When pianist Jeb Patton began playing with the Heath Brothers—saxophonist Jimmy, bassist Percy, and drummer Tootie—it took some time to develop a comfortable rapport. As a twenty-something next to three elder statesman of jazz, Patton found it difficult to shed the notion of being an apprentice studying alongside the masters. But once trust had developed within the rhythm section, Patton could relax and let the music wash over him. "Certain nights with Tootie and Percy, it felt like sitting in this huge, plush couch," Patton recalls. "It felt like riding in a Cadillac."
It's been an oft-repeated refrain throughout Patton's music career: push beyond the comfort zone; suffer the bumps and bruises endemic to on-the-job training; and ultimately reap the hard-fought rewards of laid-back, spontaneous musicality. For Patton, the rewards have been many, including eleven years of international touring with the Heath Brothers, sideman roles with rising stars such as vocalist Sachal Vasandani and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and adjunct professorships at Queensborough Community College and Queens College in New York.
Patton's level of success is unusual among graduates of Duke, which doesn't offer a jazz studies major. He attributes his accomplishments to Paul Jeffrey, who directed the jazz program until 2003. Jeffrey kept the Duke Jazz Ensemble on a full-tilt schedule, with biweekly concerts featuring guest artists from New York. "It was like a mini jazz festival at Duke all the time," Patton says.
But Patton is quick to admit he got off to a rough start as an aspiring undergraduate musician—he botched his first audition with Jeffrey, struggled to balance academics with music, and played a few "train wreck" concerts. However, time constraints forced him to embrace simplicity as a composer and arranger.
"It would have been great to have more students who were really serious about jazz," Patton says. "But on the other hand, maybe I benefited more because my level back then was relatively low, so if I was at some music school with, like, a hundred piano players, maybe I would have been lost in the shuffle. Paul had me out front, for better or for worse."
After Duke, Patton earned his master's degree from Queens College, honing his playing at New York's sink-or-swim jam sessions. He studied with legendary pianist Sir Roland Hanna, who encouraged him to delve into jazz's classical and ragtime roots.
Patton also met Jimmy Heath, then the outgoing director of the school's jazz program. "He's the kind of guy who makes you feel comfortable right from the very beginning," Patton says. "He believes in what you can do, and he doesn't try to intimidate you." Heath's mentorship not only improved Patton's playing, but also expanded his musical network—the saxophonist introduced him to drummer Winard Harper and singer Etta Jones, leading to performance and recording opportunities.
Patton still plays for audiences around the world but says his latest challenge is in some ways the most daunting: a room full of college students. "If I'm in front of people behind a piano, it's fine," says the soft-spoken Patton, "but without a piano, it's a totally different experience." He learned that the hard way when he taught his first jazz musicianship class, covering for a friend at Queensborough Community College. The temporary replacement was made permanent, thrusting the first-time teacher into a full-time role, an experience that has been "a big wake-up call," he says. But just as he picked up the language of composition years ago, he's learning the language of teaching—lesson plans, workbooks, and all.
"There are a lot of players who just hate teaching," Patton says. "But I have to say, if I have a good day, if I feel like it was a good class, I really do enjoy it."
Jeb Patton '96
Playing New York jazz
November 30, 2009