Spotlight – Jeff Coffin, 3X Grammy Winner

By Rebecca Lowe March 19, 2014

JC ear to bell
Jeff Coffin from the Mu ‘tet, Dave Matthews Band, and the Flecktones

Spotlight is on the amazing Jeff Coffin.  He is a 3x Grammy winning saxophonist, composer and educator.  Being surrounded by a community of creative people is where I am and where I want to stay.

I feel that having a strong and connected community of musicians is essential to having a healthy music scene. Nashville obviously has that. I have watched it grow and develop into something extraordinary since moving here in early 1991 when I was fresh out of college. I paid a lot of dues along the way doing everything I could to play music and I keep pushing even now. My ‘big break’ was when I started playing with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones in 1997. I played with them for 14 years and toured around the world playing amazing music with amazing people. Being on the road is very different than just playing gigs – there is a family-type atmosphere that develops that is impossible to describe unless you have lived it. We had many great times together. In 2008, due to a bad ATV accident their saxophone player was involved in, I started playing with Dave Matthews Band (while still playing with the Flecktones) and officially joined them full time in 2009. I have my own group, The Mu’tet, that I tour and do clinics with when I have time outside of DMB and I have released 6 solo band recordings, with another upcoming in the fall of 2014. I also do a good amount of studio work in Nashville when I am home.  

I always want to be involved with projects that I see as having heart. Lately, when I have been home, I have been spearheading a jazz composer’s collective and we get together as many as five days a week when possible.  Basically, we play each other’s music and then we ‘workshop’ it and try out people’s ideas. No egos and no limits. We may change a groove, we may change a note, we may change a form…it’s all fair game. There is a rotating group of players and we will have from 4-5 to 10-12 people on some days. Our youngest player, she is 17 (!) has recently found us and we are happy to have her in the fold.  It’s inspiring that young players are interested in the art of music! We are all grateful to have a place to play our original music and to experiment with what we are writing…it might be a finished tune, it might be an idea, it might be just some chord changes.  It doesn’t matter what someone brings in, we will do our best to help realize the idea and vision of the writer.

The involvement of others is certainly key to the process of creation. We all work together to come up with something greater than the individual who wrote the piece. I sometimes have to remind myself, there is no music on a sheet of paper…it’s all in the spirit and intention of the players and composer. Without the right intention, it will fall flat. We are not after mediocrity, we are after something that sits just out of our reach and keeps moving outward as we stretch for it. Having people bring their ideas to the table sparks other ideas and thoughts and emotions and it leads the music to a higher place. We couldn’t do it without each other.

Impediments, road blocks & ego ego ego!! Sometimes, and I have found that the ego can be bigger than a whole situation. Someone’s ego and personal agenda can ruin the spirit of the moment and be a real drag to everyone involved. The idea behind Dave Matthews Band, the Mu’tet, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, the Collective, doing studio work, presenting clinics, doing concerts with students, etc…is that it is always about the music first! Music is a service industry and it seems that some people forget that sometimes. First, the music has to be served, then the other musicians on stage, then the audience…we are at least 4th on this list. However, we do get served by serving so it’s kind of like the Ouroboros (the snake eating it’s tail) – it’s the eternal return. This is an important part of what I believe and how I play, write and teach. Without each other, we are nothing. No one has ever been successful alone. I could not play my own music or have my own cds if it weren’t for amazing musicians who give their time and talent to help realize it. Dave Matthews and Bela Fleck wouldn’t have bands if it weren’t for musicians (and others) willing to follow their vision. We all realize this and are grateful, and that makes a world of difference to us who follow. Great leaders and great people recognize the sacrifice of those who make them successful.

I truly believe that the greatest gift my band has given me is the gift of collaboration. When we write together, they put part of who they are as artists into the music and they ‘own’ part of it – literally and figuratively. When people are allowed and encouraged to be creative, they will bring great things to the table. This should start at an early age and should be encouraged throughout a person’s life. Creativity comes in so many forms and styles and genres and patterns and emotions and I am fortunate to be surrounded by so many awe-inspiring people.

Jeff Coffin and The  Mu 'tet
Jeff Coffin and The
Mu ‘tet

In addition to an upcoming Dave Matthews Band cd the group has just begun work on, I am currently finishing up a new Mu’tet cd which will be out in Fall 2014 and features my band – Roy ‘Futureman’ Wooten, Felix Pastorius, Bill Fanning & Chris Walters – as well as the legendary tabla master, Zakir Hussain from India, a tambourine player from New Orleans, a harpist from the west coast, a percussionist from St Louis (who used to play with Sheryl Crow) and a myriad of local horn players, as well as guitar and harmonica, from the deep, rich pool we have here in Nashville. I also just finished producing an awe-inspiring cd of a Spanish saxophonist who goes by the moniker ‘PEDROSAXO’…he is the Bobby McFerrin of the sax! Truly amazing on so many levels. (check out iTunes, or for this mind blowing cd!). I am constantly involved with education and present music clinics whenever I can. I do them when I am on the road and I do them when I am off the road. I have given over 300 (and counting) around the world. It’s part of giving back but it’s also part of sharing and learning from a younger set of ears and emotions and they remind me of the passion that is necessary to create and they remind me to be wide-eyed and open and scared and focused and full of wonder. I think I learn more than they do most of the time! I love getting into a dialogue with students about what they hear in the music, how they feel music and how they conceptualize music. There are some deep thinkers and players out there. Music will be just fine…

The wonder of creation is something we should all be encouraged to be a part of and we should remember that we don’t ever need permission to express ourselves. Maybe not everyone will always understand or support your process but it’s important that you follow through with your ideas and your vision. Remember, there are no statues of critics! Be kind to one another and to yourself, help each other out, be supportive of people’s creative spirit and let all your work be done with love.

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