10 Things We Learned About Julian Bliss

Julian Bliss

What were you doing when you were 10?

For the clarinet virtuoso Julian Bliss, it was time to start studying music at the university level. So he packed his bags and moved thousands of miles away from his home in the U.K., enrolling in the Artist Diploma program at Indiana University.

“It was the most amazing experience,” Bliss tells Music & Arts’ Mark Gauthier in a new video interview. “I don’t know what the other students thought of a little 10-year-old running around the place. In reality, everybody was very, very welcoming.”

After two years Bliss returned to England, but he and his family only deepened their commitment to the clarinet. Every couple of weeks, his mom would wake up at 4 a.m. to wrangle her son onto a plane to Germany for a lesson.

Though Bliss tells Music & Arts that his family wasn’t especially musical, that is Band Mom of the Year material, without a doubt.

All that dedication certainly paid off. Now in his mid-30s, Bliss has worked with some of the most brilliant contemporary composers and most renowned symphony orchestras. As a soloist, he exhibits a technical and emotional command that is simply astounding.

Bliss’ range is on stunning display throughout 2022’s Divine Mischief, a cinematic concerto written for him by composer John Mackey, a champion of the wind ensemble. It can also be experienced in the Julian Bliss Septet, where he carries a torch for swing repertoire and channels Benny Goodman’s sweet, breezy lyricism.

Below, we’ve highlighted 10 fascinating things we learned about Bliss during our chat. As an educator who imparts his technique and concepts in generous master classes, Bliss offered fantastic insight for instructors, students, and professional musicians alike. Read on and check out the video interview in its entirety.

He Doesn’t Dig the Jazz/Classical Divide

All that nonsense about jazz being the only improvised music and European classical music being notes you read off a page? Bliss isn’t into it.

“So many classical musicians tell me, ‘I can’t improvise; I don’t improvise.’ Which is an interesting statement,” he explains. “I always say, jazz and classical are essentially very similar things, but in classical you have pre-prescribed notes to play. The rest of it—the intention, the phrasing, the shape, the character—changes performance to performance, and that’s improvising.”

What’s more, he thinks jazz-oriented music theory should be taught alongside conventional classical theory. “In music education, when we teach music theory, quite a lot of the time it’s classical music theory,” he says. “And then later on, if you want to learn jazz, ‘Oh, look, there’s this extra bit of music theory for jazz.’ Why don’t we just teach music theory incorporating jazz? Because it all comes from the same thing.”

He Appreciated Tough Love as a Student

When asked what advice he has for music educators, Bliss reflects on his years as a student. “There’s a balance to be had between being a very kind and very encouraging teacher, but also a tough teacher,” he says. “And I have had both.”

Informed by that breadth of experience, he urges flexibility. “Not every student will resonate the same way” with the same instruction, he explains. “And you have to be flexible and adaptable to describe something in a different way, or pick up on a student’s strengths to get the best out of them.”

As for Bliss’ own temperament as a student, he welcomed some tough love: “I didn’t want someone to tell me, ‘Yeah, that was good, that was great.’ … Tell me what I was doing wrong.”

He’s Not Too Shy to Ask a Jazz Icon for a Concerto

Wayne Shorter: one of jazz’s defining saxophonists, composers and general idea machines. Most musicians might have to work up the nerve to ask a jazz deity to sign an LP, but Bliss asked him to write a clarinet concerto.

They first met nearly a decade ago, after Bliss arranged a visit to Shorter’s L.A. home while he was in Southern California for the NAMM Show. “It was one of the very few times that I was completely starstruck and didn’t really know what to do or say,” Bliss remembers. Soon enough, however, a friendship blossomed. Shorter was “one of the nicest, most kind, genuine people I’ve ever met,” Bliss says.

For a couple of hours, Shorter regaled him with tales of the jazz gods. Eventually, Bliss gathered the courage to follow up on an email request: “I suggested the idea of the concerto … and he sort of looked at me and said, ‘So should we do this?’”

“Yes,” Bliss replied. “Let’s do this.” Shorter’s Sherwood Forest had its world premiere in 2017. Sadly, the composer passed away last year at age 89. 

Wayne Shorter Gave Him Words to Live By

On another visit, Bliss did ask for an autograph. He had Shorter sign a photo, on which the maestro inscribed, “Never give up.”

“That picture is above my desk in my office,” Bliss says, “and I look at it every day.”

When asked for the one piece of advice he’d give a young musician just starting out, Bliss returns to his memento of Wayne: “Those three words … never give up.”

He Enjoys the Royal Treatment

Bliss considers his 2002 performance for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, part of the historic “Prom at the Palace” concert, to be the “turning point” when his professional career achieved liftoff. He fondly recalls looking out upon “a sea of seats” during rehearsal, on the cusp of his 13th birthday. “You’re in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. It all just doesn’t feel real.”

“I had the best time,” he adds, “and I remember after the performance standing there and taking in the appreciation of a large crowd. And I thought to myself, ‘This is pretty cool.’”

He met the Queen and the Royal Family that day, and his performance of Messager, with pianist Ashley Wass, kicked open the door to other high-profile opportunities. In 2006, to celebrate the Queen’s 80th birthday, Bliss performed Mozart’s legendary Clarinet Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.

He Studied With His Clarinet Heroine

Among Bliss’ most important teachers was Sabine Meyer, a hugely important soloist and a groundbreaking figure in the history of women in classical music. “I think she is the greatest clarinet soloist,” Bliss says.

“I think everything she plays is just the most beautiful sound. And the execution is just … I won’t use the word ‘perfect,’ because nothing is perfect. … It’s pretty close.”

Hers is “a sound that I gravitated towards ever since I was a kid,” Bliss says, “and having the opportunity to study with her was amazing.”

He’s a One-Clarinet Kind of Guy

Among Meyer’s teachings was a nugget of gear-related wisdom that Bliss would carry with him: “As a great musician,” she said, “you should be able to get the sound that you want from the one instrument.”

Bliss upholds that principle throughout his work in both classical and jazz. “Same clarinet, same mouthpiece, same ligature,” he says. The only tweak he makes for jazz performance is “a slightly softer reed,” down a strength.

He’s a Vando-Man

For Bliss, when it comes to those crucial decisions about mouthpiece, reed, and ligature, it’s Vandoren all the way.

“Well, I think they’re the best,” says Bliss, who plays strength 4 or 5 reeds. “I’ve always found that everything that Vandoren [does], whether it’s mouthpieces, reeds, or any of the accessories, [is] made with the utmost quality. … Certainly the mouthpieces are very reliable, and I think what’s very important for educators is if they recommend a Vandoren mouthpiece, they know what it’s going to be.”

He Tried His Best to Meet Ozzy Osbourne

In his tweens, when Bliss gave that revelatory performance for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he was also deep into hard rock and heavy metal. A companion rock and pop concert took place at the gardens of Buckingham Palace just two days after Bliss performed there, and it featured the Prince of Darkness himself: “Ozzy Osbourne was playing and had my dressing room! Talk about a bit of a difference,” Bliss recalls. “I tried my hardest to get backstage to meet Ozzy, but I couldn’t.”

Imagine the collaboration that could have been! Considering Black Sabbath is now officially a ballet, there’s still a chance Bliss could one day appear as the featured soloist on “Paranoid.”

He Got Wayyy Into Multitracking During Covid Lockdown

Most of us spent the early days of Covid lockdown binging on Netflix or learning how to knit. Bliss dove into home production, essentially multitracking himself into a virtuoso clarinet ensemble. “I got a nice interface and a handful of microphones,” Bliss says. “I went overboard on microphones—but you can never have too many.” He even borrowed a contrabass clarinet. Sometimes the work stretched into the wee hours. After one session ended at 3 a.m., Bliss felt compelled to apologize to his neighbors the next day.

For the final recording, Bliss blended his and percussionist Joby Burgess’ remote performances of music by three contemporary masters: John Mackey, Eric Whitacre, and Frank Ticheli. The results are startling in their cohesion; to say it another way, you can hardly believe you’re not listening to a full ensemble in a studio.

“I’ve really enjoyed it and I would happily do another multitrack project again,” Bliss says. “Having knowledge of the recording process, and even some knowledge of microphones and the sort of sounds that each one can give you, I think it’s quite important.”

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