For jazz musician Bobby Shew, the trumpet is life.
Some might contend such a statement to be an exaggeration or some headline-grabbing hyperbole, but given how long the man has had his lips to his horn, it’s difficult to deny. An active player for 63 years, 53 of which he’s spent touring, Shew has made his life’s work making music. He tried to quit once, but he just couldn’t stay away.
“I tried one time many years ago, to live without it. I tried to quit playing. I stopped playing the trumpet for about 10 months. I didn’t listen to any records or go to any clubs or listen to any music,” he said. “I was going through some spiritual things and reevaluating my life’s meaning and purpose. And I had had a lot of physical problems prior to that. But I stayed away for 10 months, but I got back. I came back to the whole thing with a different attitude and realized how vital it is to my whole life. That was a great realization. I can still think about it and get teary-eyed.”
Shew will arrive in Tyler on Saturday, Oct. 26, to perform at Liberty Hall at 7:30 p.m.
While he’s never reached wide recognition for his musicianship, there’s no denying the pedigree that Shew has grown around his name. A self-taught musician, he played his first gig at age 12 (for a wedding) despite having no idea he was supposed to get paid. Four years later he was playing six nights a week.
Once his career hit its stride, though, Shew would eventually find himself playing with the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Maynard Ferguson, Barbara Streisand and Elvis, as well as performing studio work that includes “Hawaii 5-0” and “Rocky.”
Playing music can be a primal thing, Shew said. It’s that primal satisfaction which comes from creating that keeps him going, even at his age.
“It’s the joy of being creative. It’s absolute joy. The challenge of being creative taps into some very interesting things. In order to get to that point you have to almost parallel it with philosophy and things of that sort. In order to understand what it is you’re doing,” he said.
“I was studying (in college) to be an architect and psychology as a minor, so I’ve always been interested in the relationship of a person to their mind, how it operates, how it gets in the way, things of that sort. The challenge of picking up the instrument and dealing with all the elements that you have to have to be spontaneous and not know what you’re going to play and have the courage to do that. It takes great courage.”
Discussing his style and skillset, the conversation shifted to Shew’s ability to improvise, a key skill for any jazz musician worth their salt. Shew said he’s gotten to where when he improvises he manages to surprise even himself.
“I’m just listening going, ‘Wow. Who’s doing this?’ So I become almost an audience member and just listen to what I come up with,” he said. “It’s a tremendous feeling. It’s almost an out of body thing. I think it would be much easier for people to do it if they started introducing improvisational skills to beginners at an early age.”
Instruction is quite near and dear to Shew’s heart as well, as he’s spent decades taking students under his musical wing. His highest priority? Breaking them of the “rules” that so many other instructors saddle kids with.
“One of the main problems in music education is that they mostly teach kids to not make mistakes. Don’t miss a note. It’s like a threat,” he said. “It just looms over everybody’s head. You pick up the instrument and the first thing that crops up into your head is ‘Gee, I hope I don’t miss’ or ‘I hope nobody hears me miss.’ So those things are part of what music education does and it’s why the creative arts are so restrictive and limiting and frightening to a lot of people.”
Learning that he could break free of those limits was quite liberating for himself, Shew said.
“Once I found out that it was legal to improvise, that you could just make things up in your head and without getting in trouble for doing it, it took me away from that printed page, off the music stand and into the music,” he said. “It took me inside of myself.”
A teacher’s priority, he said, should be in setting an example.
“The teacher’s primary objective should be to show his passion to the student. And if the student sees his passion, that inspires the student and from the inspiration the student is motivated,” he said. “Practicing and things like that, you shouldn’t have to motivate or warn them, ‘You have to practice an hour a day or else!’ That’s not the way it should be done.”
Shew will perform with the Tyler Junior College Jazz Ensemble. Opening the show will the UT Tyler Jazz Combo.
Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students (through college). They may be purchased by calling 903-526-3876, ext. 4# or online through the link at ETSO.org.