BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Superstar jazz trumpeter Chris Botti attributes his later-in-life success to the “needle in the haystack theory.”
“There are so many unbelievably talented musicians scattered all over the world,” says Botti, 51, whose breakthrough album, When I Fall in Love, happened 10 years ago. “To be able to play an instrument and have a lot of people recognize that sound, that’s a whole heckuva lot of other stuff going on. That’s kind of like luck, or someone looking down on me being very nice.”
Botti, who just finished a three-week, 42-show Christmas engagement at Blue Note in New York City, appears Wednesday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and headlines this month’s Jazz Roots series concert Friday, Jan. 17, at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.
“I’ve been touring 300 days a year for the last 10 years. The groundswell of that is really a whole helluva lot of luck,” says Botti, who spent decades as a studio and touring musician working with big stars including Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Sting.
“There’s a very common music industry saying that behind every overnight success is 10 years of hitting the road. In my late 20s and in my 30s, I was just well known as being a studio musician, you know,” Botti says. “I was respected by musicians but the general public had no clue. That didn’t really happen until I was in my early 40s. It makes me be incredibly grateful for it, because I see a lot of young pop musicians squander their audience. They think, ‘Oh, I’ve got success,’ then they take five years off and you never hear from them again. If I had had this kind of success in my 20s, I might have handled it completely different, to a negative effect.”
Botti grew up in Oregon. His mother was a classically trained pianist.
“My mom was a piano player and taught me and I rebelled against that. I didn’t like the piano,” he says. “I saw Doc Severinsen on television, years ago when he was in The Tonight Show band, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool. Man, he’s cool.’ I said can I get a trumpet? I got a trumpet two years before everyone else got the trumpet. I got a trumpet in third grade. By the time I hit fifth grade — and I realized I never was going to be Michael Jordan, you know my body’s not growing so I’m not going to be this sports guy — I do this trumpet thing pretty good and I’m better than everyone else because they’re just starting, so I’m going to stick with it.
“When I was 12 or 13, I heard Miles Davis and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ That’s what took the whole thing for me to a personal level, like a knife through butter, it went right through my heart. That sound. That beautiful trumpet playing just mesmerized me.”
At the start of his career, Botti was thrilled to simply be a working musician.
“If I did a recording session and I sat next to [the late saxophonist] Michael Brecker and [his brother, trumpeter] Randy Brecker and we did a horn-section date for Wide World of Sports or something like that, I thought I’d won the Academy Award. And at the same time, I wanted to be the star out in front,” he says. “I did in New York every terrible gig that you could do to make a living. When I scrunched up enough money to pay the landlord, I thought I had won the Academy Award.”
Still, Botti dreamed of being a big name in the music business.
“One step leads to the next. Then you’re like ‘Can I make a living playing in the studios?’ Then, maybe I could do a tour. Then, you become friends with Sting and you go, ‘Maybe I could actually step out with the band,’ he says. “Using that template, I learned so much from him. Appetite for touring. How to do it. That 2½ years in his band, seeing the way his organization is run, aided me an enormous amount to put my little tour together. Start out small. Start out losing money and do it. I always wanted to be the star, but I wasn’t down on myself for being behind the scenes for so long.”
Being an unknown is no longer is an issue. A decade ago, Botti landed on People magazine’s Most Beautiful list and for a while dated Katie Couric. In 2012, he toured with Barbra Streisand. And last year, his CD Impressions won the 2013 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
Botti says success has even amazed him.
“I’m a music act that goes around the world and sells concert tickets and never had a hit. I’ve never had one hit! You can go back and look at instrumentalists throughout the course of time. Chuck Mangione or whatever. They have a hit that you can whistle. I don’t have that. So my success is really then who I’ve associated myself with and making our shows spread via word of mouth. That’s really the way it is.”
IF YOU GO
Trumpeter Chris Botti appears 8 p.m. Wednesday at Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Tickets $25 to $105. He also stars 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17, in Jazz Roots at the Adrienne Arsht Center. Tickets $55 to $150.