Swept Up in Sound: The Working Lives of Four Young Professional Musicians
Mia Borders '05
Mia Borders '05 wanted to play guitar like the rock stars she watched who played with their "guitars on fire."
Mia Borders couldn't escape music growing up in New Orleans. Her mother and grandmother instilled a love of music in her through visits to the New Orleans Jazz Festival every year. Piano lessons gave her a base, though Borders says she hated piano because she wanted to play guitar like the rock stars she watched who played with their "guitars on fire."
Borders sang in the choir in elementary and middle school, and she sang pretty much everywhere else, too, like right outside her grandmother's bedroom while her grandmother was trying to nap. Her musical tastes ranged from Celine Dion to Aerosmith to Simon and Garfunkel, and that range has served her well since graduating from Taft. Borders sang with Taft's female a cappella group, Hydrox, beginning in her mid year. She co-headed Hydrox her senior year with Elspeth Michaels '05, who created the cover art for Borders' new album.
She's recorded nine albums and appears regularly on stages in New Orleans (including at that same New Orleans Jazz Fest she attended as a child) and around the country. Her soulful voice and blazing guitar bring a deep intensity to songs she wrote like "Mississippi Rising" and "Mama Told Me." Her performance of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" at the Kennedy Center will give you goosebumps.
"Just being from New Orleans and playing at this huge international festival, Jazz Fest, and getting to bring my family and have it come full circle, that's pretty awesome," she says.
But don't try to label her as simply a jazz singer. "I don't want to make it easy," she says. "There's a little bit of everything" in her songwriting and performing.
"I really enjoy singing," Borders says. "I sing every day to the point that I irritate my family. Is everything a song? Yes, it is. Even if I wasn't a professional musician, I would be singing every day."
Performing didn't come naturally, though. She says she had terrible anxiety when she first began performing in public.
"It got to the point that I got sick before every show," she says. A bandmate suggested she wear sunglasses, and now she wears them every time she performs. This has the added benefit of cutting the brightness of the stage lights too, she says. (That by wearing the sunglasses she looks like a female version of Lenny Kravitz has not escaped her notice, either.)
Her most recent album, Fever Dreams, came out in September, and she says it's a bit of a departure for her.
"I wanted to make a happier album," she says. "We're experimenting with different sounds, mixing electronic instruments with live instruments. My drummer and I started sending music files back and forth. I'd send him a guitar track, and he'd send me a drums track. I really enjoy it. Emotionally it's a lot lighter. I have my nieces singing on it."
Graham Dickson '03
"The live concert is putting the soul in the actual performance of the music itself."—Graham Dickson '03
As a guitarist for the London-based band Crystal Fighters, Graham Dickson is used to playing in front of huge, enthusiastic, rhythmically swaying crowds across Europe. The band's focus is on making music for live shows, and the group is a natural next step for fans of the Grateful Dead and Phish (which was headed by Taft's own Trey Anastasio '83).
"We've always focused on our live shows," Dickson says. "The live concert is putting the soul in the actual performance of the music itself."
Growing up, Dickson was inspired by his parents, who "forced" him into piano lessons when he was still quite young. At 10 or 11 years old, he was able to start playing guitar and drums, and by his sophomore year at Taft, he started writing music. He says he found at Taft a place that nurtured his creativity, and says Taft's music teacher T.J. Thompson was, and remains, "a huge inspiration."
"I did an independent study on jazz appreciation with T.J.," Dickson says, which led to Dickson performing at Morning Meetings and coffee houses and in the Jazz Band. Headmaster Willy MacMullen '78 was also a "huge supporter" of Dickson's musical aspirations, encouraging him to perform whenever possible.
After graduation from Taft, Dickson attended Edinburg University in Scotland, and there he met a guy who went to high school with the two musicians who became the core of Crystal Fighters, Sebastian Pringle and Gilbert Vierich. The three make up the foundation of Crystal Fighters, adding touring members when it's time to hit the road. Other members have come and gone, including Laura Stockley, whose grandfather was a Basque from Spain. As Stockley's grandfather aged, he began writing an opera that included the phrase "crystal fighters," which the band adopted as their name. Stockley also got the band members interested in Basque music, leading Dickson to learn to play the txalaparta, a historic Basque wooden percussion instrument.
When the band isn't touring, its members return to their home bases, which for Dickson is in Far Rockaway in New York City.
"We all write the music, we all write the songs," he says. The band's third album, Everything Is My Family, was released in September, and after touring this past fall to promote it, Dickson wants to take some time to focus on his other musical love: producing. Dickson has been finding and developing new musical talent, along with fellow Tafties. He started Axis Mundi Records with Bill Toce '01; and Caroline Toce '05 also works with them, along with help from Alex Biederman '03.
"It's been really great to be able to put together a studio," Dickson says. "I always hope to be more behind the scenes in the music. It's just so inspiring. To have bands interested in my input is a real honor. And I love the idea of teaching eventually.
"Music has given me a lot and allowed me to achieve a certain type of lifestyle," Dickson adds. "I like to try to give back as much as possible now."
Freddy Gonzalez '05
"I'm too jazzy for hip-hop, too hip-hop for jazz."—Freddy Gonzalez '05
For a guy who has earned the nickname "Fuego," you'll expect a certain fieriness when he performs. And Freddy Gonzalez does not disappoint. His performances on the trombone are hot, spicy, and tinged with an intensity that Gonzalez himself acknowledges.
"I was in a band in the underground hip-hop scene and...I was playing these really angry solos," he says. "One of the band leaders started calling me Freddy Fuego, and it just sort of stuck."
Gonzalez comes from a musically talented family. "Everyone in my family plays an instrument," he says. "My dad plays sax, my uncle plays piano, another one sings—music was always sort of around the family. There'd be a jam circle, a lot of jam sessions. It was always around."
But Gonzalez didn't seriously focus on the trombone until after hearing a trombone teacher play the Darth Vader theme from Star Wars. Gonzalez laughs when he remembers thinking, "I have to learn how to do that."
As a student at Taft, Gonzalez played in the Jazz Band under the direction of T.J. Thompson, who encouraged Gonzalez to go to the Berklee College of Music after graduation. But Gonzalez was worried he wouldn't make a living playing music, so he went to Fordham University and studied more conventional subjects while still performing on the side. A performance in 2006 at the Blue Note in New York City changed his trajectory. "I lost myself in it," he remembers. Performing "never felt like work."
Gonzalez knew he needed to follow his heart so he transferred to Berklee in 2007. At first, he just studied performance, but he began to soak up the influences of all the other musicians around him—absorbing classical, hip-hop, funk, and reggae styles. After a stint at The New School, Gonzalez started teaching in New York City and leading his own band.
"I didn't want to limit myself," he says. "I wanted to meet as many people and learn as many skills as I could.
"I always had these songs in the oven," he adds. "Other bands asked me for songs. People were always picking my brains for ideas." Gonzalez started writing more songs, but was somewhat limited in his ability to get gigs.
"If I was a drummer or bass player, bands always need them. Trombone is the third horn to get called to perform. First is sax, then trumpet. Then if there's a budget, I get called. Trombone is always an afterthought."
Gonzalez's creativity led him to put together his own group, the Freddy Fuego X-Tet (because the number of band members is always changing). "I had to give myself a creative outlet, writing the tunes I liked. I never felt like I fit in—I'm too jazzy for hip-hop, too hip-hop for jazz."
He went back to Berklee, this time as a graduate student at Berklee Valencia in Spain. "I spent all my time composing," Gonzalez says. "For a final master's project, we had to compose for and conduct a 51-piece orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London."
That experience led him to his biggest break, when a representative for Alejandro Sanz, a multi-Latin Grammy-winning performer who tours throughout Latin America, came to Berklee Valencia in 2015 looking for a trombonist. Gonzalez has been on the road ever since.
"They said, Hey, do you want to go on tour with this Spanish artist?" Gonzalez recalls with a laugh. "He's like the largest-selling artist in Latin America. I really lucked out." Sanz has 18 Latin Grammys, the latest for a DVD that Gonzalez and band members recorded with him in Madrid.
"Touring's been really cool," he says. "The pros are getting to travel the world, which is something I never thought I'd do. But my sister and my girlfriend wish they saw me more!"
In his downtime, Gonzalez is working on a book of music theory. Eventually he'd like to teach and spread his love of all different genres to young musicians.
"I really love music I can feel, music that's telling a story, that has some meaning behind it," he says.
Sara Jacovino '01
"Performing is about being in the moment. It's not about planning ahead of time."—Sara Jacovino '01
Sara Jacovino is a "Jac" of all musical trades. She's one of the lucky people born with perfect pitch, and she's an old hand at any number of different instruments. Her father, the pianist Joseph Jacovino, was an early influence, as her bedroom was located right above the family's piano. Jacovino started her musical career—as so many young musicians do—learning the piano, then began playing cello and saxophone. She also picked up the trombone, playing it and the saxophone in the Taft Jazz Band.
"I passed out of the piano requirement, so I took up trumpet to learn that," she says. "I have a few trombones, a bunch of keyboards, and a few saxophones in the closet."
After getting noticed for her playing ability, Jacovino began composing, influenced by many different genres. "In general, I love taking inspiration from classical" works, she says, "taking one kernel of an idea and developing that. Taking something that's really simple and short and concise and transforming it." Like a child's nursery rhyme.
The simple composition of "Three Blind Mice" has a great jazz version by legendary Jazz Messenger trombonist Curtis Fuller. "I actually got to work with Fuller one on one," Jacovino says. "He had heard my voice and asked me to write an arrangement for that for big band. It's definitely slanted to my aesthetic."
Now living in New York City, Jacovino goes back and forth between composing and performing. "It's hard to make a living composing," she says. "There's not much of a market for it, and I'm a perfectionist, which can be overwhelming and stressful. Performing is about being in the moment. It's not about planning ahead of time. Now I'm mostly performing, but I still maintain my own personal writing because I need that outlet."
Being a female trombonist is unusual, Jacovino says. "There are more women who are amazing players coming up, but not the number you find with men," she says. "When I moved to the city, there weren't as many female players as there are now. It's challenging—you are in a mostly guys' world. But I get hired because the world is mostly based on merit and I get along like 'one of the guys.'
"The Broadway scene is difficult to crack regardless of gender," she adds, "because the work is not as common as it used to be, and you have to be nearly perfect at what you do in order to get and stay hired."
Jacovino says she enjoys performing in the big band style. She play weekly with the Birdland Big Band, which also performs music she's written at the renowned venue. She plays occasionally with the Diva Jazz Orchestra, an all-female band that performs big band-style music with a jazz touch, a group that former Taft faculty member Rusty Davis introduced her to with a bootleg tape.
"I like to write for big band," Jacovino says. "You have more control because there's less improvising. With big band, I treat it like an orchestra. I believe in composition."
Jacovino knows that improvising is a fundamental element of jazz, and she does improvise when needed. "I approach improvising and playing from a composer's standpoint," she admits.
These days, Jacovino is, she says, always looking for work. "It's a very untraditional field," she says. "A lot of people sit around waiting to be called. I've been lucky. I keep on making work for myself. I've figured out a way not to be complacent and find work."
She owns an entertainment office that has generated plenty of work over the past six years, including playing in wedding bands. "I have been fortunate enough to create work for not only myself but dozens of other area musicians," Jacovino adds.
Jacovino says making a living as a musician wasn't always in her plans. "I never thought I'd be in music. I was a math geek, a statistics person. I thought I'd be an actuary!"
Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow '84 is a writer living in Fort Wayne, Indiana.