Behind and Between the Notes: The Inside Scoop at JazzMasterSavvy

If you ever wanted to see how the masters learned jazz and found their voice, there’s tons of material online to do that. Rare is the in-depth, enlightening interview that imparts nuggets of specific practical wisdom with directness, humor and a lot of heart. The real stories-behind-the-stories of how to learn and grow in jazz. Michael Lake has done that with the Jazz Master Savvy program on the MusicSavvy platform.

It’s like you’re sitting in bassist Ron Carter’s living room over a glass of (insert favorite beverage here) and shooting the breeze on wrist position, melodic lines and dynamics. Lake, a pianist and Grammy-nominated trombone player (and former financial services professional), has gathered some of the best and brightest musicians (many of them true icons) who discuss jazz and respond to some serious, nitty-gritty questions.

Why did you decide to create this resource?

I created the Jazz Master Savvy interview series in order to provide jazz musicians with a better resource for figuring out how to play jazz much better. I also wanted to build relationships with some of these master musicians I admired and listened to for years.

I’m also a sales and marketing guy so part of why I wanted to create this collection was to attract a large audience of jazz musicians with whom I could communicate. By giving players free access to a limited number of interviews and charging a small fee to see every interview, I could build a list of people interested in my universe of jazz materials. I ended up attracting over 10,000 musicians to my first online event. So it worked.

How did you choose the musicians who are featured here?

A lot of people seemed to have a misconception about my choice of musicians. I got complaints about the lack of certain people and/or instruments. But it’s not as if once you ask a musician of this caliber for an interview they just say “yes.” I asked probably three times as many musicians than those who gave me an interview.

I wanted to talk to well-known jazz musicians and educators. Most of the interviews were with famous jazz musicians like Ron Carter, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Richie Beirach. But I also interviewed some businesspeople, educators and authors. For example, I interviewed Brian Camelio, the founder of ArtistShare. Brian tells people how to set up crowdfunding and talks about the mistakes he sees people make. I also interviewed Barry Green, the author of “The Inner Game of Music.” Barry and I talked about the processes inside each of us for practicing and performing at peak ability. I also interviewed psychologist and musician Dr. Rodney Brim about how best to use our brains for practicing and performing.

Were these videos created specifically for you to offer?

These videos were conducted by me exclusively for the Jazz Master Summit weeklong event in 2020. The interviews are not necessarily traditional music lessons. I researched each person so that I knew the best questions to ask each of them. I did not have any standard format. I asked the best and most pertinent questions tailored to each person.

As an example, for my interview with pianist Pete Levin, I knew that he played with Gil Evans for a long time. They were friends. So I spent 90% of the time with Pete talking about Gil Evans. I knew what a natural and gifted pianist/musician LeeAnn Ledgerwood was so we had her sit at the piano and play while talking about composition and reharmonization. I made sure to get deep with Ron Carter about the experience of those classic album sessions with Miles. We talked about walking into the studio with the tunes handed out cold and how they all made great music from that. And I asked Dave Liebman about the most important lesson he learned from being on stage and in the studio with Miles (he had a great answer).

Other interviewers might spend their time following a rigid list of questions they can get answers to on Wikipedia. They miss the unique experiences and knowledge they could find if they dug deep enough and engaged in a spontaneous give-and-take conversation.

The musicians I interviewed only knew that I wanted to record a conversation with them for an online publication. I didn’t give anyone the questions beforehand. Before the camera started rolling, I let them know the broad areas I was interested in just to get them somewhat prepared and comfortable. We recorded the interview then I produced the visuals and audio over them. I sent the finished piece back to the musician and without exception, they loved it and gave their blessing to the video as produced.

I would go back occasionally and ask for pictures, video or audio that I couldn’t find online. I asked Randy Brecker for photos of him and Michael as kids and a recording of his dad singing and playing piano in a tribute he wrote to then-baby Randy about becoming a music star someday. That’s really touching to hear. 

How long did it take to launch this platform?

It took me about eight months to prepare the interviews for the first of the two Summit events which I called the Jazz Master Summit. The first Summit was delayed due to two massive fires that paralyzed my community. Lucky for me, my home was spared even though the surrounding property was burned to the ground. I survived the fires and I launched the Summit two months later.

Each day of that Summit week, I released eight to ten interviews and a bunch of live interviews. I renamed the collection of interviews Jazz Master Savvy. Rather than a week-long virtual summit event, these interviews are now a better-organized collection that people can see for an entire year in any order they wish. I charge $47 for all 60+ interviews along with a bunch of free bonuses.

What are some of the most unusual offerings you have?

Yes. Someone suggested the trombonist/singer Aubrey Logan a while back so I recently reached out to Aubrey and we recorded a terrific interview. There are so many musicians I am still trying to get, from Herbie Hancock to the founder of ECM records, Manfred Eicher.

What is your background in music?

I started playing piano when I was around seven and trombone a couple of years after that. I started playing jazz in high school and then double-majored in Jazz Performance and Theory and Composition in college. Then I moved to Minneapolis to be part of a music company where I performed music and learned business skills. After that, I moved to Boston where I hooked up with a salsa band named Caribbean Express. A few years later, that band was nominated for a Grammy. I then moved to New York where I played jazz and salsa with the great Ray Barretto for a few years, as well as Lalo Rodriguez, Frankie Ruiz and others.

I eventually got tired of the professional musician lifestyle (and income) and interviewed for a sales position at a nearby New York financial service company. I learned sales in Minneapolis and did cold-calling around where I lived including the Boston Ballet. These jobs were efficient ways to supplement my musician income. I knew how to talk compellingly to strangers and wasn’t afraid of rejection. I’m okay with the word “No.” But I always wanted to come back to music, so a couple of years ago I left the company in order to do what feel I was born to do. I’ve come full circle as I play music professionally again and grow, which is the umbrella organization over my interviews, videos, courses and books.

What do you like best about these videos and the musicians?

They’re very different from anything else out there and I hear from players that watching them has changed their perspective on music and has greatly improved their playing.

Each of these musicians have been very generous with their time and knowledge. They have helped me develop Jazz Master Savvy. I’ve also gained a huge education in music and history since doing all the interviews.

I’m also grateful that I’ve become good friends with the great pianist and composer Richie Beirach. I got to know Richie through an introduction from his best friend Dave Liebman. Richie and I recorded a very long two-part interview for the Jazz Master Summit and we immediately hit it off. Since then, throughout the past two years, we have produced a bunch of videos on my Youtube channel and almost 10 books and eBooks. Our first book is called A Framework for Jazz Mastery which people especially like.

Every one of our publications illustrate music at a deep but practical level. We explore topics like how improvisation travels from one’s emotion to their fingers and then manifests itself in the music rising from the piano (or any other instrument). I don’t think that aspect of jazz has been deeply explored, certainly not to the depth of Richie’s description. His friends, some of the world’s top jazz players, are thrilled that we are laying bare aspects of music in ways that have never really been described this way.

I don’t focus on the eyes and the analytical brain. My books, blog posts, videos, and courses focus on your ear. Music is, after all, an aural artform, so why are we not teaching it more through listening? And at the youngest age?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for the intellect. At a certain point, after learning the technical aspects of music and mastering one’s instrumental technique, it’s time to tuck all of that away in the back of the brain and relegate it to your subconscious. Then just express yourself.

My teaching abides by the saying, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

For more information visit

(c) 2021 Debbie Burke

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