Friday, May 12, 2017

Living his jazz mentors’ advice

Bass player and educator Brandon Robertson practices what he teaches.

Brandon Robertson
Robertson earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in music performance at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where his mentors had sage advice. “They’ve all told me to go out and make my own name for myself. Make my own success,” Robertson says. “I just want to be positive, be professional and play as well as I can play.” 

He’s a busy addition to the Southwest Florida jazz scene since moving here summer. He performs regularly at area jazz venues in addition to his day job as an adjunct professor of instrumental studies at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. He has subbed for the regular bass player in the Count Basie Orchestra. (More on that later.)

Robertson, 31, is the lone jazz faculty member at FGCU’s Bowers School of Music & the Arts, where he just wrapped up his rookie year. He teaches jazz techniques and jazz ensemble courses and directs FGCU’s popular Basketball Band. The latter kept him mighty busy as the men’s and women’s teams both played in post-season tournaments.

In his jazz techniques and jazz ensemble courses, he works with a variety of students, some of whom have scant jazz experience.

“I find ways to connect to the jazz idiom so they’re not just reading charts,” Robertson says. “I explain the historical context of each piece they perform – and challenge them to do more research themselves into the music, be it from Erroll Garner, Sidney Bechet, Ornette Coleman, Louis Armstrong or Count Basie, for example. It was so rewarding to see how much these students got into it. It was such an accomplishment to get them to start listening.”

His strongest bit of advice, the one he lives, is to “try to make my students keep reaching for it. I tell them ‘practice like you’re performing.’”

After earning his bachelor’s degree at FSU in 2009, Robertson took time off to gig locally in and around Tallahassee as well as tour with a variety of bands. The Tampa native entered grad school in 2013 where his program included a direct independent study with Scotty Barnhart, Assistant Professor of Jazz Trumpet in FSU’s Jazz Studies program.

Barnhart is also musical director of the Count Basie Orchestra. He suggested Robertson get real familiar, real fast with Basie band charts, and started using him as a sub when the regular bassist, Trevor Ware, was unavailable.

Barnhart became the primary mentor for Robertson. “He kept telling me: ‘You never, ever, want to play mediocre. You have to keep pushing yourself.’”

The latest push involved Robertson’s persistence in applying to perform at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. The free event draws upwards of 100,000 people over four days at the end of May, including Memorial Day Weekend. Polite rejections merely reinforced in his mind that he wasn’t ready yet.

“Two years ago, I reassessed the music I was playing, started writing charts with a lot of pop influences and made jazz charts out of them,” Robertson says. It paid off. In late March of this year, he got a call that he was in the lineup this year.

Robertson’s band will open the Breezin’ Stage at Jacksonville Landing, one of the festival’s four outdoor downtown stages, on Sunday, May 28. The festival’s headliners that day, principally on the Swingin’ Stage, the main stage a few blocks away, include pianists Joey Alexander and Chick Corea with their respective trios, plus The Commodores.

The Brandon Robertson Quartet will perform the leader’s original music in Jacksonville. His band includes three other former FSU grad students: pianist Zack Bartholomew, who is now working on his doctorate at the University of Miami, and two New Orleans-based players. They are drummer Gerald Watkins, who plays in Jason Marsalis’ vibes quartet, and tenor saxophonist Boyce Griffith, who has subbed in pianist Marcus Roberts’ 12-piece band The Modern Jazz Generation, which consists of younger musicians who all went to FSU.

If you can’t catch Robertson in Jacksonville, be sure to hear him on Thursday nights in downtown Fort Myers when he performs with the Dan Miller-Lew Del Gatto quartet at The Barrel Room. He also fills in now and then with saxophonist Craig Christman’s Starlight Memories Band.

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