David Weiss: Essentially, it was forced on me. I had to take piano lessons as a kid and I actually didn’t really enjoy it that much. I was an athletic kid and liked sports. I didn’t really want piano lessons to be in the way of that. After a couple of years, I went to my parents and said, “Okay, that’s enough, I did my time. Let me out of this gross infringement of my time and let be free” and they’re like, “Well, you have to play some sort of instrument.” And by then, I guess I was listening to music a bit, but I was from Queens, New York, a real rock and roll town and I was listening to rock and roll, so the first thing I said was drums and they said no. Then I think I said bass, electric bass and was rejected again. I don’t really remember how the conversation came to trumpet but recently, I got a clue. I was in Seattle and my mother’s best friend had kids—we weren’t all friends because we lived in different neighborhoods, but we knew each other. Apparently, he took trumpet lessons as a kid, so I guess they knew a teacher so trumpet was suggested to me. I think they also told me something like since it was a wind instrument, I might be able to run faster. So I took trumpet lessons for a while and played trumpet through high school. Then I guess some time in high school, my junior or senior year, I got into more complex music like European prog or fusion and the like. I had some friends in Brooklyn, and they had a little band, and I bought a synthesizer and played that in their band. I really had ambitions to go to art school though and got accepted into a really good art school (California Institute of the Arts). There, like a lot of art schools I guess, all the artists had rock bands. We had kind of a free jazz band and I started playing trumpet again. I started getting exposed to more jazz music as well. Then at some point, I guess I decided it was music instead of photography and I left art school and went to something called the Creative Music Studio. It was in the Woodstock area and run by Karl Berger and a lot of free jazz guys were teaching clinics there like Frank Lowe, Phillip Wilson, George Lewis, Leo Smith and John Zorn. I think it was a 6 week workshop and after that, I started looking for music schools. I had met a guy at the Creative Music Studio who was a few years older than me and a much better trumpet player than me because frankly, I got a bit of a late start and wasn’t all that yet. He played really well and was kind of a free player so I asked him where he went to school, because I figured wherever he went to school, he really learned a few things. He told me North Texas State, but he didn’t add, “There’s nobody else like me there.” At the time, Berklee had that whole school of the first wave of young lions there but you hadn’t heard about it yet Berklee was still associated with being a guitar school really. So it was really only between Berklee and North Texas State, so I chose North Texas State. I showed up there and soon realized that guy was the exception, not the rule, but by then, you’re like, fuck it, school, maybe I’ll learn something. So I stayed at North Texas State for the duration and then came back to New York.
VOJ: Yeah, I just got off the phone with David Berkman, who I think went to school a few years earlier than you did. But he decided to go to Berklee and be in Boston for some time. So it will be interesting to basically hear the other side of what the two options were at that time.
David Weiss: Well, it’s interesting. You’ll never knew at the time but clearly, Berklee was hopping then. Everybody was at Berklee. There were a few guys who went to North Texas that turned out pretty well. Jim Rotondi was there at the time, Tony Sheer, a great bass player was there. It wasn’t a ton of guys, but we did have a ton of time on our hands and we did get a lot of work done. I put together a band with a classmate, Craig Handy and it was more about what we did on our own with the facilities and all the free time. We practiced a lot and and rehearsed the band a lot, We actually got to play locally a bit, playing in Dallas and Ft. Worth mostly. So it was a valuable experience in that day, but I can’t imagine going to Berklee with Jeff Watts, or the next wave of guys there. I guess Antonio Hart, Monty Croft, Dwayne Burno were all there among many others. I could have been doing that, but who knows. By my second or third year in college, we got to know what was going on at Berklee. The program at William Patterson was starting to get a little more prominent also. Music schools started cropping up everywhere and by the time I graduated from college, there were like 20 or more choices. But once I were there, there was enough going on to where it was like, fuck it, I’m here, I’ll work with it. Plus I’m from New York and I would come home to New York and study with John McNeal and Carmine Caruso. So I could come home for a week around Christmas and the Summer, study with these guys and then go back to Texas with a low rent and no real demands on me and work on all the stuff I learned from these guys. I had all the time in the world to do whatever I could. So if North Texas State wasn’t giving me all the training I needed, I was getting it from the guys in New York and working on that. And then in the last couple of years, when I would go up to New York, I would start to get a little brazen and go to a jam session or sit in a little bit somewhere. So I was getting a sense of it and learning things and then would go back to my isolation in Texas and work on it. There were enough good musicians that we had a band, we worked on stuff ourselves and the school was good too but a lot of it was just time to work on our own stuff.
VOJ: When you first started going to sessions and that kind of thing in New York, was it intimidating?
David Weiss: I don’t remember. Maybe sometimes, but in the end, there were a lot of really warm guys. If you were nice—I think one of the first times I sat in New York, I went to hear trumpeter Bill Hardman play at the Angry Squire, which was a smallish club that’s long gone now. But I just went to hear him play and he was playing quartet but it was three set and I guess he was getting a little tired by the third set. He went to the bar to get a drink and saw my horn. He didn’t know me from shit. I hadn’t met him yet or introduced myself and he said, “Come up and play.” He was looking for someone to spread out the time a little bit and that turned into an opportunity for me and that was great. Afterwards, he was very nice and encouraging and from that point on, when I moved back to New York, I reached out to him and would have jam sessions at his house every week. He would have me come every week and he would also take me to gigs with him. He was very supportive. The gigs we did were with Junior Cook and Junior could be intimidating, but Bill kind of muted him a little bit because I was his guy. Junior would still fuck with me a little bit though but that was fine with me. You would go to certain places to play and there would be some guys who would kind of look you up and down and be a skeptical of you, but if you showed—you don’t really have to be great or anything—some reverence towards them (and the situation) and for the music as a whole and played enough to show you were on the right track or something, they were very nice to you. And what drives me crazy about going to jam sessions now is when I did that, when I was young, I was almost apologetic, “I’m sorry I don’t play that well. Thank you for giving me a chance. I really appreciate you not throwing me out.” It was different. It was just different. But I mean, most were good guys and very supportive in that way for the most part. I don’t remember being intimidated that much. And later on, when it came to things that I really should be intimidated about, I think maybe it got muted because there were other things that I was bringing to the table. It’s pretty intimidating to play with Freddie Hubbard every night, but because it was my band, and I created this thing to make things easier for him, there was something I was giving him so maybe I wasn’t as scared as I should’ve been because I kind of created this situation for him. So I don’t know. I’m sure there were instances where I was scared or intimidated, but I can’t really remember one instance of like, “Oh, fuck, what did I just do?”
VOJ: During that time, were you supporting yourself off of playing or did you have some other thing that you were doing?
David Weiss: I think when I first moved to New York, I did some phone sales at some office in Queens for like 3 weeks. Then I went to that summer workshop in Banff and when I got back and began working right away and I was fine. Back then, there were a lot of different, thriving scenes. I was doing salsa gigs, merengue gigs, Haitian bands, Soca bands, wedding bands, parades, pop gigs and of course little jazz gigs. There’s a lot of different places a trumpet player can get a gig. I met a couple of guys soon after arriving and they put me into that scene pretty quickly. So I was working pretty steadily within a month of being here basically. I was also from New York and I had an apartment that I rented out while I was gone, so I came back home, moved to New York into a 2-bedroom apartment that was around $400 a month in Queens and was pretty set up. So people walking into New York now, trying to find a place where they can pay, if you’re lucky $700 or $800 to share an apartment with a bunch of people not exactly in the heart of things is what you are looking at now. But because I was from New York, I was lucky to find apartment situations and things like that, which were cool. I sublet an apartment while I was gone and I came home to $200 a month rent. So 2 salsa gigs a week was enough. And that was available pretty quickly. And then I graduated into better salsa bands, wedding bands, I think I did a cruise ship for a month sometime in the first year I was up in New York and also did a road show or two maybe. There are numerous fucked up gigs you can do. The scene wasn’t as inundated as it is now; there was plenty of need for trumpet players. Plenty of opportunities in everything but jazz, for my first 2 or 3 years in New York. And it wasn’t a matter of how good of a trumpet player you were. I was okay, but wasn’t an elite player. But it was good enough. It could certainly sustain me.
VOJ: What were you working on during that time, as far as your studying of the trumpet?
David Weiss: When I first moved back to New York, I believe Carmine Caruso had already passed and I didn’t really feel like I needed jazz lessons anymore. I might have seen John McNeal a couple of times when I got back but it was probably more just to hang out. But I felt that I needed more trumpet training, for sure. I did study with William Fielder, who was the guy who Terence Blanchard and a bunch of other people learned from, who was at Rutgers. So I went down there for a little while. I also studied with Vince Penzaralla, who was a New York Philharmonic guy and he was one of the guys everybody was studying with at the time. So I studied with those guys for a while to keep working on the trumpet stuff, and the other stuff I would work on on my own. It’s basic stuff. We all know what we have to do, it’s just having the time to work on it, and I still did, I think as far as jazz stuff, besides running all kinds of scales and whatever, I transcribed a lot of solos, especially in college, but I continued on with that. And because I had salsa gigs on the weekend, I still had time to practice. There were still jam sessions everywhere and I had a car so I could go out to go to jam sessions every night. The Blue Note had a late night thing that was every night of the week, except Monday I think. It was a good session and those were actually the first guys I befriended when I came to New York. Phillip Harper led the session first and then Justin Robinson. I actually did the gig for a while, so I guess the first jazz stuff I was doing was running the late night session at the Blue Note and did it for a couple years. So yeah, we were playing every night. I got to play a lot.
VOJ: It sounds like a great time to be in New York.
David Weiss: We had opportunities. After [Wynton] Marsalis, there was the whole ‘young lions’ craze and everybody kind of got their shot. Guys were getting signed left and right. There weren’t a ton of young guys like there is now with seemingly millions coming out of the woodwork every day but there were a decent amount of excellent young jazz musicians and most were given a shot at the very least. It blew up more and more and finally the bubble sort of burst but there were opportunities to play and chances to have a real career and get signed to a major record label. There might not have been a ton of gigs per se. I mean, the Blue Note late night paid like shit. I think we made 30 bucks a night or something like that and played from 1 to 4am. Maybe after we were there a year or so, we got a little more money, but it wasn’t much. But we were all young and getting to play every night. Benny Golson I think told us, “The difference between us and you is our New York engagements were 6 months at a time and we played 5 sets every night.”
VOJ: So in 1990, if I understand correctly, you made a band with Craig Handy. Can you tell me a bit about that band?
David Weiss: We went to college together and we had a band in college. I think we kind of created was our own curriculum as far as our course of study at North Texas State. We would practice together a lot and learn tunes off all those Art Blakey records, and also Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson records, and just practiced playing those heads together. We had a band down there; it was a sextet that mostly played Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson material and maybe a couple of our first stabs at writing ourselves. We were able to get some gigs down there as well, decent amount actually. There was a jazz club down there that was bringing in actual acts on the weekends but we played during the week. So we were pretty active. We moved up to New York together and after a while we decided to give it a shot up here. There were a few little clubs in New York, besides the big ones, The Angry Squire, Visiones and a few others I don’t recall and we played those from time to time.
VOJ: Was Sweet Basil still around at that time?
David Weiss: Sweet Basil was still around at that time but at that point, when we were doing doing gigs, that gig was for the big guys. All the major guys played there then. We wouldn’t even think of asking. But that’s the difference between the times too. Your place in the world is pretty clearly defined. Sweet Basil had the likes of Art Blakey—I mean, there was enough of those guys around where they had those gigs. You weren’t imagining like, “Well, I could play here.” No, no fucking way. You’re not that. But there were always the little clubs that had jazz, like I said, Visiones, Angry Squire, and I think a place called Zanzibar if I remember right. And we didn’t work a lot; we would get a gig every couple of months of something, but the amount of talent available to us to do that stuff, I mean, I think our first gig in New York, Benny Green played piano. I can’t remember who else. At Visiones, I remember Billy Hart playing with us. Stephen Scott, Dave Kikoski, Jeff Watts all played in that group. So these guys were available. So it was a great time for that too, where you could have a shitty little $50 gig a be able to have this kind of talent on the gig with you. Sure, they were doing you a favor because I guess they liked you or the music but they were there. The band lasted a couple years and we thought it had had it’s run and we moved on. I think a few labels came and kicked around Craig a little bit. And then like everything, it just faded out. We all started different gigs. And I think some of those clubs started closing too. For a minute there, there was a lot of places to play.
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