Kevin Van Sant is a busy working, teaching and recording Jazz Guitarist who has taken the time to share with JGL readers his background and current situation. He is as insightful as his playing is and his brief discussion of improvisation is to the point, while his recounting of how he felt when meeting George Benson is funny and definitely something we can all relate to.
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2008.
“I guess I consider the routine restaurant gigs to be the bread and butter type of gigs. That’s what keeps my calendar full. But I enjoy private gigs on two fronts. Usually the environment is quite comfortable and the perks such as good food and wine make it all the more enjoyable. And of course these are the gigs that can pay very well. I made the decision from the beginning to only play music that I love. So I never play in cover or top 40 bands. Anyone who hires me for a private function has made the choice to have jazz music. These are great gigs.”
JGL: How old are you?
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
KVS: I live in Durham, North Carolina
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
KVS: I started taking guitar playing seriously when I was about 14 or 15
JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
KVS: I started out playing rock. Originally I was drawn to the Beatles, The Who, and other British Invasion bands, but I quickly became attracted to the improvisers and instrumental music more than pop songs. My main early influences were guys like Santana, Clapton, Hendrix, and Duane Allman. But when I was growing up there was a great radio station out of UNC Chapel Hill that played jazz music overnight so even though I hadn’t really thought about playing that music yet, I enjoyed listening to it.
JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say that’s what I want to do!
KVS: My first meaningful exposure to jazz guitar was a sampler album from the Concord record label. As you probably know in the 1980s Concord had all the great guitarists of a certain generation, Ellis, Burrell, Hall, Kessel, Roberts, Almeida, Palmieri, Collins, etc.. So this sampler had tracks from all of these great guitarists. The playing was so beyond my comprehension, I would sometimes listen and question how one player could be doing all that at once. At that point I wasn’t trying to play jazz myself, but the impact it had on me was in trying to achieve a similar level of completeness about playing the instrument, not to divide it into lead guitar or rhythm guitar, but just play the whole thing.
As to the second part of your question, from the very beginning as soon as I first became interested in music I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I never imagined myself in any other line of work. Of course I had no realistic idea of how this would happen, but I didn’t worry about that so much and just figured that If I kept playing things would fall into place.
JGL: In high school you were awarded the Louis Armstrong award. How did this come about and what was the significance of winning such an award with that prestigious name attached?
KVS: I only played in the jazz band my senior year in high school. By that time I was an experienced improviser, but more in a rock setting. So I was bringing my Santana sensibilities to Latin tunes like Blue Bossa. I think the director appreciated my spirit of improvisation even if my jazz vocabulary was not well informed at that point. I was well aware of Armstrong at that point though as I had read a biography of him and had listened to a lot of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings so I was very pleased to be selected to the award with his name.
JGL: Similarly, Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
KVS: As I was naively determined to make music happen for myself I just kept at it with blinders on, so the “would” already existed. The belief in the “could” started to become real after my first couple of jazz gigs which actually paid like a real job as opposed to all the rock gigs playing for a percentage of the door and spreading it out among six or seven guys.
JGL: You appear to do a lot of private gigs. Are these your bread and butter gigs or do they balance out with concert type gigs?
KVS: I guess I consider the routine restaurant gigs to be the bread and butter type of gigs. That’s what keeps my calendar full. But I enjoy private gigs on two fronts. Usually the environment is quite comfortable and the perks such as good food and wine make it all the more enjoyable. And of course these are the gigs that can pay very well. I made the decision from the beginning to only play music that I love. So I never play in cover or top 40 bands. Anyone who hires me for a private function has made the choice to have jazz music. These are great gigs.
I do play concerts as well, but on the local level its not really an option to fill out your schedule with concert type gigs. A concert is a special event, and if you’re doing a concert every week or even every month in the same area its just not that special anymore and you cant fill the venues. But there are various jazz societies in the region or festivals or concert series that I’m able to be a part of for occasional concerts.
JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?
KVS: In one sense for me its been relatively easy to be honest. This isn’t to say that I haven’t worked really hard to make it happen, because I have put an enormous amount of time and energy into getting where I am now. But most of that effort has gone into the musical aspect of things and that has enabled all of the career aspect to happen. Im also in a position where my expenses aren’t too crazy so my needs are modest so as long as I stay busy I’m able to keep ahead. What is sometimes taxing is the ebb and flows of the local scene. There are periods, sometimes years, sometimes months, where everyone is really busy and there is a lot of work, then you get some down time where you see a lot of holes in your calendar. You have to have the right kind of personality not to become highly stressed about these swings. But over time you gain more and more confidence that if you keep doing what you’ve been doing that you can ride out the slow periods. Of course the slow times also serve the purpose of energizing you to become a little more proactive about drumming up new opportunities.
JGL: Looking at the photos on your website, there is one where you are displaying some of the wonderful guitars you own especially the Ibanez Brydland copy. Do you use each guitar for different moods or are they interchangeable?
KVS: I pretty much use my L5 99% of the time. I do have a couple of others such as the Ibanez you mention, I have this one tuned down to B with some heavy strings. I also have a nylon string guitar, an Alto guitar which utilizes a tuning that Joe Beck came up with. I also still have my ES-175 even though I almost never play it. I’m not really the type to have a collection of similar guitars and just grab a different one depending on my mood that day. I like the relationship you develop with a single instrument over endless hours and gigs making music together. Plus there is no guitar Id rather play than my L5 so it would be hard to leave it at home!
JGL: What was your first guitar?
KVS: My first few guitars were cheap copies, starting with a Strat copy, then a Les Paul copy, then a Tele copy. I don’t even know the brands. They were all pretty poor instruments I imagine. My first nice guitar was a Carvin solid body in the Gibson SG shape. My first jazz box was the ES-175.
JGL: What other gear are you using?
KVS: For years I have used both Evans and Acoustic Image amplifiers. They are both coincidentally made here in North Carolina. I recently picked up a Polytone Minibrute V with a 15” speaker. Ive been experimenting with a couple of different rigs for larger gigs.
My gigging rig is just guitar and amp. But at home I have a looper pedal I use for practicing all the time. I also have some home recording gear.
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
KVS: For the longest time my main influences were what I call second generation jazz guitarists. If Charlie Christian, Django, Oscar Moore, Eddie Lang and the like were the first generation of jazz guitar players, then the guys who came after them and cited them as influences are the second group. Of this second generation I single out Wes, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, and Jimmy Raney as my strongest influences. But I quickly found Benson, Martino and Grant Green and soaked up as much of their music as I could find also. In particular I learned an enormous amount from Kessel, Hall, and Pass from their respective chordal concepts. But the pure joy and effortless feel of Wes and Benson always resonated with me too.
Over the years I haven’t abandoned any of these guys I have only added to my influences and those I appreciate. My most influential players of the current generation are Peter Bernstein, Jesse van Ruller, Bobby Broom, and Bireli Lagrene. Theses four are every bit as much masters as any who have come before them.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
KVS: I have always been a music collector. I have about 4000 jazz albums now. Since much of my practicing is playing along with records, and much of my listening is while practicing (I cant listen to a record at home without wanting to pick up my guitar and play along), what I choose to listen to is usually determined by what I feel like practicing. But in general I am a huge fan of everything on the Criss Cross label. The players I like most are those in whose playing you can hear the tradition but also hear them pushing it forward. This seems to describe all of the players on the Criss Cross roster.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
KVS: I’m not sure I can answer that question. There are my musical influences Ive already mentioned. But Ive never had a teacher or a mentor so I don’t have that type of influence to single out. There have been a couple of musician friends who for various reasons have served as great role models for me. One of them is a sax player named Frank Corbi who is great player and just a great human being.
JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
KVS: They were always very supportive of my interest in music but I think they also doubted whether I was being realistic in my goals to play music for a living. For a while all the evidence supported their position, but now that Ive been successfully established in my music career for a number of years I think they are quite proud that Ive accomplished that.
JGL: Do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
KVS: I do teach privately. I have in the past experimented with some over the internet teaching but for the time being the way to study with me is to come to my house. My only requirements from students is that they be genuinely interested in learning jazz music on guitar, and that they trust me enough as a teacher to do what I ask them to do. I don’t really care what level the student is at as long as he or she is interested in jazz and is committed to the pursuit.
JGL: Early on in your development as a musician you placed goals on yourself, such as learning two songs a week. How important was it for you to establish set goals for yourself and is this something that you stress on students today?
KVS: It was important for me because it did keep me on a certain pace. Tangible goals are always going to be helpful for that reason but there are times in the journey where maybe the best thing to do is be an explorer rather than a hunter. If you always have a set goal in mind you may not take the time to explore other potentially productive and rewarding areas that aren’t related to that goal.
I do try to stress the value of goals on my students but at the same time I don’t generally impose any on them because everyone has their own life and priorities. If the music is important enough to them they don’t need me to set the goal or deadline for them, they will be motivated to push themselves. If that motivation isn’t there, its pointless for me to try and impose it. However if they do express a particular goal I will tell them what I think they need to do to get there, but Ill let them go at their own pace. I do try to always remind them that the more they put in the more they’ll get out.
JGL: How do you approach improvisation? Is it based on the usual scale/chord relationships or are you coming at it from a different angle?
KVS: Probably a different angle. I am self taught so I have developed my own way of looking at things. My whole approach is derived from understanding chords and chord relationships. This serves both in understanding harmony but also as a means to map out the fret-board. I’m one of those who boils everything down to Major, Minor, or Dom7th. I have no use for specific seven note spellings of say various minor scales. For example, for me melodic minor is a sound not a scale. I just access that color by recognizing the quality of a natural seventh over a minor chord and using it accordingly. All twelve notes are available at almost any time. The underlying tonality of a given key, chord, or grouping of chords is expressed by 1,3,5 and 7. The remaining tones are flavors and decorations. By understanding chord relationships you have access to an endless array of ways to organize basic maj, min, and dom7 sounds against any key, chord or grouping of chords. I just find this a lot easier to manage and use musically than with the linear chord/scale or modal way of thinking.
JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when learning to improvise and play over changes?
KVS: The single most important thing to do is to improvise along with records. To play jazz music you have to learn the language, there is no better way to do that. The second most important thing to do is to learn songs. Memorize the melody, the chords, and ideally work the melody with a block chord underneath every melody note. Approach learning tunes with a collectors mindset, keep a list of the tunes you know so that you remember to maintain them. And keep a list of songs you want to learn too, you’ll never sit down wondering what to practice! This is an extremely educational and productive process.
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
KVS: I still play along with records for the majority of my practice time. Sometimes Ill just sit down and play through tunes solo guitar as well, but if I have a lot of solo guitar gigs on my schedule then I get much more productive solo guitar practice playing those. Earlier I mentioned that I use a looper pedal for practice. This is a fantastic tool, I actually use it quite a lot. I like to extract four or eight measures from a given tune and just explore different ideas over that progression. Its also great for simple two chord vamps and exploring all the harmonic possibilities over a simple progression. Of course everyday there may be one thing on my mind that I feel compelled to work on. There are so many pieces to the puzzle of playing jazz guitar, sometimes you are working on one or two things for a while then one day you realize you’ve neglected another aspect so you turn your attention to that. Im never without something that feels like it needs attention, that’s for sure.
JGL: Apart from performing all over North Carolina and elsewhere on the East Coast you have also performed in Russia and throughout Europe including five appearances at the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. How did these prestigious gigs come about?
KVS: When I was a kid I lived overseas for a few years and my family always traveled a lot so Ive continued to have the travel bug. The various gigs Ive done in Europe have come about in different ways but because I like to combine music and travel so much I’m always seeking them out. The three weeks we did in Russia came about as part of a cultural exchange program between my hometown at the time of Chapel Hill and its sister city in Russia, Saratov. Our trio was asked to take part in the program. That same group decided to go to Europe the following summer to just travel around and busk. We actually did quite well and sold many CD’s, we finished our trip in Montreux during the festival there where I made some contacts which established our getting hired to play for the festival for a few years in a row after that. Each time you do something like this you make more contacts which lead to future travel and gigs. I would really like to do some playing in Asia next. I’m hoping to arrange something in Japan during the next year.
JGL: What was your experience like playing to a European audience?
KVS: On one hand its easy to say the European audiences are more appreciative than at home, but as most of our playing in Europe has been in concert settings I think if I compare audiences at concerts in the US they are just as enthused about the music. But its easy to get discouraged about average US interest in jazz music from the level of indifference at some of the routine gigs that most jazz players find themselves playing at restaurants and bars. Maybe in Europe the culture is a little different where there is a little more general appreciation of sensory things such as good food and good music.
JGL: You have been both a leader and a sideman. Which do you prefer and what are the differences in roles that you need to bring to the table?
KVS: I enjoy both roles. As a sideman the great thing is you have no pressure, you just show up and play. You don’t have to worry about unhappy managers, or feel the stress of keeping the gig if its a slow night, you don’t have to call all the tunes. But being a leader is also great because you are in control. I choose the personnel I want to play with, I can make everyone play all the obscure tunes Ive been working on that no one else ever calls. I feel its my prerogative to shape the group sound more as a leader and the other guys wont mind because they know its my gig.
So I guess I don’t necessarily prefer either one, I prefer having both types of gigs on my schedule. I don’t want the stress of being the leader on every gig, but I wouldn’t want to be without leader gigs because that’s where I feel I’m able to develop my concept more fully than I can as a sideman.
JGL: Your latest CD project, The Van Sant/Palmer Jazz Duo Play The Music of Horace Silver, is a full 11 song set of Horace Silver compositions played in a duo setting with bass and guitar How did this project come to be and what was it about Horace’s compositions that inspired you to devote a whole CD to his music?
KVS: Ben and I have done some projects and travel together before. At some point a year or so ago we talked about planning another trip to Europe and in conjunction we would record a new CD. At that time I floated the idea of doing all Horace Silver tunes. I wanted to have a unifying theme to the project instead of just doing random standards. I think concept records like this work really well. I didn’t want to do a CD of originals because the tunes Ive been writing that I haven’t recorded yet I’m hearing more in a trio format so I’m saving them for a future trio project.
The idea of doing Horace Silver tunes came about because Ive always loved his writing and I already was playing a few of his tunes regularly. Horace Silver seemed like an obvious choice if we wanted to do a composer themed project. Once we had decided this would be our project I started going through all my Silver CDs and making notes of the titles that really grabbed me. A couple of my discoveries, “Enchantment” and “Calcutta Cutie”, are my favorite tunes on the CD. There are plenty more we could have recorded, it was hard to whittle it down to just the eleven that we fit on our CD.
JGL: With your latest release, that makes 11 CD’s as a leader. That’s quite a feat! Are they all self produced?
KVS: They are, and to be honest, most are fairly low budget projects never really intended to be bona-fide CD releases. The first two CD’s I did were with a group called Jazure. We were an established rehearsing trio for a few years and our CD’s were all original music. We created our own label but had a distributor who was getting our CD’s into stores nationally. Those two CD’s were legit releases. Then the first two projects I did with Ben Palmer were both recorded so that we would have product to take with us to Europe when we were playing in Montreux. There is some nice music on both of them but they aren’t as polished as our Horace Silver CD. After doing a couple of those CD’s with Ben it seemed so easy to self produce a duo CD so I started doing a series of duo projects with some of the players I was regularly working with. Again, these have some nice music and I’m happy to have people hear them but in my opinion the Horace CD is on a higher level. I now only make those earlier efforts available as Mp3 download albums.
JGL: How do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective?
KVS: Well the Internet has totally changed the nature of promotion and marketing for the independent musician. Not only having your own web presence but posting to YouTube, MySpace, Soundclick, or any of the other popular websites. I posted a short video lesson on walking bass with chords to you tube about two and a half years ago, Ive had well over 300,000 views of that clip. That’s pretty good free international exposure. The trick is figuring out how to get those people to continue to follow you to the point of buying your product.
Aside from the internet, on a local level nothing beats having a representative CD that you can always have on hand as a business card.
JGL: Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?
KVS: Not having going through music school I don’t know what or how much they deal with that. But it seems to me like it would be a wise idea to include the business end of things in the curriculum of any performance majors. The more that players can do for themselves the better. But on the other hand, even if they try to teach you about the business of a working musician I think everyone will still have to ultimately find out on their own the hard way once they start doing it for real.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
KVS: Wow, its always impossible for me to choose ONE of anything! I guess I could say Wes Montgomery because I would just love to have been able to hear him in person. As far as someone to play with, maybe Sonny Rollins. If you were sharing the bandstand with Sonny you would never be short of inspiration or ideas!
JGL: There’s a photo with George Benson playing your guitar with a funny caption underneath. Is there a story about this meeting?
KVS: Every time we went to Montreux, in addition to all the gigs and concerts the festival had us doing we would spend most of the day just playing out on the street. We encountered a lot of great players from all over as everyone was always wandering around checking things out when they werent playing their gigs. One day I was taking a break and walking around to grab a bite to eat, I ran into George Benson (his concert was to be that night), we talked for a while and I told him where I would be playing some tunes if he was to stroll down that way later. So sure enough a while later when we were playing again I looked up in the middle of a song an saw GB sitting down listening. Of course at that moment my brain seized up and my fingers turned to rubber, but somehow I finished out the tune. I asked him if he wanted to play and he said no, but then he came up and said something like “hey Ive got that same guitar too…let me check that out” Then he played a blues and Round Midnight with Ben. It was a completely different experience taking in his playing right in front of me on my guitar. Despite what anyone might say about George selling out or losing his jazz chops having gone down the pop star road, what I witnessed there was the greatest jazz guitar playing I have ever seen.
JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
KVS: I’m not sure that I ever had any expectations. I always just wanted to play, in one sense that’s all I do and then just roll along with where that has taken me. The one thing that I do get a kick out of is how I now find myself playing things which years ago I couldn’t fathom how anyone could do. We all have in our mind this great player who combines elements from all our favorite players, its really a thrill when you hear yourself playing like that guy in your head!
JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
KVS: As much as I love playing music and would be lost without it, I do have other interests which I try to keep in balance. I’m really into tennis and golf for example and the feeling of competition and creativity that those two sports allow. Plus I like being outdoors and doing outdoor projects at my house. I’m fortunate that Ive been able to carve out an enjoyable lifestyle for myself which allows me to be as immersed in music as I want at any given time. So my hope for the future is that I am able to continue what I have been able to do. I hope to continue to feel like I’m moving forward in all aspects of my life and music.
JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?
KVS: I make the choice to accept all my decisions and have no regrets. Everything we do shapes us and leads us to where we are now. I try to learn from things Ive done which seemed like mistakes. But I’m happy so no regrets.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
KVS: Find like-minded people to play with, this is where you will find motivation. Learn tunes. Listen to jazz as much as you can, you must learn the language. Be a seeker, be dedicated. Sell all your video games!
JGL: What else do you like to do apart from guitar playing? Are you a photographer as well? Some of the Hawaii shots you took are just gorgeous.
KVS: Well in Hawaii all you have to do is close your eyes, randomly point the camera, and shoot nine times out of ten you’ll have a postcard. But I do think that creative musicians do tend to have a good eye for photography. I’m not a buff by any means, but I do enjoy taking pictures of pretty things and places.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
KVS: No second thoughts, there are a lot of things I like to dabble in, but I cant think of anything else realistic that I could imagine making a career our of.
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
KVS: I already mentioned golf and tennis. This fall I actually joined an organized USTA tennis league for the first time which has been great fun. I also enjoy cooking and gardening. As a homeowner I really enjoy home improvement projects, its a lot of fun when it is your own house. For example, I live on a small lake and last summer the level was down significantly so I took advantage of a little dry land off our shore to build a dock. I always find projects such as that or even cooking projects kind of get me fired up creatively and I can bring that fresh energy back into my music. I’m also a travel enthusiast, I particularly like visiting very old places such as ruins or European castles, or untouched natural areas. My wife laughs at me whenever I talk about it, but I love the energy in these places as though you can feel a vague lingering imprint of all that has occurred there before. Even just coming across an old abandoned house in a field or the woods gives me a small thrill. Its like I feel a strong nostalgia for times that I can only imagine.
JGL: And lastly, whats the deal with the Jazz greeting Cards service you provide on your site?
KVS: The product of early experiments with Photoshop and with learning HTML and web design. That’s something I created way back in the early days of the Web to give an interactive component to my website. It still works so Ive left it up there all these years.
JGL: Thank you Kevin for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
KVS: My pleasure, I appreciate the chance to participate. You’ve got a great website with www.jazzguitarlife.com
For more information on Kevin Van Sant check out his website at www.kevinvansant.com