Mitch Stein (1982) Piano
Autobiographical Sketch and Biography
My relationship with the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble can be traced back to 1968, when I was 4 years old and used to watch The Lone Ranger every time it appeared on television (even if I couldn’t fully comprehend that which I was viewing, I liked the horses). My parents purchased a piano with the thought that one day, either I or my younger brother might be interested in taking lessons (my Dad was an accomplished and recorded singer, and our house was always filled with the sounds of Big Bands and crooners). One afternoon, I sat down at the piano having never played it before, and played the opening theme to The Lone Ranger…which is of course The William Tell Overture by Rossini…and my parents nearly passed out. They took me to the University Of Chicago, where I was tested and found to have both perfect pitch and perfect interval pitch. The folks at UoC suggested that I start with lessons right away, and although my parents felt that I was a perhaps bit young, followed their advice and enrolled me in private lessons taught by Lillian Delissovoy at Northwestern University.
For the next few years, I was admittedly rebellious toward my parents for “forcing” me to not only take my weekly lessons, but spend hours each day working on my scales and actual pieces of music to be performed in recital; however and to be fair, I was admittedly and mainly frustrated because my lessons were on Saturday mornings…so at school on Mondays, all of my friends were excited and talking about all of the cool cartoons they had seen a couple of days earlier but that I had never seen (these were the ancient days before VCRs). I learned to keep my feelings mostly at bay, as I was genuinely enjoying being able to play the pieces I was playing. After several years with Lillian, I started taking private lessons with Miriam Magad (as did several of my New Trier pals), and was inspired that she included modern pieces as well as the classics in my studies repertoire.
Fast-forward a couple of years later, and I was introduced to and soon after began taking private lessons with celebrated pianist Emilio del Rosario. I had been with Emilio for several years when I began to feel a nagging annoyance at and frustration with the fact that while I was playing these classical pieces successfully, there was something missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it…until I heard Chick Corea for the first time. Here was someone with otherworldly technical chops at home on any classical piano concert stage on the planet, yet what he was playing was not only brand-new to my ears, but very distinctly *his* voice. Chick directly helped me to understand that the thing that was bugging me was that while perhaps technically correct, I was still performing SOMEONE ELSE’S music note-for-note, and therefore if any note was performed other than as written, it was both wrong and insulting to the composer. That epiphany in mind, I immediately got several Chick albums and nearly wore the grooves out (remember those?), and started to think about how his approach to “my” instrument could be applied to the music I was performing.
Not long after this life-changing experience, I had a lesson with Emilio wherein I performed a Chopin waltz (Op. 69 Moderato in B Minor, for those on a need-to-know basis) and added a grace note to one of the passages. He immediately stopped me and asked me what *THAT* was, and I replied in complete honesty, “I think it sounds better that way.” Well, despite my years-long positive and productive relationship with Emilio, he said that he refused to try to teach anyone who thinks they can improve upon Chopin, and informed me that this would be our last lesson together.
A blessing in disguise in retrospect, this “firing” led me to pursue the spark that had been lit by Chick’s playing, and I began taking private jazz piano lessons from Alan Swain. Alan was indispensable in helping me to apply my 10 years of classical technique to the concepts surrounding the jazz lexicon, and through him, I learned about and attended Jamey Abersold’s jazz camp to enhance my jazz understanding and performance. Right around this time, a buddy of mine told me that he had an extra ticket to a “rock concert” at the Uptown Theater. I asked him who was on the bill, and he told me it was the Grateful Dead. I had never heard of them, and could only picture some type of head-banging, Dark Lord- worshipping kind of thrash rock…but at 14, I was psyched to go to ANY concert, so I told him I’d go.
Instead of the hard rock extravaganza I was expecting, I was instead treated to a jazz concert. Yes, it was in the rock idiom complete with electric guitars, bass, two (!!!) drummers, and an acoustic piano player. And a “chick singer”. And a level of onstage, in-the-moment improvisation and communication between the players at such a high level that I was absolutely transfixed. Here was the perfect blend of rock and jazz, and the musicians were IMPROVISING IT ALL while still remaining exceedingly musical, accessible and most definitely within the loose boundary lines of Rock. They played two sets and an encore, and the entire show lasted longer than THREE HOURS. I knew that the band was playing another show the next night, and I bought a ticket for it as I was leaving the theater, excited by the thought of seeing THIS show one more time. I went the next night, and realized right away that this 7-piece band was playing 3- plus-hour shows that were essentially improvised, and that didn’t repeat a single song from night to night (and I got a ticket for the third night as well, since I was by then officially “on the bus”). I mention this chapter in my life not only for the joy and self-revelation it generated, but because it will come back a little later in THIS story.
I continued with my jazz piano lessons as I entered New Trier as a freshman, and discovered the existence of the Recording Jazz Ensemble. I went to every concert, and knew that my path was heading in the direction of being able to perform this type of music. My years working with Alan gave me the confidence to improvise, and I formed and was part of a few non-school bands featuring fellow Jazz Ensemble members Bob Golden, Erik Knuti, Craig Garfinkle, Dotty Boehm, Linda Minnick, Dan Lakin, Joe Thornton, Bill Cooley and others.
I introduced myself to Roger Mills, the creator and Director of the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble, and let him know that I was interested in perhaps trying out for the Ensemble. He explained that there were only so many people that could be in the Ensemble in any given year, but that when the time came, I could certainly audition. Fast-forward to my auditioning and being accepted into the Creative Jazz Ensemble, the Recording Jazz Ensemble, and subsequently being honored with the position of Student Director for the Recording Jazz Ensemble (I also received the coveted Benny Goodman Trophy).
My years in the Creative Jazz Ensemble and Recording Jazz Ensemble were some of my happiest memories of high school. Roger’s intensity and excitement about not only the music we were playing but the musicians themselves was at times both maddening and inspiring, and I and my bandmates strove to make sure that we knew our parts well enough that he would be nothing but pleased. His dedication to nurturing young musicians and opening their ears to Big Band Jazz was only part of the puzzle; he was also forward-thinking and had the good sense to create SoundTracks, a student-run recording studio responsible for capturing the music contained within this website. He also worked hard to bring world- class talent to New Trier in order to perform with us in concert; getting to perform with Red Norvo and Dizzy Gillespie were two such amazing experiences. He did all of this on his own, and often at his own expense.
I spent measurable time in the New Trier library listening to the school’s copies of the previous Recording Jazz Ensembles’ albums, and through that experience, discovered Steve Kujala (jumping ahead a few years, I booked a run of jazz shows at Syracuse University, and one of them was Chick’s project Touchstone featuring Kujala). During this time, I was a DJ who had a weekly radio program called “Jazz Unlimited” on WNTH (several SoundTracks members were also on-air with me), and I brought in saxophonist Greg Alper for an in-studio interview and spinning of his then-new Fat Doggie album. Having 3 hours to basically spin whatever jazz albums I wanted only served to increase my knowledge of jazz and jazz musicians, and I soaked up as much in as I could while interviewing other local notables such as the great Corky Siegel.
My ongoing jazz lessons and focused experience in the NTWRJE led me to apply to the Berklee College Of Music in Boston the summer before my senior year at New Trier. I attended an intense 16-week immersive study experience focusing on jazz theory, composition, arranging and performance. I applied that which I learned upon my return to New Trier for my senior year, when New Trier West and New Trier East combined at the East campus. That was an unusual year, as we had to meet a whole new crop of fellow students and get to know their musical leanings in relatively short order…but we did so, and the result was in my estimation a band that felt like we had been playing together for many years.
My tenure with the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble paved the way for college at Syracuse University, which was my second choice of colleges; I had also been accepted to my first choice (Indiana University, which at the time had one of the best jazz programs in the country), but learned that no freshmen or sophomores played in the IU Ensemble. I didn’t want to go an entire year or two without playing jazz, so my intent was to go to SU for a year or two, get experience playing in their acclaimed Jazz Ensemble, then transfer to Indiana to complete my college/jazz performance experience. While the SU Jazz Ensemble under Stephen Marcone’s direction was really fantastic, the rest of the School Of Music was stuck in the Baroque era; the entire administration essentially put up with the jazz program because it was too highly celebrated to cancel…but in another blessing in disguise, their refusal to validate any other music composed after the 1800s led me to explore other avenues. I always loved movies and movie-making (I learned much about the process by spending hours watching Sixteen Candles, Ordinary People, Risky Business, The Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and other films when they were shot in and around the North Shore and Chicago, and knew that I wanted to be somehow involved in that process later in life), so I switched from music classes to classes in the Newhouse School of Communications, where I majored in Film, Television and Audio Production and maintained a minor in Music Industry in the School Of Music. This significant switch in study and career path meant that Indiana was now out of the picture.
After I finished college, I packed up a U-Haul and drove from Chicago to Los Angeles, where I planned to live out the rest of my life as a film producer while playing music as often as possible. A few months after moving there, I was introduced to legendary concert promoter Bill Graham, who hired me to come up to San Francisco to produce a project for him. I planned to spend the rest of my life in L.A., but thanks directly to Bill, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area a few months after meeting him, and I’ve been here ever since. As result of the move to the epicenter of the San Francisco Sound and Summer Of Love, I produced the video of the Jefferson Airplane reunion at the Fillmore, produced a 6-camera shoot of Blues Traveler at Red Rocks, co-produced Widespread Panic’s film The Earth Will Swallow You, produced two feature films (Dream With The Fishes and Christmas In The Clouds) that were picked up for worldwide theatrical and home video distribution, performed with and for dozens of my musical heroes (including performing solo jazz piano at Mick Jagger’s daughter’s wedding and a 12- guest birthday party that Mick threw for Jerry Hall the following day; larger list here: www.groovedivision.com), composed original music for CD-ROM and Super Nintendo video games, composed officially licensed Grateful Dead ringtones, built a recording studio from a music producer’s studio to a full-blown film and television post production facility, created an iOS and Android app called DEADSHOWZ that’s the most powerful Grateful Dead concert search engine available, and am currently in production on a feature-length documentary about James Brown’s band. I continue to be a “hired gun” for others’ live and studio music projects, and enjoy generating original keyboard tracks from my home studio for collaborators near and far.
I also produce the Café Istanbul Nightfest, an annual 2- week run of live concerts in New Orleans during Jazzfest. New Orleans is definitely my second home; nearly 30 years ago, I went to New Orleans for my first Jazzfest. I bumped into Charles Neville at his gig at Storyville, and he immediately remembered my name because while at Syracuse, I booked the Neville Brothers to perform at a very successful Muscular Dystrophy dance marathon (at the time, folks on the East Coast hadn’t yet heard of the Neville Brothers, so I was somewhat of a hero for bringing them in since they were looking to expand their reach…and it’s tough to think of a better band to which one can dance). Charles essentially took me under his wing, and through him, I met and became an extended family member to many of the biggest names in New Orleans. I continued going to Jazzfest every year as a performer until 2015, when I had the idea to try to produce a 2-night celebration of the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary, and booked two nights at Café Istanbul. I got the top Jerry Garcia “channeler” (Stu Allen), the Bob Weir “channeler” from Dark Star Orchestra (Rob Eaton), the bassist (Robin Sylvester) and drummer (Jay Lane) from Bob Weir’s RatDog, and both Charles on sax and Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux (the “chick singer” to whom I previously referred), and had an extremely successful couple of nights. The club owner was so happy with the way things went down that he offered me the venue to book every Jazzfest, and I’ve done so every year since (with the exception of the run of shows now postponed twice due to COVID).
I continue to meld my jazz and Grateful Dead interests: my 11-year-old Grateful Dead tribute band CRYPTICAL was chosen by the Rex Foundation (the Grateful Dead’s charity arm) and the San Francisco Giants to be the exclusive performers at the very first Jerry Garcia Night at AT&T Park, Phil Lesh has now invited me to play with him at his club Terrapin Crossroads (TXR) on several occasions, Bob Weir played with my band GATORATORS (featuring Dave Malone, Camile Baudoin and Reggie Scanlan from the New Orleans Radiators), and I’ve now officially played music with every currently living member of the Grateful Dead…which brings me back to my Emilio story. I was dining with Phil Lesh one night when we were playing at TXR, and I told him the story and how Emilio “fired” me for having the audacity to suggest that I could improve upon Chopin. When Phil asked me to play with him, Stu Allen and drummer John Molo at TXR a few months later, he told me after the show that he was inspired to do so specifically thanks to the Emilio story; it really struck a chord (pun somewhat intended) with him.
I remain in touch with several of my Jazz Ensemble bandmates, and look forward to learning about what other folks have been up to these past few decades. I can say without hesitation that I owe an extremely large part of my career path to the time spent in the Ensemble with Roger and my bandmates, and have little but great memories of that time in my life. The ethos of hard work on and respect for the music that we performed stuck with me to this very day, and every jam session, concert, recording session and/or other opportunity to improvise with my fellow musicians I’ve had since high school is but one more spoke in my personal evolutionary wheel for which I have Roger and the Ensemble to thank (in a true flashback moment to my Jazz Ensemble days, I even got invited to jam with Max Weinberg’s Big Band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhGZoyCslzw).
I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve been in conversation with other musicians when after hearing that I attended New Trier West, they comment on how they’ve always heard that NTW had a world-class jazz program. I feel nothing but pride and consider myself fortunate to have been able to be a part of the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble. New Trier would do well to honor and acknowledge the incredible impact that Roger Mills and the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble directly had not only on the students who went through the program, but the bands, musicians and audience members who perform and enjoy live music at New Trier to this very day. There would likely *BE* no New Trier Jazz program were it not for the tireless dedication and commitment that Roger Mills gave not only to his students, but to the community at large. We collectively owe him a huge debt of gratitude for laying the groundwork for those who came after he left, and should do everything within our collective power to ensure that Roger – and the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble – get the acknowledgment and public appreciation they deserve.