Monday, June 16, 2014

5 Questions with Eric Seddon

Eric Seddon (BM, 1994), studied clarinet at Hartt from 1990-1994. He currently lives in Cleveland with his wife, Elisa (BM in flute, BS in Chemistry 1995) and their seven children.

What have you been up to since graduating from Hartt?

Twenty years is a long time, and a great deal has happened. Obviously the biggest things are personal: Elisa and I have been married for 22 years now, and have been blessed with seven beautiful children. As any creative artist will tell you, to have that sort of stability—a spouse and family who care and are supportive of your work—is irreplaceable.

Musically speaking, after Hartt I went on to graduate work at Butler University, then played in regional symphony orchestras, teaching briefly at the Cleveland Music School Settlement before being forced into an unexpected ‘early retirement.’ Since childhood, I’d had a severe heart condition that grew increasingly worse. By age 28 it had progressed to the point that I couldn’t breathe well enough to play, and doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Packing up the clarinet was excruciating, but something I had to do for my health’s sake. So for several years I turned my efforts to writing; publishing academic pieces on music history, performance reviews, CD reviews, and some poetry. I even spent a couple of years selling clarinets for a prominent German instrument maker. In short, I tried to stay involved with music in whatever way I could.

Then, around 2010, everything changed for the better. A cardiologist diagnosed me correctly, and I had open heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. An operation like that can change your life in many ways. Thankfully, the surgery was a resounding success, and I spent the next three years rebuilding my technique to a professional level. I’m grateful my wife and kids understood the type of drive that can make a 38 year old practice for five or six hours a day—before sunrise, during meals, and after bedtime, if necessary. I played my first gig in fourteen years this past January, and have been performing steadily, often several times a week, ever since.
What are you involved with right now?

The Cleveland jazz scene. I’m grateful so many musicians here have given me a chance to play—and have responded enthusiastically to what I do. George Foley was the first. Anyone on the scene here knows his work—his piano and band leading skills are mainstays at venues like Nighttown, Bon Vivant, the Barking Spider, and the Tavern Co. Through George I met a community of artists, getting opportunities to play with Gene Epstein’s Jazz Hot, Kevin Richards & Friends, jazz violinist Reed Simon, and Brad Smedley, who has hired me a couple of times to play with his gypsy jazz group Hot Djang.

Beyond these opportunities, I’m in the beginning stages of organizing my own group, Eric Seddon’s Hot Club, an ensemble featuring my clarinet through the lens of New Orleans, gypsy jazz, and swing. The idea is to have a creative fusion of those elements, which are in many ways the most important roots and continued areas of innovation for jazz clarinet.
What is one of the most memorable things about your time at Hartt?

There are so many that I can hardly do the question justice, but one quote will have to suffice, as it encompasses the importance of the student-teacher relationship so central to conservatory study. I entered Hartt as a young man who had just gigged in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and whose primary goal was to play jazz. Back then clarinetists weren’t really accepted into jazz programs, and because of this, I was more encouraged to get a degree in classical performance.

At my audition for Hartt, Charles Russo, who was himself a proficient jazz musician, was understanding about my jazz concept, and said he would tailor my lessons in that direction.

Now, to be a jazz clarinetist, especially the tradition I have always emulated, is a bit beyond the pale of most music studied academically. The major contributions of Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and the like have tended to fall outside of the modern jazz canon favored in conservatories. Beyond that difficulty, the techniques required to master jazz clarinet are often opposed to classical pedagogy. So, depending on your teacher, you can really run into conflict. Though I never studied jazz with Mr. Russo (or anyone else, for that matter), it was important to have a teacher who knew and respected the music I was ultimately after—which brings me to the ‘important moment’ that stands out from the rest.   

Years after studying with him, something unexpected happened during a phone call with Mr. Russo. We were talking about orchestral gigs I was playing at the time, and the economic realities for musicians trying to pay the rent, when just before hanging up, his voice dropped.

“Just remember one thing, Eric,” he said. “Remember that you’re a jazz musician. Not everyone is, you know. The gigging scene is tougher every year. But even if all else fails in this business, you’ll always have jazz—it’s a part of you.”

Those were the last words Charles Russo ever spoke to me—this man who had helped me perform Mozart with the Emerson String Quartet and learn the classical repertoire. It’s a rare person who both sees and cares, years later, about the artistic essence of their student. That he took the time to say that has remained an inspiration.     
What did you learn during your time at Hartt that you might not have appreciated or recognized until after time had passed and you had time to reflect?

When you’re young and surrounded by talented people, it’s easy to think that being in such company is the normal state of affairs; that just around the corner are other crowds of talented, sincere people waiting for you to join them. In reality, we live in a society that largely undervalues our art, and often find ourselves as adults, as parents, as citizens, interacting with a world that, at its best, doesn’t fully understand why an intelligent person would pursue a career in the arts. When I was at Hartt, I was usually in a hurry to move on, to try blazing a path in that outside world. In retrospect, what I miss most are the late nights working at the music library, or in the practice rooms—surrounded by my fellow students who pushed me musically, intellectually, and personally. So many of those talented young men and women have gone on to careers in this important profession, and have made significant contributions. In retrospect, my classmates at Hartt form a very high proportion of the best people I’ve known—and that is something that I appreciate more each passing year.     
What is next for you?

Certainly it’s to continue forging a path for jazz clarinet that is rooted in the deepest traditions of the horn, with an emphasis on vocal style, melodic invention, and soul—qualities which I think always guarantee contemporary relevance. Establishing Eric Seddon’s Hot Club as an ensemble is a part of that plan, but there are others. Playing in as many jazz circumstances is essential as well—meeting new musicians, and having the opportunity to demonstrate what my voice might offer to their projects. If the right teaching opportunity arises, I would welcome the chance, as jazz clarinet is almost a different instrument from its classical counterpart—requiring different skills and training. Clarinet is also of deep cultural importance to jazz and American music history, so sharing that history would give me great satisfaction on many levels. Ultimately, though, when I really consider everything else, Sidney Bechet put it best: “…as long as I’m around and as long as I can get that instrument up to my mouth that’s what I want to do.” That sums it up nicely.   

If you want people to get in touch, how can they do so?

I always enjoy being in touch with Hartt alumni—whether it’s to catch up on old times, reminisce, or discuss a musical project. They can reach me through my email: For those interested, I’ve written a blog for a couple of years called The Jazz Clarinet Since I started gigging again, I have posted far less, but hope to keep fans updated on my activities and the future activities of the Hot Club.

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