Episode #22 released August 17, 2020
GEISA FERNANDES: This week, QuaranJazz goes Canada, or as I like to call it, the Paradise of Jazz. There are many reasons to love Canada. One of them is the well-organized structure of jazz festivals: the TDs, the traditional jazz festivals.
And if you just raised your eyebrow because I said that there are many reasons to love Canada, don’t trust me: trust The Simpsons. In one of the many episodes of the iconic US animation involving their neighbour country, almost all characters are in a huge fight in Springfield Stadium. And guess what calms people down and brings them back to their senses? The Canadian anthem! Yeah, they start singing the Canadian, not the US, anthem and then everything is fine and beautiful. Season 14, episode 21. “[The] Bart of War”. Check it out.
Directly from Canada, my guest this week is bass player William Chernoff. William is also a composer and manages a very cool, interesting newsletter called Rhythm Changes. I love that name. Hi, William, thank you so much for being part of QuaranJazz! Let’s get started. Tell us about your story, your influences, your background.
WILLIAM CHERNOFF: Hi, thank you Geisa for having me on and for your work with QuaranJazz. I release jazz under my own name, William Chernoff, based in Canada on the West Coast in the Vancouver, British Columbia area. I live in the city of New Westminster, in that area, which is also where I was born and raised.
I’m a product of my high school music program for sure - the environment that my music teachers made there was the key for me to fall in love with music, because before I came to that high school and set foot in that band room, I had hardly played music before in my life. I was a nerdy kid who loved to play video games and I substituted that passion almost entirely for music, in terms of the time I spent day-to-day when I was a teenager. The reason why I did that was because all my friends were so deep into playing music, they were so enthusiastic about it in high school and they wanted to get better, and I could just ride this wave of regular displays of love that we were showing each other about music. I’ve been riding that same wave in one form or another ever since, so for about 10 or 15 years now.
When I was in high school here in New Westminster, I started to write jazz as well alongside learning to play it. The first tune that I ever wrote is still in my repertoire today and I wrote it in three chord, half rock-and-roll, half jazz fusion basement jams with my friends over the summer while we were in high school. When we came back to school, we would go to these high school band festivals that educators and schools put on in the Vancouver area and we would meet other students who wanted to play jazz (there are not that many of us in the bigger picture).
I went on to study at University for about one year before I left and started working in the non-profit arts world and I became an independent artist in 2019. By that time, the music that I wanted to release under my own name reflected all the jazz that I had grown up and come of age listening to and learning from people in my city and I’ve been writing in that style throughout, so I have this catalogue of music that I can play in a quartet or a quintet. Trumpet is the main instrument that I feature on the melody. I also have trombone or guitar and then often I have piano, bass, and drums all in the rhythm section.
A big influence for me might not be familiar to QuaranJazz listeners so it’ll be fun to bring him up here: an iconic person to me and to my peers in Canadian jazz named Brad Turner. I have so much respect for The Brad Turner Quartet, one of the main jazz groups that influenced me and a lot of other people I know in Vancouver. Brad played trumpet and other instruments and wrote so much great music that was very dynamic and exciting for me to listen to. A lot of my tunes I very much wrote in that style, trying to imitate what he was doing.
Then I was also very influenced by Bill Frisell on the other side because I have spent a lot of time playing with guitarists, even if I don’t always have one in my group. I really appreciated those guitarists who brought other things into jazz that weren’t always conventional, but who made them apart of the jazz thing, and Bill Frisell really did that in an atmospheric and moody way that made me feel like jazz had so many possibilities that I could never even begin to scratch, so he’s another big influence on my writing and what I wanted the music to sound like after I recorded it.
I also found a lot of influence from Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, the funky band from the 70’s, and that earthy style influenced a bunch of my tunes and some of the ones that I always go to when I perform live.
With all that said, the way I contribute to the recordings I make is by playing bass and collaboration will become more important for me every year because I’m trying to prove to myself that this is for me, by recording the music I’ve written over these years, and by becoming a better bass player. And as I do that, it’ll come time for me to keep reaching out to more lovely musicians all across Canada that I’ve been listening to, that I’ve been following online, that I’ve become friends with. Music is all about people and I’m just getting started here in Canada.
So, thank you Geisa, for having so many Canadians on already!
GF: Laughs. I love Canadians! Really, they are always welcome here in QuaranJazz. I myself have only been once to Canada actually, to Montreal, but I have the best impression possible. Great people, great place, great food. Really enjoyed it. Anyway, I love Canada. You guys are always welcome here. And I totally agree with you: collaboration is the key.
So tell me, William, what were you doing when the COVID crisis emerged?
WC: At the time of the pandemic, here’s what I had going on: I had a band with four members playing folk music. I played bass in this band, like I do in most of my projects. We started the band in 2018 [and] had a decent first summer hitting the road. We recorded our first album in 2018, then we brought that album on a bit of a Canadian tour and played at folk festivals in our country in 2019. In 2020, the band had big ambitions for a great festival summer, and we still managed to collaborate even during the pandemic with a couple of those festivals who did virtual broadcasts, but we could never have reckoned that this outcome would change our band so much. We’re all very good friends and we’re keeping in touch to find out what we can do with this band.
I notice a spectrum where, on one side, you can be an artist that really focuses on the online audience and that develops strong presences, devoted followings on streaming stores, and on social platforms and by email or other ways to keep in touch with people all around the world. You can have thousands, [even] millions of followers that way and it doesn’t diminish the experience that you have with that great community that you’ve built for yourself online if you don’t really perform that much live.
By setting up this spectrum with that on one end, I’m not diminishing that in any way; I’m not saying that’s not good. That’s amazing. That’s just one side. The other side would be to have a band that is so focused on live performance and that’s what the four of us [have] had together over the last three years. Our type of band, on that end of the spectrum, has had to adapt a lot. I don’t even know what that’s going to end up looking like yet. There’s a lot of uncertainty when you’re so focused on live playing and, to be honest, you’ve neglected the online stuff a little bit.
Then I was just getting started with my own jazz independent artist journey. I had started releasing singles in August of 2019 and then I had received a grant here in Canada, a small one, to put out a few more singles. I got that grant and put out the first single associated with it about a month before the pandemic. In a way that was really nice because I had the fire power to “keep on, keeping on” and releasing singles even despite the pandemic and experimenting with different ways to share them with people. So I really appreciated that support and I love that I had something to keep putting out that I had already prepared and talked to my bandmates about. [This] really kept me alive as an independent artist just trying to start.
Then I worked as a producer for a couple of artists locally and I had to postpone some studio sessions because of the pandemic. I’m not sure how much of that I want to continue doing. I will definitely keep working with these few people that I’ve met and whom I’ve started to collaborate with because I love working with them, but do I really want to go out and look for more clients like that? Probably not, and the pandemic did teach me that. The response to that was that I started to write, so now I write regularly with a newsletter platform.
It just so happens that I left my non-profit arts position a few months before the pandemic with no foresight of that, and for completely unrelated reasons. I really respect the enormous challenge that is in front of the group that I worked for because, again, lots of live performance, lots of engaging people face-to-face in the community. I’m still keeping in touch with them and figuring out how they’re going to accomplish their mission even though I did that position before the pandemic.
As a summary and to give you an idea of what my time looked like before the pandemic, too, because that changed a lot, I would say almost every weekend from about May until September, I would be travelling. I wouldn’t be gone for long periods of time - maybe only two or three days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, that kind of thing - and a lot of it was with my band and a lot of it was to festivals. Pretty much every weekend for about four or five months, I would do that in the late spring and through the summer and into the fall here in Canada. That won’t happen and that hasn’t happened so far, so that’s been a big change to my time.
Even at the level of my city, I haven't had to commute around the city as much. I’ve learned that, like a lot of us have learned, that a lot of projects can happen from home or they can happen with different people if you need to. They can happen with people locally or with places you can walk to or get to very quickly. Those changes surprised me as well. So, my time day-today, it actually changed quite a lot and it opened up some more time for me to start new things, like writing.
GF: What about the lockdown restrictions? Were the measures very hard in your region?
WC: Now, regarding the pandemic, this is where I feel the most fortunate. Because where I live, we have not been on lockdown at all and that’s been amazing. I’ve been so grateful for that, I can’t even describe based on what I’ve heard about the situation globally. I’m very fortunate to live where I live, end of story!
In accordance with that, some venues have begun to present live music once again, inside their rooms. Now, they do that with limited capacity and they sell tickets to online broadcasts of these events to help fill out the experience for them as a presenter, because I think it’s a very small number of people that these few places opening up can bring into their rooms. I haven’t gone to any of these places yet, but I suspect that I will even before the end of the summer.
The reason I haven’t gone yet is just that I’ve felt invigorated by the new things that I’ve been able to try during the pandemic and [by] being in my city more often, being at home more often. Partly because of how fortunate I’ve been with the situation health-wise here, I haven’t felt limited by [COVID]. I have felt excited to write more, to write music more regularly, to collaborate with people in a recording studio that I can walk to, to bring people into a garage that has just enough space for us to set up across the garage room and rehearse...Those have all been such wonderful things at this time and I’ve enjoyed focusing on those. When you’re in that state of mind, it’s hard to go out to a venue.
I’ve always felt that way. I’ve always been more of the homebody than the “road warrior” in that sense. I had this suspicion that travelling to performances, like I mentioned earlier, felt more like a chore to me than an experience that was an end unto itself, like it was with some of my friends where they just loved being on the road. I respect that but I always kind of knew it wasn’t me. Now that I get to spend my time doing really invigorating things at home, I know that about myself. I know that I’m okay to not enjoy performance travel and to enjoy being at home. That’s extending right now even to me not wanting me to get on the train and go to the local show even though it’s super exciting that they’re reopening. That’s something on my mind. I'm looking for opportunities to go out and meet, even if it’s a couple of people, live again because that is really special and that I want to support it.
I know that the recording studio I spend most of my time in has a safety policy regarding the pandemic. I have one too that I’ve adapted from them [and] I know that a lot of people have that. People are doing their best to wear masks and slow the spread even though I live in an optimistic part of the world. Now, there’s still no festivals in sight and there’s still no large events in sight, but I am grateful and proud, as I’ll say as many times as I need to, that I live in a part of the world where things can be reopening right now during the midsummer. It’s funny because I usually book for my jazz music quite far in advance, so there’s still some gigs that I’m wondering about because I booked them in January, February...They’re quite small so they still could happen, and a couple of the venues that I tried to book are reopening now, but I’m sure they’re just swamped, everyone is swimming in email obligations trying to figure out what to do here. So, I get it that I haven’t figured it out with them but I might have some performances in the Fall that I worked on booking in January.
I know that in Canada we can go from province to province, too. Maybe that’s not true of the entire country, I don’t know off the top of my head, but here in the West of Canada, we can go from the West Coast into the middle of the country if we want to. We could drive and do that if we wanted to, but we cannot and should not go across the American border and I haven’t entertained that idea at all right now.
The common thing throughout it all right now is that I’m young. Being a Millennial or Gen Z musician lets me think about this so much more optimistically because I’m here to stay in the world of music and whatever it looks like from hereon - that’s where I’m going to be working. So, I don’t need to think too much about what it’s been like in the past, I just need to pay attention to what’s going on now and go somewhere into the future with the people I’m working with right now.
GF: Oh my gosh, that means that for the first time in QuaranJazz we have a musician that’s actually not having the experience of quarantine. That’s amazing! Now we’ve covered everything. Chuckles. Just joking. I’m so glad that you have this completely different approach to the year of 2020 than most of us, well my approach anyway. That’s great and I love the positive attitude towards the future also.
And what about the track you’ve selected for us today? I love the title. Tell us the story, please!
WC: The tune I’m featuring on QuaranJazz on this episode is titled “Sitting To Her Left”, and it’s a tune that I wrote in the Fall of 2014, so about six years ago. I wrote it at a university lecture where a friend and mentor of mine asked me to participate in a lecture about sound waves because the course that he co-taught with a physics professor was about the physics of music. [It was] very cool, and I was always happy to come when he taught the class with some other friends and demonstrate with them how some different instruments' sound waves looked.
My friend and mentor is a guitarist and singer-songwriter [and] when I wrote this tune and when I went that time, I’d only met him about nine months [prior], but he was a supporter of what I did and he became a supporter so fast. He really made me feel comfortable working with him, and the group that I worked in with him became a safe haven for me when a lot of the other things in my life were up in the air. I spent the next several years of my life working there. He was someone that spent a lot of time with me right away - he was very generous with me. We had long conversations and I trusted him. He was a very welcoming person.
One of the things on my mind at the time was that I was coming out of my brief time attending university. It was a tough decision; I felt insecure because I was very young and felt like I needed to hide. But writing music, and playing as well, became the way that I processed this experience.
I wrote this tune just like I write a lot of my other ones - very spontaneously, about very kind of mundane, obvious things. Literally I was sitting in the lecture waiting for my turn to go up and play bass and show the sound wave, and I was writing the tune on a piece of sheet music paper that I had on my desk in front of me. It was one of those desks that is on only the right hand side, or only the left hand side if you’re left handed. The half desk kind of thing. I had a piece of sheet music there, and I was scribbling a tune for fun absentmindedly while I was waiting to go up in the lecture and I had one person sitting next to me and she was sitting to my left, so that’s how I came up with the title in that random situation.
Not only do I come up with the titles that way but I also write that music that way. If I can come up with a musical idea, it [then] becomes logic-based when I’m writing instrumental jazz tunes; I can follow that idea to a logical outcome and I don’t really have to think too hard. If I have one idea, I know the rules, so I know where that idea would tend to go. And so “Sitting To Her Left”, this tune, is a straight-ahead tune with a head arrangement and some solos, and it sounds like the jazz standards that I played all the time during that period of my life.
I want to thank Geisa and Jazzfuel where we met online, that online community, and any other online communities surrounding QuaranJazz and we’ll get through this. It’s so much fun to connect with musicians online and to still feel like we belong in this music home together worldwide.