Leader of the Band: John Beasley

The product of a long musical lineage, John Beasley’s aptitude was never in question. However, it would take years of networking and mentorship to launch his international career and bring him to Abbey Road, laying down tracks for James Bond in Skyfall.

 

If you’ve watched reality singing competitions, you may have seen John Beasley lurking on the side stage. The seasoned composer, pianist, producer, and arranger, served as the lead arranger for six seasons of American Idol before ushering Carrie Underwood to victory as the associate music director for the show’s Season 4. His television credits include underscores and themes for Cheers and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he has collaborated with Tom Newman for blockbuster hits like Skyfall, Shawshank Redemption, Wall-E, and Finding Nemo. The Grammy-nominated musician has recorded, toured, and performed alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Steely Dan, Queen Latifah, Carly Simon, and James Brown.  

So how did a Shreveport, Louisiana native who grew up listening to jazz music and drumming on pots and pans reach his current level of success? A lot of practice, hard work, and networking. Beasley says he owes his career achievements to being passionate about his job, keeping a positive attitude, and impressing colleagues who have referred him to the majority of his gigs. He also stresses the importance of finding mentors and learning all that you can from them.

Get In Media: How did you first get into music?

John Beasley: My grandfather was a jazz trombone player. He was a Dixieland guy. He played in territory bands down south for dances and stuff like that. My grandmother said, “I’ve had enough of this road stuff” and so he became a band director at 35. Then he raised my mom and my mom became a musician. My dad’s father had a Steinway dealership Texarkana, Arkansas and so he got into music through my other grandfather, so it’s been in my family for a long time. 

GIM: You grew up playing a variety of instruments. How did you get into all of those? 

JB: I started as a drummer and I’ve always kept the drum thing in there because it’s so much fun. I had a guitar and I played guitar until I was about 14, but I sucked at it. My parents always made me play piano though; at eight I had to start taking lessons. I had a band in junior high I was playing guitar in and the keyboard player was kind of flaking out and so finally one day I said, “I’ll learn ‘Colour My World’ on the piano.” I thought, “I could do this and have some fun playing with my friends” and that’s how it started. 

GIM: And you started arranging at a young age?

JB: Yeah, at 13, 14, I got the jazz bug. I was into Hendrix and music of that day, but Chicago was really big then, and Blood Sweat & Tears, so that was kind of jazzy. My dad was a jazz musician and he was always playing stuff. Finally, something clicked where I made the connection between those guys and Art Blakey and Jimmy Smith. I started writing big band arrangements and trying to be Quincy Jones and lock myself in the room and play the records and pretend like I was the man. That’s how I learned was to play around to records. When I’m doing workshops and stuff I tell people, “Put the record on and play.”

GIM: When did you first get into composing?

JB: We moved to Los Angeles during my last few years of high school and I started meeting other guys around L.A. I did weddings and little jazz gigs and there were a lot of places to play back then. My dad was teaching at Santa Monica College and he was the jazz guy and I started writing arrangements for his big band. I won a scholarship to Juilliard but turned it down. 

GIM: What do you consider your first big career break?

JB: I played a lot of music throughout high school, mostly with older guys around L.A. I started gigging by 16 or 17. I think my first big tour was The Platters. I was around 18. They had a week in Japan so I went with them and played piano. After that, I started working with these guys around L.A. that were playing with Freddie Hubbard’s band. Somehow I got a call to work with Hubert Laws, this flute player, and so I did tours with him when I was 19 or 20, and in the band was John Patitucci. 

John and I remain friends and have done each other’s records ever since then; our first gig was at Carnegie Hall in New York. Learning from these older musicians was really important as a young guy – listening to them and having their comments. Having to play with a guy like that would really inspire you to work hard. 

GIM: And then you hooked up with Sergio Mendes who mentored you in your early career days?

JB: After that, I got a call to work with Sergio Mendes and that was more of a steady, all-over-the-world kind of thing. I learned a lot with Sergio. He turned me on to all of these great musicians and he was really cool. He had these cassettes of Ivan Lins playing all these songs and he said he wanted me to write down the voicings and the piano parts for him so he could learn them. He actually hired me to transcribe that stuff. I’m looking back on it now and I don’t think that he did it for him. He did it for me to learn that stuff, which was really cool. 

GIM: How did you transition from touring into writing for TV and commercials?

JB: I met this drummer named Mike Jochum who was doing a lot of studio work for this guy named Dan Foliart who used to do music for Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and some of those shows for Paramount. Dan wanted to have a band play his TV music live – kind of a small big band. I guess the guy he was using for the sessions didn’t want to do it, so Mike recommended me to do the live gigs. It was kind of corny music, but I did it anyway; plus, I was supporting myself playing music. 

After a while, I asked if he’d consider hiring me for one of his sessions and he did, and then he started to hire me for all of his sessions. He kind of gave me my start. The lady who was managing his band also worked in the music office at Paramount and she took a liking to me and started recommending me to the head of music at Paramount to do little soundalikes. If somebody was playing a pop song off the radio, back in those days they wouldn’t pay to have licensing done, they’d pay a smaller fee and then they would hire musicians out to recreate the soundalike, so I started.

I started having a writing career at 23, 24 years old. It all started with the Paramount guy. It just takes somebody willing to take a chance on you. I didn’t really know anything about scoring, but you just kind of dive in. Also through that connection, I met the guy who was the music connection at Paramount. His name was Carl Fortina and he took a liking to me and started hiring me to be a session player, so that’s how I got into doing sessions in Hollywood. Once you reach that other level, you meet the other session guys and they started recommending me like Carl. I did lots of sessions, records. I also started writing some jingles.

GIM: And then you got the phone call of a lifetime?

JB: When I was 29, I got a call to go on the road with Miles Davis. I also met my first wife and she got pregnant. All this stuff had happened at once. I went out with Miles and that was my college education. I was 29 years old, and at the time I remember thinking, he kind of taught me how to become a man at that point. I had all that other stuff – baby, new house, everything was changing at once. 

GIM: What was Miles like to tour with?

JB: He’s a really funny guy. You don’t get that from a lot of interviews. He seems really serious, but he was really funny and really supportive. I knew that he could be tough, so before I even met him I was thinking, “What am I going to do if he starts getting tough on me?” So I just said, “I don’t have anything to lose.” So we went to New York to rehearse. We rehearsed a couple of days without him and he showed up and I said, “I’m just going to look at him right in the eye and just freeze when I shake his hand.” He must have known what I was doing because he looked right back at me. It felt like an eternity and finally he blinked and he smiled and it was like, “Ahh man. I passed the test.” So I felt pretty confident around him from that point on. That was a real important hurdle for me to get over. 

GIM: And Ricky Minor got you into music-directing for television?

JB: Yes. I had been writing commercials and running TV sessions and arranging for records. It’s kind of the same thing. Rehearsing is rehearsing. And getting it done fast, which – when being the music director on a TV show – is important because you don’t have much time to get together. You have to be able to listen quick and decipher what needs to be fixed pretty quick. Same thing with a session; you don’t want to waste money in the studio. 

Ricky knew I was doing all this stuff and he got the Idol gig. He brought me on to be an assistant music director and I did that for about six years. I was arranging and being a liaison between the contestants and the band because they would rehearse at a different time than we did—helping them pick songs and find keys and doing the arrangements with them and stuff. This was Carrie Underwood’s year that I started. I did that for a long time and then Ron Fair from Interscope hired me to be Queen Latifah’s MD around that same time. After Idol, Ricky recommended me for ABC’s new singing competition, Duets, which was kind of my first live TV-type MD situation. 

GIM: Did you like that?

JB: I did. I loved it. It was kind of like full circle – going back to my early days of my career doing TV, and I had to do three episodes and really had to watch your time and you’d feel under the gun with all this adrenaline. You were kind of flying by the seat of your pants. When you’re dealing with TV, anything can happen and they always needed something yesterday. That’s kind of how it is with the high stakes TV, and it’s live so that adds another adrenaline jolt. 

Even when I was writing stuff that had already been shot — doing post — it all just kind of comes together quickly like that. I think they thrive on chaos. I’m kind of the anti-chaos guy. I got into just wanting to execute and become an observer instead of a participant in the chaos, and I think people respond to that. Somebody needs to be an anchor. That’s what I try to do on those gigs. 

Even on tours, it’s the same thing: “OK the flight’s late and the hotel didn’t get done. Oh you got to the gig and there’s no backline?” You just have to trust that you’ll make it through the gig. The other thing about being the music director is surrounding yourself with great players. It’s all talent. These guys at Duets, I could throw anything at them and they’d do it quickly, which was great because the artists changed their minds so quickly – on the keys, the form, and the songs. 

GIM: What do you attribute your career success to?

JB: Just playing and word-of-mouth through other musicians. That’s where I get all my gigs it seems like, is just word-of-mouth from other guys. I took every gig, too. I would take little casual gigs. I would take country gigs, hotel gigs, top 40 gigs – whatever they were. Even if it was a crappy gig, you’d learn something and there would be somebody that you would hook up with, another good musician and I would recommend them or they would recommend me for somebody else. The phone would ring and I would just say yes. 

GIM: Did you take any classes or special programs to prepare you for your career?

JB: When I was graduating, a lot of those specialized schools weren’t around. I learned a lot from my dad, though. My dad was teaching improv and arranging, and once he knew that I was interested, he would field my questions and bring materials that he had passed out. Most of my teachers were the older guys on the road with me. I never really took jazz lessons. I took oboe lessons and I took piano from a lady down the street. By the time I was 13, I didn’t take any more formal piano lessons, though. I just kind of locked myself in my room. I was a geek. I stayed in my room and played the records.

GIM: What would you recommend for people that want to pursue a career in music for a living?
JB: Nowadays, if I was doing the same thing, I probably would go to college because there aren’t as many places to play as there was back then. College ends up being where you do your networking. There’s a ton of guys from Berklee now that play gigs with people from Berklee, for example. Also, to have four years to be able to play without having to make a living or worry about everything else, that’s a great opportunity. To walk to the practice room and there’s a band in there playing and you can jump in there—it’s pretty invaluable. 

Aside from education, I’d say, get out there. Play as much as you can. Sit in. Introduce yourself to musicians. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s word of mouth and reputation. Don’t be difficult in a gig because you’re not going to get called back. Nobody wants to work with a jerk, especially in music. Find some kind of joy in it because it is music, it’s not laying bricks. It’s a pretty rarefied job. It’s a blessing and if you’re not having fun doing it, there’s your answer. 

You’re going to take a lot of crap. That’s the other side of it. You might as well try to make it fun while you’re playing, because so much of the stuff surrounding it is not necessarily fun. Getting the gig or the hassling over getting paid, sometimes not getting paid at all, sometimes not getting paid enough, the leader’s a jerk … there’s all kinds of politics. I guess that comes with all jobs. The music business has taken a lot of hits in the last few years. It’s harder and harder to travel now, so enjoy it when you’re actually doing the gig and playing it.

GIM: What’s the best and worst part about what you do for a living?
JB: The best part is not necessarily knowing what you’re going to do next and being surprised and challenged. And that’s also the worst part: Not knowing where the next gig is necessarily. Getting to be able to play with great musicians and travel the world and touch people with music. To be able to take people away from the stress of their lives for an hour or whatever, and get them to be thoughtful and maybe think about something else and give them a little peace, I think that’s the best thing. 

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