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My Conversation with Mike Stern

Jonathan Ross

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Guitarist and Jazz Guitar Today contributor Jonathan Ross shares a unique conversation with jazz guitar great, Mike Stern.

Mike Stern barely needs an introduction to those in the Jazz community. His career has been one of playing with his heroes. His dedication to practicing music has lead him to play with some of the all-time greats of Jazz, including Miles DavisBilly Cobham, Randy and Michael Brecker, and Jaco Pastorius. He has also been a member of the famous Soul outfit, Blood, Sweat & Tears, a gig that helped launch his career.  Two years ago, he sustained a fall and broke both of his arms, but came back strong and continued playing at a World-class level. He has battled and conquered what he calls “darkness”, and substance abuse (as Mike says, “When Miles Davis tells you that you need to go to rehab, you know you have a problem!”).

Yes, Mike has been around the block more than his fair share of times. He has worked and sacrificed to land some of the most coveted gigs in Jazz. Through it all, he has remained humble and gracious beyond description. That fact, aside from his incredible guitar playing, is something to behold.

I had a list of questions for Mike, and only asked a couple of them. Why? Because it became very clear to me very quickly that Mike was someone I could easily have a conversation with, and learn more from the conversation than from my rote questions (i.e. What made you choose the telecaster?). Mike is a regular guy just like you and me. The only big difference is that Mike happens to also be a jazz legend.

Mike Stern interview
Jazz guitarist and JGT contributor – Jonathan Ross

JONATHAN ROSS: You just got back from a tour of Australia. Do Jazz audiences in Australia or Europe differ from American Jazz audiences?

MIKE STERN: It’s the same as all people who just enjoy the music, and generally you get really cool people it seems to me. There are great audiences everywhere! One of the places we played was called “Bird’s Basement” and I played there for five nights, and it was wonderful. I’ve been there a few times, including with a piano player named Jeff Lorber. We did a co-led record, some of my tunes, some of his tunes. Jimmy Haslep plays bass on that record, and I played with Jimmy in the Yellowjackets. Jimmy had mentioned that I should get together with Jeff. I didn’t know his playing that well, but when we got to recording and playing live, he was open to play anything, so it was a lot of fun. Once in awhile, no matter where you play gigs, few people show up. And no matter who is there, you have to just play your heart out. That’s what has worked for me all these years. I’m going to try to do less touring, but I still play a regular gig at this place in New York called the 55 Bar every Monday and Wednesday. Jaco and I used to play there.

JR: A lot of people ask you what it was like playing with Miles, but what was it like playing Jaco?

MS: He was great, both Miles and Jaco were. All these people that I’ve been lucky enough to play with were great. All the guys, Miles, Jaco, the Breckers, I’ve been so fortunate to play with all them. Jaco was a really good friend of mine, we were really tight. I miss him on a personal level more than anything, more than his music, which, of course we all miss. He left a lot of great music behind. He was a real sweetheart of a guy. He was a little crazy back then, and I could relate because I was crazy in those years too. He was just a good cat, and I really miss him as a person. We used to get along great. But, I just have to be grateful for the chance to have even known him, and the same thing with Miles. He left us way too soon as well. And Miles also helped me personally when I was going crazy with different stuff. He tried to get me into rehab! When Miles Davis tries to get you in a rehab, you know you have a problem! (laughs)

JR: That’s pretty serious!

MS: That is really serious. Michael Brecker helped me a lot too. He was one of the sweetest cats in the world. Whenever I get the chance I play with his brother Randy Brecker. And Randy is incredible. Michael was incredible too when he was alive.

JR:  Whenever someone mentions Michael Brecker, they always mention how much he used to practice.

MS: He used to practice a LOT! And he was writing a lot and always putting time into it. He was very disciplined. Both Michael and Randy were prodigies. They were really awesome at a young age, and they just went from there. Randy has written some really beautiful stuff, and a lot of interesting stuff harmonically.  He and Randy both did a real LOT of practicing.

JR:  You mentioned going through some crazy times. You have mentioned in the past something you called “darkness”, getting into bad places and getting really far down. I can certainly relate, and I know a lot of others can relate to that as well.

MS: Yeah, man. What do you do when you get that way? I’ll say one thing about that. Music is a huge help in getting out of that. When it’s hard business wise, or bread wise to be a musician, that can get you really dark place, especially when your expectations can get a little too hopeful. I always kept my expectations really on the ground. I never expected to play with anyone that I ended up playing with. I only expected to be the best musician I could be, and try to get work as a teacher. That was what my realistic goal was. And then, it went further than that in terms of playing with cool people and having my own records and things. No matter what would have happened, I always would have kept music because it’s such a positive force in my life. I always tried to do the music independent of what came along with it in terms of gigs. Sometimes if I got really down on myself or depressed about it, I would just say “I’m going to do the practicing anyway”, and I’ll get depressed later. I could even be depressed while I practice, but I will at least get a couple hours of practice in. You can’t just try to muscle through it. Usually you need some kind of support from someone else. And of course, we’re lucky to have music in our lives.

Mike Stern Conversation shot
Mike Stern – Photo credit Sandrine Lee

JR: That’s really great advice, in particular for a lot of younger musicians who are just starting out studying Music in school. They usually have certain expectations, without fully realizing how difficult the business actually is.

MS: That’s right. I had a teacher at Berklee who said, “once you get to a certain fluency in the music no one can take that away from you.” You’ve got that momentum, and the way to keep it is to keep watering the flowers as I like to say. Study, transcribe, write something, anything. Do something every day to keep that momentum going. As hard as it may be, try to do that independently of what comes later. Usually the more you practice, the better you get, and the more opportunities will come to get gigs. That’s still not guaranteed. But the more you know about Music, the more you have a passion for it, no one can take that away from you unless you give it up yourself. Only you can take it away from you. That is a guarantee. But if you’re expecting to play with some famous rock band or jazz musician right away, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but if it’s an expectation, that’s very unrealistic.

JR: I think that’s fair. For me, I am my own harshest critic. That’s how I get myself in those dark places. If I miss a chord or go to a jam session and don’t know a tune, I sometimes ask myself “what am I doing here?” Just way too hard on myself.

MS: Yeah, I know that one. Jam sessions are always hard in that regard. Sometimes you get cats that are really sweet and pulling for each other. Sometimes it’s more like a competitive vibe which I really don’t like. Competition isn’t for music. That belongs in the sports arenas. But it happens, and that’s just reality. The main thing is to just internalize that you are doing the right thing, man. It’s not so easy! There are a lot of people that just don’t go to jam sessions because they’re scared. You are putting yourself out there for the potential dark feelings. You’re putting yourself out there and no matter how it turns out, you are putting yourself out against some pretty strong fears. You should be happy that you at least showed up.

JR: I don’t remember who said it, but someone said 90% of success is showing up in the first place.

MS:  That’s true, and you just have to do that. That can be a scary experience, especially if you’ve had some bad ones. The first jazz gig I ever did, I was so scared I couldn’t even hold my pick. And there were only three people in the audience! Halfway through the gig, the owner came upto me and told me I didn’t have to play my second set because those three people left! (laughs) I was really bummed out and thought “it can’t get any worse”. Then my second jazz gig was even worse than that! Then the third time is started getting better. But I just kept going. I would say to you, or anyone else to pat yourself on the back as long as you keep showing up.

JR: Jazz is a kind of music that needs to be held to a very high standard. But I always felt that people need to help each other out for the sake of the music. I’ve run into my share of surly musicians and I’m sure some of our readers have as well.

MS: You’re going to find that. And you just need to try to ignore it. If you think the Jazz world is hard, try the classical world. From I’ve been told, it can be really brutal. Unless you’re dealing with some good people, they will try to help out you out. There are some people that just kind of point fingers at other people and don’t take care of their stuff. And some are great players but they put other people down who are trying and may not have the same kind of obvious talent that they do. I mean, I had to really work hard at it because I didn’t feel like I was blessed with a certain kind of talent. A lot of it was like pulling teeth!  And sometimes people would criticize me for how I played. When I first started playing with Miles, there were Jazz critics that didn’t want to hear anything other than straight-ahead Jazz with Miles. But Miles wanted me to play that way. Every time I’d try to play bebop lines he would say “Play like Hendrix!” That was the gig, man! And he was right! But in those days, there was a lot of pushback of that kind of fusion playing, and now it’s seemed to come full circle. To me that’s not helpful, and to me, music should be much more inviting. And to take everyone who is interested and try to work with them and try to help them out. You will find a lot of people who have great attitudes and you will find out a lot of that.

JR: One more question. I’d be remiss if didn’t ask you for one funny Miles Davis story. Does one come to mind?

MS: I’ll give you oneOne time I was at his house and he cooked up some dinner for both of us. Afterwards he says, “Now you gotta go do the dishes!” So I went over to the dishwasher and put the dishes in. I must have used too much soap because after awhile it started bubbling up and all these bubbles started coming up from the dishwasher. There were bubbles everywhere! I said, “What are we gonna do, man? There are bubbles everywhere!”  And Miles just looked at me and looked at the dishwashing machine, there are all the bubbles all over the kitchen. And he looks at me and says, “Fattime (Miles nicknamed for Mike), ask me about a chord or scale or something!” (laughs) What he meant was, “Why are you asking me about a f*ckin’ washing machine?” And then we just split! We left all the bubbles and everything and bubbles were still coming out of the dishwasher.  But it was great playing with Miles, and all the great players I’ve played with, the one thing they had in common with each other was that they played their hearts out. They were so serious about it and had fun with it. No matter what the music was, they always played from the heart. Because that’s what music is, it’s a language of the heart.

Feature photo (top) credit: Sandrine Lee

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