Classically trained flute player – and Grammy-nominated bassist!– is preparing the next generation of music professionals!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
November 30, 2016
Dr. José Valentino Ruiz is a two-time Grammy-nominated artist, composer and producer. Trained as a classical flute player, José is also highly proficient on saxophone, as well as electric and upright bass.
Dr. Ruiz is the recipient of forty-two International Downbeat Student Music Awards in a multitude of categories. He has also collaborated in various capacities with many internationally known artists, including Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera, Phil Ramone, Hubert Laws, Jonathan Butler, Aaron Neville, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Alex Acuña, Abraham Laboriel and many others.
In 2015, his album, I Make You Want To Move, was nominated for a Grammy award in the “Best Latin Jazz Album” category. In 2016, José received another Grammy nomination, this time for “Best Instrumental Album,” for his work as Mastering Engineer on Bruno Miranda’s Mosaico.
A passionate educator, Dr. Ruiz is a music business professor and electric bass professor at Lee University in Cleveland, TN.
FBPO: Nice to have you here, but … aren’t you a flute player?
JVR: My primary instrument is flute, but my father plays bass and introduced me to a whole bunch of bass players, so bass has become an equal instrument to the level of my playing for the flute.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
JVR: I would describe it as multi-faceted. Through the age of 8, I did formal training in classical. At the same time, my father had a local band that played funk and Latin music, so he was teaching me how to improvise by ear.
FBPO: Are you talking about the flute?
JVR: No, I’m talking about all instruments. I grew up as a multi-instrumentalist. That’s another part of my upbringing where he really taught me how to play multiple instruments to learn about music, learn about composition and how to establish my own voice and also be equipped to play in multiple settings. So, [I had] classical training, of course, but also improvisational. And then in high school, I was exposed to straight-ahead jazz, to Miles Davis, for the first time, and Chick Corea.
FBPO: What attracted you to the bass?
JVR: My father. My father is an artist, but he also plays bass and he, to this day, is my back-up bass player. I do a lot of solos and songs and I lead with bass, but I also have a band where I have two bass players and he’ll provide the foundation so I can play chords and harmony and that sort of thing, as opposed to solo guitar.
What attracted me to the bass is the ability to serve people. As a musician, not only do I want to serve my audience, but I also want to serve those who are taking the time to make [me realize] my dreams and my ideas as a songwriter, with a message of hope, wanting to make it come alive. So by playing the bass, I get to enjoy the unique talents of everybody else without having to dictate all the time. It’s more of a service kind of thing that, initially, [is] why I was attracted to the bass. My father introduced me to the music of Victor Wooten and Jaco and John Patitucci. Those are the ones that I really started off with.
FBPO: Congratulations on your Grammy nomination. Did that surprise you?
JVR: You know, it was a really nice, humbling thing. I had no idea about what all that entailed. I heard that you could submit [an entry] if you become a member of the recording academy, and I did. And I totally believe in the music that I did and in that album, I mean, I was the bass player, I was the saxophonist, I was the flutist, I composed eight out of the twelve compositions and arranged the other four. It was a celebration of Latin American music in which I utilized a bass that my father made. He makes electric upright basses, you know, baby basses, and so I used the basses that he made and also demonstrated the versatility of Latin jazz bass in so many different styles, twenty-plus styles of sub-genres within the field of Latin American music. I did it on a four-string, on the fretless and on the upright acoustic.
My music is on the Wyn bass, actually. I went to NAMM and I played one song and, by the grace of God, Randy Wyn Fullmer, the bass designer – he does basses for Jermaine Jackson, Michael Jackson’s brother, Abraham Laboriel and Jimmy Haslip, so he’s got them on the roster, among others – he gave me a bass, and it was really cool. So I told him, “I want to make something for you,” and I was able to compose music to help him out for his website because he makes brilliant basses. In the process, I used some of those compositions for this project, [for] which I ended up getting nominated last year.
FBPO: Tell me a little bit about your approach to teaching.
JVR: My biggest passion is really equipping students and offering them a relevant bass education because in most higher education [situations], most of the foundation is classical and, then maybe in the last semester, they get electric bass, if that. I’m able to teach both, but I really want to see these students not just develop as bass players, but also as songwriters and that sort of thing, and allow their bass to be an instrument to help their creative identity shine.
FBPO: What are some misconceptions you find in today’s students and how do you bring them down to reality as far as making a living as a working musician?
JVR: The misconception is that most people are happily shocked that the bass can do so many things, with all the innovations of the bass guitar, or even the upright bass. I think with the students, what we find is that with media like YouTube, people are always going first to try to play all the techniques – extended techniques, tapping, machine gun slapping – but they can’t play a simple bass line, a blues bass line, because they never focused on that. So it’s really getting back to the foundation. I think a lot of students have this kind of issue, you know, overplaying.
And so how does this tie in with having an established career, part of making them multi-faceted? Before I can expand their ability to play different styles of music and be prepared for any situation, whether it’s gospel or Indian music or whatever, it’s making sure they understand how to make other musicians feel comfortable enough to where if there was nobody else except for a bass player, that a sax player can feel absolutely comfortable doing a gig with just a bass player. But music students in general – and this includes bass students – are so concentrated on their art and in practicing that they forget, when it comes time to perform, to actually relate with the audience, communicate to the audience. Having public relations skills with the audience, and also with people in general, is important. How to get a gig.
Many times, college students become carbon copies of their teachers. Well, my philosophy when I teach electric bass is [that] I want you to sound like you. We’ll have some training on how to sound like Anthony Jackson or what’s the philosophy behind so many great bass players, going all the way back to John Lamb from Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, but ultimately, it’s developing their artistic voice. And so we do that, not only by letting them know how to play and practice so many styles of music, but, in my lessons – and this also prepares them for the business side – whatever we’re learning, there are weekly assignments where I actually produce the music in my office. I have a recording studio entirely set up, so by the end of the semester, I’m making EPKs. I’m making basically five songs a semester for every bass student. That’s five songs of original music. We’re building their creative identity. Each song is representative of a different style and a different way of playing the bass, but it’s accessible enough to the general audience and challenging enough for the musician.
FBPO: I wish you were my teacher when I was coming up. That sounds great.
JVR: [Laughs] Well, you know, the times change. You just have to find ways for students to be able to learn quicker. I teach music technology here. That’s one of the courses I teach under the degree of music business, and so I incorporate that to help facilitate learning as well. If they’re good enough, if they reach that level, we can produce an album. And there are different competitions, maybe clinician opportunities with endorsement companies. The sky’s the limit.
FBPO: Tell me a little more about your equipment.
JVR: A play a Wyn five-string fretless and I play a Tune four-string that’s maple. I have an Ampeg bass amp, and I also like playing MarkBass and I have a Roland amp. I play Black Diamond strings.
FBPO: What do you like about Black Diamond strings?
JVR: Oh, that’s simple. I’m not a person who likes gimmicks. Not that every music merchant has gimmicks, but what I like about the Black Diamond strings is, first, I like the heritage. The heritage of the company extends back so many years, so there’s a history and I love to be a part of a story, even if I could only be a fragment of that story. I like history. I’m a nerd like that.
The second thing is, when I met with Jim Cavanaugh, I saw that he was relational. He really tried to connect with me. I’m a completely different generation than him. Culturally, I grew up differently, but he was able to be relational with me and I want to be part of a company that is relational and that could support my dream as much as I believe in their company.
Third, the family aspect of Black Diamond strings is huge for me because, whenever I need something, they’re there. If I have ideas, they’re there. And they really support my mission for education.
I would also add that what I love about Black Diamond strings is their durability. They just last longer and that’s why I like them. I like their flatwounds too. On my album, Soul Speaks: A Lyrically Soloistic Bass Project, I used four-string flatwounds. I played upright on it too, but the majority was four-string flatwound.
FBPO: What about the future? Where else would you like to channel all that passion and energy you have?
JVR: I want to channel that passion, honestly, Jon, toward the dreams of my students. I’m only 29 years old. The only reason I was crazy enough to do doctoral work as a performing musician who has that track record in the world of Latin jazz and jazz fusion is because I saw that my colleagues didn’t know, didn’t have a plan, didn’t have a vision for what they were going to do post-graduation. But they had all the talent in the world! And so I’m fortunate enough to be able to teach music business because one of the things I’ve always thought about is to try to be relational. Relationships are the currency of the kingdom. I tried to be relational even during my studies so that I got professional work while I was growing up, doing my education. And that has helped me prepare so that I built enough relations to where, on the weekends, and sometimes on the weekdays, I get excused and I can actually perform.
Really what I want to focus on is developing my bass students into becoming not just amazing bass musicians, but actual artists because a lot of them – and it’s just a phenomenon that’s occurred in this generation – a lot of them don’t just play bass. They play other things, they sing, and so channeling all that energy, I’m trying my best to prepare them with resources and with products so that they can establish themselves as artists or future music educators or other things like that. That’s where my energy is right now. And to continue to produce music with my bass students and other students that are within the Lee School of Music and make albums and submit them to different competitions, but let it be focused about them. Any future Grammy awards or stuff like that would be student-led projects where I’m facilitating, as opposed to just me doing my own thing to elevate myself. It’s not about that.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a musician?
JVR: Without a question, I would be a member of the U.S. Marines.