saxophone player

Aaron Goldberg at the piano

Dissections and Intersections of the Jazz Scene

An Interview with Aaron Goldberg



  1. Other than a short visit between set breaks at a recent Hollywood gig, the last I spent any significant time with Aaron was over a year ago at a restaurant just outside Boston. In town for a gig with his OAM Trio, Aaron joined me and our musical mentor and first jazz teacher, Bob Sinicrope, for dinner at a small cafe not far from Milton Acadamy, our former highschool and Bob’s current employer.

  2. Aaron graduated from Milton in 1995 (a year before I did), deferred his first year at Harvard University, and moved to New York City to study jazz at the New School for Social Research, the famous urban university founded in 1919 by philosopher John Dewey and historian Charles Beard (among others). Over the years, the institution has been home to an astonishing group of intellectuals, from composer John Cage to poet W. H. Auden and anthropologist Claude-Levi Strauss. Following in that tradition, the jazz program (begun in 1986) is built aro und a jaw-dropping faculty of jazz musicians: drummer Joe Chambers, bassist Reggie Workman, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, to name just a few. If New York City once was (and still is) the most important place for American jazz, then the New School, located in Greenwich Village, is pretty near to a center point as one can imagine: the criss-crossing mix of musicians suggests a kind of Grand Central Jazz Station.

  3. That Aaron would move to New York City, attend the New School, and actually become a jazz musician seemed, at the time, natural enough to me and my jazz-playing friends. Aaron, like most of us at Milton, discovered jazz through Bob Sinicrope. Hired originally as both a music and math teacher, Bob’s jazz curriculum, a program built around small combo improvisation, has over time grown large enough to demand his full-time attention. While I was at Milton, Bob was still dividing his time between music and math. However, since my years there (1988–1992) enrollment in Bob’s courses has risen dramatically and the program has blossomed into one of the best high school jazz programs in the country. The recent success of the program aside, the real legacy of Bob Sinicrope’s program will be the number of devoted jazz listeners and musicians he created. Just about everyone I knew who took Bob’s classes and became involved in any depth in the jazz program is still playing, some professionally (like Aaron), others informally (like me). But all of us have committed our lives in one way or another—either as scholars, educators, writers, or performers—to jazz music and its many tributaries.

  4. After a year in New York, Aaron moved back to Boston to attend Harvard. Playing frequently around the city, he became the house pianist at Wally’s, a small jazz club in the South End of Boston that has been one of the most prominent breeding grounds for the city’s jazz musicians. In 1999 he released his first record, Turning Point, with Mark Turner, Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland, and others. Since then he has released another recording under his own name (Unfolding, JCurve Records,
    Aaron Goldberg in the Studio
    2001), and three CDs with his OAM Trio (the recently released Live in Sevilla: OAM and Mark Turner, 2003, Trilingual, 1999 and flow, 2002, both on Fresh Talent/New Sound Records). For the past several years, Aaron’s primary gig involved playing with prominent saxophonist Joshua Redman. He recorded two CDs with Redman’s group, Beyond (Warner Brothers Records, 2000) and Passage of Time (Warner Brothers Records, 2001). As is the case with most jazz musicians, Aaron has played on dozens of recordings with other artists and has performed live with many musicians including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, and Nicholas Payton, singer Betty Carter, and saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi.

  5. Watching Aaron’s career from afar (through the press, the occasional email, phone call, or chance encounter) I wondered what it was like for a friend and fellow musician to “make it” in the jazz world. What was it like to play at such a high level and with so many great musicians? It all seemed glamorous and removed from my life and this distance certainly gave the jazz life an excitement and exocitism that was (and is!) more complicated in reality. Being in and out touch with Aaron for so long, I had hoped for a chance to sit down with him and ask him not only what it was really like, but how his thoughts on making and listening to jazz have developed as a result of his experiences. After our most recent meeting in Boston, I asked him if he would agree to be interviewed for ECHO. With maybe a little hubris I thought that my questions for Aaron might be of interest to a larger readership—people interested in not only jazz but the contemporary world of gigging musicians, i.e. people who derive the majority of their incomes from performing. ECHO has interviewed other contemporary musical figures: composer Lou Harrison, jazz drummer Billy Higgins, and former Schoenberg protégé Leonard Stein. All of these people were at the end of their careers (Harrison and Higgins both recently died) and were especially sensitive and reflective, providing rare perspectives on their life and work over the decades. With Aaron, though, I thought ECHO might be able to capture a different perspective, a view from the other end of the career spectrum. Aaron’s busy performing schedule and permanent residence in New York City precluded a face-to-face interview, but I did manage to squeeze a few hours from him over the phone. The conversation roamed over a lot of ground, and I hope, reflects a diverse set of concerns.

  1. Jazz occupies a curious place in American popular music. Despite its recently gained toehold in the high art world of the concert hall, it is still performed primarily in commercial venues, bars and clubs—institutions dependent on paying patrons and not charitable ones. Jazz record sales are thin and most musicians must play out a lot to make a living.
    Aaron's hands playing the piano
    The music has the imprimatur of academic respectibility but still lacks the same kind of institutional support such highly valued art musics usually command. Perhaps because of this situation, jazz has managed to escape the all too obvious stagnation of America’s largest concert halls. It continues to flirt with a range of other musical styles, especially those drawn from other streams of global popular musics. While there is no explicit theme that binds our conversation, certain issues come up again and again: globalization, popular music, and the relationship between art and commerce. In its struggles to be relevant and important to American life, jazz is, in certain ways, a microcosm of larger musical and cultural issues that all contemporary musicians must confront.

  2. Dinner with Aaron and Bob was, for me, a curious form of double-vision, not the drunken variety (the restaurant, under the ambigious ownership and management of a mysterious but culinarily gifted Christian sect, didn’t serve alcohol) but of a chronological nature. It was, at one time, intensely nostalgic, the years studying with Bob Sinicrope were exciting and inextricably bound up with the minor triumphs and anxieties of high school. Even now I look back at those years almost exclusively through the lens of my musical experiences. But this nostalgia was tempered with an excitment of future possibilities. Both Aaron and I are at the beginning of our careers, with time for reflection far off in the future. The interview here is a kind of progress report and not a final summation. Our views will no doubt be continually shaped and re-shaped like the malleable music that is the focus of our discussion.

    Andrew Berish
    Los Angeles, California