Jody Espina, Founder, President, and designer of JodyJazz Inc, took a few moments to sit down with Renier Fee from Music & Arts to take him through the history of the brand, the importance of the mouthpiece, and future projects. If you are interested to meet Jody in person, he’s been known to stop by Music & Arts’ “Upgrade Your Sound” events. For a location near you, RSVP here.
You have a long history in music performance and music education but in 2005, you stopped teaching at the esteemed Hoff-Barthelson Music School in New York to focus full time on designing mouthpieces for your company, JodyJazz. I’m curious what is it about the mouthpiece that made you start there first?
The mouthpiece is the most important part of the saxophone sound followed by the neck of the horn and the reed. So to me the mouthpiece is an obvious starting point. My mentor in mouthpieces, Santy Runyon showed me how much difference the right facing curve and baffle can make in a mouthpiece. When you get the right mouthpiece for you it’s like finding your soul mate.
JodyJazz mouthpieces are known for innovation and state-of-the-art design. How did you acquire the knowledge to experiment with different materials and manufacture new shapes?
My start with Santy Runyon and his crew was invaluable. I questioned Santy constantly and learned so much from his crew in the factory. Santy allowed me to prototype my own metal mouthpiece in his factory and from there I started to branch off on my own up to the present time where the JodyJazz factory in Savannah GA, has 12 employees and we make everything in house.
Many students get introduced to mouthpieces by their band director or lesson instructor and it becomes their default mouthpiece. How do you encourage students to try something new?
I try and encourage sales people in the shops to let the students try several brands of mouthpieces so that they can try a variety and find which one works best. I also try and get out to the schools whenever I can so that I can show the teachers and the students what a difference the right mouthpiece can make in a student’s sound, confidence and even improvising.
In a perfect world everyone gets to try everything until they find the perfect fit for them. That’s not usually practical so the teacher recommends what they like or know which may or may not fit that student perfectly.
How should a student know when the right time is to step up to an advanced mouthpiece?
That’s a difficult question because I’d like to say they should upgrade once they show more interest in playing and are really enjoying it, but if they aren’t interested and not enjoying playing, it’s very likely that they would enjoy music and playing much more with a great mouthpiece. People just don’t know how much of a difference it can make.
In general I would say after the first year of playing if a student is going to continue playing they should try some mouthpieces and see if it makes playing more fun for them. If they find the right mouthpiece it will definitely improve everything and that makes playing more fun so I think that the mouthpiece is the most worthwhile and cost effective investment a saxophone or clarinet player can make.
What features separate a beginner mouthpiece from an intermediate mouthpiece?
I don’t see much difference between beginner and intermediate mouthpieces. They both sell at prices that make it impossible to use high quality material and machinery, not to mention being able to spend the time necessary on handwork that can make a great mouthpiece.
So the result can be a crooked facing, which means that the reed might not seal, resulting in the saxophone feeling like it’s leaking (that means that some notes won’t come out or are very difficult to get out). This can be very detrimental to a student’s confidence because unless a professional plays the student’s equipment no one knows if the problem is from the student or the mouthpiece or the saxophone. I encourage all band directors and private teachers to make sure that every part of a student’s setup is working well.
What about an intermediate mouthpiece vs professional mouthpiece?
Speaking for JodyJazz, every facet of the mouthpiece is manufactured at state of the art levels of machinery, handwork, design, material etc. The facing curve and the baffle are the two most important parts of the mouthpiece and when these two things are optimized and are working in harmony the mouthpiece can be so free blowing it feels like the mouthpiece is working with you instead of against you. These are ‘Professional’ mouthpieces because they are of the highest quality. I believe that students of all levels should be considering professional level mouthpieces.
I have made it a personal mission to ensure that ‘Professional’ quality mouthpieces are accessible to middle and high school level students and this was a very important consideration for the development of both the HR* and JET Series. We have many top professionals playing both these series but at prices ranging from $179 to $219, they are still accessible for students, enabling them to play on a top, professional quality mouthpiece.
I met you at our “Upgrade Your Sound” event in Fairfax, VA, last year, where you were helping students select step-up mouthpieces. For our readers who have not attended before, what makes Music & Arts’ UYS events so unique?
These events that Music & Arts put on across the country are a very unique opportunity for students and parents to get access to literally everything, and to the experts who know that equipment and in some cases like mine, to the people who actually design and make the equipment.
Music & Arts invites the manufacturers to bring a massive amount of stock to the event. This is a variety and amount that no store could ever stock. So there are usually 5-8 brands of saxophone companies there with all of their models on display for everyone to tryout. There are usually at least three mouthpiece companies with all of their models available to tryout and the experts are there from the company to help guide people to try the things that will be appropriate for them. Music & Arts also has all of their mouthpieces available to try as well.
On an instrument, the closer you get to the person’s mouth, the more important that part of the instrument is to the sound and feel. I believe this, and I’ve spoken with so many instrument designers and manufacturers who concur. That means that the mouthpiece and reed combination are the most important parts of the sound and feel. And too often they are left out of the upgrade conversation.
As a dedicated business owner, how do you find the time to continue practicing music? What is your practice routine like?
I also have a family with three small children so I don’t really practice anymore but I do have a steady Friday and Saturday night Jazz gig in Savannah, GA at a great Cuban restaurant. I’ve had the gig for five years now and it has kept me in shape. I also play test quite a bit every day. So I’m on the instrument but I’m not getting the chance to work out new things.
I will steal moments here and there and this is what I work on: I play my major scales in all keys in one breath, all slurred. I’ll play some different chord patterns in all keys. I’ll also work on harmonics for tone and I might spend a little time just thinking and practicing about breathing and tone production. I’ll use long tones just to reinforce good habits.
What mouthpiece do you use when recording or performing? Any reed preferences?
Since I developed the DV series of mouthpieces I’m pretty much on those all the time. That mouthpiece for me changed everything. I wasn’t trying to copy any existing mouthpieces; my only goal was to make a mouthpiece that had all the power you needed but at the same time had a full and beautiful tone. It took a year of prototyping to get the DV Tenor right and then another year to get the DV Alto right. But the whole series is a dream come true for me. So on Alto I play a DV 8 , Tenor a DV 7*, Baritone a DV 7*, and Soprano a DV 6*.
JodyJazz recently expanded into accessories. Tell us about your new products.
I think the first thing that we made was the ‘Perfect Patch’ . A mouthpiece patch is a kind of adhesive protection for the beak of the mouthpiece and the enamel on a player’s teeth where they touch the mouthpiece. If someone is not using this type of protection I encourage him or her to try it immediately. It is a great thing but I noticed that many patches were too big or too thick. A mouthpiece patch does take away a little vibration from the mouthpiece so I made mine thinner (but very strong) and smaller so there is less vibration loss. These patches may seem like a small thing but I can’t play without them.
I designed a ring ligature for our DV series, which is very special since it only touches in three spots, the two sides of the reed and the top (barrel) of the mouthpiece. Great for vibration!
We make a beautiful ‘Deluxe Microfiber Cleaning Cloth to clean the instrument and the mouthpiece or anything you want. I know it seems silly but I love this cloth. And we have JodyJazz ‘Cork Grease’ as well. Cork grease is an underused product because if you use it every few days your cork can last almost indefinitely.
Don’t forget about our publishing products of Play Along CD’s called Tradin’ With The Greats and our Improvisation DVD’s. As a Jazz educator all my life, I’m very proud of these.
We also have some cool JodyJazz gear including pint glasses, Mugs, T-Shirts and very beautiful wooden display tray for mouthpieces.