Not Like Monk

Chris Botti on selling -- and not selling -- jazz

Trumpet player Chris Botti, one of the best-selling jazz artists around today, is famous for once saying, "I don't want to be a jazz musician."

"Yes, I said that," he laughs, talking to us from New York City, where he's in the middle of a 26-day stint at the Blue Note. "People see that quote and they say, 'You didn't want to be a jazz musician? What are you talking about?' But it's a very particular style of jazz that I didn't want to play. I was being very microscopic in my vocabulary. When I first moved to New York City, it was literally when Wynton Marsalis was at his absolute height. He makes records that are very much in the tradition of straight-ahead bebop. I didn't want to do that.

"Jazz à la Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk and Wynton Marsalis, I knew I didn't want to make records like that. So I didn't."

Instead, Botti developed his own style of romantic, adult, slightly sad contemporary jazz. "The trumpet doesn't really sound at its best when it's played happy," he says. "The saxophone can be bright and cheery, but the trumpet is a little bit more melancholy."

And it seems there's a market for melancholy, or at least for Botti's version of it. His first solo album, First Wish, came in 1995, after years of Botti touring and recording with folks like Sting, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. It was the first of ten extremely successful releases by Botti, each album finding a larger and larger mainstream audience. His 2004 hit, When I Fall in Love, debuted at No. 1 on the Traditional Jazz Album chart and has sold more than half a million copies, and his latest release, To Love Again, seems destined for the same kinds of numbers.

Despite his own success, Botti knows the market outlook for jazz instrumentalists is dim. "The current situation for instrumentalists is quite dire. There's no doubt about that," he says. "And that's due, in large part, to the fact that instrumental music is never given a chance on television. If Keith Jarrett went on The Today Show or The Oprah Winfrey Show and played one song, just one song, the next day we'd see his music selling millions. The very next day.

"That's what happened to me. I went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and bam! In that one day, my life changed. It's not the audience that doesn't want that kind of music on The Today Show or the Oprahshow, it's the gatekeepers. It's the television bookers that don't think it's hip and trendy to have an instrumentalist on. They want to have the Black Eyed Peas. And that's fine, the Black Eyed Peas are great, I love them, but a lot of people that watch shows like Regis and Kelly are adults. Even though the Black Eyed Peas sell to a huge fan base, there are a whole bunch of people who don't buy that kind of music but that will buy Keith Jarrett.

"The bookers, the people who control what goes on the shows, they don't believe that," he continues. "They think that the moment an instrumentalist comes on a show, people will change the channel. That's not true, of course, because I went on the Oprahshow and people didn't change the channel, they didn't turn off their television sets. Instead they went out and bought my record."

Botti admits that the low sales numbers for jazz CDs are also due, in part, to artists who don't understand the music game. "You can't have every instrumentalist on Regis and Kelly, because some of us are playing music that is purposefully way over everyone's head, music that sounds like a math test," Botti says.

"A lot of jazz musicians," he says, "in a weird kind of way, aren't interested in selling a lot of records. Or at least they're not interested in doing what they have to do to sell a lot of records. If I said to a musician, 'Hey, do you want to sell a million records?' they would say, 'Yes!' But if I said to that same musician, 'Do you want to have a life? Do you want to have a family? Because if you want to sell a million records, you can't,' then they're not interested. A lot of people just can't deal with the lifestyle that I have imposed on myself.

"I don't even live anywhere! I have no residence. None. I live in hotels," he laughs. "I am finally going to get an apartment in New York next month, and that will be the first residence that I have had since 1999. Everything I have is in one suitcase. Literally. My whole life fits into one suitcase, one trumpet case and a carry-on bag. That's it. But had I not done this for the last seven years and really given it my all, I wouldn't be selling the numbers of records that I do. That's the kind of sacrifice that it takes, and most people, including most jazz musicians, just aren't willing to do that. And that's really okay; it's not for everyone. I'm just nuts; I want to tour 365 days a year; I want to live in hotels."

Chris Botti performs Tuesday, January 9, at the Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas, 713-230-1666.

 
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