THERE ARE MANY WAYS PEOPLE RESPOND TO ADVERSITY. SOME GIVE UP AND DESCEND INTO LIVES OF BITTERNESS. OTHERS RETREAT INTO ISOLATION AND SOLITUDE, NOT WANTING TO DEAL WITH THE DIFFICULTIES.
MIKE STERN,ON OF JAZZ’S GREATEST GUITARISTS, HAS HAD A LIFE WHERE HE’S FACED CHALLENGES HEAD ON. BACK IN THE 1980s, HE DEFEATED HIS ADDICTION TO ALCOHOL AND HEROIN, BEING AN INSPIRATION TO ALL WHO STRUGGLE WITH THESE ADDICTIONS.
THEN, WHILE ON TOUR IN 2016, HE TRIPPED AND FELL, INJURING HIS RIGHT ARM AND SHOULDER, CURTAILING HIS CAREER. HE HAS SPENT MONTHS IN THERAPY AND REHAB, DETERMINED TO GET BACK ON STAGE AND PERFORMING. DETERMINED NOT TO GIVE UP, HE’S RE-EDUCATED HIMSELF TO PLAY THE GUITAR, EVEN USING GLUE TO KEEP HIS GRIP ON THE GUITAR PICK!
HIS LATEST ALBUM, APTLY TITLE TRIP, IS ONE OF HIS STRONGEST, SHOWING THAT LIKE JOB, AFTER BEING TESTED, HE HAS COME FORTH ‘AS GOOD AS GOLD.’ WE RECENTLY HAD A CHAT WITH MIKE, WHO GAVE SOME EXCELLENT INSIGHT TO THE PROCESS OF RECOVERY AS WELL AS MOVING FORWARD.
YOU ARE RECOVERING FROM A CAREER THREATENING INJURY
I’m still going through it. There may be permanent damage to my right hand. I’m using glue to play.
The doctor did some tendon transfers, there’s more that he’s going to do. It’s a work in progress, but he got me playing in 2 ½ months.
When I fell, something happened to my shoulder, hurting the brachial plexus which goes down to my hand. The guy that worked on the shoulder injury put 11 screws in there with a big plate. It’s all coming out and I might get a shoulder replacement. It’s restrictive and messes up the muscles, but I’m able to play, and that’s the bottom line.
IT WAS SUCH A FREAK ACCIDENT. DO YOU EVER REPLAY THAT MOMENT?
As little as possible. (laughs) It’s amazing how that kind of stuff can happen, but I just go on to something else. Music is so healing; I thank God I can still play. If it had been my left hand, we probably wouldn’t be talking because we wouldn’t be playing, although Django Reinhardt figured it out with two fingers. But, it’s my right hand, and I figured out with this glue that I use along with the tendon transfers that help me pinch between my thumb and index finger.
I’ve got a great doctor. Wayne Krantz, an awesome guitar player, recommended me to him and it was a great recommendation.
It’s still tough; I’m not going to lie.
DID YOU GO THROUGH A DEPRESSION WHEN YOU COULDN’T PLAY FOR AWHILE?
I was very depressed for awhile; it was frustrating, but I’m so grateful now to be able to play what I can play. Most people don’t hear the difference, so I must have really sucked before the accident. (laughs)
It’s important for me to share that. My new record is called Trip, which can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
For me, it’s very specific. I wrote something on the album about the accident. “Tape and Glue” is about what I used hold the pick.
You really find out what’s possible, when you have to and if you really want to keep going. Most people can keep going, and I think it’s the only way.
That’s my advice. I’ve been down before for different reasons, and gone through all kinds of stuff before, and you’ve just can’t give up.
Most of the time you can do it. If you can, you’ve GOTTA do it. Otherwise you’ll REALLY feel depressed.
One guy who really helped was a drummer named Ray LeVier. As a kid his face was badly burned, but he’s got an amazing spirit. He plays the crap out of the drums, and his fingers end at the first joint.
I asked him how he keeps the sticks in his hands, as I was having trouble with the pick, trying Velcro and all these other things. He said “Try wig glue.” So I just go up to Donald Trump and get some of his from his surplus! I wish he would use it on his texting hand, but that’s what I’ve been using. It works!
You find different ways.
YOU’VE TALKED BEFORE ABOUT YOUR REHABILITATION FROM DRUG ADDICTION. DO YOU FEEL THAT EPISODE PREPARED YOU FOR THIS LATEST ADVENTURE?
I’ll tell you one thing; you go through some stuff and it’s true that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If you get through it, so in a word “Yes.”
WERE YOU CONCERNED THAT YOU MIGHT GET ADDICTED TO THE PAIN KILLERS FOR THE HAND?
No, because I still go to meetings all the time and do all that stuff. That wasn’t an issue, but it’s always something I’m concerned about. I’m a recovering alcoholic, and that doesn’t mean I’m “done” with it.
The worst thing people can do when they’ve used whatever they were using is to say “It’s over.” You go back to once, and then you slide back.
YOU CAN BE SAVED, BUT YOU’RE STILL A SINNER.
“You really find out what’s possible, when you have to and if you really want to keep going”
DURING YOUR RECOVERY PERIOD, YOU MUST HAVE BEEN PRETTY HELPLESS. WHO TOOK CARE OF YOUR DAILY TOILETRIES AND FEEDING?
My darling wife. I also had some friends that helped, as I was in a couple of slings for awhile. Within a couple months I was playing at the little 55 Bar club in NYC because I wanted to do this gig with Chick Corea. With him, I was still having trouble with my pick sliding around, but I did it within three months of the accident.
DON’T YOU SEE YOUR WIFE WITH A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE WHEN THEY TAKE CARE OF YOU LIKE THAT?
Yeah, but she’s always taking care of me because I’m a big baby. (laughs)
She’s been through hell, too. She had breast cancer 30 years ago, and she’s in remission, so we’re no strangers to adversity.
You’ve just go fight through it. With a wife like that going on the road when she was on chemo! I did the same thing when I had hep(atitis) C and I kicked it. I went on the road the same way, with interferon, because if you can keep going, you feel better.
She went on the road, and with a wife like that you can’t wimp out. That’s for sure!
THAT’S REALLY A TESTIMONY OF THE MARRIAGE VOWS “FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE; IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH”
Exactly. We figure it’s the luck of the chemistry. I’m so grateful; we’ve been married 37 years now. If you can luck into somebody who you can hang with for that long, it’s really great.
YOU HAVE SUCH AN INFECTIOUS LOVE FOR MUSIC THAT COMES ACROSS DURING YOUR CONCERTS. WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD HAVE DONE IF YOU FOUND OUT THAT YOU COULD NEVER PLAY AGAIN?
It would be a big deal, but it wouldn’t be impossible. I would do something involved with music. I’d do more writing, which I do now, or teach. I’d do something, but I love playing. I’m one of those guys that has to stay busy anyway.
Of course my priority is jazz, but I come from rock with Blood Sweat and Tears, so I’m eclectic. I did stuff with Eric Johnson, so my playing can be rocking or swinging.
Most of my vocabulary is bebop. I check out a lot of horn players and try to sound like a horn player; kind of vocal that way.
YOU ALWAYS PLAY IN AN ECLECTIC MANNER.
My wife Leni is into world music, and I love playing with her. There are so many inspirations I don’t understand how anyone can stay in one style.
I think guitarists tend to be more eclectic. Guys like John Scofield or Bill Frisell are real close friends of mine. We lived in Boston together. Sco and I played with Miles together, and Frisell is one of my closest friends. I’ve known him for so many years and we used to play together all of the time.
Back when we were both in Boston and he was at Berklee and I had already played with Blood, Sweat and Tears we used to practice all of the time.
The guitar tends to lend you to that place of being eclectic. It’s cool, because you can hear your instrument in country, in pop, classical and jazz, which is why a lot of guitar players are into a whole bunch of things.
(Miles) would always say “Turn it up! Turn it up!” He was always asking me to crank up the volume and rock out. He liked the contrast.
IT’S INTERESTING THAT YOU’RE SUCH GOOD FRIENDS WITH FRISELL, AND THAT YOU HAVE JAMMED TOGETHER. IN SO MANY DIFFERENT WAYS YOU TWO SEEM LIKE MUTT AND JEFF.
I love his playing; we used to play together all of the time. Lots of little gigs in Boston, and just shed on standards.
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN HIM DO ANY SHREDDING, OR HAS HE ALWAYS BEEN MORE FOCUSED ON TONE?
That’s just his style, and just like with Jim Hall, sometimes your voice is defined just as much by what you can’t do as by what you can do.
He plays very melodically, but there’s a record of called Play that I did with my friends John Scofield and Bill Frisell. I’m on all of the cuts and each guy is on a few cuts; Bill just does his thing.
He’s the same way as I am; he likes the contrast.
It’s like when you heard Miles and Coltrane. Miles generally played less and the sax player would go nuts and fill in everything.
Miles wanted that from me, too. He’d always say, “Turn it up! Turn it up!” He was always asking me to crank up the volume and rock out. He liked the contrast.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR DAYS WITH MILES. DID YOU GUYS PRACTICE A LOT TOGETHER?1751
We’d practice, but it was loose. One thing that he liked to do was to have kind of a concept and then let it happen while we were playing. I don’t do that as much; I try to have my stuff prepared to a point, and then keep it loose, but with everybody there to record it “live” in that room.
Miles was a lot looser; with his stuff we really didn’t know what he wanted us to play, so we’d jam a lot of times. But it was beautiful, and listening back it was really fresh for the time. This was years before “Jam Bands” came around.
We Want Miles came out great with a lot of great moments. Al Foster and Marcus Miller were an incredible team together, with Marcus coming from funk and Al more from the straight-ahead jazz, but it worked unbelievably well. And then you had Bill Evans. I was honored to be in that band.
IS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT MILES DAVIS THAT YOU’RE SURPRISED PEOPLE DON’T KNOW?
He was much sweeter than people thought.
One time he was so concerned about me getting high; he was going to put me into rehab and was going to pay for it. If Miles Davis is trying to put you into rehab you KNOW you’ve got an addiction problem! (laughs)
They broke the mold when they made him. There’s that movie out that shows one side of him with a gun and all that. That’s not the whole picture by any means.
His favorite show on TV, and he got real mad when they took it off, was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So there you go!
YOU’VE PLAYED WITH SOME OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST DRUMMERS. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM ONE OF YOUR FIRST BOSSES, BILLY COBHAM?
The main thing I learned from all of these guys was just to play from the heart. Every time they played it was the be-all and end-all. Same with Jaco; as screwed up as we both were. When it was time to play it was time to turn it on. Play the absolute best you could all of the time.
BESIDES COBHAM AND FOSTER, YOU’VE RECORDED AND TOURED WITH DAVE WECKL AND STEVE SMITH. DO YOU PLAY DIFFERENTLY DEPENDING ON WHO THE DRUMMER IS?
The cool thing about jazz is that you have different people to play with, and it’s really inspiring. You can play the same tune and it’s a whole different vibe. It can be a different kind of thing because the people I’ve been fortunate enough to play with have such strong personalities. They kick my ass every night.
I’VE SEEN YOU IN MANY DIFFERENT SETTINGS, EVEN WITH ERIC JOHNSON, AND SOMEWHERE DURING THE CONCERT YOU ALWAYS GRAB THE MIC AND SAY THAT!
They are kicking me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
AN OVERLOOKED PART OF YOUR CAREER WAS YOUR STINT WITH STEPS AHEAD.
That was an amazing time. I loved it, with Mike Brecker and Mike Manieri.
Everyone knows about Mike Brecker and how amazing he was, but Mike Manieri also…the two of them were and are a couple of the greatest musicians, and Manieri is still with us. Manieri is an incredible vibes player, and the first synth vibe was his.
I saw it in concert once. It was something that he had to touch the thing, and a color would go on. It was this big thing, and he did this amazing thing with it and Carly Simon. I was still at Berklee and went to go see him and Manieri was playing some amazingly weird thing as well as acoustic stuff that was just phenomenal.
All of the writing that he did for Steps was ridiculous.
I remember one time he did with Steve Gadd at Mt. Fuji. It was a one-off. Manieri and Brecker were available; Steps hadn’t been around very long. Gadd points to them and says to me and Daryl Jones, “Those are two of the baddest dudes in the last 100 years.”
ARE YOU GOING TO DO ANOTHER SET WITH ERIC JOHNSON? DID THE ROCK AND JAZZ AUDIENCES DIFFER IN THEIR RESPONSE TO YOU.
I’d love to. We’re trying do it again.
The fans were totally cool. I just did my thing, and it went great.
Eric is a big jazz fan, so he was really into it.
We played small clubs, and he’d come in with his Marshall amplifiers. I brought my stuff and we did a bunch of his and my tunes. It was a ball.
YOU’RE PLAYING IN LA SOON. DID YOU HAVE TO STEAL BACK YOUR BAND FROM VICTOR WOOTEN?
(laughs) No, the tour we’re doing in Los Angeles is with Randy Brecker, Dave Weckl and Tom Kennedy. I thought it was great that Victor was able to use Joe Chambers and Bob Franceschini while I was out of it. Bob’s on my new record and he really plays! Victor’s on it, too.
You gotta keep going. It’s not easy with the arm, but music makes it less tough. The physical pain goes away when I play, so I’m playing all of the time. It helps to have a passion that you love.
I tell this to students all the time. You should learn all types of music, but especially jazz, because it’s more intricate. Not better or worse, but it helps you with everything else. Obviously, if you practice more and you get better, you’ll have more chances at getting gigs. But there’s no guarantee.
But, the one guarantee is that once you love music and get into it past a certain point where you can play somewhat fluently…and you should be able to play everything….just keep going. Your ability to play is a gift in and of itself and no one can take it away from you.
The only one who can take it away from you is YOU if you give up. Some people stop and then 10 years later, and say “I knew something was missing.”
DO YOU WANT THE PAIN OF DISCIPLINE OR THE PAIN OF REGRET?
Exactly. And the discipline is like everything else; no pain no gain. But it becomes a joy once you start seeing results.
ANOTHER THING THAT HELPS IS YOUR CONNECTION WITH THE FANS. AFTER EVERY SHOW YOU ARE OUT THERE PRESSING THE FLESH WITH THE FANS. YOU FEED OFF OF IT.
I really do. I hate just going back into the room with the guys that you’re hanging with anyway. You just did a gig with them and are on the road with them. Sometimes you gotta get out and say “hi” to people. I always do.
I was in Miles’ band with saxophonist Bill Evans. He’s amazing, and he said that when he was playing with Willie Nelson, Willie would go out after every gig and greet sometimes 1500 people. Everybody that wants to stand in line, and sometimes it took 3 hours!
So, it’s nice; people are hanging around the club and you should make them glad they came to see you.
MIKE STERN IS IN THE MIDST OF A TOUR WITH HIS BAND. IT’S A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO SEE SOMEONE WHO HAS SEEN CHALLENGES AS OPPORTUNITIES, BE THEY MUSICAL, PERSONAL OR PHYSICAL. HIS LATEST ALBUM IS A TESTIMONY OF HOW PERSISTENCE IS AN AMAZING POWER.
AS CALVIN COOLIDGE ONE WISELY STATED:
“NOTHING IN THIS WORLD CAN TAKE THE PLACE OF PERSISTENCE. TALENT WILL NOT; NOTHING IS MORE COMMON THAN UNSUCCESSFUL MEN WITH TALENT. GENIUS WILL NOT; UNREWARDED GENIUS IS ALMOST A PROVERB. EDUCATION WILL NOT; THE WORLD IS FULL OF EDUCATED DERELICTS. PERSISTENCE AND DETERMINATION ALONE ARE OMNIPOTENT.
CHECK OUT MIKE STERN’S LATEST ALBUM,. COME SEE THE LATEST BAND AND LEARN THE REWARDS OF DOGGED PERSISTENCE.