For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their eighth decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.
Our subject in this installment is pianist/vocalist Bob Dorough.
When was the first time you heard Bob Dorough? Adding new insinuations to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole”? In a rare Miles Davis vocal? Writing lyrics to Charlie Parker tunes? Doing a cameo on an all-star jazz recording of Porgy and Bess? Probably none of the above. Most likely it was the syndicated television cartoon shows Schoolhouse Rock and Multiplication Rock, which found their way into our homes, hearts, and psyches when we were a bit younger. “You could actually learn stuff from TV back then,” Dorough remarked when we finally got this thing together. We had been dodging each other in New York and the Delaware Water Gap, Pa, where he lives, since this column first breathed life. “I am so busy when I come there (NYC) that I really only have time to do my business and split,” the ultra-hip Dorough said. That business included an extended brunch series at Iridium from which a recording emanated. He also comes into town as a guest pianist or second vocalist with friends--either live, on recordings, or to just offer support. A live Birdland (the most recent incarnation) appearance and recording with fellow hipster Dave Frishberg asks the show biz question, Who’s On First? (Answer: Of course.)
After a friendship now in its 30th year [“At least,” he interjected], we tend to anticipate each other’s Q's & A's. Therein lay the problem--what do you leave out, or worse, what did you leave out?
We got right down to basics: his surname. “I pronounce it both ways, ‘Door’oh’ and ‘Dooroh’,” he began. His Arkansas family pronounces it Durrah. “There was a DJ in San Francisco who fell in love with Devil May Care [the premiere Dorough recording on Bethlehem Records]. People began telling me that they heard me on the radio calling me ‘Door oh’. Better they should know who I am and pronounce it wrong than not know me at all.” Sounds better than, “Huh?” or “Who?”
The Dorough style, while creatively standard today, was a bit, shall we say, different, 60 years ago. While he was living in Los Angeles, Dorough was championed by “the hippest DJ” there, Tommy Bee. When he moved to New York in the 1950s “the late, great” Mort Fega was the prime advocate of the Dorough style.
[Fega, who was on the air late at night and into the early brights when my radio was supposed to be off, replaced Symphony Sid Turin on WEVD. Others whom Fega consistently played were Horace Silver (“Senor Blues” with then new voice Bill Henderson), and the Miles Davis rhythm section rhythm section playing “Billy Boy.” Fega’s under-theme was “Mort’s Report,” written for him and played by Miles Davis’ pianist, Red Garland, from the Manteca LP. It was the first time I was to hear the name Ray Barretto, as he was featured on congas. Fega also produced singer Bobbi Rogers (whose initial offering was an LP of the music of poet Fran Landesman) and composer Tommy Wolf, who hipped the jazz-listening world to the cool phrase “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.” So to get played by Mort Fega regularly was high praise indeed.]
The Dorough style does not lend itself readily to labeling. He explained. “If I’m asked by a club owner what I do, I say that I sort of sing bebop vocals. I hastily add ‘standards’ as that’s what most like to hear. If pressed I say that I’m basically a piano player who sings.”
"Cabaret" is a catchall phrase with a dedicated and devoted following. Some jazz singer-pianists have joined that milieu, as it can be lucrative, unobtrusive and harmless. However, cabaret is not often challenging. (The late Bobby Short set the standard; others who come immediately to mind include Daryl Sherman, Ronny Whyte and Barbara Carroll.) “Some jazz players did and do cabaret. I’ve been asked to join some cabaret functions,” Dorough elucidated. “And I guess it would behoove me to identify myself as cabaret, but I wouldn’t want to damage my true jazz image.” I haven’t been able to figure out if he was talking with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Actually, in the second five years of his New York sojourn, he decided he wanted to try his hand at the east side clubs. “So I bought a tux. We didn’t call it cabaret back then; we called the ‘eastside work.’” I call them the "too precious” crowd. “The trouble is, I don’t fit anywhere there.”
Case in point, a Dorough hit, “I’m Hip,” tells the tale of someone who so wants to be, so he/she offers up all the clichés of what hipness is supposed to be: dark glasses indoors, popping thumbs. My favorite line goes, “I’m so hip I call my girlfriend ‘man.’” I still do, except she’s now my wife. And she is.
"I’m a songwriter, a hip songwriter. I became a singer basically to sing my songs. They were so hip who else was going to sing them? Back in 1953-54 I wasn’t very good at promoting myself so I thought I would work on my singing. I wrote for myself [and he was lucky enough to be able play his songs]. They were written for a swinging piano player,” he said.
After three years armed forces band (see below), from 1946-49 Dorough studied at North Texas University as a composition major. The famous Lab Band had not yet been formed. “As far I know, that was the beginning of jazz education,” he noted. “We were jamming all the time. When the Lab Band became official, I wrote charts for them. Sometimes if a student was late I would sit in. You had to have practical playing experience to be in the band.” Having given up clarinet and saxophone as his primary instruments, Dorough found work in the school’s grand chorus giving him valuable vocal training. “I wasn’t a band or an orchestra player. You had to play something to be in the One O’Clock Lab Band, as it was called then.”
Dorough (b. 1923, Cherry Hill, AR) began his musical life playing reed instruments. “In Texarkana [Texas] Junior High School I became the clarinetist in the band. The leader was a talented gentleman who didn’t like jazz. He gave lessons to serve his purpose, which was to have a better band. Half the year it was football music; the other half concert music.” Thanks to transcribed sheet music, Dorough got to play some “high class music.” A much hipper member of the band, the drummer, suggested they start a jazz band. It didn’t work out. “I didn’t own a saxophone,” Dorough said. “And I didn’t want the chief –that’s what we called him—to know that I was playing saxophone or jazz. [In all honesty] he was developing me into a serious clarinetist.”
Jazz just wasn’t serious enough to be taught in the late 1930s early 1940s. “I was conducting the Jr. High band when he was too busy, and writing marches for the concert band.” The first piece of sheet music the drummer ordered was “In The Mood,” very popular at the time. Dorough was high on Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. “I never did make up my mind who I liked better. I looked over the chart [of ‘In The Mood’] and saw the second tenor man got all the solos. We played it without a sax at all, just me on clarinet. It’s in the same key. It was a pretty miserable affair.”
After Texarkana came the Plainview High School Band, and then Dorough moved to Lubbock [Texas Tech], where there was in a Jack Teagarden-type combo. “Those cats could play,” he enthused. “I remember the clarinetist was Aubry Smith. The trombonist played like Teagarden and sang, too. I was majoring in band music. The band director was very good and he led me along so I learned by doing it.” Dorough eventually bought an alto and played in the dance band.
[Back-story: While at Plainview Dorough took a test, on which he scored high in music. “The teacher came to my home and told my parents that I should be in the band,” he remembered. “They were impressed. I went to the orchestra where all the clarinetists played the melody but I heard other instruments playing other things. I came home and told them I wanted to be a musician. And they said OK. I had great parents.”]
Then came the draft. “I was stationed at Camp Hulen, between Galveston and Corpus Christie. We called it the asshole of Texas. I was in an artillery unit.” A perfect place for a musician, you’d agree. His band director at Texas Tech, to whom he was still sending arrangements, happened to know the warrant officer at Camp Hulen. “The C. O. heard that I was a pretty good clarinetist. The next thing I knew I was called to bring my gear and I was out of artillery and into a band.” There was also a childhood punctured eardrum situation exacerbated by the artillery. He never saw action. Instead he was shipped to a base in California and into a special services band. “That was quite an eye-opener for me.” In the three-plus years Dorough played in that band, it was in a professional capacity. And a bonus, which was to serve him well in later years: “I got to mingle more with black musicians.”
Dorough remembered: “I always carried my clarinet in my duffle bag, but I never opened it; I was afraid all the other cats would laugh at me. Sure, you had to practice every morning at 0800. Heck, you were still in the army. There were some fine cats from the north who could write well, so I played quite a bit of tenor, alto and sometime baritone.” As there were a limited number of piano players he began to play more of it. They played some jazz work and one player introduced him to Black’s Chord Book. “You’d open it up and there were no notes just letters and slashes. I got a tenor player to teach me the melodies to go with the chords as I played them. I didn’t know much music; just what I heard on the radio, 'Body and Soul, 'Heart and Soul,' stuff like that."
Many non-piano playing musicians learn piano in order to write and arrange. They appear to be informed by the harmonic instrument and translate it to their own. Dorough pondered and hedged. “I’d like to say the piano informs the clarinet, but not in all cases. Diz[zy Gillespie] told Miles to play the piano, but he didn’t do it until he was well-established.” In a short video called A Night In Tunisia, Gillespie demonstrates how he wrote the tune, and he never puts trumpet to lips, sitting instead at his congas, and the piano.
“While the understanding of the clarinet is not enhanced by the piano, improvising on the instrument is,” Dorough explained. “You tend to ‘see’ the chords.” That coming from someone who had a half dozen lessons as a teenager. “I minored in piano at North Texas and played some Bach, a little Beethoven and Mozart. My first lessons were from a grocery store owner who had a piano in the back. She owed by father money. At that time he drove a panel truck from which he delivered bread, so she paid him back by teaching his son, me, at least for six lessons.
“Sometimes we had a piano, sometimes an organ on which my father could play a hymn or two.” As we all learn with our ears, Dorough was no different. “I was soaking it up and didn’t know it. Very primitive compared with what kids learn today. Bless Mrs. Keane’s five finger exercises and the sheet music she sent me home with from her grocery store studio.”
One of those sheets was something called ”Underneath the Harlem Moon” which contains the now racist line which reads, “that’s where darkies were born.” “Speaking of [the influence of] black people, we would go to the movies and one night there was this short starring Cab Calloway on a train doing the ‘Hi-Dee-Hi-Dee-Ho’ routine [from] ‘Minnie The Moocher.’ I just flipped out. I was about 10 and Mrs. Keane had once told me that if I can’t play the melody try to figure out the harmony. So there I was making my own pop songs.”
With some time left on the G.I. Bill and some theory and harmony from North Texas, the Arkansas-born, Texas-taught Robert Lrod Dorough - accent still intact - entered the big time: the Apple, New York City. He applied to Juilliard. “I didn’t do well on the exam, and I think I was too old for my level of achievement.” He took some private lessons from a composer whom he had met at Juilliard. Eventually he enrolled at Columbia and studied with composers Otto Luening and Jack Beeson. The problem there was that while he had a Bachelor’s in Music, “I was so intent on catching up with the music [at North Texas] that my academics suffered. I didn’t take up much besides music, with a little [music] German. [As a result at Columbia] I had to take two semesters of undergraduate work.”
A 1952 divorce and some constabulary entanglement caused Dorough to, in his words, drop out. His G.I. Bill funds had also run out at about this time. “Thanks to Dr. Luening I had gotten into the graduate division with a teaching fellowship.” But now Dorough’s patience ran out as well, and his academic career came to a crashing halt. “That’s when I became a pro,” he proudly announced. “I did a lot of things with the piano from then on. [Singer, choreographer] Geoffrey Holder brought 'Mack the Knife' to my house and asked me to arrange it for him to sing at rehearsals.” Composer Kurt Weil’s widow, Lotte Lenya, was then starring in an off-Broadway production of her late husband’s Die Drei Droschen Oper (The Three Penny Opera) and “Mack” had become a hit. “I had never even heard of it,” Dorough said. “I played it, liked it, and thought, ‘hey, I’m going to sing it too.’” The tune in its original German was called “Moritat.” Dick Hyman initially recorded it as an instrumental. The dam broke after Bobby Darin’s vocal. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra all used it in their performances. Ernie Kovacs used the German version, called “Mackie Messer,” on his irreverent television show. (Messer = knife.)
Dorough also accompanied at Henry LeTang’s School. Dancer, choreographer LeTang ran a studio in Midtown Manhattan. Among his clients was Middleweight boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson, who learned his legendary footwork at LeTang’s. Eventually Dorough and Robinson took it on the road. “The LeTang gig was playing mostly stop time for the dancers.” He demonstrated vocally. “It paid me three-dollars-an-hour, and that covered the rent.” Bear in mind that minimum wage in the 1950s was fifty-cents-an-hour.
In the meantime –we might say mealtime – Dorough visited the Union Hall (AFM local 802) regularly and answered calls such as “need a piano who can sing, and vice versa. The usual dates followed: bars, clubs where I would play and sing stuff like ‘Up A Lazy River,’ ‘Hong Kong Blues,’ and, yes, ‘Mack the Knife,’ and no one was paying attention.”
There was the occasional Birdland off-night date, “Like everybody else who played there I had to deal with emcee Pee Wee Marquette.” Marquette was a midget who would purposely mispronounce your name unless you greased him. “But there were others who encouraged me to come up [to NYC] and stay. One was Chuck Lilly. Lilly, who was at North Texas, was the drummer at the Keyhole Club in San Antonio with Hoyt Hughes, a territory band. He told me to go to New York where he thought I would be more appreciated.
“In New York I had an upright [piano] in my apartment so we would jam at my place, but only till 10 pm. You didn’t want the police involved. We had all the Detroiters except Hank Jones come through. Max Gordon, the proprietor of the Village Vanguard [which was not yet exclusively a jazz room] asked me to come in and accompany Broadway singers prior to the jazz sets. I did that for a while, but then Max asked me for my cabaret card. [A license issued by the Police Department to play where there was liquor sold. If you had a record, no card.] That canceled that gig. I still didn’t have [the card] when I worked with Sugar Ray and a comic hoofer named Gil Scott. Scott was part of a vaudevillian troupe called Burnham, Harris & Scott who did USO shows. He was [Sugar] Ray’s tap partner and straight man. Ray got me through a gig at the French Quarter without the card, but after that [1952-54] we worked out of town.” They traveled throughout the U.S. creating headlines during an extended run in Las Vegas. “The Count Basie Band opened for Sugar so I was lucky enough to ride their band bus.” And better: “When they announced ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Sugar Ray Robinson,’ Basie got up and I sat down. It was a hot seat, man. We had some Jimmy Mundy charts and the band just swung right through ‘em.”
Other times there would be pick up bands in which Dorough would either play, or if the pianist was good enough, conduct. Sometimes they were part of Variety Shows working opposite Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Louis Armstrong, Basie, Eydie Gorme, the Platters, and other rock ‘n’ roll groups. “I was ready to quit when Ray announced, ‘We’re going to Paris.’ Ray wanted to bring some of us but they told him they had great musicians in Paris. Drummer-photographer Dave Pochinet got us our first gig and we died, musically. Sugar was on the stage shouting ‘faster Bob, slower Bob.’ He knew something was wrong just couldn’t figure out what. [Harmonica virtuoso] Larry Adler was on that bill; he stole the show. The rest of the tour was fine.” Dorough stayed on in Paris at the Mars Club where Blossom Dearie and Annie Ross had also headlined. “One time I played opposite pianist Art Simmons, another expatriate, who had a bass in the back. So he would take his break and come back playing bass with me.” As the Mars Club was primarily solo pianos, that gig was the first opportunity that Dorough had to do what he most wanted to do: play the piano and sing.
Dorough remembered another Parisian bon mot. “There was a Porgy and Bess tour which settled in Paris for three months,” he began. “Maya Angelou was in the dance chorus and vocal choir. Truman Capote was along. [As their chronicler; I guess he would be called a blogger today.] She came in [to the Mars Club] and I accompanied her. She sang calypso songs, which didn’t thrill me. But she said later that I had ‘ears like crystal.’ I guess she meant that my sense of harmony was good, as all I did was comp chords.” At first Maya was taken aback by Dorough’s accent. Having bad memories of her southern heritage she probably thought he was “one of those.” [A cracker?] She looked rather frightened. “But we became pals. She would roam the streets of Paris [at all hours]; I couldn’t keep up with her. She would see and stop black people asking where they came from. ‘Africa? What tribe?’ She was probably Watusi as she was so tall.” Now Dr. Angelou—and an inveterate baseball fan—Maya Angelou was Poet Laureate of the United States under Pres. Bill Clinton.
He returned home in January 1955. Charlie Parker shed his mortal coil that summer, but not his soul, which still inhabits a few of us, including Dorough. He immediately wrote lyrics to “Yardbird Suite” as a paean to the man. “We all went up to Abyssinian [Baptist Church] to view the body and attend the funeral. It was a packed house.” But not Bird’s last.
“I came back [to NYC] thinking I was hot stuff, and couldn’t get arrested (sic). [That cabaret card bullshit, again.] I did some short shots where I didn’t need the card. Someone from the Billy Shaw [Booking Agency] Office heard me and took me up to Bethlehem. And I got the record date [Devil May Care reissued as Yardbird Suite].” There was also the now-legendary Porgy that was nearing completion, but each role Dorough asked for he was confronted with, 'Oh, so-and-so’s got that."
It came down to the Crab Street Vendor. “I said that I’d take it.” A wise decision considering the heavyweights on the LP. The producer was Red Clyde, who also produced Devil May Care. “The guys became my buddies: drummer Jerry Segal and bassist Bill Takas. Bill and I became a duo which lasted until I had to move to Los Angeles due to that cabaret card business.”
As it turned out, Dorough loved the left coast. “It was 1958 and there was quite the scene there: Paul & Carla Bley, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. I was playing both cabaret and bebop gigs. Bill Takas came out and I got the boss [of Twelfth Knight, a club where he was playing solo] to kick in an extra $50 for him for the week. That’s where I met Tommy Wolf and [later] Miles [Davis].”
Miles asked him to sit-in with him, singing “Baltimore Oriole” from Devil May Care. That song is not one that lends itself readily to just any singer. It has a sad ironic dramatic message. It emanated from a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall movie, To Have and Have Not, which also featured the composer, Hoagy Carmichael singing his tune. If sung as written, it is a-tempo and contains a lyric you have to follow carefully; in other words, right in Dorough’s wheelhouse. It has become a signature for him. “I don’t know why; I just bonded with the song. I’d seen the movie, but that’s not the reason.” Perhaps because it’s got a southern feeling (?). “I’ve watched the movie carefully,” he noted. “And it’s never sung, only as a melody in the background. When I was in the army I had a V-Disc of Hoagy singing that and 'Hong Kong Blues,' which he did sing in the same movie. I recorded both but with my own arrangements.”
[Back story: It was Brooklyn’s own 19-year-old Bacall’s first movie - her mother was on the set - and contains one of the sexiest scenes ever. Long dirty blond hair drooping over half her face says Bacall to Bogie leaving his hotel room: “If you need me just whistle. You know how to whistle; you put your lips together and blow.” They were married not long thereafter.]
By the way, that river mentioned in the lyrics of “Baltimore,” the Tangipaho, is still un-locatable by me. Neither Hoagy, nor his son, Hoagy Bix, could tell me where it is. “It’s probably in Indiana,” Dorough said. “That’s where Hoagy was from and he just wanted it in there. And it fit, phonetically and syllable-wise."
The Miles Davis meeting happened because Dorough had heard that Davis had listened to Devil several times, “so I knew I had to meet him. Why Miles singled out that song I will never know. Maybe it brought up some memory.” I don’t remember hearing a Miles Davis recording of it. Their meeting was propitious. Read on.
Back from L.A., Dorough still couldn’t get a job in the Apple, so he took one at the Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos. “It was a hotel gig, but I couldn’t get any real jazz work,” he said. It was rock ’n’ roll time and the only jazz people working were the marquee stars. His friend Bill Takas was working at Bradley’s. “He asked me if I wanted to work there and I told him that I didn’t think they had singers in there. ‘They don’t but you can sing,’ he said. I believe I was the first singer in Bradley’s. I worked there many times, two or three weeks at time. [During that same period] I worked at the Matador in San Francisco with Bill. We had become a traveling duo: we worked cheap, traveled cheap, ate and slept cheap.”
From 1970-75 Dorough was pumping out Schoolhouse Rock, but it wasn’t until that Bradley’s gig in 1975 that the breakthrough finally happened. Bassist Ben Tucker heard him. “I owe a lot of [commercial] success to Ben Tucker," Dorough said. “I wrote lyrics to his ‘Comin’ Home Baby’ and a couple of other of his tunes. He wanted to get into advertising, so he and I started a little company. He would get the gigs and I would write the charts. We made a couple of scores, nothing big.” Tucker was also playing at the Hickory House with Marian McPartland and/or Billy Taylor, where George Newall, a major advertising executive who loved jazz, heard him. Unbeknownst to Dorough, Newall told Tucker that Newall’s boss was looking for someone to put the multiplication tables to music. They asked Dorough if he could do it. “I said, not very confidently, yeah. Evidently other composers had tried but didn’t get what Newell had in mind. Newell said that his kids could memorize the lyrics of Jimi Hendrix but not mathematics. Actually I was something of a mathematician having taken a course in [what was then referred to as] the new math at Columbia when I was doing that undergraduate work.”
Dorough spent some time on it, and came up with “Three Is A Magic Number” and a second tune, which was rejected. (My personal fav is “My Hero Zero.”) He was still doing commercials and worked with Chad Mitchell for a couple of years. “I bought my house here [in the Gap] thanks to that. I would spend my spare time in the studio working on Schoolhouse Rock and my own recordings.
Earlier Dorough was part of the first Music Minus One concept, where a rhythm section or larger ensemble would record leaving space for one instrument for students. “[MMO] was my first studio experience.” The producer was Irv Kratke (in a studio built by the same person who would later do the same for Cream drummer Ginger Baker in Lagos, Nigeria, my reedman brother Noel. That’s where Dorough and I met.) Kratke also produced one of the earliest jazz Broadway show concept albums, Oliver. The band was Dorough, Tyree Glenn, trombone, Clark Terry, trumpet, Bobby Thomas, drums and tympani, Al Schackman, guitar, and Paul Motian and Ed Shaughnessy, drums. Dorough also recorded a Gershwin collection, which introduced trombonist Bill Watrous to records.
We bounced around his moments with Miles Davis, about whom he seemed reluctant to expound. Davis had used other singers occasionally –Pancho Hagood, Brock Peters. Dorough would go to Birdland (the original) and catch Miles there. “It was the place we could almost afford,” he said. “You could nurse a beer after paying admission and sit in the Peanut Gallery. We’d see Sarah Vaughan or Duke Ellington sitting at the tables. You could get pretty close to the piano. One time I saw Duke try to speak to Bud [Powell] and Bud just stared back at him. Said nothing.”
Dorough has penned a thin tome about the experiences surrounding “Blue Xmas,” his signature recording with Davis. It’s available privately through him. “In 1962 Miles called me out of the blue and asked me to write a Christmas song for him.” (Say, what?) Dorough has recorded “Blue Xmas” no fewer than three times. Davis & Dorough also did “Nothing Like You.” “We became estranged because he was a heavy user [coke] and was constantly changing wives. He once offered to share a line in the men’s room at the Vanguard. I’m still friendly with Frances Taylor.” [Taylor’s is that beautiful face which adorns a couple of Davis’ album covers and for whom Miles wrote “Fran Dance,” based on the children’s nursery song “Put Your Little Foot Right In.”] “[During the electric period] people would come up to me and ask, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ I would reply, ‘Turn the other stuff off and just listen to him.’”
Speaking of Christmas, Dorough was working at the Iridium for three years worth of successful Sunday Brunches, even on his December birthday. He related how that world-respected gig came to a close. “One December one of the bosses called and told me to not come in till sometime in late January. I know that’s the slow period, but I gave it some thought and said that I wouldn’t be back even after that. It gave me some satisfaction. That’s no way to do business. That said, I don’t like being invisible in New York; it’s a hang up of mine. Maybe it’s the cabaret in my soul. A little singing, a little acting, a little Nat Cole, Joe Mooney, even Jack Teagarden sang, and Louis, of course. And let’s not forget Hoagy. You could see him playing at least in the movies.”
Regrets: “I would have loved to have seen the Nat King Cole Trio in person. That kind of excitement is what I wanted in my life: a well-rehearsed trio, entertaining people, communicating and interacting; those brunches were perfect.
“I also regret not keeping up the relationship with Miles; he was good to me.
“When Geoffrey Holder came to me about the “Mack The Knife” arrangement I didn’t follow through. I could have sung the tune and probably would have been better at it than what they were looking for than Geoffrey was. Perhaps my style was not what they were looking for either.” Neither of us could remember who eventually sang it in the show.
“I regret not getting my second degree.” He was presented with an honorary Doctorate from East Stroudsburg University. That DWG community is home to such as Phil Woods, Bill Goodwin, Urbie Green, and Dave Liebman.
Hinted Regrets: That he didn’t carry his vocalese talent beyond “Yardbird Suite,” the lyrics for which he never copyrighted due to an incident with the widow of the composer of “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” for which he wrote lyrics to a Lester Young solo. And at this writing, that he hasn’t called Iridium for his brunch job, redux.
Unfinished: “I have an entire autobiographical [musical] show which I can’t seem to get to. There’s the composer-goes-pops, after all I majored in composition. I wanted to be [another] Igor Stravinsky, but bebop waylaid me, which is OK. There is no composer left in me. I admired them a great deal.”
Rewards: “That Schoolhouse Rock has had such an effect on children is very rewarding. People come up to me and express how I got them through school, or I changed their lives, or I woke them up. I was wondering if kids watched television to learn. So I watched my own songs. I got out the phone book and booked myself into 10 or 12 schools, rich, poor, didn’t matter. I’d say, ‘Hi. I’m Bob Dorough from ABC-TV and I’ve got a show I can bring to your school.’ When I said it was free, courtesy of Schoolhouse Rock, they grabbed it. The teachers never head of it but they said the kids seemed excited. They nudge each other when they hear my voice. ‘That’s him!’”
December 27, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
By Ted Panken
“I'm dramatic,” Robert Glasper told me in 2005 for a Downbeat story. “I feel like an actor and a painter—all the arts in one. When I play, I won't sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”
On his 2009 release, Double Booked [Blue Note], Glasper actualizes this aspiration more completely than on any of his previous recordings. He devotes the first half to his soulful, expansive, highly individualized conception of the acoustic piano trio, drawing harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller. His lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts. For part two, Glasper transitions to a plugged-in mise en scene, deploying spoken word and rhymes from such luminaries as Mos Def and Bilal. The latter both employ the Houston native on both recorded and performance projects, as have the likes of Q-Tip (The Renaissance), Kanye West (Late Registration), MeShell Ndegeocello (The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams), Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, and, most recently, Maxwell, who kept Glasper on the road for consequential chunks of 2009.
Out of Houston, Texas, where he attended Houston's High School of Performing and Visual Arts, Glasper developed his ability to spin tales in music from emulation of his mother, the late Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, and from early experience playing the service in three different churches, one Baptist, one Seventh Day Adventist, and one Catholic.
“The music in the church is built on feeling, period,” he told me. “It’s not ‘Giant Steps.’ People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”
In late August, I caught up with Glasper, now married and a father, at the offices of EMI-Blue Note for a conversation.
Describe your last few months of work. How much has it been divided between the acoustic trio, being on the road with Maxwell and your other sideman things, and to the Experimental Project? To what degree they’re separate and to what degree related would be a good way to launch the conversation.
Actually, this year I haven’t been doing much, because I just had a baby, January 22nd, and I pretty much stayed home until April to be with the baby and my lady. I did a few trio gigs at the end of March, and then I went to Africa and did the Capetown Jazz Festival with the Experiment. So we did one night with the Experiment there, and the very next night we did the Experiment with Mos’ Def. Then right from there, which is funny, I flew home for one day, on my birthday, April 6th. The plane was delayed for six hours. So I got to stay home literally, like, 8 hours, got on the plane, flew to Japan to do the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Did the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Right from Japan, I flew straight to Oakland to do a week with Mos’ Def with my Experiment band, at both of the Yoshi’s—went back and forth from the San Francisco Yoshi’s to the Oakland Yoshi’s. We did that for a week. Then I came home, and basically started the Maxwell rehearsals. Then I went on tour with Maxwell for two months. Got back maybe a week-and-a-half ago. Now I’m starting back out with Max next week, and we’re going to be gone until the middle of November. Then I go out with my trio when I get back, to do a few dates in Europe. Then I go to Japan with the Experiment in December, with Bilal as my special guest. Now we’re actually booking more dates around that time. I’m going to be home for like two months. So we’re trying to do it like that.
But you’re not double-booked for any of those.
I’m not double-booked for any of those, no-no-no. But day to day, I’m doing one or the other.
So it’s a pretty even split.
It’s a pretty even split. Right now, it’s working out, and I can really say I’m working. That’s a good thing.
Double Booked has some structural similarities to the other records. However, where the other records presented one sound, this one presents two. That said, particularly on your Blue Note records, you use the producer’s strategy of splitting the record in half. In My Element began with originals, and then the flavor changed.
Can you speak to how your thinking about making recordings has evolved since your first one, Mood [Fresh Sound], which I wrote the liner notes for. On that one, you said you were trying to do in with an open attitude, like it was a gig. Three years later, when I spoke with you for a Downbeat when you released Canvas, you said the opposite.
For most of Mood, it was just trio, and it was on a small label, so I wasn’t shaking or scared, really. I was, “Ok, I’ll do a record on Fresh Sounds. No one’s going to hear it.” [LAUGHS] For me, it was “everybody does a record for Fresh Sounds; whatever.” So there was no pressure. So I tried to approach it like a gig. But it didn’t really come off the way I wanted to, because we recorded at 10 in the morning—you don’t do gigs at 10 in the morning! Canvas was my first Blue Note...
But it obviously got some attention.
Yes, it definitely got more attention than I was expecting, so that was great as well. When I did Canvas, though, obviously that’s another level. It’s Blue Note now. It’s going to be a debut thing. So I wasn’t so comfortable. I didn’t really approach this one as a gig. This was more like, “let me think this out, because the world is going to hear this.” I had Mark Turner on that record, had Bilal on that record. It was more a compositional record, I think, for me. It wasn’t so much about the trio. It was more about what my sound is and the vibe of my compositions.
For In My Element, I was way more comfortable. It was just about the trio. We had just got off tour, so we knew the songs. I’m not one of those artists that spring up new songs on the day of the hit. I like to know what we’re going to do as far as the songs we’re going to play. I’m not really about, “Ok, I’m going to take two choruses here, and you do this.” I don’t like to structure it, because I do want it to have the feeling and vibe of a live gig. I’d like to keep that as much as possible.
For this record, I started recording a little bit later, so I could have the vibe of, “ok, I’m playing at night now.” I had a few drinks at the studio. I wanted to keep it loose and have the vibe correct. It’s really cold in the studio, and the walls are white, and you have the headphones on—it can really kill the vibe. So if you don’t feel jazz, it’s hard to play comfortable. So I tried to keep that feeling as much as possible. For In My Element, we’d been on tour with it, so it was comfortable—almost every song except for one or two, were first takes, and we only did one take, of “In My Element.” Same thing with Double Booked. Every song on the trio side were first takes and only takes, except I did one extra take on “59 South,” just to do it, because it was the last song we recorded. Incidentally, we never played that one before. That was really new, and I brought it to the studio, and we did it the first time, and it worked out—then I did a second take.
For the Experiment side of Double Booked, same thing. We recorded them in different places, different times. But my Experiment Band is different, too. I love them because we’ve only had one real rehearsal. Everything else we kind of vibe on stage and come up with. Even when we play songs, we might learn a song, say, at a soundcheck, or say, “Hey, learn this song separately, and let’s come together and see what happens.” I love that surprise aspect of it, the way it sounds organic when we do it like that. That’s what happened in the studio. Every song was a first take. We recorded at night, once again had some drinks there, chilled out and made it really loose. So every song on the Experiment side was a first and only take, except two or three takes of the Bilal song, “All Matter,” because that was our first time ever playing the song.
My main thing is trying to translate to CD the live, organic, comfortable performance you would see if you went to the Village Vanguard or another club. That’s hard to do, but I try to get as close to it as possible.
Is there a different intention with the Experiment than the acoustic trio?
Not really different intentions. What makes my trio different, I think, is that we tap into the hip-hop side, and most piano trios don’t do that, and do it back and forth. But with the Experiment, it’s, “Ok, let’s go all the way in and go for it.” It’s not even like Experiment is a hip-hop band. If you listen to the record, all of the songs aren’t hip-hop. It’s not like that at all. We’re a worldly music thing, I guess you could say, in a way. It’s more a hiphop-fusion-jazz-soul vibe, if you will.
Not everything you do as a sideman is hiphop either. Maxwell isn’t hiphop.
Exactly. It’s a mixture. When people refer to Experiment, they say hiphop, but for the most part it’s a different side of me that I can’t really portray in a trio setting. I get to play as a sideman when I play with the Experiment. I get to comp behind Casey Benjamin, and come from a whole different angle musically. I bring in the Rhodes and electric bass, and sonically it’s a different sound, too. So it’s a band that can take you more places than an acoustic piano trio can take you. You can only go so far with acoustic piano and acoustic bass.
The transitions are delineated by a pair of phone messages. This isn’t the first time you’ve used your answering machine as part of the record—you included a message from Dilla on In My Element. At the beginning of the CD is a message from Terence Blanchard—“Are you double booked? Give me a call.” Halfway through, there’s a different sort of message from Quest Love. In any event, were you double booked?
[LAUGHS] That’s the story of the record. I’ve actually been double-booked before. Not with Terence in that instance. But I wanted to find a way to make this album make sense, because when you’re listening it could well seem very random. “Huh? Where did that come from?” I wanted to make a story line. Most jazz records don’t go that deep into their record to do that. That’s more of a hiphop thing, a pop thing, to have interludes and storylines and messages and things. It’s interesting, and I think jazz needs to be more interesting.
We tend to be snobs at times. The whole genre tends toward musical snobbery, in a way. You go to a jazz concert, it could be like going to a golf tournament or something. SHHH. They have that whole vibe. I’m of this generation, and we do things like that. We make the music fun. I try to make it more than just your average record. So I try to throw in those little musical snacks, interludes, and phone messages from people in my other worlds, and make it somewhat different than the normal jazz record—here it is, here’s the tunes.
Are you thinking about it before, or is it all post-production?
For this record, definitely before. I had to figure out the way I wanted to make the record make sense and make a story out of it. Like I say, I didn’t want it to be random.
There are a number of components to your style, which you’ve spoken of. There’s hiphop and jazz. There’s certainly gospel. There’s a blues feeling, too. You also have a pretty distinctive time feel, as has often been noted. I’d like to talk about these elements discretely, perhaps beginning with gospel—and blues as well. As you described to me, early on you played some drums in church, and your mother, who was a singer, brought you with her to clubs, because she wouldn’t entrust you to baby-sitters.
You said: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”
I guess that’s where I developed my sound. Growing up in church gave me my way of hearing harmony; I would take church and gospel harmonies and mix them with the jazz harmonies I know. That’s not too normal in jazz. Pretty much, the jazz realm, especially when you look at standards and so on, is very II-V-I oriented in the chord changes and AABA in the form. The form and the chord changes tend to repeat a lot—though of course, nowadays, people are branching out and doing all kinds of things. I would write gospel tunes all the time, and people would say about my gospel tunes, “They sound a little jazzy.” But then, when I played jazz, they say, “I hear gospel.” I try not to ignore any part of my background or what I hear. I become a vessel for the music that I hear, and just let it come out how it comes out.
Your sound and harmonic imagination come through pretty fully-formed on Mood, the first record. I think the evolution has come in other way—narrative focus, broader frames of reference, more clarity. But there’s a pretty recognizable line from when you were 21-22. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I would. I’m glad of that. I didn’t think so at the time, I didn’t know at the time, until I did the record and started hearing that. “Wait. Maybe I do have a certain sound.” That’s the greatest compliment anybody can tell someone—“You have your own sound.” It’s different than, “You’re a good jazz musician” or “boy, you can really play.” There’s a million people who can really play, but that don’t have a sound. It’s totally different. I know people who aren’t really great players, but they have a sound, and they can write, and they also have a sound compositionally. I’ll take that over just being a good player, because those come a dime a dozen.
Another component of gospel is not the sound that imprinted itself on your consciousness, but that you started working as a professional musician at a very early age in the church.
Exactly. Especially for African Americans, too. That’s the only place where at 8 years old you can get a paycheck playing music. People don’t come up with money, so if you’re a musician, it’s a way you can help out with the family. I know people literally 7 years old that play drums in church who make a check. There’s no other way you can do that musically at 7 right around the corner from your house.
No more Jackson 5.
No more Jackson 5, that kind of stuff. Church is very accessible for African-American people to come up and play in. Then from church, that’s when you develop being spiritual in music, being able to touch someone with a song. When you play in church, the audience, the congregation, the choir, are all reacting to you as well. Everything you play, the singers are reacting to you, the audience is reacting to that, and it’s all very spiritual. I think that’s another part of music that I take from church as well—not playing for the sake of playing but for the spiritual aspect, the emotion, the realness of it, the organic honesty of the whole thing.
By the age of 16, you were orchestrating 10,000 congregants in a service at the Brentwood Church in Houston, where Joe Samuel Ratliff was the pastor. That’s quite a responsibility. And not just there, but at the Catholic church nearby, and another service, too...
Then I played another service on Saturdays with my mom at a Seventh Day Adventist church. So I was rolling in the dough in high school!
Talk about your learning curve. How quickly did you develop facility at the piano? And what do you think allowed you to have that kind of perspective and detachment at that age?
I don’t know. Honestly, I think I was born with that thing. I just discovered it late. Then I think I always had the talent to play the piano, but kind of refused it—I kind of tapped in and just left it alone. I thought I was going to be a track star, but it didn’t work out for me. I ran the mile. I was pretty fast. Up until four years ago, the record for my elementary school for the mile run was still up. No one had beat it. I don’t even know if it’s been beaten yet. But four years ago, my old coach found me, emailed me, “good to hear what you’ve been doing; by the way, your record for the mile run has still not been beaten.” Oh yeah! Look out. Bolt, look out!
I think Bolt is safe for a while.
He’s amazing. Bolt is a very inspirational cat to me right now. But I think I got the musical gene from my mom. Well, my whole family is pretty musical. My grand-dad’s a singer, my aunt is a singer. So when you go to our family reunion, it’s like a musical. Everybody’s singing and doing things. So just my sensibility to music, and even to my facility on the piano... I can’t explain it, because I never had formal lessons. I’ve just been able to play. That came natural. Along the way, I learned certain things, definitely, but it all pretty much came natural. And then, holding down a church service by yourself on a piano does require some facility as well. Certain things you’ve just got to be able to do. That helped as well.
You couldn’t have been entirely self-taught, though, because you did go to Houston High School of Performing Arts, a magnet school, where there must have been some formal training..
Yes. But there wasn’t piano training there. All the school had there was a jazz combo and a jazz band. Jazz big band and jazz combo. Basically, they’d give you charts, and you’d just learn tunes and stuff like that. We had a harmony class, so you would learn things about harmony, ear training, and so on, that, but never an actual piano teacher who would sit down with you at the piano and show you things. To this day, I’ve still never had a real piano teacher. I just picked up things here and there where I could, off the streets. A lot of comrade church musicians, we would sit down and shed together. I got a lot from Alan Mosley, a piano player in Houston who played with my mom all the time. He’s the reason why I even play jazz. He’d come over to the house and rehearse with my mom, and I’d sit there by the piano the whole rehearsal and watch him play, and afterwards he’d show me things. I think the first jazz tune I learned to play was “Spiderman,” the actual cartoon Spiderman—he taught me a jazz way to do it, like a minor blues. Then he showed me how to play “Cherokee,” how to play “Giant Steps,” things of that nature. So he’d be it as far as a jazz teacher or piano teacher goes.
A very pragmatic education. Put your fingers here, you get this sound.
I’d like to talk about pianistic influences. You have a Herbie Hancock tune on every one of your records. I know you’ve said that this is by accident, but it can’t really be one.
The first two albums it was completely, “Dang. Really? I did it again.” Kind of accdental, not really thinking about it, just kind of happened. Then In My Element, I actually further Radioheadalized “Maiden Voyage,” which I’d done on Mood, but hid the Radiohead more, so it wasn’t so obvious. But there I wanted to make it obvious, so I redid it for that purpose. Then on Double Booked, we did “Butterfly.” Now a part of my repertoire is Herbie songs. We feel comfortable playing them, and he’s an amazing composer.
Actually, I thought for the life of me that “Silly Rabbit” was referencing “Jackrabbit” from Inventions and Dimensions.
Not one bit. But it’s certainly in that vibe. Herbie’s impact on me is his ability to go between any genre of music and fit right in. Herbie could easily go from a Bonnie Raitt gig to a Stevie Wonder gig to a Miles Davis gig to a Mos’ Def gig, to any gig he wants to go to, and just slip right in, and sound amazing, and still sound like Herbie—but fit what’s happening. He’s like water. He fits the shape of whatever is needed without losing his self, his consistency, his own thing. Now, he’s one of my favorite acoustic piano players, but he’s also my favorite on Rhodes. No one gets a sound out of the Rhodes like Herbie. It’s amazing. What’s he’s done in terms of branching off from his acoustic jazz career, and doing the Headhunters and the Mwandishi stuff, and getting into the hiphop side, and getting the recognition he’s got from the world. Everyone knows “Rockit.” It’s hard for a jazz person to get that recognition. Most people know “Watermelon Man,” believe it or not. Stuff like that. And he hasn’t lost any respect from anyone by any means. He’s still playing to this day. I respect him on the piano, and also off the piano, just business-wise and his imagination. Then there’s how open he is to this day. He’s not a musical snob. Not one bit. It maybe an “us Aries” thing. He’s very open, and he sounds open. When he’s playing, he sounds like he’s having fun, and I love that, too. Some people take what they do way too seriously, so it comes across. But you can hear he’s having fun, reaching for things. I love his spirit as well.
7-8 years ago, you mentioned Keith Jarrett less as a stylistic influence than as a template for your trio playing. Does that still hold true?
Yes, that totally still holds true. With Keith, it’s so organic, and he translates that very well from live to record. Everybody in the trio has a voice, and it makes the music more interesting. When you go to Keith’s concert, you don’t know where everything is going to come from. You can tell everybody has a place, and also trades places.
Monk. You do “Think of One” on this. I like the version, because you played the tune idiomatically but also sounded like yourself. When did you get involved in Monk’s music? In high school or later?
No, that came after. Even when I first got to college, I wasn’t a big Monk fan. I liked his tunes. That became a thing, especially in college. Everybody tries to learn the most obscure Monk tunes, have a competition who knows the most obscure Monk tunes—but I was never really so into it. Around mid-college, 1999-2000, I became more intrigued by him.
Was it being in New York for a while?
That, but then also, when everywhere you go, everybody’s trying to play a Monk tune. You think, “Let me check this out and see what it is.”
What hadn’t appealed to you, and when then did appeal to you?
Now I’m more into the composition and his comping. And Monk’s attitude. He had a certain attitude when he played, a fun, free attitude like what I hear when I hear Herbie or Chick. Have fun. It so comes across. Monk’s that way. When you watch him, you can tell. But in college, checking out his compositions really did it for me. When I decided to do a Monk tune, I didn’t want to do it the regular way. Everyone does Monk tunes all the time, to the point where, after a while, it gets annoying, because “ok, now you’all just doing it to do it.” You’re not doing it any justice. So when I did do one, I wanted to do it in a way that was fresh and new, and at the same time you never lose the tune. Some people will redo something, and it’s like, “where is the song?” They’ll even change the melody to fit some chord or something. Huh? So I try to respect the song, and at the same time put my own thing on it, and at the same time make it as modern as possible. That’s what I did when I mixed it with Dilla. I came up with that idea.
Speaking of Dilla, let’s talk about your time feel. A few years ago, you told me that Damion Reed, who played drums with you then, called the way you feel time “the circle.” You continued: “We don’t think straight-ahead like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and then come in together.” Does that description still obtain for the way you think about time?
Yes, but not so much as then, because I play a little bit different with Chris Dave. Damion was more open and free-flowing, to the point where sometimes the time would get lost—you don’t know where it is. It’s still there, but it’s more mysterious where the time is. Chris is a master at knowing where the time is, and doing so many different things with it, but you still feel where it is. So I still feel the pulse. With Damien, you would lose the pulse sometimes—in a good way. “Oh, shit, where’d it go, where’d it go? Ah, there it is.” BAM. So it made me play a certain way within measures. That still has its place now, too, at times, but not so much as it did.
You obviously use many beats from hiphop, particularly ideas that were in play during the ‘90s, in your formative years and when you first became involved. Can you speak to your perception of how hiphop affected jazz time? Also, once in New York, did you personally incorporate other rhythmic influences? You arrived here at a time when various hybrids were taking shape. Dafnis Prieto came to town in 1999, along with other Cuban and Afro-Caribbean musicians. Brad Mehldau’s ideas were well-established.
A lot of those things are true, but probably I didn’t realize it, just being in it. Sometimes it just seeps in, and you don’t know. Just going from club to club and playing with different people in school and outside of school, a lot of things affect you, and you don’t even know. It’s like catching a cold. You never really know where exactly you got the cold; just you get home and don’t feel too well. You don’t know if you got it on the subway, when you were outside, when you were at McDonald’s. So a lot of the rhythmic things are just being in New York and getting all of it at different times.
But also, playing in a soul and hiphop setting often, as well as playing jazz often, I would intermingle the two without really trying, I think. I’m used to playing this way time-wise. When I play hiphop and soul, especially with the people I was playing with, behind the beat is kind of the thing to do. It has a certain feel. So I took that over to the jazz realm, and it became my style, in a way, to have that kind of vibe with the jazz style. The jazz style tends to be on top of the beat more, versus laid-back. I think I get that from especially hiphop in the area of Dilla, who I got into around 2000-2001. His stuff is about things like sampling pianos, or any instrument, putting it way back behind the drums, and the bass is way behind, but the snare on the drums is a little bit ahead, and there’s nothing landing you anywhere—you’re just wobbling around in the middle, nodding your head, like “Oh my God. I feel the time; I can’t really nail it, but it’s there.” It’s kind of mysterious. I call it “drunk funk. Anyway, I took that, and cats like Pete Rock have the same thing, and some Tribe Called Quest things (which Dilla was part of for the first part of his career) have the same thing. DJ Premier, too.
What’s the appeal of that time feel?
It just feels so good. It doesn’t feel jagged or in a rush. It feels like you’re taking your time, like you’re just chillin’. You’re not taking anything too...almost too seriously. I feel like I’m hanging out for a while! Or something. You feel more in control, too. Because when everything is jagged, and you’re on top and they’re on top, it feels like rush hour. Imagine being in rush hour, but you’re going slow as hell, but you’re still with everybody, so everybody else is looking at you like you’re in slow motion—there’s no traffic for you but it’s rush hour. It’s an interesting feeling.
Would the rush hour feeling have anything to do with a northern way of thinking vis-a-vis a southern way of thinking?
Not really. Honestly, I think it’s a mixture of the two. Culturally, African-American people tend to lay back behind the beat. Other cultures tend to be more on top of the beat. [DEMONSTRATES ON HIS CHEST] That lazy, fucked-up rhythm from Africa. It’s passed down. It’s more natural. We’re more rhythmic people, if you will. I think that’s probably what it is.
In high school, before you came to New York, what hiphop were you listening to?
Mostly just Tribe Called Quest and some Busta Rhymes stuff. I wasn’t as big into hiphop in high school as I became once I moved to New York.
Was this because of the church influence?
Church influence. For the most part, my life was pretty much church and jazz. I was working in church on the weekends, and during the week choir rehearsals and stuff like that, and then, when I’d go to school, it was jazz. Once I moved to New York, which is the home of hiphop, is when I really got knocked in the head with a bunch of hiphop. I started to work with Bilal, then started meeting all these emcees and doing little things, shows with him and shows with different hiphop artists. That’s how I got into it more. I’m still not the biggest hiphop head. But I like what I like.
You described for me a couple of years ago how your jazz career evolved from the New School. You came here from Houston, Dr. Ratliff from Brentwood Church knew the pastor at the Canaan Church in Harlem, so you got a job playing that service early on, which probably kept you in funds.
Then you started going to sessions. You mentioned a place in Fort Greene called Pork Knockers, Cleopatra’s and Small’s in Manhattan. Anthony Wonsey linked you to Russell Malone, and things happened. But could you go into some detail on your progress in..well, let’s not call it “hiphop,” because it seems insufficient. Let’s call it Urban music.
The very first day I got to the New School, they had all the new students play. They call your name up and put a little group together on the spot, and you play together. I can’t remember if Bilal and I were on the stage together or if we were separate, but by the end of that day, we were boys, we were friends. We started hanging out. One of the teachers from the New School said, “I have a friend who lives right around the corner who used to drum for the Spin Doctors, Aaron Comess, if you want to do some recording over there.” We were like, “cool.” Bilal wanted to do a demo, and we went over there and did some recording. Soon after that, Bilal got signed, and once he got signed, before his record came out, we started doing gigs around the city, and that’s where I started meeting people in the Soul genre, in the Hiphop genre. Bilal had Common and Mos Def on his record. So at one point, we went on tour with Common, and then Common opened up for Erykah Badu, so the tour was with Erykah, Common, and Bilal. Then I met Mos Def. I was playing with Bilal, but on the tour, you get to know all the cats in their bands, and you get to know the them, too. I’ve done some playing with Common, and done some things with Erykah, not in her band, but situations where we’re together. From that, I met the Roots—Bilal’s from Philly, the Roots are from Philly—and I started playing gigs with the Roots on and off. Throughout the years, that aspect of it has continued to grow. From there, I started playing with Q-Tip. I’ve done some things with Talib Kwali.
It seems like the two most consequential relationships now are with Bilal and Mos Def.
Yeah, Bilal, Mos Def, and Tip.
Talk about each of them.
Bilal is my favorite singer, period, of all time. He’s extremely organic. He doesn’t do anything unless he means it. He’s an amazing vocalist, period. People don’t even know, but he was like all-state opera in high school. He has an extremely trained voice without sounding trained. But he can sing any genre. He’s probably the only male jazz vocalist I know that actually sings jazz for real. Most people that sing jazz get on my nerves, because there’s a specific jazz voice people have when they sing jazz that’s annoying. It’s like, “I’m singing JAZZ now.” It sounds like their eyebrow is up. It’s really annoying. But he gets it, and he’s actually a jazz musician at heart. He knows how to interpret songs. He can do that in any genre of music, and he knows how to change his voice to fit certain things. Musically, he’s an amazing cat.
Mos Def is a great person overall. Funny cat. Very down to earth. I don’t think there’s an asshole bone in his body. He doesn’t come off like one of them cats, like, “Oh, I’m a superstar, leave me alone”—that kind of vibe. He’s very open, and musically very honest, and has an eclectic library of music in his head. When we do shows with him, we’ll go from an Eric Dolphy tune to a Neal Young song in a minute, to a Radiohead song, to a James Brown. To whatever. He loves music. He’s a vessel for music. He understands the live band aspect, because he plays a little piano, plays a little drums; he respects it and is always searching for more knowledge. Also what’s great about working with him is he lets me be me. We have a good working thing, because he listens to me, I listen to him, and we work things out. It’s a very give-and-take relationship.
Tip is the same way. Mentally, his musical library is ridiculously huge, and so is his physical library at his house. He has so much music. He’s one of them cats that I would call if I was on Millionaire and there was a question about music. He’s a deejay at heart, too. Records, years of records... And he has perfect pitch. An emcee with perfect pitch? A lot of the songs that we start, songs that he sings, he can start them off the top and be in the right key all the time. He’s another emcee, like most, who knows how to play a little piano. He’ll be rhyming, and then, “Yo, stop real quick. When we get to that A-flat-minor chord, play this.” That’s crazy. For an emcee to be that musical is different than a singer, because most emcees much just rhyme their tracks, so they’re not really doing it with a live band aspect. Again, Tip has a big respect for the live band aspect. He’s one of the people trying to bring it back and move it forward, and look to the future and do some cool things.
That segues well into my next question, which is how hiphop/urban music has evolved during your own maturity, since you arrived in New York in 1997. At the time, there was a confluence of many streams, which have since branched out, until today hiphop itself is in a different place, and the hot performers from then have matured and gone in different directions.
In 1997, when I first got here, the Neo-Soul movement was big, which brought back the live bands and the importance of the live band sound. There was a big blast of, “Let’s bring live bands back.” Hiphop artists were using bands. Then something happened in Neo-Soul, and it got strange. I think once D’Angelo was out of the picture, it started dying down a little bit, then Hiphop in itself got real strange, and now you have all these kind of dumb songs, and they’re not really Hiphop. I call it “Hip-Pop.”
Is Hiphop something else now?
No, Hiphop is still Hiphop. But the stuff that people say is Hiphop isn’t even hiphop to me. That’s like people calling Smooth Jazz, “jazz,” to me. When people say “jazz,” I think what I think, but somebody might call it listening to jazz—which they can, but for me it’s not that. I don’t even get mad. There’s a lot of bullshit out right now getting fed to the public, and they’re eating it, and they’re thinking that’s where real music is. That’s the area we’re in now. We’re trying to fight back and bring back the live band and the good music, and even the stuff that people are talking about is... You’re still talking about money and fat asses? Really? Can we move on? That type of thing.
Now I think there’s more of an uprising of actual cause for good music. For a while there was no cause. A lot of good music is lost. Back in the day, there was great music, because there was a cause behind the music. Something political was happening...
What do you mean by “back in the day”?
‘70s and below. There was always a cause. Your “What’s Going On” era with Marvin Gaye. All that shit. There was always a cause and a passion for real music, a PASSIONfor it, and now it’s just like some dumb shit. But I think it’s coming back. Politically, there are things happening. You have Barrack Obama. Michael Jackson just passed, so now people are revisiting those records and getting influenced again. Sometimes you don’t really think about shit until it’s gone. I think Michael’s passing is really making people reflect and look back and see what’s real now, and it’s changing their aspect on things...
How so? For you, for instance?
My lady and I were talking about this the other day. I think Michael’s influence for most people is different than anybody else’s, because he was such a big influence on the world when he was 7. I don’t know anybody else who can say that—like, on his level. He was a major superstar for 43 years. On top of the world type stuff. That’s unheard-of. So you kind of watched him grow up. You feel like you knew him when he was a child, when you see these videos. He was always an influence for me. I used to get in trouble for moonwalking in second grade. I had the glove and everything. I actually went to a Jackson Five concert, and the whole nine. When you listen back, people forget that he could really, really sing. Michael Jackson was a brand, so you get caught up in his whole thing, with the dancing, and just him being weird, and the Jackson Five and all this stuff. But if you sat Michael down in a chair next to a piano and start playing, just to hear him sing...he was ridiculous! I think people skip over it. You think he can sing, but when you listen back to the music you’re like, “Wow, he can really sing!” He was so ahead of his time! When he was with the Jackson Five, when they were small, doing the Destiny album, with some of those changes on there, and he’s singing all through them changes, eating them up... It’s like, “Yo, you’re 7; why are you sounding like you’re 30 and you’ve been hurt already?” That’s what Smokey Robinson was saying after he recorded “Who’s Loving You,” and Berry had Michael Jackson sing it after he signed Michael Jackson. Berry called Smokey, like, “You sung this song, but listen to this,” and Smokey heard him and it was like, “Oh my God. This boy sounds like he’s been through it all, and he’s like 9.” So Michael Jackson was an angel that God put here specifically for a reason. He did inspire me and most people musically.
Before your digression on Michael Jackson, you spoke of the ways in which the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s reflected the times in which it was created, and said you say you feel similar winds in the air today. Can you reflect on any connections between the way you’re approaching jazz and the way the culture has developed during your maturity?
I’m trying to involve things and people in the music that have something to do with today, and pushing the envelope in music and politics and everything in general. I had a song on the record that I didn’t release because we couldn’t get it cleared. I was playing a one-motif thing, and over it was the news about the Sean Bell hearing , and it had Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome” speech....
Sean Bell was the man who was killed by 50 shots from several policeman after leaving his bachelor party in Jamaica, Queens.
Yeah. More than 50 shots. They all got off. It also had my friend, Jessie, who was a Katrina victim, speaking about his experience with that, and there was a Barrack Obama thing at the end of it. It addresses the time period we’re in. Certain albums you can look back on and you know the time period it was in just by listening to it. I think being able to capture the times musically within a record is kind of a lost art as well. Then, the people I’m using on the record, like Quest and Terence and Mos, are visionary people who I look up to, who are doing things. The time period we’re in is making me be more aware of my surroundings. That kind of thing.
I do want to ask you about one tune on Double Booked, “Festival,” with Casey Benjamin, which in the beginning, the way Casey is playing and the way you’re comping, makes me think of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Now, whether or not I’m accurate on this, could you discuss some of other bands you’ve been paying attention to over the last 8-9 years?
It’s very possible that what you say is true. I love Wayne. He’s my favorite jazz composer. I love his composing, period. I also love Art Blakey and the Messengers. I love the Miles Davis Quintet. I love Herbie’s stuff on his own. I love the John Coltrane Quartet. I love Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band. I love the Bandwagon—Jason Moran. Terence Blanchard’s band. He’s had a few different bands through the years, and I love what he does.
A few words about the contemporary bands you spoke of—Bandwagon, Fellowship, Blanchard.
First of all, Brian Blade is one of my favorite drummers of all time, because he gives you a feeling like he’s playing keys. He brings so much color to the music that normally a drummer wouldn’t bring. His textures and the passion that he has when he plays, you can feel it and you can hear it. It’s all there. He’s just a very emotional drummer. I’ve cried listening to Blade. Drummers don’t generally make people cry. I also love the compositions that Fellowship plays and the way they portray them. Brian Blade Fellowship put on probably my top favorite concert I’ve ever seen, at the Vanguard a few years ago. You can get a lot of great musicians, put them together, but they don’t sound good as a band. But Fellowship is a great band, in their collective honesty and how they play with each other. Ego can get in the way of allowing honest things to happen, but with Fellowship there’s no ego on that stage.
I think that’s what it is with Jason, and also Terence. It’s Terence’s band, but he doesn’t have an ego about it. He lets everybody write, lets everybody be themselves, and kind of goes where the music goes. He’s not trying to dictate everything because he’s the leader and “this is what it is.” You can feel that from the spirit. What makes me like people is the spirit, the intention, and that really comes across in Terence’s band. Especially Terence’s current band, because Kendrick Scott is on drums. He’s another one of my favorite drummers. He’s like a Blade, too—I think he’s also made me cry. I’ve been playing with Kendrick since high school, and Kendrick was playing with me at Dr. Ratliff’s church. I’ve known him for years. He’s definitely a very egoless drummer. Really about the music and what’s happening, and lets the spirit move him. I love that about him.
You made a remark in 2005 about liking to play with Derrick Hodge, who plays on the Experimental half of Double Booked, because he can go in and out of jazz and hiphop feels seamlessly, as can you. Can you speak to the qualities that are distinctive to rendering jazz and rendering hiphop, and the complexities that pertain to a jazz-oriented musician addressing hiphop and to a hiphop artist addressing jazz?
As far as jazz and then going into hiphop, I think it’s the disconnect between urban music and jazz musicians. Because nowadays, let’s face it, there are less African-Americans playing this music than there were before. I sat down not too long ago and tried to name five pianists that are my age or younger who are known on the scene.
Who are African-American?
Yeah. I couldn’t name five—I was really trying—who are really known, who are my age and younger who are actually on the scene. In other words, is somebody in Chicago going to know this person? Since we live in New York, we have a false reality. If I live in Kansas, am I going to know Eric Lewis? Love him to death. He’s one of my favorite pianists. He’s ridiculous. Amazing. I mean, I can name some people I know who are in New York that are bubbling. But I’m just saying cats that are getting some kind of broader recognition. You do this for a living, so you’re going to know these cats. But I doubt someone who’s going to a college in Houston or in Kansas is going to know who all those cats are. I’m not saying they’re not here, but they’re new, bubbling kind of cats that are not getting the recognition they probably should.
But as a whole, there’s not a large amount of African-Americans playing this music, as was the case before. Let’s flip it around. In the ‘60s, there were more black people playing jazz than white people.
Whether or not that’s true, black musicians formed the preponderance of those crucial to the development of the idiom.
Yes, of course. I did a survey of my own. If you look at the life of jazz, and take out anybody who wasn’t black, would it really change? Probably not so much. I don’t think it would have been a big change if you take out anybody who wasn’t black. Nowadays, if you flip it around, if you remove people who are black, the scene wouldn’t change very much. Look at all the magazines, look at everything—there’s not many black people in there. Most of your vocalists under 30 that you’re hearing about and seeing are white. Now, I’m just speaking about 30 years and younger. This generation. I’m talking about the difference between my generation and another generation. This generation has more European and more Asian than Black. I think it’s at an all-time high now. With black people, what happens is, when they’re young like me, they get sucked into playing in church. It’s easier. They make money. Not everybody has a jazz mentor. Like I say, we live in New York, so we have a false reality. If you’re from wherever, Cincinnati, and you’re an up-and-coming piano player, there’s probably one jazz club, maybe, and there’s probably no jazz station, and if there is a jazz station they’re probably playing Charlie Parker. Let’s be honest. Jazz stations suck nowadays. There aren’t many good jazz stations.
Well, I’d hope they were playing Charlie Parker. But hopefully they’re playing something of today as well.
Right. Music moves on in every other genre. If you turn on Hot-97, they’re playing Usher. When you turn it on, 9 times out of 10 you’re probably going to hear Chris Brown because he’s up to date. Any other genre of music is like that, except jazz. Jazz is very history-oriented, and it pretty much stays there for most people. Versus any other music. It’s very history-oriented, and it’s to the point where, “Do you care about the future?” Hello! Some people aren’t about the future. You’re about the future. But you have the same respect for the past.
You have to balance it.
You have to balance it. But most people, when it comes to jazz, there’s no balance. They won’t talk about Marcus Strickland. Jazz is hidden. Where would you find him? If you don’t live here, how would you know him? 99 times out of 100, the jazz stations aren’t going to be playing him. If you turn on the TV, you’re not going to see him. You have to dig pretty hard. Other genres of music, the new shit that’s out, it’s put in your face. I have to know Chris Brown right now. Without trying, you’re going to know him. You’re going to see him in the magazines, you’re going to see him on TV, you put on the radio and he’s going to be there. That’s how it is. They force-feed new artists down your throat.
I’ve wavered way off the point. But I’m saying that this is the disconnect of it. Because now, this music has changed from being more of a music that I guess black people have been playing to more of a music that other people are playing, so therefore the aspect of the groove, that urban groove, is lost. The Europeans and Asians aren’t driven by urban rhythm. They’re more driven by melody, notes, and other kinds of things. So it’s very hard for a jazz musician nowadays to be able to play a hip-hop groove, because that’s not really where they’re from with it. So it’s changed. Because back in the day, in the ‘60s, if you told somebody a jazz musician was on the gig, it was like, “Oh, great! Yes!” They did a lot of the Motown recordings. It was like a marriage back then. After the jazz clubs, they’d go right to the studio. If you look on many albums, you’ll see Ron Carter on the record, Herbie on the albums...
There was a studio scene.
Exactly. There was more of a mingle, too, between the studio musicians and the jazz cats. Now, to be a studio musician, you live in L.A. and you play real jazz here. It’s really separated.
This began when I asked you the impact of hiphop on jazz. Now let’s talk about the impact that jazz is having on hiphop.
Well, jazz has always had an influence on hiphop. Jazz is one of the reasons why hiphop is what it is. Jazz musicians have been sampled for years now. That’s what made me start listening to hiphop, from when I was listening to Tribe Called Quest in high school. I grew up in the suburbs in Houston, so a lot of the rap I would hear, I wouldn’t be able to identify with it, because a lot of people talked about guns or the ghetto or these girls, and I wasn’t about that, so it would go over my head. Until I heard A Tribe Called Quest, and I was like, “Wait—there’s chords. Wow, there’s melody. Wait, that’s ‘Red Clay.’ I know that tune!” It kind of grasped my ear. It’s like, “yo, they’re melodic.” So then I started listening to them. That’s what grasped me, the chord changes and things of that nature. To this day, I’m catching more and more songs, like songs I used to love, and I’m like, “Oh, I know what that song is; they sampled that tune.” So jazz always had an influence.
I think nowadays, it’s now about having the actual musicians mingle together. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. Granted, hiphop is new, so Trane couldn’t mingle with a hiphop artist now—he’s gone. Bill Evans, the same thing. But those cats have been sampled. Ron Carter’s done it. He’s done it for Tribe. So there certain cats now actually are bridging that gap, and have bridged that gap. I’m trying to bridge that gap, and do it while I’m actually doing my thing as well at the same time.
You remarked to a British paper a few years ago that you play “intelligent hiphop.” Can you elaborate a bit?
I can’t stand the hiphop that’s all about the jewelry and the girls and the money and the guns. I like more conscious hiphop, like talking about the empowerment of black people. Your empowerment of yourself as a person, whatever color you are. Treating women right. Every other song is dissing a woman and calling them a bitch or whatever. I’m more into other hiphop that’s more positive, talking about something else, something that’s not degrading. Moreso than ever, those songs are the ones that I like the music for, because those people are more conscious, and mostly conscious people listen to better music than people who aren’t conscious. Tribe Called Quest is very conscious. Common is very conscious. Mos Def is very conscious. They all have great, great music. So I guess that’s what brings the two together for me.
You were talking about all the obstacles that militate against a young black kid actually playing jazz. You could get trapped in the economics of being a church musician, you won’t get to hear it on the radio, and so on. But quite a number of remarkably mature, well-formed jazz musicians emerged from Houston, like you and Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mike Moreno, Walter Smith...
There we go. Was that solely because of the high school?
Having that high school helped. That’s a big boost. I’m pretty sure that in a lot of other states, there are musicians just as talented, but probably never had the chance to... When colleges come to Houston, they go right to my high school before they go anywhere else. If you’re a music college, you’re going right to my high school. If I went to a regular high school, they would come right there. I probably wouldn’t have been so diligent and worked so hard. When you’re in high school with a bunch of talented people, it makes you work harder. It’s a competition type thing—you want to get better because this person is better. All your friends have the same agenda. They all love what you love. I went to a regular high school my first year, and I couldn’t talk to nobody about jazz! Nobody knew nothing about jazz. If you’re around a lot of people who don’t have the same dream as you and all that kind of stuff, it could wear you down, and you become not so serious about it, and then if you go to a high school that doesn’t have any kind of hoopla about it, you’re probably not going to get the attention from colleges that you want. So for some people, it gets heavier and heavier and heavier on them, and they don’t get that kind of chance. They were talented, but they didn’t hone their craft enough or get the opportunity to do this, and have comrades to do this with. So they just stay in church and do what they do, and it’s that.
But in Houston, I think a lot of it was that from the door the cats are just naturally talented, but then being in a school where there’s other talented cats that have the same interests as you really helps. You’re learning from your friends. I learned a pile of stuff from my comrades that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t go to that school. Mike Moreno or Walter or Kendrick would bring tapes to school, like, ‘Yo, check out this new stuff.” They were really into what was happening in New York and in the jazz scene, and so on.
You made a remark, “I feel like I’m an actor and a painter. It’s all the arts in one. So when I’m playing the piano, I don’t just think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m playing piano.’ I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.” You said, “it’s a mood thing. On each song I go into a place in my mind, and I’m in my moment right there.” Does that attitude perhaps hearken back to your church background, and orchestrating the function?
Exactly. Everything has its place. I’m not one of the people who play for the sake of playing. Some people say I don’t play enough. “I loved that tune, but you didn’t play enough of that tune.” But at the same time, a person will come to me and say, “the way you played on that song...” Space says just as much for me as playing something, and I think once you realize that space and silence is sound, that it has as much of a place as something you’re playing, it takes cats a long way. You really jeopardize the meaning and the mood and the focus of what’s going on when you just play to play. I think you reach people when it’s just honest. “Shit, I don’t feel like playing on this part.” It doesn’t come to me like that. “I just want to lay on these chords.” Then you’ll hear the inflections, say, that the drums are doing more. Then maybe the drums take over. He’s not even really soloing. It’s just the vibe, and you start thinking. It gives you a chance to think. A lot of times, if you go to a concert, people are doing so much on stage, it doesn’t allow your mind to be free to think of something and go somewhere. I like to be a soundtrack sometimes, so I might just play something, and it repeats. It might be a vamp. I might not be soloing, but I may be sparking some thoughts. It’s almost like giving you a soundtrack to whatever you’re thinking right now. Then you might start, “Oh, man!” It makes you feel a certain way. All that plays a part. So I think I’m just in tune with that.
Were things that happened in the early ‘90s...Was MBASE an influence on you?
Was, say, Buckshot LaFunke, Branford Marsalis’ stuff, an influence on you?
I knew about Branford in high school, but I didn’t know about Buckshot LaFunke until I got to college. None of those things really...
Once you got to New York, did MBASE...
No. It still doesn’t.
that approach to music-making still isn’t so meaningful to you.
No. Not to say it can’t be later. But now, no.
You made a remark to the Boston Globe that you couldn’t bring the Experiment out too soon. “I had to establish myself first as a jazz pianist, and get that respect, otherwise very fast you’ll get pegged as a hiphop pianist.” What do you mean by that?
I still get it to this day—a little bit, not so much. But timing plays a part in everything. You can bring something out too early or bring out something too late. It’s just timing—of that record, of your band. I’m an up-and-coming pianist, I’m new, and I’m black; a black piano player having his own trio out in the world working right now is a whole different thing. I’d like to capitalize on that and keep doing that. I didn’t want to move quickly, for the second album on Blue Note, to “Ok, now I’ll do hiphop” or “now I’m playing Rhodes and I got a vocoder and so on,” because then it’s like, “that’s what you really wanted to do, isn’t it?” No. Playing jazz trio is my true love. So I wanted to do a few records with that first, and establish that, so people will respect me for that and understand it, and then I can turn around and do the Experiment stuff. <./p>
Is playing the sideman things and playing the Experiment equally as gratifying to you as the acoustic jazz trio?
Yes, definitely. I have A.D.D., I think, so I have to be doing something different all the time. I have to keep moving, and keep it moving. Which is one of the reasons why I love my trio, because it’s never the same shit all the time. Vicente is not going to play the same thing, Chris is not going to play the same thing. It’s always going to be something different. I don’t feel like I’m going to a job and clocking in. At the same time, I love the fact that I do all these different kinds of gigs. They all call for something different, that demands a certain amount of professionalism and a certain amount of musical maturity. You have to know, “Hey, in this situation I can’t do this; I have to do this. In that situation, I have to do something else.” So it teaches you patience and teaches you to be mature and to respect other kinds of music, while at the same time being able to put yourself into it, which is whole nother type of thing to be able to do. That’s not very easy for a lot of people.
Ted Panken spoke to Robert Glasper on August 28, 2009
December 22, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
By Ted Panken
Jazz .com's Ted Panken sat down this past summer for two extended interviews with composer/trombonist/scholar George Lewis. Their conversations centered around Lewis' 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [University of Chicago Press], the history of the AACM, and Lewis own work in the areas of jazz and experimental musics. This is Part 2 of the two-part article. For Part 1, click here.
Another narrative strand in the book is the notion of overcoming strictures of race in a very specific way.
Well, there is a reason why the book was subtitled, The AACM and American Experimental Music. American experimental music, historiographically, is white. That means that we are looking at a large number of scholars, journalists, producers, who have been instrumental in constructing this whiteness-based discourse network that, if you come into it and you’re not white, you have an issue with. Somehow, that network, which is implicitly race-imbued, had to be changed, extended, destroyed, transformed. Race doesn’t come up as a factor until you test the limits. Then, when you test the limits, you are often accused of injecting race into it, when, in fact, the racial consensus is already present. But to make it explicit seems to be the fate of artists of color. The problem there is that the process in itself is anti-dynamic. Somehow, you have to be the one who brings race to every situation. The artist-of-color has to be the person that represents. Or you have to somehow be on the lookout for situations that the others aren’t really thinking about. That becomes a drain on your energy as a creative person. You can also recycle it and use it creatively. But it does become a bit of an annoyance when maybe you’d rather be thinking about something else at that time, but you don’t have the liberty to do so. We’re not in the post-racial place yet. I don’t see that.
You could say that there are strictures of race, but the same strictures can also be used to enable. I always look not to eliminate race, which is impossible, but to atomize and multiply the racial dynamic. 'Well, let’s get a lot of races in there. Let’s not just have one or two.' You know, the usual back-and-forth between black and white that’s defined a lot of historiography in the history of the United States. Let’s not have that. Let’s see if we can mix it up.
Let’s see if we can create previously paradoxical constructions, like "black experimentalism," which was Ronald Radano’s construction. Very important. One of the more important things in his book on Anthony Braxton was how he managed to identify that. My contribution to that discourse was to expand it beyond the individual, which is to say, rather than regard Anthony Braxton as being the pivotal figure, to see a whole community of people standing around him. He has antecedents. Not just distant antecedents like Duke Ellington, but immediate antecedents in the community who taught him and who prepared the ground for him. Anthony Braxton was not the only person in 1968 listening to Stockhausen on the South Side of Chicago. He was not the only person who knew who John Cage was. Joseph Jarman played with John Cage in 1965 when Braxton was in the Army. What are you going to do with that? At a certain point, we have to bring these things out. We have to ask ourselves: What does that mean? How does that contribute to the narrative of experimentalism? Is it just some background curio that we’ve identified, or is there a larger, deeper implication?
I just wrote a long piece on the black Fluxus musician, Ben Patterson, for a catalogue on a show he’s having next year at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. In a way, just by being Ben Patterson, he brings race to Fluxus. Now, at the risk of being a bit uncharitable, I would say that his Fluxus colleagues handled that somewhat poorly. Certainly, individuals in the private transcript probably have a different reality, but the public transcript doesn’t handle it very well at all. It’s part and parcel with the way the experimental music community and the scholarly community that writes on experimental music approaches race, where no one thought to ask, 'what does it really mean to have a black person in Fluxus?' If you say it means nothing, that’s ridiculous. The guy himself wrote that he wanted to be the first Afro-American to play in a symphony orchestra, but he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t get a gig, so he went to Canada and actually got gigs, straight out of college, playing double bass in symphony orchestras. Then he gets over to Germany and suddenly meets up with Mary Bauermeister and all these people, and suddenly his world is changed around—and he even steps to the front and starts making very important, lasting contributions. His colleagues (on this, I’m going to give them full credit) recognize his achievements. There’s no narrative that you can find coming from the Fluxus colleagues that doesn’t mention Ben Patterson. He is not erased from that at all. He is a central figure. But, when we get to the writing on the Fluxus movement by the scholars and historians, he starts to recede more and more and more.
So I found myself thinking, when I was writing this article: 'Is this the first time anybody has written a scholarly article on Ben Patterson?' He’s born in 1934. Is this the first time? It seems kind of odd. Not to say that one has to be as famous as Nam June Paik or something, but still, it just seemed off.
Now, Ben Patterson has little or no connection with the jazz world that one can see from the public record. He grew up listening to opera and so on. But he does have a connection with African-American music. After Fluxus, he was with the Symphony of the New World as general manager. I think he worked with Dance Theater of Harlem. He also did many things connected with African-American composers. So he’s not disconnected from that world, and he’s not disconnected from models of race. But often, when commentators try to examine his work in terms of race, they betray their own naïveté about the current state of theorizing on race. That’s another problem with the scholarship, that because they spend so much time ignoring race, they don’t know who’s doing good work—people like Achille Mbembe and Cheryl Harris.
Anyway, there’s a lot to say about race. But my real issue is to try to take my place among the scholars. When you write these scholarly articles, they send them out anonymously, and they get reviewed, the reviews come back and you read them, and they ask you to incorporate what they said into your visions. One person said, 'Well, this would be a good article just because of the person who’s writing it.' I said, 'No, that’s not enough; it can’t be that.' It has to be good regardless of the person. I have to bring my experience into the book, but its authority can’t be derived from those outside factors—that somehow we read this book because, and only because of this individual who is posing as an authority, and he was there, and so we have to take his claim seriously. That’s the problem with a lot of writing these days.
You do make it clear in the text, however, that it would not have been written had the project not been undertaken by someone who, as you put it before, was somehow an insider, with whom people hadn’t played or who people didn’t know.
But that happens in any ethnographic enterprise. If people don’t trust you, you’ll get a different response. That’s why the ethnographers, the ethnomusicologists, the anthropologists live with people for a long time. They have to earn the people’s trust, people have to know they’re not going to be betrayed, and so on. Even with me, there were those questions, and in a way, it’s more acute because of being an insider.
One of the things that I discovered about so-called ‘authority’ is they’re often wrong. Or people who said they were there at a certain point, who weren’t actually there, or gave completely bogus interpretations of what they found there. At a certain point, it’s not whether you were there that’s important. Also, I wasn’t there for a lot of it. I was an insider for my generation, but not for the ones before and not for the ones after. So for those people, I am coming in as an ethnographer or an historian, trying to interpret. So I have to uphold some kinds of standards, and also I have to bring some analytic muscle to the table. Otherwise, you know, it’s a great book by somebody who was there. I want people to say, 'I don’t care if George Lewis was this guy or not; he’s wrong about this-and-this-and-this, and here’s why.' That’s real dialogue at that point, instead of someone you can’t question because they played with Bird and knew what Bird was doing, despite the fact they’d forgotten a lot of what Bird was doing. Someone who didn’t forget, who read and talked to a lot of people might be in a better position to talk about what Bird was doing.
Was a process of self-discovery involved in writing the book?
My joke about the book is it’s just like Alex Haley trying to look for Kunta Kinte. Yeah, sure, you discover a lot about yourself. There are things you took for granted that turned out to be rooted in some specific historical moment. The whole facing-the-East thing. If you ask someone, 'Why do we face the East?'—'I don’t know, we just do it.' Now, people who care to know have some understanding of when that practice arose and why it did.
That’s one simple example. But to go a little deeper: What I found out about the people who did this work enabled me to go a lot deeper into my own creative work. I felt better about it afterwards. Some people say, 'Born too soon,' 'born too late,' all the great stuff has already been done, all the innovation already happened. I no longer feel that way. I discovered that way, a bunch of people were doing great work even after Muhal and those people. People like Nicole Mitchell are doing great work right now. So there isn’t this sense, which I often heard when discussing the book, of 'What is the AACM doing now?' or next trend to come out of the AACM. I’m not a trend-spotter. My response is, 'Well, what’s Napoleon doing now?' Well, nothing. He’s dead. But people are still writing about him. The ideas have an impact---the way in which all that activity changed France and stretched all around the world. The way Haiti was affected. It means that his work still has an impact. If the AACM stopped functioning tomorrow, the achievements remain. But in fact it hasn’t stopped functioning.
A lot of things happened while I was writing this book that had a lot of impact. The MacArthur award. That was sort of huge, because besides being an encouragement to write the book (that’s how I took it; you don’t know why you get these things), I also took it as a validation for what I was doing. Somehow, there was an increased sense of freedom connected with it, and the sense that I should try to be more focused, and gradually to weed out the things that weren’t at the center of my interests. That’s very painful, because certain people you performed with, you may not perform with in the future. Or, people believe you’re just like them, and you’re really not like them at all, or you share some small point of commonality but it’s not enough for you—it’s enough for them. The fear that generates in people. I’ve had to experience that as I was doing this.
Another ongoing trope of A Power Stronger Than Itself is the notion of hybridity, which you embody in the intertwining narratives and diverse strategies deployed in constructing the different chapters, not least the conclusion, in which you set up an imaginary dialogue amongst the various AACM members. Were you writing towards that denouement?
I don’t remember how that came about. I do remember it being the chapter I had the most ethical problems with. In the book I wrote about those ethical problems with the idea of taking the voices from people who hadn’t talked to each other, probably from the same community, but arbitrarily so, and some of them people who were no longer alive, and bringing them into juxtaposition. It’s the idea that somehow you’re already orchestrating these into the narrative by weaving together quotations without giving everything they said. When I wrote the chapter, I read what I said to a couple of people and said, 'Is this something you can really do in a book of this kind?'—which finally is a work of scholarship. If it’s a different kind of work, if it’s fiction or whatever, you can do it. But with this, it was like writing fiction at the end of the book. It was a little scary. So I’m still not sure how I came to the idea this should be done.
The function of that chapter is to reconnect the AACM with the future, which will be connected with a dialogue confronting issues that still aren’t resolved. The book does not end with everything tied up in a bow. It ends with more questions. With places to go. With some vistas that are not a modernist quest for perfectionism, but a kind of postmodern uncertainty with a multiplicity of voices that ends up being a heterophony. But I can’t remember how it came to be. Somehow it just seemed the thing to do.
For me, writing words gives you the same feeling as writing music. I’m sitting there, writing this thing, working the way I work, which is I have a bunch of stuff on the floor around me, either conceptually or in reality, and I pick this one up and see. No, that’s not going to fit. Oh, this one over here ... I used to make fun of Michel Portal in my mind (in fact, everybody did), because you’d go to rehearsals with Michel, and he’d bring in this huge bag of music. Michel is a genius musically, so he can pick a piece of music—I don’t care what clef it’s in, anything—and pick up his clarinet and play some of it. He’ll pick it up, play two or three notes, and say, “Non. Pas ça.” Put it back in the box. 'What are we going to play?' I think it was his way of assembling something that worked for him. My way of writing is kind of like that. It gets very intense, very emotional, especially when you start to see how the story (which is what I’m calling this piece of scholarship) is working. I guess this is the same feeling I get from composing. From composing more than playing, I think.
How much time do you get these days to devote to composition, and how much of your compositional work these days is what David Behrman dubbed interspecies, that is, between software-electronics and humans?
I was talking to somebody who said, 'You aren’t really like a bandleader type person.' I said, 'Well, that’s right; I’m not a bandleader type person.' I mean, I’ll lead the band if no one else is around. But I’ve come to the stage now (and this is probably the turbulence I was talking about earlier) where I don’t want to sit in the band either. I find the most comfortable place for me is in the audience, listening to my composition getting played. That’s been true for a number of years. I don’t often get to do that. It’s like with the book. It’s done. It’s out there. I can’t come to your house and read it to you. So I’m more like the composer type.
Now, in the field I’ve had at least a major role in for years, the jazz field, that’s not a regular thing. Jazz is about improvisers. Which is why I’ve been fortunate that I no longer have to put all my eggs into any one basket. That was another thing, that the MacArthur grant, in my case, sort of rewarded mobility and multiplicity. When they were talking about what I did, they couldn’t say 'this person is a physicist' or 'this person is a composer.' They had to say these multiple things, and it became very diffuse, and no one could figure it out. Which is great for me, because this means I get to intervene in all kinds of fields.
Look, for example, at Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis: First of all, there’s a lot of talk about Wynton Marsalis being this conservative, or whatever, who recreate this and that. Well, what is Blood on the Fields recreating? He may be referencing a lot of stuff. That’s different. But what I’d like to concentrate on is that, on the one hand, the composition is for the standard jazz ensemble, and operates in a way that you can’t really play the music unless you’ve trained in various traditional notions of jazz playing, but, on the other hand, it calls for a type of jazz player who is in extremely short supply, despite all the talk. Most of that music is unplayable by most people who play jazz. It’s too hard. Listen to it sometime. It took massive numbers of rehearsals. See, if you have a piece for classical ensemble, you can write as many septuplets and superduperuplets as you like, and some graduate student will sit up there and read the stew out of it. You can’t do that in a jazz band. It won’t get played. Can’t do it. So there’s a limit on the kinds of complexity you can write.
What Marsalis was doing was pushing that envelope in the jazz arena. In order to push the envelope successfully, they had to create an ensemble that could do it. So that had to be done by the media corporations that support Lincoln Center’s jazz program. They had already done it for classical music. They have done it since the ‘50s. I mean, Leonard Bernstein’s crew didn’t have any problem playing hard music. I’d like to be able to write without regard to who is going to play this; I write what I want, then we bring it to people, and whatever they get out of it, they get. Because somebody is going to come along one day and really be able to do the written part.
Now, as to the playing part ... See, that’s the key to the Marsalis thing, is you get people who actually are high-level interpreters of the written stuff but are also high-level players in a number of jazz idioms. That’s a new kind of musician. The paradox is that you started to see that new kind of musician first in the AACM. A Braxton type. Creative Orchestra Music is as difficult as Blood on the Fields. Some parts are more difficult. The music is of a totally different order in terms of what’s possible. The people who were trained in standard jazz were the ones who had the roughest time with the music. As I discuss in the book, that was a landmark recording for a number of reasons.
At the session were all these people from diverse worlds. There was the studio world with Seldon Powell, a great alto saxophonist, and Jon Faddis playing piccolo trumpet, and then there were people like Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and Garrett List, and then Braxton’s quartet colleagues—Barry Altschul, Dave Holland—and an AACM group—Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith. There was always this thing in the jazz world about inside and outside, free and not-free, and the story was that the so-called 'free' players, whatever that means, couldn’t play regular music, whatever 'regular music' means. So there was all this difficult written music, and the thing was that the people who were not the 'not-free' jazzers were having a hard time with it because it had stuff in it like quintuplets, or wider intervals, stuff that you normally don't encounter in jazz bands. But AACM people had been writing that kind of stuff for years, and had taught themselves to play it. So in the end, it was a reversal of the expected situation, because the people who were the so-called 'experienced' readers were the ones who were falling behind a little bit. But in the end, everybody caught up, and what you hear is this incredible thing.
With Braxton’s quartet, it got to the stage where we really didn’t have to rehearse the music. Braxton would write music every day. If we were on tour, he would go in a hotel room, he would write this music every day, and you knew not to call him or knock on his door while he was doing this. At a certain point, he would emerge with a few pieces of paper, and then we would look at them and sing them, and then go on the stage and play them—and that would be it.
After a while, you began to understand the system, and, at least when I was doing it, you didn’t have to know heavy mathematics, or look at diagrams. All the stuff that I think people asked about basically was written fairly prosaically on regular note paper, and you just had to read it. Then once you knew how Anthony thought and what his ideas were ... It was amazing to me that he could do this. But then I learned how to do it, too. You could just go in and read the music, and sort of sing it, and then pretty soon you’re on stage playing it, and that would be it. It would work out.
Anthony and I did a curious duo at Donaueschingen that was subsequently issued by Hat Art; Anthony always wanted to confront people with the consequences of genre transgression. Donaueschingen has a very curious history with jazz, which is that it was introduced in the early ‘50s. Then they brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was performing in the same year as the premiere of Stravinsky’s 'Agon.' People just went nuts over the Modern Jazz Quartet and didn’t think so much of Stravinsky. So basically, the headline in the newspaper was 'King Jazz Defeats King Twelve Tone.' That was it. Jazz was banned for the next ten years from Donaueschingen. They asked the director about it ... This is stuff you don’t really get to unless you read in arcane German archives and stuff. They asked the director, Heinrich Strobel, what was the reason for banning jazz. He said, 'We didn’t want the things we love to overshadow things we were really interested in.' [LAUGHS] Which is pretty direct. So on this Donaueschingen duo, Anthony wanted to play 'Donna Lee,' because Donaueschingen is known one of those places which disdains jazz, and the so-called 'new music' people get the bulk of the infrastructure and so on—he wanted make that point about genre transgression.
Now, I think the same year we finally got a gig at the Newport Jazz Festival. This is great! So everyone’s going, 'Well, we’re going to play our normal repertoire.' Then a day or two before the concert, Anthony comes in with this 50-page, completely notated composition and says, 'Here’s what we’re going to play.' There was no 'Donna Lee' on that concert. So once again, people were expecting X and they get Y. That’s sort of the AACM idea, which is basically we’re playing music, and people who love music should be receptive, and not only receptive on one channel, but all channels.
You can’t create a new kind of music without individual transformations. Individuals have to change. They have to transform, they have to develop, they have to reinvent themselves, they have to do the self-fashioning, as they call it in the scholarly literature—or perform a spiritual exercise. So this was the real innovation of that, but the curious thing is that the AACM was the logical precursor of that kind of innovation.
What you have now, even in the classical world, are individually brilliant performers who can do this kind of code-switching. The more of those kinds of code-switchers you get, it will change what’s possible, and you will see new kinds of music based on this kind of code-switching. You already see it. But the code-switching has to go a lot further, which means that even the people in a group like Marsalis’ have to do even more kinds of music, not just the jazz music and not just classical music before 1950, and not just Western music. There’s a huge responsibility there for people who perform or compose.
So that’s how I look at what I’m trying to do nowadays. On the one hand, I don’t want people to be put off by the music and find it impossible to play. I want them to be able to find themselves in the music. A case in point is this Fred Anderson piece I wrote for the Great Black Music Ensemble that I mentioned before. Again, the commission was to write an arrangement of some piece by Fred Anderson, and I decided to orchestrate some of Fred’s improvisations. It’s not like Supersax, though that was cool—not that kind of homophony. I wanted more of a contrapuntal thing. It was like when Zita Carno transcribed 'Giant Steps' and Coltrane looked at it and said, 'I can’t play this.' I looked at Fred’s solo and said, 'well, I could practice this for 20 years; I’m not going to get it. So I could give that to somebody else, but they’re not going to get it. But how do I use the transcription?'
So I hit on breaking it up into little pieces. You can play five notes of it. If he’s playing ... [SINGS FAST QUINTUPLET], and you have one person who goes, [DUPLET], and another person goes, [DUPLET], [ONE NOTE], [TRIPLET]. So they play their little five-note fragment, and it ends up sounding kind of wild, but in the end, you can trace the whole sweep of Fred’s music. It was pretty faithful to Fred’s timing. I stretched out very few parts—a couple of repetitions. But basically, it’s what was on the record, except that it’s orchestrated for all of these horns and violins and cellos and stuff.
I would love to do that also in the contemporary classical arena, because these musicians are trained differently, they have a different bodily sound—in other words, their bodies are trained differently. They reproduce that history. So it would be great for me to conceptually migrate what Fred did to that arena. And it would probably be very easy to take this piece and re-conceive it for orchestra. Those are the kinds of things that are exciting me.
Are you doing much less work now with software-generated improvising-composing? Are there new iterations of Voyager?
I think that work has hit a plateau for a while, while I work on something else. I’m not quite sure why. That work got pretty far. I feel comfortable with it. In a way, it’s like settled technology. It was like The Spirit of St. Louis was one thing, and now we have these things taking place fifty times a day. So for me, to have a little piano sitting on my laptop that I can pull out, hook up, and play for about thirty minutes, and create a concert with it, or to let it go and play a concert by itself—to me, that’s settled technology.
Right now, I can see what will be required for the next mile of doing that. Better instrumental recognition. There are computers that can listen to music and tell you what the genre is. You turn the radio to a station and they listen and say, 'Well, that’s X, Y and Z.' Or sometimes they get stuck. They report several genres. That’s very cool, too.
But I don’t necessarily want to get stuck now in creating new technologies. I already created a new technology. I’d like to try to bring those ideas that came out of the technology to other spheres of the compositional and listening experience. That’s why I’m not working on it as much.
Can you describe in a relatively synoptic way the gestation and evolution of Voyager?
I’ve been doing computer music since 1979, and the goal has always been the same (although the techniques became more advanced and certainly the computers are better), which is to create situations where software-driven musical systems are in improvised interaction with human improvisers. It’s a cousin of the piece called 'Rainbow Family' that I made at IRCAM in 1984. That was a networked piece. That is to say, there were three microcomputers, all controlling three of the earliest generation of MIDI synthesizers; that is, the Yamaha DX-7. There were four improvisers—Joelle Leandre, the bassist; Derek Bailey, the guitarist; Douglas Ewart, who played bass clarinet; and Steve Lacy, who played soprano saxophone. I think we did three evenings of performances of free improvised music with computers in the large space at IRCAM. The beginnings of Voyager were there.
The next stage of Voyager was really is where it almost became something you could call Voyager. In 1985, I went to STEIM, the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, in Amsterdam. Around ‘87, the idea was to extend the networking idea. This time, instead of having three computers, we had ten, and each one controlled sort of eight voices. The idea was always to have an orchestral conception. So this was sort of a virtual orchestra of 80 voices that was done at the International Computer Music Conference in 1987. I would call that piece a spectacular failure, because the computers we were using were underpowered. But the architecture that was put on each computer is the same basic architecture that is used for Voyager now. Computers went through a period of very rapid developmental change, and got to the stage where they could execute the ideas I had in my head.
Were the ideas related specifically to the technology of computing, or was it a transduction of your own musical ideas as they had previously developed?
I think you always do any kind of music or composing from your own view of music and the world. The idea of it being non-hierarchical is extremely important. That is to say that the computers aren’t controlled by the musicians. The process of analyzing and making decisions about the music are shared between the people and the computers. That’s been my take right from the beginning.
When was the last major iteration of Voyager constructed?
I’d say around ‘94 or ‘95, the technology began to be kind of settled for me. That is to say, I concentrated less on creating new versions and more on performing with the existing versions, and then creating performances and trying to work with different collaborators. Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and Miya Masaoka are three of the interesting collaborators that stand out.
Who can’t play with Voyager?
That’s kind of a murky thing. My notion of improvisation is that a good improviser manifests an awareness of the situation, and can transform that awareness into many possible different directions in which he or she might go. I tend to make those adjustments, and I would think that anyone thinking along those lines could have a good experience in playing with Voyager. Although, at the same time, Voyager has a pretty strongly typed aesthetic [LAUGHS], and some people might not agree with that, and those people might have a hard time.
How does Voyager embody a strongly typed aesthetic?
There is the question of multi-dominance, which means that a lot of things are happening at the same time, that different elements in this total sound are vying for the foreground—in fact, the notion of foreground and background starts to disappear. These many different foregrounds that are vying for attention are not necessarily in any kind of arithmetic correlation rhythmically. They could be very diverse, and the groupings can change all the time. There is a lot of information—rapid changes in timbre, multiple meters, multiple keys, multiple tonalities. People might have a hard time locking in on what they would like to approach.
But the major thing that might cause dislocation for people who collaborate with me in making the performances usually comes when they assume that they should be in charge of the experience—that is to say, that they should play something and the computer should do what they say. I think those people will always be disappointed in working with me. Because I treat the computer—at least mine—the same as I treat anybody else. I don’t want to be in charge and I don’t want anyone else to be in charge. I’d like to see things be negotiated. And the process of negotiating through sound is fundamental to my way of looking at improvisation.
By a strongly typed aesthetic, I mean an aesthetic of negotiation and sonic signaling, and an absence of hierarchy. That’s especially in the computer environment, because of the way computers have been sold to us, as something that at last we control; even if we have no control over any other aspect of our lives, at least we can control this computer as the sort of new slave or whatever. I just don’t think that way, at least in terms of the software that I make for musical purposes.
What is the level of your intervention with the program in preparing for any specific encounter?
Well, since it became kind of settled, I don’t intervene. I just set it up and start it, and when the piece is over, I turn it off. In one of John Corbett’s books, Extended Play, Jon Rose talked about his Voyager experience, and he said something that helped me learn something fundamental. John said something to the effect that I was interested in the process, but not in the sound. That’s sort of an extreme version of Process versus Result. Of course, as an improviser, I’m interested in both the process and the result. Now, John’s notion of sound seemed to be mostly related to the standard sort of post-Cage morphologies—timbre, loudness, pitch, silence, and so on. My notion of sound comes more from the Charlie Parker remark that music is your thoughts, your wisdom—if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. That notion of sound is more related to assumptions of personality and agency. In other words, what musician-improvisers call ‘getting your own sound.’
So sound becomes very personal. I think John was identifying that with process. But that has to be carefully constructed, and finally that construction is a sort of a meta-aesthetic in which you think about Voyager, or any computer system, as the articulation of sound that has a background in community and history and personal experience.
I’m interested in how that notion applies to what the computer actually produces. Does the computer take into account past decisions? Does the computer itself have a personal history, an emotional history as a context for the sound it generates?
You know, it’s very interesting. I built something that allowed the system to recover things that have been done before and reintroduce them into the space. That was fantastically unsuccessful. You don’t want to aestheticize form. You don’t want to aestheticize experience. What you’d like to do is have the software embody the nature of experience, to the extent you’re able to do that. The reason why the whole business of reintroducing things into the space was so unsuccessful is mainly because when you reintroduce them into the space, you’re taking something that you stole from the past and reintroducing it at a different point in history, and often it just doesn’t fit.
It’s sort of like beginning beboppers who have practiced some lick at home for a year, and then bring it to the gig and never get a chance to play it. If they’re smart, they never get a chance to play it, because the situation is so totally different, and if they’re not so smart, they play it anyway even though it doesn’t fit. I decided not to do it that way, and to go with a greater immediacy in the system’s responses to things, so that it contextualizes the immediate situation in deciding on its response. Also, as the immediate situation changes, it’s constantly adapting. So there is an embedded sense of history there, but it’s not a sort of arbitrary parsing of an historical moment.
So no licks are contained in the computer’s vocabulary. Or that’s not a good way of putting it ...
Oh, that’s fine. Because actually, in fact, I used to compose licks when I first started. I thought that was the way you did it. I’d been reading all these books from so-called scientists on what they thought jazz playing was, and they said it was just a bunch of licks thrown together. I said, 'Well, that doesn’t sound right, but let me try it anyway.' So I tried it, and I realized that I can make an algorithm that does this. I don’t have to make up pre-stored licks. I just hated it when I heard Lick #42 coming out of the machine.
The thing is that, even though you construct the algorithms that produce these things, the algorithms themselves are like meta-licks anyway. So basically, after a certain while, every so often I would hear the Philip Glass moment, or what I used to call the Keith Jarrett moment, or the blues moment. But these moments aren’t programmed into the machine in any way. They’re just the outcome of the process that at some point will produce these things.
What are the first principles by which the computer’s vocabulary and syntax are constructed? What are the parameters?
Basically, Voyager is quite Cartesian, just like the trombone is. With trombone, you have the X-axis (that’s your slide going out and in) and the Y-axis (that’s the lips playing pitches up and down). So you can plot a so-called fingering chart of the trombone as basically an XY coordinate system. That’s basically the same way Voyager works. Let’s say the X-axis are a set of 64 individual voices, or positions, as you would call them—Position 1, Position 2, Position 3, up to Position 64. There are 64 voices. Or there are as many voices as you can get together, but nominally for me, it’s 64. Then the Y-axis has the sets of things that it can do in terms of playing music. Those usually tend to be very simple things, like the duration of a so-called note, and that would have two parts; basically, the duration of onsets from one note to the next, and then the duration of whatever silence happens between one note and the next. And then there is the question of what scale each voice is going to use, and there are a couple of hundred of those, and these are microtonal. Then there’s a question of what transposition that scale is going to be using. That is also microtonal, so in the first voice you have a C-major scale, and in the second voice you have a C-major transposed up 10 or 5 cents, and so on. So you have a possibility of doing a lot of pretty complicated things along those lines. There’s also the question of things like the melody algorithm. Those are very simple things, step-wise things or skips or various ... They are sort of like waveform generators, so that the melodies get mapped onto waveforms.
That’s the output side. Then there’s the input side, where you have to look for those elements, or things like them, in the MIDI stream. This stream of MIDI comes in from a pitch detection machine, and the software finds out whether what it’s detecting really is a pitch, and then, if it is satisfied that it is, it will write that down, and then do things like record how many simultaneous pitches are sounding at the same time, whether the pitch is on, whether it was used. It has to keep a record of the last few pitches. Then it has to decide how short or how long the silence was between the pitches. From those processes, it generates a lot of rhythmic information. Then it has to take in a lot of information regarding whether the person is active or hardly playing at all.
These are the kind of things you have to know at a minimum in order to have a system that plays with you. What gets built up is a representation of what’s going on outside at any given time, and the system uses that representation to compose a response.
One other important element is that the response can be of three basic kinds. First, it tries to follow pretty carefully what you’re doing. So if you’re playing high notes, it will play high notes, and so on. Second, it will try to sort of oppose what you do. So if you’re playing fast, it will play slow, or something like that—a contrasting mode. The third mode—which is kind of the critical one, it turns out—is that it completely ignores you, and that it just does what it wants. In fact, that turns out to be the critical moment, because that’s where difference is asserted. In other words, that’s where we find out that the computer really is asserting 'a personality,' when it’s very clear that it’s not paying attention or that it’s deliberately ignoring you. It paid attention to you in the past, so why is it ignoring you now? Well, that’s where the psychological transmission of a notion of difference comes through.
There’s a fourth mode, too. When you’re not playing, it just makes the music up by itself, based on those parameters we were just talking about. So you don’t have to really be there. That’s very good, because it means I don’t have to play all the time. It also means that the computer doesn’t have to play all the time. The problem with computer pieces is that the computer is always the star and the people always have to worship the computer, and what it does, and you have to worry about whether it’s working or not working. In a group setting, that’s quite off-putting for the other musicians. I got tired of that, and I wanted to make things equal, so that you could say, "Well, I feel like playing now," and if I don’t feel like playing now, the computer will just take it for a while. Or maybe it won’t feel like playing, and I have to take it. In a group that’s practicing self-orchestration, this means that many different ensembles can form, with and without the computer. These kinds of exchanges are fundamental to the experience, and to the composition.
Could we talk about your early interest in electronic music, how the notion of improvising software first gestated for you?
In high school, we had a cool librarian who brought us his electronic music records. I didn’t understand them. University of Illinois, Scott Wyatt, and people like that. . I didn’t know what they were doing. But still, it had impact. Muhal, of course, really likes technology, so he had an idea that we should investigate it. There was a guy at Governors’ State University, Richard McCreary, who came out of University of Iowa, that whole scene that produced a lot of interesting new music people—but he was an African-American guy, which is a little different right away. He was very knowledgeable, and he had built an electronic music studio. That was what you did in those days. You got your Ph.D or DMA, and then you were fruitful and multiplied, so you would establish your electronic music studio wherever you could. That was your thing. You’d get a gig and convince them to spend a carload of money. So he got a gig at Governor’s State, and they bought a huge ARP 2500 system. We were going there twice a week, and learning on that stuff—learning about remote control and so on.
A lot of what we learned came from recordings. I remember in one class, I think Muhal brought in a Morton Subotnick record, probably The Wild Bull, which was fascinating. There was a great record store in Chicago called Rose Records, on Wabash Avenue, and somebody there was buying ... I bought Phil Glass, Music With Changing Parts, Steve Reich, the stuff that David Behrman produced for Columbia—for example, the Nancarrow thing that David produced for them. This was all pulling it out of the hat. I had no idea who these people are. First of all, there’s no book about them. I didn’t learn about who they were until I got to New York between ‘75 and ‘77.
But around ‘77, I went out to Mills College. I just found a really cool picture of Jacques Bekaert, the Belgian journalist-composer who brought me out there, and Frederic Rzewski. Somehow, we were all sitting there. Blue Gene Tyranny was at Mills, Maggi Payne was still there, John Bischoff was there, David was there ... I think I was staying in David’s house. David was working with these young people on software stuff. So they had hooked up a network of little microcomputers that they were using. Of course, California was already great. So I was sitting there in California, listening to this weird electronic music being generated in real time by these four computers, and I was thinking 'this sounds like Quadrisect,' which was a group we had with Mwata Bowden and Douglas Ewart and James Johnson, this improvisational wind quartet. But a computer’s doing it. This sounds like something I could probably do.
So in a way, the model was to get these computers to sound like what Quadrisect was doing. From my standpoint, this was my proof of concept, seeing Jim Horton, who has passed away; Rich Gold, who has gone as well; and David and John—they had these four KIM-1 computers hooked up, and were doing stuff that was making music automatically. It really jump-started my whole interest in computer music. After that, I had to get a computer. That was it! Got to get me one of these! But getting a computer then, of course, was not like getting a computer now. There were no real books. You had to teach yourself. It was like you had to have a community around you who was thinking about these things. You just could not go off in a room and do it. Autodidacticism. You had to be part of a community. They were all autodidacts, too. They didn’t go to computer music school. There was no computer music school to do this kind of live stuff. They just got a computer and started.
I hesitate to call David a father figure. But I’ll say he was the most avuncular person out there, and you could call him if you had any kind of problem in hardware or software. If he didn’t have the answer, which he usually did, he’d have something reassuring to say. When I got my Keyboard Input Module, it came with these enormous books. They were made for engineers. Artists were trying to figure these things out, and I didn’t really have a technical background—and really, none of us did. So we kind of taught ourselves. You couldn’t go to the store and buy a book. There was no Barnes & Noble and there was no Windows and there was no Macintosh, and there was no MS-DOS, in fact, and you could not go out and buy a book that said how to use Word-5, because there was no Word 5—or not even Word 1. So we were reading these books, and I read the book the first time, and I didn’t understand anything. I was despairing. How am I going to make music with this thing if I can’t even turn it on; I don’t even understand how it works. I called David. He says, 'Well, I had to read the book eight times.' I thought, well, here’s a guy who went to Columbia, he went to Harvard, and he had to read the book eight times. Well, let me try to read it again and see if I understand anything. Things like that really help you, when there are people around like Ron Kuivila or Paul DeMarinis or Frankie Mann. There was this community of people who were doing things.
The recent recordings Streaming [Pi], which is your improvising trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, and also Transatlantic Visions with Joelle Leandre [Rogue Art], remind us that before you were an electronic music composer or an educator, you were making your name as a trombonist, and imprinted your tonal personality on the world through that medium. Even you yourself cite in A Power Stronger Than Itself a critic’s remark after he heard one of your recordings that no one is going to be able to think about the trombone the same way.
OK. I didn’t want to put that in there, but it had to be ...
Well, it is what it is. It happened. You made the recordings with Braxton that are still unique in the annals. But then also you played in Count Basie’s trombone section, and you played in the ‘80s with Gil Evans and in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Steve Lacy, and you recorded with Sam Rivers, and you played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, and played with all the AACM groups and many other situations, not to mention the encounters with the various European free improvisers. Now, it seems to me that in the last number of years you’ve at least publicly pooh-poohed the trombone and your instrumentalism. How does the trombone relate to your notion of yourself as a musician nowadays?
A lot of that I do just to destabilize comfortable assumptions. You know, Number 6: “I am not a number, I am a person.” When I set up the Great Black Music Ensemble concerts for six evenings of compositions, people said I should take two of the evenings because I’d set up the gig. Then people kept saying, 'Well, are you going to play on our pieces?' I’d sort of taken it for granted that I would play on the pieces, and I’d contribute in any way that I could. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with anybody’s piece. So people would say, 'Well, you take a solo here,' and it would be interesting because I’m sitting, thinking, 'I haven’t done this kind of thing for a long time, like take a solo on somebody’s thing.' I felt good about it, but it seemed a little distanced from where I’ve been headed over the past few years.
The trombone, when it started, functioned for me like the computer did later, and like the computer is doing right now more generally, which is that it’s a point of translation. It’s a meeting point. It’s a place where people can exchange narratives. It’s a site for new work to happen. It takes you places and you meet people who you don’t ordinarily get in touch with. It’s a tool of communication across genres, across languages—all these things that the trombone was doing.
Now I feel that’s kind of substantially achieved for me. So what is the future of the trombone, at least in my work? I’m not really sure. For people who think of it as kind of the centerpiece of my work, I think if that were true twenty years ago, it certainly isn’t true now. I find myself working harder on a lot of other things, and also I don’t find the need to do anything other than what’s right in the center of my interests. After Perugia and after China, I went to Lisbon, and we did our electro-acoustic octet there. In many ways, I had the trombone there as a kind of symbol. It’s a symbol of maybe my past, or maybe it’s a symbol of a certain historical moment that occurred that I can still tap into when I went. But it is an electro-acoustic octet, and I spend most of my time in it doing live sampling or mixing found sounds.
This particular piece was done at an outdoor arena, where I think only the jazz people play. Certainly, I think part of the reason why nobody else plays there is because they’re in the flight path, and every ten minutes a big jet comes overhead, and that means 7 to 10 crossings in a 70-minute performance. For most music that’s played there, that’s a distraction, or at least a minor one. But not for us, because I got to Lisbon a couple of days early, and I sat in the theater and recorded jets for hours, then I went into my little laptop and modified the jets, added more bass, changed it around a bit, and then played them back on the gig. Whenever they had their jets, I had my jets—and my jets could actually be louder than theirs. We incorporated the jets into the performance in a way that I’ve never been able to do before. I felt really great about that. The trombone was sort of there, and the trombone can kind of sound like a jet, too.
In this group almost everyone plays some kind of acoustic instrument. Miya plays the koto. Guillermo Brown plays the drums. Ulrich Mueller plays electric guitar, which kind of counts, then Siegfried Roessert plays the bass, and then you’ve got a couple of others—Mutamassik is in there, and she’s playing a turntable, which is kind of acoustic, then on electronics we’ve got Kaffe Matthews, who used to play ... Kaffe, in a way, is kind of our role model. In classical music before 1980, there was the trope of the former jazz musician. A lot of people from that generation, Harold Budd, La Monte Young, or for that matter, Terry Riley or Steve Reich ... Minimalism was full of former jazz musicians. In a way, they have different attitudes towards it, but for them, it’s clearly a part of their past.
Now, Anthony Braxton could also be considered a former jazz musician, but you won’t see that trope applied to him. But it’s very easy ...
Now, Braxton has recorded numerous in-the-tradition sorts of albums. They’re out there. So ‘former jazz musician’ wouldn’t apply quite so ...
Well, that’s the jazz one-drop rule talking, Ted. He’ll probably continue to do that—why not? He’ll probably continue to do that. It’s sort of interesting. I haven’t done it ... Anyway, all you have to do is just do your work. But I can talk about myself. Am I a former jazz musician? I’m not really sure. A former jazz musician who runs the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Does that work? Is that a contradiction in terms? Is that a dangerous problem for New York music? I have no idea. But I think there are some people who really hate the idea of that and would like to see me leave. I get these interviews where people say, 'Your music is difficult' and all that kind of thing. I say, 'No, actually lots of people like it, and for them my music isn’t difficult.'
Most people didn’t play with Count Basie or Thad Jones or Gil Evans or Steve Lacy.
That’s what I mean by 'former,' because all those people you mentioned, first of all, are dead, and I’m not playing with them any more, and I’m not playing with their successors. So at a certain stage, that is something that was part of a venerable and storied past, which is very important in the same way that La Monte never tires of discussing his high school experience with Eric Dolphy—but it was in high school.
Yours wasn’t a high school experience. Yours was on a level that actually changed the way people conceptualized the trombone.
Well, that’s great.
You know that’s true.
Whether it’s true or not, what do you do next? What’s your encore? Do you continue to do that? Do you continue to try again? Perhaps you say, 'Maybe I’ll do something else now.' There are so many people in this creative world ... I think Vinko Globokar still plays the trombone. But a lot of people gave it up, and that’s ok, too.
Would you be willing to talk about the approach you developed as a trombonist?
Florid. A lot of notes and a lot of sound and a lot of chaos, and it’s saxophonic. It’s like what I heard Johnny Griffin do or John Coltrane do, or people like that—those very florid saxophone players. That’s the music I studied and tried to emulate as a means of developing. That turned out to be pretty good, because if you can partially succeed, you learn a lot about how to get around and do things. In a way, Anthony Braxton’s music was a kind of music I had been kind of preparing for anyway because of these other studies. You listen to these records of trombone players, and at the fastest tempos they’re always playing in half-time. I didn’t want to be that person. [LAUGHS] So I was drawn more to the Curtis Fullers and Frank Rosolinos, those kind of florid people. J.J. Johnson was doing it, too, but it reminded me of Hindemith’s Trombone Concerto. I didn’t hear that personally. I never really heard it. Now, there are people who have, like Steve Turre. Not for me. No.
Then the thing was, there were so many other people outside of jazz playing trombone in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘60s even, with Stuart Dempster and Globokar being prime movers of that. So listening to that, you just develop other viewpoints.
But in terms of the improvisational style, the problem with it was that being florid and playing a lot of notes only works in certain musical situations, and if you want to do something else, you have to stop doing it. If you want to work more with sounds, if you want to work with delicacy, or if you want to work with certain kinds of extremes of range, or if you want to really improvise as distinct from developing a personal style, then you have to really question everything about what you were doing. At the point you start to question yourself and really start doing these things, all of a sudden, there is your past that you have to confront, and either you have to play with new people ... I could see why people who have bands get rid of people who play in the bands, because then that forces them into new areas. So you have to confront new ways of making music that are the complete opposite of how you thought about playing. The kind of florid, Coltrane-influenced thing just didn’t work with John Oswald or Zorn or with Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith. It just doesn’t work. You can’t do it. It’s too many notes, or something. After a while, the desire just faded.
In a conversation we had in 2006, you said that you tended 'to listen to not the cool sounds that are being made or the extended techniques on the instruments but the kinds of meta-narratives that are being exchanged through the improvisations.' 'What are they really talking about?' you said. It’s always seemed to me that you find ways to creative narrative strategies within any situation in which you find yourself. If it’s free improvising with Evan Parker or Derek Bailey, or with Joelle Leandre on Transatlantic Visions, there’s a form to the solo that transcends the techniques. You once stated that in an encounter between equals, you have to bring something of where you come from. Would this imply that there’s something fundamental about that notion of storytelling and narrative to your core sense of self as a musician?
No. You see, this is where more of that turbulence comes in. I’m tired of storytelling.
Your interest was so strong in the early ‘90s, when you did recordings like Changing With the Times [New World Countercurrents] and Endless Shout [Tzadik].
Yes, because that was the thing. I wanted to do that, and that was important. Creating a kind of radio play, a mystery theater that people could listen to late at night before they went to sleep. Like rap. There were poets and actors, verbal monologues. But now, the idea of people telling stories with instruments has become kind of a cliche in music.Then the other thing is, there’s so much non-linearity in the world. Linear narratives often don’t touch people in the same way, because they’re not experiencing it in their daily lives. Then there are the ones that want the linear narrative in order to make them feel good in a changing world. Like their head is under the blanket or something.
Then there are the people who really want the linear narrative as a marker of what it means to be African-American. Those people probably haven’t read Mumbo-Jumbo, or Leon Forrest, or Nathaniel Mackey—these kinds of people. Or even Toni Morrison's Jazz. You realize that storytelling can be a hindrance. Then you have to figure out: Do we really need call-and-response now? Maybe we don’t. So in this electro-acoustic octet, we have certain ground rules I made up. One is, you don’t have to take every utterance as a call that needs response. Just don’t respond. Let it sit there and let it develop itself. Don't chime in. Let's see where it goes.
One musician told me that when he started playing with Roscoe Mitchell, he was directed quite explicitly to form his own ideas, and not play Roscoe’s ideas back to him.
I’m sure I can just guess what he had to respond to. He probably started out where Roscoe did something and he did something kind of like that, and Roscoe got angry because that kind of simplistic imitation reduces the mobility of the music. Yeah, that’s a part of it. Then, I’ve played with Roscoe a lot, and this is what’s lovely about doing that. But for another viewpoint on that, it’s more, in my case, that not doing anything is also an idea. Just don’t make a sound. Just listen. That’s one idea, is to let your sound hang in the air. So what you get by doing that methodologically is, in a larger group, you don’t get everyone playing at once. So suddenly, it opens up the space for stuff that Phil Jackson talks about in the Sacred Hoops book, where he talks about the triangle offense, you have to pass the ball around, one person can’t dominate, all those kinds of things. What he’s describing is an improvised encounter that results in a basketball game.
Of course, Phil Jackson requires a superstar to make it work.
Well, that’s the thing. You also have to have a superstar in order to win. But you always have to have that in sports. But then the thing is, the superstar also has to pay attention to the system, and they don’t win if they don’t. That’s what the superstars learn. So the thing is that if you are inclined to be a superstar in the music area, maybe it’s better if you don’t. In the electro-acoustic band, if someone plays some lick, some material, it just sits there for a long time. It might just be there by itself. Then suddenly, all of a sudden, everybody detects, hey, there’s a change. You’re playing double-dutch, and the rope is going, you’re trying to get in, and you’re just moving with the music, moving with the rope, but you’re not actually doing anything. At a certain point, you feel, "Aha, here’s my moment and I can jump in." It’s a bit like that. So if everyone is doing that, they’re sensitive to the opportunity, not to play, but to let someone else play ... You pass the ball. When that happens, then you get all this multiplicity. What that also means is it completely runs counter to the sort of florid Coltrane moment. I’d guess that someone like Coltrane or Parker couldn’t play in a group like this, or they’d have to radically change what they did. Which I’m sure they could do, because the investigative mind is there to hear what’s going on. There’s nothing I love more than these records where Coltrane is playing a million notes for like 30 minutes. I used to go nuts. I could listen to that stuff for hours, even days on end---still do. But I’ll never do it again. It’s not going to happen. Because we don’t live that now.
Well, Coltrane also is trapped in time for us. He didn’t have a chance to grow older and develop.
Well, that’s also true. But we do have these people who are keepers of the flame. I guess I could be that person. But then you lose the possibility of ... I listened to a Radu Malfetti-Taku Sugimoto duo on this Improvised Music From Japan CD, and a lot of times almost nothing is happening. I understood how for a person like Radu, who came out of the free jazz thing, that was super-liberation. So I just want to feel that free to renounce that part of it. That’s not to say, 'Well, that’s all BS, what I did back there,' but more to say, 'Well, you can’t keep doing it in the current environment.' That may mean that the trombone, like any composer ... you don’t use the same instrument in every situation. Just because you happen to play it doesn’t change that methodological reality.
In Richard Teitelbaum’s piece 'Golem,' you were given the job generating the Golem’s ...
He said I was the Rabbi. It was my job to bring the Golem to life.
And I saw you do almost literally do that in a concert at the Jewish Museum.
Oh, that was a good concert. We even upstaged Menachem Zur, who is an excellent composer.
You’ve also developed a software language that brings inanimate circuits to life, so to speak. You once responded to something I was saying, 'that sounds suspiciously like language,' and I said, 'Is music language?' and you said, 'I don’t think so.' Is music analogous to language in any way?
I sure hope not. Ingrid Monson wrote a great book, Saying Something. She took the music-and-language premise and worked with it in a way that implies that music isn’t a language any more. In other words, we’re not looking for a one-to-one correspondence. It’s a much more sophisticated view of language, which leads to a more sophisticated view of how communication takes place. We are pleased to say that any time communication takes place, it takes place on the basis of language. But that’s not really what happens. Communication takes place all the time without language. In a way, that’s the joy of music. It’s a non-linguistic medium, at the very least. When I hear people talk about their musical language, even somebody cool, like Messaien, I think, 'ok, this is great to have your musical language, but I wonder ... maybe early humans sounded more interesting than most people’s musical languages.' I have no idea, no way of knowing that. But how did those people communicate their desires, their goals, their needs, without this highly developed thing that we like to think of as language? How did that happen?
We’re faced with that situation every day as improvisers, and to the extent we have a fixed language, we can pretty much say fixed things. We have a set of things we can say and no more, because it’s not really that extensible. The music/language analogy breaks down at so many points, that once you get rid of it, you’re much freer to think about sound, the ways in which sound can signify and how many contexts it can signify in, that spoken language or written language really cannot match. This is the reason why we have such problems describing music. We don’t have problems describing things that are in the same medium. Someone says, 'Well, what does Obama talk about?' You can tell him. You use one language. You can tell him in a different language. You can tell him in French. You can tell him in German. It doesn’t matter. They’re all variants of the same thing. But you can’t really tell them in music in the same way.
Now, some people would take issue with you, and say, 'Of course you can,' and maybe somebody will talk about drum language in Africa or whatever they’re talking about. But I’m still going to hold to the idea that music is a fundamentally different animal, and the reason why we have it around and why it’s important is because it needs to be a fundamentally different animal. But on the other hand, you have opera, which is fantastic. So what do you about that? It’s just too complicated to get into.
As the final question, or perhaps the beginning of the final question, this notion of discarding your vocabularies, continually shedding your skin, the rebirth trope that you’ve referenced several times, reimagining who you are ... Why is it important to do that? Is it actually, in truth, possible to do that?
Well, I think it’s possible. I think I’ve managed to kind of do it. The problem is the goalposts keep moving. You have to keep doing it, and once you set yourself on that path, you can’t stop. If you don’t keep doing it, then you’ll feel poorly, because you’ve set yourself up now, and you say, 'Well, I’ve stopped now. All that stuff about reinventing yourself, we don’t do that any more. I’m happy with where we are now.' That could be a conscious response to new conditions.
I don’t know when I started to first think about improvisation as depending for its impact upon circumstance, as somebody who really is trying at every moment to be open and let himself or herself become transformed by conditions and situations, where you are learning, preparing yourself to encounter the world and other people, and trying to cultivate a sense that you are going to be, if not ready, at least willing to engage fundamental difference. That has to be something that you kind of cultivate.
Now, I’m talking about fundamental difference. I am not talking about someday going around the world and playing with somebody from this tradition or that tradition and the other tradition. That’s not quite fundamental, because you’ve got some tradition to deal with. Fundamental change can happen within traditions, or within socio-musical aggregates. Fundamental difference can occur through two individuals who are both invested there. So what you would have to do in those cases is to find in yourself the motivation to do it. Tony Robbins was in San Diego the whole time I was there, and he’s probably still there. I think he talks about some of these ideas about you have to transform yourself, and it all depends on you, and it’s your ideas that count, your view of yourself, and so on, that really matters. I'm not a follower, but that's just one example.
A very American world-view.
To that extent, yes, it’s very American, and I can’t say I disagree with it; there’s some tangent there that I feel I can tap into. But I have mainly found in my own work that the biggest impediment to change was my fear of maybe what other people would think. It’s all chimerical, but I still have this ridiculous fear about it. It came out in Perugia. It was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to get up here in front of all these people, I’m going to be conducting, and that’s all I’m going to do, and they’re just going to see my ass. I’m not going to be playing anything on the trombone. Maybe I should just play a little bit at the beginning, so I can get it out of the way.' Now, you’re not really being true to what you think at that moment. You’re getting stuck in some imagined view of yourself, some imagined community that you have been with in the past. It’s not irrational to think this way, because people come up and tell you this. 'I wish you’d play the trombone more' or 'stop all that computer shit'—all these kinds of things. When I was in my thirties and forties, I would be very influenced by these things. But now I’m 57, and I’m just inclined to politely not pay attention to that.
So we’re still talking about the trombone. It was a great thing, and the nice thing about ... Well, I’ll put it another way. Actually, it’s a deep-seated fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on. They try to tell you, 'Music is great, but you should get a degree in something, so you have something to fall back on.' Well, for me, the trombone is something I can always fall back on. But if I do that, that sort of cheapens it. I don’t want the book to stand or fall on how well I play the trombone. That has nothing to do with it. If the book is only good because the guy plays the trombone, that’s not any good. Or the computer music is only good because the guy plays the trombone. What does that have to do with anything? Is the computer music any good or isn’t it? Did the person spend the time? Did they do the work? Are they familiar with the tenets of things? Is it working?
The answer to that is, 'Well, the guy plays a mean trombone.' That’s not an answer. Or the thing that happens where your computer crashes and they say, 'Well, you could always play the trombone.' I say, 'Well, no, not any more.' 'Why not?' 'Well, I didn’t bring it, for one thing.' In other words, you just say to yourself that you’re going to stand or fall with what you’re doing now, and you’re going to have enough confidence and faith in yourself, and you’re going to do your best to enter this new medium without any convenient exits.
So if I might borrow your nomenclature, the trombone is one component of a multidominant personality that might be less dominant at one moment, and might be more dominant at another? Is that a possible metaphor, that the multidominance that you encoded into the computer is functioning within you?
Yes, you can say that, sure. Maybe they’re not competing. They should nominally coexist, and that one comes out according to need. If you just stick to that, then maybe you avoid a lot of problems that would come out for some other reason—fear, ego, or whatever.
Ted Panken spoke with George Lewis on July 15, 2009, in Perugia, and on August 8, 2009, in Manhattan.
December 11, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
By Ted Panken
Standing in the wings of the Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater watching George Lewis rehearse the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble for the first of their six concerts over three nights at the 2009 summer edition of Umbria Jazz, Marija Sepac marveled at the singular nature of this particular cohort.
"They are very precise—more than 20 people, and they work as one," said Sepac, who has observed musicians closely over her eleven years as a quasi-chaperone for the festival’s various performers. "Concentration. Many hours of hard work. Everybody in an excellent mood all the time. I got a feeling that the people in the orchestra are honored to play with George Lewis, but that they really like him. I can feel the connection which goes beyond respect and professionalism. It was beautiful staying with them yesterday. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing. It’s amazing!"
At this moment, Lewis was systematically making sure that each sound in the orchestra (and there are dozens, from saxes, trumpets, and trombones to didgeridoos, vocals, electronics, and more) was properly accounted for in the mix. After this was done, there was an hour to rehearse—or, more precisely, to run through—the repertoire he'd chosen for the late-afternoon concert.
Scant preparation or no, an inspired performance ensued. Lewis set the tone with a rambunctious opening trombone salvo, before putting down his horn to conduct his five compositions—swaying, dancing, cuing, and (when appropriate) leaving the stage to allow the musicians to figure-out the next step on their own. Over the next five concerts, which transpired at 5 p.m. and midnight over a three-night span, GBME members Ernest Dawkins, Nicole Mitchell, Douglas Ewart, Mwata Bowden, Renee Baker, Tomeka Reid, and Saalik Ziyad presented compositions that took full advantage of the possibilities presented by the 21-member unit, which executed each chart with the world-class technique, high collective intelligence, and an open attitude that has been characteristic of musicians involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since it was founded in 1965.
Himself an AACM member since 1971, and now entering his sixth year as Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, where he also chairs the Center for Jazz Studies, Lewis chronicled the organization’s history in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [University of Chicago Press], published in the spring of 2008.
A Power Stronger Than Itself is a landmark work. The bedrock of the text is an exhaustively researched linear narrative history, constructed on over 90 interviews from which Lewis traces keen portraits of numerous members; AACM archival records; encyclopedic citations from contemporaneous literature, both from American and European sources; and vividly recounted personal experience.
Furthermore, Lewis contextualizes the musical production of AACM members—a short list of "first-wavers" includes such late 20th-century innovators as Muhal Richard Abrams, who stamped his character on the principles by which the AACM would operate; the founding members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and Don Moye); Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgil, Amina Claudine Myers, and John Stubblefield—within both the broader spectrum of experimental activity and the critical theory that surrounded it, expressing complex concepts with rigorous clarity and elegant prose.
A native of Chicago’s South Side who earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Yale, Lewis established himself as one of the major voices on the trombone tree during the ‘70s, for his seemingly unlimited technique and singular tone, setting new standards on his instrument with bandleaders as diverse as Braxton, Count Basie, and Gil Evans. As the ‘70s progressed, Lewis turned his attention to interactive computer music, eventually imagining and creating Voyager, a software program that improvises either in real time with a musician partner or on its own initiative. In a sense, he breathed anima into the computer, enabling it to function as an autonomous, social entity.
Over the course of two interviews last summer, Lewis discussed these subjects. This is the first installment of a two-part article.
What’s been your previous relationship with the Great Black Music Ensemble?
The genesis of my working with them was that somehow the Sons D’Hiver people (which is a kind of French play on words, 'winter sounds' but it sounds like 'diverse sounds' somehow to my untrained ear in the French language) managed to get the entire Great Black Music Ensemble to come to Paris in 2008 and do concerts there. So they asked me to sort of collaborate with that (because I’m not really a member of it), actually to make pieces. So I was also able to bring in some people, like the violinist Mary Oliver, who lives in Amsterdam; the bass player, Leonard Jones, who lives in Düsseldorf (he was also in Perugia); and my spouse, Miya Masaoka, the kotoist and sound artist. I made kind of a triple concerto format surrounding them, and I made three pieces for the first half of the concert. We’re playing all of those three pieces here, plus a new piece that I wrote for them, because it’s stable enough so that I know who is going to play, and I know who can do what and who likes to do what—not what they can do, but the comfort zone. That’s what you want to do with any group of musicians.
Actually, more and more, I am inclined to just write music, and not worry about what people can and can’t do. We always hear about the Duke Ellington model, that a lot of that work apparently was improvised, although the scholarship on that is kind of spotty—it’s more like anecdotes and stories. I don’t know if anybody’s ever really sat down and said, 'Look, how did you guys do it?' Part of the problem always with the interview process is that people are kind of performing, and the people who are interested in anecdotes and so on don’t really get into process that much. I would have been fascinated to find out how they improvised these parts, but there’s nothing written on what they did and how did they do it. You wouldn’t be able to get that unless you bring in somebody who had the interest in documenting that part of the process, and also the outlet for being able to publish it or put it out there, and then the constituency of people who really want to read it. Because I imagine that a lot of times the musicians say, 'do you really want to know this?' Or 'Are you really qualified to receive this knowledge, or somehow equipped ...' Not 'qualified.' I guess that's more of an insider’s viewpoint. We want to get beyond the everyday, mundane stuff. We want to get to the deep parts of this. A lot of people feel they don’t want to do that with people they don’t feel can really understand it. It’s a funny way of thinking about things.
But in any event, when I work with the group, I concentrate on the written music, and I write a lot of stuff for them. For the first concert, I wrote a lot. I’m not a conduction person. I don’t like to improvise conducting. It’s too centralized for my work, and I'm not good at it anyway. I want people to make it up on their own, and I kind of like the idea of large ensemble improvisation without some center person pointing to people and making them do things. They should think it up on their own. But that takes a lot of time to develop, a kind of personal transformation, and a method of sorts, and we didn’t really have enough time here to develop that to the degree I’d like.
We’ll get another chance in August in Chicago. They’re having a tribute to Fred Anderson, this wonderful musician, a mentor of mine, while he’s alive (which is great—he’s 80 years old), and I’m writing a piece for the Great Black Music Ensemble surrounding his work. It emanates from Paul Steinbeck, my Ph.D student who's going to be a post-doc at the University of Chicago this fall. He published a book of transcriptions of Fred’s solos. I took one of these solos, and I’m sort of orchestrating it. But not like Supersax. It’s more like counterpoint. The idea is that everybody has a piece of Fred’s solo, and the solo kind of proceeds on its own logic. Looking at it on paper, being able to listen to it over and over, and reflecting on it, and so on, you realize that Fred’s solos do have an inner logic, and it’s not really that capricious. It’s pretty well-organized and very stable, and hangs together. So tearing that up and imposing your own order on it—it’s a clash, a dissonance you can feel. You’re sort of stepping on very important stuff. So I try to avoid that. I want to find ways to support from below what’s going on, and the solo just emanates. That’s the approach for that. But you can do that, once again, because the [GBME] personnel is stable. You get to see how three voices might interpret Fred’s music, or how a group of strange trumpet players might interpret it, and so on.
Can you elaborate on the pieces of yours that they played during the week?
There’s “Chicken Skin II,” which I actually wrote in 2003, for a group in Munich, the International Composers and Improvisers Ensemble, or ICI-Ensemble, which also has pretty stable personnel. They were great at playing the written music. Nicole Mitchell and Leonard were there, too, and Mary Oliver, so they played as a part of the group.
My feeling now is that I like to go and work with professional artists to realize things, but I also want to bring some people that I know well. It’s not so much that I want to have my people there to make sure that the solos are going to be good. A lot of people can play today; it’s not a question of that. But I like the idea of diverse experiences that come from the cultural exchange in the group. That’s very important to me.
There’s also 'Fractals,' which is based on Brownian motion—1/F², statistical stuff. It’s not real 1/F². It’s not algorithmically made. I just made an impression. It would have taken more time to make an algorithm than just write it out of your head.
Then 'Angry Bird,' which is a re-orchestration of a small section of my orchestral piece from 2004, Virtual Concerto,' for the American Composers Orchestra. The original piece had a solo piano part played by a Yamaha Disklavier with software that we made to play piano and listen to the orchestra, and be interactive. Basically, the orchestra played the written music, and the computer basically improvised its part the whole time, except for some little parts where, for a certain section of the music, a certain algorithm would come in. There’s a sort of violin part that got orchestrated. The nice thing is that GBME has this super violinist, Renee Baker, and a super cellist, Tomeka Reid, who both have the classical training, so that they can really play that part, that way. Then everybody kind of plays it. Then, 'Shuffle,' which is a shuffle, I guess, an interpretation of that.
The big problem in working with any kind of ensemble of this kind nowadays, especially in jazz, is the social and infrastructural area. It was unusual to have a scene like that week at Umbria Jazz where all we did was rehearse, and think about the music, and figure things out. You see that more often in non-jazz scenes that I’m a part of. The Morlacchi Theater is fantastic. It was built in 1780 and has a great sound. So we did have more time to do things than we did in Paris.
So I write these pieces down for ensembles with that milieu in mind. I don’t think that much about writing difficult stuff. The idea is that even if people don’t necessarily play all the right notes, it will sound good anyway. It’s sort of diverse enough so that wrong performance will still sound right, so people can feel good about what they do, and they’re not obsessing over minuscule passages and all that, and I don’t worry people about, 'oh, this is a quintuplet you’re not doing'—if it ends up being a sextuplet or a bulltuplet, it will still work. So that’s ok. It’s deliberately noisy, with a lot of room for that.
The last thing, which we are going to rehearse for, which I really want to do and get on tape, because it’s new, is called 'Triangle,' and it’s inspired by something I heard a while ago. A young percussionist in a New York-based contemporary ensemble called Wet Ink whose name is Ian Antonio, who also does noise improvisation, performed an Alvin Lucier piece, called 'Triangle,' alone, amplified slightly and subtly processed. The piece was 20 minutes, and all he did was DING-DING, DING-DING, DING-DING-DING for the entire 20 minutes. After the first five minutes my arms started to fall off sympathetically just watching Ian doing this.
When I was creating my gloss on Alvin’s piece, I thought, “Well, this will be a great start.” I didn’t think I wanted to have Turk Burton playing triangle for 20 minutes, though. I just wanted to give the impression. Then I didn’t know whether people would really do that, or maybe they would get bored doing it. But Turk has fantastic rhythm, so he’s playing the triangle in a super great way, and I don’t really have to conduct. People hear the triangle, and they’re on rhythm. Then there’s all this stuff surrounding it. Iit’s a pretty ambitious piece, so we didn’t have time to prepare it all.
You said yesterday that you’d never seen me do this kind of extended composition and conducting. Not many people in the U.S. have. It’s not like I do these things all the time. But when I do them, I tend to do them somewhere other than where I live, in another country. say. I don’t think I’ve ever really done it in Chicago except for bringing the NOW Orchestra from Vancouver to the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2001 or 2002.
You’re playing in the concerts devoted to the music of the other members. So you’re functioning not just as a composer and conductor of your own music, but as a member of the ensemble, which is very much in line with AACM principles.
Yes. The curious thing about that is they’ve been rehearsing this music, but I have to get the parts and rehearse, and then play catch up. I’m also trying to document all the concerts. So I kind of have this split brain, where I’m sitting next to the hard disk recorder, on which I did all these sub-mixes and stuff, both recording and then also playing the music. But I’ve been doing this sort of divided attention thing for a long time. I documented the AACM concerts as far back as ‘71 on my high-test cassette recorder, the first sort of so-called hi-fi cassette stereo things. I’ve got all those tapes, and this is in that kind of tradition. Setting up mikes and stuff, I can do that.
They let us say what we wanted to say about presenting the group, and I preferred it as 'The AACM Great Black Ensemble With George Lewis.' instead of 'Featuring George Lewis.' Otherwise, you’re expected to do a lot of stuff, and I’m tired of meeting expectations. I just want to do what I want on stage. You’re supposed to play an improvised trombone solo on every piece or something, and I’m not going through that—and so I don’t! So the strategy for the first piece, the first evening of my music, was to play an improvised solo at the beginning, and then that was it. I didn’t have to play any more. I had a lot to do. The music doesn’t stand or fall on whether I play the trombone or not, just like my book doesn’t stand or fall on that. The book is the book, and if it’s any good, it’s supposed to be good because of the scholarship, and not because of some insider knowledge. So basically, you want the stuff to stand by itself.
Also, the AACM is a collective, and so it’s supposed to be a collective enterprise, and there’s no reason for me to hog the entire thing. I began to realize that it would be very boring for me to be the only composer for six concerts, not because I don’t have six concerts worth of music, but because all those other composers would just be sitting there, and that’s not a good thing to do. When you’ve got all that diversity, you want it to come out.
Could you apply some of the methodologies that you apply to the history of the AACM in A Power Stronger Than Itself to the Great Black Music Ensemble? For example, you explore ethnography, personal history, analyzing the individuals who comprised the AACM by class, by family background, and so forth. Who comprises this ensemble? Are they primarily members of the second and third wave of the AACM, with a few fourth wave people? Break it down.
I don’t remember what I said in the book about waves. If I did adopt that terminology wholesale, I was still a little murky about it. If I’m part of a second wave, then I would say Nicole would be a representative of a third wave, and then people like like Saalik Ziyad and Tomeka Reid would be representative of a fourth wave. Basically, every seven to ten years a new wave kind of comes about. For example, Mwata Bowden and I would be second-wave people. It’s partly generational, but the wave thing doesn’t necessarily correspond with the age of the people involved. Someone like Taalib-Din Ziyad is more of a third wave person, but he’s older than me, I think, or close in age, and his son Saalik is in the group—they're both super singers. It’s very complex.
The book is mainly about people up to the third wave. There’s not a lot to be said about the fourth wave, because I didn’t have a chance to interview all those people. It changes a lot when you get to the fourth wave, because there’s less international visibility, which has always been one of the AACM lifebloods from the beginning. It’s not an organization that stands or falls on, let’s say, the standard hinterland-to-New York model of the jazz experience. Early on, people sort of flew over New York to Paris.
The book’s approach is to place personal experience and personal background in dialogue with what was said by scholars and historians, sociologists and historians in particular, about the experience of black people. The Great Migration, the urban sociology that came out in the ‘40s through the ‘60s about conditions in Chicago—that’s all critical to the experience of these people. So when Malachi Favors, for example, talks about how he remembers rats in the street all the time--well, that’s something that comes up in a lot of the sociological literature. Chicago has had this ongoing problem with rats in the street. If you remember, they would always post things in the alley about to watch out because they were using Warfarin to kill rats all the time. Then Malachi talks about fires all the time, and that’s another big thing. There were thousands of fires, and a lot of them apparently were set deliberately by landlords. People got killed. That comes out in a lot of the urban sociology literature. But the other thing about that is, people didn’t know why there were so many fires. They just knew there were fires.
So what I wanted to do was to give back to these people, to kind of say, 'Well, here’s why these problems came up.' They weren’t necessarily equipped to know why. For example, Oliver Lake blaming the demise of Black Artists Group on himself when, in fact, the foundation that was supposedly supporting them was planning their demise under the table. How could they know that? That only came up twenty years later, through archival research with people like George Lipsitz and Ben Looker. So the approach isn’t just the ethnography itself. The idea is that somehow the stories dovetail with what’s said in a more dispassionate way, which ends up, first of all, validating the experience of the musician on another level, and showing how those experiences become emblematic of the period.
One of the overarching continuities of your analysis of the AACM is that the organization and its cultural production represents a cohort comprised primarily of working-class origin, many of them first-generation Chicagoans (although some not)—that it’s the expression of their agency. Is it your sense that the AACM still reflects a similar set of circumstances, or if the background of the membership has evolved in line with the evolution of African-American life over the years?
This is a very brief answer, by necessity. I don’t really know. African-American people, even the people who have the so-called 'middle class' background, which is an increasingly growing group ... In other words, maybe they were born into the working class, but a lot of them have been to college now. That wasn’t really so true of the earliest generation. A lot of them have masters degrees or whatever, and a lot of them are searching for higher education in different ways. Things that weren’t available so much to people in the earlier generation.
I have the working-class background but I also have the Ivy League background and basically a prep school background, so that’s a strange combination. You go back into the so-called ghetto at night after coming from the University of Chicago Lab School during the day. That kind of bifurcation is part of the experience of a lot of African-American people, going back quite a long time.
So I am going to say that my initial impression is that it’s still primarily a working-class group, even for those who have managed, at this point, to develop another kind of living for themselves. Another thing about the Chicago AACM is that a lot of people do music, but they also have other jobs. They’re not necessarily on the road all the time. They have families. They’re people who have managed to combine two careers successfully. It’s always been like that. They don’t necessarily try to actively cultivate the aspiration of being like a working musician in that sense. The idea of experimentalism being supported by other kinds of work in order to supplement it, in the old days, was considered like, 'Oh, you have a day job; that’s terrible; fuck that'—to be a real full-time musician, that’s great, authentic. That aspiration isn’t a big part of the thinking of a lot of people. I think this example shows it’s not as important as people think it is. It’s probably a little self-serving, in a way. A little too romantic. The idea is if you’re doing the music, you’re doing the music. That’s it. Who really cares whatever you have on the side?
It also occurred to me that you yourself, over the course of your career as a musician, which is 38 years ...
First of all, I didn’t think of music as a full-time career all the time. I always had jobs. In New York, I had a job. For two years, I was the Music Curator at the Kitchen. That was a paying job. It was that kind of day job that musicians dream of, where you can go on the road. In Paris, I did concerts and stuff, but I also had a job. I had a commission from IRCAM, the French computer music institute, and I could have income there. Also in Holland. The time when I really had a full time itinerant position as a musician, which was in New York from about ‘87 to ‘88, I had a pretty hard time doing that. Then I started getting into academic life. So it’s not the same experience as people who have a full-time occupation. That hasn’t been a big part of my career.
You moved to New York in 1977, I believe.
Around there. There was a transition period of ‘76 and ‘77.
So in ‘76, you play with the Count Basie Orchestra for two months. Then you join Anthony Braxton, you’re on the road with him for a year—he was pretty visible, working a fair amount.
He did a lot of gigs.
You’re on recordings in 1978 and 1979 with Sam Rivers. It seems to me that during the latter half of the ‘70s, you’re a full-time musician, and that’s when you established your tonal personality very strongly.
I’m counting back from ‘82. In 1980, I started at the Kitchen. So maybe for three years from 1977 to 1980, I don’t know if I had any part-time jobs.
And a lot of activity was packed into those three years. There’s a body of documented improvised trombone playing that people still refer to when they think of your tonal personality.
I’m just basically saying that I come from the working-class background, but I’ve been very lucky, because a lot of musicians had extreme privation during those years. I really didn’t. I have to say that I was incredibly lucky to have that.
You have quite a bit of experience with orchestral music in the jazz and creative music traditions. I’m wondering if you could position the Great Black Music Ensemble within the full spectrum of such units you’ve worked with. Also, if you don’t find it too anecdotal, could you relate some of the experiences you had in big bands in the ‘70s that influenced your thinking of music as a full-time career.
Let me go first to the part about situating this group. I’ll start with the AACM.
by Michael Wilderman
Now, the AACM has always had a tradition of supporting research in composition. In fact, from my perspective, the AACM began as a composers’ collective. In my time, at the AACM School, mainly you got lectures in composition from people like Muhal or Wallace MacMillan, or whoever showed up. They didn’t teach instruments. No one was talking about improvisation and stuff like that. Then you were always encouraged to compose your own work and present it; that was kind of a requirement. You were always encouraged to compose, and if you said you didn’t want to compose any more, people would complain. In that regard, the AACM membership itself would play your music, provide opportunities for you to explore large-form compositions, because there was no other way to do it. People weren’t receiving commissions from anybody to do anything like that. As far as I can see in Chicago, no one was calling up Douglas Ewart on the classical side to produce anything, and I’ve been on various panels where the classical ensembles are reviewed by funding organizations, and I’ve had a chance to kind of complain that these organizations never interface with the black community, and they should be called to account for that. It would be obvious that these experimental contemporary music ensembles should logically interface with the AACM. That’s one way of situating it.
For example, let’s imagine the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble in conjunction with various hybrid kinds of structures, which is the way the AACM was going. The book cites the first press release of the AACM, which Muhal and Ken Chaney wrote, which said that their mission was essential to the advancement of new music. I don’t think they were necessarily talking about the next Count Basie. I think they were trying to figure out a way to situate themselves in the broader tradition of musical experimentalism. That was really clear. I don’t want to narrow that focus.
So when you look at the various AACM big bands, as they called it, there was always this thing called the AACM Big Band, which was their way of interfacing with the big band tradition. Its precursor before that was the Experimental Band, and before that there were people like Muhal and Marshall Thompson and Eddie Harris who got together and created a rehearsal band, just to try out some ideas. The whole big band experience had kind of ossified, and a lot of people couldn’t get work going on the road—there was no longer that kind of work. As Eddie said--wasn’t that in an interview he did with you, Ted?--you didn’t learn certain things about how to perform or compose. There was no real infrastructure for that. So people had to make it themselves and create it.
Now, I think that there was a deliberate decision taken by people like Mwata Bowden—in particular, Mwata, I think—to recast that in a different way. In other words, they decided to change the name of what they were doing to the Great Black Music Ensemble. That was an important step also not in breaking with tradition, but establishing a new discourse surrounding their relationship to the AACM. Very important. They didn’t have to be the AACM Big Band any more. It wasn't like, 'Oh, here's the next edition of the AACM Big Band.' What I realized, sitting in the band for those three nights, was that I played in all the AACM big bands, or a lot of them, for many years—the ones with Muhal, the ones with Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Henry Threadgill, and all these people who people think about from the first generation. I was kind of their student, in a way. But there was nothing like this. They didn’t have four singers or five singers. They didn’t really have cellists and violinists. With all respect to these great people, I don’t want to say that this is ‘better,’ but it’s a fundamentally different kind of animal, and it’s really, in a way, the most diverse set of possibilities that I have seen in any AACM ensemble. Things happen in this ensemble that never happened before in the AACM Big Band. Plus, they have women, a lot of women, not just a few, like we did back then.
And they’re not just singers.
And they’re not necessarily singers. They’re great players. Some of them sing and some of them don’t. With that in mind, GBME has a fundamentally different and very particular identity that they’ve established through regular rehearsal and through modification of a discourse which ends up causing everyone to reflect on how we are doing our thing and not necessarily just doing the AACM’s thing. That’s one thing. I was pretty impressed with that. The things that happened during those three nights couldn’t have happened in the same way with those earlier people. The earlier people should be proud of that. I certainly found myself being very proud of it.
Now, the next part of your question, asking me to situate this in the context of other experiences that I’ve had in various kinds of big bands ... that’s hard to do. A lot of people who did experimental improvisation ensembles like Globe Unity Orchestra weren’t necessarily thinking about themselves as reacting to traditional big band music. They were just trying to create something different based on a broader interpretation of how you combine improvisation with composed stuff. Certainly, the standard big band model that we know and in which people have created wonderful music was based on that, in some way. The band was playing music, then you took your solo, and so on. But they didn’t have that much collective improvisation. They didn’t have everyone in the band writing a piece. For example, in Count Basie, we were playing pieces by Eric Dixon and so on, but it wasn’t a big feature. Thad Jones wrote most of the music for his orchestra—fantastic, classic pieces, like 'A Child Is Born.' But it wasn’t that everyone in the band was encouraged to write music. Duke Ellington, the same thing—Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote the music. I don’t seem to remember Duke Ellington’s Orchestra playing standards, so-called, too often. That makes sense. It was his band, and it was his music, and why not?
In this ensemble, anyone can contribute. That’s like the AACM thing. As Joseph Jarman said, the difference between the AACM and Sun Ra is that in Sun Ra’s band it was Sun Ra who could say and do, and in the AACM everybody could say and do. That’s a huge difference. It’s actually a very different political model, too. You can think about it in terms of notions of radical democracy, egalitarianism, different models of ethical conduct that comes out of music. It’s not a negative example, but it’s more of a difference in orientation.
I was talking about the Globe Unity Orchestra. Basically, Alex Schlippenbach would do a lot of the writing, if there was writing, but a lot of the time there was no writing, and people would just improvise the entire gig. It was great. You had all these people who, really, that was their metier, and they specialized in it, and they knew what do in that environment. I’m not sure this band does that in the same way. I would like to see that happen at some point, where we could say, 'OK, let’s improvise the entire concert with no music.' But that takes a particular kind of orientation to personal training, which might take time to develop. Maybe a retreat somewhere, a funded retreat of the sort that people coming from the jazz-identified area don’t really get, where you’ll have an ensemble come together ... Composers get this. I’m going to Rome for two months in 2010, at the American Academy, composing music. I’m not going to spend my time in Rome going around and playing in bands and presenting stuff. I want to sit in Rome and compose, and talk with people, and learn about what’s happening there. But that’s the idea. Imagine if you had an ensemble for a week to play together and work this out. We did that with a smaller group in Portugal. In August in Lisbon we’re presenting the electro-acoustic project called Sequel, which we recorded in 2004—eight improvisors working with both acoustic and electronic instruments.
One of the festival chaperones told me that she had never, in eleven years of shepherding bands around in Umbria and Orvieto, encountered a group of musicians as disciplined, organized, and good-humored as this group.
I do know where that sense of discipline and order comes from. I had never thought of this until J.D. Parran mentioned it, that the AACM people always were very organized and disciplined—he used that word, too. I never thought of us as particularly disciplined, but in fact, I had to ask people for their dietary requirement. My thing was, 'Just give me some good Italian food,' but all these people were very specific about their requirements—'I’m a vegan' or this or that.
I don’t want to say this in the wrong way, but I think the reality of the jazz industry (I think I want to use that term) is that a lot of the bands that are brought to a place like this don’t come out of the collective experience, but out of the experience where someone gets a gig and they are hired by this or that person. They’re always on a bit of an edge, because they’re competing with a lot of other people who could also have been hired, but in fact they weren’t, so if they don’t do the right thing or play the music in the right away or don’t have the right attitude, they could get fired. I mean, nobody can get fired from the AACM. You can’t even resign voluntarily! Once you’re in, you’re in, and even if you say you’re out, you’re still in. So people don’t feel they can get fired. What are you going to do? Are you going to fire yourself? It’s a collective. Who’s going to fire you?
Isn’t what you’re describing a sort of collective characterological trait that’s been passed down from the beginning through Muhal Richard Abrams, and then various other members who had experience in the military? Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman both talked about their military experiences as crucial to what they did when they got to Europe, to their ability to survive and be self-sufficient.
You could say that.
I’m wondering if that attitude might run continuously throughout the AACM experience.
Maybe it could be. But I don’t know how many people of the younger generation had military experience. I mean, I didn’t, and then it’s whole different thing with these younger people. Volunteer army. Who wants to volunteer? People don’t want to do it. So maybe some people did. But there’s also a different kind of experience. Ernest Dawkins and Ameen Muhammad had the experience of being disciplined within the East Side Disciples, a gang! That’s a really different thing.
But you’re disciplined because this is your thing, and you’re encouraged to take personal responsibility for the outcome of the decision, whereas if you’re playing in a regular band that tours, you don’t have much personal responsibility other than to show up and do the music and do what you’re told. I don’t care whose band it is. Here you have to take on responsibility for playing your music and other people’s music. You’re contributing to the collective experience because it could be your turn next time to play the music of someone else, your colleagues. So it’s a stronger sense of collegiality than the standard kind of working-for-hire situation. We’re clearly not doing that, even though we are being 'hired.’ But we’re working for ourselves as much as anyone else. We weren’t formed in response to some industry mandate, or “I’ll form a band and try to sell it.” It’s more that we form a band because we want to do this music. So we have full responsibility for it, and nobody tells us what to play. If we get hired for something, they hire us because we’re us.
I think that’s one thing that’s very important about discipline and collegiality and congeniality. It adds to the atmosphere. I remember working in bands where you were subject to one person’s way of looking at the world. There are people who like to have those kinds of groups, but I don’t. I’m more of a composer type. My band is kind of virtual. It’s on the paper.
Your mention of the Globe Unity Orchestra makes me reflect that this residency in Italy is part of a long timeline of AACM-Europe interactions, that the AACM bypassed New York and went directly to Paris at the end of the ‘60s. Indeed, you yourself had a great deal of personal experience in Europe during your formative years. I was thinking of questions of mutual influence: How you see the AACM having affected European notions of experimentalism and, conversely, ways in which European notions of experimentalism, the European avant-garde, impacted the AACM, whether in the early years or later on.
This ensemble is very interesting to me for several reasons. Early on in the history of the AACM, among the first generation of people, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, for example, studied with Richard Wang. Richard Wang was teaching them serialism and stuff like that, and they were looking at those models and trying to figure out 'What’s my relationship to this?' So when a guy like Joachim Berendt says, “Well, European musicians have a closer relationship to Stockhausen than the Americans,” he seemed to be thinking about the fact of their being Europeans, but in fact music crosses those kinds of lines. Lots of U.S. musicians have studied European contemporary music as closely as anyone else. Certainly, Muhal and Roscoe and those guys knew about this. I mean, I heard about Elliot Carter from Muhal. He had the score of the First String Quartet sitting in his house. In fact, that was my introduction to scores, Stravinsky and all that. He had the scores sitting there. Phil Cohran, too. They all knew that.
But by the time you get to, let’s say, Ernest Dawkins, he says, 'Well, we weren’t really so much into Stockhausen; we were trying to look at more sort of ‘black’ models.' I’m trying to put words into his mouth, unfairly perhaps. But he basically said that. It reinforces the idea that there are several models of experimentalism. Why not have an experimentalism that comes out of the black experience and doesn’t necessarily assume that any routes of experimentalism run through Europe? So you started to see that this version of the AACM doesn’t owe very much to those models of experimentalism in improvisation that arose at that time. I don’t see a lot of influence or even contact there. Now, Nicole [Mitchell] has had more experience in that way than some of us do. Or Leonard Jones, who moved to Germany, who is much older, of course.
Now, I have had those kinds of experiences, and I find there’s a productive interchange, because I can bring to the table aspects of that experience that others did not have. This generation of people is young enough to think about, let’s say, going to composition school and studying composition in a graduate composition program, like the one I teach in at Columbia University.
As I point out in the book, the traditional route for African-American musicians was that we studied music education. You get something to fall back on, a teaching credential, and all that. That means that all of the composition programs in the U.S. mainly comprise white male composers and mainly white—and a few Asian—composing students. So I've told them, "Why not go to composing school?" They hadn’t thought about it. "Well, what’s going to keep you from doing it?" Then there was all this stuff about how they might have to write fugues to get admitted. People don’t do that any more! [LAUGHS]
The funny thing about jazz studies programs is that they’re probably the only programs in the country that actually require someone to learn both jazz and European music, so you have to be, like they say about anything black, "twice as good." And they’re usually very well equipped. But the problem is that, in many cases, the model of twentieth century European music they learn is a little outdated—Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky. So as someone who’s a little older and is involved in this kind of program, my advice for people of that generation is that they can always do their jazz and other things without having to reinforce it by taking it in jazz school. Just go into a regular composition program, and learn all you can there. If you don’t know enough right at the beginning, you might have a little extra work to do.
So I have this thing now for my younger AACM colleagues that I call "modernism boot camp." [LAUGHS] It’s really just an email.exchange. There’s still the autodidact tradition in the AACM. People are teaching themselves to compose, teaching themselves to teach—all kinds of things. When you teach yourself, let’s say, orchestration or composition, the reality is that you are generally learning from books that are 20 or 30 years out of date. If you want to hear what’s happening now, you’ve got to go into one of these programs, and learn it from there. Since I’m in one of the programs, I can say, “well, here’s what people are doing.” Matthias Spahlinger, Olga Neuwirth--they haven’t heard about it. There’s no book published in English that you can read about people like this. You can’t get the scores unless you know where to look.
So I just present the people they should listen to.' Sure, Stockhausen is on the list. You say, "Well, here’s the people who come out of this; here’s the generation, another generation, and I’m going to take you up to about 1985, and after you listen to these, let’s say, one hundred people and look at the scores, then you’re good until about ‘85." Now, that’s still twenty years out of date. But it puts you in a space where you can go into a composition program and you’re not left behind, because you know who’s doing what. Then you’ve also got your jazz experience. So you know what spectral music is, or things like that. Then you’re in a position to do what, let’s say, Steve Lehman is doing in the Columbia program, which is combining spectralism with parallel ideas coming out of Steve Coleman and Jackie McLean to make this super hybrid. It’s amazing work. Tristan Murail, one of the founders of this area of music-making, loves it. It’s taking his ideas into areas he never thought were possible.
The second part of my question was your speculations on the AACM’s impact upon European musical production, experimental or otherwise.
The second and third generations of European improvisers were more influenced by the AACM than the first. They had a chance to listen to recordings and concerts, and they also are trying to do composed music more than the first generation. They are trying to combine improvisation and composition. So you get something like the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, which is great. There’s the Instabile Orchestra here in Italy. They all know about the example of people like Roscoe and Braxton in particular, who have spent more time here than the others. I wouldn’t say the experience is overweening. I would just say that the AACM thing has become part of the reference mix. People who are looking to do these kinds of hybrid things can’t consider themselves informed about the possibilities without having looked at the Braxton model at least, or the Threadgill model and then other models of how to do it.
The Art Ensemble coined the 'Great Black Music' component of GBME, and the question of who that term does and does not include has been part of the ongoing discourse around the AACM. In the book, you talk about creolization as an overriding strategy that you follow. GBME is entirely comprised of people of African descent. I’m wondering to what extent the AACM today reflects strategies of creolization, or if it denotes an entirely black experience. As it’s an organization situated on Chicago’s South Side, it makes me consider the journey taken by President Obama, himself a biracial person, who formed his mature sensibility by intersecting with the many worlds that exist on that same terrain.
Well, in the U.S., everybody is already creolized. We hope that Obama is thinking about the AACM.
Well, Jeremiah Wright certainly knows about it. Reading your account on Vandy Harris’ memorial, I was thinking about that.
I went there. I had never heard Jeremiah Wright before that. I was stunned. He went off on this Iraq thing, relating it to a Biblical text about hubris.
He also did a recording with Wynton Marsalis. He gives the sermon on 'The Majesty of the Blues.'
First of all, Ingrid Monson said an interesting thing—the ethnomusicologist from Harvard whom I work with quite a bit, most recently on a seminar on post-colonialism in music. She said that African-American culture is majoritarian in jazz culture. That is to say, African-American spiritual, cultural, and psychological values are majoritarian, even in all-white bands or all-European bands. So they adopt jazz models. You see people here, they’re using black slang routinely. That means that African-American ways of thinking ... there’s a creolization present even in an Italian jazz ensemble. You hear it all the time. You heard it at Perugia with that marching band, Funk Off.
The second thing is that the people in the Great Black Ensemble, although it comes out of a black milieu, don’t seem averse to having Mary Oliver play, or having Miya Masaoka play. So there’s a lot of creolization there, if you want to identify that with black-white mixing, which isn’t really what the concept is about.
What I think will happen eventually is the creolization of individual ethnic provenance, which is something that the AACM is not necessarily that into on an organizational level. Although one day it could. I think it might. This is probably the moment, as Joseph said, when the third generation, or the fourth, could really entertain that notion. But it’s very difficult to do that in the context of the history of American race relations. Because there may be a majoritarianism of black culture, but there is also a sense that whiteness is still the ruling ideology of the country in terms of the distribution of infrastructure, and that tends to produce a kind of divisiveness that many organizations can’t support. Now, that may still be true, and it may not be true. A lot of people are reluctant to risk the integrity and the tradition to find out.
So anyone who does that has to be someone of whatever non-African-American provenance who understands that reality of race. It can’t be some naive, "we are the world" color-blindness strategy. That’s not going to work. It has to be someone who understands politically the complexities. That’s possible in Chicago, I think, as well as anywhere else. You need people on both sides of the aisle who understand when to account for politics and when to leave politics out. I’m talking about racial politics. You see racial politics coming into the organization not through the people, but through unconscious pressures that are being placed on them ... For example, the pressures of identity politics that caused [vibraphonist] Gordon Emanuel to be put out. The organization couldn’t withstand that, which was too bad. Gordon took it quite personally. Why wouldn’t he? It was too big for him to understand. It was too big for a lot of the people who are in it to understand.
Hopefully with this book, which was written as much for the AACM as for anybody else, people will look at this example and say, 'Well, how can we do better? How can we construct a multicultural, multiracial AACM?' Maybe the possibility would be that the first person is someone who is not of U.S. origin, but is an African person, an Asian person, or a Brazilian person, or something like that. There are all kinds of possibilities. Then you get out of the black-white dichotomies which people get stuck with all the time routinely, without even thinking about it. Even a question like this. We are constantly being asked to evaluate things in terms of white and black because of the historical struggle that takes place. You cannot just blank that out. So even in my early scholarly articles, I tried ... Like the Afrological-Eurological thing that I wrote about, which people in the scholarly world have taken up and are sort of waving around. I’m a little wary of it now. It’s uncomfortable. But it does reflect a certain historical reality. So to do better, you still have to be aware of that historical reality, and to overcome that using a revised discourse is as important as anything else.
There are not that many collectives in Europe, as far as I can tell. I also don’t see even a lot of multiracial ensembles over here, even though Europe is becoming—even Italy is becoming—increasingly multi-racial. Look on the streets---it’s incredible. You never used to see these kinds of people. I think that’s we’ll see that increasingly as a part of the new reality of Europe as well.
You mentioned writing A Power Stronger than Itself for the AACM as much as anything else. What were some of the other reasons why you wrote the book? It took ten years of your life. A lot of labor was involved, a lot of detective work, and you had many other contemporaneous duties.
Why I wrote the book really has everything to do with why I got involved in academic scholarship. I was teaching at UC-San Diego, where we were trying to teach improvisation, and, at the time, being from the performance world and not the academic world, I had a few very inchoate ideas about how to teach that. At a certain point, I was brought up short by one of my faculty colleagues. I think I write about that in the book, actually. Basically, he said, 'Where’s the bibliography? How are you going to teach it if you don’t have a bibliography?' Then I thought, 'Actually, he’s right.' So where is the bibliography? This was in the mid ‘90s, and the new work in jazz studies was just coming out. But even that work didn’t seem to touch upon the experience and implications of what improvisation was—what it produced, what kinds of contexts it made, how it altered our thinking, how improvisation became imbued in our everyday life experiences, and how improvisation relates to an understanding of humanity, political situations, everyday interaction, and so on. It just seemed as though that literature was not really as present.
I think the first article I got published was an attempt to come to grips with a lot of that stuff. It was sort of long, too long, and still it got published in Black Music Research Journal in ‘96. It’s that article on the Afrological-Eurological thing that I just mentioned. The issue is much more complicated than I was making it out to be. It’s nice to know that you can grow and change, and revisit a lot of the ideas you had.
We also had a couple of smart graduate students at UCSD, Dana Reason and Jason Robinson, who organized a conference on improvisation. We were trolling for people who were confronting improvisation in the scholarship, and confronting it in a different way than, let’s say, the way that early ethnomusicological studies addressed improvisation. We weren’t so interested in finding practices and forms, and finding order and vindication of improvisation as an art form. We could see that improvisation was, in fact, an everyday critical practice, and we didn’t see a lot of people talking about improvisation as a critical practice. We mainly saw them interested in looking at alternate classical traditions—Persian improvisation or Indian improvisation—and concerned to find out what forms were being used, the rhythms, the compositions, and once you identified those forms, your work was done.
It just seemed to me that your work hadn’t even started! We were having these cross-cultural discussions with people at UCSD, and we would ask them questions that were burning in the classical music community. We would ask these Indian improvisers questions like, 'Do you think about global form?' 'What?!' We’d get no response at all. [LAUGHS] So we were at a cross-cultural space in thinking about improvisation, and there was a very important musical community that had no interest in these things that are burning in the Western contemporary music community, where it’s generally said that if you don’t have the aspect of global form your music is basically worthless, or not of any intellectual interest. But this is obviously not the case.
So you had to ask yourself how are these people getting along without thinking about these things, and why don’t they think about them? Why is it so unimportant to them if it’s so important to everybody else? Because we are being sold, as improvisers, a whole bill of goods about how formless the practice is, or how it didn’t produce this or didn’t produce that, and a lot of moral posturing purely based on the writings of John Cage or people like that, which was already distorting a lot of what those people did, but somehow enlisting his words towards finding improvisation lacking.
So there were enough reasons there to write anything. If you really wanted to start writing, get started. Since then, we’ve been able to find a global community of people attacking this problem from many different standpoints. I’d say the book comes out of that more than anything else.
Beyond that, the AACM is a very important organization. It seemed that it needed to be given its due in terms of its achievements and influence and impact, and also that it needed to be contextualized historically along with other movements. But there was not enough material available to do that. So the book’s purpose also was to provide some of that material so that future scholars can come in and perhaps elaborate on things that the book only touched upon, or that didn’t get talked about at all. Maybe some people would be interested in musical analysis, which I hardly spent any time with. So many things could be done on the AACM that, as large as the book is, it’s more like an amuse-bouche, in a way.
So there were a lot of reasons why it was important to me to get this work done. On the other hand, it took a long time just because I was learning a lot about, first of all, how to write a book. Then secondly, the AACM was developing while I was writing. It was kind of a moving target. It wasn’t a dead chicken or anything. It kept moving! It’s hard to pin down, but at an arbitrary point it had to be pinned down.
The book itself was probably a moving target while you were writing it. Is the final product somewhat in line with what you envisioned when you embarked upon it in the mid ‘90s?
This is the reason why I have such trouble writing. A lot of people complain that the work is always late. It’s because I can’t work like, 'Oh, here’s Chapter 1, which is going to be about this, and Chapter 2 is going to be about that.' First of all, I tried to assemble and read what’s been written about the AACM in several languages. Then there was this ambitious project to interview just about everybody. I got pretty far—I didn’t interview absolutely everybody, but I interviewed more than 90 people. I wasn’t even able to use all the interviews. In the middle of that, I found a communitarian aspect. In other words, people were excited to be interviewed. They were excited that a book was going to come out. They were also afraid that it wouldn’t come out. A lot of it was sort of like the idea of Obama getting elected, and then hoping he doesn’t get assassinated or something. People are used to these projects not coming to fruition. So I got a lot of moral support. No one said they didn’t want to be interviewed. Everybody was into it, even people who I didn’t really know well, like Phil Cohran. So that was OK. I met new people through doing it.
So I sort of started in the way I generally start, which is to collect everything I could collect, and then plow through it and read it all, then throw it up on the wall and see what sticks. Then, at a certain point, it’s got to take shape in the form of chapters. Of course, some things get left out—for example, a whole section on the Harlem Renaissance. The reason is because I was the only person who was interested in it. At a certain point, it was like hardly anyone in the community of the AACM referenced the Harlem Renaissance. There was no reason for me to put a chapter in there and say, 'somehow I feel this has relevance to the AACM.' Well, of course it does. Anything has relevance to the AACM. I put in stuff about the Society for Private Music Performance in Vienna. But at a certain point, if I did a whole chapter on it, it would have been a little out of place. So basically, I had to save a lot of material.
I first worked on it during a six-week residency in Umbria, Civitella Ranieri. When I came out of there, I already had 400 pages of writing. Plus, I had to transcribe all those tapes. I was in a castle, and there was a field with sunflowers, looking out on all this beautiful weather every day, and I’m basically sitting in a room, sitting in a virtual meeting in Chicago, on the South Side, listening to these tapes of people arguing about this and that, and being obtuse and being brilliant, and occasionally just not being able to help myself and sort of barging in, and then realizing that no one is listening to me! I’m listening to the thing, and this is stuff that is already thirty years old. But it was so present! People I didn’t know. People I knew.
What you’re referring to is the meeting at which the principles of the AACM were formed, which you describe in detail in one of the chapters.
Not just that meeting, but a bunch of them. I had a lot of meeting tapes, but only referenced a few. But yes, in general, it was that early period of the first couple of years of the AACM’s formation, when they were taping all the meetings in which I recognized voices of various people I knew. They had a rule that you had to say your name anyway, so even if I didn’t know the people, I could identify who spoke. A great idea. And people stuck to it.
In our conversation on WKCR in 2008, you wanted to be very clear that a lot of the boilerplate narratives of jazz historiography don’t work with the AACM.
The book explores multiple narratives, in addition to the broader, linear narrative—how the AACM was formed, its antecedents, its different stages, the people it comprised. I’d like to throw out a few of the narratives that seem important, a few that you mentioned yourself, and see what you have to say about them now. One is that A Power Stronger Than Itself is a narrative of an organization that expressed the agency of a group of working-class African-Americans. Another is the notion that the AACM also expressed the agency of people who had been impacted by migration, both the immigration from the South, but also their own emigration from Chicago once the AACM was established. Can you offer some statement on how those narratives became clear to you?
Of course, the book reflects my own experience, even though I am just one person. But I think the key image that brings all of those strands together is mobility. And the extent to which people fight for mobility. They fight against being stereotyped—all these things that tend to place you in fixed contexts, tend to root you to some spot and not let you leave. I wrote about Farah Griffin’s book on the migration. She references Foucault, who has an idea about about agency and power expressed through being able to move. At some point, these southern-based people were able to get out. As I discuss in the book, a lot of people were unhappy to see this super-exploited labor force leave the South, and even went to various agencies of the government to say, "Can’t you make some laws to keep these people here?"
That’s one kind of mobility. Then you’ve got another kind, where people start to say, before even the term comes up: "We don’t want to be stuck in one place. We want to do any kind of music that strikes our fancy. And not only any kind of music. We want to get involved in the visual arts, we want to get involved in theater. We want to do everything connected with art-making." Performance art. People like Jarman or Muhal or whomever. That’s another kind of mobility.
I saw the AACM fundamentally as a sort of successful struggle to achieve mobility. One saw also how this mobility was very hard-won. There is a discourse of immobility which you have to combat. I love that interview that’s on the web that I think Fred Anderson and other people had copies of on tape, where Charlie Parker is being interviewed, and they're asking him the same question over and over again, hoping to get a different answer. The answer that they want is that his music is a logical outgrowth of the work of European classical music. At a certain point, he comes out with one of these Charlie Parker type licks. His spontaneity is incredible. He says, 'Not a bit of it was inspired or adapted from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, etcetera.' That’s an incredible lick. That’s like the great alto break! For me, that says it all. Encapsulated classical music history. First of all, proving right away, in a sense, that he knew that tradition well enough to be able to do that. Then secondly, the idea that not only was he connected with that, but he had his own music. I felt that this kind of mobility—the freedom of reference—was important to bring out in the book.
The problem with this kind of mobility is that you cross-cut a lot of communities, but it’s hard to find a home base. It’s hard to find the people who will support you no matter what. You’re in this world for a while, in that world for a while, or have a lot of feet in one world, but it’s not as though there is one place where you can count on a certain kind of support. That’s why the AACM was important, because it did provide a group of people who would really support you no matter what. Even though they were critical, certainly, but the critique was offered with the idea that you were part of a community that deserved this kind of critique, who were invested in you by making this kind of critique. So wherever you went and whatever you explored, you would have this kind of home base, and it’s a home base that’s totally in your mind, which is where the most powerful stuff generally is.
Charlie Parker’s remark on the source of his music prompts me to double back to my question about the mutual relationship between the AACM and Europe. In our 2006 conversation, you stated that you saw the AACM and the European experimental music organizations as parallel streams. Both were interested in John Coltrane, in post-Webern music (Stockhausen, Xenakis), in collective practice, in developing certain sorts of social networks. Then you said: 'Both the European improvisers and the AACM have a peculiar relationship to European classical music. That is, the AACM people, people like Braxton, like Muhal, like Roscoe, are actually working inside of those traditions as well. You don’t really find that in the European improvisers, who are working against that tradition, with the large exception of Alex Schlippenbach—but even there, they have an oppositional stance, which is partly political, to this thing which is actually very close to them, this hegemony of European classical music.'
I thought that was a pretty great riff. We could call it the great trombone break!
I suppose, except that it didn't come out of my horn.
You said there was no reason for the AACM people to oppose European classical music, because for them, European classical music was the thing they were being kept out of. So for them, engagement with it was actually overcoming strictures of race.
Not just the AACM either. That’s an ongoing trope in American history and black American music history, the idea that somehow you’ve been kept out of something, and so to gain that knowledge becomes the object. Not necessarily to become part of the community. That’s more complicated. But certainly, to be in touch with that knowledge and be in dialogue with it becomes important.
End of Part One. For Part Two, click here.