Pianist/singer/composer Chris Walters ‘80 is an independent artist who has resided in Nashville since 1989. He tours as Music Director/pianist for Sony Music Masterworks Recording Artist JD Souther, opening each show with a set of his own original music. He also tours as keyboardist with Little Flock Artist Peter Mayer, and with the Jeff Coffin Mu’tet. Earlier this school year Chris visited SLUH and met with Jr. Bills interested in music, several who had the opportunity to play some music with him (see video below).
How did SLUH shape your musical career?
I had a number of people that influenced my musical career. A student two years older than me–a senior when I was a sophomore, also a pianist–was very encouraging to me. At the time, I was really into Billy Joel. “The Stranger” album had been released. He didn’t discourage my interests in pop music, but he played me John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” album and Miles Davis “Nefertiti.” I was hooked from thereafter on jazz. I didn’t understand the music, but I loved it! It was from another world to me–I found it very emotionally engaging and powerfully imaginative. Hearing those records at such an impressionable age was a catalyst for my determination to compose and perform improvised music.
Perhaps the most influential character from my days at SLUH was the band instructor and head of the music department at the time, Jack Milak. He would take a number of us to orchestral performances by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall. I recall that after one performance of a 20th century atonal work he asked a number of us what we thought. I believe I said something to the effect that it sounded like noise and didn’t seem to have any direction or obvious intent. He was not disparaging of my inability to understand, but merely told me that he liked it and found it interesting. I had great respect for him and his opinions on music, and for him not to try to expound or instruct me regarding my response to music, but to just expose me to it and listen to my thoughts and give me his own response with no judgement toward me was very instructive. He also challenged me to learn George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” at the start of my junior year, telling me if I learned the piano part I could possibly rehearse it with the concert band. He had no idea what he was getting into encouraging me to learn it! I listened to every recording I could find of the work and practiced hours every day (any minute I could find) to learn it. When I finally showed him the work I’d been doing on it (months later) he looked at me with a smirk on his face and said, “I wanted to give you a challenge just to keep you motivated. I had no idea you were going to actually be able to play it at this level. I guess I can put this on the Spring Concert Band Program and we’ll have you perform it with them.” He was mildly amused and disgusted all at the same time. Playing that work at the spring concert that year was one of the highlights for me at SLUH. The experience also paid off a little later when I competed in The Chattanooga Symphony’s Annual Gershwin Competition and was chosen as one of the finalists. Mr. Milak was a true inspiration.
Outside of music, what was your favorite class at SLUH?
Mr. Raterman’s sophomore English/Literature class, Dr. Poston’s junior English/Literature class, and Mr. Becvar’s Probability/Statistics class.
Any advice for young musicians pursuing a career in the field?
Listen. Listen to people (not just musicians). Listen. Listen. LISTEN. When someone wants to speak with you about your music, briefly address their questions or thoughts, but then ask them about themselves. And listen to them.
Practice. Play your instrument whenever possible. Constantly. Address the small issues bit by bit. The music will come to you if you just spend time with it.
What is your favorite type of music to play?
I enjoy playing all music if it is with great musicians. I know that doesn’t really answer the question, but . . . while I enjoy composing and playing my own music, I feel I would become stale and uninspired if I dedicated all of my time to just that. I prefer to play with musicians who I feel are more accomplished than myself. It makes me feel like I play better, or at least more mindful, in these instances.
What was your favorite gig?
I’ve enjoyed so many opportunities to play, I can’t really recall a favorite gig. I attempt to approach every gig as if it’s Carnegie Hall. I am encouraged by a few musicians I play with who, when they pick up their instrument and start playing, play as if it’s the most important event happening at the time, as if their life depends on it – even when it’s just a rehearsal in a basement somewhere. It’s dedication to art at a very high level, and it’s a wonder to behold.
How much do you practice?
I practice just about every day. I practice a variety of things – Aloys Schmitt Preparatory Exercises, Bach works, Chopin, Stravinsky, Thelonious Monk, etc. Everything! It is usually within an hour or two at the piano that ideas, and beauty, begin to flow.
How did you get into animation alongside your musical career?
I’ve enjoyed drawing (like many people) since I was a child, but never had any true formal training. Sometime in the 1990’s, while I was constantly on a bus touring, with little to do while on the way to the next gig, I began researching animation, and since computer technology & software was advancing quickly enough at the time to allow the user to explore the art form without the need of the requisite cameras, light desk, etc. I began creating rudimentary 2D animations. The resources for learning the art and the history of the form were (and are) readily available – Richard Williams’ “The Animator’s Survival Kit” and “Disney’s Nine Old Men” by John Canemaker are required reading for any aspiring animator. In the early 2000’s I invested in a few software programs which became invaluable – ToonBoom Studio and Hash Animation:Master – and began creating animated music videos to accompany my performances. It continues to be a passion of mine and a constant source of frustration (ha!) and enlightenment. Two of my short animations were winners at the 2005 KeyWest IndieFest.
Who have you had the chance to play with?
The list of world-class musicians I’ve been fortunate enough to perform and record with are too numerous to fully list, but here are a few highlights:
- Levon Helm – the drummer, vocalist, and songwriter for The Band. I played at his “Ramble," which is a show he put on frequently, broadcast from his home near Woodstock, NY. We finished the set with his song, “The Wait”. I played Hammond B3 on that song, and at the end of the performance, he pointed his drumsticks at me and said “Yeah!”
- George Duke – one of my musical heroes since I first heard his playing on Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels” album, I performed alongside Mr. Duke (he played Hammond B3, I played piano) at a music awards show in LA that he was directing.
- Bela Fleck – I performed at a now defunct Nashville nightclub Café Milano with the renowned banjoist and composer, and I recorded piano, harmonium, and accordion tracks on the soundtrack he scored to the documentary film “Triumph At Carville."
- JD Souther – the Hall of Fame songwriter who penned hits for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. I met him at one of my gigs in Nashville and he hired me to play on his album “If The World Was You.” I’ve subsequently recorded 5 records with him and toured with him for six years.
- Jeff Coffin – Grammy award winning saxophonist with The Dave Matthews Band. I continue to record and tour with Jeff’s group, The Mu’tet.
- Alabama – I recorded and toured with the country “Supergroup” Alabama from 1996-2004. My piano playing is featured on their 41st No. 1 hit single, “How Do You Fall In Love."
- Barbara Mandrell – I recorded and toured as musical director of the country music legend from 1989-1997.
Since moving to Nashville, what do you miss about St. Louis?
The Central West End. The Delmar Loop. Ted Drewes. Cardinals baseball. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The people.
Have you experienced any low points in your career?
After graduating from SLUH, I attended Saint Louis University for a semester, but had wanderlust and wished to tour as a professional musician, so I left college and kicked around on the road for a few years with various bands, until I realized driving around in a van, playing Holiday Inn lobbies, etc. was no life for a young, aspiring musician either, so I returned to school at Webster University. I moved to New York in the late 1980’s to pursue a jazz career. While I had a brother, and some good friends and connections there (The late, great St. Louis pianist Ray Kennedy was invaluable to me as a friend and mentor), I spent quite a while struggling to make ends meet – living in a one-room apartment in Queens. I went through some serious soul searching and had some sleepless nights trying to figure out what exactly I should try to accomplish in life. I was finally subsisting (and just barely that!) in New York when I got the call to audition for the musical director position with Barbara Mandrell in Nashville. In conclusion, I’m very fortunate, but I’m not able to fully describe in words the psychological toll of living hand to mouth for a few years in New York had on me. It definitely made me stronger, but I can’t compare my experiences with many who’ve had it much harder.
Questions by Thomas Curdt '18. Thomas plays trombone in all of SLUH's bands and in the Jazz U and Youth Symphony Programs in St. Louis. He is also a President's Ambassador and an Executive of the Fine Arts Fellowship. He hopes to study Music and English in college.