Interview: Jay Beckenstein of Spyro Gyra

We Buffalonians, people who grew up in Buffalo, NY, have immense pride for fellow musicians from the area. Then again, it is the same for anyone who finds success outside of Buffalo to be honest. When I was growing up, thanks to my mother and father, music was always playing throughout the house and in the car rides through the snowy roads. It became a natural routine in my life. It was not until early high school that I started to take a serious interest in the musicians that made these wonderful tunes. So, one summer day, I promptly went downstairs to the basement and gathered all of my parent’s CDs and downloaded them onto my iTunes library. Out of all the musicians that funneled through my new collection, one remains in my songbook to this day. That band is Spyro Gyra.

These guys were always on the stereo and my parents would talk about seeing them perform in downtown Buffalo at venues like the Tralf Music Hall. They reveled in their work with such admiration that it soon grew on me. To this day, whenever one of their songs plays on my iTunes, I immediately relax and enjoy the moment. As I started this summer music series, I decided to try my luck and reach out to the band to see if they would be interested in a chat. Luckily, one of the bandleaders, Jay Beckenstein, offered a chance to meet with me on a sunny day in Bryant Park to discuss his career and viewpoints on the music world.

After surveying the park for chairs to conduct our interview, Jay and I snagged some by the Bryant Park Lawn. Before we began, I shared with Jay a slight musical link that the two of us had. My late cousin, John Hunt, who was the Music Director at WBFO and 2006 Buffalo Music Hall of Fame inductee, was a jazz fan who Jay remembered well. “John was always supportive of our work and we remained good friends for many years.” That brought a smile to my face. My cousin had a mission to bring back an appreciation of jazz to the Buffalo area. He succeeded and to this day, jazz still is has a strong force there. Although, we never had the chance to meet, I feel his love for the music has proudly continued down the Hunt line.

I then asked Jay about his touring history with Spyro Gyra, which is an impressive feat in itself. “We are on the road doing 60-70 shows a year. Most of the time we are overseas. Each city has their charms. NYC is the coolest and worst place to perform because people will come out of the wall just for tickets. We love the Bay Area, Seattle, New Orleans and Europe. Paris is a marvelous place along with Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact, in Europe there is more of an appreciation for jazz. Since jazz is a harder genre to study and the education of it is vastly difficult, I think Europeans respect that. There are so many classical festival in Europe compared to the festivals in the US that have so many artists that seem to be playing altogether within a set group. There is so much great music out there that remains untouched by modern west. Music from Thailand, the Philippines, South Africa and India are great examples. Although the Bollywood aspect of India cuts into it a bit.” I shared with Jay at this point a prime example of a Malaysian band that I discovered back in 2011 called AkashA, who blend traditional Malaysian and Indian music with Celtic jazz. It is music like that, which transcend the normal status of music in the mainstream. A band like that gives me hope as the art continues to be explored.

Jay shared some of his thoughts in this regard. “I am in my 60s now and am less engaged with the nature of the music nowadays. As with many old musicians, we feel that things have not gotten better. There seems to be a long period of endless repetition of new artists just doing what their predecessors have done before. It does not impress me. Most music has been obliterated by the ways of Western Pop. That doesn’t mean I do not love what Taylor Swift is doing or what Lady Gaga are putting out there. It is fun and entertaining. I love their work. Lady Gaga is a prime example of a musician who has created this Madonna-esque style of performance. They adopt and create. Although they are all geniuses of their craft in their own way, they attempt to go back further in musical tastes to explore what they can do now. Its funny, I have a 19-year-old daughter and she loves calling me and telling me when young fans listen to my work. I am glad that young people know our stuff. In fact, she once called me and said, ‘Dad I found this new musician that you would love!’ She then told me it was Wes Montgomery…” We both laughed out loud at this. For those of you who are unaware, Wes is one of most famous jazz guitarists of all time. He passed away in 1968. He is a legend of the jazz scene and is not new in any case.

My fascination with music today lies heavily on the fact that I can listen to so much endless music from any part of the globe. The Discovery mode on iTunes Radio is my favorite thing. I love listening to my music on shuffle because it will just offer a myriad of genres and artists that I love. For example, one moment I could be listening to The Beatles, then onto some Guster, then some Chris Botti, then Spyro Gyra and so on! It never ends and I am always satisfied. “You are one strange kid. The modern world today is tied to technology. A person may not be a drummer but they are still able to find ways to play those bars or sample actual drummer’s work. Thanks to the Internet people are putting their art out everywhere. Unfortunately, art is being forced to become a hobby rather than a career. It is too difficult to make a living off of it anymore. The motivation is gone. So many young people, who love the arts, are shifting careers to be programmers to sustain their careers. What could have been a great jazz artist, is now a programmer for an app on an iPhone that can open the garage door. We are in the midst of an explosion of humanity. I do not listen to the people crying over the loss of jazz. Things are always going to be different. Music as well as all aspects of life is constantly going to change.”

Some of my favorite Spyro Gyra songs are Beyond the Rain, Cape Town Love and Nothing to Lose. I asked Jay what he thought of those pieces. “I tend to leave our music behind once it has been complete. I honestly, cannot remember some of the names you just mentioned to me. I write songs without titles until we need to add them later for the album release. Although, most of the time they are simply titles that are dedicated to places or people. Cape Town Love though is simple because I love Cape Town and have always been fond of that place.” The song is a mix of jazz and funk to my ears. All of the horns are simply divine in it. Listeners can just put their faces up to sky and smile to this music. I like to imagine the Cape Town has this free vibe through this song. I hope to visit someday.

As a band that has spanned many decades, I admire their perseverance as musical collaborators with such a huge lifecycle of musicians. “The good thing about Spyro Gyra is that we all actually like each other. We hang with each other all of the time. When we travel like we do it can be stressful and all we have is each other to get through it all. “ Simple and sweet, just the way it should be.

As for the future, Jay shared that they are always planning ahead. “We have ideas floating around. We would love to record and there will be a new record in the New Year. We would love to record some live shows.” I am sure fans of Spyro Gyra will be deeply pleased. Their discography is so elaborate; listeners will have no problem brushing up on their breadth of work. As for these summer days, a little Spyro Gyra is just what I need. Join the Spyro train and enjoy!


Jam On.




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