Playin’ Around With Playbook: Ben Flocks
Hey everyone! This past week on Playin’ Around With Playbook, Sammy took the reins and interviewed our very own, Ben Flocks.
Saxophonist and educator, Ben Flocks captivates audiences around the world with his soulful sound. Born in Santa Cruz, California, and residing in Brooklyn, Ben leads his own group and plays as a sideman in a variety of musical settings.
Currently, a member of the smash-hit ensemble Sammy Miller and the Congregation, Ben and the band have received acclaim for their joyous, entertaining blend of music and theater. Ben has led his band at the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland and has had the honor to perform with Joshua Redman’s Trio, with Dave Brubeck as a Brubeck Institute Fellow, and with Antonio Sanchez and Migration.
Ben holds a bachelor’s degree from the New School in New York and serves on faculty at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and at the Calhoun School. He leads workshops in schools around the country through Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s educational programs, teaching all ages through interactive concerts tracing the history of jazz.
Below are some snippets of their conversation on January 27th, 2022. Click here to listen to the full interview.
Surprise friends, foes near and nearer. Trista is out right now. And she called in me to take care of Playin’ Around With Playbook.
Let’s start with our first question. What have you been listening to these days?
I’ve been listening to Miles Davis, his second quintet with Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter Wayne Shorter, live, and I was listening to some other Blues Bootlegs today that I hadn’t heard before. But I’ve been listening to a lot of different music, trying to listen to more music than ever before. I have been learning some traditional Mexican folk songs and working with a few singer songwriters in Los Angeles to learn some of their music. So listening to that, and I was also excited to get back on the road with the Congregation and check out some new stuff that we’re working on.
SM: Do you find that during the pandemic in general that you’ve gone through periods where you don’t want to listen to music? Or have you been wanting to listen?
BF: I think my relationship with music has certainly changed. When the pandemic started, right off the bat, I decided to kind of try to share music with people more than I had before through this kind of medium on Instagram. I just went for it. And that was a powerful moment, because it was, it made me happy to see how many other people were happy to listen to these beautiful old songs. Something I’ve missed a lot is hearing live concerts. And I moved out of New York during the pandemic, too. So I miss going to the Vanguard, I miss hearing music at Lincoln Center, I miss going to shows after we play a show and staying out late and all that stuff.
SM: Can you talk about going from being a student in that place and then now you’re a faculty member there? What’s it been like to be on both sides of that?
BF: I feel so lucky to have grown up where I did, around the people that I did. And that, as you know, there’s a wealth of incredible educational opportunities and clubs and resources in the Bay Area, kind of similar in LA. And so right away, I was able to start hearing shows and then go into camp at Stanford jazz and then playing with a big band at SF jazz. There were so many resources out there, where I could meet other musicians like myself, start playing with them and start learning from them. To have access to a lot of the elder musicians that played all this music, to ask them questions, to be able to hear them play and shake their hands and be around them was such an important thing.
SM: Who impacted you the most in that? Was there someone who made you like, like, Man, I want to do this?
BF: I had a bunch of those types of experiences. I had a bunch of amazing teachers in Santa Cruz. But there’s a legendary educator named Ray Brown, he was a trumpet player, played with Stan Kenton’s orchestra and I had a chance to learn from him. He was an incredible educator, but really supportive of the whole jazz community in Santa Cruz and taught all these incredible musicians that grew up in the same area that I did. And then I started going to Khumba and I heard Joshua Redman, I heard Chick Corea, I heard Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker, Kenny Garrett, I mean, you name a musician. I heard them play in that incredible room. It has some real magic to it. And then I started going to camp at Stanford jazz and had so many important experiences there learning from Charles McPherson and Jimmy Heath and other educators, who I had the opportunity to work with later in New York City. And also meeting people like you, Sammy.
SM: Talk to me about New York, you know, people who play jazz music or want to be involved with think: I got to, go to go to New York. Do you think that’s important for young musicians out there? Does that seem like it was in your development? Could you imagine not having gone there? Do you think it was important?
BF: I wouldn’t trade my experiences in New York for the world. I think I loved it. And it still feels odd to say that I don’t live there anymore. I was there for 11 years. And that’s when we started playing together. Sammy. I think before I got there, I had a lot of people whisper in my ear like, this is great. You’re doing your thing. But check it out in New York, like if you really want to, it’s worth it, you should go. And I’m glad that I did. I don’t think you have to. If you go there, and you feel that magic, if you see the city skyline, and you get goosebumps, or if you go to the Vanguard for the first time, and you can feel the spirits and the energy in that room. It’ll bring you in and you’ll get hooked. I think New York is so beautiful, because it’s got people from all over the world. Not just musicians, but everyone’s doing everything at such a high level and everyone’s very driven, passionate, and is there because they love what they’re doing. Not because they love riding the subway every day.
SM: How do you stay positive? What’s your mantra?
BF: Well, I try to be as positive as I can, all the time. And even during the last couple of years, when it’s been difficult to be positive. I always tried to find something to, to get me through it and to help others get through the time, I think music is one of those things that can be shared. And something that you can use almost as medicine, to try to feel better. If I’m feeling down, if I’m feeling sad, sometimes I’ll listen to music that maybe has a certain message or expresses a certain feeling, maybe that I’m feeling so that I can relate with it and I can kind of use it to help me process my thoughts and then move past that. Another thing that I turn to when I’m feeling down is nature. So I love being outside and trying to find some peace, some quiet, some some relaxed moments through that.
SM: Last question I want to ask here, Ben, Why are virtual platforms like Playbook important at this time?
BF: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I was alluding to that just a second ago. In a moment like we all experienced recently where we maybe can’t get together, these virtual platforms allow us all a space where we can still share, we can still learn together, we can still laugh, we can still cry. Maybe we can’t necessarily give each other a hug. But I mean, we can share these memes, we can put emojis in our chats. And I think with Playbook and things like that, I mean, there’s a lot of different aspects to this virtual learning that remind me of ways that I learned myself when I didn’t have a cell phone and I wasn’t using the internet to learn. We’ve talked about this a lot, Sammy, but the way that I learned how to play was by listening to records and playing along with that. And that was a big deal. And with the playbook platform, you can play along with these recordings. And it gives you a lot of flexibility to listen to specific instruments and kind of dissect certain aspects of the song. So that would have been a really useful tool for me when I had my CD player, portable CD player, and I was holding the rewind thing and had my headphones.