An Interview with Local Jazz Leader Matt Finders

Published by Roberta Emerson

Chris:  Hi everybody, my name is Chris Carter and I am the Executive Director of Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center.  We’re doing a series of interviews with prominent folks in the community who are in the music and arts industry, and today we are very lucky to be talking to Matt Finders. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. I’ve gotten to know Matt over years and he’s one my favorite people around here and he has done so much for Livermore especially. So hi to Matt!

Matt: Hi Chris. I’m just kinda chuckling about “got lucky.” My calendar hasn’t had anything on it for the last 10 months! Not that much luck.

Chris: Well, we are lucky. We’re lucky to have you in town for sure. Matt is kind of a living Livermore jazz legend, in my mind, a musical legend out here in Livermore. Matt has a lot of experience performing around the world and around the country — recording experience and songwriting experience. I’m not going to read your bio – by the way it’s fun to talk to somebody who has a Wikipedia page. Have you ever looked at it?

Matt: Yeah, I’ve seen it. There was a period of time … I don’t know who put that up, but there were these students in LA where I was teaching, high school kids. They concocted some whole story and put it on there about me saving some baby lion while I was on safari. It was this whole big deal. And I was happy to see that Wikipedia actually pulled it off. They did a little research. I don’t know how they keep track of the millions of people they have on there. But I was glad they police it to some extent!

Chris: Well we won’t talk about you saving children in a hospital, maybe that’s not accurate (laughter). So I want to start from beginning. You grew up in Livermore. Tell me a little bit about what started you down the path of music and being a musician.

Matt: I went to the Fifth Street School, I think that’s now Del Valle School now? But that used to be the closest elementary school to where I lived. I started in the band program the summer after 4th or 5th grade. Back then they always had these big summer programs, all the band directors took turns leading ensembles. Not everybody started in the summer, but I certainly did. I started on trombone because my brother who is 10 years older played trombone up through high school and it was sitting in the closet. That seemed like the instrument to play because my dad didn’t want to get anything else. Basically “you’ll play trombone too.” And my mother played the piano. So there was always music in my house because of her.  I know I never heard my brother play trombone. He was not into it. He’s a rodeo guy, horse and roper. That’s how I got started at Fifth Street School, then East Avenue Middle School, then eventually Livermore High School. Just playing more and more all the time, it just seemed like what I did at a certain point.

Chris:  When I was growing up, my introduction to music was always through my parents. They didn’t play any instruments but your mom did. What did they listen to?  What were your early influences musically, what did you like to listen to growing up?

Matt: Oddly enough, I really liked The Lawrence Welk Show. I liked Dixieland and when the Big Band was playing. I just kind of liked a lot of those guys. Not all of them, if you ever watched those shows. Some of those guys they had, like the Irish tenor, that wasn’t my favorite. But I really liked occasionally they had a Dixieland band. So I always had a paper route, an afternoon route, it was the Oakland Tribune.  So I’d come home from school and roll my papers in front of the TV. And I watched the Merv Griffin Show and I loved Jack Shelton and that band. I was always watching those things. My mom played all styles, not jazz but anything from show tunes to classical. She was always playing stuff, writing stuff, arranging stuff and we played together. Not sure if you’re familiar with the solo and ensemble festivals they have once a year in the spring? We always did that. So I got to play with her a little bit and started taking private lessons and that opened me up more to jazz.

I had a trombone teacher that was really influential, his name was Bob Boring. And at the same time teaching down at Valley Music there was a Sax teacher named Bob Cool. So they had Boring and Cool next door to each other.

He got a bunch of trombone students together and we did these four or five trombone jazz arrangements and he would put together a rhythm section for us. That was when I just really fell in love with playing. And we would play the local festivals downtown, kind of like the ArtWalk, and he’d get us hooked on those things. It just kind of took over my life at some point in high school.

“We did these four or five trombone jazz arrangements
and he would put together a rhythm section for us.
That was when I just really fell in love with playing.”

Chris: So was that when you decided this was something you want to do for a career? “This is my path?

Matt: I don’t know. Honestly in high school my band director, Mike Ward, he had gone to San Jose State and I think there was another band director who had gone to San Jose State. And I thought “Well, I’m going to go to San Jose State and be a band director.” That’s where I was headed at that point. And during my senior year, he let me direct the jazz band for pretty much the whole year and so I got little taste of leading a band. I was just really getting more and more involved all the time.

And this trombone teacher I mentioned, he started getting me some work. I would go out and play these parades. And big bands and things that he was on, that he could get me on. He started ushering me into making a few dollars and getting to play with older more experienced players. Influences like that. He was probably my biggest influence – more than the school ensembles – this private trombone teacher.

Chris: When you went to San Jose State, did you study music?

Matt:  Unlike now, it was just a different time. I didn’t apply anywhere. I didn’t even apply at San Jose State as far as I can recall. I went down with my mom, she played piano and I played a piece for the trombone instructor there. He said, “OK, you’re in” and I just started going to school there. It didn’t even occur to me to pursue New York or LA schools or anything, just San Jose State. That’s where my band directors went and that’s about as much as I thought about it. I just started playing down there. It turned out be a really good opportunity in that there were lots of schools down there, so the serious players in the program we would play not only at San Jose State, but we would go play all the night bands, City College, De Anza, Foothill.  We were just playing all over the place. As well as most of us were working at what at that time was called Marriott’s Great America. When that park first opened in 1978, they probably had 200 musicians. It was amazing how much work there was there. They had two or three shows going on and then a marching band, Dixieland band, trombone band, sax band, all these ensembles. Everybody worked there and then you just got into doing other groups, Latin bands around town, rock bands, it was a pretty fertile scene down there.

Chris: I grew up near there, I grew up in Los Gatos, so we went to Great America a lot and I remember the bands, the big brass band, things like that. Sounds like a fertile ground for you to get your feet wet and really learn about the business.

Matt: You meet all sorts of people and so through that you end up with other work. It was great. And then in the off-seasons it would just be weekends but summers it was all week long

Chris:  When you studied music, what did you learn? Like music theory … applied?

Matt: Any of the music majors down there – I ended up being a jazz major at some point – you all had to take the same theory block. Classical theory, classical piano, classical music history, everybody had to take the same kind of stuff. Then after maybe a couple years of that, it became more jazz-specific for me.

Chris:  Did you have to sing?

Matt: Oh yeah, sight singing. I never did a choir. But that theory block was a killer. Not for me because  I had a good sense of pitch and theory was never difficult for me. But it weeded out all sorts of  people in the first month or two, including my wife who changed her major! She started as an opera major and didn’t last long.

Chris:  I remember when I was in college I took one music class. I played the guitar a little bit and I thought I can do this and it was Music Theory 2 and it was all about 4-part harmonies and it was all very mathematical and you had to write music without listening to it and the professor would play it in front of the class. I spent more time doing homework for that class than for any other class. It was tough.

Matt: I loved it I could fly right through that stuff. That wasn’t hard for me. Remembering anything in the music history area was hard for me. This instructor was already ancient at that point. Then, I went back down there maybe five years ago and he was the only guy still on the faculty! Some areas were hard for me but not the theory and sight singing.

Chris: I did have one music teacher who taught me how to listen to music. We started with jazz and blues. And he explained that Thelonious Monk, he’s very dissonant at times, and he said you have to picture someone poking you or doing something to your senses. And as soon as I listened to it that way, I said “Oh, I get it, that makes sense. I really appreciated that about my music teacher.”

Matt: It’s nice when you have a teacher that influences you and makes you want to dig in more.

“It’s nice when you have a teacher that influences you
and makes you want to dig in more.”

Chris: So after you finished at San Jose State, you performed with a lot of acts. I’m not quite sure of the timeline but from what I read on Wikipedia you performed big bands of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bob Mintzer and Bill Warfield. You were also the trombonist on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno led by Kevin Eubanks. Also with Natalie Cole, Harry Connick, Jr., Sting, Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, Branford Marsalis, Woody Herman, among others. You were also part of Clark Terry’s big band. Any of those experiences stand out for you?

Matt: Clark’s band was a big influence because that was while I was still in college. I took a semester off. He did an audition via cassette tape and a photograph. So I sent the stuff in and I got the job. That was about a three-month tour of Europe and the States. So that was a big influence, because up to that point, I had gotten away from thinking I was going to be a music teacher. After doing one semester of  marching band at San Jose State – I’d managed to avoid marching band all through high school – and one semester in college was enough. The marching band directors, when they roped me into it, they said “You want to be a band director? The first thing they’re going to ask you is how much marching band experience you have, so you’ve got to know about marching band.”  So after one semester of that I said, “If this is what it takes to be a band director, I’m not interested!”

Chris: Wait, what was it about marching band that was not up your alley?

Matt: Well, you’re marching around all day in the sun for starters. I enjoy being outdoors, but marching  around playing was just not something I cared to do. And just the drill and drill and drill. And we changed the routine slightly every week, so there was never a week off. Every week you’re out there on the field learning new places to go, to make new letters or shapes or patterns, or whatever out on the field.

Chris: Sort of counter-intuitive to a jazz musician?

Matt: Well, it didn’t suit me, so I just thought I was just going to go for performance. So then I did that audition. I figured I was going to move to LA, but after Clark Terry’s band most of the guys were New York-bound. I was 21, probably the oldest player on there was maybe 24. So everybody was headed potentially to careers in music, so at that point I decided I would move to New York. So it was influential  in that way. It also pointed out to me how some of the early connections you make really are the ones that benefit you  later on. In that situation, Branford Marsalis was my roommate for part of the tour. We were both just kids. He’s might be a year old than I.  And after I moved to New York, I saw him maybe twice. I hadn’t seen him in close to 10 years, when he called me to move to LA to do The Tonight Show. So just the impressions and the friendships you make. Even though I hadn’t seen him in a long time, we always got along pretty well.

“The early connections you make really are the ones that benefit you  later on.”

Chris:  When he came to perform here, I remember you saw him backstage before the show and he talked about you from the stage. It felt like he really thinks fondly of you.

Matt: We had a few good times. He certainly had a different trajectory. He really could do anything he feels like doing. He’s just at a different level from most. He and his brother. Actually all his brothers.

Chris: How long were you on the Tonight Show?

Matt: 17 years

Chris: So was that your longest running gig?

Matt:    Oh yeah. In New York I would get the occasional Broadway show. I used to sub on “Cats” but in New York, if you have a show you can take off half of the time without getting fired. So any time something comes up for a person that’s playing that show or they’re just getting tired of doing it, they just get a sub to come in and play for them. So there are a lot of people who prefer not to have a regular show, they prefer just to sub around. I subbed on all sorts of shows. I think “Cats” went for 20 years. I’m glad I wasn’t on that — mind numbing! The longest I think I ever did one show was right before I moved to LA. I was doing a show called “Secret Garden” and that was my own show, so I would do it, not eight shows a week, but probably at least six of them.

Chris: Does it get tiring when you play the same set every night?

Matt: A Broadway show? Oh yeah, of course, you’re playing the exact same thing every night. It got to the point where I would buy a magazine on the way in – I didn’t have that much to play in the show, there was very little playing – so I could get through a whole magazine. Then I’d be walking to my car after the show and I couldn’t remember if I’d played the show that day.

Chris: Let’s talk about the Tonight show a little bit more and then I want to get into some of the things you’re doing now. So how did they do it? Once a day?  Rehearse band in morning and then the show was in the afternoon? What was the operation?

Matt: General schedule was just in the afternoon. I can’t quite recall when they taped it, let’s say we taped the show at 5, we were in at 3, out of there at 6. With rare exceptions, it was just an hour. When they jump to commercial, we played for three minutes or however long the commercial break was, and then we were right back on. So the show just went absolutely an hour. So it wasn’t super time-consuming unless we were playing with one of the guest bands. Then we’d have to be in at 9 or 10 in the morning and do sound check and then camera blocking and so on.

Chris: Any memorable moments? Ever involved in a bit or anything like that?

Matt: Well, sometimes the guest band would just use the horn section, sometimes might be someone like Al Green he liked the band and would just use the whole band. But a lot of time it was just the horn section that would get on the stage with say Bonnie Raitt or David Sanborn. Those were two of my favorites actually. I just have a lot of respect for both those artists. There were others that came on….  I did a lot of writing, I covered arrangements, whether it for commercials, walk on, or little comedy bits. Or if a guest band was on and they’d give me a CD and I’d transcribe the horn parts as well as I could or write an arrangement, whatever happened to be. There were certain bands that came on and they were definitely just garage bands. Didn’t know much of anything,  so it was really refreshing if we were playing with a guest someone like Bonnie Raitt. She knew every note that she wanted. She could hear everything and if one note was out, she would pick that out and want it straightened out. I really liked her and David Sanborn. Those were my two favorites to play with.

“It was really refreshing if we were playing with a guest
someone like Bonnie Raitt. She knew every note that she wanted.”

Chris: So you’ve also got a lot of studio time. You’ve been on a lot of albums.

Matt:  Probably more so in New York than in LA. But different musical scenes as far as getting opportunities and the decade we’re talking about. I was in New York in the 80s and there was still a fair bit of work. So it was sort of a trickle down. Everybody wanted the recording work, Broadway was sort of OK, and then it went down to playing weddings and stuff. So it was all kind of tiered. So as long as the studio guy were working, and they were busy, they weren’t taking Broadway shows, and then those guys weren’t out playing weddings and stuff. When the recording business was going in New York that was a really good time to be there. And I caught the tail end of that.

So I got to be on a few albums. A lot of stuff nobody would ever know. The commercials, the jingles, were the most sought after because you’d go in for a one hour session. You might do a minute spot, a 30 second, a 20 or 15. So you’re just in there just short bit of time but you do all these little slight variations of some commercial. And then they would play those, hopefully nationally, and then you just collect all these residuals. So that kind of all disappeared. It was really nice.

Chris: Were you on any commercials I’d know?

Matt: I can’t recall, it’s been 30 years but I did do this whole ABC Sports package though and that was fun, everything from Tour de France, to football, and that stuff ran for a bit.

Chris: So let’s talk about… so now you moved back to Livermore and, if you don’t mind me asking, I know you don’t play the trombone much anymore, you’ve kind of shifted to bass, can you talk a little bit about that?

Matt: I don’t play the trombone at all. I used to play the trombone, tuba and bass trombone. I guess it’s been 10 years. The Tonight Show had ended, so it was probably about a year after that. I’m an avid cyclist and I was just out for a quick ride. My pedal snapped off as I was standing up and I fell right on my face. Took out a big chunk in the middle of my top lip, the part that used to buzz, and I just could not get it going after that. I tried for a couple years and it was not good. So eventually I said, “Why am I doing this? I can practice all day and I might sound like a fifth grader.”  I’d been casually playing bass a little bit, behind students mainly, so that’s what I’m playing now.

Chris: So when you got here we talked a little about Jazz Lab. Now you’re back in Livermore you’re working with the schools and teaching a lot of students. The other group I remember seeing around a lot is Element 116, so what have you done since you got back here?

Matt: Well, I was teaching quite a bit in LA at various schools. So when I came up here it was just what I figured I would pursue as much as anything. I went to middle school where I went, East Avenue, I talked to the band director about starting a jazz band. And I went to Mendenhall to talk to the band director about staring a jazz band. So before long I had both those schools going. And I inherited Element 116 band, the lady that was the initial director of that didn’t live anywhere near Livermore so she was bowing out. So I had three groups like that – it didn’t take long.

Then I started teaching in Pleasanton at Hart Middle School. I had four ensembles there. I just really tried to dig into getting jazz bands into schools. At that point, there weren’t any jazz bands in the middle schools here. As well, there wasn’t a jazz band at Livermore High. The band director now Justin Enright and he’s got a strong jazz band or will when they get back to going to school. So I managed to have one year getting the jazz band off the ground, the year before he was hired. That was a kick. I don’t typically get to work with high school kids, I’m generally getting the kids started on it in middle school. So that was a lot of fun. The only school where I am still teaching, and unfortunately it’s online, is Hart Middle School in Pleasanton.

But I’ve had these jazz labs. I used to just do in summer. I guess I started it this summer again, but not at the Bothwell. I’d been doing it for years at the Bothwell. I used to drive up from LA with my tubs of music and equipment and do a week-long jazz lab at the Bothwell. Everything was shut down, so I built a space next to my garage, it’s about 60 feet long and 15 feet wide and I put up shade sails. It’s still hotter than heck in summer! But I started with what was allowed, 10 kids at a time. So I just started rehearsing kids again. I was really dying to do it, it had been a few months since I could do any of that. So I just got it going and I kept it going. I have four groups, 10 or so kids each. I went up until the week before Christmas and then took six weeks off. I’m starting them again next week, since things are loosening up a little bit. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be cold now. But it’s just great to get these kids playing again. It’s great for me to be standing in front of them and having them playing again. I really missed all that music.

“It’s just great to get these kids playing again. It’s great for me
to be standing in front of them and having them playing again.
I really missed all that music.”

Chris: Are there any past student of yours that have gone on to a career in music? Anyone you’re kind of following?

Matt: Not yet from up here. But in LA, there have been a few.

Chris: Found any prodigies yet?

Matt: Here in Livermore? I shouldn’t name names.

Chris: Any future Finders?

Matt: That’s the hard part. My timing was pretty good. There was still a lot of live music and recording and all. So it’d be hard to say. Even if I ran across a kid  that’s like, “Wow, got all the components it takes.” I‘m not really sure what’s going to be waiting next year or the year after. I know Broadway will get going again. And there is some recording to some extent in LA still going on. But technology has changed so much of that. All these live players, it’s just not common like it used to be. Now it’s maybe sounds and a guy sitting in his living room writing all the music for a TV show. It’s just a different scene. But I have had some very talented players up here.

Chris: Anything we can do at the Bankhead…I’ve always been big on local artists. Supporting local artists and giving them platforms. So let me know when you’re ready.

Matt: I appreciate it. Some of it my favorite performances of these groups, Element 116 in particular, have been in the lobby before Livermore-Amador Symphony concerts or out front during Tuesday Tunes. We love playing downtown.

Chris: So I’ve only got two questions left for you. One is what are you listening to right now?  If I went in your car and turned on the radio, what would it be?

Matt: So, ok not to be too self-absorbed. I just finished a recording session. So I’ve still been listening to that to be sure I’m happy with the mix. But aside from that, I still can’t get away from the jazz. I’m listening to a little more stuff that’s a little more R&B. I really like Snarky Puppy, I love the treatments they put on.

Chris: I saw them at SF Jazz two years ago and I guess they have different ensembles when they perform but there’s a core group.

Matt: Yes there’s a core group from tour to tour it switches up a little bit. They do those videos, I can’t tell where they are. It’s inside of some space where the audience is sitting right amongst them basically and it’s all scattered about and they bring in a whole range of guest artists. They’re called like family dinner, these series of videos.

Chris: I really want to say thank you. I appreciate your time. Really appreciate what you do in this community, I think a lot of the students and the young artists and performers around here really look to you and appreciate all that you’ve done to grow that community of musicians and I think it’s had a big impact.

Matt: Thanks I appreciate you saying that. I appreciate that you’re still trying to keep things going. I know you’re searching for what you can do, such as these podcasts or Vineyard Vibes. It’s a difficult time and I appreciate that you’re keeping things going. So thank you.

Chris: And we’ll wrap this up. Thank you Matt and have a great day!


To find out about Matt Finders’ Jazz Labb visit his website HERE.

Explore the other Interviews with Chris Carter in the Beyond the Stage series:

An Interview with LAS Music Director Lara Webber

An Interview with Supervisor Scott Haggerty

An Interview with Congressman Eric Swalwell