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On the 63rd Birth Anniversary Of Michael Brecker, A 2000 DownBeat Article

In 2000 I had the honor of writing a long cover story for DownBeat about the extraordinary tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker on the occasion of his then-current CD, Time Is Of The Essence. He’d joined me several years before on WKCR, and, as the ’00s progressed, I was asked to write publicity bios for several of his recordings. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for five years—today would be his 63rd birthday.

* * *

Michael Brecker (Downbeat Article):

At fifty, Michael Brecker is perhaps the most copied living saxophonist, During his thirty years as a professional improviser, he’s made his mark on every conceivable musical circumstance, from hard core jazz to hard core pop. Brecker no longer needs to prove anything to anyone, but a few holes remained in his resume at the beginning of 1999.

For one thing, the tenor saxophonist had never explored the capacious sonic field of the organ-guitar rhythm section, a mainstay for any young saxman coming up, as Brecker did, in an organ town like ‘60s Philadelphia.  Nor had Brecker, whose debt on every level to the John Coltrane Quartet is no secret, ever locked horns in a studio with drum innovator Elvin Jones, a lifelong hero.

Brecker rectifies both gaps on Time Is Of The Essence [Verve], his third consecutive release devoted to full-bore improvising.  Hammond futurist Larry Goldings and guitar icon Pat Metheny frame the leader’s urgent declamations, while elder statesman Jones and two descendants — Jeff Watts and Bill Stewart, cutting-edge tradition piggybackers with their own trapset dialects — sculpt the rhythm flow on three selections apiece. Goldings, a proactive comper and imaginative soloist, trumps the leader’s ideas and tosses out intriguing postulations; Metheny, an infrequent visitor to the organ function, plays with bluesy feel and spare discretion.  With a tone whose muscularity is less buff and more fluid than some years back, Brecker plays with characteristic blue-flame-to-white-heat clarity, a hungry master searching for — and often reaching — the next level.

For Brecker — who came of age when seminal language-makers like Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were alive and creative, when today’s “classic” Blue Note albums were hot off the presses — the search seems to involve reaching out to younger musicians like Watts and Goldings whose aesthetic embraces investigating and revitalizing the tradition, not exploding it.

“That’s an interesting point,” Brecker responds when I propose this idea to him.  He’s tall, fit, bald with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee, stylishly spectacled.  He speaks in measured tones belying the sturm und drang that characterizes his tenor saxophone voice.  “The dynamics of the musical scene were quite different when I first arrived in New York, and we were coming from a different place.  The advent of the newer generation of musicians allows me to play in the jazz tradition in a way that doesn’t feel retro.  It feels fresh.  ‘Time Is Of The Essence’ involves a certain amount of looking back.”

Brecker’s comfort level with the organ dates to childhood; his father, Robert, a lawyer and semiprofessional jazz pianist, even brought a Hammond B3 for the household.  “My father and I played it a bit,” Brecker recalls, “and my brother Randy got pretty good on it.  I listened to organ records by Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine, plus my Dad took me to hear Jimmy Smith in Philly, where organ trios played all over the city.  Every day as a teenager after school I played drums along with Larry Young’s Unity, which Elvin is on, and both saxophone and drums along with Coltrane records like A Love Supreme.  I played a lot with Eric Gravatt, an incredible drummer who was living in Philadelphia then, who later played with McCoy Tyner and Weather Report,  He exposed me to a lot of things I hadn’t heard, and different ways of playing.  We did a lot of duet playing, just drums and saxophone.  He used to set an alarm clock for an hour, and we’d improvise straight through — killin’!”

We’re sitting in the cluttered conference room of his management suite high above Times Square.  The closed windows cannot mute the blare of traffic and rattle of nearby construction.  Distracted by the cacophony from the street, Brecker lifts his lanky frame from the chair, strides to the window and peers up and down to ascertain that it indeed is closed.  A row of meteorites, from the private stock of manager Darryl Pitt, who sells them, lies on a shelf against the wall.  Brecker looks for one, picks it up, ponders it, has me feel its dense heft and smooth metallic bottom.  We marvel at the wonders of the universe, then return to the table to continue the third degree.

“Why this record now?  I can honestly say I don’t know!” he laughs.  I didn’t think of it in terms of, ‘Oh, now it’s the millennium and it’s time for an organ record.  I just knew that I wanted to record with Larry Goldings.  His sensibility reminds me of Larry Young.  I love everything about Larry’s playing — his sound and sense of time.  He’s funky as hell, and has a comprehensive harmonic palette that’s unusual for an organist — possibly because he’s also a superb pianist.  I thought it would be fabulous to couple him with Pat, which turned out to be a natural.  Pat plays compositionally, melodically, intensely; he he has his own sound which blends with mine in a way that pleases my ear.  I love Pat’s thinking process, quick and very decisive.  My last three records have all been jazz, where you have only a few days to resolve problems, unlike more produced records with electronics where the mixes are more convoluted and complex.  When I’m sitting on the fence Pat will express very firm opinions and force me to make a decision.”

Brecker credits a five-week European tour two decades ago with Metheny, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Jack deJohnette, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, documented on ‘80/’81 (ECM), as a pivotal transition in a career during which he’d played with Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, the Brecker Brothers, and on several hundred studio dates as the most in-demand session saxophonist in the world.

“I’d moved to New York in ‘69,” he notes, “and became involved in a loosely organized association of about 25 creative players who had been playing in each other’s lofts that was basically led by Dave Liebman with the assistance of Richie Beirach,” he relates.  “It was called Free Life Communication, and we put on our own concerts, playing a lot of very free music.  It was a special time to be in New York.  That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then Pop music and Jazz were becoming very blurry, and those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you’ll excuse the word, of various elements.  The music was fresh, exciting, powerful and exhilarating.  We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as Jazz-Rock.  The culmination of that for me was the group initially referred to as Dreams, which recorded for Columbia.  Our milieu dispersed because we started getting gigs, and we all left that loft scene and branched out.

“During the tour with Pat, Charlie and Jack I experienced freedom differently than in the early New York days.  It was such an open environment; the way they interacted, the way the music was conceptualized made me feel a tremendous sense of freedom, like I could play anything.  There was a type of communication in present time on stage that I hadn’t experienced before.  Something about it caused a directional shift in my approach to playing.”

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Metheny clarifies the point. “I’ve heard Mike and some of his friends say he came back from that tour a changed person, which makes me feel really good!  “I wrote that music for the way I imagined he sounded.  His first Impulse record had basically the same band as 80/’81, and we took up where that record left off.  Mike has evolved into a great composer, which you could see coming with the Brecker Brothers.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing is really advanced.  Very little three-horn writing in any sphere today approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record 25 years ago.  I go to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that hip.

“Michael’s music is so dense, the hardest music I could imagine playing.  That’s true on all three of his records I’ve been on, and it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on them.  He finds ways to play straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I look up to Brecker the way I do to Herbie Hancock.  They remind me of each other in that both are so advanced harmonically that it just isn’t an issue.  I would aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom.  Tales From the Hudson is the date I point to as the most satisfying I’ve done as a sideman in the past few years, or maybe really ever.  To me, that kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way the record felt as a whole, is what Modern Jazz is in the ‘90s.  The new one is a continuation, and compositionally it’s the best of them all.”

Brecker’s dance to the vivid beats of the different drummers on Time Is Of The Essence takes the session beyond being just another well played all-star date.  “In the last few years I’ve played a lot with Jeff Watts, which is enormous fun,” he remarks.  “He plays conversationally, constantly feeds me ideas and responds to ideas in present time, gets rhythmic layers going without sacrificing the swing.  Bill Stewart has taken the drum scene by storm.  He’s come in with his own language, a sensibility on the instrument that I’ve never heard.  He has a dry sense of humor, great warmth, tremendous dynamics.  He’s a groove-master, also a conversational player but in a different way than Tain.  It’s interesting that both Bill and Tain are tremendous composers, and I think that carries over into their playing.”

During a Brecker-Metheny brainstorming session, the guitarist, recalling Unity, suggested including Elvin Jones.  “I thought it was a great idea,” Brecker relates.  “I’d sat in with Elvin one night at Slugs in 1970 or ‘71 when Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were playing with him, and later I met him over dinner at a friend’s house, but we hadn’t really played.  I was thrilled to have him, because he’s one of my idols, and such a consummate artist in every way.  The beat even felt wider than I expected, like an open field.  It feels like utter freedom playing with him.”

Reciprocating, Jones asked Brecker to join a first-class edition of the Jazz Machine for his 72nd birthday week at Manhattan’s Blue Note in October, allotting his guest a ballad feature per set, which included “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight.”  “I had a lot of fun, and learned a few things, too,” Brecker remarks.  “By the end of the week I was using a less notey rhythmic approach, leaving more space, generally playing less, which seemed to allow the music more room to breathe.”

Not that Brecker’s present sound is anywhere near serene or spare.  Yet a quality of intuitive reflection — perhaps the term is mature wisdom — inflects his locutions on recent recordings and guest shots.  The latter occur with increasingly less frequency than the years when he accumulated most of the 525 sideman appearances cited in the February 1998 discography from http://www.michaelbrecker.com, which reads like a history of ‘70s-‘80s Pop and Fusion — Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Chaka Khan, Lou Reed and dozens more.

Why did Brecker’s sound become an iconic signifier of the period?  “My roots were a combination of jazz and R&B,” Brecker reflects matter-of-factly. “I grew up in Philadelphia listening to Miles and Trane, Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman (I could go on and on), as well as R&B and Rock.  I genuinely loved them both, and happened to have a sensibility that let me go in many directions.  It was never my plan to end up in the studios — not that I had a plan.  It really started through the horn section in Dreams.  Randy is so great in so many different contexts, and he already was established in New York.  Dreams made a couple of records for Columbia, became known as a section after a few more records, and a there was a chain reaction.”

But there’s more to Brecker’s aura than felicitous timing, superhero chops, and enviable ability to size up a situation instantly and conjure an apropos, often poetic response.  It’s called respect, manifested in study and preparation.  Consider his duo with Richard Bona on the young Cameroonian bassist-guitarist-vocalist-drummer’s recently issued Scenes From My Life.

“If Michael was in my country, people would call him a wizard!” Bona exclaims.  “This piece, ‘Konda Djanea,’ is a 6/8 rhythm from the Oualla people on the west coast of Cameroon.  There is a certain way to phrase it.  You cannot just blow anything; it’s going right to the heart.  I didn’t send him tapes before we went in the studio, because I didn’t want him to get familiar with it.  I wanted him just to bring his own thing.  I knew he could blow on that, and it happened exactly how I heard it!  Michael has listened to this music for years, has learned it and understands it.  And not just music from Cameroon, but a lot of different music.  He’s a very serious, open-minded musician with a high level of understanding.”

Pat Metheny agrees with Bona’s assessment.  “Sometimes I hear people put him down — ‘Oh, it’s technical and all flash,’” he says.  “I’d like to see any of them follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced, and very few musicians on any instrument can do it.  It’s because he’s deep!  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  He can just keep going, the way Herbie Hancock can.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.”

Bassist John Patitucci, a friend and collaborator for close to twenty years who has employed Brecker on 6 albums, is well-positioned to analyze the saxophonist’s mystique.  “Michael is a darn good drummer in an Elvin kind of style, and he can swing,” he observes.  “From a rhythm section standpoint, time is the communication link, the mode of speech; his time is flexible and incredibly strong, which is very appealing.  He’s got the history of the horn in his playing, yet he was able to forge a personal sound and statement, which is very hard to find among post-Coltrane guys.  His sound was always very fat and warm; maybe it’s a little darker now than before.  I’m sure any composer who has ever worked with him is impressed with his ability to assimilate a melody emotionally and lyrically, and deliver it with power and vulnerability at the same time — there’s a personality attached to it.  He’s an influence in all styles, which is also rare; not many real jazz musicians are able to internalize the stylistic nuances of other musics.  Michael is very self-effacing and self-critical, but a brilliant human being, yet very approachable, which is rare for someone that brilliant.  For instance, he’s coached me extensively in African music — what records to get and so forth.”

Brecker’s coach was Barry Rogers, the pioneering trombonist with Eddie Palmieri, and a member of the Dreams horn section.  “Barry was my first close friend in New York,” Brecker recalls.  “I miss him.  He was older than me, and he took me under his wing, helped me feel comfortable living in New York.  He was the first to play me African music (out of Guinea, to be exact), and I was smitten by it.  He was the first to play me Cajun music and Latin music.  Barry could take music apart and analyze it very well, and he experienced it on a very deep level, spiritually and emotionally, with tremendous excitement — a very basic instinct that I was attracted to.  We have certain similarities.  I definitely don’t have his ability to communicate excitement, but we were excited by the same things — a certain rhythmic and harmonic tension and release that gets my skin going, that reaches me, as it reached Barry, in a deep emotional-spiritual place.”

In middle age, does Brecker now find he can access the spiritual fount of invention more readily?  “I can’t comment, even off the record,” he says.  “There’s so much going on in that area.  Isn’t that weird?”  Is he doing non-musical things in preparation?  “Yes.”  His regimen?  He utters some nonsense syllables.  Exercise?  “Absolutely.”  Meditation?   “A bit.”  Anything else?  He folds his lower teeth over his upper lip in a mock grimace. “It’s personal stuff.”

Moving from metaphysics to the tangible, Brecker still spends plenty of time in the practice room.  “When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to practice,” he says.  “I try go to soundchecks a little early, and practice before the gig, at the gig.  I don’t like to play in hotel rooms because I’m self-conscious about bothering other people.  When I’m home and have the time and some ideas, I enjoy practicing.  I enjoy the experience of learning new things, then watching it come out in the playing.  I never really work on technique per se.  Sometimes I practice simple things, filling in holes in my knowledge.  I always write down a list of new ideas, like interesting note relationships, and I work on them at home.  Eventually it comes out in my playing.  It comes out better when I don’t try to force it, but just try and learn things and then let it take its course.”

Brecker’s immersion in African music reached another level during Paul Simon’s 1991 Graceland tour, when he met the bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini.  “Having the opportunity to be around them was like a door swinging open, because they were a direct source I could ask questions to,” he says.  “If we were listening to something, I’d first ask where one was, what the words meant.  I’d ask about the structure, the meaning of the rhythm, whether they were hearing it in 6 or in 12 or in 3 or in 4 or in 9.  Armand would tap the rhythm on my arm as he heard it, which often was very different from where I was hearing it.”

Does he see himself blending African tropes with his recent more vernacular-oriented style? “I’m actually looking at it fairly closely right now, though it’s difficult for me for me to articulate it just yet.  But it does play a big part of my music in the future.  Jazz has its origins in Africa, so the aesthetic is built into the music automatically.  At the same time there’s been constant back-and-forth cross pollination; you hear the influence of jazz in African music today and vice-versa.  Even saying ‘African music’ is misleading because it’s so wildly diverse, with so many varieties coming off the continent.  In conceptualizing a future project, I’m thinking more in terms of musicians that I would play with.”

That open-ended intersection of personalities is what we hear throughout Time Is Of The Essence.  “Compared to other instruments, the saxophone is relatively easy,” the four-time Grammy winner and father of two muses.  “Because it’s possible to play so much on it, what’s difficult is learning to edit.  Certainly my playing is more relaxed than it’s ever been,  Maybe some of that is just through age, growing up a bit.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Michael Brecker, Tenor Saxophone

For Dave Holland’s 65th Birthday, a Jazziz feature from 2004

In honor of the 65th birthday of Dave Holland, the master bassist and composer, I’m posting a pair of features—one for Jazziz, from 2004; the other for DownBeat from 2005 in recognition of his victory in the DB Critics Poll.

Jazziz Feature:

“Nine times out of 10 when bass players subbed for Ron Carter in Miles’ band,” Herbie Hancock recalls, “Tony Williams would play really loud to cover them up, so they wouldn’t interfere with what the band was doing. And we would know in the first bars whether they should be covered up or not! But we didn’t cover up Dave Holland. His instincts were adequate and it sounded cool. ‘OK, he’s cool.’ That’s what it was.”

It was the end of the long, hot summer of 1968, and the Miles Davis Quintet was beginning a three-week engagement opposite Max Roach at Count Basie’s in Harlem. Holland, a 21-year-old Englishman with blond hair that fell over his shoulders, had flown to New York from London the previous afternoon, brought his bags to Jack DeJohnette’s apartment, and visited Herbie Hancock to review a few tunes. “I turned up at the club the next night and started,” he recalls. “I didn’t talk to anybody; I was just waiting to see what would happen. The next thing I know, Tony Williams is sitting behind the drums, so I get up and take my bass, and still nobody said anything. And Miles goes up to the mike and starts playing the first tune. It was ‘Agitation,’ which I’d heard on record — really just a trumpet line. And then the band comes in with a fast tempo, and we’re gone.”

Thus, the master bassist launched the still ongoing American phase of one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz — one marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. During the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with fluid structuralists Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a singular language for solo bass and cello. In Gateway, an open-ended trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. And he demonstrated his bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and in groups led by such iconic tonal personalities as Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Thelonious Monk.

Along the way, Holland created the lyric masterpiece, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1972), conjuring a set of tunes so strong that even the ferocious gusts of Braxton and Rivers couldn’t fracture their melodic essence. Still, Holland eschewed leader ambitions until 1980, when he fell seriously ill with endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. He recovered, took stock, and decided never again to neglect inner imperatives. Within a few years, he’d joined forces with M-BASE rhythmetricians Steve Coleman, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Robin Eubanks, and with them made a series of records containing some of most compelling speculative music of the ’80s. By 1994, Holland — influenced by a decade of metric exploration and extensive “inside” playing with Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock’s trio — was beginning to look for, in his words, “a harmonic context” within which to frame his personal vision of music. As he told me that year in his precise, meticulous manner, “I’m increasingly involved in creating closed-form music with an open-form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing.”

By 1998, Holland’s quintet comprised Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Billy Kilson — each a virtuoso improviser of formidable skill. All contributed pieces to Prime Directive (ECM, 1999) and Not For Nothin’ (ECM, 2001), albums that document a unit supremely in balance. Never sublimating their voices, they play with an attitude of openness and ensemble community. These albums are filled with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, singing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.

“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland says. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.

“The tonal density of keyboard often is not what I’m looking for when I structure music. I’m trying to structure it with air. When I write a large chord with a big span, I want there to be space inside it so that it resonates in an open, transparent way. In the early days I didn’t want to use a chordal instrument; I was writing for open form along the Ornette Coleman model of having a very distinctive melodic line, sometimes with accompanying harmonies, which would launch the piece into a certain sound. But as the ’80s progressed, I started to write increasingly in a way that I needed that chordal presence. Guitar with Kevin Eubanks worked really well for me; the instrument has six strings, and you have to play it with a certain sparseness. Vibraphone is the same way; four mallets is the maximum you can expect to play with, so you’re limited to four-note chords.”

Holland extrapolated those quintet concepts for 13-piece orchestra on his most recent album, What Goes Around [ECM], a 2002 poll-sweeper and Grammy nominee. “The idea was to enhance the improvisational aspects of the music with a broader palette of composition and colors, and a larger cast of characters to write for,” he says. “I was particularly influenced by the way Thad Jones wrote so beautifully for all the instruments, so that each part is interesting unto itself, has its own logic and function, and feels like a melody line. I see the written material as functioning like a pianist or vibraphonist might work. The band comes in and provokes or pushes the soloist in certain ways, but they don’t pull the attention away.”

The content meets the hype. Lyric, contemporary, and constantly stimulating, What Goes Around contains some of the most consequential large-ensemble music in recent memory. “At first, I was intimidated,” Holland says matter-of-factly about his decision to take on the project. “I never trained as an orchestral writer; I got my guidelines through listening to records and reading books. But I felt it was time to take on the creative challenge of enlarging the vocabulary I was working on. My wife, Clare, has always encouraged me to rely more on gut feeling — that first reaction to something. It’s helped put me in touch with how I feel about music. I’ve tried to focus in on that musical language in recent years, and not be afraid of romanticism or lyricism. During the ’70s, I was around a lot of ground-breaking music, and I admired people like Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers so much that I felt my pretty little songs were maybe a little too mundane. I’ve stopped worrying about that. Let me just put it out there and, as the Sufis say, ‘plant your banner firmly in the desert sand’ and let people see where you are.”

BREAK

Observed in retrospect, the 40 years of career-shaping twists and turns that comprise Holland’s oeuvre have the appearance of an inexorable conquering march. He began his journey 57 years ago in the inauspicious environs of Wolverhampton, England, a Midlands steel city that in 1951 held some 160,000 souls.

“There’s no music in my family at all,” Holland relates. “My father, who left us when I was about a year old, apparently was an amateur saxophone player in the Army during the war, but I didn’t know him or his family. We lived with my grandparents. My grandfather and uncle worked in factories, and my mother was a secretary. It was a happy house, and I was always encouraged to play music. They’d get me to play my ukulele at family get-togethers and things like that. My mother remarried. It was not a successful marriage, and we had some problems in the family. So I left school when I was 15 to help her out.

“I’d started playing bass guitar in garage bands when I was 13, but it hadn’t occurred to me to treat music as anything but a hobby. I realized that I was making a few pounds a night playing dances and so on, and decided to do it professionally. Then I thought I should hear some other bass players. I found Ray Brown’s name in a DownBeat poll, bought Affinity and Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio, and said, ‘I want to sound like that!’ A week later I had an acoustic bass. I memorized Ray’s walking-bass lines, the same as I’d learn the melody of a song, and incorporated the ideas on gigs, reassembling them in my manner. By that process, I learned how to construct the shape of the line, how to lead the harmony, how to support and launch the soloists.

“Jazz connected with me emotionally but also intellectually for the incredible precision and level of playing and for the dialogue that goes on. The idea of conversation has remained a key element for me all the way through. No other music in the Western world is like it because it’s an in-the-moment narrative and it’s different every time. But I had no ambitions to be a ‘jazz musician.’ I just wanted to be a musician and play jazz as one of the things I could do.”

In the summer of 1963, Holland took his first job as a professional acoustic bassist, playing music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller with a 15-piece dance band at resorts in northern England. At season’s end, a tenor player in the band offered him a gig at a Greek restaurant in London. Holland seized the opportunity. The ambitious teenager began to create a new context for his life.

The period is not well-documented, but Holland’s London years contained the seeds of everything he would subsequently do. He dual tracked, sitting in at clubs in the hopes of networking into London’s fractious, rambunctious jazz scene, and took lessons from James E. Merritt, the principal bassist in the London Philharmonic. Merritt encouraged the prodigy to enroll at Guildhall Music School in 1965.

“I played all the time,” Holland says. “I was principal bassist in the school orchestra after the first year. So, apart from preparing for my bass lesson, I had to prepare the bass section for the orchestral repertoire. I played ‘Rites of Spring’ or the music of Bartok with rehearsal orchestras, and did contemporary chamber music by Xenakis, Penderecki, and Stockhausen. There was a big New Orleans revival in England in the ’60s, and initially I played a lot of Louis Armstrong Hot Five and King Oliver arrangements in pubs. It made a lasting impression. I loved the layers of sound when the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone were improvising together. That’s one reason why I loved Ellington and Mingus. My bands have never been about solo after solo, but about collective dialogue.”

Holland also began to absorb music from non-Western cultures, taking advantage of London’s large Indian community to hear concerts by Vilad Khan and Pannalal Ghosh before informed and enthusiastic audiences. “The incredible development of rhythm in Indian music, the discipline of learning these very involved cycles, and how to subdivide them, was very influential,” he notes. “Evan Parker introduced me to the UNESCO series of world-music records, and I listened to music from Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Africa. The rhythmic complexity and polyphonic aspect of Pygmy music was incredible. I’d never heard anything like the way two voices would integrate the rhythms and tones so they bounced off each other and created a third, completely different element.[“]

By 1967, Holland was one of London’s busiest session bassists. “I was starting to get a reputation as a good reader, and by this point, they knew that I played a lot of jazz,” he says. He received a call to sub on a recording by the John Dankworth Orchestra of Kenny Wheeler’s Windmill Tilter, a narrative composition of nine movements based loosely around the Don Quixote story. “I got to the studio and played this incredible suite of music,” he recalls. “It was complex, and once I listened to the record and heard the detail of the writing, it blew me away. That was my earliest creative big-band playing. I also played with the Chris McGregor Brotherhood of Breath, which had musicians like Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, and Johnny Dyani. The collective spirit of the music had a big effect on me. Chris was influenced a lot by Ellington, by South African traditional music, and by the contemporary music of Cecil Taylor. He mixed free playing with powerful rhythmic counterpoint melodies that he’d write for the band. And the band played them with an incredible freewheeling spirit. It was like no other band I’d ever played with, and the most interesting big-band work that I did in England.”

Holland’s flawless musicianship and utter disregard for dogma enabled him to bridge London’s various cliques. He played with such Eurocentric free improvisers as Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, and Trevor Watts, as well as with post-boppers like John Surman, Tony Coe, and John Taylor. After 1966, he participated in high-level encounters after-hours at premises formerly occupied by tenor saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott. Sometimes he arrived directly from gigs with the likes of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, or Joe Henderson at Scott’s new venue, where pianist Pat Smythe had recruited him for the house rhythm section, with drummers Tony Oxley and John Marshall.

“To me it’s always been important to play for the music you’re playing,” Holland remarks. “In 1968, I was finishing a month-long engagement at Ronnie Scott’s with Pat Smythe behind a singer named Elaine Delmar, opposite Bill Evans, who had Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. It was high-level playing — standards, nice arrangements, and so on. Miles came into the club fairly early one night and stayed. I presumed he was there to hear Bill and didn’t think twice that he’d even be listening to us. So it didn’t faze me very much, and I kept playing as I wanted for that context. As I was going up to the stand for my last set, Philly Joe Jones — who lived in London at the time — came up and said, ‘Dave, Miles told me to tell you that he wants you to join his band.’ I think had I done anything else than enhance the situation to the best of my abilities, Miles would never have offered me the gig.”

With Miles, Holland learned to be at once anchored and abstract — how to set up a bottom and also fly. And he developed his skills as a soloist. “One thing Dave got from Miles is the ability to project the intention and sound of his ideas on the instrument,” says Jack DeJohnette, a close friend who first met Holland at Ronnie Scott’s in 1966. “Dave can do a solo and grab people like a horn player. He can get an audience standing on their feet. He learned from Miles how to be consistent and focused, like a ray from a laser beam.”

He also found his instrumental voice. “In London, I would put on different masks, depending on the musical situation,” he says. “I’d listen to Ron alter the bass notes and reharmonize the chords. I’d listen to Ray and try to get that walking feeling and interaction. I listened to Scott LaFaro for the freer dialogue and to Gary Peacock with Albert Ayler for more open-form situations. I listened to Jymie Merritt, who is an unsung hero, but brilliant in the original way he broke up time with Max Roach. I was still in that phase when I joined Miles. Then one night, when Tony Williams was still in the band, we were playing a place called the Black Bottom in Montreal, and I remember suddenly feeling that I was no longer any of those people. Something happened, where I felt a connection with myself. I also started realizing that I wasn’t going to succeed in sounding like anyone else. I came back to New York, and my practicing changed. I forced myself to start from scratch. What’s a major scale about? What do these intervals mean? How are they put together? How many ways can I see to reorganize this idea? How can I break down my rhythmic ideas into a system that will allow me to expand on things I’m already doing? I started getting back much more to the building blocks of the music and brought out the elements I wanted to develop.”

Most importantly, Holland learned to shape narrative from musical flow. “I see theater and music as related in some ways,” he says. “In the theater a cast of characters and scenes and events unfold, one leads to another. Sometimes time is compressed and you suddenly find yourself jumping a couple of years. There are moments of drama and contemplation, and emotional climaxes and then lulls. Miles was a master of this whole element of pace. Each night, on any tune, I experienced a different take on how that development could happen. Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of assembling a sequence of events that takes the listener through an emotional and intellectual journey. What’s important is how you craft that journey and make it work for the listener. In other words, how you portray the music without compromising its elements and language. Ellington’s great suites — like “Harlem Air Shaft” — take you on a trip, a journey through life, a feeling about something. When music works at its best for me, that’s what it’s doing — taking me on a trip.”

BREAK

That three-week engagement at Count Basie’s happened to be Herbie Hancock’s last with Miles. He and Holland would not make music again until 1990, when they toured with DeJohnette and Pat Metheny on DeJohnette’s Parallel Realities project.

“Following that, I expressed to him how much I’d enjoyed it, and he asked if I’d like to do some more things,” Holland relates. “He started calling me for the trio. We played extensively together, and it influenced me deeply. Herbie puts the creative demand on himself to play something fresh every night, even on compositions he’s been playing since the ’60s. That level of improvisation is extraordinary, and so is the dialogue he gets into with the other musicians. He’s taking in everything and throwing it right back out. The joy that he puts into his music somehow released something in me. I was taking music very seriously, maybe too seriously. I don’t mean to belittle seriousness, but seriousness has to be tempered with joy. Herbie brought me in touch with the joy of playing music in a special way.”

Hancock returns the compliment. “I put Dave in the category of Ron Carter,” he says flatly. “That’s the top. He carves out his own territory, which is just as valid as what Ron does. He has a sound I happen to like – very rich. And I like his time, where he places the notes when playing walking bass. But he doesn’t depend on walking. He plays different rhythmic and melodic things — even accompanying the piano — and knows when to move from one to the other. He knows all the stuff harmonically, and he’s very intelligent and open, and responds quickly. Adventurous, too; not afraid to venture into unknown waters. Maybe the key word is balance. He’s an extremely well-balanced bass player, top to bottom — it’s just the way he is. If a bass player is too egotistical or has problems with his own self-assurance or identity, it will affect his playing and, therefore, will affect the rest of the band. Dave is his own man. He’s comfortable with himself, and he’s eager to listen and learn — giving and receiving at the same time. I admire him greatly as a human being. His solid, formidable character, all that love and graciousness and respect for humanity exudes through his playing.”

In spite of all this, Holland, who in 1990 was a household name to anyone with a serious interest in jazz, was still continuing to find it difficult, as he puts it, “to step into the limelight and assert myself in terms of what I wanted to do.”

“As a young man I was quite shy,” he continues. “I would often take a long time to voice my opinion until I saw it was safe to do so. I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis of my childhood, but a lot of things happened then that formulated my approach to dealing with life. Like anyone else, I carried a lot of baggage. Sometimes my democratic and sharing approach would weaken my ability to realize an idea — ‘OK, this is only my idea; maybe I should just let whatever is going to happen, happen.’ Actually, around that time I had a long conversation with Betty Carter. She was like Miles in that she could center in on what was important, and she told me some things that were essential in giving me courage to voice my opinions and be more decisive in following through on ideas. ‘It’s your band,’ she said. ‘Your name is on the music.’”

BREAK

Recorded at the beginning of 2000, What Goes Around is Holland’s inaugural salvo on the big-band front — but probably not the last. “The quintet will remain my full-time project as long as it stays together,” he says. “But I see the big band extending way out into the future as an ongoing challenge.” Last fall, in support of the record, he embarked on a month-long tour of the United States and Europe that served as a platform to develop older compositions and some newer work, including pieces by Robin Eubanks and his old friend Kenny Wheeler. At the tour’s conclusion, he went into the studio with his road-tested unit to make an album scheduled for 2004 release.

“When I started the quintet in ’97 and recorded the first selection of music for the group, I only knew the starting point I wanted,” Holland notes. “I would never have presumed it would lead to Not For Nothin’. In all good bands, the music develops out of the people involved as a group. As the quintet played together, relationships started to appear, and I and the other musicians who are writing have been able to take advantage of the personalities that emerged. That’s now happening with the big band from performing the music every night, which we hadn’t done. Certainly how we use dynamics has developed. Everybody is learning how their own written parts fit in with everything else in the band, which creates a strong, more unified sound.”

That process played out exquisitely during the last set of an exhilarating four-night, mid-tour residence at Birdland. Smiling broadly, his bass firmly planted onstage, Holland struck the downbeat signaling baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan to blow the elemental melody of “Triple Dance.” The trumpets entered with counterlines, then the trombones with another counterline, and the joyful romp — orchestrated by Holland’s endlessly driving grooves and Billy Kilson’s fluent, surging beats — was on. There were no slack moments. The compositions seemed tailored to such distinctive youngsters as Antonio Hart, Mark Turner, Mark Gross, Josh Roseman, and Alex Sipiagin, whose responses propelled the creative momentum. Their deep connection with the music was palpable.

“Miles worked simultaneously at creating a focus for the band but also drawing on the energy and creative power of his younger players,” Holland says. “I’m not prejudiced against older players or younger players; I’m mostly interested in good players. But the player who’s developing and searching and striving gives the music an edge.

“For me, players find each other. You gravitate towards the things that you need to do. And I’ve been fortunate to be in situations where I heard certain players, they heard me, and were interested in working together. Out of that we’ve made some very good music.”

Downbeat Article, 2005:

“I just want dialogue,” says bassist Dave Holland, encapsulating his musical first principles. “The quality of community in ensemble is central to everything I’ve done. Jazz is an in-the-moment narrative, and it’s different every time. No other music in the Western world is like that.”

Musical conversation and endless polyphony permeate Holland’s elegant arrangements on Overtime [Dare2], his second recording with a 13-piece big band and first release on his own imprint.

The title resonates on several levels.

For one thing, Down Beat’s 58-year-old 2005 Critics Poll trifecta winner–Best Jazz Artist, Best Big Band, and Best Bassist–evolved his aesthetics over a long timespan. In the early ’60s he internalized three-horn polyphony performing King Oliver and Louis Armstrong Hot Five arrangements on New Orleans revival pub gigs. He spent 1968 to 1980 on the world stage, improvising extemporaneously on abstract structures and tabula rasa canvases with Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. He applied the freedom principle to multiple-meter structures in collectively oriented ’80s units with Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester, Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. During the past decade, he’s committed wholeheartedly to chordal environments with a quintet featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonists Steve Wilson, Chris Potter and Antonio Hart, and drummers Billy Kilson and Nate Smith.

For another, Holland commands a slew of time signatures and metrically modulates them into flow, incorporating four-four swing, triplet structures, and enspiriting beats extrapolated from the ritual musics of pygmy society, India, North Africa, and Indonesia.

“Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of how to assemble a sequence of events that takes the listener through a journey,” Holland says. Renowned as a conjuror of beautiful melodies since his 1972 masterpiece Conference of the Birds,  he facilitates the voyage by molding complex rhythms and harmonies to communicate his tales, conveying maximum meaning with a minimum of notes.

To use Holland’s phrase, Overtime is “closed-form music with an open-form sound.” In the manner of Ellington, Thad Jones, and Kenny Wheeler, all consequential role models, Holland presents customized parts, themselves attractive counter-melodies, to his hand-picked virtuosos—augmenting the quintet are saxophonists Mark Gross, Antonio Hart, and Gary Smulyan; trumpeters Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, and Alex Sipiagin, and trombonists Jonathan Arons and Josh Roseman. He propels their solo inventions with surging, interactive basslines, and responds to them with his own intense variations.

“I’m looking first for a strong individual character to their playing, and secondly, an ability to function within a group context,” Holland says of his personnel. “I prefer not to explain a lot. The musicians need freedom to offer their own ideas and concepts, and not be restricted within the frame of reference you give them. Now, having a structure to work from means you can create tension and resolutions against the structure, which would not be there without the structure. But the written music is a starting point. I’ll hear somebody do something I would never have dreamed of; what I hear happening around me directly affects the ideas I play and develop.”

Urbane and articulate, Holland speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs, and stays resolutely on message. He seems loath to acknowledge that he is the gravitational center of his creative orchestra. But his band members note that they take cues, musical and otherwise, from the leader.

“Freedom isn’t something you always know what to do with,” says Potter. “Dave gives parameters–maybe a completely open vamp section on a rhythmic pattern he’s working on–in which you have freedom that feels more free than Free.”

“Dave takes  risks,” says Smith, Holland’s latest drummer. “He plays loose, over the bar, under the time, and wants to see how far we can stretch. It’s hard to mess up, because everyone is searching for something new and exciting to do. Even the mistakes are golden. He’ll sing me some skeletal pattern that launches the music, usually a clave, in 7 or 9 or 11 or 13. I’ll play it, and maybe add something. He’ll say, ‘Keep that,’ or ‘No matter what you do, I want you to hit this.’ But I’m always thinking about that clave.”

Holland never allows experimental imperatives to interfere with projecting a communicative groove. “Dave is able to transform odd meters and have you nod your head even though it’s not on 2 and 4,” says Duane Eubanks.

“I never played much odd-meter music before this band,” says Smulyan, a veteran of the Vanguard Orchestra, in which Holland played in the early ’70s. “On our first gigs, everyone was counting like crazy. After a few years, I said to Dave, ‘I’m getting a little worried. I’m starting to feel it.’ He just laughed. Now we don’t count. It’s a particular language all its own, and you decode it.

“He’s an amazing bass player. He and I play a lot of bass-baritone figures together, and he’s incredible to hook up with—his pulse, his drive, his sense of rhythm, his groove are all so strong.”

Holland is adamant that freedom entails responsibility. “People’s personal lives are nothing to do with me,”  he says. “My interest is that the gig happens the way it’s supposed to, that the band is ready to play, and that the conditions of our contractual agreements are kept.”

“It doesn’t get much better than this aesthetically, so cats won’t act out of line,” says Eubanks. “Dave’s not cocky. He’s very aware who he is, and he’s satisfied with it. Now, if things deviate, he’ll step in. He’s a stickler for punctuality. He’s at least 10 minutes early every time. Usually 15. Once I missed a flight, though I made the gig. He pulled me over, like, ‘Man, take advantage of the situation.’ Even when he’s mad at you, it’s like he’s not mad at you.”

“Dave’s humility grabbed me first,” says Gross. “He eliminates the distance between bandleader and band-member. For instance, everyone knows I love coffee. Backstage at a gig once, just joking, I said, ‘What is this? No coffee back here?’ Dave went to the promoter and said, ‘Mark wants some coffee. What can we do about that?’ I was really embarrassed! Later he asked, ‘Did you get your coffee, Mark?’ I thanked him. ‘Oh, no problem.’ Of course, once you get on stage, he IS the bandleader, but he commands that through the music, not so much through words.

“He won’t tolerate unprofessionalism or disrespect. Once at a festival, the promoters brought out a vibraphone for Steve Nelson that was like a high school toy set.. Dave said, ‘This is not what he plays on; he needs the professional set of vibes that we stipulated in the rider.’ ‘We can’t get them, Mr. Holland.’ ‘Well, I’m not playing.’ Now, this is a huge festival, lots of money involved. He told the band, ‘Stay at the hotel. This gig might be cancelled. Don’t worry; you all WILL be paid.’”

“A few days after 9/11, we flew to Monterrey,” Hart relates. “That’s a testament to how we feel about Dave, because we were scared; nobody wanted to get on the plane. Before we played, he talked to the people about being strong and turning this tragedy around. It wasn’t a spiritual spiel, but I thought his words were needed, to help us understand we need to push forward, do our job and try to bring beauty into the world.”

With the orchestra booked in Europe for the entire month of July, Holland intends to let the market determine his next step.

“We’ve been able to work consistently throughout the year, but I don’t want to overwork the band or put it on the road when conditions aren’t correct,” he says. “I want everyone to feel good about the situation–that we’re paid properly, and play nice venues.”

Asked how he envisions his sixties, Holland responds, “I tend to do things as they come up.” He cites a forthcoming project with Indian percussion master Trilok Gurtu as an example. “I did a solo concert in Sardinia 18 months ago when Trilok was there with his band, and I invited him to join me at the end for a few pieces. We had a great time, and I wanted to continue. We just spent three days working on new music, and our conversation about some Indian traditions of learning the rhythmic discipline in Indian music gave me many new ideas to think about. If you’d asked about my future plans the week before that concert, Trilok was not in them, but now it’s a reality.

“It’s an ongoing journey that hasn’t reached its end. At least for the near future, the quintet and big band will continue, and this thing with Trilok is the next step. Special projects, like my tour last summer with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade, come up periodically. I’ll take it a step at a time, and we’ll see. I’ll let you know when I get there.”

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Filed under Article, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Jazziz

Dr. Lonnie Smith is 69

As reviews of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s recent engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London make clear, the Hammond B3 master, who turned 69 today, remains an American original, as cliche-free in his attire as when expressing himself through notes and tones. After listening to him for years, I had the opportunity to learn this first-hand when I profiled Smith for DownBeat four or five years ago. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to experience his magic for many years to come.

* * * * *

“I don’t do soundchecks,” Doctor Lonnie Smith noted as he entered Manhattan’s Jazz Standard ninety minutes before hit-time on night one of his pre-Christmas week. It was cocktail hour, and stragglers from a private party ambled leisurely from the room with doggie bags filled with barbecued ribs and chicken. Smith, however, was ready to attend to business. So were his bandmates, an as-yet unrehearsed quintet billed as Crescent Boogaloo for the presence of New Orleanians Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton, along with Peter Bernstein, a Manhattan native, and Bill Stewart, a son of Iowa.

Smith’s white hair was tied back in a bun. His white beard was combed out. His black rasta hat sat at a precise angle over his forehead. With the help of his trademark conjure cane, he picked his way to the bandstand to gauge the idiosyncracies of the house-owned Hammond B3. As the staff moved tables and chairs into position, Smith proceeded to poke and prod as Harrison and Payton, both in town just that afternoon, warmed up with licks and long tones. Bernstein tweaked his amp, Stewart tuned his drums and adjusted his cymbals. Smith set forth the chords for Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait,” Stewart went four-to-the-floor, and Smith, already grooving, eyes darting, played an intense solo, harmonizing his line in a fervent grunt. Harrison blew a half chorus. So did Payton.  Satisfied, Smith smiled, halted the proceedings, chatted briefly with the house engineer, and left the room.

Forty-five minutes later, barbecue-munching, spirits-sipping patrons packed the house. Smith reemerged, now topped with his trademark black turban. Again, he kicked off “Good Bait,” embellishing the melody with a funky bassline not unlike the one he’d laid down forty years before on “Alligator Boogaloo,” the still-popular Lou Donaldson jukebox hit on which Smith generated the grooves with George Benson and Idris Muhammad. As Harrison uncorked a darting solo, Smith shifted the drawbars with his right hand without allowing the bass to flag, then segued into a characteristically dramatic solo that built to climax and decrescendo. Without a word, he launched the theme of Frank Foster’s “Simone,” simultaneously floating the melody and articulating another inexorably raunchy bassline over Stewart’s staunch 5/4. As his solo transpired, he tilted his head almost at a right angle to the Leslie speaker behind him, extracting signifying squawks and fuzz. Over Stewart’s declarative swamp beat on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Smith continued to jab-and-weave atop another ferocious bass figure, juxtaposing long runs with short bursts, then gave way to Harrison’s intense wailing-the-blues alto solo and Payton’s low-register effusion, nodding like a pendulum as he comped, growling scat syllables to conclude.

It was time to cool down the inflamed congregants, and Smith ratcheted down with an abstract, rubato fanfare at a subtone murmur, gradually transitioning to an exposition of the elegiac theme of “Chelsea Bridge.” Supporting nuanced solos by Payton and Harrison, Smith turned the organ into a virtual choir, which, on his own concluding statement, blasted off the firmament and into ether. On the intro to “Willow Weep For Me,” he continued to orchestrate, interpolating fragments of “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” and splattering synth-like Sun Ra platters of color, sustaining a slow drone to complement Bernstein’s melody statement and Payton’s brief melodic variations. On his own solo, he postulated a long, swaying bassline, picking each note with care. Gradually, he raised the tempo, harmonizing the line and locking in, eyes closed, before unwinding with a slow blues over a shuffle. On the brisk set-closer, “Oleo,” Smith spun out crisply articulated bop lines, prodding an informed succession of solos with stabbing, Bud Powell-like comp.

The house began to clear for the second, sold-out show. Smith—who seemed barely to have broken a sweat while spontaneously conjuring a perfect set from, as it were, a blank canvas—exchanged a pleasantry or two with fans and friends, and retreated to the bar for dinner.

[BREAK]

At 65, Smith occupies a singular niche in 21st century improvisation. Along with less visible B3’ers such as Gene Ludwig and Gloria Coleman, he’s one of the last survivors to have lived and breathed his instrument’s down-home, good-time function that provided a foot-patting  soundtrack at blue-collar inner city lounges and grilles across urban Afro-America until the era of Ronald Reagan. Deejays and producers still sample the famously funky grooves of such early career albums as Alligator Boogaloo, Mama Wailer, a Kudu session from 1974, or Afro-Desia, a 1975 Groove Merchant date on which Joe Lovano debuted as a sideman. Smith himself never stopped sidemanning with Donaldson, and spent much of the ‘90s offering omnidirectional testimony in bracing contrast to the leader’s straight-down-the-middle declamations. These days he performs mostly as a leader, still building full-bodied basslines from the bottom up. He also continues to deploy the presentational style that he developed early on, projecting earthy roots while developing ever more sophisticated ways to satisfy a hunger to embrace a universe of sound, an imperative that also drove the jazz fusion avatars of his generation, psychedelic mother-shippers like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, or, for that matter, Sun Ra.

“He’s the king of nuance,” said Harrison between sets. “Lonnie can switch so quickly from one feeling to another; he’s figured out how to do it.”

“He uses a lot more harmony than he used to,” said Joey DeFrancesco, whose father, a Niagara Falls native, crossed paths with Smith on the early ‘60s Buffalo scene, where both soaked up local hero Joe Madison. “But no matter what he does, his bass always grooves, so it’s swinging, and he comes up with a lot of different sounds. He’s got the whole thing going.”

Few musicians have played more frequently with Smith than Bernstein, his bandmate with Donaldson since the early ‘90s, who often plays guitar in Smith’s trios. “Lonnie trusts his instincts like nobody else that I play with,” Bernstein said. “He’s totally unafraid to stop on a dime, change the direction of the music, and see what happens. He sings, and on one level, that’s his approach to playing the instrument. On the other level, he is the orchestra accompanying the singer, accompanying himself. He gets inside the tune, melts it down, then brings it into a form. He’ll try anything”

Organist Sam Yahel experienced Smith’s experimental proclivities first-hand during the early ‘90s when he loaned Smith his Korg CX-3 portable organ for a gig at Augie’s, then a hardcore jazz haven on the Upper West Side and now the premises of Smoke.

“I’d been gigging all over the city with it, and thought I had it figured out,” Yahel said. “But after I set it up for Lonnie, I was blown away by the sounds he got out of this thing. He’s one of the first guys I heard who expanded the sonic palette. From “Alligator Boogaloo,” I perceived him as this amazing player in the tradition of Jimmy Smith, which he is. But when I heard him live, I understood that he was bringing something else to the table—a capacity for abstraction. He pulled out sounds that we didn’t realize were there. When I heard him on the real organ, I was even more blown away by his ability to come from an abstract place, and then reach that place of soulfulness. Unlike Larry Young, who freed up the harmony and lyricism of the right hand by freeing up the left hand so that the bass didn’t always have to nail the groove, but could float, come behind or a little ahead, Lonnie never sacrificed the idea that the bass is ALWAYS incredibly grooving. Indirectly or directly, he influenced my generation. When you hear him play an introduction, you feel that anything could happen. Your creative juices can’t help but flow when you walk away.”

“Lonnie approaches his solos thematically, and is a very thoughtful improviser,” said Larry Goldings, who witnessed the aforementioned night at Augie’s. “Now, he has a bunch of very personalized sounds—organ effects—that I still can’t figure out and copy. But more important is the way he builds the solo, with a lot of space and tremendous drama. In a way, that’s mostly what he’s about. He wants to tell a story, and he knows how to get the audience on the edge of their seat. By the end you really feel like you’ve been through something.”

[BREAK]

“The first night was very hard,” Smith reported a week later. “But I had faith because they were great players. What made it hard is that you have to make sure all the equipment is working right, and their organ was a little rough for me. But once you start playing, it’s okay—you figure out what to do with it.”

“Figuring out what to do with it” has been Smith’s modus operandi from the jump, and the dictum served him well around 1961, when he returned to Buffalo from an undistinguished Air Force stint in Texas as an electronics specialist (“I didn’t want to take orders from anybody, so they discharged me”), and started singing with his brothers on local jobs.

“I always sang,” he recalled. “My family sang spiritual music at home, and before I went into the service, I’d sung in churches. Then, we had a four-part harmony singing group called the Supremes, which we changed to the Teen Kings. A disk jockey named Lucky Pierre managed us, and we made a record. But also, I always loved to play musical instruments. The first time I touched a piano, I’d just graduated to third grade, and I went to visit my aunt. No one was watching me, and I got up to the piano and figured out how to play ‘Crying in the Chapel.’ I still remember the key—F-sharp.

“I never had a piano, but I learned a little about the keyboard by fooling around. I knew some boogie-woogie, and natural things like that. My mother and I used to scat to instrumental songs, and I played trumpet and tuba in high school, but I’d play piano in the school auditorium, or at someone’s house, like Grover Washington, who I grew up with. I’d play songs by Fats Domino or Little Richard—what they played had a lot of feeling, and wasn’t so complex that you couldn’t understand what they were doing; once you listened to the record, you said, ‘Oh, okay,’ and you’d have it. A friend played me Jimmy Smith’s ‘Midnight Special’ record, and I heard Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Milt Buckner, too. My brothers played bass, guitar and drums, and on the jobs, I’d sing a few songs, then sit on the side while they kept playing. I wanted to get up there so bad! It looked like were having too much fun. I borrowed a Wurlitzer. I’d play a couple of songs, and I’d be happy.”

Obsessed with the keyboard, Smith began spending most of his down time at a downtown music store owned by a generous soul named Art Kubera. “He asked me why, and I said, ‘Sir, if I had an instrument, I could work, I could make a living,’” Smith recounted. “It must have stuck. One day, I came in, and he closed up, took me in the back, where he stayed, and showed me a new Hammond he’d had to take back. They were in the thousands then. He said, ‘If you can move it, it’s yours.’ I got a pickup truck, and moved it.”

While learning the complex sequence of stops and presets that generates the Hammond sound, Smith played the house keyboard at a local boite called the Little Paris. One night, Jack McDuff, in town for an engagement at Buffalo’s top jazz venue, the Pine Grill, came by when the place was packed. “McDuff told me he was standing on one side of the room, and the people were jumping so much that the vibrations from the floor moved him to the other side,” Smith said. “He’d heard I had an organ, and wanted to rent it—a friend of his was coming to town. I wasn’t sure, but he said, ‘One day maybe I’ll be able to help you.’ Guess who the friend was. Lou Donaldson.”

In 1964, McDuff fulfilled this karmic promise, allowing Smith—now booked out of Ohio, he had gainful employment backing acts like Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Coasters, and the Impressions, Etta James, and Jimmy Reed—to sit in with his popular George Benson-Red Holloway-Joe Dukes quartet on a Buffalo gig. About to branch off on his own, Benson liked Smith’s groove. He took his number, but didn’t call.

“I’d been playing in New York City at Smalls, and Grant Green was trying to get me to record with him,” Smith stated. “But I’d heard Grant Green on records, I’d just started playing, and I knew I wasn’t ready.” Green’s manager, Jimmy Boyd, was also working with Benson, and had Smith’s number. “They were playing in Pittsburgh, and needed another organist, and Jimmy said, ‘I know just who to get.’ George said, ‘That’s who I was looking for.’ I gave my group two-week notice, and my last gig was in Buffalo. George came to get me that night, and we went to his mom’s house in Pittsburgh, learned two songs in his basement, and took off for New York.”

First, they entered the 845 Club in the Bronx. The owner then booked them to follow Grant Green at his Harlem club, the Palm Café, on 125th Street, down the block from the Apollo. An extended run at Minton’s Playhouse followed.

“The Palm Café had go-go dancers, and George and I would sing duets,” Smith recalled. “James Brown was at the Apollo, and he came down every night, jumped up on the organ and said, ‘don’t you move; you stay right there.’ Esther Phillips would play a bit of organ, too; I’d stay there and they’d tickle the top. James Brown wanted us to go with him, but we just kept on our route, which was the correct thing to do. John Hammond heard about us, and he came by and signed us to Columbia Records. The rest was history.”

[BREAK]

“I was a rebel when I was younger,” Smith said. “I never liked the business of music. When I didn’t want to be bothered, I’d go somewhere and hide.”

A Harlem resident since the ‘60s, Smith sold ample units for Columbia, Blue Note and CTI, and he made it his business to reach out to his fan base, criss-crossing the highways with his Hammond in tow. Sometimes he made long pit stops—six months in Milwaukee in the late ‘70s, and several extended ‘80s residences around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Still a road warrior at 65, he remarks that although he would prefer to work several months a year, and as little as possible in the winter, it would be very difficult to scale back and retain the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.

Smith’s rebellious proclivities extended to the aesthetic realm of repertoire and interpretation. “Before I started playing with George, I was into the kind of music John Coltrane and Miles Davis were playing, and I was crazy about McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner,” he said. “I love classical music and the different sounds of the instruments. I wrote a song called “I Be Blue” that I recorded with Lou Donaldson. I wrote it thinking of Lady Day, this beautiful melody with this ugly sound grinding up underneath the chords, like seeing yourself threading through thick water. I was doing this years ago, but it was too early.

“When I left George, I went through a period of playing completely free-form music, which was too out for the people. I didn’t care at that time. I had a hit record, and I’d play something they hadn’t heard. As the years passed, I started tuning in on the people more. Those are the people who are with you. The young people buy my music today because I stopped and listened.”

The young people also respond to Smith’s expressive face, his headgear, his honorific—in short, his showmanship. The term, by the way, makes him bristle. Nor does he care to comment on “Doctor” and the turban.

“When I get up there, you might see showmanship,” Smith remarked. “I’m not even thinking about it because I’m really shy. But when I play, a lot of those things come out because I want people to feel loose and enjoy themselves. If you don’t draw anybody, you’re not coming back. See, we used to have dancers and comedians—a show. Young people don’t know what we did to keep this music going. Do you think I make faces to be making faces? No! I can’t stand it; they’re always taking pictures of me making faces.

“I have so much passion. I had an algebra teacher who got real involved, and would shout, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ and start writing out the answer. That’s how I feel when I’m playing, so enthused and so happy. I’m pleasing myself first, and you’re next. The Hammond has such a warm sound—the feel of the earth, the sun, the moon, the water—and it matches so well with the Leslie. The horn that goes around inside the Leslie moves slow and fast—when you close the switch on it, it’s like a nasal type sound; when you open the switch, it’s like the earth opened, or someone who’d been stopped up with a cold and everything opens up, or when you let caged birds go free and they fly everywhere. Later, I’m out of breath, I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to do nothin’, I just want to go home and relax. It’s so pleasant—unless somebody really pisses you off on the stage. Sure, sometimes people you play with don’t match too good. But 99% of the time I’m having a ball.”

Pressed on the issue, Smith mentioned that he started turbaning-up during his teens, and that “‘doctor’ was given to me because I was doctoring up my music.” He paused. “I know you were trying to get to it. You got it.

“If you remember, Sun Ra had a miner’s cap, and Sonny Rollins had the Mohawk hairdo. But I’m a doctor of music, I’ve been playing long enough to operate on it, and I do have a degree, and I will operate on you. I’m a neurosurgeon. If you need something done to you, I can do it. But when I go up on that stand, the only thing I’m thinking of is music. And I’m thinking to touch you with that music. I don’t think about the turban, I don’t think about the doctor—I just think about I’m going to touch you.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Hammond B3

Andrew Hill’s 80th Birthday Anniversary

Two years ago to the day, not long after I’d started this blog, I posted a piece I wrote for DownBeat in 2000 on the  pianist-composer Andrew Hill (1931-2007). I’m augmenting that post today with four interviews that I conducted with Andrew (below the text of the story), two  on WKCR (1996, 2000) and three in 2000 for purposes of the article. As you can read in the section of 1996 interview that addresses Andrew’s encounter with Charlie Parker at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom in 1949, and in a few other spots, Andrew was playing along with a 1937 birthdate attributed on the liner notes  of his Blue Note recordings in the ’60s…but 1931 is what it was.

* * *

When I was a child, I was able to write music without hearing  it,” Andrew Hill told me in the spring of 2000, during one of several conversations for a DownBeat article that ran later that year.  “I’d write it at the piano, and then reshape it away from the piano by looking at it—lines, counterlines, and different things. I was in the streets, hustling, and and people began to notice. The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized notation.”

Individuality was the defining trope of Hill’s career. Born in Chicago 80 years ago today, and a South Side resident until 30, Hill—who died on April 20, 2007—blossomed creatively during the ’60s, recording a series of sui generis recordings—Point of Departure, Smokestack, Black Fire, Judgment, Compulsion—on Blue Note, animated by the likes of Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers, and Richard  Davis.

“To me, it’s more like an alternative approach,” Hill had said of his attitude to music during a 1996 conversation on WKCR. “In Western civilization, melody is the major voice. Rhythm and harmony is just an accessory.  I’ve always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory. Though many things have changed traditionally, that dynamic hasn’t changed.  Always check the rhythm to hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s retrospective or trying to go ahead.  If it’s static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.”

Hill’s music contained extraordinary rhythmic nuance—in the manner of  Charlie Parker, he stacked rhythms, morphing time signatures from measure to measure in his pieces, and, when comping, altering the beats in every phrase. This is one reason why Vijay Iyer, one of Hill’s numerous acolytes amongst creative musicians under 45, could write for the now-dormant webzine www.jazz.com that what had always drawn him to Hill’s music was its innate sense of mystery. “It challenges your sense of what music is,” Iyer stated. “You can’t really listen to it as style, like, ‘Oh, this is a great example of hardbop, or postbop.’ To me, it just explodes all those categories. It’s something much more fundamental about existence.”

In the aforementioned DownBeat article, posted below, Hill spoke of the context in which he developed his ideas.  (Please also see David Adler’s fine 2006 profile in Jazz Times.)

* * * *

At Birdland on the Saturday night after the United Nations Millennium Conference, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure Sextet concluded a ferocious 90-minute first set to raucous applause from an audience that included a generous percentage of dark-suited men wearing wires up their sleeves.  Moments later, prompted by what the pianist-composer later informed friends was a Presidential request, Hill and alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, played “Summertime” as an impromptu encore.  Well, the bartender later burst the bubble by noting that it was the wife of the President of Ecuador who popped the question.  But it didn’t seem such a stretch to imagine Bill Clinton — who attended jazz camps as a teenage saxophonist when Hill was recording the 8 or 9 Blue Note sessions by which many people still define him — taking a break from various off-the-record meetings to hear the composer-pianist on whose classics “Black Fire” and “Point of Departure” tenor hero Joe Henderson appeared.

Hill began to revisit the sonic terrain of Point of Departure — which blended the sounds of Henderson, multi-reedman Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Richard Davis and an 18-year-old Tony Williams — two years ago, not long after returning from a two-decade West Coast residence spent teaching and sporadically performing.  Expecting to find a scene where “everything is a retrospective,” he instead discovered what he describes as a “golden age” defined by an intense cadre of improvisers intent on “creative contact with older musicians” working toward the end of “reclaiming a lot of things that had been lost.”

“There hasn’t been as much young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s,” Hill states.  “Life has been breathed into the music.  I’m seeing young musicians who understand the traditional musical vocabulary — the free playing, which has been out for forty years, and the magic of Bebop — enough to be able to use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process that will fit into this period.  They aren’t playing things they heard off records; they’re not looking at anything as old and new.”

Inspired by his young cohorts, Hill “got the writing disease,” producing a flood of new work, a smattering of which he recorded on Dusk [Palmetto], in September 1999.  The music is sui generis — mysterious, elusive, soulful, rich in mood and character, expansively written, replete with beautiful melodies and counter-melodies, complex intervals, unique voicings, intense vamps and ostinatos, each section tailored to the tonal personalities of the musicians, morphing in a nonce from keening rubato passages to long lines propelled by churning counter and cross-rhythms that define the overall motion.  “Each piece inhabits its own musical world,” Ehrlich says succinctly.  “Andrew is using a lot of different compositional devices in them, but what’s consistent is a sense of musical poetry and lyricism.”

Dusk is the capstone of a very good year for the 69-year-old pianist-composer.  He engaged Bobby Hutcherson, David Murray, Andrew Cyrille and Archie Shepp in well-publicized duos.  After spending most of the summer in a wing of a well-appointed castle courtesy of an Italian artists’ colony, he performed on a showcase night at the Chicago Jazz Festival that included a reunion with Von Freeman (they played “Stardust”), who appeared on Hill’s debut recording in 1956, for Ping, a Chicago independent operated out of the back of a record store at 47th and Cottage Grove.

“Andrew’s music is very heavily mental,” says Hutcherson, who first recorded with Hill on Judgment (1964) and on Dialogue (1965).  “You go into rooms you wouldn’t normally enter.  There’s always a little story in the melody, a reason why this tune is being played; it’s your own story, what you’re seeing as you play.  He’d give you melancholy, long notes, you’d think, ‘man, how long can you hold this note so that there will be this texture?’ — then all of a sudden it burst into a chant, a hope within the note.  Religious, I guess you can say…well, the religion of the bandstand…of someone’s thoughts.  It was very challenging, just because of its openness; the melody could be loose as a rubber band.  But just remember that it’s going to come down; the bar line is still moving at the same pace.”

“Andrew’s writing and playing sound like geometry to me,” notes Greg Osby, a Hill alumnus and vociferous acolyte who employed the pianist and guitarist Jim Hall on this year’s well-received The Invisible Hand.  “He builds his lines and melodic development and motives and themes in small fragments, and breaks those down into even smaller fragments.  It’s like building a pyramid, and setting that off with TNT, then building another pyramid based upon the smaller rock chunks or fragments, each one being more important than the structure itself.  And he has total elastic time, not your metrical, militaristic four-four predictable time feel.  It’s akin to that Dr. Doolittle animal, the pushmi-pulyu, which was like a two-headed llama who goes in both directions.  You have to really be game to push in the beat and pull it back — compression-expansion I call it.  Otherwise, you’ll get tossed.”

Scott Colley, Hill’s bassist of choice for the past two years, says: “No matter how much you’ve internalized the material, you have to be ready for the unknown.  More than anybody I’ve ever played with, Andrew is a true improviser.  If he feels you’re starting to formulize the music, he’ll take bits of a composition from one part of the form and put it somewhere else.  Though he writes simple bass parts for me, I have to look at the score because so much is going on that defies traditional harmony, that can’t be notated traditionally in terms of chord changes.  It sounds logical and beautiful, but when you analyze it, you realize it’s amazingly different.”

The unorthodox was norm in the blues culture of postwar South Side Chicago, Hill’s home town, where the overriding imperative was to establish an individual sound.  Hill’s parents, who had migrated to Chicago from the South, bought their son an accordion when he was 3; a few years later they acquired an old foot-pedaled player piano.  “I would match the keys as much as I could,” Hill recalls.  “I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever sound suited that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day.  I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.”

Hill’s family was poor, and by age 12 he was a street musician, playing blues-style accordion and tap dancing “with his hustling companion,” guitarist Leo Blevins, who had a washtub with a string on it.  “It was safe at the time,” Hill remembers.  “I needed money.  I found out that when you played music, you got money.  My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street and State, which was a good block.  Across the street was the South Center department store, a little further down was the Savoy Ballroom and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing, and the Regal Theater was right next to that.”

An almost mute child with above-average intelligence, Hill enrolled at the University of Chicago Lab School in what would today be called an off-track program that allowed him freedom to follow his muse.  By his teens, he was working weekends at sorority house dances, at rent parties, even after-hours sessions.  Hill’s first taste of the latter occurred one early morning at the Macombo Lounge, an all-night joint at the intersection of Oakland and Drexel Boulevard owned by the Chess Brothers.  Trumpeter/bandleader King Kolax and tenorist Claude McLin were playing “Idaho” with bass icon Oscar Pettiford and the drummer Ike Day.  “The piano player didn’t show up, and Kolax knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so he invited me on the stand,” Hill remembers.  “I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, ‘Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!’  They were nice enough to gently ease me off the stand; they told me what I did wrong.

“Ike Day had this incredible feel, and the way he played opened up my concept of rhythm out of the rigid 1-2-3-4.  It was a live rhythm, a rhythm you could feel with your whole body.  He played over the entire drumset, like Roy Haynes does, incorporating everything into a rhythm, creating a floating rhythm sound in the African manner almost.  He did amazing things; he’d come off the bandstand into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls.  He was doing that when he was 19 years old.  He was the most incredible drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.  The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.”

Hill cites Albert Ammons as an early local influence (“his boogie-woogie was a living thing; he created with it”).  As a teenager delivering the Chicago Defender he met Earl Hines, and “bugged him to death until he decided he would let me play something on his grand.  I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had a technical facility for not having really studied.  What I liked about Earl Hines was that he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate and play something creative outside the structure; when I talked to him he said, ‘Well, that’s what we call concertizing.’”  Hill also admired the lesser-known pianist Willie Jones (“he used to play with ninths in the bass and had a nice single fingering, even though he was known around Chicago for his exciting block chord Milt Buckner approach; I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer”) and Sun Ra.

“Sunny had a basic Chicago approach,” Hill remarks.  Even on a Blues you would go Out and you would go In.  A lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others, but to an extent that style really developed in Chicago.  Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up.  There wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or about what someone else was doing; it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing.  But it was category-less.  It was organic, like an African modal situation, in which the performer would play in all the different voices.  Jazz wasn’t an art form; before television and integration got strong, it was the spiritual element that kept the community together.  The music was coming from the streets.  Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution!  It wasn’t that.  It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities.  That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.”

As his teens progressed, Hill also soaked up recordings by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as they came out, plugging his turntable into a guitar amplifier “so I could almost hear them the same way that I heard the live artists.”  He found someone to show him Czerny technique to get the fingering necessary to grapple with Powell.  He and a gifted friend named King Solomon, “used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift Monk’s stuff off the records when I was 16 years old — it came natural to him because he was a church pianist; after he taught me the church perspective, Monk’s concept became more accessible.”

As the ’50s progressed, Hill became “mesmerized” by the environment around me,” and established himself as a professional musician in Chicago.  “I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing,” he recalls.  “I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere.  My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive.  I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.”  He sidemanned at the Beehive on 55th Street and the Crown Propellor and Stage Lounge on 63rd Street, backed the likes of Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young at various venues, played at Joe Segal’s bebop jam sessions, and from 1955 to 1959 became house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge, where national acts like Sammy Davis and Barbara McNair would come through.  He summer vacationed with Dinah Washington in 1954, who took him to New York for the first time; he subsequently returned to the Apple with singers Johnny Hartman and Al Hibbler and with the comedian George Kirby.  He did supper lounge gigs on the Gold Coast with a steady trio comprising bassist Malachi Favors and drummer James Slaughter, became the pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band, and began to explore his voice with hardcore Chicago progressives like Nicky Hill and Ira Sullivan.  And he never stopped playing the blues.

In 1961, while working a mundane job on the West Side of Chicago, Hill decided it was time to come to New York.  “I saw that if I stayed in Chicago I would descend morally because everything had a type of sameness,” he says.  “Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I’ve been walking into different situations following my mind!”  Hill found work with Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, and Walt Dickerson, and went to Los Angeles in early 1962 on a job with Roland Kirk.  There he met his first wife, Laverne, a talented organist; the couple moved back to New York in the spring of 1963.

Freed of Chicago’s artisanal cultural matrix, Hill found in New York a nourishing environment.  Opportunities presented themselves.  He eschewed sideman gigs that might pigeonhole him as a “blues pianist” or “singer’s pianist,” and instead pigeonholed himself as an artist, forging aesthetic commitments with a cadre of like-minded generational peers like Joe Henderson, Joe Chambers, Sam Rivers and Bobby Hutcherson.  Through a job with Dorham, Hill met Joe Henderson; they woodshedded and gigged, and Henderson hired him to play on “Our Thing.”  During the session, Hill recalls, “Alfred Lion said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera, that he liked the way I played and wanted to make me his piano player for the period.  That’s the type of person he was.  The next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.”

The rest is history.  At Birdland, 36 years after the original “Point of Departure,” and a year after “Dusk,” working from a book that now constitutes about 40 new compositions, Bill Clinton, if he was there, heard music by — in Ehrlich’s words — “a master composer at the height of his powers” performed by an ensemble (Ehrlich and Aaron Stewart, reeds and woodwinds; Ron Horton, trumpet; Colley, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums) at ease with its intricacies.

“It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder just to continue playing,” Hill concludes.  “The audience is fickle anyway.  It will either be with you or it won’t.  To me it’s terrible to play without the passion of music.  It’s the passion that connects, not the academic correctness.  The passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you.  It was inspirational to discover that things aren’t static; it’s led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible.  The spirit of jazz is supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.”

* * * *

Andrew Hill (WKCR) – (6-26-96):

[MUSIC: "Monk's Glimpse" w/C. Jordan-Reid-Riley]

TP:    “Monk’s Glimpse” features you with a fellow Chicagoan, Clifford Jordan, who I imagine you knew during your days in Chicago.  Did you?

AH:    Yes, I knew Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, later on Leroy Jenkins, a few other what you would call precocious kids all my life, because when we would run into each other when we were quite young, and each one of us would have our instruments and different things that economics would allow us to do during that period.

TP:    The three people you mentioned all went to DuSable High School on the South Side.  Is that where you went?

AH:    No.  I was one of the first children admitted to the University of Chicago pilot program.  At that time, intelligence was based upon a certain middle-class standard, and if a person didn’t fit into certain this middle-class standard they wouldn’t have so-called “intelligence.”  But for some reason I appeared to be bright.  I was semi-autistic, but as they called me, bright.  So they took me in and brought me to the point where I would be sociable.

Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up.  I used to call it the University of the Streets, because on the tip of Oakwood Boulevard you had the Macombo where I could listen to people like the late Oscar Pettiford, George Duvivier, I even saw Fats Navarro one time playing tenor, quite a few others.  They had this class where I would miss school… Well, I didn’t have to miss school.  I was brilliant and kind of eccentric, even then.  So we would meet up.  And Jazz wasn’t an art form.  These were the days building up to the zenith in Jazz in the ’50s and ’60s.  So every block would have a band in the area… I grew up in somewhat a Red-Light District, not Red-Light defined as…well, yeah, Red-Light, where you would have music available.  Then they also had after-hour parties that I could attend, because musicians would come and get me.  So I would mentor under Albert Ammons, Earl “Fatha” Hines, all these type of influences.  I wasn’t musically literate then, so I didn’t categorize of classify things, so here I had this rainbow collage of music available at every turn — and so did all of us.

TP:    The years you’re talking about now would be directly after World War Two until the early 1950’s?

AH:    Well, the years I’m talking about is consciousness; you know, when consciousness first hit me and when I started accumulating childhood memories.  My memories go back to, we’ll say, 1941 as a baby almost, to the Regal Theater, which was part of the chitlin’ theater for Black artists, where I experienced such phenomenons as Fats Waller playing the organ and different things.  Then in 1945 there was a bar right down the street from me called the Savoy, where they had people like Hot Lips Page, and I would be chaperoned in these places.  There’s a joke about that.  I took up the northeast corner of 47th Street, because on the corner where the Regal and the Savoy was (what they called South-Center) that was the spot for me to play accordion Blues style and tap dance.  So I’ve in a sense been organically part of the scene since I was a little kid, because it was inclusive of me, and older artists would give me what I needed.

TP:    It sounds like music has been part of your entire living consciousness and memory.  Do you remember a time when you weren’t playing music?

AH:    No, not even recently.  Because a lot of times, when you’re not visible on the New York scene, there’s this theory that you’re not functioning.  Even off the scenes, I’ve written string quartets, performed with 40-to-100-piece choral groups.  It’s an interesting life, because music it has always been with me.  The crowd comes and goes.  At one moment it’s the mode, you’re not; the next moment you’re not so hot.  So now I’m back in New York again, and now it looks like everything is a retrospective.  But even in the retrospective I’ve begged to come back on the scene, because in a retrospective some things are missing, some things have never been captured, and if the person really don’t come back and give them a guideline to what was going on… Because it might just be the link to creativity itself, but if only the academic situation is available in a mausoleum type learning process, that means something could be lost.

TP:    I’d like to step back again to your days in Chicago.  You mentioned people like Albert Ammons and Earl Hines.  Some capsule impressions of them, and other pianists who influenced the way you approach the piano.  Albert Ammons first.

AH:    Albert Ammons, because he played boogie-woogie, and the way I played accordion, boogie-woogie was accessible, because you would approach it rhythmically, not harmonically, which after he taught it to me made me ambidextrous, which gave me complete independence between the hands.  And then Fatha Hines was interesting because, as you know, he started the single finger approach to Jazz.  And then there were so many other followers around the area with these individualistic approaches to music.  This was the difference between Chicago and New York for a long period of time.  In New York you would have one person who would be a great innovator, and a lot of imitators — which it’s all common property.  But in places like Chicago, after the music left New Orleans and came to Chicago, then people had the freedom to be flexible and not have to sound like anyone.  Their only rule was that they had to fit into the Tradition itself, the Tradition coming from, we’ll say, the beginning of the oral Protestant tradition.

TP:    Who were some of the other pianists in Chicago who had an impact on you?

AH:    There were so many.  There was a fellow named Vernon Griddle(?).  I don’t know if he ever made it; he was phenomenal.  Then there was Chris Anderson, who had and still has a unique approach to harmony, similar to Willie Jones.  Willie Jones played like Milt Buckner, but then he was into the new music aesthetic where he used to listen things like Lukas Foss 1950s’ music and stuff, so I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer.  Then there was Sun Ra, or Sonny Blount.

The amazing thing about Chicago was that there wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or what someone else was doing, because it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing.  But Sonny’s approach was a basic Chicago approach even on a Blues, where they said we would go Out and we would go In — which a lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others.  To an extent that style really developed in Chicago.  But like I said, Chicago was category-less, so people would come out to hear the music, so it was just an organic situation, like an African modal situation, which would put on the performer to be able to play in all the different voices, not a monotone where it’s a stylistic supported by an academic element who are more lettered than oral.

TP:    Ahmad Jamal followed Earl Hines’ path from Pittsburgh to Chicago in 1949, and was also a child prodigy and performer.  Did he have an impact on the way you approached the piano or the piano trio?

AH:    No.  In retrospect, what I just said is there were so many brilliant people, known or unknown, and we would exchange ideas.  But any time you go to mimicking or idol worship, you cancel creativity, because you negate the openness that you need to have creative contact.

TP:    Besides Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore and Leroy Jenkins, who were some other people in your peer group that you associated with?

AH:    I mentioned those, but there were a lot of others.  There was always Johnny Griffin, who was a little ahead of us.  But a lot of the others developed.  They had more of an academic approach than a natural talent approach, with a  continuous learning process.  There are people who are born with a talent for music.  The more you listen to something, the more available it becomes, and when it’s readily available in your environment, your aesthetic, your sense of harmony, rhythm, etcetera, develops that much faster.

TP:    When did you start working on the professional music scene in Chicago as a pianist in rhythm sections or as a trio pianist in various venues?

AH:    Almost from the start.  I remember at 12 years old an alto saxophonist named George Lee came and got me and took me on my first job.  It was at a sorority house.  From then on I was working every weekend.  Then I found out about the night circuit where the rent parties were still going on.  The pianists who were working that circuit used to get too much work, or they’d have a job where they couldn’t get there until 12 o’clock.  I had no curfew, so I could go and play the piano from around 8 o’clock until 12:30 in the morning.

TP:    I gather that your first recording was on a very obscure date with Von Freeman in 1952?

AH:    Yeah.  I had Von Freeman, Pat Patrick, Wilbur Campbell, and Leroy Jackson.

TP:    Was Von Freeman one of the people you were working with?

AH:    Well, Von Freeman used to work all the sorority gigs, he had some high school dance jobs, so he was always a presence because he and George and Bruz would always play those type of affairs.

TP:    Outside of people in Chicago, who were musicians on the national scene that had an impact on you.  We began with “Monk’s Glimpse,” and there’s always seemed to be a certain affinity to Monk’s approach to music in what you do.

AH:    Well, retrospectively, Monk to a lot of young pianists my age in 1949 was very accessible, in terms of understanding what he did and following his music.  That’s why now, when I talk about the periods of Jazz, I talk about the period when it was a popular music and when it became an art form.  Like, I came on the end of the period when it was a popular music, so that way someone from another lifestyle or another area in life could look at it as experimental, when it was very organic, which comes from people like Monk.  Before Television and Integration got strong, Jazz was the spiritual element that kept the community together.  So certain things we heard all the time.  It wasn’t even called Jazz then.  I remember up until 1949, Downbeat used to have pictures of Negroes (as we were called during that time) talking about how we play the flute, but my lips are too big… So when I think about Jazz, then I think about the first Jazz recording by a group who sounded like Spike Jones, and the Creoles were supposed to have the first recordings, but then they excluded the Blacks from Uptown, even though their music goes back to before Slavery…  I’m only saying that to say that ever since they took the drums away from us in this country, the music has been flourishing, and then 1917 is where Jazz came in, which isn’t very inclusive.

So a lot of people have had an influence on me, and then I’ve had an influence on quite a few others.

TP:    The next tracks we’ll hear come from a few of the extraordinary series of recordings Andrew Hill made for Blue Note when he hit New York from Chicago in the early 1960’s, and took the jazz world by storm through the originality and distinctiveness of these recordings.

[MUSIC: AH-Hutcherson-Davis-E. Jones, "Siete Ocho"; A. Hill-J. Henderson, "McNeil's Island"; A. Hill-KD-Dolphy-Williams, "Refuge"]

TP:    Listening to those tracks raises several questions.  I asked you while the music was playing whether these were working groups, groups that performed live and played this or other music in performance.

AH:    Well, the group with Bobby Hutcherson, we worked the University of Toronto and Montreal.  We had an incredible college tour…

TP:    Did you set up drum parts in this music, or was the drummer free to create their own…

AH:    Well, it was basically drafts written off my interpretation of someone else’s playing, so that really was the catalyst.

TP:    Was all the music on Judgment set up for Elvin Jones’ style?

AH:    Yes, it was set up for his style.

TP:    Was the group with Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes a working band?

AH:    Yes, we were really getting ready to work, but the only wrench that was thrown in that was right after we did a few nights at Birdland and a few other places, Joe joined Horace Silver.  So that was the end of that for a while.

TP:    Did you write the music for Black Fire with Roy Haynes’ style in mind?

AH:    Yes, I really loved the way Roy Haynes played during that time.  I still love his playing, but I was really enthralled during that period.
TP:    The front line of Point of Departure, indeed the whole band, reads like a who’s-who in the history of Jazz.  Was this a group that got to work for a while?

AH:    Well, we did a few things before Eric left for Europe, mmm-hmm.  During that period I was lucky enough to get quite a few college concerts, so there was always an opportunity to play with some of the great ones from that period.

TP:    Again was that music written with Tony Williams in mind?

AH:    No, actually Tony surprised me and gave me a little more than I was looking for — which I enjoyed.  Because you really couldn’t hear his whole style with Miles Davis, even though it was a great group, but it still didn’t cover all the areas that Tony could go into.

TP:    One of the characteristics of Andrew Hill’s groups is that always dynamic drummers are featured, and the drums and rhythm seems to be a major component in both your improvatorial and compositional sensibilities.

AH:    Well, I researched that while I was at Portland State, and then I came into this phrase “African retention” (all this after the fact).  To me, it’s more like an alternative approach to music.  In Western civilization, melody is the major voice, and rhythm and harmony is just an accessory.  I’ve always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory.

TP:    It’s almost as though rhythm is part of the dialogue that emerges among the musicians in improvisational situations.

AH:    It is.  And though many things have changed traditionally, that hasn’t changed.  That’s how you can really hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s a retrospective or people trying to go ahead.  Always check the rhythm to see whether it is static.  If it’s static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.

TP:    One thing you seem to do to insure rhythmic dynamism is change the rhythmic signature from measure to measure within the compositions.

AH:    Well, between one and one in a space of time you can have 5, 7, 12 or 4, but it’s always imposed upon a strong four like the heartbeat.  Still, in between, so many things can be done with it rhythmically, even thinking in terms of strong and weak accents.
TP:    Let’s talk about some of the drummers you played with in Chicago, stepping back 40 or 50 years.  Ike Day is one of the legendary drummers of all time.

AH:    Oh, I cut my teeth on Ike Day.  Only three people had a profound musical effect on my life, and those were Charlie Parker and Ike Day and Thelonious Monk (I’d always heard Monk play but when I saw him play, it had a profound effect).  Ike Day was amazing.  As a kid, I didn’t know who these people were, but I used to see people like Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, all of them would come to Chicago for a glimpse of Ike Day so they could prepare their respective styles.  He was the most incredible drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.  The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.

TP:    What made him so special?  Was it his interdependence?  His command of the timbre of whatever surface he was striking?

AH:    To really explain that, I have to bring in the sociological connotations.  Because in that period the community and the musician was close, because it was all a part of a sociological aesthetic in the community.  Tap dancing was strong.  The rhythm you played wasn’t like a dead rhythm; like you hear drummers play, and you say, “That’s dead” or “that’s alive” or “that’s great” — whatever one says.  But it wasn’t a dead rhythm; it was a live rhythm, one that you could feel with your whole body.  When I was in Chicago there was a place called the Macombo where the bandstand was perched up high, and Ike Day came down off the bandstand, like you’ve seen Gene Krupa and all of them obviously do, but there’s something about when you see the Master do it… He was the master.  You get involved.  It had an emotional impact.  It wasn’t just a static, visual experience.

TP:    Let me pin you down a little more on Ike Day.  Was he someone who was let’s say dealing with a different line with the right hand, left hand, right leg, left leg, like Max Roach developed and Andrew Cyrille?  Was he doing that functionally?

AH:    Well, you asked me about Roy Haynes.  The one similarity between him and Roy Haynes is that when he played the drum set, he played all these things over the entire drum.  He incorporated everything into a rhythm, so you had this floating rhythm sound instead of him stacking just doing a parallel…

TP:    So Ike Day was stacking rhythms on top of each other in the African manner almost.

AH:    In the African manner almost.  It’s true.

TP:    I commented that within “Refuge” that you’re constantly changing the rhythmic backing of each phrase, and this was something Charlie Parker would do this in his solos.

AH:    And I was saying I was surprised you knew that!  It’s really evident when you’re dealing with a music that’s really built off the rhythm, not the tonic dominant harmony, and that’s what I learned from playing with Charlie Parker. That’s why he had such a profound effect on me.  Some tunes I was too young to know, and Barry Harris took my place on a few numbers.  Well, I tried to get Barry to take my place, because Barry was one of the older Detroit guys at the time.  Anyway, before I played with Charlie Parker, he said, “Well, you play good and you do this well, but place more emphasis on the rhythm than the lyrical approach.”

TP:    Do you remember what year this was and the venue?

AH:    It was June 1949 at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit.  Illinois Jacquet and Bullmoose Jackson were on the bill.

TP:    You were 12 years old at the time, playing with Charlie Parker.

AH:    Mmm-hmm.

TP:    The third you mentioned was Thelonious Monk.  Do you recollect when you first heard his records?

AH:    Oh, I heard his records as a kid, me and another pianist who we used to call King Solomon.  We used to dissect things like “Hackensack” and stuff like that on the piano, which came easily.  But then the dynamic of seeing him play in person… I’d heard his sound all my life, but to see that he played with two hands, you know, to maintain a certain type of volume, and the way he would hit the piano, it was just profound.

TP:    Do you recollect when you first saw Monk in person?  He did perform at the Beehive in Chicago…

AH:    Oh, I didn’t go to that, because I didn’t like the milieu of the situation because they didn’t give him the respect he was due.  So I really heard him at the Five Spot in New York when he was having this long run, and I would take the train or the Greyhound out and hear him, and get on it again and go back satisfied.

TP:    Did you perform at all with the great Wilbur Ware in Chicago?

AH:    Yeah, Wilbur Ware, the great one! [LAUGHS] I did a few things with Wilbur.  I enjoyed him.  But then, fortunately or unfortunately, being a retrospective of what I said around 40 minutes, there really wasn’t any great ones, because then you had Israel Crosby in Chicago and all these incredible bassists.

TP:    Richard Davis was up there as a young bassist as well.

AH:    He was coming up with the Ahmad Jamal trio, and this fellow who used to play Classical music.  He was hot for a brief moment, nationally and internationally.

TP:    What circumstances brought you to New York on the eve of your series of recordings for the Blue Note label?

AH:    Well, it was just like what brought me to New York to reside in this period.  My life seems to be based upon intuition, discernment, the ability to know when to go and when not… I don’t know, I just had this urge…

TP:    So it wasn’t a gig that brought you here; you just decided to come here on your own.

AH:    Yeah, that’s my life story.  Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I’ve been walking into different situations following my mind!

This weekend with Lonnie Plaxico and Pheeroan akLaff, in an environment where the only thing they can feed me is myself and my soul consciousness escapes in an occasional flurry, I say to myself, “I might as well…”  In the old days people didn’t really get carried away with what they sounded like.  The emphasis was on never playing the same thing twice, to create.  And I figure this weekend I can go for that.  I won’t be with people who are jaded, who go in different areas.

TP:    No repeater pencils, as Lester Young would say.

AH:    Oh, no.  No pencils! [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: AH-Davis-Khan-Haynes, "Smokestack"; A. Hill, "Sunnyside"]

* * * *

Andrew Hill (3-22-00):

TP:    First things first.  Let’s talk about current events, about the record, about Dusk.  You recorded “Ball Square” in 1986 and “15/8″ is on that solo record.  Did you do a lot of composition for this?  Has this been a fertile period for you writing?

HILL:  Yes, a very fertile period, where I’ve written new things that, as you said, went over older things and added different sections to it for… Let’s see, from ’97 to now it’s like I’ve had the writing sickness.  I find myself writing music all the time.

TP:    Talk about accumulating this personnel.  It’s the same instrumentation as Point of Departure.  I don’t know you’ve done this since.

HILL:  I’ve never done this sextet since.  I’ve done other sextets and septets and 10 pieces for Blue Note during that period that they haven’t yet released. They have enough backlog on me to bring out for ten years.

TP:    Another Mosaic box.

HILL:  Yeah, of unreleased compositions.

TP:    But here, was most of the writing done for the date?

HILL:  Most of the writing was done for the band.  We didn’t actually record all the compositions for this period, because when I recorded this there were 20 originals and it keeps on growing.  Now there’s more. [October '99]

TP:    You’ve talked about writing for personalities.  Talk about the band as it’s constituted, and how you see each person as being applicable to what you do.

HILL:  Well, Marty, when the band was first formed, he brought a certain excitement to the band in his solos.  Ron Horton has improved drastically on trumpet, and he’s also helped me by copying the music and counting it out in strange situations where the bandstand won’t allow him to see me.  Greg Tardy, he’s like a fresh young talent, a star on the rise.  And Billy Drummond is a very musical drummer.  And Scott Colley has this incredible technique with this sensitivity to where he doesn’t overpower you with technique; he just overpowers you like a second left hand.  So I’m really happy about the last year because we worked some quality concerts, and the group was able to record intact, which is very unusual when I think of the caliber of the participating artists and their talent, and the fact that they’re working all the time.  Scott is very generous.  A lot of times he turned down jobs or other situations where he asked not to get paid… So to have this type of fellowship to the extent where everybody makes rehearsals, it’s just like a musical spirit that’s extended.  Like I was telling Howard, that’s why I was happy to have documented it, because sometimes it’s dependent upon economic expediency of some sort, where you get the band to work more, and the band has been generating work on its own, but it’s been sporadic, but at least maybe two or three concerts every two months, but that’s not enough to hold quality musicians.  So I’m glad we could stay together and partially document the music.

TP:    You came back in ’97?

HILL:  I left the college, Portland State University, in ’96, and I arrived in ’97.

TP:    Did you have any particular focus in mind for what you were going to do when you came back East?  Did you envision this…

HILL:  Well, I didn’t see anything, because at the time I came back for love, not my career.  I remarried in Portland, and my wife was part of the dance faculty, and they dissolved the dance department, so she was offered and received a position as the educational director at the Joyce Theater in New York City.  Her name is Joanne Robinson Hill.  So from that, I started navigating here.  The college was extremely generous to me, and they let me go… It was a good situation.  I came back for love, and I’m amazed by the venues that I hadn’t dared to dream of in decades.

TP:    Why hadn’t you dared to dream of them?

HILL:  Well, it’s good to be a rumor in your own mind, in a retrospective.  But with life in its current situation, one knows the impossibilities available to them.  If they dream from the reality, that’s one thing…

TP:    What you’re saying is that people tend to identify you with the records you did in the ’60s and less so the current things…

HILL:  No.  I’m talking about the venue.  It’s good that people think anything of you, good or bad.  But the reality is that you can tell whether you’re lukewarm or not from the activities that you’re participating in.  Because it’s till a supply-demand type situation.  So I was in a university out of the music milieu, and was completely… I could run off concerts and colleges and a few trips to Europe, but I really wasn’t in the business.  I was an educator, and I really couldn’t think about other things, because even if I hustled, they were obviously not available to me at the time.  So I came back here, and all of a sudden these unlimited things are… Like I said, things that I dared not dream of because it would be beyond my reality to envision my being accepted back on the scene like I have been.

TP:    In Portland talk about the scope of your performing activity, and also the way you organized curriculum and your aesthetic of teaching.

HILL:  Well, in Portland, a friend of mine was food and liquor manager at the  Salishon Lodge there, which is a resort.  After my deceased wife died in 1990, he invited me there for a few months to just relax on the grounds and shape my vision that spring.  So when the Fall came, it was time for me to pick a bigger city, and Portland was the biggest city there, so I arrived in Portland, and they presented me with information on all the colleges in Oregon to bring me into the circle.  Then I got a commission… While I was there I got every commission that Portland had to give, and received a tenured teaching situation at Portland State University as Associate Professor of Music.  So I could have stayed and gotten full professorship and all that.

But anyway, my classes were similar, in a sense, to the way I learned how to play in Chicago.  The only thing is it had texts with it.  But the way I tried to organize the curriculum was so one could make evolutionary type of advances.  Like any aesthetic, the more you introduce the students to certain things at a certain period, and all of a sudden they become more familiar and make the text their own.  I accepted students only through the audition process.  So I had these workshops where I tried to teach the students how to hustle, or I should use the word “market” themselves [LAUGHS], so they understand the mechanics of the business.  If you’re good, you can… But other than that, no matter who you are, you have to reach out.

TP:    But there was more to it than teaching students about marketing themselves.

HILL:  I had these ensembles that were created.  I created jam sessions for them to participate in.  In other words, I made a pedagogy out of my approach by having different aspects of musical training, like jam sessions, playing the tune in class, so different classes can get together and have a jam session on the material.

TP:    Were you mirroring your own experience as a young musician?

HILL:  I would say mirroring my experiences, plus taking advantage of the knowledge that I learned about teaching in, Pittsburgh, California before, where I was teaching special children, teaching advanced school…what they call in California key classes.  I was in K-to-12.  I started the Jazz Department at the New College of California in San Francisco when I first got there.  But anyway, all this accumulative experience helped me in teaching my students and giving them a sense of self-esteem.

TP:    Were you taking them also through the tradition in a step-by-step-by-step way?

HILL:  Well, I would have a question there where they would tell me their interests, what inspired them.  Because I want them to be grounded in text and situations and areas they weren’t interested in.  Because I figured if I could get their interest and work with them in their areas of interest, that they will evolve themselves the more they develop.

TP:    For you, in terms of writing your music and turning your music into text, not necessarily on a printed page, but maybe in a more general sense… When did you start writing music, composing music?

HILL:  Well, I always haven written music.  That’s what attracted great composers to me, because they figured with my imagination…composition… When I was a child I was able to write music without hearing music.  I was just writing symmetrical…

TP:    Oh, you could write it without being at the piano, out of your head?

HILL:  Yeah, write it at the piano and then reshape it by looking at it and have lines and counterlines and different things about it.  That came natural, and that used to amaze…

TP:    You can do that intellectually without sitting at the piano.

HILL:  Uh-huh, without sitting at the piano.

TP:     How old were you when people started noticing you could do that?

HILL:  About 10 or 11.  Because I was in the streets, hustling.  When you’re on a stage, you never know who your audience may be that day.  So everyone I met used to tell me, “Well, you’re writing it right, but that’s not…”  The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized way of notation.  After I explained it to them, they told me the notation had to become more homogeneous.

TP:    Let me set a scene, and let’s start talking about Chicago.  You’re born in ’37 in Chicago.  Your parents had a piano in the house?

HILL:  Well, at the age of 2 or 3 I received an accordion.  First it was a toy accordion, then it was a regular accordion with the buttons on the side.  Then when I was around 7 or 8, we got this old player piano in the house, where you use your foot to pedal the rolls.

TP:    And you would match the keys?

HILL:  I would match the keys as much as I could.  Because I found out that a lot of those player piano rolls were built for two piano players.  So I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever the sound for that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day.

TP:    So by the time you were 7 or 8 you were playing piano all the time.

HILL:  Yeah.  Well, any chance I could get to it.  I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.

TP:    There’s a published story I think that you won a turkey at the Regal Theater?

HILL:  Yes, for playing the piano and accordion when I was around 6.  They used to call Black Chicago Bronzeville, and in those days they had a regular Thanksgiving party for the “Defender” newspaper boys.  So every Thanksgiving they would have this amateur contest where the winner would receive a turkey.

TP:    And you played the accordion.

HILL:  Yes, and sang.

TP:    When you talk to people who grew up in especially in black neighborhoods in the ’20s-’30s-’40s-’50s, they say music was everywhere, and all kinds of music was everywhere.  Where was the music coming from for you?

HILL:  Well, the music was coming from the streets.  Like, my first jam session was at a place called the Macombo on Drexel Boulevard, where Oakland and Drexel come together at 40th Street.  It was owned by the Chess Brothers, the ones who later owned Chess Records.  But I didn’t know about that at the time.  I was just a young kid, 12 years old, at one what they called “blue morning” jam session.  King Kolax was playing, a tenor player named Neal Green, and Oscar Pettiford was there on bass and Ike Day was on drums.  So I was sitting there… They were playing “Idaho,” and King Kolax kept telling me when the bridge came, “A-flat!  Go to A-flat!”  I was young enough where they weren’t vicious; they delicately eased me off the stand after I played one number.  But I said, “Well, shoot, I was able to play with Oscar Pettiford.”

TP:    But when you were 4-5-6, you were basically picking up music…

HILL:  Picking up music hustling.  Hustling on the streets with my hustling companion Leo Blevins.  He used to play a washtub with a string on it.  And his brother Bobby Blevins and somebody else.  It was safe at the time.  I needed money.  I found out that when you played music, you got money.  I’m glad I learned that from playing music money comes, not poverty, because poverty is a lack-of.  There were these record stores you could just go in… And my hustling block was a good block.  My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street.  Across the street was the department store, South Center.  A little further down the block you had the Savoy Ballroom, and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing.  Even though I wasn’t old enough to go over there, but it was still…

TP:    The milieu.

HILL:  The milieu.  And the Regal Theater was right next to…

TP:    When you were coming up, that was the center of entertainment on the South Side.

HILL:  Yeah, that was the cultural center.  They had stuff from the Lafayette Theater, you know, visiting places in other areas, but that wasn’t my area of interest…

TP:    So this is all happening from when you were 5-6 years old?

HILL:  Yes.  The moment I could get out of there.

TP:    What did your parents do?

HILL:  My parents were people who suffered from the oppression, who were basically trying to keep a family together and raise a family.  The best thing I can say about them is that they worked and found a way to work.

TP:    And they were able to get you an accordion and a player piano.  Were they musical?

HILL:  As I started playing, other relatives not in my direct family said they played, but my parents didn’t play any other instrument.

TP:    Were they born in Chicago or did they come from the South?

HILL:  My mother came from the South.  My father, it’s rumored that he came from Alabama.  But he was a strange…a very dark man… They say he may have been what they call Geechee.  Other things I’ve been trying to find…

TP:    Find out for yourself.

HILL:  Well, not really.  But now, the older I get, the more some of my relatives that I’ve never known before are trying to enter my life, so I guess the information is available if I get friendly!

TP:    You also said that you got in the University of Chicago Lab School.

HILL:  Well, most people during that period thought I was talented but autistic.

TP:    You weren’t verbal?

HILL:  No, it wasn’t anything verbal.  So they took aptitude tests on me and found out that I had an over-average intelligence.  So I was one of the second group of people accepted in this off-track type educational process.  I hear about off-track education now.  But then it was like an off-track situation.  Because from my background and stuff, tracking me… If it was just a situation where they would put me within certain types of rules and regulations of places, like things I was supposed to… I seemed retarded.

TP:    But then you were writing music.

HILL:  Yeah.  But in other areas… So a lot of times, I found out later, as I began to investigate myself, sometimes being autistic is just a refusal to enter society at a certain point.

TP:    When did you start to study the piano with someone?

HILL:  Well, I would take musical lessons with people, but sometimes my teachers were so boring, I just let them know after they played something one time that I could play the same thing that they could.  Then an old preacher liked me for some reason, so he was trying to tell me… He said, “Wouldn’t it be better for you, whatever you want to learn, learn that?”  That’s the way I approached the students.  He said, “What do you want to do?”  I said I wanted to build chords.  He said, “Well, find a teacher who can teach you that.”  Then at a certain point I needed technique.  So one teacher took me to the (?), but she couldn’t take me all the way because… It’s almost like what they call master classes today by me starting to participate in the jam sessions early, because I wasn’t stopped after that.  I didn’t go and put my head in the sand.  I just kept on participating, and through that, even though everyone… You know, you had these Classical pianists actually playing jazz better than the 25 cents and 50 cents teacher who needed the money who was located at these different community centers.  You had people who really… So they helped me out.  I would ask them how you do this, they would show me, and then I’d make a project out of it.  So there were so many different flowers in Chicago, especially in the period when jazz was popular music before it evolved to classical music.  You could almost learn in the street, which is where I tried to achieve different projects.  Instead of giving people a lot of material that they really can’t study, just…

TP:    Up to the time you were 14 or 15, when you do those early records and join the Paul Williams band and all this stuff, you’re taking lessons, you’re participating in various jam sessions with older master musicians and with your peer group, and you’re also listening to a lot of records as well…

HILL:  Well, I didn’t start meeting my peer group until I was around 17-18.  Because all of them, the ones who could play, went to DuSable.  And a lot of them hadn’t advanced harmonically to the point where they could play according to the form.  In other words, they first arrived at free music, and then regulated themselves to become musicians.

TP:    So you mentioned on our radio show that Albert Ammons and Earl Hines were the first two piano players who influenced…

HILL:  And Count Basie, when he first came…

TP:    Talk about all three, and how they entered your world.

HILL:  Well, Albert Ammons entered my world because when I was a kid he was at the tail-end of when Louis Jordan was hot, and boogie-woogie was popular.  But I noticed that Albert Ammons played his boogie-woogie differently.  It was a living thing more than a novelty.  He just created with his boogie-woogie.  He wasn’t just in one space.  That interested me, because his approach kind of freed me to really try to play the blues.

Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, what I liked about him was he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate from the form and play something creative, not within the structure of the music itself.  I like that.  When I talked to him he said, “Well, that’s what we call concertizing.”  It’s what they do now, you know, when they take extended solos off… But it was called “concertizing” then, because jazz had… You know, they had these black jazz musicians at Carnegie Hall, and Israel Crosby was telling that when you played with Benny Goodman then you didn’t play like you did with… If you were a black band, you had to alter it to concertize.  And Willie Jones, I liked him because most people during that period, known and unknown, were playing the piano voices like the (?) bass and the seventh up top in the left hand, and D in the right hand, A and D octave… He dealt with some variation of that.  And Willie Jones used to play with ninths in the bass and some really incredible things, and he had a nice single fingering even though he was known around Chicago for his block chord Milt Buckner approach because it was exciting, but he always had this terrific band playing with him — so he was a wonderful experience.

And Basie, when I was a man and heard “April In Paris” and so on, I didn’t associate that with the same Count Basie I’d heard when I was a kid.  Because when I heard him as a kid, he was a really exciting stride piano  player — and he had hair.  Then it took me years to realize that this sophisticated big band leader is this person whom I used to love hearing play those exciting stride piano solos.

TP:    A lot of people your age and up to a few years older than didn’t have a whole lot of connection to what they call prebop players.  Someone like Barry Harris was mainly inspired by Bud Powell.  But you from an early age were inspired by people who preceded that and then came to it from that perspective.

HILL:  Well, sometimes, when you’re living instead of studying, preparing to-be one day, it has a more natural evolution.

TP:    So you’re saying because you were performing this whole time, your ideas developed organically.

HILL:  Organic.  You ask questions, and there’s some memory work, and a little text, whatever the people give you.  I discovered Bud Powell and Monk as an adolescent, but before them there were people in the neighborhood.  So it wasn’t an outside influence that captured me.  The music itself captured me, and I acknowledged different other artists as they came that was true to form perhaps, it wasn’t real… Even though I devised a way to make me a music system out of a guitar amplifier at that time from the turntable so I could get the actual sound… A guitar and one of these turntables that would plug into the guitar amp for the sound of the records.  That’s how I heard Bud Powell, on records, but never live; that’s how I set it up so I could really hear him, so I could almost hear him the same way that I heard the live artists.

TP:    Did you transcribe Bud Powell or did you just apply it?

HILL:  Well, I listened to it and a lot of things I could hear.  What I couldn’t play naturally… Someone showed me Czerny, so I could get the fingering necessary to play that.

TP:    To play like Bud Powell, the Czerny technique.

HILL:  For piano fingering, mmm-hmm.

TP:    Again, the same thing about Bud Powell and Tatum.

HILL:  Well, before Bud Powell had the shock treatments he was the most exciting piano player I’d ever heard.  After he had the shock treatments he was a different person.  But he was an exciting approach to me on piano, because hearing stride piano in Chicago, those who didn’t play well, it sounded like BOOM-CHANG, but he eliminated that in such a way where he could play like a horn, in a sense, pianistically.  It was exciting, and it was an extension, in a sense, of what Fatha Hines was doing.  It was just a different approach, different music in the evolution.

Art Tatum was interesting, because… A lot of people love his technique, but I love his harmonics and the voicing of his chords and his contrasts, which was as strong as Monk, but more romantic whereas Monk is more rhythmic.

TP:    As far as understanding harmony, was that innate, or was it through developing your ear on the bandstand with people?  Hearing Tatum, you were able to comprehend what he was doing?

HILL:  Well, by the time I really heard Tatum, I had heard it before from pianists around Chicago, a lot of them unknown, who played like him.  Then they had this piano book on him that they released in 1944 or 1945, with “Body and Soul” and all these things transcribed.  So he wasn’t the first, but he had taken it to a more polished level than a lot of the stuff I heard in Chicago.

TP:    I want to talk about Monk and Bird and Ike Day, maybe Ike Day first, since you recollect sitting in with him when you were 12 years.

HILL:  He had this incredible feel of rhythm.  It was rumored that everyone from Buddy Rich, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and got what he was doing.

TP:    Did he affect your sense of rhythm?  How to play against the drummer…

HILL:  The way he played, even back then, opened up my concept of rhythm.  It took me from a rigid 1-2-3-4… Because even before that time, with him playing between swing and bebop, he did so many amazing things.  When I heard him at the Macombo he was at the height of his powers before he got ill.

TP:    You said he was playing all over the drum set all the time.  You made an analogy to Roy Haynes.

HILL:  Well, it was similar to Roy Haynes, but not, because he had approached it a different way.  Not only did he play on the drum set; he would come off into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls.  He was doing that when he was 19 years old, and that was decades ago.  Lionel Hampton and a lot of people got… He was just incredible.  I never have heard anything like that since, which really leads me, every time I talk about him through the years, to say how important he became.

TP:    You said he played all these things over the entire drum, and incorporated everything into a rhythm so you had this floating rhythm sound.  And there’s something of that in the way you play over the drums.

HILL:  Well, a lot of times I would really like to play with them.  But sometimes that type of synergy isn’t available.  The main thing, you try to have this creative contact that seems to fit in certain situations more than (?) playing with someone… Especially now with everyone concertizing, they establish a certain a certain space as a rhythm.  So the only way you can exist is like a counter-rhythm.

TP:    You said you heard Monk’s records as they came out, when you were 10 and 11 years old.

HILL:  Me and a friend of mine, who was another prodigy, we used have a challenge to see who could play Monk’s compositions.  It came natural to my friend because he was a church pianist, so he was approaching it from the church perspective and play everything on a different degree, but still keep it… So after he taught me that, Monk’s things became more accessible.

TP:    Monk’s impact on you had more to do with his rhythmic concept?

HILL:  Well, Monk’s harmonic concept, the way he heard the harmonies, but still he kept it basic.  Even though he borrowed, his whole concept was very unusual, but then part of it traditional if you approach in from a church perspective from that period with modern harmonies.

TP:    What do you mean by “a church perspective”?

HILL:  Not the Baptist Church.  The Holy Roller; a certain church perspective.

TP:    You’re talking about getting the spirit, spirit-chasing…

HILL:  Well, that’s that type of musical approach, like the Prayer-Masters, which they call the piano and these religious situations that developed naturally in the community.

TP:    Were you in a church situation?

HILL:  Well, no, I really didn’t get into a church situation until I was 30.  So that’s why my friend was such a resource, because he played church piano and he could show me what he hear.

TP:    And one thing Monk and Charlie Parker had in common is that they were both dance musicians.

HILL:  Well, most music for the period up until 1960 was… Well, not dance music.  People had a more developed sense of rhythm than they have now, for some reason, maybe because the music and dance had split, became categorized and separated.  But from that, it wasn’t like commercial, homogeneous dance music.  People did unusual steps.  It wasn’t so much of a formula as it is now.

TP:    People were creating steps.

HILL:  Creative steps.  That’s before television took control and stuff.  Where I played with Charlie Parker was a dance hall, and they had dance halls across country, where they…

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    [BIRD AT GRAYSTONE WAS '51 OR '52] You’re 14 or 15 and you’re going to Chicago, but you’re going to Detroit for a gig.  You also said that when you came to New York, you’d already had a full career in Chicago.  You’re 25-26 with a fully developed aesthetic.

HILL:  Bruz Freeman came by my house and told me that he had a job for me to play with Charlie Parker.  He said that Bird had asked for me, to play with me.  I have no idea how he knew me.  Like I said earlier, I was playing at the jam session.  I was really young and visible on the scene, and it was noted that I had certain natural things and I was a better supplement than a lot of other people who had evolved from the swing period or people who listened to the records…

TP:    So you knew the new harmony.

HILL:  Yes, I knew the new harmony better than people who could play just like Bud Powell or any of them, but it was like an artificial music because they weren’t flowing, they were just playing like the classical music, which it would be one day, but what really gave it the vitality for that earlier period was people being able to express themselves.

TP:    So to put it in my own terms, you knew the language of Bebop and you knew the phrasing of it, and yet it was a natural organic thing for you…

HILL:  Well, it was natural to a certain extent, but then there were things I had learned.  But at least I did have a learned approach that was partially creative at the time.

TP:    Which was the jam session at the Macombo, and you were doing that from the age of 12 to…

HILL:  Well, it evolved.  At first, Pat Patrick was rehearsing this big band, and I went to him and he showed me what the standard harmonies were, the popular harmonies that everybody was playing.  Because I could chord and I had a harmonic concept, but it really didn’t fit into the sound that people wanted to hear during that period.  So he gave me the basics, and I was able to go from there.

TP:    So that was from rehearsing with the Pat Patrick Big Band.

HILL:  Yeah, Pat Patrick and (?).

TP:    does that mean that you were hearing Sun Ra then, too?

HILL:  Well, Sun Ra was always around, but I had a different approach to him, because I asked him to sit in and he refused me as a kid.  So then as I got older he said I should support him, you know, and he really didn’t mean that much to me.

TP:    So Bruz Freeman comes by and has the gig for you, and you drive to Detroit and there you are with Bird.  When did you start making a living as a musician?  Were a professional musician then?

HILL:  Yeah, taking gigs.  Like I said, it was still a popular music; it hadn’t become an art form.  So I could look forward to being employed all week or all weekend.

TP:    If there was such a thing as a typical week, what would it be?  Would you be playing the same type of program?  Different functions?

HILL:  Well, there were so many various jobs, because it was before television.  There was weddings, funerals, dances, social clubs, blues jobs and jazz jobs…

TP:    Miss High School, 1958?

HILL:  Well, I missed those high school things.  I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing.  I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere.  My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive.  I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.  But it was all type of… You could play a stage show. I played with a variety of singers.  It was just anything.  There was just work all around.

TP:    So you played the full spectrum of functional situations that a professional pianist would do.

HILL:  Yes.  Then they had places like Roberts Show Lounge, where Sammy Davis, Barbara McNair and all them were coming through, and I was the regular house pianist there.  I had a trio.  That was from around ’55 to around ’59.

TP:    Willie Randall, the old Earl Hines alto player, was the manager there?

HILL:  He was the bookkeeper.

TP:    So you were basically backing all the major acts coming through Chicago, and did a lot of playing with singers.

HILL:  And then at the Beehive also a few years before that when I was 16-17.

TP:    Then Norman Simmons did that later.

HILL:  Well, Junior Mance started with Buddy Smith and Israel Crosby.

TP:    At the Beehive you’re playing with the national jazz musicians coming through and you’re playing…

HILL:  And I played at Joe Segal’s sessions.

TP:    Did you back Lester Young ever?

HILL:  I never did back Lester.

TP:    Coleman Hawkins ever?

HILL:  I went to Milwaukee in his band as a kid.  They had a jazz club there.  I was invited to his house.  Then Sonny Stitt.  Almost anyone…

TP:    Ben Webster.

HILL:  Ben Webster.  Oh, I did play with Lester.  I played in a place called the  Stage Lounge.

TP:    So you’re playing rhythm sections, and you do that first trio on Ping.

HILL:  Right, where I had Wilbur Campbell on drums and Leroy Jackson on bass.

TP:    I have the one on Warwick with Malachi Favors and James Slaughter.

HILL:  That was ’59.  I made the ’45 for Ping in ’56.

TP:    I’m trying to get to the development of your concept and sound.  Because nothing I can remember on that Warwick record in ’59 sounds anything like, say, Smokestack or Black Fire.

HILL:  Well, that was designed for the supper clubs I was playing at the time.  Like, in Chicago you weren’t pigeonholed into one situation.  You could participate in multi-situations.  But here in New York, they just seemed to pigeonhole you into where you started working.  In Chicago, you could play the blues, you could play jazz, you could play behind a singer or in the various supper clubs that existed on the Gold Coast at that time.  So if you make a name and people dig whatever you do…

TP:    So each function was one function and there were other functions.

HILL:  That was one function.

TP:    It’s almost as though you got pigeonholed into being an artist in New York.

HILL:  Well, when you’re young and you first come to a city, you find your way.  If you’re disciplined, you’ll find something to get occupied with.  But here in New York… Like, I came to New York with Dinah Washington as a kid and Johnny Hartman, and I could see after that, when I got back to Chicago, the singers, like Al Hibbler…all of them would want me.  So if I came here…which is quite a bit… The only thing that would be available with me would be as an accompanist.  Regardless of what else I did… I was offered a job with Paul Butterfield, but then if I started working that job, I would be polarized again as a Blues pianist.  It was offered to me in New York, and that was why I couldn’t accept it, why I didn’t accept it even though I was moving at the time.  But I’m just saying that to say that whatever you participate in, you become part of.  Now I’m above all that where I’m doing it for my leisure and my sanity at this age.  But earlier, when I was younger, it was just polarized areas.  If one did one thing, he was drafted(?)…

TP:    Let me get you from 1959 to 1963, from the Warwick record where you’re doing supper club music, to Black Fire and Smokestack, which don’t sound like anything else anyone else is doing!  Was the music that you were doing on those first records music that you’d written and conceived of and performed in Chicago?  Or was it project-oriented?

HILL:  Well, the one on Warwick had some standards and originals I wrote, but it was conceived for a certain situation, as were things for other situations, but they were never recorded at the time.

TP:    So the music on that early Blue Note record were things you’d conceived of but never…

HILL:  The things on Blue Note were written especially for that session.

TP:    Did you perform music like that when you were in Chicago?

HILL:  Oh yes, especially with Ira Sullivan’s band before he left Chicago… We had a great band with Ira Sullivan, Nicky Hall…

TP:    Not Malachi.

HILL:  No, not Malachi.  Malachi wasn’t progressive; you know, at that time.

TP:    It almost seems to me, the way you’re describing your function as a musician in Chicago is almost artisanal.  Everything is according to a function and then you create art within that parameters of that function.  I can relate that to writing.  In this article, there are certain limits to what I can do, but I can try to make it as substantial and rich as I can.

HILL:  You have to compartmentalize.

TP:    When you came to New York, did you stop having to compartmentalize?

HILL:  Well, other opportunities were available here from people having seen me in Chicago.

TP:    Who were people you met in Chicago who you linked up with when you came to New York?

HILL:  Well, actually a lot of people I met in Chicago, I didn’t link up with.  Like Art Farmer, Charlie Mingus, who I refused to play with… So everyone I played with who were useful in Chicago weren’t useful in New York, but life has a certain way where you can flow on.

I played with Dinah Washington in ’54.  In the period they said I played with Dinah Washington I was with Johnny Hartman.  Then George Kirby, the mimic, I was his pianist for a while during that period, and I traveled for a short period of time with Al Hibbler.

TP:    Is that how you got to L.A.?

HILL:  No, I got to Los Angeles with Roland Kirk, and stayed over and played at the Lighthouse.

TP:    What gig got you to New York?

HILL:  I just paid my own way here.  I was working somewhere on the West Side of Chicago, and the way I looked at it then is I’ll be doing this all my life, even though I wouldn’t… The way things turned out, all of that evaporated.  So I just decided it was time to come here.

TP:    Chicago started to dry up a bit?

HILL:  No, it didn’t dry up for me.  I was doing fabulously.  I was working with Red Saunders doing stage shows at the Regal, getting all the jazz gigs, and getting… I really was pretty active.  But after ten years of it, it began to get boring.

TP:    So you thought you could find some fresh ways of expressing yourself in New York?  What was the pull?

HILL:  The pull was just the fact that it existed, and I wanted to see what it was, because I knew what I had in Chicago.  What I had in Chicago was nice and great, but it wasn’t satisfying at that point, and I saw to myself that if I stayed there I would have condescended morally because everything had a type of sameness to it.  And then in New York, once I got there, I discovered it had a certain type of environment that nourish me, nurture me.

TP:    And you came at a time when… At the time you got there, you and your peer group, the people you recorded with, Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson all had… I mean, in terms of a distinction with a difference, you not such dissimilar sources and influences, and were looking for something new and for different ways to articulate it.  So it was this wonderful convergence.

HILL:  that’s the way I looked at it, to sustain me, and opportunities presented themselves.  It’s almost like this period now; it’s like coming full circle.  Even though the names and the faces have changed, it’s almost the same situation where there are some younger musicians on the scene, a lot of them unknown, but they exist, and the music can be played on a higher level.

TP:    Because they’ve mastered the tradition in some ways, or have a command of the fundamentals.

HILL:  Yeah, enough where they’re participating academians(?) where they might be able to enter the music.  A lot of them can… It’s just exposure.  In other words, that type of natural resources is here with the talent where one can be catalytic to the music, moving the music ahead.

TP:    Let me ask you about some dates and some of the personalities.  You and Joe Henderson had a real linkup… Through him you got the Blue Note…

HILL:  I did the Our Thing session with him.

TP:    Did that come out of a working situation?

HILL:  When I first came back to New York in ’63, my first job was with Kenny Dorham, and Joe Henderson was playing with Kenny Dorham.  Then the (?) thing started.  Joe had a session and he asked me if I would participate on it.  Then while we were playing the session Alfred said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera.  He really liked the way I played and he wanted to make me his piano player for the period.  That’s the type of person he was.  So next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.

TP:    How did you know Kenny Dorham?

HILL:  I’d played with him in New York before I left to go to California.  I played with Kenny Dorham, with J.C. Moses, with Jackie McLean.  Anything else between ’61 and ’62 was a situation where I worked out of New York.

TP:    Talk about the affinity you and Joe Henderson had.

HILL:  Well, it wasn’t that close like relative fellowship.  During that period there were so many musicians, and everyone was feeling the music and had a different unique approach to the music.  Some people later defined it as it was recorded and worked, and others didn’t.  Because they had such a variety of artists there.  Blue Note was looking for a certain type of artists, like records companies are looking for a certain type of young artist now.  Each period has its similarities.  They were looking for someone who played in the tradition, but who could write music and had some type of direction.

TP:    You played with Walt Dickerson, too, that first time in New York.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.  And I loved the way Joe Henderson played, but there were so many scholars to hear at that time.  The way he played excited me.  But then I still enjoyed hearing Von Freeman at the time.  So it wasn’t to me anyone greater or lesser.

TP:    This question isn’t about who’s greater and who’s not…

HILL:  No, but they were all an equal influence, because any other way would become too centralized.

TP:    Sam Rivers mentioned that he was playing in your band for a while, i think.

HILL:  Well, Sam had recorded for Blue Note, and I had this job in California where I had written something for 7 pieces.  Sam did a library job at Lincoln Center, I think, back then, with something for the Musician Fund, and I liked what he did there.  So I heard him and asked him to go to California to me.  He said he was leaving the Miles Davis band and that he wasn’t going with Art Blakey, so we had a certain period of time together.

TP:    Did you play in his bands at all?

HILL:  No.

TP:    And he did one record with you of all your music.  You said that the Point of Departure band was actually a working group for a while.

HILL:  Yes, we had a few concerts.

TP:    With Tony Williams.

HILL:  J.C. Moses was the drummer for things that weren’t recorded.

TP:    Did you ever in performance have Roy Haynes or Elvin or Tony in your band?

HILL:  Well, it was in ’71 when I was doing encounters with Roy Haynes and Richard Davis and Billy Harper.

TP:    But they never got recorded, though.

HILL:  They never got recorded.
[PAUSE]
HILL:  In Chicago the audience seemed to have the (?) with the artist, those who really liked the music of a different sort.  A lot of things that people in later years approached as experimental was almost like a natural evolution of the music itself.  You could approach music in various directions, like playing in two keys at once, or playing certain things and having an audience were a certain synergy existed.  That’s why a lot of people say, “Did they have approach this as such-and-such?”, etc., or some type of musical terminology that’s applied to it after the fact, after the actual… But these were just a natural evolution in that period, even to the extent of the New York… Like, with Ira Sullivan I had written things that evolved differently, like tunes with 10 bars and stuff like that.  A good part about that in Chicago is it wasn’t for just a situation where you would go to a coffeehouse or something and say it’s new music; it was something that the people felt.  That was why you could have somebody like Coltrane, who represented a certain musical period.

* * * * *

Andrew Hill (4-21-00):

TP:    At one point in our conversation you mentioned that this seems to be another golden age in jazz, not unlike things that happened in the ’60s when you came to New York.  Could you elaborate on that?

HILL:  Well, you have fresh young musicians on the scene who are not coming from the same aesthetic as the older musicians.  They’re coming because it’s economically expedient to play music.  They can make a career out of it, come college on.  Then on the other hand also, you have the younger players playing with older players, so that means a lot of things that were lost during what I call the retrospective period shortly before this period now have been acquired by the younger musicians through creative contact with older musicians.

TP:    Are you saying that musicians within the generations before this, maybe 1980-95, weren’t sufficiently in touch with older musicians?

HILL:  Well, they weren’t.  Because when the resurgence occurred, it occurred with what I call retrospective bebop.  In other words, good young musicians… Like you always have had good young musicians who copied other people’s music, and could play without achieving any type of creative contact with each other.  So you had that, which is the normal process for younger musicians to go through.  But now, I’m beginning to see young musicians with concepts where they’re not just playing things that they heard off the record, even though it’s still homogeneous, where Coltrane is still the main influence you hear out of a lot of them… But the music is changing again, going its own way, and then you have all this volume of jazz…all these jazz clubs for almost every genre of jazz here, and all of them have a capacity crowd.  Then you have another thing, that jazz all of a sudden seems to be a middle-class or upper-middle-class music.  Because it’s so expensive, a lot of people don’t hear it unless they hear through, you know, Wynton Marsalis, which is a service because it’s like a music appreciation lesson.  Even if one don’t agree upon the text, you can agree that he is bringing the music to young people who never heard it.  And other people have done it, so I can see there’s a wide flurry interest in jazz where people are trying to find not promoted hype, but the truth on the Internet and stuff like that.  Then most of the audiences, you have your chronological cross-section.  You have your older fans, but you have young fans, too.  Because where there’s younger musicians, there’s younger fans.

TP:    You’ve said a few times in these conversations that when you were coming up, jazz wasn’t an…I think the word you used was “art music.”

HILL:  It wasn’t like an art form.  It was still like a people’s music, but from the change of direction that Jazz has taken… Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution!  You know what I mean?  It wasn’t that.  It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities!  They were more in tune to Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk… I heard him with a piano player friend of mine.  We used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift his stuff off the records when I was 10 years old.

TP:    This was King Solomon, huh?

HILL:  Yeah, King Solomon.  Oh, I told you about that.  Well, the art form was in the neighborhood even before television.  In almost any neighborhood that you wanted to go into, you could hear the music.  It was just coming out… I remember one time when I was 5 years old, I walked down the street and I could hear Billie Holiday coming out of every apartment blasting.  So it was like a people music.  That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.  It hadn’t become an expensive art form for social climbers and jazz connoisseurs.

TP:    But of course there was a group of connoisseurs, though not necessarily social climbers.  I just finished a story for Downbeat on Barry Harris, and he was talking about that time sitting in with Bird in Detroit when you drove there with Bruz Freeman.  But he said that when he was coming up (and he’s older than you), he and his friends got together, they listened to every record when it came out, they absorbed the solos, they took the things off the record, they slowed the records down until they had absolutely internalized all the solos that interested them.  They had their lessons, but they basically taught each other.

HILL:  Oh yes.  But then Chicago was definitely…it seemed to be further away…not further away… But it seemed to be geographically further and culturally different.  There wasn’t an emphasis on everyone being homogeneous.

TP:    Oh, you think the Detroit cats were homogeneous?

HILL:  In their approach to music.  Because you had all these older piano players who played different ways in Chicago.

TP:    you were mentioning Willie Jones.

HILL:  There was Willie Jones.  A slew of fine pianists.  They weren’t, you know, hip-hip-hip, or they weren’t the currently fashionable as the new jazz thing in the black community, but they worked all the time, and each one of them could play.  So you had all these variety of styles, from ragtime piano players who were in the church who were playing with Thomas Dorsey, the one who allegedly created gospel music…

TP:    Or commodified it anyway.

HILL:  Yeah, commodified it.  To all the fine pianists who were coming through town, which one could jam with; which I could jam with when one of the mature pianists was in there.  That’s how I got the job with Bird.  He asked for me and Bruz drove me there.  In other words, we had people like George Eskridge, who could take Bud Powell and Charlie Parker note-for-note off there, but there was no emphasis… Naturally, a lot of the alto players played like Bird.  But then you had Porter Kilbert and other older musicians who played like Willie Smith.  So there was such a cross-section that there was no…

TP:    Everybody was playing everything, is what it sounds like.

HILL:  Yeah, it wasn’t codified or marginalized.  You could work at supper club jobs; there jobs on the North Side, jazz gigs… In other words, there was an emphasis on people being well-rounded instead of polarized.

TP:    I understand.  Let me throw out another question.  How did you meet Hindemith, and what was the nature of your interaction with him?

HILL:  When I was a kid, I used to hustle on the corner of 47th Street with Leo Blevins, who at that time had a bathtub with a board with a G-string.  Me, Leo and Robert Blevins, I would bring my accordion and tap-dance, and we would just play on the corner.  That was our corner.  It was 47th Street and State on the northeast corner.  Because across the street was the cultural heart of what was called Bronzeville.  You had the Regal Theater, where they had a stage show and a movie, the Hurricane Lounge where Albert Ammons and later Gene Ammons played, the Savoy Ballroom, where Hot Lips Page and all… Then adjacent to that from where that was, there was a department store called South Center, which was the biggest… In other words…

TP:    The hub.

HILL:  The hub.  That was the hub of Bronzeville.

TP:    And your corner was in the hub of Bronzeville.

HILL:  Was in the hub of Bronzeville.  So when people didn’t show up, I used to go to South Center and just get a brown paper bag and allegedly call myself writing music.  And Hindemith came — I wasn’t musically literate as far as who’s supposed to be what in classical music and stuff — and he asked to see what I had written.

TP:    You mean he just was down there and he saw you doing it and said, “Little boy, let me…”

HILL:  It wasn’t “little boy.”  He was a very nice man.  We had a little conversation, as much as the age barrier would allow, and he asked me.  He said who he was, which I didn’t know.  But he said what I was writing was musically correct, but people who played, professional musicians, would have another type of notation.  And he showed me how I could do certain things without any type of musical instrument, like writing notes down and arranging them symmetrically and asymmetrically.  Things like that.

TP:    And you said that you had an innate ability to do that, to hear music without a tangible sound in front of you.

HILL:  Yes, I could do it without a sound in front of me.

TP:    But continue with Hindemith.  You wound up sending him something and he gave you a critique?

HILL:  No.  It was just when he was town he always arranged for us to get together and talk.  Later some people would call it a master lesson.  But the way he dealt with me is the way I tried to deal with my students in later life.  He didn’t try to change anything I was doing, but just enhance what I had naturally.

TP:    What about Bill Russo?

HILL:  Well, I bought a few lessons from him.

TP:    how old were you when you met Hindemith?

HILL:  I was around 14.

TP:    So that’s around 1951, and this relationship continued through the ’50s, to your being an adult?

HILL:  For a few years.  Once you get into your adolescence, different things change, and I became more mesmerized by the environment around me.

TP:    Elaborate.

HILL:  Well, I was getting to the point where I was making…you know, playing jobs.  Like, in ’54 I went out with Dinah Washington as her pianist, just a summer vacation.

TP:    She was covering tunes that were already hits.

HILL:  Yes.  “This Bitter Earth” and stuff like that.  That was right before she did her Emarcy sessions.

TP:    Are you saying that your performing career in Chicago subsumed your composing aspirations?

HILL:  Yes.  Because I had a career in Chicago as an adolescent and young man before I came to New York.  In Chicago there were so many things to do.  There were singers to play with, musicians to jam with — not to mention trying to stay in school.  So consequently, all my working time was in functional activity and trying to correct what needed to be correct so I could be more proficient.

TP:    And you were house pianist at the Beehive in ’53 and ’54?

HILL:  No, I played there.  Aside from the Beehive, they had the Crown Propellor and the Stage Lounge.

TP:    You sat in at all those places, but you were never house pianist as such.

HILL:  Well, I played…was almost house pianist at the Stage Lounge, which was on 63rd and Stony Island.  Then you had the Crown Propellor right before Cottage Grove.

TP:    And that was part of that 63rd Street strip.

HILL:  Yes, that 63rd Street strip.

TP:    A lot of musicians who were around then describe 63rd Street in awestruck tones.

HILL:  Oh, it was similar in a sense to what people said 52nd Street was.  On Cottage Grove you had the 6310; that’s where Willie Jones and his band played.  Then they had a disk jockey named McKie Fitzhugh, who had a club directly across the street.  And on 64th was the Pershing Lounge, where Ahmad Jamal was playing, and downstairs you had the first Cadillac Bob’s, where Sun Ra’s band used to play.

TP:    And they had a ballroom in there, too.

HILL:  Yeah, the Pershing Ballroom, where Gene Ammons, Tom Archia, Illinois Jacquet and people like that used to play all the time for the kids.  So the strip went up… They had a gay place a little further down on 63rd Street near South Park.  This was in the latter part… This was from ’54-’55.  Then before that, they had Nob Hill.  That’s where the Beehive was.

TP:    That was on 55th Street.

HILL:  Yes, in the Woodlawn area.

TP:    So you basically worked in all those places, and you said that you were de facto house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge.

HILL:  Well, I did have the house trio at the Roberts Show Lounge with Malachi Favors and James Slaughter — and Teddy Thomas for a while.

TP:    So that formed the core of your activity in the ’50s.  You’re performing, you’re doing tons of jobs, you’re finishing school, you have your compositional fires sort of fueled by meeting Hindemith, but you’re not really doing it because there’s not time and not really opportunity, except for some things you’re doing with people like Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill at certain concerts, and maybe some jamming.

HILL:  Oh, you know the names.

TP:    Well, I know a lot about the Chicago    music.  But when I asked you if there was any analogue to your Blue Note work, you mentioned that you had done some things like that with Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

HILL:  Yeah.  And Red Lionhart(?). There was a bunch… Because Saturday mornings… Ira and the gang was on the North Side, and I was on the South Side, but I would occasionally go on the North Side to play with them.

TP:    And you said you played some of the North Side, Gold Coast supper clubs.

HILL:  Yeah, supper clubs, and they had a jazz club over there, too.  I forgot the name of that place.

TP:    And the Warwick record is ’59, not ’55.

HILL:  Yeah, ’59.

TP:    So you leave Chicago on your own, you get to New York, you know people I guess from their having met you through coming into Chicago, and you work with Johnny Hartman, you work with Walt Dickerson, you leave for Los Angeles with…

HILL:  Al Hibbler.

TP:    Al Hibbler.  Then you go to Los Angeles with Roland Kirk, where you meet your wife.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.  We played at the Lighthouse.

TP:    And you do that record [Conflict] with Jimmy Woods.  Then you get to New York and settle back in.  So if I cite that as your chronology, I’m accurate.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    But just tell me one thing about playing with singers.  Was that something you liked doing?  Was it valuable?

HILL:  It was very valuable to me, because instead of voicing the chords which were popular then, which were sevenths in the right hand and, and thirds and sevenths, you know, like that…or fourths, bass on the seventh in the right hand… I could really go into the harmonics of the tune.

TP:    With the singers.

HILL:  Yes, with the singers it called for not the voicings so the horn players could play, but to play the harmonics of the tune so you could embellish and bring out what the singers were doing.

TP:    Did playing the accordion so young have an effect on your sense of time flow at the piano?

HILL:  Well, I played accordion very much like a harmonica.  Because with those bellows and stuff, you would get the same type of sound, just like a blues accordion player or zydeco…

TP:    All that vocalized timbre.

HILL:  Yes.

TP:    So it didn’t really have that much to do with your conception as a pianist, you don’t think.

HILL:  Well, in a sense it did, because you have the buttons, or stops, on the left hand.  But on the right hand, you had to deal with chordal clusters, not the chord itself.

TP:    In Chicago, did you see yourself as a Jazz pianist as such, or did you see yourself as a pianist who could play a variety of functions, including Jazz?

HILL:  Well, then I saw myself just as a pianist.  Because there was no need to polarize myself in one corner.  Because unlike New York, or maybe… When I came to New York, that road to supper clubs and the singers… I used to play with comedians like George Kirby.  So when I came here, I was more interested in playing jazz jobs than being well-rounded.

TP:    Did you come here with the intent of playing your own music also, or did that sort of happen…

HILL:  Well, that just came on its own.  Because everyone was to me writing so many interesting things, I found out I could evolve myself harmonically by participating with the others instead of stagnating for a certain style.

TP:    So in other words, through playing the original music of Joe Henderson and other people, it kind of spurred things that had been welling up in your mind over the years and music just came pouring out?  Was it that type of thing?

HILL:  Well, I always was a prolific writer.  But like most writers, you need new material to keep from becoming passe in your approach to writing, unless you market yourself to some institution where it’s necessary for you to have a certain almost commercial approach to writing.

TP:    Without going into a lot of detail about… Oh, Bobby Hutcherson asked me to ask you about coming back on the D-train early in the morning from Brooklyn.

HILL:  [LAUGHS] I’m not going to tell you about the D-train.  That’s not for public consumption.

TP:    But you mentioned sort of offhandedly that the friend you did the transcription with was a church pianist, and you learned a lot of the techniques of church music…

HILL:  Oh, that was afterwards.

TP:    You said you learned a lot from him, but you didn’t have your own church experience until you were 30.

HILL:  Oh, it was a her, not a him.

TP:    Oh, so it wasn’t King Solomon.

HILL:  That was a lady named Oveal Warren.  She was the choir-master at the First Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, California.

TP:    So that happened when you moved out…

HILL:  Well, when I left New York in ’76, first we bought a place in the Mariloma(?) Park section of San Francisco.  But I couldn’t take that because San Francisco at the time was trying to be just like New York, and Pittsburgh was kind of country, but it had the nerve to have its own identity.

TP:     Why did you start to get sick of New York?

HILL:  Well, I didn’t get sick of it.  My deceased wife was becoming ill, and once I moved there the condition was described as terminal.  So rather than run back to New York, I decided that I would just stay there because she would need me to be with her.

TP:    I’d like to get back to the present and talk about Dusk.  I don’t want to ask you anything so trivial as to talk about the genesis of the record.  But you said you’d been doing a tremendous amount of writing since you came back east in ’97, that it kind of opened up… Not everything on the record is from the last few years, but I gather most of it is.

HILL:  Well, maybe two or three.  Because when the sextet first started, we had a different repertoire, but the two or three tunes I kept in the book.

TP:    Well, Ball Square you played with Clifford on that Spirits record.

HILL:  Yes, but I just put more sections on it.

TP:    And “15/8″ you might have done solo.

HILL:  Yes, I did on a French record.

TP:    Were you writing music for the qualities of the musicians in the sextet, or was it more them just dealing with your conception?

HILL:  Well, there was a combination of both.  The first compositions I wrote, that I took out the book literally wasn’t changed for the sextet.  But they really didn’t fit the sextet, so the compositions became more personalized the longer the group stayed together.

TP:    And the group going into the Jazz Standard is slightly different.

HILL:  Yes, we changed the bass player and drummers from last year.  Ratzo Harris is taking Scott Colley’s place, and Nasheet Waits in on drums.  The tenor player is Aaron Stewart, plus Marty and Ron…

TP:    And since this record I think you said you’ve done 20 more tunes.

HILL:  Yes, 20 more tunes.  But then some tunes were shaped around Greg Tardy, because he plays clarinet and bass clarinet also.  With Aaron Stewart we’re starting off with 7 tunes, and we’ll possibly rehearse every day we can during the job, so I can try to get a repertoire that fits his personality.

TP:    And then you’re going to record again?

HILL:  I think I’m recorded out for the moment.  The reason I did this recording, between you and I, is I was talking to Howard and telling him that I was thinking about disbanding the sextet, and he said, “Well, it would be good if you did a recording before you do that.”  Because the sextet is good, but it has a life of its own; it seemed to have a synergy that connected with the people.  So it created its own life.  Even though at times I wanted to stop it, but you know, it has a life of its own.

TP:    So it fulfilled a function and maybe now it’s not fulfilling its function and it’s more of an obligation.

HILL:  Well, I really don’t know how I feel about it, because time the people change, the music changes.  It’s a situation that I have to see how it goes at the Jazz Standard.  I know when I changed to Nasheet Waits it improved for me, because I had a more sensitive and open drummer.  Billy is wonderful, but he played like a leader drummer instead of a sensitive drummer.  Which was good, because the band before I started changing it around was like a machine that would just play on its own.  But then what I hate about big bands is the stagnation that comes from repetition.  So this was like a little big band, and it started getting to the point where it could easily become very repetitious from the way some people approached it.  So by making the change, sometimes it became more interesting.

TP:    Do you see your composed music as infinitely mutable material?

HILL:  Well, at the time I really write, I see my composed music as an outlet for my emotions.  Sometimes life is just life, and it has its frustrations for everyone, or problems or whatever, and I can use it as a vehicle to soothe my emotions, and I notice that every time I write when I’m emotional, or even when I write when I’m not emotional, something new and good to me will come out of it that expresses those emotions.

TP:    What’s the role of improvisers within your music?

HILL:  I like to try to get people who are sensitive, like I said before, and who love the music.  Actually the music is just a blueprint for, in most spots, the way it develops, for group improvisation.

TP:    So you see your compositions, at least within an improvisational sense, as templates for group improvising and group creation.  I guess the phrase you like to use is “creative contact.”

HILL:  Yes, for group improvisation.  Because some parts they play as written, but then what’s written sometimes is just a theme to expand on together.

TP:    Lately you seem to be doing a lot of concerts and special appearances.  I don’t know if the thing with Bobby was a singular event or one of a series you’ve been doing, but I know you’ve also done duos with David Murray…

HILL:  Yes, and last week I did a duo with Archie Sheep in London.

TP:    I guess Archie Sheep is your age, but one thinks of you as being from different generations for some reason — maybe because you were on different labels and didn’t at least historically interact during the ’60s anyway.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    And you see to be distinct from the “free” school of players.  Particularly in that time.  Did you see a distinction between you and, say, some of the players who were around Coltrane, or as you said when you called me while I was playing your record and Greg Tardy was soloing, “it sounds like Albert Ayler.”  Did you have any contact with that group of musicians then?

HILL:  Oh yeah, when I was in the Black Arts period, I produced Albert Ayler, the drummer Milford Graves and Don Pullen… On the streets of Harlem, I had three concerts a night(?) of free music.  But as far as myself, the only reason I was catalogued as an avant-garde is because they had no category to put me in.  Which they explained to me when I asked about it.  They said, “Well, we can’t say that you’re a Bebop drummer or a post bebop piano player or a solo piano player or avant-garde.”  But for marketing purposes, they put me under the classification of avant-garde, which seemed to have… It gave me life in the catalogue.  Because if I was classified as a post-Bebop piano player, that only had a certain duration on the jazz market.

TP:    I remember reading a review which I xeroxed of you doing a concert in Chicago in ’67 of your group opposite Roscoe Mitchell, I think it was.

HILL:  No, Roscoe Mitchell came up and jammed with me.

TP:    I realize you were out of Chicago by that time.  But did you have any contact with the nascent AACM, or its antecedents in the Experimental Band, or did you ever touch base with them…

HILL:  Well, I gave them one of their first jobs out of Chicago.  Because John Sinclair, who was in Ann Arbor, asked me to name some musicians who were with the new avant-garde, and I mentioned the AACM, particularly Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell.

TP:    And subsequently they got a lot of work through him.

HILL:  Yeah, he really gave them a big push.  That was around ’67-’68.

TP:    Do you remember your early contact with Joseph and Roscoe?

HILL:  Well, I first met Roscoe when he sat in with me.

TP:    What did you think of what they were doing when you first heard it?

HILL:  Well, I didn’t really know what they as a group were doing.  I just played with Charles Clark and Thurman Barker with a trio, and it was good, you know, but people have been playing like that in Chicago before Ornette Coleman hit the scene.  In Chicago we used to play what we would call “in” and we would play what we would call “out.”  So that was really nothing new for Chicagoans when it got promoted.  That represented a situation where we had Marshall Allen and a few people unnamed.  So when music was… Popular music.  I’ll go back to that.  The audience’s ears was more developed, so you could have a type of synergy…

[END OF SIDE A]

So people had been playing like that.  It was just…

TP:    I guess there’s a certain element of that that goes into blues playing as well.

HILL:  Well, it really goes into blues playing, because the true blues musicians really don’t cater to so many bars, let’s say.  Where people might say it should be a 12-bar blues, and it may be a 15-bar blues.

TP:    It’s whatever they feel at the moment.

HILL:  It’s like choir music, where you have the refrain before you start again, and all that.  Even though it’s based on some type of rhythm, what’s on top may not really fit in with Western harmony the way people think Western harmony should be.

TP:    You also mentioned that Israel Crosby told you that black musicians would play differently, say, with Benny Goodman than in a black band — that they had to concertize.  Which was the thing that impressed you to Earl Hines.  So we can even trace that way of playing Earl Hines in a very stylized show situation.

HILL:  Oh yes, playing something simple like “Sweet Lorraine” or whatever the repertoire, but he would take it out of the context of the standard form, even though it was in the mode of chords of that period, and do certain things… A musician like King Kolax would talk, and they would say… When they crossed over then, they would use that term, that they would concertize their music, put it in almost more of a concert form where the soloist would elaborate a little more than they would just playing together…just playing with each other.

TP:    When you’re talking to me about the range of sources that you can work with, it sounds like the way Muhal Richard Abrams talks, or Anthony Braxton, or Joseph Jarman — that almost any form of music, any genre of music, whether it’s Hindemith, or whether it’s the Blues, or whether it’s Charlie Parker, is grist for your mill, is something you can express yourself with in the most natural way.

HILL:  It is.  All material that you hear… A lot of things have been recycled or expounded upon.  Like, the rhythm may change over the decades or certain elements may change but the basics remain the same.

TP:    Going back to the idea that this is another golden age in the music, do you think this particular group of musicians at this particular moment is ready to seize upon all those possibilities in a way that they haven’t for a while.

HILL:  The ones who aren’t literate.  And by literate I mean those who aren’t so well read that they associate the music with European Art, the part of European art which has been adopted into Jazz, where people think they either have to compromise or live in poverty to play creative music.

TP:    Elaborate on that.

HILL:  By compromise, sometimes it’s not a compromise… They feel that because of the venues available and the visibility available from the institutional position of jazz when you’re in places like Lincoln Center, and the repertory used…that they either have to play like that, or they’re afraid to expand on their talent, because either they’re not open enough to receive it or feel that they won’t work.  To me, both camps, the retrospective camp…and the Free camp is retrospective also, because that’s over forty years old.  But then I see the young people using the entire vocabulary instead of one aspect of it to move the music forward.  Because when I first came back here I thought, like everybody else, “Well, ain’t nothin’ happening.”  Then I started playing with people and I thought, well, something is happening.  The music has moved already, even though it’s imperceptible to those who are loyal to the different camps… But the music itself, the way it’s being played, is totally different from what it’s been.  Now you have those who depending on what school they went to will dictate whether they’re playing allegedly Free or Bebop — because that was the text.  But those who have got past the academic approach, who have gotten into the sound, are taking it somewhere else.

TP:    Did that inspire you when you got back here and you found that out?

HILL:  Yes, it was really inspirational to find out that things aren’t static, which led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible.

TP:    You don’t have to recreate the things that you put down in the spur of the moment… You don’t have to be those three or four years of Blue Note recordings.  You can be who you are now, and progress and grow within a community of people.

HILL:  Yes.  And that’s always rewarding rather than isolated in a retrospective view of yourself.  Or I can express it better.  It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder to just continue playing, because when one plays, either… The audience is fickle anyway.  It will either be with you or it won’t.  Then those who compromise can have a longer tenure of playing.  But it’s terrible to me playing without the passion of music.  Because that’s what I hear a lot of times, people playing without even a passion.  Because it’s the passion that connects; it’s not the academic correctness.  Because the passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you.  But to be playing without any passion but playing correctly seems like people just make a career out of it instead of following their passion.

TP:    What music do you like to listen to these days?

HILL:  Well, now, other than newer things, I like Steve Coleman, the things I like…

TP:    Another Chicagoan.

HILL:  With his own… Yeah!  Then I liked the duo record that Frank Kimbrough did with Joe Locke, Saturn’s Child.  I listen to a variety of things.  Because what I do is, everybody is giving me CDs… I try to tell them not to give it to me.  So the things that I like, which is around 3% of what I get, I keep and listen to sporadically, and other things I just put in care packages and send them out to friends.

TP:    How did you like The Invisible Hand?

HILL:  I enjoyed doing it because Greg gave me the… I didn’t approach it as a sideman.  I just did it because Greg expressed to me sincerely how disappointed he would be if I hadn’t done it, and I have a feeling for him, so… I first met Greg ten years ago when we did Eternal Spirits, and it was good to see where he had progressed to and where he was at this point.

TP:    And in Classical music?  What do you listen to?

HILL:  Yes, I listen to Classical music.  I never have grown tired of Bartok’s string quartets — and other things.  I listen to a whole mixture of different music, but the composing I don’t really listen to it that much.  It seems like I’m able to draw a lot of things from the inside, even though I do go to concerts of all types — Classical, Jazz and stuff.  I have a preference myself for live music, because recorded music to me is like representational art.  That people hear so much… Even though most abstract things can be hung.  And the spirit of jazz is not on the repetition, but it’s allegedly supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.

TP:    And I think we have a good concluding question.  So you’re optimistic.  You’re seeing enough young people in this generation who embody that spirit going forward.  It sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about it.

HILL:  Yes.  I not only see the spirit; I see the outlet for that spirit, where someone, one who commits himself to the music, the rewards will be greater than someone who just approached the music career-wise.  I see where an outlet for creative music is bigger than the outlook for those who can confine them to a certain music simply because they found one formula that they can work or gain a professional image with.

TP:    One other question.  In the program notes to the Mosaic box, Cuscuna says that in the late ’60s you invested wisely in real estate and were able to support yourself comfortable and get away from the vagaries of the existence of being solely a performing musician.  Is that right?

HILL:  Well, from my beginnings, what made me play music was the desire to play, but also it was motivated by the fact that I got paid.  So I never associated music with poverty, because I found that when I played, no matter what my skills may be or how I may attempt to be the Renaissance man, that my rewards were greater even financially than they were by my being a tenured college professor.  But then I also realized that for me to have any duration I would have to get away from the music for certain periods so I wouldn’t be jaded either by my contemporaries or by my having a musical formula which I considered successful.

TP:    So you looked for outlets so you could keep your juices going.

HILL:  Well, when someone says they’re an artist, that’s not a poverty thing.  To be a true artist, you have to have a certain economic freedom.  And if you weren’t born with that, you can give it to yourself.  Because by working, you have escaped poverty.  So it’s just a matter of what do you spend your money on.  Do you need all the new technological toys or do you want a good life?

* * * *

Andrew Hill (WKCR, 5-5-00):

[MUSIC: "Dusk"]

TP:    Let’s talk about the genesis of this record.  The instrumentation comes from one of your most famous recordings, done for Blue Note in late 1963, called Point of Departure, which featured some of the legends of jazz in an ensemble oriented situation articulating your music [ETC.].  I guess the idea arose a few years ago came to revisit the aural timbre of that event for a Knitting Factory festival a few years ago.

HILL:  To revisit the aural timbre and try to reset the state of excellence.  Because there was a certain artistic excellence with that album which wasn’t uncommon for musicians when they got together for that period.  But for this period I figure we’d try to create a band that had the same type of synergy with the audience and who loved the music.

TP:    That brings up two questions.  One is, what qualities, in the general sense, distinguish the musicians who performed on Point of Departure from the generation that appears on Dusk, and what they need to interpret the music with the sensibility that it demands.

HILL:  What I’m trying for now is to be more open and not deal in comparisons.  Because the social and economic situations that created the artists of 20 and 30 years ago isn’t prevalent today.  Because now it’s economically expedient to be a jazz musician.  So you’re dealing with a vast majority of younger musicians who went to college to study jazz (bebop probably was the text) who can make a career out of music.  For me, when I discover musicians in that chronological age with a passion for that music, that’s what gets my attention.  Because I really can’t say what happened (it would seem like a contradiction of what I just said) can’t happen today, but it is happening, seems to be happening in a different way.  Because before I got more involved in my writing and playing, and the interchange with various chronological, 3 or 4 generations from… I discovered that something is happening today.  Because the usual look is that Jazz is something unique that happened in the 20th Century and went its own way and died, and is being preserved.  But now I look at some of the younger musicians and I say, “Well, they really don’t need anything but to play and to play with a certain type of openness.  Like, in any subject, they say, well, once people forget what they studied, then it all becomes organic and instinctive and something great arrives.  But I’ve seen those qualities in quite a few young, middle-aged and older musicians where I say, well, the music really doesn’t need anything.  Because those type of human resources are still available, and the cream of whatever always will find a way to rise to the top, regardless of the obstacles.

TP:    I guess a lot of the musicians who can sustain themselves in the contemporary scene will have to have internalized the styles of many different periods to be able, as you put it, to forget it — forget what they learned and play, in some sense.

HILL:  When I was at the university, the way I approached it was it’s good for a musician to transcribe and have a certain model for entry, and then once they discovered that formula they have something to study and make various improvements on the improvisations.  So it’s a matter of a student nowadays, moreso than everyone who’s been before them, is just to be able to apply critical thinking to the subject matter.  It’s good to go back, but if one really can’t go back and get the feeling out of it, I wouldn’t recommend it.  Because music is not just based on the academic approach, like tonic-dominant harmony and stuff, but it offers a certain magic when people play together and get a creative contact.  So if one can listen, like any aesthetic…listen gradually and get the emotional content out of their music, and in some kind of way figure out how it fit into the sociological mores of the time for the period when jazz was a popular music, not an art form.

TP:    Well, what is your relationship to this older music?  You began your recording contract for Blue Note in 1963, and by ’65, certainly by ’66, you had recorded 8 or 9 albums that stand out as individual documents and classics of the time — over about a three-year period.  To a lot of people it was like you’d come out of nowhere.  Well, that certainly wasn’t the case, because you’d been an active working musician in Chicago for more than a decade before that.  But most people define you by this music from 35 years ago.  So what’s your relationship to it in putting together a body of work for a group of contemporary musicians with that instrumentation, your relationship to that older body of music.

HILL:  Well, for my selection process, I would like a musician who partially understands everything that has gone on before, like the free playing which has been out for forty years, then the bebop, the retrospective, then the magic of Bebop… Just have an understanding of the traditional musical vocabulary that has happened before them enough where they can participate, use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, the sounds, able to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process, to say, “Well, this will fit into this period.”  Not looking at anything as old and new.  Because it’s all common property and always been recycled with a different beat.  But I look for people to have a knowledge of what has gone on in the past, because the freedom I will give them, I want them to make good musical choices.

TP:    There’s an explicit reference in this… The title track is inspired by a section of Jean Toomer’s Cane.  Talk about how your impression of the text set off the musical impressions we hear on the CD.

HILL:  Cane is basically a bunch of short stories linked together which is built on his experience in the South, when he went down South to teach and was drawn into what I call a native environment.  Prior to that period he was raised as mulatto gentry from that time, a Washington, D.C. background with his family… But what links it is these different things, like they say “her skin was beautiful, it was like dusk…”  Everything emphasizes dusk.  Dusk to me is the period between day and night.  Each one has a different dusk.  One could smell smoke, the baby burning… That was kind of a dusk.  Not dealing with it chronologically in years, but dealing with it chronologically by the season.

[MUSIC:  "Sept"]

TP:    When people in the band talk about playing with you from night to night, they describe an attitude on your part towards the music that it’s kind of like a work in process.  The musical texts seem to be infinitely mutable.  You change the form of the compositions from night, occasionally without much warning or on the spur of the moment.  Has that been your philosophy?

HILL:  Yes.  The sextet is nice, but then when you have arranged things it can become as boring as a big band.  Because some of the most interesting big bands I have heard, the musicians who play in them regularly are bored to death.  So I figure, well, maybe if you can change the form and context of the material and get the soloists involved where they can go into group improvisation on a theme or on a rhythm, you can keep the music alive.  Because other than that, everyone who would probably sound incredible from playing the same thing over and over again… But there’s a certain magic of creation.  Because I would rather have the magic of creation, which is success, rather than perfection of an academic approach where everything is perfect but meaningless.

TP:    Did you ever lead a big band or write big band music?  Am I correct that there is one unissued big band record in the Blue Note archives?

HILL:  There’s actually three big band things I started, with a tentet, with unorthodox arrangements, then I have two or three with 12 to 14 piece instrumentations, which to my memory isn’t like a standard orchestra.  But I always have enjoyed writing for almost any group.  Writing seems to be my passion.  I was amazed today… Two days ago I was working on a tune, and today it just revealed itself as a futuristically incredible composition.  So I’ve written for big bands, orchestras…

TP:    And you’ve been writing since before you knew it was writing, in a certain sense.

HILL:  Yes, I always have had that.  When I grew up, everybody would say it was weird, because the young kids my age were playing baseball, hitting each other in the head with the bat, the little things that came with childhood in the neighborhood I grew up in.  But I preferred, in a sense, to hustle.  I had two or three street corners where I would stand and play my accordion.  Leo Blevins, who was ten years older, had a bathtub with a board and a G-string.  So we would liberate a corner and play there.  During the intermission I would go to the department store and allegedly write things down on a brown paper bag, which I found out in time was correct… I was told that my method of notation… Because when you write, you try to make things a little more homogeneous so people can read it.  But my music didn’t have any mercy for the musician who would read it, but it was correct.  I always loved to write music.  Then when I got to the point where I could hear the music back, I loved it that much more, just… I notice that whenever I’m troubled or whatever, it’s like an…it’s amazing that from your creative outlets, something is born.

TP:    The neighborhood you grew up in that you’re referring to is the South Side of Chicago, which was a center of enormous cultural ferment in the time when you were growing up, after World War II and during the 1950’s  And the person who let you know about what you were writing, if I’m not mistaken, was Paul Hindemith.  Not necessarily the person you’d expect to encounter on the South Side of Chicago.

HILL:  Well, across from the corner where we were playing, you had such cultural attractions as the Regal Theater, where they had the stage shows, part of the black theater circuit, then you had the Savoy Ballroom where great artists would come in who people would dance to.  Then you had the Hurricane Lounge, where first Albert Ammons was playing, but then Gene Ammons and Tom Archia played… It was just a hub.  Not to mention 47th Street itself.  As you walked down 47th Street from east to west you would run into a few places that had blues bands.  So you would find a lot of people going through that strip because it was safe and there was a lot of, in a sense, material available.

TP:    So Hindemith just heard you, saw what you were doing, and took an interest.

HILL:  Yes, he took a partial interest.  I think he was going to the Regal Theater.  I think one of Fats Waller’s last performances was there, and he played organ.

TP:    So you were 6 years old when…

HILL:  Hmm-hmm. Anyway, he stopped… I guess I was a sight, a little raggedy kid who could play the accordion, and when I played it, it was like a harmonica almost, where it sounded like a mouth instrument, because you can  have those waves of air.  So that was interesting.  It looked like the stage show was getting ready to start…

TP:    And you were more interesting than the stage show.

HILL:  Well, everybody put their instrument down.  So I sat down and wrote something on some music paper.  I was calling myself writing, because I could hear the sound from when I was a baby… In hard times they had rent parties, and you had some of the finest pianists coming by your house playing stride and boogie-woogie and some modern.  So music was always available, and from my ears I could separate the various sounds.  I’ve always been talented at that.  At first it was like a game, but then the game grew into another type of reality.

TP:    I guess through playing on the street is how people like Albert Ammons or Earl Hines would have heard you play — you’ve mentioned both as early mentors.

HILL:  Well, Earl Hines, a few years after that he was at the new Grand Terrace.  The old one was at 35th Street.  In ’49-’50-’51-’52-’53, it moved to Oakwood Boulevard, which was on Oakwood and South Park, which is now King Boulevard.  Anyway, from being at the Regal as I got older, I started selling the Chicago Defender.  The way that worked was, you would go to the distributor and buy so many newspapers yourself.  Part of my route where I would go was these hotels and buildings, and sometimes it was the Grand Terrace.  I stumbled upon Fatha Hines.  Because at that age I didn’t know who was supposed to be who or what, but I was just happy that when I ran into an older artist, they would be supportive and maybe give me a…you know, explain something musically to me.  So I bugged him to death. [LAUGHS] Then he decided he would let me play on his grand.  So I played on his grand, I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had an unlimited technical facility for not having really studied.

TP:    It’s something that couldn’t be duplicated today.  You mentioned to me that at 12 years you sat in for one tune at a breakfast session at the Macombo Lounge…

HILL:  Yes, they were playing “Idaho.”  They gently eased me off the stand because I didn’t play the bridge in A-flat.  Oscar Pettiford was playing bass and the legendary Ike Day was playing drums.  King Kolax, who was an older musician who had been in all these various big bands… The piano player didn’t show up, and he knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so they invited me on the stand to play “Idaho” with them.  I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, “Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!”  But after that, they were nice enough to generally ease me off the stand, but they told me what I did wrong.  They said, “On the bridge, you go to A-flat.”  Then years later…well, not that many years, when I discovered who everyone was, I was overwhelmed.  Which I think really created my personality now.  I said, “If people of that magnitude can be generous and gracious and giving, let me try to be like that.”  I know there was others who turned their back to the audience.  I’m not saying anything is greater or lesser.  But from my experience, I also try to be supportive.

TP:    Through the ’50s, you finished school, and also played rent parties, did various gigs around the South Side, which meant a range from supper club things to hardcore jazz to playing with singers — and blues.

HILL:  And blues.  Then all of a sudden I became a pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band.

TP:    You played at the Beehive, where national acts would come through.

HILL:  Played the Beehive when it was in Nob Hill.

TP:    Subsequent to that, the Roberts Show Lounge, where major entertainers came in, North Side supper clubs, different clubs on the 63rd Street strip.  So by the time you got to New York in 1961, when you were 24, you already a decade’s professional experience, which puts into perspective the splash you were able to make once Blue Note allowed you to unleash your creative juices on the scene you encountered in New York City.

HILL:  The (?) had become polarized, in a sense.  Sometimes I’d say to myself, well, since I played all these clubs and so on in Chicago, why wasn’t I drawn to that in New York.  But when I arrived, what got my attention was all the various flowers, known and unknown, was were available.  It was just a big potpourri of musical talent.  It was thrilling to be alive.  Music wasn’t economically expedient at that time, but there was a certain type of fellowship and certain information and certain…you know, the joy of musicians really having a social work style where they were liberally given information all the time, and you were able to play… No one had gotten big enough where they couldn’t refuse certain situations where they got together.  Before I left, things had changed.  I knew it was time to go, because people were charging me for rehearsals.  I said, “The scene is changing.”

TP:    Dusk has a programmatic component to the recital.  There are sextet pieces, piano with a three-horn orchestration type of thing, and some solo tracks as well, of which we’ll hear one, which is called “Tough Love.”

[MUSIC: "Tough Love"; w/ Osby, "The Watcher, Vol. 2"; POD, "Flight 19"]

HILL:  I really enjoyed Freddie Waits.  He was a incredible drummer.  He was like Ike Day to me, one of the great masters who never really got their due.

I love playing with Marty because he’s always fresh and he always inspires me.  I can’t remember when he played the same thing twice on any different occasion, which I love.  Ron Horton is a nice person, a person I like who I’ve seen develop his own style, really coming into his own.  I heard Aaron Stewart last year with Marty Ehrlich’s group playing Julius Hemphill’s music, and I was impressed with his sound.  I was also mostly impressed with the fact that at the time he didn’t sound like anyone but himself.  Nasheet Waits is a person who has won my heart.  To me, everything is built of the spirit of the drums and where the drums goes, so to me, he’s the spirit of drums at this moment.  And Ratzo Harris is a very magnificent bassist.  I’ve been playing with him for years, since he was 17 in San Francisco, and he was spectacular then, so it will be interesting to see…

TP:    You spent a good chunk of the ’80s and ’90s on the West Coast.  There’s always been a bit of mystique about you, people wondering whether such-a-such a fact is accurate.  I guess you were away from New York for 20 years or so.

HILL:  I left in ’75 and returned in ’93.  I’d make runs in and out, but then at a certain point I felt New York was the place.  Because I could see New York coming alive again, things changing, a different space but the same place.

TP:    You’ve said that you think we’re in a sort of golden age, and the group of musicians who are sort of entering their prime now and defining the next stage the music will take… You describes it as almost analogous to the period when you first made your big creative splash.

HILL:  There hasn’t been as much new, young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s.  But I see the music is well in their hands as evolving to something else.  Then I see the concert stages more available, not really comparatively… But Classical music has lost much of its audience, and it’s been sustained in a lot of areas with the orchestras contracting jazz artists for a collaboration.  I see where Jaazz is just going to flower.  The reason I say it’s going to flower is because of the creative young artists that are still alive, who… If they were all dead, it could really be looked at as a retrospective.  But I see life has been breathed into the music.

TP:    The way information is passed down is a lot different than when you were coming up, isn’t it.

HILL:  Well, now information and misinformation… Like, everything is… Now it doesn’t have the substance.  When it was passed down to me, like before television and stuff, it was, in a sense, more accurate.  You heard about Coltrane, and in New York they heard about me… Different people were..> it was more of an accurate assessment than it is now.

TP:    But I was referring to the way vocabulary was passed down, musical information.

HILL:  Well, it was more of the oral tradition, where they would show you… Depending on the instrument, you would show the instrument… And the ears were more sensitized or… I can’t compare it.  But you could play the most complex figure for someone two or three times and they would have it.  Whereas now everyone is reading 100% synthetic, so one really has to have compositional skills to write it down.  Because there is a great chance that if you try to share it through the oral tradition, it will really take more time.

TP:    [Re Shades] Did you used to gig with Clifford Jordan in Chicago?

HILL:  Yes, I used to gig with Clifford off and on when he was available during that period.  Clifford could play every instrument — bass, drums…

TP:    Speak foreign languages…

HILL:  Oh, he was an incredible person.

[MUSIC: "Ball Square" from Dusk]

TP:    I’m going to take you back about 40 years.  In the years before you left Chicago, which was in ’61, what if any was your connection with the people who comprised the AACM in Chicago directly or indirectly?

HILL:  Well, I had a talk with Richard Abrams…Malachi…

TP:    He was part of your working trio.

HILL:  He was part of my working trio.  But other than that, I had no working connection.  After I had moved to New York, I came back and played at a concert they presented at the University of Chicago, and introduced them to John Sinclair, who was at Ann Arbor at the time, and through that introduction they were able to expand into other areas.

TP:    Next week, how much is new repertoire and how much old?

HILL:  We’re starting with the tunes on this album, but we have about 7 compositions we’re going to work into the repertoire.  By the end of the week, I’m hoping to have a new repertoire of 25-30 tunes.  Because I’ve written a few things before, but I really can’t write for the group effectively until I’ve played one or two nights with the musicians.  Then I can write music that would fit their strengths.

TP:    So for you, writing is as much personality-based as it is…not abstract…

HILL:  Well, in certain situations… Extended compositions are different.  But in these groups, improvs where you put different sections of music together depending upon who is playing.  I’ve noticed through the years you may give an artist material that really may not fit their mindset for the period that they’re in.  This way, everyone can… Like the old jam session, even though it’s a little more rehearsed.  You can find a common denominator, a common level to play on.

TP:    You’ve also been doing a bunch of duos in recent years, as with Bobby Hutcherson recently, duos with David Murray and Archie Shepp.  Are these very satisfying performances for you?

HILL:  I don’t know if “satisfying” is the word because I approached them with apprehension, and then when they’re over it takes me two or three weeks to figure out whether they were successful musically, but they are challenging.

* * * *

Andrew Hill (6-22-00 & 6-23-00):

TP:    I’d like to speak about your relationship to your history, to your past.  I’ve seen you play several times now this year, with your current group, but also situations that bring you back in touch with past associations.  The concert last week with Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson reaffirmed something I knew about your music, which is that you operate with a very specific language and vocabulary, and it seems that to be articulated in an effective way, it needs to be done with all appropriate detail, which it didn’t seem you had time to rehearse enough to make it come out in the concert.

HILL:  That’s partially true.  The problem with this job and the job coming up at the Chicago Festival, most of the promoters want to book me with past associations, because they say it will bring a better house.  But the other side of the coin is, everybody hasn’t kept up.  Musicians come to me with a desire, as they say, to play in the big room, which is defined as playing open, and they really haven’t developed their skills.  That’s why in my band I have a preference for… I can cross racial, chronological and different lines, and find open people who are open enough to have developed these skills to the point where we can go onward with a series of workshops and reprogramming.  Like I was telling Howard, this coming Festival, the only way I can see myself surviving is to cancel and redo it with musicians who I feel I can play with this decade, who may have been wonderful for me 20-30 years ago.  But like I said, everyone hasn’t really kept up.  I’m versatile enough to play other people’s ways.  But the unfortunate thing is, most of the older musicians… With the so-called success or whatever it is, the promotional visibility that I’m getting now, they figure they want to cater to me to the extent that they can play with me.  But then, it’s not about anything retrospective.  We’re talking about current skills.  Because the younger musicians have an encyclopedia from the so-called “avant-garde,” which isn’t avant any more, or bebop… So they have an encyclopedia where they can go into certain aspects of certain styles, and develop a new sound and even an identity.  But then if someone has been out there for years and really hasn’t upgraded their skills, in a sense they’re back at point one.

TP:    Or at the very least, their skills may not have gone in parallel with where you’ve gone in your own music.  Like, Jackie McLean’s skills are immense, but he’s a leader, and he hasn’t been a sideman on anything but Charlie Parker’s music and the tradition for a long time.

HILL:  Well, he wasn’t supposed to be a sideman.  It was supposed to be a collaboration where we went through new material, nothing so hard that anyone would have to go to school for it.  Just little things that were supposed to be natural, natural enough where people could just get together and get into the sound.  But for sound, it would be better for people to play the way they play.  That was my objection to the concert.  I figured it would be stronger if people didn’t try to get with me and allowed me to get with them.  That way I could accompany them, and bring them out.

TP:    I thought for that concert that a more effective way, if you didn’t have a day or two to rehearse…

HILL:  We didn’t.

TP:    …would be maybe to do trios or quartets or break the thing up.

HILL:  It was supposed to be broken up like that.  But they didn’t give us the space necessary for trying to adapt.  That’s the way it was arranged.  But we had bass, drums…everyone was supposed to be in different combinations.  But for some reason it didn’t happen.  Because for the performance, everyone really kind of reverted back to their first nature.  So this type of space was very new.

TP:    The concert needed a producer.

HILL:  It had a good producer.  Everything went well.  The problem was the same aspect that people couldn’t really relax, and when they couldn’t relax they were like a bull in a china shop.  Nothing bad.  But if they had relaxed, and just let everything float and had come in floating, they would have found that space and no one would have noticed.  But then people get used to becoming a dominant soloist, so much so that they feel they must fill up all of the space in certain areas, but they’re not equipped to fill up the space without listening and capturing what’s going on around them.

TP:    So in the ’60s, when this music was all fresh, people weren’t so set in their vocabularies, weren’t so set in their ways.

HILL:  Yes, that’s it.  Just like a young aspiring player today, or anyone creative.  To be creative, you can’t… Everyone can find a formula where they  can sound good, and they can sound good for decades by applying the same formulas.  But when someone says that there are more, then it is their responsibility to themselves that they keep on listening and evolving.

TP:    I’d like to talk about some of the ways in which your sense of composition has evolved over the years.  How do you hear your older music now?  How does it sound to you?

HILL:  The older music brings back the moods of certain periods.  I can almost experience my life during those periods by listening to the music, and enjoy it.  But as far as my having any established formula… I just write music every day, and there’s 10 or 12 ways that I try to get to a new creation.  But I can become analytical only when I’m inside the creation, as to which ways the melodies or fragments of melodies lean towards.  Some things lean towards voices.  So my sociability is my music composition.

TP:    Is the 4-5-6-piece combo sort of your natural metier?  Is that what you hear most naturally?  Or is that a pragmatic choice to write for?

HILL:  Well, I figured I’d get a sextet, get in and write some compositions.  It can be an outlet, but it’s not what I hear or all that I hear.

TP:    What are some other things you’re hearing?

HILL:  Oh, I hear voices, big bands, string quartets, two-basses.  Quite a few things.

TP:    Apart from the unissued tentet stuff for Blue Note, have you done big band…

HILL:  There’s 12 or more in the can.  And I did a big band composition for Harvard University and a few colleges.  I wrote for big bands and orchestras when I was an Associate Professor at Portland State University.  I’m marketed in such polarized areas that there’s really not that much interest in that aspect of me here.

TP:    Can you talk about how your style of piano playing and your individual technique of playing the piano inflects how you hear and compose?

HILL:  Well, it’s almost two different things.  On piano, I go through certain periods where I seem to be very dexterous, and then periods when I’m more into the content than the quantity.  These are things that I don’t analyze, but I try to…

TP:    They happen.

HILL:  Well, it’s not like a gift from God where I just sit down and play.  I have to keep on refining my skills to see how I want to play.

TP:    Tell me something analytically about the pieces on Dusk.

HILL:  Basically all I can say is that the various compositions are constructed in sections.  Different sections where I’ll put certain sections together with the versatility of the musicians.  Each section can have a different sound.  Then as a result, I can bring out different aspects in the various sections.  But as far as my approaching it analytically, at the moment I’m not… I haven’t really been analytical since I left the college.  I have the skills, so I want to apply the skills in almost an organic manner.  In approaching a composition in general, I generally don’t want to talk about something so that I find myself trapped within that for my interpretation of a certain type of creative… I’m happy that the sound means different things to different people.  But for me, as long as I have an activity…in writing, I just would rather pursue it naturally, instead of it being natural or retrospective about what I have done, to keep from having a series of repetitions. TP:    Let me ask you about your range of activities this year.  What are you doing in Italy?

HILL:  In Italy I have a fellowship to retreat for creativity and clarity.  It’s in the vicinity of Tellunueri Castle in Umbertide, Italy, right outside of Perugia.  There will be some writers, poets and painters there also.  I’m the only musician.  I’ll have a wing of the castle to myself a studio and an apartment.  They’re providing transportation, lodging and food, and a car and bicycles.  It’s kind of like the McDowell Colony.  The purpose, they say, is just to give creative artists a chance to reflect and, for consideration of their generosity and hospitality, maybe mention their name.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of duos, special projects. Hutcherson and David Murray are the ones I know about.

HILL:  I did one with David Murray, one with Andrew Cyrille, one with Archie Shepp.

TP:    How were they set up?  In an informal way?  Were they playing your compositions, compositions by both…

HILL:  No, in situations that I try not to be academic about the approach, to try to approach it seeing that there’s two people where I feed into their strength, or their style of performance, trying to create something that’s not specific… My approach to their different individual solos isn’t specific.  I just tried to play with someone and achieve some type of creative contact, no matter what approach I may have to use.

TP:    But which approach did you use?  Did you play your compositions…

HILL:  No, I played their compositions.  I’d try to make them feel completely comfortable.

TP:    With Hutcherson you have a much closer relationship, so I’d imagine the dynamic of performing together is very different.

HILL:  Well, with Hutcherson what happened is, I went to his house for three days and we just had an intensive workshop.

TP:    How is it different for you playing in let’s say the duo as opposed to a situation where there’s a drummer?

HILL:  Well, the drummer is still the basis of jazz, really.  When you’re playing jazz and you’re playing without drums, it’s kind of artificial, but it’s the mood of the time.  It’s artificial because jazz is another aesthetic.  Even though it’s European as far as tonic-dominant harmonies, it’s still a music where Western culture, the emphasis on the melody and harmonics, and rhythm is an accessory.  In African music the emphasis is on the rhythm, and the harmony and melody are accessories.  So basically, it’s been an osmosis of those things.  But still when you get past the rhythm, the beat, the feeling of the heart, all of a sudden you’re dealing with a situation where the guidelines between classical music and jazz are dissolved.  So maybe because people have two artists they call it jazz… It’s still spontaneous music.  It’s really spontaneous music then, because you two are relying on each other to feed each other.  But as far as the tradition, you take the drums out (like, I hear the drums being taken out of James P. Johnson’s music), and you have something else entirely.

TP:    Of course he made up for that with what he did with his left hand, but I take your point.

HILL:  I mean out of his written music.  He has operas and string quartets also.  But for all those things the rhythm has been taken out of the music so you have something completely different than what he wrote.  But like you said, on the piano itself… When they took the drums out of America, the piano because the spiritual master, where you have an evolution of church music in this country.  Especially in the black African-American Negro tradition, the piano has been evolving as a rhythm instrument, even going back to 1850, when they used to play the rolling piano, which was boogie-woogie.  So boogie-woogie came before ragtime.

TP:    I didn’t know boogie-woogie went back that far.

HILL:  They used to call it the “rolling piano” style.  It was known in the West, the same approach that boogie-woogie had.  These things were nourished in the subculture, even though it wasn’t predominant in the greater society.  Because in that period, from the free Negroes and the slaves, they wanted Coon music.

TP:    This record is extremely rhythmic, with amazingly complex and dynamic rhythms.  In the sextet with Nasheet Waits, you have an incredibly dynamic young drummer.  How much of a blueprint do you give the drummer?  Are you very specific about the rhythms that they have to articulate?

HILL:  First, I get drummers, again, who love the music.  The ones I’ve select, I select because of their abilities to play counter- and cross-rhythms.  So from that alone, I give everyone in the band the freedom to be themselves (it’s not a dictatorship) to the extent where they can utilize and develop their creative voice.

TP:    Greg Osby said that with your music, you have to disregard the page.  The page is just the blueprint and you can’t follow it literally.  If you follow the notations and rhythms just as you wrote it out, it won’t have the right sound, that there has to be a real experience of hearing the music.

HILL:  I understand what you’re saying.  With different musicians I use different approaches.  I have to, because everyone has their…soloists have their certain rhythmic priority, places where they can go and places where they can’t go.  Like, the younger musicians aren’t supposed to be as creative as the older ones, even though they’re developing that, but they have something special in the fact that they can read anything you put in front of them.  Even though I’m humble, but most people don’t realize that having been an Associate Professor for year, I am very precise.  Like, I can write for strings and do things for strings that most people can’t do.  They said in the old days that you couldn’t write for strings because they really couldn’t swing or capture the magic of jazz.  I’m skilled enough to communicate with anyone.

TP:    Do different musics that you write have different functions?  Does the music for the performing group have one set of parameters and the string music has another?

HILL:  Well, each song you write has to me a life of its own once you’re developing it.  It itself will tell you according to one’s own references what area or genre you think the music would fit best in.  So you develop it from that point on.  It’s not a thing where you sit down… Quite frequently melodies come to me in the head.  But then other things… Even they have a form of their own.  So when you write music, you try to capture the form, and when you’re playing with other people you try to capture the essence of their presence and not control them.  So with Greg, I give him the liberty that if he hears other things, he plays other things.  I don’t write it so set that if a person goes contrary to what I thought, that I’m offended.  I give it to the artist.  Some prefer to read it with the dynamics and stuff written in, like the sextet…

TP:    So in other words, the flow of it goes according to the personality of the artist and where they’re willing to go with what you give them.

HILL:  Yeah, and the things that I have completely written, like extended compositions.  Well, you’re supposed to be dealing with the creative music.  In the old days they used to take standards and bend them to their interpretation, so that they can take music and bend it to their interpretation and style where… If it’s natural to them, I honor it.  I don’t say, “Well, you have to play this note.”  Because what the sextet brought out is it shows the players how to play rhythmic counterpoint against each other in the group improv.  So I see from my having done that on the scene, it’s become popular on the scene.  But now the older musicians cater to me, but the younger musicians have been hearing me so long that I’m natural to them no matter what way I go.

TP:    With someone like Nasheet, his responses are based upon having heard you for a long time and kind of intuitively knowing what you need.  And of course, that’s his own predisposition to play like that.

HILL:  His response is to play.  Like I said, the sound may sound natural to him.  But to play and not be hemmed in.  Whoever you are, present yourself, moreso than the call-and-response… It’s a term that really is not completely appropriate, even though it’s used on certain occasions.

TP:    Now, Bobby Hutcherson said that the main thing about your music for him is that every song makes him think of a story.  There’s always a little story in the melody, and there’s a reason why it’s being played.  Do you write music abstractly, or does a work always have to correlate to some sort of story or some sort of mood or some sort of color.

HILL:  Well, those are two questions.  On the first question, about Bobby Hutcherson’s impression of my music compared with Greg’s impression of my music, everyone who performs with you looks at it a different dimension of your music, according to their understanding and how they connect with you.  But it has nothing literally to do with the composer himself.  I’m glad, as we said earlier, that the music can be interpreted by other artists in various ways.

Question two: I write because it is as natural to me as breathing.  I just write music.  I write all the time.  Like I said, that’s my relaxation and my sociability.

TP:    You made a comment a few years ago about Point of Departure, that Tony Williams surprised you in some ways in everything he did, and that there were areas he couldn’t go into with Miles that you were able to bring him into in some of the thing you did.  That’s how I’m interpreting what you said.  If you could be specific, what areas would those have been?

HILL:  Well, playing with Miles was an egocentric, demonstrative situation.  For a professional musician that the epitome, because from that other things are coming, and the more demonstrative you are, even musically, the more you’ll be seen.  But with me, he could go into calmer rhythms and deal with the music not in volume but in rhythmic intensity.

TP:    Also stepping back to the ’60s, you said that during that time in particular you were extremely enamored with Roy Haynes’ playing, and what you specifically liked was a quality you said also Ike Day had, that he incorporated every component of the kit into the rhythmic flow, so that there was therefore a floating rhythm rather than a stacked rhythm.

HILL:  What attracted me to Roy Haynes, when I first came to New York he was playing with trios all the time.  And I loved the way… Like you said, it’s a floating rhythm, it’s a relaxed rhythm… Playing with him, he relaxed the beat, i a sense.  Philly Joe Jones and them were playing precise metronome, like 1-2-3-4, and everything was pyramided on top of that.  But with Roy Haynes, he left space and he left the soloist, whoever it may be, a space where they could be precise but they could still float in.

TP:    What is the synergy between you and Nasheet Waits?  He seems to be an extremely effective drummer for your music.

HILL:  With me, being homogeneous, I’d say, well, my blessing is through these various decades to play with the best artists available, young artists, being able to interact with them, interact with anyone… Through the decades… I’m not going to say, “Well, such-and-such is the greatest,” but I will say that I’ve liked people who love the music… I mean, Billy Drummond, what he did is phenomenal, and I like Billy Hart.  I’m not so polarized on one person.  All I ask a person to do when I get together with them is play.  If they can play, I like them.  If they can’t play, I don’t like them.  I see people develop certain instinctual skills.  So if I’m lucky enough to be in an area where there are still some great budding artists, it means jazz isn’t dead, that it’s still evolving.

TP:    You said before that this is a golden period.

HILL:  Well, in more ways than one.  In the artists that’s available at any time… You have younger artists, you have young audiences — that’s a given.  So you have to have a chronological cross-section who love the music, and that will pick up the volume demographically.  So there are opportunities for things to happen that haven’t happened since the ’30s, and will go further than what happened in the ’30s.  It’s just the laws of general dynamics.

TP:    Everyone I’ve talked to has said that your voicings are totally distinctive, that if you write a standard chord change you can’t really play it as written because other notes are implied that aren’t in there.  I guess that’s maybe for them to say and not for you to say at this point.

HILL:  Well, that’s just a leftover from the old days.  People didn’t play the same chord the same way all the time.  They took certain liberties that gave the soloist liberties.  That’s just an extension of that.

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Filed under Andrew Hill, Article, Chicago, DownBeat, Interview, Piano, WKCR

Anthony Braxton Turned 66 Yesterday

Writing about jazz music for a living has its frustrations and low moments, but one of the pleasures is the opportunity to intersect with such singular individuals as Anthony Braxton, who turned 66 yesterday. During the ’90s I did several long-form interview shows with Braxton on WKCR, and subsequently conducted a lengthy interview for the program notes for Duo Palindrome (2002) [Intakt], an encounter with Andrew Cyrille .

There are many places to investigate Braxton’s life and oeuvre — it’s a life study for some. I did my bit in 2007, when DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a long piece on Mr. Braxton framed around the release of his nine-CD-plus-one-DVD box set 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 [Firehouse 12]. It’s still a little too close to the run date for me to feel sanguine about posting the piece, but I will offer the second of two interviews that I conducted with Braxton towards that purpose — this one in his office at Wesleyan University.

Anthony Braxton (Wesleyan, April 9, 2007):

TP:   In the office, there’s a stack of CDs—Stockhausen, Samstag aus Licht, your London concerts, Women In Jazz, Stockhausen’s piano pieces, Jimmy Giuffre 3, Coltrane, One Down, One Up (Half Note), Max and Dizzy in Paris and Max and Hassan—amongst other things. Plus a big pile of books. Eddie Harris’ Intervallistic Concept Book, Bill Dobbins, Hanon… Quite an office. And a magazine with Wynton on the cover.

BRAXTON:   It’s Jazz Education. Just came in.

TP:   A newish Mac computer. So here we are. We were just talking about jazz scholarship, and you were saying that this has all of a sudden become a very important period, and you were moving towards speaking of 9/11 as a restructural transformational moment.

BRAXTON:   My point was that when I think about this time period and dynamic challenges that we find ourselves as a country facing, I find myself very much aware that the America of post 9/11 is a point of the past, and that on the other side of the dynamics of this war that we’re dealing with, which is starting to define everything…on the other side of the Iraqi war will be a different America. I feel that events and decisions and thoughts taking place in this time period are very important as we look at the thrust continuum of American culture, asking ourselves where are we in the pendulum of time. Are we going the way of Empire or are the complexities we’re dealing with in this time period something that we can adjust to? Understanding that our country seems to fall into these kind of conflicts every seven years.

I would also say this. Remember when President Eisenhower said, “Beware of the military-industrial complex.” It seems to me that in the 1960s, President Eisenhower’s insight would continue to deepen, although the parameters of that depth would change, of course. In fact, the military’s share of the GDP in this time period is less than in the 1950s. But even so, it would be in the 1960s when, as you know, social reality in America opened up in a dynamic way. That opening was not separate from the misadventures that took place with our political leaders, and the political decision to go into Vietnam, which made no sense—even now, when I think about it. Why was it necessary to have this conflict? So here we are again, and we’re faced with the dimensions of this escalating train wreck on one end. On the other end, we’re faced with dynamic breakthroughs in human technologies and vibrational potential. How to balance out these synergies in a way that would be conducive for a healthy, relevant world position once we’re on the other side of these challenges?

That for me, more and more, will become part of the new balances, and the concept of the new balances in this context would be the new balances as related to changing world order and geopolitical dynamics. Two, rebalancing the antebellum project, which grew from what I’ll call the Southern Strategy. Three, we need to find a way to hook our young people into something that’s positive, not from an ethnocentric perspective, but from a composite-centric perspective. The ethnic-centric perspectives have done well in the 20th century and in the transition to this time space. More and more, my hope is for our young people to have a viewpoint of reality that takes for granted the fact that there are many different lives and paths and experiences on this planet, and that this something we can celebrate as oppose to work to snuff out.

So then I’ll go on. When I think about this time period. I find myself very much aware that, on one end, we have two generations of young men and women who have given themselves to the world of music, who are totally dedicated, whose abilities are incredible. Yet, for the most part, this group is totally ignored, they’re under the underground, and the focus, instead, is on the rejoice time space of the Antebellumists who were so successful in the time space of the ‘80s in purging the activist synergies and sentiments as well as restructural music ideas that came about as responses to the 6th and 7th Restructural Cycle of the music. It seems to me that part of the ongoing complexity that I find myself experiencing when I turn on the television set is a perspective of ethnic reality in the African-American community that celebrates minstrelsy in many ways.

But let me be clearer. I never thought in my lifetime that I would live in a time space where the African-American community was not in the forefront of visionary thinking, visionary and restructural musics, and fresh concepts about organic and world unity. Never before have I seen a time period where the young people, for instance, feel resigned to take on iconic experiences in a way that did not take place in the 1950s. This kind of resignation to the idea of victimhood. This kind of resignation to not being able to evolve in a composite kind of way, but rather, having to work only on turf which has been deemed ethnically correct because of the misjudgments and mis-decisions of a handful of African-American middle-class and upper-middle-class and upper-class individuals who were put into power, in fact, and the last 20 years they have played out the propositions in a very consistent way.

That is to say, the time space we find ourselves at in this moment is a time space that has been given over to this African-American elite group to remold vibrational dynamics in accordance to a parameter-derived concept that says African-American affinity and vibrational dynamics starts at this point and ENDS at this point. Where every other sector of human beings understand that human vibrational spectra is infinite, we see the African-American leadership taking positions on every level that seek to narrow options rather than increase options. As such, when I think about, say, the last 30 years (but actually, the last 40 years), we see a narrowing of definition spectra as it applies to creative music. We see a narrowing of political dynamic synergies and hope of unification. Remember, it was the Egyptians who talked of the unity of opposites.

Talking of the last 30 years, we see an explosion has taken place on cable television and in popular music, where everyone is aware of the beauty of Beyonce’s bodalicious body, everyone is aware of the real intelligence and evolving decisions of some of the technocrats who were put in position in the ‘80s. I’m thinking of, say, this hip-hop group that now makes movies, people like Ice Cube. He’s making movies now. He’s directing movies. He’s evolving his position. And I totally respect that.

At the same time, coming up from Chicago, coming up from an environment from the time space of the ‘50s going to the ‘70s, my experience in the black community, in terms of intellectual dynamics, was that all bets were on the table. When I think of my experiences as a young guy, there were viewpoints in every direction, and at no point would a viewpoint be excluded based on the grounds that someone was not an authentic or inauthentic black.

TP:   What is your class background? Do you come from a middle class family? Working class?

BRAXTON:   I come from upper poor class.

TP:   Factory worker? Blue collar…

BRAXTON:   Ford Motor Company. I grew up with my mother and stepfather. My stepfather worked at the Ford Motor Company. My father worked at Burlington & Quincy Railroad, loading the cars, and later being the foreman and helping in this area of shipping and so on. I don’t come from privilege.

TP:   That’s when there was a certain notion of upward mobility among working class people that maybe lessened since the ‘70s. Was a strong sense of possibility stressed in your family? Was education very much stressed?

BRAXTON:   In the community where I grew up and the grammar school that I went to (Bessie Ross Grammar School—61st & Wabash), we were never told that we could not succeed. In fact, we were told that we could succeed as well as anybody, and that there were no challenges that we could not undertake, should we make the decision to undertake those challenges. I grew up in an environment and community where that axiom was number-one, that you could do what you wanted to do, or, if you didn’t do it, you can’t simply sit around and blame the establishment or blame The Man. At some point, as Muhal Richard Abrams’ composition so beautifully puts it, your thoughts are your future. We grew up in that kind of environment. So it wasn’t just my family. I grew up with my mother and my stepfather, who later I would take on as my father in terms of my heart, while at the same time keeping a relationship with my father. But that in itself was not so unique. The dynamics of men and women and relationships for poor people, for African-Americans coming through slavery has always been complex.

But in the end, what is surprising for me is to see generations which are like 3 and 4 generations removed from me who are coming up with less hope than what we had, who have been influenced by the media in a way where it’s almost like the young people are not able to weigh all of the options available in this time period. Of course, even with the problems that our country has, the idea that it’s impossible to evolve in America is an incorrect idea. In fact, in many ways, I see in many different directions constrictualist interpretations of possibilities in a time space where actually there are more possibilities than what one would think.

So my work of the last forty years is a response to my experiences, and my experiences have been universal experiences, composite experiences in spite of the rejection of the jazz business complex and the American contemporary music complex. At 61 years old, I have been able to have a real life, with real ups and real downs, and I am not angry at anyone. I am very happy to be alive, with the hope of pushing my project as far as I can, while I am still able to do so.

TP:   You’ve said that in high school it became apparent to you that you wanted either to play music or die.

BRAXTON:   Yes. I understood as a young guy that music was not simply a source of entertainment for me, but it was one of those components that held my whole interest in being alive, my whole interest in discovering. The whole phenomenon of curiosity. The whole dynamic of spirituality and wanting to be a better person. The mystic sentence for my system is “navigation through form,” and I’ve tried to build my model with that in mind.

TP:   Were you into building models as a youngster? Were you a model trains guy? Were you into advanced mathematics, or did you have a proclivity for mathematics? Your metaphors sound like a kind of giant erector set, or you speak of continentally-stretching railroad tracks…

BRAXTON:   This is one way I talk of my music.

TP:   I’m wondering if that goes back to early interests.

BRAXTON:   I was very deeply into model… My father was a railroad-man. I was very interested in the V-2 rocket scientist, von Braun, and I was attracted to this area. I grew up with Howard Freeman and Michael Carter. We were interested in science and the world, and we had our projects, to the extent that we didn’t even know that we were supposed to be unhappy and poor. What am I saying? I am saying that when I look at the nature of the pathology that I see in this time space, I feel that part of the pathology that’s taking place is a pathology that doesn’t recognize the possibilities, that’s looking backwards at the focus rather than looking through the focus into the future. This difference in perception paths is no light matter. I see the political decision to embrace Albert Murray’s writings, the Southern strategy, the New Activist Christian position, the resolidification of control in the jazz business complex and the popular music complex after 1970, as all part of this new constructed reality where we suddenly celebrate the adventures of Brittany Spears and Puff Daddy and J-Lo and this whole group that has been put in a position where…

TP:   The minutiae of their lives becomes front-page news.  My daughter…

BRAXTON:   Your daughter is the recipient of the furthest reaches of the techniques of manipulation that for the last 50 or 60 years have evolved, and no one has evolved these new devices more than our country. I do not mean to say that the composite thrust of contemporary media in itself is negative. But I do mean to say that this is the most controlled time space that I have experienced in my life.

TP:   Now, I am little surprised at your equating of Wynton Marsalis and Albert Murray with the dynamics you discern in popular culture and hip hop. In some ways, the way you think about the world seems not so dissimilar to them in the broader template—i.e., that there should be no limitations on potential, to draw from and unify multiple ethnic components… I understand everything you’re saying in relation to popular culture as it exists, and your disaffection with the developments of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But in a certain way, I see Marsalis as almost an alternative AACM possibility, in this notion of self-determination and institution-building, and given his background in education and so on. You gave me a firm negative headshake.

BRAXTON:   I would say this. The New Orleans gambit that would see this movement come into power, including people like Mr. Ken Burns, I see this movement as part of a political decision. One of the axioms for their being put in power was that they would help to control the possibilities for people who existed outside of their definition spectra. This is exactly what has happened. They have come into power and used their possibilities to snuff out the opposition in a way that is only equal to what happened in the 1920s, when the New Orleans musicians came and snuffed out the possibilities.

TP:   How did New Orleans musicians in the ‘20s snuff out possibilities and not add to the mix? Duke Ellington added them to his mix…

BRAXTON:   Let me explain what I am saying. First of all, when I am thinking about restructuralism, the 2nd degree of restructuralism as related to this continuum is the experiences that happened in Chicago. The things that happened in New Orleans, these guys were thinking about entertainment in a different kind of way. One thing for sure. When King Oliver came to Chicago, that’s when suddenly individual solo experiences and extended solo experiences began to happen in the music and became another component in the music. What am I saying? I am saying that the idea that the idea that New Orleans is the composite source of those forces that created this music is a myth.

TP:   In the time space continuum there were certain dynamics in the culture of New Orleans that spawned spectra that weren’t there, by all accounts, in Chicago during the first 15 years of the century. Chicago was a town of cabarets and piano players, then there were silent theater orchestras. In New Orleans, you had the opera, the whole Mediterranean tradition commingling, you had Italian opera, French opera, marching band music, deep southern blues… Musicians had those composite experiences there in a way that I don’t think was available in Chicago until after World War One, if my reading of history is correct.

BRAXTON:   I completely disagree with you. Not only do I disagree with you. I disagree with the historical examples that you set up. I disagree with those examples because, one, the idea that American creative music comes from one place…

TP:   I didn’t say it started there. I said the cultural dynamics of New Orleans made it develop in a certain way.

BRAXTON:   It developed all over. That’s my point. When I think of the subject of creative music, I am not thinking of a territorial subject. Nor am I saying that the music is totally indebted to Chicago. That would be another example of what is happening now. I am saying that when I think of the subject of creative music as that subject relates to me, I am not thinking of a territorial anything, but rather I’m thinking of continental experiences, I’m thinking of area space experiences, I am thinking of ethnic experiences, and multi-ethnic experiences. I am also thinking that no single ethnic group owns creative music. I am also thinking that the idea of the African-American human being is rejected by the nationalists and the antebellumists—and I like to be interested.

Rather than things opening up into the composite space in the time space of the 1970s, which, in my opinion, would have been the natural organic outgrowth of the possibilities that opened up in the ‘60s, we would instead see, in my opinion, a decade that was up for grabs in terms of possibilities. Things could have gone forward, things could have gone backwards. There were unities coming together between Americans of different racial groups and territorial spaces. There were impulses that could have moved forward or backwards or sideways during that time period. And what happened, in my opinion, was the second and third degree of the military-industrial complex secret society structure that takes money from the composite peoples, but the monies are defined in a way where it’s not possible for normal people to trace it. Those monies were and are being used to, one, reconstruct America, only reconstruct America for an antebellum purpose; two, reinstall political target projectiles, whether we’re talking of support for the black church, whether we’re talking about the construction of Lincoln Center; three, reemphasizing antebellum imagery. Suddenly, if you’re a comedian, it’s a great time. Meanwhile, by chopping off the head of restructuralism, the African-American community would place itself in an iconic circle.

That, in my opinion, is one way of looking at this time period and what has happened. Not the only way, but one way, where the devices of the last 80 years in so-called jazz were used to propel the music forward, those devices came together as part of the challenge of its time period, where now, in this time period, we see the devices used to keep out world music influences. We see those devices used in a way that perpetuates…I don’t want to say iconic synergies, because then I’m using the same word, “iconic,” two times…so I’ll say reversal synergies that celebrates present-time experiences, that celebrates or integrates those experiences with the traditional information and the traditional musics, but by having no restructural platform to integrate that information…

TP:   But it’s interesting. Because the facts on the ground within these ongoing creative music wars are that world music influences are now part of the mainstream and the vernacular, and you have musicians from around the world who are fluent in all sorts of idioms.

BRAXTON:   There are so many musicians I’m learning about, but there are so many I don’t know. But let me respond to this. You’re changing my point. First of all, I agree with what you’re saying. But that wasn’t my point. My point is that the political dynamics, the political structure in charge is determining the nature of that fusion. It’s not only the restructural musics that’s been sacrificed. I’m talking also of restructural thinking, and restructural perspectives. I am very hopeful that… George Lewis’ book, for instance, is coming out. That’s going to give a different perspective. You might like it or you might disagree with it. But it will give a different perspective that is not just one way happening, that the synergies and creativity has never been about one way.

TP:   But it has to be nurtured. And it seems that you and George Lewis and Leo Smith have kept things going by establishing extremely firm roots in institutional settings like this, and bringing forth successive generations of musicians who will forever be at least familiar with your perspective, and able to make their points therefrom.

BRAXTON:   Well, I’ve tried to learn from my peers. In the AACM, pedagogy was always important. Also, I think about Robert Ashley and David Behrman at Mills College, and Terry Riley. I learned a great deal from them in the ‘70s  about how to work with educational institutions, how to work inside the university without letting the university destroy you. Later, when I had the opportunity because of the American visionary master David Rosenboom, to come into academia, and later, Alvin Lucier and Neely Bruce, it was for me an extension of experiences that I’ve always been involved with anyway, since I’ve always been involved with research-and-development and teaching. In fact, it’s never been just about playing the saxophone for me, or playing the instrument. That’s only been one-third of my interests in music. But there’s a tradition that’s behind me for that. This was not something I started. In Chicago, this was the way for us. It was never just about playing. It was about the whole experience.

TP:   All I’m saying is that you’ve established a parallel institution, and perhaps in the only institutional space in America where it could be done, to bring forth your notions of how things should be…

BRAXTON:   I’ve tried to take advantage of this opportunity and do my best.

TP:   You’ve not only taken advantage, but you’ve created the opportunities. I don’t believe that your presence at Mills College or Wesleyan is simply a passive process. I think there’s some intent involved. 

BRAXTON:   You have a good point here, Ted. You know with the AACM that we’re talking about a monodimensional intelligence and we’re not talking about a perspective that, for instance, disrespects New Orleans. Back in the ‘60s, when there was disrespect for New Orleans, we did everything we could do to reeducate people. So how ironic that 20 and 30 years later, it’s the New Orleans guys who have worked to lessen our possibilities. Not just me. But it’s the New Orleans guys who have worked to bring about a perspective and synergy that not only does not respect or include our work, but in many cases have defined things in a way that questions whether we’re actually African-Americans. I think that’s outrageous.

TP:   I want to shift ground, not because the subject is uninteresting, but there are many other things to talk about. But it is interesting to me that New Orleans over the last half-century contains Edward Blackwell, Alvin Batiste, Kidd Jordan, Clyde Kerr, other people you can think of, who are almost like a southern branch of the AACM in sensibility, and that the attitudes of the generation that came under them can almost be explained by Oedipal dynamics, that they saw the struggles of their elders and were pragmatic about what sort of music they could play to make a living and connect with the broader public, and that there also was a sense of wanting to connect with musical fathers/elders whose music wasn’t in the air when they were kids. For you, Johnny Griffin or Art Blakey or Ahmad Jamal were on the jukebox. For young musicians who came of age during the ’70s, this wasn’t the case.

BRAXTON:   I don’t understand what you’re saying. I respect what you’re saying. Those guys grew up in New Orleans, in a community… They’re not stupid guys. In fact, they’re very intelligent guys. Say what you will about me, but I will never disrespect the opposition. They are brilliant guys. Which makes it only more of a mystery, the decisions of the last 20 years. We’re not talking about guys in their twenties any more who can back away from some of their young man statements. Every young man, every young woman in their teens and twenties will take positions that later, with time and maturity, they understand, “well, maybe that was a little bit too far.” I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about a position that continues today. For instance, [in 1985] Bill Cosby had a character selling Theo drugs. His name was Anthony Braxton. None of the jazz writers, nobody in the world… All the documentation is there. You can Google it. I thought it was outrageous.

But I understood. Even in the ‘60s, I was getting the special flak from the African-American nationalist community and from the African-American middle class constructionalists. So anything goes when it comes to Braxton, including having a character who sells dope to his kid on television. Imagine my children seeing that. Not only that. Imagine, this was my favorite television show, an African-American show that has an African-American family of intelligent people, only to…

TP:   You’re demonized there. I wasn’t aware of it.

BRAXTON:   It’s there and you can still Google it. Meanwhile, I have watched the politics of the last 20 years, and I just can’t believe it. Ideas that, “Oh, the music is going in the wrong area,” “He’s not a good saxophonist” or “these guys don’t have basic music training.” So what? It wasn’t the post-Ayler musicians who started the war in Vietnam. It wasn’t the post-Ayler musicians who changed the economy in the ‘60s. It wasn’t the post-Ayler musicians who created segregation. Let’s say all of the musicians who listened to Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler were totally crazy. So what? They weren’t trying to harm anybody. They were fighting for their music. These guys came to New York and made the musicians the problem!

That decision has had profound implications in the African-American community and in the composite world community. With respect to changing information systems in this time period, suddenly the African-American community is not always sure of its connection to modernity and beyond. This retreat into this isolationist, ethnic-centric circle, one component of which has minstrelsy, the other component is the Good Negro. It’s again solving today’s problems with yesterday’s materials. This was the mistake made in the 1960s and ‘70s with the Neoclassic musicians thinking the music is really about a style…

TP:   The ‘80s actually.

BRAXTON:   The ‘80s. Excuse me. By reducing the components of the music to a style, they have misdefined the music.

TP:   What is your attitude towards these issues when you yourself are playing that body of work. You’ve recorded Charlie Parker tunes up through Charlie Parker and Joe Henderson—as lines. You don’t really arrange. You take them and approach them almost as raw material for improvising. It comprises a substantial slice of your discography over the last 15 years. Not that you didn’t do it before… There were projects—Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano for Hat, and the Monk project in the ‘80s. But more recently, you’ve expanded these investigations tremendously. Where does this activity fit into the total spectra of your activities?

BRAXTON:   I would respond this way. My music system, the system I’ve been working on for the last 40 years, is not a rejection of anything. It’s an affirmation of the tradition. From there, why have I at different points in time gone back to look at materials from the repertoire? One, I’ve always loved the repertoire, and part of me has a need, every now and then, to go outside of my model and the music system that I’m building, and experience and learn compositions of musics by other people. This is a way for me to stay sharp and excited about the instrument. This is a way to continue to evolve myself. Plus, by declaring that I am not a jazz musician, now I can go back and use that material and continue to do what I was doing anyway, but not be plagued by generic definitions about rhythmic logics or harmonic logics.

TP:   Are you applying tricentric strategies to those performances, or are they somewhat different?

BRAXTON:   It just depends on what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of material. Some of it is approached in a more open way, some is approached in a stricter way. Sometimes we play the composition but throw away the chord changes. Sometimes we play the chord changes but we might change something else. I try to approach the traditional materials in the same way that I approach my own music. That is to say, move it around, do different things with it, so that I can stay excited by it, by using different approaches, by not simply trying to play the composition in the same way that one of my heroes might have tried it.

TP:   I think a big portion of your four CDs on Leo are drawn from performances on a November 2003 tour of Belgium. If you played “Recorda Me” on four or five different nights, would you use a different strategy on each night? Would you use the First House once, the Third House next… My sense is that’s how you approach your solo saxophone music.

BRAXTON:   I have tried, as a composer, to structure materials in a way that is most interesting to me. If the subject is the traditional materials, then I have tried to approach the materials in a so-called non-traditional kind of way, with imagination and creativity, and sometimes changing the shape of it. I’m not seeking to recreate Minton’s from the 1940s, but I could not do my work now had the musicians from that time period not done their work.

TP:   You made a comment that in embarking on the Ghost Trance Musics, in a broader metaphysical sense, you were seeking to recapture spirits. I’m sure you said this in a more subtle, complex way. I wondered if there was any connection between those investigations and your also performing the tradition so visibly over the last 15 years. Also, you had that two-year moment with the piano quartet, playing this  repertoire on the piano. Did you in any way reconfigure your relationship with the tradition? Has it taken on a different implication over the last 12-13 years. Has teaching had something to do with it?

BRAXTON:   Good question. In fact, that’s exactly where I was going to go. The opportunity to come into academia would give me a chance to have closer contact with some of this material, since I am doing classes on it. I have classes on the music of Tristano. I have classes on the music of John Coltrane. I teach the history of African-American music. I do composition seminar classes here at Wesleyan on the music of Stockhausen and Xenakis, Sun Ra. So to have opportunities to do a class on Miles Davis or the great music of John Coltrane, it’s nice also to play some of that music while you’re doing the class. I still find harmony exciting, although it doesn’t have much relevance in my system in terms of what I’m building. No disrespect to harmony, but I would talk of that function in a different way as it relates to the tricentric musics. But meanwhile, traditional harmony and the American Song Form Book… Well, I grew up with that. I would like to hope in the future that we’ll do some music of John Cage, or something of Schoenberg or something… I came to see that I can no longer agree with the idea that improvisation on its own plane is more important than anything else. That is to say, I am interested in improvisation, notation, and systems in between, whether we’re talking of graph systems or whatever. These are just organizational methods.

TP:   The common thread among musicians I’ve spoken with is that you have set up a music that uniquely bears your stamp, and yet your structures offer the musicians enormous levels of freedom within which to operate, and yet the music always remains you.

BRAXTON:   Well, I’ve tried to learn from the tradition. This is what Jelly Roll Morton established. This is what Duke Ellington established. Mutable logics with the House of the Rectangle in the Circle, or with the House of the Rectangle on the outer circumference with the Circle inside.

TP:   The House of the Rectangle are the fixed propositions, and the Circle comprises the mutable “Is” moment, the flow.

BRAXTON:   Yes. And the triangle is the synergy connection. So what I have tried to do, and what the last forty years has meant for my work, I have tried to respond to the opportunities that I was born into in the time experience of the ‘60s. I was ready for it. I went through the ‘50s. I studied and struggled studying the music of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Schoenberg…

TP:   You discovered Schoenberg in the ‘50s as a teenager.

BRAXTON:   Yes, but I was really more into Alban Berg.

TP:   Much more dramatic, narrative music.

BRAXTON:   Yes. Although the piano music of Schoenberg in the end would be the most important breakthrough for me. But I just mention that to say that in the time space of the ‘60s, when the AACM came together, we were really at a fresh point… When I say “we,” I mean America. Creative music in the Western world was really at a point of expanding out to the whole world, where it was not simply just about the West any more. I mean, Ravi Shankar was starting to perform in America in that time period. Ali Akbar Khan. Suddenly it was not just a theory. It was something real.

TP:   A lot of African musicians started to come here after the United Nations was formed, plus all the refugees from World War 2, and so on…

BRAXTON:   So I am saying that my music, or the work that I would embark upon was a response to the opportunities that opened up and culminated in the time space of the ‘60s.

TP:   How did you come to discover Schoenberg or Alban Berg? Was it in high school music appreciation, or what you were reading…

BRAXTON:   High school, going to the library, listening to music.

TP:   But how did you know what to look for?

BRAXTON:   That’s a good question.

TP:   This goes back to the beginning of our conversation, with your comments about the climate in Chicago in the ‘50s.

BRAXTON:   I would discover Berg and Schoenberg in a similar way—the cover of the LP looked interesting. The modern art covers.

TP:   So you went to a record store or saw the records in the library.

BRAXTON:   I used to go to a record store on 58th Street. Henry Threadgill knows this. Anyone who lived in Chicago in the time space of the ‘50s and ‘60s knows about this record store. It was on 58th and Calumet. It went a little further out. They had everything, especially jazz, and would save records for me. Later, I started listening to Bartok… Just trying to see where things went, and following different lines, and discovering that there were different musics. As a young guy, I recall thinking “I know there has to be more to life than what I am experiencing on the South Side of Chicago,” and part of my awakening was learning that there were many things happening all over the planet, and life was an incredible gift that goes by very quickly, so if there’s something you want to do, you need to do it while you’re alive.

TP:   Most teenagers don’t know that.

BRAXTON:   I look at the dynamics of this time period, and I find myself thinking again that every generation is going through its own set of challenges, its own set of opportunities, but if you don’t see it, you’re at a disadvantage, because each generation comes to the starting gate and not everyone has done the background work or had the background experiences and opportunities to be able to compete. So it’s especially sad to see forces in the African-American community cutting off possibilities as opposed to adding possibilities.

TP:   Were your parents native Chicagoans? Did they migrate from the South?

BRAXTON:   My mother is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. She came up from Tulsa, later brought her sister and brother and her other sister to Chicago. My father is from Greenville, Mississippi, and my stepfather is from Yazoo City, Mississippi.

TP:   Does your mother have Native American ancestry?

BRAXTON:   My grandmother looks like a full Creek Indian. So like many African-Americans, some percentage of my genetic materials are connected to the Native American peoples.

TP:   Ralph Ellison is from Oklahoma, Gordon Parks is from Kansas… There’s a certain independence of thought, or a certain egalitarian spirit operative in that part of the country that seemed to take effect. Did your mother have a very powerful personality?

BRAXTON:   Yes. My mother is very strong. She’s still alive, and she’s had a great life. Our relationship is with love and complexity.

TP:   I want to ask you a completely different question. This article is about your four nights at Iridium, a year after the performances that comprise the 9-CD box set and the DVD. On one of the nights, I was talking with Jon Rosenberg about recording you and mixing the CDs. I’m going to be paraphrase the conversation. I gathered that his idea initially was to mix the overall sound into a kind of blend, and you were very specific about wanting the sounds of each instrument to come through quite clearly.

BRAXTON:   Yes. I wanted transparency.

TP:   Can you speak to the philosophical backdrop to that? It seems to relate to notions of multi-hierarchicalism. Also, that date last year and this performance seems to be more important to you maybe than other activities. It seems to have brought you to a transition point.

BRAXTON:   Thank you, Ted. The completion of the Ghost Trance Musics is the completion of the template components for the First House of my system—the House of Shala. When completed, there will be 12 houses. The Iridium performance last year is especially important to me because it demonstrates the nuclear components of the music. By nuclear in this context, I am saying that there are 12 musicians—actually 12+1 last year… The +1 is the person outside of the sections of threes. So the Iridium project, by demonstrating the nuclear components, would give me the chance to demonstrate the features of this system I am trying to build. Transparency is relevant because the system basically has redefined an area space, and in redefining the area space, the Ghost Trance Musics now will establish the internal connective lines inside the space.

What am I saying? I’m saying that if the formal scheme is a continental formal scheme, the Ghost Trance Musics is the highway system. If the formal scheme is the expanding universe, then the Ghost Trance Musics would be telemetry, coming from different parts of the space. If this office is the area space, then the Ghost Trance Musics would demonstrate the arteries, the 12 major artery lanes of the system. Why is that important? It’s important because after 30 years of mechanics, eleven years ago I started this next phase of modeling, and this next phase of modeling as not just an attempt to advance mechanics, but to penetrate into the area space of the synergies taking place. The Iridium performances were important because, one, I had the good fortune of having 12 great instrumentalists, improvisers and composers who also understood my music. Many of the musicians have really studied the system in a way where they have insight. Others, like Nicole Mitchell, would come to this project in a fresh kind of way. But Nicole Mitchell would take a plane ride from Chicago to New York to do rehearsals. She did that on her own initiative. For me, it was just another example of what serious musician-composers will do when they are seeking to excel or to gain insight into something. Nicole Mitchell is an example of the kind of master who I would hope that the younger generation would give a chance, would experience her work. Musician-composers, multiinstrumentalist-composers like Taylor Ho Bynum, like Steve Lehman, like Andrei Vida, I see these people as the hope of America, I see these people as pioneers of the Third Millennia, and the beginning of a new cycle of Third Millennial mastership.

So, going back to my system: I’ve tried to build my model with real intentionality for the last forty years. It’s not just a music system. It’s a system of experience. It’s a system of ideas, including a philosophical system. It’s a system of transposition: transposition into coordinate logics, into ritual and ceremonial experiences. I have been seeking and I am seeking to construct a model that demonstrates the new holistic musics, holistic musics that balance known, unknown and intuition. I believe that we are in a dynamically challenging period where many things are opening up, and this is taking place at the exact time same where politically and geopolitically our leaders have created this incredible mess that we’re dealing with. But even so, there is still a reason for being alive. There are still new frontiers to explore. There is every reason to remember that life is still magical, that everything is not known. Somehow, we need to reinvigorate and energize the culture, and part of that challenge is what creativity is all about. We need to find a way to get music in the grammar school and high school programs of America. Had I not had music in high school (Chicago Vocational High School), my life would be something completely different. I don’t know what my life would have been. But young people are growing up in the richest country on the planet, and they’re not being taught music, and we’re wondering what’s happening with our culture. Our culture is sinking, in many domains. In other domains, things are continuing to move, either forward or it’s going backwards. It’s not staying the same, though. This is why we’re coming to an important period of time, a period that maybe should see some kind of rectification of the imbalances of the last 30 years. Believe me, Ted, I’m not saying, “Give Braxton a chance, give Braxton a chance.” I’m 61 years old. I’ve had a life with good and bad times. But when I think about my students, the men and women who I’ve been able to work with in the last 30 years, they deserve a chance.

TP:   They also have to create their opportunities just like you did.

BRAXTON:   Not everybody’s crazy like Braxton. Not everybody’s like the AACM, from the lunatic fringe death group who HAD to do it.

TP:   Are you seriously describing yourself and your brothers and sisters…

BRAXTON:   Okay, I don’t mean it like that, Ted. I’m thinking I’m talking to someone who understands me. The AACM came together when it was clear that the jazz business complex was saying, “No, we’re not going to accept the music of Cecil Taylor, we’re not going to accept the music of John Coltrane; this is leading us in the wrong direction.” There were many musicians who felt the same way and felt that this music was the wrong direction. The men and women of the AACM came together because not only did we believe in that music, but we believed that the music might go in any direction and that anybody had the right to go in whatever direction they wanted to go in because part of being in a time of opportunity is to explore what those opportunities mean in real terms.

So no, I am not saying that the men and women of the AACM are lunatics. But I am saying that in many ways we were from the extreme group in the sense that we made a decision that said, one, even if we make no money, we’re staying with this music. Two, I am not going to confuse my work with the fact that somebody might have a different way with me—and it’s not about one way anyway! Three, that there was a need to stake out a position that said “We can look as far as we can see ahead and as far as we can see backwards.” Four, I came to understand that, as much as I love myself as an African-American, as much as I love trans-Africanisms, that I also love trans-Europeanisms, trans-Asia, trans-Hispania. It’s not about one ethnic group as opposed to composite reality and the universal human family. I could go on and on. But in the end, the group that accepted the challenge to push the music forward was a group that was committed in an extreme kind of way, where it wasn’t going to be about X amount of money sustaining us or X amount of support coming from the African-American or European-American jazz or classical community, because if we had thought that way, we would not be doing our work now.

TP:   You and the guys in the Art Ensemble served in the Army, and came out self-sufficient, autarkic people. It was a very unique community, and it probably couldn’t have happened at any other time than the ‘60s because of the broader political dynamics at play.

But the musicians who I see carving out their space in this period, whether they studied with Braxton or Leo Smith or George Lewis, or went to the Cuban National Conservatory, or if they went to Berklee or New School or the university of the streets, wherever they went or whatever they did, are musicians who follow la similar notion of carving out space. The space they carve out may have a different connotation, though. A lot of this has to do with economics. Someone paying $40,000  or $30,000 per year tuition has to figure out a way to pay that back. They have advantages, but there’s a rub to having these benefits, too.

BRAXTON:   Ted, we’re talking about many things. For instance, I agree with you—the AACM experience could only have happened in the time space of the ‘60s. But we find ourselves now in the Third Millennia, and our culture needs help. Now, not everyone, even in the time space of the ‘60s, was able to survive anyway. I’d like to have a situation and have a hope that we will start to take advantage of the positive power that we have and make use of some of these people. We need to go back to the transformational power of creative music. That has been sacrificed along with music as part of motivation and community. Yes, the young people who I work with are coming from a very different experience than what I came from in the ‘60s. Hooray! Because the experience I came from was dynamic and broad, but it was also very much of a struggle. Now we see American masters like Leroy Jenkins—he’s left us now. He was a great man, and struggled all his life to produce music and to evolve his music, and to present it in a way that was totally honest. These are the kind of individuals that I would hope for our children to learn about, and to know that there are people like George Lewis, like Muhal Richard Abrams, who has given so much and received such a strange reception by the American music complex. In any culture, in any time period, Muhal Richard Abrams would be considered a great visionary pioneer. Only in America does maybe, say, three-fourths of the musicians not even know about Muhal.

TP:   Where I was going with this, though… We’re talking about, again, the opportunity for your musicians to move forward and to take the music different places. What I really want to get to, and you may not want to talk about it…

BRAXTON:   I’ll talk about it.

TP:   …is the real time experience of playing your music. Does it involve… Let me ask the question this way. Do you need at this point musicians who are trained in your system for your music to achieve its highest vibrational completion?

BRAXTON:   To answer your question: Yes. More and more, when I think about the forward space, when I think about the hope of evolving my work, I need to work with people who have a deeper knowledge than simply how to execute material in a traditional sense or something like this. I need people who are interested enough in my work, who would take the time to learn the system and how the processes work, and in doing so, I can have the hope of evolving my work. This is why, in the past decade, I’ve come to talk of my work as part of an occult position. Occult position in the sense that: One, by default, not everyone is going to be interested in it. Two, the information is not always getting around, and when it does get around in the next fifty years, if that should happen, only a small group of people will probably be interested in the kind of things that my system is touching on. But even so, I’d like for that group to be able to find my work, because I’ve designed my work to explore particular kinds of propositions. In fact, my system has been designed with respect to propositional logics in a way that separates it…

TP:   Could we discuss some of those propositional logics in more conventional musical terminology?

BRAXTON: Propositional logics in the sense of…

TP:   The actual specifics. The harmonic specifics, the rhythmic specifics, what sorts of staccato phrasing…

BRAXTON:   Ted Panken, we’re talking of over 400 compositions. Name a composition. I can talk to you about that composition, if I can remember it.

TP:   Can you speak in a more general sense?

BRAXTON:   Yes. For instance, language types, these are the 12 geometric states in my music. Those are also… [HANDS OUT PAPERS]

TP:   You’re going to draw up a new model in the summer to codify the Ghost Trance Music and bring it into the totality of your work.

BRAXTON:   Yes. The new model will be 12 houses, 12 blocks, and the 12 blocks will be consistent with the 12 components, starting with language music.

TP:   Do you refer to this terminology in the ensemble class? Are your students expected to be fully conversant with the dynamics of each of the 12 houses and their various manifestations?

BRAXTON:   No. That’s more of a composition major, for people who are interested in studying my particular work. But for classes on John Coltrane or the history of African-American music, I wouldn’t even bring any of this material. Now, for the ensemble class, I start with the music, and in the course of the semester I try to inform the musicians that there are other degrees of the material, and it’s something that can be explored or not explored. It just depends on what we’re talking about. For a young person who is interested in my ensemble class, there are materials and musics that we play, and there is a system of processes that can be shared. At some point, the student will make a decision whether they want to go any further with it. But even if the decision is “No, I won’t go any further with it,” there is enough to do in a semester to explore a modeling, the understanding being…

I said this before, but let me say this again, because I think this is important. In the ‘60s, one of the conversations in the air was the conversation that improvisation is somehow more relevant than composition. I came to see that these were political perspectives, not aesthetic perspectives. If I’m a young person whose vibration is fulfilled by playing Beethoven, why should I go to something other than Beethoven if Beethoven is what fulfills my dynamic? So I’ve tried with this system that I’m building to have a mutable logic of explorative dynamics that says mutable logics—real-time encounters, the phenomena of the improvisation, language music. Mutable logics, something comes up. That would be number one.

Number two: Stable logics. Actual thoughts. Ideas. Structural models. Compositions. Declarative concepts, as in the Tri-Axium Writings, the philosophy.

And finally, Triangle. Imaginary musics. Area space extraction strategies. Using a hockey stadium. Sun Ra in Central Park. I believe that the next generation of modeling will be modeling that will extend into virtual modeling on the computer, where more and more the idea of the audience and the musicians being separate is going to change, and the change is going to be a change that puts everybody in the space with interactive activities for the friendly experiencer, individual or groups, and that one of the challenges of this time period is to design these models. For me, who did not have any natural aversion to Europe, I tried to design my model to have improvisation, notation, connecting kinds of strategies. I feel that this is part of the challenge and, as such, one of the opportunities of this time period, and I feel that that’s going to be the significance of my model.

TP:   For instance, last week at Iridium, are things like voicings in the ensemble important?

BRAXTON:   That’s a good question. Let me talk to you about three degrees of structure dynamics. The first degree is origin identity. By origin identity, it means that I write a composition in the traditional way of the composition. If there are chords, the chords are there. A specific instrumentation. That’s origin identity.

Two: Secondary identity. Secondary identity is a string quartet, you take out the viola part and perform it with a hundred tubas.

The third identity is genetic identity. That’s one measure.

Okay, what does that have to do with your question? It has everything to do with your question.  Let’s go back. Harmony. Functions of harmony. Well, there are origin harmonic logics that take place, if the instruments are played that it was written for. There are secondary harmonic connections that come about when different instruments play that material. More and more, I don’t talk of it as harmony as much as relationships, or chord to sound mass dynamic—depending on which way we’re looking at this material.

For the question of origin rhythmic species: Yes, I’ll write a composition in its traditional way, it will have traditional properties and traditional so-called rhythms, or specific rhythms. But in the tricentric action space, those rhythms might be put against another rhythm that was not initially there, and the end result being some kind of polyrhythm gravity that was not originally plotted, but came about because of combinational structures.  This happens throughout the whole scheme of the music.

So going back to your questions about actual devices…

TP:   Melody would be another one.

BRAXTON:   Every Ghost Trance composition has a different geometric melody. In fact, in the original Ghost Trance Musics, I would ask you, when thinking about first species, to read the Circle House article in the Braxton website. There’s an article called “Circle House.” It will give the story of the circle musics from the Native American experiences…

TP:   Is that one of the research papers?

BRAXTON:   Yes. In its origin state, my work…you can talk of the various internal components of the architecture. All I am trying to establish is that with the new tricentric model, the architecture has three different states—origin, secondary, genetic.

TP:   Longevity is in your family. Realistically, how many of your houses do you expect to fully explore, to have time to get through?

BRAXTON:   The way things are setting up, I’m running into trouble. I’m in a panic about this, because the way things are going, I am not going to be able to finish the opera complex cycle until I am in my eighties. Because it takes five-six years to do an opera.

TP:   Why for you does it take five-six years? Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do.

BRAXTON:   There’s a lot of work, and plus, I have my academic work.

TP:   Will you be doing that after you’re 65?

BRAXTON:   I want to retire. I get a pension, and I can wake up and compose for as long as I can go, and maybe in my seventies I can catch up with my original projections.

TP:   Do you get a fair amount of royalties from your compositions? Do other people play them?

BRAXTON:   No, not really. My experiences for the last forty years hasn’t been a money experience. In fact, I usually pay to play. People talk about Braxton has a lot of CDs out. I have documented my work because for me, a CD is closure to a project. So in getting a project documented, I can go to the next project. It hasn’t been a money thing as much as I pay for this myself. I am doing this not because I am making money or that I hope to make money…

TP:   Did you break even on the Iridium project last week?

BRAXTON:   I haven’t broke even in so long, I don’t even know what that means. I just try to avoid situations where I go into debt for eight years, like I did for Trillium R. Although in the next five years, if I have to, I’ll be ready for the next 8-year plunge, because I plan to get at least two more operas performed before leaving this planet—if I have my health.

TP:   Just so I’m clear, you’re no longer writing new Ghost Trance Music compositions, but you’re still performing it and placing things in new situations, and you’re moving into a new house now.

BRAXTON:   Yes.

TP:   If you can discuss the meaning of this house in more conventional terminology than your specific nomenclature. Or both.

BRAXTON:   I’ll also try to have notes for you on all of this. First I would say, with the Ghost Trance Musics complete, after 12 years, the next step for me is to put the components of the material into its respective space, or nation-state space—with respect to the continental model. By “nation state,” I am saying this. There is a cartographic function. For instance, there are 12 melodies that don’t start and don’t end. I have tapped simply into those 12 melodies. Those melodies are location melodies where, if the concert was in this office, melody #3, let’s say, would come from this region.

TP:   Did you derive the melodies from your practice? Did you hear one from Indonesia… Oh, it’s all in here.

BRAXTON:   Starting with this, “long sound.” Then “long sound, secondary sound, in one.” “Three in one.” “Four in one.” “Five in one.”

TP:   So the melodies emerge from working out the different permutations of these designs.

BRAXTON:   Yes. But there’s a better way to say it. Each house is a sonic geometric state. When I say “each house”: Each number is a house. Each house has a way to it. Each house will demonstrate a zone of poetics. You don’t have the poetics model; this will be finished in the summer. So the 12 melodies are permutations of all 12 languages, and each language demonstrates a type of sonic geometric, if I can say it like that. Sonic geometry in the sense of shape.

TP:   The way wave forms interact with each other, sound and silence and all that.

BRAXTON:   Yes.

TP:   Intervals.

BRAXTON:   Yes. So that’s what this is. Now, this came from the solo saxophone music. What I did was, I took these languages and transferred…any solo composition on the alto saxophone, I put it on the piano in a solid state. Then, next, I put it in the House of the Triangle. That is to say, for instance, “Composition 113″ takes the solo musics and adds a poetic story to it.

So what am I talking about? I am talking about a model whose internal components are… I flesh out the internal components geometrically or architectonically, as far as what this is. In many ways, it could be looked at in the same way as Bach and Beethoven evolving their materials from improvisation into composition into theory. This would be the progression for Ellington, for Stockhausen, for Schoenberg, even though they talk of it in different ways. But in the way, there is a connection between materials coming in from the open space, put into the stable space, and then some aspect of it is used to make something else happen. That is the way I’ve tried to evolve my work.

TP:   Did you tell me which house you’re moving into now?

BRAXTON:   No, I don’t think I addressed that. Right now, there’s the Diamond Curtain Wall Musics, which is the interactive musics. There’s much more to do there. Much more. The Falling River Music, extraction from graph scores. There’s much more to do there. I will have a new set of prototypes of Falling River Music by September. This is my goal. I have recently formed Echo, Echo Mirror House Musics. The Echo, Echo Mirror House Musics will be compositions that will use iPods that will take all the material from every CD I’ve ever made, and put it on the ePod and use it as electronic music with video.

TP:   Then real time events happening within  that. A musique concrete but on some enormous scale.

BRAXTON:   Yes. Finally, the Lydia musics are coming. So there’s everything to do… The Lydia musics will… For instance, I play a note. BUHMP. On the screen you see this road, a highway is moving, you’re going forward. And let’s say I play BUM-BUH-BUH-BUHMP. If it’s correct code, then the road goes to the right. If I say, VOO-OO-OOM-OO-VOOMP, it maybe goes up this road going here to this target at Sam’s House. So a menu could be, “Okay, we’re going to be available to play in the active space for five hours, five days, five years, or maybe just ten minutes, but I want to wind up at the library in Shalaland or Ashmentonland. Just like the GPS system would give you a map and show you how to get there, that’s going to be possible in my system.

TP:   That would be ideal for friendly experiencers with high-powered computers.

BRAXTON:   Yes. So this is the kind of system I’m trying to deal.

TP:   Do you do computer programming. When you do the Lydia musics, will you be doing the programming?

BRAXTON:   Yes. I’ve been doing it for the last almost three years. Maybe 2½ years. I’ve been studying with Matt Balder and Tom Crane, graduate students here. Thanks to them, I was able to start studying Supercollider, and I am going to stay with it because I am really interested in interactive electronics. I want to keep learning, that’s all I’m saying. This is what I’m talking about. All of this opened up in the ‘60s. I don’t know what the response to this time period is going to be. But if it’s like the ‘60s, it’s going to be an incredible response to the conflicts that we’re dealing with in this time period—and the fresh possibilities that we’re dealing with.

TP:   So would it be accurate to say that it’s less that the music is a set of idiomatic propositions than a way to spur people to use a certain thought process to get from here to there with your broader philosophical model?

BRAXTON:   As a composer, I am seeking to design a new model that will take into account the gains that opened up with the creative musics that we now call the New Orleans musics (wrongly), with the gains that opened up in the post-Webern musics, and the gains that opened up in the great musics of Sun Ra and Miles Davis. I’ve just simply tried to build a music that responds to the men and women whose work influenced my life and helped me to make the decision to embrace music as a life’s work.

TP:   Were you satisfied with this year’s Iridium gig? What were your impressions of the week that you just completed? What was accomplished? What was gained?

BRAXTON:   I was very satisfied and grateful at the tremendous work of my colleagues. Two weeks ago, when we played the Iridium, it was approached in a different way. It was the sextet nucleus, and we added different instrumentalists, depending on the set. In this second engagement at the Iridium, which probably will be my last engagement there, I wanted to explore second- and third species Ghost Trance Musics with one or two accelerator class structures. So we really played different music every set. Plus, Taylor and I brought the large instruments so that we could have the expanded timbre space, from very high to very low.

TP:   You played a great deal. Much more than the year before.

BRAXTON:   Well, with less musicians, we have a different transparent space, and there are more opportunities to extend a little more. With 12 musicians, 12+1 in the case of the ensemble, I did not feel that there was a need for super-extended solos. In fact, my interest more and more is not for extended solos, but rather to fit in the ensemble and to have a nice balance between intentionalities and improvisation.

TP:   Given the level of autonomy you give the other musicians within your system, when you’re up there in real time, how much temptation is there to seize the moment and make it go in a direction that you want? How do you separate your identity as a participant in the mix and being the creator of the system, being part of the ensemble and being a leader?

BRAXTON:   That’s a good question. When we go to play the music, as the leader of the ensembles, I have certain responsibilities concerning starting the music, bringing in different unities at different time spaces, and ending the performance. But outside of that, I am another friendly experiencer, and that’s part of the beauty of it. This is a multi-hierarchical thought unit that allows for controls to come from different points in the space. This for me is a breakthrough, that the leader doesn’t have to control every component of the actualization process of the music—that it can be shared.

TP:   Are there structural commonalities within your music that allow you to draw on your entire body of work within one piece? What makes it possible to incorporate… Taylor and Carl Testa blogged that the second set Saturday night was their favorite of the week. Are there wrong choices, or can any choice be made to be right?

BRAXTON:   Any choice can be made right. Any portion of the materials can be used. That is how the system works. That is a system designate. So the challenge is not so much “Can something be used?” but trying to find a way to use it. This is where the experience comes in and knowledge of the system comes in, and knowledge of how to make things work comes in. But in fact, a multi-hierarchic action space in this way establishes very unique encounter sonic experiences that are outside of the domain of a mono-hierarchical model.

TP:   What did you do today before you saw me? How did you spend your morning? Was it a typical morning?

BRAXTON:   It was a good morning. I was up at 4:30 this morning. I started composing Trillium J at around 7:30, and I was able to work until around 11:30, and then I stopped and tried to watch the phone. But it was a good morning, because I was working on Trillium J. My hope is that I can get a good push forward this summer.

TP:   Are you writing the libretto yourself?

BRAXTON:   Yes.

TP:   What did you do between 4:30 and 7:30? Do you exercise? Is there a routine?

BRAXTON:   I exercised today, and my hope is to do this every day, but sometimes I don’t, and I will use the weekend sometimes to have an excuse to not exercise. It’s not really good, but I need to do more exercise, not less exercise.

TP:   How much time do you to get to read?

BRAXTON:   This is part of academia. This is what we have to do. I’m always reading. My hair is white. I have to read even faster!

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Article, DownBeat

Artie Shaw’s 101st

To recognize the 101st birthday anniversary of Artie Shaw, here’s a piece I wrote for Jazziz in 2002 in conjunction with his self-picked box set, SELF-PORTRAIT (RCA).  Because of the allotted word length, I had to distill down two long phone interviews (I’ll save the raw transcripts, which are a hoot, for another occasion or forum).

* * * *

“Artie Shaw was to me the hippest clarinetist in that he played it straight.  His ideas would come straight out. He didn’t sound like he was studying from the book.” – Wayne Shorter

“I would occasionally play for black audiences,” says Artie Shaw, hearkening back to the 1930s, when he became a mega-celebrity. “It was always very liberating. You could do anything you want. They were much hipper than white audiences, much more musically aware.  That’s why Ellington and Lunceford and Chick Webb could get away with a lot that white bands couldn’t.

“Musically, we are an almost illiterate people. Audiences respond like apes; they get up and applaud after every solo, good or bad. The people who run the business do not insist on having any sort of dignity. Woody Herman would say, in the middle of the chorus, ‘And now, ladies and gentleman, Joe Miff-Miff played the trumpet, and this is so-and-so.’ I’d say, ‘Woody, why the hell don’t you wait til it’s over, tell the audience to sit down and introduce the soloists one-by-one?’  He said, ‘Well, this is what they want.’ I said, ‘What about what you want?’ He couldn’t understand that. Or didn’t want to. It’s very important that the leader of the band set an example, if he wants any kind of dignified response. Can you imagine a symphony audience applauding after each cadenza? But you can’t have a band if the audience won’t help you pay for them. So you’ve got to face the fact that you have to give them what I call ‘three chords for beauty’s sake and one to pay the rent.’”

Truculent and blunt, Shaw was never so cranky as to bite off the hand that fed him; now 92, out of the music business longer than he was in it, he pays the rent on royalties, residuals and investments from his glory years. Famously married to and divorced from actresses Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Evelyn Keyes, to Jerome Kern’s daughter, and three other women, he continues to possess what market researchers call a high name recognition quotient. That’s why last year’s SELF-PORTRAIT [RCA] — a 5-CD retrospective for which Shaw cherrypicked 95 performances from his vast storehouse of studio and remote recordings — stirred up as much attention as it did.

During two lengthy phone conversations last April, Shaw was loath to discuss oft-trod biographical territory, referring me to his books The Trouble With Cinderella and The Best Of Intentions rather than talk about how he came to earn $175 a week with a mediocre dance band as a 17-year-old in 1927, what it was like to sit in with Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone at the Apex Club in South Side Chicago and with Willie the Lion Smith and Billie Holiday at Pod & Jerry’s in Harlem, how he came to organize his first band, or the impact of his harrowing experiences during World War II. A staggeringly well-read autodidact and well-armoured misanthrope, he had plenty else to discuss. We excerpt the following comments.
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“The only thing worse than utter failure is unmitigated success.  I sure had that for a while.  And it was almost fatal. I lost my mind.  I lost all sense of purpose.  I didn’t know what I was doing any more. For the audience to stand up and applaud everything, how are you going to know what’s good or not? Then the War came, and that was a bath of cold reality. When I came back to so-called civilization, I went into analysis, five days a week, every morning, on the couch. First I did it in California. When I went to New York, I found that the West Coast analysis didn’t work on the East Coast!  I went to Abram Kardiner, a very famous man, one of the early cultural anthropologists, who trained Margaret Mead, etc. You’d come in in the morning and he said, ‘What happened?’ You’d tell him.  He’d say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ You’d say it, and he’d say, ‘Well, that’s not what you said.’ You’d go on and on, dissecting everything you thought. I learned a very important lesson. It can be summed up in three words. ‘Maybe it’s me.’

“I have a great distrust of authority.  That came I think out of my father telling me that the instrument I played was silly.  He called it a ‘blowzer.’  It means a blower, a thing you blow into.  Like a kazoo.  He classed it with nothing.  And he made his contempt for it very plain to me.  I’ve often thought since then, whenever some signal honor has been bestowed upon me, ‘If you were here, Pop, you’d learn what a blowser is.’ He was a frustrated inventor, artist, and ended up as a tailor.  His name was Arshawsky, and he came from Odessa. It took me fifty years to learn that. He left when I was 13, and I didn’t much care. I have no regard for antecedents or precursors. I have no family sense.  I feel as though I came out of whatever I came out of, and I managed to get to where I am in spite of anything.  There’s a line I cherish that George Bernard Shaw said.  He said, ‘Looking back at my life, I realize that whatever success I achieved was done in spite of all the good advice I received.’

“I got my name ‘Shaw’ from Robert Louis Stevenson, a book called Kidnapped, which I read when I was 7 or 8.  Kidnapped had a man living in the House of Shaws.  Shaw means a thicket of trees.  So I took the name when I went into show-biz.  When I decided to become a saxophone player and play in bands, it was easier to say ‘Art Shaw’ than Arthur Arshawsky.  Plus, in those days there was a great deal of anti-semitism, just as there is today.  But it was more overt in those days.

“I don’t know what being Jewish means. I certainly don’t believe in Jehovah, I don’t believe in the stone tablets, I don’t believe in the Burning Bush, and I don’t believe in any of the myths.  And I don’t know what it means to have a seder, because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting.  I mean, why is this day different from any others?  Well, Jesus, why is July 4th different?  They’re all different.  I don’t really care about these concretized myths that we deal with, called religion.

“I became Artie Shaw, and Artie Shaw leading a band was hardly Jewish.  I was on the ‘Tonight Show’ one time, and the question came up: What did you want to be when you were young?  What was your ambition?  When it got to me, I said, ‘I wanted to grow up and be a gentile.’  And the audience cracked up, and so did the band.  There were a lot of Jews in the band.  And then, the laughter died down, and I said, ‘And I made it.’ It was like a big trick on the world, and I was the only guy who could laugh at it.

“I think the family is a series of cannibals eating each other. My view is that if we had a reasonable society, we would pay people to take care of the raising of children. Four 6-hour shifts, and that’s it. They’d be totally devoid of all this subjective, sentimental flesh-and-blood horseshit that we get with the average family. There’s no reason why a society can’t raise children in a fairly reasonable and dispassionate and objective way.”
____________________

“I think there were about five great bands in those days — Goodman, me, Basie, Ellington and Lunceford. Tommy Dorsey had a great band, but they weren’t playing jazz. Lunceford at his best was awfully good.  He had a lot of respect for what he did, and he imbued the men with that. And Ellington at times was very good.  He was interesting, a very smart guy. But he’s been hyped. In the last ten years, he’s become like the avatar. The long form things he did weren’t long forms; they were just pastiche, a lot of short forms put together. But the audience bought it. The band was like the little girl with the curl on the forehead.  When they were good, they were very good; when they were bad, they were horrid. He chose the personalities. It’s like saying the newspaper was a good newspaper, but the people couldn’t write. It’s under a rubric. Sometimes Ellington’s rubric worked, other times it didn’t. When I quit, he said, ‘You’ve got more guts than any of us.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? You could do the same thing if you wanted.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t know what else to do.’

“The band was my instrument; I played the clarinet with it. I tried to make the guys play better than they thought they could. I tried to be reasonable with them. But on the other hand, there’s an old saying, and I believe it’s true: Nothing of any lasting value is ever achieved by a reasonable man. I do know that if you were really reasonable, you’d go down the road and be a good insurance man. But if you’re unreasonable, you’re quarreling with everything that is, and you’re going to make it better. We rehearsed all the time. If one guy did something wrong one night, I’d call a rehearsal the next night and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to fix that.’ The guys didn’t mind. They liked the idea of the quest for perfection.

“Like everything else, jazz has had a crescendo and a decrescendo. It was an efflorescence. We grew and grew and grew, we finally reached an apogee, and now it’s gone downhill. I was interviewed by a guy who was doing a book on Sinatra. At the end, he said, ‘Are you in agreement that he was a perfect symbol of the decadence of the last half of the century?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think that says it very well.’ We took a plain, ordinary singer, a good singer, and we made him into an icon. We made him a crony of Presidents, and then when he couldn’t get along with the President because of his propensity for gangsters, he went to Spiro Agnew.  He was a man with utterly no principle.  That’s a form of decadence.

“When Ava was living with Sinatra, she asked me whether sex had been okay when we were together, because she said with Sinatra it was hopeless. Later Ava developed this great, peculiar thing about standing by her man.  So she’d make remarks like ‘he weighs 105, and 95 percent cock.’ I know damn well that wasn’t true, because I’ve heard it from other women.

“Once I worked with Tony Bennett on a series of half-a-dozen concerts, the big tents, those great big musical extravaganza places. My orchestra was rehearsing with him, and after they did ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco,’ he came over to sit with me.  He said, ‘The band is great’ and so on. I said, ‘Good, I’m glad you’re happy with it.’ Then I said, ‘Tony, what goes through your mind when you sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’?’  He looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, that song expresses at most a meager philosophical statement. Don’t you ever get a little bored with it?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m very lucky. The audience…’  I said, ‘I’m not talking about money or success. I’m talking about your inner view.’ He didn’t have one. I began to realize that this guy was intent on singing, like Goodman was intent on the clarinet. The philosophical basis for this was totally lost. They were not aware that there was such a thing. I think it denotes a lack of depth to thinking. A surface view of life. Things are not what they seem, and it’s the duty of any person who pretends to be aware to try to understand what it really represents in its deepest sense. What does it say about the human condition? The point of the words ‘human condition’ I think is lost on a lot of people. Also, people use language so imprecisely that their thought is imprecise. We say ‘jazz.’  What are we talking about? What is it and what isn’t it? I mean, the name of the magazine, Jazziz. Jazz is what? It’s like saying ‘Bird Lives.’ Well, in that case, Beethoven lives. What they mean is some of the music lasts.

“Language is wiser than the people who use it. Language has been used for a long, long time by a number of people in different ways. We are the heirs to that, and if we use language precisely, we have a little better chance of making ourselves clear and making other people understand what we’re doing than if we use it sloppily, as people do. We have three languages. There’s the oral-verbal one. There’s music. And there’s mathematics. I don’t know of any others.”

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Filed under Article, Artie Shaw, Clarinet, Jazziz

Paul Motian & Steve Nelson

Not saying I’ll make it (the best laid plans and all that), but it’s my intention to go to the Village Vanguard this evening to hear the final night of  Paul Motian’s week-long MJQ homage with Steve Nelson, Craig Taborn and Thomas Morgan. I’m very curious about this gig. This collection of personalities can play it straight or deconstruct – what will they do? With no disrespect to any other vibraphonist on the scene, Steve Nelson is my favorite on the instrument amongst a cohort of equals — everything is taste, after all. Comparing him to Joe Locke or Bobby Hutcherson or Gary Burton, or Stefon Harris (wunderkind Warren Wolf is getting there, and Tyler Blanton…and let’s not get into an hierarchical name game anyway, or I might get a mallet upside my head) is an endeavor about as useful it was for Robert Friedlander and I when, during games of baseball card war in the mid ’60s, we’d fight over whether Willie Mays trumped Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson. Steve plays with such freshness in so many contexts, and his snaky rhythmic feel  is singular. So for my first post, I’ll  paste below a piece I wrote about Steve for DownBeat in 2007 that never made it into print. Now, this is a penultimate final draft, not the FINAL-final draft, and I would have worked more on the ending. But anyway, here it is.

* * * *

“The next young cat is going to play inside, outside, jazz, classical, play the blues, be a good reader, play with everybody—a total command,” said vibraphonist Steve Nelson last October, reflecting on the future of his instrument. “It might be a she, I don’t know. But somebody is going to take the vibraphone to a different level.”

More than a few distinguished members of Nelson’s peer group opine that although Nelson, 53, is neither a serial poll-winner nor a frequent leader of sessions, he himself is the most completely realized and original performer on the vibraphone and marimba to emerge in the wake of ’50s and ’60s pioneers like Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Walt Dickerson, and Cal Tjader. One such is Dave Holland, Nelson’s employer since 1996, with whom Nelson was preparing to embark to Asia and Australia for two weeks of gigs.

“I’ve always looked for players who are very deeply rooted in the tradition, who can move the tradition into new, contemporary areas, and Steve is one of those people,” Holland said. “The reason I use a vibraphone in my quintet and big band is because he exists. He’s an original thinker who comes to conclusions one wouldn’t expect, and he’s used our compositions as a vehicle to break new ground for the instrument.”

Upon his return, Nelson would enter Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a week with Wingspan, pianist Mulgrew Miller’s sextet, adding another chapter to a two-decade tenure with the band. Asked to describe Nelson’s qualities, Miller was effusive. “Steve has no limitations,” he remarked. “I can write just about anything, and he’ll make it sound beautiful. He’s definitely a swinger, but even more important is his creative fire. Like Kenny Garrett, he was already an individualist early on; they played like they were old souls already.”

Joining A-team bass-drum tandem Peter Washington and Lewis Nash, Miller plays piano on Sound-Effects [High Note], an inexorably propulsive, blues-tinged eight-tune recital that is Nelson’s first leader date since 1999. The repertoire, recorded over the course of an evening and realized mostly as first takes, includes three Nelson originals and five jazz standards, including “Night Mist Blues,” by Ahmad Jamal,” “Up Jumped Spring,” by Freddie Hubbard, and “Arioso” by the late James Williams, another frequent Nelson partner and employer throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Others who recruited Nelson for record dates or retained him for consequential tours of duty during those years include Kirk Lightsey, George Shearing, Kenny Barron, Donald Brown, Geoff Keezer, David “Fathead” Newman, and Nash.

“It was happening from the first beat,” Nash recalled of the session, which could stand as a contemporary paradigm of 21st century hardcore jazz aesthetics. “It expresses how Steve felt right then. He could easily make a record of very adventurous, modern things which are pushing the envelope in various ways, but a musician like him doesn’t feel he HAS to do that. He can go into the studio and play how he wants to play.”

“It’s a matter of the highest difficulty to play those tempos and get that kind of flow and phrasing and interplay and sound, to make the vibraphone breathe and sustain that good, swinging groove,” Nelson said in response to a comment that perhaps, given the opportunity to conduct a few pre-studio rehearsals, he might have recorded the “adventurous, modern things” to which Nash referred. “It’s not as basic as some might think. Milt Jackson did it very well, but very few people have done it, including myself. I’m trying to get to it.”|

Nelson’s protests to the contrary, his colleagues are emphatic that the 53-year-old vibraphonist-marimbist has “it” in abundance. “Steve is one of the great improvisers I’ve played with in the sense of taking chances and breaking new ground,” Holland stated over the phone from Japan. “I’ve played with him night after night, year after year, and he never fails to surprise me. Last night, for example, he did something I’ve never heard him do before, which was to use a very fast tremolo and play the voicings percussively around the rhythms that [drummer] Nate Smith was playing, which created an amazing effect. He finds so many different ways to create tonal textures with mallet combinations—we all turn our heads sideways to see the voicings he’s playing, because we can feel them. He has roots in the blues which always seem to come through somewhere, no matter what we’re playing, and he grasps all the great traditions of accompaniment through having played with so many of the great piano players.”

“I almost put him in another category than other musicians I play with,” said Chris Potter, Nelson’s bandmate with Dave Holland since 1997. “I don’t know where he channels from, or how he conceptualizes all this stuff, but I’ve played countless gigs with Steve, and I never know what he’s going to play. He’ll go along normally, then turn completely left. Or not. You just don’t know. It’s true improvisation, reacting to some inner dictates that he has access to.”

“He’s a wonderfully economical player who can say a lot with very little,” said Smith. “He’s a very abstract thinker in his comping, his rhythmic responses to odd meters, but it all makes sense, and he paints beautiful pictures with the soft and beautiful tunes he brings to the band. They say still waters run deep, and he’s the perfect example of that saying.”

The still waters metaphor also applies to Nelson’s gestural vocabulary—he coils over the keyboard, jabbing and weaving with an economy of moves to create asynchronous punctuations that bring to mind Thelonious Monk’s pouncing comp, or Muhammad’s Ali’s motto, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” “The only thing that touches the vibraphone when you’re playing is one little piece of your foot, so you use all the wide space around you,” Nelson explained.

Nelson brings to bear a full complement of rhythmic acumen on Stompin’ at the Savoy and It Don’t Mean A Thing [M&I], both inventive Nash-led trio dates for the Japanese market on which Peter Washington plays bass. “Steve understands that the vibes are melodic as well as percussive,” Nash remarks. “He builds ideas not only harmonically or linearly, but through dynamics—he knows when to strike the bar to make it speak in a certain way. He double-times and plays across the barline; the shapes of his lines give the illusion that you’re hearing polyrhythms, because his rhythm fits on top of the primary pulse, which creates a tension. He’s extremely knowledgeable about chord structure and harmonic theory, which allows him to be free even on the most basic harmonic structures. He makes even the most tried-and-true songs sound fresh. But when he plays in situations with different meters and uncharacteristic harmonies, or vamps and ostinatos over one harmonic framework, he makes that work, too.”

The sum result, stated Keezer, who deployed Nelson on four of his ‘90s dates, is “a completely original voice—home-made might be the word. I don’t hear him coming heavily out of Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson, or any other vibraphonist, but more taking that postmodern language that Woody Shaw, Mulgrew, and Kenny Garrett use, and translating it onto the vibes. His free time sense is the quality I hear now in Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, which suggests that they could play anything at any time and it would sound right. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s a mark of mastery in playing.”

[BREAK]

There are reasons why Nelson, a virtuoso musician who has made consequential contributions both to the development of speculative improvising and the tradition, is less visible to the broader jazz audience than his talent warrants. For one thing, as Nash comments, “People see with their eyes, but they don’t hear with them, and you don’t necessarily match Steve’s reticence and understated personality with this kind of musicianship. He’s not jumping up and turning somersaults and flips.”

Another reason is timing. Like Bobby Watson, Brian Lynch, Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, Joe Locke, and David Hazeltine, all tradition-to-the-future virtuosos born in the middle to late ‘50s, Nelson cut his hardcore jazz teeth with local mentors on his home-town’s indigenous jazz scene. For Nelson, out of Pittsburgh, this occurred at the cusp of the plugged-in ‘70s, with such local heros as drummers Roger Humphries, Joe Harris, and J.C. Moses, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, saxophonists Eric Kloss, Nathan Davis, and Kenny Fisher, guitarist Jerry Byrd, and Nelson’s direct influence, a steelworker named George A. Monroe who played vibraphone in the Milt Jackson style.

“The guys in Pittsburgh were great musicians, and I could use everything they taught me when I went to college,” Nelson recalled. “Mr. Monroe was the father of my high school buddy. I heard him play one day, and I fell in love with the sound of the vibes. He started teaching me, and thought I had some talent, so he kept on teaching me. Taught me things on piano that I could copy directly—lines and so on—and a lot of tunes. Coming up in Pittsburgh, you learned your standards, and I still enjoy playing them.”

“Steve was an amazing younger player, perhaps the brightest student I ever had,” recalled Kenny Barron, who taught Nelson at Rutgers, where he earned the nickname “absent-minded professor,” during the ‘70s. “He came to Rutgers being able to play—he knew all my tunes, and I started using him in my group.”

“We were trying to be dedicated, but it was a difficult time to maintain your focus,” Nelson recalled. “But as we moved along, we got caught in the whole Young Lions thing of the early ‘80s—we weren’t older, established guys either at the time, and we never really got a chance to expand as leaders and get our names pushed out there.”

In a certain sense, Nelson’s versatility and open attitude, his dedication to serving the dictates of the moment without concern for their “progressive” or “conservative” implication, may also work against his recognition quotient in a climate when complexity and genre coalescence are in high regard.

“It wouldn’t be that different,” Nelson said in response to an observation that, given several preparatory gigs and rehearsals, Sound-Effects might have explored some different areas. “I might write a 12-bar blues with different harmonies and extensions, but it would still be a nice, medium tempo blues. I think the most important thing you can do is to play what you love. If that happens to be ultra-modern or ragtime, or something in between, that’s great. But if it’s from your heart and it’s honest, then you’re contributing to the music. Herbie Hancock was always one of my favorite musicians, because if you put him in a blues band, or a funk band, or a straight-ahead band, he’ll play the heck out of all of them. A really good musician can contribute, no matter where they go.

“When I joined Dave, I was starting to think about the unique qualities of the vibraphone. Rather than transfer piano chords or guitar chords to the vibes, what intervals can I create? How can I space things to exploit the vibraphone as a percussive instrument? On piano, you have all 10 fingers. The shape of the vibraphone keyboard gives you different intervallic ideas; with the four mallets, you can get different ways to voice chords—I guess you could call them dissonant—that you might not otherwise think of. Those intervals allow you to use space more effectively than with other instruments. I can hit a chord, and let it ring out over the band, which leaves a lot of air for the drums, with their advanced rhythmic concept, to respond to, then the soloist puts something on top.”

Nelson added: “Although we’ve had a lot of impact on other bands playing in odd meters, to me, the real important aspect of Dave’s thing is the interplay and free flowing of ideas that his structures encourage.”

He recalled an early 2007 engagement with Kirk Lightsey at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard that provided an opportunities for conversation in notes and tones. “We played ‘Temptation,’ which contained wide-open areas between the melody for segues, and we had to listen hard,” he said. “Now, Kirk has a different tone and touch on the piano than Mulgrew Miller does, but I don’t make conscious adjustments for either of them. Now, with George Shearing, the concept was the sound of the band, rather than interplay. You’re playing at a such a soft dynamic level with the guitar and piano, that you’re inside each other’s sound—it’s like a spiritual happening. Truth is, I loved it. With any musician, if you play what you hear, it magically works. If you have the basic building blocks of musicianship together, you’ll be able to play with anybody.”

Which provoked a final question on this ideal sideman’s future plans.

“It’s becoming more important to me to be a leader, because you develop your own ideas, and want to put them out there,” he responded. “But the truth is that learning how to play that instrument is my central focus. Not many of us play vibraphone. There aren’t a lot of method books to go through. You wind up trying to play like saxophone or trumpet, or do other things that people ask, but I don’t know that we always think so much about how to create a language and a sound for the vibraphone itself. If I ever figure it out, I’ll write a book!”

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Filed under DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Steve Nelson