Pirate Ross Garren ’03 Continues to Blaze an Inspiring Career in Music

Since his days at Stevenson, Ross Garren ’03 has pursued his love of music, finding success as a harmonica player, keyboardist, composer, and record producer. He kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to share more about his professional journey, Rob Klevan, and his love of jazz, among other things.

[This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.]

RLS: As you know, the wonderful Rob Klevan is a great fan of yours. His face lights up when he shares stories about you. Please tell us a little about your experience joining the Jazz Band as a 9th Grader and impressing Rob with your incredible ability to masterfully play both the harmonica and the piano.

Ross Garren ’03: Haha — at this point my memory is a little fuzzy, but I can recall a few very special things about my time at Stevenson. Firstly, what a knowledgeable, encouraging and kind-spirited mentor Klev was! A true fan of music, his enthusiasm and expertise gave me and my peers a major head start. Not only was he able to point us in the right directions musically, but he also showed — through his example — that a happy, engaged and meaningful life could be had through a career in music. Secondly, the incredible luck that professional Jazz musicians Biff Smith and Pete Lips were on faculty! As an aspiring Jazz pianist, to have a respected and experienced badass like Biff on campus, was an incredible and game-changing stroke of luck! Through his generosity and tutelage, I was able to enter my college years having a deep understanding of Jazz harmony, theory, repertoire and composition. Wildly fortunate! Thirdly, that Nico Georis ’00, Danny McKay ’04, Andrew McKay ’03 and Sam Strong ’02 were fellow students — having peers who were first-rate musical talents to inspire me, egg me on, and jam with was an essential part of my early development and excitement. Stevenson had a great little music scene in my years there!

RLS: After Stevenson, you attended USC and studied with jazz musician Russ Ferrante (of the Yellowjackets), who told Rob Klevan that you were “his prized pupil.” As you reflect on your USC years, what fond memories do you have of Russ and who else was an influence there?

RG.: Russ, much like Klev, was one of the rare mentors whose teachings were far deeper than the music itself. Russ is an incredibly humble, dedicated, generous, and supremely talented musician who left me with the impression that if I wanted to play and write like him, it’d require a lifetime of steadfast commitment. The depth of artistry seemed to come from a life well-lived, with the highly developed musicianship a byproduct of the rest of the process of trying to be a great human. I had many wonderful teachers at USC, some of whom I’ve stayed in touch with and some I now work with, but Russ also helped me transition into professional life, facilitating a faculty position at the Musician’s Institute as well as giving me the opportunity to sub for him and get experience playing with the best of the best. I’m deeply indebted to this great man!

RLS: You continue to successfully navigate a professional career in music that has allowed you to partner and play with many incredible artists, including playing harmonica and keyboards on tour with Ben Folds and Marc Cohn, recording with artists such as Beyonce, Bon Iver, and Keisha, as well as tracking harmonica on the scores to blockbuster films such as Martin Scorcese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “The Color Purple.” Tell us a little about some of the experiences and why they are so special.

RG.: Being able to do something I love, often with some of the most talented and skilled people on the planet, is an incredible blessing. Having the opportunity to constantly be challenged and grow while hopefully making some great (or at least functional) art has yielded a rewarding life surrounded by people I deeply admire and constantly learn from. I wake up every morning excited to practice, explore new gear, try out ideas I’ve thought of or have learned about most every day since those early years at Stevenson — I’m not sure what more I could reasonably ask of a career! In truth, I feel every bit as much a student now as I did then, and I suspect I always will — being a musician is as much a lifestyle aspiration as a career for me.

RLS: As you look forward, what are you most excited about on the horizon, professionally and/or personally?

RG.: Just trying to keep the lucky streak alive for as long as possible! Frankly, I truly enjoy most of the work I get to do and nothing in particular stands out; whether it’s a local bar gig, touring, writing and recording my own music, or working with a major artist or composer. I find all of these activities stimulating, enriching, and mostly fun. May the streak continue…

RLS: For current students or young alumni interested in pursuing a career in music and songwriting/arranging, what advice would you offer them?

RG.: A career in music seems to be a choose-your-own-adventure endeavor, with many unique paths to be carved out. Explore the intersections of your passion, your talents, the market, and your ideal lifestyle and see where it takes you. Be as unhinged and practical as you can simultaneously be! It makes no sense and all the sense in the world at the same time!