Jazz is the perfect combination of visceral and cerebral
If you ever get a chance to play with someone who’s better than you, do it!
Life is a very interesting thing, it sometimes can turn your world upside down in a matter of seconds. Just imagine, here you are, minding your own business, and then suddenly you’re on the other end of the world where everything is different, unusual and so not what you are used to. And then you realise that it is exactly what you’ve been missing. Basically, that’s a short version of Benny’s story, and Benny is a saxophonist who came to Latvia from Australia and stayed. Here he managed to find things he didn’t even know he was missing, rediscover his own instrument and just enjoy music. Stories like that make you reevaluate your hopes and dreams, then stop for a second, take a look at what you’ve done and see if you got any closer to what your soul was striving for, or maybe you lost your way… Hopefully, this story will help someone who needs it, and for those who are fine on their own it could be a pleasant pastime, but anyhow, let me introduce you to Benny Zeltkalis, our own Australian/Latvian saxophonist!
So, Benny, what are you doing in Latvia?
Well… It’s a bit complicated. It’s simple, but it’s complicated. The simplicity of it is that my wife is an Australian born Latvian. Her parents came to Australia as children, but were very strong in their Latvianness. We’ve traveled around different «Houses of Latvia”, it’s very interesting, and how they support the culture and all, but we’ve also realised that it’s not realistic, it’s like a time capsule. My brother married a Canadian Latvian and moved here 14 years ago or so. Me and my wife Māra and our two kids, we wanted to come here for a holiday, we went to visit my brother’s family, it was very nice. And I’ve been a school teacher in Australia for a long time, not just in the classroom, but as an admin as well, so I never played music in Australia. But my teaching job had this really cool thing where you could work for like 4 years and get 80% of your salary, and then you get a year off and some money. So it was obvious we’d take that year and come live in Latvia and get some Latvian experience. Our kids are in Latvian speaking schools, we really love it here. It’s not like I don’t like Australia, it’s just here I managed to get the important things, like music. In Australia after I graduated, I went through Australian National University School of Music, jazz course, a really nice music course, and then I ended up in teaching and then I turned around and realised that before I came here I never really played, for 15 years! I just slowly drifted towards teaching. I really liked it and I did well at it. And now it’s like coming back after taking 15 years off… And it’s no nice… It’s all the important things…
So you’ve been here for?…
Since July/August 2018.
And for how long are you planning to stay?
We don’t know.
So you don’t have to go back? No work obligations?
I technically still have a job in Australia, that’ll be waiting for me… but it’s not gonna wait for me forever, so we need to make a decision. And it’s hard. I miss Australia, my mom’s there, my dad passed away just before we came here, so my mom needs me. But the balance I’ve got here between working and playing and family, it’s really great. I really like it here, I do.
So what do you do here?
I’m teaching a little bit as a substitute teacher in the International school, and I’m playing. And my goodness, it’s been a busy couple of months. I’m playing with «The Coco’Nuts» and «Rahu The Fool”, it’s been fun! I’m also playing in the RTU Big band, and it’s good. I also sing! I sing in the Sydney Latviešu Vīru Koris (Latvian Male Choir), I’ve joined «Gaudeamus”, which is great! I’ve looked at my calendar previous December, and I had around 20 gigs and recordings, and I looked at January, and I have 25 more. I’ve never worked this much in my life, it’s fantastic! That’s the dream! I wouldn’t be doing all that in Australia.
Because I’ve been so into teaching, but also because the scene in Australia, in Sydney, it’s big, because you’ve got 5mil people in it, but it’s proportionally smaller, there’s not so many gigs per player. I don’t know why. It’s always been a very tight place, a lot of good players, but not as many venues putting up live music.
Jazz or just live music?
Live music in general. I always correct people when they start complaining that «the audience here is that» and «the venues here are this» (my teacher coming out), and I always say: actually, compared to where I come from, it’s better. It’s interesting, isn’t it? But everywhere is different. And it’s also great that you can go places. I talk to people, and they say: next week I’m playing in Berlin. And these other European musicians that just flow into town for a weekend, it’s really good. The grass is always greener elsewhere, I’m in the middle of seeing that, but there are some really good things here that make me happy. And the culture here is better supported by the audiences, and also, no one is going to believe that, by the government.
Serious. For instance, I’m playing with this RTU big band. So I asked the guys — are you all students here? Someone says — no, but I think that guy over there used to go here. So, is the conductor being paid? Yes. By whom? Turns out that the cultural department of the university decided they wanted to have a band, so they are funding it. Not a chance in Australia. Because it’s economic rationalism, like — how much money will this band return to the university? I’m not giving you any money if it’s not making me any money. That kind of attitude.
So the university thinks that the art should be able to support itself?
The politicians. Well, obviously there are government grants, but not at the same level as here.
So if the situation with music is so dire, so to speak, how did you decide to become a musician yourself?
Aahh… My dad was a musician, a good amateur musician, so I was always surrounded by music and I started doing music and piano lessons when I was 4 or 5 years old. And then when I got to about 5th grade, I thought I want to play a blowy instrument. So in the place where I grew up, there was a marching band, I think, so I went and sat in one of their rehearsals, just listening to them play and at the end I wanted «that one”, I thought the saxophone was the most interesting one, so I started playing alto sax. After several years I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I always kept playing, studying, but then the only music school I knew about (because I was a country kid, I didn’t really know much), was this one in Sydney, the Conservatory, Australia’s most well known music school. I auditioned for that, I picked up tenor sax when I was in grade 11, so I tried and I didn’t get in. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do — music or engineering, so when I didn’t get in, I thought — engineering it is. So I started doing that, spent 3 years in the university and then I came home and thought — geez, I hadn’t had that saxophone out of the box for a long time. I got it out and I couldn’t play it. That was an identity crisis. It was so much a part of what I am, a musician, a saxophone player, so I quit all my courses, found a saxophone teacher and started practicing again. I auditioned and got into the Canberra University, moved cities after my three and a half year civil engineering training (like bridges, roads, all that stuff) and went to study music. I look back at my student years and it’s absolutely fantastic, when else are you going to get the time when it’s all about the music? Concert, jam sessions, practices…
Why did you choose teaching?
When I went from engineering to music it scared my parents a little bit. So it was for them as well, don’t worry mum, dad, I’ll get something solid behind me. But I also enjoyed it and I’m really good at it too, but I ended up getting deeper and deeper, higher and higher, it became more consuming and then it’s like I said, you take your saxophone out of the box: «Oh, hello! How are you? Haven’t seen you for a while…»
So how does music education work in Australia?
I was pretty lucky, because to educate a musician in the university, it costs, it costs more than to educate a lawyer, because it requires a lot of one-on -one lessons. And what does a lawyer need? Books, lectures… The budget is being constantly cut and at one point they just snapped. There are no one on one lessons any more, just group lessons, but I think it’s going back to the previous model. And a lot of the universities are private now and cost more. Asking a musician to pay 15-20 thousand per year and at the end you are left with 50 thousand EUR debt…
Sounds close to impossible…
Yeah. So I’m glad I went through it when I did.
There were one-on-one lessons in saxophone, a harmony class, which was kinda Berklee style, arranging class, jazz history (god, I love jazz history…), a couple different ensembles, we had a big band and a vocal ensemble, a pretty good one, recording techniques, all the standard stuff. We did have to do a general classic Western music history course, but I think everything is worth learning. I don’t think that you could say about any course you’ve been studying that it’s a waste of your time. But I’ve got a complaint about the scene here. When I first came, I started playing a lot and then checking out the clubs here, I saw that there was a jam session on Wednesdays in Pashkevich club (which is closed now), then another on Thursdays in Trompete and it was great for me, because there was no one there, so I got to just stand up and pay with those sensational rhythm sections, you know? But there’s no one else but me to play with them. And then I was thinking — isn’t there a music school in this town? There is, but where are the students? What are they doing? I don’t know. I’ve asked a few people and no one could tell me why they weren’t there. If they’re shy, then it’s a problem, because whenever you play with someone that is better than you, you learn something. It’s the best advice the director of my school in Australia gave me: «If you ever get a chance to play with someone, that’s better than you, do it!» You might look stupid, but don’t be afraid of that, because you will learn something.
You said that there weren’t a lot of venues to host jazz music, where did you jam then?
I’m telling the difference between Sydney and Canberra (where I studied), and the second one is a strange place, it’s the capital and it did have a lot more gigs than Sydney, and it had a lot of things in the University town, the music school supported jam sessions and we went out a lot. Here… well, there should be more jam sessions, there should be more students attending them.
What’s the real importance of the jam session?
It’s always a little bit hard when you really just starting, but you’re throwing the unusual into the unknown, when you come up on the stage and start discussing what you are going to play versus what you know… It’s difficult, challenging, but rewarding, and when you’re on the stage with 3-4 people you maybe never met before and you’ve played something that turned out pretty nice, that’s amazing. My best experience in this was just at the point where I was stopping playing and starting teaching, which was the first time I came to Riga in 2004, and my wife, that was my girlfriend back then, she could stay only for a week, and I stayed longer. That was when I first met all these people — I went out and played with Deniss Pashkevich, Kaspars Kurdeko and Andris Grunte, that’s when I met all those guys. I was blown away, cause there was always cool stuff. And then I went back and I got stuck in the teaching… And now I’m back, hitting jam sessions, doing stuff again.
How does a child learn music? We have those specialised schools like RDKS, JMRMV, etc… What do you have in Australia?
There are several programs you can take. Also in school you can take music classes. In my primary school, I think I was the only person who played an instrument… Maybe some played piano at home, but I was absolutely the only one who played a wind instrument. They had to teach music in school, but it was always… I remember a librarian once came to the lesson, I was in 4th grade I think, and said she was our new music teacher and played us some recordings…
Yeah, it was… crazy. But that’s the country… I had to travel a bit, and this is an incredible thing my parents did for me: from grade 7 to 12, so all through middle school to highschool, I had a saxophone lesson every week, it was 60km away, so I had a 120km round-trip every Monday for a lesson. Because there were no teachers anywhere near me.
That must have been a very small town…
Not that small, but yeah… Anyway, he was the most wonderful teacher. The saxophone I now play in Rahu was picked up by my teacher in 1971 or 1972 in Paris, when my teacher was touring with a band.
If I asked you to compare the level of the students the moment they enroll into a higher education institution, would that be possible?
It’s hard, but I think that you guys may be in front of us, because of such schools as RDKS, JMRMV and etc. For us, there are basically no schools like that, but there is an expectation «Do it yourself”, the first semester at the university is really hard work, when you first discover jazz harmony and how it all works. But of course I’m talking about a long time ago, things have changed.
So when you enroll into a school in Australia, what do you need to know to become a jazz student?
It’s kind of weird. The admission is supposedly based on the magic number you get when you finish school, that’s how I enrolled into the engineering course. But the music is based entirely on auditions. There might have been a small written exam. But concerning the playing — you had to do a couple of standards, sight read some stuff…
But if you don’t have places to learn jazz at before university, how are you supposed to know this stuff?
That’s the weird thing. How do you know to apply for a jazz university, if you don’t know jazz? I don’t know. I liked it, so I played it.
So how did you discover jazz?
My first paid gig was when I was in grade 8. It was with a band, a nice little quintet where my dad played bass, my high school music teacher played trumpet, another music teacher was playing piano and who was the drummer?… There was a guitarist as well… So my high school music teacher, Glenn, was an old family friend, so we were basically playing a two horn front line for a long time. This guy has been such an influence, stylistically. Whatever head, we could play it together and it would always fit. So that quintet, they knew I played saxophone and they said — hey, come and play! That’s it.
So why jazz?
I really like lots of different music, but I think that it’s the perfect combination of visceral and cerebral. You have to think and you have to feel. You can’t be an academic, you can’t just run the changes and do the licks in the right order, you have to feel it. But you can’t just feel it, you have to have some knowledge upstairs as well. And I think that jazz is very academic, in fact, it’s the most academic music of all, you have to know everything to be at the level. I often find the incredibly high praise of composers to be a little bit, you know… That’s nice, composing is what we do all night, every night. On the spot, on the fly. I like learning, seeing how the new knowledge fits, and do you remember your harmony lessons, when you suddenly realised that this is that and here you have 12 more ways to play around that, learning all that and then forgetting it all when you get on stage, because you can’t be thinking about that while you play. It’s got to be internalised and then it comes out somehow.
How is it learning jazz and playing it in a country that is so far away from everyone?
Aaah, Australian jazz… It’s interesting. There is kind of an Australian vibe, there were a lot of good jazz guitarists in the beginning of the 2000s. It is remote. When I lived in Canberra, and it’s some 4 hours away from Sydney, and if some world famous musicians came to Australia, they played in Sydney, not Canberra, so we’d all drive there and then be home early in the morning. It’s what I really like here, everything is close.
As a teacher, what would you recommend to a beginner jazz musician? Where to start?
You’d say — listening, but you don’t have to listen to everything. Just find something that you like and learn it. There’s always something that grabs you, and it’s always some of the weird things. One of the first things I’ve ever transcribed, but I wasn’t thinking about jazz, it was a «Just the way you are» by Billy Joel, there’s a saxophone solo in the middle, and later I found out that that solo was by Phil Woods, who is a fantastic New York alto player, and then Billy Joes was a pop musician that hired him for a whole day session. Of course he walked in, played this solo on the first take and walked out, collected his pay.