In conversation with darcy james argue
This past May, Darcy James Argue and his big band the Secret Society played their first dates outside New York City. A short tour of Europe took them to Amsterdamís Bimhuis, Dortmundís Domicil, and finally the Moers Festival in northern Germany. After the encores and standing ovation from an audience of some 2500 at Moers had subsided, there seemed little doubt among those present that a major young talent in jazz had arrivedóor, perhaps more accurately, was in the process of arriving.
Well-versed in the history of the big band in jazz, this up-and-coming 34 year-old Canadian composer and arranger has made contemporary the venerable big band format, partly by showing an awareness of what's happening in the parallel universe of popular culture. It's no surprise to read in the pages of Newsweek that Argue called his music "Steampunk big band music," a reference to "the niche art movement that fantasizes about modern tech innovations in the steam powered era."
With his Secret Society Web site, Argue successfully harnessed the power of the internet to help launch his band and his current album Infernal Machines. He also uses the site to keep fans abreast of news about his activities and the world of jazz in general. On the afternoon of his Moers concert, we spoke not just about his use of the internet, but also things musical: the key influences on his style, such as Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer; his composing aesthetic, and the importance of popular culture to jazz, and how this is reflected in his music. We began by exploring his refreshingly inclusive musical vision.
I'm impressed by the way you've reconceptualized the big band format, bringing it into 21st century. I wonder if you can talk a little about how you've accomplished that.
A lot of people, when they try and make contemporary music with the big band, seem intent on calling it something else, like 'The Jazz Orchestra' or 'The Large Ensemble'ósomething that makes it clear that it isn't necessarily directly connected or in the genre of what people think about when they think of the big band music: the Swing bands of the 1930s. Calling it something else seems to me a bit pretentious, a state of denial. Itís a big band, right? Whether we want it to be or not, it is obviously going to be connected to that legacy. To me what is interesting is that for a while the big band completely dominated popular music in the 1930s. Whenever you heard anything on the radio, whether it was 'jazz' or just 'jazzy,' whether there was a singer on it or it was instrumental, it was always a big band. That was the vehicle for popular music for a good solid decade.
Of course times change and people change. With the advent of electronic amplification you didnít need that many horns for a big sound; you could have that big sound with a smaller band. But I was always fascinated by the incredible popularity of the big bands. A lot of the music I write comes out of imagining an alternate history of popular music where Elvis was always backed by a big band, or David Bowie was always backed by a big band, and all the way down the line. If that had been the standard unit of popular music, what would that music now sound like? Thatís like an interesting game for me, because with that many instruments there are a lot of possibilitiesóa lot of sonic and coloristic possibilities that are not there with smaller jazz groups.
Some of the effects and some of the devices that I use are a conscious attempt to try and incorporate some of the techniques that are more a part of studio production techniques trying to replicate something similar using acoustic instruments. With a big band itís possible to actually do that. Itís something I find really interesting, to re-focus those devices for jazz, and re-appropriate them into a jazz ensemble.
I find this a fascinating aspect of your music, because for me, jazz loses the link with popular culture at its peril. Can we talk about how you have renewed this link in your music, how it relates to the current times?
There is the extra musical context for some of my music. On the CD [Infernal Machines] there's a piece called 'Habeas Corpus,' which is dedicated Maher Arar, who was a Canadian victim of extraordinary rendition. It is serious to be tortured, and [with all the things happening] in the world at large [it is] impossible for me not to incorporate influences of the music of today. I wouldnít say it was programmatic. Iím not trying to engage in sound painting, or anything quite so literal. But it is definitely inspired by my personal reaction Ö the Maher Arar story hit home, particularly because he is also a McGill graduate; he is just a few years older than I am, and it's impossible not to think, 'what if this happened to someone I love?' Or 'what if this happened to me?'
The larger context of it is just so horrifying, because the reason he was sent to Syria in the first place was because he was named in one of these torture interrogations; his name was fed to someone who was being water-boardedólike, 'tell us about Maher Arar, no, we know youíve had dealing with him, we know heís a bad guy.' And of course when someone is being tortured, they will say anything to make it stop, and the thing to make it stop is to tell the interrogator what they want to know, what they want they want to hear. Then you see Dick Cheney on the TV, saying these interrogation techniques are what keep us safe. Itís so absurd. Itís absolutely maddening and it is obviously something that has been eating at me ever since it came to light that this was what was being done in our name. In the tradition of Mingus it seemed impossible not to respond to that in some way in music.
Can we turn to specific musical devices and sounds which you have incorporated into your music that reflect elements of contemporary culture?
The record opens with a piece called 'Phobos,' on which has our drummer John Wikan is playing a very old, traditional folkloric instrument called the cajon. We have taken that sound, which has very rootsy sound, and electronically processed and turned it to something unrecognisable. It opens with something very earthy, and the effect we apply to it is very un-earthy. What I hope, is that people put it on and when they hear it they say, 'I thought this was going to be a big band record.' And so gradually we manage to weave some things in and it establishes a mood, it established a way of listening to the album. It makes its intentions known from the start that this is going to involve technology. The sound itself comes out of Aphex Twin and Stereolab and that kind of sound, using the tools of the recording studio in a way that maybe be a bit unusual for a jazz ensemble.
Can we talk about another example, 'Redeye,' which uses loops?
On 'Redeye,' which is the earliest piece on the record, it begins with a very simple acoustic guitar loop. Thatís a very specific sound and a lot of people are building a whole performance on that techniqueówill sample one thing and layer another loop and another loop and another on top of it. So I wrote this thing in 2003, itís not nearly as elaborate as that; just one simple loop and the rest the band is used on top of that. I have the luxury of having all these musicians so I donít have to do it with one! Itís a bit of nod in that tune and that world, and there is a lot of commonalities between that additive way of building up loops on top on one another, that way of making music, thatís straight out of Mingusó'Haitian Fight Song' or 'E's Flat Ah's Flat Too.' Adding and adding each cycle adding a new line to it, so I think there is a lot more productive dialogue that can and should go on between jazz and really creative pop music.
It goes in both directions too, there are a lot of indie rock groups that would really love and could benefit from some of the stuff that jazz musicians can offer. That kind of erosion of genre boundaries, as I see at this festival, is very much the future. There is a venue in New York we play from time to time called Le Poisson Rouge, where youíll have a classical solo piano recital, or Steve Reichís Music for 18 Musicians live there. Theyíll do that, and then youíll have punk rock bands, and bands like Deerhunter, and itís not a classical venue or a jazz venue or a rock venue, or any of those things, but a place for people with a taste for art.
Can we turn to composition, and how you approach it, and by this I mean, do you see composition as a utility to present the soloist, or as a thing in itself?
For me, the end is to be expressiveóto present music that is emotionally compelling, that tells a story and has a narrative arc to it. Iím not really interested in music that is only about a particular compositional device or exploring a particular technical cell, or whatever. Thatís not interesting, at least not for me. The sound of it, the emotional effect and the communication with the listener is something that is always first in my mind. I want music that is expressive and tells a story, whether there is an extra-musical association to it or not, there is some sense of an arc to it.
As far as dealing with soloists and improvisation, the most important thing is that they understand the arc of the music as well, and that they are able to operate within those kinds of parameters. There are a lot more constraints on what people can play and what is appropriate for them to play in a big band context, because in a way itís on rails Ö the piece is on rails and going in a certain direction, and they need to assist that rather than fight against it.
Most of the music I write is written specifically with these players in mind Ö when I present something to them and we read through it for the first time, as a composer the best thing in the world is when somebody intuitively 'gets' what they need to do. And it might be something different from the way they play in their own small groups. I try to create and be clear enough in the setting that I have created [so] it's obvious for them how to continue telling the story in their solo. And if itís not, we have to have a discussion about it [laughs].
But I am very lucky that the people who play in this band are all Ö interested in storytelling, musical storytelling, and in fitting what they do within a larger musical context, rather than play like a show stopping solo. Thatís something Iím really not interested in. Itís all about trying to create a context where the solo is integrated into the fabric of the music. Thatís what all the great jazz composers have always done and what I try to do myself.
I agree, I have always had a problem with big bands that split an orchestration in half as a soloist or soloists jump in with something that may, or may not, relate to the thematic material at hand, and go on so long that the opening orchestration becomes a distant memory.
Right. Itís incredibly dangerous to open up space for improvisation without having background figures and so on. It requires an element of trust with the musicians to carry forward the momentum you have established with the written music when you get to the improvisation. What I try to do is find ways to shake people out of their normal habits of the way they would normally play things. The first piece on the record 'Phobos,' has a tenor solo and there is a period when a chord lasts an indeterminate number of bars, and Iíll cue the next chord always. It gives me some way of shaping the solo section. The only marks are slashes and chord symbols; it allows me to figure out structurally and informally. 'Well I need seven measure of this chord and six of this one and what not,' and rather than leave that up to the soloist, itís like an interaction between me and Mark Small, who is playing the solo, of hearing what he is doing. And when I cue the next chord it's maybe not what he was thinking of, but itís allows me to keep my hand in the game a little bit.
In many ways, the heights the soloist can conquer have now been mastered technically. The challenge is not so much the solo as a thing in itself, but the originality of the context within which the soloist functions, and how the soloist responds to that context.
I can think of several exceptions to that rule, but your point is well taken. I feel the most interesting jazz has been involving players who were about more than virtuosity. Virtuosity by itself is incredibly boring. There are peopleóIím going to get into trouble for naming namesówho would prefer to believe that Oscar Peterson is a greater artist than Thelonious Monk, and to me that is insane and indefensible! Iím Canadian and can say that; due respect to Oscar and Iím not slagging him, but Monk was an incredible genius, such a complete artistóthe whole packageóand always very conceptual. [With Monk] it was always the music first and foremost, rather than anything flashy or any kind 'standard soloist' approach, where it has nothing to do with the thematic material. Monk would always have bands that played his music, and improvisation always came out of the music he wrote for his groups. The way he would comp really kept everything focussed and to the point and thatís why Monkís bands are so special.
You get the same thing in Mingusí bands; you get the same thing in Duke Ellingtonís bands. Those are the groups closest to my heart. Everyone is on the same page. There is a real vibe to the music, as opposed to 'Well hereís one solo, and hereís another solo and itís going to be completely unrelated what the previous has done.' That, to me, is a very schizophrenic way of listening to music and relating to itómore of a jam session kind of approach. That kind of approach is not something that has ever spoken to me in the same way as a conceptual composition
You studied with Bob Brookmeyer, a jazz great and a legendary teacher as well, and I wonder what areas you worked on with him. Perhaps you could describe what you got from his input.
Sure. Brookmeyer was a fantastic teacher and he originally invited me to come and study with him at New England Conservatory. We had corresponded a little on line and he asked me to send him some music and he listened to it and said Iíd like you to come down. How can you turn down an invitation like that? At that point I had no intention of going to grad school or getting into the big band business at all. I was a jazz pianist in Montreal. I was writing, but I was writing for my small group. That detour really sent me on this curved path of big band music and big band composing.
And when was this?
I went to New England Conservatory in 2000, I was 25 when I started with Bob. It was interesting, because when I first started taking with him, he didnít actually say very much and it was curious. At New England Conservatory there was a student big band that played exclusively student compositions. It met every week, and you could bring in fragments of things, or works in progress and hear it and get the experience of conducting and rehearsing the group yourself, and learning to manage time. Bob would be there, sitting in the back, and occasionally he would say a few words, but he was really there to sit back and observe. He would listen to the music I was writing. I would bring it in for lessons and he would just nod and encourage me to keep writing, and for a while I thought, 'Is he ever going to say anything?' But what he finally told me was he knew that this piece I was writingówhich is actually something we still play today a 20 minute blowout called 'Lizard Brain,' in 13/4óhe knew this was something new to me; I came in there and I guess I thought I had something to prove, so I really wanted to write something I didnít know if I could pull off, to stretch my abilities as a composer. He thought that was happening and thought, 'Okay, letís see where this leads him on his own, and at the end of it weíll go over it and weíll pick it apart when itís done.' He had the ability to see, 'okay, hereís someone whoís growing, weíll let that happen and Iím just going to see where it ends, but I donít want to interrupt something in progress and bog him down with the specifics of voicings or what not.' After all his years of teaching heís able to do that. And when it was done we got into the guts of the piece, how to structure things a little bit better. That led to something thatís my usual practice. Now, when Iím writing, itís very hard, but I try not to get bogged down much in the detail. To get as much as possible finished, and at the end sort of figure out maybe this section goes on a little bit long, or maybe this transition needs a little more finesse, or clip the order, that kind of thing. Thatís always difficult, because your inner critic is always saying 'I could finesse it now,' so itís really difficult to put off that and keep the momentum going when you write Ö which is why deadlines are fantastic!
How long did you study with him?
I studied with him two years. I did my Masterís program at New England Conservatory, and after that I spent one extra year in Boston because my girlfriend was finishing her degree. But I started in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, which at the time was directed by Jim McNeely and Michael Abene, so I would be hopping on a bus. They had this really cheap, at the time $10, Chinatown to Chinatown express buses from Boston to New York and back at that time they were not totally legal to use. Youíd go down to Chinatown, buy a ticket in a Chinese bakery, look around on the street corner there would be no bus for a while, and someone from the bakery would say, 'Okay, everyone for the bus follow me!' and weíd follow him around the corner, and the bus would turn up and weíd get loaded up in about 30 seconds! The BMI Workshop was all people out of school and I guess wanting to refine their voice, so it was really great meeting a lot of like-minded people with different approaches to music, and a whole different set of aesthetics. Also, youíd get feedback from Jim McNeely and Mike Abene, and the reading sessions every month you could hear what everyone else was up to and look at their scores and that sort of thing. It was there I met Joe Phillips, who is a fantastic composer in New York; J.C. Sanford and a lot of young composers, hearing them at the BMI Workshop, that really planted the seed.
I was still living in Boston, figuring out what to do with the rest of my life, whether it was completely insane to move to New York and try and form a big bandóit is, but there were a lot of other people doing it, so it seemed okay! After a year of doing the weekly commute, four hours on the bus and back, I said alright, letís move to New York and see how it goes.
So my girlfriend and I got a place in Brooklyn, and I started calling some people to do some reading sessions at the Union of some of the music I had written, some things I had written in the BMI Workshop and some new things I was trying out. The great thing about New York is that everybody wants to play, and I had this big list of phone numbers that I got from a friend. I would call people, 'Hey, you donít know me, Iím a composer, Iím new in town and Iím having a reading session at the Union, I canít pay you and the music is extremely difficult.' And there was like, 'Great, sign me up!' or 'Sorry I canít make that, but please keep me in mind, I love playing hard music.' There is just a real great attitude in New York, there are a lot of people if they can possibly make it theyíll never turn down a chance to play music or read music, even if there's no money involved. So its really helpful to a young composer to exploit that and try out some different people.
I did that for a year and a half. I was working as a music copyist primarily; I had some grants from the Canada Council, I had a grant to study with Maria Schneider, and I was also working as a film and Broadway music copyist. So I would have these reading sessions every couple of months, whenever I had new music to work on, and finally Ingrid Jensen [the trumpeter] took me aside after one session and said, 'You should get us a gig!' It was like, 'Alright, you got a point!' So I got us our first gig at CBGB's Gallery, when it existed; there was a Sunday night jazz series, all kinds of crazy music, that was our first gig, in the CBGB's basement.
It is hard enough to survive in the jazz economy as a soloist, but you have a whole big band to consider, so I guess trying to generate an income stream in order to do what you want to do is difficult.
Well Ö yes! And it continues to be. The story is that you go into an enormous amount of debt trying to sustain your big band habit. You canít pay the players nearly what they're worth; it ends up being a really insulting amount of money for these gigs. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found players who were in it for the music and were willing to put up with that, and still willing to rehearse, and devote their time and personal practice in rehearsal and conceptual frustrations of working with music that makes demands of the players they donít face in the normal course of events. It has been a long hard slog to get to this point. I am really fortunate to find a group of players who were willing to trust that something would eventually come of this.
Obviously the response to the album was fantastic. When I started the band, I never imagined we would be doing a European tour. We played the Bimhuis two nights ago, that was our first European gig, the Domicil in Dortmund last night, and performing at the Moers Festival tonight. That would have been incredibly unrealistic [to expect]. This is our first set of dates outside New York, and after we get back weíre playing our first domestic gig outside New York in Philadelphia.
Can you cast your mind back to your early studies, and how you began to think in terms of a big band?
Sure. I grew up in suburban Vancouver and I was lucky to have a very good music program where I was. I started on trumpet and got really frustrated with it, whereas a piano seemed much more attractive. If I wanted to hit a Bb I could do it 100% of the time, so I switched over. I'd had piano lessons as a child, and gotten frustrated with that too, but jazz brought me back to the piano. For whatever reason it was very easy for me start listening to jazz. I found right away things that I liked. My first jazz record was that Clark Terry record In Orbit, with Thelonious Monk; that was instantly appealing. Wynton Kelly on Kind of Blue: instantly appealing.
In the high school jazz band we played a drastically simplified version of a Thad Jones chart. In the library they had the vinyl of the original recording of it, [so] I got that out. And at 12 or 13 really fell in love with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, so probably that was the seed of the interest in big band.
But I donít think I imagined I would start my own, and I went on to Montreal, where I was a jazz piano major at McGill. I had a range of classes there, and the opportunity of writing for a big band. I heard a few things that started the fire. One was back in 1994, a group of us went down to the IAJE in Boston, and there I heard Bob Brookmeyer for the first time with the Danish Radio Big Band. They played his arrangement of 'St. Louis Blues,' and that introduction really stuck with me. I knew I had to get that, and then the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis box set came out on Mosaic, and I was able to get thatóthat music had been previously unavailableóand Maria Schneiderís first record came out, Evanescence. Our arranging teacher played 'Wrygly' in class, and that completely floored me. 'Well hereís someone whoís on the cutting edge of great new jazz and it's almost incidental that it happened to be a big band.' This is like something that is really fresh and interesting and current and unlike any jazz I had heard Ö it was almost like Maria was taking a leap beyond all the small groups in terms of conception and how well everything was integrated structurally. Just the vibe of it that was hugely influential and exciting.
You later studied with Maria Schneider, of course, so perhaps you could expand on her influence on your conception.
Being able to study with Maria was obviously a dream come true. Iíve taken lessons from a lot of different people, but with Bob and Maria I felt like we were on the same wavelength. When Maria would make a suggestion it was always, 'OK. Yes, exactly.' If I had the experience, that was what I was hearing, I wish I had thought of that, it was like she could read my mind and improve on it! Bob was very much the same way. So much of it is about the structure and the narrative and the flow of the piece. You get a lot of teachers who get bogged down a little bit in the nitty-gritty of voicings, and that of course is incredibly important, but I think I basically had that stuff down. So it is important to move beyond that, because it doesnít matter how beautiful your voice leading is, if the structure of the piece isnít satisfying to a listener it doesnít matter; itís all ultimately in vain.
A lot of our lessons, both with Maria and Bob, were just figuring out how to make things more clear, how to tell the story of the piece in a way itís going to make more sense for the listener, so they can follow the dramatic arc of the piece. That might mean another bar and half of this before going on to here, or, this transition here; 'I think you should sneak in the new material a little earlier,' 'see if you can get more of a crossfade between the ideas rather than a jump cut.' Or sometimes it would be, 'what would make this more exciting if you launch into this new section a bar earlier than expected'óthat kind of thing Ö. Being able to manipulate the structure of the piece to guide expectations was something that was really important to my studies with both Bob and Maria. When we got into the nitty-gritty of details it was always in service of something larger. If we treat this voicing itís going to help the whole arc of the piece rather than just examine every single voicing for the hell of it. It was very clear why we were working on things and why there was a microscope on certain details. Because these were the key details that were going to unlock the rest of the piece, that would make it more expressive, or more communicative, or more mysterious, or whatever the vibe of the piece was.
There was an interesting posting on your website about the so called 'jazz wars.' I wonder if you could talk a little about this and expand a little on what you wrote.
I think the museum approach to jazz is something that has been ultimately disheartening and destructive to music. I understand why the people who were responsible for that took that route, and getting funding and getting respect and getting institutional support for jazz is a noble goal. But at the same time, putting it in that sphere of music that is to be appreciated rather than music that kicks your ass is a horrible mistake. And having the focus be all the time be education rather than communication is something that overlook[s the fact that] great music has a power of its own. It doesnít need to be explained or educated. Someone doesnít need to have studied jazz or harmonic progressions or the history of the music to 'get' a record like The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. You just get down with it, and instantly whether someone is a jazz fan or itís the first jazz record they have ever heard, itís very clear what it is. It has a power to it. To say, 'You shouldnít start with that record, you should go through the history of the music,' is weird. Itís a lot easier to get people interested in music if it is not presented like medicine, so thatís one aspect of it.
The other thing is jazz has a connection to popular culture all through its history up until the 1980s. When Coltrane covered 'My Favourite Things' from The Sound of Music, it was a new show; it had been on Broadway for something like six months when he went into the studio with that. It was a pop song. Now we have this disconnected repertoire, weíre going to freeze the jazz canon at this particular point in time. These are the standards and nobody knows the original versions. Not even jazz musicians know the original versions of 'Like Someone in Love' or 'Autumn Leaves' or any of these standards. They know the jazz versions. The original point about these being some kind of common vocabulary that people going to a jazz club would know the song and understand the improvisation Ö that context somehow got twisted into something different, something very codified. The point of doing a standard shifted from something that was accessibleóreaching out to the people who are in the culture, doing something current and something that had a symbiotic relationship with popular culture. It went from that to something incredibly isolated, something that only a small group of diehard people know, like 'the jazz repertoire.'
So having those barriers imposed on them meant creating this firewall between jazz and the people who really love musicówho have an open-minded attitude towards discovering new musicóis incredibly destructive. Telling those people, who know better, that their music, the music they listen to and they love, like Animal Collective: 'Oh thatís pop, thatís crap, thereís no value to that, you should listen to art music, jazz.' Itís not just wrong, its offensive and so counter-productive, because the person knows youíre bullshitting. There is just so much cultural baggage associated with the idea of jazz as high art, as classical music, and popular music as low brow. The people who make those claims make we wonder if they have ever listened to popular music in the last twenty years, like really listened to it. I suspect not.
But the other infuriating thing is that there are kids who are really intense about music. The kids who follow all the indie rock blogsóthose are the people who are out there like really getting excited about music. When a record leaks ahead of time, like the new Grizzly Bear record, thereís a flood of interest and activity. These are the people who are really fascinated by new music and their tastes havenít ossified yet. So music is a really important part of their lives, and there seems to be a lot of people in the jazz world who are trying to make it as difficult as possible for those [kids] to come to what they do. Which is why walking around Moers people Ö [these] young people are really excited about the music; thatís why I am really looking forward to performing here.
I donít want to hate on the jazz audience per se, the hard core people, because obviously they are helping to sustain the music as well. But there is a facet of the jazz audience that is incredibly conservative and incredibly set in their ways and in their tastes, and what they want is music that is incredibly similar to music that has already got the official stamp of approval and is very close to what happened in the jazz canon. But what made Mingus and Coltrane and Miles obviously, what made them great was that their music resonated with the times it was made in and it had a connection to the popular culture, and it was a product of its time and thatís what made it timeless. For people to take that as a template for making music today seems to be missing the spirit of those artists and the spirit of jazz generally.
I very much agree with you. I believe when jazz cut its umbilical with popular culture in the 1980s, not only was the music the poorer for it, it became increasingly self-referential.
Finally, I would just like to ask you about the power of the internet, and how you used it to increase Secret Societyís profile. I wonder if you can talk about this in the context of todayís financial climateówhere on your blog, for example, you have written about 'dwindling freelance opportunities' and 'world class jazz musicians fiercely competing for the privilege of playing pass-the-hat gigs.'
Itís an incredibly difficult problem. I can say my music would be better if I could devote myself to it fulltime. Currently it's still not possible for me. I would like to get up in the morning and write all day or practice conducting any of those things. Thatís not possible. The rent has to be paid and there are other things I must do to finance my big band habit.
Adversity breeds creative solutions, so you have a lot of people financing their records by soliciting funds from the fans in advance, which is something that is becoming a lot more prevalent of late. A lot more people are trying to circumvent the traditional record label model, which is completely failing, and putting out their records themselves, or putting them out on a label like my record label, which allows you to own it. The positive aspect of that is that you get to control your music, but the negative aspect is you donít get any money in advance to record, or anything like that. So I think a lot of people are trying ways of trying to connect the record to fans, Twitter and what not, to build more of a communication and more of a direct relationship with fans. A part of that is very sincere in wanting to reach out and to be open and have those relationships, in the hope that those fans will actually pay money for the CD. Or perhaps make a contribution to help make the CD.
Music technology is a double edged sword. On the one hand, sure, the record industry as we know it is doomedóthe model of record labels having the whole apparatus of scores of managers and A&R people is almost completely gone for all but a handful of artists now. But on the other hand, when we first started, I recorded all our live shows, from the very first one, just with a digital recorder. I converted them to mp3 files and uploaded them to the website. It took us four years to make a studio record, but in those four years, people from all over the world heard what we were doing in small New York clubs.
When Guillermo Klein [Y Los Gauchos] was playing in Smalls in the nineties, there was no document of that. If you werenít there in the club, you missed it. It was legendary and really influential for people who were living in New York at the time; it was a very underground thing. A fantastic composer with a thirteen piece group, he's an Argentinean-born composer who now lives in Barcelona, but in the nineties he lived in New York and his band was playing, I think, every Monday night at Smalls. It became a legendary regular thing, you had to be in New York to hear about it, whereas with Secret Society we just put it up on the internet and people from Japan, Australia, the UK from all over writing in and sending donations to help me make a studio record. So the technology takes away some things but empowers people to do other things.
I do also feel strongly that I would not be in this position without the support I was able to get being Canadian from the Canada Council for the Arts, they subsidized my studies with Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck. And I recently got a grant to study with Derek Bermel, who is a fantastic classical composer. Just through accident of birth I was able to get these grants; thereís nothing like it in the United States. And I have been fortunate to get some small grants from organisations that are still there and still persevering, like American Music Center and Meet the Composer.
But the level of public support for the arts in the United States is dismal. I think especially now that the market is failing, there really needs to be a cultural investment in sustaining non-commercial music, because it feeds everything. It works in interesting ways. It keeps pop music alive: the experimental stuff that people are doing at festivals like this, this music gets incorporated and used by the producers who are doing advanced pop, but putting a glossier finish on it. This is a font of people coming up with new ideas and experimenting with music and trying new combinations that is the wellspring for everything. And that wellspring needs public support. It's for everyoneís benefit, and that might not be instantly clear for someone who is mystified by something thatís very abstract or experimental and seems very different from the music as they understand it. But they benefit from it and the experiments taking place, and the best of it filters through to the culture at large. I really think it would be tremendous for the U.S.
American popular music basically conquered the world. The whole Afro-European fusion happened there. That melting pot Ö the combination of groove and harmonic richness and gritóthereís really nothing like a New York rhythm sectionóand the power of that music is at odds with the value in which it is held in America, which is really frustrating. I think what it comes down to, is musicians are going to have to get better at organizing and lobbyingówe have to stand up for ourselves because nobody is going to stand up for usóand be able to try and collectively advocate for support for the arts, [especially] support that filters down to the lowest level. Jazz at Lincoln Center is one thing, but it costs them tens of thousands of dollars to turn on the lights in that building, whereas if they took that ten thousand dollars and gave it as a grant to an emerging composer or even a thousand dollar grant to ten emerging composers, you would have great work happening from the bottom up. The top-down perspective represents a problem; the funding that exists is all top-down and is 'Letís fund the elite institutions,' rather than give a grant to say, Mostly Other People Do the Killing so they can afford to make a record or go out on tour, that kind of thing.
Well, sobering thoughts to end onóthanks so much for speaking to Jazz.com
Thanks very much, it was my pleasure, a lot of fun!
Visit Darcy James Argueís Secret Society website.