Jazz Guitar Chicago Style
by Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
Joining us is a fantastic guitarist and vocalist who’s got a great new CD out called Just Come On In. I’m talking about Three Keys recording artist, Mr. Nick Colionne.
What’s up Nick?
NickC: Nothing’s happening with me…just stayin’ in the groove!
Smitty: Yes, well you’re staying in the groove because you’ve got a hot new cd out and your hot singles are hitting the charts, you’re really doing some wonderful things out there with your music, and you’ve got to be happy about that.
NickC: Well yes, I’m really happy about that, and I thank everybody who supported it. It’s a good thing.
Smitty: Yes, it is. So you started out at an early age playing the guitar and I know your first guitar was a gift to you. Talk about when you received it…what were you thinking? Was it your instrument of choice, or something you happened to receive?
NickC: It was my instrument of choice. My stepfather played guitar and I loved to hear him playing it. I started messing with it and then they gave me a little kid guitar. I started playing with that and they finally decided to buy me an electric guitar. I had to learn “Bumping on Sunset” by Wes Montgomery before they did, but that was that.
Smitty: Wow. You’ve been quoted as saying that Jazz was your upbringing. There was music in the air as a kid….
NickC: My whole family was really into Jazz…my grandmother, my grandfather, and my parents. It’s all we heard. I didn’t get to hear a lot of other music. Not in the house…I heard it in the street but not in the house because they played Jazz. That’s where they were, and they didn’t want to listen to anything else. I listened to Jazz and I was scatting and all that kind of stuff when I was a little kid and learned all the old songs. When I started playing the guitar, I played what I was used to hearing.
Smitty: I can totally understand that, growing up in Chicago, because it’s so saturated with great musicians and great music up there.
NickC: Yes, a lot of great people. We’re fortunate to have them here and to be able to go and see them. But some of them are on the road, like Ramsey (Lewis), he’s always on the road.
Smitty: Yes. So speaking of growing up in Chicago, you turned pro at the age of 15. Man, touring with a rock band at 15 has got to be incredible.
NickC: It was strange…especially in my case, because everybody was older, like in their mid-twenties and I was just a kid. But it was great because I learned a lot from these older guys; what not to do; how to keep myself in check when I was out there. It was a great experience. If I had it to do again, I’d do it the same way. Well I’d make some other moves, like start the solo career a little earlier.
Nick jammin’ with Peter White
Smitty: Yes. Well you were definitely touring with some great bands, just to name a few, the Staple Singers…when they were hot, that was just the group of choice.
NickC: That was a great group.
Smitty: Yes, they had so many hit singles, and then there was Curtis Mayfield who was in another orbit in his hay day.
NickC: I was very fortunate to get on those gigs. I learned a lot from the people working behind the scenes, especially Pop Staples. I learned a lot about how to be a person in the entertainment business, and how not to be corrupt or anything like that. He taught me all kinds of values; he took me under his wing and talked to me a lot. I loved him for that.
Smitty: You’ve got to love that. So tell me, there’s a story going around about you and mascara. You’ve got to tell that story.
NickC: (Both laughing) People are always asking me about that. I was playing with a band at a club; I was about 16 or 17 and still playing with the older guys. I didn’t have a mustache or anything and I wanted to look older. They also wanted me to look older, so they got the mascara and made me a mustache and some side burns and stuff. Then one day my Grandmother came to a gig and I walked out there trying to look clever. I walk over to her and she looks at me and says “What is that on your face?” She starts wiping the stuff off my face and the ladies were saying, “He’s just a baby!” AWWW MAN!
Smitty: (Laughing uncontrollably) Oh man!
NickC: It’s funny now. But it wasn’t funny when it happened.
Smitty: When you look back on it, yes. That’s something you’ll never forget…and we’ll probably never let you forget it, either.
NickC: I know.
Smitty: That’s too cool. But you know what, we ALL have stories like that, you just happen to be in the spotlight.
NickC: Yes, I’ve got plenty of weird stories.
Smitty: I bet you do. You launched your solo career in 1994 with the record It’s My Turn, and it reached #13 on the national charts. Coming out of the box and reaching #13 is quite a successful thing! What were you feeling at that time?
NickC: It was very scary but something I felt I needed to do, hence the title, “It’s My Turn.” I’ve been in the background long enough looking at people’s backs my whole career. I figured when Nick Colionne left here, he wants to leave a legacy. Nobody’s going to remember me and say, “Oh yeah, there used to be a guy, about 200 years ago, he played behind somebody.” If I made my music and play who I was, in the future they would look back and say “There’s this guy, Nick Colionne and this is what he sounded like.”
Smitty: Oh yes. Well that’s a wonderful thing. You’ve made quite a splash to this point, that’s for sure.
NickC: Well I’m still splashing and trying not to drown!
Smitty: (Laughing) Let me ask you about a couple of things you’re involved in. I know you’re mentoring kids in the schools, which is a very honorable thing. Talk about how you got into that and what motivated you to do that.
NickC: I basically got started as a favor to a lady who was a fan of mine. One day we got to talking and she told me she was the Principal of a small Catholic school and they were in need of money and asked if I would come and play at a fund raiser. They said they could pay me but I said “You could pay my band but you don’t have to pay me.” They thought I could draw some people because they were playing my first CD on the radio. I said I would and I met the kids after school…I talked to them all day and they asked me to come back again…so I did and did a fund raiser…and the next thing I know it’s ten years later and I’ve been going every week!
NickC: During holiday seasons like Christmas and Easter, I’m there like two or three days a week, helping the kids get their programs together and trying to teach them about music…and teach guitar to kids who can’t really afford to take lessons outside of school. And then I went to my guitar company, Epiphone, and had them donate some guitars to these kids so they can play. Eventually I started teaching them how to use computers to help them to compose and one of the programs that I started was that every 8th grade class had to write their own graduation song.
Smitty: Oh that’s nice!
NickC: Yes, and I picked up another school in the inner city, called Florence P. Price School and I’ve been dealing with them for about a year. St. Lawrence is in a suburb of Chicago and I’ve been there for 10 years.
Smitty: I’m sure they appreciate your time and energy that you’ve put out on their behalf. That’s quite an honorable thing to give of your time and help them to enhance their own abilities in the arts.
NickC: They give me a lot more than I give them. One thing about kids is that when they love you, they love unconditionally. When I deal with the kids, I get really energetic. I have a lot of fun with the kids.
Smitty: Tell me a success story of some of the kids that you’ve mentored in the past. Anything you can talk about?
NickC: There are a couple of kids who have their own bands. One of them is playing Jazz and he’s about to graduate from high school. He’s playing first Jazz guitar in the band. But he’s got his own little band. Chris…I’m so proud of him because when I first met him, he was in 3rd grade!
Smitty: Oh cool!
NickC: And now he’s kickin! I told him he can keep going and I’ll retire and he can take care of me!
Smitty: Well if nothing else, he will continue your legacy.
NickC: Oh yes. I listen to him and I know he listens to my records because I hear some of my licks coming out of him. It’s like “Hey I know that lick.”
Smitty: That’s got to be a great feeling to know that you’ve reached out to them and they’re responding and that they’re successful in what they’re doing, as far as your mentoring.
NickC: Well it’s a great thing, because as I said, I started ten years ago with the 8th graders and so they’re all in their early 20’s now. What makes me most proud is that some of them are now coming out of college and I still have contact with about 50-60% of them. I get emails and calls. I get calls from Afganistan and Iraq. It makes me feel really good that with everything they do in their lives, they still want to keep in contact with me.
Smitty: When you’re mentoring and counseling the kids in terms of the music, and how they’re looking forward as far as where they are going with their music, are there some overwhelming things, or some consistent things that you tell your students that others that may be reading this would benefit from?
NickC: Yes, first I tell them that it’s not easy. You’ve got to work hard. I always tell them my motto is that they can slow you down but they can’t stop you. You’ve got to want to get to where you’re going, and as long as you persevere, you can make it. I don’t care if it takes you until you’re 75 years old, but you’ve got to stay there, stay with it, and keep doing it. You’ve got to work on your craft constantly. I tell kids you can’t sit in a room and practice for three hours. You’ve got to pick up the guitar every chance you have. When you’re watching TV, you pick it up and play. You don’t have to be playing anything, just play. Become one with the instrument. It’s your voice and it’s what you want to say. I always tell them that instrumental music tells stories, so you have to think about it in context of telling a story when you’re taking a solo.
Smitty: Yes, that’s very motivational. Let’s talk about some of the things you’ve done in terms of your music and your solo career. You’ve really started to get out there and have played some of the major festivals and venues across the country. I know the Bahamas Jazz Festival had to be exciting for you, and I caught up with you at the City of Lights Jazz Festival in Vegas…that was a kickin’ show.
NickC: Oh yes, a lovely place, and it was nice and WARM!
Smitty: Oh yes, it was! You’re all over the place and you just returned from Catalina Island, that was a great show. So you’re doing your thing and you’ve got to be excited about your ability to get out there and the fan’s desire to hear your music.
NickC: That is one of the best feelings. I mean you can make records, but you really want to go out there and play for people and have them see you and know what you’re about when you’re playing, because you can’t play everything on a record. I like to perform and I like to be on the stage. It’s the only place where I’m really comfortable. Well most of the time I’m tense, but I’m comfortable; the stage is like my home. I love being up there and being with people.
Smitty: Well that shows. You’ve got one high-energy performance after another. It definitely shows when you’re on stage.
NickC: Oh yes, I love playing. I only get paid for bringing my equipment…I’m playing for free.
Smitty: (Laughing) That’s a great way to put it! Would you say you’re living out a dream, as far as where you are now musically?
NickC: Yes, it’s like a dream come true. It really is. I feel blessed that the Creator has blessed me with the ability to do something that I love and to make a living at it, too! It’s the greatest thing.
Smitty: Yes. Let’s talk about this new record because I really like it, and obviously other people do as well, because you’re really blazing the charts. The CD is doing well and I know I’m not alone when I say this is a kickin’ CD, and its entitled Just Come On In. What does that mean? Where did the title come from?
NickC: Just Come On In is the Nick Colionne concept of “just come on in and get to know Nick Colionne; the door is wide open; I’m here; come in, find out about me and meet me through the music.” I believe I have something to say and I’m hoping people want to hear it.
Smitty: Yes. I think people want to, and they are. I can hear that Nick Colionne Chicago sound in there and a little blues, a lot of different styles here. You really mixed it up on this record.
NickC: Yes, I try to incorporate that sound on everything I play, whether it’s a record or a live performance. I don’t want to be one-dimensional so I kind of stretch out. Of all the things I’ve played over my career, I try to incorporate it all and that’s kind of what makes the Nick Colionne sound. A whole lot of different kinds of music: the jazz, the blues, all those things pulled in together…that’s me…it’s who I am.
Smitty: So what’s your favorite track on this record?
NickC: It would probably be “Just Come On In.” I really like that song.
Smitty: Yes. So you’ve got two singles that hit the charts running…that’s got to be a sweet feeling! They’re still doing well.
NickC: It’s a blessing and I thank everybody who supported it. Not everyone gets two singles off a record and I was fortunate to be able to do that. Hopefully I can continue to bring music to the masses, that they like. That’s my goal, is to keep making music that they like to hear.
Smitty: Yes. You’ve been described on stage as charismatic, high-energy, lots of flair. How would you describe a Nick Colionne performance?
NickC: Nick Colionne being scared to death…(both laughing). I guess I would consider myself high-energy because when I said I’m scared to death, I usually am. It’s always really weird when I come on stage so I try to channel that energy into the performance. All that flair and all that stuff, that’s what they think. I really don’t think about that too much…I just play.
Smitty: But I think all of those descriptions are accurate of your performance because you do have a charismatic edge, and you can feel the flair and see that in your performance and it’s just a lively show. Everybody can get involved and get their groove on and really get into the music. It’s a really nice mix, your performance.
NickC: Thank you so much. That’s what I’m trying to get out there. I think a Jazz show should have just as much energy as a Rock show or an R&B show. People don’t want to lay back and rest, they want to move!
Smitty: Yes, I like that. Do you have some memorable moments of this past year’s performances? Something you’d like to share with the fans?
NickC: I really enjoyed the Bahamas Jazz Festival. I had a great time playing there and seeing all these other guys play. I got to meet Stanley Clark and that was really great for me. The greatest thing about it to me is meeting all these guys that I hear playing music on the radio and finding out that they’re there! That’s the greatest thing for me…meeting all these other guys playing this music and finding out that they’re such nice cats. That really means a lot to me. These guys like Peter White…especially Peter White, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. And I just love interacting with the fans!
Smitty: Tell me a little about how the fans have received you this past year at the shows you’ve played?
NickC: I’d have to say that the reception has been overwhelming. When you first get out there like I am now, getting around to the different festivals, you kind of wonder how you’re going to be received. It’s really heartwarming; it’s a great feeling.
Smitty: Nice. So what’s going on for you now? The season is wrapping up a little…what’s coming up on the plate for you?
NickC: I’m writing and trying to produce some songs for the next record…hopefully we’ll have it done by the first quarter. I’m doing a lot of writing right now.
Smitty: I heard you have quite a love for fishing.
NickC: Oh yes, my other passion.
Smitty: Is there a distinct correlation between music and fishing for you?
NickC: Well music is basically my livelihood, my fun; it’s been my everything. Fishing is my total relaxation…I get in touch with my spiritual side. You’re out there at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, there’s nobody out there with you most of the time. You’re out there watching the sun come up and you can really get in touch with who you are.
Smitty: There’s nothing like taking time away from everything to get in touch with who you are.
NickC: Right…you can get so caught up in the music. Before this record, I was just totally consumed by the music. I have to make a separation and get back to being Nick Colionne. I can’t just think, eat and breathe music 24 hours a day. That makes me a very one-dimensional person. I got back into my fishing routine really hard a few years ago and it helps me to get in touch with me.
Smitty: Yes, I think that’s a beautiful thing…it keeps you grounded. So are there any other outstanding goals, things you haven’t done that you look forward to? Or a wish list?
NickC: Well I could say I’m wishing to make another record that is better than this one (both laughing) but no, I don’t really have a wish list. I just hope to stay healthy and that my family stays healthy, and that the world comes together to be a better place. That’s my wish.
Smitty: Very cool. You have a website?
NickC: Yes, nickcolionne.com
Smitty: Very easy to remember, and you’ve got some informative things on the site, the normal things, pictures, tour schedule, sound tracks…things that help people get an in-depth view of you from the site.
NickC: Yes, and I try to update it regularly. And for the people who have been to one of my performances, go to my website because you may see yourself on there!
Smitty: A lot of pictures! Nick this CD is well deserved as far as the accolades it’s received. You should be proud of this record because it’s slammin…you’ve got some great tracks and great production.
NickC: Thank you, Smitty, it means a lot that you say that.
Smitty: Well it’s been a pleasure as always. Thank you for taking a break and chating with The Jazz Nation in depth about the record, your life and career. Please come back and talk with us again.
NickC: Thank you for having me. I’ll be glad to come back whenever you want me to!
Smitty: We’ve been talking with Three Keys recording artist, the fantastic Nick Colionne, about his latest new record, Just Come On In. This is a highly recommended CD, you’ve got to get it. Lots of energy and great tunes. Nick, thank again and all the very best to you 2005.
NickC: Well thank you. I look forward to it, too!
Visit the web site at nickcolionne.com.