Veteran Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery’s Most Valuable Lessons Learned, and Much More

Introduction

When someone says, “I was listening to Wayne on tenor”, usually they are referring to Wayne Shorter, but whether you know it or not, there is another burnin’ saxophonist named Wayne.

My first major introduction to Wayne Escoffery’s playing was his solo over the tune, “Fly Little Byrd”. I am excited that Wayne was willing to take the time to share with me his musical journey thus far, why he chose the saxophone, and what he has been working on lately as musician as well as educator. For those of you who are not already checking out Wayne Escoffery, I’ve included a short bio below to get you up to speed.

Bio

  • Since 2000, Wayne has recorded and performed with The Mingus Dynasty, Big Band and Orchestra.
  • In 2006, Wayne secured a frontline position in Tom Harrell’s working quintet. For over 10+ years, Wayne toured the globe with Tom and recorded 7 CDs with The Tom Harrell Quintet and co-produced four of those releases.
  • Wayne has recorded and performed internationally with such greats as: Ron Carter, Ben Riley, Abdulah Ibrahim, Eric Reed, Carl Allen, Al Foster, Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson, Rufus Reid, Monty Alexander, Wallace Roney and Herbie Hancock just to name a few.
  • Wayne’s current quartet features pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Ralph Peterson (RIP). They have released three albums, the latest of which is The Humble Warrior on the Smoke Sessions Records label.
  • Escoffery is the founding member of a collaborative group called Black Art Jazz Collective which is comprised of fellow rising star musicians of his generation and is dedicated to celebrating the origins of jazz and African American icons through originally composed music.
  • While not performing, Escoffery is dedicated to music education and presents lectures and masterclasses on jazz music. He is currently the saxophone instructor for The New Jersey Performing Arts Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens program, and currently teaches private online lessons for all instruments.
  • In the fall of 2016, Wayne was appointed Lecturer of Jazz Improvisation and ensemble coach at the Yale School of Music as a part of Yale University’s Jazz Initiative. His current position at Yale is Lecturer of Jazz Improvisation and Director of Jazz Ensembles.

Interview

ZS: How did you become interested in playing music? And how did you decide on the saxophone?

WE: While neither one of my parents were professional musicians, my father was a amateur guitarists who played in a bunch of reggae bands in the U.K. and my mother listened to a lot of old school R&B and soul music, so I was definitely surrounded by music which is where my first love of music began.

My mother and I moved to the states when I was seven and we moved around a bit before eventually settling in New Haven, Connecticut when I was eleven. While in Connecticut, I joined a world renowned boys choir called the Trinity Choir of Men and Boys in New Haven and that is really where my formal music education began. I always wanted to be some sort of singer and was into the music my mother listened to and enjoyed like Michael Jackson and New Edition. Joining the boys choir really gave me the direction and education that I needed to pursue music.

In elementary school, I ended picking up the saxophone. I consider myself fortunate because Connecticut is one of the country’s richest states, so the public school that I went to had a relatively good amount of resources and I was able to choose almost any instrument that I wanted.

What led me to the saxophone? Well, I never knew that my grandfather on my father’s side played the saxophone as an amateur musician but my mother pointed that out to me and said that I should give it a try. I think the reason that I gravitated towards the saxophone and specifically the tenor is because the horn really mirrors the human voice and vocal range. Coming to the horn from the perspective of a vocalist made it feel very natural and I was able to pick things up relatively quickly by ear.

Growing up in New Haven and having access to Yale offered me the opportunity of exploring great art, music, and culture on a regular basis. I routinely saw performances by The New Haven Symphony Orchestra and The Yale Symphony Orchestra. In fact, my very first saxophone lessons were from a classical saxophone student at Yale by the name of Malcolm Dickinson.

In addition to classical music, New Haven at that time had a pretty vibrant jazz scene and I also studied with a few local jazz musicians. During this time I jumped around between different teachers. Like most beginning students, I didn’t like practicing, so Malcolm had the difficult job of getting me to practice my scales on a regular basis. Malcolm really helped me get my foundation down, learn my scales and introduce me to some saxophone music.

From Malcolm I went to go study with Barry Marshall, Chris Herbert, and a guy named Gary Burton (not the vibraphonist) who were all great jazz musicians in the area. Barry was really a R&B player who introduced me to a lot of blues and fusion music which is what I was into when I first started. Chris Herbert was more of a straight ahead player that doubled on flute, and Gary Burton was really into Cannonball Adderley. They all had their own viewpoints which offered me a lot.

As a person, I’ve always been very goal-oriented and I like to plan ahead. While in high school, I was one of the more talented musicians at school and in the area. While I was really into the saxophone, I was also into psychology and my dream was to go to NYU to pursue psychology and music as a double major.

After thinking further about it and knowing my personality, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to focus on both and be successful in both fields. Since my passion was really music, I ultimately decided in my junior year of high school to focus on the saxophone and be the best saxophonist that I could.

For college, I attended the Hartt School of Music and studied with Jackie McLean. Interestingly enough, I had actually started studying with Jackie my senior year of high school after Jimmy Greene introduced me to Jackie’s Artist’s Collective program. After being a part of that program, Jackie told me he thought I was talented and offered me a full scholarship to study at the Hartt School. I did apply to schools like NYU, New School, Manhattan, Rutgers, etc and I was accepted to all of them but I wanted to study with Jackie so I attended the Hartt School of Music.

I studied with JMac for all four years at Hartt but took it upon myself to take lessons and advice from other players in order to gain a different perspective. I used to drive to New York to seek out lessons every month or so, and I studied with such players as George Coleman, Don Braden, and Ralph Bowen to name a few.

Many of my friends moved to New York after graduation to start gigging and I wanted to do the same but, the opportunity came up for me to audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute. To be honest, I really didn’t want to audition. I wanted to move to New York, but Jackie McLean urged me to audition for the program. This was when the Monk Institute was at the New England Conservatory. I ended up auditioning and being accepted into the Monk Institute’s second class and that is where I got my Master’s.

Ron Carter was the musical director of our group and while at the Monk Institute I got the opportunity to tour with Herbie Hancock. After receiving my Master’s in 1999, I moved to New York City. Before moving to New York, I worked a lot in Boston. I was running the jam session at Wally’s on Sundays and played a lot of GB gigs or general business gigs (weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, etc).

When in New York, I did not work right away, and that’s exactly why I saved the money I made in Boston. I had some opportunities, one being with Wallace Roney to play some gigs but that didn’t turn into anything sustainable. One great thing about the Monk Institute is that I met a lot of musicians.

Once I arrived in New York, I called Carl Allen, Eric Reed, Don Sickler, and the other cats that I met while at the Monk Institute. Eventually, I ended up working in Eric Reed’s band and started working with Carl Allen as well as the Mingus Band. The Mingus band came about by Jonathan Blake and Jeremy Pelt both recommending to Sue Mingus that I sit in with the band. I became an “official” member in 2000.

In 2006, I ended up playing with Tom Harrell and not too long ago celebrated 10 years with the band. How I was introduced to Tom was actually word of mouth. I played with Ugonna Okegwo on and off who knew Tom was looking for a tenor player. Ugonna recommend me as well as David Weiss whom I was working with on and off. I ended up receiving a call from Tom’s wife who is also his manager to come over to play with Tom to see if we got along musically.

Touring with Tom Harrell was great gift. Tom is a genius. His writing and playing is like no one else’s. Before working with Tom, I worked with a variety of different people. I worked with people who knew exactly what they wanted and they would tell you if you weren’t playing exactly what they wanted you to play. At the same time, I worked with people who were the opposite of that and didn’t say anything at all…Tom was right in the middle.

Tom is very meticulous and writes all of his music by hand. The great thing about Tom is that he has a pretty clear idea of what he wants, but he hires musicians that he trusts to interpret his music. So, he doesn’t have to say much and doesn’t dictate what he wants you to play because of that trust. He always allowed our personal choices and individual musicianship come through in the music.

ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned playing the saxophone that you have passed on to you students? What do you find yourself practicing these days?

WE: There are a million lessons out there but a great lesson (and it may sound silly) is: ‘practice makes perfect.’ I know we’ve all heard this throughout our development, but for me it wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior year of high-school that it really sunk in.

I remember I took this summer program at Yale and all my friends went away so I had nothing to do besides study for my Yale classes, and practice. For the first time, I was practicing for three hours one day to four hours the next day, to five hours straight. Then I would go to jam sessions on the weekends and would sound significantly better.

Now this seems obvious but I really saw the results of my work when I went to play and people who didn’t know me would say ‘I heard you last week and you sound a lot better this week’. It hit me like a ton of bricks that there was a direct correlation between the amount of hours that I put in, and how well I played. This was the beginning of my obsessive practice habits.

Another lesson that I’ve learned and that I tell my students all the time is to ‘isolate’. Whether it’s a concept, a piece of music, a phrase, or two notes that you are trying to get down. You really need to isolate that idea and work on it. If that means literally taking a trill from a one bar phrase and moving between D and Eb for ten minutes then just do it. It you are making a leap of a fifth and you keep cracking that note, then keep working on that leap for as long as it takes for it to sound the way you want it to sound.

The third lesson that I’ve learned which is the biggest lesson of all is, to be patient. There have been many times that I have been frustrated that I didn’t get offered a gig, or didn’t get a call back, or couldn’t play a song a certain way. The easy way out is to get angry, depressed, or give up. The thing to realize is, you will always have the opportunity to go back to that jam session, to play that song again, to prove yourself, and to rewrite your narrative. You have to be patient and work until it’s your time to shine.

I’ve dedicated a lot of practice to the goal of being able to play at a high level in a variety of situations, and knowing what is appropriate at a given time. For me, one of the things that I am focusing on now is varying my phrasing and musical choices, and having the confidence to pursue my creative goals despite the musical situation.

One great example of this was when I was a student at the Thelonious Monk Institute. There was a big gala and Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter and I believe Terri Lyne Carrington were rehearsing “Cottontail”.

Now, granted if you’re in that environment (that is, an environment that we all know is one of the most creative of environments we could be in), you go for it. I often think of myself in that situation as a ‘Wayne Shorter’ and if certain musicians called me, how would I approach this tune.

For example, I may think I need to go in my Dexter Gordon/Sonny Stitt bag or my late 50’s Trane bag, but if I was Wayne Shorter, I would simply go in as Wayne Shorter and play “Cottontail”. This is something that I am constantly working on. Finding the courage to be Wayne Escoffery and to play my version of “Cottontail” all the time.

Now, that might not be something that everyone wants to hear, or expects to hear, or necessarily understands, but at this point I need to focus on being that person regardless of the environment.

ZS: How have you adjusted to COVID? What have you found to be most challenging as well as beneficial?

WE: Well, we all have to deal with Zoom and I needed to work my Logic, Garage Band, and Finale chops. It hasn’t always been fun but it has been good to have the time to work with the software and music programs that I needed to stay engaged with my students and the listening audience.

Even with my students, I did a lot of teaching over Zoom at Yale, at Williams College, and NJPAC and it in some ways brought me closer to my students. I’ve found that I have been opening the floor to more social conversations around music and social issues which has been a great positive.

The challenge has been that I haven’t been playing as much and finding the motivation to practice has been difficult. I will say that when I practice now I am more focused which allows me to take a step back and work on my phrasing and other musical pursuits.

ZS: How have you seen the music business change since you started playing the saxophone and where do you see the future moving?

WE: I think a lot of players have their music business side together maybe even more than their artistic side…or maybe its equal. When I was coming up, the business side of things was really not a priority because there were people who were hired to take care of that. The priority was making sure you could play the music with integrity while honoring the masters that came before you.

When I step on the band stand I always want to be sure that I am playing tribute to players like Jackie McLean, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, and the like. I think now more time is given towards the business side/technological side. This can be frustrating for someone of my generation but that’s just what it is. We are jazz musicians, we’ll adapt.

I think that it’s interesting because when jazz first became what it was, it was really entertainment, it became party music and the popular music of the time. I think our bebop revolutionaries such as Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Bud, brought something else to the music like sophistication. They desired to be respected as artists and intellects. In some ways, a shift is happening again, partly because many musicians want to make sure that jazz remains popular. Musicians want to work and stay relevant. Since many want that attention and appreciation some younger musicians are leaning more on the entertainment aspect of the music. I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing but I think it does something to the integrity of the music and how the music is perceived and listened to.

ZS: If you hadn’t decided to pursue music, what would have you pursued as a career choice?

WE: I have always been a good listener and I think in many ways that has translated to my music and attributes to why I have had some success. I wanted to be a therapist or psychologist and better understand the thought process. I’m always less quick to judge and more eager to find out why someone did what they did and the thought process behind it.

ZS: What projects are you currently working on?

WE: Lately, I have had different spurts of creative energy and I have worked this past year or so on some original compositions that I want to record. I am working on the instrumentation at the moment but will share more about that in the future. I put out a record on the Smoke Session label last June. I will likely do another one with that label in the fall with this original music. We have definitely had a lot of loses during Covid and my drummer Ralph Peterson unfortunately passed away a few months ago. There is a tune of his that I might record and a tune that was supposed to be on my last album that I am thinking of re-recording or putting out as is. I am most certainly looking to be touring again in the summer of 2022.

ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?

WE: I generally stick with the same gear and I don’t like to change because it stresses me out. I think it’s more about the person. I can get the sound that I want with whatever gear that I have. With that said, I think it’s important to pick the right gear that gives you the freedom to easily get what you are searching for.

In 2008, I lost my saxophone and mouthpiece in a taxi so I had to change everything. That was an extremely hard lesson, but it was probably good that it happened because it forced me to play on new equipment. Though, I am basically playing on the same equipment that I had before.

Equipment

Saxophones:

  • Soprano: Yanagisawa Solid Silver
  • Tenor: Selmer Super Balanced Action

Ligatures:

Reeds: 

Mouthpieces:

  • Soprano: Metal Selmer Soloist E (Like Trane)
  • Tenor: Ted Klum FocusTone (Ted further customized it to my specs when he first started making his FocusTone – 2006)

Website