A default disposition of open-mindedness and a love of learning have taken Jody Espina from prestigious collegiate achievements in music, to many years as a working musician, to a career in music education, and finally (so far, anyway), to being one of the most respected mouthpiece designers and builders in the world.
Woodwind & Brasswind: Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of how you got started in music?
Jody Espina: I started playing when I was 12. I wanted to play sax at first but we had a clarinet in the house so I started on clarinet. We had a few jazz records in the house. Benny Goodman was one of them. I was listening to that and I hit the high G. When I hit that high note with him, I was hooked. By 14 I knew I wanted to be a musician. By 15 I was working in a band with kids my age, a little older. We worked two to three nights a week so I never had to mow another lawn again.
WWBW: So were your folks musically inclined or open to their kids playing music?
JE: Not musically inclined but they were open to it. They were never discouraging about me being a musician as many people were, including some band directors.
WWBW: Including instructors – isn't that an irony?
JE: Yeah. A lot of the band directors said, "Jody, don't become a professional musician. Or if you do, don't get married. Don't have a family or you'll end up being a band director like me." I did a TED-X talk where I actually deal with some of the negative influences you get through your life that ultimately can keep your creativity down, keep you from kind of just going for things. And the way I started JodyJazz was by changing that up. That's what I talk about in the TED-X talk.
WWBW: So your school must have had a pretty vigorous band program.
JE: It was a seventh grade center and that band director, Bob Crosby, was more of a perfectionist than anybody I've ever met. And you'd go in there petrified just to lose your chair because you had to tune up – everybody had to tune up and if you hit the note and it wasn't in tune, right away you went to the end of the section.
WWBW: Discipline early on.
JE: It was really good. I mean his bands were renowned. And he was an inspiration because he was actually a jazz player. He played flute, clarinet, and sax so I got to hear him play jazz a little bit once in a while. Then my next band director was a boogie-woogie pianist so I'd always be begging him, "Come on, let's play. Let's play blues." And he'd relent every once in a while.
WWBW: Like after the rehearsals?
JE: Yeah. He'd stay with us after school. He was amazing, Pross – we called him Pross – Rodriguez. He had this after school thing where we could stay and work on our stuff more and then he would drive us home. We were way on the other side of town. He'd drive us home, 45-minute drive, and he'd drive a bunch of us home because the bus had already left.
So those guys were early influences for me to the positive. They didn't – they'd mention that stuff once in a while about not making any money, but playing-wise they didn't discourage me.
WWBW: You're an alto specialist, right? Would that be fair to say?
JE: It would be fair to say, but I am playing a lot of tenor. I'm playing a lot of clarinet these days. When I travel I just bring the alto. I played baritone on the gig last week with Claire Daly, one of our artists. So I play them all. And soprano, I love. I just came out with a record and it's almost all alto and I think one or two clarinet tunes.
WWBW: Can you maybe put your finger on why the alto speaks to your heart so well?
JE: It must be for the same reason I gravitated to the sounds of horns when my cousins and brothers were listening to pop music and guitars. I never liked the sound and I love the sound of horns and that sound, that jazz band, big band, small combos make. So when I play the alto it sings for me a certain way.
WWBW: That's a great word for it. Alto has a singing quality.
JE: But it's well acknowledged that it's a little bit harder, in a way, to get away with stuff. You can be a little bit more relaxed. But I really do love them all. I have a gig every Friday and Saturday here in Savannah at a Cuban restaurant. So if I'm in town I'm on that. I'll bring at least three horns. I'll bring the flute out.
WWBW: I would think Latin gig you'd be playing flute.
JE: Sometimes, yes. But bringing all those horns out is a thing. But yeah, my flute had been sitting in the closet for a couple of years and I just got it overhauled so it's back on the docket. So I love that fact of being able to pick up another horn and get a different color. I've always done that. I've got one record where I'm on 12 instruments.
WWBW: I know you have a great love of Ornette Coleman.
JE: Yeah, yeah, I do. I was 14 I was checking out Ornette, Boots Randolph. Let's see... Ornette, Boots Randolph, Benny Goodman, Pete Fountain.
WWBW: Did Art Pepper get onto your radar?
JE: To some degree, but not like – and Eric Dolphy was in that mix, too. It's a really weird mix of traditional and so-called avant-garde. And I kind of skipped Charlie Parker until way later. Which in many respects could be a mistake, but I had to come back to him when I got to New York City. After graduating Berklee, teaching in Spain and I got to New York City I really had to get serious with the bebop.
WWBW: There's a lot of Charlie Parker worship at Berklee, too.
JE: There was and I was just a rebel without a cause. Since everybody else was into Bird I wouldn't be. So I was into Eric Dolphy. That was my man.
WWBW: What young alto players do you particularly appreciate these days?
JE: Ken Garrett came along. He's not one of the young players, but he influenced so many people for so long. I'm not going to name any new player because I probably hope to get some of them as endorsers. I don't want to offend any one of them.
WWBW: Fair enough. That must present a little bit of a difficulty for you. I've looked at a couple of interviews with you and you have to dance around and not do these kind of full endorsements of products or players just to stay neutral.
JE: That's what I do with my saxophone choice, too. But I have a great saxophone that's made by my Japanese distributor. It's not really sold here and that way – because I'm quite good friends with many of the owners of the saxophone companies and their staff. So if I started playing one of their horns that would kind of put a little ice on some of those other friendships. Even though we'd still be friendly, it wouldn't be the same.
WWBW: I absolutely see what you're talking about. I’ve heard you use a sports analogy, hitting the same racquet shot time after time after time, that that translates over nicely to accomplishment on a musical instrument.
JE: I always credit my father for teaching me how to practice in Ping-Pong. We had a Ping-Pong table at the house and he would drill me on just the forehand or just the backhand. It's all about the repetition. Later on I got into Kenny Werner's Effortless Mastery. The repetition alone is very good but effortless mastery is becoming unconscious and doing it. Like Kenny Werner says when you eat with a fork you don't hit yourself in the cheek with the fork. It's completely effortless. So as musicians we really have to practice less than we do. We've got to become effortless on one thing and then it can translate more and more to others. Effortless meaning you could do it in your sleep.
WWBW: So these days I think probably kids are more booked than they ever have been. What do you think it takes to turn a kid onto music when they have to make those choices?
JE: I was the director of a jazz department in Scarsdale, New York and I gave a lot of lessons to high achieving kids. So they were in all the AP classes. They were Ivy League bound. They were very good at music and they did practice. And like you say, they're over-programmed. It's somewhat of a problem because I felt, after years of teaching – I'm giving you a long answer...
WWBW: Please do.
JE: But after years of teaching and trying to always make it all about music, trying to give them their best value in the lesson. We can't stop and talk about how you did in your baseball game or something. We've got to do music, music, music. After years of that and somewhat starting to see a bigger picture I felt like I was still giving great lessons, but I was totally open to let them vent or let them talk a little bit because they were under such pressure that I might be the only adult they get to just sit down with and talk that week with. High-powered families and stuff.
WWBW: A lot of expectations.
JE: So this is a little bit off the question but it's important for music educators to see the big picture as well, that the mental health is very important and we've got to make sure that we don't drive these kids further into a hole or something.
So as far as how do you get them into it, you just do your job. You know, great teachers are inspiring. That's what they do. That's why they're great teachers, because of the enthusiasm and love they have for the subJEct. So you put it there, you’re shining a light, the chemistry professor, teacher is a shining light, and the kids just have to see what they gravitate to. I think it's nothing more than that. You try and expose them to all the different genres and things that might grab them.
I found, as far as I used to start kids in the fourth grade in private lessons and what really worked for me was this reward at the end of the lesson. And the reward, if they had done well on their book and all their other stuff, their scales, the reward was what I call the fun tune. I would write the out by hand from whatever was popular in the day. Could have been Green Day. Could have been The Simpsons. Whatever it was, and then they had to play that perfectly and the next week or as long as it took, once they've got it perfect then they could get another one. And that really grabbed them. And it's like once you grab them, get the on the path, a good start goes a long way.
WWBW: After high school you were already headed where you were headed. You said you were pretty well determined by age 14. Did you go to Berklee as a full undergrad?
JE: I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa, and studied classical clarinet to get that discipline, although my love was always jazz, and then transferred to Berklee. And partly as a money thing, too, a little money savings. So I went to Berklee in my third year of college, but I got out of high school a year early so I wasn't far behind.
So I went to Berklee and it took me three years to get the degree at Berklee, but I got three years studying with Joe Viola who is one the greatest teachers. I was so lucky. I got Herb Pomeroy, I was in his band.
JE: I got John La Porta…Jimmy Mosher was a great player who used to be with Buddy Rich and George Garzone, he was a young teacher at that time and he had the avant-garde ensemble. First day we get in there he turns the lights off and says, "Now play." And equally as great was going and seeing George Garzone and Jerry Bergonzi play, which I did a lot.
WWBW: Like Ryles and Wally’s?
JE: Yes, Ryles, they played there all the time. There used to be a place called Michael's Pub before. And then there was a place right by the T on Mass. Ave where they played sometimes. They'd have the two trios and they'd have The Fringe and Bergonzi's Con Brio. They play separately, they'd mix, they'd go play together. But they'd just go so all out that that influenced me and my guys, because we were not just trying to shed the bebop. We were trying to do some of that, too. Yes. So that was a really very influential thing, too, as well as all those teachers.
WWBW: Can you talk for a minute about the trench warfare professional musicianship: weddings, bar mitzvahs, jingle sessions? You did a bit of that before the world opened up so much to you, right?
JE: I did a Latin New York. I got to New York from Spain after teaching in Spain. I ran out of my Spanish money in about a month and a half. I had a Haitian gig with a Haitian band but that didn't kind of work the way it was going to. So I worked at Sam Ash music store. That's my first job since I was mowing lawns at 12 and 13. So there I met some guys that were doing weddings and I started there. I did weddings for almost the whole rest of the years I was in New York. I was in New York '85 to 2008 and I probably stopped doing weddings around 2005 when the business started doing well and I quit the day I could.
WWBW: That was about the same time that eight-piece bands were being replaced by high octane DJs anyway.
JE: Not really; there was a lot of work. It was usually two or three states a weekend and I was mostly playing with private bands, but sometimes the agencies and like you said doing other things. I did the rock clubs with different rock bands. Did jazz gigs. I did art gigs. Broadway some and some recordings and things. Weddings are very good training because you learn to play all kinds of music. You need to sound good. You need to do the right style. If you’re playing a first set, you might be playing like Stan Getz and by the third set, you’re Sanborn or Clarence Clemons.
JE: So it’s hard to get people to understand why musicians hate the weddings.
WWBW: Yeah, you know, good bread. Free food.
WWBW: You get to slip a couple of shrimp into your knapsack…
JE: How do you get a musician to complain? Give him a gig.
WWBW: That’s great. So how did you transition into education?
JE: When I graduated and I graduated Magna Cum Laude in the top band with Herb Pomeroy, but there I was and there wasn’t a gig in sight and I didn’t want to get moldy in Boston so I got this rail pass. When I got to Spain in Barcelona, there was a school patterned after Berklee. The guys had gone to Berklee who started it and they asked me if I wanted to come up and play lead alto. They were going to play for the San Sebastian Jazz Festival opening for Chick Corea trio with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitros. So, I said of course.
We drove up with a big band, played the gig. When I got back, they offered me the gig of being the director of the band and I was 21. That’s crazy. And so yeah, I took the gig. I taught lessons and I taught a couple of classes, a couple ensemble classes. I had two weeks to learn Spanish. My dad spoke Spanish, but we didn’t really speak it in the house so I had a crash course of two weeks and that’s how I learned Spanish. But that’s how I got into teaching for real, mostly just teaching what my teachers taught me. And I had Joe Viola and his thing.
WWBW: Well, speaking of teaching, your love of Junie Ferrell is pretty well known by anyone who knows you at all. Can you speak for a moment about what you learned from Junie?
JE: Yeah it was pure luck that he was a teacher at the store right by my house and he sounded like a cross between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and he played bass and he played keyboards and he played flute and everything. And so I went there and his thing was, the outstanding thing was that he would, his fun tunes were the same thing. He wrote about by hand and they were the tunes that she would need on weddings. “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Satin Doll,” “Take the A Train,” all the standard tunes and he never had chord changes written on it. He was teaching me to play chords, arpeggios, practice them. You know, like the 7th chords and the minor 7th. I would play those separately with all my scales and everything. Then we would play the tune. He’d play the piano. I’d have the tune written out and then I’d solo with no changes. So it was really good.
WWBW: Was he forcing you to just hear it rather than know it?
JE: Exactly. So he never said anything and we finished the lesson. He’d tell my mom, “Oh, he has a good ear.” I never knew what he was talking about. So that was really good training and then later on, I’d put in at USF to the course with the sax teacher there and it was really integrating those changes really knowing them and all that, but I think that’s the whole dual, whole thing about improvising is knowing those changes but not being…
WWBW: Slave to them.
JE: Not being slave to them. Exactly. So, it’s such a duality.
WWBW: So once you started working with the changes with this USF teacher, you must have like shaken your head and said Junie, you little sneak.
JE: I’m not sure if I figured that out at that moment cause I was so into nailing the stuff that he was giving me. I was really practicing it and because of that, that teacher gave me all these gigs that were coming through town and I skipped a bunch of guys that were probably better than me at reading and stuff. But he said this guy’s shedding and he gave me the gigs. So, I got to play with Mel Torme and Patty Page and a bunch of artists that would come through and you’d play either a day or a week with the big band guys and that was at 17.
WWBW: When you got into making mouthpieces, a kind of full circle thing happened.
JE: Right, right and that was at the IJE in New Orleans and that’s part of that whole Ted Talk which is I did this artist way book which is written for blocked writers. It’s about releasing creativity and so it’s 12 weeks. You do all these exercises and that really opened me up to kind of just going for things and so I went to that convention where I would never have before. I had to spend about $1600 at the time and being a musician, you learn to be so frugal cause you’re like a struggling actor. You never know when the next job is coming from or something. Even if there are jobs coming, most musicians I know, real working musicians are kind of careful that way and they don’t invest in themselves enough, but so I started thinking differently. I did that and as it turned out and I met Santy Runyon and I met Jerry Coker who was taught by Santy and he was taught first by Junie Farrell in South Bend, Indiana.
WWBW: That must have knocked you off your feet when you found all that out.
JE: Yeah. When I met them in the same room. Because I did the Santy Runyon book. He has two books. When I was a kid, I read them and I really practiced the Jerry Coker book. It’s called, “Patterns for Jazz.” All with Junie Farrell. So, I met those two guys after years, after more than 25 years so it was pretty cool.
WWBW: So as you’re making the prototypes, do you actually go through the process of making one and then say, “Um, close no cigar. Let’s take another run at it.”
JE: Yeah, endlessly and we have boxes and boxes of prototypes for each model. We go all the way because and we do it in this precise way like a scientific method so we know exactly what. We only change one thing at a time just so we know what’s what. And yeah, the latest one is like I just have to fall in love with it. And we just released it at NAMM and people are really loving it.
WWBW: The Power Ring strikes me as a full-fledged invention. I mean that’s a different way to do it. Right?
JE: Well, there are several types of rings and this one has got…some of the main differences are the heft of it but it’s concave inside so it’s where and how it touches the reed. It’s really working well to see. It doesn’t happen 100% but about 70% of the time, people go BOING. Their head pops up because the sound is so much bigger and more vibrant and I’ve been thinking we price it too low because it’s just running off the shelf. People at $60, nobody hesitates. So, I mean that’s good. It’s good to have a thing like that. We make it here like we make everything and nothing is just cheap. Sometimes people think things are pennies or something or you know.
WWBW: You mean materials cost?
JE: Materials, machine time, people time. Sending it out to the plater time. Everything is so…we have a good viable business but it’s no slam dunk. You got to…cause we’re working against, I don’t know, people get used to paying Chinese prices for things but in this area, China hasn’t, they make a lot of stuff but they haven’t come to the quality that we have.
WWBW: Well you are up against some incredible designers. I mean wholly apart from the big manufacturers, Yamaha, Selmer and the like. There are mouthpiece manufacturers these days that make these things that are just about as gorgeous as the horns themselves and it’s to your great credit that you’ve established and maintained a real identity.
WWBW: I’ve been with Woodwind/Brasswind for five years now and you’ve got a real sense of yourself and everybody gets that.
JE: Thanks a lot.
WWBW: Is there anything else that you’d like to cover?
JE: I don’t think people are looking inside of mouthpieces a lot of times. They don’t get a chance but if they start looking, they’re going to notice a trend happening. I brought my engineer to NAMM and he walked all around this year. He walked around all the mouthpieces. He came back and he said, “There’s hardly anybody doing any handwork in these mouthpieces.” So, because of the cost and everything, it’s really hard and so people are letting the machines do the work.
I’m going to do some videos, but I want to point out what we’re doing and how that looks and how that plays as opposed to just machining. What we’re doing is so hard and my crew is so good. We have a factory video and all this stuff, but it’s hard to get people to see all that. That’s just something I kind of want to get that across in the future because the trend is no handwork and we’re committed to the handwork. I’m always going to do it.
WWBW: Is there a consistency factor that…
JE: That’s definitely, in the past, mouthpieces were molded and they were a very crude mold and there was some much handwork that that is the problem. Without being able to define how much to take out or how much of everything there is a huge inconsistency. So, we’re combining the machining where we’re making the basic shape so that when we go in and file and sand, use sandpaper and everything, we’re not remaking the shape but there is part that’s super critical at the tip of the mouthpiece called a baffle.
We’re shaping that and we can’t shape it if we just take it all out with a machine where the air enters. All these things are aerodynamics and the tolerances in my opinion and I’ve actually heard it from aerospace guys, our tolerances are greater than theirs.
It’s such a tiny space, but it’s got to be this perfect surface that lets the reed vibrate and let the air come in at its most optimum. So, that’s why our mouthpieces are so free blowing and they have this open feel. If it doesn’t have this openness for me, I don’t love it. I can only describe as feedback in my body. When I blow into it, there’s something that almost bounces back that feels good and resonant. If a mouthpiece doesn’t have that, then I just keep working at it until it comes back and gives me some of that depth and this bounce back. It’s hard to describe.
WWBW: Mr. Fibonacci at work?
JE: I don’t know because the only one did all that was the DV. That’s where all those…and there is something to all that. But otherwise a lot of times, I’m just not mathematical at all. I’m just playing with the shapes and everything until it really pops.
WWBW: I mean, in spite of yourself, you must have accumulated certain math and physics understandings.
JE: Yes, but I always tell people talk slower, I’m just a sax player.