Michael Mason, Jazz and World Flutist-Session 2-Episode #276

Jan 2, 2024 | 0 comments

“If you’re an instrumentalist, meaning that you chose an instrument that you love or I’m passionate about, it’s a question of dedication. You know, make sure that that’s something you want to do, and it’ll take you where you want to go. As long as you, provide the instrument, the diligence of your soul, not making, saying that everything has got to be right, everything’s got to be right every day. There’s no such thing as perfection, but just ride the love of the instrument, if you really love it, the diligence of your soul, and put yourself into that thing.”
~Michael Mason

Making a return for his second appearance on StoryBeat is the great jazz and world flutist, Michael Mason. Michael’s been playing professionally for more than 40 years.  He’s led off for Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, had master classes with James Newton, been influenced by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, performed with New Orleans Saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan and Chicago’s legendary Fred Anderson. He’s also collaborated with James Galway and many artists from the legendary AACM organization.

Michael’s musical influences include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, and Yusef Lateef.

More than a composer and musician, Michael was also a working firefighter for 38 years and is now Retired Lieutenant Michael Mason of the Downers Grove, Illinois Fire Department. He was one of the first responders from the Chicago area to fly to New York City after the World Trade Center Towers were attacked. There he worked with the New York City Fire Department and Port Authority for many weeks. You can read more about his firefighting efforts at ricofirerescue.com.

Over the past 10-plus years Michael’s taught thousands of recruits at the Fire Academy to become first responders and has taught veterans how to save each other at the scene of any type of tragic incident.

Please be sure to stick around at the end of this episode for a special treat. Michael has lent us his beautiful song, Freedom, from his new album, Impermanence. Freedom has also been turned into a music video as a tribute to the people of Ukraine.  The video, which can be seen on fireflute.com, has been approved by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for Grammy voting in the Best Music Video category, and Impermanence is up for voting in the “Best Contemporary Jazz Album” category.




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat:

Michael Mason: If you’re an instrumentalist, meaning that you chose an instrument that you love or I’m passionate about, it’s a question of dedication. You know, make sure that that’s something you want to do, and it’ll take you where you want to go. As long as you, provide the instrument, the diligence of your soul, not making, saying that everything has got to be right, everything’s got to be right every day. There’s no such thing as perfection, but just ride the love of the instrument, if you really love it, the diligence of your soul, and put yourself into that thing.

Announcer: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden. A podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop. And produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, making a return for his second appearance on StoryBeat. My guest today is the great jazz and world flutist Michael Mason. Michael’s been playing professionally for more than 40 years. He’s led off for trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, had master classes with James Newton, been influenced by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, performed with New Orleans saxophonist Edward Kidd Jordan, and Chicago’s legendary Fred Anderson. He’s also collaborated with James Galway and many artists from the legendary AACM organization. Michael’s musical influences include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, son Ra, and Yusef Latif. More than a composer and musician, Michael was also a working firefighter for 38 years and is now retired. Lieutenant Michael Mason of the Downers Grove, Illinois, fire department. He was one of the first responders from the Chicago area to fly to New York City after the World Trade center towers were attacked. You can read more about his firefighting efforts@ricofirerescue.com. Over the past ten plus years, Michael’s taught thousands of recruits at the fire academy to become first responders and has taught veterans how to save each other at the scene of any type of tragic incident. Please be sure to stick around at the end of this episode. For a special treat, Michael has lent us his beautiful song freedom from his new album, impermanence. Freedom has also been turned into a music video as a tribute to the people of Ukraine. The video, which can be seen on Fireflute.com, has been approved by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for Grammy voting in the best music video category. And impermanence is up for voting in the best contemporary jazz album category. So for all those reasons and many more, I’m truly delighted to have the renowned flutist Michael Mason on StoryBeat today. Michael, welcome back to the show.

Michael Mason: Thank you, Steve. This is awesome to be back again. just to clarify something about that New York thing, we were pulled back. We made it out there three day, four days later. So we never got a chance to get there on time, so to speak.

Steve Cuden: Had it been really challenging to get there at all?

Michael Mason: It was crazy. We were pulled off of that. We never flew. Drove your squad units out there on the road and it took days. No, we were pulled back, but three of my other guys are on, another unit made it there as well, and two, of them are no longer with us. They died of, lung problems.

Steve Cuden: Oh, boy. As a result of that.

Michael Mason: Yes.

Steve Cuden: Well, all I can say is thank you so much for your many years of service as a firefighter, and especially for going to New York and spending all that time there. That must have been a, really difficult situation, for sure.

Michael Mason: Yeah. Like I said, we were pulled back. We never got a chance to get there. It was my other set of my guys that made it there, guys, John Green and Billy Joy and stuff. So I don’t want to give misinformation that I had a chance to work on that pile, but a lot of our brothers that were out there that worked on that pile dedicated my Chicago brothers. it was something that really bothered me for many years, that I never had a chance to really, get out there and do what I should have been doing. But know, we were pulled back by our chiefs, and that was it. I guess I had a choice at the time. If I remember, the chief said, you go out there, I’m going to fire you. Well, that’s politics. I don’t even want to talk.

Steve Cuden: Well, that is politics. But the fact that you served that way for so many years, that is testament all by itself.

Michael Mason: and I started the national program for, rapid intervention firefighter rescue in 2001, with a friend of mine. Wasn’t that long ago, but I’ve been doing that for, teaching the national programs for over 23, 24 years now, since 2001.

Steve Cuden: So explain for the listeners what that is and what you do.

Michael Mason: Well, we, train firefighters how to rescue themselves out of certain situations. 911 obviously was, not much you can do about it, but we have a lot of fatalities every year, in firefighting, over 100 and some fatalities a year in american firefighters. So that’s what I do, is we train them, certain techniques, maneuvers they can do when maydays are called out, how to move firefighters through, how to get them, how to rescue them, resuscitate them if necessary. But it’s a lot of work. But every year in September, at the week of 911, I have a national program, that takes off in Illinois. I moved it several times now at the Romeoville Fire Academy in Illinois. Second largest academy in the state or in the midwest.

Steve Cuden: Well, again, I thank you greatly for your service. I mean, that’s just extraordinary stuff.

Michael Mason: Yeah, that’s what I do besides getting up every day and playing music and composing, and I’m a lucky man.

Steve Cuden: Well, so let’s talk about that, because that’s why we’re here today. We’re here to talk about your creative process. We last spoke in 2021, just as we were sort of starting to come out of the COVID crisis. And I’m wondering if in the last couple of years, and I know you’re always in a process of discovery, have you discovered anything new or exciting since then about music, playing music, writing, jazz, anything new?

Michael Mason: Whoa. I mean, I have probably written. I don’t know, when we left, I believe there. Was it two albums out or just one of a series? I have twelve albums out.

Steve Cuden: I think the last two had not been released yet.

Michael Mason: The current last two, that would be transcendence. and this one that came out again. Impermanence.

Steve Cuden: That’s correct.

Michael Mason: The first one was human, revolution.

Steve Cuden: That’s the one that we talked about on the last show.

Michael Mason: Probably. It may have been, or maybe it could have been part of transcendence. But impermanence was released, just recently, and that’s long done. It’s out there on all the networks that you need to find it. And now I’ve already written another maybe 16 or 17 other compositions. Wow. That were starting album series on, this series of. That would be four, five, and six more coming out.

Steve Cuden: You’re just very inspired right now, I guess. Yes.

Michael Mason: Yeah, well, I’m lucky. I hear some things right. I toss and turn at night, hearing some grooves in my head. Hopefully when I wake up in the morning, I still remember them, go down to the computer or the piano and just jot them down a little bit, just on keyboards. And then I work for the rest of the, day when I have days off, if I’m not teaching firefighters on the days off, I spend most of my days doing, the writing, the composing and where do you look for inspirations?

Steve Cuden: Obviously, things hit you in the middle of the night, but are there places that you look for inspiration?

Michael Mason: I could be listening to a song or something, or something on the radio, or I could be on YouTube, I could be watching television because we’re in tune with, know, with, soundtracks, things like that. And so they give me a little tip off. I’ll hear a bass pattern or something like that, or I’ll say, m this is interesting. I think I’d like to explore this area. So that’s what motivates me. Other players motivate me to do, better and to create new works, both.

Steve Cuden: Living and those players who are no longer with us.

Michael Mason: Living and past. Yes. I mean, I’ve got huge influences.

Steve Cuden: Who do you think is the most influential over you? Is it Miles?

Michael Mason: I believe it’s, Coltrane and Miles and man, that’s a big question. I have been influenced by so many people, but I’m a jazz player, even though I started as a classical player. So I’ve been influenced by the streets of Chicago. so the AACM, Coltrane, Miles, those are my roots of not only learning my instrument, but learning the music of jazz and blues, which then led to more contemporary things, more exploratory things.

Steve Cuden: Do you listen to, folks like Miles and Coltrane regularly?

Michael Mason: Not as much as I used, know, after you listen to Coltrane and Miles Coltrane, I used to play every day. I mean, I would just be jamming along with them, just trying to get that flute to get the notations right and everything else. I mean, that was a lot of years of work along with, the slaminsky thesaurus of musical notation because he studied out of that book really routinely. So I incorporated, the flute. Playing to that. And, every day for me is nothing but scale, work and modalities. Oh, yeah, just scales. Scales and scales. And modes. And modes. Compositional chord structure. Remember now we got handpans here, those percussion instruments that make notations. They’re a handpan. You play them with your hand, right? I have at least ten, ah, or eleven of those that are in different modalities, which are world music instruments. And I create, note patterns and everything out of that. And that creates chord. And from chord I create movement. From movement I create the melodies over maybe some of the movements. And then all my musicians stop by and go, how crazy are you, dude? And I ask, listen, we got to jam on this. We’re in 74, 22, eight or something like that. I play in a lot of different meters. So my percussion players are over here. My handpan players come by and my bassist towards my right hand man right now. I don’t know what I do without him. G off low. He kind of helps me arrange a lot of this stuff.

Steve Cuden: When the players stop by. Do you already have a composition in mind, or do they help you develop some idea that you may have?

Michael Mason: I have the full sketch, the full idea in mind, and then, they kind of take it and start putting their little take on it, which then may change the direction a little. But I try to hold fast to the original conceptualization of what I had.

Steve Cuden: Do you already have the arrangements in your mind as well, or do you.

Michael Mason: Let that flow that will change? I usually have the arrangement the way, the best that I can do it because, remember, I’m laying down things by myself before the other players show up. And then, maybe my, basis will come out because he helps run the control councils and stuff, too. And we start organizing a little better. Like, this is the a section, this will be the b section. This will be a c section. Maybe I’ll need to, adapt a bridge that might be missing, and I’ll go to work at that night.

Steve Cuden: When you say you lay it down, are you actually laying tracks down on a recording device of some kind or.

Michael Mason: Yes, I lay down the basics off of a workstation, which is a keyboard that creates anything from bass players to symphonic things to whatever. It’s a workstation. So that’s what I do. I lay it down and then, the guys show up and I give them the basic sketch of the conceptualization of what I’m asking them to do and to look into. And then, from there, a lot of interesting things start happening.

Steve Cuden: I bet they do. Ah, I’m correct in saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, please. that part of the world of jazz is to go out and play live and improvise and not play something that’s already been done, but to do something that’s happening in the moment. Correct?

Michael Mason: Absolutely. In my music, there are improvisational areas that I allow players to just explore. When I was, doing a lot of work with the ACM in the clubs, in the small, concert facilities around Chicago, this was what we call, I hate to name it this, but it was like more of a jazz, outside thinking, outside the box. So, the music has changed for me because I’m getting more into a world function of music. Meaning, I’m incorporating african rhythms with latin rhythms and then I’m bringing in instrumentation. Like I play bawi flutes. These are chinese flutes. Or I’ll, ah, have rain sticks or percussion. I try to get a world sound, but yet still have a jazz feel and out of things.

Steve Cuden: Are you always seeking out new.

Michael Mason: Know? I mean, I’ll hear a guy maybe on YouTube or Bill, my manager, sometimes, hey, man, go check this guy out from, And you know, he found it on YouTube or something, so I’ll check it out. Go. Well, yeah. Thanks, Bill. I think I’m going to look into this.

Steve Cuden: So part of the process of creating new music is to actually seek out other forms of jazz or other forms of music to inspire you.

Michael Mason: Absolutely. I mean, I don’t know any musician alive that’s staying stagnant. Well, I shouldn’t say that any players I know are not stagnant within their own zone all the time. We’re in a world of change. That’s what impermanence, the album means, change. And impermanence is change. Nothing stays the same. So I always seek out something new, something old, something borrowed. the old saying, right?

Steve Cuden: Yeah, sure.

Michael Mason: Mix it all up and something out of that comes. It’s almost like the buddhist thing where something out of that comes the lotus flower from the mud realization.

Steve Cuden: It’s a constant evolution.

Michael Mason: Yeah, that’s why I love it.

Steve Cuden: You also have the ability in a song to get into a, really good groove. And in life you can get into a really good groove in life as well. But as you’re in that groove, you’re also seeking to go beyond that groove.

Michael Mason: Yes, we’re hoping that the groove will create a future, maybe even a future song or a future movement. You’re on a journey when you listen to music and good players are able to take you there. We’re not looking at what we call, standards per se, jazz standards or the book of standards, you know what I mean? Moon river, night and day, all that. They have a specific pattern. These are things that are created very spontaneously. You could be playing 18 bars and all of a sudden it would swell into 24. Sometimes you get so carried away, you got to cut things back. So what we do is we edit to keep movement going. the music must go forward. So I just can’t take a modality and say, okay, I got 18 or twelve bars of this. We’ll go around, do twelve. A lot of times what we do is we’ll take the twelve on the open, and then when we return, we only got it down to eight. And then we moved it to the next session again. Yet it’s still the same piece of music. Now the listener is being moved along, just moved along.

Steve Cuden: Well that’s one of the more fascinating things about jazz is that musicians and composers take one lick and turn it into 1000 different things. And so I’m wondering, do you ever play other kinds of music like rock and roll or something like that to then you do.

Michael Mason: Do I play rock and roll?

Steve Cuden: Well, do you play it in order to inspire yourself?

Michael Mason: I listen to rock and roll. I listen to old music. Well, my mentors are pretty sixty s and seventy s. There is a lot of good new music out there in regards to rock and roll. If you want to put a tag on it. I’m into finding grooves within grooves.

Steve Cuden: What does that mean? Explain what the grooves within grooves mean.

Michael Mason: Bass patterns that would repeat but yet move along and then you can lay something underneath that or over it. You know what I mean? A lot of times in the was wide open. Music was wide open, anything goes. And producers were and labeled guys a and r guys were grabbing musicians right off the street, that were creating these small bands that whether they were in San Francisco, whether they were in LA, whether they were in Greenwich Village in New York back then, man, I wish I was signed back then.

Steve Cuden: Well, the level of creativity that was coming out of that little tiny group called the Beatles alone was just explosive. And in fact, on this day that we’re recording this episode, they just released a brand new Beatles song, the AI with AI.

Michael Mason: Yes. Well, it’s a dangerous item. We’re worried as musicians, even as actors and people like that of how this new technology is going to be used. But I’m not too much worried about it, but just the music. Santana, Jefferson, Aeroplane, the almond brothers, you’re talking music that Richie Havens, you’re talking about music that was really inspirational and moving and it was based on mean. It was nothing that elaborate about it, it was just the way it was.

Steve Cuden: Know, most of it came from the blues and.

Michael Mason: Absolutely, absolutely. It was all blues because everybody’s listening. Bb king, muddy Waters, even the stones, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, everybody. the English were into r b and blues music of America big time. And yeah, well they knew what to do with it, on a different level. And then it was brought back on to us and we thought it know, little girls and everybody screaming at Shay Stadium.

Steve Cuden: Does blues influence jazz? It’s all becoming one big pot of things, isn’t it?

Michael Mason: Yes, it is a big gumbo and it’s a hell of a gumbo if you get it right. You can make some compositions come out with all that influence. I mean, you can’t do it all at one time, but different things. We hope that our music, you listen to it. Every track you listen to has got something different for you.

Steve Cuden: Well, it does. I mean, I’ve listened to it a bunch of times. I love to turn it on and I can work at my desk while I’m listening to your music, especially because it doesn’t have lyrics in it. For me, personally, if I have music on that has lyrics when I’m trying to write, I can’t do it because I hear the words and the words screw up my thinking. But music that has no lyrics to it is fantastic. And your stuff is.

Michael Mason: They’re begging me to write songs. People are begging me to write a, lyric piece, and I just don’t know how to do it. I’ll tell you what I will do. I will incorporate voices soon, just as.

Steve Cuden: Sounds, like as other instruments.

Michael Mason: Just as sounds, but, producing vowel sounds. You may think they’re words, but they’re really not words. And there’s a lot of that going on in world music, especially, the african music. There’s some incredible choir type african music, vocal music. A good example of that would be Peter Gabriel, if you listen. And Peter is another one I love because he has a groove, he has a modality to it, and he’s able to take you somewhere.

Steve Cuden: Look at what Paul Simon did with Graceland.

Michael Mason: That’s another. Well, the african influence was really brought over here through those, mucco singers. But that’s what we’re talking about here. yes, you’re right. If I have to come up with lyrics, I’m afraid, what possibly could I have to say that would be worth.

Steve Cuden: You know, Michael, there are these other folks in the world called.

Michael Mason: I don’t. I got enough to worry about. Maybe I should call one up. Say, listen, here’s a song. Can you put lyrics to it? And it happens all the time.

Steve Cuden: It does happen all the time.

Michael Mason: Joni Palato, was another one. There was another lady out in California who happens to do a show. Her name is Kathy Garcia. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her. She has a great, jazz show out in la, that I do once in a while for. And we were always trying to hook up. She was going to try to do some vocal work for me, but not words. Vocal bowling. And then you got the ACM which I came up with. With, what? You have poetry against, jazz chords and things like that.

Steve Cuden: And nothing wrong with that, either.

Michael Mason: No, it’s beautiful stuff.

Steve Cuden: But you’re using the voice as an instrument with no actual words.

Michael Mason: That’s what I want to do. That’ll be my next endeavor. I’ll find my voice probably vowel something. I’m not going to count on it, though.

Steve Cuden: What is it? I’m curious, at the heart of it all, what is it about jazz that floats your boat? Why jazz?

Michael Mason: Freedom. The head of a piece or whatever? Well, how I learned it was through a, strict formula. Duke Ellington set compositions, bird, Charlie Parker was, I was very interested in, but he didn’t get to me. the way I think. Chet Baker, and then Coltrane, Miles Davis, when the notes started to get a little bit more separated. I mean, Charlie Parker, I used to do that. I would just. My flute, I’d be all over the know. But you have to understand, you got to study that. You have to understand where you’re at. You just can’t get up on a band stand in a jazz days in Chicago and just blow anything. They want to know that, you know, the changes, the chord changes, sure. And it takes a lot of work, but after a while it gets tiring. One chord change after another. And some writers would write chord changes like there would no tomorrow, and they’re just basically inversions of something else. 7th and 9th and 13th, and you’d be like, jesus. You start discovering a mode that you can stay in that would cover 15 chords that these guys are writing on. And then you play some blues licks or something in there. Chromatic. I studied chromaticism for years. I still do. Just a chromatic scale.

Steve Cuden: Are you studying it in other artists or in books or at all the above?

Michael Mason: I study it in my flute.

Steve Cuden: Practicing in your practice?

Michael Mason: Right.

Steve Cuden: What do you think you’ve learned over the years about playing flute that you now know and can sort of have mastered, that you wish you knew back when you started?

Michael Mason: Well, the first problem, Stephen, is, I’ve never been able to master the flute.

Steve Cuden: Some would say you have.

Michael Mason: Well, they do. They say kind things, but I am not a virtual. There are some gifts from God, I think I told you last time, James Galway, these classical players, they’re just gifts from God. I’m an explorer. In fact, I relate myself closer to guys like Garrett Dolphie or Ian Anderson. My flute tone is good. It has a great technique. but it’s not James Galway’s tone. Every flute player has got their own. Any horn player or reed player has his own personal sound, and that’s what you have to do. You learn the instrument, and then you have to find your own voice on. Really.

Steve Cuden: You unquestionably have your own voice. Your voice is your voice now.

Michael Mason: I do?

Steve Cuden: Yes. Well, it’s just like, Just like writing almost anything. Writing any kind of books or whatever. You have to work a long time to find your voice. And I think that’s true for actors. I think that’s true for artists of all kinds. How long do you think it took you to find your voice?

Michael Mason: 32 years.

Steve Cuden: Is that all? Just 32 years? Wow. And then once you found it, was it easy to just slide into it at any time?

Michael Mason: No. every day I get up, there are good days on my flute, and there are bad days, and that’s why I’m constantly attending to my vicility.

Steve Cuden: When you say good days and bad days, you mean the sound coming out of you or your ability to sound?

Michael Mason: It could be anything. Irritate me, my fingers on, but the sound doesn’t work right. Or. I have very good flutes. My flutes are, gold flutes. Not that that makes any difference. I always tell students, I used to teach a few students, I’d say, it doesn’t matter about the material, what you do want to stay away from it. Like, a beginner would come up to me and their parents would rent a flute, and it’d be made out of nickel, and I’d be like, no, you have to understand, in order, if you want this child to continue or do whatever he wants, at least get a silver flute. You need a bass metal that really works, or else they’ll just abandon the instrument. Not that everybody wants to be a pro, but my flutes. It took me a long time just to, get the right materials together for my own ambusher, my own muscle, what’s working for me, my tongue work, all that. it’s so individual to every player. It’s a lot of work.

Steve Cuden: What makes the gold flute superior? Why gold?

Michael Mason: Gold has a warmer sound. Gold is also drawn thinner. The metal itself is drawn thinner, on the instrument, and I’m talking about hundreds of millimeters. Gold flutes are typically between 112 to twelve. As soon as you put your wind into it, you maybe get a response then. I have head joints that I have three gold flutes, 18 carat, 14 carat, 18 carat, with a platinum riser right by the hole that’s got platinum in it. But James Galway has. I think the last count I had taught when I saw him on interview with flute center in New York, he had 22 flutes already.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Michael Mason: Of different metals and everything else. Well, when you make four, hundred and 15 million a year, you can stop buying anything you want. This is true. Well, flutes, a gold flute now is close to 30, 5000, $40,000.

Steve Cuden: My goodness.

Michael Mason: Yes.

Steve Cuden: Like buying a car.

Michael Mason: That’s exactly what it is, buying a car. So if anything, I got an empty garage. Instead of having three lamborghinis, I got three gold boots. That’s about all.

Steve Cuden: So I want to go review the notion of playing because we were talking about your lungs and your arms and your hands and whether each day has got its own thing going on. But you have to have great ability with your hands and your lungs and your arms to play a flute, I assume. but I’m curious. All those years, 30 some od years as a firefighter, you were constantly putting your lungs, your arms, your hands at risk, weren’t you?

Michael Mason: Yes, I was. I breathed in a lot of bad things and it’ll probably catch up with me. I notice, I’m having problems already, but, there’s a price to be paid for a profession like that in firefighting. And most of us will acquire one of the big things, will probably, a lot of us will acquire some form of cancers, because of the environments we were in. You have to understand, I started in, around 80, 1980. Back then, we had air packs. We weren’t wearing them right. There are a lot of things that we did that were not good. Now, today, the modern firefighter is well taken care of. Good clothes, good, bunker gear, good air packs. Many times, though, we were breathing smoke.

Steve Cuden: That was sort of the standard of the industry at that point. My question really is, what do you do to keep your arms and your hands in shape? And especially when you were working with such heavy equipment all the time, what do you do?

Michael Mason: I work out every day, hours in the gym.

Steve Cuden: Hours in the gym?

Michael Mason: Not hours. a good hour workout every day. Between weightlifting, dexterity moves, all that stuff. In fact, that doesn’t leave me even to this day. I practice certain amount of time, and then I hit my own personal gym in order for me to stay in the relatively whatever shape I have left, which is pretty good, considering that here I am at 70. I’m really blessed, really, when I think about it, even though there’s things that are breaking down, there’s no avoiding that. No. And that’s something I’ve got to get used to accept, and it’s hard to accept those things. But I don’t mess around. I stay physically fit. my spine is gone. It’s shot. My neck is gone. I have, osteoarthritis and stenosis in a lot of areas. new things are popping up, but I just wake up every day and say, I got to play that flute. That’s what I want to do.

Steve Cuden: Does the music lift you out of your physical pain?

Michael Mason: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. I think the heaviest thing I take is advil. I mean, when the pain gets really bad, I have just, what they call a mild naysay. It’s not an opioid or it’s not a, barbiturate of any type. It’s called, Was it delphinec or something? It’s from my c spine that got messed up.

Steve Cuden: Was that messed up from firefighting or playing flute?

Michael Mason: Firefighting. From firefighting. Everything from firefighting.

Steve Cuden: And, from carrying heavy equipment, hoses.

Michael Mason: And getting beat up, carrying that air pack on your back for long periods of time every day for 30 or 40 years.

Steve Cuden: That’ll do it.

Michael Mason: Yeah. And being bent in different things. You wouldn’t believe. Carrying ladders that weigh, 300 pounds.

Steve Cuden: That had to have kept you in really good shape to begin with, just doing all that heavy.

Michael Mason: I was in decent shape. I was in very decent shape. But, again, I’m not a very big guy, being little, just shy of five, eight. most of my other brothers in the fire service were pretty big guys. They lift weights. Some of these guys were champion weightlifters. Oh, yeah. You want to be able to carry Mrs. Jones down that ladder when you need to.

Steve Cuden: I guess that makes a lot of sense.

Michael Mason: Well, I’ve had a few of those.

Steve Cuden: No doubt over 40 years. You have had to have had a few. I’m trying to link the two together so that I understand it better, because you’re very unusual. I do not know too many or of too many musician composers in any form who are also firefighters. So that’s unusual.

Michael Mason: There’s a great trumpet player in Chicago. He’s a spanish guy, and he used to do what I did. He was a jazz player, but he was more of a standards player. But you have to understand, my guys put up with me practicing my flute in host towers, fire host towers. Early in the morning and late at night, they would just hear me up there, and they just say, hey, can you ever play a song? You sound like you’re, like there’s nothing but birds up there because I was always practicing scale work and shit. I’m serious. You could ask all my firefighter brothers. I mean, they thought it unusual, but I think they admired it to a certain degree. But they knew that I had two heavy profession and two loves, and that was firefighting and music.

Steve Cuden: And how much do you think being a firefighter has influenced the way you’ve composed? Jazz has it, some of it.

Michael Mason: I think only the biggest one is the, lady of Angels, CD, angels of Fire, because I was inspired to write that for burn camps for kids because I survived, our lady of angels fire in Chicago in 1958. And a lot of people don’t know that, but I was just a first grader. But I remember the day enough that it bothered me for a long time. so I made a memorial CD to the 95 kids in my school that died. Yeah, it’s a very famous fire. December 1. It’s coming up, the anniversary of it again. So December 1, 1958.

Steve Cuden: So you created enough music to fill a CD as a tribute and inspired by that fire.

Michael Mason: Yeah, 14 songs. It’s out there. It’s always on the, Internet or it’s on our website when you buy the CD. I don’t get any money for it. It all goes for the burn camps for kids, for Illinois, the Illinois fire safety alliance. It’s a camp called m. It’s for burned kids that get burned. And it’s a summer camp that they get to go to and spend time with people with the same injuries and stuff like that. I used to go out there a couple of times. it really is pretty cool place.

Steve Cuden: And so where do your other song ideas come from? From life.

Michael Mason: Life, sadness, joy.

Steve Cuden: Just in this new CD, which I very much enjoy. Impermanence. You have very curious and interesting titles like goes around, comes around contemplations. Me to you, dawn of a new day. Those are all titles from this new CD. And I’m curious, did the titles come before the songs, or do the songs inspire the titles?

Michael Mason: Either way, sometimes I’ll have the title, and sometimes the song will, inspire the title. But I’m heavily influenced through spiritual development. Spiritual development. And I enjoy, a lot of religions, but, I mean, I was raised a Catholic, but most of. A lot of this stuff is a lot of heavy studying I’ve done in.

Steve Cuden: I find your music very meditative.

Michael Mason: Yeah. And it’s meant to be.

Steve Cuden: It’s intended to be meditative. As we’ve talked about already, there are many different grooves that happen within the music itself. And then those grooves grow and expand and go into different places. And I find that very meditative. Now, you have spent, Now you’re telling us for years and years and years, you spend your days doing scales, which is meditative.

Michael Mason: well, it’s somewhat meditative.

Steve Cuden: Do you ever get bored?

Michael Mason: Oh, yeah. But you got to push through it. You got to push through the boredom, because from the boredom of maintaining the facility, from that emerges consistency.

Steve Cuden: Is that then muscle memory that you’re creating?

Michael Mason: Exactly. Just like firefighting. Firefighting is muscle memory. That’s what it is.

Steve Cuden: Explain that. Firefighting is muscle memory. What does that mean?

Michael Mason: We train and we drill and we drill and we drill and we drill. So we’re going to pull a line. We’re going to pull a line off the engine. We got three guys here. They’re going to pull a line. One guy opens nozzle. We drill on all that. We drill on it. You’re going to do a search. You’re going to search for a civilian. All right? One guy goes in the door, he’s got to put his tool in a certain way. He’s going to travel along the wall. You stay left, I go right. All the commands and the structure of everything. Very disciplined work. Because I’m a disciplined guy, I guess.

Steve Cuden: You sure are.

Michael Mason: Well, my wife sometimes can’t stand it. She’ll say, don’t worry. I know what your day is going to be like, dear. You’re going to wake up, take a shower, get the coffee going. She knows my whole day. Practice, work out if you got to go to work. I’ll be up at four in the morning. Four in the morning. I’m up and I’m doing my thing. I got to hit the gym, and then I got to go teach firefighters, practice, go teach fire, come back. That’s what I do.

Steve Cuden: Do you also get up at four in the morning when you’re doing late night gigs?

Michael Mason: No, I don’t do gigs anymore.

Steve Cuden: You don’t do gigs anymore? Just recording?

Michael Mason: No, just recording right now. Well, we’re going to be doing gigs again because I’m not ready. It takes a lot of money, and if I’m going to do it, it’s going to be big time. this is the music that’s going to require a stage performance.

Steve Cuden: And touring. Yes. And touring, is challenging in many different ways, isn’t it?

Michael Mason: Yeah, it is. And I’m not looking to tour, like 150. I’m m just talking, man. Just give me 910 dates a year and I’ll go wherever you want to go. But somebody’s going to have to get me, like, $10,000 just for one week, rehearse a group of nine musicians, because you have to pay them well to do this music. This music is. And they love it. They want to do it. Trust me. If I had 910 dates. We’re working on it. Bill’s working on.

Steve Cuden: I have no doubt you’ll get there, and I hope that if you, ever wind up in Pittsburgh, you’ll let, me know so that I can come watch you in person.

Michael Mason: It’s a city. If it’s a city, I got to go there. If it’s a city, you never know where this thing is going to take you. And I hope I live long enough that I can get a series of 1015, 20 dates a year to bring this music to people. It’s very hard. The only other avenue we have now we’re working on is trying to get the music video, where we rent a studio, a big movie studio, and get that. That’s probably the way to go to avoid the, rigors of the road, the constant, just a lot of musical instruments. I’d probably need at least a three quarter length, truck for the instruments. Just for the instruments alone.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Michael Mason: Yeah. At least 100 instruments.

Steve Cuden: At least 100 instruments, yeah.

Michael Mason: Of flutes, handpins, cellos, violins, percussion instruments, rain sticks, drum sets. I don’t even know at this point until first of all, we’re going to pick the songs from the cds we have, and we’re going to create an hour and 15 minutes performance, and we’re hoping that we can open maybe for some really big stuff. We’ve already been offered to do some things. We’ve had to turn it down. I’m not going to say from who or by who, because I don’t want to commit to that. But big players.

Steve Cuden: Would you say that your physical preparation for a tour is very different from going, into the recording studio? Is it a whole different level?

Michael Mason: Whole different level, yes, very different. You’re trying to produce something maybe that you didn’t see, and you’re sitting on what they call, a Hollywood stage. Basically. You’re all set up live and you’re trying to hear each other. It’s hard to do with some of this music. well, the other thing I didn’t bring, I need at least two to three keyboard players.

Steve Cuden: At least two to three keyboardists.

Michael Mason: Yeah. I need a workstation. I need a guy that just plays nine foot grand piano. Wow. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: You don’t tour with that piano, do you?

Michael Mason: Well, where we go, they got to have a piano.

Steve Cuden: They got to have a piano. Sure.

Michael Mason: Contract, man. I want an eight foot Yamaha. If it’s not there, I can’t come.

Steve Cuden: Is there a song that you have played over time that is your favorite to play live?

Michael Mason: The jazz stuff? Plenty of them. I don’t know. For this music, it’s really different now. I know what I think is going to be pretty comfortable off the cds that are out, that we’re going to have a good time for. We’re going to make sure things upbeat, just a few, maybe laid back things. Some of the cuts, on some of these cds are really jazz tunes, strictly jazz tunes. When you listen to them and when you read the write ups. We’ve been blessed by having good write ups from good critics. I don’t know if Bill sends you those write ups, but I think I.

Steve Cuden: Have read a few of them. Yeah, sure. No, they’re very good. Your reviews are very well deserved.

Michael Mason: Yeah, we’re happy with what the critics are saying. We were shocked that we were put up for, the new, nomination or the review from the neris. I forgot what the category was.

Steve Cuden: well, there was one for video, best music video, and one for best contemporary jazz album.

Michael Mason: Yeah. Which is cool. That’s cool.

Steve Cuden: Sure it is.

Michael Mason: I don’t care about. Just as long as somebody’s recognizing. That’s nice. That freedom video, for Ukraine. Seen that? I have seen it. Yeah. That was assembled by us getting permission, from several journalists to use photojournalists.

Steve Cuden: I see.

Michael Mason: To use, those photographs. I wasn’t really that happy with it. The song freedom was written before the Ukraine idea came in. But as we listened to it, that marching sound and that drum sound, I created a tune, freedom, because I thought of the american revolutionary war.

Steve Cuden: And you could relate that quite easily to what’s going on in Ukraine.

Michael Mason: That’s what happened automatically when we said that, and so I forgot who it was. One of my players said, hey, Mike, man, maybe, what can we do with. And, I think it was either Bill or somebody got it all in their head, like, yeah, let’s pull some Ukraine war footage. We’ll slap it together and see what happens. And so we did. We put it all together, and I sent the picture, file with the permission slips. All that stuff must have been, I don’t know, 200 photos to get you through that tomb. And some of them are what they call stock photos.

Steve Cuden: Of course.

Michael Mason: Well, stock photos are free to be used by anybody, but we had to make sure. So I gave it to bill on a timeline and I said, do some blending. I wasn’t happy with the blending of it.

Steve Cuden: What do you mean by blending?

Michael Mason: Like, one image coming out of the other.

Steve Cuden: Oh, dissolving. Dissolving, yeah.

Michael Mason: But I can even do better than what they did in regards to dissolving, how one would come out, one would go in. But there’s m ways that you can filter through. They could have did a little bit more, but I think the essence of it came across, when you watch it and you hear the music, I.

Steve Cuden: Think part of it is the emotion of what it’s being laid in against.

Michael Mason: Yeah. I felt bad about looking at some of those images. those are personal images of grief. Some of it just bothers me.

Steve Cuden: Well, one can only hope that, the music gives some people some solace.

Michael Mason: That’s all. I think it was sent to, the american embassy and the Ukraine embassy. I don’t know what they’ll do with it. Maybe they can promote funding or something, hope something good out of this mess. And now we have a new mess.

Steve Cuden: We do indeed, which, is mind, boggling. The whole world is in a little bit of what the british like to call a spot of bother at this moment. So I’ve been having a really fascinating conversation, my second conversation on StoryBeat with the great flutist Michael Mason. And you have, shared some story with us in the last show. But I’m wondering if you have another story that you can share that’s either weird, quirky, offbeat, strange, or maybe just plain funny from all your experiences.

Michael Mason: I can’t really isolate, to. I can tell you this. We’ve got some pretty funny characters in these, know? So I’ll create a piece of music. I think Danny Gesling is one of the funniest guys. I’ll write a piece of music and he’ll come up with, just an m know, I’ll be like, recording. And we’d be setting it up, doing the rough draft, and he’s like, going, you know what, Mike? You know what this reminds me of Adoris. Damie Adoris. And I’d be like, I go, what? Yeah, do you know what? Or I love Lucy or some off the wall thing. Like, he’d have, like, one tune. He’d be like a darth Vader guy. He’d walk around the studio as, what’s going on? The music. And a bunch of us musicians look at him going, you’re crazy. This guy’s nuts. And that’s what he would do. He would just, create animations for us. Nothing that pertained to the way I felt when I wrote it. So he ends up, lightning up. sometimes because a lot of times, a lot of takes. A lot of takes. Especially flute playing. I’ll do a solo 50 times.

Steve Cuden: Wow, that’s got to take. I assume that’s days.

Michael Mason: No, it’ll be, in one day session. We’ll take breaks, but I’ll keep going at it and going at it until I get whatever. And then he’ll come downstairs and he’ll say, hey, man, what the hell is wrong with your lip today? Why don’t you straighten up? And I’m like, dude. Or I’ll try to be doing keyboard work. And he’ll like, going, oh, I can see we got another day of nothing but bumble. I can’t even say bumble freaking fingers. What the hell, man? Aren’t you practicing your piano? I go, I don’t play piano.

Steve Cuden: You basically have fat fingers on those.

Michael Mason: Have to. I’ll put it down. And then Dave rice comes. Our, one of our pianists said he’ll go, yeah, Mike, you got to put the 7th on. Don’t. Why can’t you just use what I got now I’m going to create the 7th. And, most of the time, it’s, know, Danny would just sit there back going, you see? You need to go back to school, dude. Go back to school.

Steve Cuden: Well, this is helping to explain why you also keep doing this is. It’s fun for you. It’s not work.

Michael Mason: No, this is not work. This is joy.

Steve Cuden: And I think that that is very obvious when you listen to the songs. It is joyful, and quite delightful to listen to. So, last question for you today then, Michael. You’ve given us all kinds of very interesting things to ponder throughout this episode and throughout the first one as, and. But, I’m wondering, do you have a solid piece of advice beyond maybe what we’ve heard before that you like to give to people who are starting out in the business or maybe someone who’s in a little bit and trying to get to that next level? What can you say to them if.

Michael Mason: You’Re an instrumentalist, meaning that you chose an instrument that you love or I’m passionate about. It’s a question of dedication. Make sure that that’s something you want to do, and it’ll take you where you want to go as long as you, provide the instrument, the diligence of your soul. Not making, saying that everything has got to be right, everything’s got to be right every day. There’s no such thing as perfection, but just provide the love of the instrument. If you really love it, the diligence of your soul, and put yourself into that thing. If you’re a composer, that’s going to take a little bit longer. It’s going to take a long time, because a composer comes from an instrument. Bernstein, Chopin, they played piano, and they practiced and practiced and practiced. Mozart. You got to get the instrument in order for you to become a composer, because you do have to understand musical scales, you have to understand the circle of fifths and composing and everything else. You have to go to school. The only thing I miss is dropping out too early, never getting my master’s. But I was a street musician. Students don’t have to do that anymore. Instrument. All of a Sudden, from the instrument, you become a composer. And when you’re playing with other people, you start to think of how to compose. So that’s another Ball Game. You know what Miles always said, man, live a life and then play a note.

Steve Cuden: Live a life and then play a.

Michael Mason: Note, and you’ll hear the difference.

Steve Cuden: Well, I think that’s extraordinary.

Michael Mason: Yeah, it’s, something I picked up from him. I just elaborate on. I said, you know what? Live a life. From the first note you play, then live a life and play that note again 30 years later.

Steve Cuden: I don’t think missing school has hurt you at all.

Michael Mason: There’s a lot of us from the jumped school.

Steve Cuden: Well, you were more fascinated by playing an instrument than you were by, being in class.

Michael Mason: Formal training had to be done, don’t get me wrong. And that’s another thing we can tell people that you have to get the formal training. Don’t decide that you’re just going to. Yeah, I don’t need school at all. No, there’s no way you’re going to be cutting it as an artist if you can’t know that incident. You got to know, you got to have music school.

Steve Cuden: Well, I think that that’s, extremely wise advice, and it comes from a lot of years of doing this and, being able to have what can only best be described as real perspective, the perspective of distance. And I, think that that’s phenomenal advice. And, yeah, I think schooling and practice and your diligence is all on display in the work that you present.

Michael Mason: That is your life, if that’s what you want to do. And it’s not a rich life. It is a palperous life.

Steve Cuden: Did you say.

Michael Mason: It’S. It’s. There’s no money unless you happen to be, the lucky know. We all dream about being the lucky know. But you’re not going to, know Bruno Mars or Taylor Swift here.

Steve Cuden: Well, you wouldn’t keep doing it if you didn’t.

Michael Mason: Got to do it for the love of it.

Steve Cuden: You got to do it for the love of it. For sure. Michael Mason, this has been just a fantastic hour on StoryBeat, and I cannot thank you enough for your second appearance on this show and for all the great music that you keep turning out. Thank you so much.

Michael Mason: When I’m in Pittsburgh, I’m looking. You are knocking on your door.

Steve Cuden: And now, as promised, as we’ve, mentioned, Michael has gifted us with some absolutely exquisite music to end the show. So please sit back and enjoy Michael Mason’s wonderful composition, freedom from his album Impermanence. And as we’ve spoken about, freedom is a tribute to the people of Ukraine.

Michael Mason: M m M-M-M Ah.

Steve Cuden: So we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you like this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to? Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, tunein, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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