Interview: Jay Mason, saxophone and woodwind artist

One of the cool people I’ve come in contact with through this blog is Jay Mason, a very busy southern California woodwind player. If you’re a fan of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band (and you should be), you have heard Jay’s baritone anchoring the saxophone section. You may have also heard him on film scores (like the recent Monsters University), on television (The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, for one), in the theater (numerous productions around southern California), on high-profile recording projects (Patti Austin, Barry Manilow, Chick Corea…), and backing up a wide variety of marquee acts in concert (Barry White, Kenny Rogers, Michael Bolton, Bob Hope, and many more). He also teaches at Cal State Long Beach and Concordia University – Irvine. Jay was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions about his work.

Jay Mason and friends
Jay Mason and friends

BP: What do you do for a living?

JM: A combination of playing saxophones and woodwinds in recording and live situations, and music education.

What education (formal or otherwise) and experience prepared you for the work you do?

I was very fortunate to have several great young players in my high school bands, both jazz and concert band, who have gone on to successful careers in music. The choir director there started a music theory class during my junior year, which was very thorough and inclusive of many styles, which really helped me to understand how music works, not just how to play. In college, quite a few of the professors either were or had been involved in studio and live work, and working with them, talking shop, etc. helped me to understand what I needed to do if I wanted to become part of that scene. In terms of experience, the opportunity to double on flute and clarinet, as well as all of the different types of saxophones, came along in college in a variety of situations in and outside of school: musicals, different ensembles, saxophone quartets, you name it. After college, I performed at Disneyland for quite a while, which put me into a huge variety of situations, playing everything from piccolo to bass saxophone, often having to read new material or learn new parts quickly, and make it happen day in and day out, no matter the weather, the crowd, or my mood and health.

What is a typical work week like for you?

There isn’t one, which is one of the things I like about this business.

How much does your work schedule change seasonally? Do you have a “busy” time of year?

It does change, but fortunately I have enough variety in my musical life that when one thing gets slow, another seems to get busy. Usually spring until mid-June and September until Jan 1st it’s really busy, especially that spring time. For some reason my schedule is always a challenge that time of year—for which I am really thankful.

What projects are you excited about right now?

Aside from the Phat Band (we have a new recording coming out soon, about which I’m excited) there’s a quintet that I’m helping to start that we hope to launch in the fall this year. I’m writing for it, which is something I’ve wanted to get into for a long time, as is everyone else in the group. A former student and great composer, Roger Przytulski, is writing a woodwind doubling concerto for me, that features saxophone, flute, clarinet and English horn, each with its own movement, and concert band—really looking forward to learning and performing that! I’ve also been considering a solo project for quite awhile now, and the idea of what a first project would/should be is finally taking shape. Finally, I just finished recording a new project with Frank Macchia, who orchestrates and writes for a lot of TV and motion pictures here, which features a killer sax section—the rest of the band is amazing too, and Frank’s writing is unbelievable. I ended up being part of the rhythm section on bass sax, and played a couple of solos on it. I’m really blessed be to working on a lot of great stuff!!!

What is the best part of your job? What is the worst part?

The best part is getting to work with amazingly gifted and accomplished colleagues, in a variety of situations and styles. The worst part is commuting. LA traffic has a reputation for a reason.

Do you have time for other interests, hobbies, etc.?

Yes, I am a licensed pilot and have a wonderful wife and two great kids!

What instruments do you consider part of your current professional toolbox?

All the saxophones, soprano through bass (yep, I own one); all of my clarinets (E-flat, B-flat/A, bass, and E-flat/B-flat contrabasses), piccolo, C, alto and bass flutes, and oboe/English Horn. I also play several keys and sizes of pennywhistles and recorders.

Are there others you are working on or would like to add at some point? Any you would rather retire?

There’s always something interesting or intriguing to me, it seems. I still enjoy playing them all, so no, can’t say that I’d retire anything at this point.

Do you self-identify as a “doubler?” A saxophonist who doubles? Something else?

I’m not a big fan of labels, so I don’t really think about it. When a flute is in my hands, I strive to be the strongest flute player possible, and the same goes for oboe, clarinets, all the saxes, etc.

Is it your intention to play all your instruments equally well, or are there one or more that you would prefer to focus on?

See above! Seriously, I’ll always gravitate toward the saxophone, particularly the E-flat horns for some reason. My personal goal is to be equally strong on all of them, but that is a very difficult thing to achieve—which makes what I do interesting and engaging. There’s always something to work on…

You seem to do a certain amount of work as a “low reeds” player. Do you see yourself as a low reeds specialist? Did you intentionally set out to become one?

No, I didn’t set out with any intention of becoming a low reed specialist, nor do I see myself that way. But I have a reputation on those horns, for sure. I was fortunate to play baritone and bass sax in a variety of situations, which led to the baritone chair in the Phat Band, and that position introduced my playing to a whole lot of new folks, who had only heard me on the baritone sax and bass clarinet. Then they start asking “do you play bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet, etc?” Why yes I do! Doing that led to the thought, in many people’s minds at least, that I’m a low reed specialist when that’s just one facet of what I do. In fact I’m playing lead alto in several situations at the present time.

For many saxophonists, the baritone is a secondary instrument in terms of dues-paying. What mistakes do you see alto/tenor players make with regard to the baritone?

An unwillingness to pick it up!! Regarding technique, playing behind the time a little bit is a common issue. The instrument does respond differently, so you have to work out playing with good time. Another is being unable to play with finesse, especially at softer dynamics.

If you could do it over, is there anything you would have done differently to prepare for your current career?

Yes, I would have done more with writing—composing, orchestrating, arranging. I enjoyed those things during my education, and wish that I had kept developing it all along.

What advice would you give to musicians hoping to work in/around Los Angeles? Who want to play in the Big Phat Band or a group of similar caliber? Who want to do studio work?

The modern music business requires one to be as versatile as possible, keeping in mind that whatever mix you choose to develop, you must be able to do those things really well. Listen to performances of all the media you are exposed to, and ask yourself “can I play (insert name of instrument here) at that level? If not, what do I have to do make that so? Could I write a cue like that?” and such. Another excellent strategy is to look for a niche, something that is needed that few, or nobody, can do at the time. If you can write well, and people know you will play well, they may use you in both capacities on a project. Additionally, never forget that, as much as we love what we do, it is a business, so thinking and being entrepreneurial is very important. Entrepreneurs see something where nothing presently exists and create that thing. An album project would be one example of this. A teaching studio in an underserved market would be another.

Do you have any favorite woodwind doubling (or general woodwind-playing) tips?

There are two that come up quite frequently. First, when you’ve committed to playing a double really well, find a great teacher for whom that instrument is their main or only one, and study with them (or perhaps several different folks). No matter how great a doubling player is on a particular instrument, study with a person who has dedicated his or her life to that has helped everyone I know who does it. I still do this, quite often. Second, develop an awareness of the techniques that are common to all your woodwinds. One example: wasting motion in your fingers. Every woodwind instrument benefits from smooth technique without slapping or clamping fingers, or raising them unnecessarily too far from the keys. There are many other things that are common to all of them, or nearly so.

Thank you, Jay! Check out Jay’s website:


One response to “Interview: Jay Mason, saxophone and woodwind artist”

  1. Nice interview with Jay! Thanks!

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