Interview with Saxophonist, Bandleader & Producer Ben Wendel

Today’s interview is with Ben Wendel, the Vancouver-born, Los Angeles-raised and New York-based jazz saxophonist, bassoonist, composer and pianist.

We thought he’d be a really interesting guest because, alongside making killer music, he seems to have a great all-round concept for his career and a clear vision of how to combine uncompromising artistry with entrepreneurial skills.

We’ve included some links and videos in the interview, but check out his full bio at the bottom of the page for more.

You’ll find the interview below, but a few quick takeaways that stood out…

  • “Most musicians are already ‘miniature publicists’ when you consider their use of social media”
    If you go back to basics, publicity and marketing is all about telling people your story; social media is probably the easiest way to do that and is free and accessible for every musician out there! If you haven’t figured out how to tell your story yourself, it’s going to be harder for a publicist to amplify a message.
  • “Nowadays it is good to become familiar with all the aspects of the industry on your own first.  In this way you can be a better collaborator with your team if you are eventually fortunate enough to get a manager and agent”
    This comes up so often from all types of musicians. Greg Osby mentioned a very similar thing in a recent interview. Of course, you might get familiar with all areas because you have no other choice right now, but that knowledge is going to be so valuable for years to come.
  • “All work – including what an agent might be able to get for you – has to come from what you do artistically”
    An agent, manager, publicist, record label or any other ‘industry’ person on your team is working with what you give them, musically. If you’re not clear about your musical vision, it’s going to be hard for them to do a great job for you.

Your group Kneebody was nominated for Grammy, then you were a producer of Gerald Clayton’s Life Forum which was also Grammy nominated… How important are such nominations for band’s/musicians’ careers?

It is always an honor to be acknowledged by your peers – I see these awards as encouragement to keep growing and creating.

It is hard to say how much they help building a career, but it is certainly a name that non-musicians recognize, and so it can be helpful when talking about what I do professionally!

In the end, I think the real reward is being part of this very special community and getting to collaborate and learn from all of the great artists and masters alive today.

You released your album High Heart on Edition Records – what, in your opinion, is the role of a record label today?

I think the role of a record label today is to help build an artist’s presence in the world and perhaps also help them think about next steps in their career. 

It has been an absolute pleasure working with Edition – they are incredibly artist friendly and collaborate effortlessly which I really appreciate. 

They are always open to trying things outside of the box and look at promoting the album as a creative process.  

How much control do you take with publicists and planning PR for a new release? 

I always like to be involved when planning PR. 

At this point most musicians are already “miniature publicists” when you consider the use of social media, so it makes sense to be present in these conversations.

At what stage in your career did you start to work with representatives (agency or management) and how did that come about?

My group Kneebody started to have representation five years ago – I personally got a manager and agency about three years ago. 

Managers and agents are always keeping an eye out on who is coming up – they listen to peers, go to shows and ask around. 

They will usually approach you if they are interested and think you would be a good fit – it is rare to have it the other way around.  

Most musicians without an agent have that as their #1 goal. What would be your advice on things to check out before jumping into an agreement like that?

I personally don’t think having an agent should be the #1 goal. 

Being the best musician you can be should be the priority, because all work (including what an agent might be able to get for you) has to come from what you do artistically. 

I also think nowadays it is good to become familiar with all the aspects of the industry, sometimes on your own first. 

In this way you can be a better collaborator with your team if you are eventually fortunate enough to get a manager and agent.  

Can you attribute any specific album, award or press campaign to getting established on the international jazz scene. 

Not personally. For me it has been a slow and steady climb upwards. 

It’s the long shape – with each new album, each new performance – opportunities have expanded.  I honestly think that is how it is for most musicians.  

You host a great online masterclass for musicians; how important do you think it is for new musicians to act as entrepreneurs and build a multifaceted career?

Thank you – I am proud of that masterclass series. 

I produced it myself and created over 10 hours of education material.  I did this on my own and it has been purchased now in over 50 countries. 

This is a great example of how we create our own opportunities.  We are entrepreneurs for life. 

The methods in which we can monetize our art are constantly shifting – it is challenging to figure out that balance between expression and commerce but I think that is part of the journey as a musician.  I think this paradigm has always been around though. 

Even Mozart had to give piano lessons to support his career!

How did your Seasons project come about and what have been any unexpected things to come out of doing that? 

The Seasons project was inspired by a series of piano sonatas by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky – my wife was the first to show me that music and I will always be grateful for that. 

It was one of the most challenging projects I have ever pursued, but it was also so rewarding.  An absolute honor to play and work with the musicians who participated. 

For those who are interested, I talk a lot about that project here.

Big thanks to Ben for taking part in this!

You can check out his masterclass series here and his new album High Heart (Edition Records) here.

About Ben Wendel

Grammy nominated saxophonist Ben Wendel was born in Vancouver, Canada and raised in Los Angeles.

Currently living in Brooklyn, NY, he has enjoyed a varied career as a performer, composer and producer.

Highlights include tours, performances and/or recordings with artists such as Tigran Hamasyan, Antonio Sanchez, Gerald Clayton, Eric Harland, Taylor Eigsti, Linda May Han Oh, Moonchild, Louis Cole, Daedelus, Snoop Dogg and the artist formerly known as Prince.

Ben is a founding member of the Grammy nominated group Kneebody.

As a composer, he has received an ASCAP Jazz Composer Award, the 2008, 2011 and 2017 Chamber Music America “New Works Grant” and was awarded the Victor Lynch-Staunton award by the Canada Council For The Arts.

He also co-wrote the score for John Krasinski’s adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.”

Ben was honored to work with conductor Kent Nagano in producing a series of concerts for the Festspiel Plus in Munich, Germany.

From 2008 to 2015, he produced a multi-genre performance series at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. During that time he was appointed the head of their Jazz and Blues initiative, which included producing and expanding performance opportunities for these genres in Los Angeles.

As part of this appointment, Ben helped to create an artistic council which included such luminaries as Quincy Jones, Herb Alpert and Luciana Souza. Ben’s producer work includes the Grammy nominated album “Life Forum” for pianist Gerald Clayton on Concord Records.

Ben has recorded for Edition Records, Sunnyside Records, Motéma Music, Concord Records and Brainfeeder, with five solo albums under his belt, Simple Song (2009), Frame (2012), What We Bring (2016) The Seasons (2018), High Heart (2020), a duo project with French-American pianist Dan Tepfer entitled Small Constructions (2013) and multiple Kneebody albums.

His critically acclaimed music video project The Seasons, inspired by Tchaikovsky’s works of the same name, was released throughout 2015 and included guests such as Joshua Redman, Jeff Ballard, Mark Turner, Julian Lage, Ambrose Akinmusire and more.

It was listed as one of the best releases of 2015 by the NY Times.

Ben is a former Adjunct Professor of Jazz Studies at USC and a current Adjunct at the New School in NYC.

Educational outreach has been a constant in his career with over 300 masterclasses at various colleges, universities, high-schools and also previous work with the LA Philharmonic Artist Program.

You can learn more and connect with Ben via…

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