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Walter Beasley

Review and interview for Free Your Mind, Sax Meditations and Music Education

Walter Beasley has been a working musician and a music educator for 25 years.  Today, he talks about his dual career, as well as his upcoming CD, Free Your Mind, which releases on the Heads Up label on February 24th.
Smoothviews (SV): I want to talk about your current release, Free Your Mind.  This CD is a reflection of moments in your life, of moments in time.  It speaks of things that have happened in your life, so that makes this very personal.  How different is that from your previous releases?  Or, is that how you approach music generally, you make it from a personal level?

Walter Beasley (WB):  That's a great point, and a great question.  Actually, you've answered the question very well.  In my career, I think people can tell when I release an album that this is what this cat is going through right now.  That's all I ever really wanted to do as a recording artist, that is, capture the moment.  I can't really speak too much on anything else; for example, "Barack's Groove."  When I saw a Black candidate for President of the United States, and how he moved me, and how not only was he probably one of the most brilliant brothers I've ever seen in my life, but how his personal character reflected his vision and his goal, and his vision for the future, and our people collectively.  There was just something that really hit me.  I was working on a song that particular day when I saw him on Ellen DeGeneres dancing.  I said, 'he really wants this.  I'm going to name this tune Barack's Groove."  Everything was in place and that day was perfect.

Or, "Minnie's Song," which is farther down the album.  She was like my second mother.  She passed in April.  I've had a lot of losses, and I've had a lot of things positive happen in my life, but that particular incident was a bit overwhelming, in that for the first time in my life, I could not use music to pacify my pain.  When that happened, the album shut down.  I couldn't play.  I just threw everything into the suitcase and I went directly to Florida.  I just left.  It was just too hard.  And Mark Ledford, a very close friend of mine had passed maybe three or four years prior, and I hadn't really mourned that.  And my uncle had died a couple of years before that.  I really just dove into the music hoping.  Music was right there.  She was always a comfort, and she was always a way for me to escape, but this time, with my second mother passing, it just didn't do it.  So, I went to Florida, and the first song I got for the record was a song James Lloyd sent out.  The hook was so beautiful, and I said, 'Oh man.  My mind is freed up.  It's time for me to go back to work.'  That's when I said this album will be entitled Free Your Mind, because this is the first song that inspired me to get back to work.  We're going to name this song "Free Your Mind," and James said "Okay."  So, that's what we did.

SV: You've got a lot of collaboration here with James Lloyd of Pieces of a Dream (POAD.)  I guess it pays to have talented label mates.
WB: One of the reasons I went to Heads Up was to work with James.  I've always wanted to work with POAD, and James Lloyd.  It was like a twofer deal.  I was being wooed by a couple of labels.  I've been a fan of James since I was a kid.  I wasn't that much older, but I thought he was a kid.  It's a nice thing, having a relationship with James.  I just love his writing, I love his playing, and I love his musicianship.  And, he's a good person too.  That's a pretty good resume.  We get along very, very well.  I look forward to working with him whether I'm on the label or not.

SV: You've got "Dukezilla" on here, for Mr. George Duke.
WB: That was a song I wrote on the beach.  I was writing, and I remember thinking how I would have liked to have known Grover Washington, Jr. better because he was probably my biggest influence.  Then I was thinking of how my uncle used to say, "Give me my flowers now while I can still smell them."  I said to myself 'You have so many people that are still alive that you can let know how you feel about them.  Why concentrate on what you can't do anymore? Concentrate on what you can do.'  This was all taking place while I was at the keyboards.  I started playing and it reminded me of George Duke.  I finished the song and John Roberts added a great section to it – the C section, the alto, the chant.  This is perfect.  It was George Duke all the way.  I was able to call him and talk to him.  I sent him the song before the record company got it.  Moments like that make it all worthwhile.  I don't care if anybody else likes that song other than George Duke. (Laugh)

SV: This is a really good album.  I've played it a couple of times now.  You know when you play it the first time, you don't really hear it, and so you play it a couple of more times.  As I play it more and more, I hear more things on it that I like.  I'm hearing different things.  I'm really enjoying it.
WB: I do appreciate it.  I appreciate the opportunity.  It's rough out here.  And people who are still interested in me playing and singing, well, that's a blessing.  When I was younger, I used to pray to be one of the best saxophone players in the world.  Then, when I started to become pretty good, I prayed, please don't let me become addicted to the applause. (Laugh)

SV: You've been a music educator for just about as long as you've been a working musician, twenty five years.  What is one of the most important things you try and teach your students?  What do you want them to learn?
WB:  To be prepared for the unexpected.  And, to be prepared for the unexpected, you have to over prepare, and, you have to research.  You have to anticipate changes rather than have them change you.  We work on that musically, especially now because I teach, maybe 60-70% on musicianship, and 30-40% on music business.  I relay the lessons in musicianship to the lessons of entrepreneurship and being an effective business person in the music industry.  Basically, the old model has collapsed.  A lot of my students will now be responsible for promoting, marketing, so on and so forth, and even some legal matters, so, it's incumbent upon me, a person who is in the industry still, and can see the major changes, and, who's been successful in the '80's, '90's, and 2000's, to deliver that message in the classroom.  That's my primary goal for my students.

The curriculum in said institutions is pretty conservative.  People have to do what makes them teach comfortably.  A lot of people have to be comfortable with a certain manner of teaching, a morality of teaching.  I've been so successful in the music industry that the responsibility for making these students successful is my primary responsibility.  I might have to go above and beyond the curriculum to make sure that happens.  And that's what I bring in the classroom that may be just a little bit different from others.

With all that said, I'm proud to be able to teach, and I'm proud to be a professor at Berklee College of Music.  I'm proud of my Skype lessons, where I teach saxophone over the internet.  That brought me so much joy.  I can be anywhere in the world and touch a saxophonist wherever they are.  The sound is not great, but it allows me to see and to hear saxophonists, and to have some things that I can help them with, and share what I've learned with the world.  It's a blessing.  It really is.  You've got to love teaching to really teach.  Some cats just want to do it because it pays the bills.  Some cats want to do it because they like the title.  But this is work.  As a teacher or professor, I'm supposed to have the tools to enable these people to get out and make a career for the rest of their lives.  That takes a whole lot of research in an industry that is basically falling apart.

SV: Is it really falling apart, or is it changing?
WB: That's a very good question.  I say changing.

SV: So do I.
WB: Here's the thing.  People who are in love with what they have been able to accomplish through the old music paradigm, they're done.  They're really depressed.  I remember the first time I knew I was on to something was when I recorded Walter Beasley Live and More, and I took it on the road.  I was selling it from the bus.  The other people on this tour were not able to do that because Atlantic and the other major, major record companies were paying them big dollars, but controlled all the material.  I was the record company owner, so I could sell at the gigs.  I was making thousands of dollars a week.  That's when I knew it's not about the big money right then and there, it's about ownership.  And since 1996, it's been different for me/

SV: Do you think that because you have a dual career that works to your advantage when it comes to –
WB: -Negotiating my contract?  Yes! (Laugh)

SV: (Laugh) Yes, of course.  Do you encourage your students to not only get the music education, but the playing experience as well?
WB: Yes and no.  There's a new breed of student that I'm getting now, and these younger students understand that the world in which they live is no longer the world in which me, and other musicians, have basically pimped out.  And that is, it's about business and performance.  It's 50-50, well, not even 50-50 anymore because you have a lot of stupid cats out there who don't really need to be on a stage, but who are making a lot of money.  And you have a lot of people behind the scenes who are still making money in the record industry on an interesting lower kind of level.  Check out hip-hop; you have some very interesting people, who one would argue don't have much talent, but who are making a serious impact on the music industry.

SV: You're right.  And that's not confined to hip-hop either.
WB: You have to study that and make that a part of your whole approach to music education, because it's not the time of Grover Washington, Jr., or Duke Ellington.  It's very, very similar.  Here's a perfect example.  When I was coming up, I had to give away publishing.  I had to give away this, I had to give away that, just for the opportunity to play.  It was an industry practice.  Now those models are gone.  Those record companies are gone.  I'm thankful that they're gone because now, what it means is that when I put out a record, I own the publishing, I own the record, and I own everything that I do now.  It may be a little bit less money, but I my own educational products, my own publishing, and the rights to everything I do now.  That's the business model that I want my students to pattern themselves after.  I got that from hip-hop.  It's that exchange of information.  Look at Master P – going platinum out of the trunk of his car.  These are examples of people who are making money going from city to city, just packing CD's in the trunk of their car, and who are great performers.  That's a business model that I like.

I think sometimes we get lost in trying to be the next American Idol; especially in Black music, when you can be the next Boston Idol, or the next Arlington Idol and approach it community to community, city to city, or region by region, and doing it the old school way.  That's what I try to teach my students, and that's what I represent myself.

SV: How do you balance everything in your life?
WB: There is no balance.

SV:  Something's' got to give?
WB: Music has taken everything I had, and I'm not ashamed to say that.  I'm proud to say that.  But, at the same time, everything has its season.  If I had to stop tomorrow, I could say this is okay.  Twenty five years as a recording artist and being on the charts for all those years is an accomplishment.

I get up everyday at 5 o'clock in the morning.  I have a whole checklist of things that I go through.  I do an hour of walking and working out, meditating.  Then I start in on my day.  I practice a little bit.  I try to write a little bit.  Actually, that's how Sax Meditations came about.

SV: Yes. Let's discuss Sax Meditations now.  I listened to it yesterday at work.  I stayed late, so it was after 6pm and the office was quiet while I had it playing.  It made me feel good just sitting there getting work done and listening to it.  
WB: You know what?  That's exactly what I wanted.  I just threw the keyboard in the car and for a long period of time, I just wrote a whole lot of stuff to just chill me out.  It was the perfect album for someone who's going through stressful times.  It doesn't go upbeat at all.  You can listen to it on  for free.  I've listened to a lot of great records, but that's the only thing that I've done, and the only thing that's been done on the saxophone that makes me feel this way.  I think I'm most proud of that so far.  It's written by me, played by me, and owned by me.  Everything on there is meant to just chill me out.  That's what helped me.  It's really helped me to calm down.  It's available for download.

SV: Your website is so full of material and information.  It's not just the usual tour dates, bio, and discography.  There is so much information available.  If people don't know, they need to go to and check out everything you have to offer on your website.  There's the instructional material, the downloads, the audio interviews, and all kinds of good stuff.  It's very comprehensive.
WB: I had a vision with the website.  I checked out a couple of people and they couldn't really get it the way I wanted it.  What I wanted is a kind of one stop shopping; this is what Walter Beasley says about improvisation, this is what I feel that people who are storytellers should consider when they are in front of an audience, this is what I think people who play saxophone should consider before they try to play everything they've ever played in their life at one time.  It just started to develop into its own little thing.  People shopped for the educational material, and then they shopped to be relaxed.  Then they shopped for the Heads Up material, or, my older recordings.  It's a true reflection of who I am.  It's nice, and when my students go there, I tell them that this is what 25 years in the music industry and teaching have done for me.  You need to make sure that your website, or your MySpace page, or your Facebook page is an accurate reflection of who you are.  If you can do that, and if you're the best, and you are who you say you are, and you can do what you say you can do in front of people, then there's no reason why you shouldn't be successful in this industry.

SV: I have one final question and this is definitely coming from your perspective as a musician and as an educator of the next generation of musicians.  What does the future look like for this genre of music, as far as the future of its musicians?  Are we in good hands, or are we in trouble?
WB: That question is one that I ask myself every day.  It could go either way.  I find now that students are less likely to study the history of our music, simply because they are excited about being the champion for the moment.  And the media has a lot to do with that.  Everybody wants to be famous.  That's a great motivation.  When I was forming my skills, I studied the history of music.  That enabled me to be successful for a long time.  I think that in institutions, the emphasis on historical recognition of artists who came before is not what it should be.  And until it comes back to that, until we can see our future, based on achievements of the past, it can go either way.  It's 50-50.  I don't think that younger students actually respect the accomplishments of Grover Washington, Jr., Hank Crawford, Johnny Hodges, or Charlie Parker.  Especially in the "new jazz" they've got going on now, which is just a bunch of notes with no kind of substance or meat.  It's all of these notes.  Even if you look in R&B, you've got Beyonce singing 32,000 notes a minute.  She's getting paid by the minute.  You cannot be a person who moves the music forward by performing that way, by learning that way.  There's an old expression, I think it's a Black expression: every generation gets smarter but weaker than the previous.  I think what's happening now is we have a lot of younger musicians who are much smarter, and use technology in ways that I could never think of.  But, at the same time, they're weaker when it comes to the appreciation of the substance of the music that makes music strong.  If we don't get back to a serious balance of the two, we're in trouble.  Now, for those who will balance the two, they're going to be okay.

SV: Very good.  That takes care of all my questions.  Thank you so much for talking with me today.  
WB: You're welcome.