I often share jazz tips and advice on this blog and on our podcast, but truthfully I didn’t come up with it all myself. In fact, I have a large number of jazz teachers and mentors to thank for the knowledge I have acquired so far. And so in the spirit of thankful reflection, during the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S, it couldn’t be more appropriate to mention at least one of my most impactful jazz mentors and what he has taught me.

Indeed, there have been many more teachers in my life who are important, and I don’t diminish them, but this particular character had a profound impact on my jazz playing and the trajectory of my life and career.

I think there is something for all of us to learn here as jazz musicians. Let me introduce you to one of my most impactful jazz mentors and what he taught me:

Justin Nielsen- jazz mentor and unsung jazz hero

What you have to understand about me, is I grew up in Boise, Idaho. A fine place to grow up, but especially at the time, jazz was scarce. The music scene was small, and so as you could imagine, the jazz scene was even smaller.

Justin Nielsen was like the oasis in the desert. He was gathering young jazz disciples like me around him and teaching us everything he knew. He has dedicated his life to teaching music students and has made it his life mission to spread the joy of music to others. Without Justin Nielsen, I certainly would not be living in New York City now, making a living as a jazz musician through all of my different avenues.

I was lucky. I just happened to be close friends with one of Justin’s piano students, the year that he was opening a small arts school in the city. I started showing up to the weekly jam sessions Justin would host. Understand, this was a big deal. A small city like this with a jazz jam completely dedicated to budding students; a place we could go week after week to hone our chops and socialize. This just simply didn’t exist without Justin.

Fortunately, I received a part-time scholarship to his arts school during my senior year of high school. I would spend the first half of my day at my local public school, and drive 45 minutes to the arts school to study for the rest of the day.

I was playing in jazz combos, rehearsing, practicing for hours, and most importantly, meeting some incredibly talented and dedicated jazz students. We would compete at jazz festivals, and everybody would show up for the weekly jam session at the local coffee house. I was very fortunate to be a part of this.

Justin’s leadership encouraged me and my friend to go hunt down some gigs. We ended up landing one at a posh downtown steakhouse and took the Monday night slot there. Imagine the practice time we were getting week after week. This weekly gig was pivotal to our jazz education at the time.

Something unique about Justin that shouldn’t go unmentioned is he wouldn’t hesitate to hire his students for gigs. Of course, there were older, much more qualified musicians around, and indeed he would work with them, but sometimes he’d give his students the gig instead. That is what I call true, sacrificial mentorship.

Justin was more than a teacher, he was a mentor. That’s why after I had applied to a bunch of music schools for college, got into them but with not enough scholarship, I went to him for advice. I was pretty broke. I couldn’t afford to go to these schools without going into massive debt. I felt left behind, and unsure how my music career was going to move forward. College just seemed like the socially acceptable next step. Unfortunately, that didn’t look like a good option for me at the time.

Justin had a “radical” solution. And indeed, when I look back, this was the turning point for me. Whether I or him knew it or not, this pointed me in a new direction.

I told him I wanted to be a professional jazz musician. I’m paraphrasing, here, but the conversation went something like this:

“Before you commit to this, I need to ask you, is there anything else you could do that you would be equally happy doing, or see yourself being satisfied with? Because if you can, you should do that instead.”

“No, not really. I don’t think I really have any other talents. I’ve always wanted to be a musician.”

“Then let’s get to work.”

And work I did. Justin set up a program for me where I would learn 3 new tunes a week, transcribe 32 bars of a solo a week, learn new voicings and licks in all 12 keys, and play gigs. I would have a lesson each week to check in and show him my progress. I taught guitar students to save up money.

The goal was to train intensely so that I could get better scholarships when I re-auditioned to schools the next year. On average, I was practicing 5-6 hours a day, and sometimes more. Do you think my jazz playing and musicianship was improving at a rapid pace? You bet it was.

I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz Performance. I’ve been out of college for a while now, I make my living as a musician, but I still remember Justin. I was just another one of his students, and I’m sure the others would agree: Justin had an impact.

The top 10 things I learned from Justin:

  1. Learn jazz solos.

  2. Learn jazz standards.

  3. Listen, listen, listen.

  4. Play, play, play.

  5. Each time you play, leave it all out on the table. Express freely.

  6. Spread the joy of music to others. Give and serve.

  7. Work hard if you want to succeed.

  8. Don’t be afraid to go the unconventional way.

  9. First and foremost, just be a good person.

  10. Encourage your fellow musicians, don’t bring them down.

Thanks, Justin. Your dedication to sharing jazz education is priceless. We need more teachers, mentors, and human beings in this world like you.

Tell us about your most impactful mentor. Leave a comment below.

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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications "500 Jazz Licks" and "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article, there are so many true Jazz heroes around who need to be learned about, Those that truly understand the real meaning of what this music is about. I would dare say that your generous offerings on this website honor the mentorship you received from this fine gentleman…..on a side note I am curious if you'd mind sharing the exact lay out of the program he put you on, if not I understand.

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