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Pulling a little piece of yourself out

Aleksandra Line

“I wouldn’t wish being a musician to anyone, unless it’s the only thing you can do” — Comparing Latvia to US by Dr. Darren Pettit

A photo from the Saulkrasti Jazz festival's archive

Dr. Darren Pettit is the Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He received his bachelor of music degree in saxophone performance from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1995, completed a master of music degree in saxophone performance at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, received his D.M.A in Jazz Studies/Composition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied with Dr. Eric Richards. Dr. Pettit’s duties at UNO include directing the Jazz Combo I, coordinating both dual enrollment and music theory for the School of Music, teaching Music Fundamentals, Music Core Curriculum I & II, Jazz Arranging, Orchestration, Pedagogy of Music Theory, and Analysis for Performers.

In 2003 Dr. Pettit co-founded both the Omaha Jazz Workshop and the Metropolitan Area Youth Jazz Orchestra. Dr. Pettit has premiered original compositions at the Daidogei Festival in Shizouka, Japan, the Beijing Contemporary Music Academy, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association Regional Conference, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Mercer University in Georgia, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln & Omaha. He has toured extensively throughout the United States, and has performed with the Jim Widner Big Band, the Omaha big Band, the Las Vegas Lab Band with Mike Gurcuillo, the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra, the Omaha Symphony, the Omaha Community Playhouse, Randy Brecker, Diane Schuur, Debbie Boone, Delbert McClinton, the Temptations, David Foster, Michael Buble, Frankie Valli, and many others. Dr. Pettit is a D’Addario Artist/Clinician.

In February 2019 a bunch of the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music students lead by Indriķis Veitners have been visiting Omaha, US, returning with great stories about the culture and music exchange, learning and performing experience. In July the students of UNO together with Pete Madsen (interviewed for JAZZin.lv by Evilena Protektore) and Darren Pettit have, in turn, come to Latvia, to play at Saulkrasti Jazz festival, so I couldn’t miss the chance to talk to Darren about jazz performing, education, teaching, touring, competition, being a brand ambassador, and life.

What has brought you to jazz, Darren? How did this story begin?

Jazz… I’ve listened to jazz when I was a kid, so when I was 14-15 years old, I collected records of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, all recordings of those three. I felt those were my guys.

That’s huge for a kid!

Well, I didn’t know. But I’ve also listened to Led Zeppelin, Jimmie Hendrix, Talking Heads, you know. Listened to a lot of stuff. But there was something I really liked about jazz. I played saxophone in a band, so when I have developed my ear and my playing, I became more and more up to play this kind of music. One of the first records I had was Miles Davis’ “My Funny Valentine”, and there was something about it — it was so startlingly honest and beautiful that I couldn’t get anywhere else, and I just wanted to do that.

Why saxophone?

In the US, when you’re in elementary school, 5-6th grade, you’re starting to learn how to play an instrument. You can look at the instruments to decide which one you want to learn, and I just looked at the saxophone and thought this is the coolest one. That’s all — I was 10 or 11 and just thought it was cool. In the United States there are jazz bands, so you’re in the jazz band at school, or you can be in a choir, you can choose that.

Since the time you’ve chosen that and until this very moment, what are you most proud of?

If we’re speaking about life in general, not just the music, I’m most proud of my kids. I have 18 and a 20 year old kids. My older son is in his second year of getting a degree in mechanical engineering, and my younger son is just starting college to get a mechanical engineering degree. My retirement plan. (laughs) Both of them play saxophone, my younger son is stronger in it, more drawn to it, but not as a profession. It’s a hard thing to do, right? Being a musician is just not… I wouldn’t wish it to anyone unless it’s the only thing that you can do. If you can’t see yourself doing anything but being a musician, then be a musician. If you can see yourself doing something else — go do something else. Cause, you know, you can always be a musician and do something else.

Won’t it influence the quality of your play if you do music and do something else? Isn’t it inevitable?

Sure. If you want to live your life and have many things that give you comfort, then music might not be what you should do. But if you want to live a life where you have a lot of art and transcendent beauty, maybe you should be a musician. But there’s a way where you can get a little bit of both worlds — you can teach and perform and write and have a family. You can have a life. Still have a life and still have a high level of artistry and be able to get that level of honesty. I don’t know another word for it except beauty. Being a musician is always pulling a little piece of yourself out. You’re a poet, so you know. “Here’s a little piece of me, come look at it, and now I’m taking it back”.

Every single time. So speaking of this balance, you are both a teacher and a performer. How do you keep this balance?

A lot of the practice I do now is a lot of practice for short reading time. Another part of what I’m doing is teaching my classes, so I’m a coordinator for music theory for our school — have to make sure both my classes and all music theory classes are taught properly. On top of that I play with the Omaha Symphony and Omaha Playhouse and many different bands just as a hired guy, big band and all. Not only jazz — when I play with Omaha Symphony, it’s rock music a lot of time, pop concerts, and straight up jazz sometimes. Sometimes I play with a singer, and it’s hard bop and post bop jazz. Another time I play rhythm and blues, it depends. If it’s good, it can be any kind of music. If it’s not good, it can be any kind of music. Right now I am in the middle of a handful of writing projects. And lots of practice, of course.

Speaking of practice — one of the biggest debates here lately was agreeing or contradicting the statement that if you’re born American, you can do jazz, and if you’re not, it’s not in your ancestry, so you can’t do that as well. Do you believe in that?

To a degree. I don’t really believe in that, but there’s some truth in it, and it’s only about style. Style is something you can only capture through your ears. You can’t read a book about style. You listen to jazz a lot — then you start to understand what it’s supposed to sound like. Having grown up playing in big bands for years and years before you even get to the high school — then it’s kind of in your DNA, it’s always there, whereas in Latvia schools don’t have that. In that way, because it’s so deep in our culture and always there, yes, it’s more accessible early on, but at some point it doesn’t matter. It’s about what you get, then start working on it. You don’t really become a great jazz musician without working on it hard, and it can be a Latvian, a Japanese, a Chinese, an African, doesn’t matter. But the early-on experience of being exposed to jazz is in the US, so the level of high school performers will be much higher in the United States, than in most other parts of the world.

Right — in our country picking up an instrument and starting to play is either a decision of your parents or your own, but it’s a decision. Jazz bands is a choice, and jazz education came to the Academy of Music only 10 years ago.

I’d be interested to see what your jazz education looks like in 5 or 10 years. I think it can change. And it has already — 10 years ago it was far less jazz than now. The level of players has become way higher. And there’s a couple of schools who have jazz bands here.

Sophie Ford

Is it your first time in Latvia this year?

I was here about 10 years ago, at the Academy as well. We became introduced to the Academy through Siauliai in Lithuania, because it’s the sister city of Omaha. That’s how we became friends with people in Riga. Then we started coming over, then got the funding and did the exchange between the students of Riga and Omaha, thanks to various grants.

How could you define Latvian students in terms of jazz education, compared to the American ones?

The students themselves are all the same. They’re the same everywhere. I’ve been traveling to a lot of countries to teach, from Lithuania and Latvia to Japan and China, and the kids think about the same stuff and worry about the same stuff.

What was the most special thing during this trip to Latvia?

There’s a place that has nothing to do with music. We took a walk to the store that was about 2 miles away from the place we lived in Saulkrasti to get some water, cheese, chocolate, some stuff. As we were walking back, we decided to take the woods. And as we were walking through the woods, there was a plain forest, the beach, the sun was coming down, and it was magnificently beautiful. We just wanted to stop and absorb. That was the most special moments I had. Like — hey, this is life.

In between all your teaching travels, do you tour a lot?

I used to tour a lot, but I don’t anymore. Touring life is a drag. These tours are only for a couple of weeks now. I used to tour 220-250 days a year. My kids were younger. My wife was cool with it, I was making good money, and when I was home, I was there all the time. Still hard though. All you see are the hotels. A lot of people have this romantic idea what touring is, and it’s not. It’s work followed by boredom followed by work. If you want to make money, you have to be on tour for at least 6 weeks. And then home for 4. Maybe.

You’re also a D’Addario musician. Please explain to the beginner musicians, did you volunteer yourself to become one, or did they pick you?

I used reeds all my life. And when I switched to D’Addario, I noticed that some of the musicians I was playing with have become D’Addario artists, I just called them up and asked how do I become one as well? They told me what to do, I did this and became one. I had to send them recordings of myself performing and some other things as well.

Does it bring you more audience and exposure?

No. It’s just something I put on my resume. You know what it gets me? It gets me cheap reeds. I get 70% off. That’s the best part. What else they do is — we have a jazz camp in Nebraska in June and a festival there in February, so they send me boxes of reeds so I can hand them to students. They send me lots of stuff to check and talk about, so they’re very supportive. Sometimes I can ask for some tickets to some shows.

Speaking of the camp and the festival — is it difficult for you to manage and organize, being an active musician, composer and teacher?

I’m a little bit in organizing, but Pete Madsen does a lot of that. We’ve started a camp together years and years ago. I just show up and teach and play now, that’s it. In the beginning though I hired the musicians, I made sure that the brochures got out, I did all the mailing, I created the curriculum, and it’s a ton of work and you never get the money back, it’s something you do because you love doing it, but there’s no money.

You never get the nerves back as well. (Darren laughs here)
Do you, as a musician, feel the competition in America?

Yeah. There’s new better musicians coming up all the time. How serious is the competition depends on where you live. In New York city you don’t bother unless you are really, really great. You’re going to play the same B and C level gigs, no matter what. Los Angeles is the same way, I think, but places like Omaha can work. The competition isn’t stealing work that much. I grew up knowing a lot of people, they all know I play the saxophone so I might get a call, I have a lot of hooks in a lot of different organizations and they know how I play and what I play, they know I read and play lots of different styles, that’s probably the most important thing for musicians to understand. If you’re only playing one style of music, it isn’t going to work well. It’s a lot of work. You have to play, you have to sight read, you have to play different styles, and if something of it is missing, you might never get called again. People will be nice to you, you’ll just never get a call again.

Any advice to a European musician who wants to start over in America?

Practice. Practice. 24 hours a day. Do a lot of transcription work, listen to various styles, get that in your ear. And practice a lot.

And what’s your opinion on mixing tradition with modern stuff?

It doesn’t matter. If it’s good, it’s good. The beauty of jazz that draws me to it so much is the fact that jazz can just absorb everything around it. Anything can be in the jazz spectrum. It just has to be good. Duke Ellington once said there’s two kinds of music: there’s good music and there’s the other kind. If it’s good, go for it. I think that what’s important about it is — if it’s honest. Is it something you’re actually hearing or trying to impress somebody and look good. If you’re trying to look good, there’s no music, it’s bullshit. From a musician’s point of view it’s not about sounding good or looking good — it’s about playing as honest as possible. Which, by the way, will sound good. But if you’re trying too hard, it will sound like showing off. If you’re going to be a musician, just be you as much as you can. Practice a ton. And then don’t forget — practice a ton. That’s all you can do.