Pianist Steve Nixon has toured the world with a who’s who of blues and jazz greats – B. B. King, Buddy Guy, and Lonnie Brooks, to name a few. You would think regular gigs like that would be enough for any musician.
Not for Steve. He threw a few licks up on YouTube on a whim and wound up with 65,000 students per month on FreeJazzLessons.com.
A while back he contributed to our How to Start Jazz Improvisation Ear Training: Experts Guide and we wanted to know more about him. We talked with Steve about his musical background, live experiences, and his burgeoning websites:
Q: Greetings Steve, and welcome to Musical U. What was your musical childhood? How did you get into blues and jazz?
I started playing piano as a kid. I’ve always had music as a part of my life. But, when I got into high school I got a lot more serious about music. I started taking music theory classes and hanging out with other musicians. The bands and music I was listening to became more and more of my self-identity. I think the love was always there but it truly blossomed in my teens.
When something goes as deep as your self-identity you end up taking it pretty seriously.
Growing up in Chicago, the blues is all around you. It’s a big part of the sound of the city. I’ve always felt a connection to that style of music. I used to go downtown as a young teenager and go to the Chicago Blues Fest and just soak in the sounds:
To me, there was nothing cooler than being up there playing from your heart and having thousands of fans smiling back at you.
I loved it and I’m sure that experience shaped me and made me want to be a performer.
I got into jazz from listening to bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish, and the Allman Brothers. These bands were heavy on improvisation and I loved the way they sounded. You always want to know how your heroes learned how to play – so as I started doing research I heard about people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery.
The first album I bought was Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. It was recommended by the dude at the record store. I had no idea what the heck I was buying but I figured I’d check it out. Holy wow. Talk about a lucky first buy! That album blew my mind. I loved it! It was like a breath of fresh air:
A week later I dumped another $50 into a Louis Armstrong album, a Bud Powell album, and a Wes Montgomery album. I fell in love with these discs too.
Q: From there, you’ve had a fantastic career as a performer. What are some of the highlights?
Great question. I’ve had so many cool experiences that it’s hard to narrow everything down. Perhaps, it would be getting a chance to be on the B.B. King tours, or touring with Lonnie Brooks or playing with Koko Taylor. Maybe, it was doing a gig for 45,000 people at the Ravinia Festival. Wyclef Jean was on that bill.
Honestly, I’ve had so much fun and been so blessed for the last 17 years that’s it’s hard to pick.
Q: How did you decide to get into teaching? How/why did you start Free Jazz Lessons?
For me, teaching and performing are the same energies. They’re both sharing sound and passion with people. Conveying life. So, I’ve always been passionate about both. The first piano lesson I ever taught was when I was 18 years old.
It just felt very natural because I like to share what I’ve learned over the years.
I started Freejazzlessons.com sort of on a whim. I had no idea when I started it that we’d grow to over 65,000 students per month. Initially, I just threw some licks up on Youtube and wrote some articles about it and people gave me a lot of love.
Fast forward six years later and there are hundreds of articles, courses, videos, books, etc. We just had our three millionth visitor too. That blows my mind.
People have always told me that they love the way I break things down and what I cover. It’s a good feeling to hear that. It’s probably because for years I’ve tested everything I share in live stage performances.
That makes me happy to hear because that’s my goal. I try to share everything I know with my students. Music is truth for me. And I want to honor my truth:
Q: That’s wonderful, Steve! The Free Jazz Lessons site is piano-oriented, but you have many other instrumentalists and even vocalists learning on the site. Why is that?
Good question. Again, I think it’s the way we break things down. My philosophy has always been to create content that all musicians can learn from… regardless of instrument or background. I may be demonstrating musical concepts on the piano but things like great chords, groove, improvisation, passion, and theory are universal musical concepts. They can be applied everywhere.
Another important factor is that music shouldn’t only be theoretical exercises. It needs to cut through the nonsense and sound great. Sounds that people love to hear. Again, this is one of the unique things I think we bring that’s different than most. Everybody who teaches on Freejazzlessons.com has heavy touring experience or has played with Grammy level players.
The goal is for people to play real music and not stay in theoretical land. So, I try to always demonstrate real musical situations in my courses. Getting the ear involved and hearing what’s possible is huge for a student. It’s more fun to learn that way:
Also, piano is a good instrument visually speaking. Most people know the notes on the piano so it’s easier to follow.
Q: Tell us about the programs you offer through Free Jazz Lessons.
We have a lot of programs and courses that I’m quite proud of:
For beginner jazz pianists we usually recommend they start with is our Zero To Jazz Piano Hero Course. It features our step by step plan for going from zero to playing songs you love in 30-60 days.
Our flagship program – and one of our most popular – is our Premium Jazz Elite Membership Program. This is our all-in-one solution for building expert level jazz piano skills.
We cover songs, licks, improvisation, chords, theory, transposition, reharmonization, rhythm etc. It’s a massive video collection that we’re constantly adding to.
The first FJL course we ever released is called the Jazz Masters Method.
This course is perfect for students who want to get good at bebop improvisation, learn how to play great licks, and learn how great improvisers built those killer jazz lines that we all love.
Our most popular blues piano course is the Breakthrough Blues Method. I partnered with Blues Hall Of Fame pianist Bruce Katz and we put together a complete course that features years of our blues piano discoveries from touring all over the world.
We also have a course on how to play Christmas music in a rich jazz piano style. It’s called the Christmas Jazz Piano Super System. I love Christmas music so I wanted to teach students how to take these classics and bring a whole new energy level and excitement to them. This course is hugely popular….especially in November and December:
Q: Beautiful rendition of “The Christmas Song.” And that’s a hefty roster of programs! Free Jazz Lessons is a huge resource with a huge community. What is the role of that community?
I’m a strong believer that you shouldn’t ever feel like you’re on an island when you learn music. There’s power in having community with like-minded folks.
I remember my days at Berklee, I was always happy because I was surrounded by 3,000 other people who loved music like I did. So, I try to bring that same feeling of community and love to the FJL site.
Q: That community feeling really comes through. With everything going on at Free Jazz Lessons, why did you start Piano Lessons Online?
Over the years we’ve had thousands of requests for tutorials in other styles of music. My goal has always been to just share music and passion. I don’t talk about them as much but I’ve also done tons of gigs rock, pop, country, R&B, church, and even reggae gigs. If a style of music has soul and meaning I can get into it.
So, it’s a natural extension at this point to share what I’ve learned about other styles of music too. And this type of sharing is why I get out of bed every day. I want others to experience the joys of music like I do. It’s life changing.
Q: What piano styles do you offer through Piano Lessons Online?
Right now we’re focusing on rock, pop, country, church styles, R&B, and funk but I’m sure we’ll cover many more as we grow.
The goal is to make it the ultimate go-to place for piano players to build their talent online.
Q: What about classical?
I would love to create some amazing classical courses. That’s a fantastic idea. Stay tuned on that…
Q: I’m looking forward to that. How are people responding to Piano Lessons Online?
People are responding really well to it. It’s been a lot of fun. I have a great team of very talented pianists now who are helping me grow this site.
I’m not satisfied unless we’re releasing great tutorials for our students. The fact that we’re going to be able to put out so many great new tutorials excites me.
It’s cool to be able to partner with the other great musicians on the site. They love teaching as much as I do. Plus, they bring all kind of extra goodies and musical experience to the table. I’m excited for our students to learn.
Q: Fantastic. What would you advise someone who wants to begin studying jazz or piano online?
First, and foremost everybody has the ability to learn this artform and play it well. It just requires a good plan, regular practice, curiosity, a willingness to explore, and focus.
There’s a lot of misinformation about jazz out there these days. Especially online. I see some of these posts and videos and some people say some very inaccurate things. There’s a lot of inexperience. So, I would also recommend that if you’re going to get advice make sure it’s from players that you’d want to sound like.
Everybody started as a beginner at one point. I’ve never forgotten that truth so I want beginners to always feel welcome at our site. So, please come in and get involved with our community. Get on our free lesson email list. It’s a great time to learn and start having fun.
Q: Where do you see your websites going in the future?
We’re going to continue to follow our missions of providing amazing pro tutorials that people can dig into in the comfort of their own home. It’s all about giving students the ability to achieve their piano dreams no matter where they are in the world.
So, we’re cooking up lots of brand new courses and all kinds of new videos, and books on different styles, famous musicians, different songs, you name it.
It’s truly a great time to be learning music.
Q: I totally agree. What’s your best advice for aspiring musicians?
Develop the habit of daily practice. Train your ears. Remember the more you put into the piano the more it will give you back. It’s the greatest investment in the world.
Great advice, Steve! Thank you so much for joining us today on Musical U. You’re doing such a wonderful service for piano students and all musicians, and we wish you great success.
Are you ready to “cut through the nonsense and sound great”? Steve Nixon has free lessons and more to suit exactly what you’re looking for. Head over to FreeJazzLessons for jazz and blues, or to PianoLessonsOnline for country, pop, R&B, rock or beginner lessons.
Want to become more musical?
Whether you want to sing in tune, play by ear, improvise, write your own songs, perform more confidently or just make faster progress, first you need to know where you're starting from.
The Musicality Checklist will quickly reveal your personal musicality profile and how you can improve your natural musicianship.
Available FREE today!
Musical U provides in-depth training modules, an easy-to-use personalised planning system, a friendly and supportive community, and access to expert help whenever you need it.