Internationally known for his saxophone playing and improvisational prowess, Jeff Coffin is also a composer, educator, and author. When not on stage with the Dave Matthews Band, he is teaching at Vanderbilt University, creating great resources for young musicians, and practicing – always practicing. It was this dedication to being prepared that led him to success in music and got him into his biggest gig.
Playing with Dave Matthews Band
Coffin was playing with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones when he got a call from their manager in July 2008. The longtime saxophone player for Dave Matthews Band, LeRoi Moore, had been injured in an ATV accident. He was expected to recover, but the band needed someone to stand in for him for a few months. Coffin agreed to help out and was told the first gig was the following day.
Coffin was driving from a friend’s wedding in New York to visit family in Boston when he got the call. He had his gear driven from his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee and flew from Boston to Charlotte to meet the band and transcribe a group of songs for that night’s performance.
For each successive gig, the band helped Coffin transcribe each part for every song they would be playing that night. This involved listening through the music and writing the music down to help learn it, a common practice in many forms of improvisatory music.
Tragically, Moore’s health took a turn for the worse, and he passed away unexpectedly in August of 2008. The band asked Coffin to stay on, and Fleck suggested he stick with them. Coffin has continued to play with Dave Matthews Band, appearing on the albums Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King, Away from the World, and Come Tomorrow, as well as many television appearances and listener supported releases.
Hailing from New England, Coffin grew up with classic rock ’n’ roll blaring from his parents’ car radio while he listened along in the back seat. He already had a good ear for melodies when he began music classes in Dexter, Maine.
Starting on alto saxophone, Coffin took to band well, thanks in part to his dedicated teacher, Arthur Lagassee. Lagassee counseled Coffin when he considered quitting music in favor of sports, convincing him to stay with music for a bit longer. To this day, Coffin is thankful for this intervention, saying, “I can’t imagine what my life would be without music.”
Coffin’s family moved to Rochester, New Hampshire when he went into high school. His teacher, Doug Patch, was a saxophone player as well and helped him continue to develop. During this time, Coffin also began playing the sousaphone for marching band, learning to play by ear and memorizing the fingerings. He continued to play sax in jazz band, also taking part in the Summer Youth Music School (SYMS) at the University of New Hampshire. By then, Coffin knew that a career in music was right for him.
Coffin attended the University of North Texas, majoring in music education. During that time, he worked hard at improving his craft, practicing eight to twelve hours a day for the first three years, and scaling back to “only” six to eight hours a day after that. Sometimes he spent so much time playing his instrument that he would fall asleep while practicing. He also made sure to keep a record of everything he did for those first few years – every scale and every tune.
“I was trying to take a bath in music,” Coffin says of his long hours and hard work. Learning to practice efficiently and effectively was its own challenge, and Coffin was very intentional about what he was doing. He thought about everything, down to where his air came from and the character of held notes. Transcriptions were also important in his development. He would listen to jazz solos and write down what he heard on the record, training his ear to be as accurate as possible. Even today, Coffin still works through every song he plays in all 12 keys to make sure he is always ready for the next gig. During his interview, Coffin showed us one of his basic practice techniques.
Working to Find His Groove
After college, Coffin sought new opportunities and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. There, he began working local gigs, playing with a number of bands and making a name for himself in the jazz world. His success was threatened, however, when he began to suffer from a problem with his neck caused by pressure from the air being pushed back from his mouthpiece. He affectionately refers to it as “bullfrogging”; it was a result of repetitive stress syndrome and nearly caused his neck muscles to herniate.
Coffin feared he might have to give up the saxophone until he wrote to multi-Grammy award-winning sax player Michael Brecker. A few weeks later, Brecker reached out. Brecker had suffered from a similar condition and helped Coffin navigate it. Coffin had to break down his own technique and rethink everything from how he controlled his breathing to what warm-ups he employed. He also started playing with an Ace bandage to help hold the muscles. After a year of using the bandage and new techniques, he was finally able to overcome the injury, and it has not returned.
Getting the Gig
“The power of ‘yes’ is very important,” Coffin says of making his name in the music world. “Most successful people will tell you they say ‘yes’ to things.”
It is a testament to Jeff Coffin’s extensive practice regime that he is always prepared to say “yes” when a new opportunity arises. The fact that he still practices each piece he plays in all 12 keys allows him to be ready for the unexpected, and his work ethic is unmatched. For example, he was once called by Jay Jennings of Snarky Puppy, who had a gig in Nashville and invited Jeff to join.
“He sends me this stuff that’s around a tempo marking of 280 beats per minute, super-fast West Coast bop. I’m like, what did I get myself into? I probably practiced for four hours on this material – on seven tunes, which is a lot of time for me. I know how to practice, and this stuff was tricky. One of the tunes was in B concert – which is not a common key to play in – so working things in multiple keys really pays off. This is a real-life practical application of this type of practicing.”
But while daunting, Coffin met the challenge head-on because of how he prepares every day.
“This is what I do,” Coffin says of preparing for the difficult gig. “This is what I’ve always prepared for. No matter what key you throw at me, I’m going to be okay. Why? Because I’ve practiced in these keys.”
During his interview, Coffin showed us another example of how he prepares for the next gig, even when he doesn’t know what that gig might be:
Coffin carried experiences like that with him as grew his brand. Eventually, he captured the attention of Béla Fleck, who invited him to play with his band the Flecktones. Even though Coffin prepared extensively for these opportunities, he was not immune to self-doubt.
“When I was playing with the Flecktones, we had two short rehearsals before the first gig – and I remember on the bus on the way to Vermont, I said to Béla, ‘How am I gonna know where to solo?’ And he said, ‘Just look at me and I’ll nod to you.’”
After the gig, Coffin went to Fleck and thanked him for the opportunity but said he felt like his playing was not up to the standard their fans were used to. Fleck was taken aback, and insisted Coffin listen to the tape of that night’s concert, saying it was amazing for a first gig together. Encouraged, Coffin stuck with the Flecktones for 14 years – which, as the universe would have it, eventually led to his big opportunity with Dave Matthews Band.
Ear Up Records
A few years after joining Dave Matthews Band, Coffin decided to start his own record label. He had been working on a small label called Compass Records, but he and Compass decided to go in different directions musically. Coffin started Ear Up Records and began recording his shows. His first record was live, and he now has released 17+ solo CDs as well as albums by other artists. Coffin makes no money from others artists; in fact, he’s known to help out those who are just getting started.
To Coffin, the collaboration is what it’s all about. He has learned a lot about how things are done in the music business, and he brings this to the table for young musicians. Everyone involved has their own valuable skills and knowledge. At Ear Up, he gets to foster these talents and help the next generation of musicians succeed.
Teaching the Next Generation
In addition to his studio and touring work, Coffin is also a teacher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. As a mentor, he stresses the importance of opening yourself up to connect with others and being positive about what’s going on around you.
“The things I always talk with students about are relationships and the importance of them,” Coffin says. He adds that being able to play well is a given if you want to be a pro, but “what brings you back to the person hiring is who you are as a person.”
Part of that is talking to people after gigs and offering to help out, but it is also about showing joy while you are playing. Coffin recounts a story of a young player who, during another player’s solo, was staring out the window instead of listening. He approached him and pointed out that, if members of the band seem to think a solo is not worth paying attention to, why should the audience?
Put simply, he says, “If you don’t dig what you’re doin’ man, do somethin’ else.”
Coffin tries to teach his students to be careful about their finances. Too often, young musicians get excited about getting good gigs and end up blowing the money they earn. He relays advice that he got from Fleck – anything can happen to derail a group. Focus on simple living, invest your money in what you need to keep playing, and when you need a vacation, go modest.
Books and Charts
Jeff Coffin is also a talented composer and author who has written a number of books. His first is called The Articulate Jazz Musician. He wrote it with fellow sax player and legendary educator Caleb Chapman. The book discusses a syllabic approach to articulation which was developed by Chapman for his own award-winning Crescent Super Band. Coffin wrote 14 tunes for the book, and each piece in it is transposed for every instrument. It also includes a teacher’s guide with syllabic notation to help classically trained musicians better understand jazz rhythms.
Coffin also has a series called The Saxophone Book – three volumes (Book 1, Book 2, & Book 3) based on lessons he has worked on with his students as well as personal material he has developed over his years of study. The first is all about major scales, modes, and introduces odd meter. The second deals with harmonic and melodic minor scales and their modes, blues scales, and playing blues in all 12 keys. Finally, the third deals with intervallic sequences and how he applies them. These books are full of the fundamentals all students need to work on and are things every musician should keep in mind regardless of their level of training.
Coffin has also published over a dozen big band charts which he worked on with a handpicked group of arrangers. These charts are played all around the world, from Cuba to Prague to Tuva to Japan. The charts cover a range of levels from high school to pro.
Coffin’s new edition of Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet Play-Along, as well as his forthcoming book, The Road Book, will also be available at jwpepper.com. The Road Book (How to Navigate the Road Before You Even Leave the Driveway) addresses the many things to think about before the tour starts. Coffin covers over 40 different topics with his characteristic humor, insight, practicality, and a ton of road wisdom.
Enjoy our interview with Jeff Coffin and check out his books and charts at jwpepper.com!
Jeff Coffin – Jazz with Pepper – Full Interview Time Stamps:
0:42 How Jeff Coffin’s music education began
4:36 Deciding to go for a Music Education degree at University of North Texas
6:42 Learning how to practice and finding the most efficient use of practice time
9:31 Looking for a place to land and finding Nashville
11:40 Coffin’s problems with “bullfrogging” and help from Michael Brecker
16:13 Being prepared for every gig and the power of “yes”
17:24 Coffin’s first big gig with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
18:29 Getting started with Dave Matthews Band
21:59 Making a strong first impression and building relationships as an aspiring musician
27:21 “Music has taken me to places that I didn’t even know existed.”
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