Chris Klich been playing woodwind instruments for 50 years, starting at age 10 on the clarinet. At age 11 he began playing alto sax, and as a music major in college, his mentor Jimmy Cheatham encouraged him to learn how to play flute, as well, of which he’s played for 40 years. While in college (Bachelor’s degree in music, University of California, San Diego), Klich also started playing tenor sax and soprano sax, and soon after acquired a bari sax, which became an integral instrument. At around age 50, he started playing oboe, and recently began playing bass clarinet. Still, though, alto and tenor, flute and clarinet are the go-to’s for Chris.
Chris continued to earn a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies (San Diego State University, 2005). He began teaching at a Grossmont College, (El Cajon, CA) in 2005, teaching jazz history until 2015. He’s been teaching private students since 1983, and has taught literally thousands of horn players in his teaching career.
Chris’ career has taken him all over the world performing with various band, including China, Macau, Norway and many U.S. cities, as well.
Chris Klich’s Instruments & Gear
As far as clarinets go, Chris utilizes a Selmer Center Tone clarinet, an Olds Bass Clarinet, a Pearl Quantz flute, and a Loree’ oboe.
Chris Klich Merch
Voices In My Head / Laura Preble
Interview with Chris Klich
Chuck Schiele: You’re an accomplished saxophone/winds player comfortable in the various traditions of these instruments. Please tell us about your approach.
Chris Klich: I practice every day for about 2 hours, splitting my practice time usually between 3, sometimes, 4,
instruments, since I play bari, tenor, alto and soprano sax; clarinet and bass clarinet; flute and oboe). I target the horns I’m most likely to play at the next gig or rehearsal. I do my warm-up exercises, and if I have enough time, I also make sure to get some practice in on sight-reading and improvisation skills. If I’ll be playing sheet music on the next gig or rehearsal, I always make sure that I’ve brought it home with me, and I spend a lot of time preparing, practicing that music until I feel like I have as complete a command as possible.
Until the pandemic began, I was playing regularly with 10 different bands. Two of them are jazz big bands, and I play lead alto sax in those groups. In the big bands, I also often play soprano, clarinet and flute, and sometimes piccolo. My jazz quintet plays the occasional gig, and I usually play alto, tenor, soprano, clarinet, and flute with that group. I play with a very successful dance band, on tenor and flute. I also play in a couple other cover bands, in which I mostly play alto, tenor and flute. And the same goes for a couple of rock bands that I perform with. I also play regularly with two bands that play music associated with New Orleans, and I play a lot of bari and clarinet, as well as tenor and some alto, in those bands.
Since I play so many different genres of music, I like to feel like my horns are an extension of myself, so that I’ll be comfortable at the gig. That’s why I make sure I plan ahead and practice the horns I’m going to play on the next gig. I have always wanted to emulate the approach of John Coltrane, who thought of his instruments as communication devices to use to project what he was feeling in his soul. When I’m on a gig, not only am I trying to “kill it” technically, but I want to express myself and give the audience an experience that they won’t forget. It’s in those transcendent moments, when I feel like I’m connecting my thoughts and feelings by using my instruments, and getting the feedback that I’ve touched other souls, that are the fuel that keeps me going as a musician.
The first time that I made that connection, back when I was still a college student, and didn’t know, technically, what I was doing but communicated nonetheless, I felt like I’d just enjoyed the most delicious thing ever, and I was hooked. I try to recreate that experience every time that I go on stage, and a lot of times I do. It depends on the gig, of course; some gigs are just what I call “wallpaper” gigs, where I’m just there to provide ambience, like the tablecloths and the potted plants. But whether in a sweaty bar or on a concert stage, I get to enjoy those opportunities to make that connection, and I live for those moments.
Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?
Chuck Schiele: As a jazz professional, what do you think of jazz today?
Chris Klich: In addition to being a jazz musician, I also taught jazz history at a local community college for 10 years. I loved turning new jazz listeners on to this genre of music. Without a doubt, jazz is the locus of the most creativity, most soulful communication, and intellectual curiosity. But most folk don’t know much about this genre, which fused European and African music into a unique, intrinsically American, musical language. Of the three features I mentioned above, most people think it is only the intellectual part that defines this music. We often forget that jazz was the most popular music during the 1930s and 1940s, especially the sub-genre of swing. Duke Ellington said, and wrote the tune, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” That feeling of swing is fundamental to most genres of jazz, and is what appeals the most to folks. Throughout its history, jazz musicians always thought about new ways to create their improvisational music, and the jazz heroes we always cite as inspiration were the ones who succeeded in this quest.
But in the 1950s jazz began to be taken seriously as an academic subject, studied in colleges and text books. Because most of the swinging music vocabulary was already established, musicians went further and further into the analytical and theoretical side when composing and improvising. Soon there was a backlash among many musicians (black musicians, in particular, who felt that white musicians were hijacking their music); they created “soul jazz,” which takes jazz back to its roots, infusing Gospel and blues traditions. The swing came back. But it was too late; the few people who listened to jazz liked it because it was considered more intellectual than the burgeoning rock, pop, soul, and eventually hip hop and EDM. The popularity of those other music forms, pushed jazz off of the playlists of many radio stations, so access to this music was more limited.
The diminishment of jazz’s popularity combined with the intellectual direction a lot of jazz music took created multiple generations of people who have no idea what this music really is, nor how much fun it is to play and listen to. If you want to hear jazz, usually you have to go to a concert; it’s not found easily on the radio in most locations. Although streaming brings every kind of music to any internet-connected device now, and you can listen to jazz all the time (my favorite station is jazz88.org, which is KSDS, the San Diego jazz station), the fact that so many people don’t know what this music is means that they don’t search for it on the internet.
So the bottom line is that the audience for jazz has slowly become smaller and smaller over the last 70 years or so. When I began my career as a jazz musician in the 1980s, there were already only a handful of clubs where you could play or listen to jazz. By the time of the pandemic, which closed the remaining venues, it was hard to find places to play. Plus the wages haven’t grown much; in downtown San Diego there were a couple of places that a musician could play jazz before COVID, but by the time you paid for parking and loaded in and loaded out your gear, plus played for four hours, you were making much less than minimum wage. I turned down a lot of those gigs. I’ve been making a living as a musician for nearly 40 years now, but I would say that about 90 percent of the gigs I play are gigs that aren’t jazz. Those few jazz concerts I get to play are the most rewarding for my soul, even if not for my wallet.
In terms of the recorded music today, I think I see a trend of new jazz artists embracing the styles of jazz that preceded the pop-fusion that was created starting in the 1980s. At that time, many jazz artists began experimenting with pop styles, and the result was labeled “smooth jazz.” Many great musicians created that style of music, which was more easily accessible to people who didn’t listen to jazz; a lot of money was made by record labels and jazz artists that played this style, but a lot of musicians, myself, included, didn’t like smooth jazz, and didn’t play it, either. It was derided by lots of “real” jazz musicians as “jacuzzi jazz,” or “jazz lite.” While a lot of great artists made a good living playing this style, and still do, I’m hearing more young musicians turning back to the music of the 1930s through 1960s for inspiration, and I think that’s a welcome development.
Chuck Schiele: How has Covid affected what you do as a musician?
Chris Klich: It has nearly completely ended my gigging. I had been playing an average of 3 or 4 gigs every week before COVID, and since March 19th, when I played at a convention for a giant air conditioner manufacturer, I’ve only played one gig, where all the musicians were more than 6 feet apart, and wore masks when not singing or blowing through a horn, and the audience was many feet away. A few of my musician friends are playing socially-distanced gigs, but I’ve been reluctant to join them, because the circumstances just didn’t look safe enough for me. One of the guys who continued to do these gigs, who asked me frequently to join him, actually got COVID. Gratefully, his was a mild case, and he’s nearly completely recovered. But in my family there are a couple of us with immunity issues, and I just can’t take the risk that I might bring the illness home.
Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist or project?
Chris Klich: I’m looking for creativity above all else. Even if it’s just a cover band, if we’re playing tunes that challenge me, instead of the same old songs I’ve played a thousand times, I enjoy myself a lot. I can make a lot of money with a band that plays “Mustang Sally,” “Moondance,” and the other couple of dozen sure-fire dance floor-filling songs, but I’ll take a gig that pays less if I get to play the more obscure songs, particularly the ones that let me have lots of space for soloing, which is what I do best.
Playing the difficult pop music of the 70s is particularly fun and challenging. (As examples, I’m thinking of a couple particular tunes in which my part was an integral and important element of the music. Playing the harmony part to the guitar bridge on “Reelin’ in the Years” by Steely Dan, or the Tom Scott sax and flute parts on “Help Me” by Joni Mitchell always give me the feeling of great accomplishment, where I get to bring all of my skills to the task of playing them.)
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your instruments, and the gear associated with them.
Chris Klich: I listed all of my horns earlier, but there’s a lot of other gear I have to haul around when I’m playing a gig. If it’s my own band, I have to lug a p.a. system and lights. But most of the gigs I play have a sound man. But I still have so many things to set up and plug in, besides assembling my instruments. I use a wireless mic for my saxes, two stand-mounted mics for clarinet (one for the middle of the horn and one in the bell,) and another stand-mounted mic for flute. I usually bring my own boom stands, because
A couple of years ago, I played a gig with a very loud rock band in a very small space, and when the gig was over, I realized that my hearing was damaged. I managed to keep my hearing for all of those decades of playing gigs, but now I need help, so I now have custom-made ear mold speakers that connect to my in-ear monitor system and have a controller with a filter that can eliminate about 85% of ambient stage noise, so I can still hear what I need without having to turn anything up so much that it would further damage my hearing.
Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?
Chris Klich: Wow, I could write a bunch of pages about this topic. But I’ll summarize, instead of giving details (to protect the innocent!). I found early in my music career that I’d have to make choices all of the time between being a better musician, or playing more gigs, or touring more, versus having a good family life. I mentioned that I was married twice before I met Laura; we’ve been together for 25 years, but I constantly had to find that balance in order to maintain the relationship with her. And being a good father to a 27-year old and an 18-year old is an achievement that I’m very proud of.
Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you take the stage?
Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you practice?
Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the saxophone and music in general?
Chuck Schiele: The importance and art of listening. Please discuss.
Chris Klich: Man, this is another one that could take so many directions, and would be a great subject for a TED talk. But I’ll attempt to break it down to the most basic elements I can think of. When you get right down to it, music and all other art forms are a reflection of the struggle we all experience between tension and release, work and rest, anger and pleasure.
An appreciation of the arts is fundamental to being a complete human being. It brings a synthesis of the right brain and left brain, combining the analytical and creative. Scientists have hooked up sensors to test subjects to see what parts of the brain light up when experiencing different stimuli. Music is the stimulus that lights up most of the brain. Listening to music that challenges the brain creates new pathways among the neural network, and makes understanding of other disciplines easier.
There was a fad a couple of decades ago that was labeled “the Mozart effect.” It suggested that having babies listen to music like that of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach could make the baby smarter. I don’t think there was ever any clinical evidence that an increase in intelligence was established. But I am certain that early exposure to music does allow us to be more creative. I think this applies across genres, from classical to jazz to pop to modern styles of music. I do think though, that listening to music that is highly repetitive has less of a beneficial impact, though. And so much of what makes music marketable is about everything except the music itself; the artist has to have a certain look, certain dance moves, and a decent voice that can be auto-tuned. (I think Lizzo is a great exception to this, and I’m thrilled to see her success and that of Billie Eilish and Finneas, and those other music artists that don’t fit the cookie-cutter, easily marketed, mold.)
So if you like any genre of music, look for those who don’t necessarily fit the stereotypical mode, and your ears will “grow” so much more than if you hear hundreds of tunes that use the same chords and beats and rhythms over and over. Expose yourself to as many genres of music as possible; you may be surprised that you suddenly have an affinity to a music form that you didn’t think you’d like. That’s what I got to see repeatedly in my jazz history classes at the college. Most of my students would take the class just because they needed an elective to fill their class schedule, and it was so gratifying to see those students become fans of jazz, and to see them in the audience at some of my gigs.