Portland-Born Trumpeter Chris Botti on Why the Kardashian Approach Doesn't Work for Jazz

But it's still fun to play with Lady Gaga and hang out with Sting.

By Jack Rushall January 26, 2016

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Chris Botti

Image: Chris Botti

Becoming famous isn't so easy when you’re a trumpeter invested in jazz. Yet somehow, Chris Botti—with four number-ones on the Billboard jazz albums chart—has still made it to the top. On the eve of his January 30 appearance at the Schnitz, Botti spoke with Portland Monthly about his roots in the Portland jazz scene, his celebrity-dotted career, and his future in music. Turns out Botti isn’t as different from Bob Dylan as you might think.

How has Portland influenced your interest in music?

I was born in Portland, but I grew up in Corvallis. I would travel during my teenage years and come stay in Portland during the summers to play in the jazz clubs from 17 to 21. I don’t know what it’s like (in Portland) now, but when I was growing up, it was really great. There were fantastic performers like Ron Steen. Ron took me under his wing when I was 15 and 16 and had me play in the clubs every night. I learned so much just by being around him.

15? Was that intimidating?

I was too naïve to have stage fright. You can only be in those bars legally if you’re on stage the whole time, but everyone was so nice to me.

How would you describe the Portland jazz scene?

I left Oregon when I was 18, but I know Ron is still there, being the ambassador to jazz. I went to school in Indiana and moved to New York City, so New York has been my home for most of my life. If you want to be an “act” or if you want to be known outside your local area, usually you go to New York or LA, or Nashville. The publicity, the record-making machines are in other cities—not Portland.

Still, the Portland scene seemed pretty rocking to me at the time. There are probably six or eight or even ten clubs that still function as jazz clubs in Portland. New York can do that because it’s an international act place, so it’s unusual that Portland is such a positive environment for jazz musicians when it’s so small.

How does a classical musician end up playing with Lady Gaga?

A couple summers ago, she and Tony Bennett did a big television spot. She’s lovely. I performed the last song with them, but it was kind of another experience with one of those famous singers. I work with everyone in the business. She sings jazz and croons like Streisand would. I think she’s more suited in a lot of ways to that stuff than to rock or pop.

What's it like to work 300 days a year?

Sunday is my twelfth anniversary of being on the road between 300 and 350 days a year. This year will be my busiest year. I feel so unbelievably fortunate. There are fantastic musicians all over the world. Whether you call it the stars aligning or luck, it’s really true: I have been the poster child for a lot of good fortune. You can be a pop star and get famous overnight, but with an instrumentalist, it’s a much more difficult ascent. It’s a more laborious path. People don’t say, “Oh yeah, there’s the guy with the trumpet.” The Kardashian approach does not work in jazz.

You have collaborated with a lot of very famous singers and performers. Is there any collaboration that sticks out?

My relationship with Sting has been so strong that now we’re touring together. Paul Simon I’m also close with. Some people you do a musical drive-by with and it’s always, always different. I have had fond experiences working with so many different artists.

But by far and away, Sting is the reason why I have a career at this level. To celebrate our friendship, we are doing a tour together next month. He’s coming to six of my shows and we are becoming lifelong friends. It’s meant a lot to me to know him and work with him. Sting just keeps doing it: he keeps going out and playing all the time.

Was there a breaking point in your career? Or a moment you realized you found success?

When I look back on my life, I had a healthy dose of being totally naïve. I would play Christmas carols on the street in New York, and if I won $20 I thought I won the Academy Award. Emotionally now, I would be destitute if I had to work the street. My career has been a rise and ascent that was logical to me: yes, it had some ups and downs.

Early in my career, I was asked to play the ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo and there was a long table at the press conference and it was myself and Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Oprah, and Tom Cruise. That’s when I thought, “We’re onto something here.” That was ten years ago and since then, I’ve played for many presidents and have had successful television shows. But that moment was when I realized I had something unique.

How does the future look?

When I was in Joni Mitchell’s band and Paul Simon’s band, I got to share the stage with Bob Dylan. I’m not a big fan of his music, but I thought, “Here’s a guy who has everything.” He still tours like crazy all the time, nonstop. He goes from city to city to city and he plays his music—and that’s his life. He’s not trying to have a clothing line. He’s not trying to be an entrepreneur. There’s something very noble about doing what you do and going from city to city and being thankful towards the audience who show up that night.

There’s a litany of rock stars that think the road is too difficult and they go into hibernation and come back a few years later and their audience is gone. If you screw off and leave, it’s not the greatest message. Honestly, if Lauryn Hill was sitting next to me at a restaurant, I wouldn’t recognize her—and she won ten Grammys. I want to be the guy who keeps going from city to city and keeps it going.

Chris Botti plays the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with the Oregon Symphony on Jan 30.

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