Playin’ Around With Playbook: Paul Contos
This week on Playin’ around With Playbook, we spoke to Paul Contos. With over thirty years in jazz performance, education, and faculty positions at UC Santa Cruz, CA State University Monterey Bay, and Monterey Peninsula College, Paul’s talents and abilities encompass worldwide performance, recording, production, conducting, and mentorship.
Paul served as saxophone clinician with The Monterey Jazz Festival for 30 yrs, as Director of the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra & Monterey County All-Stars for 20 yrs, and as Education Director for the Monterey Jazz Festival (2011-2019). He continues as Director of the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars Orchestra (2009-present) and is an annual guest artist in Japan, Brazil, and the United States annually.
Under Paul’s direction, many of the ensembles he has conducted have been awarded first place at competitions and festivals throughout the U.S. In 2017, Paul was awarded Downbeat Magazine’s national Jazz Education Achievement Award for Jazz Educator, and in 2015 was awarded the Champion of the Arts: Educator Award by the Monterey Arts Council.
Check out some of the interviews below! Click here to listen to the full interview.
What have you been listening to lately?
A Love Supreme was very inspirational for me. When I started community college, I was lying flat on my bed, just listening to a College Jazz Radio show or something. A Love Supreme came on with that super inspirational chant. I remember this kind of made the hair on the back of my neck stand up a little bit. I shot up and sat up straight in my bed and said I don’t know what this is, but I know this is important for my life. We all have experiences like that, but that’s one of them. I listened to a bunch of things, of course, all the great innovators that are happening now, many of whom have been in my band. People like Sammy Miller.
I keep tabs on all the peeps from afar, Patrick Bartley, Emmet Cohen, Adam Larson, and Katie Thiroux.
TF: How has your teaching style changed from when you started some 30 years ago, going from little to no virtual teaching to YouTube and all these platforms?
PC: There’s nothing like being in the same room with students where they can feel you breathe air into your horn, and feel the articulation and phrasing of how much air to push.
I’m always saying, do you have a computer? Do you have a device? When I was coming up, it was always, did you find that Miles record? But now it’s so much easier. I’m on YouTube every day, and I’m learning every day. So yes, you know, I can demonstrate the aesthetics to students. And then I can lead them to where they can actually see and hear the people who invented music, and that’s incredibly valuable.
SM: How do you know when to push students versus when to give slack?
PC: It’s about caring for students, and not just numbers on a page or the demographics of students to show maybe a particular organization how well they’re doing in jazz education and stuff. It takes educators.
That’s one of the things I love about Playbook Jazz because it seems like you folks care. It takes a certain amount of care for the souls that you’re working with to get these young people inspired to play music. You know as well as I do, more than 50% of the battle is if you can inspire a young musician, the world’s their oyster.
I’ve not been successful every moment in the whole bunch of years, but I have a wonderful legacy and testimonial of students. Sometimes I’m asked, visiting schools, and you’re the guest artist, how was that tenor player’s solo? I’ll ask the student, okay, what’s the thing that gave you the most joy in the last 24 hours? And you know, people get a little sensitive there. And then I might ask, you know if it’s appropriate, and if you would like to share it, what’s the thing that maybe gave you the most pain, or the most sadness, and then we can talk about it, and then I can know the person more.
I’ve had so many great all-stars, and we know when they’re seniors where to go to college. It’s the big thing, where should I go? Should I go to MSM, Berkeley, Juilliard, Miami, USC, all the great jazz schools? And I had this weird thing in my gut where I can kind of feel you there, and maybe not there. Many times it’s worked.
TF: What do you think is most important for your students? What do you aim that they would walk away with overall?
PC: With this music that we’re dealing with called jazz improvisation music, allowing a young person’s natural ability to emanate and come forth is important, and not to crush their creativity. I don’t want to belittle the little learning the skill sets set, it’s super important to just take care of all the fundamentals. I mean, you heard it from Bird seventy-eight years before I said it, nurturing a young person’s creativity and thinking is vital. I can think of just about a six-second example here I’m working with a young vocalist now, who I believe is a freshman. But they are so naturally talented. It’s just unbelievable what this young woman can sing and the range and just the feeling this person has. She definitely will benefit with some really good vocal training and stuff. Although her pitch and everything is incredible, it’s an example to me of like, I hope the spirit isn’t crushed. You know? Anyway, the most overarching thing is developing a good ear. So there’s that. Then there’s rhythm, you know, instilling rhythm patterns, arrange rhythm arrangements and configurations. That’s the pulse of life, isn’t it?
TF: So to close this off, I want to ask you, why do you believe platforms like Playbook are so important in today’s classroom?
PC: I’m a big fan of it. The thing about playbook is it radiates like an aesthetics that supersedes the isolation mentality that’s so prevalent now. Everyone is in relationship with their device. It exudes kind of a togetherness that we’re all in this making music together. The other thing is that it also has the element of fun, which is what we tell students a lot of the time. We know it’s hard work and you have got to really dedicate yourself. But we all got into this because we thought it was fun. We understand how challenging it is. But when it stops being fun it’s hard to get the passion. Playbook seems to engender the environment that constitutes what most of us got into music for, whether it’s beginning concert band or orchestra or jazz band, it was the togetherness that got us. Whether you’re a wind player, or whether you’re part of the rhythm section, that aspect of labor comes out to me. It draws the musician into it.