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The Heart Of Music

Soaring on the wings of critical acclaim and success, Chris Botti has reached a pristine zenith of achievement in his career. Most importantly, he has done so without compromising his vision.

Chris Botti is intent on imparting awareness of the importance of music in the lives of children, as well as the parental involvement that is necessary in aiding children with this process. There once was a time when children pursued their love of music absorbedly, therefore chose to dedicate their lives to that ardor and what they feel for instrument. Developing that is a cherished relationship. There is resurgence evident of this in today’s society and the impact Chris Botti’s undertaking has had is visible. This is apparent by the amount of parents and their children in attendance at his concerts. He is one of the most genuinely principled individuals you could ever hope to encounter. What a tremendous, leading light he is in the world of jazz. His commitment to music is inspirational and venerable; such a display of fervor for one’s art is rarely witnessed. Despite Mr. Botti’s all-embracing tour schedule, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to converse with him.

JazzReview: To Love Again and Chris Botti Live, your PBS special broadcast, have been extremely successful. What has it been like to see these projects become such colossal sensations?

Chris Botti: There is a very famous saying that ‘Behind every overnight success is ten years of hard work.’ I sort of changed that up a little bit to say that ‘Behind every overnight success is ten years of Red Roof Inns.’

As a jazz musician, as an instrumentalist, to actually see people gravitating to your music and buying your CD It is a very difficult emotion to just say, ‘Oh its great!’ I mean to say, ‘It’s great’ just kind of like scoffs it off too much. It is really so much more than that. You start realizing as you make your ascent in your career how many other people really have a lot to do with your eventual success or failure--like a record company, like connections with a producer or your management. So many of these people have worked tirelessly to get my music to the point where people buy the CDs. I just feel so fortunate. That is the word, ultimately. I feel so grateful and fortunate that I have been able to record my songs in the way that we have wanted to record and have the record company not mess with our music. Then to have them be successful, it is just such a great bonus.

JazzReview: Absolutely. Unfortunately, that is part of the process. Every musician needs to pay their dues in order to achieve that level of success. I would imagine it is especially fulfilling to see these projects being so well received by the public since the artists involved are your friends.

Chris Botti: Yeah, you know, people come in and they sing on your record. Then you are able to kind of go, ‘Well let’s re-do this and let’s re-do that.’ That is one thing and it is great. But the DVD, to have everyone come in for one night and have it come out as great as that thing came out, to me that is the ultimate. It really sends a message that we got so lucky because a lot of things can go wrong when you are doing a live show. First of all musicians tend to tighten up when they know that it is being recorded. They instantly go "red lights on" and they don’t really play loose. We just played unquestionably great and loose, and the audio and visuals are great. That PBS special, that DVD, is the absolute highlight of my career to date.

JazzReview: Well it is absolutely brilliant, truly outstanding. I think that the bonds that you share with your friends are very audible, and visible as well. It really translates onto the DVD. It is great to watch.

Chris Botti: Thank you. Ultimately, it is the same thing that I really try to bring to my band onstage. If you watch any kind of modern day pop music kind of thing, there is a front person and then there are many faceless backing musicians. You sort of lose the camaraderie of music. [But] when you look back at Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, Sinatra would introduce all of his arrangers and his band. There was Count Basie, and you know Miles had Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter in his band, along with Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett and all of these guys. He showcased their talent to audiences. It only did one thing--it just made him look better. So I just stole that kind of approach. Instead of having a number of faceless musicians on stage, I wanted it to be like an inviting thing for other people.

JazzReview: Exactly. That is one of the things that I have always appreciated about Sting because he has had all of these incredible musicians such as you in his band. He kind of stepped back and let other musicians shine because it was a positive reflection on him.

Chris Botti: Well, you know that is what he did with me. Undoubtedly, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you if it weren’t for my relationship with Sting. He is the guy that broke the sound of my trumpet and gave me my first really big national and international exposure break. He continues to be a great friend. He and Trudy flew in all the way from Italy to be there that night in Los Angeles for that DVD taping. We have been on stage so much and we know each other so well, that that kind of humor and everything comes out easily.

JazzReview: Your wonderful friendship with Sting is very apparent and is wonderful to see. It is so important for entities like PBS to air programs that will broaden the horizons of its viewers whenever possible, especially the younger viewers who may not otherwise be exposed to such enriching programming.

Chris Botti: Yes, and certainly if you watch popular culture television from Entertainment Tonight to MTV to VH1. Jazz and Classical music do not exist in those genres at all, what so ever. If you have an opportunity to do a quality program, which basically has the ability to be viewed by anyone young or old jazz fan, or not a jazz fan, it is a really great position to be in. PBS is the one place that caters to elevated types of music or dance, like classical music or jazz that you really don’t get to see in those other venues that I just mentioned.

JazzReview: That is so true. If you look at the success of a classical musician like Andrea Bocelli and the success of his latest release Amore or his PBS special Amore Under the Desert Sky, it is evident what a far-reaching expanse of audiences PBS is having an impact on.

Chris Botti: Yes. I can’t say how proud I am. It is hard for me to put that into words. A lot of people say that when they saw the word "jazz" and a trumpet player coming down the pike, they were reluctant to take this on. The show has done so well and I think that we have proved on one little level that jazz music can reach an audience larger than just four people in a smoke filled club in New York City. It can be a kind of pop attraction and still be jazz music.

JazzReview: I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Christian McBride and had the opportunity to speak with him at length regarding his involvement on To Love Again, as well as discuss the many organizations that he is involved with that focus on exposing the younger generations to music. Can you elaborate on the organizations that you are a part of? What does your role within them entail?

Chris Botti: Well, certainly. The main thing that I spend my time doing, and it is not necessarily charity, but it is for a great cause, it is PBS. Encouraging young people to become enamored with playing a musical instrument and not necessarily with the rock star, instant gratification, "I’m all that" kind of world that people get into a guy like Christian McBride or Yo Yo Ma, those kinds of musicians, they didn’t just pick it up when they were nineteen-years old and decided "Hey I’m going to be a rock star." They sat in a room and had a relationship with an instrument at a time in their life when probably no one wanted to hear them play that instrument. When you are six-years old or nine-years old, it is the constant dedication, practice, focus and determination that enables a person like Christian McBride to become probably the greatest living person on that instrument. That is a humungous accomplishment.

I think it is something that is lost in young people today. That is really what I am trying to do--to get parents to expose their children to music. That will enable them to have the patience and dedication to become a Christian McBride, a Yo Yo Ma or a Wynton Marsalis. That is really the main focus of mine, not out selling records and touring, etc., but to try to get parents to let their children be something in music. Let them be, because now parents are whisking their kids off to six million events after school. When I came home as a kid, I was left alone to practice and in hindsight, it was such a great thing.

As far as charities go, I am involved in the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and the Red Cross. I’ve done some advertising for the Red Cross and am further involved with that. But my heart really is in that first thing. It is a very simple, organic method just to try to get kids to pick up an instrument and give it a shot.

JazzReview: Absolutely and it is so important for a child to decide at a young age that is what they are going to do with their life. Understanding the function of one’s instrument and knowing who the great storytellers were before them is crucial. I commend you for your involvement and commitment. It is essential to create opportunities for young musicians that they can take advantage of. So many schools no longer offer musical programs, which is an ignominy of the greatest magnitude.

Chris Botti: Absolutely, and you know the first thing you said is so true. When you are ten and you really don’t know if you are going to be a recording artist or make a living, you have to jump off that ledge with your life and say, "I am going to dedicate my life to music." If you interview any great instrumentalist at some point in their life, early on they say, "I’m in. I’m in it for the long hall no matter what." That, and listening to your intuition and just going for it [is what its all about].

JazzReview: Making that decision is so important, as well as having the support of your family.

Chris Botti: It is interesting because most parents if you are sitting around at a cocktail party, parents are talking to other parents saying, "Oh, little Sally knows all the Beatles songs." That is one thing when little Sally can play along at the piano and play all the Beatles songs. But when little Sally is fifteen or seventeen-years old and walks out and says, "You know what? I’m going to move to New York with my guitar and become a folk singer and try to become the next Norah Jones," then the parents say, "We were kidding!" (Laughs) They want their children to be doctors and lawyers. Parents have that awkward job of trying to be supportive, but also not scared for their kids because it is scary.

You know, if I had a kid today and they came to me and said, "I want to be a musician," I would be frightened for them because it is a really hard, fine line. That emotional thing you’ve got to walk, not only with yourself, but also with your family and your siblings. To try to convince them (the parents) to let you go off into the world and be a musician, that takes absolute dedication and perseverance on your part so that it translates good things to your parents; that they believe in you.

JazzReview: It is hard for parents to be supportive sometimes because they do not want to see their children go through hardships. However, if the child is not pursuing what they are absolutely passionate about, then that is worse than having a job that is lucrative, yet they are miserable.

Chris Botti: It is the ultimate Catch 22.

JazzReview: I watched your most recent performance on the Today Show with Geoffrey Calante.

Chris Botti: Oh yeah, he is a cute kid isn’t he?

JazzReview: Yes, adorable and a brilliant trumpet player already at the age of five. It must be such a thrill for you to see a child exude such passion for music. Chris Botti: It is fantastic and I hope he stays interested in it. You know a lot of kids like that when they are so young and they are playing instruments, everyone is doting over them. They can instantly go the other way and say, "Well, you know, I’m really interested in science" or "Actually, I want to play basketball," or something like that. Everyone’s path is different. But right now, I certainly have never seen a more talented five-year old or even know anyone who plays the trumpet at five-years old. (laughs)

JazzReview: I know. I was astonished.

Chris Botti: But herein lies the problem. The trumpet, like sports, becomes some kind of wacky ultimate mirror. In other words, you can be amazing at five and at fifteen you may not ever be able to cross that hurdle of being able to play in the upper register with a beautiful sound. Just like you may be an incredible high school basketball player, but you might not be tall enough to be Michael Jordan.

There was a famous jazz pianist, Bill Evans. He made a statement that I carry around in my horn case sometimes--this statement that Bill Evans made about Miles Davis. When you look at Miles Davis’ life and career, he didn’t develop into the absolute beautiful improviser until way later in his life, into his mid-thirties. He had already played with Charlie Parker and scuffled around and then, finally, he came into this thoughtful and beautiful place in his life and made incredible music for the rest of his career. That has to evolve into someone individually. It doesn’t mean that when you are five, if you can play great, that you will become Miles Davis. That is what makes music so elusive. You might appear to have the tools, but you can’t communicate. Or you can communicate, but you don’t have the tools. That is why someone such as Christian McBride who comes along and has total command over the instrument and also has charisma like there is no tomorrow is so rare. You know you can count great bass players that have that on two fingers: Jaco Pastorius and Christian McBride. (laughs)

JazzReview: That is for sure. (laughs)

Chris Botti: That is why those people are so rare--a Michael Jordan, a Keith Jarrett, a Tiger Woods. Those kinds of people come along and you just have to like hats off to them. Wynton [Marsalis] is the same thing. You have to have so much admiration and respect for them.

JazzReview: Undoubtedly, because they were able to stay their course and not get sidetracked along the way, which is so important. Children are involved in so many different activities that it is like they are being pulled in all these various directions. They do not even have the opportunity to decide for themselves what it is that truly interests them.

Chris Botti: Oh God, you took the words right out of my mouth! Bless you! (laughs)

JazzReview: Oh well, thank you. God Bless you, too! (laughs)

Chris Botti: But you are so incredibly right. Parents have their kids in a state of social (ADD). They are taking them to so many different events that it is pretty crazy. The simpler that you keep it, I think the better it is for the child.

JazzReview: Very true. You have inspired so many young musicians, especially a young trumpeter that I know of. Do you have any advice for them on how to follow their dream of becoming a professional recording artist?

Chris Botti: Well, keeping it simple I think like I was saying earlier. Kids don’t listen to music enough. When I meet a young person and I ask them, "Do you listen to a lot of jazz?" And they say, "Oh yeah, sure. Then I will ask them, "Who do you like?" And they will say, "Oh, I like everyone." That doesn’t impress me nearly as much as when they say, "I love John Coltrane." It is really important for a young person to really learn jazz or music through osmosis. Just the way that you would listen to your parents speak for the first time when you are a toddler, all you hear are mom and dad conversing. You aren’t watching television and not running around in the streets and ordering pizza. You are just hearing your mom say, "Mommy and Daddy." It is all very simple. Through that, you pick up words that you don’t even know, through osmosis right?

Jazz is the same way. Young kids today are bouncing around like they have audio (ADD). They are listening to many different types of music instead of listening to one kind and becoming absolutely passionate about it. Tony Williams, the great drummer, said that the way that he learned how to play music was that he basically listened to nothing but Art Blakely for six months until he was sick of Art Blakely. And then, the next six months he listened to Elvin Jones until he just could not take Elvin Jones. Then the next thing he did was listen to Philly Joe Jones, right? So at the end of it, he basically learned five different languages, which were the languages of those drummers. And from that, voilà! Out comes Tony Williams and it is a very simple thing to do. But it is a very hard thing to actually pull it off.

JazzReview: I agree wholeheartedly. It is important to have a mentor. As a twenty-two year old recent college graduate, I can attest to the fact that my friends like jazz and opera and artists such as Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, and other artists like that. There is music outside of what is being heavily rotated on MTV. I love to see the younger generation taking an interest in jazz.

Chris Botti: Yes, you know, Andrea Bocelli, and Josh Groban and Michael Bublé. It is a nice story. It is really kind of a cool thing that those individuals have been able to become pop stars in an arena that most people don’t want to hear about--jazz and opera. The road to success is just so different for everyone. Ultimately, I think you need to dedicate yourself and practice the music and you need to live in one of those major cities to get the break that you need; either London, New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville if you are a country singer, in order to find yourself in a situation to meet people from various record companies. Now with the Internet, it is changing somewhat. But ultimately, most of the big breaks come from some kind of association. Even for someone like Michael Bublé who lived in Vancouver, really the big break came from David Foster who lives in L.A. There is still some sort of tie that exists in London, New York and L.A. all the time.

JazzReview: Manufactured talent seems to have surfaced throughout the music industry especially in very recent years. That is to say, there seems to be a discrepancy between the artists who garner commercial success and those other ultra-talented artists who remain under the radar. As a successful artist who has not only stayed true to your vision, but has also gained success in doing so by creating the music that you believe in without compromising, do you feel that one’s vision must be paramount when embarking upon a musical career, rather than courting mainstream success and having that become one’s primary focus to the extent of losing one’s artistic identity?

Chris Botti: Well, I think that an artists’ vision can change. Like when I first broke onto the scene. I wanted to be the next Randy Brecker. You know, I wanted to play on all of the pop albums and be like a hotshot studio musician that played jazz. But then I changed my vision to be a solo artist much later in my life. I didn’t release my first solo album until I was thirty-three years old, but behind that was always drive and determination. I’ve changed my thing along the way quite a bit.

I think the first thing you need to do as a musician, unless you are really fortunate, is you need to pay the rent! When I first moved to New York, I scuffled. I played every single bad gig you could ever imagine and paid every kind of dues you could ever imagine. I’ve done it all. I didn’t come from a wealthy family and now in the last few years, I have had really super kind of mainstream success, and everyone just thinks, "Oh yeah, Chris Botti, he just went for the money." But I have been doing the same thing for a long time, not making any money and scuffling.

So getting back to the thing we talked about, Geoffrey Calante, you just never know what everyone’s path is. And you are right; there are some incredible musicians that don’t get the same success. They do fly under the radar and it is unjust. It is just not fair that they don’t get the proper respect that they want and deserve. A lot of the time, some of those artists shy away from the spotlight and that is one reason. But, you know, who knows? There is no explanation and that makes me ultimately feel very grateful that I am in the situation I’m in. I could have just as easily sold a hundred thousand records instead of a million records in the last year and a half. What is that thing that made the stars line up to make it happen for me? You know? I don’t know what the answer is. That is the "Sixty-four thousand dollar question" that everyone goes after.

JazzReview: I think that it is only natural for an artist’s vision to change, to evolve. I think that an artists’ fan base appreciates individuality and integrity rather than subscribing to a contrived image. That, which a group of executives within a record company anticipates, will appeal to a specific demographic. I would think that if an artist has a good idea of who they are, that would help to ensure an unmitigated and triumphant career.

Chris Botti: Yes, well you would hope. You know, I have some friends that are legendary forward-thinking people and sometimes it doesn’t happen for them. I have read things recently, my last two records being my most successful we did everything ourselves, and the record company did not touch one single stitch of the album. I have read some things where trumpet players are saying, "Oh, Chris Botti is just playing what the record company wants." They couldn’t be further from the truth. It is very difficult to actually know what it is like until they are in my shoes or I am in someone else’s shoes. Every artist has a different relationship a time when it happens for him or her and a time when it doesn’t. That can be said for anyone. Every artist has an arch, an ebb and flow to their career. Mike Nichols, the great director, said the best thing once. He said, "Your career is like a pendulum. When it is swinging up and you are feeling all this love and adoration, you better be sure that the pendulum is going to swing back down and you are going to feel the depths of despair at some point. It is just the way that it goes." You can’t always just be connecting with an audience or selling a ton of records. There is always going to be that ebb and flow, and you can find that in anyone’s career.

JazzReview: Your music is very romantic. You employ your sensibilities, which is audible in every song. The condition of the world, being such that it is regarding relationships: we live in the age of nuclear families. I feel that people listen to your music and long for better days, and remember the love of their life. For a younger person like myself, I listen to your music and it incites longing within my being to experience the love of a lifetime that I have yet to encounter; love that will last forever. Do you feel that your music fills a void for audiences of wanting to hear songs that consist of beautiful melodies and that have space in them, and the desire to experience romance as it was thought of in the golden age - during which time these songs from the Great American Songbook were in their prime?

Chris Botti: Wow, you ask great questions! The way that you feel about music and the way that the longing, you know that adjective is something that I feel. Because a lot of people tell me, "Oh, your music is romantic," and things like that. But really, when I hear something that I love, it gives me not the sense of being in a romantic relationship, but the longing for some sort of an emotional connection that is romantic--or that sort of incredible high that you get; the longing, the yearning of not being able to quite get it. That is really what I am going for in my music. That is why when Miles Davis plays three notes, it breaks my heart, but it breaks my heart in a beautiful way.

JazzReview: Bittersweet melancholy.

Chris Botti: Joni Mitchell really said it best when she said that there is comfort in melancholy. You can hear something that is so beautiful and it is melancholy, so that is really what I try to go for with my music; and that is what I like to listen to on a record, as well. That is the kind of music that speaks to me. It is very important.

JazzReview: You have that same ability to break hearts through your music. That is really what is so wonderful about it. It distinguishes you from many artists, as well. There are other artists, whom like Miles Davis and yourself, that can incite emotions in people, but they are few and far in between. That is what really drew me to your music in the first place.

Chris Botti: Thank you so much.

JazzReview: You are so welcome. It is so true.

As American lyricist, librettist and songwriter E. Y. Harburg once said, "Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought." Chris Botti merits the success he is now retaining. The vanquished vicissitudes and years of determination, perseverance and dynamism exhibited to arrive at this pinnacle in his career have all been worth it. He is an extraordinarily talented instrumentalist, and he has left his imprimatur of class, elegance, and stature on the world of jazz. He has touched the hearts of listeners worldwide and will continue to do so for years to come. He will continue to create music that will have an immeasurably enduring impact on future generations.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Chris Botti
  • Interview Date: July, 2006
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