One fine day, I donned my superhero cape ― a bath towel held together with a safety pin ― clambered up a ladder to the roof, stood bravely on the edge, and jumped. For one glorious moment, I was flying. Then I hit the ground. Hard. Fortunately I was only seven years old and fifty pounds. Nothing was shattered, except my childish dream of flying.
Into the life of every aspiring musician there comes a moment like that, a moment when, in the grip of your dreams, you take a leap of faith into the life of an artist. For jazz guitarist Peter Sprague it came just after high school in the mid-1970s:
“It was like a cliff that I was going to jump off of … It could have been fraught with danger or failure, because you see so many stories of people becoming musicians and it not working out, and the path that I took was not conventional. You know, usually your parents want you to go to college and do that kind of thing, and I just didn’t want to do that. So there were some scary moments there.”
I caught up with Peter during a brief gap in his frenetic concert schedule to ask for some flying lessons, because unlike the majority of musicians who leap off the cliff into a career, Peter soared, with 363 recording credits, a raft of awards, and performances with 147 jazz artists, including Chick Corea, Bill Mays, and Sérgio Mendes. And while jazz is Peter’s first love, he understands the singer-songwriter’s world, too, thanks to similarities in career paths and a powerful musical magnet he can see from his kitchen window: SpragueLand recording studios.
“You know, my studio is a detached building from my house, but it’s still right on the property, so I’m not sitting there commuting, I’m just walking out the door to the studio and getting right to work. And it’s turned into a source of musical experiences beyond my live playing … I’ve gotten to meet lots of neat people and hear lots of diverse types of music, including a lot of singer-songwriters.”
With memories of my ill-fated Superman career in mind, I asked, “What would you tell a young musician who was facing the same cliff today?”
“One of the elements you want is to be in alignment with your parents. You want to at least attempt that because no matter how it all plays out, having the support and blessing of your parents means a lot, because even if you think that they’re wrong, and they don’t really know the scene, parents generally have a sense that they have only the wellbeing of their kids in mind. They have a lot of worldly knowledge that younger people don’t have. They might not have the knowledge of the music business or what it means, but if they’re solid folks, they’ll understand the passion in a young person.
“The next thing is that you would really want to do it only if your passion was extreme. You need to be passionate about it, because it’s a long road. It requires as much as being a doctor ― as much devotion, and focus and concentration.
“And then you just work hard. You get real with what it takes.
“Next, learn how to live super simply. I’m living a good life now, but for so many years in the beginning I lived a very frugal lifestyle. And somehow I saw, and I’m so glad I saw this, there’s an immense amount of freedom in your life if you live simply.”
One of the criticisms leveled at avant-garde jazz is that it leaves audiences behind. While Peter can keep up with the best of them, he feels that maintaining an emotional link with the audience is key. How does he do that? Songs:
“And I think for me, and it seems to hit on other people, you can take a song and do some pretty inventive things with it and as long as you don’t destroy the melody, as long as you keep the spirit of The Beatles’ original version, you can take people on a ride and they have a connection with it because they know the song, yet ‘look at all this new stuff that’s happening.’ I’ve taken a couple of Jimi Hendrix songs that are iconic, and they too have that nice harmonic wealth, and good melodies, and they do that same thing. There are a bunch of rock heads that are my age that just love hearing Hendrix that new way” (see petersprague.com/videos/).
The Beatles had Brian Epstein to lead them from Liverpool onto the world stage. The Stones had Andrew Loog Oldham. If you take the leap into a musical career without a pair of wings like those, you’ll probably wind up with scraped knees, like me. Yet somehow Peter managed to become airborne on his own. All singer-songwriters could learn a lot from his example, so I have distilled the essence into “Mindset Of A Successful Musician” at Songwriter U (AmericanSongwriter.com). You’ll find the whole interview there, too.