TEXT BY SOPHIA JENNINGS ('16), OUTGOING CREATIVE DIRECTOR
IMAGES BY ALLEGRA LORENZOTTI ('19), STAFF WRITER and BEN ROMERO ('16), OUTGOING MANAGING DIRECTOR
“Justin, what are you doing?” It’s a Friday night and I’m taking photos of Justin Friedman (‘16) in his bedroom, watching him attempt to smoke his housemate’s cigarette. “Don’t start the article this way,” he barks at me, taking another puff, “I know how you do this shit---” he coughs. He never smokes.
Watching Justin play guitar is as bizarre as watching him try to smoke a cigarette. In his daily life, he walks slowly, eats slowly, talks slowly. With his guitar, he rarely hesitates. He slides his fingers up and down with controlled delicacy, his right foot always tapping to the beat. He hunches over, his face grimacing as if he’s in pain, his eyes most often closed.
Originally from NYC’s Upper West Side, Justin grew up playing with action figures, staging fantasy war-battles, and designing his own art projects. In 7th grade, he picked up the guitar when he heard The Who’s "Squeeze Box". “It had this riff on the G-chord,” he says. ‘I decided I wanted to play that riff.” After about 4 hours, he had it.
“I realized I could channel all this creativity, all these thoughts and weird ideas into my music,” he says. “For the first time in my life I had a really good work ethic. I knew what I wanted to do.”
In high school, Justin and fellow musician Zack Kantor (‘15) studied under Joe Carbone, a jazz guitarist Justin calls ‘C-bone.’ A close friend of Joe Pass, C-bone was an old school guy. “He played like he lived in the 40s, and he never played anything that modern.” For four years, Justin practiced five hours a day, learning the lyrics to every song in fear of his teacher pulling his hair.
“I just fell in love,” he says. “I’d finally found a way I could talk. I was always such a strange and awkward kid. Music was my only way of being cool.”
He pauses. We can hear Dan Froot (’16), Justin’s housemate, complaining about Justin leaving his amps in the living room. “I made it so nice in here. So nice. And he just -“ “Shut up!” Justin yells from the couch. He sighs and looks back at me.
After he was accepted to Wesleyan, Justin asked to live with Matt Chilton, who plays everything from the turkish saz to the bandura. They were put in Bennet. When Matt began posting on Facebook how he planned on playing a lot of music and “couldn’t wait to jam with all the great musicians in Bennet,” ResLife moved the boys to WestCo Down 1. “Some girl definitely had her parents call,” he laughs.
But, as Justin says, God destined the two boys to live in Down 1. “It was literally the all star team of people at Wesleyan. If you took the greatest type of person from every social circle in Wesleyan and put them in the hall, that was Down 1.”
Sidenote: I also lived on this hall.
Within an hour of moving in he started jamming with Leo Grossman (‘16) on the drums and Matt on the bass. An hour later, their band Don Froot was formed.
It was the ideal hall for musicians. Matt even got to practice his deep throat singing in our gender-neutral bathroom.
And there were bands. Lots of them. By October, Justin was playing guitar onstage with SIREN at Psi U’s Halloween.“The whole thing was totally eye-opening. I’d never played in a band. I’d never had to interact with a bassist, a drummer, with crowds like that.” He pauses. “I called my Dad right after.”
This was also the year where everyone, or at least what felt like everyone, was playing 90s hip hop. I remember pregames full of kids dancing to Nelly Furtado, Tribe Called Quest, and R-Kelly. Justin would walk in, shake his head, and go get a joint. “I didn’t really get it,” he says. At the same time, everyone was asking about Robert Glasper.
“I smoked way too much weed and put on Black Radio,” Justin remembers. “I completely fell in love with that record.” Within months, he’d started a band with rappers Derrick Holman and Rhys Langston. “I thought l was all innovative and shit, ‘oh wow jazz and hip hop!’” Justin stops. “Then I realized everyone else was already doing that.”
Amidst all the bands of freshman year, “the biggest musical honor” came when senior Bobby Burvant (‘13) asked Justin to play in his recital with New York jazz singer Jess Best (‘14), Oakland punk drummer Adam Johnson (‘14), and LA hip-hop engineer Jordan Lewis (‘13). “I never told him but it meant a lot to me that he asked me to be a part of his thesis,” Justin says. “I was really playing with the best.”
Justin interrupts our interview to answer a phone call from his mother. “I told you, it’s wonderful, I know.” He’s talking to her about a sample sale. “Ok I gotta go. I’m busy, I’m busy.” Important fact: Justin loves his mother.
After two years at Wesleyan, Justin went to intern for Lyor Cohen at 300 Entertainment, the label behind Migos, Fetty Wap and Young Thug. “It was a whole other side of music that I was never exposed to,” he says. He spent his days on Soundcloud and Hype Machine, listening to hours of pop, trap, rap, and electronic music. “My initial reaction was that this shit is fucking garbage,” he says. But then it changed. “I became obsessed with mainstream music and trying to understand the industry. Trying to understand why people listen to it.”
As Justin explains, most of the people he worked with listen to tracks for the cadence, the flow, and the lyrics. When he listens, the first thing he notes is the quality of the beat and the engineering. “I pay attention to how the snare drum sits in the mix, or the harmonic sophistication of the sample,” he explains. “Like Allen Ritter or FKI, I know they understand music because of how they integrate melodic and harmonic phrases into their beats. You know an artist’s head is in the right place when he’s working with the right people.”
Seeing music from a label’s perspective turned his education upside down. “I didn’t really understand how to internalize all of it,” he says. “Jazz just felt pathetic. It was so different. Cause none of these label execs really gave a shit about jazz.” The summer after sophomore year was when he played the least amount of guitar out of the last 10 years.
It was then that Justin made an abrupt turn in his career. He left campus to study abroad at the Sydney Conservatory of Music, the top jazz program in Australia, meanwhile learning how to produce and mix his own tracks. When he came back to New York, he played studio guitar at Atlantic Records and started managing his childhood friend @itsfuckingteddy’s rap career.
His interest in linking mainstream music with his jazz education is fueled by his Economics Major. “I was destined down the corporate path,” he says. “Without music I would’ve gotten a degree in business and worked on Wall Street or in real estate.” Understanding how to mass market jazz is a key part of his recital, where he combines pieces by Frank Ocean, John Coltrane, and Chet Atkins. “Jazz is derived from popular music,” he reminds me. “All the great jazz standards that we know were pop songs or show tunes that people like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker put into a new improvisational context.”
As he explains, this relationship between jazz and the mainstream was lost in the 70s, when jazz took a turn into the free-form realm. But now, looking at the work of artists like Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Flylo and James Blake, Justin sees the integration returning.
“It’s hard to say how a Young Thug record could manifest itself in jazz,” Justin pauses. “ I don’t think we’re at that point yet. I like to think there’s a 10 year time lapse.” Once the emerging generation gets older, we’ll start to see this. He brings up how artists like Questlove and Chris Dave are using hip hop from their childhood in the 90s to add a new derivative for their jazz. “I think there’s something coming. Think it’ll be in the realm of electronic improvisation.”
After four years of studying country, bebop, afro-latin, bossanova, gospal, classical, trap, and hip hop, Justin says his sound will always be somewhat the same. “You can hear it’s me, you can hear the influences,” he says. “I’m trapped in jazz.”
At this point it’s been three hours, we’ve ordered in BBQ and Justin has to go set up a sound-design experiment in the CFA. He leaves and I stay, getting in his bed and having another senior year burst of nostalgia. We always talk about how our freshman hall hasn’t really changed. Which is true. Matt still deep throat sings. Justin is still that guy at the pregame wondering why his drunk hallmates like this song. It’s just that now he has more answers.
GO SEE JUSTIN’S SENIOR RECITAL: SATURDAY AT 7PM IN THE CFA HALL (Ring Family Performing Arts Hall)