Coffin’s band happens to be the Dave Matthews Band, and the drama-filled shows were the annual trio of Labor Day Weekend concerts the band performs at the Gorge, the legendary amphitheater just outside of Seattle. For years, thousands of DMB faithful have made the pilgrimage north for this specific set of concerts, and out of nowhere, things were tenuous, but Coffin looks back on the moment with a bit of pride.
“We had to make lemonade out of lemons,” Coffin, who plays saxophone for DMB, says over the phone as he and the rest of the band made their way from Washington to Oregon for another tour stop. “I'll tell you, man, it's a testament to this band and to the incredible musicianship of everybody involved."
The preshow problem-solving included moving Buddy Strong from keyboards to drums and bringing in Dumpstaphunk bassist Tony Hall, "Literally with only an hour-and-a-half rehearsal that afternoon," Coffin says.
"I think somebody said it was like 64 or 65 songs, no repeats, over the three nights," Coffin adds. "What band can do that? I'm so proud of everybody. I'm just overwhelmed. I'm overwhelmed.”
The 56-year-old Coffin graduated from UNT’s music education program in 1990. The Maine native arrived in Denton after attending the University of New Hampshire. Even though he had an aunt and uncle in Texas and was enticed by the sterling reputation UNT's jazz program, the geographical shift was a shock for the young musician.
He likely didn’t suffer as other northern transplants through the extreme Texas, however. Coffin was obsessed with learning and improving.
“I lived in the practice room basically,” he says of his time at college. “I was putting in eight to 12 hours a day, every day, for the five years I was there. And then during the last year, I was down to like between four and six hours.”
His yearning for learning led gave Coffin an appreciation for education, and more specifically, for the role of educator. Coffin connects the dots of inspiration back to his junior high school years, when he’d play weddings and dances in a jazz combo with one of his earliest teachers. These days, on top of his duties with the Dave Matthews Band, he teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and conducts many clinics around the country.
Through his years performing as a member of banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck’s Flecktones and then the Dave Matthews Band, which he joined in 2008, Coffin has won Grammys, played countless sold-out shows across the globe and has released his own jazz records with his own band, the Mu’tet. Some might think such a resume is enough for students to sit up and pay proper attention, but Coffin digs deeper than that. Guiding his students through two-way communication is the key to Coffin’s teaching.
“At the end of the day, we're talking about life. We're just using music as a metaphor." –Jeff Coffin
“I'm good at it [teaching] and I love it,” he says. “I'm inspired by working with the students, and I'm inspired by digging into what the subject matter is in a way that you have to really understand it. The word education has a Latin root ... which translated means to draw out. A lot of times the education that we're given is sort of the opposite. It's like, OK, take all this information, memorize it, then regurgitate it.
"My idea, anyway, which comes from understanding what the root of the word is, is that if I'm asking a student to work on a solo or something like that, I'm asking them to dig into it and draw out the information, you know?”
Being around many budding learners seems to have had a fruitful effect on Coffin’s output. His biggest releases this year aren’t records, but an app and a children’s book. Connecting the Dots is an instructional app that he’s worked on for over six years and was designed to help musicians improve on their improvisational abilities. The Rabbit, The Carrot, The Crow and the Quarry is a bedtime story starring a bunny named Davey, just published in September.
Coffin’s creative and eclectic productivity isn’t a surprise when you hear him describe how, for him, even teaching music isn’t really about music, but about how we connect with one another.
“At the end of the day, we're talking about life,” he says. “We're just using music as a metaphor. One of the things that I learned from my time at North Texas was that everybody learns differently, and we all have different learning styles.”
Coffin says he “would go crazy” if he everhad to choose between only teaching or being a touring musician. Even with a life in which he gets to enjoy the highest levels of both performing and teaching, he says “there are still mountains to climb.” Regardless of the many thousands who greet him and his bandmates with rapturous cheers every night, Coffin isn’t done working, teaching or learning.
“It's an amazing thing to have that kind of appreciation coming back to you,” he says. “I'll be honest with you, that's part of the reason I teach also. I know what it feels like to be appreciated. I’m very thankful for that.”