He’s played for Oprah, Nobel Peace Prize winners, the President of the United States, and thousands of fans throughout the world, as well as on his own hit PBS special “Chris Botti Live.” Now he’s furthering his mission to reach out to kids by encouraging them to do what got him to Carnegie Hall––practice!

By Jonathan Widran

Since giving up his New York apartment a year-and-a-half ago, Chris Botti has been perhaps the busiest homeless musician on the planet. In the two years since he performed at a wedding on Oprah and released his gold-selling (on its way to platinum) 2004 traditional jazz-oriented album, When I Fall in Love, the popular trumpeter has been caught up in a dizzying but fun whirlwind of superstardom. This has created a demand for appearances around the world. On the heels of his nearly gold follow-up To Love Again and the highly rated PBS special “Chris Botti Live”––which began airing in March, with repeat broadcasts in June––he and his band played at three locations in Japan, including the Blue Note in Tokyo, and two dates in Seoul, South Korea. In June, they hit the famous London club Ronnie Scott’s, and in July performed at festivals in Montreal, Istanbul, Warsaw and Montreux.

Sprinkled throughout Botti’s incredible 11 months of touring this year are 21 dates on a co-bill with Earth, Wind & Fire, which includes stops this month in Irvine (Aug. 18), San Diego (Aug. 22) and the Park City Jazz Festival (Aug. 25). Along the way, he performed at Oprah’s highly rated Legends Event, playing “My Funny Valentine” directly to Cicely Tyson, former wife of Botti’s trumpet hero Miles Davis. He also met President Bush and first lady at the White House after participating in the star-studded “The Ford Theatre Presents,” which was hosted by Tom Selleck. 

“I think if all this had happened to me when I was 21 and not in my 40s, I’d have a big head about it and a different outlook,” says Botti, who keeps himself centered on the road with what he calls “boot camp torture yoga” in addition to as many private hours of trumpet practice as he can steal. “I’m aware of both the good and bad things that come with success. Right now, I’m just really grateful, but I’m also working my butt off. The best part of all this has nothing to do with fame or money, though. It’s just that I can now afford to work with my incredible band and take them around the world with me. Billy Childs (piano), Mark Whitfield (guitar) and Billy Kilson (drums) are all household jazz names by themselves, and they push me to play my best every night.

“I know it’s a famous cliché, but all the practice is worth it because I got to play at Carnegie Hall with them,” he adds. “What blows me away is that a trumpet player, walking out there performing improvisational jazz, can sell out venues like that as a headliner. It’s wonderful to have that opportunity.”

Botti is excited about the Aug. 29 worldwide release of “Chris Botti Live,” the DVD created from his PBS special. The DVD will feature the entire PBS broadcast, which was taped at L.A.’s Wilshire Theatre over two nights last December and included powerful vocal performances by Sting (whom Botti toured with for many years), Gladys Knight, Jill Scott, Paula Cole, Paul Buchanan and Renee Olstead, with some piano accompaniment by Burt Bacharach; all of them were part of Botti’s 2005 hit album To Love Again. In addition, the video will feature another hour of performances from those nights––including longer solos and Sting singing his classic Police hit “Message in a Bottle”––and a behind-the-scenes mini-documentary. 

Typically humble, Botti says that the second night of taping was truly the greatest musical night of his life. However, the first night of taping was, in his words, “an unqualified train wreck.” He elaborates, “We had technical difficulties, I kept forgetting the song order and led the orchestra in the wrong direction, and my chops were total crap. It’s just like when you have a winning basketball team but they come out on the courts flat. I felt so responsible for the screw-ups the first night. I mean, these incredible artists flew in from all over the world, and I got down on myself. So I was nervous when I woke up the next day. 

“We only had Gladys for the first night so we kept her performance, but the rest of the show was from the second night, where we hit a real home run. It went so well that we didn’t have to go back and fix anything. All of this looks so easy and glamorous from the audience, and people think musicians in my place are always on top of the world. This experience proves quite the opposite, but I’m thrilled at the way the show turned out.”

Botti, who is single and is still close friends with Katie Couric (whom he dated for a time a few years ago), has no children of his own but has informally “adopted” the children of the world who aspire to be musicians. One of his great missions is to relate to them the value of shutting out distractions, finding their passion and playing an instrument. He has visited many local PBS outlets that are airing his special, talking to hosts in different cities during pledge breaks about the importance of youngsters developing a relationship with an instrument when just the four walls are listening.

“Unfortunately, a lot of kids I meet are so enamored with the idea of being a rock star that they forsake the foundational importance of a relationship with the instrument,” says Botti. “Because music is such a powerful part of my life, I want to teach them that being a successful musician isn’t all about selling records or playing shows. It’s what happens when you’re by yourself, working hard and practicing when no one else seems to care. My plea to their parents is, how can the world find another Yo-Yo Ma or someone like me if the kids don’t saddle up at a young age and practice?

“I think to a large extent, kids today have social ADD (attention deficit disorder), and they are distracted by TV, Game Boy, X-Box and the Internet,” he adds. “So it’s up to the parents to encourage the quiet time required to become great. I’ve been saying the same thing in my shows for years, letting people know the importance of sacrifice, no matter what your craft. Everything happens really quickly in this world today, and people don’t have a lot of patience. But true success at anything takes time and dedication.”

This has all paid off handsomely for Botti, who recently played trumpet over the voice of the legendary Dean Martin’s performance of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”––in the spirit of Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” duet with her father––for an upcoming Capitol Records release, The Very Best of Dino. He counts his greatest private social event performance as the one he did in Oslo, Norway, for the star-studded, paparazzi-drenched Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. He was the only instrumentalist on a bill that featured Diana Krall, Cyndi Lauper and Patti LaBelle. 

All of this notoriety has led to some incredible opportunities to help charitable foundations. Botti played at a Colon Cancer Benefit show at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, which was hosted by Couric. He’s also involved with the American Red Cross, doing a radio-based campaign to help raise funds and get more people to donate blood. In addition, he’s extended his interest in education by becoming a chairman for Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting school and community music programs. 

While it seems that Botti—who until till two years ago was best known as a smooth jazz star and Sting’s longtime trumpet player—is living every musician’s dream, he focuses on one night a few years ago to keep everything in perspective. “Three weeks after 9/11, I walked onstage at Kimball’s East in Emeryville, California, and literally, the band outnumbered the audience,” he says. “Obviously, people were still very freaked out and weren’t getting out to enjoy music, but it was strange playing to only four people. Those are the times I have to remember now when I’m playing sold-out concerts. Success isn’t guaranteed, and I have to keep on my game to make sure fans still want to listen. The key is to play my best no matter who’s listening or where I’m performing. 

“I like to joke that my home these days is a 68-pound Tumi suitcase, but what I love about the road is that it keeps musicians young and in denial of their true age,” he laughs. “Sting and I have talked about this for years. Since you’re not stuck in one place all the time, and you’re always moving ahead of the clock, it has definite psychological benefits. Physically, no question, those transcontinental flights can be a bitch, and I have to sleep on the plane a lot. I love the yoga, but truly, the only time I really find peace is when I’m in my room practicing or up onstage playing trumpet. That’s who I am, and I have the great honor of sharing it with the world.”

Chris Botti’s tour schedule includes the following performances this month:

Aug. 18, 8pm, Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
8808 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, California
www.livenation.com, www.ticketmaster.com

Aug. 22, 7pm, Viejas Concerts in the Park
5005 Willows Road, Alpine, California, (619) 220-TIXS
(619) 659-1996, www.viejasentertainment.com

Aug. 25, 9th Annual Fidelity Investments
Park City Jazz Festival
Deer Valley Snow Park Ampitheater, 2250 S. Deer Valley Dr.
Park City, Utah, (435) 940-1362, www.parkcityjazz.com

For more information on Botti, including his complete touring schedule, visit his website at www.chrisbotti.com.

DISCOGRAPHY 
1995 First Wish Verve/Forecast
1997 Midnight Without You  Verve/Forecast
1999 Slowing Down the World  GRP
2001  Night Sessions Sony
2002 The Very Best of Chris Botti  GRP
2002 December Sony
2003 A Thousand Kisses Deep Columbia
2004 When I Fall in Love  Sony
2005 To Love Again  Sony

 

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