Gast Waltzing considered himself ‘not good enough’ in one particular musical discipline, so he decided to explore music laterally. This February he picked up the prize for best World Music Album along with Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo. Watch out world, Luxembourg has arrived at the Grammys!
A mirrored basement window, that cloaks a recording studio, in an otherwise unremarkable Helmsange house is the only clue that a 2016 Grammy Award winner lives within.
I am greeted by Benvinda, CEO of Gast’s company Waltzing Parke, whose daughter’s artwork adorns the window sills of the hallway. Gast is proud godfather to her six year old and treats her like his own, taking her on stage and on shopping expeditions to buy fashion sticker books.
We sit opposite a large painting of Gast playing the trumpet. Younger, and with more hair, the painting is by his cousin, Luxembourg artist Roland Schauls. Gast is an artist and a collector of art; his canvases are all of Luxembourg origin, but the sculptures are nearly all by international artists, suggesting the global outlook behind one of the most famous Luxembourgers.
Gast grew up in Useldange when Luxembourg was still a ‘land of farmers’. Each village had a fanfare or brass band and as a young boy he followed them around, instantly attracted to their music. As soon as he was allowed, he joined.
In those days they opened the cupboard, and whatever instrument was left inside, you got. I guess I got lucky.
The conductor of the fanfare saw something special in Gast and convinced his parents to send him to the Conservatoire when he was seven. Gast’s father had “done war” and had been shot, fighting in Russia. On return, he became a postman. The dislocation of war encouraged his father’s generation to want more for their children. A doctor or lawyer perhaps … but musician?
Gast himself had no such doubts. Studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Brussels and then the Paris Conservatoire and freelancing from the age of fifteen, he was performing, composing, teaching and ‘keeping busy’. He started his first jazz band at eighteen and played third trumpet at the Flemish Symphony Orchestra, so he travelled early for his inspiration and passion. As he says,
If you wait at home, you can be the most gifted musician in the world, nobody will come and get you. You have to look for your luck.
Back to Luxembourg and the Art of Composition
At 27, Gast became Professor of Trumpet at the Conservatoire of Luxembourg, founding their jazz department. For the first time he could pay the rent without worrying. But to realise a unique position in his field, he had to take some pragmatic decisions.
At 30, listening to the brilliant trumpet player, Maurice André, Gast realised that he wasn’t good enough classically. Having had lessons from André in Paris, he knew ‘I could never be like that… he was a God amongst trumpet players. …so I stopped playing classical trumpet.’
A hard lesson, but one that left him free in the field of jazz, where he still feels at the top of his game:
I’m going to be pretty old soon and I won’t be able to play any more, but my last two years I felt never better on trumpet and that’s 45 years playing. I have 5-6 more years for the strength. There is nothing worse than when someone misses the time to stop.
Luckily for us, Gast’s composing is something that doesn’t ever need to stop. His role as a composer grew gradually from arranging music for his bands, writing ‘two or three arrangements each week’. This grew into writing original music as this wildly ambitious man didn’t want to be just a cover band. And it paid off almost immediately when he moved into film and television. Gast was nominated as ‘Best European Film Composer’ at the European Film Awards for his first film score A Wop Bop A Lop Bop, much to his own surprise!
He loves ‘the process’ of composing, being alone in his recording studio, and he has a specific approach to it.
It has to be in my head all finished. I might stay forty days and do nothing but then when I have the whole thing in my head, I can go down and write it.
Advice from Gast
Rather than merging lots of different ideas in one piece of music, which will just confuse the listener, Gast tells his students to use one idea well: ‘Composing is 5% a good idea and 95% developing that idea’.
And his attitude to perfectionism is dismissive.
I have an absolutely brilliant student, but she wants to be perfect. She writes and rewrites. You have to be able to let go and throw away.
This idea of women as perfectionists and the way it can limit them in the musical world is provocative and comes up again when I ask about women in jazz. Why have there have been plenty of singers, but not many female instrumentalists?
I had girls who played trumpet and tried jazz. They do a mistake and go back. And the thing is when you improvise and play jazz you can’t stop. You have to be arrogant enough to look at the public and say ‘I wanted that mistake’
Uncompromising in his attitudes, ruthless in his pursuit of musical ambition and yes, arrogant in the ownership of his own work is what has taken Gast Waltzing thus far. It may be an unpalatable lesson, but one worth taking from the maestro.
Gast’s influences are eclectic: Beethoven, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Prince. He cites to me the genius of John Williams in mastering the art of memorable melodies with complicated orchestrations. But above all he’s looking for something new:
You cannot compete with Beyonce, Herbie Hancock or Beethoven. I’m trying to find something interesting which has not been done… at least somebody might notice you.
He started the ‘Pops at the Phil’ series and convinced the orchestra that they should form their own projects. Working with Anjélique Kidjo was one of those collaborations that ultimately bore fruit in the shape of a Grammy. You can catch them both working together, with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Fête de la Musique on Tuesday 21st June.
Gast has also been teaching jazz in China. (Following the 1949 communist revolution, jazz was banned and only started to trickle back in the 1990s, having once been very popular in Shanghai.) Gast’s trip to China in April saw his composition performed by the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra with traditional Chinese instruments, based on old Chinese songs and Chinese Opera.
His realisations are always new and exciting and bold. Bold is the keynote and requires a huge confidence in ability, which Gast has in spades. As he tells me, a thin skin has no place in being a successful musician:
You have to be an arrogant asshole if you want to be a musician, because you get criticized. You are exposed all the time. Everybody who has a CD player tells you how he would do it. You have to have some ego and be strong. Even if you cry sometimes at home you can never show it. You need to have a lot of different things which work together. And then still it might not work. There is no guarantee.
And with that advice, we look again at his sculptures, the new score for China, and the artwork of Benvinda’s daughter. And he makes me a wonderful cup of Chinese tea.
Catch Gast Waltzing and Anjélique Kidjo at the Fête de la Musique on Tuesday 21st June.