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Checking in No. 12: Jared Sims

Jared Sims playing the baritone sax. Photo by Adam Lewis.
Whether it's recording music, composing a big band chart or keeping up his chops on bass clarinet, Jared Sims always has new projects in the works  and he hasn't let the pandemic slow him down. His proficiency with production and remote recording techniques has enabled him to continue making music with his students at West Virginia University throughout the pandemic.  

The final installment of Checking in features a conversation with saxophonist and educator Jared Sims. Sims has deep roots in central Virginia, having grown up in Staunton and Ashland. Now, he runs the jazz program at West Virginia University in Morgantown. He is fluent in several instruments including flute, saxophone, clarinet and piano. During the pandemic, he has boned up on new skills like producing and engineering remote recordings in order to continue making music with his students. In addition to his activities as an educator, he is an active composer, arranger, performer and studio musician. What struck me during our conversation was how prolific Sims is with the various projects he is involved in and his unfailingly positive perspective.  

Jared Sims released a new recording recently on the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild label out of Pittsburgh. The album is titled Analogy of the Sun

Edited Transcript

PETER SOLOMON: I’m Peter Solomon. You’re listening to Checking in, a VPM interview series featuring conversations with members of the jazz community talking about what they do, how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and what they are doing to stay productive and inspired. Today, my guest is saxophonist and educator Jared Sims. Sims grew up in Staunton and Ashland, Virginia. He’s currently Director of Jazz at West Virginia University in Morgantown, Before we get to our conversation, here’s a sample of his music. This is Tribeca Tap Bar from Sims’ The New York Sessions.

Music: Tribeca Tap Bar  by Jared Sims from The New York Sessions

Tribeca Tap Bar from The New York Sessions featuring original music by saxophonist Jared Sims. He was joined by Chris McCarthy on piano, Alex Trembly on bass and Evan Hyde on drums.

JARED SIMS: My name is Jared Sims. I am a saxophone player and a woodwind player and I dabble some on piano as well. And I'm the director of just studies at West Virginia University. So I'm right now located in Morgantown, West Virginia.

SOLOMON: Where are you from originally?

SIMS: Well, I went to high school in the Richmond area and before that I lived in Staunton. So I'm a native Virginian.

SOLOMON: Tell me about the music that you were exposed to as a young person. What got you into playing sax, and then what got you into playing jazz?

SIMS: Well, I can tell you what got me into music was, it was a bit of serendipity really. We lived kind of in the middle of nowhere and there was a piano in the house. And like many pianos that everybody sees there, (it was) from the early 1900s. And that meant it was really, really heavy. So the people who lived in the house before us didn't move it. So at a really early age, like four years old, I saw music on tv and I remember a commercial, I can even remember it now. And it was it was a man playing piano. So I was begging for lessons before I could really read the alphabet. Fortunately, there was a woman in Staunton, who would take young musicians. And so I was age five, taking lessons from her.

So when it was time to play saxophone in band class, I love to tell this story too. My mom was a high school teacher and she was friends with the band director, and he was a saxophone player. And so she said, Oh, you're gonna play the saxophone.” And I feel fortunate for that, because I had no idea what saxophone was. Like, it came in the mail, I pulled it out of the box, didn't know how to put it together. I'd never seen one in my life. So I mean, that's kind of my upbringing.

Later on, I made it to high school and was really serious about piano as well as saxophone. You know, I have to say, I attribute the radio, to everything that I really know about jazz music. There were some really great DJs that I would tune into. And this was kind of my lifeline, between radio at night and going to the library. Those two things were really my source of knowledge. 

You know, I would stay up all night listening to this stuff. And I've even joked lately that Marian McPartland was a show that I was so into. 

MUSIC: Piano Jazz Theme by Marian McPartland  

I remember so distinctly, like getting dropped off at basketball practice.

MARIAN MCPARTLAND: Hi, I’m Marian McPartland, and my guest today… (fades)

SIMS: And I was in either seventh or eighth grade. And, you know I'm a tall guy, but I'm not really into basketball. I didn't want to get out of the car because Marian McPartland’s playing piano.

SOLOMON: Did you have a mentor along the way that that helped foster your development? And then this could be either in high school or maybe a little bit later on.

SIMS: My first saxophone teacher was a guy named Rick Crawley, who is, as far as I know, I think he's in South Dakota now. For a long time. He was actually teaching at James Madison University as well. So I really lucked out with having him being the guy who put the saxophone in my hand because he was a great role model. He knew how to play really well. He played piano and he was also an oboist.

MUSIC: Jeanine by Cannonball Adderley Quintet from Them Dirty Blues

When I was in high school, I remember all the all the players in Richmond that I would follow around like, a big stage of my development was this place. It's known by something else now, but it was Rick’s - it was right beside the 7-11 across from the Science Museum, going down there to the jam session. And you know, I don't think I've ever been cute because I’m well over six feet tall, but I was young, and they were really, really nice about letting me sit in and very, very supportive. And, you know, I was learning tunes on the bandstand, and, you know, seeing cars get stolen off the street outside, and, you know, all the things that made that made jazz really exciting. And so, you know, I had a handful of friends from high school that would come down with me because it was such a scene. 

So in terms of mentors, you know, I made it to West Virginia University, and had had a handful of mentors here as well, that were really, really meaningful. And, the colorful people in the in the Richmond jam scene, for sure.

SOLOMON: More of our conversation with Jared Sims coming up. Here’s another selection from his live album “The New York Sessions.” You’ll hear Jared playing tenor sax again with Chris McNulty, piano, Alex Trembly on bass and Evan Hyde on drums. This is called The Bodega on VPM Music, 93.1 and 107.3

MUSIC: The Bodega by Jared Sims from The New York Sessions

You’re listening to Checking in on VPM Music, 93.1 and 107.3. Today’s guest is saxophonist and educator Jared Sims. Sims now directs the jazz program at the school where he attended undergrad – West Virginia University.

Can you tell me before the pandemic, what your typical workflow would look like during a given week?

SIMS: Whoo. You know, that's a really tough question in terms in terms of what I do. You know, WVU, West Virginia University's an R1 research school. So the expectation is that, obviously, I have to teach and, and I'm directing this program. So you know, there's a whole lot of recruiting that goes on as well, working on curriculum, teaching, and so forth. But the other side of that, because it's R1, the expectation for us on the faculty is to make music. So that really, to me, that means writing every day, practicing every day. And these things just have to happen., It's part of the gig. And it also provides obviously, a breadth to the teaching, too, you know, because just in the last hour, I had a guitar player I was working with, and I said, “Oh, you know, when I play this tune, this is what I like to do. And here's a thing we could explore.” So on a daily basis, it's generally a whole lot of teaching, but there's a whole lot of weekend warrior stuff. Like, I might run down to Richmond for a weekend or I still go back to Boston a whole lot. There's also a fair amount of international stuff that I like to do as well. Like before the pandemic, I was planning to go to Malaysia and Thailand, I was going to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Thailand in Bangkok. And of course, all of that got cancelled. But what that means is creating music that I can play in a lot of different formats with a lot of different players. And so, you know, I having a band and there are some people that I collaborate with both in this area and still in Boston, that are kind of like band mates. But very much of the time, it's like, Okay, I'm going to go to Malaysia. And this is who the band will be. And it's fun and exciting,

MUSIC: Generate by Jared Sims from Analogy of the Sun

SOLOMON: You’re listening to Checking in, a series of conversations with members of the jazz community about what they do, how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and what they do to stay productive and inspired. Today I’m speaking with saxophonist and educator Jared Sims.

Can you talk about what your personal experience with a pandemic was like? Going back to last March, how did it immediately impact you?

SIMS: You know, when the pandemic first started, it was really gut wrenching, in a lot of ways. We were just about to have our Spring Jazz Fest, which meant we were we were bringing an artist in who in that, in that case, it was it was Helen Sung, and we were going to bring her in. And then I also had two big bands of honor jazz students, high school students that I'd auditioned and placed into bands. And that was a really big deal, because we had only had one for a while. And so suddenly, we had even more of an influx of high school players who were interested in being part of the festival. So that immediately fell by the wayside.

I took my students into a rehearsal with the big band. I set up a camera, and we recorded and it was kind of like our swan song of the semester. You know, it was over.

But, you know, frankly, with the pandemic, my concern has been the mental health of, especially the students, and even the faculty, you know, just trying to remain positive and keep moving forward. I think the positives have been that, even though, right when it first hit, we kind of didn't know what to do with ourselves, I realized that our students are very open to embracing technology. And in terms of my ensemble offerings, what we've been doing is we've been recording, and, and literally recording remotely. I gave the students an idea of what type of a microphone and interface to get for their computers and we found a way to make it work. It's about choosing the right repertoire somehow. And, you know, I wouldn't go into it because I think it would bore a whole lot of people but basically, on my end, I start with my laptop, and I literally find a drum beat and I program bass and I program some chords and a handful of different horns, and then just give them the skeleton of a recording (to each student) and they just start dropping their own personal recordings in. And we've been able to make it happen from everything from, you know, quartets, with singers to full-on big bands, to now we're doing big band with 11 piece Brazilian ensemble. So it's really turned into something really, really cool.

SOLOMON: Here’s an example of one of the recordings that Jared has put together virtually with West Virginia University’s Jazz Ensamble I combined with an African Drum Ensemble. This is called Conga Street Beat

Music: Conga Street Beat by WVU Jazz Ensemble I

SOLOMON: What were the observable effects of the pandemic on the students and fellow staff? What did you see people trying to contend with?

SIMS: What the pandemic has done for us is it really makes people very lonely. Even people who are non-musicians, the depth of it for musicians is even greater because it is at every level of what any musician does it, it's all about collaboration and working with other people. For a solo violinist, that means that they're working with a pianist. You know, string quartets work together as a quartet. In jazz. It's, it's even beyond that, because, if I have a student that can't make it to a concert, I can't as easily plug someone in, like, if we're missing the third or fourth violinist in an orchestra, we just find another violin player to fill the spot. But we can't really do that with a lead trumpet player in a big band, or the featured singer in a small jazz ensemble, or the bass player pretty much in any ensemble. What jazz requires is the students are not only invested but the students aren't easily replaceable. So that's been a  thing that we've had to contend with in this pandemic, you know, and I've opted to do everything with recordings because at any time, we could have students quarantined.

I think students are really grappling with playing jazz in the simulated format right now. We've just recently started to get back to everybody being more together. So the theme this week has been interaction. The other thing is, I really hang my hat on this program being about students knowing tunes, because it’s so often, when people are learning jazz, we learn concepts, we learn how to play a style, but we’re not really learning tunes. So this pandemic has actually been really tough for establishing musicians to know tunes and to be able to play together really well. So that's going to be our next challenge, we're going to bring it back and I anticipate a whole lot of duo playing and playing just playing standards, just knowing standards.

SOLOMON: It sounds like you've kept yourself really busy. What about away from work - personally, what have you done to keep your spirits up and to stay productive and on task?

SIMS: When the pandemic first hit, I think a lot of us who are musicians, we kind of had this to-do list of things we never could really get to. And for me, it was a handful of transcription projects that I really wanted to get into. That was kind of where it started, then I think a lot of people found out that I had a whole lot of technological kind of capacity here, the knowledge of how to record and some gear and the knowledge of how to play a whole lot of instruments. So a lot of what's kept me going, frankly, has been some high level recording projects. So that's been happening. There’s a band that a lot of listeners would probably know called Soulive. And Al, the drummer in Soulive has a studio and so I've been doing a lot of recording for him. So, frankly, in a lot of ways, the pandemic has made it so I'm more busy. Suddenly there's sometimes ke three things that would come to me every week. As a recording artist, the quick turnaround time is might be just as important as being able to get a recording correct. And so, that's really, really kept me going. I think there are a lot of us that are also saying, “Well, you know, when the world opens up, we still have to go back and be able to play and we don't want to have to relearn everything.” It's been kind of immediate having various requests from a lot of different artists and some things that people wouldn't know about because it's commercial, like I did some clarinet for a commercial in Japan and just things kind of come up. Horn section writing for a woman in Atlanta. That's how the world works, just things come in. And so that's, that's really kept me going.

SOLOMON: In the midst of all of his teaching and various freelance recording projects, Jared found time to release a new album on MCG Jazz, a label out of Pittsburgh.

SIMS: That album is Analogy of the Sun. And we recorded it in March, 2019 To me, it was a really, really amazing record, because music aside, the experience was great for me, because I was able to connect with (bassist) Rufus Reid, and he's an amazing musician. He's played with everybody. And he brings that knowledge to the project. And so going into it, I knew I was going to record with him and (drummer) Matt Wilson was an obvious pairing. The music that is on that record was born from knowing the artists and what they sound like, and their comfort zone. And then also, kind of knowing that, by virtue of who's on the record, that we're all different people coming from different places, different age groups and generations. And that's, that's meaningful to me given the world today, you know, we live in a fractured world. And so, I had gone to Mexico, with my wife on vacation in late 2018, (and I) knew this record was kind of coming (and I) was preparing music for it and writing. And given that we live in a fractured world, the Commander in Chief at that time, said some really horrible things about people who were citizens of other nations to the south of this country. You know, it was really deeply impactful for me, because I'd been to Mexico a couple times before. I think it's a beautiful place. Everything about it is beautiful. Seeing native ruins, and, and actually hearing some drummers doing some native music was really impactful for me, and, and I borrowed some things that I heard there. But also, you know, the, the goodness of the world of Plato, just trying to make sense of this chaotic world that we live in. And as musicians, you know, we're just we're just trying to really make sense of it all. And so that's, that's really kind of where it came from.

PETER SOLOMON: Here’s one of the tracks from the new album Analogy of the Sun. This is “Dialectic” featuring Jared Sims on baritone sax with Rufus Reid on bass, Clifford Barnes on piano, Reggie Watkins on trombone and Matt Wilson on drums.

MUSIC: Dialectic by Jared Sims from Analogy of the Sun

SOLOMON: Where are things right now? What are you looking forward to in the coming months?

SIMS: Wow. So right now, I'm actually writing a whole lot of music. In last few months, I've really gotten kind of interested in big band writing. And so we have a concert here and five tunes that I wrote, I'm having the students play, which, which is a real blast for me. So I've kind of used the pandemic to, to expand in that way. And when I'm, when I'm driving in the car and driving in circles, it's hard to have time to be able to write big band. So yeah, I've kind of appreciated in a way, a little extra time to contemplate that.

MUSIC: Visible Realm by Jared Sims from Analogy of the Sun

I also feel very fortunate, you know. I feel fortunate that I'm kind of deep enough into my career that things are kind of moving and I'm fortunate to have a have a steady position. And everything's kind of robust on my end. So, I have very few complaints.

SOLOMON: Jared Sims is director of the Jazz program at West Virginia University in Morgantown. His latest recording Analogy of the Sun just came out on MCG Jazz.