Q & A with Craig Buhler

What drew you to saxophone as a primary instrument?

Craig Smiling with Sax

At my mother’s insistence, I unwillingly began playing clarinet in the 7th grade school band. Because of a life-long visual disability, I do not excel in team sports, so band became my “team sport,” my primary social outlet. Many musicians assert that jazz saved their teenage years from shipwreck in the doldrums, and this was true in spades for me.

I determined to be prepared to play with anyone, anywhere, anytime. In 8th grade, I borrowed my friend’s alto sax and taught myself the fingerings. By 9th grade, newspaper money bought me an old tenor, and by 10th grade, I had appropriated a girlfriend’s flute. I joined every band in sight, be it Dixieland, surf, R&B, or bebop. Without knowing it – I was morphing into a “doubler.” (The grand-daddy of “doublers” is Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who I heard perform in 1968.)

While stylists such as Cannonball or Desmond are known for their alto sound, I hope my “sound” comes through on all the reeds. The proper instrument for a song is determined by the nature of the composition. For example, the tenor sings “Younger than Springtime,” but we need Ezio Pinza to pull off “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” In the same way, each horn is an actor in the drama of portraying a set of songs, and I attempt to select the horn which will best tell the story at hand.


Who has been your biggest influence in your career?

While I have become a disciple of many master musicians (described in #4), the people who really set me straight are:

  1. My junior high band teacher, Richard Watts, was the first musician to believe in me. He led by his example, teaching me about perseverance, teamwork, and the potential of experiencing joy through music.
  2. My ear training teacher, Al Learned, founder of the Westlake School of Jazz in L.A., taught me to seek out all of the harmonic nuance of a piece.
  3. My saxophone teacher, Bill Green, one of the foremost Hollywood studio players & a member of Oliver Nelson’s legendary band, taught the importance of tone, that the number one goal of a great player is to produce a great sound.
  4. My wife, Molly, encourages me daily to rise to a level of excellence, while maintaining a healthy balance in life.
  5. My producer, Richard Stekol, himself a much-respected composer, singer, & instrumentalist, continues to mentor me regarding the qualities needed for effective leadership.
  6. Most of all, it is the Will of God Almighty that determines my path & priorities.

What led you to create New Ears Resolution and Jazz for Youth?

“New Ears Resolution” is an outgrowth of the ear training I received from Al Learned (see above). Al was trained at Stanford before founding the fabled Westlake School of Jazz in L.A., a school which trained many of the key players in the 1950’s West Coast Jazz School. Al was frustrated at the pedantic way harmony was taught in college classrooms. He showed me how my ear could become a precious tool in mining the riches of a song. More and more, students are seeking me out not only to learn the mechanics of playing an instrument, but also to impart that wonderful gift, the ability to improvise. “New Ears Resolution” teaches them the “how to do it,” while our study of improvisation shows them the “what to play” of producing a wonderful solo.

“Jazz for Youth” grew out of my frustration with MTV. Young people will be drawn to jazz only if they are exposed to it. TV shows them only screaming guitar players. They need positive adult role models who will demonstrate – in the flesh – the joy and excitement of jazz wind instruments. The first concert I produced at the request of a fourth grade teacher. Later, I was approached by band directors, who used our workshops as recruitment vehicles. We have been blessed by the thousands of kids we have met through this program, and the feedback has been thrilling.


Describe what jazz is to you?

Jazz is early spring, when you finally are able to open the windows, the fresh breeze replaces the stale air of winter, the newborn sun plays on your face, and life begins again.

Jazz is the transformation of “Fiddler on the Roof” by Cannonball, or “Favorite Things” by Coltrane or “It Never Entered” by Miles.

Jazz is the rebirth of Gospel in Herbie’s “Watermelon Man” or Mobley’s solo on “Elijah” (“A New Perspective” by Donald Byrd) or “A Closer Walk” by Pete Fountain.

Jazz is you remember the moment when you first heard Ellington’s original records of “A Train” & “Cottontail.”

Jazz is hope, possibility, candor, honesty, stretching, grooving, growing, resting.


What inspires you when creating compositions?

I believe that compositions are meant to be played, to be listened to, to dance to, to inspire, to open up communication & new possibilities, to enhance awareness of our surroundings. As the seed of an idea matures, I test drive it on my horn and on the piano, I woodshed on it with my students, I use it as a vehicle for hornsmanship, for discussion, for generating excitement, for philosophizing.


How did you choose the players for Capistrano Sessions to properly convey your message?

Richard Stekol has been my producer and mentor for fifteen years. He has been my best friend a lot longer than that. Even so, I auditioned several producers before choosing him. He was totally focused every step of the way, from tune selection through mixing.

Brian Atkinson is simply an amazing human being and a remarkable musician. He has been one of my closest friends for forty years. Every song he touches improves with his touch. And he is Mr. Serenity on the bandstand.

Paul Kreibich played in my band “Storyville” for a couple of years before he joined Ray Charles. He is that rare bebop musician who flourishes in every other milieu as well. I mean, how many players could burn through a straight-ahead song like “Migration,” turn around & chill on “Himalayan,” and then grab the Latin groove on “Molly Ann”? This CD called for versatility. And most of the recordings were done in one or two takes.

Dave Witham has played on two of my previous CDs. He also understands every style from Mozart to Mose. He is a picture of peace on the bandstand, but his playing burns like crazy.

I had never met Joel Hamilton before the record date. But, if Richard says “He’s the man,” then he’s the man. The first take made me a believer.


What does the future hold for Craig Buhler?

Fame and fortune are not big on my list. What this boy longs for is to play with great musicians. Man, whenever I get the chance to share the stage with some of those fine players, that’s one memorable evening. I play better, the whole thing sounds better, and we at least have a fighting chance of inspiring the audience to get excited about life once more.

The second big interest for me is inspiring the youth through workshops and guest appearances with high school big bands. When you see twenty teenagers working as a tight-knit team, man that’s something. I want to be a positive adult male role model in a world where they have way too few. To interact one-on-one with kids and make a difference in their lives, the way my junior high band teacher made all the difference in my young life, that would fulfill a life-long dream.