Jae Deal’s Musically Mathematical Muse

Jae Deal’s Musically Mathematical Muse

Sitting across from me at a train station-turned coffee shop in North Hollywood, Jae Deal asked me if I’ve ever read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen Covey.

“My dad had the book, and I remember seeing it on his bookshelf,” Jae said. “It was way over my head. I was probably in early high school. I picked it up probably four years ago and I’ve been applying it to my life ever since.”

Jae wears a lot of hats; he’s a father, a teacher, musician, producer, scholar and public speaker, among other things. He’s worked and collaborated with Janet Jackson, Snoop, Gaga and Elton John, to name a few names. I was initially curious how Jae has adapted to having so many things spinning, and how he’s made it work for himself.

“I found that building a schedule based on priorities rather than tasks has been one of my biggest assets,” he said. “That way I feel more comfortable if I miss something. Only because I focus on my main priorities first and fill everything else in around, as it can fit. I look at my roles and I try to invest a proper amount of time each day into advancing those roles and my responsibilities, instead of saying, ‘I have to do these different tasks.’ I say, ‘okay, did I fulfill enough of this role today?’ And it helps me.”

He says he got that concept from the book. “It’s a good read.”

Jae’s hometown of Baltimore, Maryland is where he started playing music, specifically in his church. As a kid, Jae started on bass guitar. Now he specializes in modern synthesizers.

“I say synthesizers are distinct from keyboards or piano, because I’m a programmer predominantly,” he says.

He still plays in church consistently to this day; a couple times a week. He says the majority of his successes have stemmed from his church community.

“I pretty much only listened to religious music, gospel music, up until high school,” says Jae. “And then I started to branch off and do some self-study–got introduced to a jazz radio station back home that was coming from the local college, Morgan State University. They played jazz predominantly throughout the week, so I would leave that on.”

When Jae was a teenager, he aspired to attend the arts high school in Baltimore, but was denied, being told he didn’t exemplify enough “innate talent.” This changed the course of his academic path, and Jae chose to attend the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he studied engineering and gained a sturdy base in mathematics and sciences. He stayed there for just a year, but would graduate from another high school in the highest AP-track that was available with a concentration in science. By the time he was looking at college, he hadn’t received any formal music training, and decided it made sense to pursue electrical engineering at Morgan State University.

“Along the way, through some indiscretions, and how I spent my time in college, I wasn’t doing as well as I should have to complete the program, but I also started touring with [R&B group] Dru Hill. So, I was missing a lot of classes.”

Jae decided to quit touring and dedicate all his time to college. He re-entered and worked to achieve high grades to attain a Bachelors of Science degree in Pure Mathematics.

“I had a ton of math credits, and it made a lot of sense to achieve that degree, if I was going to be missing so many labs, because I could just do class work. So that’s how that happened.”

Jae credits his early understanding of math and science to the way it was taught to him at a young age. He attended Friends Middle School, which is a globally ranked institution.

“The way they teach math and science conceptually gave me a huge advantage moving on into high school,” Jae said. “I didn’t take it for granted, I appreciated it. But now in retrospect, I see that whatever it is that they offered was definitely a huge asset.”

During his college years Jae began to study classical music independently.

“I just decided to leave classical music on 24/7; in my car, on the radio, in the house … I slept to it. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and hear these beautiful passages. You know back then we didn’t have Shazam, so I would have to wait until the song was over, maybe two or three different songs, and wait for the announcer to say, ‘that was this composer.’ Then I’d write it down and go buy the CD.”

It’s apparent that much of Jae’s initial musical education came from a genuine interest in learning as much as he could, even if he had to find his own way, or call on a friend. A best friend of Jae’s, Mark Copeland, had been accepted to Berklee College of Music and was attending the Baltimore School of the Arts where he was studying jazz. Jae says Mark would come home and teach him as much as he could absorb about what he was learning.

“That was my introduction to jazz music,” Jae said. “He actually went on to become a professor at Berklee, and we still stay in contact. Great pianist.”

For Jae, education has been something he’s always pursued to the fullest extent, both as a student and as a teacher.

“I’ve always been teaching in some degree when I’ve had something to share,” Jae said. “It’s funny, now that I teach at USC, a lot of people, their perspective is ‘oh, how does that work with you changing your career path, and adding this to your list of responsibilities?’ The truth is, I’ve been teaching all along. It’s definitely not a transition somebody can just jump into without having a priori experience or knowledge.”

Jae used to teach a music class at an elementary school in Baltimore and has created mentorship programs in partnership with area elementary schools while he was in college. When he moved out west, Jae taught sessions for the Thelonious Monk Institute, where he would go to Washington Prep High School and teach students midi-programming. He also partook in tutoring programs between stints of touring and producing music. Over the past three years, Jae wrote the Songwriting 1 curriculum for the Los Angeles College of Music and taught a music industry course there, while also teaching artist development and networking strategies at the Musician’s Institute. Then he got the call to work at USC.

“It’s something that I’ve always been doing, but now with the cache of working at a globally recognized university, it looks like I’ve jumped into teaching all of a sudden,” says Jae.

Jae’s career as a producer began to take flight when he was working as a band member with Dru Hill. The group had been called to participate in a Disney soundtrack of all Elton John and Tim Rice songs for the Aida movie.

“We were in Los Angeles finishing a tour run, and it was decided that we’d record the song for the soundtrack while we were here,” said Jae. “They asked us how much we wanted to charge … people that really know me, I’m an introvert, but you catch me in the right setting and I’m extremely vocal.”

From Jae’s point of view, the numbers the band were coming up with were selling them short. Jae had hung around producers before in New York and through his connections at church, so he had some idea what kind of numbers were typically being discussed. Jae said “This is what we need to charge. If they don’t give us this, then let them call somebody else.”

Despite the band’s nervousness that Jae’s number would lose them the job, Jae’s confidence paid off, quite literally.

“It worked out, and what I found is that once we got the initial rhythm arrangement, my exposure to classical music allowed me to add the orchestral arrangement to it. And I developed a relationship with the engineer, because back home I was exposed to these producers and was trying out these methods. Communication-wise, I was able to step into a role and progress the project. We achieved at a very high level, and that was, I would say, the first industry noteworthy introduction to my role as a producer.”

Jae says his interest in production stemmed from being a musician. Having the ability to program gave Jae an edge. He was able to create tracks and come up with arrangements by himself which he could present to the accompanying artist.

“That was my introduction,” he said. “And I got a chance to sit under a lot of successful producers, and had them mentor me, watched how they worked. I’d see how they’d pull things from different places and I added that to my own style.”

Most of those connections, he said, came from church.

Part of the style that Jae has worked to define is attributed to the mathematical way in which he processes certain information.  

“I analyze things mathematically sometimes, but all the time I feel as if the same parts of the neuro network that process math, are at work when I process music. So even if I don’t have a specific or literal translation of what these concepts mean mathematically or in physics, when it comes to usage of brain power and the precision that I’m used to with those sciences, it just transfers and leaks over to my music. Intuitively, I know that there’s a connection. So even if I don’t do the analysis, and make a direct correlation, just the fact that I know it exists gives me some inspiration sometimes, or it just orders my process in a different way than what people are used to seeing. So, it’s an advantage for me.”

Currently, Jae is working with a senior PHD major in the physics department at USC to develop a new method for understanding music production, called topological methodology.

“In layman’s terms, topology is a branch of mathematics that describes relationships between sets,” explained Jae. “So between that and looking at the subset of topology that deals with spaces, I look at music as a “space.” And it could be graphed three-dimensionally with frequency versus time versus amplitude.”

Jae says that the two-dimensional graph we see on various music platforms, Soundcloud for example, is a crude representation of sound waves compared to how music could be visualized.

“By getting a very accurate model of the music in a graph, certain mathematical properties can be applied and certain analyses can be made using mathematical topology. I’m in the process now of getting a formal description and definition of my analysis.”

Jae says that being able to look at a song in this way could have huge benefits for working musicians who are trying to write their next hit.

“That’s part of it,” he says. “Definitely a better song. It could always sound better, there’s certain decisions that could be made at certain points in the song to fight ear fatigue; looking at models of hit songs and extracting data from that to understand how to make a better song …

I worked with Diane Warren for a while, under producer Ty Coomes, and being able to see from such a prolific and prodigious writer, seeing her songs, just piano and vocals stripped of all production, and I helped build the production on those, I was able to see a lot of math at work. The way that she masterfully, clearly understood the rules of songwriting, and broke them every time just the right way. I tried to absorb that and understand where the moments in a song are, where the energy builds, and where the genius in telling a story in songwriting; how to bring a person in and keep them engaged. Yeah, the analysis part of mathematics helped me a lot in gaining more understanding.”

He hopes to have something topological to share with the world sometime in the new year.

For someone like Jae who has built much of his career on his connections within certain communities, the thought of integrating those various communities may have once seemed far-fetched. Jae remembers attending a jam session about a year and a half ago at Nick Rosen’s house, who is the musical director at the Sayer’s Club in L.A. That’s where Jae first encountered Elmo Lovano who was playing drums at the house.

“The more I listened to him I was like, ‘woah this guy is really playing right now, he’s on another level,’” Jae said.

Intrigued by the things he started hearing about what Elmo had going, Jae started hanging around different events and eventually told Elmo to keep him involved.

“I thought, whatever’s going on here, it’s amazing,” said Jae. “The first jam session I went to [JammJam] was with Phil Lassiter, and thought ‘I wanna do this.’ I talked to Elmo and eventually did a feature at Jammcard, and I’ve just been rollin’ with them ever since.”

Jae was featured at a JammJam in August, 2017, which is where Jae met Anya V, who he calls one of his favorite collaborators.

“She’s like family, Elmo’s like family, I love it … It’s changed my life. It is truly an inspiration,” Jae says of the Jammcard community. “It’s a dependable network that I rely upon frequently, and I pour back into it. A lot of my friends are in it, and I’ve made some new friends. It makes for no-nonsense and much more productivity.”

Being able to trust that what you’re getting into is legit can be tricky in this day and age, and Jae sees the way in which Jammcard operates to be reliable.  

“The fact that the invitations are hand-picked makes it so you get a lot more out of your networking opportunities,” Jae said. “Of course, you see people you haven’t seen in a while that you love to see, but they know people, and being in that environment that’s more densely packed with the people that you want to meet, it’s such a joy … with Jammcard, they’re serving the musician, and that’s the aim, to congeal a network of like-minded people. There hasn’t been anything quite like it.”

Toward the end of our conversation I asked Jae what he was working on at the moment. He said he’s been writing for some notable pop artists, and that he was hopeful that his content makes it to the album, and so he was reluctant to name names. Though he did mention they’ve collaborated with Beyoncé and Rihanna.

“They’re incorporating some musical elements so that’s where I come in,” Jae said. “I’m pleased to be working with them.”

Otherwise, Jae is continuing his work at USC, and working on bringing together elements of publishing with venture capitalism and brand licensing.

“I think there’s a lot of room for the marriage of those entities, and assisting the record label engine in this new kind of market; something to compliment what the record labels are doing,” he said.

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting Jae Deal would certainly agree: the man is full of a desire to succeed and progress, with a lot of good in his heart.

“One of my main chief objectives in life is to help make the world a better place using my resources,” Jae said. “I really want to give some hope and empowerment to people whether it’s through the music industry or in general.”

By: Charles Weinmann