eric rasmussen



A Path Forward

Booking gigs, touring with Lee Konitz, sub-zero airport shuttles, running from bears, and losing your band's money—learn how Eric survived them all, plus Guaranteed Swahili!

eric rasmussen


How to Name Your Band
(mp3, 1.5MB)


JK: You've been at this a while, Eric, and have played with some of the best musicians all over the world. What was your early musical experience like, what started you down this road?

ER: I grew up in Monterey, California, and started with piano lessons as a kid, my parents were musically inclined. I have memories of sitting on my dad's lap and him playing boogie-woogie on the piano, I don't know where he picked up the skill to be able to do that. He was playing the blues; I wasn't aware of it but that was just part of my life.

I grew up in church and we had a family traveling quartet for a couple years. My dad played guitar, my mom sang, my sister sang, I sang, and we traveled to other churches in northern California. I took piano lessons for a couple years around 2nd grade and hated it, but my mom made me do it: "this is right for you, you should do it." She said it would be good for me.

My mom played piano and played organ in the church. She could read really well and there was always this little bit of improvisation, she might mess up something a little and then make it work. Then in 4th grade it was time to choose a band instrument. I picked saxophone, but in the middle of the night my mom crossed off saxophone and put clarinet, and then sealed the envelope. So, I turned it into the band director the next day and he says, "Here's your clarinet!"

JK: Thanks mom!

ER: She played clarinet in high school, so she knew it was more difficult and I should do that first, so I said "Yeah, OK, I'll play clarinet" and played through high school. I was kind of naturally good at it, I didn't practice a lot. I was playing a lot of sports, mostly soccer. I was really into soccer, played travel soccer and had eyes to play in college. My dad played like the lowest level division of professional soccer in England for a bit while he was there with the military.

So then in high school I got a little more serious about it. My sister is seven years older than me and went to California Institute of the Arts, she's an opera singer. While she was there, she took a class with this professor, they hit it off and she ended up marrying him. Turns out he was the saxophone professor for jazz students, so I started hanging out with him quite a bit and taking saxophone and clarinet lessons. He would send me boxes of CDs at Christmas, and so I started getting into it, learning saxophone. My mom was right, in two weeks I could play saxophone; clarinet's hard but after playing clarinet, saxophone was cake!

I wanted to go to Cal Arts and study with him because at this point he was basically my mentor. In the summers I would go and spend two weeks or a month with them. He would give me a lesson every morning, then he would go to work and I would just practice all day. He had this wall of records—thousands of records—so I would just grab some and would be like, "All right, I'm going to listen to all these Coltrane records." I'd put 'em on the record player and just kind of get into it; I'd put on Blue Trane and then be like, "What's with this Kulu Se Mama?" So that exploratory time was pretty cool. He was hugely important to my development.

So I had decided that I wanted to go to Cal Arts. It was a crazy school, no rules. My parents knew about all this stuff at Cal Arts and didn't want me going there, all my teachers said "you shouldn't go there, you're not ready." I ended up going to Cal State Northridge instead and at that point there was only classical sax teachers; you couldn't be a jazz saxophone major so I was a classical clarinet major and studied saxophone technique on the side. After a while I just couldn't keep it up, trying to balance both things, so my third year I went to Cal Arts and at that point it was just jazz saxophone. The environment of Cal Arts was very open, very stimulating, more music-centered.

Eric Rasmussen

We were required to study West African percussion; we just wanted to practice, we didn't want to learn drums. Not until later did I realize that everything ties in together. All the great saxophone teachers I studied with played drums. I took some Indian classes, some singing, it was a very creative environment at that school. I have some crazy stories—lots of naked people—but at the same time, the professors there were people like Joe LaBarbera, Larry Koonse, an amazing jazz guitar player, and Charlie Haden! So, I got to hang with Charlie Haden, which was pretty big. I didn't study with him but I took an improv class. He'd tell these stories, I'd go get coffee with him and played with him some, too.

The other thing my teacher, Paul Novros, got me into was writing music. He'd tell me to write some music, but I didn't know what I was doing. We didn't talk about form or theory or study scores, he was more like, "just write some stuff." So I would write things and try to fit them into these boxes of 8-bar phrases or 12-bar phrases and he'd say, "Y'know, that sounds like it should be a 5-bar phrase, so do that." That really informed my writing, so I started writing things without barlines and eventually I'd figure out where things were.

I tell the story about how when my sister went to college, she left her record collection so I'd go into her room and check out her record collection. She had Chicago records and Parliament Funkadelic records. For some reason I'd put the Chicago stuff on and I'd be like, "Oh, that's cool," and then I'd put the Funkadelic stuff and then be like, "What is this? That is unbelievable. Oh my gosh, I have no idea what that is!" So I started listening to all those records, so my mom would come home on Saturdays and instead of watching American Bandstand I'd be watching Soul Train. She'd ask, "Why are you watching that?" It's like, "Well, look at it, that's amazing!" That just kind of informed me of some things without me really knowing it, so I started writing bass lines and grouping of bass grooves, that's just part of my life.

I was in this original composition ensemble in college, we'd just write every week and only play original stuff, so that was really important for me. I was working with Charlie and some really good players that were there at the time. I was also playing a lot with the Master Degree students when I was a third-year student, so I was kind of being nurtured by those folks. I did two years there, finished, and immediately got my Master's Degree at New England Conservatory in Boston. At that time, those were the two big schools that valued originality and creativity, Cal Arts and New England, and really to this day they're still at the forefront of that kind of thing.

I worked with some great people there: Alan Chase, George Garzone, a legendary tenor sax player in the Boston area, Paul Bley. That was very interesting: He was kind of a fascinating dude, I kind of wish I had studied with him 10 years later. My first lesson with him was like, "OK, let's play a tune. How about All The Things You Are?" He started playing the freakiest chords, I had no idea what he was doing. I was thinking, "Okaaaay, I guess we're playing All The Things You Are?!" So we finish and he's like, "OK, cool. Stop practicing. Don't ever practice again." "Um, what? I've got a lot of things to work out." "Nope, stop practicing. Let's just record." So every week we would go into the basement where they had this recording studio, reel-to-reel, and we would just record duets, free improvisation duets.

I remember he would put down some amazingly interesting rhythmic chord pads and I would come in and immediately play the wrong note, and then he would change something to make it sound good, then I'd play another wrong note and he would make that sound good. So we did that for a couple months and that was really good for my ear. He was all about the business of "you gotta sell yourself forward," so I got some stuff out of that and lasted with him for about a year. He was a trip but he was really giving too. I had a band at the time and we recorded a self-produced CD, but we were trying to figure out how we were going to pay for establishing a publishing company through BMI. At that point it was like $100, there were five of us and we didn't have any money, And he says "Oh, man, I got you!" opens up his money belt and pulls out hundred dollar bills, gives me five hundred bucks and says, "You're good." "Wow, thank you!"

I also studied with Jerry Bergonzi, which was pretty huge. I could play a little at that point, but I didn't have a lot of bebop language. I said I wanted to learn how to play bebop just so I could do it, so he said do this, this, and this, and gave me a path forward. A lot of lessons he would just play drums and we played things in odd time signatures. I was writing a lot at that time.

There's a famous street in Boston, Lansdowne Street, with a lot of clubs, and I met a bass player and got a gig at this place called The Venus Bar, so we formed a band called The Venus Band. It was alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums. We would write music and play Mingus, this was around '96 or '97, and there was a resurgence of people taking old Blue Note records and sampling them, so they had this DJ and he was doing that and would market it as this Blue Note thing with cool artwork and stuff. People would fill up the club, they would come to see his set and then they would stay and watch us. So we would have this massive room with 200 people listening to us play this wacky stuff. I'll never have that sensation again. It was weekly and went on for like two years, I could play whatever the hell I wanted! I had to write music for the band, so we would bounce ideas off each other and it was a hugely informative time in my life actually, a lot of fun.

JK: Yeah, there's nothing like getting in front of people to really put the polish on what you're trying to do musically, figuring out what works and what doesn't.

ER: Right! Eventually The Venus Band ended and my best friend, a tenor player, and I formed a band called Guaranteed Swahili with two saxophones, bass and drums. Didn't like any of the guitar players or piano players that much, so we just decided, "Let's do this thing."

JK: Your band was called what?

Eric Rasmussen

So I had a band called Guaranteed Swahili and we took the name from an advertisement on the "T," which is what they call the subway in Boston, and there was a big ad and it said "Guaranteed Swahili and 300 Other Languages!" or whatever, and we just liked the font of it. So we took the name and we took the font and literally all of our press materials had that exact font—we "borrowed" it, if you will. And so after establishing tours, doing some CDs, and getting some kind of recognition, at least locally, we finally came back to Boston and got a gig at the Regatta Bar, which was like the big club in Boston. I got contacted from the company—I forget the name of the company that had the slogan—and they said, "Hey, we want to come to your show." They kind of left a message or something, like that's all they really said to me, so I was like, we were totally freaked out, we thought we were going to get in trouble for stealing their copyright of their logo. And so they showed up the show and actually had T-shirts made up of the band, so we felt very fortunate that we didn't get in trouble, but they actually liked it and stayed for the show and gave us these T-shirts; and I still have a T-shirt like in the bottom of a drawer somewhere that I don't want to wear so I can just kind of keep it. It's kind of funny.

JK: Is there a lot of competition in the Swahili market that they have to guarantee... (laughs)

ER: Yeah, right, right! (laughs)

JK: "Hey, man, I want my money back, I only got half-Swahili!

ER: And I remember there was at least one gig we played in New York and there was some African gentleman that came up and said, "Hey, do you guys actually speak Swahili?" And we're like, "No...sorry!" (laughs)

Back before the Regatta Bar gig, we had started playing regularly in Boston, and at that point I was like, "We need to do more stuff. I'm just going to start booking tours." I mean, I'm in college, I have no idea what I'm doing. So I talked to a few friends, asked what they did, they said, "You just gotta pick up the phone and call some people up." So I just started calling and set up a tour. There was some rock band in Boston and we rented their...they had this airport shuttle. Like, it actually went "Beeeep, beeeep" when it backed up, double doors in the front! So we set up a tour, went all the way to Iowa and did all these one-nighters, super-low-paying stuff just to work. The drummer, Eric Thompson, was from Iowa and had set up some better-paying stuff there. I remember the bus broke down, I think we were trying to get to Indiana, so we took it to a place and they said, "Yeah, the engine's toast," they couldn't even save this thing. So we had to call the people we rented it from and told them, "This thing's just trashed." They offered to buy it, so we sold the thing to the repair shop, gave the guys the money. We were in Indiana trying to get to Iowa, which was not that far, so the drummer's dad showed up with a car and we were able to get to Iowa and finish up.

Also during the first tour, Jason Hunter, our tenor player, had all of our money. He had this big wallet thing, and at some point we were in some restaurant. He had set it on top of the car and of course we took off and that was everything we had. Just lost our minds on it. We realized about 30 minutes later that he did that, so we came back around, looking for it. We thought, "No way. Somebody picked it up and spent all of it." A day later we get a call, somebody had picked it up and turned it into the bank, and all of the cash was in there, so we totally survived that fiasco. So that was the first tour. We didn't know what we were doing, I just called people up, "I've got this band called Guaranteed Swahili and we'd like to play at your place." We had a little demo tape, tried to make stuff look as nice as possible, "Let's get wack folders, let's make sure we have the same font, make it look really slick," that whole thing. So much easier now, but back then I was just handing packets out to club owners.

So we booked some gigs. I remember The best gig we got was this place called Pete Miller's Steak House in Illinois, outside of Chicago. A Thursday/Friday/Saturday gig—those kinds of gigs are impossible to find. We were just some random guys and they were like "Sure!" So we got this three-night gig, they provided a hotel, it paid pretty well every night. So we started doing that, were going out a couple times a year and as we got more experience we got better pay and better gigs, we started getting hooked up with some master classes and workshops, some more creative and fun things. When I moved to New York I was still doing that. Eventually we recorded with an indie label called Fresh Sound New Talent that became an established jazz label, still is today, a lot of famous people are on that label. That gave us some publicity so we were able to play in better clubs like the Regatta Bar in Boston. I remember when we played there it was a big deal, a lot of people that we used to play with in college came, it's kind of the Village Vanguard of Boston. "My gosh, we made it, we're playing at the Regatta Bar!"

JK: I remember an interview where Pay Metheny was talking about when he started out with the band with Lyle Mays, they had a recording contract with ECM—most people would think "Oh, man, they've got it made, flying to all their gigs"—but they were driving all over the country in this old van. Their manager at the time would book a night in one state, the next gig would be two states over, then they'd have to drive back to the other state again for the next gig. It wasn't very organized but he said that's what they had to do, they weren't making a ton of money, but if they hadn't done it, they'd be sitting around doing nothing. Most people have to really work to make it. That's really impressive that you made all those phone calls and made it happen yourself rather than waiting for gigs to fall from the sky.

ER: Yeah, y'know, I had no experience doing that, it scared the hell out of me. I got better at it, learned how to sell myself. It was a fun time, made the best friends of my life. That first tour, we were all into playing PlayStation—we all liked playing basketball—and that game NBA Live came out for PlayStation, great video game. So I remember that airport shuttle had a TV and we hooked it up to the video game system, so we're driving across the country and playing video games. And that door didn't close in the front, so whoever was driving would freeze. "Hey, I know, let's pick the winter for our first tour!" So whoever was driving would be freezing cold. I remember driving with my big winter jacket on and the other guys are playing video games in the back. Pretty fun, we'd have tournaments.

I was the main writer for that band so I wrote a lot of music and we played all my original music all the time, all this weird odd time signature stuff. They're like, "Why is this in seven?" "Sorry, man, that's just how I hear music." So that was an important time.

Eric Rasmussen

So I was doing that, doing the big band, I had the doubling thing together because I was a clarinet player, I worked with Alan Chase a little bit, and then I graduated. My work-study job at NEC was at this place called the "gig office." People would call to hire student musicians. Of course, now we have computers for that, but back then time I would just post them on a bulletin board. My boss at that time was like, "Be cool, but you can always take some gigs for yourself." So I would take the best gigs and was always working in Boston, and when I graduated, I continued in that job and stayed in Boston for a year.

I had eyes to go to New York, as every young musician on the east coast does, and my sister was already living in New York, she had a very successful opera career, making a lot of money traveling the world, singing Carmen in the New York City Opera. So I'd go to New York and visit her. I'd done some summer workshop things, I had done this jazz workshop in Idaho with Gunther Schuler, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Kenny Werner—heavy dudes. And it was a lot guys from all over the country that were either in college or out of college, so I met a lot of people that I eventually ended up playing with in New York. I finally saved enough money so I found a place in Brooklyn and moved with a friend of mine from school.

JK: So switching back to Monterey, that's pretty far removed from San Francisco, was there much music there?

ER: There were a few places that I would frequent, but Santa Cruz was pretty close and had a good place called The Kuumbwa Jazz Center, so my dad would take me there to hear people. That's where I heard Art Blakey, a pretty amazing experience. And they did have jam sessions—I remember participating in some of those, getting my feet wet. And there was a Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star ensemble, kind of an audition-only thing, that I was an alternate in and I was able to meet some other musicians. I also did some summer programs before I went to college.

I met this guy Paul Contos, and he would make me write out all these chords, spell everything out. Every week he would make me write out every possible chord combination, and I hated it, I was thinking "why is he making me do this?" But eventually I could spell out my chords pretty quickly.

JK: I remember Larry Schneider once saying in a clinic that he practiced nothing but arpeggios, hour after hour, for two years. The results speak for themselves.

ER: I explain to my students that practicing is really learning how to concentrate for long periods of a time. At first maybe it's about an hour—trumpet playing is a little different thing—but with saxophone, we can play all day long, so your concentration level gets better and it reflects in your performance.

So back to New York. I met some friends from these workshops and there was this Swiss trombone player, Christophe Schweitzer, he's living in Hamburg now but I met him in Idaho. He said, "Man, when you get to New York, look me up." So I went to his house in Jersey City, we'd rehearse this complicated, crazy, rocket science, most insane music I've ever played in my life. Pages and pages of charts with metric modulation. He had this one tune we worked on for a year. One song! And he would give me these parts in concert key. I remember having a couple of lessons with Alan Chase and he told me the thing you gotta get together before you move to New York is reading in concert, just spend hours working on that. I'd read the Joe Allard book and the Charlie Parker Omnibook in concert and transpose, so when I got to New York that was something I could do; I could read anything, everything in concert.

Christophe had all this funding from the Swiss government, he was booking tours, so my first month in New York he said, "I'm going to Europe, you're on the gig." Cool! It was Billy Hart on drums, Donny McCaslin, a super saxophone player, Alex Sipiagin, great Russian trumpet player, Johannes Weidenmueller was the bass player, all these really established players. Super eye-opening, it was a good tour, we made good money. After we got back, I kept doing stuff with them throughout: two, three, four times a year we'd go out. He just liked my playing so it worked out. At that point I got a day job, working at Verizon, doing software training for technicians, paid pretty well, making some money that way and playing.

JK: Are you a tech guy?

ER: Pretty tech savvy, yeah. Not that much, I'm not writing software at home or anything, but I feel like I'm pretty knowledgeable. That gig was cake because the technicians would come in and they had these little computers, they'd plug them in and I would plug into the network and the computer would train them. I was like a lab monitor, basically. That job paid a stupid amount of money, like $18/hr, which was a lot at that time, and I would work four hours but they would pay me a full eight hours.

So I was in New York, doing that kind of stuff. I met my wife my first year in New York. My wife is an opera singer, she went to undergrad with this great trombone player named J.C. Sanford—we play some of his charts in the night band, just a fantastic musician—he was getting his Masters while I was at NEC. So he knew that we'd hit it off and he set up kind of a blind date at the Knitting Factory in New York. We went out and that was it! After hanging out with her for a year I was like, "Yeah, y'know, I like practicing, I love my saxophone, but I just think I want to hang out with her," so at that point the practicing went down and my hanging out with her went up! And of course I'll never trade that in any way.

So I started teaching a bit, I landed this job at this place called Larchmont Music Academy in Westchester teaching private lessons, it was kind of a music academy. Met some great people up there, starting working up there, it morphed into two days, now three days, now I need to ditch this Verizon job, so now I'm teaching and playing, then I scored a gig at Queens College running their college prep Saturday program, their jazz program, I just kind of fell into that. That was great, I was working with great musicians at the time, so that was a good resume' builder.

Eric Rasmussen

While I was teaching at those places, we had our son. My wife Kerry really wanted to move a few years after our son was born. The grind was starting to get to both of us. I didn't want to go, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time I understood. It's hard raising a child in new York City. So eventually I saw where she was coming from so I was like, "All right." So I started applying for college jobs, I was originally looking at California, just because that's where my family's from. I kept getting second and third place at these jobs, community college gigs. They would have me go in and conduct the big band, and I had never conducted a big band in my life. And then we visited her sister's family and came out here with my son. I met a few people in town, my sister in law's neighbor was Hugh Lovelady so I met Huey, we talked a bunch and hit it off, and he said there was work here for me. So I met Rob Hunter, who brought me back later that spring to be an adjudicator at a state jazz festival with Nick Manson. Nick and I moved out here the same year. So I met some musicians and found out that there's some good players here, and my wife was able to transfer her day job as an upper-level administrator for an accounting firm. So Huey and some folks came through and I started working as adjunct faculty at MCC and here I am now.

JK: I can relate, I went to school at Cal State Long Beach for a minute and have musician friends over there in LA, so I originally planned to move there and get into the music scene. My first degree is in advertising, so I actually had an opportunity for a good job at a big firm over there, but a couple things reoriented my thinking: one was that my mom got sick back here and I wanted to be able to help out, which also coincided with my realization that since one of my long-term goals was to have a family, it soon became apparent that I didn't want to raise my kids in L.A.

ER: I have friends in New York that I played with that are still struggling, and others that are doing very well and are famous jazz musicians who just stuck it out, but they're renting their apartments, they have no family—I'm super-happy with the choice I made. Everything worked out and I got into teaching. You don't know you're going to get into teaching until you get experience in it.

JK: Yeah, sometimes you get into teaching reluctantly and one day realize that "Hey, I really like this, I'm making a difference and it's a fun thing."

What's your connection to Lee Konitz?

ER: I got to a point in New York where I was straddling a line of playing tunes and jazz music and writing my own music, I did big band stuff. I didn't get into the musical theater thing in New York because you had to devote your whole life to that. I've always been into Lee Konitz, first listened to him in college, but always kind of on the surface. I would transcribe some stuff but wasn't really that into it.

One of those tours with the Swiss trombone player had two bands, a nonet and the band I was in, so I was traveling with Lee Konitz. I wasn't into him as much as I should have been. I remember at a sound check and Lee was warming up, and it was the loudest saxophone sound I had ever heard in my life, from this old guy! I remember they were playing this tune called "Thingin'," and I didn't remember hearing the tune before so I went up to him after the sound check and I said, "Hey, Lee, my name's Eric and I'm a huge fan of yours and love listening to your music, I love that tune, when did you record it?" He says, "I've recorded it, oh, about twelve times."

JK: (laughs) So Lee says, "Oh, you're my number one fan!"

ER: Right, so I walked away with my tail between my legs, thinking "What the hell am I saying?"

But then I got to hang with him a little bit, he was cool. The other thing that happened on that tour—I kick myself—the next day we were in Paris and he said "I want to go to the Selmer factory and check out some horns." The night before a bunch of us had stayed up until 3am drinking and he wanted to go super early so everybody blew him off and he just went by himself. So if I just would have gotten up, I would have been the only guy that would have hung with Lee Konitz at the Selmer factory.

After that tour I came back and decided I was going to do a deep dive into this guy. I had no idea who Lenny Tristano was. I got my Master's degree in jazz performance and no one talked about Lenny Tristano. So then I started listening and checking out Lenny and thinking, "Who the hell is this? This is crazy!" I had no idea: why was he implying all these time signatures, shifting changes? So then I got way into Tristano, I was all in, transcribing his tunes, his solos, super into him. At that point I sounded like him, everything I played. Really getting into offset phrasing and playing over the bar line. I was always into players like Steve Coleman and Joe Lovano but saw the Lee Konitz and Tristano model as more of an inside/melodic way to do it.

So, I really got into that music and somehow got hooked up with Steeplechase Records and I pitched the idea of a Lennie Tristano album, actually there are three of them, called the School of Tristano. I was fortunate to get my friend and incredible drummer Matt Wilson on the three records. So I'm going to do all these tunes in that style but I'm going to make them a bit more modern. We did some of the tunes in seven. Lennie Tristano's thing was no interaction: the bass player and drummer, you just play time and we don't interact. I wanted to do the opposite of that, let's actually have a dialog

JK: Is that because you wanted a contrast between what he was doing and...

ER: Right, So the famous Tristano story is that he found out his bass player and drummer were students who were going on tour with some bands, so he had them record a bunch of tracks ahead of time. So he took this track in of them recording All of Me and then slowed it down to half speed and then recorded this crazy, intricate solo on top of it, and then put it back up to full speed. It has this really weird piano sound, like an octave off, and then he released it. It's cool, it's called Line Up. So I actually transcribed his solo on that tune and recorded it after I had transcribed the first two choruses of it and we played that as our melody. It's really messed up. It's a melody where you play the melody and the drum track makes you think you're somewhere else and the phrase changes.

So needless to say I got way into that music.

JK: I remember Gary Foster saying once that when guys in L.A. wanted to bring their playing up a level, they would go talk to "The Brain Surgeon," Warne Marsh, another Tristano acolyte.

ER: Warne is fascinating, too. Lee Konitz worked with Tristano and eventually had a family, and Lennie Tristano's thing was "you only play art." You only play art, you don't play any stuff to make money, and Lee's like, "I gotta work!" That's why he went out with Stan Kenton, but Warne Marsh stuck to the principles: he was cleaning pools, he was working at Macy's. His career suffered, people still don't know who Warne Marsh was. They're actually making a movie about him, An Unsung Cat, based on a biography that's really well-written. I think it's done, I think it's gonna come out soon, that'll be fascinating. Warne Marsh was a big influence on me.

Eric Rasmussen

I was asked to play in a big band celebrating Lee's 80th birthday at the JVC Jazz Festival in Carnegie Hall, so they assembled a big band and played all his stuff arranged for big band. I was playing lead alto and Lee was the soloist. I remember playing this music, and thinking "that's my hero up there, wow, he sounds amazing...oh, crap, I gotta come in!"

So I played the thing at Carnegie Hall and I had made these records so I gave him one, and kind of stayed in touch with him a little bit. When I got to Phoenix, I eventually got the Young Sounds gig and I could bring in guest artists, so I thought, "I want to bring in Lee Konitz!" and he said yes. So he came and he worked with the band, which was a pretty high-level band at that point. He did a workshop at the union, it was kind of cool. He was really nice with the Young Sounds kids and I got to play a duet with him on the concert. He did a small group set with the rhythm section at that time, some really good players, so that was really fun.

Years later, I brought him back again to do a concert at the MIM with the SCC band, that was a lot of fun. He died during the pandemic, he actually died by himself of a COVID-related illness, at the height of the pandemic where you couldn't be next to anybody—terrible!

In his older age he was a bit curmudgeonly, but you're allowed to be curmudgeonly when you've lived a life like that. I remember at the MIM concert, we did the big band set and he was like, "Hey Eric, why do we have to do big band? I don't want to play big band." I said, "Well you have to understand that people like big band music, the crowd will come because of the big band music." He would forget a lot of the stuff. I remember during the show we were playing a big band arrangement of the tune Thingin', and during the concert when the solos were happening, I was pointing to my head to come back to the melody, he was like "What does this mean? What are you doing?" I think he yelled it out loud. The band just laughed.

So the second set is a quartet. This is maybe the year before the pandemic, towards the end of his life he started singing a lot. He would put his saxophone down and just scat, that was his thing. And all the...

JK: Was he any good?

ER: Yeah! He sounded great, sounded hip. Not a great voice but kind of in a Louie Armstrong sort of way. So he was scat singing on Body and Soul, and it was kind of out, so whole rows of patrons would get up and file out of there. All the musicians were sitting in the back thinking, "this is unbelievable," and then a whole other row would leave. By the end of the night there was nobody in the theater, he scared everybody away, but, y'know, he didn't care! It was pretty funny.

JK: Do you have any perceptions about New York musicians compared to others, local or elsewhere?

ER: I have memories of playing gigs in New York where someone would be playing and the other musicians would have their eyes closed listening, totally invested in the what everyone was doing. I try to do that with whatever I'm playing.

JK: Well, that's what it's all about. It's respectful to the audience, it's also respectful to the other musicians. It's gotta be kind of a drag as a bass player if you start to solo and the whole band kind of checks out, maybe walk over to the bar or whatever. He would have to feel like, "Hey, I'm trying to do something here! Don't walk off."

ER: Exactly, I was doing a rehearsal with some students recently and the same thing happened while the bass player was soloing, some sax players and trombone players were talking and just hanging out. I asked the bass player, "How'd you feel when these guys were talking during your solo?" "Yeah, that was kind of drag." If you're talking about the music, that's one thing, but even if you're doing that you need to be quiet.

Last year we had some kind of sister cities program for the community college and they these musicians from Africa visited and brought their instruments. They came and observed a few classes, and they sat in on one of my jazz combos and they were all in! They spoke English pretty well but the jazz thing was throwing them off, trying to read stuff, so we just taught them a blues and they were improvising on a blues, it was awesome.

JK: You seem to have come from a largely small-group jazz perspective. Any thoughts about big band playing or conducting?

ER: For me, I certainly played in big bands, but the most exposure I got was not in high school. I played in a few all-county all-star type bands, but my high school was really small and we did not have a good jazz program, we had a small group thing we did. So really the best big band stuff I got was my first year in college when I went to Cal State Northridge. I played with Gary Pratt, who is an amazing director. He was really good and I learned a lot from that guy. I still see him from time to time when we do the Reno Jazz Festival. And then I played in Joel Leach's band, which was the "A" band. There was this big band tradition at Northridge that I had no idea about, so I quickly learned. There were some serious players that came through that band, like local trumpet players Denny Monce and Danny Doyle. I got a lot out of both Pratt and Leach. Going on through school I played with more big bands, I played with a band in Boston called the Jazz Composers Alliance that was run by some guys from Berkeley. A lot of the New England Conservatory guys would go to Berkeley and play in this ensemble. It was a really creative and interesting ensemble, original compositions and very interesting stuff. So that was a lot of fun.

And then when I got to New York, I played with these guys J.C. Sanford and David Shumacher, who had a band called Sound Assembly. Those guys studied with Bob Brookmeyer, so they were coming from that tradition and writing their own music. Great players in that band. John Hollenbeck, whom we've had here as a guest artist and we played some of his charts, he was the drummer in that band. Really high-level players in that band, so that was really good for me. I did the BMI Composers Workshop a number of times with Jim McNeely and Manny Albam, who were directing.

Before that time I had never directed big bands before, I had only played in them. So when I got to Phoenix and began teaching more, I got kind of thrown into the mix, just learning on the fly. Even when I got the Young Sounds of Arizona gig, I was really like, "I think I'm cool...", you know what I mean, "They're kids, I think I can figure it out!" I used to do all the adjudication at the jazz festivals when I was an adjunct faculty member, where you'd go and clinic a band. I was always just kind of scared. I wanted to be the guy that does the taped comments because I was too scared to work with bands and felt like I was just faking it, and to a certain extent I was. But that year of running Young Sounds was really good for me, I learned a lot about directing. After that I got into this gig at SCC and took over the day band. The night band I didn't really need to do much with but over the last ten years I've really grown, I think, in the role of understanding how things function a little better and hearing things a little better. And my day band is getting better year after year after year, pretty high-level stuff now. The first couple of years I was just barely getting through, but now have a lot of guys that have been in the band for ten years. So It's been a lot of fun, I've really grown to love doing it. At first, I was like, "Why does Arizona like big band music so much?" It's like, it's a thing. So I had to kind of get into it.

Eric Rasmussen

JK: Don Bothwell used to describe big band as the marching band of jazz. (laughs)

ER: Totally! Totally. Especially with the night band at SCC, my approach was always that I didn't want to just play the same old stuff. I want to play stuff that's going to be interesting to the guys in town, so it's just not the same old charts. I want to bring in guest artists, play original material and have some new stuff in town. That's been the approach, and I think it's been working.

Even now with the day band, we'll play traditional Basie and Ellington, but I always tell my guys in the day band "give me one weird tune a semester." So we've been doing easier Maria Schneider: this semester we're doing Dance You Monster To My Soft Song, it's hard for them but they pulled it off well.

JK: Your players can handle the doubles?

ER: That's the thing, there's only a few Maria charts we can do that aren't super double-heavy. There might be three of them, and we've played two of them already (laughs) so I'm slowly running out!

We recently went to Desert Mountain High School to do a jazz boot camp and spent an hour just explaining what jazz was because it was all these kids that had never played jazz before. Our concept was like "This is a small group art form, this music originated as a small group art form, and it has to still have that feeling, that essence." Even if you're playing in a big band, the core of everything is the rhythm section and listening to the drummer. We had Ryan explain how the drums work and what you should be listening for: this is the hi-hat, this is the ride cymbal, this is what it originated from, we talked about chord structure and form, they were really engaged. So that's my approach, when I'm adjudicating a high school band, I'm always picking on the rhythm section. I tell the drummer, "Look, it's gonna sound like I'm picking on you, but you're the most important thing in the band." So I sit behind the drums and play time on the drums, that kind of thing. That's my philosophy, getting kids to listen.

JK: Do you find that it's a hard sell to get kids to listen to jazz? When I was a kid growing up here, we had KJZZ on FM radio that played jazz. That still exists, but I remember it being different back then, almost like all jazz, all day. I can remember listening on my little transistor radio to Tom Coulson, spinning jazz records while I was doing my algebra homework, and if I remember correctly, he wouldn't only play the standard stuff, he'd throw in something every once in a while that made you go, "Wwuuut?!" It sounds today a bit more like "corporate jazz" to my ear, for lack of a better term. But there was a lot more opportunity to hear that when radio was the only broadcast option for any kind of music, pre-mp3, streaming, or even MTV, which didn't start broadcasting music videos until the early 80s. And even at that, relatively few people had cable TV back then, so for middle class kids like myself in those days, it was radio or LPs. And who was willing to spend $8 of your hard-earned burger money on an unknown artist? But KJZZ helped out in that regard.

Also, in those days, most good high school programs had a dedicated class period for jazz band all year long, not before school for only one semester after marching season was over. We go to jazz festivals in California, and people took it seriously. For that matter, the entire student body might hear the jazz band numerous times throughout the year in assemblies. Even if was just that they saw a friend playing jazz at an assembly, they'd pay at least a little attention, whether or not they were really into the music. I think there was a lot more in the aether then for kids to absorb. So what I was driving at is what do you tell kids to listen to? Who to listen to, getting them interested in music that doesn't have any synthesizers or computers, music that can be played when the electricity goes out...

ER: Yeah, that's it. Of course, there are some directors that are better than others. There are many adjudication sessions where, rather than specifically working with the band, I'll just talk listening with them: "Hey, saxophone player, what saxophone players do you listen to?" And most of the time the answer is crickets, nothing, So I go to the board and write down "saxophone" and write down five saxophone players, "trumpets" and write down five trumpet players. I tell them, "Go into YouTube and type in 'Miles Davis' or 'John Coltrane' and see where that takes you," or give them some big band suggestions. Directors are getting better, but there are a lot of directors that think it's just something we do in the spring, and they will conduct the band like a marching band, so it's for the benefit of them, too.

JK: Imagine being a director and told that you need to have a jazz band having no real connection to the music, no experience having played in one, and then having to stand in front and lead one. That's gotta be a pretty tall mountain to climb.

ER: Most of them are pretty receptive, especially in my district. I have a lot of young band directors that are pretty eager. But you still have situations where you go to these jazz festivals and you're sitting at the table, and the band comes out and they're all dressed in tuxedos. Red bow ties, and "Ugghh," I already know what this is going to sound like. I just want to tell the band directors, "Don't dress them like that, c'mon man, this is 2022!" (laughs) Matching hats and that kind of stuff.

JK: Any closing remarks?

ER: I'm certainly happy where life took me. I'm happy with the decisions I made, I'm happy to be in Phoenix, happy to see things changing in Phoenix. We now have two jazz clubs, actual jazz clubs, that's never been a thing since I've been here. The Nash has been important and now we have Ravenscroft, we're getting way more national acts coming through town than we've ever had. That's been nice. I'm fortunate to be in this situation where I can teach and choose what I want to do, have kind of free reign, that's pretty nice. I'm looking forward to getting back into the creative side of things now that my kid has gone away to college. My wife and I focused a lot of energy on him and now he's gone. My wife is now finding creative outlets for stuff to do and for me, it's getting back to playing more. I mean, I'm always playing, but I mean taking time, composing, being an artist. I've been playing every month at the Lost Leaf with our band, Running From Bears, for about 12-13 years. We are all great friends and it's my main creative outlet in town as we all present original music. I'm going to write some music and record again, but I haven't thought of that in a long time. I've recorded with Running From Bears, but I mean doing my own thing, trying to think of a path forward. At some point I will start arranging some big band music, it's always in the back of my mind to do it. I have this outlet, this band, I just haven't done it. I've written a lot of music in my life, a huge part of my life, so I want to get back to that and see where it takes me.

Other than that, I'm happy to be alive, happy jazz is still alive, that's my goal in life is to make sure this music doesn't die. I tell my jazz history kids all the time, this is so important. I'll get kids in my jazz history class that are non-musicians and five years go by and I'll get an email from them saying "Hey, I'm in New York and I went to the Village Vanguard and saw the Monday night big band, thanks for telling me about it," that makes me feel good.

So at this point, I'm getting a lot of satisfaction in seeing my students succeed and do well in New York, that's kind of where it's at now and it's great, very rewarding.

—December 2022

eric serious

Artist Info


Jazz Artists

Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Donny McCaslin, Kenny Werner, Charlie Haden, Danilo Perez, George Garzone


80th Birthday celebration of Lee Konitz at the JVC Jazz Festival in Carnegie Hall, Johnny Mathis, The Temptations, The Four Tops, George Benson, Glenn Miller Orchestra, Phoenix Symphony

Most fun/fulfilling

I had a chance to play with the Spokane Symphony along with Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, Billy Hart and Ed Schuller (conducted by Gunther Schuller)

A few weird European gigs

▸ Played in a converted salt mine in Krakow, Poland (it was actually a beautiful venue)
▸ Some crazy “third world” type venues outside of Prague.

Most painful

I used to do these bar mitzvah gigs in NYC where I had to just make up horn parts with recorded tracks.




▸phone: 718-614-1287




Alto Sax

Selmer Mark VI (1969)


Vandoren V16 A9 opened to 10 and refaced

Sax Cases

Walter woods molded hard case


I'm a Mac guy through and through


I use Finale for notation



All the masters: Bird, Trane, Lee Konitz, Miles, Ornette, etc., but there is so much great music from Mahler to James Brown.


▸Sonny Rollins, The Bridge
▸Sonny Rollins, Live From The Village Vanguard Vol 1
▸Lee Konitz, Konitz meets Mulligan
▸John Coltrane, Transition
▸Miles Davis, Milestones


▸I remember being very inspired by Chasin' the Trane, a biography of John Coltrane.
▸The Miles autobiography is pretty fun as well.
▸The weird Mingus book Beneath the Underdog.

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