Just Nick (Nick Jaffe) is a Chicago-based musician, recording engineer, teacher and editor. In addition to being a member of several bands and sharing stages with some of the biggest names in the industry, he’s also made a name for himself with his incredible video gear demos and lessons. VTB caught up with him this week to find out more about the man known as Just Nick.
When you first started playing, who were some of the artists you were listening to?
I grew up listening to AM radio in NYC and in Rome, Italy—an odd, highly eclectic combination. I think I first became really aware of guitar in my early teens in glam and then punk, but most of all in funk and soul. The percussive sound of players like Jimmy Nolen, Steve Cropper, Freddie Stone and Nile Rodgers, really caught my ear. Curtis Mayfield’s beautiful chord voicings and deep pockets were mysterious and beautiful to me. That’s the stuff that made me want to play. Once someone showed me a 5th string root, 9th chord, and I realized I could just play that all night, I was gone.
You’re in several different bands, can you tell us a little about all the styles of music you play?
I’ve had the great good fortune to play with a really wide variety of players and artists around here over the years. Much of my playing has been in funk, soul, R&B and hip hop projects. I’ve been in a band called Soul People for almost 12 years and we’ve done a lot of original stuff, collaborative projects, and also had the great fun and privilege of backing many of our heroes including Common, Estelle, Bilal, Dwele, Ice Cube, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane.
Alongside that stuff I’ve also been playing in rock projects of various kinds, doing solo stuff that crosses a lot of genres, playing experimental and improvisational music, and backing some great artists around here like the rock singer Esh (in our band Red and Reckless), soul-rocker Obi Soulstar, the inimitable singer-songwriter Tina M. Howell, among others—there’s so, so many talented and highly original singers and writers around Chicago, it’s amazing. The genre-crossing band Slowbots has been a particularly fun and fulfilling project for me lately.
Most recently I’ve been working with my friend the poet Becca Barniskis on finding new ways to fuse poetry and music into something that is almost like a sonic movie—narrative in the words, and sets, lighting, and score in the sounds. We have an LP coming out next month—it’s an audio version of her book Mimi and Xavier Star in a Museum that Fits Entirely in One’s Pocket. More info on that at http://anomalouspress.org/. We just performed the whole, three act poem with live music in Minneapolis to a packed house. We had a blast.
In addition to playing in all of these bands, your solo stuff is incredible! It’s out there… and in a good way! I’ve never heard anything like it. Where do you come up with the ideas for your solo stuff?
Thanks so much! I’m really glad you like it! I think sounds just get in your ear from the things you listen to over the years, and also the other people and projects you collaborate with and in. One tries to be a bit of a sponge and a thief—I teach some in public elementary and high schools and I can tell you, if you get a chance to steal musical ideas from 4th graders, do it! They have the best sounds.
When it comes down to making the music itself, I often start with a rhythmic feel, or a simple harmonic idea, or just a mood or sound and then follow it to see where it goes.
A lot of people know you for the great video gear demos you do. How did that come about?
My good friend Heith Jensen is one of the owners of Rock and Roll Vintage, a great guitar store here where I spend way too much time and money. He asked me a couple years ago if I’d consider doing a few gear demos for them. It just took off from there. It’s been great for many reasons, but most of all because I’ve met so many interesting music people like you—people all over the world, some of whom I’ve even collaborated with on music. Turns out you really can connect with people in meaningful ways on the interwebs!
You along with Becca Barniskis and Barbara Hackett Cox recently authored the book, “Teaching Artist Handbook Volume 1: Tools, Techniques and Ideas to Help any Artist Teach.” What can you tell us about that?
Thanks for asking! The three of us have been involved in teaching in the arts for a long time. Becca’s a great poet who works in schools. Barb is a former Kindergarten teacher and jazz DJ who started a great program in LA called Jazz in the schools. There’s lots of opportunities for artists to teach both as full-time teachers and as freelancers working in schools, prisons, hospitals, senior centers and other places. And there’s a real need for more arts teaching because so much has been cut from regular school curricula.
Everyone likes to make art, and most people make some kind of art as part of their lives. But everyone should also have the chance to study one or more art forms in some depth, and for a musician or other artist sharing one’s expertise and experience—teaching artist to artist—can be a really exciting and fulfilling part of one’s music-making and also a way to make part or all of your living.
We wanted to write a book that can help any artist figure out how to teach or teach better, not based on some abstract formula or generic methodology, but based on his or her own interests and particular expertise. So if what you know is how to play the hell out of some math rock, or how to sing 18th Century light opera, THAT is what you should teach. And if you love your particular medium or discipline or genre, and know about it, and are also curious about it, then you can teach it and people will respond to what you teach and do their own thing with it. The book provides all kinds of tools, ideas and techniques to take what YOU know as a musician or artist and figure out what, how, and where to teach. You can get it at Amazon.com or at the University of Chicago Press website, and there’s more info. about the book at http://teachingartisthandbook.com/.