A Man Of Several Careers, Jay Ecker Finds That Versatility Is The Essence Of His Musical Life
Story By Brad Goins
Photos By Elizabeth Medwick
Jay Ecker first learned to appreciate jazz music under the influence of his LaGrange High band director, Ed Schutz. When Ecker entered Schutz’s classroom in the 1970s, the teacher was always playing a jazz disc — perhaps the latest Maynard Ferguson LP or maybe an old big bands standard.
Ecker decided he wanted to audition for LaGrange’s Jazz Band, then called the Stage Band. To do this, he had to switch from his main instrument — the tuba — to the trombone. Once in the band, Ecker learned the bass player would leave upon graduation. Ecker resolved to master the stand-up bass — the instrument that he has, for the most part, stayed with.
During those band years, Ecker and a few other budding jazz enthusiasts got in the habit of asking Schutz to recommend three albums at a time for them to listen to at home. Ecker remembers Schutz introducing him to the likes of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. “In high school,” he says, “we didn’t know what that was.”
Ecker started making a little money by playing gigs with Ed Fruge — local keyboardist, musician and music producer — at the Bontemps Dance Club, the Merry Mates and other dance venues. Jazz tunes were played, but not those of Miles Davis. Cole Porter and George Gershwin standards were on the program then.
As a 17-year-old, Ecker was impressed that he was playing with musicians with exceptional training and experience and was being given drinks on his breaks. He says he still plays, at times, for members of the old groups. But unfortunately, the passage of time is taking its inevitable toll on the ranks. He recalls having to stop one performance and turn on the lights so one of the dancers could find his teeth.
Not One Of The Cats
In the Lake Area, Jay Ecker’s name is strongly associated with jazz. The name of his ensemble is the Jazz Quartet. Still, you’re not very likely to hear Ecker referring to himself as a “jazz man.”
Ecker says the name Jazz Quartet is “just descriptive. We’re playing jazz standards. There’s a certain segment of the population (here) who wants that.
“I don’t really classify myself as a jazz musician,” he says. “[When I started out], I wanted to play every gig that came along [regardless of the style of music]. I just wanted to play all the time.
“I’m kind of a half-assed jazz man. But I’m not one of the cats.”
Ecker notes that those who want to become known as serious jazz players must make jazz a full-time job. Ecker didn’t do that. He was as comfortable with rock or pop or classical as he was with jazz. He took lots of gigs not just to get experience, but also to pay for his college education.
“I could play any style,” he says, “It’s not so much about being a great jazz player as knowing a lot of tunes. That’s a lifelong process … The versatility is more important than being a jazz player.”
Ecker certainly took the versatile approach as his young musical career got underway. He played Carnegie Hall with the Baton Rouge Symphony. He toured England and Scotland with a classical ensemble. He opened for jazz fusion masters Spyro Gyra.
In spite of his eclectic approach, some circumstances did conspire to keep Ecker close to the world of jazz. One was that there were “so few acoustic bass players in the Gulf South.” Ecker estimates there were and are, perhaps, a dozen good stand-up bass players along the coast from New Orleans to Houston. And he says he gets requests for performances from venues all along this stretch.
He’s heartily pleased that he’s gotten to play with some great jazz players during his career: players such as Peter Erskine (fusion jazz drummer for Weather Report), Ellis Marsalis (influential N.O. pianist and father of Wynton and Branford) and Bob Mintzer (big band saxophonist who’s played with just about everybody).
Ecker feels he’s learned a lot from dedicated and formal study, whether with bassist Marc Johnson (a member of Bill Evans’ last trio); with Lynn Seaton (bebopper bassist who’s played on more than 125 albums); or with his master’s bass teacher at LSU, Bill Grimes.
I know from experience that Ecker doesn’t mind talking about music. He notes that, “Somebody once said talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” (This phrase has been used by many great figures. But it’s generally thought it was first used by comedian Martin Mull, who actually wrote, “writing about music” rather than “talking about music.”)
Ecker believes that what beats talking or writing is listening: listening to lots and lots of recordings is even more important for jazz musicians than it is for garden-variety 14-year-olds.
“Bass players need to know chord changes and melodies,” he says. “Listening to the recordings is the best way to learn.
“We spent every day listening to music …” says Ecker. “I stole every lick I play from somebody else.”
Some of the bass players Ecker spent a lot of time listening to early on were Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke and Ron Carter (a double bassist, his performances on well over 2,000 recorded sessions is a record for jazz bassists; in a few days, he’ll turn 80).
Like many who are serious about their learning, Ecker felt the degrees he wound up with weren’t exactly ideal for getting the work he most wanted. A bachelor’s in theory and composition and a master’s in double bass performance aren’t credentials that raise the eyebrows of most club owners or band managers.
Still, gainful employment came quickly. Almost immediately after his master’s graduation, Ecker got a job as a high school band leader in DeRidder in 1988. Not long thereafter, he took the same post at Westlake High, where he held it for 25 years.
It took Ecker a few years to get immersed in his teaching. But once he did, it took on great value for him.
“Teaching has been a huge part of my life. I really learned so much from my kids. Some of my former students I play gigs with. Some are teachers. That’s gratifying.”
Teaching remained satisfying and rewarding until the day Ecker was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. He had to take a year off teaching to fight the illness.
It was during this break in his routine that Ecker first began to think of getting involved in Rikenjaks, which was then a popular brew-house in downtown Lake Charles.
Ecker had worked a great deal in the restaurant business during his university years to pay for tuition. “I wanted to keep my hand in that,” he says.
He took over Rikenjaks in 2000. After a few years, he was obliged to close and sell the venue.
But recently, Ecker and two partners joined forces to open the new and phenomenally popular Rikenjaks on Ryan Street. The new venue retains the old Rikenjaks’ emphasis on roughhewn wood. Tables and benches are all hand-tooled from wood by partner Buck Maraist, a long-time restaurateur who, Ecker says, “knows how to do everything.” His parents own Dylan’s Bar and Grill in Port Arthur.
The new venue is also carrying on Rikenjaks’ old tradition as a source of remarkable beers. For months, I’d been unable to try LA 31’s Biere Noire because every place I went to was out of it. But when I interviewed Ecker at Rikenjaks, I finally got a pint.
“This I consider my second career,” says Ecker. “It was a huge investment, money and time-wise.”
In typical restaurateur fashion, Ecker spent the first two months both opening and closing the new Rikenjaks. He put in 20-hour days. Now, things have smoothed out a bit, and he can get away with working 8 or 9 hours a day.
The third partner in the new Rikenjaks is Frank Randazzo, known for Madison’s in Beaumont. The new Lake Charles Rikenjaks is already successful to the point of franchising. A new location is expected to open in Vidor, Texas, shortly.
Build Your Own Jazz Career
Even at this late date, there may still be a few local students who think about becoming a serious jazz musician one day. Does Ecker have any advice for them?
He does; and the advice is simple and straightforward.
No. 1. Listen to the music on recordings. “Make it part of your vocabulary.”
No. 2. “Find people more experienced than you” and play with them as often as you can.
No. 3. “Take every gig, no matter what it pays.”
That ought to do it.