“I thought improv was impossible”

THE BLACK CAT, SAN FRANCISCO — What do you do when you’re only 11 years old, you think improvisation is impossible, and your teacher tells everyone in the class to stop playing until you do a solo. It was a make-or-break moment for young Irwin Hall, but it set him on the course to become the musical wizard he is today.

“I thought improvising was impossible to do,” he told me. “The first time I tried improvising, I was just eleven years old in a class with my teacher, organist Radam Schwartz. He was going around the room and he said everybody has to improvise, and when he got to me, I said, ‘No, no, I can’t do that! That’s impossible!’

“He stopped the whole class and said, ‘Listen, Irwin, we’re not going any further; everyone is going to stop, and we’re going to look at you until you start improvising; we’re just going to wait for you,” Irwin recalled.

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“I don’t know how he knew it, but that was exactly what I needed because if he hadn’t done that, there was no way I was going to try it on my own,” Irwin said. “I mustered up the courage some way, somehow, and I jumped in and that was my first step and I was like ‘Oh, wow, I can do this, this is possible!

“After that, nobody could tell me nothing,” he said. “If I can do that — THE impossible thing — if I can do that, there’s no limit, I can do anything, I can figure out anything. He called me out at eleven years old and that was the greatest gift he ever gave me.”

(Watch Irwin talk about this watershed moment as well as how he got his first saxophone and what would have happened if he hadn’t!)

Indeed. Since that moment, Irwin has gone on to Princeton University on a full-ride scholarship to study East Asian philosophy. After graduation, he moved to Japan to work as a research assistant for a newspaper editor (he learned to speak fluent Japanese!). But his musical passion could not be contained.

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In a second major, life-changing moment, Irwin was at the Tokyo Jazz Festival and ran into Grammy-nominated jazz singer Melody Gardot. “I wasn’t playing at the Tokyo Jazz Fest, but saw Melody’s show there and met up with her backstage,” Irwin recalled. “We got to talking and she told me her saxophone player just quit after that gig. Of course I had my horn with me. She heard me play and the rest is history.”

So Irwin quit the newspaper job and went on back-to-back international tours as the featured soloist with Melody.

Since then, Irwin has gone on to tour, performed, and recorded with 3-time Grammy/Tony Award winning NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater, Grammy-nominated Jazz vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, trumpeter Theo Croker, and countless more. He has performed in cities around the world including London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Prague, New York, Paris, Melbourne, etc.

None of that would have happened without a third life-changing moment (which was actually the first one).

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“In fourth grade, we’re allowed to choose an instrument. So, when I turned nine, I went to my friends and said, ‘OK, what’s the coolest instrument in the whole wide world?’ And they were like, duh, the saxophone — the saxophone is the best instrument in the whole wide world. So I said, that’s what I’m playing, obviously!

“I put my number into a hat and I just got so lucky because the school had a limited number of saxophones and my parents weren’t going to buy it for me — there were four of us, that wasn’t going to happen. I put my number into a hat and my number got called! and I got a saxophone from the school and that started me.”

I asked him what he thought would have happened if his number had NOT been called and he didn’t get a saxophone? “Man, I tell you what: I’d probably be doctor and a millionaire living in a big house, a mansion with a butler and stuff!”

Thank God his number came up.

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Learn more about Irwin


Black Cat 1

The Black Cat, 400 Eddy St., San Francisco, CA, 94109

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