Chris Ziemba

Pianist, Composer, Educator

An Interview with Myself!

The past year and a half has been filled with growth in a variety of directions. I’ve been with the Airmen of Note since September of 2017, and by this time I am a fully functioning member of the team! There was a natural period of transition following basic training. I had gone 8.5 weeks without playing piano or listening to music, and, as I had known it would, it had an adverse effect on my facility and technique. However, I hit the ground running with the band, so a continuous stream of gigs in combination with a sizable amount of free time outside of work helped me to get back in top playing shape pretty quickly. I composed an interview with myself to cover questions I tend to get:

What kinds of gigs do you play with the Airmen of Note?
The ‘Note keeps me busy. We play around a hundred or so concerts (“missions”) a year, which includes two national tours, summer concert series in the DC metro area, run-outs to jazz festivals, and the occasional government/ceremonial function. Our heritage traces back to Glenn Miller’s Army Air Forces Dance Band, so many gigs will include at least one or two Miller numbers. We also have a lot of music from the libraries of Count Basie, Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton. We are constantly commissioning new pieces, and members of the band are always bringing in new arrangements. (I haven’t done one yet, but I will!) All in all we have over 6,000 pieces in our library, of which about a hundred are on call at any given time, and they’re constantly being switched in and out. We do some outreach at schools and universities, especially while on tour. In DC I have regular small combo gigs playing background for Air Force leadership in conjunction with leadership from other services or foreign dignitaries. For these we typically perform a short featured set that can include jazz, rock, country, or a mixture of genres depending on the context. Almost all of these events include a solo cocktail segment, so I get to pull out whatever tunes I’ve been working on, as if on any number of solo gigs back in NYC.

We have an annual guest artist series known as the Jazz Heritage Series. This is hugely popular in the area, and each of the three concerts per year sells out fast. In 2018 we had vocalist Cyrille Aimee, pianist Kenny Barron, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis! This year we had trombonist John Fedchock, bassist Christian McBride, and trumpeter Randy Brecker. These performances are recorded for release on the air around Memorial Day, and we’ll put out occasional “best of” compilations in CD format. To that end, much of our recorded library can be streamed for free HERE!

What is it like being a musician in the military?
Different, but not in a bad way. Learning the way in which authority is structured and delegated was probably the biggest adjustment to Air Force culture. I’m now no longer accountable to just myself, but to my fellow bandmates (“wingmen,” to use an AF buzzword) and leadership. However, I’ve always been a super organized person, bordering on OCD in some ways, and this is a trait which has only served me well! The band feels like a giant family, which is very special and unique. Unlike a professional orchestra, it’s small enough to really get to know everyone on a personal level, and that makes it great. Playing with the same people day after day is an unmatchable experience, and you learn a lot about yourself, maintaining interpersonal relationships, and how to keep building shared experiences. You learn how to deal with people when they’re having a bad day, or when you’re having a bad day, and you grow from it. We know what our performances are often several months in advance, and the rehearsal schedules are built to support that. If we have a slower period of gigs, we’ll rehearse more for whatever’s coming up. If we have a bunch of gigs in a row, we won’t rehearse at the same time. Rehearsal and performance days are balanced with “mission support” days in which we are expected to spend some time working on our additional duties (see below).

We are lucky to have fantastic leadership right now. The Flight Chief of the band is a brilliant advocate for the rest of us, ensuring that we get plenty of cool performance opportunities balanced with a fair amount of time off. The Commander of the whole organization is very supportive as well, so things run like a well-oiled machine. I’ve heard that these things are not a given, so it will be interesting to see how dynamics change as offices switch over.

Do you do any Air Force stuff aside from playing music?
Yes. Each member of the band has collateral duties which are in some way in support of the band or organization as a whole. I wear several hats in addition to that of pianist. For example, I’m the building manager for our rehearsal space, which entails reporting any problems with our facility up the chain to initiate the repair process. I’m also on the social media team, so I handle a lot of the Facebook presence for the ‘Note, which is a hugely important tool for outreach and marketing. Finally, I work in the supply shop helping to procure goods and services for other members (i.e. instruments, uniform items, paying for repairs, etc.). These are great jobs for me at the moment because I can do them from home if I need to, giving me some flexibility to structure my time. We all have an annual fitness test to ensure that we are meeting AF-wide standards. It’s really a lasting benefit from basic training; now I’m more concerned than I ever have been with diet and exercise, which is never a bad thing. I can’t say that I’d be as focused on this at all if it weren’t for the military, and it feels great. To this end, I’ve gotten way into running and biking (DC is a very bike-friendly city).

Do you have time for anything else outside of the Air Force?
Yes! It’s been very important to me from the beginning to stay engaged with myself as an artist, which means seeking as many different types of playing opportunities as I can. In some ways, I’m playing more gigs than I was in NYC, in terms of number! Lots of these are background standard-type gigs, so it gives me reason to learn new tunes and revamp old ones. By this point I’ve met a great number of other musicians in the DC area, many of whom are in sister service bands (Navy Commodores, Army Blues, Army Jazz Ambassadors, etc), but a bunch who are just really great local musicians. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly as many venues in DC that are dedicated listening rooms or jazz clubs. Add Baltimore in and there are a few more, but there’s not a place that has the vibe of a Smalls or a Cornelia Street Cafe (which has closed, to my great sorrow). But this fact has only inspired me to create my own opportunities. I’ve been writing music again, and I have some recording projects lined up back in NYC! I’m able to get up to NYC pretty easily; I’m able to get up there and back even if I just really want to see one set of music at the Vanguard or Standard. This is a comforting fact, and I’ve made a pact with myself to make regular visits to keep my own artistic well filled and keep in touch with friends and mentors there. There’s another record on the horizon, but it’s only in the very formative stages for now.

Do you miss NYC?
Absolutely. I miss the ready availability of great music any night of the week. In some ways I was working so hard between teaching and playing that I didn’t always have the energy to see music when I was living there; now I wish I had taken better advantage of everything at my fingertips! I make an effort to see stuff whenever someone of interest rolls through Blues Alley, for example. I miss being involved with projects that felt like they made up the pulse of the jazz scene; playing people’s original music and then doing a bunch of gigs at the innumerable listening rooms around town. There’s a scene for that here too, but it’s not the same, more because of the lack of supporting venues than anything else. Also, DC is so spread out geographically that getting together to play a session at someone’s home requires more planning and can’t be as impromptu as just hopping on the train and heading up to Harlem. I greatly miss my friends, but it’s been great to stay in touch and see them when I visit town. All of them are up to amazing things themselves, so it’s been cool to see where everyone’s careers are taking them. My great friend and drummer Jeremy Noller is moving to South Korea, so now I won’t be the only expat among my circle!

All this to say, I do miss NYC, but DC is also great. It just requires a different set of goals and an updated understanding of how to achieve them. I’m making my own opportunities now, out of necessity, and it feels great. DC is such a beautiful, clean, outdoorsy city which lends itself well to exercise, and that alone becomes a source of inspiration. I can go sit on a bench in the Congressional Cemetery near my apartment and soak in the silence and the greenery. There are trees everywhere! Residential buildings are beautiful and colorful and range from neighborhoods filled with townhomes to Victorian mansions. The government buildings, monuments and museums are equally beautiful with their marble facades, columns, domes, and lawns. I’ll have a house of my own within the next year, and THAT’S something that I would never be able to say if it weren’t for this job. It was always a big-picture goal to have a life similar to how I grew up as a suburban kid back in Williamsville, NY, and now I’m steps closer to that.

Anyway, stay tuned. Many more exciting things to come down the pike, from video recording projects to concert series that I’m starting in DC.

Resettling in Washington, D.C.!

In February of 2017, to my disbelief, I was notified that I'd won the audition for the premier jazz ensemble of the United States Air Force, the Airmen of Note. At the time, I was firmly entrenched in the New York music scene, making a fairly successful living as a bandleader, sideman, educator, and copyist-for-hire. Without ever thinking I would actually be put in the position of having to make a choice, I had just such a rare, life-altering, context-changing decision thrust into my lap. The Note has had a long and rich history dating back to its inception in 1950, only three years after the Air Force gained its independence as a branch of the military from the Army. It was formed to continue the tradition of Major Glenn Miller's Army Air Forces dance band, and serves not only to help foster community relations with people all over the world, but to honor and inspire American servicemen and women far from home. The Note has attracted some of the finest musicians from across the country, and when I received the phone call I was of course astounded that I was being offered the piano chair.

After much discussion with Lauren, the most supportive and encouraging wife a guy could ask for, we made the decision that I should accept the offer. The factors that influenced this are complex and varied, related to life goals and awareness of a larger context. Suffice to say, it was The Most Difficult Choice I've ever had to make. Before deciding, I talked with several members of the ensemble and discovered that no two people had quite the same reasons for joining. I was gladdened that many of my friends and colleagues in the NYC scene were supportive of whatever outcome I fell upon. I felt comfortable and encouraged to begin writing a new chapter.

Often people make a big deal about firsts. Understandably then, it's a little funny how from the time I accepted the job until I moved out of NYC, I began to see things as a series of lasts. My last time playing at such and such a venue. My last time teaching this student. My last time going to this beer garden. I specifically remember my last time riding the wretched and unreliable subway, and how anticlimactic it felt. Of course, many of these "lasts" weren't true lasts, as today I still continue to visit and work in NYC and hit many of the same spots as I used to. I enjoy a little morbid humor from time to time, that's all.

Onboarding into the U.S. armed forces is a heck of a process. I could probably write a book filled with details, frustrations, stories, etc. Members of the USAF Band are full-time, active duty enlisted members of the United States Air Force. My first steps involved getting in touch with the local recruiting office (in Harlem) and scheduling a barrage of aptitude tests and medical exams to make sure I met the requisite standards for enlistment. There was a mountain of paperwork along the way. On June 27, 2017, I shipped out to Air Force Basic Military Training, held at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, TX. Boot camp stories would probably compose at least 75% of the hypothetical book, but for now I'll just say that it was 8.5 weeks long, very hot, and overall not nearly as terrible as an adult freelance jazz musician might otherwise assume it to be.

At the beginning of September, I moved into a nice apartment in a beautiful part of the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It's been nine months since then, and by now I feel fully settled into things. We present a mixture of classic big band repertoire (i.e. Glenn Miller, Basie, etc.) and contemporary arrangements in national tours, local performances in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, and in deployments across the globe. We play jazz festivals and record an album annually. We are encouraged to compose and arrange for our own ensemble, so there are plenty of opportunities for artistic outlet within this new system. All in all, I am loving the new job and performing frequently, both in and out of the band, around D.C. and across the States. I have big plans to continue developing as a solo artist, including further recordings, so please stay tuned for updates!

Here I am trying out humor again after too many weeks without. This was somewhere out on "town pass" in the final week or so of BMT, when I was allowed free time in San Antonio with visiting family!

Here I am trying out humor again after too many weeks without. This was somewhere out on "town pass" in the final week or so of BMT, when I was allowed free time in San Antonio with visiting family!