Nebraska Diamond President John Tavlin pursues love for trumpet
Story and video by Jordan Kranse, NewsNetNebraska
The walls of the main room of John Tavlin’s basement are lined with trumpets, organized carefully by color. He will eagerly offer another trumpet player the chance to play one of his many horns and ask if he or she would like to do a little jazz improv. He speaks about the instrument like an old friend, one that he may not get along with all the time.
“When it works, it’s the greatest,” he said. “When it doesn’t work, it’s one of the most frustrating things that can possibly be.”
But despite his obvious enthusiasm for music and his experience with the horn, Tavlin’s primary career title isn’t “professional trumpet player.” The 64-year-old is the president and co-founder of Nebraska Diamond Sales Company. Though he still played professionally, his job prevented him from fully pursuing his passion and receiving formal training on the trumpet. Now that his role with his company is largely inactive, he has time to return to school to improve as a trumpet player.
Tavlin started playing the trumpet in the summer after fourth grade.
“I recall admiring Louis Armstrong and I also recall seeing a movie called ‘St. Louis Blues’…and I just thought it was a great instrument at the time,” he said. “There wasn’t anybody that I knew that played the trumpet, I had no prior experience with trumpet, it was ‘That looks really great.’”
He played throughout elementary and high school, but chose not pursue music in college. Instead, he pursued business and law, hoping to inherit his father’s company, Mitch Tavlin’s Cork and Bottle.
“My vision was more in terms of earning a living rather than the artistic merits of playing the trumpet,” he said. “I figured I could have the artistic merits of playing the trumpet, but I wanted to go into some line of business.”
Majoring in something different didn’t stop him from playing. In college, he discovered his true passion: jazz improvisation.
“I would say my jazz career in some respects started when I was a freshman in college, but it was on my own. It wasn’t through a formal process of education,” he said.“I had no place to play at that point, and so I was self-motivated and I started playing along with records.”
Tavlin went on to play professionally after college, despite not having a music degree. After graduating from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 1974, he founded the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra in 1975 and played with them for 14 years.
In 1980, Tavlin and his wife decided to start Nebraska Diamond. Tavlin already had connections in the diamond business and his wife had connections in the jewelry business, so it seemed like a sound idea.
“We started with a desk made out of doors, three folding chairs and a cardboard sign,” he said. “It grew and grew and grew.”
Though Tavlin has stayed on as president, Nebraska Diamond has mostly been passed on to his daughters, leaving him more time to pursue his interest in the trumpet by returning to UNL.
“When I think of all the classes I took in my education that have given me the most pleasure in life, it’s the instrumental music classes, without a doubt,” he said. “Second place isn’t even close.”
Returning to school
“I never considered myself to be a particularly respected player, and the reason was that I didn’t have a degree in music,” he said. “I wanted to go back to try to expose myself to a formalized academic experience in terms of jazz improvisation and that’s my primary motivation.”
In his first semester, he took music theory to help improve his theoretical skills. He also played in the UNL Big Band and a jazz combo, in which he has continued to participate in the fall semester.
“It’s interesting, I like it. I like playing the music. I like those people,” he said.
Tavlin is the oldest person in the band and in many of his classes. Though he said the age difference between him and his fellow classmates is a little odd at times, it hasn’t hindered his learning or his connection with the other students.
“A lot of those guys in the band, I don’t think they realize how old I am,” he said. “The challenge is the same regardless of your co-conspirators.”
As the most experienced player in the band, Tavlin likes to think that he sets a good example for the younger players.
“Sometimes the example I set is I botch up something. It’s not all perfect. And it’s very important for musicians to understand,” Tavlin said. “I don’t care how much experience you’ve got or who you are and what your level of development is, sometimes you just play some bad notes.”
Focusing on improv
This semester, Tavlin is taking jazz history, which he said he has an advantage in because he “has been present for almost all of jazz history.” He is also taking private lessons with Paul Haar, the director of Jazz Studies at UNL, to help improve his improvisation.
“He’s focusing on becoming a better jazz musician, so we work on techniques to be more creative,” Haar said. “Harmony, rhythm, articulation, listening, things of that nature.”
Haar, who works primarily with college-aged students, said that Tavlin’s age doesn’t affect the way he teaches him, but it does present some challenges.
“The challenge of teaching someone like John is that he has played a certain way for a long time and there are things he hasn’t addressed since he was in college in the ’70s,” he said.
“What makes me difficult is because I have such a…I won’t say well rounded, but rounded…I have such extensive experience in jazz improvisation and jazz playing,” Tavlin said. “So I’m not a typical student where you’re building from the bottom up. I come in and I have voids in certain areas… And it’s hard to pinpoint what those voids are and so it’s hard to figure out how to attack them.”
This semester, Haar is helping Tavlin master more theoretical concepts.
“He’s what we call an ear player, where he can read music, but he uses his ear to guide him through solo, which is a very important aspect to a jazz performer,” Haar said. “It’s my challenge to get him to create things as well as understand them theoretically so he can recreate them in the future.”
Tavlin hopes his private lessons will eventually help him master different techniques and skills used by great jazz musicians to integrate into his own playing.
“I applaud him for continuing being passionate about playing music,” Haar said.
Promoting jazz education
When Tavlin isn’t working on improving his own jazz skills, he is working on helping others improve theirs.
“I’m very interested in seeing jazz music develop and the place it’s going to develop is University of Nebraska,” he said.
He consistently discusses the future of the jazz program at UNL with Haar during his lessons, suggesting new classes and ways to improve.
“We talk about the program and we talk about guest artists and things like that,” Haar said. “He has contributed.”
Tavlin has suggested lots of things for the program, like starting a class focusing just on improvisation. He has sponsored a number of guest artists at the University and is looking forward to sponsoring a fellowship for a masters or doctoral student in trumpet this fall.
Aside from completing his classes at UNL, Tavlin has big plans for his future.
“I want to form my own professional combo, maybe at the conclusion of this school year, and do performances with that combo,” he said. “And I’m thinking about putting a swing band together also.”
He also has a long list of venues he wants to eventually play, including the Blue Room in Kansas City and several venues in California.
“I want to get more involved in performing, I want some performance venues because its fun,” he said. “This is what I want to do, I want to get better.”