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Modern jazz composer and bassist Mark Wade creates great music in all its forms. With four albums and a plethora of collaborations under his belt, Wade’s critical success has led to him being named one of the top bassists of the year for five of the last six years in the Downbeat Magazine Reader’s Poll. Ahead of his Standard Jazz Repertoire course and concert with Marco Marconi on Monday 11 March, we caught up to discuss his career.

Mark, thank you for speaking to Benslow Music. Please tell our readers what drew you to a career in music.

Music is more than something I love to do, it is something I need to do. Whenever someone asks me if they should pursue a career in music, I always tell them that if there is anything else out there that they could do instead of pursuing a music career, they should go do that. A music career requires an immense commitment to lifelong learning and perseverance in the face of adversity. It is not for everyone, but for those who can make it happen, it is a source of incredible fulfilment. 

Your musical journey started with teaching yourself to play the electric bass. Please tell us more about those early years and what attracted you to this instrument. 

When I was around 14, it was very fashionable for friends in my social circle to start learning to play an instrument. Most of them picked the guitar. I was late to picking up this trend, and, in order to avoid too many guitar players among our group, they suggested I try the electric bass. I checked it out and never looked back. After about a year of picking up the instrument, I knew I wanted to pursue it full-time. 

You moved to New Jersey and subsequently attended New York University, studying under bassist Mike Richmond. Please share your experience of his tutorage and how your duration at the university shaped the trajectory of your practice. 

Mike has been a tremendous influence on my music career. He was a great person for me to study at the time as he was someone who helped me bridge the gap between the electric bass and the acoustic bass which I started playing about halfway through my college studies. Mike is a rare combination of someone who taught and played at the very highest levels of music. Over the course of his career, he had played with Miles Davis, David Bowie, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Such a vast understanding of music was to my great benefit as his student. He helped instil in me a commitment to the highest level of professionalism in my approach to music which is with me to this day. 

You’ve played with jazz notables James Spaulding, Eddie Palmieri, Conrad Herwig, Harry Whitaker, Stacey Kent, Peter Eldridge, Don Byron and Jimmy Heath amongst others. What lessons have you learned from collaborating with such artists, and how has it shaped your performance and musicianship as a frontman or sideman? 

The thing that always stands out whenever I’ve had the good fortune of playing with top-shelf musicians is their level of focus and commitment in the moment. There’s something about being in close proximity with these players that allows you to feel that focus in an almost physical way. There are no ordinary moments for these people – every time the instrument is in their hands they play as if it is the most important moment of their life. I think that’s an important lesson for us all. 

Your last album True Stories, which received great reviews, pays homage to some of the great jazz musicians who have influenced your music. Of the many artists you’ve cited, is there one you feel has impacted or shaped your approach to working as a professional musician and composer? 

I would say that Wayne Shorter has been the biggest influence on me as a composer. I have always been enamoured with his work, particularly with the Miles Davis Quintet from the 1960s. His writing always demonstrates a powerful melodic idea, and I think that this element in particular is what draws me to his music. In any style of music, it is the quality of the notes we choose and not the quantity that determines how effectively we can communicate. As improvisers of jazz music, we must never lose sight of a strong melodic component even as we traverse complicated harmonic structures. 

You’re the founder and director of New Music Horizons, which promotes the work of emerging jazz and classical composers. Can you tell us more about the initiative? 

I started New Music Horizons 10 years ago in response to some of the trends I had seen as a freelancer in the jazz and classical worlds. Too often, deserving new works were set aside for “safer” programming choices that were more familiar to audiences. The result of constantly relying on the classics for concert programming moves the music more and more towards becoming a museum exhibit rather than a living, breathing organism. Our New Music Horizon concerts always feature the work of emerging and mid-career composers. They have a chance to speak to the audience directly at the concert and explain a little bit about their process and the music that they will present. I have found that this kind of connection helps to engage audiences and make them more receptive to music that they are not already familiar with. Emerging artists get to grow their audience base and audiences gain new appreciation for new music. This kind of grassroots operation is essential in my opinion to keeping the music vibrant for the next generation. 

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What have been your career challenges as a professional musician, and how have you overcome them? 

The first challenge I would point out is that music is hard. It takes a lot of practice and dedication over a long period of time just to gain a base level of competency. To sustain a professional career, one must continue to practice and grow in one’s craft to achieve higher and higher levels of musical ability to sustain consistent musical opportunities. The other challenge I would point out is that the business of music is also very hard. There are a lot of people out there who want to pursue a path in music, so the competition can be strong, and sadly not all deserving players have the opportunities afforded to them that they should. The best way to overcome these challenges is to only try to control the circumstances that are within your ability to control in the first place. That means practising when you have the time and being a good colleague on the bandstand. Keep a positive attitude and treat others with respect. That, plus a little bit of luck, goes a long way. 

Benslow Music provides inspirational lifelong learning for all ages. What advice would you give to budding musicians and course students? 

Education is essential to nurturing your musical self, so if you’ve signed up for a course at Benslow, you’re off to a great start! Inspiration can come from unlikely sources, so always keep an open mind to new ideas and be willing to challenge old assumptions that may hold you back from greater musical discoveries. Challenge yourself to try something you’ve never done before. Challenge yourself to try something in a new way you may have done differently in the past. The excitement of studying music comes from never quite knowing where the path may lead. Enjoy the journey. 

Your current tour includes a stop at Benslow Music this month. Please tell our readers what they can expect. 

On 11 March I will be presenting a concert program with my teaching partner and bandmate Marco Marconi. He and I will play some of our original compositions and answer any questions people may have about our music. On the following day, we will begin a two-day course at Benslow on playing the standard jazz repertoire. The course will teach basic jazz concepts. Marco and I hope to give students a better understanding of how they might approach playing in an ensemble and improvising with this great music. I have always found the students at Benslow to have great spirit and positivity. I look forward to this upcoming trip for sure. 

Where can our members and followers find out more about you?

 I’m quite active on all the various social media channels, but the most direct way to connect with me is my website - http://www.markwademusicny.com