An Interview with Eric Seddon
With Eva Wasserman-Margolis
I am a classical musician so why am I doing an interview on a jazz player? In the 1970s I was introduced to jazz when I arrived in New Orleans. We were a part of the football team’s journey. I was then a part of the University of Florida’s marching band. We got to go to the Sugar Bowl. I had the pleasure of visiting Pat O’Brien’s and other venues, and there I was lucky to have heard the last of the old-timers of that Jazz Era. They must have been in their 70s, playing away. I love jazz in most of its forms. I don’t know that much about jazz, and for me, this interview will give me more insight into jazz and its forms. I hope it will for those that read this article. I’ve never met Eric in person but I’ve had many occasions on Facebook to see his posts and to interact with him. He is not only a jazz expert on the clarinet but a true, what I call, “Renaissance man.” I have great respect for him after working with him as a judge for the international panel of the ICC Competition for clarinet this past year. Here I saw the true face of a man who loves jazz and was with an open heart to all the students who participated in the competition. Eric is an excellent artist and has a great historical love for jazz, especially the blues.
Eva Wasserman-Margolis: Eric, Jazz: what does it mean to you and why is your soul so connected to blues?
Eric Seddon: I love that you open with a question about musical meaning. What does jazz mean to me? I guess first and foremost jazz is my native musical language: the one I’ve known longest and that is most natural to me. I’ve played many different styles—one might even say in different musical systems— over the course of my career, but jazz is the most primal for me, the most conducive to my musical personality and sympathies. In another way, it’s very much of the place I’ve lived my life: it’s American in a very unique way among the arts. It speaks of this place, of these people, these landscapes: how we live our lives. I like the immediacy of jazz and its scope of expression. Most importantly, jazz is a type of key that unlocks a certain part of my soul—jazz allows for a type of utterance impossible otherwise.
As to the blues, yes, perhaps you’ve heard me describe myself as essentially a blues player. Though I’m not dogmatic about it, I tend to agree with those who say that for music to be classified as “jazz” it must have three elements: improvisation, swing, and blues. So, for me, the blues can’t be separated from jazz, but is a constituent part.
As to why my soul is so connected to the blues, maybe it’s because of the emphasis on soul, sound, and lyricism, which are my main concerns as a musician. While complex harmony is not absent from the blues, the real subtlety and complexity of the blues often lies in the sound itself—the sheer range colors, textures, and timbres required for expression. It’s a vocal, singing quality rooted in a concept of sound not as common in European music. Instead of searching for the pure, ‘ideal’ sound, we develop a unique, or ‘real’ sound – a sound that can be hauntingly beautiful and sweet one moment, then by turns rough, shot through with suffering or soaring with praise. The whole range of human emotion must be expressed through timbre, in a sense. That’s something that can never be quantified or even analyzed by traditional music theory—but anyone who successfully plays the blues, or who enjoys listening to the blues, innately understands this. Whenever my playing is talked about, whether by critics, other players, or audience members, the first thing mentioned tends to be my sound, which makes sense because that’s what I’ve spent so much of my musical life developing.
EWM: As a religious man, how do you find yourself connected to jazz and are there any problems you have with working in places that may not be the best place for one who follows his religion?
ES: I tend to agree with Sidney Bechet, who considered the ultimate source and root of jazz to be the Spiritual and the Blues. He was vehemently against the popular narrative of jazz being born in the red-light district of New Orleans (whether this is true or was exaggerated historically, Bechet was emphatically against it). And I think those deeper roots of the Spiritual and the Blues account for this music’s lasting power and significance. So, musically speaking, for me there is no conflict as an Orthodox Christian, who sings in the St Theodosius Cathedral Choir, also being the clarinetist who plays jazz in nightclubs. They’re not the same thing, of course, but they are not contradictory.
As far as nightclubs and bars are concerned, let’s put it this way: I don’t find the temptations of the nightclub any different from the temptations of the concert hall. Offstage, I’m the predictably boring guy in the band. It’s very rare that I hang around any longer than to pay my band or get paid, then I get home to my wife and kids. When I’m on the road, the routine isn’t much different. I might head out to eat with some of the guys, but I’m back to the hotel room pretty quickly, calling my best friend (my wife Elisa) to tell her how the show went and how I miss being home. That’s just who I am. I’m not interested in smoking anything with anybody, and other than a stiff nightcap before bed, not interested in drinking all that much.
A musician’s life is pretty much a musician’s life, regardless of what type you’re playing. The same temptations exist coming off stage of a symphony orchestra. My first gig after grad school was playing bass clarinet in the Evansville Philharmonic in southern Indiana. There were bars to go to, and a Riverboat casino on the Ohio River after concerts. A lot of the younger guys would go immediately out the Riverboat and gamble what they’d just been paid. When I was invited along, I’d laugh and say “I came here to earn money, not lose it!” Eventually I found the perfect roommate: a tuba player who was also a young married guy like me. We both always just wanted to get back to the hotel and call home—and we had a deal between us that we could talk mushy with our young wives (to a reasonable degree) without the other guy laughing.
In general, I think nightclub audiences are great. I like the interaction we get to have with the crowd: and they’re almost all there because of the love they have for our music; for what it gives their soul. So, to me, the concert experience in jazz is a beautiful thing. I’m lucky enough to have some loyal fans who will drive to my gigs whether in Cleveland or Akron or elsewhere, and it’s always a pleasure to see them. They ask intelligent questions about the music, and honestly, I’m kind of astonished and gratified at how far they’ll go just to hear me play. So overall, I don’t think there is a barrier for a devout person. You have to avoid temptations, of course, but so does anyone who gets up in the morning!
EWM: As someone that doesn’t know so much about jazz like me, how many forms of jazz can you list?
ES: Oh, tough one. Largely because it’s not how I think, and not how I want to think. Let me explain: to me, the goal of a jazz musician is, in some ways, to be beyond style. All jazz is a fusion of different styles, and even different musical systems. African polyrhythm, European instruments, Marches, Foxtrots, Caribbean rhythmic tinges, Spanish influence: I’ve just rattled off only a few of the important sources of New Orleans jazz. And each successive era of jazz absorbs and reinvents new elements. Jazz is like the English language, it’s so absorbent and creative, and while we talk of different accents, we don’t talk about different “styles” of English. I think that’s a better parallel.
To me, the ultimate jazz musician is one whose musical knowledge (both aural and theoretical) and whose skills on their instrument are so advanced, they could walk into any musical situation, without sheet music, and add something to the music. Whether that’s Sidney Bechet, improvising obligatos to Puccini arias in Europe early in his career, or Branford Marsalis adding solos to Sting’s rock music early in his, or Bobby McFerrin improvising lines over Bach, each of them were jazz musicians in those circumstances adding their unique voices. Dave Brubeck took this approach of creative fusion with world music, as did Tony Scott. The possibilities are endless, and the more jazz musicians embrace this, the less we focus on set “styles” and more on a living, breathing musical approach.
EWM: For those that are interested in listening to your performances or want more information about you as a performer, do you have a website, and what is the name of your blog site?
ES: Yes, thanks. I have a pretty bare-bones website: https://ericseddon.wixsite.com/mysite
Right now, it’s simply a place to sell my CD “Eric Seddon’s Hot Club: Bootlegs from the Bop Stop” I hope to do more with the site as the years progress, though, including selling sheet music of my compositions and some other things. My blog, which is considerably older than the website, is called The Jazz Clarinet http://thejazzclarinet.blogspot.com/. The Jazz Clarinet began as a labor of love, as I thought there wasn’t enough advocacy for our great instrument in the jazz world at the time. I wrote historical pieces and reviews, and still occasionally update it. It gets a lot of traffic, for a clarinet blog, and has won some awards. Mostly, it’s been a great way to meet enthusiasts from around the globe.
EWM: Eric, I have witnessed your love of children and students through your family postings and the way you treated all the players in the ICCC competition, do you have a special method that you would like to share that could help those that teach jazz?
ES: For some reason, a teaching position has never really come my way. I’ve only sporadically taught over the decades, and very rarely given masterclasses. So any knowledge of teaching jazz on my part is purely theoretical or drawn from my own path as a musician. But there are some things I am quite committed to, and that I’d like to see emphasized more in jazz education: First and foremost, remember the oral/aural tradition. It would be better, in my opinion, if jazz combos never had sheet music. Don’t be afraid to encourage your students to improvise without knowing what key they’re in. Let them stretch their ears. Encourage lyricism over pattern play. I like to say that jazz is a full contact sport: you have to use everything–your mind, your ear, your emotions. Another analogy I use: jazz is like climbing a mountain. Sometimes you can just walk with ease, but other times you have to use both arms and legs—and still other times you might need a safety wire and grappling hook. So it is with jazz: sometimes you just use your ears. Other times you might have to use your ears and deliberate theoretical knowledge. In the worst of times, you might even need sheet music with chord symbols! But ideally, your ear should be developed until it is good enough. That’s the goal.
Another thing that I think jazz educators are starting to become hip to: don’t force your students down a narrow, stylistic pedagogy. The 1950s and 60s were a long time ago. Not everything has to begin and end with bebop.
EWM: Since an interview is time-limited because of space, can you give your personal touch of what you would like to say in this article?
ES: Mostly, I just want to thank you. I’ve been at this a long time in my life, almost purely out of love for it, and because, somehow, something in my soul needed to do it all these years. I’m grateful you’d want to know more about my perspective and playing.
EWM: Is there anything you would like to share about your outlook on the future of jazz and where you see its future?
ES: In many ways, I’d like to see us take a page out of the Classical musicians’ perspective. Not in terms of how we train or make music, but in terms of how we view our history. In Classical music, no one falls into the trap of Chronological Snobbery (as CS Lewis put it). No one thinks Bach inferior to Mozart because he was earlier, or that Beethoven supplanted Mozart and we no longer have to play Mozart’s music anymore, or that Schoenberg is greater than Brahms. There is room for all the great music of every era, and a great concert season of a symphony orchestra reflects that. I would hope that earlier jazz styles are finally appreciated by the mainstream jazz press and academia the way Baroque Orchestras or Mostly Mozart festivals are among Classical institutions. I think that leads to a healthier and more successful musical scene.
So, paradoxically, while I say above, we should, as musicians, strive to be beyond ‘style’, I hope, simultaneously, that we embrace the value of all the styles that have come before us, seeing that there is still a tremendous field of creative work to be done in all of them.
Ultimately, for me, jazz will only have a living future if it focuses on the soul. We have to connect emotionally with audiences, and those emotions can’t be dominated by anger or a desire for mere virtuosity. If there is no warmth, and no love, the body dies. We need that warmth, that love: we need to be a consolation in this world, a healing element. We need to continue to share joy even in the midst of suffering (what are the Blues if not exactly that?) We need to give the human spirit solace, if only for the duration of our tune. If we do those things, we’ll never be out of style, and we’ll always be relevant.
Eric Seddon holds a BM in clarinet from Hartt (’94) and an MM in music history from Butler University (’99). A native New Yorker, he has lived in Cleveland since 2000 with his wife Elisa and their seven children. His debut album Bootlegs from the Bop Stop was released in 2018.
“Seddon has a large tone and extroverted style…playing with infectious spirit and creativity…His songs are natural fits for New Orleans jazz bands…” –Scott Yanow (The Syncopated Times)
To find out more about Eric, please visit his website https://ericseddon.wixsite.com/mysite or his blog The Jazz Clarinet http://thejazzclarinet.blogspot.com/
Eva Wasserman-Margolis has recently returned to the ICA position of International Chair for Israel. To find out more about her, please visit www.evawassermanmargolis.com.