Strive to be Happy, Volume 4 (No. 16-20)

16) December 16. No snow in Rochester. None. Yesterday it was RAINING. So so weird. Lots to discuss, however. The death of Paul Motian made waves around the jazz world, and certainly hit home with me as well. While reading tribute after tribute, tweet after tweet, facebook status after facebook status, I started to think that anything that I could say would be pretty meaningless. Having said that, I feel its important to add my thoughts, for both myself, and the other 2 people that read this (whats up, Raskopf?)


I never got to see Paul Motian perform live, all that I knew of him was what I read in books and magazines, and what I heard on recordings and in stories. I remember hearing him first on Bill Evans’ “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” that my dad had as a kid, and not being particularly impressed. It took me a while to realize what people got so excited about when listening to him. I finally got it, the year after I graduated college. Paul Motian did whatever the hell he wanted. I had spent 4 years of undergrad at Eastman, where the only way you can appropriately play drums behind a soloist is to not play at all. I was stifled time and time again, hearing that Im playing “too much stuff” and my personal favorite/mantra by an assistant professor that I wont name: “I like it when the drummer only solos during the drum solo”. It continued with conversations that went something like this:


Teacher: “Aaron, I dont have any idea who you are listening to that plays that way but it is not making sense to me.”


Me: “I am listening to a lot of Nasheet Waits lately, you know, from Fred Hersch’s trio?”


Teacher: “No I am not familiar with his work.”


Me: <facepalm>


Once I graduated, I realized that nobody could tell me what NOT to do anymore, and I was still getting gigs, so something must have been ok! Then I started listening to Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band. Man, I just loved how he sometimes sounded like he was in another room, or another planet even. But somehow, it just worked. I later had a conversation with Frank Kimbrough, who was about to record what would become his record “Play”. Motian was to be on the date. Frank told me about Paul’s rules, like he wouldnt record anything outside of New York, no rehearsals, how much he cost, etc, and then he followed with “but it doesnt matter, because its all worth it”. To hear someone who in his own right is pretty special to speak of Motian like that, Paul obviously had something serious going on. It gave me so much confidence, to know that, POSSIBLY, playing the way I want, hearing it the way I hear it, is OK…that was a defining moment in my development as a player. Thanks to Paul Motian, that happened. I like to think that once in a while, I can reach into the “Paul Motian bag” and sound a little like him. I hope Im right.


Now it appears that as I wrote that, the news of Bob Brookmeyer’s death is crossing through the same aforementioned channels. This too comes as a shock, however it isnt completely unexpected. I spoke to Ryan Truesdell last week, who has served as an assistant to Bob for the last number of years. He mentioned that Bob that wasnt doing very well. Bob is another person, strangely enough, who really encouraged me to find my own voice. I never studied with either, but when Bob came to Eastman, I was part of the New Jazz Ensemble that performed his 80th birthday concert. I will never forget the interaction we had, as he conducted the band and smiled at me as we played. I was so thrilled when he loved my playing on his “Seesaw”, written as a feature for another hero of mine, John Hollenbeck. He was so opposite of what everybody had said about him: he was loving, warm, kind and genuinely happy to be sharing the music with everyone. I remember being SO scared to mess up, just expecting to get ripped apart (especially based on the feedback I had been getting from teachers) but it was the opposite. He hugged me, and told me I should move in with him and his wife so we could play together all the time. He called me some of the best, most affectionate swear words that anyone could ever speak, and it was such an inspiring couple of days. I have pictures of me playing as he plays during “Seesaw” hanging in my house. He made me think that what I was doing as a player was acceptable, and he appreciated my original voice. I felt like I loved Bob Brookmeyer after knowing him for 4 days. I think for both him and Paul Motian, people kinda knew they would die soon. That doesnt make it any better.


I didnt even intend to write about this stuff. I was going to tell you how much I liked Dave Douglas’ collaboration with So Percussion…how I had presented at the State Music Teachers Conference and had a good time…how I was getting excited about Dave Chisholm’s album being out, and the subsequent CD release show we had this week…how I am utterly STOKED for Ben Thomas to release our album with Tony Malaby soon…but this is how it goes. They always say “we have things that we want to do, and then life gets in the way.” Couldnt be more true here. These two guys are both going to leave a major hole in the jazz world.


Or is it the Black Improvised Music world? Nicholas Payton’s rants on this subject have been for the most part pretty ignorant, in my opinion. Ill come up with more to say on this if the “movement” is still around the next time I write here. Sometimes I just have to say it this way…I wish all I had to do in life was sit around and pontificate on stuff like that. Go make some art, who cares what you call it. When was his last relevant record? I dont remember, and I think thats the point.


SO there wasnt so much striving to be happy here but I am still striving, and I hope you do too!




17) Oh how awful I am at keeping up with this. Maybe it is my own humility showing through, imagining that my life is not interesting enough to warrant a post. However, I think that 2012 has started off rather well, and has been a lot of fun.


Firstly, I have continued to enjoy playing with Wooden Cities, a great troupe of improvisers led by my former-student-turned-bandleader Brendan Fitzgerald. We perform John Zorn’s game piece “Cobra”, along with other works from composers within the group. It is a great deal of fun and we’ve made strides in understanding and performing the piece. Its really something worth checking out, if you are ever able!


Dave Chisholm’s band Calligraphy has been another great source of music making for me. Dave’s soundscapes are such a joy to play over, and the guys in the band make it so easy. Dave’s record is well worth the few dollars that he asks. I would recommend it to anyone. Rumor has it that this band wil have a big gig in NYC before the close of 2012. Stay tuned.


The eagerly awaited release of Ben Thomas’ debut album has finally arrived. Recorded live at ROCO last year, Ben’s album features myself, but more importantly, the living legend Tony Malaby on tenor saxophone. The product is really cool: it looks great, it sounds great and oh, did I mention, its me and Ben playing with Tony Freaking Malaby!! How can you go wrong. Get this one too, everybody!


In January, I traveled to New York and was interviewed for Jason Crane’s podcast “The Jazz Session”. (find the interview at THis was a great experience for a couple of reasons. First, it was a great getaway for Sarah and I. Secondly, Jason is a master interviewer; he asked all the right questions about me and my music, and really made me feel like a pro. Third, he told me that my episode of the show was one of the best ever. THat really made me feel proud, since I have heard so many of my heros give incredibly insightful interviews with Jason. Wow! Thank you Mr Crane!!


I just returned from Central PA, where I was a part of the 5th Annual Day of Percussion in the West Shore School District. My good friend George Clements put this massive event together, and we spent a day with 85 young percussionists giving master classes, performing recitals and hearing a bunch of great kids performing as well. We premiered two of my pieces, and the guys brought it STRONG on many many difficult pieces. Many good times were had with Sean Connors, Ivan Trevino, Bobby Marino, George and the kids of the WSSD! Good work, children.


I played a fun weekend of gigs with trumpeter Rick Braun and my dad’s Youth Orchestra, covering the music from Rick’s new ‘standards’ CD. The arrangements by Phillipe Saise are masterful, and I think its a record that most people would enjoy. Rick and Phillipe were fun to hang with, and they gave me hope that old guys can be cool too. I have something to look forward to!


I am in the midst of a new endeavor for me, as I am conducting a musical for the first time. The JCC Centerstage here in Rochester is putting on Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade” and I am at the helm of the ship. Its a great musical, and while Ive played many shows at the JCC before, its probably the best one of which Ive ever been a part. Its a lot of fun to conduct a show like this; I lead a 9 piece orchestra of fantastic players, and an ensemble cast of 35 exciting and engaging performers (one of which is my wife!). The show opens on Saturday and runs thru May 20, so if you are a 585er, get over to the JCC and catch a performance.


Bending and Breaking has been on a bit of a hiatus, mostly due to the purchase of and subsequent move into our new house. This has been a super fun exciting adventure and Im sure it will feel even better once we are settled! I hope to bring the band back into the light sooner than later, and I have a lot of other exciting projects up my sleeve, just be patient people. In the meantime, get some more copies of my CD, buy Dave and Ben’s album as well, and go hear some music whenever you can.


Things to be happy/excited about:

Floyd Mayweather v Miguel Cotto tomorrow night

In fact, many big boxing matches this summer.

The opening of PARADE at the JCC tomorrow night

Teaching at the Hochstein School of Rock camp this summer

Good hanging with good friends and quality time with my wife

Chipotle burritos

Sodastream machine and the beverages it creates

Breaking Bad returns soon



If you made it this far, thanks for checking up on me. Behave yourself, internet.


18) September. Usually I write these when I feel like I havent in a while, and Im letting the three of you down. This time, I feel like I almost cant NOT write an update. Things are really whirling for me lately, and in a good way. I had a wonderful summer, albeit a busy one. Some of the things included:


–Playing for the musicals Spring Awakening and Seussical

–The resurgence of “UNDER OPEN SKY”; my band that plays arrangements of folk songs

–Playing on Mike Kaupa’s recital at Eastman with Bill Dobbins, Jeff Campbell and many others. We premiered a piece by Jen Bellor (more on her later) and played a complete transcription of “My Funny Valentine” from Miles Davis’ “Four and More” album.

–Teaching for a week at the Hochstein “School of Rock” with some great kids

–Teaching marching band in Central PA for a week (with some great kids)

–a wonderful vacation with my whole family in the Adirondacks


and now….football returns. I…back to school.


I am teaching at Odyssey Academy in Greece this year. I used to teach at a school called Odyssey Academy in Greece a few years ago–this is the same PEOPLE but a different BUILDING. Its really fun. I have great kids and the adults are nice to work with as well. New challenges? Welcome.


Outside of school, things are really getting sweet.


–I was commissioned by Sean Jefferson to write a piece for 11,000 piece percussion ensemble. Thats correct. They are going to try to set the Guinness Book World Record for “Worlds Largest Percussion Ensemble”. And I wrote the piece! The event is on October 10 at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. Pretty incredible! I just finished the piece yesterday so now its up to the kids to learn and perform it. Very very exciting.


–I am music director for a really cool production. Sammi Cohen and friends are putting on a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” as part of the Rochester Fringe Festival. Great music, fun, talent in every position, come see it September 21 at 1030 pm at the Xerox Aud in Rochester.


–That same night, I am playing on another Fringe event headed up by composer Jen Bellor (more on her later…yes, still more.) I have been lucky to have Jen hire me for almost everything possible lately, and at this event she hired my whole band. Bending and Breaking will provide the music for two separate improvised dances at 700 that night. This unique marriage of music and dance is going to be exciting to see/hear. Im also playing on a few other of Jen’s pieces that night. Should be great.


–On September 19, I am playing as the guest soloist with the Eastman Wind Ensemble. Jen wrote a piece called “Uprising” and while I didnt realize it at first, apparently she wrote the piece FOR me. Pretty awesome. I am playing grunge metal drumset and the wind ensemble is playing…well…grunge metal wind ensemble. Come check out that free concert at 8pm.


–On September 26, I will head to New York City to play my first real NY gig. Dave Chisholm’s band CALLIGRAPHY, of which I have been honored to be a part, is playing at Smalls that night as part of Dave Douglas’ Festival of New Trumpet music. Its going to be incredibly fun, as Chisholm’s music is a blast to play over (I have ultimate freedom! YES!). If you are in the NY area, come check it.


–I have been invited to return as a judge of the Guitar Center Drumoff (Rochester edition) which starts tonight and runs for the next four Tuesdays. Cool event as well and a nice honor to be thought of for this.


It is pretty overwhelming to realize how much great stuff is going on, and I hope that it keeps happening that way. I am a lucky guy. And a happy one.


Some things that have been making me happy lately:

–Our new house. Really awesome to have a house.

–Some great friends. Really awesome to go to Darien Lake with friends.

–Books by John Krakauer. “Into Thin Air” and “Into The Wild” have got me reading again.

–I saw the newest Batman movie and it was great. Get there if you havent.

–Aries Spears standup comedy. SO great.

–Louie (and Louis CK in general). Great TV show, great thoughtful comedy.

–So many things have been happening, there hasnt been so much outside of working to think about, but Im happy doing what Im doing and finding joy in being a happy person, if that makes any sense.


Thanks for reading this far. You must really love me. I appreciate that.


Ill try to catch up soon!


19) I never expected this to last this long. Having a section to write in called “Strive to be happy”. Seems like we’d have been happy by now if we had been striving all this time. I am happy. Hopefully you are too. We arent as a society, yet. Not as a society of artists and not in a general cultural sense, either. This post could ramble, but Im going to try to get you somewhere with it.


“Strive to be happy” comes from the last line of Max Ehrmann’s 1927 poem, “Desiderata”. It has some of the most important advice I think anyone can receive. This poem has provided me many words to live by. I think a lot of it might seem like common sense to many people, but sometimes its good to see it in written form.


You can read the whole thing here:


There are some really great lines, like


“Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.”


“Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.”




“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”




I teach 6th graders. They think they are happy, but I dont really think they are. They have learned (somewhere) that its good to be rude and mean, and that if someone does something that you dont like, you injure them physically. Trust me, this is a reality. If you are sitting there going “no thats not possible”, it is. If youre thinking “hes exaggerating”, Im not. Its sad. And im not naive, I remember high school. I was a jerk. I wasnt nice to people. And Im still guilty of this. It sometimes feels much easier to put others down instead of finding the good in a situation. It gives us the feeling of superiority, something we all crave. I always will remember the date i went on in high school. It was with a girl that I didnt know all that well, but was a friend of a friend and there was mutual interest. We went to Starbucks, and things seemed to be going well. After about 30 minutes, the girl stopped our conversation and said “You know, everyone said you were such a jerk, but you arent really so bad.” She meant it as a compliment (i think?) but it hurt. More than that, I couldnt believe that ‘everyone’ had this negative opinion of me. I thought people loved me! Maybe many did, but wow I was hurting people on the way. From that point forward, I have always tried to be good to people. Im not always successful, and in my social circle, examples to the contrary are well documented. Im never afraid to say what I think, and sometimes that means putting down the work or ideas of others. Really, this isnt best, but I guess it proves we are all human.




Music seems to be great at creating this polarizing situation. Look at the Grammys, for example. I didnt watch, but based on social media, I know the following. 1) Frank Ocean sings out of tune, 2) no band nominated for album of the year was REALLY any good, and 3) jazz got to be on, but not for nearly as long as it OUGHT to be on. Now, I agree with the fact that much of pop music doesnt require a whole lot of skill, and I have great debates with non-music teacher friends here at school about whether or not the dudes in Phish are ACTUALLY good musicians or not. Its been well documented for years that theres more to an artists popularity than the music that they make, theres no need to go through all that again. Why, then, are we watching the Grammys? If you dont like something, why put yourself through it? I hate the show Honey Boo Boo, and it makes me very upset that someone is celebrated for their stupidity and lack of basic hygiene. SO I DONT WATCH IT. I know Ill get mad, so I avoid it. I dont feel like the Grammys, (or Honey Boo Boo, for that matter) is a representation of me or what I do. Would I like to win a Grammy some day? Of course. But is that my goal? Absolutely not. They are very different things. Joy and love are so important to good music making (in my opinion) that I have those words written on my snare drum. If I can help others feel that too, Im doing my job!




John Hollenbeck once told me something similar to this thought. He said “Dont you think I get pissed when Diana Krall is on the cover of Downbeat? Of course, but she looks way better in a skirt than me.” He went on to say that he is very happy in what hes doing, and while that kind of recognition would be great, it isnt why he does what he does. Not coincidentally, he wrote a piece using the Desiderata that appeared on the album “Madly Loving You” with Bob Brookmeyer as the narrator. Check it out.




I guess the point is to look for the good in things and avoid the things that you wont dig. Life is too short to fill it with stuff that isnt going to make you happy. If you have a choice, of course.




Im going to tell you some things that have been making me happy, so that maybe theyll make you happy too.


1. Wayne Shorter’s new record, “Without A Net”. Im pretty firmly convinced that Waynes quartet is on Miles Quintet/Coltrane Quartet level in the “Best Jazz Band Ever” category. They certainly have equal (if not greater) telepathy. No surprise that this record is great.


2. John Hollenbeck’s new record, “Songs I Like A Lot”. Ive started a similar project without realizing that he was doing this, where we play music that I like, regardless of genre. John finds the beauty in songs that you might have heard before, and gives them his always-fresh treatment.


3. Anything by Destiny’s Child. They made a re-appearance at the Super Bowl, and it reminded me that they are awesome. Check out a greatest hits record. Killing. Its also kinda nice hearing Beyonce singing about all the bad men shes found, because now shes married to Jay-Z and hes real sweet.


4. (still making me happy) Fiona Apple “The Idler Wheel….”. Was up for a Grammy. Lost. All I need to know to decide whether the Grammys have any idea what theyre doing.


5. There was a fire ay my gym, so I cant go. Makes me kinda happy.


6. The show Bob’s Burgers. I think I mentioned this before, but its hilarious.


7. Trader Joe’s Garlic Fries. If you like garlic and you like fries, these are for you.


8. My new band, Normal People. Check out the link below, its going to be pretty sweet.


9. I played with the Dave Rivello Ensemble recently and loved it. Dave writes awesome music, but also the people in the band are fantastic. Its so easy to play hard music when everyone knows how its supposed to go.



You can check out my new project here:


I hope we can keep being happy. Avoid the bad, do more of the good. Be happy.


20) It has been  busy summer, and the fall seems to bring a new plate of events each year. I think one of the things Im most proud of at this point in my life is that fact that I keep doing different things. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be directing the band for 2-3 great musicals a year, I would not have believed you, yet I have done exactly that. I havent played a jazz standards gig in maybe a year, and Im ok with that. We are actively pursuing our new percussion collective (more on that later), which is something that I never expected to be involved with when I was in college. This brings me to an important point that my good friend Ivan Trevino ( talks about a lot, and that is skills. I have worked hard to have a variety of skills that make me more marketable as a musician, and thats why my musical life has not yet grown boring or stagnant. I like the fact that I can go from teaching a jazz camp, to teaching a rock camp, to directing a musical to teaching a week of marching band in four consecutive weeks. TO me, thats much more fun than playing the same gig for four straight weeks. I also love that my few close friends from college that im regularly in touch with (all percussionists) are all doing very different things. One is a teacher, one is a composer, one is in a military service band, one is in a folk rock band, one is in a percussion quartet professionally, one is preparing a website and materials to launch what will surely become a successful solo career, and then theres me. And Im doing a bit of everything, which is lots of fun!


Heres a little sample of what is coming up for me this fall:


–In September, Rochester hosts its 2nd Annual Fringe Festival. I am a part of THREE showcases. Im playing and working with two musical theatre performances, which will both be great. The most unique and exciting show that I am a part of is BENDING AND BREAKING. Yes, thats the name of my band. And it features my band. 5 composers, including myself and Jen Bellor (co-coordinator of this event) will write new pieces for Bending and Breaking. We will then pair each piece with a choreographer and dancers, including some from the Rochester City Ballet. Each piece will be premiered with music and original choreography on that night. It will happen on September 27 at 10pm at Max at Eastman Place. Come and check it out!


–This fall, we hope to announce the official debut of our percussion collective, SCATTER Percussion. Our focus is on teaching percussion through performance of our original compositions. This group is comprised of some of my best friends, and its exciting. We hope to hold an event in Rochester this fall, and more around the country as the year continues. More information on this forthcoming.


–I will be attending the Percussive Arts Society International Conference (PASIC) in November in Indianapolis. I went last year, to Austin, and it was one of the coolest percussion related events I can remember. I learned a lot, which I consider to be a major coup.


–I am trying to plan some gigs for my bands that we havent heard from in a while, which is all of them. NORMAL PEOPLE was a big success in April, and that performance is available for free listen on UNDER OPEN SKY, my folk song project, hasnt seen action since last summer, but is still one of my favorite groups to perform with. BENDING AND BREAKING makes its triumphant return at the September Fringe, but I hope to have more music for that group soon too.


I am excited about all of this, and the new things that will surely emerge as well.


I have been trying to post some non-music related things here, and I have to admit that the sports nerd in me is very excited for the fall. I am currently enjoying access to 5 different Barclays Premier League soccer matches at once on TV, the Bills are looking good in the NFL preseason, and there are SO many good boxing fights coming up. Fall is a great time for sports and I will be enjoying every minute of it.


I know this update is long overdue, but hopefully there are more exciting things to write about in the future!

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