Q&A with Jack Spann - impossibly fast hands on the keyboard and a storytelling songsmith with a warm vocal tone

"I think Beethoven was brilliant, but like Chuck Berry said, “Roll Over Beethoven.” Black American culture has been the shit since way before I was born. I kind of worry about that with the Kanye West’s of America having so much influence. Kanye West is the Pat Boone of 2019. Also, I look at sexual freedom, LGBTQ issues, reproductive health issues, as being a matter of civil rights. No blues and rock and roll, and all we'd have is Frank Sinatra crooning shit that other people wrote, and Nazis stomping gay people for "fun"."

Jack Spann: Propaganda Man

Singer songwriter and master keyboardist/pianist Jack Spann has worked with some big names in the music business most notably David Bowie whom Spann spent time with working on what ultimately became Bowie’s Blackstar release. Aside from a sought-after musician in the studio and on stage, Spann has also logged time performing on Broadway including Hank Williams’ Lost Highway and War Horse. Spann’s original songs are soaked in blues, country and rock that are simultaneously thought provoking yet wildly entertaining. His most recent release “Beautiful Man from Mars” is a tribute to his time spent with Bowie and was met with critical acclaim earning him a pre-headlining spot at SummerFest, the world’s largest music festival.

Known for his impossibly fast hands on the keyboard, Spann is a storytelling songsmith with a warm vocal tone that perfectly balances out the ferocious piano playing reminiscent of Fats Waller, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis. Jack Spann’s 3rd album “Propaganda Man” - available via digital download today via iTunes and Apple Music - physical release July 26th. The album took two years to complete and is different from his last, in that it faces social issues head on and does not shy away from addressing thorny social conundrums. Several guests appear while Spann provides lead vocals, piano, keyboards, guitar and bass. Cecil Robbington provides drums and percussion along with producer Gary Tanin adding additional keyboards.

Interview by Michael Limnios      Photos by Jim Snyder / All rights reserved

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

That’s like asking a fish, “How is the water you’re swimming in influenced your life”? I won’t really know until the ocean dries up. You can ask me then.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

My songbook is best described by the following three steps-

Absorb every possible influence you can, mostly but not limited to classical music, blues, jazz, and weird funky rock and roll

Play as if your life depended upon it every second you can and

Know your limits and know them well, or beware. My creative drive comes from never being satisfied. Never.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I think knowing the clerk in my local convenience store has been one of my most important experiences. She told me there was a cop right down the road pulling people over for speeding. In other words, slow down.

"I would love to go to June 14th, 1946, in NYC. I would buy Art Tatum breakfast if he’d let me. I would go catch a gig at Birdland, see Charlie Parker, Mingus, and Monk. Then I’d go to Forest Hills hospital and etch a “666” tattoo on Donald Trump’s baby head while he was lying in his incubator."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I played a gig opening up for David Lindley who played slide guitar on Jackson Browne’s hits like “Running On Empty” and his band El Rayo X. This was back in the days when having a decent sampling keyboard was a really big deal, and I had a sample/loop set up that was about 30 seconds long and was going to open my band’s set. When the MC announced “Ladies and Gentlemen Jack Spann” we got a big applause from the crowd, and they hit the big lights, but my sampling keyboard was unfortunately plugged into the same electrical outlet as the lights, so the keyboard died, but it didn’t just die, it made a huge blatting sound, and a big loud electrical pop.  It took me another 3 minutes to reboot the keyboard and reset the sample. Big mistake. Kind of lost the crowd, and my band was a little freaked out and never really recovered. We limped through the opening set.

I did get a standing ovation from David Bowie. I got hired to do a demo session for him, just a weekly gig.  At some point he asked me to play a piano solo, just to go into the live room and improvise some stuff on this little melody he was trying to put out. When I came out of the live room back into the control room, he stood up and gave me a standing ovation. I kind of felt bad for the drummer and the engineer who were in the room, and also had to pretend like they really liked what I had played. I don’t remember it being that great.

I was playing at a piano bar called Brandy’s on 84th St. in NYC.  Don’t know if you remember Debby Gibson, she goes by “Deborah Gibson” now.  Anyway, this group of like 20 people walked in and started buying drinks and singing along. I was doing piano bar songs, Broadway, adult contemporary pop, whatever was popular. At some point this woman came up and asked if she could sit in on vocals, and I was like, “sure, “because

#1 I like to give anyone a chance who really wants to sing, and

#2 you needed to give your own voice a break on these six-hour NYC piano bar gigs. 

She was doing songs from Les Misérables and I thought she sounded pretty good, really. After an hour or so her and her friends left. About two minutes later this one guy from her entourage walked back into the bar and came up and asked me, “did you really not know who that was”? I genuinely didn’t. Woman had a nice voice, though.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I really miss the sound, feel, and smell of vinyl records. There really is nothing, if you’re a recorded music fan, like putting a needle down on a vinyl record.

"I think knowing the clerk in my local convenience store has been one of my most important experiences. She told me there was a cop right down the road pulling people over for speeding. In other words, slow down." (Jack Spann on stage / Photo by Jim Snyder)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I wish Simon Cowell would get punched in the face by a Bob Dylan fan.

What touched (emotionally) you from David Bowie's music?

I was very emotionally attached to Bowie’s music, because I always figured it as the fiery scream of the oppressed, the last bit of sanity in the concentration camp of ugly main stream culture. 

What is the impact of Blues and Rock music and culture to the socio-cultural implications? 

I think Beethoven was brilliant, but like Chuck Berry said, “Roll Over Beethoven.” Black American culture has been the shit since way before I was born. I kind of worry about that with the Kanye West’s of America having so much influence. Kanye West is the Pat Boone of 2019. 

Also, I look at sexual freedom, LGBTQ issues, reproductive health issues, as being a matter of civil rights. No blues and rock and roll, and all we'd have is Frank Sinatra crooning shit that other people wrote, and Nazis stomping gay people for "fun".

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would love to go to June 14th, 1946, in NYC. I would buy Art Tatum breakfast if he’d let me. I would go catch a gig at Birdland, see Charlie Parker, Mingus, and Monk. Then I’d go to Forest Hills hospital and etch a “666” tattoo on Donald Trump’s baby head while he was lying in his incubator.

Jack Spann - Home

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