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"I play for the music": A profile of Uni alum Jake Hertzog

Gargoyle photo by Sindha Agha (click to enlarge)Jake Hertzog performing Saturday night at the annual Sweetcorn Festival in downtown Urbana.

A selection from Jake's 2005 album, "Rate of Ascension," which he recorded with the Jake Hertzog Trio.
Click to listen (4:46)

Note: Arts & entertainment co-editor Laura Dripps assisted in the reporting of this story.

URBANA — When great musicians play, they seize the audience and isolate themselves in the same split second. Their audience becomes a flock of worshipers and true amnesiacs, abandoning anything other than the musician and the music because nothing else is useful, truthfully, when art is experienced at its apex.

In December 2002, when the Gargoyle published an article about guitarist and then-senior Jake Hertzog, writer Sarah Klein described a great musician in the making.

She hinted at this boggling effect, writing that when Hertzog played in Jazz Band II other students would stare “in quasi-awe at Jacob’s hands before darting their heads to keep up the accompaniment,” and asking, “Where did this guy come from?!”

The senior already had an acceptance letter to Boston’s Berklee College of Music in his hand and a very solid idea of what he wanted to do with his life: to become a professional guitar player.

This past Saturday, Hertzog performed at the annual Sweetcorn Festival in downtown Urbana, and fellow A&E co-editor Laura Dripps and I went to hear the Uni graduate play. With one hand his fingers sprinted across the guitar’s neck, and with the other he strummed furiously; his head was thrown back and his eyes shut tight. For the moment that I regained consciousness from the music, I realized that he was just as I had read in that article from six years ago.

Hours before Herzog took the stage at the festival, Laura and I ventured out to Espresso Royale at Village at the Crossing to meet with Hertzog and see just how he went from Uni, which he calls a “math/science powerhouse,” to one of this nation’s best music colleges, and on to an extremely successful break into the music industry while still in his early 20s.

Jake Hertzog in December 2002 during his senior year at Uni. Gargoyle archive photo by Varun Chalivendra '03

In the Beginning

The story starts, simply enough, with Hertzog’s birth. The music, he explains after a thoughtful pause, has always been with him.

“There are videos of me when I was like 3 or 4 trying to play a guitar that was actually taller than me at the point,” he says.

Despite Hertzog’s love for guitar, he didn’t always want to be a musician.

“When I was 10 I wanted to be a dinosaur,” he says, laughing, “and when I found out I couldn’t be a dinosaur I wanted to be a helicopter … and then, when I found out I couldn’t be that ….” He pauses. “Well, music’s my third choice, you know ….”

At the time that Hertzog arrived at Uni in 1998, he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and become a scientist of some sort, particularly a physicist, but it was this “math/science powerhouse” itself that caused Hertzog to change his plans.

“I think that Uni helped me get into music,” Hertzog explains. “When I got to Uni I realized that there were people there who were so good at math and science and that I would never catch up with them, you know what I mean? I was always good in school, in math and science, as far as average people go, but when I met the people in my class they were light years ahead of me … the way they could understand those things.”

So how did he ever gain motivation from something like that?

“The only thing that came to me the way that stuff [math and science] came to them was music, and so I gravitated towards music.”

Hertzog is grateful that he attended Uni, regardless of the fact that its primary focus is not music or the performing arts.

“I’m thankful every day that I went to Uni because I can actually hold a conversation about something else,” he laughs. “I mean I’ve run into a lot of people who went to these famous performing arts high schools in New York or Los Angeles, which are great; they came out great as musicians, but that’s … all they do. I am so thankful I can sit down and talk about particle accelerators. I need it. I need something else sometimes.”

Fortunately enough, he had support both at home and at school.

“I was very lucky with my parents, first of all,” he says. “They were supportive in the way that if I showed them I was doing a good job they would support me, and if I didn’t they would have cut off instantly and they would have said, ‘OK, you’re going to be an engineer.’ ”

At Uni, Hertzog developed a strong bond with music teacher Rick Murphy. He describes Murphy as “a gem … you’re just not gonna find a guy like that.”

Hertzog also involved himself in every way possible with the school’s music program, participating in chorus, jazz band, orchestra, and even musicals.

Another view of Jake at the Sweetcorn Festival. Gargoyle photo by Sindha Agha.

The Next Step

After attending a summer program for high school students at Berklee, Hertzog was offered a scholarship to return after he graduated from Uni. Although the transition from Champaign-Urbana to Boston, a city of about 560,000 people, was drastic, Hertzog found Boston to be a good introduction to living in a big city.

His describes his college experience as utterly “strange” and “perfect” at the same time. All of a sudden Hertzog found himself surrounded by extremely talented musicians — about 4,000 of them. And, out of those 4,000 students, around 1,300 of them, according to Hertzog, were guitarists.

We were skeptical; wouldn’t being around 1,300 talented guitarists take a toll on his motivation and determination?

Hertzog quickly shakes his head.

“There are two kinds of people in those situations: the ones who cave in and the ones who rise to the challenge. I think that the best part about a school like that is that there were so many great musicians who would push you all the time. … I learned just as much from the other students as from the teachers.”

While he was always able to keep his motivation, he notes that it was sometimes shocking to be around so much talent.

“There are times when you say to yourself, ‘Oh my God, how am I ever gonna do this?’ New York City’s like that, too. You get to New York and you’re like, ‘Now my competition is the most famous people in the world!’ ” He laughs and shrugs. “You just have to have a little faith and a little luck and a little magic every once in a while.”

But, that’s how he likes it.

“I always try to be the worst person in the band because that’s the way you learn the most,” he explains. “If you are the best person in the band, time to get a new band; if you’re the best person in town, time to get a new town.”

Another shot of Jake at the Sweetcorn Festival. Gargoyle photo by Sindha Agha.

Instant Success

After four years at Berklee, Hertzog graduated. His résumé was already impressive; in 2006 he had won a prestigious contest held by the Montreux Jazz Festival, which gave him the prize of a showcase spot at the 2007 festival.

At Montreux, he opened for one of today’s biggest jazz guitarists and an alumnus of Berklee, John Scofield. He also toured Europe a couple of times with some of the best musicians at Berklee.

At this point he had a decision to make: “The two choices for a performing musician are that you can either try to be famous yourself or you can play with somebody else who is famous. Out of the two of them, playing with somebody else who is famous is the far more lucrative choice right off the bat.”

He then sent demos out to as many industry connections as he could and waited for something to come up. It wasn’t too long before an opportunity popped up in Los Angeles. Hertzog was ready to move there from Boston to begin working, but he never did, because an even better, and rather serendipitous, gig appeared for him in New York.

“One of the guys I had sent a demo to was a very successful guitar player with a long performing career, and he was good friends with [Michael Wolff] the father of Nat and Alex Wolff, who are The Naked Brothers,” he says.

“And, literally two hours after I had lunch with him one day, he calls me and says, ‘I just got a call from my buddy Michael Wolff, who needs a guitar player for his kids.’ I was like, all right, a gig’s a gig. So I showed up and it was a gig for ‘Good Morning America,’ so I figured, all right, I better take this seriously … it looks like it’s going to be a good time.”

The Naked Brothers Band is a teenage group starring brothers Nat and Alex. Nickelodeon has a show, also called “The Naked Brothers Band,” that features the group.

Hertzog now works as the live musical director for The Naked Brothers Band, who are stationed in New York City. He performs with them, makes arrangements for their songs and records, and makes sure that everything “works live.”

“I more or less run the band … make sure it sounds good,” he says.

Dumbfounded by his instant success, we wanted to know more: What’s the secret to breaking into the industry and becoming wildly successful? And how did he do it so quickly?

“Sometimes it’s timing; actually, a lot of it is timing,” he laughs. “Everybody I’ve talked to has a story like mine. Every time I say something like, ‘Oh man, how’d you get the Rod Stewart gig 20 years ago?’ the response will be like, ‘Oh, you know, I was at a coffee shop 20 years ago, and this guy I was talking to said he couldn’t do it … and I was a guitar player too, and so I said, let me audition for that!’ It’s always like that. It just cracks me up, every damn time.”

A publicity shot from Jake's official site, jakehertzog.com

The Perfect Fix

Working for The Naked Brothers Band has been the ideal job for Hertzog.

“I can get my pop fix one night and then go play in a little jazz club the next night. I don’t have to make that sacrifice; a lot of musicians wind up having to choose one thing or another. I’m lucky enough that right now in my career I can do both of those simultaneously.”

Hertzog says that he is not bothered by the age difference between his co-workers and him.

“A lucky part for me is that they are really wonderful people to work with. Nat and Alex themselves are incredible musicians, like Mozart,” he laughs. “Alex is 10, believe it or not, and Nat is 13. They sort of have the best of both worlds. They are very serious about their music and they study it hardcore every day, and they also get to perform it with top quality guys.”

According to Hertzog, the band’s music itself is influenced by artists such as The Beatles and Stevie Wonder.

Although he is just 22 years old himself, Hertzog finds working with such young musicians very advantageous.

“Because they have never been to music school, they’ve never been told not to do anything,” he explains. “They come up with theses melodies and chord progressions that my colleagues and I would never come up with because they’re ‘against the rules,’ but they sound so great. So, I’m like, ‘Wow, man, how’d you come up with that?!’ Anytime you apply a childlike curiosity to something that’s overdone you get a fresh take on it.”

When we told him to make sure that neither of the Wolff brothers ended up dating Miley Cyrus, Disney’s “Hannah Montana” star, he laughed but admitted that things like that are more than possible with childhood fame.

“The only downside to being very famous when you are young is that you can be whisked away in a very unfortunate direction á là Lindsay Lohan or something. No matter how good your friends are, no matter how good your parents are, it’s always there a little bit,” he admits.

Jake during his most recent return to Champaign-Urbana. Gargoyle photo by Sindha Agha.

Eye on C-U

This fall Hertzog will be touring with the Naked Brothers Band. But somehow or another, Hertzog has managed not to forget Champaign-Urbana in the grand scheme of things, often playing venues like The Iron Post when he’s in town.

Not only does he come back to visit and stop by Uni to say hello to teachers and see how everything is going, but he admires and supports the local music and art scene.

“There are some great things in this town,” he tells us. “Just look at Krannert Center, man. There’s no way that this town should rationally have a facility like that!

“The music that it not only brings in but generates in the community is spectacular, and we should never forget that. You could actually live in Champaign and hear the Lincoln Center Orchestra, or see the Russian Ballet. … You won’t get that in some other little town. We’re very, very fortunate to have that. I think that the more we can revive focus on the arts in this community, then the better off we are.”

Hertzog has active plans to improve the situation in C-U for young artists and musicians. In the next couple of years he hopes to have a scholarship program for high school students in the C-U area who are heavily involved in music or art.

“This is just on the drawing board for now, but what I’m shooting for is a scholarship that can give some money and, more importantly, give some recognition for high school seniors,” he explains.

“It has to start small, just an exhibition at Krannert for example, but I think it would be great to get the students some gallery space in Chelsea, you know,” he says. “For the musicians, give them a nice gig at Dizzy’s Club or the Lincoln Center or something. The ultimate goal is for students from rural communities to get that shot, to give those students a way to exhibit their work in a big city, and to give anybody from a small population community more of an equalizer to those kids who come from a big city.”

We then ask about his own personal aspirations as a musician and which musicians he admires.

“The guys I admire most are guys like Pat Metheny, who not only revolutionized the guitar, but also played it in an original way and created an enormous body of work as far as compositions, styles, and projects go,” he says, his fascination obvious.

“What he does with his composing, his playing … the way he blends this and that, creates music all the time. It’s amazing to me. You can see that anybody who has 17 Grammy awards is not lying. That’s real s*** right there.”

The kind of musicians whom he admires the most, he explains, are the ones who are great songwriters, great performers, but most importantly, those who “really have an effect on music as a whole.”

“Technique is great,” he says, “and it’s fine for people who know what’s going on, but that’s not important at all as far as connecting with people, and that’s what art, in my opinion, is supposed to do.”

His ultimate goal?

“What I hope to do is create music that is great but also that is meaningful, something that people can latch onto,” he says.

“There was an interview with one of these great jazz drummers, and the reporter asked him, ‘Do you play for yourself, do you play for the band, or do you play for the audience?’ And he said, ‘I play for the music.’ I think that kind of sums up my beliefs on that.”


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Emily Bruce's picture

from a fan

Yay Jake! So exciting to be benefiting already from a Uni brush with fame, five years out from graduation.

Also, nice embedded links, Online Gargoyle staff.


Thanks, Gargoyle, for posting this. I've been trying to teach myself guitar for a while now and I never seem to have time or enough motivation - I think this helps me find some motivation to get off my butt and do it.