Interview of Max Schwartz (2015 Bass), Vail Jazz Workshop
By Alan Tanenbaum
May 11, 2021
MS: Hello, Alan, how’s it going?
AT: Good! Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with me.
MS: Of course.
AT: As I mentioned in my email, we’re pulling together an archive of oral histories of as many of the Vail Jazz Workshop alumni as we can get. And we’ve had almost 300 alumni who have gone through the program now, and we’ve interviewed probably 100-some-odd of them.
AT: We’re making good progress. I’m recording this interview on my phone and I will send you a transcript when we’re done so you can check it for accuracy.
MS: Okay, that sounds good.
AT: So, I’ve gone through your website and watched some of the videos there, and I’ve read a few of the pieces about you online. It’s fascinating to me that your musical direction seems to be on two parallel tracks – jazz and bluegrass; and on different instruments – bass fiddle and banjo. I want to begin by having you take us through how you got on those tracks to begin with.
MS: Sure. I think you described it really well by saying “parallel.” They have been parallel in terms of importance in my life. I’ve been doing bluegrass a little longer. I started playing bluegrass when I was like six or seven years old. My first instrument – well, I took piano lessons I guess in kindergarten but I don’t necessarily count that – I started playing the guitar when I was seven. And then I switched over to the bass when I was nine or so. The banjo came a little later. I had been playing the bass since about the fourth grade, when I was able to start playing it in orchestra, by which time my family was already sort of into bluegrass music. Basically, my dad was going to pick up playing the guitar as a hobby, and the guitar teacher he found who lived in our area taught bluegrass music. So that was the only reason we became aware of bluegrass as a family; and that was in Walnut Creek, California. The teacher’s name was John Blasquez, and he’s kind of a storied bluegrass and old-time teacher – teaching any stringed instrument, basically. My whole family took lessons from him, including my dad, my brother, me, and my sister.
AT: That was all on guitar?
MS: Guitar from about age seven and at age nine I was playing bass in orchestra because I couldn’t play guitar in school. So that’s really why I started playing bass in the first place – I was tall, like the tallest in my fourth grade class – and so I started playing in the string orchestra. And then we formed a family band – my dad playing guitar, my step-mom playing the bass, my brother playing mandolin, my sister playing fiddle; and I was playing guitar too and, at the time, my dad said “If you would like to play banjo, I’ll get you one.” I said okay! So I picked up the banjo, sort of to diversify the instrumentation in our family band.
AT: How did you learn banjo?
MS: The first way I learned was off of some DVDs. Murphy Henry is the name of a teacher and banjo player who had like a DVD series – Murphy Henry Beginner Banjo Volume One DVD had tunes on it, so I just watched that, and then I went to a camp where she was teaching that summer, whatever year that was. And then I started taking lessons in the Bay Area, where I’m from, from Bill Evans; the banjo Bill Evans versus either the late, great pianist Bill Evans or the saxophone player Bill Evans, because there were three notable ones! So I started taking banjo lessons with Bill in 2008 or 2009; I took lessons with him for a long time, I would ride the train by myself when I was 10, for a half-hour, and he would pick me up at the train station, take me to his house, and give me a lesson and then drop me back off. So that’s basically how I learned.
AT: What about the bass?
MS: Right! So, then, fifth grade or sixth grade, I’m about to start middle school playing the bass in orchestra already and I needed a bass teacher. The bass teacher I ended up hooking up with for like four or five years was Dan Parenti, and he’s – a lot of people take lessons with him – and Dan kind of introduced me to Weather Report, that was the first thing he showed me. He was mainly an electric player, and also an upright player. He showed me Weather Report and other music, and my brother had been in the local middle school jazz band and liked it a lot and so it was kind of my goal to get into the jazz band in sixth grade. That’s why I started working on tunes and how the music worked, in fifth grade, just to get ready for the audition. Basically, my first experience playing jazz was in my local public middle school. I saw that you interviewed Eli(ana) Athayde, is that right?
AT: Yes, I did actually.
MS: Yeah, I saw your name on the article. I know Eli and we’ve actually played a gig together, and I know her family pretty well; and I went to her dad’s summer camp that he puts on in Lafayette – I was one town over. I went to her dad’s camp for like six years. And Dan Parenti was there teaching bass. So I sort of became engrossed in the local jazz community that way – through summer camp and also through the Jazz School, which maybe you’re familiar with in the Bay Area; at the time it was just a community music school, and now it’s like an accredited institution. I think they have Associate and Bachelor’s degrees now. I was playing in ensembles there and then I would get involved with SFJAZZ later. Basically, I started playing in whatever group I could – whether it was in school or like a community band. I just got my feet wet like that.
AT: Yeah. I would imagine that the fingering – left hand and right hand – is quite different from bass fiddle to banjo. Is it?
MS: Oh, definitely. The banjo kind of defies the general, logistical rule about the way stringed instruments are tuned. Normally you’d have low-to-high going one direction and, in the case of the banjo, historically there’s a drone string, so where the lowest string should be it’s the highest. It’s exactly backwards. They basically put the lowest and highest next to each other. That’s because the banjo has very little sustain. And it’s been that way forever. So yes, they are very different.
AT: And you’re able to switch back-and-forth and feel comfortable doing that?
MS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I was just into trying to make sense of whatever instrument was available in the house. My dad bought me a guitar when I was seven that I had been playing on; and I was playing my mom’s bass. And I ended up getting a very cheap beginner banjo and learning how that all worked. The grid of the stringed instruments just sort of makes sense to me, I suppose, so it didn’t really bother me either way.
AT: You say you grew up in a musical family. Where did you grow up? I thought I had read somewhere that you were from Boston.
MS: I am from Boston, and then my family moved to Walnut Creek, California, which is right near Lafayette – where Eli is from. So I grew up in Walnut Creek and then I ended up moving; my whole family moved. I guess it would have been 2013 that we all moved to Berkeley, California. In part it was because of the budget cuts in my school district. The year that I moved from the fifth grade to the sixth grade was the year the financial market crashed. And so, after that, all these school budgets were being reworked and they removed arts funding. My parents, seeing that my younger sister was not going to have music available to her – it was that and also the opportunity for me to play at the Berkeley High School jazz program, which, I don’t know how familiar you are with that, but it’s a pretty historic program and they had not a lot of bass players. A piano player friend of mine from the community said “You should audition for the Berkeley High jazz band and see if you get the spot.” So I went and did that. I lived with my grandma for a year, who lived in Berkeley, and they gave me a room at their place and then my family moved there a year later. And then seeing that I was happy at Berkeley and that my sister probably would be happier in a school district that would support the arts, my whole family moved to Berkeley as a result.
AT: I read that your step-mom took a course from bluegrass bassist Zoe Guigeno.
MS: Yes, I think that’s been a more recent thing for her; actually, during the pandemic, I think, she wanted to get back into it. We stopped playing as a family once my brother went to college, which was around the time we moved to Berkeley; my brother graduated high school in 2013 and went to UCLA and that’s kind of when we stopped playing as a family. That was around the same time I started playing – I don’t know if you saw on my website – I guess more of my, I can’t really call it commercial success but my professional, success has been more on the bass than on the banjo. Not that I treat the banjo as a hobby but the bass has been the more versatile thing so I get called to do that more often. So, even in the bluegrass world I’ve been playing bass professionally – not including the family band – since I was 16. And I was playing with Laurie Lewis, who you may have read about on my website, but, she’s been a phenomenal boss to me, and band-leader, and friend. She allowed me to sort of learn to grow with amazing musicians and have an attitude for someone you’re employing; it didn’t feel like a business relationship at all, which ideally it shouldn’t, but, you know, she’s hiring some kid to play in her band and being very helpful and teaching me how she likes things done, talking bass philosophy and things like that.
AT: That’s great. When you were playing in the family band, did you actually have gigs anywhere?
MS: Yeah! We started as a farmers’ market band. My dad was a bit of a farmers’ market hustler for a while, trying to find any farmers’ market where we could play, not super-far away, just whatever was around. We would try to play maybe once or twice a month. We made one album, like 2009, and then made another album in 2013, right as my brother was about to graduate from high school, just to sort of capture the end of our progress . . . knowing that he was going to go to college and we weren’t going to play gigs anymore. And by that time we were playing festivals, we got picked as a showcase band at a pretty big bluegrass festival – a community-based bluegrass festival called the Fathers Day Bluegrass Festival – and they pick like four or five California bands every year to showcase, and they picked our family. We grew musically, pretty quickly. Me and both my siblings have had the privilege of public school music programs and extracurricular music programs. And summer programs like Vail. All of that shaped us. My parents didn’t have any of that, and they were just kind of taking it up. So it was really cool to sort of be along for the ride with them and learning at the same pace as them. We were all agreeing to it all at the same time.
AT: I’m just curious: what are the titles of those family albums?
MS: The first one is self-titled. So the name of the group was Oak Grove, which was the neighborhood we lived in, in Walnut Creek. The first one’s called Oak Grove: A Family Bluegrass Band, and that one is nowhere. The second one’s group name is also Oak Grove: A Family Bluegrass Band; the album name is Tangled Roots and that one is on Spotify.
AT: Okay, great! I’m going to have to take a listen sometime. How do you compare what you get out of playing jazz versus what you get out of playing bluegrass? Does one genre excite you more than the other? Challenge you more than the other? Satisfy you more than the other?
MS: That’s a great question. I think about that a lot. I would say they satisfy me equally. Frankly, I’m just curious about both equally, because they’re both so deep in terms of the cultural history of the genres and their development, and all of the arguments that are talked about as a result of the cultural progression, the musical progression, are almost identical in terms of the discussions that are being had. And I get to sort of observe both, and partake in both. So, for instance, in the jazz world, there’s the token argument of “what is jazz?” and one mentality being – on the spectrum of opinions you could have about the progression of jazz music you have the sort of conservative opinion that jazz ends in the year 1959 and that Miles Davis took it in some direction and that everything past a certain point is no longer jazz. And that would be one very stark conservative opinion. All the way to the most liberal end of that same thought, which would be that anything that has improvisation is jazz. And in bluegrass it’s sort of the same thing. Basically, people say that anything past World War II is no longer bluegrass, and that everything since then is folk music with bluegrass instrumentation; something to that effect, and that’s on the conservative end of the spectrum. On the liberal end of the spectrum, people think that a band like Mumford & Sons is bluegrass. I sort of see all the sides of what people have to say about it, and I’m somewhere in the middle of all that.
AT: Have you composed music for both genres?
MS: Yeah! I have some songs on some records. My sister’s bluegrass band did a record, and they recorded one of my tunes on their record. I have one original, I’m actually playing fiddle on that Tangled Roots album from eight years ago. Yes, I’ve composed bluegrass stuff. I’ve had a couple of great gigs with Bill Evans and kind of an all-star bluegrass band, and I was the young guy on the bill. So it was Bill Evans the banjo player, a fiddle player named Nate Lee, and a mandolin player named John Reischman – he played with Tony Rice – and Kenny Smith was the guitar player. Bill had put this band together for a couple of gigs ahead of a camp that we were all teaching at and he said, “Why don’t you write something for them?” So that was my first opportunity writing bluegrass for musicians that good, professional-level musicians, especially instrumental bluegrass music. I wrote two tunes for the gig and John said “I’ve never heard anything like this.” That was a nice little confidence-boost in the bluegrass world. So, yes, the short answer is I’ve composed for bluegrass and jazz.
AT: You mentioned that the Vail Jazz Workshop helped form you somewhat. How did the Workshop fit into all of that?
CS: I sort of have a foot in both of these larger communities – jazz and bluegrass – which have very little overlap. People try to say that any bluegrass with theory-informed improv has jazz in it, which I find funny. But I would say that Vail is a part of that broader network of jazz camps and things to try to go get to as a young person, because you know you want that knowledge as a high schooler, you want what all those guys have to say. You want John Clayton’s opinion, and you want everyone to help you. You want to get that knowledge. All six faculty members, when I was there, I just remember thinking what great thinkers they were. That’s really what I took away. Thinkers and community members. Just as a participant, the people who I was playing in bands with I’m still friends with now. Everyone went to their own colleges but I still keep in touch some of them. I was in the 2015 group, which had Luca Mendoza and Remee Ashley – Remee and I went to high school together. Alec Smith and I played in a group together. Jerome Gillespie, who’s kind of taken New York by storm, who is from Houston and I think he just graduated from the New School last year. All of these guys who I had never really played music with and hung with, that now I’m still a jazz musician and so are they so I see what’s going on with them. Vail is very clearly a common denominator for all these people who are pretty damn successful. There’s some secret sauce in there, I think, that people get. I guess, for me, the community aspect and the thinking, but also John’s perspective – I’m sure you’ve heard something to this effect from a lot of people – John’s perspective on what it means to be a participant in a musical event, to me is such a profound thought process. Because every single time it’s different. I’m about to graduate from the University of Miami, I go to school every day to play music; every time I go I’m doing something different – every time. And to have the mindset, I mean, factually speaking it is something different even if it’s a rehearsal; it’s a different day, there’s a different set of conditions that affect how that day goes. But every time it happens it is a gift, and John taught me that, and made me reflect on my gratitude more. Across all these genre boundaries, or whatever, we musicians don’t work instruments, we play them. It is a gift to do this and to make it part of your life, and John just oozes gratitude, even though he’s this storied person, storied educator and player. Just the energy he has as the result of his gratitude for the music and the respect that he has, that to me was just infectious. And that will stay with me the rest of my life. It’s stayed with me thus far!
AT: That’s wonderful. What about the teaching methodology? Was there anything specifically about the lessons that you had there – not so much the more life-lessons you just described, but actually the playing of the instrument — was there anything about the Vail Jazz Workshop that left a lasting impression on you on that score?
CS: I know that John’s whole thing about not reading [music] is huge. I don’t know if John would necessarily think about it this way – I haven’t talked to John in a long time – but I would like to think that he is seeing the sort of systemic problem with jazz and academia, that when you’re reading something that’s representative of music (because sheet music is not music; I think John would probably agree with that) you then have to re-inject emotion. It prioritizes technical elements and measurable elements, perhaps, for what we consider to be quantifiable elements of performance. So, like, how many notes do you hit right? Are you hitting your articulations correctly? It’s about right and wrong, versus – and I think it sort of goes in line with that – honoring the musical event, the performance or rehearsal or whatever. Having the music unavailable to you and having it be memorized puts you in the room instead of staring at a music stand. I think what he would probably hope that everyone takes away from that is, this isn’t necessarily the way it’s supposed to be; it is music. That’s not to say that sheet music is so bad but to think that that’s the only way that people can learn is just so wrong. And for John to say, hey, we’re going to do the exact opposite and do only by ear, that makes a lot of sense to me and I value that a lot. Actually, it’s funny, coming from the bluegrass world there is no sheet music. Period. So that was pretty comfortable for me but I hadn’t done that in a jazz context before, other than like playing pretty standard and simple [garbled; “simple”?] tunes. Playing without music with a jazz group, you start to notice things more; you become more aware as a human being. That’s the thing that I take away from the program and from John’s pedagogy in general, is trying to re-humanize the experience, because sheet music de-humanizes it to an extent. It doesn’t say “play with vigor,” “play with whatever.” There are representative stand-ins for that but nothing that can give you that experience other than being . . . [phone line got cut off].
AT: After the Workshop, you attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Have you finished up there yet?
CS: Well, I’m supposed to graduate on Friday, so I’m just about done.
CS: Thank you.
AT: Is there a graduation recital?
CS: There’s a ceremony. We do senior recitals here as part of the degree requirement. I did mine in February. I can send it to you if you’d like; it’s on YouTube. I’ll email it to you. We’re actually doing our graduation at the Hard Rock Stadium, which is where the Miami Dolphins play, so they’re trying to keep people separate. A lot of the people have been vaccinated. A lot of the students have had at least one shot, if not both.
AT: Speaking of which, the pandemic has had a huge impact on the music business. You said on your website that if trying to avoid severe boredom, feel free to email you to take a lesson, talk about production, or methods for staying productive and engaged during the quarantine. How did you say productive and engaged at that time?
CS: Great question. I did a lot of different things. I exercised. I took the opportunity – I was basically living alone, seeing no one for months; I live with a roommate and my roommate left and I was just home by myself and basically spending no time with anyone. I played a lot of music, I tried to exercise every day, I tried to create some regularity in my life, especially during the summer. Last summer was hard for a lot of students because of not being able to have any structure, and I think everyone needs at least some – not necessarily an entire prescribed life but some semblance of regularity sort of keeps people sane. As musicians, we have one of the least regular professions of anyone. I think practicing is good, and I tried to take it upon myself to be a beginner at some things; I took the opportunity to try to learn some languages – relearn some languages on my phone, on Duolingo. I did that, I listened to some records, I wrote a little bit. I mainly tried to exercise and just get outside. I bought a jump-rope and I was jumping rope in my front yard a lot. And I’m a huge basketball fan so I would go to the park and, with two masks on, put up a bunch of shots by myself. Just the feeling of practicing and working on something that wasn’t music; I think there’s a natural sort of approval that you feel about the work you’re doing when you get to go out and play a gig – you can feel good about what you’re doing but you can’t reap the fruits of your labor without going and playing. I remember reading a lot about whether people were opting to be creative; at the beginning of the pandemic it was, like, what are creative people doing now? Do they try to write? Do they turn the pandemic into – and I don’t mean this in a purely religious sense – a God-given time off from what you normally do and now you have to do something different and be as productive as possible. I sort of fell somewhere in between. I had to learn to relax a little bit and keep the music fun and engaging. And prioritizing my curiosity about the things that I’m interested in, rather than being the perfect musician. That curiosity, to me, is what drives us all to want to play, and to want to be good at something.
AT: Well, I’m glad we’re all sort of coming out of it now. What do you have planned for the foreseeable future? With whom are you performing, recording, collaborating, and do you intend to stay in Miami?
CS: I’m not sure about staying in Miami. At the Frost School I overlapped a Master’s degree and a Bachelor’s. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this but there’s a group here called the Stamps Jazz Quintet that gets picked every four years; I’ve been in that group for four years – it’s like a Fellowship ensemble – and actually, Vail Jazz alum Aidan McCarthy is the new bass player. I don’t know if you know him but he’s about to graduate high school, and he is in the new iteration of that band, which is very cool. I kind of took it upon myself to – I loved school the whole time I was there, I took a lot of classes – as many classes as I could with the scholarship – and I ended up having time to start a grad degree; so now I’m about a year into my Master’s in Jazz Pedagogy. So I’m staying in Miami for another year, and I’ll be Chuck Bergeron’s TA – he’s the bass teacher here. So I’m here for one more year and then we’ll see what happens after that.
AT: That’s terrific. Looking back on your Vail Jazz Workshop experience, what advice would you have for students who are just about to experience it?
CS: Come with an open mind. Not that anyone wouldn’t but I think that’s the way you’re going to get the most out of it. Be a sponge. Make friends. Try to have the best time you can, and consider the possibility that all these people you’re about to meet are going to be collaborators and friends of yours for the rest of your life. That’s how it’s been for me, and I think that’s how it is for a lot of people. Acknowledging that they’re part of this larger network – like you said, 300 alumni, that’s huge; I mean, that’s a huge, huge population in the greater scheme of the jazz world. People know what Vail is wherever you go in the country. If you play jazz, you know what it is. It speaks volumes about the program. I think people should be happy that they’re there. I had a great time and I’m sure they will too.
AT: That’s wonderful. Max, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really enjoyed chatting with you. And I wish you the best on your graduation and all that lies ahead for you.
CS: Thank you very much. I appreciate you reaching out. Thanks for doing this. If you need anything else, I can email it to you.
AT: Okay. I’ll have a transcript prepared and I will email it to you so you can take a look and see if I got everything correctly.
CS: Sounds good. Okay, great.
AT: Okay, Max, thanks very much.
CS: Alright. Take care. Bye.