Louisville jazzman Mike Tracey is always teaching it or playing it
Remember the old 1950s stereotype of a jazz musician?
He was the guy who hung out in bars getting strung out on a reefer - or worse - while playing his instrument, usually a saxophone, and grooving to its sensuous, sinful sounds.
Over the last 20 years, that hedonistic image has been shattered by a new breed of jazzmen (and women) who have been coming out of the nation’s colleges and music schools with a serious and dedicated commitment to their art.
A case in point is saxophonist Mike Tracy, 33, who is now appearing with the jazz band Chameleon at Howard Johnson’s Greenstreet Tavern, 100 E. Jefferson St.
Tracy, unlike the 50s stereotype, neither smokes nor drinks, and his goal in life is to ‘become a better person.” He hopes to achieve his goal through playing jazz.
Tracy, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Louisville’s School of Music, has been playing jazz and teaching jazz theory in local high schools and colleges for more than 10 years. Besides being an artist in residence for the Jefferson County School system, Tracy is teaching jazz classes at both the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.
And he does this while holding down a four-night-a-week gig at the Greenstreet Tavern.
Tracy said his love of music developed early in life. “When I was a kid, my parents kept the stereo on all the time the way most people do the television. We listened to all kinds of music, from classical to big bands.”
When he was in the fourth grade, Tracy began playing the saxophone. Later, while he was attending Seneca High School, he played in a number of all-state and all-county bands, plus stage bands.
But it wasn’t until 1970 when he was a student at the University of Louisville School of Music that his jazz mania began. That year he met his mentor, New Albany jazz educator Jamey Aebersold, who was then teaching at U of L.
“Before I met Jamey, I never really thought about jazz and improvising - but after we met, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
In 1974, when Tracy graduated from college, Aebersold quit teaching full time in order to devote more time to his mail order record business. “I thought that was a perfect opportunity for me to jump in and start teaching because Jamey and I are a lot alike. We both like to teach jazz and be around young people,” he said.
Tracey said a lot of people have made comparisons between him and Aebersold because they are both thin and have a lot of energy. “But basically we just enjoy doing the same things. I enjoy giving and getting from my students. And I was fortunate that Jamey saw something in me that he could use,” Tracey said.
Over the last ten years, Tracey has traveled to Nova Scotia, New Zealand and Europe teaching at Aebersold’s jazz camps. “It’s been great and I’ve learned a lot and had the opportunity to teach with great jazz saxophonists like Joe Henderson and Dave Leibman,” he said.
Tracey is very excited about the new job at the Greenstreet Tavern.
“I think Chameleon (which includes pianist Glen Fisher, bassist Tyrone Wheeler and drummer Daryl Cotton) has the best rhythm section in town. Our goal is to play good jazz with a lot of variety, everything from fusion to bebop,” he said.
“Jazz requires you to search within yourself and be inquisitive about things. I’m very busy, but jazz has given me the freedom to look deep within myself and become a better person, a better teacher and a better musician.”
By Danny O’Bryan
Nightlife Columnist - Louisville Times’ SCENE magazine
From the up-coming book “Derby City Jazz.”