“Listen, I came to you to study karate, and you have me doing all these chores.” Victor Provost summarized his life-changing lessons with legendary jazz educator Charlie Banacos by paraphrasing The Karate Kid. Provost is no stranger to dedication. A native of St. John in the Virgin Islands, Provost discovered the steel pan at an early age, and quickly took flight with an independent, enterprising spirit. By learning tunes from records, taking correspondence lessons, seeking out mentors, and holding down solo gigs, Provost has built a singular voice on a complex and unusual instrument. He eventually moved to Pittsburgh, then Virginia, where he dedicated himself to studying with Charlie Banacos—his own Mr. Miyagi, if you will—and internalizing his infamous exercises and lines. Provost ultimately obtained his Bachelors and Masters in Music at George Mason University, where he now teaches, all while touring and expanding his sound, working with the likes of Paquito D’Rivera, among others.
This week, Provost will play at The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of Bright Eyes (Sunnyside, 2017). Praised by Downbeat for his “hypnotic speed and seductive melodicism,” Provost has covered significant new ground on his latest release. Citing his 2011 release, Her Favorite Shade of Yellow, Provost said “I wanted to shatter built-in expectations by showing that you can swing on this instrument… On Bright Eyes, I let all of those cultural influences seep back in.” The show at the Gallery will feature a world-class quintet consisting Jacques Schwarz-Bart (saxophones), Robert Rodriguez (piano), Zach Brown (bass), and Ulysses Owens Jr. (drums). On a cold winter morning, we chatted with Provost about the power of discipline, his teaching residency in the Virgin Islands, and the timeless lessons of The Karate Kid.
The Jazz Gallery: Congrats on the release of Bright Eyes! You’re getting some stellar press, which is good to see.
Victor Provost: Thank you, thank you. Back in August, I was calling PR folks, and a few actually turned me down, saying “We don’t understand how we can push or market this project for you.” A few more said they were booked for the summer. I was feeling kind of down on my luck, but then I just hit the pavement, made as many calls as I could make, and things started happening. The Washington Post feature, the Downbeat editor’s pick. Sunnyside has done an amazing job too; the album is getting hooked up with the WBGO scene. I’m pleasantly surprised and proud.
TJG: No need for the surprise, the album deserves it. Will you be performing tunes from the album at the upcoming show?
VP: Oh yeah, that’s the idea. We’ll play through the record in full. And then maybe we’ll swing a little bit too. I enjoy doing it but don’t get to just swing too often. I’m super excited to be playing with these guys at the Gallery. The guys on the record are Alex Brown and his brother Zach, as well as Billy Williams Jr. On this date for The Gallery, I’ll have Robert Rodriguez on keys, Ulysses Owens on drums, and Zach will play bass, then my friend Jacques Schwarz-Bart will join us on saxophone.
TJG: As a jazz percussionist, you must have to choose the other percussionists on stage very carefully. What do you like about playing with Ulysses Owens Jr?
VP: Man. The first time I worked with Ulysses was in 2009, right after I moved to DC. He was commissioned to write something for the Kennedy Center. This community student steel band I was helping got the call to play his music. We hit it off, man. It was the first time we’d met, and in that capacity we were fellow teachers. We met a few years later in Harlem, and he said “I’ve got a gig at Dizzy’s, come and join the band.” It was an instant fit. Then I took him to St. Thomas, and we did a concert out there together. He’s so sensitive. He’s got the perfect balance, he understands dynamics, he hears what the music needs, when to be explosive. He’s so naturally musical. A lot of these rhythms we’re dealing with on Bright Eyes have really strong Caribbean roots, whether it’s French Caribbean, like Martinique or Guadeloupe, or Afro-Cuban stuff. There are specific grooves that guys spend their whole lives listening to growing up. But someone like Ulysses is so musical, he can come in and nail it, and sound natural doing it.
TJG: Speaking of the islands, you just returned from a month in the Virgin Islands as an artist-in-residence. Where were you teaching, and what did you do?
VP: I spent a week on St. Croix, a week on St. Thomas, and some time on St. John as well. There’s a drummer named Dion Parson who lived in New York for a long time. He created a foundation that brings teaching artists to the Virgin Islands to the public schools, to give music lessons. My typical day would be to go to a school at 9 A.M., see one or two students per hour, until about 2pm. If there was a jazz ensemble, we’d sit in and do a masterclass. It’s a unique program which sets up a situation where the kids are studying privately during school. It’s such a departure from the typical setting, and it’s important, because in the Virgin Islands we tend to lack the resources of American schools.
TJG: Is this a kind of mentorship program you wish you had when you were growing up?
VP: Oh man, don’t I [laughs]. I really do. It’s such an incredible benefit to the students. Everything has changed. I wasn’t even a high school internet kid. I came to this music through records, the old fashioned way, checking out my father’s record collection. There were definitely mentors in the community who helped me, but man, if I had that opportunity to have someone take the time to explain some of this stuff… When you’re young and exploring music, 99% of what you’re doing is trying to figure out what the hell is going on, copying what you’re hearing, not really understanding what or why it is.
TJG: The Bright Eyes liner notes mention that in high school, you “spent hours copying the horn players [like Cannonball Adderley] on these recordings, developing quite a bit of facility but no foundation.” What is that foundation, and when did it come into your life?
VP: It started as I was graduating high school. We didn’t have a music program, we didn’t have instruments. I went to a private, parochial school. If we had a music class, it was singing hymns. The year I graduated, I got the opportunity to go to Trinidad, the mecca of this instrument, specifically to study with a fella named Rudy Wells. He was my mentor in my after-school program growing up. I spent the summer in Trinidad, going through the “Berklee method” of harmonic analysis. Rudimentary stuff. I learned what modes were. I learned what chord changes were. I got a foundation for what would eventually become a musical understanding. I’d figure it out on the bandstand and ask questions of musicians who hired me. By the mid-2000s, the internet was in full swing. I spent a fair amount of time researching the nomenclature, the theoretical understanding, so I could have a musical conversation. Then, I took lessons with the legendary Charlie Banacos. That did the same thing for my playing. It wasn’t so much a technical explanation as it was “Do these things, and after you’ve done them, you’ll be a better musician.” That was how it I got my foundation.
TJG: Calling your resources a ‘scarcity’ would diminish the importance of your mentors, but the jazz community on a small island has its limits. Did you feel the need to get away from St. John as you learned more and your musicianship grew?
VP: Absolutely. Being from a small community has extraordinary benefits. In high school, I was a beginner. Mediocre at best. But I found myself with a gig, working every night. Making real gig money, playing at hotels or restaurants. After doing that for three, four years, I had to make a decision. Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life? Playing solo steel pan with tracks in hotels? Or is there something more meaningful I can get out of this music? Studying music, that was the instigator for me to leave the Caribbean. I knew there was so much more to hear, so much more to learn, and I wasn’t going to be able to experience it there, unfortunately.
TJG: You held down a 2-year gig at a hotel in Caneel Bay, where you were able to play solo, with backing tracks. When that was your only opportunity, how did you make the most of it?
VP: I treated it like paid practice. That’s where I really started to experiment with improvisation. On steel pan, you traditionally play in a group, learning melodies, arrangements, and songs by rote. Having those solo gigs allowed me to break away and start experimenting with improvisation. By the five hundredth time you’ve played an arrangement of a tune, you get tired of doing it the same way. It was a unique opportunity. There aren’t a lot of situations that allow you to experiment as a young person.
TJG: You’re a teacher and bandleader at George Mason University now. What have you learned most from being a teacher? What aspects of your upbringing do you try to communicate to your students?
VP: I take them on a track that is basically a shortcut of my life. Every student does a transcription project every semester. I think that’s huge, especially for early improvisers. The act of transcribing has inherent value, but what you really gain is a thorough exposure to the language. The only way to get it is by listening over, and over, and over again. Playing your instrument is almost secondary. Then, we talk about what they’ve transcribed in an analytical way. Uncover the musical decisions being made, talk about harmony and music-nerd stuff. Then they deal with technical exercises on the instrument. Classical repertoire. Finally, I give them some opportunities to be 100% spontaneous and creative. Those four or five things are the short track of how I learned this instrument on my own.
TJG: Speaking of shortcuts and timesavers, a lot of jazz musicians struggle with time management, because there’s so much to learn. You could be learning and practicing something new in every moment. How did having a daughter change your sense of time?
VP: It made me realize that I don’t have much time, and the little bit I do have I have no control over [laughs]. When I was taking lessons with Banacos, we were working on something so highly specific, so thoroughly structured, it was the only thing I was doing for a better part of a year. I only did the specific exercises he asked me to do. I didn’t learn tunes. I didn’t transcribe. It was just his thing for four to five hours a day, all year. It made me realize, that’s where you get the value in studying this music deeply. You need to discipline yourself, to study something for months, and to do it without fear, without questioning, without apprehension that something else is going to get left behind. The bottom line is, something is going to get left behind, or nobody’s gonna learn at all. So pick something you can connect to, focus on it for months at a time. That’s where you get musical value. Having a daughter speeds things up and slows things down at the same time. It’s a paradox. She’s gonna be three in April. It seems like she was just born yesterday, and I was writing these tunes, thinking “I’m gonna have a daughter soon. This is going to be crazy.” It requires me to focus. A lot. To slow down, appreciate every moment.
TJG: What gave you the faith to practice Banacos’s material every day for a year?
VP: The musicians I knew who studied with Charlie Banacos [laughs]. If it was some random stuff that a random dude told me to check out, I can’t honestly say I would have had that determination. But this was the cat who was responsible for the modern jazz sound that I was chasing. Brecker, Bergonzi, Scofield, that sound I was chasing. They all say it. You read enough interviews with the Northeast players in the 70s-90s, they all mention Banacos at some point. You old enough to know Karate Kid? I think of it like the Karate Kid. This kid is getting beat up, and he asks this old Japanese cat to train him, right? “Train me in Karate.” Old Japanese guy says, “Yeah, no problem, come over to my house tomorrow.” Kid goes over and says “I’m ready to start my training.” Mr. Miyagi, Japanese guy, gives him two buckets, and says “Go wash my cars.” Kid does it, comes back the next day, does it again. Every day, the same thing, go do that, go do this, go paint the fence. Three months later, the kid is still doing chores for this cat. He finally goes up to Miyagi and says, “Listen, I came to you to study karate, and you have me doing all these chores.” Mr. Miyagi attacks him, and the same physical motions from the chores start coming out. The ‘wax-on-wax-off’ motion from cleaning the car is a block. The ‘paint the fence’ motion is another block. Mr. Miyagi has been teaching this cat karate through chores. That’s the same way I felt studying these lines with Banacos. I would say, “I don’t know how this is gonna work, I can’t hear myself making music this way.” But eventually, it created avenues and so many ways of being creative, getting inside and outside of harmonic ideas. You should watch that movie, it’s really good.
TJG: Last question. For someone who’s coming to the show at the Gallery but has never heard your stuff before, maybe has never heard pans in a jazz context, what would you have them think about or listen to before the show?
VP: The most important thing is to come with a clean slate as it pertains to the instrument. Steel pan comes with a lot of expectants. People come to these shows remembering every pan player they’ve heard on whatever cruise to Jamaica they went on with their kids. I would say that if you come without those expectations, that would be helpful, because it’s not gonna sound like that. Just be open to the music. Be ready to have a good time. Be ready to dance. I can’t wait, man.
Victor Provost celebrates the release of Bright Eyes at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 9th, 2017. Mr. Provost, steel pan, will be joined by Jacques Schwarz-Bart on saxophones, Robert Rodriguez on piano, Zach Brown on bass, and Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.