Chris Botti: On Pursuing a Career in the 21st Century
The phenomenally successful and deeply soulful trumpeter Chris Botti is Project Jumpstart’s Entrepreneur of the Month for August. Chris recently spent time talking with Project Jumpstart about his life as a student in the Jacobs School of Music, early career moves, and what it takes to keep up with a fast-changing musical landscape.
An alumnus of the IU Jacobs School of Music, Botti’s career has included a 2013 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album, three nominations in 2010 for his live album Chris Botti in Boston. No less than four of his albums have reached the No. 1 position on the Billboard jazz albums chart. His collaborations include working with Sting, Paul Simon, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Josh Groban, Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Bublé, John Mayer, Andrea Bocelli, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Frank Sinatra. In the coming year, Chris will perform with alumnus Joshua Bell on an international tour.
Project Jumpstart: What were the things about studying at IU that set the stage for such a successful career?
Christ Botti: Looking back, two things stood out for me. First, as a phenomenal music incubator, the Jacobs School is on a college campus in a beautiful town that is relatively easy to live in. So, my years in Bloomington enabled me to immerse myself in my studies, without the distractions and daily grind of a living in a major city. David Baker and Bill Adam molded me in ways that I’ll always be grateful for. They enabled me to develop my technique, introduced me to a world of music, and helped me mature mentally and physically. In many ways, I would not be the musician I am today without their guidance and mentorship. Second, I was among amazing student musicians, many of whom have gone on to do great things. Their drive and commitment was an inspiration to me. If I arrived at 9:30am to start my practicing, I often realized that I was way too late: a couple of them had already been at it for three hours!
PJ: Tell us a little more about how your friendships and collaborations with other students continued once you left Bloomington.
CB: It feels like I was there during a golden era. Perhaps everyone feels this way because of how important college years are and you realize how amazing the time really is once you leave. Bassist Bob Hurst was a roommate of mine. I got to know drummer Shawn Pelton, bassist Edgar Meyer, keyboardist Jim Beard, drummer Kenny Aronoff. The IU list goes on and on, and many of them remain great friends and musical collaborators. I’ve also been able to get to know older and younger alumni, including Josh Bell who was bursting on the scene when I was in Bloomington. He and I have our first tour planned for next year.
PJ: Your transition to New York seems to have panned out pretty well for you. How easy was it for you to break into the big time?
CB: I figured that all serious jazz musicians give New York a go sometime in their early career. I had already connected with the scene by studying for a couple of summers with Woody Shaw and sax player George Coleman. For my first year there, I got by with street-playing gigs, gigs at 3am, lots of word-of-mouth opportunities. I felt like many other young motivated jazz musicians at the time. It was there that I met sax player Michael Brecker (an IU grad). We formed an all-star band which then led to an opportunity to work with Paul Simon on an international tour, which completely changed my sense of possibility. I also was able to perform with the Buddy Rich Big Band, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, Joni Mitchell and others.
One of the most amazing musical connections of my early career was with Sting, who had heard me perform with my progressive-jazz band. At a Rain Forest benefit concert in Carnegie Hall, we performed “Roxanne” together and shortly thereafter, he invited me to join his band for a couple of years. My career took another leap forward when Sting ‘fired’ me and asked me to be the opening act, before his performances.
PJ: Since then, your career seems to have just taken off and opportunities have multiplied. There must be a multitude of things that go on behind the scenes of a major career; the negotiations, choices you have to make, planning, building of a brand, etc. How to you keep it all in balance with your life as a performing artist?
CB: Sting taught me about priorities, how to stay true to your creative spirit, how to focus on things that really matter and to tune out the ‘noise’. Also, not a day goes by without me connecting to my roots as a performer, practicing those things that David Baker and Bill Adam taught me. I often go into a school of music studio when I’m traveling and just close the door to practice for a few hours. It helps me keep my priorities where they need to be – on my instrument and the amazing music I have access to.
PJ: As an innovative, entrepreneurial musician, how do you keep building your presence in a fast-changing industry?
CB: Much of what has propelled me is my willingness to go for the music I love and my willgness to collaborate. I record as much as I can, focusing on projects that really mean something to me and I am always looking for musical partners who can expand my horizons. For my recent CD, Impressions, I was able to invite in a few people who have meant a lot to me, including Andrea Bocelli, Vince Gill, Herbie Hancock, and legendary rocker from the band Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler.
Especially with singers, I have a sound that sort-of ‘leans’ up against others, isn’t threatening. Sometimes people think that I’m not a hardcore jazz musician because I work so much with pop artists, but they miss the point. Musical boundaries are melting away, which gives musicians an amazing opportunity to really go for those things that honestly resonate. There’s a growing appetite for real musicians and live music these days.
It’s not surprising to me that most of the growth in live music over the past decade isn’t for the high-end pop stars. The massive increase in live concerts has been for a more diverse set of artists, who have other things to say. Now that people have gotten to know who I am through my recordings and collaborations, I’ve been able to establish my own identity on stage, my own ‘act’ with concerts all over the world. The stars seems to be aligning for me. I feel so lucky!
PJ: Is there one thing you think Jacobs School students should be thinking about as they study for a life in music?
CB: If you truly believe in what you’re doing and true to what motivates you in music there’s a strong chance that you will be successful.