Jazz legend Benny Golson’s concert at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. was the type of show Alex Hoffman wishes everyone would see, an experience that can transform almost anybody into a jazz fan.
“The stuff he was playing was so cool. … You can tell he kept up with new techniques and he keeps practicing,” Hoffman said. “He had so much energy – more energy than most young sax players I’ve seen. … I was just totally impressed and blown away with his energy and his versatility.”
And that was before Golson motioned for Hoffman to come up on stage. As the music went on, the 76-year-old Golson alternated notes with Hoffman, an ‘05 graduate of Winston Churchill High School.
“He basically embarrassed me with his playing. He just played his butt off, but that was enough,” Hoffman said. “That was a lesson – anyone who goes up on stage with Benny Golson is going to get embarrassed.”
HOFFMAN STAYS HUMBLE, even as the honors and awards pile up. Winning the Deutsch Award was no exception. “I don’t set big goals, like I want to play with so-and-so. It’s all about practicing every day and getting better,” he said.
In 2003 and 2005, Hoffman performed with the Grammy Jazz Ensemble, a group of high school musicians who perform in the host city of the Grammy Awards. They played in New York venues like the Knitting Factory, Jazz Standard and the Apollo Theater.
“I’m more of a traditionalist, more of a purist, into stuff that swings,” said Hoffman. He wishes he could have seen John Coltrane play, and also admires musicians like Tim Warfield and Ralph Moore. Jazz isn’t just something Hoffman plays – he knows its history and today’s big names of the genre. There was a jazz resurgence through the 1980s and early ‘90s, said Hoffman, but it’s been on the decline since then.
“A lot of [D.C.] venues closed, and a musicians moved on,” said Hoffman, “but there’s a next generation in jazz.”
AS A CHILD, Hoffman grew to love jazz by listening to vinyl records from his father’s collection. He took up the saxophone at 9, and four years later, started taking lessons from local saxophone pro Paul Carr. “That was when I started to be able to play and improvise,” Hoffman said. “He’s just a great teacher. He really knows the right thing to say at the right time.”
Hoffman has been playing under Carr ever since, including gigs as part of the Jazz Academy All-Stars, a band of young saxophone players and a rhythm section that has played at Blues Alley.
This summer, Hoffman teaches high-school and middle-school sax prodigies at Carr’s Jazz Academy of Music of Greater Washington. “It’s great, because you can learn things from the kids, even. A lot of times, you don’t realize it until afterwards,” Hoffman said. “A lot of advanced improvisers forget about the basics, because they’re trying to be so hip.”
Hoffman will attend New York University this fall, and will major in jazz performance. He wants to go into greater depth playing piano, clarinet and flute – professional musicians generally need to be woodwind players, instead of single-instrument musicians, to get gigs in a pit orchestra.
But the professional requirements remain a secondary concern to Hoffman. “I think it’s best not to worry so much, especially at my age, about getting gigs,” he said. “There’s so much more to learn in terms of harmony … developing your own voice, learning about yourself.”