Lionel Loueke: Creating His Own Lines
"My goal was to come to America, but I had a language barrier," says the guitarist. "I couldn't speak a word of English. So I decided to go to France. Benin was an old French colony, so I spoke French pretty well. It wouldn't be too much of a shock, because at least I speak the language. So I went to Paris to study. Paris was the first jazz school I had ever been to. I'm glad I went to Paris, because I was in perfect position. I learned about harmony. I didn't waste my time either in Paris or in Boston, at Berklee, because instead of five years, I got my diploma in two years. So it was helpful."
In Paris, he did the audition for Berklee and got a scholarship, but still needing money, he returned home and made it playing music. At the same time, he studied the English language. That lasted about a year. However book English and the English of American streets didn't always add up, he discovered.
"When I came to America, to Boston, I never will forget. At the airport, at Immigration, I couldn't understand what the police officer was telling me. So, when I started the classes, it was hard for me. I could not understand, really. I decided to take some English classes at Berklee. That's what I did for at least two semesters, so I could understand what the teachers were saying," he says with a chuckle. "I'm still learning."
Nonetheless, musically, he fit in. "I was already different than the rest of populace, most of the music school. The first semester, out of about 1,500 guitar players I was five off first. I played the first big band week concert. That was my first concert. Usually, it was the people who were finishing the program that do this," he recalls. "The first semester, that was rough because of the language. But after that, I learned a lot because Berklee gave me a chance to practice and to play. Put into practice what I'm learning. In Paris, I didn't have that. I was mostly learning harmony. I was practicing at home. At Berklee, I could practice with other friends and play for six hours a day if I wanted."
Loueke thought he was done with school. He was ready to go make music and learn from being in the trenches, in New York City. But teachers convinced him to do an audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute, a two year program that provides intense individual instruction from some of the finest musicians in jazz. "After studying in Paris and then graduating from Berklee, I didn't want to go to another school. [A teacher] told me I should because it is not a regular school. There are only five or seven musicians for a two-year program. Everything is paid. Paid housing. They give you a stipend every month and you have a chance to study with people like Herbie [hancock], Wayne [Shorter], John Scofield, and Kenny Barron."
"I was ready to move to New York, but it would be hard for me to live here without having gigs. So, it was another great transition," says Loueke. "I did the audition in front of a panel of judges. Herbie. Wayne. Terrence Blanchard. From that point, my life has changed, for sure."
The institute was at the University of Southern California and he graduated in May of 2003. That essentially launched him into a career performing with jazz stars. "You have private lessons. So I got a chance to meet Kenny Barron, who called me later for a recording and gigs. I got a chance to meet John Scofield. We've been flirting to do something together for a long time. I had a chance to meet many, many musicians through the Monk thing. Dave Holland. It was a great turning point ... When I finished, I played with Terrence for a while. I started playing with Herbie. I've been with Herbie for seven or eight years now. All kinds of combinations or people I've met through them, like Marcus Miller. A lot of fame has grown from that point because people have seen me with Herbie. I did an arrangement for Sting. Quincy Jones called me. I did a few things with Quincy. Jack DeJohnette's recordings. Kenny Werner. Kenny Barron. A lot has come out of that."