Interviewed by Megan Fuller
A childhood in Southwestern PA provided Eric DeFade with a solid background in and enduring love for music. Now with over thirty years of professional experience he is in demand as a performing artist and studio musician. For the past ten years Eric has been a featured performer for the My Music series on PBS. This program is internationally broadcast and features such artists as Patti Labelle, Isaac Hayes, the Temptations, Robert Goulet, Wild Cherry, The Platters, and The Commodores to name a few. Eric has played with music greats Rosemary Clooney, Josh Groban, the New York Voices, Gary Burton, John Scofield, Dave Liebman, Ahmad Jamal, and Benny Golson and has toured internationally with The Artie Shaw Band and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Eric has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show accompanying legendary jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson. On February 20, Eric will be playing a show sponsored by the Westmoreland Jazz Society at the Seton Hill University Performing Arts Center at 100 Harrison Avenue in Greensburg at 7:30 PM. Doors open at 6:30 PM. Tickets are available at the door: $10 for WJS members, $15 non-members, $3 students (age 21 and under). Call 724/837-1500 ext. 127 for membership information or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A McDonald’s All-American, multi-instrumentalist, and graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School in Clairton, PA, Eric received a scholarship to study jazz performance at the University of North Texas and was the lead tenor saxophonist with the Dallas jazz orchestra. After working extensively in the Dallas club and studio scene, Eric relocated to Tokyo to lead his own jazz combo. Upon returning to the U.S. Eric began a busy freelance schedule including performances with the Pittsburgh Ballet theater, the Civic Light Opera, The Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild All-Star Big Band, the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, Billy Price, and Benny Benack. Most recently Eric has been touring North America with international singing sensation Patrizio Buanne. With dozens of recordings to his credit, most notably with Nancy Wilson, and the New York Voices, Eric has played on two Grammy award winning projects and won an Emmy for his work on the music special, “Live From Studio A”. In the fall of 2012 Eric was inducted into the Pittsburgh Jazz Hall of Fame. In addition to a year round performance schedule, Eric is an artist\lecturer in saxophone and director of jazz ensembles at Carnegie Mellon University, visiting artist at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, adjunct professor of saxophone at Seton Hill university, director of jazz studies at CMU pre college, music chair of the Henry Mancini Arts Academy, and clinician for the Pennsylvania Arts on Tour program.
Would you please share with us some of your musical background and memories of growing up in Pittsburgh?
My father was and still is a prominent player/composer/arranger in the Pittsburgh area. Our house was always filled with great music, both live and recorded. He would often bring me along to rehearsals and until I was four or five years old, I thought that everybody in the world was a musician. As I grew up in Pittsburgh I quickly became aware of the incredible history here.
Who were your biggest influences either musically or in life?
I would have to say my parents were my biggest influences. I still learn things from my Dad as we get to play together fairly often. My parents both in their own way, impressed upon me the importance of realizing that money isn’t everything and most certainly can’t buy happiness. They gave me the confidence and support to ‘go after it’ and provided calm and sensible guidance, particularly early in my career.
What inspired you to become a professional musician?
Miles Davis is quoted as saying that serious musicians play out of a need to play. This was certainly true in my case. In many ways, though it may sound strange, I feel like I was a saxophone player before I ever picked one up. I always thought that the act of standing up and improvising a dynamic, and hopefully moving, musical statement was just so cool. Still do.
Will you share with us how some of your opportunities came about -like leading a jazz combo in Tokyo or playing with Nancy Wilson, and/or teaching at CMU?
I have been blessed to be a part of some truly memorable performances. When I was quite young I had the opportunity to play a number of dates on the Ginza in Tokyo. It was such a great experience to play in front of such attentive and knowledgeable crowds all the while trying to communicate with the other players. A truly exciting time in my life.
My first gig with Nancy Wilson was on the Oprah Winfrey show. It was part of a Christmas music special with Ms. Wilson, Beyoncé, and Charlotte Church. We had rehearsed our parts beforehand without Nancy and when it came time to tape, and she walked out it all dawned on me at once. I was seated a few feet away from a genuine jazz legend that I had admired for years, getting ready to play in front of several million people. When she started to sing, I almost forgot to play! Such beautiful phrasing and distinctive style. I was blown away.
Teaching at CMU has been a wonderful thing for me. Teaching is gratifying in ways that had never occurred to me when I was strictly a freelance musician. It has improved my playing and approach to the business in a variety of ways. I also love to see the students grow and excel.
To what can the audience at your February Westmoreland Jazz Society performance look forward?
I will be playing with some of Pittsburgh’s finest rhythm players including the phenomenal Tom Wendt on drums. We will play a good mix of jazz classics and originals (classics in waiting ha ha) in a variety of styles. I will be playing tenor and soprano saxophones and flute.
Are there any personal or professional goals that you are currently working towards?
I am currently putting the finishing touches on the second release of a collaboration between myself, Tony Depaolis, and London-based guitarist Francesco Lo Castro. We have tour dates in place for the summer in Lon-don, Paris, and Rome to promote our new project, “Into the Unknown”.
What advice do you give to students in their search for success?
I always tell my students that the time to go out and experience the world as a musician is now. Keep your over-head low and try not to take on too much debt. Network as much as possible and never stop working on the things that you don’t do well. Versatility is the coin of the realm in this era.