Editor’s note: This is an expanded online version of our July 2015 print issue’s interview with acclaimed University of Miami jazz educator Vince Maggio. The first draft contained a number of accolades and testimonials from some of today’s most accomplished keyboard players, not all of which we had room for in print. As promised in that issue, we’ve added them here--scroll to the end.
The year was 1987. I was a bright-eyed, seventeen year-old jazz pianist with an anorexic record collection and a subscription to Keyboard Magazine. So when I read that one of my musical heroes, Bruce Hornsby had studied with a teacher named Vince Maggio at the University of Miami School of Music in Florida, I proudly announced to my parents that I would do the same. A year later, I found myself in the same hallowed hallways that Hornsby and forbears like Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius and others once wandered, searching for the keys to unlock my musical future.
Vince was not one to beat around the bush. “How did you get in here?” he asked me point blank during my first semester “jury,” an academic firing squad of sorts where he and the other jazz piano faculty members would gather to monitor each piano student’s progress. When I replied, “I sent-in a tape,” Vince immediately responded, “I’m putting you on probation. You need to improve fast. Or else.” But as intimidating as he could be, he was also fiercely committed to instilling a sense of swing and subtlety in his students’ playing. I’ll never forget him playing Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” for a stunned group of students in his Swing Class, telegraphing the near symphony of interconnected elements in Wynton Kelly’s piano part. Or him warning us how as pianists we should never let our fingers override our sense of space and musical grace, as he once did accompanying Mel Tormé (and how Mel took him to task in front of a packed concert hall). Vince wanted his students to get off their behinds and be as good as he knew they could be.
And so I went to work, listening, transcribing, looking for clues as to how this seemingly foreign language called “jazz” made sense. Vince’s reading me the riot act pushed me (and countless other before and after me) to new musical heights. And while I would eventually transfer to Rutgers University in order to study under the pianist Kenny Barron for the remainder of my undergraduate studies, I am forever grateful to Vince Maggio for sending me on my musical way. Nearly three decades later, it’s a thrill to reconnect with my former professor and let the rest of the musical world in on one of its best-kept secrets.
How did your musical education begin?
I was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1937 into a musical family. My father played six instruments, and my mother married her guitar teacher! There was a grand piano in my house from early on, and my first lessons were with local nuns who used the John Thompson piano book method. They would play a piece to me, and I would play it back to them by ear. It wasn’t until I was nine years old that they realized I couldn’t read music! My Dad was a staff musician on NBC Radio in Chicago and he also had a little band that did weddings and other gigs. I wanted to sit-in with him, so he taught me how to learn chord symbols. From there I was able to figure-out how to play tunes with just melodies and chord changes, and so I formed my own band that started playing high-school dances. In my last year of high school, my Dad got tired of the music business after his staff job at NBC ended. He wanted to go into the radio and TV repair business, so he moved our family to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I became very depressed and thought I would never hear jazz music again. One day, I went into a local club and there was a band playing – the saxophone player sounded like Charlie Parker, and the piano player was passed out with his nose on Middle C! I asked if I could sit in, and after moving the other piano player off the bench, we started playing together. The sax player turned out to be Cannonball Adderly, and I ended-up playing with him all throughout my senior year in high school. He mentored me for about a year. This was 1955, years before he played on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. At tat time, Cannonball was a high school band director. Later, he went to New York, and the rest is history.
Did you study music formally after you graduated high school?
Yes. After I finished high school in 1956, I went to the American Conservatory in Chicago to become a concert pianist. I loved classical music, and my mother gave me $75 and a paid tuition to study there, so I thought it would be exciting to go, knowing I would also get back onto the jazz scene. I soon started falling more and more in love with the language and rhythm of jazz. I had a buddy named Fritz Jones who was forming a piano trio back then – later he changed his name to Ahmad Jamal. We would see each other around town at gigs, and we were both offered recording contracts at the same time. I turned mine down because I didn’t think I was ready to record, a decision I regret to this day. But he didn’t! Later, I went on to form different groups under the name Vince Lawrence, which is my middle name. Around 1959, I had a house trio gig in Chicago, and in walked Oscar Peterson. He was starting a jazz school in Toronto, Canada, and invited me to come work with him. So I studied with him fand stayed in Toronto for about a year. Oscar taught me the weight transfer method of relaxed, tone production at the piano, which he told me he learned from Art Tatum.
Later I went back to Chicago and then to New York, where I apprenticed the great composer and pianist Tadd Dameron. He introduced me to people like Miles Davis, Gil Evans and John Coltrane and it was there I got to play with amazing musicians like Chet Baker. But my schooling really came from my record collection, and whatever jazz clubs and bars that I could sneak into. In 1962, I moved in with the pianist Warren Bernhardt. He already had another roommate living with him, and it was none other than Bill Evans. So I got to know Bill while the three of us lived together.
What do you remember most about Bill Evans?
I remember that the first time he heard me play piano in our apartment, he said to me, “Boy, you’ve played a lot more solo piano than I have.” I replied, “Well, I started playing solo piano gigs from the time I was twelve.” And he said, “I can hear that.” We had a mutual admiration for each other’s work. We never discussed technique, but in later years we would get together when he came down to Florida. I told him how excited I was getting about the curriculum I was developing for improvisation that was a melodic alternative to just playing scales and patterns. I asked him if he had any suggestions for me, and he replied, “I just try to find things that are right under my hand.”
Did you like the New York jazz scene back in those days?
Part of me regrets having left New York even to this day, mainly because of the types of players that were there. I’m talking about musicians who communicated on a very high level of both the jazz language and in terms of interaction. I never really heard that style of New York musicianship again after I left. Later I had a gig backing-up singers at different clubs on the East Side. I ended up getting involved with one of them, and we went to Florida in 1967 for what was supposed to be ten days. Our relationship didn’t last, but I’ve been here ever since!
How did you get started teaching?
My first student at the University of Miami was a blind pianist named Michael Gerber who I would later find out was also deaf in one ear. Around 1969, Jerry Coker brought me into a practice room where Michael was. He was having difficulty transcribing a Cannonball Adderly song because he couldn’t hear all of the chord changes. I had never taught before, but I instinctively told him, “Just listen to the bass line and you’ll hear the changes.” He replied, “But I don’t hear bass too well.” So I asked him, “What if you are playing with a bass player?” And Michael replied, “Well, he has to stand close to me.” So I put his head right against the stereo speaker, and from then on he got every chord change correct. Immediately after seeing this, Coker walked me over to the Dean’s office and said, “I want you to hire Vince as a teacher.” I said in protest, “But I’m no teacher!” And Jerry replied, “Yes you are!” And that’s how it all began. I started teaching at UM in 1970. And while I never agreed with his “scales and patterns” approach to jazz education, to his credit he said to me, “I didn’t hire you to be me. I hired you to figure out how to explain the choices you make when you play.” So I had a pretty free mandate, pedagogically speaking. They actually hired me to start the jazz piano program.
What kinds of things did you try to instill in the players who studied under you?
First would be melodic credibility, which is the understanding that at the piano you have the melody, and then you have everything else, which is the accompaniment. The biggest issue I hear with pianists is an absence of musical balance. They don’t approach the piano like an orchestra, and they don’t approach the melody like a singer or a horn player like Miles Davis would. With most pianists, the accompaniment is as prominent in the mix as the melody is. So I focused on that imbalance by having them play the melody alone at the piano while I accompanied them. Then we would switch, with me playing the melody and the students accompanying me. I would also get into having students sing the melody – because I knew none of them would make a substantial living if they couldn’t accompany a singer. So I would have them sing the melody and I would accompany them and get in their way, so they would learn what not to do. Pretty soon, they would start to understand the concept of orchestration at the piano.
In the process of teaching my piano students about orchestration and musical balance, a host of technical glitches like pedaling would arise that I would need to address. I’m talking about things like sitting at the piano properly so that all of your body parts are lined-up to get your body weight into the keys. Also things like bench position, wrist position and other issues of front-end alignment at the piano – things I learned studying at the American Conservatory in Chicago, and by watching pianists like Horowitz and Rubinstein as a kid. I never approached teaching with technique first. I wanted to fix musical problems. But in order to do so, you often have to address technical problems..
I actually applied to the University of Miami after reading in the July 1987 issue of Keyboard that Bruce Hornsby studied with you there. Can you talk a little bit about your time working with him?
Bruce was a transfer student from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. When he arrived, he really didn’t play jazz very well at all, but he had a pretty good “clock” and he had a presence about him at the piano. Bruce had a voice when he played. I didn’t’ realize when he first arrived that he was also a singer. I remember asking him, “Why did you come here?” And in typical Hornsby style, he replied, “UM was the only school that required an audition, so I figured it must be pretty good!”
At that time, Bruce was curious about the language of Bebop and pianists like Bud Powell, but his personal taste was more along the lines of the band Oregon. He was crazy about Paul McCandless and the whole concept behind the group. I felt Bruce had some swing-feel issues, so I was steering him towards people like Bud and Oscar and other players who had great “time.” I was actually going to flunk him out of the program at the end of his first semester because his playing did not work for me at all. Then Bruce came to me and said he wanted to write songs, and he started to sing some of his original compositions. I was immediately struck by how gifted he was as a lyricist and songwriter. I knew he was probably not going to be a traditional jazz artist, so we struck a deal. I told him for every Bud Powell transcription he memorized for his lessons, we’d also work on an Oregon tune that he liked. Bruce went to work so hard that one night I received a call at my home around midnight from a security officer at school. The voice on the other end of the phone said, “There’s a guy sleeping in one of the practice rooms who says he’s a student of yours, but he looks like a bum.” I asked, “What’s his name?” And the person replied, “His name is Bruce Hornsby and he’s sitting at the piano, covered up in McDonalds wrappers.” So I told him, “Leave him there. He needs to practice!” In my 40 years of teaching, Bruce did more of a 180-degree turn than any other piano student I have ever had. He grew-up and really applied himself. Soon he was playing in the UM Studio Jazz Orchestra and performing transcriptions from the Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra album. After he left, he went on-tour with Sheena Easton, and then he exploded as a solo artist on his own.
Who are some other performers and educators that have studied with you?
Well, besides Michael Gerber and Bruce Hornsby, there was T. Lavitz from the Dixie Dregs. Also Clifford Carter, Mike Levine, Randy Tomasello, Chuck Marohnic, Gil Goldstein, Monty Alexander, Ron Miller, Ben Stivers, Jeffrey Babko, Doug Bickel, David Roitstein, and many others. Many of my students went on to become teachers. I think they saw that there was some job security in what I was doing, as compared to the vagaries of road life, where you have to stay on the road to make any kind of living at all.
You’ve recently started teaching improvisation to classical musicians. How did that come about?
I taught in the jazz piano department at the University of Miami from 1970 until 2004. Then in 2010, I was re-hired to develop and teach Improvisation to the entire classical instrumental student body.I had been teaching improvisation to classical pianists as far back as the early 1980’s at the Aspen Music Festival, showing them how to interpret chord symbols with a voice-led line that had no harmonic errors in it. I believe that jazz is a language, but improvisation is a craft that spans all styles. Unfortunately for classical musicians, improvisation as a requirement in conservatories stopped around 200 years ago. But composers like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart all improvised their own music, and in fact those improvisations were often the highlights of their musical gatherings. So now I’m teaching classes in classical improvisation that focus on melodic improvisation, something I always wanted the jazz education industry to pay attention to.
What things do you think pianists should never forget when approaching their craft?
Most importantly is that music is built from the melody down. If you follow that rule as a pianist, your music is likely to be balanced. You don’t know a song until you can sing it, so you need to be able to accompany yourself singing it. Only then can you make proper decisions about how to frame the melody or how to frame somebody else playing the melody. Remember to always pay attention to piano orchestration and things like register usage, density and pedaling so that you never crowd the melody. If you’re singing a song, I’m not going to play any notes that are within a fifth of your note. I’m going to frame you like a picture. I might play things above or below you, but I’m not going to get in your face with a chord voicing, because accompaniment goes far beyond voicings. Gil Evans didn’t write voicings that competed with Miles , he framed Miles, just like Nelson Riddle did with Frank Sinatra, and what the great film composers have always done.
Music is a team sport, and people all over the world relate to melodies and rhythm, way faster than they do harmony. All the complicated reharmonization in the world won’t help you keep your audience interested if people stop tapping their feet and have forgotten the melody. Protecting the melody at all costs is job number one. Right behind that is having a strong, rhythmic clock. You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem. So buy a metronome and live with it!
What Leading Players and Educators Are Saying About the Maggio Method
Vince Maggio, my piano teacher who strode the halls of the University of Miami School of Music with an intimidating presence that struck fear in the hearts of poor, mediocre, swing-challenged students like me, was and is a one-man beacon of excellence who demanded the same from those under his supervision. He remains my teacher, and whenever I’m working on new music; be it a record of new songs, a film score, or a guest appearance on another artist’s record, I always ask myself “What would Vince think?” He’s a true treasure, and I’m grateful to him for his guidance, support, criticism and encouragement for the last forty years. - Bruce Hornsby
Vince taught me two concepts that I hold closely and refer to each day. One was his ever-pressing insistence on swinging. He would force the soloist to lock just with a ride cymbal pattern and lock that semi-triplet feel. That extreme focus on only grooving with a pulse taught me how important locking with a rhythm section, even just a click track, would prove to be throughout my career. Vince’s other gift is his unparalleled approach to solo piano. I sat for hours listening to solo piano masterpieces of his, with him explaining how two fingers of his left hand were the cello section, two more the French horns, etc. He orchestrated on the fly, with his hands and the piano’s 88 keys as his own personal orchestra. No one does it like Vince. – Jeff Babko (Keyboardist, Jimmy Kimmel Live!)
Vince Maggio's heart is as big as the ocean. His music and his teaching have always been honest and direct, emotionally powerful, swinging, and above all, extraordinarily beautiful. As a teacher of jazz phrasing and articulation, melodic development, voice leading and orchestration, and pure energy and intensity, Vince is in a class by himself. I was lucky enough to have had Vince as one of my two or three primary teachers from 1972 on, and his influence is constantly there in my playing, teaching, and living. When I think of Vince it is with gratitude and love. - David Roitstein (Jazz Program Director, California Institute of the Arts)
At my jury at the end of my sophomore year, Vince tore into me pretty mercilessly. I had gotten a bit of a big head - and because I could play synths pretty well “blow” a little bit over modern sounding things, I was doing a lot of playing with older cats on various gigs. But this was to the detriment of any kind of grasp of how to swing or comp or understand the language of the jazz tradition. “I don’t know what to do with you,” Vince said to me. “I don’t even know why you came here to study with me,” he continued. I was devastated. I even considered transferring. But after that tongue-lashing, he told me he only wanted me to check out three things that summer: Cannonball Adderly, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver. He knew I loved playing funk and had the insight to point me in the direction of stuff that was funky as anything. And then something clicked in me. Vince reached into my head and was able to teach me to love jazz. – Ben Stivers (Keyboardist, Barry Gibb, Robin McKelle)
In clear opposition to the “learn these patterns and progressions in all keys and ‘I’ll make you sound like you can play jazz” method, Vince’s priorities were of a much different nature. They stressed the importance of swing, melody, melodic development and listening. Throughout my entire professional career, I constantly hear from musicians about the impact that Vince's teaching has had on them. The enjoyment and inspiration that I have always received from music is always with me, and I attribute that, in a big way, to the impact that Vince has on me as an educator, performer, mentor and friend. – Clay Ostwald (Pianist, composer and producer with Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine)
Vince’s musical and pedagogical emphases didn’t come from a text or from the “Academy.” They came straight from his heart. They were vetted from his musical experiences on the South Side of Chicago and beyond. After fifteen years of teaching, I’m more convinced than ever that my best teaching is deeply rooted in his influence. – Jim Gasior (Associate Professor of Jazz Studies, New World School of the Arts)
I was Vince’s “right hand man” at the University of Miamifor almost 15 years. What I remember - in addition to his comprehensive graspof each tier of jazz piano performance, was Vince’s unrelenting level of commitment to the art of jazz and all its accoutrements. He implored each student to make every note count and approach the art with as much depth, belief and commitment to its study and performance as humanly feasible. – Jeff Laibson (Pianist, Artist and Educator).
Vince Maggio is a brilliant artist, and if possible an even better teacher. He has been uncompromising in his expectations for student achievement and effort, and as a result the world of professional music is populated with Maggio disciples who attribute much of their success to Vince’s dedicated mentoring. - Shelton G. Berg (Dean, Frost School of Music, University of Miami)
One semester, Vince required every one of his students to memorize and perform Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” at their year-end jury. The sole focus was on technique, with minimal to zero use of the pedal. I’ll never forget that lesson; that artists must hone their technical skills in order to play what they hear, and never rely on “crutches.” 25 years later, I never practice with a pedal! – Rick Rubin (Keyboardist, King of the World)
Vince Maggio has a unique way of getting to the core of musicianship and of playing the piano. There is no mystery - just hard work and discipline. His direct, no-nonsense approach to time feel, technique and harmony have helped create a framework for me that has led to a lifetime of learning. His teaching has been an indispensable key to my career as a musician. – Dan Geisler (Pianist and Educator, Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts)