by Matthew Wilson
NEWPORT CENTER — If someone were to picture what it’s like to be a professional musician, they’d likely imagine themselves performing live in front of an excited audience. No matter the genre, it is the most iconic feat of a musical performer to stand before others and play. What is forgotten is the discipline of practice, dedication to craft, and cultivation of creativity that playing music requires. Behind the scenes of that stereotype, the reality is that being a professional player takes no lack of hard work. Barry Sahagian, a resident of Newport Center, knows this after a life-long career playing jazz. He’s seen a number of shifts in the industry, as the trends for both style and distribution continue to change. Adapting to the challenges besetting his own passion for music, he’s navigated a path to knowledge he now shares with others.
Mr. Sahagian began playing guitar at an early age, and knew from then that music was his calling.
“Every bar or nightclub had to have a live band,” Mr. Sahagian said, recalling his time as an eighteen-year-old electric bass player growing up in Boston. “I was up late playing shows seven gigs a week, two on Sunday.”
He had friends who all played music, many of whom studied at Berklee College of Music. While acclaimed today, the school was in its infancy in the 1970s, but still a known place for players looking to hone their craft. Mr. Sahagian was able to get accepted into the school, but the United States military had other ideas; he was selected by the draft to serve in the Vietnamese conflict. Studies at Berklee did not count towards a college deferment, as the school had yet to receive the proper accreditation, so he ended up going to school for accounting instead. Mr. Sahagian was able to eventually get a medical deferment that abated his fears of the draft.
Finally able to truly devote himself to music, Berklee proved to bring challenges all its own. Mr. Sahagian, who had played the electric bass for years, would have to choose a different instrument as his focus.
“There wasn’t an electric bass program yet, so I played the trumpet instead,” Mr. Sahagian said, though shortly after the school would change its policy allowing electric bass as a major instrument. He remembers that much of the curriculum was classical in nature, but that the school would often find teachers in touring artists looking to retire from the road.
Major Holley, a prolific studio musician who had played with greats such as Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones, was one such instructor who had a big impact on Mr. Sahagian. He once asked Mr. Sahagian what kind of music he played.
“Commercial music, I told him,” Mr. Sahagian recalled. “He said back that everything was commercial music and asked me again. ‘You’re a jazz musician,’ he told me, and that’s when I knew I was a jazz bassist.
“Many of the instructors encouraged students to hit the road and tour,” Mr. Sahagian said. So, after finishing his time at Berklee, he toured for the next ten years all over the East Coast, from Miami to Montreal.
But, throughout his career he had noticed something. There was a lack of printed resource materials specifically for bassists. So, Mr. Sahagian decided to publish and author the first of many successful reference books about bass technique and theory.
“Eventually, people were calling me Mr. Sahagian who writes the books,” he said.
Those materials went on to great acclaim, even offering him the opportunity to teach at Berklee. He didn’t want to be a teacher in an academic structure, so he decided against it.
“Something about teaching at a school, it feels like it limits my creativity,” he said. Continuing to focus on playing live and writing his books, allowed him to move away from the city, a road which would lead him to his current home in Vermont.
His business continued to grow, and in 1999 Mr. Sahagian held a series of concerts at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury.
“Jazz On a Sunday Afternoon, those were really good times,” he said. “I encouraged musicians to write pieces just for the show. It was a golden age.”
Many of the connections he’d made throughout his career paid off, and well-regarded jazz players reached out to him, so they could get an opportunity to play at Catamount’s venue. The concerts came to an end in 2011, when the executive director at the time retired.
Mr. Sahagian now tutors digitally, posting videos on a YouTube channel that focuses on content not far from the topics discussed in his many published writings.
He notes one major change in his field, especially as a performing musician. As distribution expanded, and music was more accessible in high quality recordings, the desire to hear live bands began to wane.
“I think it really began with disco and synthesized music,” Mr. Sahagian said. When asked about jazz and its influence on modern music, Mr. Sahagian pointed out it is less than two percent of the music heard in the United States. Despite this, he said, the influence of the music is apparent.
“You’ve got so many different kinds of jazz out there, now,” Mr. Sahagian said. “Chocolate jazz, vanilla jazz, like ice cream.”
The pandemic was a hard blow for many of the players he knows, and for any lessons he could give. After two long years of isolation, Mr. Sahagian looks forward to returning to tutoring.
“I’m looking forward to teaching again,” he said. “I’ll have my first student again in the next few weeks.”