The Elusive Hit: Chris Botti doesn’t care that he hasn’t had a No. 1

By L. Kent Wolgamott

Chris Botti has a Grammy award and a stellar reputation as one of the finest jazz trumpeters.

After 16 years in the music business, he’s still missing one thing.

“I don’t have a hit song,” he says.

“If you look at Chris Isaak, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, they have a hit song. Did K.D. Lang play ‘Constant Craving’? You can’t ask that about me. I have a hit band, a hit show. Over time, the exit poll for the show—I play 260 times a year—brings people in.”

Botti’s Grammy is a Best Pop Instrumental Album award for 2013’s “Impressions.” But he’s really not a pop musician.

“I’m a trumpet player first and a jazz musician second and I’m an entertainer. That’s my real problem with jazz. They think if you’re trying to be an entertainer, you’re diminishing the music. I’ve got a newsflash for them. Louis Armstrong, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie were all entertainers. Miles turning his back on the audience was his entertainment, a shrewd move.”

Miles, of course, would be Miles Davis, the legendary jazz trumpeter who, decades ago, prompted the young Botti to decide to play music for a living.

“He inspired me to be a professional musician,” Botti says. “My start came when I saw Doc Severinsen on TV. For pursuing the trumpet, I had Doc. That was when I was 9. When I was 12, I heard Miles and the whole thing just clicked. Doc was a great trumpet player, still is. But he was all flash. With Miles, that brooding beautiful sound is what got me.”

Forty-three years after he heard “My Funny Valentine,” Davis continues to play an important role in Botti’s music.

“We play a couple songs from ‘Kind of Blue’ every night,” he says. “It’s very evident with the way I play, the horn muting that I’m very influenced by Miles.”

Botti and his band play Davis music at every show, part of a wide-ranging, stylistically varied repertoire that knows almost no boundaries.

“For anyone who hasn’t come to one of my shows, it’s hard to explain it,” Botti says. “If I’m going to see U2, they’re going to play their hits and there’s going to be a light show. You understand that. They don’t understand that with me. They’re coming to see a band with three singers, one of them’s an opera singer, one of them’s a jazz singer, one of them’s an R&B singer. It’s all over the place.

“It’s the variety of music in the show that makes it so different. There isn’t anywhere else in the (world where) you can see that I’m curator of a Rubik’s cube of an all-star band. That’s been my mantra for 15, oops, 16 years.”

Prior to leading his band, Botti played with music legends, starting with Frank Sinatra when he was still at student at Indiana University. He spent a decade touring and recording with Paul Simon and, during that period, also performed with the likes of Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin and, in 1999, toured with Sting.

“Being around Paul Simon, Sting and Joni Mitchell, I learned a lot about being a band leader,” Botti says. “My first gig was with Sinatra. He wasn’t just a singer, he was an entertainer and a band leader. He was like (comedian Don) Rickles, except he sang. He would talk to an audience, not at them. That’s something I learned early, how to interact with an audience.”

Botti acknowledges he’s never going to have a huge hit—in part because he’s an instrumentalist who isn’t likely to get the radio airplay and playlisting that creates hits in 2019. But it’s also because, in his words, the “Record business fell off a cliff.”

That was borne out by the Billboard magazine album chart the week we spoke. That chart, released January 14, had rapper Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s “Hoodie SZN” at No. 1. Streamed 83 million times online, the album sold exactly zero physical copies (CDs, vinyl albums) and had only 823 paid downloads.

That, to the say the least, is a disincentive for artists like Botti to make records.

“Why? I really don’t know why you would do it,” says Botti, who might just make an album this year anyway. “We did a live DVD last year that’s out there. We play a show and people put it on Twitter, they put it on YouTube, that’s the record of it. I suppose I’ll make a record this year. But I don’t know. I’m better at my craft. I’m a better trumpet player than I was nine years ago, five years ago. But I’m a touring act.”

And tour he does—and has. He’s playing about 250 shows a year now.

“We’ve done more than that,” he says. “We were gone 300 days a year when we were a cheaper act. We would go anywhere. We had situations where we’d fly to Seoul, Korea, do a one-nighter, then the next day was Jacksonville, Florida.”

That tour, which seems as never ending as Bob Dylan’s is where Botti says he’ll use all his skills as a musician and entertainer to create a special evening.

“I go see a lot of shows and support a lot of musicians,” Botti says. “It’s just hilarious. They don’t care at all. You’ll see them come out and the first thing they say is ‘on the piano, blah, blah, blah,’ ‘on the drums, blah, blah, blah,’ ‘on the trumpet, blah, blah, blah.’ Then they play the music. How do you know anything about those people and the music? If you thread things out and talk about people individually, it makes it more special and it brings people into the show.”

more info

What: Chris Botti

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 20

Where: Desert Diamond Casino,

1100 W. Pima Mine Road, Sahuarita

Cost: $35-$45