Boasting a catalogue that now stretches eight albums, drummer Wally Schnalle has made quite the career for himself on the Bay Area jazz scene. Referring to himself playfully during our conversation as “the fusion guy,” Schnalle’s work extends to stints both as a bandleader and a supporting player. Equally at home backing a blues band or a jazz quintet, Schnalle’s most recent musical project, Idiot Fish, finds him stretching his vast palette of musical flavors ever further, venturing into elements of electronic music and even adding a visual component to his shows.
Earlier this year, Schnalle became San Jose Jazz’s newest Summer Jazz Camp Director. He’s relished the opportunity to visit schools and students in-person to help spread the word about the two-week learning lab, which offers middle and high school students of many skill levels a chance for hands-on, in-depth musical study.
While this is the first time Schnalle has taken on the role of Camp Director, he’s been in the trenches with San Jose Jazz in some form since its inception and looks forward to seeing where this new collaboration takes him. As the new camp tag line reads, he’s hoping his position will help students discover the possibilities!
In this latest blog post, we got to know Schnalle a bit better by revisiting his early years as a student, recalling how a brief stint in electronics couldn’t silence his burning desire to play music, and inquiring why serving as a mentor for other musicians remains a key piece to his musical story.
Do you remember your first musical memory? Was there an “a-ha” moment for you?
I knew in the third grade that I wanted to play drums or electric guitar. I had to wait two years to get into fifth grade and join a band, but I still was committed and wanted that to happen.
I don’t have very many vivid memories from early on, but I remember that first day of band. I sat in a semi-circle near the end of it and a guy named Gayle Royer, who I worked with later when he was the director of Vanguard, was going, “What do you want to play?” with all the new kids. He got to me near the end, and I said “Drums!” Without looking up from his clipboard, he said “We have too many drummers already. You’ll play clarinet.”
I was crushed! I just sat there quietly, then I went home and told my parents. They were supportive. They had hung with me for two years, and we ended up finding a private teacher who ended up being a good teacher. When I joined the band in sixth grade, the kids that got to be drummers were learning from this trumpet player and I was learning from a drummer.
As far as jazz experiences and exposing myself to that, I was really drawn to it in high school. I wasn’t a serious jazzer, but I was drawn to that music because I felt like it gave me more opportunities to express myself. I love to rock out and hit hard and drive the band and everything, but it seemed like there were more possibilities [with jazz].
You’re originally based in the Bay Area?
Yeah. I was born and raised in Santa Clara. In fact, my roots go way back. My great grandfather had one of the first planes in the valley. Emile Agraz was his name. He was the first motorcycle cop in San Jose. If you Google him, you can find one article on him where he’s racing bicycles and one of the henchmen from the other team shot him in the leg, and he finished the race! [Laughs] I’m serious. He was a tough guy.
With school, I got a bit of a late start. I got out of high school and went to junior college up at Foothill for about a year and a half and decided as a young man that I wanted money, so I got a job. That put me in the Silicon Valley. I was working in electronics early on – the late 70’s, early 80’s.
In ’84, I decided “What the heck happened? I’m in the wrong world,” so I quit my job, went to San Jose State and graduated in ’89. Since then, I’ve been living music full time.
Were you still gigging when you were in high tech or was it basically on the back burner at that point?
It was on the back burner. I was in a band in the late 70’s, kind of a progressive rock trio. We’d practice four nights a week and gig twice a year. [Laughs] It was that kind of thing. I was still playing, but I knew that wasn’t the end game for me. I knew that if I didn’t quit my job and take the chance, I was going to die regretting that.
You’ve been involved with Summer Jazz Camp for quite some time, but is this the first time you’ve been director of the camp?
This is the first time I’ve been director of the camp. I’ve been involved for a long time just as the drum instructor. I’m always glad to do it, and when Harley [Christensen, Director of Education] asked me to do this, I thought “I’m happy to do what I’ve been doing already, but this is a bigger responsibility, and I’ve also got some ideas.” It was in part about keeping camp alive and really growing it, because I’ve been a part of it for so long.
I’ve been involved with San Jose Jazz, formerly the San Jose Jazz Society, when Sammy Cohen first started this thing. I got involved at the ground level with the first Jazz Festival [now Summer Fest] with the Montoyas and Bruce Labadie. I was running around getting liquor permits and park permits and hooking up the railing. At the first Jazz Festival, the back stage of the Main Stage was yellow tape hooked to my little blue Honda Civic.
What makes you continue to want to be an inspiration for burgeoning musicians?
What I’ve often said is I almost get more enjoyment out of that timid seventh-grader combo where they’re sitting in their chairs the first week going “I don’t know know why I’m here.” You give them some tools to empower them, where they can take some chances. To see them glowing and smiling at their parents after they do their performance at the end of two weeks is really a joy for me.
[After] I started playing [full-time], people would come up to me and ask if I gave listens, and I started giving them lessons. I’ve had other musician friends over the years who have said “How can you teach so much, Wally? You’ve got to play.” I do still play, of course, but I truly enjoy teaching just as much as I enjoy playing.
People whine about having to teach, [but] how can it be a negative thing to have to sit in a room with a person who wants to hear what you say when you’re talking about your passion? I get to do that one-on-one with students, and when you have these rooms full of eager faces, it just multiplies.
Those faces that I said were timid come back the next year and the fire is raging and they’re ready to go. I see that blossom. It’s great.
Are there any key moments that stick out for you when you were in the place of these young students that made you want to continue as a musician? Do you remember any key mentors or moments that helped spark a light that helped you push even heavier?
I remember going into San Jose State, and there was a good friend of mine, a bass player named Beau Kane – he’s passed away now. We were going to school together, and he gave me a gift then that he didn’t really realize he gave me.
I was writing one of my first compositions, called “And the Aardvark Sharpened His Teeth.” I had these changes, but I was wondering “Can musicians blow over these changes? Are they too weird or whatever?” So I sat down on a bench next to Beau, gave him the piece of music and said, “Can I do this?”
He took the piece of music without looking at it, turned it over, put it on his lap, and said “Do you like the way it sounds?”
I said “Yeah, that’s why I wrote it.” He said, “Then you can do it.”
I went “I’m free!” – that was a light bulb moment.
With camp faculty, it seems like there’s a core recurring cast that keeps coming back, and there’s a kinship there and a shared spirit of giving back. Is it almost like a reunion that week before, seeing people you may not have seen for a while?
I’ve seen that family evolve over the decade plus that I’ve been doing this, and the people that aren’t doing it are still friends in the musical community. As the Camp Director this year, I took a role in choosing the faculty. There isn’t anybody on the faculty that I don’t think I would have back, because everybody’s been a great supporter.
Everybody that shows up – they’re bandleaders, they’re working musicians, and they’re willing to give back like you say. But the reason our bandleaders are working musicians is because they’re good people. With the people that come back, it is a good hang, it is a good family, but they also have the skillset on their instrument, the skillset in teaching and skillset in being a people person when we have the students.
How’s your upcoming set at San Pedro Square Market performance, scheduled for April 19, shaping up?
I want to include some originals and some classic stuff, maybe in the [Art] Blakey realm, because it’s going to be Joel Behrman on trombone, John Worley on trumpet, and Charles McNeal on sax, which is a killing front line. I talked to Aaron Lington and he might stop by too. We have Hristo [Vitchev] on guitar and Jeff Denson as our bass player. Kat Parra is coming down and singing a couple of tunes. That’s an all-star kind of [ensemble]. It hasn’t been inked in any repertoire yet, but that’s what I’m thinking.
Do you have a vision for where you’d like to see camp go?
One of the things I brought up was that I don’t think there’s a tag line for it. I want to give camp a personality. If you see on the brochures, it says “Discover the Possibilities,” because that’s what I really want the theme of the camp to be.
Kids are sitting in the chair all school year and band teachers are going “Play those notes so we can get them right.” At camp improv classes, I want there to be some theory –some nuts and bolts – but I only want that to be half of the class. I want that other half of class experimenting with that possibility rather than just sitting there taking notes for 45 minutes and going “What do I do with that stuff?”
I wouldn’t say avant-garde, but I want some free improv exercises with the kids. I just want to open the door to possibilities with them and give them tool sets bolstering their ability to take chances and nurture that their decisions have some worth.
I used to work with Dwight Cannon, who ran San Jose State’s Jazz Department. The whole ensemble would have paper, and you’d get to rip it, either slow or fast or rhythmically or whatever. That would be the jam! Or he’d go “Everybody stare away from the clock. Look in the other direction. You get to make one sound in a minute.” You know – awareness of time? [I’d like to do] some of those things that empower them to take chances.
It almost sounds like one of the key things camp is really trying to stress is to make the kids feel like it’s okay to make mistakes, that it’s part of the musical process.
Is it hard breaking through that mentality? Do you run into that a lot when teaching?
I do run into that, but it’s not always hard to break through it. Part of what I’m doing currently is outreach at the schools. I’m going to different high schools to bring awareness to the camp but also work with the kids and do some experiments with them.
One of the experiments I do is a rhythmic thing where, in a measure of eight eighth notes, they get to play any three notes. Atonal — any three notes. While we’re doing that exercise – I was doing it in a class of 30 kids or something – I kept bringing the different kids in. I got to the fourth or fifth kid and he was paralyzed by giggles and fear. [Laughs] I tried him a few times and said, “Okay, I’ll come back to you.” I went around to the rest of the kids, and once there was about 25 kids going, I went back to him. There were more people in the pool at a that point, and he was willing to take the chance and do it.
There’s ways you have to break through it. With some kids, you have to go “Calm down, you’re already taking chances.” With others, you just have to find a door in.
Having a perspective of San Jose Jazz since year one, how do you gauge its impact on education within the greater community with your long view of where it’s gone and where it’s headed?
As with any non-profit organizations, it has waves because of funding issues and a lot of those kind of things, but over the past decade, we did a lot of in-school things. I know the Progressions initiative is going on now. I don’t have as much hands-on experience with that, but how can music in schools not be a positive thing?
Often, you’re playing a club where even the music is not the main reason people are there. There’s other motivators, right? [Laughs] When we’re in schools at assemblies, the kids are all attentive and you’re teaching them something about what you’re playing. It’s a great thing.
Doing a little bit more of that that now with music students as I’m doing outreach feels great. Part of the reason I got involved as director was because I have a passion for education and for the camp. My true desire is that it grows in every possible way – the amount of kids there, the ability of the staff, and the concept. I think it’s a vital part of the South Bay music awareness.
San Jose Jazz Summer Jazz Camp runs June 16 – 27. To find out more about Summer Jazz Camp, please visit our Jazz Camp page, located in the Education section of our site. For more information on Wally Schnalle, visit itrhymes.com.