The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview, we sat down with Director of Jazz Studies Steve Christopher, better known as Mr. C, to talk about his history with the Center for Musical Arts, why he’s a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, and more.
Center for Musical Arts: Hello! I’m Erica Reid, I’m the Marketing Manager for the Center for Musical Arts, and I’m the one who gets to talk to our faculty to get to know them. And today I feel like I am talking to Center royalty because I have Steve Christopher here. Mr. C, how are you doing?
Steve Christopher: Well, I’m much better since you called me royalty!
Center: Before I even started really working here, I was hearing about “Mr. C,” so I’ve been really eager to sit down with you and get to know you a little bit better. Can you tell me a bit about your history with the Center?
Mr. C: Well, as near as I can tell, I think I actually arrived on the site in 2002. And at that point I was asked to regenerate the jazz program there, it was kind of going but not doing well, so I jumped in. I was still in the Boulder Valley Schools working at Fairview High School, but I put together a jazz group and launched what has now been that many years ago, a program that has grown into what it is now.
Center: Wonderful. And I understand that the stage in Founder’s Hall is named after you. What does that mean to you?
Mr. C: That was quite a tribute. It was a surprise to me, but as I said in my speech, when I accepted, that at least it’s not an outhouse or something like that. That’s probably what I deserved at the time, but a stage, wow. That’s a whole lot and I really appreciate that moment.
Center: From what I’ve heard about your impact at the Center, it’s very well deserved. So can you tell me just briefly about your teaching philosophy?
Mr. C: Well it’s pretty simple, show up, have fun, work hard and the product will speak for itself.
Center: I love it, short and sweet. In a recent interview that I was listening to where you were talking to Stephen Spink about his background, you mentioned that you like to ask younger students what drew them to their instrument and what their vision of it is. Can you tell me what drew you to the trumpet and what your vision of the trumpet is?
Mr. C: Well, I guess it’s a two-part deal for me. When I was very young I was on the streets of Boulder watching the Band Day parade back in the day when all the bands would march before a CU football game and go in the stadium. It was a really big deal at the time. And I decided that looked like a good thing to do, be in a marching band.
And then I had the fortune of my parents letting me go see Louis Armstrong play the trumpet on the campus at the events center up there. And that sold me on the fact that that was an instrument I would want to play. And then I was going to be actually better than Louis Armstrong. I was a young man with the conviction that didn’t really make it because nobody’s better than Louis Armstrong [laughs] and I found that out pretty fast. But that’s how I got into it.
Center: So part of why I do these interviews is I’m trying to showcase all the different things you can learn at the Center. So can you talk to me a little bit about jazz ensembles, not just lessons for an instrument, but what is it like to study jazz ensembles and to be a part of one of those groups?
Mr. C: Well, it’s the group thing. We also have a concert band, there are orchestras and choirs… What you do is you take your study of an instrument or your voice or whatever you have in music, and then you put it in a group setting. And that changes everything a little bit because now you’re not just dealing with how you manipulate what you’re doing, but you have to put it into the group setting and make it work there.
And your goal is to contribute positively to the overall effect of that group, no matter what it is. And that’s the thing that takes a little while sometimes for all of us to get, is that we’re a member of a group. And by golly, you got to participate thinking about the whole group effect and that doesn’t always come easy, but it has to be.
Center: I understand that you place students in different ensembles. How do you know as an instructor where someone will be a fit, or is it just a gut thing?
Mr. C: Well, it’s a little further along than that. You have criteria that you know need to meet a certain level. I use the word intermediate, that starting at the beginning plus, or something in between advanced and not advanced. So that’s the hardest one for us to figure out, but that’s a person that’s probably played a couple of years on an instrument, can manipulate the instrument well, and yet doesn’t have a background in what the subject matter is, and in my case it’s jazz playing. And then it goes from there.
Let’s say the person works quite a bit on their instrument and the next year they progress to what we call the advanced level, which would be somebody that can contribute more. And what we do is we have a scale, one to ten, and it’s just like anything else, a football coach would be doing the same thing, you evaluate on the skill level that you are seeing and hearing. And I have beginners through advanced and yeah, it’s kind of subjective on my behalf. I’m calling the shots, I guess, so it’s my subjective approach to what I think is the right place.
Center: Thank you. Thank you for that. So when you are not teaching or listening to music, what else fills your days?
Mr. C: Oh, wow. Now let’s see. I better be careful what I say here. [laughs] When I was young, I was deeply involved in athletics as well. I was a typical person, a young man who thought that he could contribute in any aspect of anything in the world. So I thought I was going to be a star baseball player. And my grandfather had played for the Boston Red Sox, so I had that influence and he was very serious about baseball and he helped me get involved and I thought, “Wow, this is going to be something for me.” And then I broke his heart by telling him that I was going to be a trumpet player and a band director. And he threw me out of the house at that time and said [grumbling], he was kind of a gruff guy.
But I made that decision at the end of my high school days and went on into music. And I finally got him after a year of not speaking to me to come into a club where I was playing with a jazz group. And at the intermission, I went down, he was sitting at the table with family and [grumbling] and he said to me, “You’re a hell of a lot better trumpet player than you were a baseball player.”
That was the end of that struggle. So we made up and then of course he passed on. But I still now, to this day, to bring it to what your question really is, that’s what I do. I watch baseball, I think about baseball, I was hoping that I’d have some grandsons playing baseball, that hadn’t happened yet, but we’ll see.
Center: And who’s your favorite team?
Mr. C: The Boston Red Sox!
Center: [laughs] Still the Boston Red Sox. Okay. Well, let me bring us to a close and just ask, is there anything else that you would like to tell us, especially for a potential student who might want to study trumpet or might be interested in jazz? Is there any advice you would give them or anything they should know about you or the Center for Musical Arts?
Mr. C: I think the key for anything that you’re going to chase around and you have curiosity about is to research… not research, but at least listen to and look at, especially with videos, what that is. Now, if it’s the trumpet and you need to develop people to admire and listen to, and follow them. That will help you decide, “Okay, I want to be like that.” That’s what I did with Louis Armstrong.
There’s that, then there’s the want to participate with others in making a product successful. And that’s what the Center is all about. We have a fabulous faculty who takes the private end and then we can also have the group end, and so our private teachers prepare students to participate in ensembles and groups. And that’s where I’m at, I get the lucky job of the rewards of their fine work as a private teacher and then they come to me and want to play jazz and so I just turn that button on for them and off we go.
Center: All right. Wonderful, wonderful. Well, thank you so much for spending time with me today. I’m honored to have finally gotten to meet Mr. C.
Mr. C: Well, Hey, I’m glad your voice is working because it’s good!
Center: [laughs] All right. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Mr. C: Okay. Keep swingin’!