Nick Colionne is an old school Jazz Cat. He prefers the Windy City Blues to the fair weather pop tunes of more popular music. But to him that’s been a way of life. “I’ve been playing since I was nine years old; professional since I was 15,” he divulges.
Throughout his career he has played everything from R&B to rock. “I was in a heavy metal band once,” the smooth guitarist known as Big Windy admits. “And though I’ve never played country live, I was on a country western record.” He even played with the Staple Singers and the Impressions as a teen. But that was all just a warm up; eventually he had to make his own way.
So, after going out on his own – because he was “tired of looking at the back of heads” – Colionne has blazed a distinctive trail, combining the various sounds he has learned into a jazz style that is both urban and contemporary. This has led to much success for the brother from “the bad side of Chicago.” He gets to travel extensively, sharing his music to varied crowds. He has a five piece band – two keyboards, a bass, drums, “and my guitar.” This summer, he arrives in Colorado as a featured player and host of the upcoming Genuine Jazz & Wine Festival that takes place over a lovely weekend in Breckenridge. Recently, we had a chance to share a phone conversation with him.
How did this opportunity come about?
My management, Steve, brought it to me. I did Breckenridge a couple of years ago, but this time I’m hosting. I was like, let’s do it. I thought it was Kool and the Gang!
What do you plan on bringing to this event?
I plan on showing everyone a good time. I’m going to leave it all on the stage. Plus, I look forward to sitting in with some of the other musician’s, Lord willing.
Festivals have become big business; you have things like Bonaroo for cool rock, The Warped Tour for Punk and alternative, and Colorado’s own mix of everything, The Mile High Music Festival. Are they the wave of the future…replacing touring?
I don’t think so; it’s just another avenue for artist’s to get their stuff out there. Festivals are cool because it’s outside and people are ready to party. Most indoor venues are either too small or too big…it’s hard to find just the right fit on a tour. Plus, it’s warm out. I come from Chicago and after a certain time of the year it’s just cold…People don’t want to go out.
Who are some of your influences?
My step dad, of course, he got me started playing, taught me my first stuff. I like Wes Montgomery, he inspires me still. With the rock stuff, Jimmy Hendrix, and Joe Satriani’s got a good sound.
A lot of contemporary jazz musicians play popular hit songs; do you prefer to play other people’s music, or your own?
I prefer playing my own music. I feel I can put my own sound and vision across and nobody can tell me it’s wrong. You know when somebody sings Luther (Vandross) you’ll hear ‘he don’t sound like Luther…’ or if you try and jazz up a progression on a pop standard they’ll tell you to pull it back. Well, they can’t say nothing if I want to do that on my own song. I can do weird stuff with it and know that it’s mine. Now, I will throw other stuff into my sets because people like familiarity. So, I play stuff they know.
You’ve been playing on your own for about 12 years or more, right, how many albums do you have out and which is your favorite?
I’ve released six albums. My first record was It’s My Time. It came out in 1994-1995. That first record is still my favorite because on your first record you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t have no formula…it’s like the first born child. So there are no limits. The whole process is wide open to what you can accomplish. My latest record is No Limits. It came out in September of 2008. We’re about to put out the second single, “Big Windy Cat.”
After the heyday of the 20’s and 30’s, many jazz musicians felt that there was more respect for the music abroad than in the states. Do you feel that still holds true?
Jazz is cool in the states. But people overseas eat it up. So many listeners are not as into it here because radio doesn’t play it as much, and record companies don’t support it, so core listeners can’t even find the music. Chicago just lost its big major Jazz station after 21 years. There are no jazz stations in NY, or Atlanta, in Dallas, and Philly doesn’t have one anymore. The only way to get the music now is if you have satellite or cable…It’s a shame because it’s the original music to America. It was born here. I’m out there spreading the word, though. Keeping it out there, because as artists we’ve got to take responsibility, too. We got to keep passing the torch, pass the music on to the kids. Keep jazz and its origins alive. I work with schools a lot, and mentoring is very important.
So is there a future in jazz music?
The music and the labels have to work together if it’s going to survive. It’s because of the technology. Kids buy their music online. That’s all they know now. Older people are used to buying product. It’s hard to find a store now-a-days. I used to go to Tower Records and spend like three or four hours just looking through records, reading the covers. You can’t do that no more. I’m in a good position because my record label – Koch – knows this. They’re working to bridge the gap between the tech and the product. You know my niece and nephew are on the computer all day downloading itunes or playing video games, Mp3s…
Speaking of IPods and MP3s, what music are you listening to in your earphones?
I listen to Dave Koz. And, Erick Darius – I like his energy. I listen to George Benson every day, Wes Montgomery every day. Rick Brauhn…
What was it like cutting your chops in Chicago?
To be a musician in Chicago is hard, but it’s easy at the same time. It’s hard because there are so many musician’s there. It’s easy because you get to see a lot of different music, be influenced or inspired by different sounds. Blues is big in Chicago. And I love all the different music. I was a pretty aggravating kid growing up, always interrupting practices, trying to learn what the older cats were doing. When I was younger it was all about singing groups. So I played with them and got my ear on with them, learned some steps…pretty much I followed them. I try to put everything I’ve learned together into something cohesive.
That being said, Kanye West and Common are like the face of Chicago’s music these days, how do you feel about that?
I respect Kanye and Common and what they’re doing. At first I was kind of salty that they were doing this talking and stuff. I mean, I spent my life learning music, learning theory, and here they were making millions. Then I gained an appreciation for it. Since they’re not going to adapt to me…I felt I needed to adapt to them. Each generation has their own thing, you know? My parents didn’t like what I was listening to… It’s generational.
Also, you’ve got to stay current and relevant, to even get in touch with the people to make a living. People are hip hoppin’ now, so I incorporate different sounds into my music. It’s hard to get people to even listen to instrumentals anymore, they’re so used to words and singing…they forget that the instrument is telling a story too.
Having such an extensive background and knowing the market, what made you choose this direction?
Jazz is what I was learning, that was my indoctrination. I’ve always had a jazz feel to my style, and that’s what I listen to. That’s where my heart was at…that’s what I hear in my head. Yes, I played the spectrum (of music), but it all brought me back to jazz. The instrument is my voice, so it was a natural fit. Plus I was ready to be in the front, when you’re playing in the band there’s always some singer’s head you’re looking into the back of. Honestly, I just got tired of looking at the back of heads!
Having had the career you’ve had, the experiences. Is there anyone that you would like to collaborate with that you haven’t?
I would love to collaborate with Mary J. Blige – especially doing something like her song “Family Affair.” Because she be doing her thang! I would say let’s bring your thing and my thing together and see what comes out of it!
Editor’s note: D Tha Man is a regular contributor of the Denver Urban Spectrum specializing in entertainment. He can be reached at www.attiqentertainment.ning.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the Breckenridge Genuine Jazz and Wine Festival, August 14, 15 and 16, visit www.Genuinejazz.com or call 303-547-6984 for tickets.