by Del Lyren
Jeff Coffin leads an intriguing life as the saxophonist with Dave Matthews Band (DMB) and leader of his own group, Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet. His tireless schedule keeps him on the road about 225 days per year.
The Mu’tet, a who’s who of world-class musicians, performs when Coffin is not touring or recording with DMB. In addition, Coffin is highly in demand as a performer and clinician at jazz festivals throughout the world. Performers such as Coffin are often asked what it is like to tour constantly and always be in demand for autographs, pictures, recording sessions, clinics, and interviews. This article provides a glimpse into the life of Jeff Coffin, the bandleader of Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet.
An Incredible solo by Jeff Coffin (starts at 2:30)
I had the opportunity to accompany the Mu’tet on three days of their November tour. I had rented a car, and Coffin and trumpet player Bill Fanning rode with me, welcoming the opportunity to get out of the crowded tour van for a while. There are significant and obvious differences for Coffin in touring with DMB versus touring with the Mu’tet. With DMB, there are nice tour buses, chartered planes, five-star hotels, catered meals, and fans on every corner. With the Mu’tet the daily grind is more “real”: traveling in a single van loaded with all the equipment, grabbing food on the go, and staying at average hotels.
On my first day with the Mu’tet, they drove straight to the venue, Blues Alley, in Washington, DC, for set up and soundcheck. There was no time to relax and no time for food—just straight to business. After the terrific performances, I enjoyed watching Coffin’s inspiring interaction with fans and friends. While some musicians would disappear to the green room as quickly as possible, he spent most of his time smiling for photos with fans, grabbing a quick meal with friends, conversing, and signing autographs for anyone who asked. There was simply no down time whatsoever.
I asked him about the demands on his time and he said, “I enjoy the time with fans, but much of my day is spent dealing with the business part of the band. The time with the Mu’tet on stage is always a welcome sanctuary.” Following the second set, the van was quickly loaded and the band traveled to the hotel and checked into their rooms. To complete the day, Coffin hosted a small gathering until 2:15 a.m. with some longtime friends who came to the shows.
We left the next morning at 11:00 a.m. for the performance at Drom on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and arrived at 4:00 p.m. Following soundcheck, Coffin had a couple interviews for publicity, followed by a brief period of down time to spend in the tiny green room. Though, this “down” time was mostly used for catching up with text messages, voicemails, making calls to invite friends to the show, and dealing with other issues.
While the audience at Blues Alley was mostly middle-aged couples, Drom hosted a younger, more energetic crowd. The dance floor was packed, but the audience was so intrigued with the music that they stood and listened intently. After the show, Coffin once again spent time with the fans, and eventually packed his gear into the van. We left Manhattan at midnight and drove about two hours west to spend the night in Pennsylvania, keeping each other awake by discussing the teaching of jazz improvisation. At one point, Coffin expressed, “The word improvisation has a Latin root of improviso, which translated means ‘unexpected’ or ‘surprise.’ Think about the spirit of the word and what it means to you as a player and person. The sounds you use are just a representation of the feelings in your heart and the emotional lines of the story you are telling. You have to have a story to tell and it’s not going to come from the practice room. You have to practice, of course, but you also have to live a rich, full life … Be curious. Be excited. Be passionate. Be grateful. Be joyful. Live in a sense of wonder. Above all else, be yourself.”
Jeff Coffin: Leader Even During Down-Time
The next day we drove to Harrisonburg, Virginia, with a quick stop at a coffee shop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for lunch. During the four-hour drive it was interesting to observe Coffin in action as a bandleader. A number of complicated issues arose, and it took the majority of the ride for him to resolve them. With discussions of set lists, opening bands, contractual issues, and a steady stream of text messages and calls, he was occupied for most of the drive. When I asked him about touring as a bandleader, Coffin said, “For the most part, I really enjoy being on the road. I love making music with people and that’s really the only way to do it live. There are many sacrifices and I can’t say if it’s worth it or not, only that I am doing it and have been for quite some time. There are so many people involved and I couldn’t do it without them. Leading a band is maybe the most difficult thing I have ever done in my musical career. Everything comes back to me on every level. I have to be the guy who deals with all the stuff that goes wrong … living the dream right?!”
The concert that night would be their sixth concert in seven nights. One might expect them to tire and lose energy with this schedule, but this show was perhaps the Mu’tet at its best. Jeff’s father attended, as did some other friends from the area, and the crowd was once again young and very energetic. With standing room only, many of the college students in attendance stood and danced so close to the stage that they could nearly touch the performers. Jeff and the other bandmates seemed to feed off the visible energy of the crowd, and delivered a high-energy show followed by autographs and pictures with fans.
So what can we learn from all of this? Touring is exhausting. And touring as a bandleader can be stressful and unceasingly busy. It is a continuous cycle of working while riding in the van to the next gig, setting up, and sound-checking, performing, interacting with fans, tearing down, never getting enough sleep, and starting over again the next day. It is not always easy to find decent, healthy food, and there is very little time alone. The performance becomes a sanctuary where the music is all that exists in their world. Without any distractions for those precious hours, they channel the crowd’s energy and put that into the performance to give the audience an evening full of wonderful, joyful music. The reward is worth the sacrifice, and that is why Jeff Coffin continues to share beautiful, live music with his audiences worldwide.