Musical Men

Local Musicians & Their Instruments


Plato once said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” His words certainly strike a chord with the following musicians, whose natural talents are second only to their passion and dedication to their craft. Here, we invite you to meet the men behind the instruments.


By Mary Beth Wallace | Photography by Emily Long

Randy Steele

Banjo Player Since ‘03


“The actual process of learning new music and creating new music is probably my favorite part. I enjoy the performance aspect as well, but the times I’ve spent with the instrument and words alone in a quiet place are special.”


What got you into music?

RS: I grew up in a highly musical family. My mother is a fantastic singer and piano player. She played and practiced relentlessly when I was a child, so it was always around. I also grew up in a Pentecostal church where my grandfather was a pastor. He played guitar and taught me my first chords. Then I had an uncle who was a singer in a pretty well-known jam band in the 90s, and he took me to his shows. Those shows were where I really fell in love with musical performance. I’ve had a lot of folks who influenced me along the way, and I’m grateful to them all.


Where has your musical career led you?

RS:  I play the banjo for Slim Pickins Bluegrass. We’ve been based here in Chattanooga since 2009. We’ve done some touring in Europe and Montana, but we mostly play private events and select shows in the area. We released an album in 2014, titled simply “Slim Pickins,” and it’s comprised of mostly original music. And then as a solo artist, I’ve released multiple albums, with the first being “Songs from the Suck” in 2017. I had a great response from that album, and it received a nomination for Bluegrass Album of the Year from the Independent Music Association.


How often do you practice? What does your process look like?

RS:  I enjoy practicing and do it as often as I can. I try to get in 30 minutes per day as a minimum, but typically end up putting in 90 minutes to two hours. My rehearsals can be structured and precise if I’m rehearsing for a specific show, or they can be creative and loose if I’m trying to write new material.


What impact has music had on you?

RS:  The biggest impact has to be the opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to have. The number of cool people and places I’ve been exposed to is far greater than what I ever imagined. It definitely wouldn’t have happened without music.


If you could collaborate with another musician, who would it be?

RS:  Earl Scruggs, hands down. He’s been incredibly influential to me as a banjo player.

Alan Wyatt

Saxophone Player Since ‘79


“Being a university professor for me has been ideal, affording me the opportunity to have a positive impact on future generations of musicians.”


What got you into music?

AW: My mother is a musician, who in her day sang and played piano very well. So with that, I can hardly remember a time in my life when I was not around music.


Where has your musical career led you?

AW: In addition to my professorship at Lee University, I’ve performed at many venues in the greater Southeast, as well as a few spots in the Los Angeles area. My favorite so far has been the Knoxville Civic Center with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. And before moving to Katowice,
Poland, for a semester-long sabbatical, I led a jazz quartet that performed every month at Barking Legs Theater in Chattanooga.


How have you evolved as a musician over the years?

AW: In the beginning of my career, I thought what I really wanted to do was move to a big city, perform with everybody, ride tour buses, etc. I realized pretty early on that this kind of life wasn’t for me. It was while I was playing in a house band five nights a week that I was asked to teach saxophone to students part-time at Lee College, now Lee University. I discovered immediately that helping young people get on a path to more effectiveness and efficiency with their instrument was the kind of puzzle that held more of a fascination for me.


How often do you practice? What does your process look like?

AW: As a jazz musician, I am in the habit of individually researching (listening to recordings) and then practicing my respective part, so that when the band comes together to play, I know how to add effectively to the collective whole. This aspect of personal readiness is the single most important element in the proper training of jazz musicians.


If you could collaborate with another musician, who would it be?

AW: John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Still, Cannonball Adderley – there are too many to name! I couldn’t begin to thank each of them for the incredible nonverbal instruction I’ve received from hours spent listening to and studying their music.

Jeff Herndon

Trombone Player Since ‘78


“At this point in my life, I’m not sure what it would be like not to have music. It’s always something to look forward to, whether an upcoming concert or a weekly rehearsal.”


What got you into music?

JH: My grandfather, Bob Pillsburg, was a musician. He played the trombone and an assortment of brass instruments for an army band in WWII. He wasn’t playing anymore by the time I came around, but he’d tell stories about it. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.


Where has your musical career led you?

JH: After taking a long break from playing in high school, I picked the trombone back up again in 2001. Since then, I’ve joined three different groups here in Chattanooga: Mid-South Symphonic Band (a concert band), Scenic City Sound (a jazz band), and the orchestra at Christ United Methodist Church. Between these ensembles, I’m covering a wide range of genres, from the classics and religious pieces to the jazz standards of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Each challenge me in a different way.


How have you evolved as a musician over the years?

JH: Most of my evolution happened in the past few years when I was in the jazz band at UTC. My director, Dr. Erika Schafer, paid me a compliment I’ll never forget; she said that, over the course of two semesters, I had become a much more independent musician. I took that compliment as a challenge, to be able to walk into a group and play a new piece of music with confidence from the start … to not hide behind a large ensemble but make my own original mark on the piece.


How do you use music to express yourself?

JH: My “regular” job is in industrial maintenance, which is very technical in nature. I get the same feeling of satisfaction when I master a particularly difficult passage of music as I do when I solve a technical problem at my job. Working it out is part of the fun for me.


If you could collaborate with another musician, who would it be?

JH: James Pankow – he’s the trombone player for Chicago and has arranged all the brass parts since the band’s inception in the 60s. If there was ever an opportunity to learn how to arrange or even just to play something with the guy, that would be a dream.

Jacques Irvin

Piano Player Since ‘98


“Practicing my music isn’t necessarily something I need to do, but it’s something I love to do. Music is therapy for me.”


What got you into music?

JI: Growing up in New Orleans, in the same neighborhood as jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Kermit Ruffins, and Shamarr Allen, music was a way of life. My mother was a concert pianist, and my father directed the church choir. I used to run around on the stage during choir practice in my diapers. As I got older, I learned to play music by ear – it was just a natural gift. I could sit down at the piano, hear a song, and play it. My parents taught me theory and how to read music after that.


Where has your musical career led you?

JI: I play gospel music at my church every Sunday morning. It’s so gratifying because it helps people get through their week. I’ll have folks tell me that they sometimes don’t receive the Spirit from the spoken word, but they will from my music and the songs that I chose. I also play at weddings and at a few local venues during the holidays. 


How do you use music to express yourself?

JI: Music stimulates me, relaxes me, and gets me through stressful times. I’ll actually “play myself happy.” If I have something going on in my life, I turn to the piano. If my wife, Tenesha, is mad at me, I use music to woo her [laughs]. I love the holidays, so during Easter or Christmas, I’ll play all the traditional songs for my son, Jayden, and daughter, Jaylen, and get us all in the holiday spirit.


What impact has music had on you?

JI: It’s made me a better person. Being a gospel musician and being up in front of the congregation every Sunday, I know I have to live up to a greater standard. I realize that I can’t say or do certain things, because at the end of the day, I’m a musician for the Lord.


If you could collaborate with another musician, who would it be?

JI: Stevie Wonder, because of the way he plays and all the knowledge he has as a musician. I’d enjoy every minute of it!

Darren Self

Guitar Player Since ‘98


“I want to use music to bring hope, light, and unity to people – to make the world better. So, more times than not, the songs you hear from me will be written about those things.”


What got you into music?

DS: Without a doubt, my dad got me into playing because he is a musician as well. He saw that music came naturally to me, and that it piqued my interest. When I was in third grade, he enrolled me in piano lessons, and in seventh grade, he bought me my first guitar.


Where has your musical career led you?

DS: I’m a music director at a local
church, The Met Off Main, and I’m also part of a YouTube musical vlogging duo, Eklektiq Sol. Plus, over the years I’ve been connected to musical groups around town. I’ve performed at Nightfall, Riverbend, and Songbirds, to name a few. There’s nothing quite like playing music with a group of people. 


How have you evolved as a musician over the years?

DS: When I was young, music brought me confidence because people thought I was “cool” for playing guitar. I identified myself as a musician and loved the attention it brought me. I played for a lot of people, but I also played for myself. Then, in my late 20s, I did a lot of reflection on the kind of legacy I wanted to leave behind. That’s when I realized I needed to share my gifts with others. I believe that’s the best way to honor a God-given talent. So, my biggest evolution wasn’t so much my style, but my perspective.


How often do you practice? What does your process look like?

DS: I typically practice daily, and it’s seldom that a day goes by that I do not touch an instrument. Many times, my practice is based around a need to learn new songs for performances or Sunday services. At my house, practice consists of me either playing my favorite songs from memory or composing new songs. It’s an ongoing process, and I love my practice to be a hybrid of discipline and creativity.


If you could collaborate with another musician, who would it be?

DS: Quincy Jones, due to his amazing insight and knowledge of the whole creative process. His influence will span generations.

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