what it is. Some even told me to exaggerate my accent, so that everyone would know right away that I’m not local.

Have you finally learned how to play jazz?

You have to learn it long and hard. Everybody does. Zoot Sims played «All The Things You Are» for his whole life and in the end said that he still didn’t know how to play it. The most important thing is to learn how to live with yourself, then everything becomes easier. When you know who you are, where you’re from and why.