In addition to being an adventurous player, Alessi is an accomplished teacher. In 2001 he founded the School for Improvisational Music in Brooklyn, where he and other renowned artists such as Don Byron, Fred Hersch and Uri Caine conduct workshops that attract students from all over the world. We recently spoke with Alessi about studying under Charlie Haden and about the advice he gives his students.
Westword: I know you've studied with Charlie Haden, but did you study bass with him, or composition?
Ralph Alessi: Well, I got two degrees from Cal Arts. I played in Charlie's ensemble for several years. At that time, it was just his small group. I did that, and I came back and got my master's. At the time, I was playing a little bass. They were short on bass players, so I came back and was a master's student on bass. Actually, it worked out that I was able to take a couple of lessons from Charlie, because prior to that, he wasn't doing any private teaching, to my knowledge. So it just worked out that year that he actually gave me a couple of lessons. It was always very inspiring being around Charlie, listening to him play and listening to him talk about music. It was really great.
You studied classical early on. Was that up until you went to Cal Arts?
Yeah, right around Cal Arts time, I still probably had more of an idea that I was going to be a classical player. And then Cal Arts came, and I really had to switch that up. I just had such an amazing experience there. There were all these great musicians there -- Ravi Coltrane, Scott Colley, Peter Epstein, James Carney, Michael Cain. And after I had these experiences playing music with these people, I started to write music. And I just didn't have a choice. I had to go to New York and continue doing this.
Is there one piece of advice you share with your students a lot?
Listen to a lot of music and play a lot and get together with friends who have a shared interest in improvised music and jazz. And get together with these people at all costs to listen to music, to get inspired by that, to play and experiment and write music. Looking back, that was basically the kind of fork in the road for me, and I decided to take a left turn. A lot of that was just being at Cal Arts and being around people who were inspiring, who were kindred spirits. That became a very powerful experience.