Mark Guiliana is the ultimate embodiment of the “DIY musician.” A percussionist, educator, producer and composer, Guiliana has definitively earned a name for himself in today’s jazz community, and has played for some incredible artists, none more beloved than the late David Bowie. In addition to his vast amount of session work, Guiliana leads two groups of his own, Beat Music and his jazz quartet, and he recently founded his own record label, Beat Music Productions.

“I started playing drums when I was 15, so there was a large chunk of my life that music didn’t play a large role, but once I started playing, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the drums and music in general was going to take over my life,” Guiliana says, spending the afternoon in his home studio. “It certainly has, and it’s given me a beautiful life so far, and I’m really grateful, I mean, some of my best friends I’ve met through music, my wife’s a musician, and so I’ve started a family through music. If I could play the smallest part in someone else’s musical development, that’s the ultimate reward. If I can just give a little morsel of inspiration to anybody else, that really makes it all worth it.”
Mark Guiliana

The freedom, complexity and improvisational nature of the style of jazz is what first lured Guiliana to the genre. “There was something about jazz that grabbed me right away,” he says. “The first time I heard Tony Williams, my life took a turn. I knew there was something in his playing, and something in that music, it was predominantly in his playing in Miles Davis’ quintet. I had never heard music like that before. And of course, never heard drumming like that before. And it really pushed me down this path of deep immersion in the jazz world. And I think that pursuit of that knowledge has really created the foundation of the way I approach music. My favorite element of jazz is that it’s built upon this heavy emphasis of improvisation, and for me, improvising is why I play music. Improvising, to me, is the drug, actually. Working with the other musicians, how you can create music in that moment, it requires you to be incredibly present, and selfless, and open-minded. These guys like Tony, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, the list goes on and on—the influence of those guys really instilled that emphasis of improvisation, and it’s something that I try to bring with me to every musical situation.”

Having studied not only with Joe Bergamini, but also later with renowned educator John Riley, as well as having earned his degree in jazz studies from William Patterson University, Guiliana has become quite the educator himself. “I feel like because of Joe and John, I have, in my mind, a very clear picture of what a great teacher should be and can be,” he says. “So, when I do have the opportunity to teach, I’m just trying to inspire, and give whatever knowledge may help that student. You can’t prescribe the same thing for every student. So, I think the trick is to try to really get to know what is they’re looking for and what they may need in that moment, and I just do my best to provide that.”

Mark Guiliana

“If I could play the smallest part in someone else’s musical development, that’s the ultimate reward.”

In 2014, Guiliana founded his own record label, Beat Music Productions, as a way of maintaining more control over his music. “I started Beat Music Productions simply to have a reliable and consistent output for the music I was creating,” says Guiliana. “In the past, when I’ve made records on labels, I would get frustrated with the amount of time between the completion of the music and the time the music actually gets released. So for me, Beat Music Productions is the easiest way to get this music out into the world, as soon as it’s ready. [When I launched the label], I released two records, My Life Starts Now and Beat Music The Los Angeles Improvisations, and it was important to me to release two records at once just to really plant my feet with this new artistic statement. Less than a year later, I released Family First, the debut record from my jazz quartet, so, musically, they’re quite different statements, but it was important to me to get them out and kind of build these two pillars of my musical personality. These releases would not typically live together on one label, because they’re quite different, but now that it’s a home for whatever I’m making, it’s nice to know that whatever I’m working on, as soon as it’s ready, I can set it free.”

Most recently, Guiliana completed the construction of his home studio in New Jersey, a place where he can practice, write and record with his own drum set for the first time in a decade. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to actually have my drums set up. For the last 10 years, I’ve been living in one-bedroom apartments in the city, so I haven’t been able to practice at home in a really long time,” he says. “My plans are to have a minimal but functional recording setup down here. I’m always chipping away at new ideas. It’s just really nice to have everything in one space, and to actually have a little cave to crawl into and try to get stuff done.”

As far as Guiliana’s setup in his new studio is concerned, he relies exclusively on Gretsch—a legendary name in the world of jazz drumming. “What I look for in an instrument is inspiration. I think a great instrument should push you to be the best you can be, and that’s what these drums do,” he says. “I really love Gretsch drums, I really feel at home when I’m playing them. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by the fact that a lot of my heroes played on them—Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Max Roach–that’s the short list. I’ve listened to these guys all my life, and to know that they found their voice on these drums is really inspiring. I think in both a jazz context, where the drums are tuned higher, they really, really sing there, but also in a more lower tuning when I’m playing more electronic-inspired music. The versatility, and the consistency that the drums provide are great. There’s something going on with these instruments, even when they’re new. They never feel totally new, in the best way. There’s this mojo in there somehow. There’s definitely a lot of soul in [Gretsch drums].”

Mark Guiliana

“My favorite element of jazz is that it’s built upon this heavy emphasis of improvisation, and for me, improvising is why I play music. Working with the other musicians, how you can create music in that moment, it requires you to be incredibly present, and selfless, and open-minded.”

Just last year, Guiliana’s career was significantly enriched when he was asked to play drums for the late, great David Bowie. “I had the incredible honor of playing on Blackstar, David Bowie’s final record—of course, we didn’t know it was going to be his final record when we were making it,” says Guiliana. “I can’t say enough good things about this guy, he was incredibly kind, incredibly generous, incredibly funny. Really, from day one, he made it feel like we were old friends. It was a joy to work with him, and it was easy. All of these tunes had demos that David would make at home. A lot of them featured loops, drum loops, programmed beats, so one of the challenges was to try to bring that material to the acoustic kit. He was a brilliant guy, that goes without saying, so if you were to hear these demos and compare them to the record, you could hear, ‘Wow, he really did have all of this detail in place.’ That being said, he was incredibly open to our own ideas, and he really did want it to be a democratic environment. He really wanted us to be taking chances, pushing each other. I still can’t believe this record exists. My life has certainly changed from that experience, and I will forever be indebted to him for the opportunity.”

For all of Guiliana’s incredible experience, training and chops, he remains refreshingly humble, and encourages new musicians to express, explore and follow his or her passion with fortitude. “I’m not the greatest piano player, I don’t know the most theory—I went to school, so I learned these things, but really, when I’m creating, I’m trying to create from a much more emotional place. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What I’ve learned is that, over time, I just have to do the work. Just go. Keep going, keep going, because it’s not always going to work. Not everything I write will be good. The minority of what I write might be good, so the more I write, the more chances I give myself to find good musical solutions. The more exploration I do, the better chance I have to find some good stuff.”

Written by Brian Ruppenkamp / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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