Arts Biographic: Dmitri Matheny
March 1, 2000
By Christina Eng
Dmitri Matheny got his first instrument, a trumpet, when he was 9, growing up in Arizona. He loved it. Years later, he attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts.
He came to the West Coast after graduation to play in the 1989 Monterey Jazz Festival and decided to stay in the Bay Area for good.
The 34-year-old Matheny, who lives in Berkeley, considers Art Farmer one of his greatest influences. He switched to the flugelhorn about 10 years ago largely because of Farmer. That isn’t all, though.
“(Art) taught me to be relaxed,” Matheny says of the late musician, who was his friend and mentor. “He was a really relaxed player even when he was playing something fast and challenging.
“He taught me to play in tune... And he taught me about sound. He got such a beautiful, rich tone out of the flugelhorn. He was able to get a sound that was so full and three-dimensional.”
On March 24, Matheny presents the premiere of “The Angels Sing - A Tribute to Art Farmer” in San Francisco’s Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento St. It’s the first in a series of concerts his group will perform that weekend before going on tour.
What do you think sets the Jazz scene here apart from ones in other places in the United States?
The Bay Area is so culturally precious in music. People here really celebrate diversity. This has always been a place where you go to start something new.
When you play in New York City or Boston, people ask you how fast you can play “Cherokee,” which Charlie Parker did in the 1940s. They want you to show them what you can do, to prove that you know this tradition.
Out here, people want to hear your own compositions. In other places, it’s play me something I know and play it in a way that I’m used to hearing.
The music industry can get crazy sometimes. What keeps you grounded?
Several things. My wife, Larissa. She’s an absolutely amazing person. She keeps me humble because as hard as I work, she works harder. When I met her, she booked acts for the San Francisco Performances. She then got her MBA and is now an investment trader.
It’s difficult to get much of an ego anyway, especially when you tour a lot, because this will happen:
You go to a city where they pick you up at the airport in a limo and drive you to the hotel. They do publicity for your show so you have a full house that night. There’s a reception afterward. You get to meet the mayor.
Then you get on the plane and go to the next town. You arrive at the airport and there’s no one there to meet you. You stay in a motel in the middle of nowhere. No one’s done any publicity. The house is empty. The very next night, you can have a totally different experience, see?
It can flip flop like that for several months. So you can’t get too excited about the accolades. The key is to concentrate on the music. If you worry about the money and the fame, you set yourself up to come down at some point.
And again Art Farmer was a great example for me. He made more than 280 recordings and toured internationally for decades. But he’s not a household name unless you really know your jazz. He achieved so much in his music and never let it go to his head. He was always warm and receptive.
You and your band often drop into public schools, locally as well as nationally. Describe your classroom visits.
We integrate music into things the kids are learning. We talk about acoustics, for instance, and show them how sound is created; we’ll work with the science teacher on that.
Or we’ll talk about jazz and improvisation, how you can make something up as you go along. We’ll remind them that jazz is an African-American art form and talk about democracy and freedom. We’ll help teachers relate it to what their kids are studying in history or civics.
We’ll also relate it to things they like. If they’re interested in Pokemon, Britney Spears or Nintendo, we’ll use those things to hook them in. We incorporate into our presentations things they actually care about. They’re not going to care about Duke Ellington right away. But they may eventually.
What might you have done if you hadn’t gone into music? What would have been Plan B and why?
I think I would have been a painter or a poet.
If you had a choice between spending a Sunday afternoon at some fancy party filled with people and a Sunday afternoon by yourself at a lighthouse perhaps, where it’s quiet and you can think, which would you choose? You’d choose the lighthouse, right?
But I chose a career where I’m always around crowds of people, when being alone is really more my nature. If it was painting or poetry instead of music, and you’re all by yourself, you can take a long time and make the art or the poem just the way you want it.
But this is a very social career. You’re on all the time. I can enjoy that to a point. But I think my nature... if I had a chance to do something else, I would choose the lighthouse.