Brian Seeger once called his old guitar teacher to tell her thank you.
She’d given him lessons for six months when he was 11. When she found out her former student had become a professional guitarist she was, in his words, “distraught.” It just didn’t seem like a suitable profession, she told him.
Seeger, associate professor of music at the University of New Orleans and noted jazz guitarist, now laughs about the conversation—and, of course, he begs to differ.
At 56, Seeger has carved out a life packed with teaching, recording, playing, touring and helping others find their way in the changing world of music.
His band, Organic Trio, last week charted No. 7 on the U.S. Jazz Radio Charts with its second album, Saturn’s Spell. It’s an exciting development, especially for an album that was only released Jan. 27. At the same time it charted No. 7, it also was the “most reported,” according to Jazz Week. That means that more stations reported playing the album than any other album.
“People I know who have been in the business for a while are somewhat in shock,” he said. “It is pretty unheard of for a band that mostly tours in Europe to chart in the US so high and so quickly … I’m just super thrilled to know folks are hearing it.”
Made with the help a $5,000 grant from the University of New Orleans Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, Saturn’s Spell features the smooth musicianship of Jean-Yves Jung of France on Hammond organ and Paul Wiltgen of New York on drums—a three-person combo that started eight years ago thanks, in part, to connections made through the University of New Orleans.
Seeger said the internal grant provided the flexibility the band needed to afford high-end mastering. It also gave him leverage to seek additional grant money for the project, including from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and the Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music.
“I’m proud to have the University of New Orleans logo on the back of that CD,” he said. “I’m proud of where I work and what I do. We’re a vital, contemporary program.”
Seeger said he sees the album as a testament to the strong musical and personal relationships he, Wiltgen and Jung have forged after playing together for so many years. They’ve been able to meld their aesthetics, he said, in a way that has given the group a distinct sound unlike that of a traditional organ trio without it being an insincere effort at novelty.
“It feels like family at this point,” Seeger said. “What I really wanted to capture with that album more than anything was just the depth and the joy and the novelty of a group of musicians that have worked together for so long.”
Seeger, who has a bachelor’s degree in music from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, was living and playing in New Orleans when UNO professor Edward Petersen suggested Seeger enroll in the graduate jazz studies program. Seeing it as, “a good excuse to practice a lot,” Seeger followed through and received his master’s degree from UNO in 1999. And, indeed, he said, “I went back to school and I practiced a lot. It was wonderful.”
Soon after, Seeger started teaching at UNO as adjunct and, in 2007, became a full-time member of the faculty. At first, the idea of teaching intimidated him. But, he had a knack for it. In the classroom, he tries to strike a balance between immersing his students in artistry and imparting to them the nitty-gritty of being part of a business.
“I feel like every day I go to class, I know why I’m there: I’m there because I chose to be,” he said. “I feel this enormous sense of responsibility bringing new artists into this world. I feel protective of my students because everything’s become so do-it-yourself.”
This semester, Seeger is maintaining a busy schedule that includes numerous tour dates for Organic Trio, including a weekend appearance at the famous Duc des Lombards jazz club in Paris on March 11. The performance will be broadcast live on TSF Jazz, a well-known radio station in France. He also has concerts in Morocco, New York and San Francisco with UNO alumna and Berklee College of Music Professor Cindy Scott.
Honors like these, he said, and the opportunities he has to experience, close-up, the work of brilliant musicians are indicative of the beauty music has brought to his life.
“In my life, being focused on my mission and being focused on being honest and sincere and enthusiastically embracing the art and the craft, it’s brought many, many beautiful things to me,” he said. “That’s the thing I kind of hope I get to give to my students—that if you do put yourself out there and if you do work really hard and if you do really care and if you are really focused on your vision that there is still an opportunity that good things will happen to you.”