The accidental flautist: the continuing adventures of Tim Weisberg
Second of two parts. See part one.
After playing the Newport Jazz Festival in 1970, Tim Weisberg finally realized that he was a legitimate bandleader. He also realized that if he was genuinely going to live as a professional musician it was time to do what musicians do – make a record.
It wasn’t the easiest sell. As he tried to recruit a manager, he met skepticism. He wasn’t pitching himself as a jazz musician – a description he never felt comfortable with – but rather as a pop musician.
“It’s 1970,” Weisberg said, recalling how his pitch was received within the music industry. “This guy plays the flute, can’t sing, and thinks he can play for a pop audience. I don’t think so.”
Weisberg realized one man in the recording industry who might understand what he was up to was the trumpet player, bandleader, and – as it happened – record label owner Herb Alpert. He’d met Alpert through his friend and mentor Fred Katz, and Alpert had been kind enough to tell Weisberg that his office door was always open.
He took him up on the offer and showed up to make his pitch. Alpert was another non-genre musician – nobody would confuse him as a jazz player, but he played largely instrumental music and was selling millions of records. He’d already scored four number one hits by 1970. Weisberg told him he thought the world was ready for a pop flautist.
“I kept telling him I play for frat parties and an occasional world famous jazz festival,” Weisberg said. “I am playing for these people who are buying Beatles records or whatever was current, and they keep paying money to see us play, so it was logical if I had a record deal someone would buy the record.”
Alpert signed Weisberg to his label, A & M Records, and so began a three decade recording career in which Weisberg would sell more than five million records. He took the flute where it had never gone before – opening up for rock acts like Jefferson Starship and playing places like the Troubadour that were known as singer-songwriter and rock venues.
The Tim Weisberg Band toured relentlessly for the next half decade, and put out a series of modestly successful albums. His band helped launch several young musicians’ careers – jazz pianist David Benoit, for example, who played with Weisberg while he was still attending Mira Costa High School – and also helped launch what would essentially be a new genre, called smooth jazz (a term that Weisberg isn’t entirely comfortable with, preferring to dub it “snooze jazz.”).
His playing caught the attention of the pop world, particularly singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, who was among the biggest music stars in the U.S. at that time. One day in 1976 Weisberg took a call about joining a session at the famed Record Plant recording studio in Sausalito. He was non-committal at first – Weisberg has always been very selective about who he plays with – until the caller revealed the artist recording was Fogelberg, who it turned out had bought all of Weisberg’s albums and had been following his music closely for years.
“I almost dropped the phone,” Weisberg said. “I’d seen him play and had all his albums. It was almost all I could do not to say, ‘What time, and how much do I have to pay?’”
The two musicians hit it off immediately and Weisberg laid down several tracks for Fogelberg’s 1977 album Nether Lands. Afterwards, they ended up fly fishing together, and Fogelberg invited him to the Doobie Brother’s celebrity golf tournament in Colorado, where the players also included the Eagles. The next year, Fogelberg invited Weisberg to his cabin outside Nederland, Colorado, where the two spent ten days playing and writing the music that would become their first collaborative album, Twin Sons of Different Mothers. The album, released in 1978, would hit #8 in the pop charts that year.
“I was surprised. Dan was surprised. The industry was surprised,” Weisberg said. “…It was definitely a game changer.”
Weisberg’s life was changed; he was now a true pop star. He and Fogelberg only intended for the album to be a one-off – although they would do a second album together in 1995, called No Resemblance Whatsoever – because they didn’t want to “be the next Simon and Garfunkel,” as Weisberg put it.
Weisberg’s career took a different shape afterwards. Partly because he’d proven that instrumental music could sell to the masses, the influential L.A. rock radio station KMET in 1987 abruptly switched its call letters and its format and became known as KTWV “The Wave” – one of the first major market “smooth jazz” stations in history. Weisberg was such an influence he was asked to write the station’s new jingle. Ironically, however, after the format took off, The Wave’s market research apparently indicated that the flute was not an instrument listeners wanted to hear. When the station stopped playing Weisberg, his record sales plummeted, and he walked away from making commercial music of any sort.
“They changed the name to smooth jazz and then they started dumbing it down,” Weisberg said. “I stopped listening in about 1994 because it was so freaking boring.”
Benoit, who would become one of the genre’s leading lights, also rode the market trends up and down but was able to survive the vicissitudes of the industry in part because his instrument – the piano – was so versatile (and was never banned from a station). He credits Weisberg for breaking ground for other musicians.
“Tim was an innovator and one of the pioneers for this contemporary jazz format,” Benoit said. “Tim is very principled and honest, almost to a fault. But he opened doors for a lot of us, like Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, and myself, because he was the one who said, ‘I am not a bebopper, I am not a jazz cat. I am a flute player playing instrumental music, but it’s commercial pop music, not jazz. He would literally take his records out of jazz bins.”
Weisberg was also a renaissance man of a sort – he never defined himself solely through his music career, but developed a wide array of interests. He became an airplane pilot, for example, when he tackled a phobia for flying head-on in the 1980s by taking flight lessons; he has since became a close friend of the Blue Angels flight team. He bought a house in Manhattan Beach back in the 1970s and has lived there ever since, happily ever after.
“I just kind of kicked back,” he said. “I’ve always lived the life of a grad student – I’ve never needed a lot of toys. I buy a car and drive it 200,000 miles, for example. It’s stood me well. I didn’t have to do things I didn’t want to do.”
Now he wants to play music again. There has been a renewed interest in his music, and he reemerged last year to play the Catalina Jazz Festival. This Friday, he’s playing at Alva’s Showroom in San Pedro, and next month, he’s returning to Catalina. Something, and he’s not quite sure what, seems to be gestating.
“I’ve had people ask me a quite a few times, ‘Are you retired?’ I say, ‘No, I’m not playing much, but I am waiting for something,’” Weisberg said. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ll know it when I see it.”
Tim Weisberg plays Alva’s Showroom in San Pedro Sept. 30. His ensemble includes Chuck Alvarez on guitar (The Emotions, Lisa Haley, and David Benoit); Barnaby Finch on keyboards (music director for George Benson, Lee Ritenour, Ronnie Laws); David Hughes on bass (David Benoit and The Jazz Crusaders); David Derge on drums (Shawn Colvin, David Benoit, Richard Thompson); and singer Royce Jones (Steely Dan, The Doobie Bros., Ambrosia). Reservations are recommended, please call 1-800-403-3447. Shows at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. See www.alvasshowroom.com for more info. ER