My music career was started when I was introduced to the violin at age 5 by my pre-school teacher Mrs. Noelle. I showed signs of being a sensitive and creative individual and that helped to foster an interest in something music. I would travel into Milwaukee once a week with my mom to attend group lessons classes. Some of the memories were to keep you wrist straight, don’t hold the bow too tight, and your violin is delicate, treat it as if it were made from egg shells. My first concert was an out-door event in Brown Deer park when I was in Kindergarten. I was to play twinkle twinkle. Each student was playing a portion of the song and when it became my turn, I froze. Not a sound came out of my violin. That was the first and last time I was ever afraid to play in front of people. In addition to the violin I also played the harp. I played the harp until my 4th grade year. I performed once during my 4th grade spring concert. Already I was known for the kid who plays “girl” instruments. Being teased was part of my training in self discovery and self awareness. I knew I was different then the other kids and that I had a gift. During this time I also developed a strong relationship with my Mom because she was my ride every Saturday morning for lessons, rehearsals and later on concerts. I remember in 2nd grade when I was to play “Oh Come Little Children” in front of our Church’s congregation for our school Christmas concert. The church music director turned my violin so horribly out of tune I was afraid I couldn’t perform. On top of that, they stuck me behind the alter. The show continued and I performed beautifully. The church couldn’t see but they could hear. I played the violin up through 5th grade when I started playing the saxophone in band class. I became interested in the sax because of my mother. She played alto and tenor in her school bands and was also the drum majorette of her school. Her positive influence guided me to wanting to play those instruments as well. My middle school band director was Harry Abramowitz. He was a stern man with a big heart. He played trumpet and loved showing off his high lead chops whenever the situation called for it. He was the first person outside of my family to introduce jazz music into my playing. I first learned about the blues in his jazz ensemble and also about how to start memorizing solos so that one day I could improvise as well. Another more defining example of his mentorship came when my father lost his job. The summer before my eighth year my dad lost his job at a company where he had spent the last 19 years of his life. Money was tight and we did not have enough to rent a horn so that I could play in high school. Harry gave me one of his horns he had been collecting and had it repaired by the master repairman and clarinetist Chuck Hedges. (More on him later.) Because of Harry’s generosity, I had a tenor saxophone, Elkhart factory model, to play that was my own that I used throughout high school. I may have stopped playing if it wasn’t for that.
Going to high school, I continued in the direction of being influenced by strong role models as directors. I played in multiple ensembles like jazz band and concert band but for the first time played classical repertoire in sax quartet. My band director Jeff Gilchrist really inspired me to be an improviser and it was the music on Mile’s Davis’s Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Blue Train that provided me with the first example of playing that I wanted to model my sound after. In the summer of 1996 I attended the University of Wisconsin Whitewater jazz camp and was blown away by the playing of University of New Orleans Saxophone professor and performer Ed Peterson. For the first time I heard the saxophone played at a virtuosic level with squeaks and sqawks, honks, multi-phoncis, and altissimo. I really wanted to play like that! The freedom he displayed on the horn just spoke to me and I could identify with that sound. It was exciting to try some of those things on my horn but I was far away from thoughtfully incorporating that sound into my playing. My senior year also provided me with a surprise from my parents. They purchased a Selmer Mark VI tenor sax for me. It was a huge gift because I know now that they took out a loan against their house to buy it. Upon graduation from Arrowhead high school in Hartland in 1997, I went to the University of Madison to study music education. The real reason I wanted to go there was that I new young musicians could get gigs at resaurants, bars, clubs and coffee shops. There were older kids from my school who would come back and tell us about what they were doing and how great it was to be able to have these opportunities. I think on a deeper level, growing up being made fun of by my peers for being in music and never really being myself or popular around girls, I associated playing gigs and being in a band with being “cool,” popular, and successful. It wasn’t really about the music to begin with.
As a freshman I started going to jam sessions, because there was a romantic association with how musicians should learn how to play jazz, and learning how to play standard songs for the first time. When I came home on weekends or holidays I would frequent the Red Mill West in Elm Grove where the legendary Chuck Hedges played weekly gigs. I had befriended him in high school when I he repaired my new saxophone and was a frequent guest clinician. There was an open invitation to sit in with him whenever I was in town. The first night that I was able to jam I picked Blue Bossa and a blues and the crowd was cheering and my parents and friends in the audiencethought it was so great to hear me on stage with this master clarinetist. Later that evening, Chuck said that he wanted to talk with me in the back dining room. He said that I had a good sound but that I knew nothing about improvising in the traditional style of swing jazz. I told him that I was listening to John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. He was not impressed. He offered the suggestion that I listen to Lester Young because his style influence a whole generation of musicians. Not only was I to listen but I had an assignment to transcribe his solos by ear. I could continue to sit in with him but only if I picked songs that Lester played from the 40’s and early 50’s, before be-bop and the avant-garde.
That advice changed the way I thought about playing and provided me with a steady growing repertoire to take to jam sessions and use for auditions. Later in my first year of school I met a fellow musician who would start a path that I have continued to this day, playing in my own group. His name was Cooper D. Grodin and he was an opera major from New York. He formed a band that played his pop originals mixed with jazz hard-bop standards. Participating in this group was influential to my development because for the first time I was in a real band. We rehearsed regularly, booked gigs at coffee shops, churches, synagogues. But it was the shows at Café Montmartre and Restaurant Magnus that set the standard for me to judge myself against other musicians in Madison. All of the hard work, practice and lessons from playing and performing paid off when we were able to play at real jazz clubs. This was a way for us as musicians to say that were good and gave us confidence to develop our individual sounds. We played for big crowds and had many fans. In Cooper’s band, I had the first opportunity to really express myself and always had one song per show that I let loose on. I would play off the wall, blow as hard as I could, multi-phoics, crazy altissimo stuff. While not always musical, I saw myself as a creative musician who was trying to develop a unique sound. Also in Cooper’s band, I had the chance to record professionally for the first time in a studio. This started a standard for me that if I was going to play in an ensemble, then we always needed to have a goal to record our songs. That was the traditional of jazz music going back to the early New Orleans style all the way through swing, be-bop and modern jazz. I have since been on or self-produced 12 records of mostly original work.
Some of the most creative groups I have been in were, The Ryan Meisel Quintet featuring Susan Hofer on vocals, Becca May-Granton piano, Matt Rodgers on bass, and Adam Katz on drums. Later on came the groups out of graduate school, The Ryan Meisel Collective which featured Sune Borregarrd on Steal Drums, Scott Coletta on piano, Scott Luman on Bass, and the glue between it being Celia Faye. Our current group Meisel Music Collective features a group of musicians who I have spent the most time in a project with to this date. Celia Faye is featured on vocals and tenor sax, James Galasinski on bass, Anna Brinck on piano and Jake Polancich on drums.
None of these groups would have been possible without the influence of professors and teachers who I had the opportunity to work with. While I was in Madison I had the privilege to study saxophone with multi-reedist Les Thimmig. While studing with Les, I learned to harness the creative energy of sax greats like Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, and the traditional playing of Lester Young and Stan Getz. Through transcribing, technique and etude study, I learned to not only include the language of jazz history into my playing but also to incorporate my own ideas better. I was still strongly influenced by the free jazz playing of tenor saxophonist Hanah Jon Taylor and Roscoe Mitchell. Hanah was a Madison staple at all of the jam sessions sitting in with his powerful style of playing and far out ideas on standard arraignments were the tradition at sessions. Roscoe Mitchell while being primarily from Chicago playing with the Art Ensemble, had a home in Madison and could frequently be heard at local concert establishments playing with ensembles along the vein of the Art Ensemble.
While threads of influence from these players, lessons, and practice are heard in my playing, it is the influence of Richard Davis that has caused me to have the standards of practice, how I run rehearsals, importance on giging and recording and the overall value of being a performing musician. Richard has led the Black Music Ensemble and Black Music History classes at the University of Wisconsin Madison since the late 70’s. His ensembles are student led and rehearsed in a very unconventional way. I auditioned for his group back when I was a freshman and was completely embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of history, and ability to transpose, sight read changes, and the overall lack of function on my horn I had to imitate other players. During rehearsals Richard could ask you to play a song in 12 keys, imitate a melody the way Coleman Hawkins would execute, play chords on the piano, sing a chord change, play a rhythm on the drum etc… If a student could not do a specific task that student would join the 5 o’clock club. They would call Richard at home the next morning to perform the task or they were not allowed back into the rehearsal. This had a profound impact on my life because I prepared myself to do all of these things while preparing a song for rehearsal so I started to be more aware of the complete function of a band and all of the different parts. This had an consequence in my band leading because for better or worse I have levied these expectations on other people that I work with. Richard also set a standard that musicians should record, gig, play in groups, seek out jam sessions, and take lessons from top pros whenever possible. Many a weekday night members of his group would travel down to Chicago for the famous Tuesday night jam sessions of Von Freeman at the new apartment lounge, Friday night sessions at the Green Mill, and Sunday night sessions at Fred Andersens’s Velvet Lounge. It became a rite of passage to not only go to these sessions but be able to hang with the top cats and neighborhood pros. Being successful at these sessions validated to myself that I was on the right track and that I was “good” at playing jazz. It became a goal to go down each time with new tunes to play and to be able to sit in longer each night. It was a blast. Through going to school and living in Madison, I was able to have the experience of being a jazz musician that I held so romantically from the great traditions and legends of the greats. Studying with Richard was my link to a time past.
After playing with many ensembles and esteemed musicians in the Madison area, my goal was to move to Chicago as a free-lance musician and teacher. I thought that the best route to do that would be to move down to DeKalb Illinois and try to earn my Master’s of Jazz Studies with the likes of Ron Carter, the renknown jazz pedagoist, the saxophonist Steve Duke. After starting my study with Professor Duke, I quickly realized that there were some holes in my planning. With Duke, I learned to pinpoint my ideas down to 4 note phrases, better understand jazz harmony as related to melodic development, analyzise the solo’s of Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz down to the shape of their articulation and solo structure and learn about improvisation as more of spontaneous composition. This side tracked what I thought of as my personal sound but gave me greater flexibility and more tools to improvise with. Since then, I have fully encorporated those lessons and tools into my playing.
While at NIU, I had the pleasure of working with the athlectic band director Dr. Thomas Bough we gave me an assistantship to work with the Marching and Pep bands. I realized that I had a gift for teaching and wanted to pursue that as a full-time job. After I earned my degree, I found a wonderful school to teach at in Hartford. I have been teaching general music and band at Erin K-8 for the past 6 years. None of this self-discovery, personal growth, change of perspectives and ultimately my becoming a more well-rounded musician and educator would have been possible without the support and influence of Celia Faye Whiren, currently Celia Meisel.
After the first week of being in grad-school, I had the pleasure of meeting Celia at a lesson coordinators meeting. I knew from the start that our paths would cross in more than one way. We taught private lessons together, played in the same big-band, practiced together, when to jam sessions and shows and before too long were dating and playing in our first band together. Our first album was entitled Motion. We experimented with more than one style of jazz on this album. We played modern originalsthat had odd harmonies and phrase structure; Motion, On the Rock. We had arrangments that featureed music for three horns that were the culmination of Graduate jazz arranging class; Swang-a-thang, Have you met Miss Jones, and Feelin’ Good. We had moments of recorded free improvising and tunes that might one day feature vocals. But it was the original, funk groove of 20 Revolutions around the Moon that featured the chemistry that I had with Celia. Around simultaneous improvising set forth a sound development between us that has been evident in our playing ever since. This project brought together the many different styles of music that we perform and laid down the foundation for what would be our current working ensemble Meisel Music Collective, the bringing together of multiple different styles and sounds of jazz through-out its history. Later that same year Celia and I went into the studio to record an all improvised record playing all sorts of ethereal structured ideas and non-traditional instruments. We featured improvisational ideas that had been in the works for many years, the Transcendence and Chakra suites. The name of the project was Method to the Madness. After grad-school I pursued a job in teaching in Hartford Wisconsin and Celia found work as a choir director, private teacher, church music director, and many other free-lance teaching gigs. We got married and continue to share our lives musically together. Celia is an inspiration as a player but also a person. She has a hard-nosed work ethic and a attention to detail with her business only found in the most successful of companies. She challenges me to stand for what I believe musically and professionally and pushes me to develop my sound but holds me responsible for staying true to the history of the music. Since graduate school we have recorded two albums; One More Time featuring Celia’s southern blues roots with covers by Koko Taylor and Bonnie Rait, and Synergy. The aforementioned album is truly a collective our all of the members in the group. We relit a ballad from the past Candlelight always a medium for creative improvisations and ideas Alone with You. The title song Synergy is a funky romp that brings the band together. Celia’s vocal compositions, Goin’ Down South and Mississippi Momma highlight the album and continue to be requested at shows. Our bassist James Galasinski contributed with two originals Being There and Duertcher Blues. The title song Synergy, is a funky romp that brings that features everyone in the band and establishes that along with pianst Anna Brinck and drummer Jake Polancich, we are truly greater than the sum of our parts.
Celia and I continue to contribute compositionally and are currently working on a few new projects. We both play alto and tenor respectively in a sax quartet project entitled Nu-Saxtet along with former classmates from NIU bari player James Matheson and soprano player Terry Brown. Celia has been collaborating vocally with Some Girl synethesizer player Steve Mork and has a few singles to show for it, Secret being the biggest hit. I have been collaborating with drummer Jake Polancich in a conceptually improvised Montauk Project(named from the secret, now defunct, governmental project in upstate New York where in the sixties they experiemented with time travel research and mind control.) Celia is founding her new project Soul Serenade which is going to be the primary vehicle for her blues and roots sound. The MMC (Meisel music collective) is working on a new album that is going to include new compositions by Anna Brink Straight on ‘til Morning and Blues for Ramsey, a new and old original by Celia River of My Soul and Telling the Truth (T.T.T.), a contribution by Jake Polancich I Don’t Recall, new arrangements and songs by myself Summertime, Summer’s Lust, Something Wicked this Way Comes, and Stayin’ the Course. We may even find room for some of the spiritual tunes that we do during the holidays Silent Night, Greensleeves, and Christmas Canon. Through music, Celia and I (along with the people we are blessed to play with) continue to share with people and with ourselves, how we see the world how we are affected by the people in it. We continue to study the past so with can broaden our knowledge of the future. We nurture our relationships and make the situations around us better through the demonstration of peace and love. We care about what we do and strive to leave this world better than how we found it.