Living in Tune: Thornton professor found his calling in jazz

Bob Mintzer encourages his music students to “cross-pollinate,” to try their hand at multiple musical genres so that every style informs one another.  (Photo courtesy of Chris O’Brien)

When Bob Mintzer isn’t teaching freshmen the fundamentals of jazz or honing graduate students’ improvisation skills, he’s composing new music for his big band. Or he’s playing saxophone for the Yellowjackets, a highly sought-after jazz band, in gigs around the world. 

Simply put, Bob Mintzer is a busy man; but even with his myriad commitments, he’s not slowing down. 

“I love all of it,” Mintzer said. “I love teaching and working with young people and playing and writing. I’m getting to sort of live my dream.” 

As a conservatory student in New York City, Mintzer often frequented jazz clubs and the marquee names that performed — Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk among others. He studied classical music, but jazz kept his palate diverse. Ultimately, jazz became his calling card, honing his skills as a saxophonist for the Buddy Rich Big Band. 

“We were touring every night,” Mintzer said. “I learned a lot about ensemble playing and I started writing and arranging for Big Band, which was kind of unheard of. I was a novice arranger when I started but I wrote eight or nine pieces for the band and grew in leaps and bounds having an opportunity to hear what I wrote on a nightly basis.”

In the 45 years since then, Mintzer has, to put it mildly, accomplished a lot. 

He’s a Grammy award-winning musician. He has moved from sideman status to the leader of his own Big Band. His discography of work is endless. In the contemporary jazz world, Mintzer is a household name. 

Now, he’s the Chair of Jazz Studies at the Thornton School of Music, opening up his vault of knowledge and experience to students. The things Mintzer learned under Buddy Rich’s tutelage he hopes to pass on to the next generation of musicians. 

“There were many generous, giving people that I was lucky enough to come in contact with as an aspiring musician,” Mintzer said. “My vision is to teach students how to teach themselves … I hope they grow to be extremely accomplished on their instrument and as instigators — someone who gathers people together to play the music that represents their vision.” 

Mintzer recognizes jazz as an ever-changing sound, which is why he pushes students to “cross-pollinate,” or study various styles to become more diverse musicians. 

“We really encourage students to be broad in their scope,” Mintzer said. “I would say that’s now more critical than ever nowadays. Diversity is the key to sustaining a career in any form of music.” 

He also believes the core tenets of jazz are constant.

“Jazz to me is a sensibility rather than a genre. It’s always meant improvisation, spontaneity, setting guidelines through collaboration and conversation and creating something different every time.” 

As the head of jazz studies, Mintzer navigates a species of music that is dynamic and complicated, while applying his age-old wisdom to students who intend on mastering it.

The jazz program is quite active around campus — it puts on concerts at Carson Center Monday nights and holds several jazz nights throughout the semester. The program also hosts workshops in The Music Center for all students of all majors, even those with limited music experience. Sometimes, Mintzer leads these group sessions, playing his saxophone for the talented and novice musicians. 

There are no signs of Mintzer slowing down: his energy for music is relentless, and, no matter how packed his schedule, he’ll always be looking for more opportunities to perform, compose and — above all — teach.