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Walter Beasley


College Professor, Recording Artist

by Jim Newsom

If you visit Walter Beasleys website, youll find a listing entitled points of note. The most intriguing of these little factoids is this: the best-selling full-time college professor and recording artist.

It took a lot of work, he said when I called him at his home in Boston. Duke Ellington once wrote a book called Music is My Mistress. I read it my first year in college and I said, This is me. My love is music, whether its playing it, teaching it, learning about it. Shes my first, my last, my everything, as Barry White once said. I just dedicated myself full-time to exploring it and teaching people how to do what I do, only better. I love teaching; I love helping to shape the future. I also love expressing it and I love bringing people joy during my performances.

Beasley, who performs Saturday night at the Norfolk Jazz Festival in Town Point Park, left his California home after high school and headed to Bostons fabled Berklee College of Music. He never left.

I came east to Berklee to get a college education, he said, to become a studio musician, go back home, get married and have 2.5 kids, white picket fence and be done. I dont know what happened. When I got up here, my classmates were Branford Marsalis, Rachelle Farrell; they say Diana Krall was here but I didnt really know her that well. I was doing pretty well amongst those musicians and I said to myself, wait a minute, if this is the best that the country has and Im holding my own, maybe my sights should be set a little higher than just being a studio musician.

When I made the decision to become a recording artist, I made the decision to teach and to not move from Boston to New York like everybody else was doing because I felt there was a need at Berklee for those who were of African-American descent to be here when others came to learn the music. Berklee is very white, and it was interesting to see black people who came to study black music, look up and see all white teachers. Thats when I decided to stay and its been wonderful.

Hes also become one of the top selling contemporary jazz artists, known primarily for his soulful saxophone sound, but also as pretty decent singer. Hes done it by drawing on the musical influences that first touched him, yet keeping up with changing trends in the musical marketplace.

My first experience with being moved by music, he remembered, was with the Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway album called Where is the Love? I was about eleven. Then there was Earth Wind & Fire Thats the Way of the World, John Klemmer Touch, David Sanborn Duck AnklesI can remember those like they were yesterday. I just wanted to do that. I sang and played in church, and once I started learning classical music and learning how to read, it was put a fork in it, I was done. I wanted to play sports but I blew my knees out, and I remember the girls were gravitating toward the athletes or the musicians. Rather than keep blowing out my knees and getting surgery, I chose music.

As one of the stars of the smooth jazz radio format, I wondered how he felt about the ongoing sniping from purists about what constitutes real jazz.

When I was a little bit more arrogant that I am now, he said, I would just call people out: If so-and-so has a problem with smooth jazz, they can find me at Berklee College of Music and we can play Moments Notice, we can play Giant Steps, we can play anything you want because I know I can play well. I didnt learn how to play from Kenny G or Boney James; I learned how to play from Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Grover Washington, Jr., Hank Crawford, Dexter Gordon, and I learned the classics. Then I started throwing in R&B stuffKing Curtis, Junior Walker, Earl Bostic. All of these saxophone players had something to say and I played them all. I think you become better by learning the good in everything. This is what moves me. Be the best you can be, and use the best of everybody to influence that.

Its 2007 and we have kids who play saxophone, trumpet, drumsthey need to push this music forward. Just because they hear it different, they feel about it differently, doesnt negate the fact that they are as talented, or more so, than we were.

Since hes teaching the next generation of jazzmen and women, how does he feel about the future of the music?

I am cautiously optimistic, he said. Theres an old saying that every generation is smarter yet weaker than the last. What I see is that there is not much respect for music of the past, not just the music but the culture. Like the civil rights movementmusic and culture; there would be no civil rights movement without Curtis Mayfield or James Brown. The music actually came out of the culture".

I think that where we are today is you have more people leaning on technology than creativity. When you do that, you end up having artists who really dont have much of a historical connection and their delivery is much less effective. So this is what I teach, that if you do this and this, people who dont know anything about music can be moved by your playing. You can only do that by studying people who came before you.

Norfolk Jazz Festival
Town Point Park
Friday, August 10
Joyce Cooling, 7:30 pm
Pieces of a Dream, 9:15 pm

Saturday, August 11
Jeff Kashiwa, 5:30 pm
Walter Beasley, 7:15 pm
Ramsey Lewis, 9:00 pm

Jazz monthly interview below beasley&start=40&ndsp=20&svnum=10&um=1&hl=en&safe=off&client=safari&rls=en&sa=N