CHRIS BOTTI, the Grammy-winning trumpeter and best-selling jazz musician, shares with our STEPHEN CHRISTOPHER about the loves in his life, how fortunate it was to make Oprah cry, and the former president who’s one of his biggest fans.
Chris Botti, the Grammy-winning trumpeter and one of the best-selling jazz
musicians in the world, meets me for lunch at Cavatina at the Sunset Marquis hotel. He’s wearing his uniform, as he calls it—a Giorgio Armani T, 3x1 bespoke jeans, Prada shoes, Louis Vuitton sunglasses, and on his wrist, a Panerai watch. We grab a table on the patio, and Chris shares openly about his life and three keys to his success: practice, practice, practice.
“I sold my place (a spacious home in the Hollywood Hills), car (a black convertible Bentley) and all my furniture,” Chris tells me about his recent relocation to New York. “I packed my clothes, and moved into the Mercer Hotel. To be honest, it’s a chance for me to hit the reset button.”
Then he shares what precipitated the move: what else—a woman. “She’s Italian, like me, so she has her own brand of crazy—but I guess I love it. We broke up and I haven’t been seriously dating for the last year. I don’t know whether it’s going to rekindle or not.”
Mind you, it’s hard for Chris to be in a relationship. He tours 300 days a year and practices like a fiend the rest of the time. Oh, and then there are the chess games (something Sting introduced him to), yoga, and yes, more practice.
It’s practice that’s been a Botti mantra since…well, forever. At age 12, he nearly handcuffed himself to the trumpet and worked on his chops every day for almost two straight years. In college, it was nine hours a day, and now he still practices two to four. “The trumpet is like relentless. There is no day off. If you don’t practice, it will literally kick you in the face,” Chris says convincingly.
He glances at the menu and orders the bruschetta with crushed avocado—and tells of his scary beginnings. “I was born three months premature without a heartbeat. I weighed only a pound and a half and almost didn’t make it. Ironic,
since I make my living off my lungs, right? So growing up, I was always this scrawny kid, who, by the time I was in fifth grade, realized I was never going to be Michael Jordan or play second base for the Mets.”
That deciding ‘aha’ moment, along with hearing the Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock rendition of ‘My Funny Valentine,’ hooked him—line and sinker. “I knew at that moment, playing the trumpet was what I wanted to be doing the rest of my life.”
Fast-forward six years, and Chris is off to college, where, in the middle of his fourth year, he drops out to go play with Frank Sinatra’s band. “I was this naïve kid from Oregon who went to Indiana and now was at a Holiday Inn in a seedy part of LA. I was like Opie comes to Hollywood.”
From there, after a decade-long gig with Paul Simon, Chris got his first of two tipping-point calls. “I was in England and Sting called to ask if I’d meet him at the
Dorchester Hotel. He said, ‘Listen, I think you have what it takes, and I want you to be in my band. Give up two years of your solo career, and in return I’m going to single-handedly break the sound of your horn to the world.’ So I did. And then, four years later, he fired me. But in the same breath he also gave me the greatest promotion. He told me, ‘I’m going to let you be my opening act.’”
Transitioning from the majors with Sting—with the private chefs and private jets and making boatloads of cash—to the minors, hitting the road with his own band and shouldering all of its financial liabilities, was no cakewalk. “Our first headlining gig was in Oakland. We went on stage, and there were six of us in the band and four people in the audience. Right then, I knew that I needed to be the one to believe in this.”
The tour was hemorrhaging his savings, and at 44, he was one gig away from being broke. Enter his second tipping point, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’
The single tear that Oprah shed on her show (now bottled and sitting on Chris’s imaginary mantle), during his rendition of ‘When I Fall in Love,’ was worth millions. It skyrocketed the album to the number-one selling position on Amazon for six straight weeks and propelled it more than 100 points up the Billboard Jazz chart. And those once-vacant seats? Standing room only, baby.
Chris has a ton of somebody-pinch-me moments like that, and this one in 2005. “I got asked to play at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. We came down to the press conference and it was Tony Bennett, Oprah, Tom Cruise…and me! It felt really humbled. Another was when my friend Tony La Russa texted me that he was reading a book by Stuart Woods. In it, on page 9, a character said, ‘If I hurry now I can make the Chris Botti show.’ And then, a few pages later, ‘How was the Chris Botti show?’ ‘Fantastic!’ Maybe of all the things, in a weird kind of way, that was one of those moments for me.” Or what about that jaw-dropping Chris Botti PBS special? “When we did our live show in Boston, Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Tyler, John Mayer and Sting all came to town to be on my show. How the hell did that happen? More than anything I’m most proud of the respect I’ve received from other musicians. If you can get respect from people that you respect, that’s the whole game.”
Chris doles major props for his success to his manager, Bobby Colomby. “Bobby’s so much more than my producer and manager. I’m on the phone with him many, many times a day. We’re on it, man.” And for Bobby, it’s mutual: “We were good friends before we began working together. If Chris were a computer programmer, architect or pro athlete, he would be special. He’s dedicated, focused, disciplined, and has a tenacity like no one else I know…and above all, he has an enormous heart.”
When it comes to charity, his heart lets his trumpet do the talking. Over the years Chris has been performing at many many charity benefits, including the last five years for the New York Ear and Eye Infirmary.
One charity performance for the Children’s Foundation sticks out in his mind for one famous fan in the audience. “I’m playing on stage with Sting, and everyone was in the audience—like Streisand, Donna Karan, and President
Clinton, who was sitting next to Sting’s wife, Trudy. “So Clinton asked her, ‘Trudy, that looks like Chris Botti, what’s he doing here?’ Trudy said, ‘Didn’t you know
that Sting and Chris are like brothers?’ So I play the song, and go backstage, and a Secret Service guy taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘The president would like to see you.’ So he leads me to Clinton, who then brings me on stage and
introduces me to the audience as his favorite musician. Chelsea walked up to me later to confirm that he listens to my stuff all the time.” And how good is Clinton, the sax player? Chris responds diplomatically, “Well, considering he was president, he’s fantastic!”
Chris loves connecting with, and surprising his fans. “I was asked to play a wedding in Italy. So I call Sting, who happens to be staying at his villa there, and he invites me and my band over for lunch. I tell him why we’re in Italy and that he’s the bride’s favorite artist, and that I’m her second favorite. So he starts pushing his pasta around, looks up and says, ‘Well, why didn’t she ask me? Can I crash the gig?’ So we don’t tell the bride, and at the very end, I say, ‘We’re going to do ‘My Funny Valentine’ for the bride, and out walks Sting from the side.
It was pan-de-mon-ium.”
On stage, where Chris wears Tom Ford almost exclusively, is where his heart is. “I’m really the happiest knowing there’s an audience out there, and it keeps me grateful. I can be playing in New York, Knoxville, or our Genlux concert
coming up on Rodeo Drive on the 14th—wherever—it doesn’t matter—it just makes me happy. I’m always thinking, God, I’m lucky!”
Art Direction: Stephen Kamifuji
Photographer: Erik Almäs / erikalmas.com
Producer: Filiz Rezvan / ericalmas.com
Stylist: Lisa Cera / RexAgency.com
Production Assistant: Elodie Daspersruber
Digital Tech /1st Assistant: Mike Byrne
Prop Stylist: Grant Bush
Grip / 2nd Assistant: Mark Nakagawa
3rd Assistant: Keith Hedgecock
Assistant: Louis Rosa
Stylist Assistant: Jaclyn Gercensom
Hair & Makeup: Helen Robertson / CelestineAgency.com
Nail Tech: Denise Bourne / RexAgency.com
Interns: Naomi Harris & Amina Malik
Location: Big Daddy’s Antiques, Los Angeles