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The Importance of Mentorships

Zakk Jones

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Jazz guitarist Zakk Jones shares his views on how important mentorships can be in today’s world.

It’s 2020. I’m 26 now. I’ve had the great fortune of playing music full-time in Columbus, Ohio for the better part of a decade. These three fairly simple facts are actually quite sobering and humbling to me as I reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I hope to be.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have had many diverse musical experiences given to me in this time, and beyond my studies at Capital University there’s probably one core element that has pushed me in new directions, ultimately teaching me just as much as the Conservatory education. 

Mentorship – the term mentor means “an experienced and trusted adviser”,

…but I think everyone can have their own definition depending on the intricate qualities of your relationship with said mentor. Having someone, or a few people, that gives you mutual respect, patience, and trust while equally pushing you to be your best is one of the most important things in developing that real world, “school-of-hard-knocks” maturation.

Although I will discuss this as it relates to the core of being a professional musician, this can apply to any discipline and field. 

When looking at the past, I think of people like Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey and countless others that had a clear role in the development of  hundreds of musicians throughout the mid 20th-century. In turn, these once-mentees are now (hopefully) doing the same for my generation in the 21st-century. 

I’ve personally been fortunate to have this relationship with people like drummer Tony McClung, organist Tony Monaco and bassist Jeff Ciampa. All who have given me significant gigging and musical opportunities, while always pushing me to play my absolute best and never be afraid to Go. For. It. Even when I fall short. I know they can pick me back up, with little bruising. 

“So what does a mentor look like and how do I get one??” you ask? It’s honestly pretty simple. Take a quick drive to your local “Mentors-R-Us” and pick the model in your price range! Discounts on those 70 years or older!! Okay jokes aside,

If you’re a budding musician in virtually any city, you’ll go out to see music and say “wow, I want to play with THEM”…but what’s the very next thought most of the time? “I just have to get good enough”. 

This attitude, although having simple intentions, is brutally stifling and in fact does the opposite of getting you anywhere near “good enough”. You’ll never feel ready for that big gig with *insert badass player*, and frankly you shouldn’t. That energy of uncomfortability puts you in a position to take advantage of the unknown, and push through to that next level you’re searching for. This does not mean you need to eschew your shedding and mastery of basic concepts and idioms to play at a certain level, but just remember that a leap of faith is going to be at the core of finding your place. 

So, if you want to play with certain people, start surrounding yourself with them.

Go to their gigs, make yourself known, be respectful and ask questions (but not too many questions). Why do you want to play with them? What is it about their playing that inspires you, or terrifies you in that crazy way? 

I can’t stress enough the importance of simply being around older, stalwart, players in your scene. If they themselves have made it that far, I guarantee they had the same feelings and experiences you’re having. They’ll understand the importance of helping out the next generation and being amongst them. Put in the work in whatever you’re doing and word will get around that you, dear reader, are a professional, humble and eager pupil of your discipline. 

You don’t have to rely solely on blind faith that you’ll get that knock on the door, like some sort of weird Jazz version of Publishers Clearing House. You already have the check in hand, it’s time to cash it.  There are some direct ways to start this conversation and relationship. And let me preface by saying this is not just about a way for you to get something from someone else. This is all in hopes of finding a special musician and friend to bounce creative ideas off while understanding that you can mutually learn from each others different experiences in life.

Mentorship example
Playing with the Tony Monaco Trio (Zakk on the right) Photo credit: Tom Wickstrom

So, take them out for a coffee, lunch, a drink…a simple gesture of one-on-one connection goes a long way. Ask about life, art, cooking, anything. One of my favorite things about having relationships with people I consider mentors is their knowledge and respect for ALL things that make up life. The older I get the more I realize the importance of being centered, connected and curious about what the world has to offer in all of its different forms and facets. I probably wouldn’t have been given amazing book, movie, food or cultural recommendations if it weren’t for interactions with those that I look up to.  

Hire them for a gig. It’s 2020, and more often than not even the best musicians in town are grinding it out just like you are. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to play with you. Do keep in mind to make sure it’s the right gig and circumstances, and be an excellent band leader (that’s a whole article in itself). I think there’s a stigma at times that the older cats won’t want to play with you or are too busy, but frankly I have seen a lot of great collaborations between generations that have no bad vibes or egos. 

If you do get asked to play with your local hero-figure, do your homework, show up on time (which means early), listen intently and play in a way that supports everyone, as opposed to playing purely to strut your stuff. This will solidify that mutual foundation of respect and trust.

Having someone you respect and trust, who ALSO reciprocates this is the backbone of being able to grow under this relationship. It’s not just teacher/student. It’s a friend/friend, bandmate/bandmate. The lines can, and should, be blurred. You should feel comfortable accepting honest critiques as well as praise and affirmation. Sometimes the latter may come in subtle forms, like a smile, a nod, or just a happy silence. 

Just as a thought, your University/school educators can absolutely be this figure in your life; however, it may come after your studies or at least more importantly, outside of the classroom environment. 

Jazz is one of the most fertile breeding grounds of the mentor/mentee relationships.

I think it’s virtually impossible to make a career in music without having this vital symbiosis. Without my own mentors, I would absolutely not be anywhere close to where I am in respects to improvisation, time feel, sense of space, harmony, rhythm, history and almost more importantly I would be in the dark about understanding my place in the world as a musician to be thoughtful, caring, patient and without prejudice. 

Putting my own ramblings aside, I’ll leave you with one quote from my friend, bandmate, and greatest mentor, Tony McClung. 

“Older musicians, pull your heads out of your asses and see what young musicians have to offer. You’re never too old to learn. Even people that don’t know half what you know, know something that you don’t know and you could benefit from finding out what that is…learning goes both ways folks”

That’s all I got my friends. Find your mentor, sensei, confidante or whatever you want to call it, and start breaking new ground for the rest of your life. 

Top Header Photo: Hoodoo Soul Band (Zakk on the far right) photo credit: Tim Perdue

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