Jon Damian  

Interview with Jon Damian – 01/29/2008

Rob – Of course you live and breathe music. But what do you think you would do if you werent a musician? What is Jon Damian from the parallel universe doing for a living? Was there a point in your life when you wanted to do something else?

Jon – I was lowered, oops I mean raised in Brooklyn, New York and my original career was as a visual artist. I attended college for commercial art for two years, worked as an artist on Madison Avenue in New York City in the advertising industry for about a year, and than was drafted in to the army in May of 1966. Upon returning from the army in May of 1968 I returned to Madison Avenue as an artist, started to do rather well for a 22 year old, but than decided to leave Madison Avenue and go to the Berklee College of Music with financial help from the G.I. bill. It was a great move for me! The only thing I miss from Madison Avenue was a really cool deli that had killer potato knishes. What’s a knish? Google it.

At this point in my life, if I could not continue to pursue music, I would try to get work in the area of wildlife and habitat preservation. I am an avid bird watcher.

Rob – Have you ever had a student that has taught you something, or introduced something new to you? If so, what?

Jon – I am constantly learning from my students. The most important thing is to be able to play with any level of student with as much focus and musical involvement as any other playing situation.

One recent student experience I can share is with Stephen who spent 7 years in a monastery in Tibet and for one of his assignments concerning melodic motifs, brought in Tibetan bells and scrolls from which he sang Tibetan chants from which he composed his assignments. That was a fun learning experience! I have tons more fun student experiences to share.

Rob – In your long history in music, have you ever had stage fright, and if so what did you do to overcome it?

Jon – Performance anxiety, or stage fright comes in different sizes. A healthy size that actually can help your performance and an extra-large size that can cripple your performance. Everyone has some form of stage fright unless you are a Tibetan monk! Remember “your performance is equal to your potential minus fear.” I found that quote in a wonderful book The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green, Doubleday Press. The most important tip I can share is to realize that breathing may become more shallow when anxious thereby adding to the anxiety. Learning to breathe deeply will help to alleviate one’s anxiousness. This, as with anything, takes practice.

Rob – You have played at a lot of places, but is there an event or a show that you would consider your favorite?

Jon – I have had fun playing in many exciting situations from Carnegie Hall Stage with the Boston Pops, to Luciano Pavarotti at the Boston Garden, to Bill Frisell at the Berklee Performance Center but the most memorable was with Johnny Cash and the Pops with John Williams conducting. I was featured on these banjo solos for the concert which was being aired on national television for the show Evening at Pops. During rehearsal, during my solos, the cameras were nearby and I mentioned to the cameraman, “Hey my mother is in intensive care at the hospital make sure you get some shots of me!” As it turned out, at my next visit to my Mom, I got the report that she saw the whole concert from her bedside and was totally thrilled and crying during my solos! I still get choked up and misty when I think of that.

Rob – Your books are great because they can be applied to any style of music, but would you label yourself as a Jazz Guitarist, or is there another category you would place yourself in?

Jon – I was “raised” as basically a Jazz player, but I consider myself a freelance guitarist and enjoy playing all music from Punk to Rubber. In fact I played a show Doonesbury in which the entire score was Punk. To play the show I became a Punk fanatic, listened to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts avidly, got a Gibson Les Paul, cranked it up and had a ball making lots of money!!
I am also in to the avante-garde and my instrument invention, the Rubbertellie is a product of those explorations. So I play a range of musics, ergo I am a freelancer and proud of it! Never a chance to get bored!


Rob – Do you ever go out to a show or event and watch other musicians play? Is there a certain place you routinely go to?

Jon – I used to check out gigs much more as a younger lad. New York memories of Monk, Bill Evans, Dizzy, Miles, Kenny, Jim Hall and many others. I used to go so often as a kid that I would be let in for nada to the Village Vanguard, thanks to Max Gordon, and the Village Gate!

Here in Boston, I have had fun listening experiences at The Jazz Workshop, Pauls Mall, the Regatta Bar and Scullers.

Rob – Nobody knows where music will be 20 years from now, but where would you like it to be?

Jon – Let’s see….I’ll be only 82 years old so I would like it to still be where it is right now, deeply in my heart and soul.

Rob – A lot of musicians believe that you should always try and push to that next level, that you should never be satisfied with your current level of playing and writing. what are your thoughts on that?

Jon – A healthy musician, I feel, is a curious one, and ones arrival to a “next” level should not feel pushed. For me it is a natural feeling of growing, again thanks to my curiosity. I’m a little piggy when it comes to music exploration!

Rob – What are your thoughts on guitar tabulature?

Jon – Tablature is an important language to learn. For me personally, traditional notation technique is far more important since I have never played a gig that required me to read tablature. I have had hundreds of nice gigs that were open to me because of my reading abilities. Traditional notation is also the best visual representation of  a piece of music. It displays texture, rhythm, direction, etc. in a very efficient manner! In my second book, The Chord Factory which is designed for all levels and persuasions of guitar players there is some tablature only to help the more early level readers. There is also traditional notation and templates used throughout the book. In my first book The Guitarists Guide To Composing and Improvising there is no tablature but has an 80 track CD for everyone to enjoy the book’s many music examples.

Rob – What are some suggestions when you feel your playing is in a rut?

Jon – A trip to a museum really stimulates me and I also do a lot of my writing in a museum atmosphere it is like a creative trigger for me. Yoga practice really is stimulating as well as walks in wild areas.

Rob – How do you maintain a creative frame of mind?

Jon – I never really thought about it. And now that I am. I don’t know. I again have always been curious and easily excited about things.

Rob – Whats your favorite album of the last 50 years? 25? 10?

Jon – As I say in the acknowledgements of The Guitarists Guide to Composing and Improvising, thanks to my sister Judy for her incredible record collection which was the seminal music inspirational point for me as a 3 year old. I still remember the Bobby Hackett with the Jackie Gleason Orchestra albums and still enjoy them. She also had classical recordings from Debussy to Bartok. And even some Stan Getz and lots of the other cats.

From a guitar perspective, Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue and Wes Montgomery’s So Much Guitar are some of my favorites. I love listening to Bill Frisell, Wayne Krantz, Kurt Rosenwinkel et. al. Not to be too humble here but one of my favorite albums is my own album Dedications: Faces and Places with Bill Frisell.

Rob – Are there any younger players that you listen to regularly?

Jon – I really enjoy listening to my everyday students and how they are growing. Hopefully. I also like to keep up with some of my older students. See the last response.

Rob – Do you feel any hesitation about moving elements that may be most recognized in one type of music and moving it into another type, e.g. classical arrangements with electric instruments, jazz music with a tambourine?

Jon – None at all. In my Creative Workshop Ensemble (CreW) that I teach here at Berklee the entire universe is potential for our creative music works. We once had a goldfish as a conductor for a piece!! My new book Fresh Music: Explorations with the Creative Workshop ensemble for Musicians, Artists, and Teachers is now available. Contact me at about getting a copy.

Rob – Lastly, what is your favorite Italian dish?!

Jon – The Trenette Al Pesto served at the La Rosetta Hotel in Perugia, Italy where I stayed when I worked as part of the Umbrian Jazz Festival. I am headed back there soon.