In Conversation with Mike Stern by Chris Bottone
Mike Stern, 67 is one of the most iconic American Jazz Guitarists. You may not know him by name, or the long, silver hair and the wide smile with slightly squinted eyes he gives when he hears a good tune. You might not know him for how his whole body slightly bobs with every plucky note he pulls out of his guitar, or for the “Yeah, man!” he smoothly slides out over the phone when he’s excited. You may not know the way he is able to bring the best out of his students taking Online Private lessons with him here at The Collective to better their playing almost 7 days a week for the last three seasons. You don’t know his passion for learning, for teaching, for music. But you’ve definitely heard him.
Stern has worked alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorious, Billy Cobham, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Steps Ahead, and countless other amazing musicians in the field of Jazz, Fusion, and Jazz-Rock. Dozens of solo records, Grammy nominations, and accolades including being named “Jazz Guitarist of the year” in 1993 for his genius work on Standards (and Other Songs.) and a placement on Downbeat Magazine’s 75 “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list.
He’s battled through injury, through personal health issues, and seen the music industry rise and fall like the heady, crowded melodic lines I have come to hear him pull out of an amplifier over an iPad running Zoom. I have had the pleasure of taking a call from every day to have a quick chat about making sure a “cat who missed his lesson gets what he paid for.” or to lower his prices to accommodate more students. Mike is more than his playing. He is a spirit of music that I have come to respect deeply. I’m lucky to call him a friend. He’s helped beginners and advanced players alike hone their craft all for the sake of keeping music alive in a year where it’s needed more than most. So to honor that, I decided to sit down with Stern over the phone and talk a step ahead of the music. (Pun intended.)
You’ve heard Stern play. I wanted Stern to be heard. So a few days ago, we discussed the future, influence, technology, and inspiration.
Chris Bottone: I feel like a lot of people know your style, your sound, and what you’ve done and who you’ve worked with. But I’ve never actually heard you talk about your influences. To start: Who influenced you as a player?
Mike Stern: Well, a lot of people I grew up listening to! You know, Hendrix, BB King, blues players actually. Oh, and Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, and Joe Pass.
C: That’s wild. I didn’t know you started out more into rock and blues. I hear the Hendrix now, too. He has that psychedelic element to it that I hear from you.
M: Yeah, back in the 60’s when I was 14, I was into blues and Rock/Soul Music living in Washington DC. I would play along with it by ear. You know, Jackson 5, Arethra Franklin, Eric Clapton with Cream, Zeppelin, Buddy Guy, Albert King, Steve Cropper. But you know, my mom played a lot of Jazz records. So when I got tired of playing along to what I listened to, I tried playing along with those. And I would get lost! I got lost a lot man, so that’s when I decided to educate myself, musically speaking. And it led me down a great path.
C: Is there anyone who has been influencing you more recently? I feel like this year has led people to be creative in new ways, and look to new influences.
M: Oz Noy, he’s a great kid, that Oz Noy. Also Wayne Krantz, and of course my wife. She’s a wonderful guitarist. She knows some hard tunes like Giant Steps and the like. We’ve been playing along to those. It’s been alright! But really what should inspire you is whatever gets your heart. Sometimes it’s something simple, sometimes it’s something hard, if it gets you, that’s the main thing.
C: Agreed. Speaking of this year, with live music probably not coming back for some time, how are you feeling about the state of concerts? Of musicians?
M: You know it’s a bad thing with all these cats and venues out of a way to make bread, but music…music finds a way, you know? I just did this Live Stream thing with my friend Mike Moreno. He does it every week with people in his house. There are ways to keep going! What else are you gonna do? The Blue Note, too. I just did an online thing for them, and it’s cool. I’m not the biggest fan of it as a replacement for live music, but you do the best you can with what you got! And Zoom has been great to teach. I prefer to teach live, but the other side about zoom is the accessibility of it. I get students from all walks of life all across the world. I feel good about teaching and the students do too! They learn what I want to give em’ and I’m learning from them all the time, (but don’t tell them that last part.) [laughs].
C: I’m glad you’re hopeful about the future of it. It is tough, but I feel like this technology might wind up supplementing live shows and actually making them more accessible and lead to new experiences. Do you think this tech will help in the long-run? Or are you a bit skeptical of it’s staying power?
M: It may! I don’t think that new stuff is gonna go away but there’s no substitute for live Concerts. You know there’s no replacement for communicating in person. However music gets out there is a good thing.
C: Well it’s funny, I was learning about how some stages are being built vertically, with different band members on different levels, to fit the camera of phones [laughs] it’s a thing happening right now with Pop in South Korea. What do you think about that kind of communication amongst music fans? Are you a fan of smartphone recordings?
M: I’m not crazy about recordings unless the musicians are involved with it. I was established when people were paying for records. It was easier to get deals, good recording, marketing and creative/financial support. They haven’t figured out how to get the dough from those recordings to the artist just yet. I mean YouTube goes and gives money to people who upload it, but not the artist in the video? Get more money to the artists! We spend hours trying to get stuff down! If people started having to pay, or didn’t make money off of those, it might keep those people who are trying to do it for cash away and just leave the fans who want to share it.
C: Well I’m glad you included the fans who are just in it to share the experience with others. It’s almost like a souvenir for some fans. I actually encourage people to record my shows sometimes. It’s good exposure for some artists these days with no support from labels. It’s like free marketing, you know? But I totally understand the angle you’re coming from with it.
M: Yeah sometimes that’s working against themselves. But sometimes it helps! There has to be some kind of compromise. Split the revenue with the artists if you post it online! You don’t know if it’s gonna go viral, man. Publishing could be key. They need to do more with that direction. It’s still the Wild West online. They’ll Figure out how to make it work for all of us artists eventually. It’s kinda like cars. We had ’em going wild with gasoline until we found out we’re melting the planet. But until then…
C: You know, speaking of taking the publishing route to get paid alongside user generated content with music, I think a step, even if it’s a small amount of dough, in the right direction might actually be TikTok. Have you heard of it?
M: Yeah, man! I have. I haven’t looked into it too too much, but Tik Tok seems like a good example of the future. Experiencing the future. It clearly has power. I mean, all those kids were able to prank people out of seats at that Trump Rally. [Laughs] It’s pretty amazing. But it’s still a baby step. We need more progress in the future so these kids blowing up get paid fairly for the art that everyone is listening to in those videos.
C: Yeah! That rally thing was insane! So speaking of new music, you’re still very active from what you’ve been telling me! Are you planning to release any new music? Were there any plans that got a bit mixed up because of the state of the world?
M: Yeah man! I’m working on new records. I’m working with Heads Up Records, they’re a subsidiary of Concord. They’ve got great cats like Esperanza Spalding. Have you heard of them?
C: Esperanza? Of course!
M: I’m glad to be involved with them. They’re really cool. I’m doing another record in the Spring. I wanna use more Nashville sounds, like Bill Evans is down there. A lot of country guys are phenomenal on lesser-used instruments like the pedal steel and dobro. I’m writing my own stuff as always, but I think it would sound great with new instrumentations. I get ideas for new stuff more from horn players than guitar players actually, like their melodies. I try and put whatever I can onto the guitar. We’ll See!
C: That’s really rad! I think unique instrumentation can really bring out the right moods in a piece. I’m excited to hear it! You know, I’ve been working on my stuff too, and let me say, being locked in a basement for 9 months isn’t exactly the most inspiring thing in the world when it comes to making music. How are you staying inspired?
M: That’s a great question, and that’s funny man, but true. You know, I’ve been talking to some of my friends and we all kind of agree, as guitar players? We’ve kinda been quarantining forever. [laughs] We practice inside. What’s the difference? This is solitary work sometimes, especially when it comes to practicing. But a lot of inspiration comes from seeing things. Experiencing things, walking around. Seeing shows, hearing what other people are doing in the moment. So it’s harder now, more or less. We have to stay away from people. But you need to keep going. One way I do and everyone gets inspired that they always forget about is just listening to more music. The world of music still inspires me, especially with technology! Stuff you see happen in the world on YouTube can inspire you. You need to keep practicing. Even if i’m feeling kinda low. Practicing helps me feel better. And it makes me feel even better when I’m already feeling good, or bad and then better. No one can take that away from you. It’s like gardening. As long as there’s water the flowers can keep growing in the world. You gotta keep watering the flowers.
C: Wow…that was really poetic. I agree! You just gotta keep pushing with it! I think that was the last question I had for you…so maybe we can end it with…hmm. I dunno. How would you like to end it? [Laughs]
M: The Thing I would end this with, is “Whether or not music is in your life, you wanna keep it in your life, or bring it into your life. No matter what happens in life. You need to hold on. You need to keep going. Keep practicing and try to keep learning. whenever you have time.”
Mike Stern is available at The Collective for Online Private Lessons through Winter 2021! Schedule now at: