Steve Masakowski never focused on making teaching his career. While attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music he earned a Professional Diploma rather than a degree in music education. When pianist/educator Ellis Marsalis offered him a full-time position in 1992 at the University of New Orleans, he remembers thinking, “Oh, I’ll give myself five years.” That, of course, was almost 30 years ago and the guitarist has gone on to become a full professor of jazz studies and holds the Coca-Cola Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies at the university.
“I basically learned by playing and of course I studied with some fantastic teachers like Hank Mackie,” Masakowski says. “I personally never really put much credence in degrees. At the time, it was more important for me to play with as many great musicians as possible. I feel that professional experience has been much more valuable in my career. From the bandstand is where most of my education came.”
That includes, of course, his decades with Astral Project that he joined in 1987. “I’m the junior member,” he adds with a laugh.
“My goal as a teacher is to turn out creative and productive individuals,” Masakowski says. “I love helping students discover who they are and finding their own path in music.”
Steve Masakowski grew up in the last house on Magazine Street and recalls being able to listen to the Paul Crawford Jazz Band through his open window—the family’s home didn’t have air-conditioning. As a kid, he had the opportunity to hear brass bands and marching bands as they rolled nearby. His home was often filled with music; his mother was a semi-professional vocalist who would sing around the house and play records.
Masakowski began playing bass and was in a group that dug in on tunes from the British rock band Cream. Interested in getting into composing, he realized he needed to learn chords in order to accomplish that goal. He was told that Hank Mackie was the best guitar teacher in New Orleans.
“There are a lot of great players who aren’t necessarily good teachers; he was one of the rare few. He had a way of being encouraging, demonstrating and also inspiring students. He probably taught most of the great guitar players in New Orleans like Phil DeGruy and Cranston Clements.
“Hank got me on the track listening to these other players—Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass. Of course, at the time, I didn’t have the records. LPs were very expensive and Wes and Pass [jazz recordings] were hard to find. I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and Hank would lend me the prized LPs and I would go home and record them. That’s when I started to blossom as a guitar player.”
Masakowski would spend a great deal of time listening and playing along with these albums trying to copy what the artists were doing. As an educator on the university level, he has his students transcribe material and play what they are hearing. “It’s very ear-intensive,” he explains. “I think the best way to develop an ear is vocalizing—singing what you hear. I like to say, you really don’t know it if you can’t sing it. You don’t have to sing like Sarah Vaughan or somebody.
Unlike Masakowski who had a limited number of recordings available to him, students today have a vast amount of music from around the world at their fingertips. “There is such a plethora of information on the internet; you can learn so much just by watching, though it can get a bit scatterbrained,” Masakowski offers. “It’s important to do one thing and do it really well. There are so many avenues that it requires me to teach from my personal experience. For instance, we teach the music of James Black,” adds the guitarist, referring to the New Orleans drum master who played in his band Mars in the 1980s. “Black was always a challenge—he was so precise and wanted everything to be perfect.”
On his return to New Orleans from Berklee in 1977, Masakowski sought out noted music educator Dr. Bert Braud to help him assimilate what he had learned at the college.
“When I studied at Berklee College of Music, it was a great experience, but I felt that sometimes the people who were teaching were recent graduates who were basically teaching from the book,” says Masakowski who is definitely a proponent of professional musicians in the classroom as they are at UNO and so many schools and universities in New Orleans. “They’re bringing life experiences that reflect what students want to learn—music, business, personal development. It brings a certain amount of insight.”
“Something that I learned from Bert Braud is that you can’t really teach creativity,” he continues. “You can only demonstrate what other people have done, analyze that and hope that in some kind of way students can glean something from it. The only way we can help develop musicians is by looking at the great players through history.
Masakowski took the opportunity to share bandstands with many exemplary artists who became his “professors,” including three years performing duet gigs with pianist Ellis Marsalis at the now- defunct Magazine Street jazz mecca, Tyler’s Beer Garden. “That was a real learning experience,” the guitarist exclaims; “when you play with Ellis, you’re not only learning about music, but off the bandstand we’re talking about politics, science, anything. I learned a lot from [saxophonist] Alvin “Red” Tyler; he knew thousands of songs, and I’m on his album Graciously. I played with some of the greatest modern players in New Orleans like [keyboardist] Willie Tee and [saxophonist] Earl Turbinton.
He credits working with Astral Project, for whom he composed such memorable tunes as “Sidewalk Strut” and “Big Shot,” for forcing him to be spontaneous and think out of the box. “The band is highly rhythmic with Johnny V’s [drummer Johnny Vidacovich] sensibilities and Tork [pianist David Torkanowsky] as the essence of New Orleans.”
Masakowski’s extensive resume reflects his journey as a musician, composer, educator and inventor. It includes two albums of his, What It Was, with liner notes by renowned guitarist/banjoist Danny Barker, and Direct AXEcess on the prestigious Blue Note label, as well as multiple recordings as a sideman. Early on, he toured with vocalist Dianne Reeves and mixed it up and recorded with saxophone greats Dave Liebman and Rick Margitza plus many others. Masakowski has received numerous honors including several in the best guitarist category in Offbeat’s Best of the Beat Music Awards. In recent years, the guitarist has often been heard performing with the Masakowski Family Band that includes his daughter Sasha on vocals and his son Martin on bass.
On the educational front, Masakowski has published guitar lessons for such noted magazines as Guitar Player and wrote a book on jazz ear training for Mel Bay Publications. While holding the chair of the Coca-Cola Endowment, he has developed a number of related programs to enhance the jazz studies curriculum.
“I basically wanted to continue what Ellis was doing with the Endowment,” says Masakowski. “I wanted to make New Orleans an extension of the program. New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and UNO is in New Orleans and should reflect that.”
“I am a perpetual student,” declares Steve Masakowski, an excellent musician and educator despite any hesitation to enter the classroom door. His students, UNO and New Orleans stand as the beneficiaries of his shared knowledge.
Steve Masakowski will receive his Lifetime Achievement Award in Music Education at the OffBeat Best of the Beat Business Awards on January 16. The event is invite only. For more information on Steve Masakowski, click here.