As a student, Jeff Coffin ('90) practiced the saxophone from 8 to 12 hours a day. All the stamina and fundamentals he honed at UNT he still uses today, especially when he plays for three and a half hours a night -- and for some famously long improvisational numbers -- as a member of the Dave Matthews Band.
Coffin has carved a two-decade career as a saxophonist who pushes the boundaries of music conventions, and that sometimes includes playing two saxophones at once. His work has resulted in three Grammy Awards, when he was a member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and his own band, Jeff Coffin & the Mu'tet.
"I go out of my way to play different ways," he says. "I'm interested to see what the saxophone can't do. It's a big experiment."
Coffin, who has played saxophone since he was 10, was attending college part-time in New Hampshire when his friend and fellow saxophone player Dave Pietro ('87) encouraged him to check out UNT. He landed a spot with the Eight O'Clock Lab Band and was happy to be there.
"There was so much competition," says Coffin, who managed practice while taking a heavy course load in music education. "I was there to work really hard."
And the work paid off. He made the One O'Clock Lab Band his final semester.
"What we do as musicians," he says, "it's not rocket science. There is a lot of self-discipline, sacrifice."
"It put me on this path of listening to these different types of music," he says. "It completely flipped me around."
Read the Jeff Coffin Q&A
After college, he moved to Nashville and has worked with artists as varied as DJ Logic, Willie Nelson, Widespread Panic and Tuvan throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar. His big break came when he was tapped to play for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, infusing bluegrass with unlikely genres like jazz, classical and pop, from 1997 to 2010.
"Being visible, consistent, easy to work with, being on time or early and fostering relationships are what got me into those situations," he says. "Playing well will get you hired once, but it's all these other things that get you hired the second time."
Coffin and his own genre-busting Mu'tet have released five albums, including two on his label, Ear Up, since forming in the 1990s. A Yamaha and D'Addario Performing Artist, he plays shows around the country, has presented more than 300 music clinics to students, and teaches at Vanderbilt University and at conferences.
He co-wrote a saxophone book, The Articulate Jazz Musician, with Caleb Chapman, and is working on another. And he's about to release a big band CD with Chapman's Crescent Super Band, featuring high school musicians, with proceeds supporting the National School of Music in Havana, Cuba, where Coffin and the band did a cultural exchange in March.
He fits all that in around his world travels with the Dave Matthews Band, which he joined in 2008.
"The highlight is to work with the artists and travel," he says. "I love the feeling of playing live and the immediacy of it. It's like jumping off a ledge."