Another Fox & Her Muse Art Heals by Ina Ruxandra Bochian
Lately there have been few news stories about true male heroes, but Zachery “Fox” Jablow is one who is high up my that list. Not all superheroes wear capes. Some make music that touches our hearts and give us the inspiration to dive into a creative space of our own. These kinds of heroes are magical heroes much like those in A Midsummernight’s Dream. These types of heroes come into our lives like fairies and tug at the strings of our souls so that we can live our best life where fantasy and reality meet. There, in that special place we can imagine we are magical and also bring a little of that magic into the real world through creativity.
While I’ve only known Zak for a few years, it seems we met somewhere in another lifetime, possibly making art or music or both. In this lifetime, I can say I’ve known him for three of his birthdays because Zak’s birthday seems to have turned into this tradition of going to a great show to see his band Vesper, made up of Zak and the lovely Samantha Humphreys.
Zak is a music educator, commercial song writer, and record producer who has been living and working in Chicago for the bulk of his musical career. His producing credits include clients like Chance the Rapper, Avriel Epps, Sidewalk Chalk, Eryn Allen Kane, Vic Mesa, Curren$y, Mac Miller , Ab Soul, Show You Suck, and Marina City Band. Zak also managed, consulted and toured with Ellen Degeneres and Kanye West. He is the Governor of the Advisory Board for NARAS (The Grammys) and sits on the Production and Engineering Committee and Education Committee. When he was an Assistant Tour Manager for Lt. Dan Band, he travelled the world with Gary Sinise and even went to Afghanistan. His commercial portfolio includes clients like McDonald’s, Red Bull, HGTV, Miller Coors, Coca-Cola, Monet, Hennesy, and Verve Cliquot. Zak’s specialties include writing, producing, composing, marketing, budgeting, recording, managing, distributing, promoting, tour building and managing.
The very first time I met Zak was at an unexpected event for the Grammy Committee, my bestie, recording artist Dante Roze, invited me to. For a brief time, I was managing Dante and we were trying to figure out how to navigate the music industry together. As someone who has never managed a musician before I needed all the help I could get. Music management was foreign to me, but my niche was networking and connecting artists to other artists. Because of this, Dante wanted me to help represent him at networking events and look for opportunities for both of us to grow as artists and entertainers. My background was primarily in visual arts and also writing, but my interest in the music industry started to grow the more I worked on the FOX TV Show, Empire. Dante and I met on the set of that show and gravitated towards each other because we both seemed to speak a language only the other fully understood. To this day we still wonder why Lee Daniels has not yet created a spin off reality show staring myself and the Real Dante Roze, but that’s a different story for a different article.
Meeting Zak is more about Dante pushing me out of my comfort zone than about me trying to make an appearance at this Grammy Committee event. It was a sunny Tuesday in September and I got off from work early so that I could get ready for the event and meet Dante at the Chop Shop. I was super moody and did not like any of my clothes and my hair wasn’t right. “I’m not prepared for a Grammy event, Dante,” I panicked on the phone. “Just look as fabulous as you do on Empire. Don’t make this too hard Vanilla Cookie.” We both bust out laughing at this comment because we are goofy like that and have a million inside jokes about set life. “Well, alright then, since you think I can match how fly wardrobe expects us to be, I’ll pull something together, but I really don’t want to go.”
Spending extra time on my hair, I feared that I would be late by the time I made up my mind to go, but of course Dante had to go shopping for some last minute wardrobe items because he always likes to keep up with the latest trends. Eventually, we made it to Chop Shop, late enough for everyone to turn around and look back when we walked in, but early enough to be considered fashionably late. Within minutes of walking into the event, which was a ChiUpClose and personal event with Chicago producer No I.D., Zak made his way to the back of the room where I was standing.
At first, I thought Zak worked for the venue and was just standing there because he was one of the hosts or waiters. I really couldn’t even see his face because it was very dark, but I noticed his beard and thought he was Latino at first. I almost started speaking Spanish to him, which would have been super awkward considering he’s a white Jewish guy. As No I.D. spoke, I noticed how invested Zak was in the speech. No I.D., otherwise known as Ernest Dion Wilson, is an American-Canadian hip hop and R&B music producer from Chicago. Wilson, known as the “Godfather of Chicago hip hop” served as a mentor for several artists including Kanye West. At one point, Wilson was the president of West’s G.O.O.D. Music record company, a position from which he eventually resigned. In August 2011, Wilson became the Executive Vice President of A&R for Def Jam Recordings. Later, he launched ARTium Recordings, his own record label imprint. At this time he serves as the Executive Vice President of Capitol Music Group.
Given Wilson’s experience and level of expertise, I was more than excited to hear him speak about a book I was well familiar with, Start With Why, How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek. First, I was impressed with Wilson for discussing the book as it pertains to leadership within the music industry and then I was impressed with Zak for paying such close attention. Unsure if he was a musician or a waiter, Zak’s attentiveness struck me. After the talk wrapped up, I worked the room a little bit and eventually Zak came over to talk to me. “What was your favorite part?” he asked me. “I liked that No I.D. talked about Start With Why. That is one of my favorite leadership books. I have it on my night stand.” In response Zak said, “I teach that book.” Taken back, I was surprised by his reply. “So, you’re a teacher?” I asked. “A professor, actually,” Zak answered. “Where?” “I used to teach at Columbia and now I teach at SAE Institute.” “Wow, you look really young to be a professor.” Humble and a little shy, he said, “Well, that’s what they say, but I have a few years on me.” “What do you teach?” “Currently I teach the business of music production?” “Oh wow. That would come in handy. I would love to sit in once if that’s possible. Do you have a card?” “No but I’ve got a phone number,” he joked. “I can give you my number.”
Zak didn’t just text me his number, but his vCard, which included his picture, phone number, website, and linked in profile. When I got home I got lost looking at all his credentials and accompaniments. When I met him, Zak had not even turned 30 and his resume was jam packed with amazing work. The first thing that stood out was that he co-wrote Chance the Rapper’s “Hey Ma.” Not only that, but he holds an Excellence in Teaching Award from Columbia College Chicago in 2013 and a Grammy Nomination for best Music Educator in 2014. Besides all that, what spoke to my heart the most is his service as a mentor for the PLCCA (Proviso Leyden Council for Community Action Inc.), a co-creator for the “Beats not streets” program to help provide music education in the Maywood community. This program provided students with the ability to learn digital music creation, song writing, and recording. He also served as a volunteer for the Chicago Coalition For Homeless and cares about Arts and Culture, Children and Education. Furthermore, Zak was a collaborator for The Field Museum of Chicago and worked in conjunction with the Museum’s education department to create “Sound Planet 2013” as part of the City of Chicago’s Summer Youth Programs. As part of this project, Zak instructed a group of students to record ancient instruments and found sounds throughout the museum. The students then created samples of their field recordings, and wrote soundscapes using Logic Pro to tell a story about their communities.
From his community work alone, I could tell Zak cares more than just about producing music and making great beats. He clearly had the kind of WHY Wilson talked about in his lecture, structured around the ideas in Sinek’s book. By why, Sinek means, “What’s your purpose?” “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader,” Sinek writes in Start With Why.
Whether Zak knew it or not, within the first 24 hours I met him I was inspired to dream more, learn more, and do more. Reading Zak’s Linkedin profile helped me close my eyes and go back to a place where dreaming was possible. With my heart’s eye, I could see myself as a little girl, then a teenager, then a college student, when my dreams had not been swallowed by monsters who silenced my voice. I didn’t know Zak’s personal story, but it seemed he had one because his heart seemed to be in his work and that gave me hope to pursue my own work and passions. Unfortunately for me, I had lost my artistic voice and identity a few years before meeting Zak due to an assault. Though I am not comfortable discussing the details of that, for the purpose of this article I will focus on the healing process and on how Zak helped inspire me to dig deep inside past the pain of something that was stolen from me. I cannot refer to Zak as a mentor or teacher because he taught music, not art or creative writing, but hearing his stories about his creative process brought me to a place where I felt strong enough to build something of my own. A part or me was jealous of his accomplishments, but another part of me was excited to have met someone who turns dreams into reality.
I never got the chance to work with Zak and my time as Roze’s manager was short lived. However, the rush I felt after meeting Zak is something I cannot describe, something I never felt before or after meeting him. From that moment on, I knew he was special and that we would be in each other’s lives indefinitely. The more I got to know him as a person and as an artist, the stronger I grew as a person and as an artist. For a while, Zak became my perfect muse because he was close enough, but far enough removed to help me focus inward. Finding Zak led me to finding parts of myself that had gone missing. As artists, Zak and I are very different, but there are some areas where our interests overlap. Zak is mostly a music producer and creator of dope beats who sometimes writes and sings, while I am mostly a writer who can’t sing to save my life, but I appreciate music and admire the hard work that goes into production. Zak is an admirer or fine art, while I am a visual artist. He is more of a football playing kind of guy while I’m a yoga, spin, boxing, and sometimes contemporary dance kind of girl. One could argue that we are opposites, but I like to think our common ground is that we are creative souls with a heart. Our passion to create is where our hearts intersect and that is where I saw collaboration potential.
The night I met Zak, I stayed up late and I even came across his Ted talk with violinist Katarina Visnevska. Zak produced Katerina’s first original track and inspired her, just as he constantly inspiring me. “We heard music be coined as the universal language and I certainly believe that to be true. I think it’s fascinating that an artist can set an intention and we can hear his intention, or we can feel his intention, we can experience the emotion that he is trying to effectively express throughout that song. And, I also think that music as a language has an infinite amount of dialect. I think it’s really neat that someone like Katerina who’s been playing violin for nearly 20 years can have a conversation musically with someone like myself with no training, with no hours spent in a Latvian conservatory, but I can pick up a guitar …and I can play the piano. We can communicate effectively with just improvising. We can feel what intervals are going to be the right step. We can predict each other’s next move and as a music producer, that’s what I love most about my job.” Zak went on to explain that production is about “getting into an artist’s head” and recollects a story about the first time he felt music when he was young and his mom sang a lullaby to him accompanied by her acoustic guitar. Zak’s mother is an accomplished song writer who taught him that songs can either come from your head or your heart and songs from the head sound different than those from the heart. As a music producer, he wanted to find his own process, his own voice, his own source of inspiration. “I see sounds, notes started to take shape, tones started to take color,” Zak said. He took the audience through an exercise with colored glow sticks and told them that based on what image they pick they will create music. “Your input, the ration of red to green, is going to affect what we play live…We are going to improvise solely on the images and the way they make you feel.” Seeing this symphony of color, sound, and audience interaction, I could feel the music too, but I felt more than that. I felt the passion with which the music was being created. The little girl inside me traveled back in time to my childhood when I played the violin, a time of innocence, a time of hope, a time when the colors in my world were brighter.
Immediately after watching Zak’s Ted Talk, I felt a sudden urge to paint, but I was not quite sure what I wanted to paint. I felt nervous, like something inside me had shifted, perhaps a feeling of calm, of healing, of hope. A week and a day later, I finally started to paint again. The image that came to mind was a calla lily because it made me think of my youth, faith, and rebirth. While I was trying to pick out colors, Zak text me asking me if I was going to the Empire premiere viewing party for Season 2 at SoHo house. It turned out we were headed to two different premiere parties that night, but we ended up talking about my painting. I was indecisive about colors and Zak helped me pick them, so I can give him credit as a collaborator on the calla lily piece. As I painted, I felt the colors like he felt the music and I remembered the first time colors made me feel something. Just like Zak did when he thought about the first time he felt music, I travelled back in time to my childhood when I first felt colors. I was 7 and living with my grandparents on a farm when I first felt the colors of the fields in my hand as I painted poppy flowers on the wall of my grandmother’s garage. There, I felt peaceful, like a quiet timeless place where I could rest. I saw the fields, the poppies, the lilies of the valley, and even sunflowers as I painted my calla. A sense of calm came over me and I was just as happy to hold a paintbrush in my hand as Zak is to hit the notes on a piano when creating a new song.
As time went on, Zak continued to inspire me because I would listen to his music and write or create art. Sometimes I painted, other times I wrote poems or stories no one got to see, but for the most part I was actively creating art and felt my heart become a little lighter. Some things I wrote made little sense, but I was creating with heart and not my head. The more I wrote, the more I was inspired. Finally I was able to piece together a screen play loosely based on some of my life experiences. To write my screenplay, I listened to a lot of music. Most of the screenplay was written while listening to an album called Closer mostly written by an artist and song writer from Texas named Adam Rivera and his band The Piano Room, but one of the main scenes I wrote listening to the song “I’ll Sing You to Sleep,” by Marina City, produced by Zak.
My screenplay is still in development and I am having a lot of trouble finding the right producers and finances for it, but in the along the developing process I started to heal. Slowly, I stated coming out of my shell and getting out a little more, but for the most part I was afraid of public places, events, socializing or being out in general. It took me a very long time to build trust with people and start believing in humanity again. Zak played an instrumental part of my healing process because he was always there when I truly needed him. We were not best friends and we did not even talk every day, but watching him working at his craft and meeting some of the people he has helped along the way helped me feel at peace. The one regret I have is that we seemed to have run out of time. Zak is generally in class teaching and in the studio, while I live on the opposite time of town and also have two jobs. The times we did spend together, I hold close to my heart because Zak is one of the few people who managed to get me out to shows. After going to a few of Zak’s shows, I became a little less anxious, but besides that I still keep to myself for the most part. Zak knows this because I told him, but it took a lot courage for me to overcome social anxiety and come to shows, but because he always made me feel safe, respected, and appreciated I was able to feel more and more comfortable as time went on.
I continued to work creatively and eventually reached out to my college professor, Luis Alberto Urrea, to ask for help with some of my writing. Luis is an accomplished author a role model I’ve known for over 11 years. Finally, I was able to tell him I was writing again. My writing was choppy, but it was coming along. Eventually I started telling him about my screenplay and from a post on Luis’s Facebook I figured out that his son Eric Urrea is the drummer of Marina City Band. This simple fact made me so happy because it meant that I was starting to attract the right kind of people in my life. With a lot of work before me I still needed a lot of resources to move forward, but out of all the people I asked for help, Luis stepped up to offer me some practical help. He let me sit in on a workshop and I was able to work on my book. At this point, I had set aside the screenplay and decided to develop it as a novel first and then the screenplay. After taking the class and absorbing the criticism, I knew I had to rewrite and restructure the whole manuscript, but what made me very happy was the criticism that came back. Most of the students in that class commented that I was “hiding” inside my work and highlighted other people and characters more than myself. The entire class requested me to put more about myself in my work and detach from the other characters. Surprised and encouraged by this criticism, I continued to write and paint and put myself into my pieces. Slowly, I started to get my voice back and in time, through my writing and my painting, I started to create music of my own. My music was not like Zak’s music, but I could hear it inside when I picked up my paintbrush and when I started to hear melodies in my poems or prose.
Music began to echo in my mind and it gave me a chance to compose without instruments through listening to the sound of my breathing and getting comfortable with my own rhythm. As I got more involved in my own creative process, I started to attend more of Zak’s shows for Vesper and met a lot of new bands and artists along the way. Being in a creative environment allowed me to open up my heart to new beginnings. During this time, while I was going to Zak’s Vesper shows I met so many other artists including Hugh Lee, Austin Fillmore, Revolt Coda, Glax Lux, among others. This music brought me the greatest joy over the past few years and I would like to encourage you to go see Vesper live also at The House of Blues on January 4th. This will be Zak’s last show before he moves to Nashville and I really want to send him and Samantha off with a great turn out. If anyone deserves support it is Zak Fox Jablow. They call him Fox and me Foxy Roxy sometimes and so I suppose us Foxes have to stick together and root each other on. I will miss him very much, but between now and then you can reach out to him on Instagram and get your tickers. Zak’s IG is: theprofessorfox & Vesper’s IG is: vesper.music. Give them a follow and check out some unique music. I hope these tunes bring you as much joy as they have brought me.