Public Affairs & Publications
Inside CSULB
CSULB Home page
Current Issue: Calendar: Archives: Contact Us
Inside CSULB
Vol 58 No. 3 : March, 2006
Vol 58 No. 3 : March, 2006
Briggs Big On Jazz

Briggs big on Jazz

Ray Briggs knows his jazz.

Considering himself a jazz musician with a specialty as a saxophone player, he’s been heavily involved in music since he was 10 years old. And, he couldn’t have grown up in a more ideal place for a jazz enthusiast – Memphis.

“I grew up around a lot of music, a lot of gospel and blues, rhythm and blues and later on in my teenage years jazz and classical music,” said Briggs, an assistant professor in the department of music. “I knew music would be my life, but not specifically jazz. My attraction to music was because I could play so many different styles. Many times when I was playing jazz, I could think of a gospel song I had played in the past and I could draw from that. Or, playing in the symphony in Memphis I would try to connect the expressiveness of gospel as I was playing the bassoon, thinking more lyrically.”

In baseball, they say the quickest way to the Major Leagues is as a catcher simply because not many want to play the position. In jazz, the best way to get more jobs is by playing the bassoon, or at least that is what one instructor advised him.

“In high school, I began to take private lessons from a saxophone teacher who was also a bassoonist,” said Briggs. “His advice to me was that if I really wanted to market myself well, I should pick up the bassoon (a member of the woodwind family) because there aren’t many people who play it. When I started to play it I realized why. The saxophone has keys that you work with your front fingers, but with the bassoon you are working 13 keys just with your thumbs. Not many people are willing to sit down and work at it. Plus it’s a very expensive instrument.”

While still playing, Briggs pursued his love of music through education. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis, a master’s from the University of Redlands, and then a master’s of music and a Ph.D. from UCLA, where he did an extensive study on the history of jazz.

“I think the history of jazz has been kind of limited simply because we don’t talk about all the places musicians are from to create a national jazz scene, and Memphis is one of those places,” said Briggs. “Memphis has been talked about before, but only in terms of gospel, blues rhythm and blues, and definitely rock ‘n roll with Elvis coming out of Memphis.

“A lot of individuals who were playing there with B.B. King were associated with soul music. They were actually jazz musicians, but there was more money playing soul music than playing jazz. The interesting thing is that if you saw where they went and played after hours, they went and played straight-ahead jazz.”

Today, Briggs uses his personal playing experience, his education and extensive research in his role as the assistant director of jazz studies at CSULB. He oversees all of the performing ensembles, the big bands, the combos, the small groups, and the vocal jazz area, working with the director of vocal jazz to make sure the students are taking part the way they should. In addition to teaching some jazz history courses, he is involved in auditioning students and placing them in the correct level groups, attending the festivals they play in, and bringing in artists to give concerts on campus.

It takes quite a bit of management, said Briggs.

And how would this expert rate the jazz scene in Southern California and, more specifically, at CSULB?

“The jazz in Los Angeles is definitely better than most of the major cities in the United States,” said Briggs. “A lot of it has to do with the movie industry. With so many studios it allows for musicians to get work, so that’s one of the big draws. Even when West Coast jazz became big back in the early 1950s, a lot of the draw for many musicians from New York was because of all the movie and film work available. Not many other cities can duplicate that kind of money.

“The program here at CSULB, I believe, was started back in the 1960s and it was called ‘commercial’ music back then,” added Briggs. “It was started by a great jazz educator by the name of John Prince. We’re still riding on that tradition, that legacy. I feel we have a tremendous amount of potential here, more than any other place in the Western United States. We have a tremendous jazz station (KJZZ) here on campus and we’d like to work with them and bring in musicians that they and their listeners respect.”

Close up

Back to top