Saxophonist Jon Beshay on Sound Production, Transcription, Social Media, and More
I have always been a big fan of the WDR Big Band and recently was checking out the WDR Big Band playing Chick Corea’s tune Matrix featuring saxophonist Jon Beshay (see video below). After listening to the band (always great) and hearing Jon play this amazing solo, I knew I had to get in contact with him and see if he would be open to sharing how he choose the saxophone and what he has been working on to get to where he is today.
Jon, also known as a sideman with the likes of Winard Harper, Delfayo Marsalis, and Jason Marshall along with serving as the musical director for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the jazz Showcase in Chicago, and the Omani Royal Opera House, was nice enough to meet with me and share his journey playing music as well as what projects he has been working on. If you don’t know Jon, this interview will surely get you up to speed.
ZS: How did you become interested in playing music? And how did you decide on the saxophone of all instruments?
JB: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a school district that had a really good music program. We started with singing and when we reached 4th grade, we were all given recorders. Going into 5th grade, everyone had to play an instrument. You didn’t have to continue playing after 5th grade but for that one year you had to play in the band or orchestra. When choosing an instrument, they allowed us to pick a string instrument, a brass instrument, and then a woodwind instrument, giving us a chance to play each instrument to figure out which one we would sound be best. However, the saxophone was not an option at that time because it is a really big instrument; too large for most kids to hold. I am always reminded of this whenever I teach students in the 6th or 7th grades, as you can see that the instrument can be too big for them. If you wanted to play saxophone, you started out on clarinet. I played clarinet for about a year but I really wanted to switch to saxophone because while in 6th grade, I heard our student teacher play the alto saxophone and I was enamored with the sound. So that year, they let me play alto sax and then later on in the school year, I heard someone else play the tenor saxophone. I did not even know there was a tenor sax; I thought there was just “the saxophone”. In 7th grade, I was able to switch to playing tenor sax and it was absurd for me to be holding an instrument that was bigger than me (I wasn’t even 4 feet at that time). Now, I grew up in Ann Arbor Michigan and did take private lessons before heading to college. A lot of people played an instrument in Michigan since there is a strong marching band culture in the Midwest. I think that because there were many people in grade school playing instruments, that created a lot more opportunities for musicians to teach. In Southeast Michigan, there is a good music culture and with so many universities like Michigan State, University of Michigan, Wayne State, etcetera with good music programs, that gives students as well as teachers opportunities.
In 8th grade, you could join the jazz band so I did and this is when I started listening to jazz records. I remember the first record I got was a Blue Note Herbie Hancock compilation record. One of the first actual records I picked up after this was the first Headhunters album as I was really in love with Herbie’s playing and Go with Dexter Gordon. In 9th grade, I finally listened to Giant Steps which totally blew my mind. As I started listening to more records, I really started thinking ,“I like the way this sounds, I really want to figure out how to play this music”. This interest just kept building and then I decided, “ok, i’m going to go to school and study music”. The teacher I studied within high school didn’t know much about jazz, so I didn’t really start studying jazz formally until I went to college. When I was in high school, I was practicing a lot because I wanted to get better and I wanted to audition and place in the higher bands. There were also some cool pieces that I wanted to play but they required a certain level of skill to be able to play. By junior year is when I decided I wanted to pursue music in college. I ended up going to Michigan State because a lot of people coming out of there could really play like Caleb Curtis, Lawrence Leathers, and Tony Lusting to name a few. When you heard the jazz Orchestra 1 at Michigan State you could really hear they knew how to play and I also knew I wasn’t very good at jazz and needed to go somewhere I knew I could learn.
I was fortunate enough to study with Diego Rivera at MS because he is an incredible educator. The faculty at Michigan State were very present and not constantly on tours all the time. They did a very good job at building a strong culture at the school. In addition to Diego, another saxophone teacher at Michigan State was Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is an unbelievable musician especially when it comes to telling a story in his playing. Wes would come to our small group performances which turned into jam sessions after all the groups had played. During these jam sessions, Wes would push us saying “let’s play ‘Mr P.C’. at 350 BPM” and I would fall on my face trying to do that. Now Wes was never mean or cruel about it but Wes was trying to show us this is where the level is at. My junior and senior year of college, I was starting to get calls to play in Detroit but during those 4 years I was practicing a lot. I knew if I was going to play music and rely on it as my source of income then I had to be putting in a lot of time because I knew it was going to be a challenging career.
When I graduated from Michigan State, I moved straight to New York and went to Manhattan School of Music (MSM) for graduate school. One piece of advice that I could give to musicians is take some time off before deciding to go to grad school. You don’t have to go to grad school right after undergrad and these programs are happy to take you in your 30’s. Second of all, I could have just came to New York, found a part time job, practiced and done gigs and I don’t think my life would have been significantly different now then if I hadn’t gone to grad school. I think if you go to grad school in New York, the smartest thing to do is treat it like a big sandbox because that is the best thing it’s there for. If I had gone to school right now, I would be spending time meeting musicians my age and saying yes to as many different projects as I could. I would have gotten much more out of it than when I went to right after undergrad. My expectations then and now are very different. After graduating MSM, I started playing with Winard Harper (drummer), for about 4.5 years and then started playing with his brother Phillip for about 10 years. Playing with Winard was great, I got to play with somone who had so much experience and history. When playing with Phillip, I got more of a chance to be myself and work on my personality and spend time playing with a serious band. Phillip’s band was playing quite quite a few gigs in New York and this was my first time experience playing with a real tight group. The thing about being in New York is everyone has to find their own way of making the music thing work. You can’t follow what someone else has done ; it doesn’t work like that, whatever they are doing works only for them and only for that point in their lives.
ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned growing up playing the saxophone that you have passed on to your students? What do you find yourself practicing these days?
JB: I do enjoy talking to players about what I am practicing and what I am into. When I was in school, Diego had us do a lot of transcribing. Each week, I would transcribe different Lester Young solo for one semester and then eventually, I was transcribing and learning a Sonny Rollins solo each week. Doing this really helped with my ear training and further improved my technique because I had to have technique at least as good as Lester, Ben Webster, and Sonny to play their solos. I am not transcribing as much as I used to but my listening is more focused on my doubles. So, I for instance will take a Bird solo that I’ve done on saxophone but then play it on flute. Right now I am really focused on my sound from a physical standpoint. Not many saxophonists talk in detail of what your body needs to do to play the instrument. I’m more interested in refining my technique of the saxophone in terms of embouchure or control, which is a topic that is frequently discussed if you are learning flute, trumpet, etcetera. When I play now, the first thing that I think about is being relaxed with my lips. I’m trying to get my air to do all the work of getting the reed to vibrate, so that the air generates the sound. One thing I picked up from John Ellis is practicing starting a note. His belief is that if you can start a note clearly with a clear beginning, then you are using the correct air. You wan the air and the tongue to act together, or even be able to just start the note with only your air. I being practicing everything from the bottom of my instrument, starting with low Bb, trying to relax and allowing the air to be entirely responsible for allowing the reed to vibrate. If you learn how to start and play the bottom of the horn quietly, you will develop good breath support and control, which will contribute to an even and full sound across your low, medium and high registers. Practicing this way at different intervals as well as practicing with a drone can also help in making sure your sound is consistent and in tune.
ZS: Who are some of your favorite saxophonists and why? What have you learned by listening to these players?
JB: There are so many players and the amount of exploration that has been put into the saxophone is mind blowing. I am always going to spend some time listening to Coltrane since the well is so deep with knowledge. Joe Henderson is another player that never stopped exploring and growing as he got older. You can hear Joe later playing and writing Funk music that wasn’t just Funk, but Funk music that only Joe could write. For me the emotion that Trane and Henderson play is very big picture and not just playing lines. Rhythmically, John Ellis has one of the most impressive concepts on rhythm. John has a really good masterclass online where he is talking about triplet’s and John’s overall concept of sound is amazing.
ZS: How have you seen the music business change since you started playing the saxophone and where do you see the music business moving in the near future?
JB: To me, the music business has not changed too much besides the adoption of social media to release content as well as different ways to share what/where you are playing. I don’t think anyone has cracked the code for the best way to approach the music business. A lot of questions in the music business are note figuring out what to do, but how much time are you willing to spend. We are expected to split our time up between music and business and where many of us professional musicians; we are not professionals on the business side. The double edge of the internet is that I can post something and anyone can see it but everyone else can do the same thing. So how do you stand out and grab a user’s attention when you are competing with the whole world? I feel the internet often rewards consistency versus quality and depending on how you approach art, this can be a struggle. So much of this content is being given away for free with the hopes that we will make money in the future but it also means that we don’t have the money to create a quality project.
ZS: What projects are you currently working on?
JB: I have an album that is finished but I’m still working on how to put it out and the best way to share it.
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
JB: I am pretty slow and hate changing equipment because it takes time to adjust to it. If you have better equipment it is helpful, but it’s more about the unique qualities of a given setup and not a competition of “this one is the best”. For example, my Selmer Mark VI tenor is great but like many older horns has intonation issues, while my soprano is a Yamaha 62. Even though soprano saxophone is far more challenging to play in tune, that Yamaha is a much more modern design and is far easier to play in tune than my tenor. Your gaol should be to find a setup that makes what you want to do easier.
- Saxophone: Tenor – Selmer Mark VI (1964)
- Mouthpiece: Tenor – Matt Marantz Slant Legacy (8)
- Reeds: Tenor – 3.5 Gonzalez Reeds
- Ligature: Tenor – Francois Louis Pure Brass Ligature