Story and photos by Takayuki Higuchi
In this exclusive interview, Chris Klich shares his insights and inspirations with East County Magazine. A native San Diegan and music instructor at Grossmont College, he has been performing professionally for 26 years, including appearances in East County with his Chris Klich Jazz Quintet. He has toured across America and around the world, playing everything from jazz to blues to swing to top-40. To hear his music and learn more, visit http://www.chrisklich.com/.
August 9, 2009 (San Diego) -- Calm, hard-working, caring, expressive…There are so many words to describe Chris Klich. However, there is one thing on which everyone would agree: he is one of our region’s most notable jazz musicians.
Klich, a native San Diegan who grew up in Solana Beach, spoke with East County Magazine about his first acquaintance with jazz music. “All began with my mother. When I was about five years old, she would play jazz albums,” he recalled. “I listened a lot…Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, particularly. They are her favorites.” From that moment, his story as a jazz musician had begun.
Since then, Klich has toured in over a dozen states and performed internationally in China, Macau, Canada, Norway and Sweden. He obtained a bachelor of music from UCSD and a masters in jazz studies from SDSU. He has worked with many popular dance and variety bands and also does studio recordings. His Chris Klich Jazz Quintet is one of the region’s top mainstream jazz groups. Klich has performed at many prominent venues including Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and the House of Blues (New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Downtown Disney). Locally, he can be seen at Dizzy's, the Coyote, Croce's Top Hat, Gio’s Bistro Wine Bar, Twiggs, Claire de Lune, La Costa Resort, Four Seasons Aviara, Scripps Aquarium, Darlington House, Orfila Vineyards, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Hyatt, Morgan Run Golf Resort, and the U.S. Grant Hotel.
The School Years: Junior and High School
Klich’s growing musical interest led him to join a musical band at age 10. Although his initial choice of instrument was drum, his father persuaded him to learn to play the clarinet, following in his father’s footsteps. While he was attending Earl Warren Jr. High School, Young Klich’s talent immediately caught the eye of the band director, who suggested Klich take a private lesson. At age 11, he determined to play an instrument that would become his main performance specialty: the alto saxophone. While continuing to play Clarinet, he switched over to play alto saxphone when he was in Torrey Pines High School.
The College Years
Majoring in biology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Klich originally aspired to become a doctor. However, he soon resolved to change career paths and become a professional jazz musician.
One figure became his stepping-stone to make that transition. Jimmy Cheatham was newly hired as director of the jazz ensemble at UCSD, where Klich was a leader of saxophone in the group. Cheatham became Klich’s mentor, “the biggest influence on my life” he recalled, adding that Cheatham “turned me into a jazz musician; he really nurtured me… He saw in me the things I didn’t see in terms of my talent…He brought them out.” Klich changed his major to music at the end of his freshman year and eventually earned a bachelor of ethnomusicology degree from UCSD in 1983.
After College: Performing and Teaching
Like many graduates, Klich did not start earning a living as a jazz musician instantly. After graduating from UCSD, he worked at an office supply store. Meantime, he kept collaborating with a lot of bands and playing all kinds of music, mainly contemporary dance music. It wasn’t until he met with a jazz band called the Mar Dels that he started to focus on playing jazz. After playing the original scores that Laura Preble, now his wife, wrote as a cofounder of the band, he grew intrigued by the magic of jazz music and formed the Chris Klich Jazz Quintet in 1997.
Stormy Experiences on the Road
While performing with the Mar Dels, Klich and the band did a gig in Hong Kong, Before one show, they were cruising on a private boat when it became apparent that a storm was coming in. They headed back toward Victoria Island, but Klich recalled, “as the seas got nastier, and big waves started rolling us from side to side, we heard a “clunk” sound. The propellor of the boat had apparently bumped into an object and split apart, and was useless. There was an outboard motor that could move the boat along at a few yards per minute, and I really began worrying that we wouldn’t make it.”
Around midnight, the sea pitched violently, he added. “I thought we’d all be tossed into the ocean, or the boat would break up. But gradually, the lights of Victoria Island got a little closer, and around four in the morning we made it into the harbor. I was probably the only one who was truly frightened, as I don’t drink. The rest of the band had consumed many bottles of alcohol on the way in.”
Another terrifying episode occurred when they played in Macau. “Half the band had taken off on a flight several days earlier, and were enjoying the weather in sunny Macau. Meanwhile, the rest of us were taking off from L.A. on a Korean Air 747, bound for Taipei,” Klich revealed. “ It just happened to be the same time that Hurricane Zed was also approaching the island of Taiwan. Well, as we got closer and closer over the course of the 13-hour flight, we monitored the progress of the hurricane, and we wound up getting to Taipei at the exact time it hit the island. The pilots were magnificent, as I hunched over and prayed while the plane attempted to land at the airport. We were pitched up and down and sideways, but all of a sudden, I felt the wheels touch the ground. We made it! We were actually the very last plane to land before the closed the airport.”
Klich and his colleagues spent the next 18 hours “watching the hurricane tear apart everything around the airport.” They lived on crackers and bottled water, since all of the places to purchase food in the airport were closed. Early in the morning, they were summoned to get back on the plane and flew out of Taipei to Hong Kong , where they wiould catch a ferry to Macau.
“We later learned that we flew out of the eye of the hurricane, and that they closed the airport again right after we left,” he concluded. “We also learned later that hundreds of people had been killed by Hurricane Zed. God must have been looking out for us.”
Living as a Professional Jazz Musician
As a performer, he has faced tough realities including finding places to perform, convincing owners and sending out press release after press release.
“Most of the clubs are not willing to take a chance on jazz,” he mused. “It took me a long time to convince a few club owners. And when I convinced one or two of them, they moved on to take a job in another city and somebody else comes in, and I have to start all over again. It’s a struggle and keeps going on all the time.”
From life-long experience as a jazz musician, he reflects a rigid truth. “You could be the greatest jazz musician whoever lives,” Klich observed, “but if nobody ever heard about you, it doesn’t matter.”
Because of tight schedules and a stressful life, he also endured some personal sacrifices. “Demands of this career and demands of family life are always fighting. There is always conflict,” he said. “It’s an internal conflict that I deal with all the time…It’s that balance that I’m trying to achieve.”
Furthermore, he shared his own personal struggle: “It’s easy to see what the stresses are in this kind of environment, where a lot of people are getting to a lot of substances. I had my experience [with] those. But, not as damaging as a lot of other people, I stopped drinking 18 years ago… I attend the meeting every week to keep reminding myself of how much the lifestyle is not a part of me anymore, and I think that helps me to keep balancing my time…It allowed me to be able to mediate between these different factions that I am struggling [with] for what’s important in my life.”
Overcoming challenges, he became a distinguished jazz saxophone performer.
Aside from life as a performer, his teaching experiences also helped him to be a professional jazz musician. In 2001, he went back to school and completed his master’s degree in jazz studies at SDSU in 2005. There he gained more knowledge of jazz, including jazz history and jazz theory. Today, he is an adjunct professor of the music department in Grossmont College.
He expects students to understand that jazz is “American Experience” and “Sociological Artifact.” Bringing up historical aspects, he reported that jazz is peculiar because “it’s the only indigenous American culture that grew out of American experience…It would’ve not happened if it was not for African slaveries being brought to work for European colonists. It was that melting of those two cultures together that created this(jazz).”
He went further into jazz as mainly African-American products. “I think that Jazz became a way of separating black experience from white experience. From the ‘40s through the ‘60s, jazz was the music that they owned and this was a product of their people.” Citing examples such as Billie Holiday’s singing “Strange Fruit” which criticized the slavery system and famous jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie bullied because of their color, he told me, “I always make sure to my student to know the huge sociological environment that surrounded the creation of jazz.”
Misrecognition of Jazz
He showed his dissatisfaction towards general audiences’ current understanding of what jazz is, sharply criticizing ‘smooth jazz’ played by some major radio stations. Klich defined jazz as ‘collective improvisation’, meaning every performer playing at the same moments, and improvising with each of the instruments. “Jazz is the music that is collective in its nature: a base player and a drummer is just as important as a saxophone player who leads the band,” he observed.
Also, he alluded to the current trend of recording style of jazz music as “manufactured music” by separating each performance and using sample sound instead of live one. As a result, general audience considers jazz either as smooth jazz or as a surreal “weird outside kind of music.”(According to Klich, “Outside” is the term jazz musicians use for playing weird stuff that doesn’t fit the chord--and the sounds are played by purposefully staying away from the correct notes.
East County Jazz
Regarding the jazz scene in East County, he pointed out that there is not enough ground for the development of jazz music regardless of many talented jazz musicians living in the area. “It’s difficult to have jazz in East County. East County is all about…the country music. They are more representative for East County.”
To make the situation worse, many clubs, venues and art centers which may provide opportunities for him to perform are running out of business because of the current economic crisis. Additionally, raising examples including exploitation of player for making them play in the competition from some fairs and file sharing, he expressed numerous concerns as a performer.
As a teacher, he has a concern about the educational aspect of jazz musicianship. “Community colleges are under the gun. Nobody wants to pay more taxes to support community colleges or schools. It’s a difficult time to be an artist or educator. And I am both….they don’t recognize how variable it is.”
Building a professional life
Whatever difficulties and obstacles, the reason why he continues to be a full-time jazz musician is because of his talent as well as his strong belief. “What exactly happened was I really started getting this message from the universe or God or whatever telling me that what I really should be doing with my life is music,” he revealed. “It’s something given to me as a gift, and it’s my responsibility to do something with that gift.”
His confidence, based on his hard-working ethic, helps. “I do have a talent and work it out every night,” he said modestly, but added, “I’m still developing.” Hard work has paid off, making him a very good jazz musician.
Words from his mentor strike a chord. Cheatham told him that to be successful,“ you would really have to be dedicated’” he recalled. “I really took that message to the heart. I made a commitment to this, this life.”
Finally, he appreciates all the people he has encountered in his life—and expresses special gratitude toward his parents. “My parents also said, `Whatever you do with your life, go for it…They made possible for me to make a choice that’s what I wanted to do with my life, and I’m always grateful for that…”
In conclusion, Klich offered his definition of jazz: an ongoing cultural artifact that is an outgrowth of American experience: unique, vibrant and alive. Thankfully, there is a dedicated core of professionals including Klich who are still making it happen.
For a schedule of Klich’s performances, check his website calendar at http://ChrisKlich.com/calendar.shtml .
Takayuki Higuchi is a sociology major at San Diego State University, an intern with East County Magazine. A native of Japan, he is also an aspiring musician and an aficionado of jazz, a uniquely American musical genre.