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John Gist, saxophonist

So often in life people find themselves on a detour, distracted from where they want to be.


Gist drew this for a reference during our conversation.

John Gist describes it as a triangle: You start at Point A and want to get to Point C, but Point B ropes you in.

Although that Point B seems like the correct route many times, it can easily be bypassed to get to a life goal – and happiness.

Growing up, Gist liked playing saxophone. It gave him a satisfaction his neighbor kids had: being the best at something.

But his dad, a buyer for Meijer at the time, didn’t think there was a future in music, at least as a career.

But music does so much more than just stimulate the brain to think outside the box for Gist, although he believes that to be its essential function to the human race.

He started looking when he was 8. Like other children, he though maybe guitar or drums would be cool. He tinkered with rubber bands for makeshift guitars. Then he found his dad’s record collection. The cool bands, Earth, Wind, and Fire and Parliament Funkadelic, among others, all had horn sections. (Note: Bootsy Collins would have pushed me to bass.)

“I isolated the saxophone, I wanted to be part of it,” he said. “That is the prominent instrument.”

Shortly after he picked up his first sax, he said, “Hey, I’m good at this,” and gave him a point of pride in his neighborhood.

“But I had a misconception,” he said. “I thought it’d be pick it up and start blowing and hearing magic.”

It didn’t happen like that. It took time for Gist to learn to make that sweet music. But mostly it was through “independent study.” He did have one formal lesson, where the teacher told him to go learn all the major scales.

“I was already off and cooking,” Gist said of the lesson.

Through his formative years, Gist used music to rebel as his dad pushed him toward education. “It kept me safe.”

But his dad’s pestering got him to the National Institute of Technology. He built a computer with his schooling. Then, he used his computer to record his first album, “I Can Hear What You Don’t Say.”

Gist thinks of himself as a metaphysician.

“Most conversations, the words say a lot more than just the words,” he said.

His first gig came when he was 19. The same guy who gave him his one formal lesson said, “I got a gig for you.” He was lining up his replacement in a classic rock band. Gist was about 20 years younger than the rest of the group.

“I grew up listening to hip-hop, rap and R&B,” he said. “Classic rock, that wasn’t my bag. It was a learning curve. But it taught me to play with power.”

He’s played in a church group for 11 years. And he’s played in just about every type of group imaginable, from pop to 80s to rock to R&B to salsa.

Now, Gist says he’s happy be a big fish in a little pond when it comes to being a saxophonist in Grand Rapids. “It never took to much to make me happy.”

But his parents realized that a person can go from A to C. Gist’s younger brother is a nationally-touring saxophonist, currently with a recent American Idol winner and soon John Mayer.

A couple neat thoughts from Gist in the conversation:

  • When was the last time you thought about being conscious. Isn’t it amazing? Earth can be, and is, a playground.
  • You have to see past the illusion of life and its superficiality to really become who you are. Life is easier when you stop comparing yourself to others and overthinking things too much.
  • Accept mistakes, and even use them as an avenue to further creativity.
  • Think your thoughts, don’t let them think you. Don’t let the Arby’s commercial tell you to think, “I’m thinking Arby’s.”

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