Last year I had the opportunity to sublet in Harlem NYC and experience the music scene over there thanks to the help of my friend Jack Gruber. The day I arrived we met (through a friend of a friend of a friend – literally) and instantly got along. After making our way around town, Jack asked me, “What would be your favourite live gig to see tonight”, which I simply responded, “Wayne Krantz at the 55”.
To both of our surprises, this exact gig just so happened to be on that very evening, so we obviously made plans to meet up and that was that. Thanks to Jacks help I got to see and meet some of my musical heroes on my first day in the city.
I share this brief anecdote to help outline the generosity and sincerity in Jack’s attitude towards music and people. Outside of being an incredibly talented and hard working musician, he is a good friend and deserves all the success he has and will eventually claim.
If you’re interested in moving, studying, performing or even just experiencing NYC, I encourage you to take a minute and read Jack’s thoughts on being a full-time musician in the Big Apple.
Can you please clearly outline all your current musical projects and professions which make up your life as a professional musician?
Sure! Much of the work I do in the city is as a freelance Jazz Pianist. I am fortunate enough to play with my wonderful peers at venues such as Fat Cat, Minton’s in Harlem, Bb Jazz Club, Rue B, and Club Bonafide among others. I also do freelance pop work, playing with Zara Larrson for her Vevo DSCVR video on Youtube.
Along with my freelance work, I also play in a few consistent musical projects that are fairly diverse in genre.
I play in band called “Qaasim Middleton and the Juggernaut War Party” led by American Idol alum/Naked Brothers Band alum Qaasim Middleton. His music is an incredible meld of neo soul, funk and hip hop. We had the opportunity to play the Afropunk festival in brooklyn twice, which was definitely a life changing experience.
Another project I am a part of is the “Bianca Muniz Band”. I met Bianca at school 4 and a half years ago and have been with her ever since. Her music is beautiful and has the ability to touch and peak the musical interest anyone who listens to it. We did an unforgettable tour of the east coast in 2016 and are in the studio right now finishing up our debut album!
I met Alaska Day in 2016 and am so lucky to be a part of “Broken Flight.” Alaska’s music had caught my ear long before I have ever played it with her. The subtle yet effective harmonic and melodic nuances in her music are sure to catch anyone’s ear. I look forward to any chance I get to hear it or play it. We just finished recording our single “Too Close” which will be released in the very near future! It was a fun one to record so be sure to check it out!
I grew up with guitarist Jack Waugh in my hometown of DC. He has been musical my collaborator since childhood and continues to be to this day. We always find new ways to learn from each other. His music/playing reflect his vast knowledge of harmony as well as his deep understanding of the emotions music can illicit. His music heavily impacts all those who hear it and I am so lucky to both have him in my project and be a part of his. Definitely check him out!
The last project I’d like to mention is my own. My music is in part an amalgamation of my deep love for Jazz and pop music. Though I have mainly worked as a sideman I was excited to debut my band with a string quartet for the first time last April. We played my compositions, standards, as well as arrangements of today’s pop songs. I’ve been doing a lot of work on this project and we will start gigging around the city soon! Be sure to check jackgrubermusic.com for updates on this one!
Along with gigging, I also make a portion of my income teaching private lessons. I teach both out of my apartment and in a teaching studio in Manhattan. I have a deep love for teaching and it is always inspiring to see how hard my students work at improving their playing and learning the music.
How do manage your time to make room for each of these commitments whilst keeping yourself financially independent and living a relatively balanced life?
I try to keep a calendar of all my gigs and students so I can still make room for the things that are important to me. (Practicing, going to jam sessions, relaxing, spending time with friends, etc.) I believe the time you spend just living your life is a significantly contributes to your musicianship. When I approach the instrument after experiencing something new or meaningful I find that get a new perspective on my music/playing. This balance is extremely important to me and something I’m always working on. I’m at a place now where I can find time to live my life without having to “pencil it in” to my calendar. I will always do my best to keep it this way.
Do you have a method or personalised criteria to help decide whether to take on a new project or opportunity?
I don’t really have a specific checklist I go through when taking a gig or agreeing to be part of a project but generally I try to ask myself four questions. (1) Do I enjoy the music? (2) Does it pay well or have the potential to pay well? (3) Do I enjoy playing with the musicians who are also on the project? (4) Is there an opportunity for significant learning in the project? (in other words, will it help me learn a new style of music or significantly benefit my musicianship in some way.) Usually if the answer to at least two of these questions are yes I will take on the project. It isn’t always as clear cut as that for me though. For example, if one of these 4 things is true to an extreme such as the musicians being incredible, or the music being something that I am really inspired by I will definitely take the gig as long as the other people project are easy to get along with.
How has living in NYC developed you as a musician?
Being in NYC has significantly contributed to my musician development. Being around the such high quality musicians as well as the masters who helped create this music is truly a blessing. I learn something every time I go out to see music. I was also lucky enough to attend the New School where I got the chance to study with many of my hero’s in NYC. I still think about lessons they taught me to this day and likely continue to do so for my life.
When you’re not living/working in NYC where are you based?
In DC, which also has a great Jazz scene!
What would you say to a musician looking for advice in regards to relocating to NYC for music related purposes?
I would say it’s a great place if you want to become a better musician, be around high quality musicians, and meet other music-loving people.
How often do you go see original live music in NYC?
Not as much as I should, but I try to see new music as much as possible. It is a great way to find new sources of inspiration and learn from others. It is also super important to just “be around” other musicians and be a part of the community.
Do you feel you could make a living performing full-time in NYC if you chose to (Sideman and Bandleader)?
My gigs are made up of a good mixture of original music and straight ahead gigs. I do think I could make a living off performing but I am definitely glad I have students as well. I have a strong love for teaching and it can be a great contributor to your financial stability.
Can you please share if you’ve ever been arrested by the “Jazz Police” in a jam situation? (For eg: A fellow musician saying something along the lines of “So you don’t have Giant Steps memorized in all keys…pfffft?”
I can definitely think of a few times. I think every musician who plays this music can. It can definitely be a blessing and a curse. It is natural to get really bummed out when getting “vibed”. I used to get super depressed about it when I was younger. I think it’s best to think of those moments as lessons. I think it is a good mindset to have with any negative life experience. For example, Herbie Hancock took a break from his tour with Miles to go on a honeymoon with his wife. When he returned to the States he found out he was replaced. While initially he was distraught over it he now looks back on it as a positive experience. If he wasn’t fired from Miles Davis’s band he would never have started his own project. Though it is often difficult, I do my best to stay in the present and frame my negative experiences in this way. As Miles Davis said “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.”
How would you best summarize your music degree in NYC? Can you include its relevance to the “real world” you now occupy as a graduate?
While the credential doesn’t mean much to me, I definitely got a lot out of The New School. Many of the classes were fantastic. The lessons I’ve learned learn there from the masters of the music were priceless and unforgettable.
How much time do you spend composing your own music?
While I’ve spent most my time in NYC thus far being a sideman, I am trying to focus more on my own music these days. My group had their first concert back in April and I couldn’t have been happier with how it went.
Do you have any plans for your original music (touring, releasing etc)?
I am definitely planning on booking gigs nationally and locally in NYC with my band. Be sure to check my website (jackgrubermusic.com) for updates on this!
I believe you taught yourself how to code in Python. Can you share how you went about this and if it somehow relates to how you approach learning any musical languages?
Yeah I did. Basically whenever I visit family or have a gig back in my hometown of DC I have to take these 4 hour bus rides. I decided to learn coding as a way to make those long boring bus rides productive in some way.
Are any of your musician peers also interested in coding?
He isn’t necessarily a peer but an incredibly talented and well known bassist named Massimo Biocati make an app called “iReal Pro” that is used by musicians around the globe.
Are there any skills that directly translated to both the music world and the world of Python?
I’m sure there are, but I try my best to keep those two worlds separate. It really is something I only like to do when I am in transit. When I’m not, I try to utilize my time in the day as musically as possible.
Have you used your coding skills to create digital music in some shape or Form?
I haven’t really checked the programatic scene out much but it is definitely interesting! I do however, enjoy creating digital music in Ableton and Logic Pro, sans-coding.
Have you made any applications with your new skills?
One that I am trying to complete on my next bus ride is “Who’s Playing Tonight”. It is basically a directory of NYC’s premier Jazz Venues and a list that updates daily of who’s playing at each one.
Given that coding includes being very specific about communicating various instructions to the computer, do you feel this has “sharpened” your communication skills on your instrument when improvising?
I think communication is the most important thing to keep in mind when playing with other musicians. You can always tell when musicians are listening to each other. Those moments of interaction, to me, is what makes improvisation truly great. I can’t think of any specific way coding has helped with that but I guess it’s possible!
With regards to your piano playing, did you ever have an 8 hour a day practice schedule before working full time?
Do you/did you spend much time transcribing other musicians?
I’ve spend a lot of time transcribing other musicians and learning the language of the music. Just as important though was learning the theory behind the choices those musicians made. It was less about learning exactly what they were playing and more about learning the concepts behind what they were playing. I think learning musical concepts/tunes from recordings can be a great way to improve your musicianship!
If you could only practice three things what would they be?
If I could only practice 3 things it’d likely fall into these three categories. Time, Study, and Discovery.
I think one of the most important parts of playing music is time. It doesn’t matter how well you can “play the changes” if your time feel is bad. It is monumentally important to be able to lock in with the musicians that you are playing with. I’d take a one note melody played with a beautiful time feel over a complicated and intense one played with an inconsistent one every time.
I love learning about new harmonic concepts and approaches to the music. I like to spend time listening to people like Barry Harris, Hal Galper, Brad Mehldau, Chris Potter, and Brad Mehldau (to name just a few) speak about music. Even when their approaches don’t meld well together or even directly contradict one another there is a lot to be learned from each. As long as I keep listening to and studying different perspectives on the music I know I can continue to improve.
I also think it’s important to synthesize what you practice and try to discover new things on your instrument. Everybody has different influences that come both from their music and their life. The process of just sitting at your instrument and playing helps you to take utilize influences and uncover/find things you like to play. When I play something I like that haven’t played before I make sure to record it and practice it in a bunch of different contexts. That way I can incorporate something that is uniquely me into my playing. I try not to force these things out when I am playing a gig though. I find it best to keep my head clear when I play and allow whatever music that passes through me come out as naturally as possible.
If you had to play in one band only, who would it be?
This is a tough one. Right now I’d have to say Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band. Though I could never replace Jon Cowherd, it would be an amazing experience to play such beautiful music with those deeply inspiring musicians.
Where would you like to be in 5 years?
I’d definitely like to be playing a lot more of my own music. While I love playing standards and working with other musicians on their projects I am excited to start sharing music of my own.
Any other comments or insights you wish to share?
Had a great time doing this interview man! Thanks for having me! It felt nice to put some of these things into words. Everyone should check out Isaac’s beautiful music/playing if they haven’t yet! You are sure to walk away inspired! Looking forward to hanging/playing again soon dood!
For more information on Jack head to: jackgrubermusic.com