Instruction from the masters and the icons of jazz is one genre of literature that always has an eager audience. Whether it’s learning how to improvise, a new take on well-loved chestnuts or how to master the key changes, musicians need their fingers and their ears to be in tip-top shape.
How does a music publisher today keep up with what professional musicians and students hanker for as they develop their art? Chuck Sher of Sher Music Company has some answers.
When did you start the business and why?
I started Sher Music Co. in 1979 because I got serious tendonitis and couldn’t play bass for over a year. During that downtime, I collected all the notes I had taken while teaching and put them together to create my first book, “The Improvisor’s Bass Method.” It was very well-received and at that point, I officially became a music book publisher. Totally accidental (and yet foreordained in some way, I feel).
I still consider myself a musician first and a publisher second. This fact has been the bedrock of our “mission statement” here at Sher Music Co., that our books are created by musicians, for musicians, and are designed to be the best possible books on their given subject. Our endorsements from dozens and dozens of the best jazz musicians ever – including Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, Maria Schneider, Esperanza Spalding, etc. – corroborate that claim.
How has your focus on books changed through the years if at all; instruction and technique, composition, theory, history, etc.?
From the beginning, we published both fake books and instructional books. But now we are only publishing method books for the most part. In terms of content, the major change happened in the ’90s because I got bitten by the Latin music bug and so we published over a dozen books on that fascinating music, including the only professional-level collection of Latin music compositions, “The Latin Real Book.”
Talk about fake books. What trends have you seen here?
We started out publishing big fake books but it has been harder to justify the expense of doing that when people can get any song they want either for a few dollars or free (i.e. illegally) online. I find this very sad because the charts in our fake books can help create more beautiful music than the “white bread” charts available in most of the other fake books or lead sheets out there. In addition, our fake books are historically accurate. For just one of hundreds of examples, see Miles’ classic arrangement of “‘Round Midnight” in the Standards Real Book, something that is not available anywhere else. I’ve been blessed with having two of the world’s greatest music transcribers work for us: Sky Evergreen, who passed away in the ’90s, and since then, Larry Dunlap. I couldn’t have put out our fake books without them and the jazz world owes them both a big debt of gratitude. In any case, at this point the only charts we are publishing are in our “Jazz Songbook” series of digital-only books at www.shermusic.com, featuring one composer at a time, e.g. Kenny Barron, Alan Pasqua, Steve Swallow, etc.
What have you learned about your consumer, the musician or hobbyist or just music lover, through the years in what they want to learn?
I’m not sure what they want to learn has changed, only how they have grown up getting that knowledge. The obvious thing is that one can learn “licks,” technique, etc. on any subject on YouTube. I don’t discount the immediate value of that, but there’s a depth of knowledge that one can only get from a well-thought-out book. Superficial knowledge might very well result in superficial playing, wouldn’t you think?
What goes into your decision of whether or not to carry a book? Do you offer editing and marketing to authors? Talk about the process of acquiring a title and what you do to publish it.
I am the publisher of all the books carried at shermusic.com and I have also written or co-written a half-dozen of those books myself. My decision to publish a book is almost always based on what I consider to be its long-term musical value. I am a good editor and I have had some input in most of our method books as well as selecting almost all the songs in our fake books. I also do all the marketing from here (with invaluable assistance from my webmaster, Bob Afifi), but some of our authors are also helping with the social media aspect of getting their books out into the world.
The authors of most of my instructional books sent me their manuscripts initially and are glad to have the “Sher Music Seal of Approval” on their work. Definitely a mutually beneficial relationship. They also get paid more than the standard royalties, another fact of which I am proud.
The process of publishing a book is a long one, too much to go into a lot of detail here. But first I often help the author get their ideas into presentable form, both graphically and/or content-wise. Once that is done, I take the manuscript, have it proofread (often by several people whose opinions I value), then re-do the layout as a result, then send it to our printer and proofread it again before it goes to press. Finally, we do a digital PDF version, which requires more graphics expertise, then the book is ready to be released. Publicity is the next step and that is an expensive and ever-evolving task, as the media world keeps changing. Altogether, in order to be born, each book requires a lot of blood, sweat, tears, persistence and love for the music, and I am both proud and honored to have put out the most highly-respected collection of jazz and Latin music books on the market.
How do authors learn about you and how do music lovers/buyers learn about you?
Sher Music Co. has been an established jazz and then Latin music book publisher for over 40 years, so our reputation precedes us. How to get the attention of the younger generation of musicians is a challenge and we learn more about that with every book. We are now reaching out to bloggers and podcasters, as well as Facebook and the traditional print media.
Are you a musician, and if so, what do you play?
I’ve played bass since the ’60s. First upright bass and then electric bass after I recovered from tendonitis, with the help of DMSO, by the way (but do not use it without researching the safety precautions necessary). I toured with jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks and his family for a year and a half in the ’70s. That was a ball, getting to play with all the musicians that would come and sit in with Jon: Al Jarreau, Joe Williams, George Duke, Benny Carter, etc. Then I played for years with the late bebop saxophonist Vince Wallace and drummer Michael Aragon, as well as a hundred other players here in the Bay Area over the years. This past year I organized and fronted a weekly COVID-safe outdoor series of concerts here in Petaluma, CA with the best Bay Area musicians I could find like Art Khu, Randy Vincent, Kendrick Freeman, Bryan Bowman, Michael Aragon, Doug Morton, Bob Afifi, Ken Cook, etc. What a ball that was, and will be again once the weather permits.
What words of encouragement would you give to the novice who is overwhelmed with all the literature available?
I would say pick educational material that has stood the test of time, like Mark Levine’s “The Jazz Theory Book” or look for books that have been endorsed by great musicians, like virtually all Sher Music books have been. I also have a free tutorial of ideas for learning to solo on standard tunes on our home page. Practicing can be a tremendous amount of fun, so I would say keep at it, step-by-step, and enjoy the process of watching yourself become a more accomplished musician.
Talk about Tim’s new book and why you have a connection with it?
Tim Armacost is the saxophone player in the New York Standards Quartet, led by another author of ours, NY pianist David Berkman. They put out a series of records that are state-of-the-art post-bop, so I was very familiar with Tim’s playing. I remember hearing him play on their arrangement of “Soul Eyes” and thinking, “That is an almost perfect example of a great contemporary jazz solo.” (At my suggestion, a transcription of that solo can be found at the end of Tim’s “The Jazz Saxophone Book.”) Anyway, Tim approached me with a proposal to write a book on creating melodic solos. My response was, “Sure, but how about expanding it to cover everything a saxophonist needs to know to be an accomplished jazz player, like Mark Levine did with his “Jazz Piano Book”? Tim took up the challenge and created a masterpiece, I believe – endorsed by Jerry Bergonzi, Bob Minzter, Bob Sheppard, George Garzone, etc. You can buy it on our website at https://www.shermusic.com/9780991077380.php.
As the world gets crazier by the day, it seems, there are only a few things that give me solace and inspiration to have my life be a net plus for the world. One of them is love, specifically for my wife Sueann, our two kids, and my close friends. And the other is the inexhaustible beauty of music. Any universe that could end up with Bill Evans and John Coltrane has to have been done with Purpose and Meaning behind it, because it is too cool to be an accident, know what I mean? I’ve actually written some decent poems, I believe, and paired them with great recorded music that expresses these sentiments better than I can do in prose. You can find those (no charge) at https://www.shermusic.com/inner-world-books/from-the-inner-world/index.html. Also check out a related CD project on our website, “Poetry+Jazz: A Magical Marriage.” Free samples are available at https://www.shermusic.com/1883217822.php. High art, if you ask me. Finally, I have a jazz show on KRCB – public radio here in Sonoma Co. – on the first Saturday of each month from 7 to 11 pm. And above all else, keep it swinging!
Photos courtesy of/with permission from Chuck Sher.
(c) 2022 Debbie Burke
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