Jazz Saxophonist Brice Winston Talks Music, Inspiration and Dexter Gordon
On August 17 and 18, The JAZZ ROOM presents Tucson, Arizona native, Brice Winston as he brings the sounds of Jazz “Bebop” legend, Dexter Gordon. Brice, who attended the University of New Orleans spent sixteen years as a resident artist in the New Orleans area, working with Grammy Award winning trumpeter and composer, Terence Blanchard. Brice made time in his schedule to talk to JAI as he prepares to head to the Queen City next weekend.
If you could go back in time to any moment in jazz, what would it be and why?
Wow… that’s a really tough question. Yeah, there is a lot that I would have loved to have seen, but I think… well, how long can that period be? Haha…
Whatever you would like! As long as you tell me why!
I got you… well I think I would love to be around maybe, I’m going to pick a decade. I think I would chose around ’57-’67. Everything that was happening creatively in jazz I think had such a massive impact, even to this day, on how we’re still making music. At that time, it was some of these great artists coming to their own – Ornette Coleman, everything that Miles Davis was doing, and John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock… just all of the creative music that was happening. I mean that was only a handful of the people that were doing such amazing creative things in the genre of jazz so I would have to take that era as the one that I would love to go back to.
Very good! So then, how did you first get into playing music?
I started playing music because my best friend – he was a clarinet player, we were in fifth grade – he told me, “Hey man, if you play an instrument you can come play in my band and get out of class.” And I was like, “Oh okay, haha cool!” So, I wanted to play the flute, but my parents were pretty much against it because we had two clarinets in the closet that they had played when they were in college. But, I had watched my sister try and play the clarinet a couple years prior to that, and it just didn’t go well, so I wasn’t really excited about what I saw her do with the clarinet. And I liked the look of the flute because it was silver and really cool looking. So, I finally convinced them to get me a flute, and they rented me one, and I started like that. I actually took off really quickly doing that. And then from there, the middle school where I was going to go there was a kind of stage band. They called themselves, “The Jazz Band.” They came over to our elementary school and they played some more exciting things, you know, probably more pop oriented or had some more jazz influences. But, that’s how when I came home and I told my dad, “Dad, I want to play jazz! I want to be in The Jazz Band!” So, he started putting on some music because he was someone who group up in Chicago in the heyday of Basie and Ellington and the Miles Davis band, and he saw all of the greats come through Chicago. So, he really knew what jazz about, so he put on some records for me. I think the put-on Miles Davis’, “Kind of Blue.” And he said, “So, you want to play music like this?” And I was like, “Uhh… no, I want to play jazz.” And he was like,” Well this is jazz.” And I was like, “Oh okay, I don’t want to do that.” So, it took a while for me to know what jazz was. And he had a decent collection. Although he had a decent collection, I was sad to learn that he had a massive collection when he was in the army, but he had to sell a lot of it to get out of Cuba. That’s what he told me. So, he had a pretty limited collection of records but it was enough to give me a taste of what jazz was all about. So that’s really how I got into loving jazz – through my dad.
So, you originally wanted to play the flute, but your family wanted you to play the clarinet. How did you land on the saxophone?
So, when I was going to go to the middle school, the director there knew who I was. I was just starting to really stand out in the band. I had some natural talent, and I liked to practice and I was taking some lessons. So, he was like, “Yeah let’s have you in the jazz band, but you would have to pick up the saxophone to do it.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s fine, I’ll do that.” And so, I picked up the saxophone – I think he lent me one or something. And that was my intro to playing alto saxophone – and yeah it just kept going from there.
It’s interesting that you got your start in more of an educational environment because I did see that you’re very involved in music education – even co-owning the Tucson Jazz Institute. I just wanted to hear from you why you think it’s so important to provide that type of service to your community?
That’s a really good question. I think for me education has happened over a long period of time or getting involved in education. I remember when I was going to the University of New Orleans I was studying under Ellis Marsalis and an opportunity came up for me to have my own student. I was very apprehensive about it. I felt very insecure about it. And I talked to him about it, and I remember he said to me, something to the effect of, “You just have to do it. You just have to jump in with both feet. You’re going to figure out what you don’t know, but it’s also going to help you figure out what you do know and help you solidify the things that you do know much more strongly.”
Even though I was kind of apprehensive and scared to do it, I just jumped in and sort of figured it all out for myself. You know I never had any formal education training, my undergraduate degree was in performance essentially. So, when I was living in New Orleans, I just started teaching for a lot of different places. I was teaching for NOCA – New Orleans Center for Creative Arts – I was teaching for the University of New Orleans, doing some teaching there. Delgado University, Dillard University. I was doing some teaching at Tulane University, so I was doing quite a bit of teaching in more or less New Orleans.
So, by the time I got to Tucson… I came back to Tucson because of Hurricane Katrina and I quickly sort of, there was kind of a thing about that because people knew who I was here still because I had kind of left with a name here. So, when I came back, they found out I was here and quickly these opportunities came up to start teaching here. And I taught initially for something called “Tucson Jazz Works” and then, I think that was in 2008, we formed this partnership to make the Tucson Jazz Institute. But, I always felt like Tucson was a place that – it was just its framework, it was this opportunity for me to learn – that I could learn from people that were much older than I, and they were patient with me and put me in situations that I was going to learn. So, I felt the obligation in a lot of ways and I just felt compelled to give back to the place that gave me so much. And so, I just really see Tucson as really in any city, the amount of talent that is here. Talent is everywhere, it’s just about opportunity and the support to give to that talent and to feed that talent and to help it grow. So, it’s been a magical thing here in Tucson but I’ve felt like teaching was something that I was very good at from the beginning and I continued to figure out in more and more ways as time goes on to get better at it, and I feel like I’m constantly growing as a teacher at the same time that I’m growing as a player. And I feel it’s important to share information. I don’t think everybody is meant to do that. Some players are good players but they don’t necessarily know how to communicate how to do that to someone else. And I feel like I’ve found a fairly good way of communicating to young students. I teach beginners in middle school and some even in elementary school and high school. I think it’s been effective.
It’s really funny because I was talking to Lonnie Davis about you and she was saying that they were influenced to start Jazz Arts through you. And it’s funny because when I first started at Jazz Arts I interviewed Kenny Rampton my first day working. It was a very big first day. But he said that he was influenced through Jazz Arts and the work Lonnie and Ocie had done. So, I think it’s interesting that in the jazz community you really can just look at other people that are out there being role models to people and make them your own role models. I commend you on what you’re doing and that through you you’ve been able to give that to other communities.
Well, thank you. And what’s interesting about that, and I’m going to tie this back to Dexter Gordon actually because you know, I’m doing some research about Dexter Gordon for this upcoming thing that I’m doing at Jazz Arts. And one thing that keeps getting repeated about Dexter Gordon is that he was a major influence to two of the most influential saxophonists in history. Dexter Gordon influenced both John Coltrane and Sunny Rollins but what’s interesting is that Dexter Gordon ended up getting influenced on the other side by John Coltrane. He was listening to some of the things that John Coltrane was playing and it influenced his playing. So, to tie that into what you were just telling me about Jazz Arts, it’s like yeah, we formed this school and we may have influenced you or some other places, but we’re also looking to you. We’re looking at what you are doing, what other places around the United States are doing, to then again influence us and help us grow and keep pace with what’s happening in the jazz world and the education world. So, it’s sort of kind of a circular thing there.
Definitely, well I was going to ask you what your connection is to Dexter Gordon’s music, but it seems like in your research you are finding out more than you knew before you took on coming to do this tribute.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean sometimes we’re influenced by things that we don’t even know that we’re influenced by. And I mean Dexter was always someone that I learned his solos. I loved his playing. He was always one of my favorite tenor saxophone players. And I also got his influence from John Coltrane. And I was learning a lot of John Coltrane when I was coming up and learning a lot of his solos. And I was doing a lot of Sonny Rollins too. What’s also interesting is to after all these years actually examine my playing, and to look at, “Wow, what are Dexter’s influences in my playing?” And they are deep in there. They are such a part of my vocabulary in my playing now, I’ve just taken over those and sometimes it’s hard to recognize stuff and where it came from, because you think it’s yours and you look at it like, “Wait a minute, this goes directly to Dexter Gordon.” So, yeah there’s a lot of things in my playing that came directly from him.
Who would you say is your favorite musician?
Yeah, this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question and more often than not… if we are going to limit it to jazz, and I would probably maybe say this for all genres for myself, my favorite jazz musician I would say probably is Miles Davis. And the reason I say that is because #1, he has such a distinct original sound. You hear one note and you know its Miles Davis. He surrounded himself with creative people and he let them be creative. He let them be themselves. I firmly believe that he knew who he was, and he had a lot of integrity about how he presented himself and his art. I could go on and on about Miles Davis. I have so much respect for him as a band leader – how he led and the music he ended up creating in a multitude of genres. As he got into fusion music and funk music and his openness to influence from other genres. He was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Prince and all of this kind of stuff. So, I love that he was influenced by all of those things and he tried to stay as relevant to young people as he possibly could. And also, the pride he took in his blackness. Just being a black artist, I think was extremely important and yeah, gosh I don’t know what else to say. I mean he is just one of my biggest influences and inspirations in music for sure.
See Brice in The JAZZ ROOM Friday, August 17 at 6 & 8:15pm and Saturday, August 18 at 7 & 9:15pm.