He nurtures players as well as he plays

Boston Globe, February 2, 2007

The Berklee College of Music is a Boston jazz treasure not just for the quality of education it dispenses but also for the chance it affords the general public to get in on the action. Among the city’s best-kept secrets, the school’s concerts feature students on the verge of graduating to make waves in the world of creative music alongside the masters who come to town to teach them. On Thursday, for instance, a modest five-spot will earn you admission to a retrospective concert of the career of alto saxophonist Greg Osby, a workhorse of the New York scene whose projects have been as diverse as anyone’s in the past two decades, and whose gift for nurturing young talent is legendary.

Consider this: Groups led by Osby started the careers of pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris, two of the bona fide young superstars of straightahead jazz (and both of whom have graced Boston stages in recent days). Osby has also nurtured less-famous but no less creative young players such as saxman Mark Shim, bassists Lonnie Plaxico and Tarus Mateen, drummers Rodney Green and Eric Harland, and plenty more. It’s a legacy of mentorship not dissimilar to that left by Art Blakey, only Osby, at 46, is still a young guy with plenty more gas in the tank and projects in mind for young talent.

“I’m known as a magnet for young players,” Osby says on the phone from his home. He describes working with Moran and Harris, who appear together on his 2002 quintet album “Inner Circle” and separately on several others: “They had tremendous potential. They’d come to my house and stay for days, even weeks, on end. We’d read books and be embattled in discussion. I’m exceptionally proud of them. It’s mission accomplished.”

But Osby, who doesn’t have a steady working group but rather goes project to project, in ensembles that range from trios to large groups that have included rappers, singers, and a string section, isn’t content to serve as a Svengali. He’s also helped train the spotlight on important but underappreciated older artists, offering them projects they feel are worth pursuing. His 2000 album “The Invisible Hand” with pianist Andrew Hill and guitarist Jim Hall is a complex, understated masterpiece.

Osby thanks some of these predecessors for helping him find his bearings when he came to New York in the early 1980s, fresh from – as it happens – the Berklee College of Music.

“I came in the beginning of the so-called Young Lions period, 1982-83,” he says. It was the beginning of Marsalis mania.” The attention to detail and professionalism evinced by Wynton Marsalis and others, he says, “raised the bar considerably.”

At the time, much new jazz in New York was emanating from a loft scene that was hip but also ingrown and undisciplined. The new arrivals brought a different energy.

“We were clean, there was no smoking or drinking, and that changed things,” he says. “So we were readily embraced by a lot of elders. That was my bridge. They extended a lifeline to me.” He mentions Hall, McCoy Tyner, Lester Bowie, Herbie Hancock.

Osby’s investment in the conversation between jazz generations made him a natural for the weeklong residency at Berklee that will culminate in Thursday’s concert. He and Ron Savage, Berklee’s director of ensembles, will work all week with multiple student configurations.

“It won’t be just one group,” Savage says. “If you look at Greg’s career, he’s done a number of projects, and our goal is to reflect those different perspectives.” Savage hints at a bass-sax duo, and perhaps a combo with multiple percussionists.

No less important is the insight Osby offers on the business side, as something of a maverick who has conducted most of his business dealings on his own, made the music he wanted to make, and allowed young players to emerge from his orbit and go on to high-profile careers.

“Every student needs to have a certain amount of business savvy,” Savage says. “[Osby] is educated in terms of managing his business, he’s cognizant in terms of what it takes to develop a career, to sell records, to promote yourself to labels, and how you develop projects to create an audience.”

Those real-life lessons, Osby says, are badly lacking in jazz education today – as well as sorely needed to confront what he terms a crisis in the industry.

“I have an earful to give them,” he says. “I’m going to shed some light on some matters based on my experience. There are some holes in the way the music education system works today. We’re cranking out virtuoso musicians by the boatload. Jazz is alive in schools. But there are no places for people to play.”

The survival instinct is lacking, he says, among young, proficient musicians who each year flood the scene only to find the venues few, and labels and promoters narrow-minded and reluctant to take a chance on the new. Musicians, Osby says, too often “just wait until their big break happens.” The cost is a hardscrabble lifestyle that over time adversely affects their creativity.

Osby says he intends to instruct the students not just in compositional and interpretive technique, but also in the value of shopping at Price Club and Costco. He will also preach keeping an open mind about projects and styles to work in.

“You need to diversify, have several irons in the fire,” he says. “We need broader tolerance, accepting other kinds of genres. Whether it’s ethnic-based music, or funk, or anything else, the key is to be playing music with as much dignity and proficiency as possible. It’s not always blazing solos for 15 minutes with the crowd getting up on their chairs. There are always ways of effectively expressing yourself, honorably.”