It is Monday, June 8th 2009 and I am at home drinking a very good cup of coffee, while on the phone with Ezra Weiss. We have finally connected after playing an intense game of phone tag for a week or two. It feels amazing to finally have the opportunity to interview one of the true originals in jazz music and jazz education. One rarely gets the opportunity to talk with someone so passionate, yet so humble, about teaching young people and his deep appreciation for jazz music. Ezra Weiss is an original. His musical views of the world are definitely different from the rest of us, and that is apparent in his new offering Alice in Wonderland. Today we have the unique opportunity to loquaciously wax and wane about jazz music, education and theater, and what a set of discussion topics to cover.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Ezra acquired a unique view of jazz music and theater from being actively involved in the community theater as musical director, and as a participant in the Scottsdale band programs. Upon graduating from Saguaro High School, Weiss parted ways with the great State of Arizona, for Ohio and the famed Oberlin Conservatory of Music. During his time at Oberlin, he studied composition(Wendell Logan) and piano performance(Neal Creque), which lead him to form the group "Blues Connotation." Blues Connotation would later become the Ezra Weiss Sextet.
Upon graduation Weiss move to Portland, Oregon where he began working with the Northwest Children’s Theater, the Beaverton Arts and Communication Magnet Academy, and several camps including the Western Oregon University Jazz Camp. After traveling to New York City to perform in 2002, Weiss’ life would forever be changed. He decided to pursue a Masters degree in jazz piano from Queens College. Here is where Ezra would meet, work and perform alongside jazz luminaries such as: Michael Philip Mossman, Antonio Hart, Kelly Roberge, Leon Lee Dorsey, Billy Hart, and study jazz piano with Bruce Barth and Ted Rosenthal. Weiss has been fortunate enough to compose and/or arrange music for Billy Hart, Thara Memory, Rob Scheps Big Band, Leon Lee Dorsey, Stan Bock, Renato Caranto, and many others. He has also performed with many of those greats. He also co-led the Courtney Bryan/Ezra Weiss Jazz Orchestra in New York.
Upon his graduation from Queens College, Weiss would move back to Portland, Oregon where he resumed his affiliation with the Northwest Children’s Theater and a musical professorship at Portland State University.
In 2002, 2006 and 2007, Weiss won theASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award. For years he has led bands in many of America’s greatest clubs ranging from Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Smalls, and Tonic in New York City, Ryles in Boston, NightTown in Cleveland, Chris' Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia, The Triple Door in Seattle, Jimmy Mak's in Portland, to Catalina’s in Los Angeles. So why would someone, like Weiss, who performs and writes so frequently, and has achieved so much, be interested in recording a jazz education-inspired CD based on Alice in Wonderland? Well let’s travel down the rabbit hole with Ezra to find out.
Most love the great Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, story of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." When I first got the assignment to review and interview Weiss about his work I was a little reluctant to listen to the recording. The packaging was great and the liner notes looked awesome, but was a bit perplexed about what the heck it was going to sound like. I was really curious and took the CD into my car as I drove to a gig, and listened intently at first to see if I was going to like it or not. After the first five tracks, I found myself interested in finishing the CD on my way back home. I began to visualize all the costumed actors on stage performing this version of the classic and I thought this is a pretty intelligent way of engaging young audiences. Later, our phone interview would reveal much more about the concept behind the CD. "The main idea is to find a fun way to introduce young kids to jazz music," said Weiss. "Disney does a great job with teaching musical numbers to kids. When I was young, musicals helped me digest theater, and I thought musical theater would be a great way to introduce jazz music to young people. Create a thirst or hunger an affinity to jazz music," he said.
I asked Weiss about his inspiration for the album. "Well, it started as I was working at a children theater in Portland, Oregon," said Weis. "The director asked me to do a musical version of Alice in Wonderland. It was a great way to introduce jazz music to these young children and forever change their thought process..their thinking." In a day and time when youth have less musical opportunity and even less control over what experiences they can have, Weiss wants to give a generation of children a wider variety of music to experience.
Radio’s increasing limited play list of the SAME top ten songs for that particular radio station’s demographic is tiring and to say the least, drab. Weiss’ Alice in Wonderland uses the colors found in the jazz idiom to paint a wonderful picture that every young person can appreciate in a entertaining, yet educational way. Even though the book was written well over one hundred years ago, it is still very topical.
As a musician myself, the musical soundtrack from my youth was rather different, and so was Weiss’. "Well, when I was really young, I don’t really remember being into music," said Weiss. "When I was ten, it seemed all of a sudden, music opened up to me. I started playing saxophone, musical theater, and my dad had a great music collection. He had a great selection of musicals, and I started getting involved in the middle school jazz band. My father had a huge amount of vocal jazz, and ballads. Carmen McCrae.. really helped me bridge the gap between musical theater and jazz music. In high school, I got into Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis (Kind of Blue) and found that jazz was really about expressing a character through your playing. I had friends that would later introduce me to Kenny Garrett's and Joshua Redman's music and their great driving energy like Coltrane, melodies that had great harmonic complexity that spoke to the listener."
One would then usually question what are the musical influences of the composer/arranger of this very interesting project would be, and who directly has helped mold this young lion. "The first person I need to credit is my composition teacher, Wendell Logan (Florida A&M University), who is an amazing teacher and a huge influence," Weiss said. "In terms of composers Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock (the Three Maria’s), Mingus, and Monk. With Wendell, he would say that is half of what a great composition teacher does, introduce the student to different styles of voicings and musical styles."
Weiss, like Alice has been traveling down this colorful yet winding road full of twists and turns. On this road Weiss has encountered colorful characters around every turn, and the road has taken him around the world (musically) and back again. He began his love affair with the art form (music) at a young age and has kept a very health relationship with it over the last couple of decades. Weiss’ place in the grand scheme of things is gradually unwinding to the truth, which is that he has contributed so much in a short amount of time. "I think it is interesting that the CDs I made prior to this were all about what was inside my head, and this one is all about exploring children’s theater. The next project," Weiss continues, "will be writing Brazilian music for children. I really enjoy teaching at this moment and I’m trying to really enjoy life. I’ve been making more time to be with family. We spend so much time in the practice room.."
From practice room to Wonderland, to practice room again---such is the life of Weiss!