An Interview with Adam Maness

On April 19 & 20, 2019, Jazz St. Louis celebrates the music of John Coltrane with the Adam Maness Trio performing with Freddie Washington. We sat down with St. Louis native, Adam Maness to discuss his love of jazz, Coltrane, and the influence of jazz music in today’s culture and right here in St. Louis.

Adam Maness

Jazz St. Louis (JSL): Tell us about your history with Jazz.

Adam Maness (AM):  I grew up in High Ridge, Missouri, where there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for me to experience jazz. It was my father’s record collection that turned me on to jazz, which included Dave Brubeck, Charlie Byrd and other jazz monsters. When I was 5 my aunt gave me an air organ. I plucked out the Los Lobos version of “La Bamba.” I went from there to a Casio keyboard and finally a spinet upright piano that was tuned a half-step high. To this day, my ear is a little high. I grew up studying classical music but was always drawn to jazz. When I was 14, I joined our high school jazz band and took to it ferociously. Throughout high school I was gigging around town and played alongside talents like Freddie Washington, who will be playing with us for the Coltrane show.

JSL:  When did you start pursuing jazz piano full time?

AM: I ended up studying jazz at The New School in New York City with instructors who were part of my jazz collection. In fact there was a Coltrane ensemble with Reggie Workman, who was Coltrane’s bassist. It was an amazing experience.

JSL: And here you are back in St. Louis…

AM:  Well an old friend of mine, Erin Bode (also from St. Louis), who is a wonderful singer and has performed here at the Bistro, was touring back in 2003 and invited me to write some songs with her. I moved back here and was in her band until 2014. We did four or five records together.

JSL: What’s your take on the state of jazz in today’s world and here in St. Louis

AM: Jazz is part of all of us. It’s part of our DNA even if you don’t listen to it. In Europe and Asia they teach about their cultural influencers, but we don’t do such a good job of that here in the U.S. We should be teaching kids about Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, because it’s part of our cultural fabric. It made American culture what it is. As for St. Louis it’s both amazing and frustrating. For a medium-sized city, we have so many incredible musicians who live here, like Montez Coleman, Bob DeBoo, and Freddie Washington. Not to mention all the greats who are from St. Louis like Miles Davis and Clark Terry. It’s a crime there’s not a statue of Terry somewhere in this city. There’s a book I love called “Playing Changes,” by Nate Chinen. He talks about three great jazz institutions in America – Jazz at Lincoln Center, San Francisco Jazz Center, and Jazz St. Louis.

JSL: You mentioned Louis Armstrong. He’s a key influencer of yours?

AM:  He influenced everyone. His style is an integral part of the jazz language. His concept of swing, nuances, and the way he improvised… he basically invented what we are now. He’s a genius like Shakespeare. He codified the language of jazz. People 100 years later play things that are the result of his genius.

JSL: And Coltrane?

AM:  He’s a huge influencer of mine, and I’m grateful to be able to play with Freddie Washington, who is a direct lineage of the Coltrane school.  Coltrane is a singular figure in 20th century American music, as a performer, composer, and artist. Coltrane had so much conviction behind his music. He created his own language in jazz. At the time the style of jazz was so quickly evolving, he created a style that was able to stick. JSL:  You also have a tribute show coming up for Stevie Wonder.

AM:  Yeah, it’s funny because when I was in high school, I had a student who lived 30 minutes away from me.  A friend of mine gave me a mix tape that was a compilation of Stevie Wonder songs mostly from “Talking Book” and “Innervisions.” I listened to it over and over. Jazz has such an influence in his music and is so close to the surface. I’ve never played his music but excited for the opportunity.

JSL:  What are your thoughts on the Jazz St. Louis experience?

AM:  It’s a gorgeous venue. One of the most beautiful places to play anywhere. It has spectacular sight lines to the performers. I love sitting up in the balcony so I can see the hands and the drums. There is also a commitment to quality and bringing in the greatest artists from all different sides and corners of jazz. The programming is a fair representation of the genre for everyone to enjoy. Whether it’s a big name or someone you may never heard of, you can trust the curation of the programming that it’s going to be a great show. The other important thing is the commitment to the education side of things, preserving our jazz history and teaching kids and young people that jazz is part of our cultural identity right here in St. Louis. Scott Joplin wrote his early rags right down the street. Some of the great art of the 20th century happened right here. Not to mention providing so many opportunities for young people to play jazz and perform with important names in jazz music.

JSL:  Any parting thoughts?

AM:  Jazz is so diverse. There’s room for everyone. I play it because its improvisational nature provides freedom for both the player and the listener. The music can feel personal and direct unlike other forms of music. Jazz by its very nature is a re-invention of itself through innovation. The spirit of the music was born out of the blues and formed out of the African American experience of the last two centuries. It’s a gift given to us from the early masters of music. Adam Maness is Creative Director for Peter Martin’s Open Studio, the world’s best online jazz lessons platform. He is also the co-host of “You’ll Hear It,” a podcast with Peter Martin.  Adam is a founding member of the 442s, which he calls an outlet for his “secret identity” as a composer and writer. You can hear the Adam Maness Trio most Thursday nights at Thurman’s in the Shaw neighborhood. Click HERE for tickets to Adam’s upcoming event at The Ferring Jazz Bistro – A Celebration of Coltrane, by the Adam Maness Trio with Freddie Washington. Take Adam’s recommendation for a balcony seat. It will be amazing!