Arte Suave. The gentle art. For those who study this so-called gentle art, one is all too familiar with the challenges it sets before you each and every day one steps on the mats. But can this long and arduous journey actually serve as a yin to life’s even more chaotic yang? Professor Ty Gay Owner/Head Instructor and Gracie Jiu Jitsu Black Belt shows how one artist can use the shadow and light of music and jiu jitsu, as tools for catharsis and creation.
As a child, Ty Gay was diagnosed as “one of the most severely dyslexic people ever tested.” Dyslexia is a learning disorder which impacts how one’s brain interprets the relation of speech sounds to written letters and words. There is no cure for dyslexia. It is a lifelong condition. Early on, Ty had difficulties with writing and mathematics. This led to a natural gravitation to “things of technique” like music and martial arts.
At age 9 Ty loved The Karate Kid and began his life as a martial artist with Hapkido and Tae Kwon Do, like most young kids donning their first crisp white uniforms. This was also the same time he began studying piano. “I have somewhat of a photographic auditory system, which allows me to memorize things much faster than the normal person would musically, not everything, just musical stuff.” says Gay.
Ty found that if he was able to commit something to muscle memory, i.e. playing chords or notes on the piano or guitar, he had a definite advantage over his peers, because of the condition. The dyslexia would also inadvertently have a positive impact on his jiu jitsu because he found out early the importance and benefits of constantly repping techniques. Rather than just throw around the Bruce Lee quote about someone who’s practiced a kick 10,000 times, Ty was forced to practice all moves extensively to lock them into muscle memory. Whereas the average practitioner thinks about the two sides of the armlock from the guard as mirror images of each other, Ty had to learn the moves as two completely separate techniques, which ultimately required more muscle memory training.
Throughout the 80s and early 90s Ty split his time enraptured by the martial aspects of the ‘karate style’ disciplines most popular and readily available and being drawn to classical music for its complex, musical patterns. Over time he had learned to play every instrument and spent 11 years as a drummer in his bands. When one of his band lost it’s vocalist, Ty knew all the parts, so at age 21, he replaced himself as drummer with one of his friends and he started his life as a vocalist, which was the only role he hadn’t explored up to that point.
In 1997, Ty found himself backstage at a Tool concert and noticed that the lead singer Maynard James Keenan had a bodyguard who seemed to carry himself differently than other people. “I could tell this guy had done something, because he had that presence. I walked up to him and I was like Man, I’m a martial artist and I can tell you do some sort of martial art–What is it?” The bodyguard crossed his arms, raised his chin and looked down his nose at Ty and simply said “Gracie Jiu Jitsu.” That bodyguard was Henry Akins, one of Rickson Gracie’s students, who was a blue belt at the time and was actually on a stop of the Tool tour which would allow him to stay with family in Oklahoma for the holidays.
After that life-changing moment, Ty was able to train with Henry and his brothers in Oklahoma creating a bond and relationship that continues to shape his philosophy and jiu jitsu to this day, nearly 20 years later. But this pivotal moment was just the beginning of his collision course with Gracie Jiu Jitsu, as the most influential meeting was to come.
At this time, there was very little jiu jitsu presence in America and much less in Oklahoma. Ty was forced to get his jiu jitsu fix on trips to California for various band projects. During a battle of the bands contest for Rolling Stone Magazine, his band actually “lost to a band called Squared, which eventually became Maroon Five.” Someday Ty joked “we’ll have a real battle of the bands and I’ll get to beat that guy (Adam Levine) up, but that’s a different story.” Looking back, getting to train at Rickson Gracie’s school during these trips probably softened the blow of losing that battle of the bands to one of The Voice’s current judges.
“I was really honored and privileged to get to train at Rickson Gracie’s Academy in the early days when they were still in a karate studio. I got to train with Rockson out there, when Rockson was alive. He was just such a cool kid, into skating and he would sell me his old Rickson shirts for extra money and I thought was awesome,” said Gay.
Once back home, it was a struggle to get friends to come over and grapple with him. Henry Akin’s encouraged him to look for a judo school and Ty was able to spend 5 quality years with the USA Stars school in Moore, Oklahoma run by Pat Burris. Though he trained amongst many stars of the judo world and future Olympians, Ty mostly gravitated to the newaza or ground techniques of judo.
“I have great respect for judo…I got good at defending the stuff they were trying to do to me all the time. That was how my standup got good, more of a defense,” said Gay. But since he was also spending a great deal of time training with Henry Aken’s brothers in Oklahoma and Henry himself whenever he was able to get to California, his ground game improved. Eventually he was given a mat at the judo school to teach, what he called in the early days “Combat Jiu Jitsu.”
Looking back on that time, Ty recalls fondly that the jiu jitsu was just like everyone else’s and most importantly was built on that unique bond and camaraderie that develops when groups of people step outside of the norm. “What drew me to jiu jitsu is the same thing that drew me to the band Tool. They were special and unique. And not everyone’s favorite band, you know? There’s something unique about jiu jitsu, that’s unique amongst all martial arts. It’s different than everything else. Whenever you go to a tournament or when you roll at someone’s gym, it’s like a connection that never goes away. That’s really special in today’s day and age when there’s not much connection going on.”
After some time teaching at the judo school, he was approached by the owner of a karate school in the other part of the city who offered to give Ty space to hold a class there. He spent some time running back and forth between these two places, all while holding down a job at a pizza shop and working on his music career. Eventually after supporting his band habit for so long with his pizza job, he began to notice that he was making more money teaching jiu jitsu. “So a light starts going off in my head and I’m like, wait a minute, I love jiu jitsu and it’s usually like pulling teeth to get people to come grapple with me, but if I have a school they show up automatically. So it was a no brainer at that point and I never really looked back after that.”
Affiliations were ultra rare in the early days, but eventually Ty connected with Leonardo Xavier, a Gracie Humaita instructor who was to go on to create his own affiliation. This experience gave him 8 and a half years of “sport jiu jitsu” focus, but it also made him miss his “street ready” roots. He would ultimately leave Xavier’s organization as a brown belt, though the decision was difficult personally and politically.
“I had some big, deep things tearing at me, like I said, I started with Henry and I was this big Rickson follower. I watched the Rickson “Choke” video so many times I broke my VHS tape. So I was really immersed in that and that was kind of my start, my beginning and who I wanted to become and what I wanted to become,” Gay recalls.
The pivotal moment of his jiu jitsu career was about to happen when a friend who is an eye doctor heard about a Gracie Immersion Camp in Fiji. Being a jiu jitsu teacher and not an eye doctor, Ty was unable to go. “You know the joke is that the brokest guy in any jiu jitsu class is always the teacher (laughs).” Ty’s eye doctor friend attended the camp, where he met Rorion, Rener and Ryron. It turns out that Eve Torres who is now Rener’s wife needed a special version of eye surgery that Ty’s friend specialized in. A deal was set in motion for Rener to come do a seminar at Ty’s school in exchange for the surgery.
Not really knowing too much about Rener, having only seen a few videos of Rener’s purple belt competitions, he had no idea what kind of experience he was about to have. “I’ll never forget he was there at my school and he taught the American Keylock, one of the first moves we learn in jiu jitsu. But when he taught it, I remember he looked up at his grandfather’s picture hanging on the wall and you could see this look on his face as if he had just amazed himself as much as everyone else in the room was amazed with the frickin’ keylock (laughs). At that moment, he looked up and was doing the move I had done my whole jiu jitsu career and he did it with such passion and conviction and looked up at his grandfather, at that moment I knew I was going to follow this guy for life,” Gay recalls.
After that class, Rener proceeded to walk into Ty’s office, put his feet up and give him a lesson in running a jiu jitsu school. Do you have a beginner’s class? Do you have people gather around you as you demonstrate a technique or do they line up against the wall? More important than these two simple questions, which Ty had never considered before was a the birth of the business mindset. Out of this came the metamorphosis of Redline GJJ which began as a self-professed meat grinder where “if you didn’t throw up on the first day of class, we weren’t doing our jobs,” according to Ty to a place where everyone can train and learn to push their own individual “redlines.”
A similar metamorphosis was happening simultaneously in Ty’s musical career. The early bands Ty found himself in didn’t have a great deal of success. His work was well known in and around Oklahoma, but it was not until his current project Everybody Panic! that he and the band have been signed to a label, Cavigold Records. Ty and his guitar player/Producer band mate Provo Provenzano just wrapped up several weeks at the famous Robert Lang Studios in Seattle, where bands like Nirvana and the Foo Fighters have recorded, laying down vocals for an upcoming release slated for June at this time.
Music and jiu jitsu are like yin and yang for Ty. Both are creative, both involve intense energy releases, and both can potentially have a business side. “Art is what I’m drawn to and jiu jitsu is art. When there’s flow, there’s beauty and exchange of energy, which relies on your partner,” says Gay, “Music and jiu jitsu play off of each other. I can turn everything off with jiu jitsu, but with music there’s a sense of schizophrenia and not being able to turn everything off. Jiu Jitsu is an outlet to shrug off the topics of music. It is a reset button.”
Initially drawn to the complexity and patterns of classical music, it was the energy release of rock that defines and shapes his music. He jokes that he spends his days teaching people not to panic in jiu jitsu, only to go home at night to encourage Everybody to Panic!
It is well known how long and arduous the journey to black belt can be. Similarly, the path of a working musician is just as littered by those who stopped somewhere along the way. Ty Gay is an example of someone who has broken the cliché that you cannot serve two masters and instead uses music and jiu jitsu to serve him. Without jiu jitsu, the dark themes and imagery of his music would probably have a much more detrimental effect on him and his psyche. Jiu Jitsu has given him the ability to recharge, to refresh and to continue to create in the musical space. He cites the influence by Ryron’s “Keep it playful” movement which says you can go all out at 100% intensity for a few years or you can take a playful, “lighter” approach and do jiu jitsu for the rest of your life.
For Ty, his music and his jiu jitsu are vehicles of the human spirit. In this world of immediate gratification, both of these arts challenge the participant to constantly evolve or fade away. The secret to success in jiu jitsu, music and ultimately life is to remember to ‘be connected, but not attached’ a theme Ty and his band Everybody Panic! explore in their song “Detach.”
“Jiu Jitsu is magical,” says Gay, “It is the closest thing I’ve gotten into in my life where I thought I was a superhero and had magical powers, because that’s what you’ve got, you’ve got magical superhuman powers. Because of leverage, if someone doesn’t know what you know, it’s amazing. So what do we do, we approach it with great reverence, we look at all of the masters of the trade, the Grandmasters, all that came before us, but we don’t see much further than a generation or two behind us. It’s very interesting when people become protective over the art because they know what a struggle jiu jitsu is. Sports like Tae Kwon Do simply didn’t have the same reverence. Royce Gracie came in and choked everyone in the UFC and that changed how people looked at martial arts forever. And what that led to is attachment, which is our ego attaching to an idea of something I want to attain.”
We see this everyday on the mats when someone locks onto a submission and refuses to abandon it if their opponent counters or stops the advancement. Therefore the person who’s blindly attached to the submission puts themselves at risk to end up in a worse position than before, or even to be tapped out themselves. It’s easy to become too attached and miss the notion of being connected, but not attached.
In the end, everything that human beings are involved in are impacted both positively and negatively by human nature. Both music and jiu jitsu, along with their respective business sides are fraught with challenges, but are ultimately enriching to practitioners creatively and spiritually. There are a number of notable bands who have members who study jiu jitsu, such as Five Finger Death Punch, Dragonforce, Nothing More, Biohazard and Adema to name a few and Ty even has his Everybody Panic! band mates studying the Gracie Combatives, with specific scenarios geared towards life on the road. Ty Gay is an artist who stands apart from this group as someone who issues us the ultimate challenge through his work on the stage and on the mats. He does not judge and tell the world, it should be more like him. Instead, he walks the talk and calmly suggests that we find our own path. By showing the world how he has embraced the music of jiu jitsu and the jiu jitsu of music, he screams an emphatic YES to human nature. “The world is full of distractions and it is impossible not to be distracted. Choice your distractions wisely.”
Check out Everybody Panic! on YouTube and be on the lookout for their new release in June.
Check out Redline Gracie Jiu Jitsu’s YouTube page and many technique videos.
She Jitsu is a joint offering between Professor Gay and his fiancé Jennifer Gray. They do a lot of work with women’s charities throughout their area.
Life and Death Kimonos is also Professor Gay’s unique bamboo/cotton gi.