“I’m humbled and honored to be able to step into this position that’s had so many great people in it in the past,” trombonist and VCU adjunct faculty member Bryan Hooten says as he is named the new director of the VCU Jazz Orchestra II.
Trombonist Bryan Hooten has been named the new director of the VCU Jazz Orchestra II, replacing trumpeter and previous director Taylor Barnett. As Barnett celebrates new beginnings in the fall with his doctorate studies at James Madison University, Hooten will be diving into his new duties at the helm of VCU’s second big band.
What has your experience with big bands been like?
I played in jazz big band throughout high school, college, grad school, and then in various freelance settings, and of course have been listening to all the records, checking it out. I guess the first big band that I was actually in charge of was at James River High School. Jim Stegner, the band director at the time, wanted to resurrect the jazz band program, turning to Tony Garcia for advice. Tony offered me the job so we started meeting after school while I was still a graduate student. I directed that band once a week. Mr. Garcia later asked me to be the assistant director for the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. So I was excited to do that with some of the more experienced high school players around. I’ve been doing both of those things for three or four years: four years at James River and three years doing GRHSJB. Both of those gigs came through Mr. Garcia, so he’s been very helpful in giving me opportunities to lead big bands.
Taylor’s a good friend of mine and I’m sorry to see him leave town. I’m humbled and honored to be able to step into this position that’s had so many great people in it in the past. John Winn had it once. Doug [Richards] ran both bands at one point. Those are some big shoes to fill but I’m up to the challenge.
What is your approach to teaching the high school big bands, and what kind of goals do you have when directing a band?
My goals in running the two high school bands have always been to expose them to the best literature that exists for big band at the earliest possible point in their career. Through those things, teach them how to play with good time and good feel, play in tune, and with wide dynamic range. All the basic fundamental things that I think are best brought out by those charts, the classic big band literature. So my goal is to expose them to that music and get that in their bones and get them to really enjoy playing it. Even people of my generation didn’t grow up hearing and playing that music a lot. Until somebody really exposes us to it, we don’t get to check it out. We definitely don’t get to check it out very often live in a quality, professional way. So I think it’s important to dig on the classics for this big band. That’s not a new thing. That’s been the mission of JO II since it was formed.
I think the way that the jazz world used to work was that you cut your teeth playing in a big band and then became a soloist from there. Now, in modern times, it’s kind of the opposite. A lot of big bands are amalgamations of these great solo players. JO II can be a great environment to learn to be a section player. You’re going to have to do a lot of section playing in your career. That’s one of the best parts of playing in a big band.
What do you teach as the “classic literature”?
I think we can all agree on Basie, Ellington, and Thad Jones. Pretty much anything inside those libraries are considered to be classic literature. Once you get outside of that, there might be some debate, but I don’t think there’s any music literature out there that’s going to make you a worse player if you play it really well.
Do you think there are different ways to interpret what falls into the category of classic literature?
I can see that, however I do think that somewhere along the line, everything comes back to Basie or Ellington or the combination of those two. And all of that goes back to Louis Armstrong. On some level it all goes back to Africa. So I’m not so concerned with what’s technically classic and what’s not. I just want to play good music that swings, that grooves, and has a high level of compositional craft.
What’s different about the roles of JO I and JO II?
JO I is a different situation than JO II. It’s a different band with a different mission. It seems to me that the idea of JO II is designed to lay the foundation of exposing the band to Basie, Ellington, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus, that kind of stuff. Now, it’s impossible to cover that whole world of music in a semester or a year. But the way I understand it is that the mission of JO I is to build upon that foundation and do music that chronologically comes after it or explores some different areas.
You’re not going to make a living playing Basie, Ellington, or Thad Jones. You have to understand rock and roll, funk, salsa, pop, classical, all of that stuff. I think the challenge of any music program is trying to be comprehensive in that way: preparing the student so they can step into any of those situations and play well, know their surroundings, know what’s required in each genre of music. There’s always going to be a battle to be fought on how much time to spend on this versus this, and what’s practical. We educators do the best we can and realize that good music is good music and if you can play that classic stuff, a lot of times you can play anything.
Your main gigs are Ombak, Fight the Big Bull, and No BS! Brass. Two of them are literally big bands, although their music is modernized and evolved from the traditional repertoire, and the instrumentations are tweaked. What experience do you bring to those bands that you’ve gained from playing in or leading traditional big bands?
Having played in a lot of big band sections, I’m comfortable “playing lead.” That’s not always what I do in these Richmond bands, but that experience certainly helps. I’m comfortable blending in with a brass or reeds section in Fight the Big Bull. In No BS! Brass, the horn section is basically a big band without the saxophones, but the role is very similar to what it would be like in a big band. Being a trombone player, who traditionally sits in the middle of the register of the spectrum that big band is capable of and is physically placed in the middle of the horn section, you have a good chance to hear everything that’s going on around you and hear how your part fits in. I think that’s why a lot of trombone players end up as composers and band leaders: they get to hear all the counterpoint and every thing else that’s going on.
Through both of those larger bands, I’ve always been exposed to a lot of different styles of music, most of which ultimately comes from the same place that classic big band literature comes from. On some level, that’s the blues or spirituals (particularly in Fight the Big Bull) or rock, New Orleans funk, or other traditional New Orleans music as in No BS! Brass. All of this music is ultimately coming out of the same place. Learning how to play unison riffs from Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” in the brass band will definitely inform the way I help the big band’s horn section play the unison riff from Basie’s “Splanky” and vice versa. It’s all coming from the same place. Getting to play music with so many of the great musicians in town doesn’t hurt either.
I think it’s a great benefit for students to see their director taking part in bands like this and using his big band experience to make music and a career, which is something that was certainly true about Taylor Barnett. Is this something you let your students figure out for themselves, or do you make the connection for them?
I tell them. I try to get them to come out and hear live music as much as they can. Going to hear live music and playing live is a better music education than you can get at any school. Music is learned through repetition. I encourage them to get out and come hear me and my friends play and to do their own thing: put together bands, write music, make records, try to book a gig. Because that’s what the life is like if you want to be a successful musician. All day every day, attacking it from a ton of different angles, both musically and in a business sense. I try to tell them about everything and encourage them to do as much as possible both inside and outside the school.
It sounds like you’re excited to start.
I am excited. Running a big band is one of the most fun things in the world to me. I’ve gotten my high school band to the point where we can rehearse for 2 hours and 15 minutes without taking a break. I’m interested to see if I can do the same thing with JO II. Just cultivating that level of focus is fun for me.
Rehearsal can be a magical thing. I think the challenge with my high school students or any young musician is getting them really excited about playing music well, because there are all kinds of other factors that motivate kids to be in band: hanging with friends, building a resume, getting to go to football games. All of those are positive things in young people’s lives. But the challenge is convincing young musicians of how much fun it is to play something really, really well. Getting that chord in tune can be a euphoric thing. Waiting those four bars and smacking that hit in Basie’s version of “All Of Me” is an incredible feeling. The feeling that we feel when we achieve that is what the audience feels when they get to hear it. So that’s always the trick.
In this time when we are so easily distracted and trying to multitask and do a million things at once, I think it is good for the human soul to focus on something for a long time. If that means that for two hours at JO II rehearsal we’re not thinking about anything else, I think that’s healthy. I always tell my students to do the best you can with what’s right in front of your face. It can be a very centering thing. That’s one of the most exciting parts of leading a band, playing in a band, and being involved in music.
VCU Jazz Orchestra II’s first concert of the semester is at the Fall Jazz Festival, scheduled for October 14 at 8pm, with Jazz Orchestra I. Watch this site or vcujazz.org for more info.