April 27, 2016

Steve Kramer: “No Greater Gig Than Teaching” — at Littlebrook and Riverside

Prof in Educ

ARTIST, TEACHER, PERFORMER: Steve Kramer reflects on his exciting career as performer and teacher—from jazz clubs, wedding bands and the “Ice Capades” to Littlebrook and Riverside Elementary Schools.

The resume of Steve Kramer, music teacher and band director at Littlebrook and Riverside Elementary Schools, goes on and on, with jobs in schools, colleges, multiple facets of the music industry, and the bakery business too. The list of celebrities he’s played with, pictured in photos with him on his website, skramer.com, looks like a list of Who’s Who in the world of popular music over the past 30 years. 

If you didn’t run into Steve at his family bakery in Trenton, where he worked at different times earlier in his career, you might have encountered him, and been influenced by his virtuoso musicianship and love of music, as keyboardist in the “New Artie Shaw Band” in the 1980s; as a performer in the 2014 film Whiplash, directed by a former student; as a musician, conductor, and composer with the National Dance Institute under the direction of Jacques D’Amboise; as music director at Foundation Theater in Burlington; as pianist for the summer arts program at the Peddie School; as conductor and keyboardist for the Ice Capades; leading his band at a wedding; at the Nassau Inn where he was house pianist for eight years; at any one of dozens of clubs, restaurants and hotels, jazz concerts and parties in the New Jersey-New York-Pennsylvania area where he has performed or in the classrooms and rehearsal and performance halls where he has taught at Phillip’s Academy (Andover, Massachusetts), Westminster Conservatory, the Peddie School, Mercer County Community College, and throughout the Princeton Public Schools (PPS).

“There’s no greater gig than teaching kids,” said Steve, now working with third, fourth and fifth graders at Littlebrook and Riverside. “It’s not a job. It’s a calling. It’s the greatest thing to introduce young kids to music. I find that I have the heart of a ten-year-old. This work keeps me young — and having my type of personality really helps with the job that I do.”

Peg Banks, Steve’s colleague in elementary music education at PPS, stated, “Steve infuses his teaching with his incredible musical experiences delivered with a big helping of his fantastic sense of humor and his interesting life experiences (he really should write a book). His students enjoy his classes and return year after year to visit and thank him for his encouragement and artistry.”

Steve grew up in Trenton, where “music was always big in my house. There was always a lot of music going on, whether it was opera or jazz or Broadway.” He started piano lessons at age 11, at the instigation of his grandmother, then “by about age 14 I started to love jazz. Because I had a good ear and loved jazz, I assimilated the music naturally.”

Influential Teachers

Thomas Passerella and Thomas Grice, music teachers at Trenton High School, welcomed Steve into the music room and helped him to shape his future career. He would get a pass from study hall to go to the music room, where he’d sit down at the electric piano, “and Mr. Passerella and Mr. Grice would work with me. Those guys were so great. They were very, very encouraging to young musicians.”

Steve played with several different bands during his high school years, eventually trading in his Hammond organ for a Fender Rhodes piano and joining a jazz fusion group, where the group’s older and more experienced drummer, Dick Wilshaw, introduced him to the realities of the business side of the music world.

Though originally his passion was theater, when it came time to apply to college, Steve decided to go to music school, and, at the urging of one of his best friends, applied to and was accepted at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Thrown into competition there with a range of musicians who had been classically trained, most of whom had a significant head start — “these guys can really play!” — he doubled down on his musical commitments.

“I practiced like a maniac for those years in college, and summers when I came home I would practice for six hours on Saturday and Sunday, and, during the week, I would come home from my job and practice for about two hours.”

During his last year at college, Steve took on a part-time job teaching jazz piano at Andover Academy, and after college started playing gigs in the Boston area. He became the piano player at a comedy club, the Comedy Connection, then picked up additional jobs in the Boston theater district. He continued to teach at Andover one or two days a week, and toured with a couple of shows.

Artie Shaw Band

A breakthrough in his  performing career came in the mid 1980s when the legendary big band leader Artie Shaw came out of retirement and auditioned local Boston musicians for spots in his new band. Steve  got hired and for the next two years he toured all over the country, plus a trip to Berlin, with the New Artie Shaw Band.

His first encounter with the 75-year-old Mr. Shaw was tense. “Before we went into the session to rehearse, I got so nervous I got sick, and he came over to show me how to play some stuff and I got overwhelmed and had to excuse myself, and went to the restroom and got sick. But when I came out I was fine, and I was never nervous around him again.”

After their awkward initial encounter, the two developed a close relationship. “I spent a lot of time talking with him because he sat in front of me on the bus. One day we came to a rehearsal session and he had a tape and he said, ‘Steve, I want you to hear something.’ It was a solo of mine. He was humming my solo, then he stopped the tape. ‘You hear that s—t you’re playing?’ he said. ‘That’s all technique. That’s ok, but people aren’t going to remember that,’ and he said, ‘This is what people are going to remember,’ and in part of my solo I slowed down and it was more melodic, and he said, ‘That’s what people are going to remember — not all the other stuff.’”

“I never forgot that,” Steve reflected. “It has influenced the way I’ve played ever since.”

A two-year stint as conductor and keyboardist with the Ice Capades followed the Artie Shaw tour, then Steve  decided to head back to his home base in New Jersey, where he helped out in the family bakery business in Trenton, created a wedding band, taught part-time at Westminster Choir College, and worked as the house pianist at the Nassau Inn, among other jobs.

From Stage to Classroom

It was at the Nassau Inn that Steve met Princeton High School band director Tony Biancosino, who heard him play, and, in 1996 signed him on to teach in a conservatory run by Mr. Biancosino and his wife. The next question from Mr. Biancosino was “Did you ever think about teaching at a public school?”

After going for an interview, “all of a sudden toward the end of the summer of 1998, I got a phone call saying, ‘you’re hired.’ So the next thing I knew I’m getting up at six in the morning and going to the high school and teaching a jazz theory course and directing a couple of bands.”

This part-time work soon turned into a full-time job, as Steve saw his talents in demand throughout the district. He eventually settled in at Littlebrook and Riverside, but still teaches jazz piano at PHS and stays involved with various bands throughout the district.

Though he continues to balance his teaching career with frequent performances in the area, “I don’t play as much as I used to. I can pick and choose the music I want to play. I devote my energies to being a teacher.”

As teacher of woodwinds and brass at Riverside and Littlebrook, he noted, “We start the kids. It’s such a wonderful thing because the kids are so open. There’s such an excitement about picking up an instrument and learning to play it. The practicing is always the biggest challenge. But they’re so excited about it.

He went on to describe the feeder system that moves young musicians from the elementary music groups into the middle school then the high school. “It’s a great joy to see the kids who stick with music play in the middle school and high school. A couple of weeks ago I was emcee for a jazz festival in Princeton. I looked behind me and I saw all those kids who started with me when they were eight years old, and it’s great — extremely rewarding. I feel very proud, as a parent would, because I started a lot of these kids.”

Realizing that most of his students will probably not go on to become professional musicians, Steve  emphasized the importance of “just sharing the joy of music. They’re always going to have music in their lives and that’s the great thing. They’ll be the adults who support music.”

He described his music classroom as “a safe haven, where they can be themselves and be creative and discover music and humor and where they can have a good time.”

Reflecting on the most important lessons the students might learn in his classes, Steve concluded, “My students may not remember everything that I taught them, but they’re going to remember how they felt when they left my classroom. That’s going to be a good feeling that they will carry with them throughout their entire lives.”