BEHRINGER is excited to add composer, pianist John Beasley to its roster of artists. Beasley’s ninth album Positootly! was recently nominated for a 2010 Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album by an Individual or Group. Beasley has had a long career in the music industry and has worked with legendary jazz musicians Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. He has also worked with James Brown, Carly Simon, Steely Dan, Lee Ritenour, and Queen Latifah. He worked as a lead arranger for several seasons of American Idol, and also serves as an arranger for The Tonight Show. He has worked as a composer on many television series including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Cheers, Family Ties, and Fame. Beasley was also a performer on several film scores including Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Erin Brockovich, A Bug’s Life, Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, and many more.
Beasley chatted with me about his Grammy nomination, his career, and what’s next for him.
I was very surprised actually. I’m a voter myself and when I saw there were 380 people in my category I thought maybe I would have better luck in the composition category or the arranging category. I had just gotten back from South Africa with A.R. Rahman and I was very jet lagged. I went to bed early, the night the nominations were announced, and woke up the next morning to a bunch of text messages and my wife jumping up and down, screaming and stuff. It was a nice surprise.
Can you talk a little about Positootly!?
The album is called Positootly! because there is a Meters song called “Absoltively Positutely.” In October 2008, we were facing the shock of the economic crisis while heading into the contentious election campaigns. I wanted to come up with a record with a positive message. I wanted to show that if we can stick this out and work together better days will be ahead of us. I went back to my childhood. I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana near a bayou in Caddo Parish. I thought about the quality of life there. I included a lot of titles and grooves that hark back to growing up in a simple place where people’s attitudes towards life is filled with hope and a spirit of fun.
When did you start playing jazz?
When I was in my teens, my parents moved to Denton, Texas where my dad took a job teaching, at the University of North Texas, which has one of the country’s best music and jazz programs. A lot of musicians came through that town, like Mel Lewis and Oliver Nelson. These guys would do workshops and concerts, and I got really inspired to play jazz. I had been playing guitar in rock bands up until that point. I remember hearing Jimmy Smith, Art Blakey, and Charlie Parker at home, but the music didn’t really sink in until I actually saw it being played. Jazz became my love. From that point on I knew I was going to be a musician.
You played with Freddie Hubbard?
I played with Freddie off and on for about eight to nine years. I think I started with him when I was about twenty-one or twenty-two so in a way that was my graduate school.
You toured with Miles Davis, what was that like?
That was an interesting time in my life. My wife at the time was pregnant with my daughter Sierra. I was juggling jazz gigs and doing quite a bit of studio work in Hollywood. We had just bought a house and it seemed like everything was happening at once. Miles called right in the thick of it. I dreamt about playing with him all my life. I grew up a lot during that gig. I saw how dedicated Miles was to the band and to improving after every concert. His dedication to being an artist was inspiring. He really put in a lot of time and hard work. People think the sound came magically out of his horn, but he put a lot of time and dedication into his art.
Who are your biggest influences musically?
This is a long list. I like all kinds of music. I like R&B, I grew up playing it. I like soul, classical music. I can’t name one person, but Duke Ellington, Robert Johnson, Eric Copeland to name just a few.
How do your influences affect your own writing and performing?
When you’re practicing, studying, and listening that’s when you’re soaking all that up. When I am writing or playing I’m not thinking of any of any one in particular. I think it just comes through in your sound. That’s what you like and what you listen to, so that’s what resonates with you. I’m just trying to get the music to what it really wants to be on its own. I’m kind of a mix of all these people and it hopefully comes out as being my voice.
You worked as an arranger on several seasons of American Idol. How do you come up with the shortened versions of the songs, and the arrangements?
That’s the hard part. How do you get to the core of the song so it still has the integrity of the full length of the song? I can give you a better idea of how I arrange using the time when I was Associate Producer for the female contestants (Season 4 – Carrie Underwood’s year). You’re there with the artist, and sometimes the producers are there, and you go through it. You also have to try to find the best part of the song that really makes that particular singer shine. So you sit there with the artist and just bang it out. Everyone has ideas about tempo, groove, or maybe doing it in another style from the way it was originally performed. Because it’s a contest you can’t say ‘Oh I think you should do it this way,’ or ‘do it that way.’ If they get knocked off the show they could come back and say the producers or this guy said to do it this way and it turns into a mess. So you have to present different options and then they make that decision.
What’s up next for you?
I’m working on scoring a movie in January and February. The first week of February I will travel to Japan for a week with Mike Stern and Lee Ritenour. Then in the middle of February I’m hosting, and playing with my band, some special concerts at Disney Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The series is called “Jazz Meets the Orchestra.” There will be a jazz quintet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra. The conductor and I will highlight the differences and similarities of jazz for the orchestra and for a quintet. The classical bass will speak to the jazz bass and so on. They’re targeted to youth audiences but really anyone interested. The interaction is going to be fun. Then I will do some more work with A.R. Rahman in March and April. I was just in South Africa with him. We started his world tour in the spring of last year.
What is it like scoring for television and movies?The directors will usually put in some temp music that represents what they like. They already have kind of an idea of what they want. As composer, you have to find that balance. They hire you for a particular sound. You have to find a happy medium between what they want and what you can give them. You’re helping the director actually write music for his movie. Writing is sure different for movies and TV as opposed to making records. It’s really the director’s baby. It’s his record so to speak. You’re really trying to help them to get their points across and still be creative and interpret their vision. It’s a fine line to walk.
What are the most memorable experiences in your career?
Well, I never thought it would happen, but to be recognized by my peers with a Grammy nomination is really humbling for me. I’ve been out here for a while. The selection goes through these committees. These members listen to all the music and whittle it down to five records, out of in my category around four hundred, which they think deserve recognition. It’s really humbling. I didn’t ever really think about getting a GRAMMY. The idea of it is settling in. It’s pretty cool. In my career musically, working with Miles was a highlight, and with Freddie Hubbard too. I love writing for movies. I love working with the ever imaginative film composer Thomas Newman. These artists are all about creativity and finding something new in music. That’s what I aspire to do every day.
You can learn more about John Beasley at beasleymusic.com.
Learn more about his Grammy nominated album Positootly! at Resonance Records.org