Giant Steps bonus interview – Jazz Conversations with Rod McGaha

Trumpeter Rod McGaha has become such a prominent part of the Nashville jazz world that it seems he’s been here forever. But he actually grew up in the Windy City (Chicago). He was a student of the great Clark Terry during his days at DePaul University. He’s played with jazz stars like Kirk Whalum and the legendary Max Roach as part of his Brass Quintet, but with pop, soul, gospel and R&B luminaries like Lou Rawls, The O’Jays, Bebe and Cece Winans, and Take 6. Since moving with his family to Nashville in the early ’90s, he’s combined studio work with club appearances, solo projects and teaching. He currently teaches styles and improvisation classes at the Nashville Jazz Workshop and serves on their Advisory Board. He’s also becoming an in demand photographer, doing both stills and scenes.

In advance of Sunday’s latest installment in the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society’s Great Albums Concert, where he’ll be leading a group performing in its entirety the 1954 classic LP “Clifford Brown and Max Roach,” Rod took a few minutes to answer some of our questions.

What initially got you interested in music and was trumpet your first instrument?

“I got interested from seeing and hearing music at home. My dad was always playing jazz and my brother played guitar. There was always something musical happening. Yes, the trumpet was my first instrument. Actually, cornet because they ran out of trumpets. I started in fourth grade and you got to choose. However, I was last in line so everything good was gone.”

Who would you consider influences?

“This would be almost impossible to answer. Let me just say that Clark Terry was one of my biggest influences, because he invested in me. Time, knowledge, money and wisdom. Also, the church. Much of my playing style comes directly out of church. Certain sounds I make, came directly from emulating the mothers of the church while they were praying.”

What are some of your favorite albums?

“Let me just answer this by saying “Herbie Hancock- River”

You’ve also worked in both Chicago and New York. What are the biggest differences in those places in regards to the jazz scene?

“New York had a larger jazz scene. One difference was that Chicago had more of a Blues feel to the improv. New York seemed to be more into playing avant. This was my experience.”

What was it like playing with an icon like Max Roach? Did he ever talk to you about his experiences playing behind Clifford Brown or Booker Little?

“Playing with Max was such a blessing and such a wake-up call. He only hired me because he knew I wanted to learn. We are talking about Max with Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Booker Little, Clifford Brown and so on. It wasn’t like I was getting ready to do anything special. We also had the great Eddie Henderson on trumpet in the group.”

How has the Nashville jazz scene changed since you’ve been here, either positively or negatively?

“I think it’s been all positive as far as the awareness of the music. More young people are learning about this music, and that’s a good thing. The whole industry is going through a change as far as how the music is consumed and that has an impact on all local scenes. The impact can be negative or positive, depending on who is looking through the lens. I just believe that you have to do what you do. Keep it honest and keep it true, and you can’t go wrong. Now, that’s not to say you will make money or not make money.”

You’ve recently also gotten very much into photography. What attracted you to it, and what are your favorite types of photographic situations?

“I think what attracted me to photography in the end, was my Dad. I often wondered where this desire came from later in life. My Dad always had a camera and was always taking photographs. So much so, we were sick of always having to look at slides he had taken When he passed and I was looking through his bedroom, I found all of these slides, camera’s, lenses and projectors. The light bulb went off “ This is where my desire to shoot came from.” It was instilled in my from childhood.”

Do you also compose?

“Yes, I do compose. The only difference is now I am composing for my images, which will be shown in an upcoming exhibit.”

You’ve done quite a bit of teaching. What are the most common problems that you see among aspiring musicians?

“I think a common problem with some of the younger players, is thinking that they are good when they have so much to learn. I don’t even view myself as a Jazz musician. I totally feel like a student just trying to learn something. It’s is so rare that I think I play something that speaks. I mean, you listen back and you feel good about what you played. Not just listening to it go by on the bandstand but later on listening to the playback. I’m rambling but you get my drift.”

What are some future goals professionally?

“To be rich PROFESSIONALLY!! No, I just take it a day at a time. I just want what God has for me. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Who are some musicians you’ve never worked with that you would enjoy doing a collaboration?

“I will have to think about who I would like to collaborate with. That’s another question where there are just so many answers and I’m too lazy to write that much. We can answer that in a face to face interview.”

Finally, would you consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist regarding jazz in the future?

“I am definitely an optimist.”