Lenny Price brings Detroit perspective to CWU Jazz

  • May 15, 2024
  • University Relations

Lenny Price has no shortage of experiences and wisdom to share, and the CWU Department of Music proudly welcomed him back to campus during the winter quarter to share his Detroit-infused perspective to music education.

Before becoming a jazz lecturer earlier this year, the CWU alumnus and saxophonist also spent time as an entrepreneur and community arts activist. He is best known for his work touring and recording with renowned jazz guitarist and composer Earl Klugh, which included a Grammy Award nomination in 2009.

Price (’11) also recounts playing for former President George W. Bush in 2008, along with gigs at the Apollo Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl, as highlights of his performance career. While traveling the world with Klugh, he held a special assistantship in the CWU Department of Music before he graduated.

Now that he’s back on campus, he believes he has come full circle.

Lenny Price portrait

“My life is about pushing myself to my limits and really trying to live an exceptional life, because I've been given exceptional tools,” said Price, who studied physical science at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he learned many of the lessons he carries with him to this day.

Despite all of his career success, Price has also endured many life challenges along the way. Most notably, he talks about his experience as a kidney transplant survivor, which played a pivotal role in helping him become the person he is today.

“I got a kidney in June of 2021, and most of the last three years has been about the journey from being a dialysis patient and having that for three days a week,” Price said. “Once you get a kidney transplant, that goes away. You get your freedom back.”

Once Price began feeling better in the summer of 2023, he played saxophone every Saturday morning during the Kittitas County Farmers Market. He points to these Fourth Street appearances as a major part of his recovery, helping him get back in shape as a musician after his transplant.

Once he was able to get back out and perform at the market, he explained that the next step for him in the Ellensburg community was to offer his knowledge at the university.

“That was important to me, because having gone through this program, I know there are some things that I could contribute that the students might not get otherwise, being a person from a different region,” said Price, a native of Michigan.

During his time at CWU, he has tried to present a distinct cultural perspective to his students, weaving songs by modern artists like Stevie Wonder into his jazz curriculum.

“What I'm bringing to the table mostly is more on the African-American, R&B side of things,” Price said. “I appreciate jazz, but it’s not all that I listen to. Stevie is starting to be recognized for the genius of his compositions. Yes, he's an amazing artist, but he's also a tremendous composer. The songs that I picked allow me to reinforce some of the academic concepts practically.”

Price went on to explain that he strives to bridge the gap between his experience as a professional musician and the world inside the music building.

“I understand the academic process and what students need to know to be successful in this environment,” he said. “But I'm trying to add on top of that, ‘here's why you're learning, what you're learning and how you apply it in the real world.’”

Lenny Price portrait

Price tries to push his students beyond their comfort zones by teaching them about traditions in African-American music, which is not typically written about or chronicled like classical music is. He believes becoming a better musician comes down to “learning through listening” — a skill he points to as essential in creating the foundation for his music career.

“Giving them exposure to other ways of music-making and thinking about music is part of my mission,” Price said. “You end up playing so many different styles when you live in Detroit because of the work environment. You end up playing rock ‘n’ roll, pop, jazz, blues, and gospel. You really have to be a well-rounded musician in order to jump between those styles authentically.”

Price believes his ability to express himself in a variety of styles without missing a beat helped him land his work with Klugh, widely regarded as an industry legend.

“My first encounter with him was a recording session,” Price recalled. “There was no sheet music, so I walked in and introduced myself. He sat me down and they played the track. They wanted me to play on several tracks and then I walked into the booth and recorded. No music. That's a skill that's honed over years of really learning how to listen.”

If young musicians want to make it in the industry, Price counsels them to aim for authenticity and to be themselves.

“I want them to view their college years as preparation for what's ahead of them,” he said, thanking the CWU Music faculty — especially Director of Jazz Dr. Keith Karns — for allowing him to return to campus as a lecturer.

•••••••

CWU University Relations writer Katherine Camarata interviewed Price and contributed to writing this story.

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