Category Archives: AACM

For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

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 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat) – (1st draft):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
[–30–]

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):

 

At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

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Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

For The 66th Birthday of Drum Master Thurman Barker, a WKCR Interview from 1985

When I started my 23-year run on WKCR in the fall of 1985, I made it my business to try to document the personal histories of many of the AACM musicians I had admired during the ’70s, when I lived in Chicago, and continued to follow after returning to New York City in 1979. One of them was drum-percussion master Thurman Barker, who turns 66 today. It’s been on the internet for 14 years on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

* * *

Thurman Barker
November 18, 1985 – WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1985, 1999 Ted Panken

Q: Thurman is a product of Chicago, Illinois, and a founding member from a very young age of the AACM. It’s there really that the sources of his music are to be found. So I’d like to now start to talk about your early years in the music in Chicago, when you were coming up, even before you became a member of the AACM — how you picked up on the drums and began in music.

TB: Well, I first used to take tap dancing. That was my first exposure to a form of art, you know, was tap dancing. I really got into it. Of course, I’m in grade school now, and I’m taking these tap dancing lessons about three days a week. But during my eighth year in grade school, we used to have these concerts on Fridays. They called them assemblies, you know, the drama department would put on a show or something. This particular afternoon, it was a drummer, and he came up with a full drum set, and it was just him by himself. His name was Roy Robinson, and he left a very big impression on me at that point.

So when I started high school, I started taking private lessons. I studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, under James Dutton, who was head of the percussion department there. I feel I got a very good training, because for the first two years I really didn’t see a drum set. I worked out of these workbooks for harmony and learning the basic notation of music and things like this, and just working on rudiments on the snare drum. So I really didn’t see a drum set until later on.

Q: Were you also working with musicians your age, doing gigs?

TB: Well, sure. But at this time you’ve got to remember, the first couple of years I wasn’t really playing any gigs. But I was very active on the session scene in Chicago. Monday nights were the big nights for sessions. Club De Lisa, which was a very famous night-spot in Chicago, the Coral Club on the South Side, the C.C. Lounge at 66th and Cottage Grove — a lot of these places had sessions every Monday. In any other city, probably it would work the same. You would go down, you’d meet people, you’d get up and you’d play. So I was very active, and I made sure that I got there. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of working; I just wanted to play. Fortunately, the activity was there for it to happen. I got to New York in the fall of 1979. I don’t know if that kind of activity is still going on in Chicago. But at that time it was like a training ground for me.

Q: Let’s narrow down the years we’re speaking of right now.

TB: Oh, it was ’62, ’63, in that period. You had a lot of jazz clubs that were still very big at that time, which the most famous one, where Miles Davis recorded, was the Plugged Nickel . . .

Q: Which was on the North Side.

TB: Which was on the North Side. So I got very active on the session scene. Later on I started jobbing around with people. People would meet you at a session, and they would give you a Saturday night, a party to play or a wedding. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I started working with this saxophone player by the name of John Epps. He was a big local guy in Chicago that did a lot of parties. And that was my first steady employment, I would say, from music, was with this saxophone player. We used to work at a North Side Club in Chicago; I can’t think of the name. I was still young now. I was still in high school, you see, really my sophomore year.

Q: Who were some of the musicians in Chicago who you admired at that time?

TB: Well, Eddie Harris was a big idol of mine. Because my drum teacher used to work with Eddie Harris. His name was Harold Jones, and he was the drummer with Eddie Harris at the time. And Don Patterson, the organist, was around a lot. Of course, Von Freeman was very active. But I didn’t know Von; I knew his brother, George Freeman, who was a guitarist. So during those years I was pretty much working few jobs with George, and I didn’t get to meet Von until later on.

Anyway, so I had my first employment with John Epps, and we had this four- night gig on the North Side. I made $7 a night. And that was a big deal for me. In high school . . .

Q: This was pre-OPEC.

TB: So I had this gig, and my parents, of course, were into it, because they used to have to take me there, and go back home, and three or four hours later come back and pick me up . . . So it was a reassurance, of course, for my parents that I was getting active. Of course, for them they weren’t really concerned about the money I was making, but just the fact that I was getting active at something that they had taken some money to give me music lessons, and they were beginning to see it pay off. One thing led to the other, you know.

Q: You mentioned Eddie Harris. And in 1961, he and Muhal Richard Abrams began to form a rehearsal band that eventually became the core of the Experimental Band, and that became the core of the AACM.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This is a convoluted way of asking how you first encountered the Experimental Band and got into the AACM.

TB: At this time the Experimental Band was functioning. Of course, I didn’t know, but it was functioning. And how I got to meet Muhal was, when I was in high school, one of my best friends turned out to be Muhal’s son, and he knew that I was in the band in high school. And in high school, you know, you hang out together at lunch periods, and talk. Of course, I was a little different, and he wanted to find out what I was always doing after school. I was going home practicing, you know. And he told me that his father had a band rehearsal and was a bandleader, and for me to come down and check it out. So I said, “Wow!”

So of course, I took advantage of it. One Monday night he took me down to the rehearsal. Now, at this particular time the Experimental Band was rehearsing every Monday night at [the Abraham] Lincoln Center in Chicago. Lincoln Center is one of the cultural centers on the South Side. So they were in rehearsal. And that was my first encounter of the AACM.

Q: For people who don’t know, just describe what the Experimental Band was.

TB: The Experimental Band was a band put together of a lot of musicians on the South Side, including Eddie Harris, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell, Delbert Hill . . .

Q: And Muhal, of course.

TB: Muhal, of course! The Experimental Band was a band where musicians could come together and work on their own music. At that time there was a lot of energy among the musicians I just spoke of, Roscoe and Muhal, and they were at the point that they were doing a lot of writing. They were also jobbing around in Chicago and playing gigs and everything with big bands. Morris Ellis was one of the bandleaders around at that time that a lot of us worked with.

But this was a place, though, for everybody to come together and work on some of their original compositions that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to perform. It was run very orderly. Whoever had their composition up would direct it (of course, they would explain it first). Because we’re talking about people who had really gotten up into their music, man. In fact, they had changed the music notation. They used different music notation! At that time, you had a few people who just didn’t like the . . . Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t like it, but they just had their own symbols, you know. So they had to explain this, you see.

And of course, this was very different for me, because I’m a kid. For me, it was something really different and brand-new, you know. And I got such a big charge out of the fact that these people, not only was the music different, but they were serious about it. I mean, they could explain what they had on paper, and they had a feeling about what they were explaining and what they were doing.

Q: So you had musicians of different predispositions coming together in a rather unique situation. . .

TB: It was very unique!

Q: What do you think were some of the forces in Chicago that enabled this? Is it possible for you to say?

TB: Well, yeah. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were equal in terms of coming and discovering new ideas and new concepts of expressing and writing music. It’s funny how it seemed to all happen with everybody at once, you see. The period that I knew of was ’65. That was my first year of visiting the Experimental Band. So I think a lot of it had to do with, well, gee, nobody had any big record contract or nobody had 20 tours looking at him . . .

Q: It took some of the pressure off.

TB: It really did, I think. And the fact that we were all there together, and we were all equal in terms of discovering these new ideas. So there was no interference, I guess.

Q: Also there wasn’t that much work in Chicago at that time, was there?

TB: There wasn’t that much work.

Q: The urban renewal on the South Side.

TB: That’s true.

Q: The organ trios had changed.

TB: A lot of the clubs. . So it did affect the music. So right there at the Lincoln Center we were able to just start sharing these ideas, and it was like school, you know. Because I used to come down to rehearsal, and here was Henry Threadgill, Vandy Harris, Roscoe Mitchell and Delbert Hill, the first time I heard a saxophone quartet. I never even thought of it. Then I came down and hear these guys, four of them in a corner, going over these quartets, and it was just great! It was just something that I hadn’t seen.

But sure, I think a lot of the fact that it was easy for us to come together, there wasn’t a lot of work happening at that time, and it was just the opportune time for us to come together.

Q: Within the rehearsal band, there were different configurations and smaller groups that developed. I know you were playing with Joseph Jarman, and in 1967 you did your first records with Joseph Jarman and Muhal.

TB: That’s right, Joseph Jarman. Song For.

Q: Tell us how you met Joseph, and some of the connections with Joseph and with Muhal.

TB: Well, Joseph was right there in the woodwind section in the Experimental Band. Of course, he had a composition. Of course, by me going to school at the Conservatory, see, I had been introduced to playing mallets, like for tom- toms and tympany, you see. So he had a chart for mallets, you see. So we went through this chart, and he was a little amazed maybe, surprised that I had a touch for playing.

Q: You could play the charts.

TB: Yeah, I could play the charts. I could read.

Q: Your rudiments were very developed.

TB: Yeah, they were pretty developed at that point, that I could read, you see. And he had music; I mean, music for the drums. Of course, I had played all these other gigs with people, and there was no music. I would just go up and play. But here I come down to the Experimental Band, and these guys not only have music for the brass and woodwinds; they’ve got a chart for me. So that was in itself different.

But anyway, after the chart he came over and told me how much he really liked the sound, and what I was into. And I told him that, well, I would like to play some music, I’m not playing with anybody. So he asked me to come down and start rehearsing with his group. So I would get down on a Monday early. At that time in the Experimental Band there was a bassist by the name of Charles Clark. He was a very exceptional player, and he also was in the string section in the Experimental Band. Obviously, Charles had done some playing with Joseph before, because I could see that they knew each other, see. And Fred Anderson, a saxophonist in Chicago, also was in the woodwind section. So when I got to our first rehearsal, well, Fred Anderson was there, Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter who lives in Evanston, and Charles Clark and Joseph and myself.

Q: Was Christopher Gaddy on that also?

TB: And Christopher Gaddy, who was an exceptional keyboard player at the time. But we were all at this rehearsal, and that was the first time that I had got together with some people who were really playing some serious music, and I could see that it was just different. So I really wanted to be a part of that, you know.

Q: Let’s hear “Adam’s Rib” from the first LP on which you participated, Joseph Jarman’s Song For. Say something about the LP.

TB: First of all, I was going to say that after four or five months of getting really active with Joseph and playing some gigs around Chicago and the Experimental Band, the surprising thing came up one day that Joseph said, “Look, we’ve got a record date.”

Q: Had you been gigging? A few jobs here and there?

TB: We had a few gigs here and there. And it’s funny, my only experience with gigs were in clubs. All of a sudden, I look up and we’re playing in a bookstore. So immediately I knew that this music was going to take me in a different place. It was different, and it was exciting, you see. So just to make a long story short, I looked up one day, after I’d known Joseph four or five months I look up, and there I am in a studio making my very first record.

Q: Do you think that Song For is representative of the music that Joseph was doing at the time with the group?

TB: Yes, it is. Because the music that you’re about to hear is the music that we were playing during this period, and this is 1967 in Chicago.

[Music: “Adam’s Rib”; example of TB’S percussion music; Muhal Richard Abrams, “The Bird Song”]

TB: This is the stuff that was going in Chicago during this period.

Q: Programmatic music of all idioms.

TB: That’s true. Of course, during this time, we were doing this in clubs! We didn’t only do concerts at Abraham Lincoln Center.

Q: There were concerts at the University of Chicago campus.

TB: That’s true. There were a lot of concerts. I can remember most Fridays there were concerts at the University of Chicago. Also, the Student Union there used to put on a lot of concerts that the AACM members participated in. So we had some people that liked this music, and supported it, and wanted it to be heard.

Q: Meanwhile, the big band was still functioning.

TB: The Big Band was functioning every Monday. And believe me, no matter what happened, we all made that Monday night available for the Experimental Band. Because hey, that was the time that somebody got their music played, and that was a real serious and big deal then.

Q: Is Levels And Degrees of Light in any way representative of what was going on in the Big Band?

TB: Yes, it is. Because in the Big Band we had people like Henry Threadgill. Well, you know Henry, he’s really into theatre, you see. So for him to use the Big Band and use some recitation and some theatre, and be able to combine it, he definitely was one who would do it — and of course, Muhal. And Joseph was doing a lot of theatrical material. A lot of stuff.

So this was all a brand-new experience for me, and I had never seen it anywhere else. Of course, by the time of this recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees Of Light, my second record, I am really involved musically and, you know, as a group. I really felt I wanted to be a part of this movement here that was happening.

Q: I neglected to ask you about some of your musical influences outside the Chicago music scene? Who were some of the tough drummers who you thought well of?

TB: Well, the first guy that stands out is Cozy Cole. Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me, because in that period Cozy Cole made a solo 45 called “Topsy.” That was the very first drum solo that I memorized, beat for beat and rhythm for rhythm. I mean, I got that down. Because it just had a lot of emotion in it. So Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me at that time.

Also Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer with Cannonball Adderley. And of course, my drum teacher, Harold Jones. During the latter part of the ’60s there was a TV show that used to come on an educational station in Chicago, WTTW, a program that used to come on once a week called “Jazz Casual.” This was my first time actually seeing the music on TV. Of course, Ed Sullivan and all them people were on TV, but the band never really got featured. But here was a TV show that featured music, you see. So I was influenced a lot by, of course, Philly Joe Jones, Roy McCurdy with Cannonball, and Elvin Jones, who was with John Coltrane’s Quartet. I saw the original quartet on this show “Jazz Casual.” The host of the show I think was Ralph Gleason. Anyway, he ran this show once a week, and I saw Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, the pianist Bill Evans.

Now, these people were coming to Chicago, but I could not get in the clubs. There was this one club that they used to play at called McKie’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove, right there by the El. The El train is the elevated train that runs in Chicago, for those who don’t know. But I used to catch there right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I used to pass by this club, and I would see these names in big letters: The John Coltrane Quartet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins. And this was the club.

Q: And cats would be jamming there.

TB: Of course they might be jamming there.

Q: Gene Ammons might be strolling by and give a lesson for out-of-towners.

TB: That’s right!

Q: Were you playing in venues outside the AACM? Were you playing classical music at this time? I know you said you studied at the Conservatory.

TB: Well, mainly it was private training and ensemble classes at that time. At this time, ’66, ’67, ’68, those three years, most of my activity was with the AACM, with Muhal and Joseph Jarman. Those three years most of my activity was that. And we got some gigs!

Q: You went to Detroit, for instance, in 1967 and ran into John Sinclair.

TB: Yeah, exactly. John Sinclair was an organizer in Detroit who used to organize concerts at Wayne State University, and one year, I think it was ’67, he got us a big gig at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. And you know, this is my first big out-of-town gig now. Joseph Jarman, the late Christopher Gaddy, the late Charles Clark, and myself on drums. So this music that we’re hearing on Delmark is a very good representation of the music scene in Chicago.

Q: And you’ve filled us in most thoroughly on things that were happening.

TB: I hope so.

Q: We’ll progress now and move to events that happened later. TB: Sure. As If It Were The Seasons, that was my third album at this time. This was a session that was put together by Joseph Jarman. We have Charles Clark on bass and cello, myself on all kinds of drums, a vocalist named Sherri Scott, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and oboe, a very good flutist who really never got any attention named Joel Brandon, and Fred Anderson is on tenor sax, John Stubblefield, who has a big feature here, is also on tenor sax, and the late John Jackson on trumpet and Lester Lashley on trombone. This composition is written by Joseph Jarman, entitled “Song For Christopher.”

Q: Everything changed in Chicago after 1969, because that’s when Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall and the Art Ensemble left for Europe.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This, of course, would have had its effect on Thurman, who was still a very young musician.

TB: Well, Joseph in ’68 had gotten involved with the Art Ensemble, and they were really into some intensive rehearsals. So boom, there I was, the late Charles Clark had died, the late Christopher Gaddy had died — and these two people were like my brothers; we did everything together. So it was a real lonely period for me, because Joseph now, you could say the quartet had broke up, and Joseph had joined forces with the Art Ensemble . . .

Q: They were lacking a drummer, however. Did the possibility of your performing with them ever come up?

TB: Yes, it did. And it came up at a bad time. And I swear, it’s one of the biggest mistakes that I regret in my life. Because the group had gone to Europe, and you know, they were pioneering some areas. They didn’t have anything really guaranteed, and they had been to Europe for a few years now. We’re talking about the years 1970-’71. So they were in Europe. But at this time, I had gotten involved with theatre, you see. In 1968 I started doing the Broadway production of Hair. Q: As a musician?

TB: As a musician. I got a call, and I was playing percussion, okay, so the Broadway show Hair was in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre — and I looked up, and there I was in theatre now.

Q: With a good union job!

TB: With a good union job! And see, that was a big deal for me. See, my father is a retired union man, so he was very pleased and very happy. So here I was working downtown at the Schubert Theatre at this time, doing Hair. That job lasted two years, from 1968 to 1970.

Q: Naturally, you didn’t want to leave that for the insecurity of roaming Europe.

TB: Well, of course. So what happened was, I get this call in the wee hours of the morning, something like two or three o’clock in the morning, and it’s from overseas — and this was Roscoe Mitchell. And Roscoe Mitchell expressed, “Well, look, T-Bird. . .” That was a nickname that came from Roscoe. He calls me T-Bird, and now it caught on, and everybody calls me that, now, you see. But he gave me that name. And he said, “Look, we’ve been over here working, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot, and we would like for you to join the Art Ensemble.” So of course, the first thing I said was, “Well, look, do you have any gigs?” And Roscoe was really honest. He said, “Well, no, we don’t have any gigs, and we don’t know where our next gig is, but we’re working on some things that we’re pioneering, some new areas.” So I said, “Well, look, I’ve got a gig; I’m doing this show” — and I never knew! Well, I had this full-time job, and I didn’t think I should leave it.

Q: It happened to a lot of musicians in Chicago, what happened to you.

TB: Yeah! So I said, look, I couldn’t make it, but I would like to join them if they got back into town. So Roscoe said, “Okay, I understand.” And the next thing I knew, months and months up the road,they came back.

Q: They came back in ’71.

TB: They came back in ’71, and they had Don Moye.

Q: That was that.

TB: That was that. I kissed that gig goodbye, and that was that.

Q: What else was happening as far as gigs in Chicago after they left for Europe? You were playing with Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]?

TB: I was playing with Kalaparusha, and I was doing a few gigs with Leroy Jenkins now. He was still there, you see, after the Art Ensemble had cut out and everything. So we had these gigs at clubs on the South Side. I’m trying to think of the names of some of these places; it’s been so long. But George Freeman, Leroy Jenkins, myself, and. . .

Q: George Freeman playing the AACM type of music?

TB: Yeah, he was into it. He plays guitar, and that was the first time that I saw guitar into the music.

Q: Was Cosey doing. . .

TB: [Guitarist] Pete Cosey was doing a few things. At this time, Pete along Sherri Scott. . .

Q: Who played with Earth, Wind and Fire . . .

TB: At that time she was rehearsing with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was getting the band off the ground. They were doing a lot of rehearsing.

But mostly in this period I had really gotten involved in theatre. Not saying that the AACM was not functioning. It was still going on. It was just that we were still doing our concert series. . . You know, a lot of people had left, like the Art Ensemble, but at the same time we were recruiting new blood. Like Douglas Ewart, who came in at that time. So we were getting new blood, and the organization was still moving on along with the times.

Q: And the Big Band was still functioning.

TB: And the Big Band was still functioning. And you’ve got to remember, even though we had this concert series happening, we were very, very supported by the community which we lived in and participated in. And I think that was one of the main differences between then and now, was the fact that. . .

Q: In New York City.

TB: Yeah, but . . .

Q: But then in New York City as well. I think New York City is just not that type of town.

TB: It just isn’t that type of town. And at that time in Chicago, we were very well supported by the community. And we used to even go outside and play outside and jam. I don’t know, this was with Muhal, Muhal would bring his clarinet out, and Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Kalaparusha, Charles Clark — We used to take our instruments out there in Jackson Park, which is a large park on the South Side, and just sit out there and play. For me it was like a rehearsal. Maybe for people like Roscoe and maybe Muhal, maybe they were thinking of, “Well, this is a way of getting this new music out to the people.” See, for me at the time, I had a comfortable gig, and I was getting gigs, and I was playing some music, and I was active.

Q: So you were active in theatre throughout the ’70s, is that it?

TB: Most of the ’70s.

Q: What made you decide to return to performing creative music, then? And let’s talk about some of the circumstances that led you to return actively to the scene.

TB: Well, one thing was that after playing in theatre, I had learned a great deal. Number one, I learned how to play with a conductor. I learned how to play in a section. Because in theatre, not only do you have a trap drummer, but you have two or three percussion players. And a lot of my training, and a lot of music that I was studying at that time, I’m having an opportunity to really try out now. But I learned a lot in the pit orchestra. And one of the main things was being able to play in a section.

So after, say, 1975-’76, I started getting back to the AACM, into that music. Because I had gotten all of this training, you see. And for the first time, I felt like I wanted to add something to the music of Muhal and to the music of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe, or whoever was doing something. The music took on a new meaning for me at this time, because I had the years from ’71 to ’75 to really think about all the music that I had performed in the late ’60s with Muhal and everybody. Because at the time I was performing it, I really had on clear idea of this new music, you see.

Q: I can think of an analogy. In the 1950’s, and in the ’60s, for that matter, a lot of musicians after their initial apprenticeships in the Army, and got their rudiments very much together in the Army by playing all the time.

TB: That’s true.

Q: And it sounds like this theatre job performed a similar function for you.

TB: It really did. And I was just able to sort of get a clearer understanding about the music. And keep in mind, I’m still studying, I’m practicing very hard. . . So when I returned in ’75, that was really a very progressive year for the organization, because everyone had really gone out and developed their personal concepts.

Q: George Lewis had hit the scene . . .

TB: George Lewis hit the scene in that year. So it was like a revitalization of everything, you know. And I think especially the Art Ensemble, Muhal, Jenkins, they all had had a taste of getting their music performed and recorded, and gotten a taste of the business, gotten a taste of the music scene outside of Chicago. Because you’ve got to remember, before that time nobody had left Chicago.

Q: And that was a time when musicians from all over the country began converging on New York.

TB: Exactly. Now, I must get in here that during the early Seventies, like ’72 and ’73, there was a collaboration of musicians from St. Louis, like for instance, Oliver Lake. Oliver Lake had formed a new music organization I think called X-BAG . . . I think that’s it; I’m not sure. But I do remember that there was a collaboration with the St. Louis musicians.

Q: I remember Julius Hemphill was coming to Chicago in the ’70s.

TB: Exactly. Julius Hemphill. We’re talking about Oliver Lake, we’re talking about Charles Bobo Shaw, Baikida Carroll. Who else?

Q: Joseph Bowie.

TB: Joseph Bowie, of course. So the AACM members even went to St. Louis. And they produced a concert in collaboration with both groups, and also we did the same thing for X-BAG, and Oliver Lake and Baikida and everybody came from St. Louis to Chicago to participate in a concert series that we did. And that was a real strong thing that happened in ’71 and ’72, or so.

Q: Let’s get back to some music.

TB: I was going to go with some more of my percussion duet record.

[Music from Muhal Richard Abrams, LifeaBlinec, “JoDoTh”]

Q: Now we’re in 1978, and in 1978 Thurman joined Anthony Braxton’s working band.

TB: That’s right.

Q: That was a very tight band.

TB: Yeah, it was. It really began in 1977. Anthony Braxton had come to Chicago, and I guess at that time he had just broke up the quartet that he had with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and George Lewis that was his working band, they’d made some records for Arista. There was an AACM Festival I remember at McCormack Place.

Q: I remember that. Braxton played a gig all on clarinets, with you and Malachi Favors.

TB: He played a gig all on clarinets. And part of that concert was a quartet with Leroy Jenkins on violin, Leonard Jones on bass, Anthony and myself. After that concert, Braxton asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I was just thrilled. I was ready. So that’s the beginning of how that started. We went out. That was the fall of 1977. I remember my very first gig with the quartet out of town was the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival, which was in Philadelphia, I think. And that was my first big out of town gig with the Braxton Quartet. I must say, at that same time Ray Anderson also was very new in the band.

Q: Another Chicagoan.

TB: So Ray Anderson and myself were the new members of the quartet in 1977, and Mark Helias had joined the quartet a few months prior, so he had already played a few gigs. But for Ray Anderson and myself, the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival was our first gig.

Q: How did you like playing with Braxton? What’s the relationship of his music to a drummer, in some sense?

TB: Well, it was really interesting, because Braxton had a way, first of all, of notating his music. He gave me the same part that Ray Anderson had or that Braxton had, see. That was one of the big differences, see. It wasn’t a drum part. It was a part that everybody else had. So now for the time in playing improvised music, I could not only create my own drum part, but I could follow along with all the other instruments to see what they were doing. So it was exciting, it was different. In a way, it was a lot easier for me to adapt to his music, because this was, I would say, my first feeling how jazz and classical music could mix together. This was my first introduction. Because a lot of Braxton’s music had these sounds and compositions that were very close to classical music for me. So for the first time now, with all that training that I watched the percussion players play in the orchestra pits in Chicago, and watching my percussion teacher at the Conservatory. . . For the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the knowledge and strokes, and the finesse and touch on my drum set playing jazz.

Q: Did Braxton produce a lot of new music during that time?

TB: He was writing a lot during this time. And I think the way the band was going. . . I know we used to travel a lot. And he would be so occupied with turning out compositions every day, just for this band . . .

Q: And he’d play them on the stand that night?

TB: He’d play them on the stand that night.

Q: Nice for Braxton, to have a band like that.

TB: It was great for Braxton! I hope he had his ASCAP and all that stuff together. But it was great for me, for everybody, because we were not only playing some new music, but we were working, we were out on the road, and we had an opportunity to perform it that night, and to see how it would go for the first time.

So for me, for the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the percussion concept on traps. All those years with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, I didn’t really know how to. . . I mean, this music was brand-new. I was trying to find my way, you see. One thing about Muhal and Joseph at this time, one thing they did give me, and that was a lot of support. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — I was trying. But they gave me a lot of support. But by the time ’77 came around, I had a pretty clear idea about how I wanted to perform and how I wanted to construct.

Q: You were a mature musician at this time.

TB: Yeah, of course. Now I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played a whole bunch of gigs, and I’ve learned a lot. And believe me, that’s the best training you can get, is right there on the bandstand.

Q: Just playing.

TB: That’s true.

[Music: Braxton Quartet, “W6-4N-R6-AH0″]

TB: That recording was done while the quartet was on tour, so it was a real special time for me. Even though I had recorded with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, it was a very good time for me. Because to record with Anthony Braxton who at that time had risen to be a very popular figure in new music, and number two, he had a record contract at the time, so that was a little different.

Q: And later that year you recorded with Sam Rivers.

TB: That’s right. What happened was that the AACM gave its first concert on New York territory in 1976, right here at Columbia University. We were able to perform our first jazz festival right here in New York. And in the audience, of course, was Mr. Sam Rivers. I had performed with some of the groups and with the Big Band. So Sam was in the audience — and this was in ’76.

A few years later, I get this call right out of the blue. It was Sam Rivers, and he was asking me to come to New York and to make a record. Of course I was floored! I said, “Sure, when are the rehearsals and when can we get together, because I need to learn your music.” He said, “Look, we’ll just rehearse in the studio. But can you be here by this particular date?” I said, “No problem.” So my very first contact with Sam Rivers was in the studio, and we made the record that we are about to hear called Waves on Tomato Records. Of course, I am now very familiar with Sam Rivers in terms off what he’s done, and all the Blue Note records that he appeared on with Andrew Hill and Tony Williams — the early Blue Note dates.

Q: Not to mention that he had used Braxton’s previous bass and drums.

TB: Exactly. Now here I go, I’m beginning to think that I’m in a circle here, because somehow Anthony Braxton’s rhythm section went with Sam Rivers — and we’re speaking of Barry Altschul and Dave Holland. At the time I joined Sam, Dave Holland was still there. This recording features Joe Daley on brass, Dave Holland on bass and cello, and myself on drums and percussion, and Sam Rivers. Like I say, I was really back, because this was my first contact with Dave Holland and Sam, and here I am getting ready to make a record. So it was quite a special event for me.

[Music: S. Rivers, “Surge”]

Q: Thurman, you played a gig this past weekend in Boston with Sam Rivers as guest artist.

TB: Exactly. It was my gig. I was able to get two nights at a club in Boston called Charlie’s Tap, Friday and Saturday, the Thurman Barker Trio featuring Sam Rivers. Anyway, I had an opportunity to be able to join forces with an artist who I was able to learn a lot of music from, and we played a lot of gigs. As a matter of fact, after the Waves record, we went on tour. Contrasts was also done while we were on tour. Sam did spend a lot of time in Boston, studying at the New England Conservatory, and then throughout the ’50s.

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Drummer, Interview, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Thurman Barker, WKCR

An Interview with Alvin Fielder, July 2002

Following up on the previous post, which contained a couple of interviews with Kidd Jordan, here’s one with drummer Alvin Fielder that I initially conducted for what I’d hoped would be a Downbeat feature on the pair. DownBeat wanted to go shorter, and gave me permission at the time to run the verbatim transcript of each interview in Cadence. Now it’s time to post this on the blog. A  lot of valuable information.

[for a retrospective, read John Litweiler’s wonderful Jazz Times article from 2001. For an oral history with Alvin Fielder, Sr., link here.

Alvin Fielder (7-1-02):

TP:    Let’s start with the standard boilerplate questions. You were born in ’35.

FIELDER:  Yeah, on November 23rd, in Meridian, Mississippi.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?

FIELDER:  Oh, back in ’48, when I was in high school.  About 12-13.

TP:    Was your family musical?

FIELDER:  Yes.  My father had studied the cornet, and my mother was a violinist and a pianist.  My grandmother was a pianist, and my uncle was a clarinetist.

TP:    So playing music was something you did.

FIELDER:  Back then, practically everybody did.  Every household had a piano. Everybody did something — poetry, dance or something.  Not in a professional way, but they just did it.  Well, TV wasn’t out then, so I guess you had to pass the time.

TP:    What line of work were they in?

FIELDER:  My father was a pharmacist, and my grandmother worked for the Federal Government.  She was a home demonstration agent.  She worked all over the county. She would go out and teach the country women how to can and preserve foods, about sewing and various things. My grandfather was a brick mason and a stone mason, and he had a crew of about 15 or 20 men.

TP:    So these were people who had survived and built firm roots in the South.

FIELDER:  Oh, yes.  All the neighborhoods were pretty mixed.  When I say “mixed,” I mean this.  On the corner we had the high school principal. Next to the principal was one of the town’s biggest plumbers, and next to him was a butcher, and on the corner was a guy who owned a big tavern.  On our side of the street, we lived next door to a man who was a Colonel in the U.S. Army, a black guy, and on the corner was an apartment complex that my people owned.  We had a variety of people in our neighborhood.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?

FIELDER:  Back in 1948, when I was 12 or 13.  The latter part of my freshman year. The school band had just started there.

TP:    It was segregation, separate and I’d imagine not very equal.

FIELDER:  Well, not really.  But we didn’t know the difference.  I’d been in Mississippi all my life.  That was the way it was!  I’d done a little bit of traveling, not much.  I hadn’t seen that much.

TP:    Was it only a school rudimental situation, or were you listening to records, too?

FIELDER:  I can remember early on I used to listen to people like Louis Jordan and Joe Liggins and Ella Fitzgerald.  Early on. There was a trumpet player who had been in World War II whose name was Jabbo Jones.  He came home, and he brought back all these records which he’d carry around to the neighbors’ houses, and play — all the Fats Navarro stuff and early Kenny Dorham and Dizzy…

TP:    Oh, so he brought bebop to town.

FIELDER:  Yeah, he was a real bebopper.  I happened to hear…it was a Savoy 78. “Koko” was on one side and on the other side was “London Fog,” by Don Byas, which was valuable.  I think that’s the first modern jazz thing I heard.  I was quite impressed with Max Roach’s 32-bar drum solo, and I wanted to play drums after that.  I had studied piano from when I was about 6 or 7 up until about 10, but I didn’t really like it, so I stopped playing piano and started playing baseball and football. Then I heard Max Roach and Charlie Parker, and that was the turning point of my life.

TP:    In what part of Mississippi is Meridian located?

FIELDER:  It’s right on the Mississippi-Alabama line. Meridian had three ballrooms and 10 or 12 clubs. A lot of bands came through. One band was led by Red Adams, a tenor player who played out of the Coleman Hawkins thing. He had a trumpet player by the name of George Frank Sims[(?)], who had worked with Barnum & Bailey, who was a good friend of Louis Armstrong.  He could play.

TP:    So he was one of those carnival cats.

FIELDER:  Well, he had worked in the carnivals.  But he was a jazz player.  He even spent some time in New York.  At that time, his people owned two funeral homes. A well-to-do family.  He would work the country clubs and everything.  Everybody knew him.  He was a good dresser, always drove a Cadillac, had a lot of money, and just a real nice guy.  So I got a chance to play those jobs with him at the country club.

Then I was working with another group by the name of Lovie Lee and his Funky Three.  He was Muddy Waters’ piano player.  I saw him recently on a “BET on Jazz” thing that had been filmed six or seven years ago. He was a boogie woogie piano player, a blues player. I played those kinds of jobs.

TP:    So you were playing jobs in Meridian during high school.

FIELDER:  Yes.  I started playing jobs after the first year or so.  I wasn’t playing very much, but…

TP:    You could keep time.

FIELDER:  Yeah.  Keep time. I learned how to use the brushes right away, playing the dances and stuff, and of course I was playing the shuffles, too when I played in the blues clubs.

TP:    You didn’t want to get too abstract in those blues clubs.

FIELDER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah. But going back: In Meridian, everybody passed through.  B.B. King was through at least once a month.  Ray Charles came through once a month.  Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie — everybody came through town.

TP:    So on Dizzy’s southern tours, he’d stop at a ballroom in Meridian.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  And that’s the first time I saw Kenny Clarke.  I was 11 or 12.

TP:    Kenny Clarke left Dizzy in ’47, and Joe Harris took over. But they did a southern tour in ’46.

FIELDER:  I think it was called the Hep-Stations.  The man who brought them there is still alive.  He’s about 97-98, and I usually go by and see him.  His name is James Bishop.  He owns a funeral home.  He brought in all these bands — Buddy Johnson and Lionel Hampton.  I got a chance to meet a lot of these people.  I met Jymie Merritt very early, in ’49 or maybe ’50, in Meridian when he came through with B.B.’s band.

TP:    Which means you had a chance to observe professional drummers early on. So as a kid you learned your rudiments, and then started playing.

FIELDER:  I didn’t learn the rudiments right away, see.  I didn’t get into the rudiments until I got to New Orleans and Houston.

TP:    Didn’t you have a teacher?

FIELDER:  I had a teacher, but of course, the teachers were like clarinet players or trumpet players.  I enrolled at Xavier College in New Orleans in 1951, when I was 15, and started all over again. I got with Ed Blackwell, and Blackwell had me transcribing stuff.

TP:    Describe the New Orleans scene in the early ‘50s.

FIELDER:  I met Ellis Marsalis in ’52 when he was going to Dillard.  He became a good friend. He was playing tenor saxophone then, and a little piano.  His teacher was probably the first bebop pianist in New Orleans, Edward Frank.  I think he was a violinist in the beginning, and then he started playing piano. He was out of the Bud Powell thing.  He played his left hand things with some of fingers sometimes, and then he’d play with his elbows and stuff.  He could play!  He was part of the first of the bebop movement down in New Orleans, with Ellis and Alvin Batiste and Blackwell… There’s a drummer Ed Blackwell used to listen to…

TP:    Are you referring to Wilbert Hogan?

FIELDER:  That’s right.  Wilbert Hogan.  By the time I got down there, there were several fellows.  Harry Nance was a left-handed drummer, a very good reader.  He could write anything.  He wrote everything in 16th notes, and he would tie those notes together… Yeah, he was precise, a very good player. Then there was another drummer by the name of Tom Moore, who worked with Dave Bartholomew.

TP:    Earl Palmer was down there, too.

FIELDER:  Earl was there.  But Earl was playing more out of the Shelley Manne thing.  He could play, though. He was working the good jobs.  And he had a day job, too.  I think he worked for the railroad or something, and he was working probably five-six-seven nights a week.  Always working.  I had approached him about studying, and he referred me to Blackwell.  He said, “I just don’t have time, but there is a drummer here — Ed Blackwell.” That was how I met Ed.

TP:    So you approached Earl Palmer for lessons, and he sent you to Blackwell.  What was Blackwell like?  Did he have his modern sound, or a different type of sound?

FIELDER:  Blackwell was basically playing out of the Max Roach thing.  He was practicing every day with a tenor player and a trumpet player.  The trumpet player’s name was Billy White, who used to sound a lot like early Miles Davis, and the tenor player’s name was Booty.  That wasn’t his real name.  He’s in New York now, and he used to work with Idris Muhammad a lot.  They would be practicing all day long.  I’d go to pharmacy school, get out of school at 4 or 5 o’clock, and go right down to Blackwell’s house and watch them practice.  They were playing all of the early Charlie Parker things, “Buzzy” and things like that.  I didn’t hear them play “Confirmation” then.  I didn’t hear them play too many of Dizzy Gillespie’s things.  I didn’t hear them play Monk.  Mainly Bird’s things.

TP:    Things that Max was on.

FIELDER:  Yes, Max.  I really didn’t find out about Kenny Clarke until later.  I didn’t find out about Roy Haynes until later.  Blakey I found out about in ’52.

TP:    Were you dual-tracking, or devoting most of your time to studies?

FIELDER:  To studies.  Blackwell was the first one to put me in a book.  It was a rudimental book, the “100 Rudimental Drum Solos” by Ludwig, if I’m not mistaken.  That was just for the hands and to get me disciplined.  That’s what we did.  I was with Blackwell for about maybe a year-and-a-half, until I transferred from Xavier to Texas Southern in ’53.  I met Blackwell probably after being in New Orleans for half a year or three-quarters of a year, and then all of the second year.

TP:    Was there any scene to speak of for modern-thinking musicians in New Orleans then?

FIELDER:  It was more or less a mixture, because there was a lot of rhythm-and-blues. But the rhythm-and-blues at that time was different than the rhythm-and-blues is now, because all of the rhythm-and-blues bands had a bunch of bebop players playing in them.  All of them!  All the drummers I heard — people like Tom Moore, Harry Nance, June Gardner — either came out of the Max Roach or the Blakey thing.  They were playing the shuffles, but they were hip shuffles, not like the backbeat type shuffles.  That was a help after I got into Texas.  I ran into a trombone player there by the name of Plummer Davis, and I played in Plummer’s band.  I don’t know how I got that job.  I took Richie Goldberg’s place.  Richie Goldberg was a drummer out of Houston who went on to work with Bud Powell, Ray Charles, and with Roland Kirk’s band. Good bebop player. He was a drum-maker… He made all of Billy Higgins’ drums in later life.

I got a chance to study with a lot of drummers in Texas.  Every time they’d come to town, I’d be there. I met G.T. Hogan, a very good drummer who had worked in Earl Bostic’s band with Benny Golson and Coltrane and Tommy Turrentine.  Another drummer by the name of Jual Curtis, J.C. Curtis.  He used to play with Al Grey’s group with Bobby Hutcherson, and also Wilbur Ware.  I got a chance to practice with Jual all the time.

All the bands were coming through. When Gene Ammons came through, I would practice with his drummer, whose name was George “Dude” Brown.  I got a chance to spend a lot of time with him.  James Moody would come through and he had Clarence Johnston.  That’s how I had a chance to learn my paradiddles; he taught it to me the easy way.  Then Bennie Green would come through with Charlie Rouse and Paul Chambers and a drummer from Newark, New Jersey, by the name of Chink Wilson.

TP:    So you picked up this and you picked up that and you picked up something else.

FIELDER:  Right.  And I would write everything down, and I’d write down all their books.  Clarence Johnston would come through with a trunk-full of books on the road.  He could read his butt off.  George “Dude” Brown couldn’t read at all, but a swinging drummer.  I also studied with Herbie Brochstein, the guy who owns Pro-Mark drumsticks.  I was one of his students, and so was Stix Hooper.

TP:    So you were a very analytical young guy.

FIELDER:  I think too much.  But it all paid off.  I’ve got just books of things.  I’ve got books of Max Roach’s four-bar solos and Roy Haynes’ extended solos — stuff like that.  I don’t even look at them now.  Well, I look at portions of them, but that’s all.

TP:    So you’re in Houston, you graduate Texas Southern, and then what’s your path to Chicago?

FIELDER:  I graduated in ’56. I had taken the State Board of Pharmacy and passed it, but I was 19, so they wouldn’t allow me to practice pharmacy any place except with my father until I was 21.  I went back to Mississippi, and just lolled around, until I decided to go back to grad school.  I went to the University of Illinois, the Medical Center Branch on South Wood, studying manufacturing pharmacy.  In the meantime, I met Sun Ra…

TP:    Did you have family in Chicago, like a lot of people from Mississippi?

FIELDER:  I had an uncle and cousins, and a lot of my mother’s family.

TP:    So you had some roots there.

FIELDER:  I hadn’t been there.  But I had a lot of kinfolk there.

Let me tell you about my first night in Chicago.  I told my cousin, “Look, I’d like to go out and hear some music!”  He said, “Fine.”  So we went down on 63rd Street.  This first club I went in was on Stony Island between 62nd and 63rd (I can’t remember the name), and it was Lester Young, Johnny Griffin, Norman Simmons, Victor Sproles, and a drummer by the name of Jump Jackson.  He was big in the union politics.  He could play time, but he really wasn’t one of the premier drummers there.  He wasn’t like Dorel Anderson or Marshall Thompson or Vernell Fournier or James Slaughter or Wilbur Campbell.  But he got the job!  I thought, “Oh God!  If these guys are using this drummer, I know I’m going to be able to work.”  So we sat, we listened.

Then we drove to a club named Swingland on Cottage Grove in between 62nd and 63rd.  Lo and behold, I go in Swingland, I hear this BAD music, unbelievably terrible.  Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore, Bill Lee, Wilbur Campbell, and Jodie Christian. They’re playing “Cherokee,” Wilbur Campbell asleep on the drums, but I mean, BURNING.  Oh, man!  I couldn’t believe my ears.  I had never heard anything that bad in all of my life.  I sat there and I listened, man, and I got nervous.  I had to leave the club.  Of course, I came back the next night.  But I went down the street, and at the Kitty-Kat Club there was Andrew Hill, a drummer by the name of James Slaughter, who was really burning, too, and Malachi Favors.

So that was my first night out.  Then, look here, I haven’t been the same since.  Believe me, I heard three different types of drummers.  Wilbur was a musician and a beautiful drummer.  He was more or less out of that Elvin Jones thing from the ’50s.  And I heard some Roy Haynes then.  I didn’t hear much Max Roach or Kenny Clarke in it.  A beautiful touch.  James Slaughter was a rudimental drummer, the type of drummer who would go on a set and say, “Well, I’m going to play the drag paradiddle throughout this whole set, and see what I can do with it.”  He would turn it inside-out, and play it off the cymbal or the snare toms.  Beautiful cat.  He showed me a lot about the rudiments, and I really appreciate it.  I talk to him all the time still.  He isn’t playing any more.  He has arthritis.

TP:    So you’re in Chicago, and you start to get yourself into the scene.

FIELDER:  Right.  I started playing around, and met a tenor player named John Tinsley.  John was out of the bebop thing, although he wasn’t like Nicky Hill or George Coleman, any of those players.  But he would always keep a quartet together, and had a good group. I was working a dance thing with him on the West Side, and lo and behold, the pianist was Sun Ra.  I’d never heard of Sun Ra.  Sunny and I started talking.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mississippi.  So he said, “Look, man, I bet you can play some shuffles.  I’d like for you to come by and practice with me.”

So I did.  Went down to this big auditorium.  I don’t even remember where it was.  All these people were there.  James Spaulding was on it, and Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Hobart Dotson, a trombone player named Bo Bailey who was one of Julian Priester’s teachers, and Ronnie Boykins.  I see nine or ten other people sitting out front. I didn’t know it then, but they were drummers.  Bugs Cochran was out there, and several more drummers I didn’t know.  They called a tune, and I played it, then he called another one and I played it.  I thought I was playing well, but as I look back, I’m sure that I wasn’t.  Anyway, Sunny invited me to join the band.  So I did.  He was using two other drummers then, sometimes together and sometimes not — Bugs Cochran and Robert Barry.  I guess I listened more than I played.

TP:    Was that your first time in a situation where you were outside the norm?

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I was way above my head.  Everything was way above me.  John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, all those guys.  But it got to be interesting, and…

TP:    How regularly did you play with him?  I know he was rehearsing all the time, but not gigging all the time.

FIELDER:  I was with him part of ’59 and’60. We’d play on weekends at various places.  I guess we played more at the Queen’s Mansion than any place.  But we would play all over, on the West Side… Of course, the money wasn’t that great.  But then again, as I look back, I should have been paying him.

But from that, I was working with Ronnie Boykins’ trio. I was working in Spaulding’s quintet.  He had a group with Bill Lee and a trumpet player by the name of Dick Whitsol.  I just wonder where he is now.  I can’t remember the piano player.  We used to play a lot of the colleges.

TP:    So basically, taking you up to the early ’60s, you’re playing with Sun Ra, playing gigs that are more straight-up with people from Sun Ra… Were you doing other things?

FIELDER:  I was working with several groups.  I was working with a tenor player by the name of Cozy Eggleston.  Steve McCall was working with him some; DeJohnette was working with him, too.  And I thought of the drummer’s name who influenced Jack.  His name was Arthur McKinney.  We all played around.  But going from Sun Ra, though:  One summer I went to Denver with a saxophonist named Earl Evell(?) and a pianist named Daniel Ripperton. Actually we were going out to California, stopped over in Denver while passing through, and met a bass player named Sam Gill who was working in the Denver Symphony. He used to work with Randy Weston; he was in school with Gunther Schuller and Max and John Lewis. He was telling me he and Richard Davis had gone out and auditioned, and he got the job.  He was a great player.  We were working after-hours.  We did that for six months.  That was in 1961, I think.

TP:    Let me ask you a more general question.  Obviously, the way you’re hearing music is starting to change, or there’s something in you that’s looking for something different…

FIELDER:  Well, not at that time.  I was still tied up in Max Roach.  Max was like my Daddy, Granddaddy, Great-Granddaddy, everything.  I’d heard Blakey on those early Miles Davis things down in New Orleans, “Tempus Fugit,” the ones with Jimmy Heath and J.J. Johnson.  And I’d heard Kenny Clarke.  Wasn’t that impressed with Klook at that time, until I learned better.  Roy Haynes?  I heard Roy, but I didn’t really hear it.  But early on, in Chicago, ’60-’61, I was still listening to Max.

TP:    Well, Sun Ra was always swinging at that time.  There comes a point where you go from a notion of swinging and keeping a pulse to a notion of time being something different.

FIELDER:  Interacting and stuff, yeah. But I hadn’t reached that level musically.

TP:    For instance, Jack DeJohnette is someone who would feel very comfortable playing both time-based things and bebop, and then also going into other areas.

FIELDER:  Jack was always very loose.  I can remember him playing at sessions at the Archway, where a lot of drummers came, and Jack was always the loosest of them all.  You can attribute that to Jack being a pianist, knowing the music, knowing how the changes were falling.  Most drummers know the structure of tunes.  One of the things I try to teach my students is how to recognize the II-V-I turnbacks, the cycle of fourths, and what a minor-III chord is, the sound of the VI, and things like this.  But Jack was a pianist.  He knew all of that then, whereas Steve McCall didn’t.  I was somewhat familiar with it, but I didn’t really know it.

TP:    I’m trying to get at what brought you from a swinging drummer to the person who is playing on Sound.

FIELDER:  [LAUGHS] All right, we’ll get to that. In 1962 I spent about eight months in New York.  Pat Patrick showed me around. I had a chance to play with Bernard McKinney, Tommy Turrentine, Wilbur Ware, all of the beboppers. But it was a little clique thing; all the musicians from Boston, Detroit and Chicago played together every day.  During the summer.  Tony Williams had slipped away from home and came to New York to stay with Clifford Jarvis. Clifford Jarvis was at all the things, and another drummer from Boston, George Scott.  I was playing every day. I was listening to Billy Higgins and Elvin by this time, a lot to Philly Joe and to another drummer by the name of Arthur Edgehill. I went back to Chicago later that year, and somehow got with Muhal. Muhal had a trio with Donald Garrett, and I replaced Steve McCall in the trio.

TP:    What sort of gigs were you playing?

FIELDER:  We were rehearsing. We did a lot of practicing.  Then he brought in a tenor player by the name of Bob Pulliam, who lived on the West Side.  Good tenor player.  I don’t know what’s happened to him. I first started to loosen up after meeting Muhal.  Roscoe Mitchell came to a rehearsal I was doing with Muhal, Kalaparusha and Lester Lashley. He just sat and listened, and asked me could I play free. [LAUGHS] I said, “Yeah, I play free.”  So he invited me to a rehearsal with Freddie Berry and Malachi Favors.  That’s how the original Roscoe Mitchell Quartet started.  Of course, then I was still playing like Max, Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and trying to play Elvin’s cymbal patterns.

I think the turning point in my life was one night when I was at the Plugged Nickel — Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Howard Johnson, Beaver Harris.  Sun Ra had always told me, “Al, loosen up.”  I didn’t know what he meant, really. I wasn’t familiar with Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille at that time.  When I heard Beaver, I said, “This is what it is!”  It was like he was playing time, but there was no time. He was playing all across the barlines. If they were playing 4, he might play 4-1/2, another cat plays 3-1/2… It was like a conversation.  It wasn’t like 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, BAM.  It was just flowing. I developed a philosophy there that I wanted to play my bebop as loose as possible and I wanted to play my free music as tight as possible. That way, it can all blend in.  Billy Higgins is a good example.  Andrew Cyrille is a good example.  So is Elvin.

My drumming went in a different direction for a long while.  Then I was tight, I guess.  None of the bebop cats would call me any more, once I started working with Muhal and Roscoe.  Of course, the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet led into various groups.  We tried various people, like Leroy Jenkins for a while, and Gene Dinwiddie, but that didn’t work out.  Somehow, we got Lester Lashley, and after Freddie Berry left, Lester Bowie came in.

TP:    Still, there’s a process of transition going on.  Because Sound doesn’t sound like anything being done at the time.

FIELDER:  It wasn’t.

TP:    It sounds wholly unto itself, it’s totally realized and virtuosically played. Yet you say in ’64, you were playing more or less straight-ahead.

FIELDER:  In the beginning, I heard Ornette and Eric Dolphy in Roscoe, which I guess is conservative when you think of Albert Ayler and Frank Wright.

TP:    I don’t know if “conservative” is the word I would think of…

FIELDER:  Maybe the word is wrong. Omit that word. [LAUGHS] Insert another word.

TP:    Well, the music of Ornette and Eric Dolphy and Roscoe has form, and there’s very little in Albert Ayler and none to speak of in Frank Wright.

FIELDER:  Yes.  But see, the first compositions we played in Roscoe’s group were very much like Ornette’s music.  “Outer Space” and… I can’t even think of the tunes.  He’s still playing those tunes.  And they were actually swinging.

TP:    Would you say that Roscoe in ’64-’65 was on a world-class level as a musician?

FIELDER:  Look, let me tell you something. I remember Joseph Jarman, and all of the guys in the AACM.  Only a few players could compare to Roscoe.  Of course, Muhal.  At that time, Jodie Christian, of course.  Fred Anderson.  But I do believe that Anthony Braxton wouldn’t be who he is today if he hadn’t heard Roscoe.  Joseph Jarman either.  Absholom Ben’Sholomo was another one of the saxophonists in the AACM.  Now, Braxton’s playing always amazed me.  Because when I first heard him, man, I heard a lot of Paul Desmond!  He was swinging, but it was a different type swinging.  When he got around Roscoe, his swing got a little deeper.  But it was never as deep as Roscoe’s. Roscoe was the most advanced saxophonist in the AACM by a long shot.  He influenced ALL of the saxophonists.  Roscoe was in the middle at that time.  He would always tell the rhythm section to play straight, but of course, the front line could play totally free.

TP:    He did that in the Art Ensemble, too, with Moye playing a straight four swing beat.

FIELDER:  Yeah, he had me doing that.  And when I left the group, I formed a trio with Anthony Braxton and Charles Clark.  We used to play opposite Roscoe a lot. Then the group expanded into a sextet, with Leo Smith and Kalaparusha and Leroy Jenkins — trumpet, alto, tenor, violin, bass and drums.

TP:    Did that group have the seeds of that trio where there’s very little kind of pulse, or were you the pulse?

FIELDER:  That group swung a lot.  We were In and Out.  It was very flexible.

TP:    With Charles Clark, I can imagine.  Tell me what it was like to play with him.

FIELDER:  Oh, unbelievably easy.  It was floating.  In a way, it’s like working with William Parker now, but Charles was lighter.  William has a pulse… Oh, he’s one of my favorite bass players, along with Henry Franklin and Malachi Favors. There’s an electric bass player in New Orleans, Elton Heron, who’s a beautiful player.  I just finished a record date with William and Elton, and they played beautifully together.

TP:    I realize that things were changing in Chicago during that time, and straight-up jazz was on a decline.  Places were closing down.  But suppose someone like Sonny Stitt had called you, if Ajaramu couldn’t make it, given the way you were thinking at the time, would you have done that type of gigs?

FIELDER:  I played with Gene Ammons and Bennie Green and Pat Patrick and Sun Ra and Malachi Favors.

TP:    Right before the AACM years?

FIELDER:  Yes.

TP:    So you weren’t rejecting bebop.

FIELDER:  Oh, definitely not.

TP:    Because a lot of the people who were taking things out were rejecting bebop.

FIELDER:  Bebop has always been a challenge, and it still is.  Bebop is the foundation for everything I play now.  Even when I’m playing totally free, my phrases are going to be bebop phrases, but I might play them looser, slower, or faster.  I have developed a way to apply the rudiments to bebop and to so-called “avant-garde,” free music. I think it can be done.  I have tapes of probably 90% of the concerts I’ve done since the ’60s  I go back, I listen, and see what I have to leave out or didn’t play.  But of course, the Chicago years were the turning point.

TP:    Why do you think that sensibility was emerging at that time, to incorporate so many different approaches to music into an improvisational aesthetic?

FIELDER:  It was mainly because we weren’t working. Where could Joseph Jarman work?  So we had to set up our own network.  And the thing was to play original music.  It wasn’t to play Charlie Parker’s music.  It wasn’t to play Coltrane’s music.  That was part of the AACM bylaws.

Everybody was playing in different situations.  Muhal was working with everybody!  He had worked in Woody Herman’s band and in Max’s band, and was playing all types of jobs around town.  Jodie was, too.  I was playing everything. I was playing barroom music with Cozy Eggleston, and… But some of the musicians weren’t really working at that time.  I just think that we all took on Muhal as a father figure.  Muhal is a genius.  Genius!  If any Chicago player were going to get the MacArthur Award, it should have gone to Muhal.  See, Braxton is a beautiful player, and a very smart fellow, but I think it should have gone to Roscoe before him.  But first and foremost, it should have gone to Muhal.  He was everybody’s teacher.  Everybody’s.  I can remember MJT+3, when you were dealing with Booker Little and George Coleman, Bob Cranshaw and them… Muhal was the strong man in that group in the beginning.

When I really made the change, I had no alternatives. I either had to play one way or the other.  There were different camps at that time, and being able to play free with some kind of control… I guess I’m not like Sunny Murray, who is just a creative force.  I think of Sunny Murray the same way I think of Max Roach in the music.  Because when you think about it, all modern drummers come from four sources.  They either come from Max, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes or Kenny Clarke.  Kenny Clarke first, of course.  And the newer drummers, the free drummers, the avant-garde drummers, all come from Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille or Beaver Harris.  I don’t know why, but they come in threes and fours.  Andrew Cyrille I like to think of as the Max Roach of the free drumming.  I think of Sunny Murray as the Roy Haynes of the free drummers.  I think of Milford Graves as the Art Blakey of the free drummers.  And I think of Beaver Harris as the Kenny Clarke of the free drummers.

TP:    Pittsburgh, there you go.

FIELDER:  That’s right.  And Beaver Harris studied with Kenny Clarke.

TP:    Chicago was isolated enough that you could develop your own music, but sufficiently big and cosmopolitan that what you did had to be on a very high level of sophistication, and there was enough other artistic activity to provide a template against which to bounce off.

FIELDER:  And see, I didn’t know it then, but there was a drummer there by the name of Ike Day.  Ike Day — I guess indirectly — was an influence.  I was listening to Wilbur Campbell also, and Wilbur comes from Ike Day.  I was listening to Vernell Fournier.  Vernell came from Ike Day.  I was listening to Dorel.  Dorel was from Ike Day.  And the stories I’ve heard about Ike Day… I used to sit down and just talk to Wilbur Campbell and Vernell and to Slaughter about him.  Somebody needs to write a book on Ike Day, really.

TP:    Andrew Hill described him as sort of layering rhythms in the African manner.

FIELDER:  Stacking the rhythm.  Yes.  But the bottom line was that he reminded them all of Big Sid Catlett.

TP:    He was a great show drummer, apparently.  Buddy Rich dug him.

FIELDER:  Yeah, Buddy and Art Blakey, when they’d come to town, they’d want to see Ike.

TP:    So you’re in Chicago, and you are the drummer on one of the landmark records of the mid-’60s.  Sound is kind of like Shape of Jazz To Come because it doesn’t seem to have any antecedents.

FIELDER:  It was done at the very same time as Unit Structures.  That was different than the Chicago way of playing…and I guess the New York way!

TP:    But you’re the drummer on this, and then you leave Chicago when, in 1969?

FIELDER:  August 1969.

TP:    Take me from Sound up to 1969.

FIELDER:  Okay.  At the time we recorded Sound, I was just about getting ready to leave the group, because Roscoe and Lester Bowie had brought in another little drummer, and we were rehearsing with him… I can’t think of his name.

TP:    Philip Wilson?

FIELDER:  No, Philip came in a little later, after a guy who was also from St. Louis.  I can’t think of his name.  So it was three drummers sometimes, and we had started to play the little instruments a lot, and I wasn’t playing the drums that much.  Actually, nobody was.  Everybody was playing everything else.  I felt the challenge had left that group.  I wanted to play.  I wanted to swing.  I wanted to develop in a certain way.  I was listening to Elvin Jones, listening more to Blackwell also, and to Billy Higgins constantly. I was listening to Wilbur Campbell a lot, too.  So I felt I had to leave.  Anthony Braxton had just gotten back in town, and I approached him and we formed the trio together, and then the sextet I told you about. We were working every Thursday night at some club, making $10 a night…

TP:    But you weren’t exclusively a musician.

FIELDER:  I was working in pharmacy.  I was married.  I started working in pharmacy again six months before I got married.  When did Kennedy get killed?

TP:    November 1963.

FIELDER:  Well, I started working six months before then.  But I wasn’t working full time.  I was working to make enough money to play.  But we were working every Thursday night at some club, making $10 apiece.  I suggested to the guys, “Why don’t we approach the club-owner, rent the club and take all of the door and pay ourselves?”  They didn’t want to do it.  So I left the group, and turned the drum chair over to Thurman Barker.  Then we formed another group, Fred Anderson, Lester Lashley and me; that was called The Trio.

TP:    Lester Lashley was playing bass?

FIELDER:  He was playing bass, cello and trombone.  Very good group.  Michael Cuscuna reviewed us in Coda.  He loved it.  I was in that group until I left in August of ’69.  I can remember when everybody was getting ready to go to France, Roscoe and them; they had a concert out at University of Chicago, and Philip couldn’t make the job, so I played it.  That was the last job they played there.  I left two or three days after they did.

TP:    They went to Europe and you went back to Mississippi.

FIELDER:  Back to Mississippi, yeah. [LAUGHS] And after I got back to Mississippi, I got involved in politics, with the Republican Party and stuff.

TP:    The Republican Party?

FIELDER:  Well, they enabled me to bring in Roscoe, Kalaparusha and all the AACM people, and Clifford Jordan and Muhal and everybody!  I used to work out of the White House.  I worked out of the White House for two-and-a-half years.

TP:    You mean in the Nixon White House?

FIELDER:  Yes.

TP:    Who did you know there?

FIELDER:  I was on the Executive Committee of Odell County.  My grandfather had been in the Black-and-Tan Party.  He had been the State Treasurer. My father was a Republican.  My whole family.

TP:    I guess that was an act of rebellion in Mississippi at that time.

FIELDER:  Well, in Mississippi, you have to remember that Blacks couldn’t even talk about joining the Democratic Party back in the teens and the ’20s and the ’30s.  That was like a death wish.  So all blacks then were Republican.  Since I was raised up in that type house…

TP:    Were they able to vote?

FIELDER:  No.  You had to pay a poll tax, I think $2 a year or something.  I have all of those records.  I’m in the process of putting the house back together like it was back in 1913.

TP:    So you went to Mississippi, and your family connections were such that you immediately stepped into a very strong community role and were able to make things like this happen.

FIELDER:  Yes.  I belonged to everything — the Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, ACLU. I don’t belong to anything now.  Anyway, I was able to get grants from National Endowment, from Mississippi Arts Commission… I worked most of my concerts at the Meridian Public Library.  Roscoe and Malachi Favors and John Stubblefield worked the first job. Stubb and I had worked in Chicago, too, in a group with Leroy Jenkins — violin, tenor and drums.  That was a great group.  So that’s what I did after I left Chicago.

TP:    You had your pharmacy business, you expanded the pharmacy business, and you played.

FIELDER:  Right.

TP:    How did you meet Kidd Jordan?

FIELDER:  I met him through Cliff Jordan.  I was working with Cliff a lot in a quartet — tenor-piano-bass-drums.  Cliff had come to Mississippi, and I’d play all the Mississippi dates with him.  I had written a tune for Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and Billy Higgins, and we always played it.  Of course, Cliff went back to New York. In 1976, Kenny Clarke had come through town, and he was going to Chicago to work the Jazz Showcase for a week with Clifford, Al Haig and Wilbur Ware.  Clifford told Klook about me.  So Kenny Clarke called me at the drugstore.  “This is Kenny Clarke.” “Come on, man. Whoever you are, don’t play with me.”  “No, I’m Kenny Clarke, and Cliff Jordan told me about you.  I’d like to invite you up to Chicago.”  So he sent me a ticket, and I went to the Jazz Showcase and watched him play. Kenny Clarke was a very slick, busy drummer, but very quiet, with a touch unlike any other drummer.  Actually, Philly Joe Jones played a lot of Kenny’s stuff, but louder, and he played a lot of Max’s stuff and Blakey’s stuff.

Anyway, Cliff and I got to be very close friends. Cliff went to New Orleans, and did a clinic at Kidd’s school, Southern University of New Orleans. He called me and said, “Look, Al, there’s a saxophone player down there who’s a helluva saxophonist, but he’s getting ready to stop playing.  Go down there, talk to him, and play with him.”  So one Sunday I drove down with a bass player named London Branch (he’d been in Chicago; good bass player), and we looked for Kidd all day long.  Couldn’t find him until 6 o’clock that evening.  We sat and talked for a minute, and Kidd said, “Let’s go play.”  So we went out to the school, just the three of us, and we played til about 9 or 10 o’clock that night.  Kidd said, “Man, look here, I haven’t this much fun in a long time.”  I said, “Neither have I, man.  I’ve been playing some, but this is… Wshew!  What we need to do is just come back down here.  We’ll be back next weekend.”  When we came back down, Kidd had gotten together a tenor saxophonist, Alvin Thomas; Clyde Kerr on trumpet, a percussionist (I can’t think of his name); and another saxophonist by the name of Curt Ford.  We played all that Sunday.  God, we just played-played-played.  I’ve got everything on tape.  When we went back the next week, it was a quintet — Clyde, Kidd, London, Alvin Thomas and me.  We brought in some arrangements.  Then we decided to name the group Improvisational Arts Quintet, to keep it together and start playing.”

TP:    It seems the operative assumptions of the saxophonists you played with in Chicago were a little different than Kidd’s.

FIELDER:  They were.  You must remember, a lot of it is environmental.  Kidd is from Crowley, Louisiana — Cajun country.  I don’t know of any other saxophonist in the South who plays like Kidd.  Now, I have played jobs where Kidd has sounded like Johnny Griffin.  And he’ll play Johnny Griffin tunes.  At the end, though, he’ll stop and laugh — heh-heh-heh.  He loves Johnny Griffin.

TP:    But he just can’t bring himself to go there.

FIELDER:  He chooses not to go there.  Our trio with pianist Joel Futterman… We have some unbelievable tapes.  Joel is from Chicago.  He once had a quartet with Jimmy Lyons and Richard Davis; they did an album, and it took them three and four months to learn the music he wrote.  After that, Joel said, “I don’t ever want to play any more written music.”  He’s a beautiful pianist.  Joel is bad!  We’re going to put some of our tapes.

I guess Joel and Kidd reached a point where they just don’t want to play any more written music.  However, Kidd is very versatile.  Have you heard that date with Kidd and Alan Silva and William Parker?  Well, he’s done another one with Bill Fischer.  Bill Fischer is another genius.  He was my college roommate. He did a lot of writing for the McCoy Tyner Big Band and Cannonball.  He’s from Jackson, Mississippi.  He was a tenor player, and switched to cello.  He and Kidd did an entirely written thing, with Bill playing synthesizer and Kidd on alto.  Kidd had music stretched out over rooms, and he read it all. Kidd is an excellent saxophonist.  He studied a fellow by the name of Fred Hemke at Northwestern .

TP:    Donald Harrison and Branford Marsalis have both talked about Kidd as a teacher.  Donald said Kidd told him about his intervallic concept.

FIELDER:  Yes.  And he plays all the reeds — clarinet, flute, alto, tenor, soprano, sopranino.  He plays everything.

TP:    To me, his musicianship is beyond question.  My question is why the imperative to play on the tabula rasa all the time? And do you feel that you can get there consistently, or is there a sort of predictability within the process?

FIELDER:  In working with Kidd, I always am surprised.  Because Kidd works it off a different angle. He’ll work off a cymbal. He’ll work off of a rim-shot. He’ll work off of a tom-tom sound.

TP:    Does he listen mostly to the drums?

FIELDER:  He listens to everybody, all at the same time.  His ear is phenomenal.  I’ve heard him play opposite Brotzmann and Fred Anderson and Frank Wright.  Kidd is a chameleon, with all this technique and knowledge; he can go anywhere, at any time, at the drop of a hat.  I’ve been extremely fortunate to play with saxophonists like Roscoe… Cleanhead Vinson was another great player!  An unbelievable violinist.  Most people don’t know it, but he played good bebop violin.  When I played with him in ’55 and a portion of ’56, his saxophone skills were out there.  He played all kinds of ways.

TP:    The musicality isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the mindset.  You’re a guy who came up in the South in an environment where metrical swinging was the imperative at all times. Again, the question is becoming more pronounced because of the climate of the times.  The younger musicians aren’t grabbing onto that sensibility.  They’re blending it all with other things, picking and choosing from styles and periods.  Why does the tabula rasa remain the main imperative?

FIELDER:  I think there is something even past this.  Younger students often ask me, “Is there a formula?”  There is no formula.  I think that in order to play this music, you’ve got to have a working knowledge of bebop and a working knowledge of swing — of all music — and be able incorporate all of it. I told how the drummer Harry Nance would break down everything in 16th notes and tie it all in.  With so-called free music, I can analyze everything. Everything I play, I can write. I used to sit down with Billy Hart and do that.  Every time I talk to DeJohnette, the first thing he brings up is, “Are you still writing everything, Al?”  No, I don’t any more.  I’ve gotten past that.  I’m writing it in my head, and I play it.  Really, I still hear everything in 1/1 time.  Everything is one.  However, you have your phrases, your fallbacks.  If you listen to my solos, even in the so-called free music, they are all based on two-measure phrases, four-measure phrases, eight-measure phrases.

TP:    Small cells.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I’ve made it my business to track rhythms, going back to Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, O’Neil Spencer, Kaiser Marshall, Cuba Austin.  I like to track things.  I did a study of Art Taylor.  Most people think Art Taylor is from Max Roach and Art Blakey, but he’s not.  He’s from J.C. Heard.  J.C. Heard has just a branch of Big Sid Catlett.  He took just one little branch.  That’s like Al Foster.  Al Foster took a branch of Tony Williams, and he’s working that into his own thing.  Everybody took a little branch of somebody.  I like to listen to drummers play, and I say, “Oh yeah, that’s a pattern I heard such-and-such a person play on such-and-such a record. Really, there’s nothing new.

TP:    It’s like you have this enormous Rolodex of rhythms going on in your mind and you cross-reference them at any given moment.

FIELDER:  On the spur of the moment.  And I go through so many books.  I’m going through a book now, Charlie Wilcox’s “Rollin’ In Rhythm.”  He has a study on a five-stroke roll, a six-stroke roll, and the extended rolls and stuff.  I can work one page of that, and I can play gigs for a month.  If you listen to it, you’ll hear Max, you’ll hear Philly Joe…

For instance, I went in the studio with a quintet about two or three years ago.  I decided to play all Monk and Charlie Parker things.  We were playing “Confirmation” and “Little Rootie Tootie” and so on.  The tapes sounded great. I make it my business to be able to play a strong cymbal pattern that way.  I’ll play the same cymbal pattern playing looser music, but I loosen it up.  I combine what I would play on the snare drums on both my cymbal and snare drum.  And it fits perfectly.

I used to practice with a lot of drummers, but I don’t any more.  I can’t find drummers to practice with.  Everybody is stuck on doing this particular thing. I think the rhythms of, say, 1994-95 and up, tend to be a little bit herky-jerky, whereas the rhythms in the ’40s and the ’50s flowed a lot more.  That went on through the period of Sunny Murray.  I don’t think the younger drummers have really listened to Sunny Murray.  Sunny has so much to say!  Andrew Cyrille I think is just as important as Tony Williams on the shape of drums…on the shape of musical drums.  You have drummers and you have musical drummers. Andrew is a musical drummer.  Sunny Murray is a rough musical drummer.  Sunny would say his music is controlled chaos.  I like to think of Andrew Cyrille as being the same way, really controlled.  Andrew is a whiz.  DeJohnette is a whiz.  Billy Hart is a whiz.  These are the drummers, outside of Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin, Blakey, Philly Joe and so forth… I hear younger drummers like Billy Drummond and Kenny Washington (fabulous drummer) or Carl Allen, Herlin Riley… I hear these drummers as drummers that could have played in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s quite easily.  But I’m hearing a newer rhythm in the drummers coming up. I’m not saying it’s bad.  But I think jazz has lost its street thing. I don’t mean the New Orleans street thing. I’m talking about the street thing that Philly Joe Jones had.

TP:    You’re talking about the attitude.

FIELDER:  Yes.  See, if you listen to the drummers from Boston as compared to the drummers from Philadelphia, to the drummers from Pittsburgh and Washington, the Chicago drummers, the Midwest drummers, the St. Louis drummers… There was a drummer named Joe Charles from St. Louis who was phenomenal drummers, sort of like Wilbur Campbell.  Wilbur was a little more disciplined than Joe.  But if you had to pick a St. Louis drummer, Joe would be the one.  And there’s one in every town.  Wherever you go, you’re going to find somebody.  In Pittsburgh, there’s Roger Humphries.  In Philadelphia, Mickey Roker and Edgar Batemen are still there, Edgar Bateman is still there. But Joe Charles had rhythm above that.  Billy Higgins told me about him.  Kenny Washington always talks about him.  Elvin talks about him.  If you can imagine a drummer with Kenny Clarke’s cymbal beat, Elvin Jones’ left foot-right foot-left hand, and a person who thinks like Sunny Murray, you’ve got your sound.  He made one record.  It was called “Buck Nekkid.”  You need to get it.  It’s BAD.  He was Ronnie Burrage’s teacher, I think, and Philip Wilson’s teacher.  A guy who never left town.  Guy who had a big family, worked in a meat market, and he worked with Grant Green and Jimmy Forrest and that was it.  But BAD.

But there’s somebody in every town.  There’s G.T. Hogan.  Billy Boswell up in San Francisco.  Other drummers in Los Angeles.  They all have a different rhythm.  I can tell a Boston drummer from a Midwest drummer.  I can tell a Midwest drummer from a West Coast drummer.  No matter who he is; that includes Larence Marable or whomever.  But it’s the same way.  You can usually tell a ’40s drummer from a ’50s drummer from a ’60s drummer, and so forth.  And of course, there’s further breakdowns.

But what worries me now about the drummers is they don’t have that roughness about them. If you listen to Philly Joe and Sunny Murray, there’s precision, but a roughness, too.

TP:    Did you perceive in the ’60s — and today, if you did see it that way in the ’60s — what you were doing as something that was avant-garde?

FIELDER:  I didn’t think of it as that.  I knew that I heard something different being played, but I just thought of it as an extension of bebop.  Most of the cats could go either way.  Most of them could.  I didn’t say all of them.

TP:    How did you see the music of the ’60s in relation to the culture and politics of the time?

FIELDER:  I’ve always associated changes in the music with world events, and I saw this as part of the Vietnam conflict and the Civil Rights movement.  But I never thought of myself as trying to be… It was more like a challenge for me to play some of the things that I was playing, and I wanted to see how I could work them out — from a coordination standpoint and a musical standpoint — and how I could interact with various players.  For an instance, in the Improvisational Arts Quintet, we had a bass player, London Branch, who was basically a bass player from Pettiford’s era, but he wrote from the Mingus thing — gorgeous arrangements and compositions.  We had Clyde Kerr, a trumpet player who was on the fringes of freedom but he played good bebop.  Alvin Thomas was not quite as far-out as Clyde was; great player and everything, but more of a bebop player.  Clyde had one foot in bebop and one foot in, say, the avant-garde music.  And Kidd was totally out.  So in any one composition, I had to play three different ways.  I could play the cymbal thing in back of one, and I could play a little dizzier and loosen up behind the next player, and with Kidd it was like go for it!  It was a challenge.

I found that more of a challenge than with some of the Chicago musicians, other than Muhal. With Muhal, I could go either way, and it never bothered him.  I could play as straight as anybody, and then I could just loosen it up and be totally free, or play a stream, or play air, or anything.  Of course, the music would always fit him, no matter what.  Roscoe was pretty much the same way.  But I never thought of it as being something different.

TP:    So the word “avant-garde” doesn’t mean anything to you.

FIELDER:  No, not to me.  I like to think of it as playing looser, stretching rhythms, stretching the time, stretching the pulse.

TP:    And it has to do with the internal satisfaction and interest.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I know when I’ve played well on a given night, and I’m very pleased after that.  And I know when I haven’t played well, even if I’ve gone back afterwards and watched videos, and it sounds fine.

TP:    You were referring to the younger drummers projecting a qualitatively different sound.  And when you’re talking about the musicians in the South — in Mississippi and Louisiana — who are playing free, you’re talking about people born before the Baby Boom.

FIELDER:  But you must remember, you don’t have but a few so-called free players down South.

TP:    Well, you were saying it’s you and Kidd and Clyde Kerr…

FIELDER:  And Joel Futterman.  He lives in Virginia Beach. Whenever we do a festival, we are the only ones there not from Chicago or New York.

TP:    Why do you think that this way of playing music hasn’t appealed to, let’s say, the brightest talents of the younger generation?  Presuming that’s true.

FIELDER:  Like you were saying, they were raised on a different diet.  They came up in a different area.  I talk to young kids in schools now, and they don’t know anything about FDR or Martin Luther King even.  Harry Truman, George Washington Carver — nothing.  No sense of history.  If I get a student, the first thing I do is talk to him about what was before Tony Williams.  But they don’t know anything about Kenny Clarke.  They don’t know anything about Papa Jo Jones. They don’t know anything about Chick Webb. They listen to the way Tony Williams tuned his drums after he started playing with Lifetime, not even the Tony Williams prior to that.  I knew Tony when he was 15, and Tony went through every drummer — Kenny Clarke, Max, Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb.  So he could PLAY this.

TP:    Sam Rivers told me that Tony when he was 14 would play them and then play his variation on it.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I met Tony when he was 15.  I used to practice with him in New York.  Every day, he would go to the music store and buy another drum book. That’s what he was doing.  Just an unbelievable talent.  I don’t see that drive in players today.  And I see a lot of young drummers.  The guys can play their butts off, but they can’t swing.  Well, they swing in their way.  But a drummer like Billy Higgins could play like minimal stuff and just wipe all of that out.  Kenny Washington can do it.  Jeff Watts… I was listening to Jeff the other night on Jazzset, and the compositions he was playing, nothing was really burning; he was playing ballads and stuff.  But it was sounding beautiful.  I’m not saying that Jeff is young; he’s about 41-42 now.  I remember him early on.  He’s another Pittsburgh drummer.  He’s just another extension of what Pittsburgh has turned out.  I don’t know what’s in the water there.  But they have something.  when you think of Art Blakey, Joe Harris, Beaver Harris, Kenny Clarke, or Roger Humphries, who’s there now… Every time Roger Humphries came to town with Horace Silver, I would drive him around, and I’d take him out to the Slingerland Drum Factory. I always loved Roger’s playing; he played those parts so beautifully in Horace’s band.

TP:    We should talk about your situation with Kidd and your teaching.  How much does the group play?

FIELDER:  Now we probably play five-six times a year.  We used to play in little clubs, like a place in New Orleans called Lu & Charlie’s where we played a lot.  But most of our jobs now are festivals.

TP:    Who else do you play with?

FIELDER:  I work with a pianist in Memphis by the name of Chris Parker.  We have a trio together.  London Branch on bass, Chris and myself.  We play a lot of the music of Elmo Hope and Monk.  We just finished several jobs with the tenor player Harold Ousley in Tennessee and Mississippi about a month or so ago.  And I did a tour of Texas, Louisiana and Atlanta with Assif Tsahar about a year-and-a-half ago.

TP:    And do you teach around Meridian?

FIELDER:  No.  I teach at the jazz camp in New Orleans.  Herlin Riley… We have four drum instructors.  There’s a great drummer from Baton Rouge, Herman Jackson, who plays with Alvin Batiste.  Alvin is on the faculty.  Kent Jordan, Kidd, Germaine Brazile…

TP:    Sounds like you’d like to be playing more.

FIELDER:  I would, but I’d like to be playing in the right situation.  I’m not that fond of playing in clubs any more.  I like the festival thing.  We just can’t find a good manager.  So we don’t work as much as we should.  The trio with Joel Futterman and Kidd is a helluva group.  William Parker plays with us two or three times a year. I’ve played some with Peter Kowald, too.  Peter, Kidd and I just got through working together on April 28th.  We’ve got a great video.  It was a beautiful concert.

Kidd is like a twin, really.  He’s my daughter’s godfather.  He’s a beautiful player, a beautiful person.

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Filed under AACM, Alvin Fielder, Cadence, Chicago, Drummer, Uncategorized

A Pair of Interviews with Bassist Fred Hopkins (R.I.P.) on his 64th Birth Anniversary

Few bassists ever played with the energy, drive, and virtuosic derring-do projected by Fred Hopkins (b: October 10, 1947; d: January 7, 1999), who made his mark playing Henry Threadgill’s compositions in the collective trio Air and in Threadgill’s Sextet, as well as various ensembles led by David Murray, Don Pullen, and a host of other creative music luminaries of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Born in Chicago and seasoned in the AACM, Hopkins moved to New York in 1975. Posted below are two interviews that I had a chance to conduct with him on WKCR, one from 1985, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary celebration of the AACM, and the other from a six-hour profile of his music in the summer of 1987. The latter interview has been on the web for many years on the http://www.jazzhouse.org site.

Fred Hopkins (December 3, 1985):

Fred, did you ever play with the AACM Big Band after graduating from high school and during your further studies in music in 1967 and 1968?

Well, I started playing with the Experimental Band, which was comprised of AACM members and also non-AACM members at this time.  But this was later.  This would be like the early Seventies when I first played with them.  Of course, prior to that, like the founding members… We’re talking about Muhal, Steve McCall, Phil Cohran and Jodie Christian as the founding members.  The AACM band was different from the Experimental Band, because it was all AACM members.  Which was very interesting.  At first I didn’t understand what the difference was.  And the only difference was that it was actually the members.  And it’s just like being a Democrat or a Republican; you could still participate in people’s projects, but unless you’re a member, then you’re not considered that.

The thing that happened to me was, as I stated earlier, I had been listening to the cats, and… I don’t know how people’s names come up and all these things that happen to bring people together.  For some reason — and a fortunate reason for me — I remember my first rehearsal with Muhal. This was with the Experimental Band, not the AACM band.  In fact, we were rehearsing down at Muhal’s at his space on the South Side of Chicago… And I had such a great time.  It’s one of those things.  You know, it’s very difficult to express sometimes verbally things that happened, aesthetic things like that. It was all about performing music, and performing music with others, which really didn’t leave too much room for the normal (abnormal, really) ego situations that a lot of the music has today, whereas you have the leader or the best musicians in the band and all these things, which really are irrelevant, and have nothing to do with the music.  And I have always considered myself as being a team player.  I don’t really like to solo….. Well, I do.  I do like to solo!  But it’s not necessary.  I’d rather have a good performance.

So this organization, the AACM, afforded me the opportunity to really dig into a lot of music.  And one of the things also that happens is that a lot of people think, when they consider Creative Music… Because I won’t call it Experimental, because you know, how long does it take to experiment on things?  We’ve been playing this music all these years.  Come on, it’s no more experimentation; we know what we’re doing.  To be creative with the music requires, you know, all the form styles, old and new… I mean, you have to have all these things under your grasp, because all the different composers in this organization might write anything suggestive of a particular era of music, or a song, or something totally modern, and you had to be able to fit into this and also be creative with that from composition to composition.

And many different people were composing for the big band, four-five-six people whose work you were playing, or was it just Muhal’s work?

From my recollections, it was mostly Muhal’s music.  Because the way it started, the AACM band, when it finally started to become an actual reality, was based off of Muhal’s energies and insight to go in this direction.  So at the time, he was writing most of the music, because of the guys at that time weren’t that adept at doing that.  But the band, or the Association’s idea has always been centered around people developing themselves, so as time progressed, there were more composers contributing music for the bands.  And of course, for the small groups it goes without saying.

So you as a young musician were fortunate enough to be in highly structured situations that yet allowed you a certain amount of freedom — with Walter Dyett at DuSable High School and with the two big bands.

Oh, yes.  Which were vast differences, but very close at the same time.  Because my experience with Walter Dyett was very demanding and very exacting.  I mean, I was supposed to play certain things, and I did — I mean, mostly I did.  And the same with the Creative Music; the same thing — very exacting things.  To be called upon to play a Blues, you had to play a Blues.  It might written… The horn line might be very different from the standard or popular Blues songs at the time, but the feeling had to be there.  And that’s what I was required to do.  It’s very tricky.  You’re looking at some music, and you’re reading the music, but you know it’s suggesting that you play this, so… This is where the interpretation part comes in that I had to get involved with.

Also there were many splinter groups out of the Big Band for small units.  Many formed in the Sixties.  Joseph Jarman formed a group, Roscoe Mitchell formed a group, Kalaparusha formed a group.  You first recorded on a Kalaparusha date called Forces and Feelings.  Can you tell us some of the other small groups that you were playing with in the early 1970s?

First of all, rather than considering these to be splinter groups, as you said… It’s not so much the terminology that the idea was that people were supposed to perform their music.  So that always the original idea.  It’s always been that way.  And as people developed, then they wrote more material that was being performed.  And quite naturally, the whole thing was for each individual to develop themselves musically.

And I came in with Kalaparusha, which I’ll tell you, was the most different thing I ever did musically.  Coming from where I was coming from… I mean, I was stone Art Blakey at the time.  I mean, I was really into grooving.  And I met Kalaparusha (I don’t know who introduced me to him), and he said, “Hey, man, you play?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Come on down to this rehearsal.”  So I came down to this rehearsal with Sarnie Garrett on guitar, Wesley Tyus on percussion, and Kalaparusha and myself.  And it just happened.

In fact, all the groups I perform with now, it’s the same thing.  I afford myself the luxury of playing with… Since I couldn’t make my first million dollars when I was thirty, the next thing I wanted was to play with the best musicians and composers.  So that I’ve been working very diligently to try to bring that about.  And I’ve been fortunate to be with these cats.  But all these bands that I work with have had this spark, this special thing, this undefinable thing that always get stuck with trying to express this part.

But Kalaparusha for me was a very enlightening experience.  It was like letting the lion out the cage.  Because until then, I had really thought about a very structured type way of playing the bass, and he said, “No.  Play what you hear that should go with this song.”

It’s my impression that you were studying the Classical bass at this time, after high school.

Yes.  Well, because Walter Dyett’s standards were so high, we were all required to go as far as we could go with our instruments.  And of course, playing concert band music, sometimes we would play some of the orchestral pieces.  So what happened was that… And I was scared to death.  He told me to go down and audition for this orchestra, which was the Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago.  He said, “Look, man, go down and audition.”  And I’ll tell you, I was scared.   I said, “Oh, man, I don’t know if I’m good enough” and all these things… One of the AACM members, in fact Charles Clark, had just recently died, and they had a special scholarship that the Chicago Symphony set up in his honor.  Brian Smith was in the orchestra at the time.

And I remember going down there and I played this stuff… I was a pretty good reader.  So I got through my prepared pieces, and I did a sight-reading piece, which was okay — I got through it.  So then the teacher gave me a look, he said, “Look, why don’t you play something you want to play?”  So I said, “Okay.”  So I played this piece, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and he said, “Oh, okay.”  And what he was telling me (I mean, after all these years have passed and I look back at it), he could hear the potential of someone playing an instrument as opposed to being an orchestral bass player or a Jazz bass player; rather than those type of labels, he heard that.  And basically, that’s what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study my instrument, and also… I mean, I love all kinds of music.  So to play orchestral music, Beethoven and Strauss and Bach, that was just another icing on the cake for me.  But that was a great….that was a very incredible… So if you can imagine playing orchestral music and the AACM music at the same time…

Then you met Henry Threadgill and Steve McCall, and Air was born.

Right.  Boy, I love it.

[MUSIC: Air, “G.vE,” “RB”]

When Air hooked up, it was for the production of a play called Hotel in Chicago.

Actually, I guess the best terminology would be magic.  Because it’s something that you want to happen, of course; in all the things that we do, we want the best things to happen.  And always, as I stated earlier, I definitely wanted to play with the best musicians.  And the thing is, you never know when you meet these people, until you meet them.

So what was happening, actually, Henry and I were living actually right next door to each other.  Henry lived at 48th and Drexel in Chicago, on the South Side.  So we would see each other.  And I had heard him… In fact, this was during the time when I was meeting and listening to the AACM musicians.  And I would see Henry, and we would speak and say hello and stuff, and I would hear him practicing over in his apartment, and I would be over in my apartment practicing.

So finally, what happened, Henry got commissioned to write the music and perform for this play, The Hotel: 99 Rooms, with Don Saunders, the director.  In fact, not that long ago we performed one of his pieces at the Public Theatre.  So we got together and we performed this music.  And what happened was this special thing… After we performed for about… God, I forgot how long we worked at that time — but several months.  And after the play was over, we said, “Wow, we can’t just drop this now,” because we had gotten so close musically — and as friends also.  So we decided to get together and form a band.

An interesting note is that at that time, I really wasn’t even thinking about where we was going to go with this in terms of making all these records and making money and traveling, but of course, in the back of my mind, these were things I wanted to do.  And the main emphasis was on the fact of the way the music came out.  We were saying, “Wow, this is really some good music.”  So we continued working on the music, and we did some other things.

In fact, our first name was…we used our last names.  The name of the band was (I forgot who was first) McCall-Threadgill-Hopkins, and then the other name was… Oh God, what was this other name we had?  I can’t remember the second name of the band.  But anyway, then finally it evolved into Air.  We found out that we were all Air signs, two Libras and an Aquarian, and so we used the letters from our names, and came up with this.  And it all came out pretty good.

[MUSIC: “Sir Simpleton,” “Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket,” “Cremation”]

That’s very indicative of Henry’s writing.  He has such a spectrum… Henry is one of those guys who doesn’t sit still about the things that he’s done already.  He has a continuous waterfall, it’s a waterfall of just… Because he’s working on new things now, and always pressing forward.  So it’s been a great experience for me to work with him.

We were talking a little bit about what  playing creative music of this sort does for a musician. Maybe we could paraphrase for the listeners.

Well, one thing it does for me, it solidifies…. Not  to get too philosophical, it solidifies a purpose in terms of… Why study all these notes and why appreciate all the different kinds of music, from Beethoven to Duke to Abrams to Coltrane — all this stuff.  Unfortunately, because of the way the music industry is structured now, we don’t have these gatherings of great artists, as I would imagine had happened before, and if it didn’t, it should, and probably it will happen in the future…

What happens is that you get a chance to actually utilize your information, for lack of a better word, in an unstructured atmosphere.  With those particular groups, I had very structured things to do, but at the same time, I had all the freedom that was required to bring the composition off.  And as far as I’m concerned, there’s really not that many people writing like that, you know, where you have that kind of freedom and is that demanding, too.  So what it does, it allows you, to coin a phrase, express yourself within the confines of someone else.

Fred Hopkins Profile (August 2, 1987) – (WKCR):

[MUSIC: Threadgill, “To Be Announced”; Air, “Children’s Song,” “Roll ‘Em”; Kalaparusha, “Ananda,” “USO Dance”]

“USO Dance” was performed at Studio Rivbea before Air had recorded any LPs, in 1975 — back in the so-called good old days.

[LAUGHS] I was a young kid and all that stuff.

This was when a lot of musicians had moved to New York from the Midwest and the West Coast, and were really making an impact and changing the New York scene around.  The Wildflowers series was a springboard in introducing these musicians to a broader audience.

It certainly was.

You were doing quite well in Chicago at the time you came to New York.  Maybe we could go into your background as a bassist in the Chicago area and how you came here.

Well, part of my experiences there were my early training, which started… I guess I have to start with my family first, of course, because there were seven musicians in my family.  I had two brothers.  One brother played all the woodwinds, flute, saxophone, clarinet, and he even played bassoon.  Another brother played drums.  I was in  the band together with my younger brother, Dennis Hopkins.  My older brother, Joel Hopkins…

This was in high school?

In high school.  This was at DuSable High School with the famous, incredible teacher, we called him Captain, but his name was Walter Dyett.  And also I had a sister, Patricia, who is now deceased, and she played clarinet — she was in the band with me at the same time, too.  Those were my formative years.

Also, one other important influence at that time, which  was the deciding factor for the instrument that I chose… When I originally started off,  I wanted to play cello.  So I went to school, and Captain Dyett said, “What do you want to play?”  I said, “I want to play cello.”  He said, “We don’t have cello.  You’re a bass player.”  He actually told me I was a bass player.  And he also intimidated me.  He was one of those old-style teachers who tells you what’s happening, and you learn later.  And I liked that; I like it now, I didn’t like it then.

But anyway, one of the other early influences was, I’ll never forget this Sunday afternoon watching one of the public broadcasting stations, Channel 11 in Chicago, and it was a performance by Pablo Casals.  He was in this old Gothic mansion in this large room by himself, and he was playing this music, this solo cello.  And I heard the sound and I said, “That’s what I want to do.”  Before that time I was listening to all these instruments, and I didn’t know which one I wanted to play, but as soon as I heard the cello, I said, “Okay, I know I want to play cello.”  But as I mentioned, there was no cello, so I ended up playing bass.

Walter Dyett had many generations of Chicago musicians, as many people know, but some don’t.  Talk about his legacy at DuSable.

Well, some of his students included people like Nat “King” Cole, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, George Freeman, and people closer to my generation like Oscar Brashear, who lives out on the West Coast now, who is doing very well as a recording musician and also is doing a lot of contracting work… God, some other guys…

You could list a hundred performing professional musicians who are graduates of the DuSable program over a thirty-year period.

Right.  And not to mention all the people who were in the band who went to other professions in terms of being lawyers, doctors, bus drivers and all this.  The thing about Captain Dyett is that the information that he gave us, you could apply to anything.  After I left high school, several years later that’s when it started to sink in that this information, whether I became a musician didn’t really have nothing to do with it.  He was just a positive thinking type person, and those were the things that he put on us.

I believe Dyett had been a violinist in his younger years?  Did you find he had any particular gift for teaching strings, or was he adept at every instrument?

Yes.  Because like I said, his philosophy, since it included using your brain… He actually made you think, is what it was.  So you can apply it to any instrument.  But he was a violinist.  In fact, any of the listeners who might know more factual things about this, please call.  From what I understood was that he was in the Army; that’s where his thing was.

After World War I he was in one of the Illinois regimental bands which he organized, and I think he also had aspirations to be a doctor, which he gave up on because of the racial situation…,

Right, in America at that time, and maybe at this time, too.

…and so went into education.

Anyway, what happened was, a fact…a small fact… My mother was at DuSable first went there to teach.  So then, generations later, here come her kids and the same teacher is still there, which I think is quite incredible.

Anyway, what happened with Captain Dyett, as I understand it, is that once he started teaching there, and especially at this time we’re talking about the Forties, Fifties, and when I was there in the Sixties, the teaching level was a little bit higher than now in the Black areas of major cities.  They said he could have been teaching at some of the higher universities, and he had a lot of offers to do things like that, but he said, “No, I won’t leave, because if I leave, who’s going to teach you little…” — I can’t tell you what he called us.

But an incredible man.  He put his stamp on me, and I think I was really fortunate to be one of his students.

You were in DuSable around 1961 or ’62?

Yes, I went to DuSable in ’62.

So what kind of things would the band play?   Which band were you in?  He had several.

I was in the concert band.  They had the concert band, they also had a choir, and also there was a dance band, which we called the Jazz band at that time, because we’d get a chance to groove, you know.  First I started off in the concert band, and we played only concert band music.  And  an interesting fact for all the bass players is that for the first year that I studied bass, he did not let me use the pizzicato at all.   I did nothing but bow — and on threat of death.  No pizzicato.  Only arco work.  Because his idea was that you start from the foundation of anything, and then once you get that correct you can go on and do whatever else you want to do with it.  Again, later on I discovered that was some invaluable information for me.

What kind of material would the Jazz band be playing?

They did a lot of the stock big band songs, things like “Cute,” some of the Ellington classics, and some other people that I didn’t know — probably if I saw the book again, I could remember a lot of things.

How about music in the community?  Were you hearing music apart from school in the neighborhood?

Yeah.  Well, at that time, every little tavern, every little bar… This was during the period of live music, and every place had some kind of combo.  I lived on 45th Street and State in Chicago, and actually there was a tavern across the street from my mother’s house.. In fact, I always remember hearing this bass going, just boom-boom-boom.  As a little kid, I used to sit on my porch late at night, and I’d see all  this commotion over there, and people talking, and all the things that go on in taverns — but I always remember hearing a band.  So my influence in that sense was everything… And also walking through the neighborhood, I could hear Gospel music, Blues, Jazz, the Rhythm-and-Blues of that day, and Classical music.  In other words, I was exposed to all kinds of music as a kid, and it affected me subconsciously, I would imagine.

Were you listening to Jazz records at that time also?

Not really.  You know, I really didn’t listen to Jazz until actually when I started playing music, and then I could appreciate what was happening with it more.  I was listening more to Classical music at that time, my personal choice.  And my brothers and sisters played all kinds of different music.  So like I said, I was exposed to a lot of  things.  But I didn’t really actually have a preference when I was a kid.  Not really.

The question was really leading toward the hackneyed old influences question.

Well, in fact, I was looking for this list that I made for this interview, and I’m sure I left out several people, but it included about fifty people.  Most of them were musicians, of course, but all kinds of people — even my accounting teacher in high school.

How about bass players?

Even though I may not sound like it all the time, I’m really kind of old-fashioned in that I like an old, fat bass sound, and people like Jimmy Garrison and Paul Chambers — those were my real early influences.

Let’s get the course of events that led you out of high school to the Chicago Civic Orchestra and into the AACM.

Oh, yeah.  I think they thought I had a little talent!  But anyway, what happened was that after I left high school, I was… Actually, I was just working.  And once I left high school, in fact, because of Captain Dyett’s method, which is the more talent you have, the harder he is on you, and he gives you some encouragement, but not really, so that you won’t get a big head and you won’t have any ego problems.  So when I left school, I didn’t know I even had talent, because he was so hard on me.  So for about two or three years, I was working at A&P!  I was playing a gig like every month or two months or something like that.

Then I met a couple of other friends of mine, like Hobie James, who was a trumpeter (he’s a pianist now), who at the time was working on his Masters Degree in Music Education.  I became his roommate, and I got re-interested in it, and really wanted to perform.  So I started practicing again…

Anyway, in fact, on Captain Dyett’s recommendation, even after high school…. He stayed in touch with everybody, or we stayed in touch with him also.  He suggested I go and…

[END OF SIDE 1]

…and a sight-reading piece, which you didn’t know what that was going to be, and then you can do one thing that you liked that you thought you did the best.  So on the Beethoven piece I did pretty good, because I liked Beethoven, and the Bach piece I was okay, and the sight reading I did okay.  But still I almost didn’t get in, because there were people who had really actually studied orchestral music a little bit more than I had.  So my auditioner said, “Look, why don’t you just play something you want to play.”  So I said, “Okay, I know what I’ll do.”  So I did this improvisation on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” — arco.   And he said, “Oh, okay.”

So anyway, that’s how I got into the orchestra.  And I  studied with Joseph Gustafeste, who was the principal bassist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It was another very valuable period for me, because it was like… Instead of teaching me orchestral bass playing, he actually (on my request, by the way) taught me about the instrument.  And once you know about your instrument, you can perform any kind of music.  And that’s what I was really after.  I didn’t know all this at the time, by the way.  But those were the things that were happening.

I stayed with the orchestra for about three years.  In fact, most of the world-renowned conductors of the day, in all of the major orchestras, had conducted our orchestra, because all the guest conductors conducted the Civic Orchestra also.  So all these guys like Muti, and in fact even Georg Solti conducted the orchestra one time.  It’s amazing, the power… It’s just like an instrument.  I mean, the power that a conductor has over an orchestra is amazing.

How broad was the repertoire of the orchestra?

Well, we played all the repertoire of the Chicago Symphony.  In fact, we used their same music.  And let me say that some of the music was very difficult music, and also very enjoyable.

So I stayed with them for three years, and then it was time, of course… As things happened, it was time to change and do something else.
We’ll get into what something else was after we hear some music, with two of Fred’s frequent collaborators over the last decade, Hamiett Bluiett and Don Pullen… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Mahalia”; Pullen “In the Beginning”]

When we went into the music, we were talking about Fred’s time in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and what he did afterwards.

I kept working, that’s all.  It’s just a logical progression.  But as we were saying, fortunately, I had good teachers, and the whole thing was to… Everything is like a step towards something else.  It’s never a final… You don’t finally become a good bass player, you don’t finally become a good electrician; it’s always about learning more and opening yourself up for more stuff.

Where you achieved renown as an improvising bassist was  in the AACM in Chicago in the early 1970’s.  So let’s recapitulate the events that brought you into the AACM.

Well, that was actually a very exciting period for me, because up until that time… You asked me earlier if I had listened to Jazz music, which I didn’t when I was a kid — not knowingly, I should say.  And the same thing with the improvisation in music of the AACM in the Sixties.  In fact, at that time I was still in the Civic Orchestra, and I was doing like piano duo gigs in the Rush Street area of downtown Chicago, and more traditional type of gigs like that.

Then I just remember hearing about the AACM; this was in the early Sixties.  That’s actually when a lot of the guys started going to Europe, and people like Muhal Richard Abrams and Kalaparusha, Henry Threadgill was part of it at that time, too, the musicians of the Art Ensemble, John Stubblefield, Braxton… So anyway, I started hearing about these guys, but I had no idea what their music was about.

So one day I went to a concert they were having in Hyde Park, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of this music, but it felt good… And also, by the way, chronologically, Coltrane and Albert Ayler and these people were playing at the same time, too, so there was a lot of excitement about doing some different type of things with music at that time that I was becoming exposed to.
Anyway, I went to this concert, and I heard… I can’t remember what band it was.  It might have been a collaboration of all these different people in the AACM at the time.  And I said, “What are they doing?’  But it felt good.  But I couldn’t figure out technically what was happening, and all this freedom and things, and all these different arrangements.  Some bands had no bass player, some had two drummers and a violin, people like Leroy Jenkins… And I said, “What are they doing?!”

Anyway, I didn’t get back to that music, because like I say, I continued my studies and these different things.  But then I met Kalaparusha, and he asked me did I want to play with him.  I said, “Well, sure.  I’ve never done this kind of music before, but I’ll do my best.”  And it was like someone took the shackles off of me.  They said, “Okay, Fred, you can do anything you want to do” — as long as it’s musical, by the way.  And I said, “Wow!”  I really enjoyed that.  In fact, my first band in this particular type of music was with Kalaparusha.  Kalaparusha, Wesley Tyus, Rita Worford, and Sarnie Garrett on guitar.

I guess being my first band and my first experience to the music, it really opened me up.  And I was amazed at myself (and it’s not just an egotistical thing I’m talking about) that I was able to do as many things as I could, simply because we had at that time… Very little music was written down for me personally in the bands that I played with, and so I was able to get into this whole improvisational aspect.

So anyway, that led to meeting other musicians and playing with other bands, and also letting me listen more.  Then I think one of the really deciding factors, when I really decided, I said, “This is what I’m going to do”… I heard an album of John Coltrane’s, the first album he did after he left Miles Davis and these people, Coltrane Sound, and it really changed my whole outlook on music.  I knew then that I could do anything I wanted to do — and once again, as long as it’s musical.  And from that point on, I just got more involved, and started meeting more people over the years.

Were you playing with the AACM Big Band?

At that time I actually wasn’t a member of the AACM. I became a member of the AACM when I moved to New York.  A lot of people didn’t know that was happening.  But I was fortunate enough to perform with most of the members of the AACM at that time.  And so I became associated with the AACM, and consequently, a lot of people thought I was a member, and I was treated as a member by the musicians and also the listening public.  But I was actually playing in Mr. Abrams’ Big Band, is what it was.  Because the AACM had a big band, and then also Mr. Abrams had a big band.  So like I said, I got more involved in this music.  But I joined the AACM when I moved to New York, which is kind of weird.  I was on a trial basis up to that point!  Because we had people like Malachi Favors, so they didn’t need me, because he’s such a great bass player himself.

But among other groups, you were playing with Muhal Richard Abrams’ Sextet of the time, I think…

Yes, around 1974, with Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill, Kalaparusha, and Wallace MacMillan.  Up until this time, by the way (for the other musicians), I was holding back.  I really don’t like amplifiers.  Hate ‘em, by the way.  And at this time I was still playing acoustically, and they would put a microphone on the bass or something like that.  So I was able to actually develop a sound.  Because then you’re not playing through the amplifier.  You’re actually through the instrument.  I mean, you really have to play the instrument to project over drums and saxophones and all these things, you know.  In fact, that sextet with Muhal was really an incredible experience for me.  In fact, after I left Kalaparusha, that’s whose band I went to.

Then soon after that, we went to Air, and Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill and myself.

That was only a brief formulation at the start.  It was set up for the score of a play called Hotel, I believe, in 1971.

Yeah.  In fact, it was like your normal thing, a musician calling on a musician to perform with him on a gig.  And what happened, I’ll never forget, we were doing this play, and we actually had a chance to listen to ourselves while we were performing.  And we all said, “Wow!  Hey, this sounds pretty good.”   So we decided to stay together.  And of course… Well, for the people who know the band, we’ve been together for what, twelve years now…

Well, if it was 1971, it’s sixteen years.

It was ’71.  It’s about that now, that’s right.  And that has been a very rewarding musical experience, being a part of that band, a co-leader or whatever.

In 1975, Fred Hopkins moved to New York City, along with many musicians from California, the Midwest, and all over the country, spilling into New York and really changing things around, and he began a whole new set of affiliations.  We’ll start talking about that a little bit after we hear another set of music.  We’ll hear a bass solo by Fred Hopkins as part of the David Murray Trio in 1976, live at Studio Rivbea on Bond Street.

[MUSIC:  “Dedication to Jimmy Garrison”; “In Your Style”]

Around the time you moved, you formed  a lot of alliances that have lasted to the present really, with remarkable continuity — Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake, David Murray, and Don Pullen, as well as Air, Henry Threadgill…

Actually, when I look at my professional alliances and associations now, I’m basically playing with the same people I started playing with when I first moved to New York.  It’s the same group of people.  And of course, there are some new musicians that I am performing with now.  But when I look at my book (you know, you look back at your book every year), I see all the same names in there from ten years ago.  “Call Oliver,” “Call David,” recording session such-and-such day with Oliver, or Henry Threadgill.  And it’s interesting that it developed that way for me personally, with these musicians in this particular area of music that we’re performing in.

Because it wasn’t a plan or nothing.  This thing just kind of happened.  I didn’t really want to exclude myself from… I didn’t think I could do any orchestral playing, but I felt I might be able to perform maybe with some chamber groups and things like this.  But it seems the nature of an artist in New York is that you get pegged as something, and that’s who you are and that’s who you remain. In fact, I was warned of that before I moved to New York.  The guy said, (and I’ll never forget this), “If you start off playing Avant-Garde, you’re going to end up being an Avant-Garde bass player.”

And it’s a double-edged sword.  First of all, I enjoy doing exactly what I want to do, which is I enjoy having the freedom to interpret music, and most of the people, in fact all the guys I work with give me free rein to interpret their music… I have to read it, too, by the way, but I still have a lot of space there.  But I do miss, by the way, playing a lot of other musical situations.  But like I say, once again, I really enjoy doing exactly what I do right now.

Well, one place that was a center was a club called the Tin Palace, which is now a place where they have singing waiters and is a so-called crab house…

Crab food…

It doesn’t have quite the same ambiance as it did seven or eight years, when they booked Jazz full-time, and it was a core location for jazz life in New York. It could be said that you were almost house bassist there. Of course, there were others, and remarkable bands played there. But you could hear Fred at the Tin Palace at least one week out of every month, I’d say, and that might be understating it. You played there a lot with Arthur Blythe’s In The Tradition group with John Hicks often.

Right.  Ahmed Abdullah, of course, Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara… God!  And you know, the thing about that period, by the way, the “loft jazz” period, what was happening… We’re talking about…

’75, ’76, ’77, ’78.

What was happening was that most of the club owners in New York were hiring only Bebop musicians.  And that’s not a  putdown, by the way; that’s just one of the classifications they give us.  So anything like in the vein that we were dealing with was considered Avant-Garde, and they’d say, “Well, you can’t draw a crowd” and all this mess that they used!  Or even if they did let you in, they gave you like a Tuesday night, one night, and they’d expect you to fill the house — all these things.
So what happened is that there was… For me, the spirit of the Loft Jazz from the musicians’ point of view was that the musicians took it upon themselves to find their own venue.  And it just so happened that the Tin Palace was open for something of that nature… They didn’t even know they were getting into this, by the way.  I think they started off with…

Sunday afternoons or Saturday afternoons.

Yeah, right.  Then Stanley Crouch took over the booking for them, and Stanley Crouch being a very knowledgeable person about the music and about the musicians, he started hiring all these different cats.  And at that time, a lot of the guys were pretty new in town.  Several of us, like Blythe and different people, had been here a couple of years before, and Olu Dara had been here some time before, but I was told they weren’t really working here that much at that time.

What happened was that, like I say, it developed on its own.  And the bottom line is that people go to hear music.  Club owners do not listen to the music — I men, so to speak.  They do listen; that’s not what I’m saying.  But there’s only one club owner in each club, but it’s hundreds and thousands of people who go to hear the music.  So what happened was that the people got a chance to hear all these different bands.  And I must say, the music was very exciting at that period.  Because it was like everyone was unleashed.  You could do anything you wanted.  You had all your own compositions, you didn’t have to play anybody else’s music — or you could play someone else’s music.  There was some nostalgic music being performed, there were new pieces being performed.  I remember one particular night someone called me, and they said, “Well, look, the bass player can’t make it; come on down” — and we didn’t have any music!  Man, we just started playing, and we played for four hours, and we had a good time.

But getting back to my point, the musicians took it upon themselves, some of us maybe unknowingly, to create their own work space.  And the other thing about it is that we became known internationally first from that club.  I will never forget some of the people from the Japanese media first started doing the reviews and different things on us, and then the American and New York people started writing about it.

The first LPs are on European labels.  The group with Arthur Blythe, John Hicks, yourself and Steve McCall was one of the most remarkable groups to emerge at that time…

Yeah!

Because everybody was so out and in at the same time, or something like that — and especially on that wonderful piano at the Tin Palace!

Oh, ask the piano players about that one!  In fact, they finally had to have one leg propped up or something.

When they finally got a good piano, then the place closed down.

Of course.  But one of the things which was remarkable, too, was that the pianists who played on it were able to make it sound good, which is I think something that all musicians should think about — that the sound actually comes from the musician, not the instrument.  It’s good to have good instruments, by the way.  But it starts from yourself out.

[MUSIC:  Arthur Blythe, “Christmas Song,” “Naima,” “As Of Yet”]

I haven’t worked that much with Arthur in the last year or so.  But that was a real fun period for me, man.  That quartet…heh-heh… In fact, I want to try it again.  Where is Arthur at?  But with Steve McCall and John Hicks being consummate pianists, and Arthur Blythe, of course… Now, as we were saying while we were playing the music, we had some other performances that were never recorded when we performed at the Vanguard with that particular quartet, and was able to get a little looser because the time allowances were different; you know, you can play a song as long as you want, and things like that. The bottom line is being able to play together.  Because I mean, personally, I was taught to do  music from an ensemble approach, which to me might be a problem today I think.  There’s too many people interested in being soloists these days.  I don’t know if it’s because maybe that’s the way that they get into music first, or what it is… And also, I know the industry pushes that, too, by the way.  Everybody has to be a bandleader, you’ve got to be a star, and all this stuff.  But I really enjoy… In fact, when the ensemble is playing, I don’t really want a solo.  I don’t need a solo.  Because I feel so fulfilled when the song is over that, you know, I didn’t really feel like I needed one.  Not to say that when I take a solo, the music’s not going well, by the way.

But that period was really a very good period, because I think that up until time, I was doing… I mean, the music we were playing at that time, we were doing less traditional things at that time.  So when I started playing with Arthur at this period, the music you just heard, it was fun, you know, to be doing some groove stuff and some up-tempo walking — you know, the old traditional bass stuff.  It was a very exciting period for me.

[MUSIC: (Private tape, arco solo), Hopkins, K. Bell, R. Ameen, Muneer, Betsch, J. Santos [TITLE UNKNOWN]; O. Lake, “C Piece,” Air, “G.vE”]

We’ve heard a wide variety of music, music in-tempo or up-tempo, slow music, textural music, giving you some idea of Fred’s versatility and scope.

Well, as we were saying earlier, it’s about playing music.  And fortunately, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of these different musicians who make these type of demands on my playing abilities.

That other song, which was a more rhythmic thing, “G.vE,” which was for a very good friend of mine, Ghisela Van Eichen, was a more rhythmic thing, because… You know, my first instrument actually was conga drums.  I never performed on them, by the way.  But I started off studying them.  And I found out that my hands couldn’t take that kind of pain; I’m sorry, I’m just not into that!  And fortunately, like I said, then the high school days came, so I was able just to switch to a less painful instrument — so I thought…

The bass is a less painful instrument?

Yes.  So I thought!  So my fingers still hurt, but I seem to be a little bit more into this instrument than congas!

But that was another period.  Now, we played some Air stuff there, and also Oliver Lake.  Of course, as I mentioned before, Air was my first band that I stayed with for a long period of time.  We did about nine albums before Steve left.  That’s indicative of ensemble playing, from Henry’s compositions to the approach to the music to the actual tuning of the drums — because the system we used was tuning the drums to the bass, so we could get more resonance and a more harmonious sound, so to speak, from the two of us, since we didn’t use piano or nothing like that, right.  But that band, like I say, is indicative of people trying to perform on one composition together.  A lot of times you would you think, like, with a traditional setting, that the horn player would be the leader in terms of the way that sound comes off.  And we always attempted to…(and maybe even sometimes did it!)…attempted to blend and use the sound of the drums as part of the harmonic as well as rhythmic structure, and also the bass, vice-versa.

And Steve McCall was uniquely adapted to that function in an ensemble.

Oh yeah.  Steve McCall, I mean, I can never speak enough about his style of playing drums.  One thing, I could have fun with Steve!  We could take a lot of chances.  And that’s another part of the music.  Sometimes… I mean, I’ll look at some music, and I will just try to do something different.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.  And it’s good to be with people who, if they see you falling, they will catch you.  And also, you might even discover some new things that way.  But Steve… That was a very rewarding association for me.

Coming up we’ll hear a tape of the John Hicks Trio featuring Fred and Idris Muhammad, from an NPR broadcast from New Year’s Day, 1985 at Charlie’s Tap in Boston.

[MUSIC: Hicks Trio, “Miles Mode,” Bluiett, “Ebu”]

Coming up now are some collaborations by a newly-formed group featuring Fred with cellist Deirdre Murray…

Well, it’s a real pleasure, and it’s a challenge to play with her. Also we have a lot of fun.  We have a friendly challenge amongst ourselves, so that we tease each other about who’s going to play the best tonight and all these things.  But she’s such a fine cellist.  And anyway, it’s a similar type of occurrence in my life that I had with Air, where you meet someone musically, and it just gels right away, there’s no problem, you don’t have to explain nothin’ to anybody — you just play well together.

So Deirdre and I, we decided, we said, “Let’s do something on our own.”  So anyway, we prepared this music you hear now with Rod Williams on piano and Andrei Strobert on drums.  One thing to remember, though, so that the listeners won’t misunderstand, when you say we’re presenting this in order to get some work on a commercial level… Meaning two things.  One thing is that, first of all, we are a performing band.  I consider myself a performing artist who records, as opposed to a recording artist who performs.  So we would like to perform.  So we actually have submitted this tape to record companies and to club owners and things.  But it seems like maybe our work will probably start in Europe first, and we are planning on doing this thing starting next year — hopefully you’ll see us around.

[MUSIC: Hopkins/Murray, “#2,” Threadgill Sextet, “A Man Called Trinity Deliverance,” Hopkins/Murray, “Junko San”]

Actually, it’s interesting working with two drummers in a band [in the Henry Threadgill Sextet].  I would imagine probably some of the older bands, like in the Forties and Fifties, the type of bands they had then used a lot of the same type of….

Some of them had two bassists, like the Ellington band of the Thirties, but I can’t really recollect two drummers playing.

Yeah, in the same set.  But I would imagine if we looked at the history, we probably could find a band or two who did it.  But in a weird kind of way, instead of locking me in, it actually frees me up more.  Because although I’m still responsible for my parts in the music, and like the bass is responsible for rhythmic and harmonic structures, at the same time, if I don’t want to play it, I don’t have to, because one of the drummers is going to hit it, so I don’t have to worry so much.

Well, it seems like a lot of the music has to deal with you and Deirdre working in interaction rather than you being a traditional bass player…

Well, more than composition, Henry’s orchestration… He utilizes the personalities as well as the instruments.  So since Deirdre and I work together so well… I don’t know if that’s the reason why he did it, by the way.  But especially in some of the later pieces, he’s been writing some things for us.  And I might add, some of the pieces are very difficult to play!  But we manage to get through them.

But right now, that’s one of my fun bands.  Because of the different choices of material that Henry has, I can be very subtle in some instances, and then actually, for lack of a better word, just go crazy with the music. We really get a chance to do, for lack of a better word, some difficult pieces, and also there’s an element of fun involved with it.  It’s a real show band.

What is it that makes the pieces difficult?

Difficult only means that they’re very well written, and you’re expected to play the whole range of your  instrument and all the techniques involved.  I mean, some things that I play are Classical in nature, some are bluesy in nature, there are some island-type rhythms we do — different things.  And he constantly adds new pieces to the book, all the time.  So it’s not really that it makes it difficult, but you really have to be on your toes.

It’s a real plus to work with someone who you have a musical relationship with, and you understand his systems, methods and approaches to music.  So I can get into the conceptual part of his music quite well these days.

I’ve walked in the footsteps of some great bassists, and  I’m with bands that give me pretty much free rein, so I’ve been able to work out a lot of things over the years.  And a lot of things I’ve kept.  I particularly like the old style of bass, which is the sound itself, where you’re actually playing the instrument as opposed to playing the instrument through a pick-up, which is a different sound altogether.

What kind of amp do you use?

I use PV(?).  I happen to like it.  It has the power and the strength that I like.  And it’s a pretty large-sized amp.  But because I like to be on the bottom of the music, I usually can’t use like smaller amps.  I don’t quite get the sound that I like.  But I use that, and I’ve been using a Fishman pickup, which really has been the most successful with me for my style of playing, where I can use arco and pizzicato and still get a decent sound.

Do you double at all?  Any electric bass?

No, I don’t.  I don’t play any of those instruments.  And by the way, those are quite different instruments.  Many people think that the electric bass and the acoustic bass are the same.  But even though the notes are in the same place, the techniques are totally different.  I have a lot of respect for cats who can double on those instruments.

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Filed under AACM, Bass, Fred Hopkins, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Lester Bowie (R.I.P.) and Don Moye (and Lester and Malachi Favors) on Lester’s 70th Birthday

Although my late mother wasn’t aware of it, she shared a birthday with several of my jazz heroes — drummers Art Blakey and Billy Higgins, the AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie and the AACM bassist Fred Hopkins.  During my years on WKCR I never had an opportunity to interview Buhaina, and although Billy Higgins came up several times, we never had a discussion comprehensive enough to merit an archival posts.

However, Fred and Lester joined me many times in the studio. To my regret, I still haven’t transcribed the proceedings of the wide-ranging Musician Show that I did with Lester in the mid-’90s (it’s on my to-do list, along with several other radio encounters). But I have transcribed what happened when Lester joined me with two of compatriots in the Art Ensemble of Chicago — drummer Don Moye and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut — and am posting both interviews below. These, and a mid-’80s interview with Fred Hopkins coming directly after this one, have been on the web for a number of years at http://www.jazzhouse.org, home base for the Jazz Journalists Association.

Then I’ll post a drummers panel that I conducted on a memorial show for Billy Higgins on WKCR after he passed in 2001.

Lester Bowie & Don Moye (WKCR, 1995):

[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy, “Remember the Time” (1992)]

Welcome back, Lester Bowie, for the first time in about a year.

BOWIE:  Yeah, thank you, Ted.  Glad to be back.  Always glad to be back at good old WKCR.

You’re involved in so many activities.  What’s been going on with you in the last year?  Has Brass Fantasy been very active?  Are your newer projects getting off the ground, being realized?  What’s going on?

BOWIE:  Well, I’ve done quite a bit in the last year. We’ve done an Art Ensemble tour.  We’ve done a Brass Fantasy tour.  I have a group called Brassy Voices, which I used at the ’94 Winter Olympics.  We toured that this summer as part of my organ group, along with a Norwegian brass section and a large Norwegian choir.  We did that this summer, and also immediately following that we toured with Brass Fantasy, and immediately following that I toured with my organ group…

You live in Brooklyn.  How many days have you been home in ’95?

BOWIE:  Well, I’ve been home enough. [LAUGHS] I’ve been home enough!

Keeping busy, though.

BOWIE:  Trying to keep busy. I get involved in a lot of projects.  There are a lot of musicians like myself who don’t have record company backing or managerial sort of things.  We have to hustle really hard to get things happening.  But fortunately, because of the people that are really supporting this music, I’ve been able to do quite a few projects.

Well, you’ve been a real proponent of self-reliance and do-it-yourself for most of your career as a musician.  I guess it goes back to your Army days when you were an MP Sergeant, I believe?

BOWIE:  I was a policeman.  I never made Sergeant.  I was an Airman Third Class for a while, until I got busted.  Then I was nothing! [LAUGHS] But I’ve been able to do quite a few things.  And we’ve always had to be self-reliant, because you can’t wait for someone to do something for you.  You have to go out and do it yourself.  We felt so strongly about the music, and the only way to get that happening was to actually try to produce it ourselves.

I think in a certain way you’re referring to the years when the Art Ensemble began to stretch into a global reach, and your experiences traveling across the country in 1969 and 1970.  Talk about that a bit.

BOWIE:  Well, we had to go to Europe because we weren’t getting enough support to sustain ourselves in the States.  We moved to Europe in the beginning of 1969.  Now, prior to that, we had been working about four times a year.  We’d work four gigs a year, we’d have about three hundred rehearsals — but we were only working about four days out of a year.  But when we got to Europe, after we were in Europe about three days, we were working six nights a week.

Now, in Chicago, and before leaving, what sort of gigs were you doing to sustain yourself?  I know you were a musician who kept quite busy.

BOWIE:  I’m also a musician who has a lot of children.  I have six children and six grandchildren.  So I had to stay busy.  It wasn’t just about wanting to stay busy; I had to stay busy.  I mean, that is the crux of everything we’ve been doing.  The music is so vital to us, and our families are also vital to us, that we have to rely upon only ourselves to get it out there.

But tell me about the type of musical situations you were playing in during those years, and before meeting the AACM around ’65 and ’66.

BOWIE:  Well, up until then I had been doing a lot of R&B gigs.  I did carnival gigs, circus gigs — I did any kind of gig I could get.  I auditioned for James Brown three times.  I just saw him on a plane last month.  I told him, “Man, I tried to audition for your band three times.”  I never got the gig.  But I really enjoyed his music anyway.  But I would do that.  When we first started with the Art Ensemble one night, and Jackie Wilson the next night, then back to the Art Ensemble and an AACM concert, and then off on the road with Jerry Butler or Joe Tex or Rufus Thomas.  I worked with just about all of the R&B people during that period.

How was it different or similar from the way that music functions today?  That may seem like an obvious question, but you have a first-hand perspective on it.

BOWIE:  Well, at that time, all of the artists carried big bands.  I mean, they all had big bands.  They did big shows.  So it let us get a lot of big band experience in the R&B idiom.  To show you the caliber of people, when I first came to New York to work at the Apollo (Reuben Phillips was the bandleader then), I was in a trumpet section where John Hunt was the lead player (who has died), but the other players were Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, Johnny Coles, Marcus Belgrave and me — and I’m sitting on the end, scared to death.

Were you in there for a week?

BOWIE:  Well, we used to come to the Apollo all the time.  We’d come in for a week or two at the time.  At that time we would do the Apollo one week, and then there was a theater in Brooklyn that we would follow up the next week in Brooklyn.  I was on the last part of the chitlin circuit.  We used to work all of the theaters.  The Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Howard in D.C., and the Regal in Chicago, the Riviera in Detroit.  I came along right at the end of that area.

These bands obviously were inflected with a very heavy jazz aesthetic and were very much connected to the jazz music of that time.

BOWIE:  Right.  Well, all of the musicians that were in the band were jazz musicians.  To work then, you had to work in that sort of situation.  All the guys that were doing the guys’ arrangements were jazz arrangers.  So it was very close.  At one time, it was very close to the music.  It wasn’t so separated as it is now.

Was playing, say, straight Blues gigs part of your experience as well, or was it more the R&B things?  I know a few people were house musicians for Chess Records in the Sixties.

BOWIE:  Mmm-hmm.  Well, when I first met Earth, Wind and Fire, all those guys were studio musicians at Chess.  But all of the musicians, like I said at that time, worked in various contexts, in an R&B context.  And it wasn’t just so much the gig; it was hanging out.  Like, I was hanging out with Marcus Belgrave and Johnny Coles; they took me under their wing.  That experience also; not just the musical experience.  We have to think of the music not just as an academic experience, but as a very spiritual thing.  Just hanging out with these guys, seeing how these guys looked or how they had fun.  All these sorts of things were very important to me.

I’m not just giving you the biographical third degree for the fun of it, but to show a little bit of the connection between what you’re doing now with Brass Fantasy and these early experiences with large horn sections, and I’m sure with brass bands back in your teen years in high school and part of your early trumpet schooling.

BOWIE:  Yeah.  Well, everything in jazz is connected to your life experience, and you try to relate what you’re doing to your life experience.  I worked in that sort of situation, I enjoyed working in that situation, and I still learn from that situation and still enjoy playing in all sorts of situations.  So all this is very, very important.

Don Moye has just entered. The two of you have been performing together about twenty-five years now.

MOYE:  That’s right.

You two first met in Paris, or in France?

MOYE:  I met him in Detroit.

What were the circumstances?  What was your first impression of Lester Bowie and what were the circumstances under which you met him?

MOYE:  I met him at a concert at Wayne State University.  It was Lester and Roscoe [Mitchell] and Malachi and Philip [Wilson].

At that time, a lot of the Chicago musicians were going to Detroit rather frequently for concerts and hooking up with the like-minded Detroit musicians.

MOYE: , Yes, we had a connection there.  We did our own festivals with the Strata people in Detroit and with the B.A.G. organization in St. Louis that we would produce ourselves.  There was a lot of exchanging of everything in those days.

Don Moye, what did the music sound like to you?  Were you performing in open-ended situations at that time as well?

MOYE:  Yeah, I was going to school at Wayne State towards a sort of in-between period of my life, deciding what I wanted to do about the music.  Because I knew that the school situation wasn’t happening.  So I was spending a lot of time at a place called the Artists’ Workshop, and the people around there, Charles Moore, a trumpet player, Danny Spencer, a drummer, John Sinclair, a writer and critic, was around at that time.  So it was a whole scene, with a lot of people, you know, academics, creative types, and then some other people coming around.  So they had concerts all the time.  They brought people in like Marion Brown, and Roscoe would come in, Lester and people like that.  That was the general climate.

What gigs were you doing then for survival, rent and so forth?

MOYE:  Oh, I was playing with a couple of African… At that time there wasn’t the whole emphasis on world music and ethnic music.  It was just an African Folk Tradition ensemble.  There were some people in it from Uganda, and some people from Nigeria.  It was like kind of a Foreign Students Association band, and we used to study rhythms and everybody would get together.  Then that evolved sort of into a performing dance troupe type situation.  Then I was still studying drums.  I wasn’t really playing drums professionally at that time, more congas and percussion.

What was your path from America to Europe that led you to meet the Art Ensemble?

MOYE:  Well, I went to Europe from Detroit, with a band called Detroit Free Jazz.  The only one of that band that’s still around working is a guy named Ron Miller, a bass player — he’s in New York now.  So we went to Europe.  We just paid our way and went to Luxembourg, then we went on to Copenhagen and Morocco and all around in Europe.  Then I left that band when I was in Rome, and started working at the Radio Italian… I was doing house percussionist at the Radio-TV in Rome, and then playing with people — Gato Barbieri and Steve Lacy, people like that.  So I ended up going to Paris with Steve Lacy and his band, and that was the time when I ran into the Art Ensemble again.

As I’ve heard that story, they were sort of working with different drummers and trying to find someone who would fit the group, after Philip Wilson had originally been in there and went off on a gig with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  Lester, what was your first impression of Moye on hearing him?

MOYE:  Oh, my first impression was good immediately, because I could immediately tell that he was a well-rounded musician that was capable of performing in many different types of music.  And our music consists of a lot of different mixtures of genre, and we needed someone that not only could play one way.  I mean, we needed someone that knew how to keep the tempo, but at the same time knew what to do when there wasn’t a tempo — and that’s kind of hard to find.

Now, in Brass Fantasy today the drummer is Vinnie Johnson, who seems to need no help in keeping the tempo, but Don Moye functions as a real sort of colorist and commentator and punctuator of the music with a whole array of percussion.  Talk about the different functions that you serve in Brass Fantasy vis-a-vis dealing with the trap drums.

MOYE:  Well, you said it pretty much, the colorization of different parts.  Because Vinnie is a complete drummer in the context of he never loses the beat.  I mean, he is a consummate professional.  So in my experience of playing with drummers that don’t really work with percussionist that much, working with him is good, because he always leaves space for anything else that might happen.  So that’s where I can do my thing.  Because a lot of drummers, they don’t leave any space for any more colorization; they color everything, and then the colors might end up being the same.  But with Vinnie, with the breadth of his experience, and just the way he plays, that’s the perfect hook-up for us.  Then that pretty much says it.
[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy: “My Way” (1990)]

Having heard the band Brass Fantasy last night, there was an energy and tightness like they’d been on the road for a couple of months or so.  But Lester, you say Brass Fantasy has been performing a fair amount, but this is the first time in a little while.

BOWIE:  Well, we just finished my family reunion, which was in Frederick, Maryland.  We produced a concert as a gift to the area and to the town and to the country.  We had a free concert, featuring my brother’s band, Joe Bowie’s Defunkt, and my other brother, Byron Bowie, did the intermission (he has a one-man band), and Brass Fantasy.  It was a very successful concert, 1200 people there.

That’s where originally your father’s side of the family is from.

BOWIE:  That’s where I was born and that’s where our family home is in Maryland.

I don’t think everybody is aware that the Bowie family has a very long and distinguished musical history, and that Lester’s father was responsible for the education of a number of musicians in St. Louis.  So say a few years about your father, who is now 90 years and thriving.

BOWIE:  He’s 90 years old, and going to exercise class three days a week.  He won second place in the marathon for men over 70.  So he’s doing very well.  He and all of his brothers were musicians, and his father also was a trombonist, back in the last part of the Nineteenth Century.

Did he play with brass bands in Maryland?

BOWIE:  We had a brass band called the Bartonsville Cornet Band, which was founded in 1911.  The group was formed by my father’s father, my grandfather.  There’s a picture of that band on the All The Magic album [a double-LP on ECM].  At that time, my father’s oldest brother was the bandleader, Uncle Walter.  But all of my uncles played music, all of the sisters married musicians — it goes back.  My great-grandfather was a musician who played the organ in church.  So we went back all the way to the time before the Emancipation.

Now, you say your father had aspirations to play European Classical Music which were frustrated by Jim Crow.

BOWIE:  Right.  Well, you had many musicians during that time… My father was educated during the Thirties.  He got his degrees then.

From where, by the way?

BOWIE:  He got his first degree from Hampton Institute in Virginia, and then he studied after that for his Masters at the University of Wyoming.  But at that time you had a lot of players, which much to our good fortune, these guys weren’t really allowed to get into these symphony bands.  I mean, they had aspirations to be in symphony bands.  People like Captain Dyett.  I had a great brass teacher named Marshall Penn, who must have been one of the greatest trombonists of the era.  But there was no possibility for them to get Classical positions, so they ended up teaching high school bands.  Like I say, it was very good for us, because we got a top-flight musical education for free, in high school.

There’s also a rich brass tradition in St. Louis.  A lot of Germans settled there and in Cincinnati and brought in their brass tradition.  It also goes back to the riverboats and Charlie Creath and Dewey Jackson and Clark Terry and Miles…

BOWIE:  Clark Terry and Miles and all those guys, yeah.

How aware were you of that tradition coming up?  Was that something you felt very connected to?

BOWIE:  Oh, yes.  We were very connected to the tradition of the trumpet players having their own voice in St. Louis.  Miles Davis was a favorite, and there were a lot of guys that were coming through.  Webster Young, and Clark was around… It was a very inspiring period.  And we were very conscious of the St. Louis approach to music.

How would you define that?  What’s the St. Louis approach to the music?

BOWIE:  Originality.  You had to really be original.  You could play well in St. Louis, you could play just like Miles, and everyone would say, “Oh, you sound very good.  You sound just like Miles.  But come back when you get a few notes of your own.”  So there was a very conscious effort to try to remain original and to play something meaningful that was your own.

Don Moye, do you come from a musical family as well?

MOYE:  Yes.

Take us back a little bit into your family tree.

MOYE:  Well, I’m from Rochester, New York.  My father wasn’t a professional drummer, but he played at the Elks Club in Rochester.  They had a lot of active bands.  They had a drum and bugle corps and they had a marching band, and then they had different smaller ensembles that used to play at the club, a place called Pithout(?) and Elks Hall.  So my father and a couple of my uncles were pretty active in that.  Then I had four uncles who were part of a territorial band in the late Thirties and Forties in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, like that.  It was called Al Hartzog’s(?) Jungle Rhythm Band.  That was my cousin’s father.  Four

Was that a band that played stocks for dances and so forth?

MOYE:  Yes.  And my grandmother, she was active.  She even booked a Duke Ellington concert one time.  He came to Rochester in 1935, and the Elks Women’s Auxiliary, they hired him to come in and everything.  So not necessarily a professional background, but my family members were involved pretty much with the music.

So presumably as a kid, you heard all the current music of the day and the big bands…

MOYE:  Right.

When did it become apparent to you that you were going to be a drummer?

MOYE:  Well, actually, what happened was, my grandmother, she used to cook… She was like in charge of the kitchen and she cooked, and sometimes ran a place called the Pithout(?) Club, which was right next door to the Elks Club.  I used stay upstairs with her all the time, and come downstairs at night.  The people at that time were Grant Green and Johnny Lytell and all the organ greats; you know, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith.

That’s who would come through.

MOYE:  Yeah, mostly.  Organ trios and an occasional saxophone, Gene Ammons and people like that.  So that was exposure.  Actually, drums were around all the time, because in Rochester in the post-War period and going into the early Fifties, a lot of the people who came back were involved in these drum-and-bugle corps to keep people active in the V.F.W. and the American Legion and everything.  So in that part of the country, on the East Coast especially, there were a lot of drum-and-bugle corps and different types of things like that.  So that was an active type of activity in my area.  So I was always around these drum-and-bugle corps, and that’s how I really took my first lessons, for studying rudiments and stuff like that.

When did you first become aware that there was such a thing as different styles of playing jazz drums, and individual personalities who were playing, and who were some of the people who appealed to you as a kid?

MOYE:  Well, that didn’t happen until I really got more into school, like going into high school, in the late years of grammar school.

So it would have been around 1960, 1958, ’59…

MOYE:  Yeah, around there.  Some of my early influences really were like Jo Jones (I heard him a lot) and Kenny Clarke.  But I didn’t ever get a chance to see them play.  I didn’t really get a chance to see anybody that much until I moved to Detroit, and that was like going into ’65, around in there.  And I had been up to New York a few times, but most of my early experience was just whoever came through Rochester pretty much.

So your first real hands-on experience at watching top-flight jazz drummers was in Detroit.

MOYE:  Right.

Roy Brooks was there, I know.

MOYE:  Right.  Well, he was touring most of the time then.

Who was around Detroit?

MOYE:  Bert Myrick.  Ronnie Johnson.  He was like a 17-year-old phenom from Detroit.  He stopped playing for a while.  I think he’s playing again now, but he was really… Those were the people that I saw more than anybody else.  And Bobby Battle was around in those days.  Then a lot of the Motown people, because they had those clubs there and everything, and we would go to the clubs and see some of those people.  Then Elvin… Whoever came through.  That was at the period of the decline of Jazz clubs in Detroit, but there were still enough places around where in any given week you could see two or three different top-flight bands.

BOWIE:  I’d like to mention one thing here, when we talk about these territorial bands and what R&B bands were doing back then.  You know, the R&B bands, for instance, B.B. King or someone like that, they would come to towns like Amarillo, Texas, where I was in the Service, and they satisfied everybody’s passion for the music.  I mean, they didn’t only just play Blues or R&B.  The first hour they would play all band originals.  I mean, they had great musicians in the band and they had some great arrangements.  So that when you went to see a concert, you didn’t go to see Blues or Jazz specifically.  You went to see this music.  And in that concert, it satisfied everyone’s… Whatever they wanted to hear, they heard it in that concert.  And I mean some heavyweight Jazz.  You got guys like Marcus Belgrave playing trumpet in these bands; you can imagine what kind of things were going on.

MOYE:  Also there wasn’t the concern about labeling and everything.  The only thing, when people would come out, it would just be a concert of music.  It wasn’t like there’s going to be a Jazz concert or an R&B concert.  A band was going to come in and play.  And inside that band’s repertoire, like Lester was saying, it would cover a whole lot of different musical styles, plus their own originals.  But there was never a concern about having a Jazz or Blues name featured or highlighted in the programming or the promotion of the event.  It was a concert, and everybody that wanted to come out and hear a good night of music would be out there, and then they would dance with the music and everything.

You were speaking of the arrangers in these bands.  Brass Fantasy is really, in a certain way, an arranger’s band, a band where contemporary arrangers put their personality on a wide range of music interpreted by some extremely personal and original improvisers.  How arranged is the Art Ensemble when you’re playing?  Is it a spontaneous thing every night?  Do you start with a kernel and then develop it from there through your mutual intuition…?

BOWIE:  No, it just depends on what we want to do.  If we say, “Okay, let’s start with the kernel tonight…”  As a matter of fact, we’ve got an expression called “stoop and hit.”  But on the other side of that, there’s quite a lot of arranging done, too.  As a matter of fact, a lot of the things that people think aren’t arranged are very meticulously notated.  It depends every night, like I say.  We don’t have a set formula that we say we’re going to do 30 percent written material and 70 percent improvisation.  It can be 70 percent written and 30 improvised, or it can be all improvised.  It just depends.

MOYE:  And then, because of the nature of the type of projects we’ve been doing lately, with symphony orchestras, and then we had a Blues project, we’ve been doing a lot of different things which require arrangements for all of these people to be able to play the music.  So all of our compositions can be adapted for larger ensembles, just through… It’s a matter of picking arrangers that can really handle what we want to have done.

One of the showpieces of Brass Fantasy is a very stark arrangement by Earl McIntyre of “Strange Fruit,” the Billie Holiday-Lewis Allen composition.  You played it last night, and an arrangement appears on The Fire This Time, the latest release by Brass Fantasy.

BOWIE:  I’d like to say one thing about Earl McIntyre and the host of other arrangers.  There are so many talented musicians here in New York and throughout the country that don’t get a chance to express themselves.  Somehow we’ve gotten into the bag of musicians only playing their own songs… You know, we used to play each other’s songs.  We used to play each other’s music.  This is what gives you an input into other styles, into other personalities.  And Earl McIntyre (I just wanted to mention) is one of the great arrangers of our time…

You and the Village Vanguard band, among others.

BOWIE:  Oh, he does quite a few arrangements for a lot of people.  But there is not a great outlet for people like this any more.  There is nowhere for him to get someone else to play his music.  Nowadays, you write a song and you play it yourself, and no one else plays your song because they want to play their song, instead of sharing and playing each other’s music and making the whole music grow.  Earl is a key part of that.

Two other very strong arrangers are trumpeter E.J. Allen and Steve Turre, who have contributed numerous arrangements to the Brass Fantasy book.

BOWIE:  Yes, great arrangers.

[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy, “Strange Fruit” (1992); “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” (1990)]

Lester Bowie & Malachi Favors (WKCR, 11-22-94):

The Art Ensemble of Chicago is in New York this week at the new Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, their first New York appearance in a number of years.  I’d like to welcome Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors from the Art Ensemble to the WKCR studios.  How long has been exactly since the Art Ensemble has worked in New York City, Lester?  Do you recollect?

BOWIE:  It’s been quite a few years.  At least three, no?

FAVORS:  Oh, no.  It could be four or five.

It’s probably been about that.  I think the last time maybe you were at Town Hall or something.

BOWIE:  Town Hall, right.

Has the Art Ensemble been very active, slightly active, moderately active in the last few years?

BOWIE:  You could say we’re moderately active.  We’re not overwhelmed with work.  But we’ve been working enough to survive.  That’s about the story of our lives.

Of course, everyone in the Art Ensemble has taken on individual tasks and preoccupations outside the Art Ensemble.  Malachi, you live in Chicago, and people in New York don’t get to hear you nearly enough?  What’s going on in Chicago right now?  Last July when I was there it seemed there was a pretty active scene.

FAVORS:  Oh, yeah.  There’s quite a bit going on in Chicago with the AACM.  We’re coming up on our thirtieth anniversary, so we’re preparing for that, and in the meantime we’re doing concerts around the city.  Maybe in July when you were there, you were just there at an inopportune time.

Well, I just missed a jam session on the night of July 4th at 66th and King Drive which I thought wouldn’t be happening that night, because it was July 4th, but indeed it did happen, and I was disappointed in myself.

FAVORS:  Yes.  And I was there.

Yes, I had heard!  Lester and Malachi just arrived, and we’ll get into the interview portion a bit later, after we s hear some very recent music which hasn’t been heard publicly.  It’s the Art Ensemble of Chicago with a symphonic orchestra.

BOWIE:  Well, it’s a project we did last year that ended up being a documentary on German TV.  It was a collaboration with the Civic Orchestra of Bremen, Germany, which was just forming.  They were just moving from Frankfurt to Bremen.  They’re called the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonik.  They were just moving to Bremen, and this was their first project as the official civic symphony.

Were the arrangements done with the Art Ensemble?

BOWIE:  The program consisted of six pieces.  Four of the pieces were Art Ensemble greatest hits, so to speak, and the one piece from a German composer, I forget his name, Wilfred Donner maybe, and the other piece was by two Austrian composers.The arrangements for the Art Ensemble and the orchestra were by Earl McIntyre, who is a very great arranger living here in New York.

[MUSIC: Art Ensemble with Orch.: “Charlie M” (1994)]

Let’s discuss the origins of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s been twenty-eight years since Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound came out, featuring Lester and Malachi.  Malachi, when did you first meet Roscoe Mitchell?  You’re really the first two of the five members of the Art Ensemble who hooked up.

FAVORS:  1963.

What were the circumstances?  Were you at Wilson Junior College at that time?

FAVORS:  Yes, I was at Wilson, and Roscoe was also at Wilson.  I don’t remember… I think it was a musician that I knew named Teddy, he got married, and Muhal Richard Abrams was at the wedding, and Roscoe came in and they played some, and I asked Muhal who was the man playing the sax, and he told me it was Roscoe Mitchell, and he introduced us.  So I came into contact with him at Wilson Junior College.

You mentioned a couple of things that make me want to ask some more questions.  Now, you knew Muhal Richard Abrams at that time.  You were a working musician around Chicago by the early 1960’s, weren’t you.

FAVORS:  Right.

Talk a bit about your background.  I think you’d been active through the 1950’s in the clubs and venues of Chicago.

FAVORS:  Well…

Somewhat?  A little bit?

FAVORS:  Somewhat.  During that time there was a lot of entertainment going on in Chicago, a lot of clubs on the South Side, and they needed bassists, pianists, and… I was on call.  I was just beginning.  And when they couldn’t get this bass player or that bass player, I would get a job on the weekend.  There were so many clubs.

That’s how a lot of musicians got started.

FAVORS:  Yes.

Milt Hinton wrote that he played a couple of years getting the call on the weekend, and then it gradually built up.

FAVORS:  Yes, that’s the way it happened.

There’s a recording with Andrew Hill in the late 1950’s.

FAVORS:  Yes.

Were you two involved in a trio as a working, regular situation?

FAVORS:  Yes.  I don’t remember how Andrew and I met, but I hooked up with Andrew, and we stayed together until Andrew left suddenly and came here to New York.

What type of places would you be playing in?  What were the clubs like?

FAVORS:  At the time, smaller clubs would have maybe three or four pieces, and a singer who could sing the Blues and Pop, and maybe a shake dancer (we don’t see those any more).  That’s what the clubs were like.  It would take me some time to collect my thoughts on it; it’s so long ago.

I know that one of your major influences on the bass was Wilbur Ware.

FAVORS:  Wilbur Ware, Oscar Pettiford…

But Wilbur Ware was in Chicago.  So I gather he had a very direct impact.

FAVORS:  Mmm-hmm.  Israel Crosby.

Talk about them a little.  In a previous conversation you mentioned having gone to him and studied with him a little bit.

FAVORS:  Well, I studied with him as far as I could.  You know, Wilbur Ware didn’t read.  He generally played by ear.  So you just had to pick up from him by listening to him.  He was just a born musician.  He had the talent… It’s just unexplainable.  He didn’t read.  He could tap-dance, play drums, and that was it.  And when I heard him, he just blew me away.

How about Israel Crosby?

FAVORS:  Israel Crosby was another bassist… Well, there are so many bassists that I like.  Oscar Pettiford… I saw Oscar Pettiford before I ever knew Wilbur Ware.  We had a theater like the Apollo here in New York — the Regal.

On 47th Street.

FAVORS:  Mmm-hmm.  All the big bands used to come there, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Satchmo, and Cab Calloway, who just recently died — and I would go in… Duke always would have these great bassists with him, and I just liked the bass.  But when I saw Oscar Pettiford with Duke, that just blew me away.  From then on, you know, I got  a bass and tried to learn, and that’s when I ran into Wilbur Ware.

So seeing Oscar Pettiford made you want to be a bass player.

FAVORS:  That’s right.

Were you playing music at that time?

FAVORS:  No.  No, I wasn’t playing music at that time.  I was in a little quartet, you know…

A vocal quartet?

FAVORS:  A vocal quartet.

There were a lot of those around, too.

FAVORS:  Right.

Talk a little about your early musical education.  Was it in high school?  Was it private lessons?  Was it being self-taught on gigs or just picking things up?

FAVORS:  Well, picking things up, and you know, from different musicians like Jodie Christian and Wilbur Ware.  I’d go around buying books.  And I was told I had to learn the chord changes, so that’s what I did.  I used to carry the scales around with me and that sort of stuff.  The only schooling I had was when I went to Wilson Junior College for about a year.

And then you were in your twenties already, I take it.

FAVORS:  Mmm-hmm.

You also worked with the King Fleming Trio.  He was an important figure in Chicago.

FAVORS:  Right.  After Andrew Hill I worked in the King Fleming Trio.

He had a big band, he played trios.  Talk a little bit about his style and approach to music.

FAVORS:  Well, I didn’t know him when he had a big band.  I only knew him, I worked him maybe a couple of years.  Two or three years I worked with him.  After working with him came Roscoe.  No, I worked at O’Hare a couple of years, and then I met Roscoe.  It’s hard to piece all of this together.

What was Roscoe Mitchell into when you met him?  What was he sounding like?  What sort of things was he exploring?

FAVORS:  He sounded like Bird to me.

Elaborate on that a bit.

FAVORS:  Well, he’s quite different now in that he’s found himself.  But I was quite impressed because I heard a Bird sound coming out of him.

When did you start hooking up with him for concerts or performances or rehearsals?

FAVORS:  It was between ’63 and ’64.  I think we had our first concert in 1964.  It was with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, trumpet, Roscoe and myself.

Was playing with Roscoe your first experience with extended structures and new music and so forth, or had you been working in those areas before?

I played a couple of gigs with Sun Ra.  And I saw this African ballet group, and that turned me on to the Africanism in music.  I kind of got into it with Andrew Hill.  But in meeting Roscoe in the so-called “free” music, I just opened up.  That’s what was happening.

You knew Muhal Richard Abrams at this time, too.

FAVORS:  Oh, yes.

Had you played with him, or were you working in extended situations with him?

FAVORS:  No.  I knew Muhal, but we never really had worked together.

Then I guess the Roscoe Mitchell group kept playing and developing the music for several years.  Did you join the AACM when it first was chartered in 1965?

FAVORS:  Yes, I am an original member.  I’m not a founder, but I’m an original member of the AACM.

Were you also going to the Experimental Band rehearsals and concerts before the AACM was officially chartered?

FAVORS:  No.  I went to a couple of their rehearsals, but I didn’t stick.  Because at that time I was married, and trying to go to Wilson Junior College…

And work and make a living and the whole thing.

FAVORS:  Yes.

So it was hard to do that.

FAVORS:  Right.

But your impression of the type of music that they were doing struck you as the way you wanted to go.

FAVORS:  That’s right.

I believe it was 1966 when Lester Bowie came to Chicago from St. Louis, and I guess off the road as well.  Talk about the circumstances that brought you to Chicago and your first encounters with the AACM.

BOWIE:  Well, ’65 I believe was the year I came to Chicago.  We recorded in ’66, but we were playing together before that.  I was in Chicago quite a while before I knew any members of the AACM.

What were you doing?  Arranging, working in blues groups?

BOWIE:  Well, my wife had gotten a hit record.  Fontella Bass was my first wife, and one of her records was starting to hit.  I don’t think it was “Rescue Me.”  It was… [END OF SIDE A] … companies like Brunswick Records.  I just did a lot of sessions.  And of course, playing around with bands like…George Hunter was one big band I played with.

He’d had a big band for about twenty years ongoing in Chicago.

BOWIE:  Yeah, he had a band for quite a while.

How did you find the scene in Chicago when you got to Chicago there?  Was it satisfactory?  Not satisfactory?  Were you looking for something different?

BOWIE:  Well, when first got to Chicago, like I said, I was on the Rhythm-and-Blues scene and on the studio scene, and I was getting bored actually.  There was nothing really happening.  I mean, I always had wanted to be a Jazz musician, but I had been doing a lot of R&B, and you know, I did a lot of things to survive.  So one of the fellows who was with George Hunter whose name was Delbert Hill, he played baritone, he knew I was getting bored, and he said he knew a band that rehearsed that I may find a bit more interesting — and it was the Richard Abrams Experimental Band.  I went over there for a rehearsal one day and that was it.

You’ve been quoted several times as saying you ran into a bunch of people who were as out as you were!

BOWIE:  Yeah, I saw all these maniacs in the same room.  It was quite unsettling there for a while.  But it was like I was at home.  I mean, you’ve got so many of these complete, like, eccentric individuals, but playing together and really doing some different kind of music.  I found it quite exciting.

Now, had you been exposed to this type of music at that point in playing it or listening to it?  I mean, were you listening to John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman?

BOWIE:  Oh, yeah.  No, we’d been into that sort of thing, into Ornette and that whole scene in St. Louis, playing it for years before, playing it with different types of groups.  Because you know, we never could find enough guys to play, so we’d be out in the park with two saxophones and a bass and a drum and a trombone and a trumpet.  So we were used to playing in that sort of thing long before I came to Chicago.

Malachi, were you were checking out John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and the whole…?

FAVORS:  Oh, yeah.

Did you go see them when they played in Chicago?

FAVORS:  Yes.

And it impressed you the same way that, let’s say, hearing Roscoe impressed you?

FAVORS:  Oh, yes.  Most definitely.

When did you first encounter John Coltrane musically?

FAVORS:  Well, when he was with Miles.

And he caught your ear then, coming through Chicago?

FAVORS:  Yeah, right.

How about Ornette Coleman?

FAVORS:  I just heard him on recordings, and he caught my ear.  At first I listened and I said, “Mmm, this guy is doing something here,” and then finally he just warmed me, you know.

I think he came through Chicago in ’62 or something at the Sutherland.

FAVORS:  I think I saw him.  I think so, if my memory serves me right.

Can either one of you describe what a rehearsal session of the Experimental Band or later the AACM Rehearsal Band would be like?  Would someone be assigned to bring a composition in from the previous week, and then everyone would play it?  How was it set up?

BOWIE:  Well, I don’t remember it being that… It wasn’t that formal.  It was just the guys brought in music, and we just played it.  I mean, it was like just a normal rehearsal, like any other band, except the music was a bit different.  But we just all came and met, and they passed out the charts, and then we would run through… Let’s say in a particular evening there were five or six charts we would run through, from Braxton or from Muhal or whoever.

Would Muhal’s charts let’s say from 1965 be similar to let’s say charts from the early 1980’s or the present?  Allowing, of course, for his development and growth.

BOWIE:  Well, we’re talking about the early Sixties now, the early and mid-Sixties, and of course, they were quite different then.  I mean, it was interesting music.  Muhal is one of the great composers and arrangers.  It was really exciting.  And the thing that’s really so nice about the AACM is you had all these individuals.  I mean, you had Threadgill’s music, you had Braxton’s music, Roscoe’s, Joseph’s.  I mean, it was just unbelievable, the difference in the approaches.  So they were all really very fresh.  We weren’t really everyone coming out of the same thing.

I think in Chicago it’s always been one of the precepts for jazz musicians that you have to have a different sound, something to really distinguish you from everybody else.  If somebody’s doing this, then you have to do something else.  Is that true…

BOWIE:  Well, that’s true not only in Chicago and St. Louis.  That used to be true in the music.  I remember reading something Max Roach said that Jo Jones told him [SIC: LESTER YOUNG], and that was that you can’t join the throng until you sing your own song.  And that’s not something that was unique to Chicago; that was a basic tenet of the music.

So what were you looking for in 1965?  In other words, Lester, you were a trumpeter influenced by Kenny Dorham and Miles and Don Cherry and so forth.  Had you found a direction as an improviser, or was that something that encountering the AACM helped you to grapple with?

BOWIE:  Well, the AACM… I mean, I had found my way as far as I had found an approach that I was taking.  But the AACM just opened up… It was the first group outside of my buddies in St. Louis where I could really play like that.

Who were those buddies in St. Louis?

BOWIE:  [Julius] Hemphill and Philip Wilson and [Oliver] Lake.  We would be playing like that.  Outside of St. Louis, I couldn’t play like that anywhere else.  But that’s why I was so excited about meeting the AACM, is because I could really expand, I could really open up.  With Roscoe’s band, I could just really open up and be myself, which was kind of a multi-faceted sort of approach.

So did Roscoe immediately ask you to start working with the group?

BOWIE:  Oh, yeah.  By the time I got home, what happened is that Muhal… You know, I sat in, and Muhal put the music down, and so I had to take a solo, and then after I took the solo everybody wanted my number, and by the time I got home from the rehearsal, Roscoe was calling: “Come on, man, let’s get a band!”  And we started rehearsing.  We were like rehearsing the next day!

Malachi, what was your first impression when you met him?

FAVORS:  I didn’t even notice him! [LAUGHS] No, I was really impressed.  I had no idea that he was going to stick around.  I just didn’t think he was going to stick around until Roscoe came to me and said, “Did you hear the trumpet player?”  I said, “Yeah, I heard him.  Yeah, he’s great, man.”  He said, “What about him coming with us?”  I asked Roscoe, “Did you ask him already?”  He said, “Yeah, and he said ‘Okay.'”  So I was elated.  I still didn’t believe that he was going to join, because I’d also learned that his wife was Fontella Bass, and she was hot.

BOWIE:  And I had a Bentley, so they couldn’t believe I was joining the AACM.  I would pull up to the AACM meetings in this like really hip Bentley!

FAVORS:  Yeah, he had this Bentley and stuff.  But he came on in and stuck.

Wilson Junior College was a place where many people who became very prominent in the AACM attended.  Apart from Malachi and Roscoe, Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill went there.  What was the music curriculum like?  Did it have a big impact on you, or was it…?

FAVORS:  No, it was just basic music.  In fact, Mr. Wang, one of our professors, he’s still around, and he’s always in a sense bowing to us for turning him on.

That must be a very interesting thing for a teacher to have all these young musicians start turning world music around.

FAVORS:  Yeah, well…

What sort of gigs did Roscoe Mitchell have in Chicago in the mid-1960’s?  Were the established clubs in town accepting of the music?  Were you having to set up your own gigs?  How did that work?

FAVORS:  No, the established clubs were not accepting our music.  We just had faith, rehearsed every day.  I had a Volkswagen Rabbit at that time, and we started with the little instruments, and all the little instruments would be in my Volkswagen Rabbit…

BOWIE:  The Beetle.

FAVORS:  The Beetle, right-right.  We went down on Rush Street, and got a job; it was Lester, Roscoe and myself.

Just the trio.

FAVORS:  Yes, it was just the trio at this time.  And we got fired the first night!  However, a fellow came up to me a week or so later, and he said, “Man, I heard you all down there on Rush Street.  What was that music you’re playing?”  He said, “Man, it got to me.”  And that built me up.  All wasn’t lost.  Here was somebody who heard the music and really liked it.

BOWIE:  Remember the time…?  There was one time we were getting gigs, and we were gigging around Chicago with this same trio.  And we got about five or six gigs all over Chicago in different places, and we were getting fired after each one of those gigs.  We got fired!  Each time we got fired.  But the music would be smoking, and we couldn’t understand why they were firing us.  I mean, we were playing like “No Business Like Show Business.”  I mean, we would put these hip suites together which would have some standards in it, but some would be out; but really a club set that we thought should have been acceptable because it was a… But I guess because we turned it into a suite or something, I don’t know, but we would get fired every night.  But we always got paid.  So when we figured it out, we’d just like get five gigs a week, we’d get fired every one, but at least we’d have work those five nights!

FAVORS:  [LAUGHS]

When did the little instruments start getting incorporated into the arsenal of the Art Ensemble?

FAVORS:  Well, I think I started from an African influence.  As I told you, I saw this African ballet, and I just felt that this music belonged in Jazz, in so-called Jazz.  I remember once I came… We were going to have a concert or a rehearsal or something, and I came with these little instruments, and Roscoe asked me, “What are you going to do with that, man?”  I said, “I’m going to play them in the concert!”  And from then on, after that, we just started elaborating on little instruments.  Pretty soon Roscoe and Joseph and Moye, they were little instrument kings!

Was there an African music community in Chicago of any consequence, in terms of learning the qualities of the instruments, or again was it a process of self-exploration for you?

FAVORS:  Self-exploration.  At that time, I didn’t know of any.

BOWIE:  I’m sure there were some Africans there, but there was no African community like there is a Haitian community here or something like that.  The only Africans were us.

Well, let’s hear what the band sounded like.  Because in 1966, 1967 and 1968, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman, with Malachi Favors (who did not record under his own name) were heavily documented, or at any rate adequately documented… Or maybe not.

BOWIE:  [LAUGHS]

At any rate, the first recording is on Delmark, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, entitled Sound, featuring the following musicians.  Four horns, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Lester Lashley, the trombonist and cellist, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre on tenor sax, Malachi Favors, bass, and Alvin Fielder who is still active in the music around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he’s a pharmacist, on percussion.

Let me point out an additional sidelight.  That day, August 10th, was also the date that my first daughter was born.  So I mean, there were a lot of things happening on that day!  I think I got arrested or something that day.  It was really a weird day!

[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, “The Little Suite” (1966); excerpt from “Congliptious” (1968)]

We were speaking before about the years in Chicago and the development of the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble.  I guess the next significant milestone for the group was your incorporating Joseph Jarman, who had been going in his own direction and was working with his own ensemble into the group I guess around 1968.

BOWIE:  Yes.  Two of the guys in Joseph’s group died.  It was a pretty traumatic period for Joseph, and for all of us actually; these two guys died rather suddenly.  And Joseph got together with us after that.

Malachi, had you hooked up with Joseph prior to his joining the group?  Or was it primarily with Roscoe?

FAVORS:  No, I hadn’t hooked up with Joseph until he came into the Art Ensemble.

What do you remember about Charles Clark, the bassist who worked with Joseph Jarman?  A brilliant bassist by all accounts and by his recordings.

FAVORS:  Oh yeah, he was a great young bassist. He had everything happening for him.  I noticed that sometimes we’d jam together, and he would pick stuff up like that.  He was great.

BOWIE:  It was really a shock when he died, because Charles was really like the epitome of health.  He rode a bike and ate vegetables and did the whole scene.  When he dropped it was really a shock, because he just dropped dead at a subway stop.

Christopher Gaddy, the pianist, had heart trouble.

BOWIE:  Well, Christopher had been sick.  He had been in ill health for a while.  He had been sick, so we knew he was sick.  But Charles, just like all of a sudden somebody calls me up and says, “Charles is dead.”  It was unbelievable.

How did the group start to change its focus after Joseph Jarman came into it?  What qualities did he bring in that hadn’t been there?

BOWIE:  Well, we had done quite a few concerts together anyway, before he formally joined the group.  We had been working together.  As a matter of fact, we had done big things with his group and our group.  We used to have some quite interesting programs in the AACM.  You wouldn’t believe some of the combinations of individuals and instruments that we had.  But anyway, getting back to Joseph…

Some examples, Lester!

BOWIE:  I mean, we would have concerts that would just… It’s hard to describe.  We’d have Joseph in Roscoe’s band and in Braxton’s band, and just so much excitement, so different.  I remember the first festival we did.  We hooked up with the guys from St. Louis who formed an organization similar to the AACM, from our example — they started a group called B.A.G, Black Artists’ Group, in St. Louis.  There was another group in Detroit.  So we started having exchange concerts and having our own mini-festivals.  I remember the first time that the St. Louis guys came up, and the Chicago guys were kind of chesty, “Hey, we got this down” — we were kind of chesty.  Hey, Lake and LeFlore and Scrooge, they came up, and they was like walking all over us.  Hemphill… They were walking all over the AACM cats!  It was so exciting, just the music… To hear so many people within this so-called…

That’s why Malachi says “So-called free.”  People, when they think of Free Music, they just have one thing in their mind, [SINGS INCOHERENT LINE], and that’s all that happens.  But there’s so much more expression and emotional depth in that sort of music.  And when they came up, it just kind of shocked everyone just to realize just how great musicians are wherever they happen to be from.  They don’t have to be from New York or Chicago, or you don’t have to have ever heard of them — and they are just outstanding.

I think one thing that impressed a lot of people who were impressed by the new music in the Midwest was the level of structure and layering on of structure into the music.

BOWIE:  Well, what we did, we felt free to express ourselves in anyway that we thought of.  If anyone had an idea, we’d try it.  It wasn’t like, “Oh, man, we can’t do that; that’s not Jazz” or something similar to that sort of thought. “Oh, man, we can’t play that; there’s a tempo there” or “we can’t play that; there’s no tempo there.”  We were just kind of open to every possibility, every idea someone had.

Did Jarman help in terms of bringing in the theatrical aspect of the Art Ensemble?

BOWIE:  Yeah, he was part of that.  And also his spoken words… Joseph is also quite a poet, and he brought that sort of approach…

He’d already recorded “Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City” and things like this.

BOWIE:  Yes, and he brought that thing into play.  I mean, he brought his personality.  I think the easiest way to say that is that he added another dimension because he was another person, and he put his personality into what he was doing.

And a very strong personality…

BOWIE:  Definitely.

…that could stand up to people like Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell.

BOWIE:  [LAUGHS]

In 1969, the Art Ensemble packed its bags and laid down some roots in Europe, in France, and traveled around Europe.  I’d like you to talk about that decision to leave Chicago and go to Europe, and the circumstances by which you carried that out.

FAVORS:  Well, at the time, Lester again was becoming quite restless, and he came to us and said he was going to get a trailer and take his family, and move them to a trailer, and just travel up and down the road.  So I listened, and we didn’t know what was going to happen.  The AACM got a letter from Europe, from a person by the name of Claude Delcloo, a drummer, a French drummer.  He wanted the music to be brought to France.  However, he didn’t have any money to bring us there or anything.  So at one of the AACM meetings Lester got wind of this and came up with the idea that he would finance the trip to France for the Art Ensemble.  And that was the beginning of it.

Did you foresee, Lester, how you would then start making your way through France?  Did you know people there, for instance?

BOWIE:  No, we didn’t know anyone.

Except [Claude] Delcloo.

BOWIE:  Except Delcloo, who was the… But we had come to an impasse.  We were working in the States maybe four times a year, which is about what we’re still doing thirty years later!  But we were working about four times a year, but we were rehearsing every day, and we had really come upon something that we felt we could dedicate our lives to.  I mean, I couldn’t dedicate my life to being an R&B trumpeter, Malachi didn’t want to just work at the Holiday Inn for the rest of his life.  And we had a group that we knew had a unique sound, a language of our own, and we knew we had something to contribute to the music, and we wanted to do that exclusively instead of, you know, I’d do a gig with the Art Ensemble one day and the next day Jackie Wilson.  I wanted to all Art Ensemble.  That was impossible for us in the States, for us to be able to sustain ourselves and our families off of what was happening in the States.  So we said, “Let’s go to Europe.  We’d read in the magazines all the reports of how Europe was more accepting of the music.  And immediately… I think we were in Europe three days, and we were working six nights a week.  And within a year, we had done two hundred concerts.

Well, there are at least a dozen records that came out of the two years in Europe.  There was a very large community of American musicians living in France when you got there, and different members of the Art Ensemble participated in recordings by different members of that community in all sorts of configurations.

BOWIE:  There was Archie Shepp and…

FAVORS:  Philly Joe Jones.

BOWIE:  …Philly Joe Jones there, Hank Mobley, guys I had dreamed about — we were all there playing together.  Kenny Clarke, Art Taylor.  It was a quite exciting period.

FAVORS:  Yeah, they accepted us.

BOWIE:  And they accepted us, no problem.

Everybody was open to what you were doing?

BOWIE:  Yeah, no problem.

FAVORS:  Frank Wright, the great Frank Wright.

Arthur Jones and Jacques Coursil and all…

BOWIE:  Yeah.

One thing that seems to have been important in the way the Art Ensemble has developed over the years is… This may seem like it’s coming a little off the wall.  But the military background of several of the members, Jarman, Bowie, Roscoe, and were you as well, Malachi?

FAVORS:  Yes.

Would you talk about that?  Is there something to that, that it helped you in terms of your self-sufficiency or ability to really make your own way through the wilds of the business.

BOWIE:  Oh, definitely.  I mean, if we weren’t veterans all used to soldiering, I don’t think we would have survived all this time.  I mean, all that we learned in the military… There’s a lot that you have to learn when you’re fighting this battle of music, which we are still fighting.  So we’re soldiers, and that training really helped us.

FAVORS:  We got the discipline.  It helped discipline you to problems and hardship.  When I go back to the Army, getting up every morning at 5 o’clock, soldiering — it was so hard.  Sometimes I’d cry because it was such a routine.  But at the same time, it was building me up, building my discipline up and my manhood.  And it enabled me to go through quite a few things that we went through out there on the road, just going up and down the road, traveling to California, no gigs, just packing up, going…

That was before you went to Europe, right?  Around ’67?

FAVORS:  Yes.

BOWIE:  I mean, we’ve lived in tents, we’ve lived in barns…,

FAVORS:  Right.

BOWIE:  …we’ve lived in the trucks… I mean, we’ve had all the camping equipment.  All that bivouacking we did in the military helped us go through all of these things we had to do to keep this band alive.

Specifically, Malachi, the years you were in the Army were like out of high school or something, like ’55, ’56, ’57?

FAVORS:  Yes, you hit it on the head.

Did you play music in the Army?

FAVORS:  I had a cello that I took with me, and I tuned it like a bass.  All the time I was training, after I’d come back off of the field, I would go get my cello.

But you weren’t in a band.

FAVORS:  I was a soldier all the way.

Did you play off-base at all?

FAVORS:  Yes, I got to play some gigs with a piano player, Don Green.

Where were you stationed?

FAVORS:  Camp Adderberry, Indiana.  We played at the PX, the orderly room or whatever they called it.

Europe is also where you encountered the fifth member of the Art Ensemble, Don Moye…

FAVORS:  Yes.  But just before you go over there, I’d like to mention a couple of members in the Art Ensemble, what their service job was in the Army.  Lester Bowie was a military police… [LAUGHS]

BOWIE:  That’s right, the po-lice.

FAVORS:  Joseph Jarman was a paratrooper.

How about Roscoe?

FAVORS:  Uh, I don’t know…

BOWIE:  Roscoe was in the band.

FAVORS:  He was in a band?

BOWIE:  Roscoe was in the band, yeah.

FAVORS:  He was the only one who functioned as a musician in the Armed Forces.

Back to Don Moye, now.  He met up with you in 1970, I guess, in Paris?

FAVORS:  Yes.

Were you working in a drummerless situation all the way through there, or were you picking up a drummer here, working four pieces there…?

BOWIE:  Well, we basically worked without a drummer, and every now and then we would sort of audition a guy, and take them out to maybe a gig or two to see if they could fit in.

What would it take for a drummer to fit in with you?

BOWIE:  Well, it wasn’t about what it took.  They would either just come and fit in or they didn’t.  It wasn’t about that we had a list, “Okay, man, did he do this?” or “How was he…”  It was just an automatic sort of spiritual thing.  I think the spiritual part of the music has really been neglected.  And the Art Ensemble, aside from all the military training and this and that, is a very spiritual sort of group, and we do a lot of things that the spirit tells us to do.  And the spirit just says who’s right and who’s not right.  They just come in… Moye came in, and it’s twenty-five years and he’s still here.

He brought a lot of business type attributes to the ensemble as well.

BOWIE:  Yes, he does quite a bit of business.  That’s one of his talents.  Languages is another one of his talents.  Also with playing… First it was the music.  First people fit in musically, and then after… Because at first he didn’t do any business.  But at first it’s just about the feeling and the spirit of the music, and whether or not you fit in musically — and whether the dogs like you or not! [LAUGHS]

Well, I think the Art Ensemble has always embodied a combination of the spiritual aspect and a very pragmatic side in terms of organizing the music and preserving yourselves as an entity.  Because there are very few groups in music that have been together as long as the Art Ensemble.  During the time that you were really active as a group, which is about a twenty-year period, there are very few precedents for that.

Let’s hear some recordings that represent the Art Ensemble in their European period.  There are so many to choose from and so little time to do it.  We’ll hear “A Jackson In Your House” from 1969.  Lester, you believe that’s the first recording you did in Europe.

BOWIE:  This is the first recording that we did in Europe, yes.

[MUSIC: AEC, “Jackson In Your House” (1969); “Proverbes” (1970); AEC with Symphony, “Zero” (1994)]

“Proverbes 1,” is from Les Stances A Sophie, a movie soundtrack by the Art Ensemble, a film I have yet to see, on Nessa, recorded in Boulogne on July 22, 1970, and the first recording featuring Don Moye with the AEC.  [ETC.] It seems like you did about four records that week.

BOWIE:  We were really quite active.  You can imagine, coming from the States where we were completely inactive, and then to go to Europe and get so much work was overwhelming.

The Art Ensemble came back to the States in ’71, and basically things hadn’t changed much; maybe they’d gotten a little worse.

BOWIE:  I read something from someone who was interviewed.  They asked him, “What about Europe?”  He says when he goes to Europe he’s an American idol, but when he comes home he’s just another idle American.  It’s really a shame.  The States is missing so much music, it’s unbelievable.  It’s just unbelievable how much music we are missing that we are creating!  But we are missing all the artistic and cultural benefits; we’re just throwing it out the window.

Also, the members of the Art Ensemble started to pursue their own interests.  Lester spent time in Africa and in the Caribbean, and everyone explored different areas.  Yet the identity and artistic weight of the Art Ensemble just grew and grew and grew, as is evident on a slew of recordings made between 1972 and the mid-1980’s, which we don’t have time to go into now.  Then in the mid-Eighties you embarked on a recording contract wherein you got production rights and total control over a whole series of recordings via DIW Records.  That’s the next material we’ll be hearing.  We would need a good 24-hour bivouac to give the Art Ensemble the justice it deserves.  But a few words about this series of projects and how it came together.

BOWIE:  First of all, we have had ideas for the last thirty years that we have not been able to really deal with.  There are a million projects we wish we could get into that we haven’t really had the opportunity to develop, like for instance, the thing we just heard with the symphony orchestra.  In the 1980’s, the Japanese gave us a contract to produce whatever we wanted to.  It kind of gave us an opportunity to just touch some of the things that we really wanted to do.

And one of the things that we wanted to do was a collaboration (and I must emphasize, a collaboration) with some South African musicians.  We contacted this choir called Amabutho, which lived in London and South Africa, and we got together, and we just had an artist’s collaboration. I want to point that out, because it’s not just us playing and some South Africans playing.  I mean, we actually worked this together.  We brought the guys here to the States, we rented a big house, and we just rehearsed and had great dinners for the next two months, and we put this music together.  So it was really quite enjoyable for all concerned.

Other projects included a collaboration with Cecil Taylor, a recording matching Brass Fantasy with the Art Ensemble; a beautifully recorded, rigorous session called Naked from 1986; Ancient to the Future, you went through a series of covers of very meaningful tunes from Popular music, reflecting your experiences.

BOWIE:  That’s right.

In that regard, I’d like to bring back the point that you all continued to function as musicians outside of the Art Ensemble.  Or was there a time when it was exclusively the Art Ensemble?

BOWIE:  No, that was part of the plan.  See, we decided, when we began, that we would be together thirty-forty-fifty years later. We knew that we had to… We didn’t want to limit anyone’s growth.  We didn’t say, “Well, you have to play with the Art Ensemble,” because you can’t grow that way.  We encouraged everyone to go out.  We used to call the Art Ensemble OCS, which in the military means Officers Candidate School, where you train officers.  We trained bandleaders, so that each one of us were able to know all the functions of carrying a group around, and to take that experience to other groups of musicians.  In turn, you learn from that experience.  I mean, we take our experiences with the Art Ensemble to our individual groups; we in turn get this experience back, and we bring it back to the Art Ensemble, which enables us to keep growing in all ways.

Now, the Art Ensemble has incorporated world music always in its programs.  Malachi was talking about the beginnings of that, seeing the African ballet troupe.  I think that was really able to come to fruition in this series of recordings in the 1980’s.

BOWIE:  Well, the whole world music concept… I mean, we were always into world music.  I mean, the AACM was into world music long before anyone was really talking about it.   I think we really started the emphasis on that sort of thing.

Well, Malachi brought the African music in, Jarman has always been interested in the musics of various Asian cultures.  It’s an amazing blend.

FAVORS:  Also, Don Moye had a hand in bringing in the tradition and the technique of African music.  My thing was just the spirit African.  Seeing that I am African-American, I just came from the spirit form of the music.  But Moye knows the technical form of African music, and has been to Africa.

He was up here in 1987, and brought many tapes featuring him performing with different ensembles in Africa.  We’ll hear a selection from Art Ensemble of Soweto, which joins the Art Ensemble of Chicago with the Amabutho Male Chorus.  [ETC.]

BOWIE:  All these guys are really great musicians, and really great guys.  I keep going back to the spirit involved in this music.  It’s the person.  We really had a great time collaborating with these guys, because we lived together and we had fun together.  You can hear all of that in the music.

Lester, there’s a nice anecdote of how you hooked up with Fela in the 1970’s.

BOWIE:  I had wanted to go to Africa for years; you know, Roots and you want to go to Africa… The Art Ensemble had been trying to go to Africa.  We were working with the French Ministry of Culture, and they would send us everywhere but Africa.  We knew they had a ministry in Senegal, they had ministries in Martinique and Guadaloupe, but they would never send us there.  And we tried many years to go.

So finally, I just decided, “I’m going to Africa,” and after one of our tours, I just went.  I didn’t know anyone in Africa.  Now, I think Randy Weston gave me Fela’s name.  He said, “Well, if you ever get there, check out Fela.”  So I went to Nigeria on a one-way ticket.  I didn’t have a way to get back.  I had a hundred dollars.  And it cost me fifty dollars to take the cab to get to the hotel.  I had forty bucks left.  I had enough money for the room and a meal, and I didn’t have any more money.  I had just arrived about 10 o’clock at night, and I had to leave by check-out time.  I didn’t know anyone.

So I went to the restaurant, and the kitchen was closing, and I got to talking with the waiters.  They said, “Well, you’re a musician…”  They couldn’t believe that I was like… “Here’s this American, and you’re just showing up?  You don’t have any money or nothing?  You’re out here with this trumpet?  I don’t believe it.”  So anyway, they said, “Well, you’d better go see Fela.”  So I went to see Fela.  The next day I got up and I said, “Well, where does he live?”  They said, “Well, just get in the cab and just tell the cab driver to take you to Fela.”  So I got in the cab and said, “Well, take me to Fela.”

Fela at that time had just been kicked out of his house.  His house had been burned down by the soldiers; this was right after (?).  So he had taken over this hotel.  We pull up to the courtyard of his hotel.  This little guy comes up to me as I get out with my horn.  He says, “Hey, what’s that?”  I said, “It’s a trumpet.”  He said, “Where you from?”  I said, “New York.”  He said, “You play jazz?”  I said, “Yeah, I play jazz.”  He said, “Well, you must be heavy then.”  I said, “Well, a little bit.”  He said, “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”  I said, “Why is that?”  He said, “Because we’re the baddest band in Africa.”

So from that moment on, he took me to Fela, and Fela… [LAUGHS] It was funny.  They had to wake Fela up.  They woke him up, and Fela came in, and he said, “Oh, who is this guy?”  He motioned for a guy to bring his record player, and he had some of those Jamie Aebersol type records, then he motioned for another guy to bring in his saxophone.  So he put on this Blues, a Blues in B-flat, which is my specialty, right?  So I played this Blues, man!  One way ticket, you know I was blowin’, baby.  After I played a couple of choruses he said, “Stop.  Somebody go get this guy’s bags.  He’s moving in with me.”  So from that moment on, I was Fela’s guest of honor.  I made three records with him, and it was quite an experience.

[MUSIC: AEC, “African Woman” (1989-90)]

“African Woman” is a composition by Elliot Ngubane of the Amabutho Male Chorus with arrangement by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, from a 1989-1990 recording session for the DIW label produced by the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  For this date they were the Art Ensemble of Soweto, Chicago crossed out.  [ETC.]

We have probably one more piece to play for you from an event in 1993, recorded for German television, a version of one of the Art Ensemble’s favorite compositions, Roscoe Mitchell’s “People in Sorrow,” which was recorded in 1969 in France and originally issued on Nessa Records.  Malachi Favors, what’s special about this composition to the Art Ensemble.  It keeps taking on new identities and permutations over the years, and I’ve often heard you play it.

FAVORS:  When music is spiritual, when music is heavily spiritual, you just can’t explain it.  I don’t have the words.  Maybe Lester can explain it.

BOWIE:  “People in Sorrow” is sort of a statement of our condition, and how we feel about people that are oppressed.  I think it’s kind of a song for the oppressed which kind of tells about our sorrow, but also gives hope for the future.  But it really shows just how sad the situation is in the Third World and in many African and Hispanic and different communities.  It’s not a happy situation.  And “People in Sorrow” is about that.  It’s about people in sorrow.

Now, you’ve been saying that the Art Ensemble of Chicago came together with the idea of being together for thirty-forty-fifty years, and now indeed it’s 24 years with the current configuration, Malachi and Roscoe have hooked up for thirty years, and Lester’s  thirtieth year will be next year. Do you see another decade?  Is the level of commitment still there?

BOWIE:  Oh, yeah, as long as we live.  I mean, I don’t know how many more decades we’re going to be alive.

Well, in an ideal situation.

BOWIE:  Well, in an ideal situation, yeah, we’d be together fifty more years — ideally.  But that’s not the case.  But we’ll be together as long as one of us is still alive to carry on the word until the last of us bites the dust.

Let’s say you’re playing a program of three nights in a  club, say two sets a night, how is the material picked for suites?  Everybody has a few dozen compositions, you have a huge backlog of performance material and history to draw on.  Is it set up beforehand?  Are you rehearsing a set body of material before you’re going out and performing?  How does the Art Ensemble select its material in performance?

BOWIE:  About ten or twenty minutes before we go on the stage, we say, “What do you feel like playing?” and then we just play whatever we feel like playing at that particular time.

Does it just take its own shape?  Is it improvised out there?

BOWIE:  Well, we put a basic sketch in our minds of what we may want to do, what tunes we may want to cover, but at the same time we don’t limit ourselves.  We will play a song that we haven’t said that we were going to play, and we’ve conditioned ourselves, if something comes up, to go with it.  You go with the flow.  You don’t say, “Hey, man, we’re not supposed to play that this set.”  You just kind of go with the flow.  So we kind of put a sketch, but we leave that sketch open to change.

Are there set instrumental combinations, say, Roscoe and Jarman are going to do a solo, Malachi is going to play the balafon, Moye is going to do… Or does it just come up on the spur of the moment?

BOWIE:  No, we do that sometimes.  Yeah, of course.  We get situations where we say we’re going to do this, or we’re going to start with this instrumentation.  I mean, we write songs for all of those instrumentations.  For every little bell, we’ve got the note of that bell, and every little stick and everything — we’ve got these things.  So we set up situations.

How about the ritualistic aspects of the Art Ensemble?  In other words, the aspects of ritual that you elaborate in a live performance.  That visual component is one thing that’s really missing from your recordings.

BOWIE:  Oh, yeah.  Well, it is a ritual.  I mean, we try to prepare ourselves mentally to perform.  I mean, this is the epitome of what we do.  When we go on the stage to perform, we are there for that moment only, and we try to spiritually condition ourselves to be open to receive whatever conflicts may happen, and shoot our way that particular evening.

Well, I guess after thirty years you can pretty much read each other’s minds.

BOWIE:  Well, it’s not so much about reading.  It’s about kind of going.  You don’t so much read the mind, but you’re willing to accept.  Malachi can play one note of something, and if it’s working, it just flows.  I don’t know how to describe it.  But everything isn’t planned out.  I mean, sometimes we go on the stage with no idea.  We have what we call stoop and hit, which means just hit.  We ask, “Hey, what do you feel like playing?”  Nobody says anything.  “Well, let’s just stoop and hit.”  And we go on out there with no idea what we’re going to play.

Malachi, you looked like you wanted to say something about thirty seconds ago.

FAVORS:  Well, Lester said what I wanted to say.  We just open ourselves to the spirit of the music and play.  We received something to give to the audience.

BOWIE:  We’re not always successful, now.  We don’t want you to think that, oh, everything we play and everything the Art Ensemble plays is gospel — because it isn’t.  But we are experimenting and we’re trying things.  Some things work, some things don’t.  That’s life.

So after thirty years, you’re still experimenting and still looking for new ways.

BOWIE:  Oh, yes, definitely.

FAVORS:  Just like life.

[MUSIC: AEC & Kammerphilharmonik, “People In Sorrow” (1993)]

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Filed under AACM, Don Moye, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, WKCR

In Honor of Joseph Jarman’s 74th Birthday, a WKCR Interview from 1987

These days, Joseph Jarman is as widely known for his activities as the founder of the Brooklyn Buddhist Association and head sensei of its affiliated aikido dojo as for his distinguished career as a creative musician. The latter activity was the focus in 1987, when I had the privilege of bringing Jarman to WKCR to present a five-hour retrospective of his musical production with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which he joined in 1969, as a composer-lead of his own ensembles, and as a solo performer. In reading the transcript of the proceedings, please remember that this was a live radio broadcast, not an oral history.

Joseph Jarman Profile (2-15-87) – (WKCR):

[MUSIC: AEC, “Prayer Of Jimbo Kwesi” (1980); “The Bulls,” “Little Fox Run,” “Noncognitive Aspects of the City” (1967)]
“The Bulls” and “Little Fox Run” were written by Fred Anderson, who taught me a great deal about music and about saxophone playing in this very wonderful early period.  It was performed by Fred Anderson, myself, Billy Brimfield, Charles Clark and Thurman Barker.

[ETC.] I’d like to discuss some of the events that precede the music you just heard.  This group came out of the activities of the AACM.  Although the story of the AACM is familiar to many listeners, perhaps you could speak about your introduction to and initial involvement in the AACM and what led up to it.

The AACM itself, if I’m not mistaken, was realized in 1965.  Prior to that realization, Muhal Richard Abrams had this wonderful group called the Experimental Band.  I think at that time it wasn’t called anything, it was just a band, and he was good enough to let people come over there.  You didn’t have to prove anything; you proved it by sitting down in the chair and playing the music.  But the music was all fresh, and he encouraged everyone to write for this group.  One of the things he told me that was always important was, “Write it.  One of the days, you can hear it.”  I still use that dictum today.

There weren’t any outlets in Chicago?

No.  There were no outlets for musicians practicing these forms of music.  And this band would meet once a week.  As a result of the band meeting and playing, the idea was realized that maybe we should form this organization and do something for ourselves, become responsible for our own destinies.  There was Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Lester Lashley, Thurman Barker, Charles Clark, Christopher Gaddy… We’re not going to get into the forgetting bit.  Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Fred Anderson, Joel Brandon, a wonderful flute player who is an award-winning whistler now, Sherri Scott.  There was also Kalaparusha, Fred Berry, who is out on the West Coast now, Ajaramuu who is still in Chicago, John Stubblefield, Leo Smith, Raphael Garrett used to come through there quite often, Jack De Johnnette, Leroy Jenkins was a kind of a staple (he always played my violin parts), Jodie Christian, piano, and Amina did a lot of singing with us and a lot of piano playing as well, and during those days she was playing a lot of organ.  So there was all of this great diversity.  There were many other musicians who did things other than music.  I mean, they were not so much interested in becoming “professional musicians” as they were just madly in love with the music.  So this was a place where they could practice music as well.

How had you heard about the band?

Well, I was a student at Wilson Junior College.  We used to have sessions during some of the break periods.  One day, Roscoe said, “I know where you have to go,” and he took me to this place and introduced me to Muhal.  Then Muhal invited me, I could come to his home and practice with him, where he would teach me, ha-ha, all of the wonderful things that I would have to know.

What were you into at the time that you met Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell?

Well, I was a student and trying to learn the basics of music.  Basically, that was it.  On the one hand, I was trying to learn the basics of academic music, and then through Roscoe, who was in the same situation with me at the time (also Malachi Favors was there), I met Muhal, who sort of turned me on to some of the other elements that I had to deal with, which were not so much academic, but academic in another way — sort of inside academic.  I mean, nothing mysterious or secret or anything, but nothing that anyone could teach you in a school as such.

Although you were born in Arkansas, you were raised in Chicago and attended the Chicago public schools.

Yes.

Tell me about the musical education you received in the Chicago public schools.

I went to DuSable High School.  That was my first exposure to music.  Captain Walter Dyett was there, and I got in his band practicing snare drum. [LAUGHS]

Were you in a parade band?  He had several different bands…

No, I didn’t quite make it to his bands!  I was a little bit disorganized and misdirected.  But he did sort of straighten me out on that level.  And I only was able to perform in the concert band, which was the large big ensemble.  I did attend Hijinks and hear the bands, and many of the famous Jazz players came out of his Hijinks bands — Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore, John Young…

How about when you were there?

I don’t think there’s anyone from my period who… Fred Hopkins was over there, but he’s a little younger.  He was over there after me.  Well, you have to realize I’m going to be fifty years old in September.  So if I lose some of these things, it’s because I haven’t been there for a while.

You spent some time in the Armed Forces in the latter part of the Fifties.

Mmm-hmm.

I know for a lot of musicians that was a time when they could really concentrate on music and get it together.  Were you in any Army bands?
Yes, fortunately I did manage to work my way into an Army band, and it was there that I actually began to play the alto saxophone and clarinet.

Can you say anything about that?  Was there any particular individual who worked with you, or any particular place where that was happening?

That was happening in Germany for me.  It was a wonderful experience.  I met a lot of musicians there who put me in the right direction.  And it was there that I began to hear the recordings of… I was very impressed with Jackie McLean at that time, and I still am.  He just stood out in my mind even more so than Charlie Parker.  It was after I got out of the Army that I became conscious of the wonderful music of Charlie Parker.  But Jackie McLean, and then there was a wonderful young tenor saxophonist by the name of John Coltrane that I was able to hear.  And there were also a lot of fine musicians in the Army band who were professionals, I mean, that’s what they wanted to do, but they would play in the clubs off-duty.

I know there were a lot of clubs that built up around the Army bands, and I know Roscoe Mitchell talks about hearing Albert Ayler there for the first time and so on.

Mmm-hmm. I didn’t hear Albert Ayler there for the first time, but I heard Cannonball Adderley in that situation, and I heard Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris, and there were some European musicians — Albert Mangelsdorff is probably the one we know most of now.  Leo Wright.  There were lots of people…

I’m just trying to give people some sense of what the environment was like.

Well, prior to being in the band, I had been in a line unit; that’s what it was called.  It was an Airborne Line Unit.  And something happened where my consciousness changed, and I had some friends who were working in the Headquarters Company, and I got transferred to the band, heh-heh, and out of the line!

Tell us about the scene in Chicago when you were coming up as a youngster, as an adolescent and in high school.  I know you were very much into the music at that time.  You once told me about pressing your nose to the window at the Beehive, on 55th Street in Hyde Park.

Yeah, right, I heard Charlie Parker there.  A friend of mine, James Johnson, who is a bassoonist now, living in Wisconsin, we pressed our noses to the Beehive… But there was music all over the street in those days.  If you walked two blocks, you would hear music.  I mean, it was on loudspeakers.  And you could walk by the clubs on 63rd Street, down Cottage Grove, and Gene Ammons would be in there playing, Johnny Griffin would be in there playing, Sun Ra would be in there playing — it was like that.  One thing I remember is that Sonny Rollins stood on the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove in a wonderful yellow dinner jacket with his hair cut in this Mohican style, and played his tenor saxophone right on the corner — and I thought, “Oh, this is it.”  And that, in fact, was the essence of theatre in street music.  I mean, he had walked out of the club, McKie’s Lounge, and just played for a bit on the street, and then went on back in there.

Sonny once wrote a piece called “At McKie’s.”

“At McKie’s,” that’s it.  Also Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane played in that place.

That was after the Army.

That was after the Army, yes.

I know you dug Eric Dolphy a lot also, and I was going to ask you about your first exposure to hearing Eric Dolphy.  Was it at that engagement with Coltrane…?

No, it was on recordings first.  Henry Threadgill and Roscoe and I, and several other musicians, Louis Hall on piano… Every Saturday we would get together, and we would spend about ten minutes on our school-work, and then we would spend the next ten hours playing music, like arrangements from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.  We would take a break during these periods, and listen to music.  And Drasir(?), who was a drummer at that time, brought these recordings.  One was called The Shape of Jazz To Come, the other was called The Prophet, and the other was called Coltrane, where he plays “The Inchworm” and those things.  And this was all new music to us, and it was like incredible.  And it was all different.  It was three different, brand-new ideas presented to us in our little rehearsal space at once.  But I remember after that break that everybody’s music had changed.  I do recall that, because it was an important event.  And no one played the same any more after that date.

What was the curriculum like at Wilson Junior College?  Were they teaching you any Jazz, or was it a formal, Euro-centered type of situation?

It was a formal Euro-centered… But actually, Richard Wang, who was the instructor there, and who is still very diligently working for the music, in his spare time had a little band.  He would also teach us how to analyze and approach the elements of the music that we wanted to deal with.

So between that and the AACM and Muhal’s band, it was really quite a fertile environment.

An excellent foundation.  Excellent foundation.

And you were able to play a great deal.

Yes.  That was the whole thing, playing all the time.

And you were exposed to the music of many other like-minded individuals.

Right.  And that was the most important thing, that there were many like-minded individuals, both in the educational system, in the schools, and out of the schools as well.  But more importantly, the music was available.  The music was everywhere.  It was available.  You could go in a one-mile radius, and you could hear ten different bands.  Every little place had a band in it.  And there were people, I mean, not sitting down in a formal concert situation, but dancing.  Even if there was new music, they would be dancing!  And it was available.  Now that’s all changed.

As I recall, you were involved in a very eclectic range of activities as well.  You were once involved in a collaboration with John Cage in 1965 at the Hyde Park Theatre, I think…

Yes.

You were involved in a number of theatrical events… I don’t know if I have anything specific to ask you about it, but if you could make some general comments on things that were happening.

Well, as a student, when we were all students, and if we are students now, we have hopefully this real open mind so that the cup can have lots of things put in it, so it doesn’t run over.  So I was exposed to all of these kinds of forms, and interested in all of these kinds of things.  There was someone from an experimental music foundation that introduced us to John Cage, and we talked, and concluded that we should play this music together.  Roscoe with a group played on the other part of that same concert.

So it was that all areas were open.  That’s one of the things that a lot of people don’t realize, during those days just as now, that all areas of music were open.  It wasn’t that you could only play or be interested in one form of music.  You can play or be interested in any form of music.  And you can express the art through any form of music.  And this became one of the roots for the work that followed.

The next composition is from the Delmark LP, As If It Were The Seasons.

We made two recordings in this early period for Delmark, and this was the second.  The composition we’re going to hear is “Song For Christopher.”  Christopher Gaddy, who had been the pianist with the quartet (which was Thurman Barker, Christopher Gaddy, Charles Clark and I) had started to compose this composition, and he died, and I felt responsible to sort of finish it.  And that’s what we did here; we finished the composition.  This is with Lester Lashley, trombone, John Jackson, trumpet, John Stubblefield and Fred Anderson, tenor sax, Joel Brandon, flute, Richard Muhal Abrams, piano and oboe, Sherri Scott, voice, Thurman Barker, all kinds of drums, Charles Clark, bass, cello and koto, Joseph Jarman, alto sax, bassoon, fife, recorder, soprano sax.

[MUSIC: Joseph Jarman, “Song For Christopher”]

This was recorded in ’68, and it was after this recording that we lost Charles Clark.  I was shattered emotionally.  And it was at this time of being emotionally shattered that Roscoe and Lester and Malachi invited me to play music with them.  Shortly after that, in 1969, we went to Europe, to Paris, where we stayed for a couple of years.  And the next music will come from that period.

What motivated the four of you to make that jump?

Well, the music was very exciting.  After I started to play with them, it was very exciting for me even more.  And there were just no opportunities to perform.  I mean, really; literally none.  Outside of the AACM there were very, very few other situations, because the musical ideas were fresh, they were very challenging to many listeners, and moreso to promoters, club-owners, business people, like that — because it was a kind of aesthetic that they had not quite caught up with.  So it occurred to us that if we went to Europe, we would have more opportunity.  The motivation was really just to play, and be able to play music.  Because you have to do it for people, you know; you can’t just play  forever in your own little room.

You were also working some in Detroit, I believe.

Yes.  During that period there was the Detroit Artists Workshop.  John Sinclair and those people up there had a music program.  Charles Moore, a cornetist living on the West Coast now, was instrumental in organizing and inviting people up there.  And people from Chicago would go up there and perform.   It was like a little cultural exchange program, heh-heh!

And you took one trip to the West Coast, I believe.

No, I didn’t take the trip to the West Coast.  Lester, Malachi and Roscoe, and maybe Philip one time; they took a couple of trips to the West Coast.  This was prior to all of these events.

You weren’t the only ones in the AACM to go to Paris either.

No.  Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton were the others.

And there lots of other American musicians in Paris at that time.

There were people from St. Louis, Oliver Lake and Joe Bowie… Wow, this is another mind-boggling… There were a lot of musicians from New York there as well.  Archie Shepp, Dave Burrell, Frank Wright, Mohammed Alan Silva, Bobby Few… Oh yeah, it was a hot scene over there.

And everyone who knows the BYG label knows of these cross-currents blending together in some pretty amazing situations.

Yeah, it was very wonderful.  It was a hot scene.  It was like going from one wonderful scene to another.  We were very fortunate in that respect, that the move to Europe just placed us in another creative environment.  And all of these musicians from the East Coast or wherever who were living in Paris at the time had different ideas, which sort of revitalized us, and I’m sure that we excited them to some extent.

We’ll talk some more about this period after we hear a “Ericka,” composed by Joseph, recorded June 23, 1969.

[MUSIC: AEC, “Ericka,” “Theme Amour Universal,” “Lori Song,” Braxton-Jarman, “Concluding Circles”]

After that there was a bit more moving around, and now we’re going to return to the wonderful United States after the Paris period.  So that concludes the first and the second period.  Now we move into the third.

So the Paris period was a period of ferment and growth for everyone in the Art Ensemble. There were many, many activities, and I guess procedures you’re still dealing with to this day that started at that point.

Yes.  In Paris, there was not only a wide development in the music, but more exposure to Theatre and Dance and all of these kinds of forms, and we began to incorporate many of these elements into our work.  Also in Paris we were exposed to you may say World Music Culture, more so than we had been in Chicago, meeting African musicians, meeting musicians from the Far East, meeting musicians from everywhere, and associating with them, and discovering the wonderfulness of the forms they had to offer.

And people became exposed to you.

Yes, and people became exposed to us as well, right.  So then we returned to the United States, and for the first two years we didn’t work very much, but we were rehearsing nearly every day — because we were still living all  together at that time, or pretty close together.  And we did return to Chicago.

Can we just go a little bit into the concept of the Art Ensemble spending this amount of time together as a unit, the degree of commitment that was required for that.

Well, during those days we were having every experience together possible, in order to get on a deeper level of what the music is about.  Because there is a feeling that the music is more than what’s on the page, or even more than words.  It’s an experience.  It’s a living process, this music is.  In fact, at one of our recent performances, we played some music, and it was almost like telepathy.  Everybody knew exactly, but fresh, where everyone was going. And it’s from this kind of knowing that we were able, even in those days, in the beginning, to reach areas of music that had not been reached before, as far as we had known.  Because we were trying to go deep-deep, deep-deep, deep-deep within, and find the elements there, and try to pull them out in a collective way.  A lot of individuals have been able to do this, but for a commitment to be made for a collective expression broadens the musical scope.  And this is what we were after.  Because the music is limitless.  It is without boundary.  Every individual experience, if the individual will allow it, can be expressed through a communal effort.  And this is what we were trying to achieve.

Also in Paris you found your drummer.

Yes, we found Famoudou Don Moye in Paris.  We were playing at a place called the American Center, and Moye appeared and said, “I’m playing with you.”  We said, “Oh yeah?”  And since then, in fact, he has been playing with us.

Some very positive things ensued from being without a drummer.  You’d had Philip Wilson, who left the band to go off into some other things, and although you used various different drummers, for the most part you were a four-piece group where everybody was forced to take on the rhythmic role.  I don’t know if there’s a specific question, but if there are any comments you’d care to make on that aspect of the music.

Well, see, it’s because you know so much about the Art Ensemble, since you’ve known us for fifteen years or so…!

Well, yeah, we did have to discover.  It also gave us all a different sense and perspective of what rhythm and drumming and all this business is actually about.  Because we discovered we had to do it ourselves, not because we even necessarily wanted to, but because the music required these kind of timbres, and that there must be a way, and where are they.  And we took it upon ourselves to investigate them.  It wasn’t just “Okay, I want to play this,” but it’s in order to find the sound and making the commitment to find the sound.

And this is another thing that was perhaps a bit different from many of our predecessors, the idea of looking for a sound, rather than playing a musical instrument and getting all of the sound out of that.  Because each instrument is a different universe, and each instrument does contain of its own-ness a wonderful thing.  One of the things that we were after was to find the sound.  It was coincidental where that sound came from.  The responsibility was not so much for me to play the saxophone as to play the sound that I heard.  And sometimes that came in the form of a bell, and it took years to find the bell to hear that sound.  Because all of this music, this kind of breath, cosmic breath, is flowing, and some people it touches.  And if we’re practicing music and we’re open enough and it touches us then we have to respond.  If we restrain ourselves, then we discover that we are not being true to our own selves.  Which might put a lot of stress and pressure on a single individual practicing music, but someone has to have the courage to make that investigation and endeavor.

And then you returned to the United States.

Yes.  Back to the United States.  We didn’t work for a couple of years, but we were rehearsing nearly every day.  Frank Lowe invited me to come up here to perform in New York, and as a result of that there was this recording that we’re going to hear.

[MUSIC: “Thulani,” Black Beings, 1973]

We’ll hear now music by the Art Ensemble from Fanfare For The Warriors recorded in 1973 — “Illistrum” and “What’s To Say?”  This is your second release for Atlantic.  How did your association with the label come about?

It just happened. [LAUGHS] “Illistrum” has a poem on it, which will be self-evident, and “What’s To Say?” is a little brighter, I would say.

[MUSIC: “Illistrum,” “What’s To Say?”]

We’ll now hear some material from a solo concert by Joseph Jarman in 1976 at the University of Chicago.

We’ll hear two excerpts.  One is called “The Spirit of Eric,” and this is a kind of homage to Eric Dolphy.  And the other is called “The Spirit of Trane,” and this is a kind of homage to Master John Coltrane.

I’d like to ask you a question about solo work.  I know some of it has to do with economics and putting together a set by yourself, but also in the AACM it was expected musicians would give solo concerts and develop that type of work.

Well, during the pre-Paris period and the post-Paris period as well, the AACM was having concerts at one time nightly, every night, seven nights.  There were like requirements that you would have to do, and one of the requirements was that you would have to perform solo.  So in the AACM, the solo performance tradition, solo recital, had been going on quite a while prior to practicing solo recordings.

When was your first solo concert?

I have no idea.  But it was during the AACM period, for the AACM at the Hull House on 57th Street and someplace in Chicago.  But each performance situation has its own unique identity.  In solo performance, because you have no other sounds, the instrumentalist must be very careful and go directly to where the source is.  So this is what I think everyone is trying to do who is performing in the solo context.  It’s certainly much more challenging, because you have to stay right on line.  It’s difficult to try to explain.  But when you’re playing music alone, as opposed to playing with one or more other beings, then somehow you must be in tune with another kind of aspect of yourself that’s not always available.

At this point, in 1976, you have somewhat more options for self-expression just in terms of the number of instruments you’re playing.

Yes.

In the late Sixties recordings we get to hear you on alto sax, soprano, bassoon, and a few other instruments, but here you’re featuring bass clarinet, tenor sax, sopranino saxophone.  Talk about how your multi-instrumentalism developed up to this point.

Well, it was about the idea of the sound and trying to get to the actual sound.  When we got to Paris, there were many more sources available.  For example, many of these bells and gongs and vibraphones and instruments were readily available during those days, whereas prior to that they weren’t.  We discovered in our investigations that these sounds came from these instruments that were already there.  In other situations that we found ourselves in, some of the sounds didn’t have any source, so we had to create the source.  So Malachi built his little desk, Roscoe built his rack, Moye built his rack, Jarman built his rack, you know, to get these sounds that we wanted but that weren’t available.

So this is probably the reason that so many instruments are being played, not so much because someone wants to play them, because it’s very difficult to play all of these instruments and practice them, and that commitment — but the sound.  And so the commitment is to the sound and wherever the source is.  This, incidentally, is not a new idea.  It was just a new idea for us, and we felt that we had the right to make this investigation and we had the right to make this expression.

[MUSIC: “Spirit of Eric,” “Spirit of Trane”, Sundown, AECO (Chicago, 12-4-76)]

[ETC.] We’ll hear “Lonely Child,” a poem by Joseph Jarman, performed by the Magic Triangle group with Don Pullen and Don Moye.

I had the good fortune to meet Don Pullen, and as a result, he and Moye and I were able to document a couple of our experiences together.  One experience that we had a tape for, but unfortunately we can’t play, I just wanted to mention because it was a great time.  Moye and I were doing a duo tour out on the West Coast, and Pullen and Charlie Haden were doing a duo tour out on the West Coast, and we wound up in the old Keystone Corner together.  And somehow we played together.  I mean, musicians do that; they come together.  We said, “Oh yeah, we’re saying hello, but why don’t we really say hello and play some music.”  So we played some wonderful music, but unfortunately we can’t  share that at this time.

Incidentally, a lot of these musics have poetry with them because we feel that they somehow go together.  And that’s not a new idea either.  But words have meaning, and  the sounds have meaning — and in many instances, they have the same meaning.  But a lot of people don’t realize that.  I mean, they may hear words in their head while they are listening to music, and then sometimes while they are listening to words they may hear music in their heads.  So we were just sort of putting these things together.

This is around the time when the members of the Art Ensemble began again to devote time to their own projects, to stay together as the Art Ensemble and operate more as individuals, which is happening to this day, and I know that this has to happen.

That is wonderful, because when that started getting more revitalized, I think, and when we came back together as the Art Ensemble, it was always a fresh, new adventure for us.  I just don’t know, except that the input has become greater as a result of these various experiences, because the different members of the Art Ensemble have been going out into the world, and whereas before we were pretty much confined to our own individual resources and discovering things just from each other, now we are discovering things from lots of other kinds of ways of what music is about, and bringing this back again to the Ensemble and crystallizing it, is really what I have felt recently, in the past couple of years.  I have really been enjoying playing with the Art Ensemble because the music is becoming crystallized.  Some people say it’s becoming, what do you call it, predictable, and some people are saying it’s becoming…

Classic.

Classic, yeah…I don’t know… All these kinds of things.  But for us, it’s a different kind of freshness.  It’s becoming crystal, it’s becoming… Sometimes we used to take chances, and if any one of the voices was maybe a little nervous about the chance, we couldn’t quite go there.  But now we’ll take a chance, and everybody will go there, because everyone knows that it’s okay to breathe and it’s okay to stretch.  So that’s very good.

[MUSIC: Magic Triangle, “Lonely Child”]

We’ll hear a tape from Joseph’s files of a composition performed with the AACM Big Band at the Underground Festival in the summer of 1981.

[MUSIC: AACM Large Ensemble, “Foresight”]

That was the AACM Large Ensemble.  It featured Ed Wilkerson, Douglas Ewart, Reggie Nicholson, Mchaka Uba, Mwata Bowden, Ernest Dawkins and a few others.

We’ve discussed before various situations for writing that occurred in the AACM, and this is the first example we’ve heard of your writing for large ensemble, etcetera.  This is to point out that many of the individuals familiar to New York audiences represent only a small slice of the many artists out of Chicago and St. Louis to New York City.

If I can say, the Chicago School has had some excellent examples up here.  Henry Threadgill’s writing can be looked at as probably the jewel of Chicago, and of course, Muhal Richard Abrams, we’ve had an opportunity to hear some of his large ensemble work.  So that the school’s concept is available, and that concept is that each composer look into his own resources, and do what he’s doing.

The next recording is “Black Paladins.”  This is a poem by Henry Dumas, a poet, and Jarman did the music for this.  We’ll go from there into “Mama Marimba,” which was written by the bassist Johnny Dyani, who we had the opportunity to work with. Henry Dumas was a wonderful poet who was mistaken, unfortunately, in New York for some kind of criminal, and was mistakenly killed in the subway of New York some years ago, 1968, May 23rd.  He was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas.  When I discovered Dumas’ writing, it became very important for me, because he was carrying on a kind of tradition that I had only found in Black African writers.  But here was an Afro-American telling stories about things that I knew about, because although I grew up in Chicago, I was born in Arkansas, and somehow my consciousness still remembers some of that Arkansas wonderfulness.  Dumas’ poetry and his stories were very close, are very close to me, and became I guess a principal inspiration for me.  Not only did this “Black Paladins” become a kind of manifesto for me, but it also generated a whole theatre piece that I had the opportunity to perform, but don’t have any music, tape or recording of it at this time.  So with that, we can go into “Black Paladins.”

[MUSIC: “Black Paladins,” “Mama Marimba”]

“Mama Marimba” was written by Johnny Dyani, who was a wonderful bass player who lived in Northern Europe and who was born in South Africa, and who, again, brought his culture to the Ensemble.  Moye introduced me to him.  Moye has a knack for finding all these wonderful musicians!  We toured a couple of times in Europe.  We tried to have opportunities to perform with him in the United States, but unfortunately, that never worked out.  But we did tour Europe on two, possibly three occasions, and it was always a very, very nice musical experience.  So that’s why really I wanted to play that composition of his.  And you can see the kind of melodic thing that was happening in that rhythm.

[ETC.]

The remainder of the program comprised almost entirely tapes from Joseph Jarman’s collection.

1. “Dipple Hexokey Coterminus” as recorded at the Chicago Underground Festival in November 1983 by the AACM Large Ensemble and Ari Brown on tenor saxophone.

2. “Fanfare for the Newest-Born,” New York City, with Longineau Parsons on trumpet and fluegelhorn, Fred Hopkins on bass, Famoudou Don Moye on percussion, and Joseph Jarman.

3. From the album Inheritance, “Unicorn in Shadows,” “Love Song For A Rainy Monday”

4.   “Desert Song,” Brussels, early ’80s, with Craig Harris, Essiet Okun Essiet, Famoudou Don Moye and Jarman.

5.  “Scene 14″, NY.

6.  “Eyes of the Charm-Giver,” performed by The Musical Elements, with Thurman Barker on marimba

7.  “Poem Song,” with Jarman, Edward Wilkerson, Geri Allen, Fred Hopkins, Thurman Barker, Chicago Jazz Festival, 1985.

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Filed under AACM, Interview, WKCR

Two Interviews with Roscoe Mitchell from 1995 on WKCR

n 1995, I had the opportunity to interview the master saxophonist/woodwindist/composer Roscoe Mitchell on two separate occasions on WKCR. Although the transcripts have been up for a number of years on the Jazz Journalists Association website, http://www.jazzhouse.org., the occasion of Roscoe’s 71st birthday on August 3rd offered a good excuse to post the proceedings here as well. On the first session, he came to the station with pianist Amina Claudine Myers, his friend since the mid-’60s; he came solo six months later.

Roscoe Mitchell & Amina Claudine Myers (WKCR, 6-13-95):

[MUSIC: RM/M. Favors “Englewood H.S.” (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, “Oh, the Sun Comes Up, Up In the Morning”]

Roscoe, having just heard the two recent releases, a few words about each of them, the continuity of the ensembles, the ideas behind each CD.

ROSCOE:  The New Chamber Ensemble, Pilgrimage is dedicated to Gerald Oshita, who was a member of our original trio, which was Space.  The New Chamber Ensemble, you could say, is a continuation of that work.  Gerald passed, and we dedicated this record to him.  On this record there is also a composition by Henry Threadgill with a text by Thulani Davis entitled “He Didn’t Give Up; He was Taken.”  For the pieces that we’re going to be doing Saturday we’ll have joining us also two members of this ensemble.  Thomas Buckner will be performing with the S.E.M. Ensemble, which is an 11-piece chamber orchestra, in a piece that I wrote entitled “Memoirs Of A Dying Parachutist,” a poem by Daniel Moore.  We’ll also be doing a trio piece for piano, saxophone and baritone voice, with the members of this particular ensemble.

In the 1980’s, apart from your work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, you were working concurrently with the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble and the Roscoe Mitchell Space Ensemble, and sometimes combining the two.  Would you talk a little bit about your concepts for each of these groups in terms of the words “sound” and “space” as separate and converging intents.

ROSCOE:  If you’ll remember, back in 1966 my first record to come out on Delmark was titled Sound.  This is the where the name for the Sound Ensemble came up.  Over the years, though, we’ve worked in different combinations with both of the groups, either doing large pieces, which you will find on that CD on Black Saint, Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound and Space Ensembles.  Sometimes we would tour with both of these groups, and we would do pieces with one group and pieces with the other group, and then combine pieces.

If I could talk about your question on the scope of the music, I don’t really see that much difference from one to the other.  I’ve always tried to work in lots of different areas with both groups.

In the Sixties, when Sound came out, Amina, were you… I know Roscoe played in some of Amina’s ensembles in Chicago in the 1960’s.  At that point had the two of you met?

ROSCOE:  Yes, we had.

AMINA:  Yes.  Actually I played… Roscoe did an all Duke Ellington concert, and had me doing vocals, and he did another concert where I played and sang.  But he never played in any of the groups that I had organized.

ROSCOE:  Except the group we had at the Hungry Eye.

AMINA:  Oh, yes.  That’s right.  That organ group!

ROSCOE:  We had a hot group at the Hungry Eye.  The first time we had Gene Dinwiddie with us…

AMINA:  That’s right.  Kalaparusha, Lester Bowie…

ROSCOE:  …and Lester Bowie, and then we went to Kalaparusha and Lester Bowie and Ajaramu.  I mean, we had one of the hottest organ groups that you wanted to hear back in those days.

AMINA:  That’s right.

ROSCOE:  That’s when they had the music up and down Wells Street, the Plugged Nickel, the Hungry Eye, and so forth.  All those clubs were there.  It was like a miniature New York or something.

AMINA:  That’s right.

What was your impression of Amina’s music when you first heard it, Roscoe?  Do you remember the circumstances?

ROSCOE:  I was always knocked out by Amina’s music.  At that time, in Chicago, the organ was starting to gain more presence on the scene.  Jimmy Smith had come out with that record, The Champ, and so on.  And in Chicago there were a lot of organ players then.  Baby Face Willette was there, Eddie Buster… So in Chicago at that time, there was music almost every night.  So I always knew where to go.  You could go out every night and play with somebody if you wanted to, and this is what I did.

Where were some of the places you’d go out to play?  Would they be on the South Side?

ROSCOE:  Yeah, a lot of them were on the South Side.  There was the Wonder Inn…,

AMINA:  McKie’s.

ROSCOE:  …McKie’s, and then there were clubs that were further over toward the lake.  I can’t remember the names of all of them…

AMINA:  The Coral(?) Club.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, and then that club they had down on Stony Island…

AMINA:  Oh, yes.

ROSCOE:  …and one on 71st Street.  There was a lot of… See, I came from that kind of a thing.  I mean, when I grew up in Chicago, not only did I listen to the same music that my parents listened to; I could go right outside of my house and go down the street, and they’d be playing there.  My parents and all of us, we all listened to the same music.

What was that?

ROSCOE:  That was a wide variety of music.  Whatever was popular was on all the jukeboxes.  I mean, those were the days where you could go to a jukebox and there was some variety in the music on the jukebox.  I mean, now you go to a jukebox and it’s all the same thing.  But whoever was popular.  I mean, when Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams had that hit out, that was on there.  James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was on there.  I mean, just to give you… It was jazz pieces, popular pieces; whatever was popular at that time was out.

Were these clubs hospitable to young saxophonists coming in to sit in?  In other words, were there jam sessions at a lot of clubs?  Were you able to get gigs at some of these clubs with the local musicians?

ROSCOE:  Well, that was my musical upbringing.  I always went out and sat in with people, so I got to know different people.  Like I said, I could go out and play every night.  Then it was also at that time when the licensing for the clubs was getting changed.  If you had a trio there, it was one price for a license.  If you had anything bigger than a trio, then it was a bigger price for a license.  So a lot of house bands were working, and people would come and sit in and stuff like that.  Because it was right on the verge of the era where people were starting not to have as much live music, and the disk jockeys were starting to become popular in the clubs.

Were you playing alto saxophone all this time?  Was that your main instrument back as a teenager?

ROSCOE:   I started on clarinet, then in high school I played baritone saxophone.  Then later on I went to alto, and so on and so on.

A lot of the musicians in Chicago who came to prominence went to DuSable High School with Walter Dyett, but you went to Englewood High School.  Tell me about the music program there.

ROSCOE:   Well, that’s where comes this next CD.  I was very fortunate in Englewood High School to have met Donald Myrick, who is a founding member of the AACM.  He is also a founding member of Phil Cohran’s group he headed, the Afro-Arts Theater, which later on became the Pharaohs, which they did also record under that name, and then after that became members of Earth, Wind and Fire.  Now, like I said, I know that DuSable had Captain Dyett, but we had Donald Myrick at Englewood High School.  And I was fortunate to meet him at that time, because he was already playing the instrument in high school, and he kind of like took me under his wing and, you know, started to show me about music.

I’d like to talk a bit about your gradual transition from being let’s say a talented apprentice on the instrument to becoming a person for whom music was a life.  Did you always see music as your life?  Do you recollect when that started to happen?

ROSCOE:   Well, I know I’ve always loved music, and like I said, it was always in my family.  Through an older brother, I got really introduced and really very interested in Jazz, because he had all of those old 78’s, and we’d spend a lot of time just listening to them.  “Hey, come over here, sit down, let’s listen to this, let’s listen to that.”  So yeah, music has always been in my life.

Then, when I was in the Army, I started to function as a professional musician twenty-four hours a day, and I was in the Army for three years.  So when I came out of there, yeah, I was pretty much on the track to being a musician.

I gather that you were exposed to a lot of interesting music when you were in the Army, stationed in Europe.  If I’m not mistaken, I recollect hearing you talk about hearing Albert Ayler play in Germany maybe…?

ROSCOE:   I was in the band in Heidelberg, Germany.  Sometimes we would go to Berlin along with the band from Berlin and the band from Orleans, France, and Albert Ayler was a member of that band.  We’d come together and do these big parades in Berlin.  But at that time, when all the musicians got together, there were a lot of sessions and different things.  So when I first heard Albert at that time, I didn’t quite understand what he was doing, but I did know that he had an enormous sound on the tenor.  I remember that once someone called a blues or something at the session, and I think that for the first couple of choruses Albert Ayler played the blues straight, and then when he started to go away from that, then I started to really kind of understand what he was doing.

But I have to say that, as a musician, when I was in the Army, when I first heard Ornette Coleman, I didn’t really fully understand what he was doing.  When I got back to Chicago and met Joseph Jarman, he was already more advanced than I was in terms of listening to Eric Dolphy… As a matter of fact, it was John Coltrane who brought me back into that music with his record Coltrane, which has “Out of This World” on it.  That was when Coltrane started to go away from the regular chordal pattern and use a sort of a modal approach to the music.  When I started to hear that, I said, “Wait, I’d better go back and listen to Eric,” and then I said, “I’d better go back and listen to Ornette,” and then I started to fully understand.  That was like about two years as a musician being able to understand that music.

Talk about the beginnings of your relationship with Joseph Jarman.  I gather that you and he and Malachi Favors were all at Wilson Junior College, now called Kennedy-King.

ROSCOE:   Yeah, it was Wilson Junior College.  Also Jack De Johnette was there, because we played a lot in those early days.  Jack was known around town as a pianist, but he always played drums, too, because he was very talented.

Wasn’t Steve McCall the drummer in his trio?

ROSCOE:   In Jack’s trio?  I don’t remember at that time.  I know it was Scotty Holt.  Steve might have done some things with him.  But it was Scotty Holt, the bass player.  So we were all there together, and that’s where we first met.  And of course, Muhal was always the person who brought everybody together.  He had his big band rehearsals down at a place called the C&C every Monday night, and we all started to want to go down there and be a part of that.  This is what brought everybody together to where people started talking about, “Oh, yeah, let’s put together an organization where we can kind of control our destinies a little bit more” and so on and so forth, and this is where the thoughts for the AACM originated.

What was your first contact with Muhal like?  What was your impression?

ROSCOE:   Well, Muhal always impressed me… Now, he was a guy who would always help out anybody who needed help, and everybody would always come over to his house, and at the end of the week he would still have a piece for the big band!  I don’t know how he did that, but he did it! [LAUGHS] For a while, all I did was, I’d go to school, and then after school then I would go over to Muhal’s house.  Sometimes I wouldn’t get home until 9 or 10 o’clock at night or something like that.  And that’s what a lot of us did in that period.

Amina, you weren’t originally from Chicago.  You came there from Arkansas.  But when did you get to Chicago?

AMINA:   In 1963.

Did you immediately find the AACM at that time?

AMINA:  No.  I went there to teach school.  I taught Seventh and Eighth Grade music.  I really wasn’t thinking about playing.  And I went out with a young man one time, he was a photographer… He was really a photographer, but he liked to play the hand drums.  Unfortunately, he had no rhythm, none.  But he would go up on the West Side and sit in, and I went there with him one night and played the organ, and the leader of the group fired his organ player and hired me.  Then I went from there, and started working with a guy named Cozy Eggleston.  While working with Cozy, Ajaramu, the drummer, heard me, and we formed a group together.  He was the one that brought me into the AACM.

Talk about your background in Arkansas.  Had you been playing piano and organ since very young, and in church?

AMINA:  Well, I started playing the piano… I was taking European Classical music around 7, and then I started playing in the church, leading choirs and co-leaders of several gospel groups in my pre-teens, all the way up through college.  Then the organ was introduced in the early Sixties.  I was playing the piano in a club, then the organs came in, and then I started playing in the churches, playing church organ.

So you were playing both in the church and jazz as well?

AMINA:  Yes, I was.

Talk about your early exposure to Jazz.  Who were the pianists who inspired you in the type of music you were trying to play?

AMINA:  Well, first of all, I was doing Rhythm-and-Blues and everything.  And a young lady when I was in college came up to me and she said, “I have a job for you, but it’s playing in a nightclub.”  I’ve told this story so many times.  I wasn’t even thinking about playing in a nightclub.  I said, “Girl, I can’t play no nightclub.”  She said, “Yes, you can.  It pays five dollars a night.”  And as I have said so often, we called her “the black Elizabeth Taylor,” because she looked just like Elizabeth Taylor.

So I went down there and got this job playing.  I copied all of the… Because I was singing.  I always sang and played at the same time.  I copied all of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Stomping At The Savoy,” note for note.  But like Roscoe was saying, the jukebox there had Ornette Coleman, Lou Donaldson, and Ornette’s music was very popular.  I always liked it.  It sounded strange, but I liked it.

But a lot of the piano players from Memphis, Tennessee, used to come to this hotel which had a room in it…  The club was in the hotel.  So I picked up a lot of things on piano from the pianists that would stay at the hotel.  They played at the white country clubs in Little Rock.

Who were some of the pianists you heard then?

AMINA:  Charles Thomas.  He’s in Memphis now.

He played a week at Bradley’s in New York a few months ago.

AMINA:  Oh, a few months ago.  I heard that he had been this way, but I didn’t know when.  A young man that’s passed away now, Eddie Collins.  There’s a young guy that’s on the scene now, his father is… I can’t think of his name.  He’s from Little Rock now.  He’s very popular.

So this is how I learned.  I started picking up things on the piano, trying to learn how to play “So What” and things like that.  But mainly I was copying Nina Simone, Dakota Staton, Ella Fitzgerald.

What was early impression of the AACM after you got to Chicago?  What was your first experience like?

AMINA:  Well, I was very apprehensive.  Because Muhal had those charts!  I thought they was… I said, “Oh, my goodness.”  There were about two or three piano players on the scene, and I was hoping I wouldn’t be called!  Because reading the music, it looked so, so difficult.  I was more or less shy.  Believe it or not, I was.  I was hoping I wouldn’t be called to play.  I would worry all while I was up there at the piano!  I was worried about playing the wrong note.  Because the music looked very difficult to me, and it can be.  But Muhal was very patient and very encouraging.

Then when we started organizing smaller groups, we all did things.  Like, Roscoe and all of them were inspiring.  I never felt… You know, I felt that I belonged and that I was, and I realized that I could write, and that I had something to say.  Because you know, Roscoe used to walk around with this big tall top hat, it was about five feet high tall!  He was painting, Muhal was painting.  They were doing all these things.  It was very, very creative.  So it was like a beehive of activity, and I was inspired.

It sounds like Chicago was a place where you could really actualize anything that came to mind through the work you were doing and put it out there, and it would generate new activity, and it just kept going and going.

ROSCOE:  That’s true.  Because we were very fortunate to be in a spot where there were so many people that were thinking the same way.  It was also very inspiring.  Because I remember going to different people’s concerts, and then the way I would feel, I’d be so excited that I felt that I wanted to go home and try to really work hard for my next concert.  And so on and so on.  You would always be inspired… it was just a great time, a great learning time for music, and you didn’t have to be quite as rushed as, like, for instance, if you had been in New York at that time, where everybody is over here and over there, you know, trying to do this and do that to make some money or whatever.  I’m not saying anything about New York.  I’m just saying that it was easier to get a bunch of people together there, at that time, then it would have been in New York.

AMINA:  Mmm-hmm.  It was.  It was.

Well, New York seems a much more competitive, cut-throat type of place in many ways.  Considering the AACM has stayed together and the relationships have remained over thirty-plus years, it’s testimony to the bonds that formed during that time.

AMINA:  Right.  Because of our foundation there.  I don’t think it could have happened here because it’s too spread out.  There’s too much… You have to work so hard to survive here.  It was much more relaxed in Chicago.

But I don’t exactly get the sense that in Chicago it was so economically wonderful for the musicians in the AACM, but I guess it was maybe a little easier to live.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, that, and then… Well, we’re an example to the world of what musicians can do if they put their resources together.  I mean, not only did the AACM exist.  I mean, of course, we started it off… The way we got things going was, we paid dues, and we saved our money, and we had our programs for the children in the community, and then we would do our concerts.

AMINA:  We had a training program.

ROSCOE:  Yes.  Then we also went on to an idea beyond that.  We thought, like, “Hmm, well, why don’t we encourage people in other cities to do a similar type thing, and then have exchange concerts and things like that.”  I mean, we also created work for musicians, in a way.  We’d have musicians come up from Detroit, which later became the B.A.G, the Black Artists Group…

AMINA:  St. Louis.

ROSCOE:  I mean, St. Louis.  Sorry.

You were going back and forth to Detroit also, I guess.

ROSCOE:  Well, Michigan is where I started the C.A.C., which is the Creative Music Collective.  We followed the same format that we had laid out in the AACM.  I mean, we did our concerts, and then we’d bring different people in to play.  It was like creating employment.

Roscoe, it sounds like you and Malachi Favors formed an instant bond from those days in junior college.  And he was a member of your original ensemble, even before the first Delmark recording.  A few words about that relationship.

ROSCOE:  Well, he was also at Wilson Junior College with us.  It was Threadgill, Malachi, Jack De Johnette, Joseph, John Powell, and a bunch of other folks.  Yes, Malachi was in some of my earliest groups, that’s true.  We did form an immediate bond.  Although we don’t always agree on everything, we do at least agree on music, you know!  So that’s kept us together through all of these years.

Talk about your earliest groups, before The Sound was recorded.  Were you basically working toward the areas that you explored on Sound in those groups in ’64 and ’65?

ROSCOE:  Well, like we were talking about before we went on the air here, we’ve got a record way back there with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, who is a trumpet player that used to play with us, Malachi and myself, which is a very good record which we might release sometime.  But then even before that, Gene Dinwiddie, who I don’t know how many people know of him now, but he went on to be a member of Paul Butterfield’s band for a while; and then Kalaparusha was playing with us a lot in those days.  The other night I was playing in Chicago at the Hot House, and a guy came by with some photographs from that period, thirty years ago, with Lester Lashley on there playing cello, and this other drummer that we worked with out of St. Louis — at that time his name was Leonard Smith, and now his name is Fela(?).

In those days, that’s all we did, was play.  I mean, we rehearsed every day.  When it was warm, we went to the park and played every day.  I mean, Chicago was that kind of place.  When I was growing up there, if you went to the park, you could always find Curley out there, a saxophonist, playing.  And a lot of guys that were really trying to learn how to play and stuff, they would go out there and hang around him.  So these groups and the AACM, I mean, they all evolved out of this kind of philosophy.

Amina, what did having musicians available like Roscoe and Kalaparusha and many others do for your writing with your various groups, Amina and Company, in the mid-1960’s?

AMINA:  Well, everybody has a different style and approach.  For instance, Kalaparusha was playing with us for quite a while.  We traveled together.  I had this little electric piano, and I would watch how he voiced his chords with the clusters and things.  And just observing the scores and hearing the music, I saw that the mind was free to create whatever you wanted to create, and that it would work, you know, if you believed in it, and it would have a meaning to it.  I noticed this with all the music, with Muhal… Everyone was different, but yet they were unique within their own.  Of course, my background was mostly just Gospel.  I never studied technically.  So basically, mine was I guess a little bit more simple.  I didn’t know anything about chords or anything like that really.  I just had some of the basic things.  So I just had to observe and listen and watch.  I’d see what Muhal would do… I just picked up what I could.

I guess later, when you worked with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, the chords probably came into play a little more.

AMINA:  Yes.  They didn’t believe in having music.  Sonny Stitt would rehearse something, and then three months later he would call it.

ROSCOE:  [LOUD LAUGH]

AMINA:  I remember “Autumn in New York,” he rehearsed that, and then I forgot all about the song.  But he said, “‘Autumn In New York,'” and just started playing it before…!  They didn’t… So it was like you had this on your mind.  See, I didn’t know anything about going to the stores and buying sheet music.  I was very naive, believe it not; very naive.  In doing Gospel music, we never used any music.  We picked up all the songs off the radio.  There was no such thing as buying music.  You know, I was from a little village on the highway, and the quartet singers would come through, so I mean, we never saw music — you just picked it up from what you heard.

So therefore, with Sonny and Jug… Jug did have a few little tunes he wrote on the chord changes on occasion.  But basically, they wanted you to hear it up here.  You had to hear it.  They said, “Use your ears.”  Especially Sonny Stitt.  He would always say, “Use your ears.”

Roscoe, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons are really synonymous, in a way, with a certain sound of Chicago.  Were they a big part of your early experience as a saxophonist?

ROSCOE:  Yeah, of course.  And Nicky Hill was also a big part.  I mean, a lot of folks don’t know about Nicky Hill.  He was also a great saxophonist in Chicago.  There were so many people!  I mean, Clarence Wheeler was a great saxophonist.  There was a guy when I was growing up named George Fullalove(?), who was a great saxophonist.  And this guy that I just told you about, Curly; I mean, he’d go out in the park and he’d be out there six-eight hours a day, standing up there, running scales and arpeggios all day, all day long.  We’d just go out there and sit and listen to him, and he’d tell us about this and tell us about that, and show us different things and stuff like that.

Chicago has a very rich tradition in music. I mean, there are so many people that you don’t even hear about that are totally great.

And it’s been that way since the turn of the century, since the Pekin Theater was built on 27th Street and Michigan Avenue in 1905.

ROSCOE:  Exactly.

A center of show business and black artists.

[MUSIC: Amina, “Jumping In The Sugar Bowl” (1986); Roscoe, “Walking In The Moonlight” (1994)]

“Walking In The Moonlight” was a composition by Roscoe Mitchell, Senior.  Was your father a musician, a working musician?  Obviously he was a lover of music.

ROSCOE:  Yeah, he was a lover of music.  He was a singer, you know.  Not only was it the jazz artists who were real popular in those days, but the Popular singer was also very popular; Nat King Cole, of course, comes to mind…

Did your father know him from his younger days in Chicago?

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.  My mother went to school with Nat King Cole.  They remember him always going to the church to practice the piano and stuff all the time.

Nat Cole’s father was a minister…

ROSCOE:  Yes.  And… Oh, what was I saying…?

I interrupted you.  Sorry.

ROSCOE:  Yes. [LAUGHS]

Your father was a singer…

ROSCOE:  Yes, my father was a singer, and he was one… I guess you could group him into the group of singers that they call crooners.  He also used to do a thing where he would imitate instruments, you

Would you say you picked up your earliest musical inspiration from him?  Did he get you your first instrument?

ROSCOE:  Well, I would say that my father always wanted me to be a singer, you know, because that was his first love.  I think my brother is the one who got me interested in the instrument.  I always loved music.

Well, you have that rich baritone.  I’d imagine you could have gone somewhere with it!

ROSCOE:  Yeah.  But it was my brother who was largely responsible for me starting to know about people like Lester Young and Charlie Parker and so forth.

A number of the older musicians in Chicago who people might not necessarily think of as being involved in the AACM were early members, like Jodie Christian, the pianist on Hey Donald.

ROSCOE:  Yes, he was.  Jodie was my idol when I was in high school.  I mean, I remember Lester telling a story about Jodie and a group he had with I think Bunky Green and Paul Serrano, and it might have been Victor Sproles or somebody on bass — I don’t remember.  He remembered they came down to St. Louis, and they were so great that the people just said, “Oh, they’ve got to stay a few more days,” so they cancelled their whole program and kept them down there.  All those people were just a great inspiration to me.  Like I said, in Chicago you could just go out and see these kind of people, like, all the time.  So there was always something to keep you thinking about something.

Eddie Harris, who is working at Sweet Basil…he and Richard Abrams were actually partnering on a workshop orchestra that eventually became the Experimental Band.

ROSCOE:  That’s correct.

Muhal, of course, worked with Eddie Harris’ groups in the late 1960’s and early Seventies.

ROSCOE:  Yes, he did.

Now, Eddie Harris is someone who was very much concerned with sound and explorations in sound in similar ways to what you have been doing.

ROSCOE:  Of course he is.  I mean, Eddie Harris is the only guy that I really know that really has ever done anything with the electric saxophone and all of these different kinds of things.  He has always been right on the edge of creativity all the time, I mean, with all the different things that he invented, and his books, and he’s got the ability to be extremely experimental or just walk over here or something and get a big hit — as a Jazz musician!  You remember when he came out with “Exodus,” I’m sure.  He was always a great inspiration to all of us.  I was just in St. Louis, I don’t know, a few months ago, and I was very lucky that Eddie Harris was playing at the hotel that I was staying in, so I got to see him and listen to his music again.

Amina, in Little Rock, where you settled I guess as a young adult, there was a thriving musical community as well.  Two musicians prominent on the scene today who come to mind, although I don’t know if you were there exactly when they were there, are Pharaoh Sanders and John Stubblefield.

AMINA:  Well, when I was in college I met Stubblefield.  His group came over to play.  We had originally hired Arthur Porter I believe is his name.  His son, Art Porter, Jr., is now very popular on the scene.  Art Porter couldn’t make it so, he sent Stubblefield’s band.  We clashed the first night, but we’ve been very good friends ever since then.  Pharaoh wasn’t there.  He had moved by the time I got there.

Tell me about the music that you’ve composed for the concert on June 18th.  It’s original music commissioned for this concert.

AMINA:  Well, I’ve been commissioned to write a composition for a chamber orchestra of 12 pieces, the S.E.M. Ensemble, directed by Petr Kotik.  Then Roscoe and I will be doing a duet, along with other duets he’s doing.  This will be original music also.

Roscoe, you mentioned that your Army experience sort of catapulted you into being a professional musician.  In the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I think everybody but Moye spent some time in the Army.  It seems to me that that experience must have had a big impact on the Art Ensemble’s being able to forge their path during the difficult days of the late Sixties.

ROSCOE:  Well, you learn how to survive in the Army, that’s for sure.  And it’s true, I met great people in the Army.  Like, another guy out of Chicago, Reuben Cooper, was in the Army with me at that time.  Lucious White, who is Joseph Jarman’s cousin, who is an excellent alto saxophonist and bassoonist.  When I was in Heidelberg, Germany, Nathaniel Davis’s group had won the All-Army competition, so they came and stayed with us for almost about a month or so.  I would go around with him and he’d be playing… I remember one time we were down at the Cave 54 in Heidelberg, Germany.  There was a great Danish saxophonist there who was in Germany at that time, Bent Jadik, and he’d always be down there kind of running over everybody, and then when Nathaniel Davis came down there that night [LAUGHS], we saw Bent Jadik kind of perk up a little bit!

Like I said, a lot of really talented musicians that were willing to share some time with me and show me different things like that.  Some people may have had a bad experience in the Army.  Mine wasn’t that bad.  I mean, I actually came out of there knowing something about music.

Talk a little about that three-year sojourn in Europe with the Art Ensemble.  What was your impetus for going over there?

ROSCOE:  Well, we had been all over the States.  We were very adventurous, you know.  And I think that we’re responsible for a lot of people that go over there now.  Because people weren’t really going over there, you know.  We went over there and carried the banner of the AACM.  We started playing at this club, it was a small theater really, in Montparnesse, called the Luciniere(?) Theater.  We played there four nights a week, and sometimes we’d have enough at the end of the gig to go get ourselves a cheese sandwich and a beer.  But people started to know about us.  And this is how people became interested in us in Europe.

Also Steve McCall was over there at that time, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith was there.  But not only them, there were all these people from New York.  I mean, Paris was alive with music then.  I’ve never seen Paris like that as I saw it in the late Sixties.  There was always music all the time.  This guy who put out all those records, Jean-George Caracas(?), did this big festival.  He was supposed to have it in Paris, and at the last moment they wouldn’t let him have it at the Mall de Mutualité, so he had to change everything around, and he had it in Amiges(?), Belgium.  This was like a grand festival, with a whole week, two different stages, one shut down and the next one kicked right up, and so on.  He had all kinds of music there.

Then after that was that whole rich time when we did all those different recordings.  I got a chance to record with Archie Shepp and Grachan Moncur and Sunny Murray and so on and so forth.  I mean, there were concerts almost every night.  Every day everybody was at the American Center, playing all the time.  I’ve never seen Paris like that.

Well, the records bear that out.  There’s a real sort of fire burning through all of them collectively.

ROSCOE:  Exactly.  I mean, Cal Massey was there.  I was hanging out with Hank Mobley, Don Byas, so on… I mean, I couldn’t have asked for a richer experience as a young musician at that time.

One musician who both you and Amina have both mentioned as being right there, and who was at the beginning of Roscoe’s musical explorations, is Henry Threadgill.  In the next set we’ll hear compositions by him on which Amina and Roscoe perform.  In Amina’s case, she’s featured on organ on a song entitled “Song Out Of My Trees,” the title track of a 1994 release on Black Saint, with Ed Cherry on guitar, Henry Threadgill, alto saxophone, and Reggie Nicholson on drums.  Then from Roscoe Mitchell’s new release on Lovely Music, Pilgrimage, the Roscoe Mitchell New Chamber Ensemble, we’ll hear “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken”, music by Henry Threadgill and poetry by Thulani Davis.  This is a quartet for baritone voice, Thomas Buckner; violin, Vartan Manoogian; alto saxophone, Roscoe Mitchell, piano, Joseph Kubera.

Amina, a few words about the piece we’re about to hear.

AMINA:  Well, on this particular piece, Henry started hearing things for organ.  He’s always coming up with various combinations of instrumentation.  And it seems like the organ started coming back on the scene again, so I was glad to see that.  It was very interesting playing this particular composition with Henry.

ROSCOE:  I’ll have to say about Henry, he’s a great musician and a great inspiration.  I’d like to start off by saying that.  Because Henry was also there back in Wilson Junior College Days.  My admiration of him as a composer… I mean, he just completely overwhelms me every time I hear something by him, because I’m always inspired by what he’s actually writing.  This piece that we do on this record is a text of Thulani Davis about a guy who was homeless, but despite all of that he didn’t give up, he went on, he was taken, he had a purpose.  This piece grew out of a concert that happened in New York at Town Hall, where we had the New Chamber Ensemble and Henry Threadgill’s group both doing separate pieces and combined pieces.  So he wrote this piece for the New Chamber Ensemble at that time.

[MUSIC: Threadgill-Amina-Nicholson-Cherry, “Song Out of My Trees” (1994); RM New Chamber Ensemble, “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken” (1995)]

In summing things up, I’d like to talk about current events, current projects.  Roscoe, you’ve been living in Madison, Wisconsin, and using it as your base.  How many groups are you working with now? Are you  teaching…

ROSCOE:  For the moment I’m not teaching.  The different groups that I’m playing with right now:  Of course, the Art Ensemble is one.  The Note Factory is another.  The New Chamber Ensemble is another.  Then, I do different variations of different things.  I had a concert in Chicago last Saturday with Matthew Shipp, Spencer Barefield (who is a member of the original Sound Ensemble), Malachi Favors, Gerald Cleaver, who is the new drummer (and an excellent drummer, I might add) that I’ve been working with out of Detroit, and of course myself on woodwinds.

I’m a composer also, so depending upon what someone is asking for, the size of the ensemble or whatever, I’ll write for that also.  Then of course, don’t let me forget, we just had the record come out with the quartet with Jodie Christian, Malachi Favors and Albert Tootie Heath.

You also appear on a recent recording on Delmark with Jodie Christian, a couple of very strong pieces.

ROSCOE:  Yes.

TP:    You’ve always incorporated extended techniques on the different saxophones, but it seems that your use of circular breathing has really been entering your compositional formats in the last decade.  Can you talk about the aesthetics of circular breathing, what it allows you to do?

ROSCOE:  Well, if I look at Frank Wright, for instance, and the kinds of things that he was doing in the early Sixties, which I was very impressed by, what I can do now is go back and reflect not only on that situation, but other situations musically.  Just his approach to the sound, for instance, I’ve studied that, and now I can extend that through circular breathing.  That’s what it allows you to be able to do.  It also gives me the opportunity to be able to put more, longer phrases together, and the opportunity to explore when notes really come at you very fast and continuous for a long time.

With me, it’s an experiment.  Everything is an experiment.  So when I’m out with one of my groups, it takes us at least a week or so playing every night before we really start to get up there, and then it gets so exciting that after a concert is over you can never sleep at night.  So sometimes I’ll have a glass of wine and it will calm me down.

But to me, it’s all an experiment.  The fun for me is going out and having the opportunity to explore these different ideas that I have in my head.

Of course, I listened to Roland Kirk all the time when he was alive, and I was totally amazed by what he did, because not only did he circular breathe; he was able to play several instruments, you know, out of his mouth and some out of his nose, and so on and so forth.  Now, there’s a guy who really had control over that.  If you think about circular breathing, it’s a very old tradition.  I mean, the aborigines used it, the Egyptian musicians used it a long time ago. I became interested in it through Roland Kirk, and I had to think about it for about a year before I was able to do it.

In regard to everything being an experiment, the Art Ensemble of Chicago must have been an ideal vehicle for workshopping ideas on a consistent basis, night after night, week after week, year after year.

ROSCOE:  Of course. I mean, I think that’s the thing that keeps people going, is the opportunity to explore music.  I could never be one of those musicians that just plays the same thing all the time, because that’s never been my interest with music.  The thing that’s always fascinated me about music is there’s so much to learn, and I like to try to keep myself as much as I can in the forefront of that learning process.

Amina, same question to you as I posed to Roscoe: The different situations you’re working in, current projects, etcetera.

AMINA:  Well, right now I’m doing a lot of Blues, Gospel, Jazz and extended forms of music solo piano.  Hopefully, I’m trying to organize pipe organ work in Europe, various parts of Europe.  They have expressed interest in that.

Talk about the dynamics of that vis-a-vis working with the Hammond or various electric organs.

AMINA:  Well, of course, with the electric everything is right there, right at the touch.  With the pipe organ you’re dealing with the air.  The sound is so vast, it’s like… You work at it more, but the rewards are so much greater with the pipe organ, because there’s phenomenal combinations, and the size of the pipes, you get all the different kinds of sounds.  You can’t beat it.  I mean, the Hammond, I would say, would be, as far as electric organ, I would prefer that.  If I had to play the electric organ, it would be the Hammond B-3.  But pipe organ, there’s just no comparison really.  It’s very thrilling to be able to play that.  I would like to do more with that.

Originally I had done some work with voice choir with the pipe organ, so hopefully I can continue to do that.  I’m just working now on Gospel, writing Gospel tunes for the solo performances.

So it’s primarily solo.  You don’t really have a working band…?

AMINA:  Oh, yes, I have a trio.  Well, I do a lot of trio work.  Right now I’m getting calls for a lot of Bessie Smith material and the trio format.  The solo piano and trio formats.

On the next set we’ll hear separate duos by each of you with Muhal Richard Abrams, who has been such a great inspiration for both of you.  I know I asked you for some words about him before, but maybe we can conclude with some comments about you, the AACM, and your relations with Muhal Richard Abrams over the years.  Roscoe?

ROSCOE:  Well, like I said before, Muhal has like always been a mentor, not only to me but so many other musicians in Chicago.  I think it was through his efforts of keeping that Experimental Band going where all these people could get together; it provided a place where all these ideas could come out.  Like I said, this was where the ideas for putting the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians came about.  We were interested in controlling our own destinies, because we’d read the books and seen what happened to people who were out there on their own.  I think they didn’t really treat Charlie Parker that well, or Coltrane.  I think Charlie Parker had maybe one European tour or something in his life; I don’t know what it was.  But those kinds of things made us want to reassess the situation and try to band together, so that we could create self-employment for ourselves, sponsor each other in concerts of our own original music, maintain a training program for young, inspired musicians.  These are the kinds of things that have kept us going throughout the years.

AMINA:  Muhal is really my spiritual brother.  I think we must have known each other in a past life.  You see, Muhal, he never stops creating.  He constantly inspires me.  He’ll push without pushing.  He’ll say, “Okay, Amina, you need to do this, you need…”  So he’ll always find ways to encourage me to write and to create and to do things.  He’ll bring up some ideas.  Because he knows the things that I can do sometimes that I don’t even think about doing.  So I mean, he’s very inspiring to me.  I didn’t know that he was coming to New York; I don’t know if he knew that I was coming.  But we have been in close contact since being here.  As I said, he’s my spiritual brother, and I appreciate all the things that he has done to encourage me.  He still does that.  Not that I depend on him, but I can look to Muhal for any type of assistance, musically or whatever.  And he has inspired a lot of people, and people love him because of that.  I certainly do.

[ETC.]

[MUSIC: Muhal-Amina, “Dance From The East” (1981); Roscoe-Muhal, “Ode To the Imagination” (1990)]

Roscoe Mitchell (Ted Panken) – (12-5-95):

[MUSIC: “Songs In The Wind, 1&2″]

I’d like to ask you about the genesis of the Roscoe Mitchell Chamber Ensemble.  You and Tom Buckner have been at least recording together since the late 1970’s, and you’ve known each other now for at least thirty years, I gather.

Yes, that’s true.  We met in California in the late Sixties.  That’s when we first met.  We started performing together when we put our group together, Space, with Gerald Oshita.

Tom Buckner was up here a few days ago, and described hearing the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, I believe it was, several times in the Bay Area in the mid-1960’s.  What were your first impressions of Tom Buckner?  What was he into at the time you were out there?

Well, let’s just say that when this group came together, I was putting focus on composition and improvisation.  And Thomas Buckner interested me because he was an improviser when I met him.  I don’t know if you recall any of his earlier recordings with Ghost Opera, but it was a group that was from the West Coast that used improvisation in their music.

I first met Gerald Oshita when I was in California in 1967.  He was playing in a group with Oliver Johnson and Donald Raphael Garrett.

All of these people were improvisers at that time, and this group came together to study improvisation and composition as they relate to each other, and that tradition continues today.

When did Kubera and Manoogian start to enter the picture?

I met Vartan at a concert of Joan Wildman at the University of Wisconsin.  We were playing together on a composition by Joan Wildman.  I think we struck a chord from that very beginning, and we decided that we would go on and try to do some work together.  I think our first performance was on a concert of Vartan’s at the Eldon(?) Museum in Madison, where we performed the composition, the duet for alto saxophone and violin entitled “Night Star.”

You’ve been involved in maybe four or five simultaneous ongoing projects over the last number of years, it would seem to me.  This ensemble, with Joseph Kubera, Vartan Manoogian and Thomas Bucker, that’s performing Thursday; the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which has been a primary interest for a quarter-century and more; the Sound Ensemble; the Note Factory.  Are compositions written or structured for specific musical units, or are they mutable, adaptable to different performance situations?

Well, certainly you can transpose a composition so that it will fit, you know, any situation you want it to fit.  Usually how I start off on a composition is first I have an idea, and then I figure out how to get that idea down.  Then a lot of times you are given the size ensemble that will perform the work that you’re writing.  So it’s determined by lots of things.  One composition, “Nonaah,” started off as a solo piece, and has ended up being played by larger ensembles, quartets, trios, so on and so forth.

We could probably do a nice 90-minute presentation on various examples of how “Nonaah” has been formulated.

Yeah, people have done that.  There’s a young woman in Madison, whose name slips my mind right now, who did her dissertation on that piece, along with some works by Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, I believe.

When was “Nonaah” actually written or conceived?

In the early Seventies, as a solo piece, like I said.

Putting together a solo piece, does it come from your explorations of the instrument?  Does it come from a more conceptual framework…?

Well, let’s look at it.  One part of “Nonaah” is set up so that it has wide intervals.  One of the thoughts that I had when I was composing it, I wanted to have a piece that was played as a solo instrument that would give the illusion of being two instruments, and with the wide intervals like that, you can get that, because the instrument sounds different in the lower range and the mid range and the high range, and then there’s also the altissimo range, of course, which sounds different from any of those other registers.  So if you construct a melody that moves in that way, in taking advantage of the intervals, then you will achieve that goal at the end.  And that was one of the thoughts that I had when I was constructing the composition.

But then, of course, after that, you use that same basic formula to structure other movements of the piece.  So for me, I guess, I am at the point now where if I needed to do anything in that particular system of music, I could do it, I feel like I could do it, because I have built the vocabulary related to that structure.

I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago perform in Chicago on December 1st, and you were performing on soprano, alto, tenor sax, and you had the bass saxophone as well, although I don’t think you got to play it…

No, I didn’t play it, actually.  I just brought it along, because it was going off to Jamaica where we’re going to be for the next month, and I guess I just kind of forgot to play it.  I mean, a lot of times I don’t really get to instruments, but I like to have them there if I’m moving in that direction.

What determines which instruments you’re playing at a particular time?  Your main concentration over the last number of years seems to be with the soprano and the alto saxophone.  It doesn’t seem like we get to hear you always on the tenor, but when we do, it seems like you’ve really been putting a lot of work or thought into a particular area.  Has that been happening lately?

Well, I mean, what determines what sounds I get to is, like, a lot of times I’m trying to just move different sounds around, and then whatever I hear that can add on to the structure I’m working on, I’ll select the instrument based on that.  So this is how these things get determined.  Unless, of course, there’s a specific composition which calls for a specific instrument.  Then that would be played on that instrument.

How long has multi-instrumentalism as a way of getting to the plethora of sounds that are at your disposal been a major preoccupation of yours?  Did that begin with your exposure to the AACM and that group of musicians?

Well, I think that, like, in the late Sixties I wanted to explore other sounds.  But then, if you notice, in the history of the music, before the Bebop era, in the larger bands, a lot of the woodwind players doubled.

Tripled.

Yeah.  If you see some of those pictures, they had quite a variety of instruments that they played.  I think the music at some point moved to where it was a one person, one instrument type focus.

With smaller combos, sure.  I mean, Harry Carney played baritone sax, bass clarinet and clarinet, and Jimmy Hamilton…

And so on, yeah, sure.

But in terms of your preoccupation, you weren’t really coming up in Chicago in an environment where that sort of multi-instrumentalism was a common thing as such.

That’s true.  But I think my fascination with sounds drew me toward that.  For instance, the Art Ensemble is an outgrowth of a quartet of myself and Malachi Favors and Philip Wilson and Lester Bowie.  When Philip left the group, we were drawn more to percussion sounds.  That was because we didn’t really have anyone that we thought could come into the group and function in his place in terms of the type of melodic structure that he dealt with.  So that drew us more into percussion.

It just kind of added on to my fascination with the exploration of sounds.  I mean, sometimes I don’t really hear like a scale per se.  I might hear one note, and then the next note with a whistle, or a whistle with kind of a wind instrument, or a whistle and a bell.  There are so many different possibilities to explore.

When did your obsession with the saxophone begin?  When did it become evident to you that music was going to be your life?

Well, I guess I kind of knew that in high school.  And I was fortunate enough… If you remember the record, Hey, Donald!, that’s dedicated to my friend Donald Myrick, who went on to help establish Earth, Wind and Fire.  Donald Myrick was an excellent musician when I met him in Chicago, and he was a big motivation for me — you know, to see someone, one of my peers actually doing that.  So I guess I kind of knew it then.  And I had an older brother who had many, many 78 records, and he would get me to sit down and listen to them, and that really…

What kind of records were they?

Oh, you know, all of the old ones — J.J. Johnson, Charlie Parker.  Everything was on 78 then.  Billie Holiday…

In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s?

Yes.

Who were the people who really caught your ear first as far as stylists, specifically as saxophone stylists?

That’s hard to say, because I liked different stylists from different records.  If I were to look at the tenor saxophone, I’d look at like our history of many styles.  And this is how the tenor is represented in my mind.  And then I always listened to, you know, the same music that my mother and father listened to.  So it was a wide variety of music.

What were they listening to?

Oh, everybody listened to everything that was popular then.  It could be a popular song or… Oh, and it was always on the jukeboxes, too.  The jukeboxes actually had a variety of things that you could select from.  For instance, when James Moody’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was popular, everybody listened to that, not just a select group of people from here or a select group of people from there.  Everybody knew about that.  Everyone knew of that duet with Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams.  You know, whatever, whether it was a song by Nat King Cole, or even when Johnnie Ray had his hit, “Cry.”  All of these different things were common knowledge.  So for me, I had a wide variety of music to select from.

Did your choice to pick up a saxophone at an early age… How old were you when you first began playing?

Oh, I was a late starter on saxophone. I mean, I started clarinet first when I was 11 years old.  That’s late-starting.

How was that inspired?  Through your family or through school?

I guess mostly through my older brother, Norman.  I was always interested in music, and I used to sing a lot when I was younger.  But I guess mostly influenced by him to want to go on and actually pursue an instrument.

What was your first more or less formal tuition?  Was that in high school or in the elementary schools?

That was in high school. I started clarinet in Milwaukee, at I think it was West Division High School.  I don’t remember the teacher.

Did you further that in high school in Chicago?

Yes, at Englewood High School.

I’m sorry to keep putting you all the way back in the Fifties, but there are some things I’ve been curious about for a long time, so I’m taking the opportunity.  Were you playing in a lot of teenage combo situations, gigs for money and so forth then, in high school…?

Well, no, not that much.  I mean, we had our regular obligations that we did in high school, with the concert band, and I was also a member of the dance band.  I think that I started to function probably more as a professional musician when I was in the Army, from 1958, I believe it was, to 1961.  So by the time I got out of the Army, it was pretty much solidified that I was going to be a musician.

I gather that the Army was a real mind-bending experience for you musically, and you were exposed to many different ways of playing music.  I think one account I’ve read has you encountering Albert Ayler in Germany in the early Sixties.

That was a big influence on me.  Because at that time, I was aware of Ornette Coleman’s music, but I have to say, even as a musician at that time, I didn’t fully understand what Ornette was doing.  The thing about Albert Ayler, when I first met him, one thing I knew about him, I knew basically what was happening with the saxophone, and I knew he had a tremendous sound on the instrument, and that lured me in to want to try to figure out what it is that he was doing on the saxophone.  I remember once there was a session.  They were all playing the Blues, and Albert Ayler, he played the Blues straight, like for two or three choruses, and then started to stretch it out.  And that really helped me.  That was kind of a major mark for me musically, just to be able to see that that could really be done.

Again, referring to interviews, you’ve described being impressed at that time by Sonny Rollins, by Hank Mobley, by Wayne Shorter — I think those are the three names that come to mind in terms of playing in a style.  Were you playing tenor, alto…?

I was playing alto.  I mean, in the dance bands I played baritone.

So the multi-instrumentalism started there.

Well, you could say so.  I mean, my first encounter with the saxophone was baritone in high school.  The guy who was playing baritone in the dance band graduated, and I was moved up to that position of playing the baritone.  But I think the alto was the saxophone that really caught my interest.

Describe the ambiance of being in an Army band in Germany, in 1959, 1960, 1961.  The regimen, the musicians, and the off-base scene that was happening in Europe at that time.

Well, that was a really good time to be where I was in Germany.  I was in Heidelberg, Germany, which is the place of the famous Cave 54.  Now, that was a club where most of the local musicians would play in, and everybody that was coming from out of town would play there.  There were a lot of sessions there.  Some of the people that you’ll know now were there.  Karl Berger was there, Albert Mangelsdorff was there, Bent Jadik (who when I was in Denmark at this time I didn’t see him, but I was talking to the guy at the music store, and I asked about him, and he said he was still around).  Many things happened there.  Then Nathaniel Davis stayed in our barracks.  He was in a quartet that won the All-Army competition, and they stayed with us for a while, and they were going around Europe playing.  And then names that you don’t know.  Joseph Stevenson, who was a Sergeant, who now I’ve heard is a Warrant Officer, was a great musician, an alto saxophonist and composer.  Many, many people.  William Romero.  Just a lot of people that made influences on me.  I mean, there was a guy there, Sergeant Mitchell.  Palmer Jenkins, a tenor saxophonist.  So there was a lot of music and a lot of opportunity to learn.

I gather in the Art Ensemble, you, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, all had Army experience.  Lester has stated that that experience helped you survive as a unit on your travels and travails particularly in Europe in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and in the years before that in the States.

Well, that’s very true.  I mean, no one has ever done anything for us.  We’ve always done everything for ourselves, in a way, so far as the Art Ensemble is concerned.  I don’t think the Art Ensemble gets any recognition now.  And we’re still going on, and still doing concerts, and still filling houses, and everybody tries to act like we’re not doing that.  So yeah, I guess our Army training did help us get to this point.

A lot of discipline entailed that I’m sure was retained and is retained in the way the Art Ensemble functions.

Yes, that’s true.

When you got back to Chicago after the Army, what sort of scene did you find?

Well, that was when Muhal had the Experimental Band there… In ’61 Muhal Richard Abrams had the Experimental Band.  It met once a week, and it was a great opportunity to go down and meet all these great musicians, and get a chance to really be in a big band that was rehearsing.  This year at the Chicago Jazz Fest Muhal put together that band as closely as he could for a performance there.  It would be great to do more things with that band.  After I had been in Israel and heard everybody sounding the same, and then got back and I was in a band where everybody sounded like themselves, it was a very interesting phenomenon.

You’re talking now about 1961?

I’m talking about Muhal’s big band.  Everybody in there sounds like themselves.  They don’t sound like anybody else.  They all have distinguishable sounds, their ways of phrasing, their different ideas about music… I think this is one of the things that stimulated me over the years, to be fortunate enough to be associated with people like that.  So that was a great experience.  That band was rehearsing every Monday night, and I would have to say that that band was the place where started the thought, you know, of the AACM — to actually put together an organization that would function in promoting its members and concerts of their own original music and maintain an educational program for younger, inspired musicians.  These things we carried on from there, as you know.  Like, when the Art Ensemble went to Paris and we carried the banner of the AACM.

At that time also you encountered a number of musicians with whom the relationships have maintained for three decades and more.  Malachi Favors at Wilson Junior College at the time, Jarman, I think Henry Threadgill was around then…

Threadgill.  Jack De Johnette was there.

Braxton before he went in the Army.

Yeah.

And Jack De Johnette at that time I gather had a piano trio with Steve McCall on the drums.

Yeah, he did.  But he was starting to play drums then.  Because he and I used to play drums and saxophone all the time.

So was there a lot of interplay and experimentation and workshopping amongst you, working with different ideas and so forth?

Well, you could say that Muhal’s place was like the meeting place for people.  We’d kind of all show up over there, and then Muhal would be bothered with us, you know, for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.  Amazing.

So Muhal’s place was really sort of the clearing house where all these ideas could come together and be formulated.

That’s right.  And we studied music, art, poetry, whatever.  It was like a school.  It was a school.

Talk a little bit about how your first band that recorded, which recording I believe will be issued for the first time on Nessa… A 1964 recording which I think you mentioned last time…

Yeah, I did mention that.  I still don’t have a release date on that record.  That was an early quartet with Alvin Fielder, Fred Berry, Malachi Favors and myself.

Was that quartet performing all original music by you, or was it a more collectively oriented thing?

The music was mostly by me.  I remember on that one tape there’s a piece by Fred Berry also.

Are there any pieces that you wrote at that time that you still perform to this day, that have lasted?

Oh, certainly.  There’s many.  We still perform “Ornette.”  I still perform “Mister Freddie,” which was recorded on a recent Jodie Christian disk.  We intend to perform “Sound” again.  To me, any music that you do is just a kind of work in progress, so to speak.  So you can at any time go back to that work and extend it or… As for me, I mean, some things that I did with “Sound,” for instance, become more interesting to me now that I could apply maybe circular breathing to those situations, and do something, I don’t want to say more, but do something different with it in the way of expanding it.  So to me, it’s a work in progress.

The Art Ensemble’s Friday night Chicago concert concluded with Malachi Favors’ “Magg Zelma,” but before that you performed “Ornette,” if I’m not mistaken.

“Mister Freddie,” I think it was.

At any rate, I’ve given Roscoe Mitchell the third degree now for about half an hour, so we’ll give him a break right now and play some music.

I thought it was a talk show!
]
[MUSIC: Pilgrimage, “He Didn’t Give Up; He Was Taken” (1994); R. Mitchell Quartet, “Hey, Donald,” “The El” (1994); Art Ensemble of Chicago, “The Alternate Express” (1990).

The next set of music focuses on Roscoe Mitchell with some musicians who played a very important role in his music of the 1980’s, Detroit-based Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal, Hugh Ragin was part of some of your quintet music, and Michael Mossman is another trumpeter who was involved with you.  I’d like to talk about that aspect of your music-making in the 1980’s with Michigan- and Wisconsin-based musicians.

If you look at Michigan, there we had the CAC, which is the Creative Arts Collective, which is a group that followed the same basic fundamentals as the AACM in its structure.  It was a group of musicians that came together; you know, we did our own concerts, we had our small groups and things inside of that larger group and we had concerts for them.  We also brought in musicians from Chicago and New York to do concerts.  We had the help of the Abrams Planetarium on the Michigan State University campus; they let us use their hall for concerts…

This was in the Sixties, the Seventies…?

In the Seventies it was, yes.  So this is another ongoing work in progress, my work with the Detroit musicians.

Do you recollect your earlier meetings with Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal?

I was living in Michigan at that time, and that’s where we met.  Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal weren’t there at that time.  It was Spencer Barefield, one of the musicians who I saw the other night at the AACM 30th Anniversary, Dushan Moseley was there, and other Michigan musicians, William Townley… Guys who…we had put together an organization that, like I was saying, was similar in philosophy to the AACM — for that purpose.

I guess interplay between the AACM and the Detroit-based musicians goes back to concert exchanges in the 1960’s, when Chicago musicians would go to Detroit to present concerts and vice-versa.

That’s true, but that was largely due to John Sinclair, who at that time was the leader of the Detroit…God, what was it… It wasn’t the White Panther Party then.  It was another name.  Then he went on to be the leader of the Rainbow People in Ann Arbor.  But they had their own newspaper in there, and they had like maybe a whole city block there, where they had places for performances, for musicians or artists to come and be involved in the program that they had there.

This group developed in some very interesting ways, and I guess was the kernel for several offshoot groups — the Note Ensemble and various editions of the Roscoe Mitchell Sound Ensemble.  I’ll repeat a question I asked earlier:  In working with these particular groups, what are the dynamics of each of them that impact your writing or arranging or structuring of sound for either the musicians or the overall ensemble?

Well, I’m hearing different things for different situations.  Like you said, those groups can be broken down, because I’ve worked with different varieties of those groups.  But the Note Factory is getting closer to I guess this grande sound that I’m hearing.  That’s why we have like the two basses and the two drums and piano and myself as the bare bones of it.  Eventually we’d probably like to have two pianos, and then I’ve thought of a couple of other horn players to go with that sound — it would probably be Hugh Ragin and George Lewis.

You recently were on a record of George Lewis, in acoustic duos and interactions with the Voyager computer program.

That’s true.  We also did a concert at IRCAM this last summer in June, which was a concert at IRCAM for the Voyager program.

[MUSIC: Mitchell/Ragin/Tabbal, “Fanfare For Talib” (1981); Note Factory “Uptown Strut” (1987); Bergman/Buckner/Mitchell “Looking Around” (1995); Mitchell (solo) “Sound Pictures #3: Solo For Winds and Percussion” (1995)]

Our thanks to Roscoe Mitchell.  One final question about solo performance.  Your solo work on record goes back to the 1960’s, and continues to this day, I gather, with some frequency.

Yes, that’s true.  I’ve always been interested in solo playing as one of the options.

What’s attractive to you about solo playing?

Well, one thing I can say about solo playing, if you’re listening to me, and I sound like an orchestra and not a saxophone, then I’m successful to some degree.  When you’re playing with someone else, I guess you can always blame them for messing up.  But if you’re playing with yourself, then you have to blame your own self.  So it’s a challenge, of course… Well, it’s a challenge playing with someone else, too.  So to me, I just see it as one of the parts that make up the whole picture.

Is there a process of trying to transcend the saxophone, whatever limitations there are in performing it?

Well, I think everybody does that when they are really successful at whatever it is that they are doing.  You actually do transform the instrument that you’re playing.  I mean, the instrument is just the vehicle by which you are able to transmit the sounds.

[MUSIC: RM (solo) “Nonaah” (1976)]

ROSCOE:

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