We recently caught up with Eric Walschap, for whom jazz is both a vocation and avocation. Eric’s many accolades include being voted as the Oklahoma Music Professional of the Month for February 2021 by Oklahoma Film & Music out of a selection of 4,500 professionals in the music industry, as well as contributing to the upcoming Martin Scorsese movie, Killer of the Flower Moon, where he worked as the music consultant.
Q. I understand you hold a “day” job as administrative coordinator and adjunct professor of music at the University of Oklahoma School of Music?
A. I primarily oversee the facilities and technology for the department, spanning three buildings: Catlett Music Center, the Reynolds Performing Arts Center and Carpenter Hall. As we have 90+ faculty and staff in addition to roughly 500 music students (and thousands of non-music majors who take classes and use our spaces), every day is exciting. In addition to my administrative duties, I also teach a class called Experiencing Music, a class for non-music majors where I view my job as having 16 weeks to make students understand music in a new light, be exposed to new and exciting music, all while falling in love with the art even more than before they stepped into my classroom.
Q. So, why jazz?
A. When I got to 10th grade at Norman High School (after a slow start on the flute, then saxophone), on a whim, I joined a jazz band. For the first time, I felt I had the opportunity to play truly exciting, challenging music. Even sitting last chair in the band, I knew my part was unique to the group and integral to the whole sound—and playing with the upperclassmen and seeing how talented they were was awe-inspiring.
Our jazz band director, Jim Meiller, not only instilled the love of music in general for me but showed me what happens when you apply yourself and actually practice. It was with this jazz band, in 2000 as a 10th grader, that we were invited to play at Jazz in June. Being able to perform and play a solo in front of thousands of people the same year I started playing the genre was truly a jumping-off point for my career.
I know I say this with a bias as a jazz musician and saxophonist, but even compared with incredible art forms like hip-hop, country and rock, I feel jazz is truly unique in its place in American history and how it fits into all forms of music today. People forget it was the most popular genre for several decades starting in the 1920s, and instruments like the electric guitar, the drum set and even microphones owe their existence to it. Additionally, every five to ten years jazz essentially undergoes a metamorphosis and sounds completely different than it previously—or in some cases—has ever, sounded. The range of styles from Fats Waller to Snarky Puppy, from Louis Armstrong to Jon Batiste, from Miles Davis to Jacob Collier, no other genre can hold a candle to the sheer amount of diversity found in the genre.
I think people who haven't had a guiding hand when listening to the genre tend to think of two primary areas of jazz” “elitist, I can’t understand it” free jazz and “sellout, boring” smooth/pop jazz. While they both have merit and are appreciated by many, they are at opposite ends of the jazz spectrum and represent the extreme 1% of either side. Look for the juicy middle section of the genre, and I guarantee you will find a deep pool of artists and bands you'll love that break the preconceived idea of one of the most diverse types of music in the world.
Q. What type of jazz do you perform?
A. While some of the biggest names in Jazz might stick to a few sub-genres of jazz that they find success in, most of us mortals must be willing to play any style that comes up if we want to put food on the table. Big Band, bebop, swing, funk, it's all fair game.
Q. When and where did you first perform professionally before a live audience?
A. My very first paying gig was in 1999 when I was a part of the Norman High School Saxophone Quartet. We were asked to perform for the grand opening of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, and to this day I still have the $25 check framed. It would be a few years later that I ever saw payment for playing again, and it was mostly in the form of gas-station food and a floor to sleep on when I was touring with a punk-ska band in my undergraduate years.
Q. Do you perform solo, and/or with a band or other musicians?
A. While I've been in a little over a dozen groups, at the moment the only performing group I'm with that survived the pandemic is Boyd Street Brass (boydstreetbrass.com/), a seven-piece band made up primarily of OU School of Music faculty. We formed nearly a decade ago with the mission of bringing fun and exciting New Orleans-style jazz to students around Oklahoma. The idea was to show students in band and orchestra that it can be “cool” to play these traditional instruments by dancing around and blasting funky tunes in their face. Over the years, we've morphed into doing the arrangements of band leader and arranger Jay Wilkinson, who is also the head of the OU Jazz Department, and now incorporate jazz/brass band arrangements of more popular music as well as his own exciting originals.
Q. Where have you have performed, and where can people find your music, online or otherwise?
A. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of performing in some exciting locations and with truly some of the best musicians on the planet, full stop. I've toured to and performed in Hollywood and Las Vegas, I’ve soloed in the middle of the court, alone with a clip-on mic, during halftime of a basketball game at Madison Square Garden, I've performed or given lectures at several national saxophone conferences, and have appeared on about a dozen albums covering a wide range of music, from indie rock, punk, afrobeat, country and, of course, jazz. Most recently, I recorded some music for the podcast 40 Minutes of Funk, hosted by Michael Bendure, which also included musicians like eight-time Grammy-winning keyboardist Shaun Martin (Kirk Franklin, Erykah Badu) and four-time Grammy-winning guitarist Mark Lettieri (Eminem, Adam Levine).
While I don't have solo albums, most of the music I have recorded can be found on traditional streaming services like iTunes and Spotify. I appear on all the albums for Boyd Street Brass, Pidgin, and Third Grade Scuffle, and have appeared randomly on other artists' albums, including Parker Millsap, Dorian Small, Christina Giacona and Patrick Conlon.
Q. I understand you are an online personality with a show called “The Resonance Series.” Could you elaborate?
A. The Resonance Series (ou.edu/finearts/music/series/resonance) is a guest lecture series that started in August 2020 when the world was shut down. I had been bringing guests to perform and talk to my students at OU prior to the pandemic, but since all musicians were essentially grounded and unable to travel or perform, I started reaching out to some of the more high-profile contacts I've made over the years to see if they’d like to Zoom in and talk about their careers. Over the last two years, we've had over 30 guests, over half of them Grammy winners, including some Oscar and Pulitzer Prize winners, and we are no longer virtual but instead bring most of these guests to campus to perform and workshop with our students.
Q. What is your connection with Jazz in June?
A. I originally joined Jazz in June in 2013 as a board member and served on the program committee under the direction of Jim Johnson, host of KGOU's “The Weekend Blues.” As a Normanite since 1989, and as a performer on the stage in 2000 and 2013, Jazz in June has just always been a part of my life and it was one of the honors of my lifetime to be able to assist in any way that I could.
Starting in 2019, I became chair of the programming committee and was then hired as director of programming, where I stepped off the board but was simultaneously hired as a professional to advise the board on which bands and artists should perform at the festival. I am supported by a passionate committee where we consider hundreds of artists each year to fill the three days of music that is enjoyed by tens of thousands of people.
Jazz in June is truly a special, free festival that brings the world's best jazz musicians to the heart of Norman year after year. June 15-18, 2023, we will celebrate its 40th anniversary (look for details on the festival and associated events at jazzinjune.org/) with a lineup that is nothing short of spectacular.
Q. How did your involvement in the making of the Killer of the Flower Moon film come about?
A. I was sought after because they were needing period musical instruments built in the early 1920s. I already owned a 1920 Martin C-Melody Saxophone, which appears in the movie, and helped secure a half dozen other instruments. I was then hired to go to the set and make sure everything looked accurate while filming, as oftentimes in movies people "fake" playing instruments. Luckily, Scorsese has a penchant for details, and they made sure real jazz musicians were hired that played these instruments that were all over a hundred years old.
Q. I understand your wife, Jennifer, is a fellow musician and instructor, and your son Leif may be following in his parents’ footsteps musically. Can you tell us more about both?
A. I actually met Jennifer when I was the interim instructor of saxophone at OU. My students needed to be accompanied by a pianist for their juries (graded end-of-year performances) and recitals. One of them was Jennifer and, well, let's just say I was smitten by more than just her piano playing! She holds degrees in music including a master in piano pedagogy from OU, considered the No. 1 program in the country, and is also Suzuki certified, a specialized teaching method that focuses on teaching children. She runs a studio called Imagine Music and Arts (Imaginemusicandarts.com).
Our son Leif is nearly 6 months old, so while we haven't forced him into piano lessons quite yet, he's rocking his shakers! Although we do hope he has a natural inclination for music and we will fill his childhood with opportunities, we of course will support him in whatever he is passionate about. Jennifer and I joke about being scared he'll turn out to be an NFL player or NASA scientist...!
Q. Interests outside work and performing?
A. Don't let my students know, but I've been an avid gamer pretty much all of my life and continue to enjoy them even as my free time evaporates. This last year I also jumped in the deep end of archery and have found it is an incredible source of joy and stress reduction, sharing the pastime with friends and family. I suppose I should also mention I enjoy ridiculous vehicles; a lifetime ago I used to ride a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle, but a few years ago I purchased a Polaris Slingshot—essentially a go-cart motorcycle/car hybrid on steroids. It makes my daily commute a bit more exciting, and of course because it's in bright red it goes a little faster!