Interview with Jason Holcomb, Trombonist

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Author: Louis Wild


We speak to Jason Holcolmb – trombonist, band leader, arranger, composer and educator – about his career, and advice for early-career musicians.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

I’m a trombone player, that’s sort of my first love. I’m a professional player and I’ve been doing it for a number of decades. I run bands, I have toured, I was a session player for a while. I play primarily modern popular music based in the Afro American or jazz idioms – R&B, Soul, Funk, Hip Hop music, rock and roll, that type of thing, and I also arrange and compose for a variety of different ensembles that I work with in different styles. I am an educator teaching primarily in the northeast of England at Newcastle University and the Sage Gateshead.

What you’ve described there is essentially a portfolio career – how important is it to have these different sources of income when you are self-employed?

You know, there was a time when I was kind of around your age [19], which was some time ago, when I think you could kind of get by as sort of a musician who did that one thing, you know? Maybe you were a session guy, or maybe you were in an orchestra, or you were in some ensemble that was long-standing, and you would get that gig and that would be it for you. Whereas I think now in the last ten years and certainly during lockdown and the pandemic, we, as an industry, have had to diversify significantly. I think if you’re going to be successful as a musician, you have to be able to do quite a few different things at a relatively high level just to survive. So yeah, I definitely am kind of your standard professional musician, as it were.

You’re originally from the USA, and you spent a large portion of your music career there. Could you tell us a bit about the differences in your experience as a musician in the big cities of the USA compared to the northeast of England?

I know it sounds like one is really glamorous and the other maybe not so much, but there are good and bad to both of those. I first came to the UK around 2001 or 2002. I was touring and I fell in love with the with the British culture, but also its connectivity to Europe and its European roots I think the North East is a difficult place to be a professional musician because the scene is somewhat limited – it’s not a massive place and there’s not loads of venues. It is isolated in many ways from the rest of the country, and resources are somewhat limited. But having said that, you sometimes have to go out and create your own work and there’s lots of opportunity for that in the North East. And the cool thing about it being not maybe as vibrant as places like London, for example, is that there’s lots of opportunity – you can find a lot of gaps in the market, and you can try out a lot of different ideas. There’s a really cool kind of grassroots music community in this region that’s really proud, and rightly so, of their origins and how they approach music. There’s really cool opportunities here you’ve just got to be willing to go out and fight for them. In a place like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or New York, there is lots of stuff going on, and there’s lots of people, but with lots of people brings lots of good musicians, which means there’s more competition. And while there may be loads of gigs, the cost of living is higher so you’re kind of trying to balance that.

Amazing Grace, Jason Holcomb

Would you ever recommend an emerging musician to move to a bigger city to get work, or do you think that you can get work anywhere?

I would say that, at some point, every musician needs to put themselves into an environment where they’re going to be really pushed. That’s where you find out what you’re made of and if you’re able to take the heat. There’s so much competition [in cities with big music scenes] that it’s a good place for emerging musicians to get into because you get to see where you stack up. Eventually, being in that environment makes you strong and good. Having said that, in this day and age, you don’t necessarily need to be in a place like that. Really creative people from all over the world are connecting in a way that they maybe wouldn’t have before, and they’re putting together really cool projects that are creating work, which is an important part of what we do.

Relating to musicians creating work for themselves, how would you suggest that an emerging musician should go about getting work? How do you get your foot in the door?

This is probably the most asked question that I get from young musicians that are kind of making their way into the world. We’ve got to be careful because there’s not necessarily an equation or a right answer to that. Everybody’s journey is going to be their own and slightly different, and not all the same factors are going to play a part in how you kind of break into the scene, but I think there’s some fundamental stuff that will help everybody.

For starters, you have to believe in yourself and be fully committed to this journey that you’re on. You’ve got to have faith that you are good at this thing, and that you can get better. When you learn that you aren’t as good as you want to be , you need the constitution to get better at it, and not take that personally. Outside of that, you’ve got to have the skill set that you need for your style of music. The third thing is that music is a communal social activity. I think a lot of people go, ‘oh well, if I’m good enough, people will come to my shows… give me a record deal’, but you’ve got to know people, you’ve got to network. Meeting people is the thing that I think is frequently forgotten about. Start conversations, meet people who are in the business, and eventually someone will go, ‘oh, I need a piano player in this gig, who can I call?’ and you’ll get a chance.

A Change is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke) Performed by Stage 1 Music students at ICMuS, Newcastle University, October 2020. Arrangement by Jason Holcomb.

Now you have moved into the field of music education. What was your motivation behind that?

That boils down to my fundamental understanding of what it is to be a musician. For me, music is an art form that we as musicians are the guardians of. There’s a tradition behind every style of music and it’s kind of our jobs to make sure it’s looked after. If that’s what you believe a musician to be, then part of that has to be helping the next generation of musicians do that thing as well. I’m an American so, for me, Jazz or Afro-American based music is hugely important to me, it has a really rich history. So it’s important that this information is passed on, and it’s done so accurately. As honourable as that might sound, the other thing I need [from music education] is young musicians to come in who are good. I need players who can really play, so when I produce my shows, or I write tunes, or I do recordings, I’ve got players who can come in and do the job.

If you have one small nugget of advice to give to young musicians and creatives in general, trying to get into their industry, what would it be?

I think having an objective appraisal of yourself is important. It’s one thing to analyse your own work and look for things that maybe you want to improve on, but I think sometimes we look at ourselves and we think, ‘oh I’m just not good enough, I’ll never be able to do this, so I’m just going to give up’. Whatever it is, whatever art you’re into, don’t beat yourself up and abuse yourself emotionally. Get yourself in a place where you treat yourself respectfully, and although your art might not yet be where you want it to be, always realise that it isn’t there yet. By analysing it, being very objective, methodically working on your craft, you’ll get anywhere you need to be, and you can do anything. Nothing can stop you if you approach it that way.