The Career With Little Burnout

An Interview With Berkeley City College Music Instructor Fred Randolph

By Nina M Cestaro

A long-time veteran of playing music in a wide range of clubs, Fred Randolph knows how a working musician keeps himself inspired. “It’s strange, the passion is always there with music, always has been. The burn out happens in other jobs, such as selling typewriter ribbon or dishwashing or DJ-ing for KCSM. There is no burnout in a musician’s life. I didn’t start having a music career until much later in life, and it wasn’t until playing bass that I was a professional. Also, I surround myself with better musicians, that way I am always having to strive.”

To discover what the daily activities of a musician’s life are like, The BCC Voice asked the versatile and esteemed Berkeley City College and Contra Costa College Music Instructor and jazz musician Fred Randolph a few questions. Randolph is a medium-tall brunette man growing a goatee, with large muscular hands and thick fingers that would lend nicely to carpentery work if he hadn’t chosen to play bass and piano. He relaxes people easily and gets along well with anyone.

The BCC Voice asked what early influences contributed to his musical genius, “As far as musicians who I was inspired by and influenced me — Jimi Hendrix. Musically, guitar was really my first instrument. I grew up in Hawaii, so I also played ukulele,” said Randolph.

“Then there was a music teacher from my Honolulu high school, named Oliver Stone,whom I had a chance to do a lot of independent study with as well as theory. Then there was a jazz guitar teacher at University of California, San Diego too. I grew up in that era when to become a rock star was what everybody wanted to be, which was much more important than sports. You may have musical passion, but it’s the aspect of getting girls, having a social outlet and being a famous musician. Gradually as you mature, then you realize it’s the music itself that becomes important and the other things fall away”.

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“When I was young in Honolulu, a small town, the guy all my friends and I were looking up to and taking jazz guitar lessons from was Bill Valdez. He was a nut, but the only game in town. He used to say, ‘Fred, remember Valdez is coming. ‘He was really anti-rock, because rock was a big threat to jazz musicians, so he got me listening to Kenny Burrell, Les Montgomery and people like that. We had a little guitar clique in school.

“ Then his travels brought him closer to the Bay, “I went straight to San Diego, but the water was full of kelp and cold, and then studied with Steve O’Connor who got me into horns, and he asked me to listen to sax players. Then eventually I just went into a pawn shop and I bought my first sax and then drove up to Berkeley to attend UC Berkeley and found bass and knew that’s the instrument; it would be it for me.”

After gigging he says, “My hands are fried but last night was so much fun. Monday night I was performing with an incredible group of people: a piano player, drummer and singer at the Black Cat in the Tenderloin ‘til one in the morning. The Irish woman, Melody who sings in the place is remarkable. We really take a journey every time we play together.”

The BCC Voice asked how he fills his spare time, he said, “I enjoy playing, practicing with my bands, listening to music, and composing in my spare time — but that takes another head space entirely. The hardest thing though, is if you’re studying an instrument but not applying it, so not currently playing with a band or whatnot. If you’re a music geek you like to be around other music geeks. Now, if you play in the orchestra or a band, you’re using your ears, and you’re forced into instantaneous reaction, not just confined to theory or practice. I am teaching myself violin right now and practice at least fifteen minutes a day, in addition to drumming, piano-playing, bass-playing. I may never be a virtuoso in violin, but my goal is to be as proficient as my students, since I teach it as part of the high school symphony at Bishop O’Dowd, a private Catholic High school in the Oakland Hills.”

Randolph glows as he shares his greatest joy in teaching music to high school students and college musicians. “Teaching kids is always having a parent behind every child, so you have to think carefully about what you say, and often they don’t get your humor. But the kids are great. They have so much enthusiasm and are wild and loud, but when the times comes two rehearsals before a big performance, it’s quiet. I mean nobody will tell you leading a high school music band is easy, but at times it’s satisfying. I have guys that come back to me years later and say, ‘man, that class I took with you really changed my life.’ Or I have a former student who did his scales and the right homework etc. and he is offering me gigs and vice versa now, and that’s great.

When asked about his current projects and performances, Randolph mentions “Nov. 19th at 8 pm at the Sound Room on Broadway at Grand in Oakland, California, which was the last performance there before that club closed and may reopen elsewhere. Also, my website has all my upcoming shows. My original compositions were recently featured in a film entitled Fourth Movement that was entered into the Sundance Film Festival and it’s currently at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It was directed by a Bay area filmmaker, Rob Nilson.

The BCC Voice learned from Randolph that a day in the life of a full time professional musician is more domestic now than it once was, “Before, it was like ‘get up when you feel like it after jamming all night,’ but nowadays when you gig all night and during the day you rise at 5:30 a.m. to teach — I have to catch a nap in the car and the next day catch up on sleep. It’s a little weird socially when you’re a single musician, you don’t see anyone regularly. The only social interaction you’d really have is the next gig, a lot of people get depressed with that, it’s common, because of the loneliness. Your parents are gone, you might see a relative or two once in a while. So, once I got this full time teaching gig everything changed, I mean it’s a trade-off of time and working days but then I get to interact with high-school children, the faculty, staff. Then the promoting is another mode entirely. Not everyone is a born businessman or likes to promote, but the composing is the main thing.”

“A song is a collection of emotions,” says Randolph. And apparently music even enters his dreams at night, as he shared, “Yeah that happens often and it’s funny because I think I have a great new song only to realize it’s a Miles Davis song or another written track.”

Events that Randolph looks forward to are “once a year I have a new album with the quintet coming out. My album, “Song Without Singing” is out now. That album took two years to produce because in the middle of recording we had a major house flood from people upstairs leaving a sink running, but it still came out on time.”

The BCC Voice asked him whether a funny thing had happened recently. Randolph explains, “when he came to school during Spirit Week/ Halloween and sees Stephen Toliver, a freshman, dressed up like a Michelin man with a generator inflating the costume, and he’s already a tubby kid, to which I ask him how he’s gonna fit, sit and play the trumpet. So he unplugs, immediately his costume deflates, and he starts playing his trumpet. A slice of life in teaching.”

Finally, The BCC Voice listened as he explained, “I never started out thinking I’ll be a music teacher but it was an accumulation of all my experiences of learning different instruments and playing that dovetailed nicely into what the community needed.”

At the top – Fred Randolph poses with his bass at the Sound Room in Oakland, California. Photo: Nina M Cestaro

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