An Interview with New Orleans Jazz Musician Kristofer Tokarski

Kristofer Tokarski is a New Orleans jazz pianist. Here is a link to his website:

www.kristokarski.com

Q:  What sort of training have you had?

A:  I started taking piano lessons when I was 5 years; most piano players tend to start fairly young. Up until high school I was studying classical music until the music school I was attending changed ownership. The new director at the Garden State Academy of Music in New Jersey, Bob Rodriguez, was a jazz pianist. I had been interested in jazz for a while, so I began taking lessons with him. I completed my undergraduate degree at Berklee College of Music, where I had the benefit of studying with a lot of great players and educators. Currently, I’m pursuing a master’s degree at the University of New Orleans. Despite all the formal music education I received, I must say that what you learn ‘on the job’ and playing with older and more experienced players is something you can’t learn in an institution. I’d consider that part of my training as well.

Q: What made you interested in playing jazz?

A: When I was 8 or 9 my teacher had me learn a Joplin rag. My mother had an LP of Scott Joplin rags played by Max Morath and put it on for me to hear the song I was learning. I must have listened to that record every day for months. A sales person at a local CD shop recommended listening to some traditional New Orleans jazz. From there my interest grew and I started branching out and listening to jazz more and more. I started sitting in with a Dixieland jazz band at a local club. I just thought it was fun music and I enjoyed playing in a group setting more than solo classical piano.

Q:  What makes a song a classic?

A: In my opinion, a memorable melody and a good lyricist. This is what so many of George and Ira Gershwin’s tunes became classics.

Q:  Who are some of your musical influences?

A: My biggest influence by far has been Barry Harris. Barry is one of the last great bebop pianists still alive and playing and teaching in New York. Barry has played a huge role mentoring what seems to be a who’s who list in jazz. I’ve had the great opportunity of studying with him, his material, and listening to his recordings. One of my teachers at Berklee, Ray Santisi, was also a big influence of me. Of course every jazz musician has been influenced by who they listen to. I listen to a lot of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, James P. Johnson, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker.

Q:  What do you like about working in New Orleans?

A:  New Orleans is a wonderful place to be a musician. In addition to having plenty of playing opportunities, there is a very tight knit and warm community of musicians down here. Older musicians are happy to help the younger guys out. But, I think the most satisfying thing about playing jazz in New Orleans is the level of appreciation among the audience and the fact that we have a young audience. Last year I lived in South Carolina and the average age at any given gig had to be at least 60. In New Orleans, people my age come out to dance and listen to jazz.

Q: What don’t you like about it?

A:  I don’t have many negative things to say about the music scene in New Orleans. I do think, however, that there can be a greater push to have a more cutting edge scene here. Many of the clubs only cater to traditional jazz or pre-bebop jazz and New Orleans flavored music, and not too much beyond that. This city also moves at a much slower pace than I’m used to, coming from the New York City area.

Q:  What do you think was the greatest jazz album ever recorded? (and why)

A: This is a tough question to answer. I would go with John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’; an album that is probably on every top 10 jazz album list. In my opinion it is the creative masterpiece of one of the greatest musicians in modern music. It is an original work of art and the culmination of years of musical and spiritual searching, experimentation, and discovery by Coltrane. Not to mention, the level of musicianship of that record is awe-inspiring.

Q:  What is your craziest work story?

A: Nothing too crazy has happened to me yet, although it’s only a matter of time in New Orleans! I don’t have any specific examples, but perhaps working with a singer who may call a tune I don’t know or call something in a funny key and having to learn it or work my way through it on the spot. It’s amazing what you can do under pressure!

Q: If they made a movie of your life what classic jazz song would be the background music?

A:  Since I’m only 23, my answer will probably change in 20 years, but for now I’m going to go with ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’. Unlike many of the tragic lives associated with this music, I’m very content with where I am in my life and what I’m doing for a living. I think this title lends itself well to that.

Q:  What is the most disturbing trend in music today?

A: Let me start by saying that there are a lot of great musicians out there today doing great things, but unfortunately what they are doing is not ‘trendy’. The most disturbing trend in popular music today I think is everything that goes into the non-musical end of a performance. There is so much focus on who can wear the craziest outfit, who looks the best, who is pulling the most controversial stunt on stage. After taking all that away, I’m not finding very much that is interesting or even satisfying about their music. There are very few people concerned with writing a beautiful melody or set of harmonies in popular music today. There once was a time, not all that long ago, when that was appreciated.

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)

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