Trombonist Victor Sawyer, leader of the Lucky 7 Brass Band and Stax Music Academy teacher, guides us on his journey through the industry, sobriety and the future of music.
Photos by Houston Cofield
There was a general music class when I was in elementary school. So, as early as kindergarten I was playing xylophone, recorder, etc.. I kind of knew how to read music way before I actually started playing trombone, and because of that I consider myself lucky.
In seventh grade I started playing the trombone, which is truly one of the most versatile instruments out there. The instrument was originally called a sackbut and was designed to imitate the voices of choirs in churches in the 15th century. It's a powerful and difficult instrument, but at the same time a comedic instrument. Kids always love the trombone.
But honestly, the trombone isn’t even my favorite instrument, I like drums a lot. I like guitar, especially electric guitar. I really love electric guitar. My favorite jazz musicians are alto saxophone players. I definitely have a trombone player in my top 10 favorite jazz artists, but not in my top three.
But, I play the trombone because I like it and because I’ve been playing it. There is also a part of me that always wants to get better at things, so it’s nice to have an instrument that you can always get better at, and you can always get better at the trombone.
I think as a kid, when you're good at something, you're down for it. You're just like, ‘I found something and I'm good at it.’ I ended up being pretty good at it, and by my sophomore year of high school I was in love with playing music.
Now, I didn't plan on making a life out of music. My senior year I started really thinking about what I wanted to pursue. It was either engineering or trombone. I had gotten into Northwestern and some other schools — and maybe I should have gone to them — but, familiarity won.
I really just hoped I would graduate and get paid for playing somebody’s ensemble. I knew I wanted to play jazz, but the path to employment for a musician is never clear, especially when you're in high school and just really starting out
At the end of the day I’m happy where I am for the most part. Every step of this journey, painful or joyful, brought me to where I am today, and I’m okay with that.
At the end of the day I’m happy where I am for the most part. Every step of this journey, painful or joyful, brought me to where I am today, and I’m okay with that.
By the time I actually got to the University of Memphis in 2005 it was pretty much ordained for me to study music. I didn’t initially want to major in classical trombone, but at the time my fundamentals needed major fine-tuning.
Back then they really wanted you to do classical before you touched jazz. Without fundamentals you’ll never be able to play the intricate and technically demanding music found in jazz. Although most fundamentals are taught through pedagogy centered on more classical music you can teach the fundamentals through jazz. It just takes some very deliberate modification to existing pedagogical methodology.
I'll probably never be in a situation where I’ll have to play orchestral repertoire again. Very much an incredible college experience.
But at the same time I don’t feel like I wasted my time playing these classical pieces, but I definitely, in some regard, felt like a factory musician. Play this, play that, do it again over and over. Because it wasn't what I wanted to do when I got into it, but I always wanted to play more jazz and pop music.
Most schools are just just training you to become a classical musician or a college professor.
It’s ridiculous because the vast majority of people that go through music schools are not going to be a professor or land a gig in a major symphony. It's such a singular goal and competitive field. I don't want to say it's not good preparation because if that's what you want to do then do it, but I don’t think it prepares you to be nimble and cross across genres.
A lot of people get into these amazing music schools that train you to become an amazing musician, but it doesn’t teach you how to navigate the industry.
I remember horn players getting discouraged from making beats or filming yourself and posting on social media. But then again this was like in ‘09, before Instagram was even a thing really. Who would have thought social media would be as important as it is.
Now you look at it, and of course you need to know how to do a little sound editing. You have to know things beyond just playing your instrument.
When I moved to New York City in 2009 to get my master’s degree in jazz at the Manhattan School of Music it was one of the most beautiful, inspiring and devastating experiences of my life.
It was one of the most beautiful, inspiring and devastating experiences of my life.
It was my first time not living in Memphis. The devastating part was in Memphis I thought I was really good at jazz, but when I got to New York I realized I had no idea what it meant to be a professional jazz musician. I could play in big bands just fine. Put some music in front of me? I can play it.
But when it came to playing with a quintet or a group and really playing jazz, I could do it, but not at the level my peers could. And, that was a big reality check. It was really, really hard to feel that. But, it was also inspiring because I felt that at least I sort of knew the level I needed to be.
It was also hard to be reflective and just say to myself, ‘Hey, I’m in New York City at one of the top music conservatories in the world. Of course these people are badass.’ But, it still hurt to feel less than. Looking back I was 22-years-old and I just didn’t have the confidence, humility or matureness to ask my classmates around me for help. Instead I was just weird and awkward and insecure.
But, going back to what I said earlier about most schools not preparing you well, the Manhattan School of Music was really on the cutting edge with preparing you for a rapidly changing industry. Which is strange because most conservatories are very regressive since they've been doing the same thing for centuries and it's worked for centuries.
They were actually really ahead of the curve and made all of the master's students take an education course for two years. It was great and that is what I make the majority of my money from today in addition to my freelance career. It was really almost an entrepreneurial program that taught you how to make money beyond just playing your horn.
Those two years felt like a lifetime. Everyday in New York there is a problem to figure out. A friend of mine always says the second you leave your apartment there, you’re losing money. There's always some sort of obstacle to challenge.
But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter because there's nothing like New York.
Living in New York was the first time I was keenly aware that I was not rich. Memphis has such a low cost of living. My parents are here. There's a lot of work available. It's a pretty small pond.
So when I moved to New York my tuition was like $25,000 a year. That doesn't include living expenses or anything like that. And they don't typically give out scholarships, but I lucked out and got a $20,000 a year scholarship. But, my rent was $1,300 a month, so I still needed the equivalent of a $20,000 a year job in order to live at the bare minimum there, so I still had to take out the loans to just live, and I still had to work three or four jobs while I was up there.
One of my jobs was as an outreach teacher, which didn't pay very well, but was a great experience and my first true foray into music education. I also worked as a house manager putting the concerts together for my school, which in itself was such a crazy experience.
After I finished school I was eligible to get a master's degree in teaching from Columbia University in one year. It would have been huge. But, even after scholarships I would have had to pay close to $30,000, and after taking out $55,000 in loans already I just couldn’t swing it. What if it didn’t work out, how would I pay for it? I wasn’t even sure if I would want to teach or if it would make me hate my life. So I didn’t go.
It made me really mad, really depressed and really suicidal. I think I had laid down the roots of alcohol addiction in Memphis, but it had become a habit in New York.
Money brought me back to Memphis in 2011. I was 24-years-old and had this expensive, advanced degree, but I only had $200 to my name and was living with my parents. I was defeated, and I was suffering from untreated, undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. It was a perfect storm. Looking back I really feel that those were some of the most dangerous times of my life.
I needed the money and I didn’t have any gigs, so I had to figure out how to find them. I had friends here who would tell me, ‘You need to hear this band and that band.’ So I would go see them and if I liked them, I’d ask them if I could sit in with them.
Memphis has vibe — a deep groove. When I came home I wasn’t really playing any jazz anymore. Suddenly, I was playing pop, which is still true today. Luckily, I've been able to add some improvisational elements from jazz. Even with the degree when I came back I didn't feel better than anybody else. I felt terrible. I found some solace in the bottom of a bottle. But luckily, simultaneously, I did get gigs and kept performing.
I felt pretty confident about playing because I knew I'd had all this training built around hearing music. I sat in a lot my first two years back in Memphis. I would be lying if I said that life is always fun. There was definitely a strong business aspect to wanting to be sitting in with so many people. It is fun, but after doing it for a year or so it's just tiring playing shows that aren’t yours. You know sometimes you're only playing horns on two songs and you have to still stand there for the entire set. It's fun to meet people. It's fun to learn other people's music, but it definitely wears you down. It’s a tiring job, and it kept me busy for about two years. Beale Street, midtown, east Memphis, etc. It didn’t matter. If there was an opportunity to sit in, I took it.
I also was working odd jobs at offices or at restaurants, but I just hate my life and hated waking up at 8am every morning so I quit with no real back-up plan.
But, being a part of that nightlife did end up leading me down another career path. At the end of 2013 I was at the Blue Monkey for my normal Thursday karaoke night and I think I was singing ‘American Woman,’ anyway, an acquaintance of mine came up to me and told me that I sounded good and that he knew I played trombone. He then told me he had an interesting opportunity and for me to give him a call, which I did. It turned out to be for a teaching position at the Stax Music Academy. I took the job.
The next Spring, just a couple months later, I got another job at the Memphis Music Initiative and have held down both ever since.
The first time I tried to quit drinking was six years ago, when I was 27. I had tried all the management situations, but they didn’t work. I went to rehab at Lakeside. And on my last day, I prayed to God, looked up to the moonlight sky and said,‘Please do not let me come here again. I'll never drink again.” Everybody at the facility laughed at me because they thought I’d be back, because they had all been back and knew the road to redemption was not clean or neat. It would truly be an extended fight for my life.
I did get sober, but I stopped playing music for six months to make that happen. That period was the only time in my life, other than the pandemic, where I didn't play music. My band leaders at the time were really gracious and were just like, ’You're hurting too much to be reliable right now. So go get help. Take a break, and then we'll reassess.’ And I'm happy to report that I got my gigs back, but I really want to say that I really appreciate those band leaders for giving me space to heal and not just replacing me.
I lasted two years before I went back out, but at that point it was different. It wasn’t all the time, maybe just once a month or once every three months. Those one-offs were the exact same disasters they had been before I quit the first time only this time they were rare anomalies, which made the sting all the more painful.
My life was a weird dichotomy, where if you just knew me from the daytime you would never guess the way I was at night time and vice versa.
I drank again for about a year and a half, off and on. But I've been sober ever since. Now I’ve got about two years of true sobriety. I’ve had about five years of sobriety total, even though it's not continuous it doesn’t bother me since I’m not an AA kind of person. The thing that helped me most was this book called “This Naked Mind,” by Annie Grace. It deprogrammed me and I’m proud to say I haven’t thought about drinking since.
The Lucky Seven Brass band really had its origins when I was in New York. Some friends and I would play together as New Orlean’s style brass band every Friday evening at this mission for homeless people down in the Lower East Side in Brooklyn. Then we started busking at the Brooklyn Bridge with this Bulgarian guy who taught me a lot about showmanship. Put on a good show...watch the tips roll in.
I had never really played that style of music but I really loved it. So when I got back to Memphis I wanted to start a brass band, but the people I hit up weren’t available or easy to corral. Honestly, I wasn't ready to lead a band.
Coincidentally, Sean Murphy was looking to start a brass band, and that ended up being the Might Souls Bass Brand. Life changing.
What finally cleared the way was when Dead soldiers went on hiatus, Brennan Villines had moved to New York and Lucero stopped using horns. Since Brennan had moved, we got our bassist, Neal Bowen, and our drummer, Ryan Peel. Our saxophone player, Jim Spake , and trumpet player, Randy Ballard, came from Lucero. We also got Jawaun Crawford, who was a young trumpet player that was already making waves in the scene. Finally, Nathan DuVall, our other trombone player, had come from Nick Black’s band. He still played but had more free time as the frequency of bands performing ebbs and flows. One of the pitfalls of being freelance. You are beholden to gigs coming your way with little agency to create work for yourself and others.
So it just happened to be that these seven people, myself included, suddenly had time to do a new band. It was the right time and the right people. What is really cool about the group is that all seven of us are friends, and some of us have known each other for over twenty years.
But, I knew I wanted to have an ensemble that played music outside of the New Orleans tradition. Even though I wanted to include that genre, I also wanted to be able to play renditions of rock, pop, hip-hop, soul and other classic songs.
I also wanted to have a more active hand in determining my own future gig opportunities, as opposed to waiting on other band leaders to provide them for me.
I also opted to use an electric bass for the group instead of sousaphone. because I didn’t feel like we needed to make it too similar to the Mighty Souls Brass Band. That band is amazing and some of our members already played with the group so I figured, “Why try to duplicate something that already exists?”. Because we utilize an electric bass we were also able to incorporate more pop music into our sets..
It frees us up to let the drums and bass groove while we vibe and solo and interact with the crowd. The electric bass is also just more idiomatic to newer genres. I wanted that huge low sound. Specifically Neal can do almost anything on the instrument, so he even provides some chordal accompaniment as well.
I have a huge amount of respect for Sean Murphy. I didn't want to duplicate his original vision nor did I want to create unnecessary competition.The city already had that and the Mighty Souls already does it better than anybody else. There are plenty of brass band fans to go around.
The pandemic has definitely changed how I live my life, both professionally and personally. At Stax we’ve been doing some level of teaching virtually, but we’ve been in person, for the most part, since April and I’ve been teaching two to three days a week since then.
As far as not playing shows anymore, it has been different, but I just lost shows, not music.
I've always said this, let's say, hypothetically, I'm going to go to purgatory and I have to make a choice. The first choice, I can play an amazing show every night for eternity, but you can’t practice or get better. The second choice, you'll never play a show again in front of anybody, but you can practice every day. I’d choose that second option all day. So, personally I didn't lose anything per se when I reframed my thinking. If anything I gained a lot spiritually. I could finally dig into practicing like, I want to, like I used to before I started overworking. I suddenly had a break. I’m truly not a big people person. If you see me performing you probably think I’m this really personable and extroverted person, but it really isn’t the case. Truly,I haven't really been struggling that hard without with not seeing people.
I kind of look forward to playing shows, but I’m not rushing it. IMAKEMADBEATS came out to do a workshop for the Memphis Music Initiative as a featured speaker. He said something that really stuck out to me.
He said, ‘Memphis musicians have a warehouse mindset.’ And I really felt that. He said it's like working at FedEx or Amazon, where you show up, work and then people are making more money off you than you’re making for yourself. You go home and then do it again ad nauseum. I realized I had totally fallen into that routine, where I play two or three gigs a week, show up, make $100 or $300 from the show, and then do it again. I was really on this week to week doom cycle of playing shows of mostly the same music. So, I think in a way that made me realize I really want to explore other kinds of music.
I’d really like to get back into some of the weirder stuff I used to do in school, very avante garde jazz. It’s all I would play in New York, but when I got home it just stopped. Not because it’s not here, but because I never made that push. So when things do get back to normal I really want to pursue that more.
Truly, I still consider myself a jazz musician, even if I’m not overtly displaying those skills. When I practice I typically run through basic trombone techniques, just working on proficiency with the instrument, and jazz.
I do not consider myself a classical musician anymore. If you had asked me right after undergrad I would have said, ‘Put me in a symphony concert right now.’ But not anymore. It’s been nice to augment what I learned through classical music with a heavy dose of jazz training. I had to let go of this dream of symphonic concert halls mentally, and then restart and re-identify myself as a jazz musician.
I’m also a Memphis musician and there’s a huge popular music connection here. But, I think really the true root of Memphis music isn’t pop, rock or the blues—it’s gospel music.
Because of the gospel, and the longstanding tradition of it, it really just grooms you to be able to jam with whoever. I didn't grow up in the church like that. I didn't play in the church. But at the end of the day, as a musician, the common denominator between most of the top musicians of Memphis is that they played or still play in church. I think the thing that makes Memphis so unique is the gospel scene, and everything you learn from it. We have internationally known gospel artists here, and it really isn’t talked about that much because it's an isolated community —or rather a large and beautiful community that happens to be confined to religious houses of worship—, and a fairly insular one as well. You’re not going to hear those artists on the radio or at the club, but they are some of the best musicians Memphis has to offer.