“Riding the Wave of Jazz”  | An Interview with Scott Coulter, Class of 1997

After graduating SMWS in 1997, Scott attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA, where he earned his Bachelor’s of Music degree in Jazz Piano Performance. Following this, he lived in Boston for several years, performing locally and teaching. In 2004, he move to Philadelphia, PA, where he detoured from music and earned his Master’s Degree in Social Work at Bryn Mawr College (where he was one of about 4 males in the entire graduate school). It was during his second-year internship that he met Carmen Martinez, a special education teacher that he would marry in 2010. After graduating in 2007, he entered into Social Work, working in the field for 4 years. However, a life away from music proved to be too painful, and he left the field to focus full-time on music.

Scott began playing in the local jazz, blues and rock scene in Philadelphia, and soon joined the jam band Psychedelphia, a Philadelphia-based group that gained a strong following and made appearances on several notable national stages, including performances at the Catskill Chill Music Festival, national tours across the U.S., and recognition in Relix Magazine (a leading jam band publication). This project ended in spectacular fashion with a near-fistfight outside a club in Hartford, CT in 2012, but it was a fun ride while it lasted.

After the breakup of Psychedelphia, Scott started teaching jazz piano and jazz ensembles with Settlement Music School, based in Philadelphia. He continues teaching here, and music teaching has grown to become a strong part of his life, something he enjoys (almost) as much as performing.

In terms of performance, after the breakup of Psychedelhia, Scott toured with the Dirk Quinn Band, another jam band based in Philly, worked as a session musician recording for a number of projects, and very recently started playing Hammond organ in a new project, Woodsmith and Hersch . This is a blues, country and Americana band started by Chris Hersch (who was the best man at Scott’s wedding) and the grammy-nominated singer Celia Woodsmith (of Della Mae). While the group is new, it has already shown tremendous potential and 2017 should be a year of strong growth for this ensemble, with plans for an album already underway.

How has music – the creation of it, listening to it, being a part of it – been important and instrumental (pun intended) 🙂 to you in your life?

Music is fundamental to my life. I have played music since I was 9, and majored in jazz piano in undergrad. I actually veered away from music for grad school, earning my Master’s in Social Work. It seemed like a good idea at the time (and that training DID give me some valuable teaching skills that I still use), but I found that life away from music was rather crippling to me. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but I really felt like a plant cut off from its roots for a while there, and I knew that I simply HAD to make music the focus of my life again. And so I did – I left social work, jumped back into music, and i haven’t looked back.

The experience of creating music, to quote my good friend Chris Hersch (who I’ve been playing a lot with lately – more on that later), is “like no other feeling you can get on Earth”. There is a high that you get when you’re on stage, communicating with your fellow musicians and with an audience. The best analogy I can think of is what it must feel like for a surfer to catch that perfect wave, and ride it all the way through. Music is like that, when it’s really clicking. It’s not simply a summation of individual parts, but rather each person in the band and each person in the audience adds their bit of energy to that wave, and then the wave awakens and has a life all its own that surpasses a simple summation of the parts that created it. Once that wave has come to life, your job as a musician is to simply use your skills to ride that wave. I remember saying once that the OK performances feel like ME putting music into the world, and that’s fine. But the really great performances feel like something much bigger than me simply running THROUGH me to get into the world.

Has your relationship with it changed over the years?

I think as musicians, our ego (hopefully) recedes through the years. In the early years, there is a lot of focus on “making it”, playing this festival, this theater, playing in front of X number of people, and so on. But every musician I know who has managed to become a HEALTHY adult has had the experience of burning out on that ego-driven impulse. I was in a group that was really pushing that ethos and when I finally left it, that was when I was able to reconnect to the real reasons I play music, which are really no different than they were when I was 9 years old. The same goes for my friend Chris, who I mentioned. The project we’re in right now, Woodsmith and Hersch, actually came about when the project he was in collapsed under the weight of a lot of that ego-drive, and we both just decided that, “hey, we’ve been wanting to collaborate for the last 10 years. Let’s do it”. And so now we’re playing a lot of shows, even though the band is based in Boston and I’m in Philly (a long drive, but we’re making it work – I’m driving up once or twice a month, crashing on his couch and playing a string of weekend shows). We’ve playing with an incredible singer, Celia Woodsmith, and what we both love just as much as the very high level of musicianship of the group, is that everyone in the group is KIND. Everyone in the group is there for the joy of music. There are no tense, “why did you miss your cue?” death stares being shared on stage, no griping or complaining about little missteps here and there, and nobody is trying to be the “star” of the group. We’re just riding that wave together, and loving every minute of it, whether we’re playing in front of a 170-person ticketed theater crowd like we did last Saturday, or 10 drunk people in a dive bar like we did the Saturday before THAT.

Why do you play music? is there anything else in your life that nourishes you, satisfies you in the same way that music creation does?

THIS is a tough question to pin down. Why do I play music? The short answer is because I have to – I have no choice. A life without music sounds like pure torture to me. The best story I’ve got for this comes from when I was just a little kid. When I was upset, I would walk over to the piano and “rumble” my hands across the low keys to let everyone know I was upset. From the absolute beginning, music was my means of communicating. When I was in 6th grade, I was dealing with my father’s Alzheimer’s disease and a really miserable time in school socially. It was a miserable year, and I’m not sure how I would have come through it without music. Music was a world I could enter into that NOBODY and NO THING could touch; it was a place that could never be invaded or hurt or taken away by anything. And I still feel that way. I still go to the piano (or lately, the Hammond organ, which I’ve been getting really into over the last 5 years) and just play when I’m feeling sad.

It’s also such a joyful, communal thing. Like I was saying, there really isn’t anything else quite like playing music for an audience that’s really right there with you. When that group mind is elevated and focused on the creation of beauty like that, it’s just other-worldly.

I would have to say that nothing else nourishes me the same way as music. But of course music is not the only important part of my life. My wife Carmen, my friends, teaching (I teach and perform music in about equal proportions), all of these things bring me something unique and special. So nothing nourishes me like music, but nothing nourishes me like my wife, and nothing nourishes me like teaching, and so on. Each is its own vital universe, and the thought of losing any of them is heartbreaking.

Lastly, I’ve got to include a shoutout to my Waldorf education here. The question of what nourishes me really does remind me how important that education was to me and who I am as a person and as an artist. I’ve always felt that Waldorf has a way of relating to each student as a WHOLE being. The holistic, multi-viewed and multi-dimensional quality of Waldorf is so important – and I think more important by the day as we watch our world really crumble and devolve into knee-jerk reactionism and very black-and-white thinking. I think Waldorf understands that what’s important in education is not that we all leave with a specific “data set” in our heads, or with X number of factoids, or even that we leave with any particular world-view. Instead, the focus is that we all leave that education with an innate ability to TAKE IN a complex and nuanced view of the world, apply our own intellect, heart and intuition (the last two being largely ignored in many educational settings), and come to an understanding of our world that is connected, compassionate, and appreciates the complexity of it. To me, what Waldorf does in the educational realm absolutely mirrors that magic of a truly elevated musical performance.