From pop star to pops conductor
December 19, 2003
There’s a certain honor in being part of what is literally the hottest ticket in town – those hard-to-get free seats for Friday afternoon’s free patriotic concert at the Ford Amphitheater. But it’s nothing new for master musician, arranger and conductor Jeff Tyzik, who serves as principal pops conductor for Bravo’s resident Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
Tyzik, a veteran of nearly every facet of the music business – a recording artist who’s released a half dozen CDs and has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry – says he and his orchestra’s yearly visit to Vail remains one of the highlights of one very busy schedule.
“We love it out here … it’s absolutely amazing,” he says. “The whole orchestra is on absolute overdrive when they come out here – you can just hear the joy coming out in the music. Our shows in Vail just have this extra energy that tweaks us in a funny way.”
“We’re happy to have Steve Salters sit in as vocalist with us for these shows … he’s a rising opera star, but he really hasn’t done this kind of stuff before. We’ll be doing a medley of great American spirituals and a version of `Amazing Grace’ that’s really fun and different.”
Tyzik is set to begin his 10th season as pops conductor for the Rochester Orchestra, a role that he mixes with guest conductor spots with orchestras in Detroit, St. Louis, Boston, Vancouver, Calgary and the Toronto Symphony. Based in Upstate New York, Tyzik’s schedule sees him spending about a quarter of the year on the road – but it’s a life he says he loves.
“These guest conductor spots come up mostly by word-of-mouth, and I guess I have a reputation for doing pops concerts with a lot of integrity – people like them and the orchestras like playing them. I end up doing guest spots 14 to 16 weeks a year, but it’s just part of what I do.”
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Tyzik’s musical career goes back to his teen-aged years in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when the talented youngster managed to land professional gigs at the ripe old age of 14.
“I started off playing in clubs, working with a semi-professional jazz band that was pretty serious – we were more Gil Evans than anything else. I also remember being home sick from school one day when I was 13 and seeing Zubin Mehta conducting `Rite of Spring’ on WNET – and I knew at that exact moment that I wanted to be a conductor.”
Enrolled at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (where he earned bachelor and master’s degrees in music), Tyzik dabbled in various disciplines. Despite being pegged as a jazz player, he was happy to mix rock and pop music into shows with his school’s multidisciplinary ensemble – a tradition he’s continued for more than 20 years.
Tyzik began his professional career as a commercial performer and session player, releasing six albums on Capitol and Polygram Records. In the mid-’80s, several of his songs were also released as 12-inch singles – with 1984’s “Jammin’ in Manhattan” selling almost 70,000 copies. Unfortunately, the record business was never quite as romantic as it seemed, despite work with names such as Tony Bennett, Art Garfunkel, Arturo Sandoval, Lou Rawls and the Chieftains.
“I just didn’t see any future in it for me. If I was going to be the next Freddie Hubbard, I realized I’d have to spend seven hours a day practicing … and I also realized that the guys on the top of the recording business are just merchants – they only want to make money, and that’s their only concern. I used to find myself spending three weeks in the recording studio, and while it was fun, I really missed that contact with people.”
Tyzik, who now teaches a recording and production class one semester a year at Eastman, says he tries to pass along his experiences to aspiring young performers.
“I end up showing them how it’s virtually impossible to make any money as a recording artist, especially working in the label system. Instead, I show these guys how they can make their own CD for under $10,000 and make all the money back, yet only produce 750 CDs – that’s empowerment for an independent artist. Eastman is all about making the young musician into a performer – I mean, I love music, but you have to make a living to get by.”
Tyzik has also supplemented his career with production work with other artists, including years of collaborations with ex-“Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen – their 1986 album won a Grammy Award – as well as producer and arranger with noted horn player Chuck Mangione.
This past season saw the Rochester Philharmonic’s premiere of Tyzik’s “Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra,” an elaborate work he produced with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the patient assistance of performer Mark Kellogg, the RPO’s principal trombonist.