Tooting His Own Horn: An Interview with Jazz Clarinetist Harry Skoler
[Matthew Robinson] Why swing?
[Harry Skoler] Why swing? Well, the music of Benny Goodman was really -- no pun intended -- instrumental in my getting into music in the first place. I really- when I was playing clarinet as a kid, I wasn't really too into music. I wasn't too enthusiastic. And when my teacher gave me the Goodman to learn, I played it stiffly. When I played them for my teacher, he gently took the clarinet from my hands and just wailed on the solos. I was inspired. That night, I bought my first Goodman album and told my parents that I wanted to be a Jazz clarinetist. It was the first music that captivated me. Though I've come to play many other styles of music -- especially Jazz -- it's Goodman's music that is really...a part of me- so completely ingrained that I really felt that this album- I really wanted to do a tribute to Goodman. I really feel that the music of Goodman is they type of music where I don't have to be a clone. I don't WANT to be a Goodman clone. I have my own story to tell. So does the group. So this is music that we can play and yet still make our own personal statement. I feel that swing music is so alive that it enables one to tell their story through it. It's not like a relic from the past. It's like...a vehicle that can be driven at anytime. It's so alive!
[Matthew] There can be a grand difference between wanting to play an instrument, playing an instrument, playing it well, and really dedicating yourself to it. How did you stick with the clarinet and was doing so difficult at any point?
[Harry] Well, I 'd have to say it stuck with me because the difficulty of the instrument as well as the music business really discouraged me at some points. At one point, I gave up on music altogether and went back to school for architecture. But soon [the music] began to call me- I began to go to jam sessions instead of design sessions (laughs). I had played so many instruments -- sax, piano, flute -- but as far as the instrument that is closest to my heart, I'd say the clarinet is. And that's why I'd say the clarinet has made it to the top of the pile of instruments that I want to stick with intently. For a while, I thought of giving it up because it's not a very popular instrument. So few people play it. However, this soon proved an advantage because there aren't as many clarinet players. So, as far as the business itself, it's helped shine a little extra light my way.
The nature of the instrument is that the clarinet has three different registers, so it allows for a variety of expression. So the band is important- it has to be sensitive, And that's what's so special about this band. Not only are we friends, but we have an affinity which allows us to work well together with all the variety of the instrument.
[Matthew] Who are your favorite artists (besides Benny Goodman). What eras do they come from? Who do you like today?
[Harry] I break that down into two categories: The first is clarinet players; the second is just musicians. I'd have to say that, for me, the musicians are much more important than their eras. It doesn't matter as much if they were be-bop or fusion or what.
For clarinet players, I would say Jimmy Giuffre, whom I studied with for 2 years at New England Conservatory. He's a mentor and a very mystical musician and teacher as well. (He was known, of course, for playing the lower end of the clarinet.) Eddie Daniels. Buddy De Franco. There's a guy in the forties -- Edmund Hall. There's a guy that played with Gil Evans -- Tony Scott. Great player!...They were my favorite players.
As far as musicians that have influenced me the most over the years....Bill Evans. Charlie Parker. Stan Getz. Rassan Roland-Kirk. Phil Woods....There's so many...so many players. And, uh, Warren Vachét [Note: Mr. Skoler spelled the last name for me].
Lately, I've been listening a lot to Joe Henderson and Scott Hamilton. I like Marion McPartland. I really like Sonny Rollins.
[Matthew] What is your favorite audience? Who do you most like to play for?
[Harry] I would say - gee that's a tough one! I think that the audiences that I like to play for- it has more to do with the setting. I'd say that when it's more like a concert, I like that the best because in some clubs, the atmosphere is conducive to talking and listening, whereas in places like Scullers and the Regattabar, people come to listen. They concentrate and that brings out the best in me. I'd say those are the circumstances. As far as the audience, anyone who comes out to listen to us, I'm honored. I'm very happy to share the music with them. But I think the intimate audiences and venues bring out the best- certainly in myself and I think in the group as well.
[Matthew] What is "Adventures in Jazz"? How did it come about? What does it do? What does it hope to do?
[Harry] Quite simply, it is a committed quartet whose mission is to bring the language of Jazz to young people throughout New England. And that ranges from kindergarten through college, but mostly its from kindergarten through twelfth grade. We haven't done any college workshops yet. But we could! It's a program which is both entertaining and educational and it's designed to help instrumentalists explore improvisation for the first time.
[Matthew] You do a great deal of work with school children. How did you get started with that? Is that as rewarding as recording and performing for their parents?
[Harry] About 1980, I started volunteering when I was living in Nashville (in Tennessee). I started going to a school down the street near my apartment and began volunteering to teach music -- they didn't have a budget for music -- and I just kept doing it. I had had horrendous music teachers and wonderful teachers, so I wanted to help give other children the opportunity to learn and explore.
Over the last ten years, I began going into the schools on a part-time basis and it was so enjoyable and successful, that I decided to really- to do it right! And along with Roger [Kimball] and Tim [Gilmore] and a wonderful pianist named Mark Rettalack we formed "Adventures in Jazz" and spent about a year and a half or so just getting it together -- rehearsing, putting together our presentation, promoting. But when we're on the road, that's when it really jells. It is an "adventure" because you have to be spontaneous. And if you don't have the time of your life, you're just not gonna' get to the kids.
We're now funded by three state programs -- one in Massachusetts and two in New Hampshire. We were recently profiled in "Down Beat" [Jazz magazine] -- I wrote an article -- and that will hopefully help us get known and to grow. Anyone who has that interest in reaching kids with music is welcome to get involved [see contact address below].
[Matthew] What do you consider to be the state of music education today? What can/should be done about it?
[Harry] There needs to be a stronger priority on music education in general. I think it's appalling that so many schools have cut music from their programs. And as important as other programs are, the arts are fundamental to human beings' sense of self and creativity and I think there needs to be more funding for programs in school -- particularly band programs and music teachers that are there on a full-time basis. I think that commitment to the kids is really important. In addition, I think that schools need to bring in outside artists to keep interest up. In our day and age -- full of violence and drugs -- anything that can help kids develop self-esteem while being creative is vital. In my opinion, it's not an option to cut [music programs] anymore than [cutting]...math is an option. There should be programs to reach all students. So I think it's public awareness as well as funding. I think the government has something to do with that. Grant programs and anything that's going to encourage music to stay in schools must be developed and protected. When I went to New Hampshire -- to these one-room schoolhouses -- the kids had never had music. They were both delighted and...stunned by what I had to offer. It was sad to see that these kids had actually had no exposure at all. I think that needs to be changed. There needs to be some kind of national networking to help pool strengths and keep people together on this. I think there is some safety in numbers, and that should be developed.
[Matthew] How do you like working for an indie label? Is there more freedom and opportunity? Are you happy there?
[Harry] I take things one step at a time. At this point, I'm very thankful for what Brownstone [Recordings] has done for me. Not only have they allowed me to bring my music to a large group of people, but [Founder/Owner] Jack Werthimer has been so supportive of what I want to do. He's brought me to meet people, he's introduced me, he's helped me stuff envelopes. He's done a lot of things that I do not think happen at big labels.
As you know, great things don't happen in an afternoon. I mean, eighty hours a week can lead to nothing sometimes! It's like seeds- some die; others grow like crazy. So I feel very lucky to be affiliated with Brownstone Records and feel very honored to be on the label. The future will take care of itself, but whether one of the 'big guns' comes knocking or not, I always want to have an affiliation with Brownstone and Jack Werthimer.
[Matthew] What are the future hopes and plans for Harry Skoler and his band?
[Harry] One thing that has been a continuing desire from the first day that I decided I wanted to be a clarinetist is to record my music continually and to make a difference.
[I'd also like] to have [my music] on the airwaves and to reach the people in a positive way. One of the ways to do that is through radio. We've always promoted on a national level. This is the second year I've been ion the charts. Another way is by playing venues -- respectable venues -- both nationally and, hopefully soon, internationally. Going places, meeting people- the whole nine yards. As much work and exhaustion is involves in travel and meeting people, it' very rewarding and it's something I want to do and keep doing.
The third thing is that I want to continue to grow musically. This band has really begun to jell and I want to keep that up. The music comes first. If we're not happy with it, we don't put it on stage or on records. We're our own biggest critics. It has to fly with us before we put it out there. We have to make sure that it's all the best that we're capable of at the time.