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Undergraduate multi-instrumental musician discovers his place with jazz

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Benjamin Cortez, photo courtesy of Cyler Resendez

Benjamin Cortez has been playing music for most of his life. He grew up in a musical family and took classical piano lessons from age 3 to 6, but his training and coursework at Arizona State University has completely changed the way he now approaches music.

Cortez will graduate with a Bachelor of Music in performance, jazz piano.

He credits a “Pop Music and Race” class by Christi Jay Wells, assistant professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, for completely changing the way he perceives music on a daily basis.

“I had the opportunity to critically analyze the ways that race, gender, sexual orientation and other aspects of social identity inform the music that I hear every day,” said Cortez. “These lessons and concepts have helped me ever since to think beyond just the notes in music and dig deep into the human elements that give songs incredible depth and significance in our society at large.”

In 2018, Cortez released his first album, “In Your Hands,” featuring eight original compositions that he performed, produced and engineered himself at his home studio.

“Benjamin Cortez is a multi-instrumental musician who breathes new life into the classic music of the '60s and '70s with his soulful, high-energy performances on vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass guitar and drums,” said Michael Kocour, professor and director of jazz studies in the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “His diverse musical sensibilities reflect the eclectic cultural landscape of his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.”

Cortez has jumped at every opportunity to better his craft, having been recruited to do live and session work for high-profile acts ranging from Oregon Catholic Press artist Tom Booth to punk rock band Authority Zero, in addition to leading his own band.

In Spring 2020, he wrote a new arrangement of the ASU Alma Mater for the ASU Graduation Celebration Alma Mater Challenge. The arrangement included a new verse of lyrics dedicated to all of the ASU Class of 2020 graduates who were not able to participate in an in-person ceremony for the spring semester, and to every ASU student missing campus life in light of the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cortez received the New American University President's Award and a scholarship from the jazz studies program in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

“It meant the world to be able to receive these awards, because it gave me the opportunity to receive an excellent education while also not having to worry about accruing student debt,” said Cortez. “This also gave me the opportunity to learn how to responsibly save my earnings from outside work that I chose to do throughout my time as an undergraduate student.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: The moment in which I realized that I wanted to study jazz music in school was when I heard the classic album “Aja” by Steely Dan for the first time in seventh grade. I had mostly learned how to play pop songs by ear and was perplexed by the fact that I could not automatically recreate the complex chords and rhythms I heard in this album. My interest in “Aja” led me to discover the legendary jazz musicians who laid the groundwork for all the music that I loved, and I’ve been hooked ever since on learning about the incredible music that they made throughout the 20th century.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because the music program in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre offered me the opportunity to learn from an incredibly skilled and supportive jazz studies faculty only 25 minutes away from my house.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My piano professor and Director of Jazz Studies Michael Kocour taught me the incredibly important lesson of being able to recognize my own personal tendencies in order to celebrate my strengths and find workarounds for my weaknesses. I’ll never forget the lesson in which he pointed out that he and I had a common trait of being “big picture” people, and that he encouraged me to pay special attention to small details in order not to let them slip by.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A:  The best advice I could give to current students would be to communicate effectively with your professors and peers. Learning how to communicate frequently and directly will help you to maintain positive, healthy relationships with the people with which you work, and it will help you to stay focused and mentally healthy. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: My favorite spot on campus was the music courtyard. It is a cozy and peaceful alcove with beautiful architecture and friendly fellow musicians passing through all the time. I especially loved it when it used to have ivy plants lining the walls. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My postgraduation plan is to stay in the Valley, build up my freelance audio production business and continue work as the director of Spanish Music Ministry at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Phoenix and a keyboardist at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Tempe.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would want to use the $40 million to help ensure that children from around the world would have access to a quality elementary education. I'm no financial expert, but I am guessing that $40 million would likely be a drop in the bucket to solve this problem, but it would be a start.

lamacdon@asu.edu