Playin’ Around With Playbook: Nick Finzer
Hey everyone! This week on Playin’ Around With Playbook I was able to speak with the award-winning composer, producer, entrepreneur, educator and trombonist Nick Finzer. Finzer is bringing the joy and power of Jazz to traditional fans and the most modern 21st-century audiences. He’s on a mission to be a passionate voice defining the sound of Jazz in this age.
Born into the musical world (his mother, Sherry Finzer, is a flutist), Finzer developed a fascination for the music of Duke Ellington and found himself, in high school, performing at the annual Essentially Ellington competition of Jazz at Lincoln Center. It was then that he decided to pursue a life in music himself. His budding talent was recognized by Wycliffe Gordon who began a mentorship by writing four pieces for the young Finzer while he attended the Eastman School of Music. Nick went on to get his masters at Juilliard’s prestigious Jazz program where he was mentored by trombone legend Steve Turre.
2020 saw two new honors for Nick; a Grammy nomination with Anat Cohen’s Tentet and topping the Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll in the “Rising Star Trombone” category. Finzer’s 5th album as a leader “Cast of Characters” with his sextet Hear & Now was welcomed to critical acclaim, and a nationwide album release tour.
Below are some snippets from our conversation on March 24th, 2022. Click here to listen to the full interview.
TRISTA FORD: What have you been listening to lately?
NICK FINZER: Oh, I’ve been listening to things that have been making my students work. There’s this great JJ Johnson record called In Person. There’s another re-release and it was called trombone master. So I’ve been listening to that.
I’m often listening either to new submissions that people send in, so it’s some people’s music, or I’m listening to what’s coming out on Spotify.
TF: What do you want your students at UNT to walk away with at the end of their studies with you?
NF: There’s two things I want them to walk away with. One is learning how to learn in a deep way. Being able to teach themselves and be autonomous. So that’s number one. And number two, I’m going to teach you how to be an improviser, a jazz soloist. But if you don’t want to learn, you know, all the great history of jazz, we might not get along super well. And it might be frustrating. So I try to make it known up front that I want to teach the history of the music and I want you to come away as well rounded and knowledgeable in the history of improvising jazz.
TF: Do you have any favorite experiences teaching there?
NF: The best moments as a teacher are seeing the light bulb go off, right? And it’s different for every student. Some people come in and they’re already deep in it. They don’t. IT depends on the student, but that moment of when they things start to click, and they’re able to realize the amount of time it takes for them to get to a good level and trying to then push them from there. So that’s one kind of magical moment when they finally start to get it.
As an educator, it’s also nice to see your students get recognized for their hard work. Some of my students have gone on to win a bunch of jazz trombone competitions that exist in the world. And so seeing them do that, or seeing them not be a finalist for a while, and then they’ve done it four or five, six times, and then they finally get in there, and they finally are able to win, not that jazz is about competitions, but it’s just nice to see them feel recognized, you know, and that they’re working hard and that it’s paying off. So those things are, those are nice things to see. And I would say that some of my favorite performance memories came from my long relationship with Wycliffe Gordon, who played in the jazz at lincoln center orchestra. And so playing in that group is always something I wanted to do. So the first time that I was able to do that, that was a huge. I played with them for a couple of tours, and so just showing up and sitting down, and then Wynton’s right behind you playing in the trombone section. That was both scary and really inspiring and just kind of a great moment.
TF: What inspired you to take the step to create your label?
NF: I never intended to have a record label or anything like that. It never occurred to me, it wasn’t a goal. It wasn’t a thing in my mind. But when I finished my master’s degree, I decided that I wanted to put out a record. And it was my first kind of foray into learning about everything. And so I got a whole bunch of information by just doing wrong, doing things wrong, for the first time, and learning about timelines, and what needs to happen in order for a CD to come out, and how to hire a publicist and get the team together. And I hired maybe not the greatest person. And so I learned a lot from that. And then I started to talk to other labels and find out what their deals were and how it all worked. And I was like I think I could probably do this myself. And so then I started doing it. And then my friends started asking for advice. And I would always be like, Oh, just give it to me, I’ll just put it out for you. It’s easier for me to just do it than to explain, and so with that person I was like, well, it’s kind of time saving for me to just do it as I did it. And then one thing led to another. So in 2015/2016, we kind of officially started releasing music. And so it kind of was just a natural outcropping of helping friends. And so I’ve kind of stuck to my guns in terms of the mission of the label is to be artists centric, and to make sure to accentuate all the parts of the contracts that I really hated in reading other people’s that I wanted to make different with ours, so it keeps all the control in the hands of the artists. And that’s really important to me. So in terms of their masters, they keep it, the publishing, they keep it, the copyrights, they keep it all 100%. And we just help distribute, and promote and market their releases. And so that’s been really important to me. So it kind of has been slow growing, but now we’re doing 30 or 40 releases a year, so keeps me pretty busy.
TF: So between those things, do you have any mantras when things get tough or work gets especially busy?
NF: I do a weekly live stream with a bunch of people in my audience. A question that comes up a lot is like, what do you do when you don’t feel motivated? Something that I stick with is that I don’t really believe in that, like being motivated to do. It’s just that you’ve decided already, what you’re going to do. I’ve decided I’m going to practice or I’ve decided I’m going to learn something or be a part of something or run a record label. There’s no option. I already decided I’m going to do this. If you decide beforehand that you’re going to do it, then you just get it done. I don’t think that would work for everybody. But that’s been useful in my life.
TF: Why do you feel platforms like Playbook are important in today’s classroom?
NF: Yeah, you know, everyone learns differently. And especially in jazz, there are so many different types of students, like some come with great years and no knowledge of how music works from a theoretical perspective. And then maybe there’s people that are really good at their instrument, but don’t know anything about improvising. Or then there’s another group of people that love to just play and need more refinement in terms of how they play their instrument, you know, and so having all different types of options, Playbook, obviously, being one where you can go and learn in a style that suits what you need. That’s very much an essential core philosophy. My teaching is: everyone’s not the same. You can’t just give them the same repertoire. You can’t give them the same assignments. So I think what’s cool about what you guys are doing is being able to have those different kind of play along with experts and be able to insert yourself into a musical situation to raise your level no matter what stage you’re at. I think that’s really important to have all these different approaches, and allow students and educators to find new ways to engage the students.