Jeremy Swain is probably the most musically educated flower shop employee in Columbus.
After graduating from the Berklee School of Music in Boston in May, this Columbus native suddenly found himself with a degree in jazz composition and could find no one who needed any jazz composed.
Returning to his hometown, this 26-year-old Columbus High School alum got a job in a field slightly outside his area of expertise at Nowetta”s Flower Shop on Main Street. Now, Jeremy, “Big Jer” to his friends, works all day, as he describes it, “answering the phone and moving stuff from one place to another.”
Today, when this Berklee grad isn”t creating flower arrangements, he”s busy transforming the music of Thelonious Monk into big-band compositions.
So, how”d you get to Berklee?
Well, I actually originally went to Mississippi State University where I decided, for some reason, I wanted to do criminal justice. And I did horribly. Me and my dad talked about it, and my dad, being a reasonable guy, he helped me decide to do something I wanted to do. He talked me into going to music school, so it”s his fault I don”t have a job now.
How did you get in?
It wasn”t really that difficult to get in. They want you to have letters of recommendation and a list of all you”ve done up until you”ve applied, but there”s not really an audition process. What they do is call you on the telephone and ask you several questions. If they decide you are worth their time they give you a random phone call and ask a bunch of music-related questions, and my assumption was they ask you about your weaknesses. Since I”m a drummer, they chose to ask me a lot of questions about harmony and music theory and scales. It was a surprise phone call, I had to answer off the top of my head and it was pretty scary. Luckily for me I knew the answers they were looking for. So, I guess that combined with the letters I got from teachers I”d had in the past led to them giving me a shot.
How long have you been playing?
I guess if you want to get technical about it, I didn”t start playing full time — you know, spending my free time doing it — until I was about 12. But, I think the first time I picked up drumsticks I was about 8 or 9. My uncle Scott lived next door to me, and that”s what got me going. At first I really wanted to take piano lessons, but my mom couldn”t afford them, and my uncle already had a drum set next door. So, she was like, “Go next door and play the drums.” Once I got into sixth grade and could join the band I got totally stoked about it. You can call me a band nerd if you want to. That”s where I got most of my formal training. After that I joined a few rock bands.
So, you have a degree in writing jazz music from one of the most prestigious music schools in the country, and now you”re working at a flower shop. What happened?
When you graduate with a degree like I did in jazz composition, it”s a very specific degree. It”s a very pigeon-holed thing to do. More specifically in my case it means I am trained to write pieces of music for certain groups, anything from jazz trio to big band, and big band is what I really want to do. But there aren”t really that many jobs in that field. Especially jobs where big bands will pay someone to write songs for them. The majority of those jobs lie with people who write freelance stuff for publishers and that sort of thing.
The guys who were doing this stuff in the ”50s like Buddy Rich were writing all the time, and most of those guys were writing for their own bands. Back then there were tons of big bands touring around the country, and those guys made tons of money, but these days when you hear about big band you think, “Oh my god, my grandfather listens to big band.” So, there”s not a lot of people doing that stuff anymore.
Most of the big band stuff around these days is high school bands, and they get their music from books. The school buys the books from a publisher, and basically the guys who get the jobs writing for those publishers have been writing since the ”40s. The truth is, there aren”t a lot of young guys like me who can get out of school and go right to writing that stuff. The music industry is extremely difficult to break into, so until that happens to me I guess I”m working at this flower shop. And that”s perfectly fine. It pays the bills and the student loans. But until I write that magical piece of music, I”ll be here cutting flowers.
So, what do you want to be when you grow up?
My dream job would involve not having to wake up and go to work at 7 a.m., but wake up when I felt like it and go to my studio room with all my sweet musical gear I could afford. I”d sit down at my computer, piano and guitar and write music people liked and wanted to buy. I guess my dream job is being able to live off writing music. Until then I”m willing to do whatever I can to stay in the music industry. I”m looking at jobs in royalty collection, copyright law and that sort of thing. Those are a lot of the jobs people from my school get right out of college. They drill a lot of the different aspects of the industry at Berklee. It”s easier for us to get a job in a business field in the industry than doing what we really want to do, which is play or write.
So no sold-out arenas and rock-star lifestyle for Jeremy?
I feel like deep down inside, all musicians” dream job is to be able to get paid to play music. I”d love to get paid to play music; that would be great. I don”t know whether it”s the way I was brought up, or if it”s my genes or what. I love playing music, but from my experience I”ve gotten burned out tons of times. The guys who make a living doing this are guys like Charlie Hunter who tours 250 days a year, and all the guy does is play music. But you can see it in his face every time he plays. He loves what he”s doing, and it”s not work for him. But there have definitely been times when I have thought, “This is work. Playing these chords right now is hard work.” Some people I think are built for it better than others. Again, I love to play, but as far as personal satisfaction, I prefer writing. I”d have a lot more personal gratification if I wrote a piece of music and gave it to Charlie Hunter and he liked it and played it than if I wrote the music, played it myself and he liked it.
Do you like working at Nowetta”s?
Yes. When I realized I wasn”t going to immediately get a job doing what I wanted to do after I got out of college, I had to do something. I hate working in restaurants, and that”s the first thing most people go to. It”s the last thing I wanted to do. I”d worked lots of retail jobs, and didn”t want to do that again. But one day I saw an ad in the paper for Nowetta”s and I was like, “Hey, flowers. I like flowers. Flowers are pretty.” Not only that, but there was also a part inside of me which thought, “It”s cool to take care of a living thing.” I thought when I got the job it would teach me a little about life.
So, have you learned anything?
Yeah, actually. You learn a lot working with people who are older than you. Anyone who has anything bad to say about me working at the flower shop, I dare them to work there. You will never look at flowers the same way again. It is a very difficult job. People who work at restaurants and complain about customers, I feel like what I do is on the same plane. You deal with all kinds of people, and when you”re dealing with people you get good people and bad people. When you”re dealing with people sending flowers to their wives and that sort of thing, you don”t want to mess with those guys. Especially guys who only send flowers once a year, you don”t want to mess that guy”s order up. It”s a very sensitive industry, but a strong one. People are always having birthdays, people are always getting married, and unfortunately, people are always dying. It”s a very busy place to work and a lot harder than people think.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.