Category Archives: WKCR

For Master Drummer Arthur Taylor’s 88th Birth Anniversary, The Proceedings Of a WKCR Musician Show With AT and Walter Bolden in 1992

Yesterday was the 88th birth anniversary of master drummer Arthur Taylor (1929-1995). I got to know “A.T.,” as he was familiarly called, when I had an opportunity to engineer a number of Musician Shows that he conducted at WKCR  during the mid- and latter ’80s, and subsequently when he asked to transcribe a number of interviews for a prospective volume two of his essential Notes and Tones, which never did get published. These included conversations with Red Garland, Billy Higgins, and a number of other greats. During the last 5-6 years of his life, AT put together a tight, ferocious group that included such outstanding musicians  as Willie Williams, Abraham Burton, Jacky  Terrason and Tyler Mitchell.  In 1992 I had an opportunity to turn the tables on AT and interview him on a Musician Show together with drummer Walter Bolden, the transcript of which I’ve appended below.


Arthur Taylor/Walter Bolden (11-11-92) – (Musician’s Show):

[MUSIC: Taylor’s Wailers, “Mr. A.T.”, Coltrane, “Good Bait”]
Q: Now, you’ve reconstituted Taylor’s Wailers over the last couple of years, and you’ve been associated, particularly in terms of writing, with Walter Bolden, another superb drummer. You’ve really been on the scene together ever since you emerged. Your careers span just about the same amount of time, I think.

AT: Yes. Well, we have similar feelings about drumming, and our styles of drumming are similar. We’ve been friends since Walter came to New York. He came out of Connecticut. To get from that point to this moment, his writing, to me, has the same flavor as Horace Silver or Gigi Gryce, who are two great composers in my estimation. I later found out that they had studied together, so maybe that’s the reason why rhythmically… Well, Walter’s a drummer, so what he would write would be interesting for a drummer in the first place.

Walter wrote the title song of Taylor’s Wailers’ latest CD, which you heard, “Mr. A.T.” I went to visit Walter one afternoon, and I walked in, he was playing the piano. He said, “Yeah, T, how do you like this?” — and he started playing this song. I said, “Yeah, I like that, man. That’s fantastic. I really like that.” He says, “Do you really like it?” I said, “Yeah, man. You know I wouldn’t jive you. I really like it, you know.” He says, “Yeah? Well, that’s for you. And we’ll call it ‘Mr. A.T.'” Now you tell them about it, Walter.

WB: That’s exactly the way it happened, too. I had written the piece, and I was wondering who I was going to give this piece to that I thought could really do it justice, the way I would like to hear it played — and I thought Arthur Taylor and Taylor’s Wailers would do a wonderful job with this. So I had named the tune “Mr. A.T.” because it was really especially for him. And I was very-very-very pleased with the job that they did on it.

Q: Well, Walter Bolden, tell us about your impressions of A.T. back when you first met him. When was it, anyway?

WB: Well, this goes back to December 1950 on into 1951.

AT: You even know the month.

WB: [LAUGHS] Well, I have a knack for that. Of course, naturally, I didn’t read it off the record jacket right here! But ever since then we have been very, very good friends. We used to hang out a lot together, and be on some of the same scenes, and we had the opportunity of playing with some of the same great musicians through our career.

Q: Who were you playing with at that time?

WB: Well, before I left Hartford, I was playing with Gigi Gryce, studying with him, and Horace Silver, and a bassist named Joe Calloway, and an alto player by the name of Harold Holt who was up there, and a trumpet player by the name of Richard Taylor. Horace Silver formed a trio with Joe Calloway and myself. We were working around Hartford and up in Massachusetts, and different little towns in Connecticut. We were working at a club called the Club Sundown up in Hartford, and Stan Getz was booked there as a single to work with our trio. He liked what we were doing, and he talked to Horace about hiring the trio to go back to New York with him and work — at which we were very, very elated. And this is what really got us out of Hartford, working with Stan Getz.

Q: You recorded with him for Roost, and the results are on a recent set called Stan Getz: The Roost Quartets. But you and Horace Silver go back a long way. About how far back do you go?

WB: Let’s see. We go way back, I guess to ’47.

Q: So since your late teens, basically?

WB: Right.

Q: And you were working around Hartford as a teenager?

WB: Sure, I did. I was in a band of Gigi’s that had Joe Calloway in it, and a piano player by the name of Gene Nelson. We used to go down to New Haven, and hook up with Horace Silver and Keeter Betts and different people from that part of Connecticut. At that time, Horace was playing tenor saxophone — which he leaned towards the Lester Young type of sound and feel, very, very warm — and he also played piano. But the three of us, Horace, Joe Calloway and myself, got together, and we decided that we would just get into a trio type thing. That’s how that happened. We were working all over the place at that particular time.

Q: How long have you been playing the drums, and who were the first drummers you liked and modeled yourself after?

WB: I started playing professionally around Connecticut at 16 or 17 years old.

AT: You’ve been playing since you were 16? Hey, wait a minute, now…


AT: I don’t like this disadvantage in here. This stuff is getting serious, now!

WB: Well, it was right around Connecticut, you know, which was great. A lot of musicians used to come through Hartford. In fact, the State Theater was the big band theater there, where Count Basie and Duke Ellington used to come through from New York. When I was a kid, we’d sit down in that theater all day long, and listen to these people.

Q: So you’d see all the drummers from the big bands.

WB: All the drummers, you know, from Lucky Millinder, Chick Webb, I would say Jimmie Crawford…

AT: You saw Chick Webb.

WB: Sure.

AT: You’re a lucky man.

WB: [LAUGHS] You know!

AT: Yeah.

WB: Sonny Greer…

AT: I saw him, too.

WB: I know you did.

Q: When did you first see Chick Webb, A.T.?

AT: I saw him at the Apollo, the Apollo Theater, yeah. That’s when he had Ella Fitzgerald, she was a star, a child star, like.

Q: So it sounds like he really impressed you, as I’m sure everybody who had the good fortune to hear him in person.

WB: That’s right.

AT: I would say the young Tony Williams.

WB: That’s it. Very, very fast hands, and his concept, everything. Beautiful. Beautiful to watch, too.

Q: So those were the drummers who affected you when you were coming up.

WB: Early, right.

Q: Walter, when you and Horace Silver were playing together, it was after World War Two, and Charlie Parker’s records had come out. Did those really turn you around when you heard them, and Horace as well?

WB: Of course! It was really a totally different thing with Dizzy and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Now, Horace and Joe Calloway and myself used to model a lot of things we did in our trio after the Bud Powell trio, with Max Roach and Curly Russell, which recorded in 1947.

Q: You can hear that in some of Horace’s trio recordings in the early 1950’s, too, which are very much in that style.

WB: Right.

Q: But I interrupted you.

WB: So we were influenced very much by that. And Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, you know…and on up! [LAUGHS]

Q: Now, did you get to hear these guys in Hartford? Would they come through Hartford and play?

WB: Max did. And Art Blakey used to come through with Billy Eckstine years ago. I used to sit down in a hall up there called the Footguide(?) Hall, where all the big bands used to come when they had dances and whatnot. I remember Art Blakey with Billy Eckstine’s band. He used to roll up his pants leg on his beat-a-ball, [LAUGHS], on the bass drum, you know, and I thought, “Why does he do that?” Then I found out later on that if you roll your pants leg up, your pants leg won’t get caught in that ball when you’re playing. [LAUGHS]

AT: That’s a drag, isn’t it?

WB: It happens, you know?

AT: It’s a drag.

Q: Now, A.T., growing up in New York, in Harlem, you had a chance to see just about everybody who came through in person as a teenager. Is that what you did? Were you able to hear a lot of music when you were a teenager?

AT: Yeah. Well, I think I was very lucky, because my father would take me to the Apollo Theater. I don’t know whether he liked it that much. Maybe he was just trying to get out the house or whatever he was doing, but it was really groovy. So he’d take me the Apollo Theater, and I’d see Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke, Charlie Barnet, Buddy Rich, oh, all the big names. Oh, I mean, all the big stars… I mean real stars. I’m talking about real stars. You know, when these people do their stuff, they’d turn the place out every time from the hearts. So that really impressed me.

And seeing all those drummers, you know… Then I saw Buddy Rich. That was impressive. Then we’d play hooky from school and go to the Paramount Theater to see Gene Krupa and people like that. But my real day was the day I saw J.C. Heard. I couldn’t be-lieve that. I’d seen Chick Webb and I’d seen Buddy and I had seen Gene Krupa, but when I saw J.C. Heard, I said, “Well, that’s it. That is it!” And I have modeled my drumming after J.C. Heard. Most people don’t know that.

Q: Well, now they do.

AT: I don’t know. Is anybody out there? Do you think somebody is listening to this show?

Q: Well, you can give us a call on the next break. You still remember the phone number, right?

AT: No, man.


Q: Was this before you heard Max Roach and Kenny Clarke?

AT: Oh, yes. This was before I was even interested in drums. I was supposed to be an athlete.

Q: You were supposed to be.

AT: Yeah, I was supposed to be an athlete.

Q: What did you play? What was your sport?

AT: I was a heckuva center-fielder, a heckuva second-baseman, and I was not too bad a guard in basketball.

Q: Could you hit?

AT: I could hit. It’s funny. I’ve only seen out of one eye all my life, but I could meet the ball. I can’t figure that out today. I could always meet the ball. I could drive it sometimes, but I could always meet it. And talking with the boys I grew up with now and the people in my family, I’ve found out I was better than I even thought I was. But at that time, in professional athletics, they didn’t allow Negroes in, you know, so there was no future. My parents would say, “Are you crazy?” Everybody else in the family was going to Columbia University and all that kind of stuff, and here I wanted to play baseball. They said, “You must be out of your mind! Get out of here, boy!”

Q: What got you interested in playing drums as a profession?

AT: I’ll tell you what it was with me. I went to a jam session is, where Lincoln Center is, where I am playing tomorrow night, where the Walter Reade Theater at 8 o’clock, Taylor’s Wailers will be performing… Almost on the exact spot I went to hear…went to a jam session. And playing in this jam session was Fats Navarro and Miles Davis and Big Sid Catlett and Max Roach and Bud Powell and Freddie Webster — and I can go on and on and on. What really impressed me was the joy and the pleasure the people were having, and all the beautiful ladies there were…you know, thrills with their shit. I thought about that, and I said, “This is good. You don’t have to get up in the morning either. You can sleep late…”


Q: You go to bed whatever time…

AT: You can go to bed when everybody’s getting up, you know. So I said, “Yeah, that looks like that’s for me.” So that’s really how I got into it. Seeing Big Sid and Max that day, I said, “I have to try it.”

Q: Were you self-taught, or was there somebody showing you the fundamentals?

AT: I was basically self-taught. I had a teacher, but he couldn’t stand me, you know, so that didn’t work. He was a very fine teacher. He became a big union official in Local 802. His name was Aubrey Brooks. I didn’t have enough discipline for him, so he didn’t go for me too much.

Q: Walter Bolden, what got you interested?

WB: Well, growing up in the State Theater, when all the bands used to come through. But there was music in my family. See, my mother played piano, my father played the French horn, one of my brothers played trumpet, one played piano, and the other one played guitar. I used to fumble with the various instruments in the house, but I didn’t want anything that was there. I wanted something that wasn’t there, and that was drums. And I was influenced by the drummers that I saw at the State Theater and the drummers that used to come in through the clubs up there in Hartford.

Later on, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and Art Blakey and Roy Haynes really got to me in my way of thinking about playing drums. See, before that it had been like, Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, as A.T. mentioned, J.C. Heard, people like that…Jimmie Crawford, you know…

AT: Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

WB: The new music at that time really grabbed ahold of me.

[W. Bolden with Getz/Silver/Calloway, “Split Kick,” “Strike Up The Band” (1950); H. McGhee Sextet, “Ittapnna” (1953)]

WB: “Ittapnna” is Patti Ann spelled backwards.

Q: [ETC.] Our guests are Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden.

AT: You’re a guest also, Ted.

Q: I’m a guest?

AT: Yeah, you’re my guest.


Q: Thank you. Are you doing the Musician’s Show with me?

AT: I’m gonna interview you.

Q: I can hear radio sets clicking off around New York City as we speak. Boring the audience in New York! But maybe we can put you back in the role of Musician Show host with Walter Bolden. How about that, A.T.?

WB: Well, we think along the same lines.

Q: I remember the type of questions you would ask. I’m sure people would like to hear a little set.

AT: Yeah, well, Walter, what do you feel about Love and Marriage?

WB: Oh, my goodness. [LAUGHS]

Q: We can ask Sammy Cahn, and then…

WB: [LAUGHS] That sounds like “Tones In Bronze” or something.

AT: “Tones in Bronze”!


AT: Why don’t we just continue?

Q: Okay, we’ll continue. Then I’m going to get into ordinary biographical stuff. Look, A.T., around the time Walter Bolden’s first composition came out, I think you were working with Bud Powell…

AT: What year was that?

Q: 1953. That was June 8th of ’53.

AT: Yeah, I was working with Bud then.

Q: Was that your first real professional gig?

AT: Oh, no!

Q: What were the events that led to working with Bud Powell?

AT: Okay, let’s see if I can get it in some kind of chronological order. My first real… Well, I used to play the neighborhood with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. That was real as you can get — even then, you know. As I was telling some people today, they were talented then and could play then. It wasn’t like that they were young and couldn’t play. They could play. They were great musicians at that time, too.

Q: Did you meet them in high school? Did you meet them around the neighborhood?

AT: We lived in the same neighborhood. We lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem. We were all interested in the same thing, which was, like, Charlie Parker, Bud and Dizzy Gillespie and people like that. They were the tops.

Q: And you were uniquely advantaged, because you were able to go and hear them frequently.

AT: Yeah. Well, Bud lived right down the street from me. I was telling some people today, we would go to Bud’s house, and he’d sit down and play Bach and Beethoven off the top of his head. It would frighten you, you know, like it was nothing — without any music. It was unbelievable. Well, Kenny Drew was a Classical musician anyway, first of all. Sonny Rollins had taken me to hear him and his sister do a Bop duet. I said, “Is this the guy I’m gonna play with? Shit, he’s playing Bop duets…” [LAUGHING] We all know what a great musician Kenny Drew is, I’m sure, also, at the same time.
We were in the same neighborhood, and some of the guys went to the same school, which was Benjamin Franklin, which was a very fine school in Harlem, and produced some really great musicians. Rollins came out of there, I think McLean went there, Percy France went there, I think Gilly Coggins went there — I mean, really fine musicians came out of that school. And we were in the neighborhood, and we had this little band. We were burning, playing for all the dances. People were able to dance to the music, then.

Q: That’s another thing. There were a lot of dance halls. People often said that Bebop was something that people couldn’t really dance to, but I think that’s really not the case, is it.

AT: No, no. I played many dances with Charlie Parker. Many dances. The Audubon Ballroom, Rockland Palace, the Renaissance. I played several places with Charlie Parker for dancing.

Q: Did people develop new dances for Charlie Parker?

AT: No, you just had to swing. You had to be able to swing. If you could swing, it’s all right, yeah. But then the music got a little different. You can’t dance to it. You’ve got to have a computer to figure it out, have a pencil and a piece of paper and everything. Which is all right, it’s okay, it’s good. I hope they keep doing that. Because I’m not going to play like that. [THE A.T. LAUGH]

Q: But we’ll get back to the places where you would play dances, though. Because I did interrupt you.

AT: Well, I told you the places. The Audubon Ballroom was our main spot. At that time, musicians were producing, you know. Art Blakey used to produce every Sunday afternoon at Rockland Palace, and that was the event. People would come from Jersey, Connecticut and everything. The biggest event of the year would be when he and Max Roach had the drum battle. People would come from all over, they’d come from Boston to see this. This was the show of all shows.

I was born in Harlem and I lived in Harlem, and I didn’t have to go out of Harlem to work. I had plenty of joints there to work, and I’d always get a Sunday afternoon once in a while at Art Blakey’s thing — once a month or something I’d get a gig over there with Art.

Q: When did you first meet Art Blakey?

AT: Ah, gee, I don’t know. Art was always very active in helping young people. We were young fellas, and we used to go and visit Art when he lived at 117th Street and Lenox Avenue, and it was just a thrill just to sit there and look at him — if he didn’t say anything, you know. Just to be in his company, you’d learn something about something, or music at least! Or something. You learned something. He was so beautiful. He was one of our greatest, and one of the major contributors to modern improvisation. As far as I am concerned, if anybody, it’s Art Blakey, yeah.

Q: What I want to get to is how it came to be accepted that you could and get the jobs. Was it just through working around the neighborhood, people hearing about you…

AT: No. I’ll tell you how I got accepted. Lockjaw Davis was the bandleader at Minton’s, and if you couldn’t play, you had to get off the bandstand. When we went down there to play, Lockjaw gave us an invitation to come and play any time we felt like playing. That’s the highest point that I have ever reached in music! When Lockjaw Davis told me I could go and play any time, I didn’t even speak to myself! I may not even speak to you any more! Ha-ha. Because nobody knows about that. They have some guys over here, and somebody says they’re great, but when Lockjaw said “you can come and play,” that means you can go and hone your craft on the bandstand with guys who are better than you! And you can’t ask for more than that. For me.

Q: So when did the gig with Bud Powell come about? How did that happen?

AT: That came about in 1951. I had been playing with Coleman Hawkins. I played with Coleman Hawkins for a year with Kenny Drew, Tommy Potter and Harry “Sweets” Edison, which was a very fine group. The musicians that I play with now, I try to teach them some of the things that Hawk taught me.

Q: Such as?

AT: How to be able to maintain your stuff without being a dummy, without acting stupid, acting with humility, to have good manners, but don’t take anything from anybody at the same time. Because we’re exposed when we play this music. Anybody can walk up to us and say anything. They walked up and shot Lee Morgan down! It’s hard to get to people when they’re big stars, but musicians in improvised music, it’s…you know, you’re exposed.

Where was I… We were talking about…?

Q: Coleman Hawkins.

AT: Okay. My first job was with Howard McGhee. He took a band with Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins (I got the job through Kenny or Sonny), and Percy Heath and myself to Utica. That was my first trip on the road.

Then, I started working with Hot Lips Page. Hot Lips Page, he was a rough man. He was a rough man. They need a guy like him around here now. Because he’ll punch you in the mouth if it don’t sound right. He’ll knock you out. And maybe you can beat him, but I don’t know, because he was a big, strong guy, rough — a rough, mean man. So I’d like to see… We need somebody like that around here now, and a lot of people wouldn’t be acting as tough as they think they are — physically.

Then after that, my main job was with Oscar Pettiford. I made my first record with Oscar Pettiford. We made 36 takes of “Love for Sale,” got in a car and drove in a snowstorm to Chicago. Super hip stuff, you dig it? [LAUGHS] 36 takes. If I’m on the bandstand now, if somebody calls “Love For Sale,” I get a cringe up my back. And I was the one messing up.

Q: It was you?

AT: It was me messing up. And every time I made it, I was getting worse, I was getting more nervous and getting worse and worse and worse. He was ready to kill me. Oscar was a perfectionist. He was a master. Oscar was a master.

WB: Hell, yeah.

AT: Oscar was a master. If you talk about bass, oh, man, wait a minute. [LAUGHS] Oscar Pettiford!

WB: Cello, too.

AT: Yeah, that’s right. Oscar was the first one to use an electrical attachment on a string instrument, as far as I know, in this field of improvised music. And the way the basses sound now, with the electrical attachment, that’s the way he sounded when he put the electrical attachment on the cello in Paris.

Anyway, after Oscar Pettiford, I got the job with Bud Powell, which is what I wanted. If I never did anything else in my life, that’s the only thing I wanted to do, was play with Bud.

Q: You worked with Bud Powell for five or six years.

AT: Yeah, for three years straight, and then off and on many times. Yeah.

Q: What was his manner as a leader?

AT: He never said anything. The only thing he’d ever say to me was, “‘Peanuts,’ Arthur.” That was my big solo. I had the introduction to “Salt Peanuts.” That’s all he said.

Q: That’s all he said to you in five years?

AT: Yeah, that’s about all. I would always say, “What do you want me to do?” And he would say, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll dig it.” I said, “I’ll dig it! Are you crazy?” [LAUGHING] I’ll dig it? Man! I don’t know what it was. I don’t see any reason for him to have that much confidence in my ability. But for whatever reason, he said I would dig it. So we made dozens of albums. They’re still classic, and people like them, too.

Q: I think we should play something with you and Bud Powell later, but right now we have cued up something from a wonderful Kenny Dorham session from 1961 titled Showboat.

AT: Yeah, I love Kenny Dorham. He’s one of our great… Well, he writes like Bud Powell. His writing is similar. Yeah.

Q: Did you first meet him at this time, too?

AT: Well, Kenny lived up on the Hill. Other people, too… Kenny lived on the Hill. Denzil Best lived on the Hill. And they were like gods, you know. Kenny Dorham! Because Kenny Dorham used to play with Fats Navarro. That’s enough right there, if you never heard him! [LAUGHS] That’s enough right there, if you played with Fats Navarro.

That’s a funny thing. You know Allen Eager, the tenor player? Some young guys were getting smart with him one day, or something about something. He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I played with Fats Navarro. I don’t know what you did.” [LAUGHS] That’s pretty rough.

Q: We’re with Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden on the Musicians’s Show, and Taylor’s Wailers is performing Thursday night at the Walter Reade Theater. By the way, we haven’t mentioned who’s in the group yet.

AT: Well, we have Jacky Terrason. He’s from Paris. I heard him in France about two years ago, and he’s really developing. I think he can develop into one of the finest pianists around. So I’m looking for very fine things from him within this decade. I would figure by the end of this decade he should be at the top of his form. Because it takes fifteen years to get your stuff together to start with; you know, to get your own sound, where you develop your own sound where you don’t sound like nobody else, and everybody can recognize that it’s you. That takes fifteen years.

Q: Do you think that’s always been the case? A lot of the people who were your idols, say, in the Forties, were just in their late twenties at that time.

AT: Well, I didn’t figure that out myself. In talking with Freddie Hubbard… As a matter of fact, it’s probably in my book, Notes and Tones, where we were talking about that. Freddie was saying (and I agree with him, which is why I repeat this) it takes fifteen years to get your own sound. It’s not like you’re going to say, “I’m going to get my own sound, and sound like me!” or something like that. This comes through practice and experience and discussion and listening, and you arrive at your place — and it’s you! It’s nobody else. It can’t be anybody else but you. And some people never arrive. Some people never get it. Ha! That’s one of our songs we’re going to play tomorrow night, too, “Some People Never Get It.”

Q: Who wrote that one?

AT: That’s my piece, and then…


AT: [LAUGHING] Then we’ll follow that with a piece by Walter Bolden, where we’ll say, “Some people never get it, because they’re all stressed out.” [LAUGHS] It’s all right if they never get it. That’s true! Some people never get it. It’s just like that. Everybody doesn’t get it, you know. But the Sun shines on everyone.

Q: But at any rate, after Jacky Terrason, you have two very talented young saxophone players.

AT: Yes. First of all, at the bass we have Tyler Mitchell. We have Tyler Mitchell on the bass. He’s a fine bassist. He’s been with me the longest of all the musicians in the group. We used to go to Europe and do tours with Steve Grossman, tenor player Steve Grossman. We did tours with him, and I would have Tyler on these gigs, so that we got familiar with each other. He has developed tremendously over the last two years. He’s just got to do a little more, and he’ll be all right.

Then we have Willie Williams on tenor saxophone. Willie was known for playing with Dollar Brand and different groups like that. What impresses me with Willie is his sound. He’s got a sound, you know. I’ve always played with saxophone players who can play loud. That interests me most if they can play loud. Gene Ammons can play loud. Jackie McLean can play loud, and Hawk can play loud, and Bird could play loud… You could hear Bird in Chicago if he was playing on 42nd Street, boy! He’d be loud, man. Anyway, you have to be heard before anything can happen. And at that time, they didn’t have all these sophisticated electronic things for your sound. So you had to blow. You had to put some air in those horns. You don’t just be foolin’ around. So Willie has a large sound, and he has a piercing sound that cuts through, too, which is what impressed me about him first of all.

Then we have Abraham Burton on alto saxophone. He’s a protege of Jackie Mac, my old friend, Jackie McLean’s. And he has a powerful… He’s a powerful guy. I mean really. They’re both powerful, you know. I mean, I’m amazed sometimes. I said, “Man, these guys are powerful!” And when the two of them play together, you know, when we play the ensembles, I said, “God…”


AT: Am I right or wrong?

WB: That’s right!

AT: Let Walter Bolden tell you about that, now. Because he’s written five songs at least that we use in our repertoire regularly. Since we’re talking about the saxophone, let’s talk about the power of these two young men, please.

WB: Yes. Willie and Abraham, when they play together, they get a sound that’s big. It sounds like a brass section. You don’t miss the trumpet. It has depth, and it’s wide-open. But being wide-open, it’s still warm. They have a knack of playing very, very mature even right now, although they have a little bit more to offer, I’m quite sure. But they are two of the strongest musicians out here that I have heard in a long time, really. Wide-open sound.

AT: That’s pretty rough, huh? Wow.

WB: Wide-open sound, right.

Q: The drummer is Arthur Taylor.

AT: Yeah, the drummer, man. I just go along.

Q: What do you think of him, Walter Bolden?

AT: Oh, it’s gonna get funny now….

WB: Well, you know….

AT: It’s gonna get funny.

WB: When you have two guys on the same instrument…


WB: A.T. and I, we used to practice together on the pads, you know. A.T. has a way of playing musical drums. You see, a lot of people play drums, but just patterns and so forth and so on. He has his dynamics, you know. He knows how to pull the sound out of the drum instead of beating the sound into the drum.

AT: Beat it out!

WB: He pulls the sound out. He pulls it out. And it’s amazing, some of the things he does, his coordination — it’s tremendous.

AT: I told him to say that, you know.

Q: He memorized all that? You wrote that? That’s beautiful. That’s great.
[MUSIC: KD/J. Heath/Kenny Drew/AT, “Make Believe” (1961); Gene Ammons, “Canadian Sunset” (1960)]

Q: I know that Gene Ammons, A.T., was one of your very favorite of all musicians.

AT: Yeah, Gene was great. First of all, my mother was a big Sonny Rollins fan for this piece, “This Love Of Mine,” that he did at one time — I think Blakey and Kenny Drew and I think Percy Heath was the personnel on that. She loved that record. But when she heard “Canadian Sunset,” Gene Ammons got her. She loved Gene Ammons. So I had to play this record. I’d have something on, and I’d have to put “Canadian Sunset” on. She liked that piece.

Gene was one of those saxophone players, you could hear him in Brooklyn when he was playing in Manhattan. He had that big sound, you know. God, he had this big sound. And he would tell me, “When we get to the end of the chorus, I want you to drive me and kick me and spur me on and everything.” It was a great learning experience, because he was so much more experienced and so much older. I learned so many different things from Gene Ammons. Plus, he was such a sweetheart, one of the sweet guys of the music business.

Q: Well, you did a lot of recordings with him.

AT: Quite a few.

Q: You recorded on those jam sessions in the mid-Fifties.

AT: That’s right. Coltrane played alto on some of them. Jackie McLean used to be on them, and Art Farmer, Donald Byrd. We had a lot of great musicians. Doug Watkins used to do a lot of those things with us.

Q: When did you first hear him? On one of your first trips to Chicago?

AT: Yeah, I heard him in Chicago. They used to have the all-night jam sessions. And I had known of Gene Ammons, but to hear him in person and electrify the people… When he’d play a ballad, you just went, [SIGHS]; you’d just melt, you know, with the sweetness and the power at the same time. It was so beautiful.

Q: He was a star musician in Chicago since his early twenties, and he’d been performing since his teens.

AT: That’s true. And the Billy Eckstine year also. What about Jug? What about that sound? Let’s talk about sound. What about that sound he gets on that instrument, the texture of his tone?

WB: Well, T, I’ll tell you. With Gene, for me, like his sound was so broad and so warm, when you would hear him in person, you could feel it in your stomach. That’s the vibration. It was just that broad. You could feel it in your body with him. And his ideas. And the way he used to hold back on his phrases and things like that. It would just take you over. Pull you right into him. For instance, there’s a song I really like by him, and it’s called “Didn’t We,” where he…

AT: An original piece or something?

WB: No, it goes, [SINGS REFRAIN], “Didn’t we girl?” You remember that?

AT: “Didn’t we girl?”


AT: Wait a minute, I heard that!

WB: No, that’s the way the lyric goes!

AT: Oh, yeah, okay-okay-okay…

WB: If the man sings it. “Didn’t we, girl,” you dig? But he did a tremendous job on that. And he did so other wonderful performances. To hear him in person was like a magic…

AT: He had a persona (is that the word?) on stage.

WB: That’s right.

AT: He was such a big man, and he had this big sound.

WB: He had a presence that was… Oh, man, it was something else. Really-really-really something.

Q: Well, it seems like most of the saxophone players you played with were players with the big sound. John Coltrane had a huge sound, Sonny Rollins…

AT: Yes, that’s true.

Q: So what else do you want to talk about, A.T.? Bring up some topics!

AT: Well, Gene Ammons is… He’s quite a topic right there, you know, because he’s not spoken about that much these days. We would be on those record dates, you know, with Jackie and Coltrane and all those people, and Gene…I mean, whatever he said, nobody questioned anything. Because he was a master musician, first of all, plus he was a great, great creative person and a great improviser, had tremendous imagination. Looking back, I can picture it in my mind right now, these sessions we would do with Jug. Everybody was so thrilled just to be in his presence. And to be on the record date with him, that was a big thing in itself.

Q: We have cued up “Appointment In Ghana,” a sextet track by Jackie McLean, A.T.’s long-time partner, who you recorded with extensively in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

AT: That’s a piece that I like. I think we’re going to put in our book. That’s one of the new pieces we’re going to put in our repertoire. [SINGS REFRAIN] Tina Brooks, he was a heckuva saxophone player, too.

WB: Oh, yes.

Q: He was on this, and Blue Mitchell on trumpet.

AT: Blue Mitchell, oh, wow!

Q: And we have Kenny Drew and Paul Chambers…

AT: Oh, my goodness! Oh!

Q: You recorded with Paul Chambers on about eight thousand sessions.

AT: Oh, don’t get me…

Q: He’s going to say a few words about Paul Chambers.

AT: Oh, Chamb, Chamb, Chamb… Well, you know, Chamb’s favorite expression, I use it a lot of times with people, Paul Chambers would… I would say to Paul, “Oh, Paul, that was so beautiful, what you played, man. I love you so much. And he would say, “It’s only Chambers’ music, T,” and “We’re going to speed on to victory.” Whatever that meant, you know! He was a sweetheart. He was a sweetie.

Q: [ETC.] Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden want your phone calls. They want to see the phone lines flooded.

AT: At 8 o’clock. If somebody’s out there. Anybody out there listening? I don’t see… Nobody’s calling. It’s just the three of us talking here, seems like to me. Nobody calls or anything. What’s going on?

Q: I don’t know. Maybe they don’t know the phone number.

AT: How many listeners do you have out there usually? Two or three or four?

Q: Maybe at most.

AT: Five.

Q: Maybe at most.

AT: Six.

Q: Possibly, if we’re lucky, on a given night.
[MUSIC: J.McLean/B. Mitchell/AT, “Appointment In Ghana” (1960); R. Garland/PC/AT, “Hey, Now” (1959); PC/H. Jones/AT, “Yesterdays” (1958)]

AT: That was “Yesterdays” by Paul Chambers, with Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell and Arthur Taylor on the drums. And I will be performing with Taylor’s Wailers…tomorrow evening…at 8 o’clock…at Walter Reade Theatre…in Lincoln Center — and we’re gonna wail. And we’re waiting for you to call us. Now, we’re getting a coupl’a calls, but they’re all from guys. There are no ladies out there listening to this music? I mean, this stuff is getting strange now. I can’t handle it. You know, it’s getting out of hand. It didn’t used to be like that, you know, but it’s getting strange now. So I want to see… First, I wish you people would call and let us know you’re out there. Well, we’re sitting here with Walter…

Q: Well, the number, A.T. Give them the number.

AT: Well, you tell them the number. [ETC.]

Q: Why the theme Autobiography In Rhythm for this concert, A.T.?

AT: You want me to be honest?

Q: I wouldn’t want you to lie.

AT: Oh, okay. It’s a tricky situation, because Lincoln Center wanted me to do a program of Bud Powell’s music, and I love Bud Powell as much as anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. One of my greatest thrills is playing music with Bud Powell, and all of us, people like Walter Bolden and myself, we have a great regard and a great respect and love for Bud Powell, and his music, and his artistry — and him as a person also. But things like that have been done already. I had done that already at the United Nations, and I had done it at the JVC Festival. It’s been done. And I’m really most interested in promoting and developing the band that I work with, Taylor’s Wailers. We incorporate the music of Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Walter Bolden, Monk, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean. We play the music of all the master composers of Modern Improvisation. And just to put it in a box that you’re going to play this one type of music was a little too much. That’s how that came about. And even though I rejected it, they went ahead with it anyway. The opening piece of the program tomorrow night is that “Some People Never Get It,” you know, and then the second piece by Walter Bolden, “They’re All Stressed Out,” you dig, and then we can get into Abbey Lincoln’s “You Made Me Funny” — you know, “you’ve made me funny, you’ve made me sneaky…” I don’t want to be that way. I mean, I talk about it, but I don’t want to be funny. Do you know what I mean? Does that cover that question?

Q: I guess it does. A.T., I’d like to ask you if, in that last batch of phone calls, any topics came up that you’d like to discuss with Walter Bolden.

AT: Yes, well, one gentleman called and said, “Yes, you’re talking about a lot of musicians and this and that, but you haven’t said anything about Elmo Hope or…” He mentioned another pianist, I can’t remember…

Q: I think he mentioned Richie Powell.

AT: Richie Powell, that’s right, Bud’s younger brother. He used to play with Clifford Brown and Max Roach. The gentleman was correct. Those are wonderful musicians. Now, I never played with Richie, but I played with Elmo, and Elmo was, PSHEW, unbelievable. Unbelievable. Elmo Hope was something else. He was really something else. He epitomized the artistic manner of accompanying, of imagination and quick thought. I mean, from the brain right to the hand, immediately, at the right time and the place, the right note, the right chord, the right time, where everybody says, “Ah!” Where you don’t say, “Grrr,” you say “Ah!” — a sigh of relief, you know.

Q: He was a contemporary and a close friend of Bud Powell.

AT: That is correct. That is correct. I would see him at Bud’s apartment sometimes, quite a bit. Yeah, Elmo was quite a musician.

Q: A very distinctive style of writing…

AT: Yes.

Q: …and many enduring compositions.

AT: Definitely. But for me, his main thing was the way he would comp. Unbelievable. He was one of the masters, along with Bud and Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and others also I can’t… The list goes on. But it’s not that long either now!

Q: It’s long enough, though. Of course, you played in hundreds of rhythm sections, with many bassists. I would guess (I have to hear it from you) that Paul Chambers epitomized maybe the ideal bass player.

AT: Well, I did most of my work with Paul. A lot with Doug Watkins, too. Paul was masterful. Like, when you go on the bandstand and start to play, you know what I mean, you go in a trance. I mean, you’re out of it. I mean, you’re only involved in what the other musicians are doing. Well, that’s the relief of playing music, because when you can play music, and if you really get involved in it, and you love it and you enjoy it, and you enjoy and respect the people you’re playing with, there’s nothing like that in the world. There’s nothing like that.

Paul epitomized that. He’s like a guy that goes in a trance. He’s right there, you can look in his eyes, but his brain is only in the music and only what the other musicians are doing and what he is doing. That requires a great deal of concentration. You have to be sympathetic. You have to be understanding. You have to be friendly, mean, nasty, cold-blooded and everything at the same time, you know — without being hateful, though. Paul was just a sweetheart. He was a sweetheart.

Q: Was the Red Garland Trio working a lot in terms of gigs, or was it primarily done for recording dates?

AT: This was primarily recordings. We would do gigs sometimes, but that was occasional, because Red and Paul were playing with Miles Davis at this period, just like John Coltrane was playing with Miles Davis at this period. But there were a certain group of guys, I guess you could call it a clique. It was like a clique. And it was hard to get in that clique. Pianists like Red and Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, a couple of people like that, and the bassists were Doug and Paul, and the drummers were Philly and myself, and then there were other people, too, like Louis Hayes was in there…

Q: Sam Jones recorded with Red later.

AT: Sam Jones. That was later, though. That was later. Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd. Joe Gordon, the trumpet player, a great trumpet player who died — Joe Gordon. Those are some of the main guys. And we would work with Gene Ammons, like I said before, and Art Farmer. So there was like a circle of musicians at that particular time. It was very difficult to get into that, because you really had to be playing, first of all, and second of all, the people had to like you, or it didn’t make any difference — you were out! Heh-heh.

Q: Of course, Red Garland and Paul Chambers were playing together all the time.

AT: Yes.

Q: But they sound like it was, you know, a working trio with a book, as though they were on the road or playing gigs like the Ahmad Jamal Trio or other trios of the time.

AT: Yeah. Well, Red was a very sensitive man, you know. I met Red when I was playing with Coleman Hawkins, and he had taken me to his apartment in Philadelphia. He said, “I want you to hear this,” and I sat down and listened to him play. He said, “Yeah, when I get to play with Miles, I’m going to use these chords; these chords are going to set him off.” It’s like you train yourself to play with another musician. And it was really like that, because you know, Miles would say, “Oh my God, do you hear that stuff Red’s playing? That’s too much, isn’t it?” He said, “I don’t have to play. I just stand there, you know.” And Miles was serious. “I don’t really even have to play. Because he’s doing so much beautiful stuff there, I can just do almost anything and it works.”

[MUSIC: W. Bolden, “Gift Of Life” (1978); Monk Big Band, “Friday The 13th” (1959); Bud Powell Trio, “My Heart Stood Still” (1953)]

Q: That was a Rodgers and Hart composition, “My Heart Stood Still” performed by the Bud Powell trio, with George Duvivier on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums. That was a working trio at the time.

AT: That was a working trio, yes.

Q: Speaking of great bassists you worked with, George Duvivier was one of the consummate masters of the instrument.

AT: Marvelous. I couldn’t figure out how he followed Bud. It was something else. It was incredible. It was really incredible. I would be amazed every night.

Q: Would Bud play something different every night? He didn’t have set…

AT: Every night. Bud was a real improviser, you know. He was never the same. Never the same. That’s what real improvisation. Every night it was different. He’d play the same song every night, but it was like another song, heh-heh — every time. People knew this, too. So that was nice also.

Q: So people would come every night because they knew it would be a different set.

AT: Every night, that’s right.

Q: Prior to that we heard you with Thelonious Monk…

AT: Thelonious! Yeah.

Q: The Thelonious Monk Big Band at Town Hall.

AT: That was quite an evening, yes, with Thelonious. The great Monk.

Q: Some drummers have said it was very hard to play with Monk. Philly Joe Jones talked about the difficulty of following him.

AT: Well, it was difficult. But we all had a great respect and a great regard for Monk because of his knowledge of music, and he was original at the same time, too. Nobody sounds like Monk. There’s nobody! Nobody sounds like that. Even when somebody plays some of his riffs, it doesn’t sound…it’s not Monk. But he was original. And as far as playing with him, I found it very difficult. That was my most difficult job.

Q: Why was that?

AT: Because Monk’s tempos were in between. It was just a fraction in between, which was the hardest tempo to play. It’s harder to play slow than it is fast, because when you play fast, you make errors going by so fast, you don’t know the difference. But if you’re playing slow… This is just my opinion, now; it’s not no gospel truth or nothing like that. But it’s harder to play slow. I could play something fast, at a great rate of speed, and I could mess up…

Q: Supersonic, as you like to say.

AT: Supersonic speed, that’s right, and mess up five hundred times, and nobody would know the difference, I wouldn’t know the difference even, it’s going by so fast. But when you play something slow, and you make an error, it stands out like a sore thumb with a big bandage on it, you know.

Q: [ETC.] We’ll end with a version of “Bullet Train,” from A.T.’s recent release, Mr. A.T.

AT: On Enja Records, which is available at all the record stores in the city. Go buy the records, because when you hear it, you may like it — and go buy it. Because we need the money.

Q: Now, I’ve heard somebody else say that before. “Tell your square friends,” right.

AT: We’re using some of Art Blakey’s stuff. We’ll use his stuff, too, you know, because he’s a master, and you have to use things from the masters also.

Q: [ETC.] Before we conclude the show with “Mr. A.T.,” we’re going to hear you on a recording with someone who was one of your closest friends, I would guess, you recorded with him frequently and played with him in Europe for many years, Johnny Griffin, from a 1962 recording.

AT: Oh yeah, the Little Giant. That’s my man, Johnny Griffin. Rough musician. He had one of those big sounds. You could hear him in Brooklyn when he was playing in Manhattan.

Q: I can hear you in the Bronx when you’re playing in Staten Island, too!

AT: [LAUGHING] Even when he’s playing fast.

Q: This is kind of an obscure recording.

AT: Yeah, I haven’t heard it. I forgot about that. We did that when he was leaving for Europe the next day. He hasn’t come back yet. He was leaving for Europe the next day, yeah.

Q: We’ll hear an original blues by Griff called “Slow Burn.” After that we’ll hear the short version of “Mr. A.T.” from your recent release on Enja…

AT: Actually, I’d like to hear the long version.

Q: Well, we don’t have time to play the long version. We played that at the start of the show.

AT: How long is the long version?

Q: It’s eleven minutes.

AT: But that’s what we’ve got. Exactly eleven minutes.

Q: No, but I have to play this, and then the short version.

AT: Is it necessary for you to play this?

Q: Yes, it is!


Q: We played the long one at the top of the show.

AT: Okay, compromise. You always have me in a compromising position. It’s okay. I just hope everyone enjoyed the show, sitting here with my buddy, the great drummer Walter Bolden and my good friend, Ted Panken. It’s really been a pleasure being back here at WKCR for a short visit this evening. And I’m thinking about you, Mo!

WB: And I’m very, very thankful to be invited here, especially with A.T. It was really-really-really a pleasure.

[MUSIC: Griffin, “Slow Burn” (1962), AT, “Mr. A.T.”]


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For the Pianist Junior Mance’s 88th Birthday, a Long WKCR Interview From 1991

Pianist Junior Mance, a professional for some 70 years, who played with everyone, turns 88 today. I had the opportunity to host the maestro for a WKCR Musician Show in September 1991 — here’s the full transcript of our conversation. A lot of Chicago history contained herein.


Junior Mance Musician Show (WKCR, 9-18-91):

Q: Junior is from Evanston, Illinois and came up in the Chicago environment. I’d like to know a little bit about your beginnings on the piano.

JM: The very beginnings? Well, when I was five years old… We had this little upright in the house, and my father played for his own enjoyment, not professionally or anything like that, but when he would come home from work he’d sit down… That was during the days of stride piano. He even took lessons. And when he wasn’t around, I just started fooling around with it, until I got caught one day.

Q: What did they do to you?

JM: Nothing. He was flabbergasted! In fact, what floored him, I asked him if I could take piano lessons. That was later, though. I started formal training when I was eight.

Q: What did that consist of? You had a teacher and…

JM: I had a teacher, yes.

Q: So I take it that you picked up pretty quickly on the piano. You had a proficiency…

JM: I guess I did. I wanted to play the piano, you know. I used to hear him do things, then when I was home in the daytime I’d sneak over to the piano when my Mom was in another part of the house doing something.

Q: Were you listening to records then? Or was it primarily just through your records and practicing?

JM: There were records, yeah; you know, the 78’s. My father was an Art Tatum fan, as all piano players are, and he was a bigger Earl Hines fan. In fact, Earl Hines’ band back then used to work around Chicago quite a bit, they worked the Grand Terrace in Chicago — and they used to broadcast. This was before they made a lot of records, you know, or records were played over the air. But all the bands would broadcast live from wherever they played.

Q: And the Grand Terrace was a major center. All the bands who were in there would broadcast to the West Coast particularly.

JM: Yeah. And all through the Midwest. Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines especially. Those were the two mainstays.

Q: So from a very early age you were hearing the best in piano, particularly the style of Chicago, the cross between the Blues piano thing, what Tatum and Earl Hines were doing, and the Big Band sound as well.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Did you go to hear the bands in person, or were you too young?

JM: I was too young. Occasionally… A few years later they started coming to the Regal Theatre, which was like the counterpart of the Apollo Theatre here. They had shows every week, and usually a big band. I remember the first big band I heard in person was Duke Ellington at the Regal Theatre, and the next one was Count Basie, and my father took me backstage to meet Count Basie when I was about 10 years old.

Q: Then the bands went around by railroad, and Chicago was and still is the railroad center of the nation, the crossroads, so many of the bands would come through Chicago and stay for extended periods of time.

JM: Right.

Q: When did you first start becoming active on the Chicago scene and do your first work for money? I won’t say professionally…

JM: Oh, when I was about 13 or 14.

Q: Tell us about those gigs. What was the nature of them?

JM: [LAUGHS] Actually, the first gigs, I remember there was this saxophone player who lived upstairs over us in Evanston. A good saxophone player. He never went out on his own; he always had a day gig. But he played very well. He played like Illinois Jacquet’s style, so he worked all the time; you know, the cat would come home from work… And he had a lot of gigs in what later became known as roadhouses, the places out on the highway that had a band, usually three pieces — saxophone, drums and piano. I don’t know why the basses were so absent then. They were around…

Q: Money, I guess.

JM: Yeah, I guess so. So I remember, oh, I guess I must have been somewhere between 10 and 13 — this guy’s piano player must have been sick and couldn’t make the gig. So he called everybody he could, and everybody was working, or else he couldn’t make the gig, you know — so he asked my father could he take me on the gig. And he was one of my father’s close friends, and my father trusted him, you know. So I went on the gig with him, and he taught me how to comp that night. A different style than what they do now, you know; it’s what they call (?)boonsen(?) — CHUNK-A, CHUNK-A, CHUNK-A-CHUN… That night he stuck to tunes, mostly Blues tunes or tunes with “I Got Rhythm” changes. And I was fascinated. So after that, whenever he was home, you know, I would bug him, like “Teach me some more of that!”

Q: And he would? He was forthcoming?

JM: Oh yeah, yeah. So then when I was about 13 or 14, I worked a lot of gigs with him, especially in the summertime, when I wasn’t in school.

Q: What was his name?

JM: His name was T.S. Mims.

Q: And was he playing mostly in Evanston, or…

JM: Well, the Chicago area. But strangely enough, not right on the Chicago scene, like where Jug was working or any of those places. This was mostly, like, out on the highway or out on the outskirts of town. And he was really a good player. He’s still alive. He’s in his eighties, around my father’s age now.

Q: Of course, Gene Ammons was the first musician with whom you first emerged on the national scene and did your first recordings. What were some of the events that led you from working with T.S. Mims on the various roadhouse gigs on the outskirts of Chicago to working and subsequently recording with Gene Ammons?

JM: Well, as time went on, you know, all the time I was in high school, I worked gigs myself. I would work with… Well, we would get gigs, guys my own age; we’d get, like, the school dances (which we got paid for; that’s why I consider that professional) and things like that. But I was working more in Chicago with a lot of Chicago musicians. I remember one guy when I was in my teens was George Freeman, who is still around, a guitar player, Von Freeman’s brother. I worked a lot of gigs with him.

Q: Were these mostly on the South Side?

JM: Right. Yeah, I did a long commute when I was young.

Q: That’s a long ride, straight down, north to south!

JM: Yeah, it was an hour each way. At that time. It’s shorter now, though, I think. Transportation is more modern now. I also met Leroy Jackson at that time.

Q: I can remember seeing him with George Freeman five or six years ago in Chicago as well, so that’s a partnership that’s lasted a long time, I guess.

JM: Yeah. And we had… Oh, man, there were so many good musicians around there that people never heard of. They just either faded away or got into bad habits that took them away, you know. I remember names like Elick Johnson, who was a tenor player. Oh, man, if he was around today, he would be, you know, right up there with the giants.

Q: He’s spoken of by many.

JM: Nicky Hill was another one.

Q: Again, what was the nature of these gigs? For instance, were they up on what was happening in modern music?

JM: Yes.

Q: Was everybody up on Charlie Parker in 1944 and 1945?

JM: Yes.

Q: Talk about how that music sort of came into the consciousness of the young Chicagoans.

JM: That was funny. I remember this was right after I graduated from high school. I was 16 at the time, and I was working a gig in Waukegan, Illinois, which is even north of Evanston — Jack Benny’s home town. So I was working there with a band that was pretty much an R&B band, but a good R&B band — it was really good. No names that you would know, but a pretty good one. And that was the type of gig we played, what they called floor shows in those days. We had like a tap dancer, a Blues singer, a shake dancer, etcetera. So one night during the week, business was kind of slow, and these two young guys came in and asked could they sit in. So the leader let them sit in. And it was a music I hadn’t heard before. But it, like, blew me away. I said “Wow!” I really dug it. And the two young guys…one guy, I don’t know if you ever heard the name Henry Prior…

Q: Who was nicknamed Hen-Pie, I believe.

JM: Hen-Pie, right. He was an alto player who sounded just like Bird, like Charlie Parker. And the other guy was a trumpet player named Robert Gay, they used to call Little Diz — which his name speaks for itself; he sounded exactly like Dizzy. These guys were around our age, too. They just wanted to go around and go out and play, and they didn’t care who they played with.

In the meantime, the band leader was telling me, “Man, don’t listen to that noise. That’s not music. That’s noise.” And I said, “Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah, okay.” Next day, man…! [LAUGHS] We exchanged phone numbers. So that’s when I got into listening to records. I went and bought every Charlie Parker or Bud Powell record I could find! Which then, it was pretty well new in Chicago, too, but as they came out, word spread like wildfire among the musicians, like, of my generation: “Oh, there’s a new Bird record out.”

Q: One thing, though, is that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were briefly with Earl Hines…

JM: Right.

Q: …and then were raided by Billy Eckstine.

JM: Mmm-=hmm.

Q: And Earl Hines, of course, was based in Chicago, although I don’t know how often that band actually played. My impression is that was more of a touring band.

JM: Oh, no, they played. That band played in a club called the El Grotto, I think. That was their first (?).

Q: On 64th Street and Cottage Grove.

JM: Yeah.

Q: But I take it you never got to hear that particular edition of Earl Hines’ band. That’s a very famous band, but it never recorded.

JM: No, I did get to hear them then. Then I was sneaking into clubs. In Chicago at that time they didn’t check ID’s like they did later.

Q: A sort of wide-open type of town.

JM: Right, heh-heh, like the TV show The Untouchables; most of it took place in Chicago!

Q: That aura remained indeed. But did you have sort of distinct impression that listening to them left on you at that time?

JM: Oh, man, do I! Yeah, they just blew me away. It was just a phenomenal band. It was the direction I wanted to go in music. If Earl Hines wasn’t the piano player, I would have begged for the gig in that band!

Q: [ETC.] What was your first contact with Gene Ammons, who again, you did your first recordings with?

JM: I left this R&B band in Waukegan that I was playing with shortly after that, and I started working with a big band in Chicago — this is while I was in college, too. The band was called Jimmy Dale. It was led by a guy named Harold Fox, who was a tailor who specialized in musicians’ uniforms and band uniforms. And Harold had the most fantastic band book of anybody. Because his way of doing business was he would trade the bandleaders a whole set of suits for their band in exchange to copy some of the charts. So we had a book which was about as thick as three or four New York phone directories! And we had everybody’s music. We had, oh, the Billy Eckstine band, the big band music, we had some of Dizzy’s stuff, we had a lot of Stan Kenton, some Duke, some Basie…

Q: How many pieces was this band?

JM: Oh, let me see. We had five trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones and three rhythm.

Q: Any names you’d care to bring up who performed…

JM: Well, Jug was in that band. Not always. This was after he made “Red Top.” But Jug was very fond of big bands, too, and this was a fantastic big band. And Gail Brockman, the legendary Gail Brockman, who was a trumpet player who was in Billy Eckstine’s band. This was a guy, oh, Dizzy and Miles and everybody looked up to him. Gail and Freddie Webster were like two people who never got their complete due, I think.

Q: Of course this had to have been after Jug had left, after Eckstine had disbanded…

JM: This was after Eckstine broke up. This was like 1946 and ’47. Lee Konitz was in the band. Gene Wright. Who else was in the band? Some of the names people won’t know. But everybody else in the band was just as good as they were, too. They just didn’t…as I said, didn’t get out. Hobart Dotson was another in the band.

Q: Of course, a legendary teacher in Chicago was the bandmaster at DuSable High School, Captain Walter Dyett, who might have produced half of those musicians…

JM: Oh, man, did he! Yeah. Well, Gene was one of Dyett’s disciples. Benny Green, the trombone player. Johnny Griffin, Nat Cole…

Q: All the Freemans.

JM: All the Freemans, right.

Q: Dorothy Donegan…

JM: Dorothy Donegan, mmm-hmm. Elick Johnson, the guy I mentioned, and a lot of others who played just as good but never, you know, made it out there.

Q: Anyway, this is how you really first encountered and got to know Gene Ammons, was with the Jimmy Dale band?

JM: Right. The first night that I was with the band, and Jug played the gig right after… In fact, Jug offered me the gig with him. And both of us, like, were in and out of the band. When Jug wasn’t working, we’d work with this big band, with Jimmy Dale.

Q: So things were very busy. Lots of things were going on in Chicago, and of every sort, really.

JM: It was, yeah. Those were the days, you know, when the New York musicians used to look forward to coming to Chicago. Because I remember with Jug, we had like a home gig in a place right next door to the Regal Theatre called the Congo Lounge. And the bands used to come in and… See, in those days the hours for working were like 10 to 4, and 10 to 5 on Friday and Saturday. And the Regal was like the Apollo; at about 11 o’clock at night the guys were off from work, and they’d all file down from the Congo, man. That’s where I met so many of the main musicians.

Q: Let’s talk about that after we hear a set of music featuring some of these Gene Ammons sides from the late 1940’s on which Junior Mance appears.

MUSIC: “Blowing The Family Jewels,” “When I Dream Of You,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Cherokee.”

…that last was Sonny Stitt, from a series of tracks by Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons in the ’78 period, when the tracks were short and everything had to be very compressed. Do you feel that having come up through that has affected the way you play today?

JM: No, I was glad to get out of that. Because they kept constantly reminding you in the studio to keep it under three minutes, not go over three minutes. And they didn’t want three minutes. They wanted not over 2 minutes and 50 seconds at the most. Two and a half minutes was perfect for them!

Q: Well, many a masterpiece was created in that time, but I can certainly see your….

JM: Well, it was good in a way, because it really taught you, like, how to really say a lot in a short space of time.

Q: Not waste a note.

JM: And not waste a note. Exactly.


As far as employers go, Prez was probably one of the best. Sometimes we’d work a week, and not work for maybe the next three or four weeks. But Prez would take care of us, both Leroy and I, because both of us were about 19 at the time, and we were the only two in the band… Oh, and Jerry Elliott, the trombone player who was from Pittsburgh. We were the only three who weren’t from New York. The other guys had pads in New York or families there. And we all stayed in the same hotel where Prez stayed. And Prez took care of us. Prez saw to it that we ate every day and that we had spending money — and wouldn’t let us pay him back! He died with me owing him a lot of money. He just never would let us pay him back.

Q: What was it like being on the stand with Lester Young? Was it a similar format every night? Would he change it up all the time?

JM: As far as changing up, I guess he changed it up all the time. Because it wasn’t really like… He wasn’t a show-businessy type person. We’d get up there and it was almost like a session, like a group of guys get together and let’s play something, you know. And after a while, you forget who the leader is. And he’d play… He never played a lot of solos…I mean a lot of choruses. He’d play three or four choruses, and then maybe everybody played three or four, then take it out. Most of the bands then, people of the stature of Prez, weren’t based on charts or arrangements, unless you had a big band. Because of Prez’s reputation itself, people came there to hear Prez. They didn’t care what was around it, you know. So everybody got a chance to play.

And Prez had a philosophy about letting everybody play. When we went on the road, he would really let everybody stretch out. Because he said…I think one night he said… I don’t know, somebody didn’t want to solo on a certain tune or thought it was too long, and Prez said, “Look, I want everybody to play, because everybody might not like me, but they might like one of you.” After that, everybody played.

Q: A few words about Gene Ammons. When we were off-mike, you quoted a comment Frank Foster made about him.

JM: Well, Frank was talking Gene’s big sound and the way he swings. So Frank said, “One thing about Gene Ammons, he hit one note, and immediately the beat and swing would begin and the note would just fill up the whole room.” Which is true. Jug had a tone as big as ten saxophone players!

Q: What was it like going out with Jug in a small group at that time? You talked about him trying to establish his…

JM: Well, I joined the band after he made “Red Top,” which was his big hit; after Billy Eckstine’s band broke up and he recorded for Mercury, and “Red Top” was his big hit. And the band worked a lot. That was before I was with them. When I joined the band, “Red Top” was still popular, it was still his mainstay, but it was beginning to tail off a little bit. And he had a lot of other good Chicago hits. Because we worked a lot in Chicago. In fact, the union brought us up on charges, because one night we had five gigs…

Q: Oh, no!

JM: Yeah, heh-heh. And Jug’s car… One of them was in Gary, Indiana, the third gig, and the car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth gig! So the club-owner took Jug to the union.

Q: How did it get resolved?

JM: They fined Jug $500. What saved us, we had a drummer at the time from Kansas City named Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band. So we’re all sitting there, the whole band is down there, you know, and we figure we’re all going to get fined. So they ask each one of us, “Well, you guys know better. Why did you follow him in doing five gigs?” Now, that was a stupid question. If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it…

Q: Those are questions you’re not supposed to be able to answer.

JM: Yeah. So Ellis Bartee, who was very quick with it and he could come up with a quick answer, he just told them, he says, “Well, Mr. Gray…” Mr. Gray was the President, Harry Gray. He said, “Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here from Kansas City, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.” But they all laughed, the rest of the boys laughed when he said, “All I saw was Gene Ammons. I figured, well, that’s the man to be with, and that’s who I wanted to be with — so I got the gig.” So that got us off the hook. That sort of made them laugh a little bit. But Gene got fined the $500. Plus I don’t know what happened between him and the promoter. The promoter lost money or had to refund a lot of money. They were all dances, five dances in one night!

Q: Were there a lot of dances in Chicago at that time?

JM: At that time, yeah. There was the Pershing Ballroom, the Parkway Ballroom, the Savoy was still going then, and even a lot of places on the West Side. One of the gigs we were supposed to do was on the West Side, the last gig was on the West Side. We never heard from that guy. He just kept quiet. I guess he found out what happened.

Q: One other person you worked with I’d like to ask you about is the young Sonny Stitt. Were you working with his small group, or was that “Cherokee” we heard just put together for the record?

JM: We were both with Jug at the time, and the record date came up, and he got Art Blakey to make the date.

Q: Of course, he was one of the great virtuosos on all of his instruments at that time, particularly alto and tenor.

JM: Right. Well, alto was his main instrument.

Q: What memories do you have of working with him?

JM: Well, Sonny used to come and sit in with us at the Congo, too. He spent a lot of time in Chicago. He lived there for a while. And he used to come and sit in with us almost every night. A lot of cats used to come into the Congo almost every night and just sit in with us.

Q: Out of the Regal Theatre, as you were saying.

JM: Yeah, but I mean even other than the Regal. A lot of the local cats who could really play. Ike Day was another one who used to come in.

Q: Tell us a little bit about Ike Day. He’s one of the legendary drummers…

JM: Right.

Q: …who it’s commonly said Art Blakey would check him out, and Max Roach…

JM: Oh, everybody. Jo Jones gave him a set of drums. Ike was a genius, really, one of those young geniuses. I remember seeing Ike sit in with the Basie band when he was 16. He couldn’t read music. He played the book like he had been in the band all the time.

Q: He just had it.

JM: Just a natural. He had such a natural sense of anticipation, and hands that were just unbelievable, and could swing. And he was a teenager. He died very young. He was about 24 when he died.

Q: He had tuberculosis, I believe.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: He only made one recording, I believe, with Gene Ammons, and you can barely hear him on the recording…

JM: I wasn’t with him then. I didn’t know about that one. I think I heard something about it…

Q: Can you give us some idea of what his sound was like, an analogy to another drummer, or describe it in some way?

JM: I guess, now that I think back, he sounded a lot like Big Sid Catlett, who was always one of my favorites, too.

Q: And from Chicago as well.

JM: That I didn’t know.

Q: He studied with Jimmy Bertrand, one of the great show drummers in Chicago in the 1920’s.

JM: Yeah. Well, Big Sid was the drummer… That explains it, because most of the drummers in Chicago could do more than one style. They could do anything… Like, Big Sid played with Louis Armstrong, and then turned around and made a record with Dizzy and Bird, and it sounded like he belonged there on both.

Q: And plus, do the big band material as well…

JM: Exactly.

Q: I guess he played with Fletcher Henderson at the Grand Terrace…

JM: That’s right, yeah.

Q: …amongst others. One person talking about Ike Day said that he had an incredible dynamic range, that he was very sensitive to sound and hearing the whole kit and using the whole kit.

JM: Yeah, he played with the whole band. He wasn’t just… You know, like some young teenage drummers, they want to stand out. No, Ike was a musician. Ike was a player.

Q: You referred to Art Tatum as probably your main influence on the piano.

JM: Everybody’s main influence! [LAUGHS]

Q: You’re going to hear a set of Art Tatum music. And you mentioned to me that “Elegy” was the…

JM: That’s one of my favorites, yeah.

Q: A few words?

JM: Well, the music speaks for itself on that. I just heard it, and it just blew me away. Because I had heard the Classical versions of it as well, and then when I heard Art Tatum’s version, I didn’t want to listen to the other versions any more.

[MUSIC: “Elegy” (Keystone Brdcst., 1938), “Fine and Dandy,”

“All The Things You Are”; Ahmad Jamal, “Raincheck,” “Poinciana”]

Q: You said that you used to work with Israel Crosby at a very famous club on 55th Street in Chicago called the Beehive. You were house pianist there for a while?

JM: House pianist, right.

Q: How long did that happen?

JM: Well, I was there for a little over a year. In fact, the day I got out of the Army I got home, and… I don’t know if this guy saw me on the street, but he heard that I was home, a drummer, a guy named Buddy Smith who is no longer with us. But Buddy had the gig there, and he had Israel on bass and myself.

Q: The Beehive at that time was one of the main places where people would come in from out of town and use the rhythm section.

JM: Right, exactly. That’s where I got to play with Bird for a month. They booked everybody for four weeks, which was great, too.

Q: Who were some of the people you played with there?

JM: Coleman Hawkins was the first one in there, and he was there twice during the time I was there. Charlie Parker I mentioned. Lester Young. That’s when I first met Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis; also he was there.

Q: As a solo?

JM: Yeah. That was long before the days with Griffin.

Q: I was wondering if that was around the time he was working with Basie.

JM: I think in between times. He had been with Basie, and then he was on his own, and then after that he went back with Basie again.

Q: What do you remember about working with Coleman Hawkins?

JM: Oh, it was wonderful. Basically, working with him it was pretty much the same approach to the music as working with Bird. Like, they both had this thing… They knew every standard in the world, you know, and they would call a standard, and if I knew it, I’d say, “Yeah, I know that. What key?” And both of them… Bird’s phrase was “Make it easy on yourself.” And Coleman said something to that same effect. He said “Wherever you want it.” It didn’t make any difference to them what key you played it in?

Q: Would Coleman Hawkins generally play the same repertoire every night or would he change it up?

JM: No, he’d change it up. He went through all the standards. Of course, he had to do his hits, you know, like “Body and Soul” — he couldn’t get away from that. “Body and Soul” and “Stuffy.”

Q: Would he play a set solo on “Body and Soul” or would he make it different every night?

JM: He played pretty much the solo he did on the record, yeah. Because people… The solo was as famous as the tune, because people could hum that solo along with him.

Q: Another musician who played at the Beehive was Wilbur Ware.

JM: Wilbur Ware, yes. After I left there, Wilbur worked there a lot. I forget…let’s see, what did Israel do after that? I think Israel joined Jamal after I left, and Wilbur probably came in then. Not immediately, though. I think Victor Sproles was there a little bit before Wilbur.

Q: Well, Israel Crosby, of course, is one of the great rhythm masters in the history of the bass.

JM: That’s right. He was years ahead of his time, too.

Q: Talk a little bit about him and what he did that made him so special.

JM: His lines, his bass lines, the notes that he would choose — the clever things he did to fill up spaces. It’s what a lot of the bass players are doing nowadays, which is like the thing to do now. But he did it… He was ahead of his time. He was somewhat like… Well, Prez was ahead of his time. That’s the way Israel was.

Q: And you’d probably heard him on records with Teddy Wilson.

JM: I’d heard him on records with Teddy Wilson. And Israel was getting on in years then. Israel had played with Fletcher Henderson’s band and Benny Goodman’s early band, so he wasn’t…

Q: A spring chicken.

JM: Yeah. But he was just so many years ahead of his time. And playing with him was such… You never knew what he was going to do, but he would do something that wouldn’t get in your way; in fact, it would enhance you. He was the kind of bass player, when you play with him he keeps a smile on your face. Because every time he does something, the piano player’s face would smile, you know!

Q: You’d just listen to him throughout the set and you’d be very happy.

JM: Wilbur Ware was like that, too. Wilbur Ware and I worked at a place on the South Side with Buddy Smith again, and Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. We must have worked there for a couple of years.

Q: What place was that?

JM: Cadillac Bob’s, I think it was called?

Q: On 71st Street, was it?

JM: Not that one. No, that’s the new one. This one was between… Right down the street from the Pershing. This is between 63rd and 64th on Cottage.

Q: Busy street.

JM: Oh, that was the thing. Man, that whole area was saturated with a lot of Jazz. The Ground Propeller, the Cotton Club, and all those clubs along 63rd.

Q: All of them had music.

JM: Yeah.

Q: I heard one drummer tell the day he got out of the Army he started walking down 63rd Street, and it took him I think three days he said before he got…

JM: Yeah! [LAUGHS] Because there was so much good music, and it was all Jazz, say starting from about South Park all the way over to the lake practically.

Q: And that’s about a mile-and-a-half or two miles.

JM: At least, or two miles, yeah.

Q: A few words about playing with Charlie Parker. You did say that he’d play a lot of material and make it easy on you. I believe he played at the Beehive about a week or two weeks before he died.

JM: If he did, I wasn’t there then.

Q: What was happening the week that you worked with him? Was he in good form, in good health?


JM: Excellent form. I tell you, he kept me awake! Boy, there was just so much music, listening to it…

[ETC., THEN MUSIC BY JUNIOR: “Emily,” “Jubilation,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Yancey Special”]

Q: Next we’ll hear some sides recorded by Dinah Washington during your time with her. She was from Chicago originally? Did she go to DuSable? I’m not sure.

JM: I think she went to Wendell Phillips, the rival of DuSable. I think. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure she did. I don’t think it was DuSable.

Q: At any rate, she had local fame in Chicago…

JM: Oh yeah.

Q: And she was a great church singer as well, in Chicago’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

JM: Right.

Q: I guess Dinah first worked with Lionel Hampton.

JM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Lionel Hampton seemed to have picked up a lot of musicians out of Chicago.

JM: A lot of them to pick up!

Q: How did the gig with Dinah Washington happen for you?

JM: She just called me one day. Actually I was called to do a record date with her. That was the album that had “A Foggy Day” and “I Let a Song Go Out Of My Heart.” So after the date she asked me if… In fact, I was working at the Beehive at the time. And she offered me the gig. That’s when I left the Beehive.

Q: She must have been working quite a bit at that time.

JM: She was working a lot, she was paying good, and then you know, she lived in New York at the time, and it gave me a chance to…

Q: Get back there.

JM: Yeah. I wanted to be in New York a lot.

Q: That’s understandable. So it seems like you were going back and forth between New York and Chicago about half and half then, from the time you…

JM: Oh yeah. With the exception of the period between 1951 and 1953, when I was in the Army, I’d say between ’47 or ’48, when I was with Jug… I dropped out of Roosevelt after a year-and-a-half, because the gigs got heavy then — and I knew what I wanted to do, you know. Then I moved to New York permanently in ’56, when Cannonball formed his first group. Cannonball and I were in the Service together also.

Q: Where were you stationed?

JM: Fort Knox. Fort Knox, Kentucky. Cannonball and Nat. Curtis Fuller was there for a while, too.

Q: It must have been quite an Army band.

JM: Oh, it was, yeah. Yeah, we had a ball.

Q: Did you play a lot during those couple of years?

JM: Yeah, I did. I wasn’t supposed to be in the band, being a piano player. But Cannonball pulled some strings and got me into the band as a typist. [LAUGHS] I knew how to type, and they needed one to do the administrative work for the band, so on a technicality I got in.

Q: Was there a piano on the base?

JM: Oh yeah! Well, there were three bands there, the 36th Army band, the 3rd Armored Division band, and the 158th Army Band. But see, to get in an Army band, the piano player has to be someone who can also play a marching instrument. And I couldn’t play a marching instrument, although they tried to teach me! One day they gave me a bass drum, and said, “Okay, Mance, try to play this.” It wasn’t a long march I had to do. This basic training company was coming in at the end of their training; they were coming out of the woods, out of bivouac. So to give them a little spirit, you know, we’d meet maybe a distance equal to about five or six blocks before they got to the barracks, about a half-mile, say, and we were supposed to play for them. So where we had to meet them was at the bottom of a hill, and I had the bass drum on a windy day! So we’re going up the hill, and if you can imagine this, this would be how the beat of the drum went: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM..BOOM..BOOM…BOOM… So between the wind and not knowing what I was doing on this bass drum, the tempo got slower and slower. So one of the snare drummers, another cymbal player, ran over and said, “Mance, you’re gonna have the guys crawling, man. They’re tired already and we’re going up this hill. Give me the bass drum; you take these cymbals.” I said, “What am I supposed to do with these?” “Just hit ’em.” He didn’t tell me how because he didn’t have time. So I didn’t know, man. I just reared back and got a good lick and went, “WHAM!” Anyway, you saw guys scattering everywhere getting out of our way. They didn’t know what that noise! [LAUGHING] So then the band director told me, “Mance, just carry them under your arm!” So that was the only time…

Q: Back to typing.

JM: Yeah. The band always played for the Kentucky Derby every year, too, in Louisville — twice I went to that. But I had to have an out to get there, so I had to be in the marching band. So they let me carry the cymbals under my arm both times! And once we got inside Churchill Downs, I was on my own then.

Q: I hope you won some money.

JM: You know what? I made one bet on something like the second race or something like that, and won enough to, like, really hang out the rest of the day at the Derby. It wasn’t a lot, something like $40 or something, but in the Army back then… This was 1951 or so, and…

Q: That was good money then. A week’s salary.

JM: Right! So I had a ball. I didn’t bet no more after that. I just tasted, and looked around and watched the races and hung out. You know, there’s a lot to do at Churchill Downs rather than just sitting there and watching the races. It was a nice outing.

Q: Well, let’s hear some of these Dinah Washington sides. We’re going to start with “Our Love Is Here To Stay” from In The Land Of Hi-Fi, Dinah Washington with Hal Mooney and His Orchestra, featuring Cannonball Adderly and Junior Mance, arrangements by Hal Mooney. Then we’ll hear something from the famous session Dinah’s Jam, which you were telling a story about — Dinah brought in a bunch of hard-core fans.

JM: Right. She had it catered. She invited about fifty of her closest friends, who were like real Jazz fans, not just people who liked the music. And there was a Who’s Who musicians there. So she had it catered, and what happened was we would play and… And it was in the studio. It was a live date, but in the studio. During the playback after each tune, while we were listening, people would help themselves to drinks and food, it was buffet style, and the drinks put them in a good mood… And it was really one of best record dates ever made, as far as enjoyment. There were no pressures, nothing was rehearsed. Most of the stuff on there is like first take. And the audience was just enthusiastic. Fifty people sounded like five thousand. It was just a small studio, but they were really into it.

[MUSIC: Dinah Washington: “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “You Go To My Head.” Teddy Wilson/Sarah: “When We’re Alone,” Teddy Wilson, “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Fine and Dandy.”

Q: Teddy Wilson, as you mentioned at the top of the show, is one of your very earliest influences on the piano.

JM: Right.

Q: Do you recollect the early sides you heard of his? Were you familiar with the sides we played?

JM: Not really. At the time, you know, I was about eight years old. Teddy was young then, too. Teddy was a teenager. Teddy was one of those people that got out there young, when he was in his teens. But I remember my first piano teacher, his idol was Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. Teddy had just published a book of his piano solos, and that was one of the early things that my teacher gave me to learn. And then my father started buying Teddy Wilson records, so my father liked him, too.

Q: Of course, Teddy Wilson’s two primary influences, I guess, were Art Tatum and Earl Hines.

JM: Oh yes.

Q: We’ll move now to some Earl Hines material. Earl Hines, of course, was at the Grand Terrace while you were coming up in Chicago. I guess he was in Chicago after the War as well, when he had the El Grotto.

JM: He had the El Grotto.

Q: He did run that club, right?

JM: That’s something I don’t know. He may have, because he was there all the time.

Q: Did you get to know Earl Hines?

JM: Yeah, but later. Later I met Earl and I knew him.

Q: Any words about the Fatha?

JM: Oh, a wonderful man. And a great player!

Q: It seems that later on his life his pianism developed and developed and was featured much more.

JM: Well, after the big band. But even during the big band he was a great player. He could play then.

Q: But later, of course, he recorded all those wonderful albums…

JM: Yeah, where he’s doing solo or trio.

Q: We’ll hear the Earl Hines band featuring Billy Eckstine.

JM: I want to hear those. They are nostalgic for me.

[MUSIC: “Jelly, Jelly,” “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Boogie-Woogie On The St. Louis Blues.”]

Q: Junior, you said that’s one of the tunes you learned note for note when you were a kid.

JM: Yeah, that, and the other one was “After Hours.” Oh, there was one more, too. In fact, the first Jazz tune I ever learned was “Yancey Special” as a kid.

Q: Well, and you’re still playing it.

JM: [LAUGHS] Them habits are hard to break!

Q: Were you playing a lot of stride piano when you were a kid? Was that how you first really got your chops?

JM: Not really. I used to marvel at the stride piano players. But I have small hands, and I couldn’t… I’d miss notes when I do that.

Q: Can’t hit those intervals…

JM: Yeah. That’s why I was glad when Bebop came in. Even now, though, even now occasionally when I do solo piano, I’ll try, even though I can do it a little bit. See, most of the stride piano players could play tenths. Like, Art Tatum could walk tenths like a bass player walks single notes, you know. And I could never even… Even now I can’t reach a tenth on the piano.

Q: There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about Earl Hines, that he had had surgery to cut the webbing…

JM: Oh yeah. That wasn’t true. Boy, that tale went all over the world, too. But that wasn’t true. Because doctors said if you do that, you can paralyze the hands.

Q: We’ll move now quickly to one of the very famous groups that Junior worked with between 1959 and 1961, the Johnny Griffin-Eddie Lockjaw” Davis tenor tandem. Actually, that was ’60…

JM: Yeah, it was more ’60 to ’61, because I was with Dizzy until ’60.

Q: Well, it seems like a long time because there are so many recordings by this band. It just recorded prolifically!


Q: How did that hook up for you?

JM: Well, Jaws and I knew each other from the Beehive when you worked there, and…

Q: Of course you knew Griff from Chicago.

JM: Well, Griff I’ve known all my life. He was from Chicago. They got their group together while I was still with Dizzy. Then I left Dizzy to form my own trio, to go out on my own, so to speak, not necessarily a trio… I had made that first album, the one with Ray Brown. So I wanted to test the waters for myself. And like all new groups, you know, times get hard. Then I did some gigs with Johnny and Jaws, and made a deal with Jaws. Jaws said, “You can work with us, and if you get a gig with the trio, go make that.” And it turned out during the time the band was together, I made more gigs with them than I did with my trio. And we were in the studios all the time.

Q: You recorded a lot of Monk’s material…

JM: We did a whole album on Monk called Lookin’ At Monk.

Q: Was Monk another musician whose music you were very much involved with? Or was that the first time you’d really started grappling with Monk?

JM: No, it wasn’t the first time. I’ve always been a Monk admirer. I think because we have the same birthday. I’ve always been very fond of Monk’s music. Probably more so now.

Q: Another point in common is that you both really developed a lot of your style by listening to stride and blues piano …[ETC.]

JM: Could be.

[MUSIC: “Tickle Toe,” “In Walked Bud”]

Q: “In Walked Bud,” Monk’s variation on “Blue Skies,” I think.

JM: Yeah, the outside is “Blue Skies”. The channel is a little bit different. [ETC.]
I enjoyed this. It’s a real nostalgia thing for me, too, to hear some of the other things, like the Earl Hines things.


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For Steven Bernstein’s 55th Birthday, a 2001 DownBeat Feature, an Uncut Blindfold Test from 2009, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musicians Show From 2001 and the Proceedings of a WKCR interview in 1999

For arranging maestro and slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s 55th birthday, here’s documentation of several encounters, including an uncut Blindfold Test from 2009 (Steven’s responses were so detailed, that the printed version only had room for 5), an uncut Downbeat feature from 2001, and WKCR interviews from 2001 (a far-ranging Musicians Show) and 1999.


Steven Bernstein Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Wynton Marsalis, “School Boy” (from HE AND SHE, Blue Note, 2009) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Sounds like Wynton to me. Sounds just like him. I love this. First of all, 5 stars for a guy who has a totally recognizable sound even when he’s playing in an older style, because he’s just the greatest trumpet player. There was a little arco bass thing in I think the second 8 bars before the saxophone came in, a beautiful, tiny little counter-melody. That’s one of the things that made me think it’s him, because he’s such a good arranger. It’s beautiful. It almost sounds like  it’s a cello, it’s so high up there. That to me makes the whole arrangement. That’s it for me. Once you do that, you win me over. Something like that… See, I’m always into specifics. The more speciic an arrangement is… Like, don’t waste an opportunity. That’s my feeling. I always tell arrangers, “Don’t waste an opportunity.” I love that. Is this his new piano player? He’s good. Wynton’s been playing this kind of music for a long time, and he has a real unique way of doing it that’s his. A lot of it has to do with phrasing and dynamics. You know me. I’m a sucker for these kinds of things. [TRUMPET SOLO] It’s interesting. Even when he plays this style…when he plays eighth notes, you can hear still the way he played when he played with Art Blakey. There’s a certain phrasing he developed. He knows how to get house, get those little…waits to the very end to do the flutter notes. He’s a smart musician, man. What can you say about a guy who built a multi-million dollar jazz place? [PIANO SOLO] Wow, that guy’s a good piano player. What can you say? Ends on a major-VII. I always feel that if something sounds just like a person, then who am I to say it’s not great? Even if it’s not exactly the way I would do something, that is totally… Is that one of the things from Jack Johnson? That’s great writing, too. The guy has his world, and he trains his musician to play like him. It’s very interesting, the piano player really is an extension of him, and he’s done a great job surrounding himself with people who populate his vision. That’s what a musician is supposed to do.

One thing that’s interesting about Wynton is that he has incorporated so many techniques. Every time he splits a note… Everything he does, to me… In the old days, when people split notes, it’s because they miss notes. But Wynton took that and made it part of the jazz technique, and he has it… It’s one of the things you can always tell it’s him, because where he puts his split note…it’s just one of the many techniques he has. The man has integrated so many different techniques for the trumpet, and that’s a real interesting thing he’s done, which is taking the split note, and controlling it so it’s part of his technique.

2.  Lenny White, “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” (from MILES IN INDIA, Times Square, 2008) (White, drums, Wallace Roney, trumpet; Pete Cosey, guitar; Michael Henderson, electric bass; Adam Holzman, keyboards; A. Sivamani, percussion; Vikku Vinayakram, ghalam)

It sounds great? Is this Wallace Roney? All techniques basically are old techniques now, so it’s all fair game, whether you’re talking about Miles from Jack Johnson or dealing with Louis Armstrong in 1928. These are all basically ancient techniques from a different era that people have been able to incorporate. Wallace, of course, has done an incredible job of taking Miles’ and making it his own. Wallace is another master trumpeter. Anyone who’s a master, I have to give 5 stars to, because they’re masters. I heard Wallace playing with Art Blakey, and he was a master then, when he was musical director of that band. And the sound is so good. Both records you’ve played me sound so good in so many different ways. Both are modern reflections of incredible  music that is now seen through the prism of modern living musicians. These guys are contemporaries of mine. I met Wynton when I was 17. I heard Wallace on probably his first gig with Art Blakey when he was subbing for Wynton at Grant’s Tomb, probably in ‘81 or ‘82. See, he doesn’t sound like Miles. He sounds like Wallace. There’s things he does that are so Wallace. But it’s like that particular part of Miles’ technique became Wallace. That’s how he hears music. That’s him. What can you say about him? He’s incredible. Beautiful sound, too. To me, all environments are the same, whether you’re dealing with an environment that’s related to 1920, with modern technology, or an arrangement like this that’s related to more like 1972 but with modern recording technique. It’s just good arranging. There’s plenty of room. Every soundscape needs its own balance, and it’s really well-balanced, well-mixed. The trumpet sits really nice in it. Sometimes it’s hard to put a trumpet in this kind of sound and not make it sound corny, because the trumpet is such a knocking-down-the-walls-of-Jericho type of instrument. But it fits in really nice to the mix. Who’s the guitar player? [You tell me.] Good guitar, man. Nice. It reminds me of Pete Cosey. Really? That’s why it reminds me of Pete Cosey. I didn’t know he recorded with Wallace. I guess he did. Well, good work, Wallace! You got the man! Oh, is this the Miles in India thing? Wow. Cool. No wonder it sounds so good, because Bob Belden is really good at arranging records. Not that Wallace isn’t good at arranging records, too, but it’s a really wide soundscape. I will say that I was surprised that the tablas weren’t mixed louder. I’m surprised they didn’t have the higher tabla sound running in…but I don’t have the rest of the record. It took me a long time to figure out… I didn’t immediately go, “Oh, it’s Miles In India.” I jusrt figured it’s a Wallace Roney record. I didn’t hear it in the context of the whole record. There were so many low tones, I was surprised they didn’t have that really high tabla running through there. 5 stars. But again, what can you say? Pete Cosey is a master, Wallace Roney is a master. Great-sounding track.

3.  Satoko Fujii, “Sanrei” (from Orchestra Nagoya, SANREI, Polystar, 2007) (Satoko Fujii, conductor; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet solo; Tsutomo Watanabe, Takahiro Tsulita, Misaki Ishiwata, trumpet; Shingo Takeda, Akihiko Yoshimaru:alto sax; Kenichi Matsumoto: tenor sax, Yoshihiro Hanawa, tenor sax; Yoshiyuki Hirao, baritone sax; Tomoyuki Mihira, trombone; Toshinori Terukina, trombone, euphonium; Tatsuki Yoshino, tuba; Yosuhiro Usui, guitar; Atsutomo Ishigaki, bass; Hisamine Kondo, drums)

There’s two trumpets on this. Sounds like Satoko Fujii’s music, which is funny. I’m on her records. It is? Then it’s her Japanese band. That’s a pretty unique way of writing, so it would make sense that it’s her. She writes a lot of different stuff. Every record I’ve made with her is different. Sometimes she’ll have a lot of harmonic information and sometimes there’s no harmonic information. I don’t think it was Nats on trumpet. Nats usually plays beyond the trumpet. To me, that trumpet solo was good, it was ok, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, because… Nats usually plays more sound-oriented stuff. [DON’T USE THIS] What I like about her writing is that it leaves a lot of room for individual voices, which is a really important part of the jazz way of writing, not just writing something that is allowing the musicians’ individual tonation to come out. I’m into the word “tonation” these days. Not “intonation,” but “tonation.” They don’t use it in education any more. I don’t know if they ever did. But you hear all the musicians talk about it.

4.  Terence Blanchard, “Levee” (from A TALE OF GOD’S WILL, Blue Note, 2007) (Blanchard, trumpet, composer; Brice Winston, tenor saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; The Northwest Sinfonia, orchestra)

[IMMEDIATELY] Terence. Can I give him 6 stars? I think Terence is so great. His sound is so immediately recognizable. It’s interesting, being a writer, when I hear the string thing in the beginning, I’m like, “That’s cool, I like it, I wouldn’t have done anything quite like that, but…” It’s a little classical, the way it’s played. I like things where there’s a little more roughness in it. But then, of course, when Terence’s sound comes up against it, it makes a nice foil. He probably recorded it in L.A. with studio musicians. Well, it’s an orchestral piece. At the beginning, you don’t know if it’s a jazz piece or what. But it’s orchestral. Ok, that’s why they play it that way. They’re orchestral musicians. Oh, this is from that big piece from New Orleans, that beautiful piece he wrote. I saw the TV show that it was a soundtrack for. Most musicians are afraid to speak about politics, because everyone is so afraid to say anything controversial in this post-Reagan world. But it was great on that TV show to have Terence speak the truth. This is heartbreakingly beautiful. I was weeping during that TV show. Hearing this music makes me want to weep, because you could feel the pain—it’s so beautiful. He’s taken the trumpet and really made it his own instrument. He plays one of these very heavy trumpets that these guys play now. Wow, man! In general, I don’t particularly like what those trumpets do, but Terence…What I love about Terence is he wears his heart on his sleeve, his scope is huge, he has a great working band…  It’s very interesting, because you’ve played me three guys who are my age, came to town, joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and have all done really different things with their lives. They all played kind of similar when they were young. Anyway, each one of has not just a distinct sound, but it’s a distinct style. As great as Wynton is, he would never do what Terence just did… Not never. But I’ve never heard him just blow so hard that you don’t even know what’s going to come out of the trumpet. He’s more controlled, even when he’s not playing… That’s not his vision to music, to me. Of course, this is a very emotional piece. But also, on a trumpet level, both Wynton and Terence, and also a lot of these young guys, play a very thick trumpet, made of heavy metal… See, THAT phrase right there, that comes from the style that he and Wynton share. If you’re not a trumpet player, you can’t even understand it, because it didn’t exist before those guys. It’s something that they worked out. Here you can hear the Miles thing coming out. I tend not to like those… Well, not that I don’t like them. I’m a fan of older trumpet styles, so there’s a certain thing that can’t happen when the metal is that big. There’s a certain vibration that physically is not going to happen. But with Terence I don’t miss it. And Terence also…his history also brings in Lester Bowie, which not many trumpet players have done. That’s part of his vocabulary, too. I don’t know if he purposefully does it, but a lot of those things he does, before Lester… Well, not no one did it before Lester. Rex Stewart did that stuff. But Lester brought it back into the lexicon.

5.   Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Malachi” (from NON-COGNITIVE ASPECTS OF THE CITY: LIVE AT IRIDIUM, Pi, 2006) (Corey Wilkes, trumpet; Joseph Jarman, tenor saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell, reeds, percussion; Jaribu Shahid, bass; Famoudou Don Moye, drums, percussion)

It sounds like the Art Ensemble without Lester.  So this is Corey Wilkes. I met Corey. We had some nice drinks in Italy, at the Balsamo Festival. Nice guy. Now I get to hear how he plays. But you hear Malachi… How many bass players can you say you can hear them in four notes? Malachi you can hear in four notes, man. I hear four notes and… Is it Malachi or is it Jaribu? I thought it was Malachi, but it could just be that it’s Don and Roscoe made me think it’s Malachi. Now, here’s a guy who listened to Lester. A lot of fire. I like fire. I don’t know if it is Malachi. It might be Jaribu. It just sounds stronger than Malachi would be at this age. At the beginning, it sounded like Malachi, but at the end Malachi couldn’t play like this, at this tempo. But when you hear that kind of bassline and you hear Don Moye, it’s just that he really felt like Malachi at the beginning. During the melody, it really felt like Malachi. [Well, the piece is called “Malachi.”] The piece is called “Malachi.” There you go. Well-written piece. By Roscoe, I assume. Powerful trumpet player, man. Very powerful. I wasn’t going to give him five stars… Oh, it’s live. That’s why it sounds like this. It’s a live gig, so he’s not close enough to the mic. But you know what? That’s such a great solo that he doesn’t deserve five stars yet, but I’ll give him 4½—he’s not a master. I’ll be interested to see what happens to someone like him… The way he’s playing trumpet is very physical, and it will be interesting to see what he does with it. Is he going to keep it at this heavy level? Will he smooth it out? I haven’t seen him play live… It’s a live gig, and you’re really hearing him go for it. It’s amazing. He’s not a master yet, he’s a young man, but he’s playing great. I grew up listening to the Art Ensemble. I’ve been hearing them live since I was 14 or 15 years old, when I met them. How many people can you tell from their composition? How long did I listen to that? 5 seconds, and two of the original guys were gone. It’s like some Ellington thing. You don’t even need the original guys, because it’s such… Well, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers would be like that. You heard a Messengers tune, it didn’t matter who was in the Messengers. It was the Jazz Messengers.  Don Moye deserves a lot of credit. No one talks about him, but talk about a guy who created a unique style of drumming. I heard one guy somewhere… You know who did? Dave King of the Bad Plus. He played somewhere and I said, “Hey, man, you’ve got some Don Moye in you.”

6.  David Berger, “Serenade in Blue” (from I HAD THE CRAZIEST DREAM: THE MUSIC OF HARRY WARREN, Such Sweet Thunder, 2008) (Berger, arranger, Brian “Fletch” Pareschi, trumpet; Harry Allen, Joe Temperley, Matt Hong, reeds; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Isaac Ben Ayala, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jimmy Madison, drums)

Wow!  Beautiful trumpet tone. It’s interesting, you hear a lot of Clifford Brown and you hear a lot of Clark Terry in it. I’m trying to figure out who it is. I’ll wait til the solo. It’s a young guy? It really has that Clark Terry vibrato. It’s obviously not Clark. But let me keep listening. This is great. The arrangement’s great, too. Nicholas can play like this, but I don’t think it’s Nicholas. This is someone who really-really knows the jazz tradition. The arrangement is great, too. It’s not Warren Vache. It’s someone who’s played with a lot of older musicians. That’s the way the vibrato is. When you play with the vibrato like that, to me it’s someone who’s been around. It has so much truth in the way they’re playing. The arrangement even has some Gil Evans type things going on. I don’t know who it is, but someone who can really play and understand music. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Brian for years. I was on David Berger’s band. It’s interesting, because Brian would be someone who understands Clifford and Clark Terry. Someone who really knows how to arrange. That’s Dave. Someone who’s really played a lot of swing music. That’s Brian. When I first heard it, I said, “I know who this is.” Because I’ve sat right next to Brian when he plays like that, except I never think of listening to Brian on a CD.

7.  Bobby Bradford, “Compulsion” (from Nels Cline, NEW MONASTERY: A VIEW INTO THE MUSIC OF ANDREW HILL, Cryptogrammophone, 2006) (Bradford, cornet; Cline, guitar, effects, Ben Goldberg, clarinets; Andrea Parkins, accordion, effects; Devon Hoff, bass; Scott Amendola, drums; Alex Cline, percussion)

[AT BEGINNING] You can hardly hear the trumpet in the mix. [SOLO] Sounds like Leo. Oh, it’s not Leo. I was thinking it could be the Yo Miles thing. Sorry, Leo, it’s definitely not you. It’s an interesting piece of music. Interesting construction. Not haphazard at all. A lot of nice compositional elements. I like it. I don’t know who the trumpeter is. I could guess, but what’s the point. It almost sounded like a cornet player to me. I liked it. It was good. Ah, there was a little bit of Don Cherry flavor in there. I liked that. It’s blowing like it’s a cornet—a very fuzzy sound. Cornet makes me think it could be Rob Mazurek, but it’s not. But it might not be a cornet; it might be the way the guy is blowing. It’s interesting, because the person is using the lower register of the horn a lot, and it doesn’t sound like someone who is so much a traditional musician, but more like this is really the comfort zone. It doesn’t sound like a guy who plays contemporary classical or anything like that. I like it. Good solo. Short. Good flow of ideas. Obviously coming from the Don Cherry type of thing. I’ve got no idea. 4 stars. It’s a little less defined than some of the other music we’ve heard, so it’s hard, when you’ve heard all this very defined music, to hear this music that’s much more open. Some good things going on in there for sure. [AFTER] Cornet! I said cornet. So it was Nels Cline on guitar! I was going to say Nels. Man, I should’ve said it. I should’ve known it was Bobby Bradford. I did say cornet, though. I wasn’t thinking, man. I’m getting tired. I should have put 2 and 2 together. So is it Ben Goldberg on bass clarinet.

Addendum to Bobby Bradford. It was a short solo, so it was hard for me to tell. At Bobby’s age, it’s a different thing… You hear all these solos by these young musicians, and they’ve got a lot of power to come through and play these long solos. But when I think back to what Bobby played, of course, it was a total Bobby Bradford solo, but so much shorter and so much more concise than the other guys—because at his age, you can’t play the cornet that much. Brass is very physical. So he does what he can with his physicality. When you think about it like that, it’s like Brian Pareschi, who is 40 years old and plays Broadway for a living—he has a lot of power, he can play an incredible trumpet solo. For Bobby Bradford as a musician, 5 stars. For that particular solo, in this context, I didn’t hear all the power I’m used to hearing on the trumpet. He’s a master.

8.  Olu Dara, “Black and Tan Fantasy” (from James Newton, AFRICAN FLOWER, Blue Note, 1985) (Dara, cornet; James Newton, flute, arrangement; Arthur Blythe, alto saxophone; Sir Roland Hanna, piano; Rick Rozie, bass; Billy Hart, drums)

Modern “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This is Olu and James Newton. 5 stars. I remember this well. I love this. This was a groundbreaking record, and sometimes I’m sorry that music didn’t go more in this direction, because this is a very exciting direction to me. It’s Roland Hanna on piano, and Billy Hart on drums, and Rick Rozie on bass, and Olu. The idea of mixing all these different musicians and showing each other mutual respect and making the most out of the tradition… I think James Newton is a towering figure in this music (I don’t mean just physically, because he’s a big guy, too). He’s one of the few people I’ve never worked with whom I’d really like to work with. This particular solo by Olu influenced me a lot, I must say. I was like, “Wow, you can play trumpet like this. Why not?” So many people take a vocabulary and they pick this and this, but I think, “No, your vocabulary can be everything. Your vocabulary can be as large as you want it to be.” What Olu has done with this, he’s taken some vocabulary from an early-early way of playing trumpet and made it modern by the fact that it’s him. I think it’s an incredible recording. 5 stars for the whole record.

9.  Nicholas Payton, “Fleur de Lis” (from INTO THE BLUE, Nonesuch, 2008) (Payton, trumpet; Kevin Hays, fender rhodes; Vicente Archer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Christian Scott? I thought it was him from the mixture of those chords…from the bass and the drum part and the chords. Oh, it’s Nicholas. What trumpet player records with percussion? Nicholas does. All he’s played so far is whole notes, and I couldn’t tell from the whole notes. But I knew from the orchestration it was him. I know Danny Sadownick, the tambourine player, really well. So I was listening to the tambourine, and I noticed it was Danny. Nicholas is another one of these guys who’s such a master… He’s as talented as any musician I’ve ever met. For him as a musician, 5 stars. I’m not crazy about this track, because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s a little just 6/8, you know.

10.  Masada, “Ash-nah” (from MASADA: 50th ANNIVERSARY, #7, Tzadik, 2003) (John Zorn, alto saxophone; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums)

See, this is good. This has mystery. I have to figure out who’s doing what. Sounds like something Dave Douglas would do right there. I don’t know if it’s Dave. It’s interesting to hear things that remind you of yourself… Oh, it’s Zorn and Dave. See, it’s interesting. When Dave did those sounds…Dave wouldn’t play that on his own record. He played that on Zorn’s record. I was thinking who the alto player was, then I was listening, and I realized it was Zorn on alto. That’s why Dave did that, because, as any great musician, you serve your leader. He’s a great sideman, too. He doesn’t like to be a sideman that much, but he’s a great sideman. Again, these are master musicians and Zorn is a master organizer. When it first came on, I said, “It’s a mystery.” I didn’t know what I was hearing. I have to give this band 5 stars, because I’ve heard so much and it’s consistently invigorating, and even if they play a song you don’t like, you know the next song you’re going to love. What I like about a band like this, and what I didn’t like about the last piece, is this is four equal voices. That’s why Zorn is such a great organizer, and he gets these great musicians. Each person’s voice carries its own weight. I think that always makes a pleasing musical experience. But it’s funny that I said it sounds like me, too. Because there is that Masada thing… What influenced Masada also influenced me. Not that my music sounds like Masada, but certain elements of Masada… Well, it’s also a way of writing without using piano. Using two horns and bass and drums, I do that all the time. So how do you write for these instruments? How do you organize for these instruments, make the most of harmony and melody and rhythm? Dave’s another guy who’s really created his own… A very non-traditional virtuosic trumpeter. Not a classical trumpeter. Very much a jazz triumpet player. He created his own technique. That’s the thing about the old-style jazz virtuosos, was they were JAZZ virtuosos. They created their own technique that didn’t exist before. This is an objective look at it. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I’m just saying the idea of creating your own technique and taking that to virtuosic levels is different than having classical technique and being a jazz virtuoso. He has both. But once you’re a classical virtuoso, you can’t not be a classical virtuoso. It’s just what you are. He’s both. But he’s a new thing. That didn’t exist before. No one did that before him. The closest is like Doc Severinson. But Doc couldn’t play jazz like Wynton. He could play a solo. But he wasn’t like Wynton. He couldn’t sit there with Art Blakey. No offense. 5 stars for middle-aged masters. Old masters in Greg Cohen’s case.

11.  Taylor Ho-Bynum, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from THE MIDDLE PICTURE, Firehouse 12, 2005) (Bynum, cornet; Matt Bauder, tenor saxophone; Mary Halvorsen, Evan O’Reilly, electric guitar; Jessica Pavone, electric bass; Tomas Fujiwara, drums)

Odd. I don’t know what it is. But I love this. Oh, it’s Ornette on trumpet!  Take that back. It’s definitely not Ornette on trumpet! Is that me? I don’t remember making this record. I’m laughing. I love this arrangement. This is the happiest arrangement I’ve heard so far. I’ve never heard them… It could be Kneebody. But I’ve never heard them. I heard a couple of things on the radio that were Shane, and every time I thought, “who is this great trumpeter?”—it was Shane. Finally a big band hit. First big band hit we’ve had the whole time! Nice. The reason I thought it was Shane is that he uses a lot of mutes, and there’s a lot of mutes in here. So somebody who knows how to use a mute. 5 stars for the tune, and since there’s no trumpet solo, I don’t know who it is. Five stars for the arrangement. [AFTER] So it was Mary on guitar. I should have guessed that. He loves Ellington. He loves Rex, but he doesn’t sound like him.

12.  Duke Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (from THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: 1927-1962: Vol.1) (Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, trumpets;

This is Basie. Oh, that jumped out of my mouth without thinking. No, it’s Duke. Ah, this is Rex. I’m sorry. It was swinging so hard, I was like Basie! It’s a total Count Basie introduction. I’ve heard this song so many times, so when it comes on, I’m like “Yeah.” I don’t even know what it’s called. I’ve had this track since I was in 11th grade. The very beginning was swinging pretty hard. I said Basie, then I heard this song, like, “Wait…” But it sounded like an old aircheck. That’s Rex. That’s Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Is this a live version? A studio recording? It’s a good mastering. I’ve never heard it on CD. It’s interesting hearing something on CD; it’s different. Sounds like a radio broadcast—it’s brighter.




Steven Bernstein (Downbeat article, 2001):

On a recent Friday afternoon, Steven Bernstein was driving home to Rockland County from Lou Reed’s Greenwich Village apartment, having presented seven horn charts to frame Reed’s interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe stories for a forthcoming Hal Willner-produced album.   After grabbing dinner and putting his kids to bed, he’d return to Manhattan for a midnight show by the Millennial Territory Orchestra at Tonic, a dimly-lit, art-brut venue where he has appeared the preponderance of Friday wee hours since 1998 with one of the three bands he leads.  MTO is a nine-piece unit with rotating personnel devoted to executing 35 charts – the repertoire includes 25 reefer songs — that Bernstein has transcribed from his voluminous collection of recordings by obscure black orchestras of the ’20s and ’30s; guided by Bernstein’s in-the-moment conduction, they construct statements that have the feel of Don Redman encountering Donny Hathaway encountering Sun Ra.

Another of Bernstein’s bands is the tentet Diaspora Soul, which had performed at Tonic the previous night.  During a lull in the second set, Bernstein told the sparse crowd about the on-stage antics of Courtney Love at a Monday benefit where, on Willner’s recommendation, he led the horn section.  He revealed how at a post-show hang at the Russian Tea Room he charmed the diva with a gift of a t-shirt fronted with the logo of Sex Mob, his most popular band.  He added that Ms. Love had pulled down the top of her dress and donned the one-size-fits-all girlie-tee with effusive thanks.  “It looked great!” he exclaimed.

Bernstein was working a wedding when he came up with the inspired conceit for the self-titled recording [Tzadik] that marked Diaspora Soul’s debut.  He transcribed a dozen soulful Jewish songs from various old cantorial albums, and orchestrated them with the unison sax grooves of ’50s New Orleans rhythm-and-blues (think R&B guru Dave Bartholomew), with clave rhythms, with a touch of keyboard skronk a la psychedelic Dr. John by way of Eddie Palmieri, and with his own impassioned trumpet declamations.  He spontaneously arranges each performance, and as the second set proceeded, the sax (Peter Apfelbaum, Michael Blake, Paul  Shapiro and Briggan Krauss) and percussion (Johnny Almendra, Willie Rodriguez and Robert Rodriguez) sections locked into gear and built an irresistible momentum.  Like a vintage 8-cylinder Cadillac, the machine appeared to drive itself, but Bernstein — wisecracking, shouting out chords and rhythmic figures, tweaking the dynamics with emphatic hand gestures — firmly steered the ship, the master of the game.

“I’m Neil Hefti with an earring,” Bernstein joked over his cell phone.  The comment was revealing: Old-school to the core, he mixes as comfortably with musical elders as with his post-jazz peers.  For example, playing “button trumpet” at a recent concert with an Art Baron-led sextet before a tough audience at a Duke Ellington Society concert, he crafted a remarkable solo on “Perdido,” using shapes and phrases to build an idiomatic, structurally cogent statement that went beyond the notes.  He spent large chunks of 1998 and 1999 as fourth trumpet in arranger David Berger’s “Harlem Nutcracker” big band, rubbing shoulders with Ellington veterans Baron, Britt Woodman and Marcus Belgrave, and grizzled modernists like Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion; on the cast album.  On the cast album [Such Sweet Thunder] his peppery open horn solo on “Dance of the Floreadores” channels the jaunty spikiness of Ray Nance, while his plunger solo on “Swingin’ At Club Sweets” reveals a command of timbre and keen timing evocative of Cootie Williams’ heirs in the Ellington canon.

Bernstein is fascinated with the tropes of early jazz, and he conceptualized Sex Mob (Briggan Krauss, saxophones; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums) as a vehicle for his slide trumpet, on which he projects a sound completely his own, wild and gritty, deploying a pronounced vibrato reminiscent of such ‘20s and ‘30s blues-function brassmen as Sidney DeParis, Lee Collins, and Punch Miller.  He uses the slide to elicit tiny increments in pitch that produce vocalized sounds of the sort that Ellington signifier Rex Stewart got through his half-valving techniques in the ’30s and ’40s.  The context is wholly modern, informed by a global world-view akin to that of the late avant-pop guru Lester Bowie, an early role model.   He’s owned the instrument since 1977, and began playing  it seriously about a decade ago on gigs with Spanish Fly, an open form trio with tubist Marcus Rojas and slide guitarist David Tronzo devoted to a repertoire as Bernstein puts it, of “songs everyone knows.”

That’s Bernstein’s operative model for Sex Mob, which has worked hundreds of times since it assembled six years ago for Thursday night hits at the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar.  It’s a virtuoso unit, and their modus operandi is incessant collective improvisation; the band book comprises some 150 songs, which they are prepared to blow gleefully to smithereens and rebuild from the ground up.  The sound is Sophisticated Primitive, and the range is kaleidoscopic, jumping from “new standards” (Kurt Cobain’s “About A Girl”) to “classic jazz” (Theater and Dance, a privately produced CD that Bernstein sells at gigs, is a Bernstein-arranged suite of Ellingtonia commissioned by choreographer Donald Byrd) and Blues (Leadbelly) to such neo-kitsch as a suite of music from James Bond films due for fall release on Rope-A-Dope.

“I see Sex Mob as a return to the earliest roots of jazz,” says Bernstein, who named his son Rex Louie.  “People took pop songs of the time and improvised on them in new styles, with different rhythms and dynamics, in the way they felt like playing them.  Jazz was louder than any music of its time; it was played on a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville or minstrel song.  That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.

“With music that doesn’t have much harmonic structure, you must arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance.  You can’t play ‘Raspberry Beret’ the same way you play ‘My Funny Valentine’ — it’s that simple.  When the band started, I’d sit on the subway and write a bare-bones chart of whatever song I’d been listening to, throw the chart in front of them on the gig, rehearse in front of the audience, and play it.  I grew up playing free improvisation as well as standards, and free improvisation is about creating instant arrangements.  I still do that on the stage in Sex Mob.  The tunes evolve through an audience’s reaction.  People tend to overwrite, but you don’t need to give great musicians too much information.  It’s not the amount of elements you put in; it’s how good the elements are.”

Bernstein was just your normal teenage “total jazz snob” as an adolescent and teenager in the polyglot milileu of ‘70s Berkeley, California, where avant-garde, vernacular and traditional streams converged comfortably.  He began playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardymon, the teacher who jump-started present-day luminaries like Craig Handy, Josh Redman and Benny Green.  In sixth grade formed what would become a lifelong friendship and musical partnership with Peter Apfelbaum, later the leader of the multikulti Hieroglyphics Ensemble.  The youngsters went to shows by Eddie Harris, Sam Rivers, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk and Woody Shaw at the Keystone Korner, and a series of solo concerts by Leo Smith, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Baikida Carroll.  “Finally,” Bernstein relates, “we went to see our heroes, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, at the Great American Music Hall.  Peter and I went backstage and played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they invited us in.  Mr. Hardymon always told us we had to learn to play the changes better before we got involved in that kind of music.  He was right.  But it was in the air, and we wanted to play it.”

In eleventh grade, Bernstein looked up John Coppolla, a respected trumpet teacher who had played with Woody Herman, Billy May and Stan Kenton.  “When I came to my first lesson, I was being a snotty kid,” Bernstein recalls.  “I said, ‘Man, I’m into Lester Bowie!’  Mr. Coppolla was a middle-aged Italian gentleman.  He said, ‘Yeah, I like Lester.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He’s doing what Rex Stewart was doing back in the ’40s.’ He threw on ‘Menelik, Lion of Judah.’  That changed my life.  I started listening to Ellington’s 1940 band, with Rex and Cootie together in the trumpet section, and I knew it was the greatest music that ever existed. I still listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.”

Throughout high school Bernstein and Apfelbaum worked steadily on a 360-degree range of Bay Area gigs.  Somehow he maintained his grades, and he matriculated at Columbia University in 1979 intending to continue his work-study parallel track. Within two years, music won out.  Perhaps in response to an encounter with Wynton Marsalis in a Paul Jeffrey rehearsal band (“I thought everyone in New York had to be that good when they get here”), Bernstein avoided his hardcore jazz peer group  (“I was bored with those hangs socially; I wanted to be around girls and young people”) and religiously attended concerts by Defunkt — the seminal Avant Funk unit with Joe Bowie, Kelvin Bell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronnie Burrage — at the Squat Theater on West 23rd Street.

“That band changed my life again,” Bernstein recalls.  “In Berkeley, no one approached music with that hard an edge.  You either played free or you played R&B.  My dream was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix; they made it clear that you could put these approaches together.”

Bernstein found a West 109th Street apartment for $300 a month.  He enrolled at NYU, became a protege of the iconic lead trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, and spent the ’80s apprenticing in a slew of rehearsal bands, in Haitian and Latin units, in “eight million” obscure Lower East Side bands that featured original music, in art music bands like Kamikaze Ground Crew, and in Spanish Fly, which became a point of entry into Bernstein’s music for John Lurie and Hal Willner, the trumpeter’s two great patrons of the ’90s.

“The original idea of Spanish Fly was what Sex Mob is — to play songs everyone knows,” Bernstein notes.  “I played trumpet like an arranger.  Instead of soloing, I might play an equivalent of a Freddie Stone guitar part or a second alto part from an Ellington type of thing, with the trumpet as the vehicle.  It taught me to think on my feet, and I developed my mute vocabulary.  And it taught me about presentation; Spanish Fly was a collective, but I was always the emcee.”

In 1990, Lurie recruited Bernstein for a new edition of the Lounge Lizards; he remained a band-member throughout the decade.  Bernstein credits Lurie as a mentor.  “John would trust his intuition in putting music together, and I saw that it worked,” Bernstein states.  “He’d tell you to add one part, then another, then he’d listen to us play it, suggest another approach — and a piece would be made.  John organizes shows theatrically; the sets have a long arc, like a movie, as opposed to your typical jazz show.  He’d would send me tapes from Costa Rica of him playing, say, soprano sax or his little Casio, and I’d transcribe it.”

While Bernstein’s tenure with the Lounge Lizards brought increasing visibility, his ’90s work on a variety of Willner-generated projects have made him au courant in the high-stakes worlds of film and Hipster Pop.  They became close when Willner produced Spanish Fly’s first album, Rags to Britches [1994], a process that involved editing 12 hours of tape into a record, Teo Macero style.  “A lot of people don’t want to listen to 12 hours of music,” Bernstein says.  “I like doing that.  So does Hal.  We’d meet and make notes, and it turned out that we liked all the same stuff.”

In 1994, Willner called Bernstein to research songs and help assemble musicians for Robert Altman’s Kansas City.  Willner sent “boxes of tapes” of music apropos to 1934, when the narrative takes place, and Bernstein spent several months absorbing it.  Once on the set, when it became apparent that the promised “arrangements” in the film’s library were useless stocks, Willner put Bernstein to work writing arrangements on almost a nightly basis.

“I still haven’t recovered from that,” exclaims Bernstein, who had just transcribed a 1928 Chocolate Dandies recording for MTO.  “The orchestrated music from that period moves me.  Every phrase has a direct relation to the beat.  I love the attention to sound, to detail, how organized everything is — loose and bluesy, but with a specific framework, because you only had three minutes.  Nothing was wasted.”

The drudgery paid off.  “John Zorn used to ask, ‘Why are you always doing that work for Lurie and Willner?'” Bernstein laughs.  “But that’s how I learned to be an arranger.”   He’s experienced too many ups and downs to let brushes with celebrity go to his head, sustaining the “it’s all good” attitude of a seasoned New York professional.

“I’m a good trumpet player,” he states.  “I do a lot of studio work.  Ask me to play something, and I can play it.  It’s all about balance.  I’m raising a family, and you’ve got to make money where you can.  Playing weddings and barmitzvahs teaches you a lot about improvisation.  Everyone knows ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder.  But you might not know what key it’s in when they start it.  There’s no music in front of you, but all the stuff is in your ear, and you’ve got to translate it into your horn and play the right notes.  That is a challenge.

“Doing those jobs makes you more grateful for the chances you have to play your own music.  I don’t take my midnight gig at Tonic as just another gig.  I’m going to write a new chart and present something good.  It all means something to me.”



Steven Bernstein (Musician Show, 2-28-01):

[Sex Mob, “Holiday of Briggan”]

TP:    Steve Bernstein, aside from being the guiding intelligence of the group Sex Mob, having produced the record Diaspora Soul, and being a ubiquitous and ebullient presence on the New York scene, is also a connoisseur of traditional trumpet styles, particularly those with blues connotations.  He’s brought by my request a bunch of Kansas City material, Lee Collins, ’50s arrangers, and we’re prepared to go in many different directions.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, and into the future.  We’ve got some of the goodold-goodolds from the latter part of the century, as radio guys say who try to be witty.  The latter part of the century as opposed to the first part..

TP:    We’ll begin with Hot Lips Page from the Spirituals to Swing concert, 62 years ago.

BERNSTEIN:  Something like that.  But this is when he was reunited with the Count Basie band, which he had been the star trumpet player of, but by the time they recorded he was not in the band any more.  Anyway, he wanted to have his own career and blah-blah-blah…

TP:    You’re almost 40, and you came up in the Bay Area playing a lot of modern, future-oriented music.

BERNSTEIN:  I brought a bunch of that.  Early Hieroglyphics music and stuff from growing up in Berkeley.  You could hear Frank Lowe play in Berkeley, and the Art Ensemble was there all the time… Sun Ra was there.  We had people into the African drumming thing.  After the Herbie Hancock Mwandishi band broke up, there were still elements of that in the Bay Area — Julian Priester had his own band, Eddie Henderson had his own band.  It was a pretty far-out time.  I hate to say “far out” on the radio, but I did.

TP:    That said, how did you become such a connoisseur of older trumpet styles?  A lot of your generational peer group isn’t interested in anything that happened before World War 2.

BERNSTEIN:  It was my trumpet teacher.  See, I was really lucky.  There were so many great musicians out there.  There was a guy named Warren Gale, who I started studying with in the ninth grade.  He was a totally modern trumpet player, and I was just a little kid, and we were playing Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Lee Morgan.  That was his thing.  So at that age I was totally exposed to that whole world of trumpet playing.   So I’m this kid, I’m buying every Blue Note record I can get my hands on.  Of course, I don’t understand the harmony at all, but I can understand the music.

The next trumpet player was a guy named John Coppola.  Now, John and Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion all came together, and he was part of that world.  I have one quick story.  Like most high school kids would, I tried to be really cool.  I get to my first lesson, and at that point I figure… He’s an older musician, in his early fifties.  I say, “I’m really into modern trumpet, I’m really into Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble.”  I don’t even know this guy.  He just looks at me and goes, “Oh yeah, Lester Bowie.  I like the kid.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He does the Rex Stewart thing.”  And then he just puts on this record, which I also brought, and he plays me this Rex Stewart solo, which I guess we’ll listen to second.  I realized he was totally non-judgmental.  He wasn’t saying, “Oh, man, I don’t like that music.”  He was saying, “Yeah, that’s part of the music tradition.”  So basically, he got me hip to Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams.  He’d talk about Dud Bascomb.  He’d talk about Bill Harris.  This is a man who was on the road with Bill Harris for years.  He sat in the second with Conrad Gozzo.  He played with Dizzy.

TP:    Apart from the harmonic innovation that happened after World War Two, how would you characterize the prewar trumpet players in terms of sound quality and aesthetic intent vis-a-vis the subsequent generation?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s obviously more sonically and rhythmically oriented.  Definitely more sonically oriented.  Because the longer you hold out a note, the more the sound becomes apparent.  If you’re moving eighth notes, the sound is actually really optional.  The velocity and the movement of those eighth notes is what’s creating the movement in the solo.  With Louis Armstrong, people always talk about the vibrato.  It was a timed vibrato, which a lot of people don’t know about.  The timed vibrato means that the vibrato was actually in time with the music.  They said, “How does Louis Armstrong do it?  He holds the note but he pushes the band.”  Well, because while he’s holding that note, that vibrato is actually right on top of the beat, and it’s pushing the whole band with just the intensity of the air.  There’s a great Sidney deParis solo that I brought from the ’20s… The sound of what these people were playing is so incredible.  That I think is the main thing.  Because music’s music.  I mean, it’s different styles for different beats.

[MUSIC: Hot Lips Page, “Blues For Lips”; Rex Stewart, “Menelik, the Lion of Judah”;  Archie Shepp, “Keep Your Heart Right”; Ellington, “The Flaming Sword”]

TP:    People have done variations on the half-valving technique, but no one did like Rex.

BERNSTEIN:  No.  From what I heard from my trumpet teacher, back in the days when everyone knew each other, there would be parties at his house where guys would come over after shows, he was very interested that both Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan could sing along with all the Rex Stewart solos on the ’78s.  There are guys who were real Modernists who listen to Rex.  He was definitely a special musician, and people were aware of it… He was self-taught.

TP:    It’s interesting in the period after Cootie Williams left the band to join Benny Goodman, while Ray Nance was getting his feet wet, so there are a number of recordings and airchecks where you hear playing the Cootie Williams part.  He was a total trumpet player.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yes.  And he was a firebrand, too.  I have a jam session with Rex and Charlie Shavers where everyone obviously is in their cups.  But Charlie  Shavers lays down this incredible stuff that would be impossible to play on the trumpet, and Rex tries to play it right back, but  using his own fingerings and stuff like that, so it sounds a little different than Charlie Shavers.  But I think Rex made his living as a guy people know… My Dad knows who he was.  “Oh yeah, we used to go see Rex Stewart.”  He was something special.

“Keep Your Heart Right” is by Roswell, and that piece kind of is what made me create Sex Mob.  The great thing about it, it sounds like jazz when you hear it.  Man, they’re swinging!  It’s like jazz.  But when you actually hear what they’re doing form-wise, it’s not like jazz, like with your eight-bar form or whatever.  It’s so much more free.  I think those times were very free.  I think people didn’t want to hear 8 bars.  That’s why they went to hear the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.  Their minds were expanding.  So if you heard things come to 8 bars, you’d go, “Man, this is square.”  Even if it’s so hip, you’re immediately going to say it’s square.  But with Archie and Roswell it was so free that people could really get into it, and meanwhile it had that jazz feeling.

TP:    Maybe so.  Also, a paraphrase could be the term “beyond category.”  What we’re about to hear is a section from an as-yet unreleased suite of Ellingtonia arranged by you for the Donald Byrd Dance Company.

BERNSTEIN:  We were actually supposed to perform this piece at Lincoln Center.  The original concept, which would have been beautiful, was to have Eric Reed do the piano trio stuff from Piano Reflections, and then my idea was to do the second movement, and the third movement being the Lincoln Center Orchestra.  I had worked with Donald on the Harlem Nutcracker for three or four years, and it was obvious we were kind of birds of a feather; we’d been around the same areas of New York at the same time, seen some things.  I knew he had worked with Vernon Reid and Geri Allen, and I said, “Oh, do you know them, they’re friends of mine,” blah-blah-blah.  We started talking about music and things we liked, and then  we started talking about Ellington and I was saying how I think it’s very interesting that there was this side of Ellington that’s a very carnal side… Of course, everyone makes an icon out of somebody, like they want to present this…the whole Ellington shtick.  But he was a human being, and he was a pretty funky guy.
TP:    What he called himself in his book was the master bullshitter.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, he was a pretty funky guy!  He had a dark side, too.  And I said, “It would be nice to celebrate that part of the music, instead of always presenting it so immaculately done.  Because to be honest, that band also didn’t sound immaculate.  I remember once talking to Al Porcino, and there were certain guys who were great musicians and maybe couldn’t appreciate the Ellington thing, because they were around during the ’50s, and they were probably like that Kenton sense of everything’s in tune and hits together, and that thing with the trumpet shakes, and you might hear the Ellington band, especially at certain periods, and say, “man, that doesn’t sound that good.”  So the idea of the funkiness of the Ellington band, that it could be a very funky band, it wasn’t all spit-and-polish.

TP:    Well, the band was traveling 250-300 days a year, and you can’t humanly  be in the sort of form you’re talking about.  Different circumstances, different sounds, venues…

BERNSTEIN:  That was just a tangent.

TP:    It was.  But anyway, was this eventually realized?

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah.  It happened at the Joyce Theater for a week.  But then the idea was to present it later in the summer but record the music.  He couldn’t afford to have us do it at the Joyce.

TP:    And it didn’t get performed at Lincoln Center because of the carnal nature at the core…

BERNSTEIN:  The reason it didn’t get done is that this music had gotten so carnal that he had it worked out that the dancers all come out, and at one point the males and females both have enormous breasts and enormous phalluses.  Each is just for one movement… Well, for each one there was a matching phallus and breast.  Like, they could be in zebra-colored or psychedelic-colored, or a tie-dye set, or a polkadot set…

TP:    And thus it didn’t make it to Lincoln Center.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  It shouldn’t have been.  It was supposed to be for Lincoln Center Outdoors.  You can’t have people bring their children to see it.  It was not appropriate.  But that’s what happened.

[Sex Mob, “Black and Tan Fantasy”]

TP:    That song has such a strong character and defined identity that people who tackle it rarely break it up and mess with it as enthusiastically as you did.  You’ve done a lot of work in rearranging and reformulating the music of the ’30s and ’40s, on Kansas City, this project, many things.  Did your arranging develop in parallel to playing the trumpet?

BERNSTEIN:  I think it’s one of those things in being a professional musician, having someone go, “Can you make an arrangement?” and you go, “Yeah, how much does it pay?”  I talked to Manny Albam who did these arrangements called “Three Dimensional,” where it was three different bands playing three melodies, like the way Mingus did “Exactly Like You” and “A Train,” and finding one more song.  He had three different ensembles, and he had it in Trivision Stereo or something.  I called him and asked “How did you arrange that?”  He said, “Oh, I was in Wingy Manone’s band, and Wingy said, ‘Hey, Manny, can you make me an arrangement?'”  He said yeah.

That’s kind of how it happened, how it started — doing Haitian music.  “Hey, Steve, can you make an arrangement?”  Then I started working with John Lurie.  There were things in between…

TP:    You started working in Haitian bands when you came to New York.

BERNSTEIN:  Pretty early on.  That’s one of the first gigs I had that was kind of…

TP:    You got here?


TP:    You were 18, right out of high school.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.

TP:    You get here and try to make your way in the fray.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s a funny story because I get here.  Me and Wynton are the same age, and he was going to Juilliard and I was going to Columbia.  I made it there a few years.  Lifestyle’s too hard, man.  I couldn’t keep up with the druggies at Columbia!  I had to quit!  I’m not really made of that kind of stuff.  I don’t have those kinds of genetics.

TP:    No one here does that these days, you know.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes, but that was a long time ago.  Anyway, growing up I had been a professional musician, I thought I was good, all these things, and I move to New York and think “Oh, man, I’m going to play.”  So I get there and I meet another trumpet player at rehearsal band.  See, I’m really good at rehearsal bands.  Paul Jeffrey’s rehearsal band.  I’ve been in town for three days, and this young trumpet player from New Orleans, obviously my age, big Afro, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.  And man, he played so good.  And I kept hearing him.  And see, I thought that’s how good you had to be.  I thought man, everyone in New York has to be that good when they get here.  And that was Wynton, you know.

TP:    that was discouraging for you?

BERNSTEIN:  Whoo!  To hear a guy play the trumpet like that?  At that age?  So for a second, I just kind of hung out.  Then I kind of got more into it again.

TP:    But you started to work professionally while you were an undergraduate.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah, I started doing gigs immediately.  But I meant the whole… I had done this record when…

TP:    How did you get networked into those gigs?  Who did you know?

BERNSTEIN:  I met people.  I knew Butch Morris from the Bay Area.  He gave me my first recording session.  I’d been to the East Coast before, and some people knew me.  I had some trumpet teachers, and they’d say, “oh, go to this rehearsal band” or “do this Latin gig for me.”  I knew Jimmy Owens.  I knew Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu.  I took lessons with all those guys.

But what I wanted to play like… What I was doing was checking out Defunkt.  That’s what I did when I first moved to New York.  Every weekend I was at the Squat Theater.  That was my band.  I think that really changed my life.  Because in Berkeley no one had really approached the music that hard-edged.  Where I’m from, the music was so much softer.  It was good, but suddenly you’d hear Defunkt, man, and Joe Bowie was playing so much trombone… Melvin Gibbs, Kelvin Bell, Ronnie Burrage.  It was this great band, and I’d never heard anything like it.  It was my dream, was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix and all this music I loved.  I said, “Yeah, man, you could just play them together.”

TP:    And at the same time you’re playing with people who are very well versed in the bebop and postbop vocabulary.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah,  but that was never what I wanted to do.

TP:    So the ’80s proceed, you fade away from Columbia and settle into the life of a professional musician, doing Haitian gigs, Funk gigs, various gigs.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  And I was in every East Village band.  Tons of band.  When I got there, now a lot of guys were into that kind of music… I could really well.  If people gave me a chart, I could play it.  Because I come from playing big bands and having teachers who were really serious about playing the trumpet.  Trumpet is a hard instrument.  There are great self-taught trumpet players, but man, it’s hard enough even if you’re well-taught.  I mean, these guys really knew how to play the trumpet.  They taught me about playing in time.  I really believe in playing in time.  I mean, I love playing out of time, too.  But time is very specific, and there’s a lot of ways to approach it.  My trumpet teachers were Jimmy Maxwell.  John Coppola, who sat next to Gozzo.  I mean, that’s a certain concept of where the time should be, which I think is very important.  When I moved to New York, I found a lot of people didn’t feel time  that way.  They felt that much more bright type of time, on top of the beat, and that also was not attractive to me.  I appreciate that modern style of big band, but it doesn’t really interest me that much.  I’ll do anything as a job, but…

TP:    So you started doing arrangements for Haitian bands, and you learned more or less by trial-and-error.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, you’d just figure out… But I always had a natural affinity for it. I could hear the range of the horns in my ear.  Anyway, John Lurie was starting to get to be more high-profile, then Hal Wilner asked me to do stuff, and now I have my own band.  So I’m just writing all the time.

TP:    We’re going to Mezz it up!  This isn’t coming from a CD of the session nor from an LP compilation.  It’s from a Blue Note LP 33-1/3 Microgroove 10″, 7027!  “Mezzerola Blues.”

BERNSTEIN:  Lee Collins.  You can say his name again!

[Lee Collins/Mezz, “Mezzerola Blues”; Charlie Johnson/Sidney DeParis, “The Boy In The Boat”; Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In the Dark”]

BERNSTEIN:  Trumpeters.  Great trumpeters.  Lee Collins I didn’t know about until very recently.  I was on the road in Portland with Kenny Wolleson, and he brings me Lee Collins’ autobiography from Powell’s.  I’m reading about him, and I said, “Man, this sounds incredible.”  Because this guy was a contemporary of Armstrong, a little bit younger than him, but that’s who he grows up listening to.  He comes to Chicago, but he’s his own trumpeter, but Armstrong’s the guy from his town who’s a couple of years older than him.  I found this record in my collection which I hadn’t really checked out, and I put it on and heard it, and realized that to me the beauty of it was that he’s playing in the style of Armstrong in the ’20s, but then developing on that.  Most guys, when they use some Armstrong and put it in their playing, use the ’40s thing,  more obvious, more stated, everything was more tongue.  This almost sounds like Armstrong’s cornet style, a little more sliding around.

TP:    Let’s take a tangent.  Your observations on the evolution of Louis Armstrong’s style.

BERNSTEIN:  When you hear him with King Oliver, he’s playing lower in the register.  Then you hear him play in Fletcher Henderson and the Hot Fives, and he’s starting what became known as the solo style.  He’s playing these beautiful melodies that he just knew.  Musicians know this about Armstrong, but if you’re not a musician you might not be that aware of it.  I don’t think he ever played a note out of the chord.  And chords are not simple on those old songs.  You hear a lot of blues musicians play New Orleans music, and they play a basic diatonic blues over it.  It doesn’t always work, because you have what are called three-chord… You have chords where there’s notes that are actually very clearly outside of the blues scale.

Well, Louis Armstrong always hit those notes perfectly and musically, and led to them.  It was always there.  So he started playing in this softer style.  With Fletcher Henderson I guess he switched to the trumpet and was using more of the upper register.  The more instruments are below you on the trumpet, the easier it is to play in the upper register.  If you’re just playing with two other horns, they can’t really support your note up there.  If you start playing with the big band… Then he had his big band, and that’s when his style became this really super-virtuosic style, that whole thing with “Swing That Music” and you play 40 high Cs and you end on a double high-F, and he’s doing it every night, six shows a night, then doing recordings in the afternoon.

Then when he started going back to play with the All Stars, now he’s mixing the two styles together.  That’s the style of New Orleans trumpet playing most guys use from Louis’ All-Stars.  It’s up in the register.  It comes from that big band playing.  He’s playing really high and he’s stating the beat very directly.  With the early stuff, there’s more mystery in there.

TP:    Now back to Lee Collins.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  He’s mystery.  When you hear him, there’s just a lot of mystery, and it sounds great.

TP:    Sidney De Paris.

BERNSTEIN:  Don’t know much about him.  Him and his brother had a band and were called the New Orleans Jazz Band. [Blue Note and Atlantic] His brother played with Duke Ellington.  He was just another great trumpeter.  Obviously could really play.  Whether it’s his hand or his plunger, however he’s doing, that solo is unbelievable to me.  It’s one of those gems.  When I heard it, I just went back and listened to it over and over again.  Punch Miller was a guy from that same era.  When you listen to the guys of that era when they were young… Trumpet is a hard instrument.  So obviously, when you heard Punch Miller or Sidney deParis in the ’60s, it’s a lot different.  They didn’t have the physicality to keep playing that way.  But when they were young, man, they sounded amazing!

TP:    On the last track we heard the great Clark Terry, who seems to subsume just about everything that ever happened in the history of trumpet in his own style.

BERNSTEIN:  And he’s the greatest guy in the world.  I’ve known him for a long time.  I hung with him this summer.  He’s such an inspiration.  I read an interview with him where he said he keeps his horn by his bed, and sometimes in the middle of the night he’ll just get up and play a few notes.  That’s when I just kind of realized how serious playing the trumpet is.  If you really want to be a trumpet player… I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and some days I’ll skip practicing — or I did, up until three or four months ago.  Then I decided, “You know what?”  I’m never going to skip aa day of practice.  Trumpet is serious.  It’s a really heavy instrument, with the amount of dedication it takes to make your lips work properly on the trumpet.  And Clark is one of those guys… He’s almost blind, he can barely walk, he’s diabetic, and every time he puts his horn to his face, man, beauty comes out.  You cannot believe how incredible he sounds.  He’s an inspiration.  And the greatest person in the world.   And hilarious.  I was hanging out with him and Alan Smith, who is in his seventies, and a 91-year-old drummer, and Roger Glenn, the son of Tyree Glenn, who lives in Oakland.  It was so funny!  The drummer was Eddie Alley, the brother of Vernon Alley, the bass player who lived in San Francisco.  He’s not doing so much playing.  He said maybe he’s going to stick to contracting, because he’s 90 and he’s not been working that much.

TP:    On Diaspora Soul Steven put traditional cantorial music to New Orleans beats.

BERNSTEIN:  It was more like traditional songs to beats… Well, the beats are really a lot of Afro-Cuban beats and Cha-Cha beats.  They’re actually not New Orleans beats.  But the bass parts and piano parts are coming from that tradition of music. The beats actually were mixing like mambos and cha-chas.  But on this I just got right down to the rhythm.  This is with a Rumba rhythm.  I took it from a Polish cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, originally written in 1921.  It’s an Ashkenazi piece, but it sounds very Sephardic, just the tonality.  But it’s not.

[“Habet Mishomayem”]

TP:    We’ll hear a track by Yusef Lateef from The Symphonic Blues Suite, another take on the blues, and another way of articulating the blues.

BERNSTEIN:  Growing up, those Atlantic records were very important to me, the whole thing with Yusef and Eddie Harris and Fathead and Rahsaan… See, it’s Rahsaan who brought us into this.  Rahsaan ruled the Bay Area.  I saw Rahsaan about ten times in high school.

TP:    You were a Keystone Korner guy.

BERNSTEIN:  Me and Peter Apfelbaum were in the front… We’d get there early.  And we were slick.  We had a thing where I’d get a Coca-Cola in  Chinatown and stick it in our pocket, and we’d order water as soon as we sat down, drink the water, save the ice, and pour the Coke in real fast, and I had the can again, and it looked like they had brought us Coke for the minimum.  We were criminals, hard-core.

But we’d go see Rahsaan, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why I think about music this way.  Those Atlantic productions, you’d get these records, and it seemed like you were entering this world where each record was a brand-new world.  Like, Blackness.  Do you remember Natural Black Inventions, where it’s just him?  We’re kids and looking at this and saying, “wow, this is so great.”  It wasn’t the idea that records was a bunch of guys getting together to play. It was like each record was a world you could enter.  Yusef made some great… The Search, which I wish I still had.  Me and Peter would just sit around and practice and play records.  It’s part of my history.

[Yusef, “Minuet, Hybrid-Atonal”; Gil Evans-Johnny Coles, “Davenport Blues”; Rahsaan-Quincy, “Charade”]

TP:    Quincy Jones did a lot of amazing arrangements in the ’60s, and the dynamic range and precision, but it’s never like a machine…

BERNSTEIN:  It’s never bad.   I’ve been thinking about it.  Quincy is kind of like Mingus with a little TV added to it.  It’s like that good.  I really feel Quincy is that good.  It’s so full of life, so exploratory, celebratory… The fact that he would have Roland Kirk playing the solo.  Who else would love music that much?

TP:    Rahsaan was under contract to Mercury at the time.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, but check this out.  Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Jimmy Maxwell, Osie Johnson and Milt Hinton.  I meet drummers all the time, and they don’t know who Osie Johnson is — or Gus Johnson.  Those guys were so great, and their time was so great, and there was a certain level f musicianship… Look, the world changes.  It’s always different.  But at that period of time, man, the level of musicianship was so high, because everyone was playing every day, they’d all been on the road for years, they had all that skill under their belts of having played three sets a night for years.  Then you go into this high quality recording, and people are playing at night… When I hear music like we just heard, I just love this music.

TP:    Before that we heard Gil Evans’ arrangement of “Davenport Blues” with Johnny Coles playing the Bix role, from the great Gil Evans for Pacific Jazz where he arranged all the standards.

BERNSTEIN:  I was probably in tenth grade when I heard this for the first time, and it was just like… That’s one of those solos that’s so pure to me.  When I heard that, I just couldn’t believe it.  It’s so sympathetic, the arranging.  Gil Evans is a whole nother kind of arranger.  That kind of arranging is so beyond me.  It’s so unique.  The interesting thing is that Jimmy Maxwell and Gil Evans grew up together.  They had a high school band in Tracy, which later became the Skinny Ennis Band.  Maxwell told me that Gil would babysit his kids sometimes.  He left the house and go see a movie with his wife or something, and Gil’s sitting at the piano with Maxwell’s son, David, and he’s sitting there playing a chord, and David’s sitting next to him on the piano.  They get back three hours later, David is in the same place and Gil’s still playing the same chord.  That’s the way he was.  It seems to me he really thought so much about every single interval.

Another interesting thing about Gil Evans, he always talked about unison.  People asked him later on, in Sweet Basil, why he wasn’t writing these big orchestrations like we just heard.  And he said, you know, trying to get the band to make unison… I didn’t understand what he said.  But lately I think what he was talking about was that Basie thing of the unison.  Because as I’ve been doing more and more writing, I realize it’s much easier for a band to play harmony than to play unison.

TP:    Why is that?  Because you have to breathe as one?

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  Because the harmony, if it’s a little bit off, the beauty and strength of the harmony can carry you.  But if it’s unison, it’s really got to  be played with this feeling.  It’s really powerful, but it’s much harder to get to.  Maybe there’s a science to unison, but I’d say it’s kind of almost a magic thing that you have to reach out to through time.  You can’t learn it.  You have to spend time to get it.  And you have to start with something else.

I think it’s easier to mess with something with a strong melody.  The stronger the melody is, the more it can withhold.  It’s like a really strong  building.  If it’s a really strong frame, you can hit it with as many hammers as you want and it’s going to hold up.  I’m trying to hit it with many hammers.

[Sex Mob, “The Mooche”]

TP:    Steven was talking about unisons.  When you talk about unisons and breathing-together, you’re talking about riffs.  And nobody ever did the riff function better than the Count Basie Orchestra, at least not on record.

BERNSTEIN:  This is true.  This was always in the air around me, but when I went on the Kansas City film, my job there started off kind of being the research guy.  Hal Wilner, every two days or so I’d get a big box of tapes to listen to, and my daughter had just been born… I swear to God, I think this is why she’s the way she is, which is really special, but the first couple of months all she heard was music from 1928 to 1938.  That was it.  That’s all I listened to in the house.   It kind of seeped into my body, it seeps into one’s body when you listen to it… What do you call that process?

TP:    Osmosis.

BERNSTEIN:  Thank you.  Gesundheit.  It kind of started a disease with me, because now after listening to so much of that music, it’s like I can’t stop listening to it.  And my daughter is 6, so that was 6 years ago.

TP:    There’s a bunch of Basie airchecks from the late ’30s and early ’40s, and apart from the greatness of the band, one of the pleasures is to hear Lester Young play a bunch of choruses.

BERNSTEIN:  And on this one Jo Jones has woodblocks and cowbells… It’s really good.  It’s also before the band had four trombones.  It’s three trombones.

TP:    Here it’s the Basie band playing for dancers at either the Savoy or the Meadowbrook Lounge in 1937.

[Basie, “I Got Rhythm”; Benny Moten, “Toby”; KC-6, “Countless Blues”]

TP:    Talk about organizing that style for a group of modern musicians, whose approach to making music is different than musicians 60 years before, developing that organic feeling.

BERNSTEIN:  When we did it for the movie?  Man, these musicians are all so great that it was easy, because they all knew what to do.  It really freed me up, because for some things it could be really skeletal and they could put it together.  Riff music continues to be the music of our generation.  It’s just changed harmonically and rhythmically.  But all Popular music is riff music.  The concept of unisons, as a lot of jazz has strayed from that, has gone to Pop music.  One thing about James Brown is the unisons.  You hear great unisons in a lot R&B music and a lot of dance music.  That’s why it makes people want to dance.  It’s the power of all that happening together.  You hear that in African music a lot.  There’s unisons and there’s… Obviously, the rhythms are different, but a lot of people in unison in different rhythms often.

The band Spanish Fly had… I remember Frank Perowsky, who is the father of a friend of mine and a great saxophone player, came to one of our gigs.  This was a band with trumpet, slide guitar and tuba.  He’s really a modern jazz guy.  He said, “Steve, as I’m listening to this, I’m wondering what is this that they’re playing.”  And I realize it’s unison.  Because if you hear a slide guitar, a trumpet and a tuba playing unison, that’s a very specific kind of unison.  Every unison is different.  So there’s a whole world of unison out there.  You hear it in Parliament-Funkadelic.  You hear a lot of good unison out there.

Obviously, you don’t hear arranging.  Actual arranging has gotten away from that.  Because people are much more into putting a lot of things on top, a lot of different moving lines.  But for dancing, of course, it really moves people.

TP:    We’ll move to music now by the trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, who was a primary mentor for Steven when he came to New York.

BERNSTEIN:  It was just a miracle.  I went to NYU, and he was there teaching.  You had a choice of trumpet teachers, and I’d been hearing about him.  When I moved to New York, a lot of people studied with Jimmy Maxwell, so I had a lot of opportunity to study with him.  He really took me under his wing.  I’d take lessons at his house, and he’d send me home with tapes and records, and books about Zen, and food.  I’d spend all day there, he’d cook a huge breakfast, we’d take a walk, we’d play, we’d cook… He taught me about cooking.  It was one of those things where someone talks to you about things.  And he’d just seen so much in his life.  Here’s a guy who was 17 years old on the road with Skinny Ennis, then he replaced Harry James basically in Benny Goodman’s band when he was 18 years old.  18 years old, and he joins the most popular band in the United States of America…
TP:    Replacing the most popular trumpeter.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes.  It was big news back then.  It as if someone had replaced John in the Beatles or something like that.  What he saw living that life was  really amazing, and being able to pass some of that on to me was great.  He’s a very spiritual guy.  The lessons were much more than just music.

The first piece starts with solo trumpet, and it’s a great chance to hear his sound.  One of the things Jimmy taught me about was timed vibrato.  When I first started playing gigs after taking lessons with him, other trumpeters were looking at me like I was crazy, because I’d be playing these parts with this really pronounced vibrato, which of course is not the way you play in modern music.  But when you’re young and studying with someone, you’re trying to emulate what they teach you, and sometimes that might not be the right thing to do in a certain situation.  But eventually, the vibrato has brought me a lot of good things.

[Jimmy Maxwell, “Estrelita,” “The Trolley Song”]

TP:    Now some live Ellington.  Hearing live Ellington airchecks and recorded performances is one of the great pleasures of jazz collecting.  You have them going back to the early ’30s and all through his career.  These come from 1948-49, when Ben Webster joined the band.

BERNSTEIN:  Right.  These are just trumpet features.  This is “Tooting Through the Roof,” which he wrote for Rex and Cootie.  It’s pretty impossible to play.

TP:    This is where the Ellington band would be that precision instrument

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly. “Braggin’ In Brass” is more rhythmically difficult.  “Tootin’ Through the Roof” is just…as far as the range, it goes all through the trumpet to the very top.  This is when he had Al Killian in the band, who was a great lead trumpet who people don’t talk about so much.

TP:    Talk about lead trumpet versus the soloistic approach.  I did a liner note for someone who’s a protege of Clark Terry, and he spoke of Clark Terry embodying that ideal of playing trumpet with the lead trumpet type technique with the feeling…

BERNSTEIN:  Right, of a jazz player, which is difficult.  Most people… It’s the natural thing that would happen when you’re trying to play things consistently and the same all the time.  We’re talking about balance.  That could shift the balance from being able to be really spontaneous and pulling things in different directions.  That’s a really hard thing to do, and that’s what we heard Maxwell do.  He was a very lead style trumpet player.  The Ellington style was a little more… He told me that he didn’t like Chet Baker when he heard him, and then he saw a written-out Chet Baker solo and played it, and then he liked.  I heard him play the Chet Baker solo.  But he’s not playing it like Chet Baker would play it; he’s playing the notes and interpreting it his own way.  Then he could appreciate the rhythmic and melodic beauty of it.  But for him, the way  Chet played wasn’t the way the trumpet should sound.  He comes from another school.  He doesn’t play any more, but when I studied with him he was still playing all the time.  He was playing every night and sounding incredible.

He’s the person who taught me about all these trumpet players.  He talked about Billy Butterfield all the time.  Who talks about Billy Butterfield.  But when he was doing sections, he was telling me that in Mildred Bailey’s show the trumpet section was him, Billy Butterfield and Roy Eldridge.  Now, think about that.

TP:    The different sounds, for one thing.

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah, but also the level of playing of those three guys.  Billy Butterfield was a great trumpet player, a great lead and jazz stylist.  Jimmy always described him as having the best intervals in the  business; his intervals were perfect.  And Shorty Baker, who is the lower of the two lower tessitore trumpet players in this next piece, a trumpet player from St. Louis, has a beautiful sound.  It sounds like he really influenced Clark Terry.  Beautiful tone.  Didn’t Miles talk about Shorty Baker?  Trumpet players know about him, but now everyone will.

[Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (Killian-Baker); “Boy Meets Horn”; Teagarden & Ben, “St. James Infirmary”]

TP:    This “Boy Meets Horn” may be the ultimate of all the “Boy Meets Horns” I’ve heard, which are two or three.

BERNSTEIN:  That’s why I played it.  At the end there’s a cadenza that Rex would always play.  By the way, my son is named Rex.  But that was a set piece, and this is the extended version.  Here Ellington plays piano behind him, and it’s neat, the backup line he plays — a little counter-melody.

TP:    And from 1948 we heard “Tootin’ Through the Roof.” on an Italian collectors label called Raretone.

BERNSTEIN:  At the end, Al Killian and Shorty Baker don’t really make the end the way Cootie and Rex did; they articulated so much stronger on the recording.

TP:    Before the next set, I’d like to speak about Sex Mob.  Each of your ensembles has had a general vibration or sound or signature.  How did this band come to be?

BERNSTEIN:  Sex Mob came about as a vehicle to explore the slide trumpet.  I only play slide trumpet in Sex Mob, and I’d been playing it in different groups… I bought a slide trumpet in 1977 and I’ve been playing it since then, but never that seriously until about eight years ago, when I decided to really start practicing it.  It’s a really difficult instrument.  So when I originally played it, I would just play in a few keys I could kind of get around in, and it would just be something I could pick up and play.  But then Dave Douglas suggested I practice it.  Smart man.

So I wondered I could take the instrument if I had a band where this was the only instrument I’m taking to the gig.  I just figured let’s see what kind of repertoire I could develop that I could play on this instrument.  And this is a great band.  We’ve pretty much had regular gigs in New  York for five years.  We play usually Friday nights at midnight at Tonic.  It’s Tony Scherr on the bass, Kenny Wolleson on the drums, and my partner in sonic crime, Briggan Krauss, on alto.

TP:    What does the slide trumpet give you that the valve trumpet doesn’t?

BERNSTEIN:  One thing it does is, it frees me.  It frees me from the history of the trumpet.  Most trumpet players feel this… There’s a weight on your shoulders in a sense, an obligation to all those who came before us.  Especially when you grow up like I did, really listening to a lot of trumpets… I listened a lot.  So you listen to Clifford, you listen to Lee, you listen to Booker Little, to Roy Eldridge and Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, etc., Louis Armstrong, obviously… You have all these people you’re thinking about.  I used to see Dizzy all the time.  I should have brought that thing where Dizzy plays just like… Dizzy got so many things from Rex Stewart.  Dizzy is the one who plays like Rex, not Clark Terry.  In fact, Dizzy was on that aircheck of Rex we just played.  Taft Jordan was another great trumpet player that people don’t talk about.

So it allows me to play an instrument… I manipulate it the way I play the trumpet.  I use my airstream in the same way.  But it’s a whole nother instrument.  It allows me to explore other avenues.  The other thing is, funlike the buttons… When you press a button down, you get this approximate pitch as the button shoots air through the trumpet.  But with the slide, you’re just moving the slide back and forth, and it gets all these tiny increments in pitch.  If you want to play below the pitch a little, you can hold it there, or above the pitch — all these different places.  It’s much easier to get there.  Much easier to play like a voice.   Much easier to play like Otis Redding.  Much easier to play like a slide guitar.  Much easier to play other sounds you might be hearing in your head.  So it allows me to express other sounds.  And it’s loud.  And it’s quiet.  That’s really good.  There’s something about the instrument…

TP:    Why don’t more people play it?

BERNSTEIN:  Because it’s really hard.

TP:    You mean controlling those increments of pitch?

BERNSTEIN:  It’s really difficult to get.  I’ve developed a style based on being out of tune, so I have an excuse.  I’m not trying to play like J.J. Johnson on it.  That’s not what I’m going for.  But even the way I play it, it’s really hard.  And eventually, probably someone will come up and figure out how to play like that.

TP:    So as opposed to the trombone it’s out of what the just proportion would be for it to be in-tune….

BERNSTEIN:  No, it’s the same proportion.  but if a trombone has an inch between each half-pitch, I would have half-an-inch.  If you’re a little bit off on trombone, most people can’t hear it.  But if you’re that same physical distance off on the slide trumpet, everyone can hear it.  The second grade music teacher can hear it.  Everyone is checking it out.  It’s one of those long and strong instruments, without a doubt.

[Sex Mob, “Harlem”]

TP:    That was the concluding piece on the CD, so obviously the concluding section of the dance.  All the arrangements kept the essence of Ellington with a contemporary rhythmic connotation, timbre and attack.

BERNSTEIN:  I listen to a lot of modern music.  Most of my inspiration for producing sound comes from what people call the Pre-War period.  But then, I love what it feels like to be alive today, so this is why I play as though I were a living person.

TP:    We’ll enter the here-and-now in the last half-hour, though you were a toddler when Mama Too Tight was recorded.  A mono LP!

BERNSTEIN:  I was 13 the first time I heard this.  This is another record I remember hearing the first time and thinking… Another story going back to Jimmy Maxwell and Archie Shepp.  He taught lessons in a little studio in the Charles Collin studios on 53rd-54th Street, and he told me one day he was giving a lesson, and suddenly he heard something that sounded more like Duke Ellington’s band than anything he’d ever heard.  He ran out of his rehearsal studio, ran into the next, and it was Archie Shepp playing his arrangements of Ellington.  I thought it was very interesting for someone who grew up listening to Ellington to say that.

[Shepp, “Mama, Too Tight”; Apfelbaum, “Chant 49”; Codona, “Coleman Wonder”]

BERNSTEIN:  We have pictures of Peter, Jeff Crestman and Peter in sixth grade, playing gigs — after school.  We were into it, man.

TP:    What is it about Berkeley that produces all these open-minded musicians?

BERNSTEIN:  And it’s funny.  The later they were born, the more money they make!

TP:    Were you a product of that particular teacher?

BERNSTEIN:  Yes Phil Hardymon.  Phil Hardymon, Dick Winnington, a piano player, and Herb Wong, the educator and noted humanist who started the program around 1970.  I got there the second year of it.  I got to Berkeley the first time in ’69, so it must have been in ’72.  Hardymon was incredible.  He was a no bullshit kind of person.  He basically said, “Look, this is good music, this is bad music,” and he would not tolerate us listening to bad music.

TP:    What was bad music?

BERNSTEIN:  You know, bad big band music.  You know…

TP:    Brassy, peppy…

BERNSTEIN:  Well, that’s not necessarily bad.  Brassy doesn’t mean bad.  You know what’s bad?  Out of time.  Out of tune.  Not swinging.  That’s what’s bad.  Those are the elements of jazz that you need to have, is it needs to be in time, it needs that element of melody that makes it jazz.  Whether we’re talking about somebody like Chet Baker, or you’re talking about Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis in the ’60s, with all very different tones and styles of trumpet, but they’re all real, they all have whatever those essential elements are.  And of course, Lester Bowie and Don Cherry and Woody Shaw.  Hardymon would take us to gigs… Mr. Hardymon.  We always just called him Hardymon.  He had this little Karman-Ghia, he’d drive us to Keystone Korner.  He took us to see the Art Ensemble the first time.  And he’d put up with it.  I know at first he couldn’t quite get why we were listening to the Art Ensemble, but when he heard them live he figured it out.  He always told us, “Man, you guys got to learn to play the changes better before you start doing all this.”  He was right.  But that was the music that was in the air.  We wanted to play it.  I saw Lester Bowie play a solo in Berkeley.  I saw Baikida play a solo, I saw Oliver Lake play a solo.  These people were all coming through town when I was growing up.

TP:    Well, the Art Ensemble spent a lot of time out there.

BERNSTEIN:  Right, and they had friends they’d hang with.  I still remember once we went to see Lester solo, and the next day we went to play a Reno Jazz Festival.  We used to get up in the Reno Jazz Festival and play free jazz.  Everyone else was playing Bill Holman…well, Bill Holman is hip… Like, Sammy Nestico, those kind of real typical high school arrangements.

Coming up is some music I heard, real Berkeley-style — recorded in New York.

[Lowe-J/L Bowie, “Play Some Blues”]

BERNSTEIN:  Beaver Harris is someone who was really influential on me and Peter.  He was a good friend of ours.

TP:    We’ll conclude with a track that I noticed is on the top of the Knitting Factory charts…

BERNSTEIN:  I have Sex Mob, I have the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and Diaspora Soul.  I’ll have records by all three out in the Fall.

[Sex Mob, “About a Girl” (Kurt Cobain)]



Steven Bernstein (WKCR, 6-3-99):

BERNSTEIN:  I’m the world tallest slide trumpet player.  You got a problem with that?

TP:    Is that documented in the Guinness Book of World Records?  I want to see documentation.

On the cover of Steven’s new record, Den of Iniquity, is a very fine likeness of Steven with red horns on his head and some red outline around him that looks like a shadow cape.  Looks like you’re channeling something there.

BERNSTEIN:  It was all stream of consciousness, and no Biblical aspirations.  Some people saw some anti-Semitic undercurrent in there, but it was all completely done…

TP:    With innocence.

BERNSTEIN:  Innocence and inspiration.

TP:    it was more of a Zap Comix vibe, I would say, than…

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  I would say more Zap Comix than Michelangelo.  Is that the one who did the Moses with the horns?

TP:    There’s a good segue.  Because one thing not everyone might know about you, given your extremely contemporary persona, is your devotion to the old guys in the music — and your intense study of the older forms of the music.  You’re a virtual encyclopedia of ’30s big bands and jump music, and I guess al that inflects what you do with Sex Mob.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m trying to.  I see Sex Mob hopefully as a return to what I feel is the earliest roots of jazz.  After it came out of New Orleans and moved to Chicago, you had basically a blank slate of new music where people were taking pop songs of the time and playing them in new styles.  They were playing them with different rhythms, they were playing them with different dynamics, and they were playing them with improvisations.  That’s what Bud Freeman and all those guys heard when they would go to the Royal Gardens.  It was this music where people basically took pop songs and played them in the way they felt like playing them.  These people were young, brash geniuses.  This music was louder than any music of its time.  This music was certainly being played on let’s say a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville song or minstrel song would have been played.

TP:    And accompanied by some pretty psychedelic liquor, too.

BERNSTEIN:  Oh yeah.  Exactly!  Guys were getting out there.  That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.  People talk about the problem of having an audience for jazz.  And so many people are scared of jazz.  Because when they hear it, they have no familiarity with the songs.  The last real popular era of jazz you had Miles Davis.  Miles did the same songs.  Miles did “My Funny Valentine,” “Stella By Starlight,” songs that everybody knew.

TP:    The songs of the day..

BERNSTEIN:  Songs of the day.  Even Coltrane did “Inchworm” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and all that stuff.  So that’s what I’m trying to do.  On my last record I do a piece by the Cardigans, I do “Live and Let Die,” I do a piece by Prince, I do a tune by Duke, Leadbelly — songs that everyone knows.

TP:    A lot of improvisers are trying to incorporate “the new standard,” one of two pieces from the ’60s or ’70s that they do some rearrangement of.  How do those tunes hold up as vehicles for improvisation?

BERNSTEIN:  In my opinion, it matters how well you arrange them.  I won’t say who I saw, but I saw one person, an amazing musician, doing a concert of that kind of music and the arrangements weren’t suiting the music.  So when you’re talking about music that doesn’t have a lot of harmonic structure,  it’s very important that you arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance.  Because what’s happened in Pop music is there’s been a digression of harmonic material over the last 50 years, where it went from the long form of the march, which had an intro and had the opening strains and the second strains and the third strains, all these different parts; and then we got down to the Tin Pan Alley form of music, which has the verse and the chorus with the bridge; and then you got to the point where you just had songs which were AABA form; and then we got to kind of doo-wop songs which were the same AABA form, but now we’re just having a I-VI-II-V harmonic form instead of going into a lot of different keys, and still usually going to the IV chord no the bridge; and then people let go to the bridge, and that’s when you got some early music of Sly Stone and James Brown, where you just had a I-VI-II-V; then pretty soon it got the point where you had one single melodic bassline which became the entire harmony for the song; then you got the ’80s where you just had a synthesized bass riff; and then you had Public Enemy where it wasn’t even about any harmony at all, but a sample suddenly became your harmonic basis for the song.

So with this new music it’s very important to realize we’re dealing with arrangement, and you’ve got to create interest in the arrangement.  You asked how they will hold up.  As long as the arrangement allows interest and allows growth, and then you have great improvisers, it’s going to be fine.  You can’t play “Raspberry Beret” by Prince the same way you play “My Funny Valentine.”  It’s that simple.

TP:    In your career as a musician has Pop music and jazz music always existed on an equal plane for you in terms of your study and interest?

BERNSTEIN:  No.  When I was a kid I was a total jazz snob.  I started playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardeman in Berkeley, California, who started us playing jazz… We had improvisation in fifth grade.  Phil died last year, and a lot of people came from under his tutelage — Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, Craig Handy, Josh Redman, etc.  He believed in taste.  He believed everyone should play in taste.  We weren’t really big into  playing a lot of music over the changes.  More into melodies.  He was into playing us ’50s Miles and Chet Baker and of course Duke.  Then Peter Apfelbaum and I started getting into other types of music.  The first concert Peter took me to, we saw Eddie Harris at Keystone Korner.  We were in seventh grade.  Then later on in seventh grade we went to see Sam Rivers Trio with Sonny Fortune opening.  That was the second concert we went to.   Then we finally got to see our heros, the Art Ensemble.  The Art Ensemble has known me and Peter since we were 13 years old.  We’re talking about 1975 is the first time I saw them, at the Great American Music Hall.  Roscoe had taken a sabbatical, and it was just Joseph and Lester.  It was unbelievable.  We went backstage.  We had learned some of their songs, and we played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they came out and see these two little kids banging on the wall, and they invited us in.

Berkeley was amazing.  Not only did I get to get to hear Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon at Keystone Korner, there was also a series of solo concerts at a place called Mapenzi, and I heard Leo Smith solo, Lester Bowie solo, Oliver Lake solo, Baikida Carroll.  We heard a lot.  Plus my trumpet teacher was a guy named John Coppola, who is now in his early ’70s, and he played with Woody and Billy May and Kenton, and he’s the guy who introduced me to Cootie and Rex.  I was being a snotty kid and I came to my first lesson, we were talking and I said to him, “Man, I’m into Lester Bowie.”  I’m talking to this older Italian gentleman.  He said to me, “Oh yeah!  Yeah, I like Lester.  He’s a good trumpet player.  He’s doing what Rex was doing back in the ’40s.  And he throws on this record.  I go, “Oh, man, this is the same thing!”  So I started listening to Cootie and Rex in 11th grade, and that really changed my life.  When I heard Ellington’s ’40s band, with Jimmy Blanton, with Rex and Cootie in the section together, and Ben Webster, I knew that was the greatest music that ever existed in the world.  That was it.  And it still is for me.  I listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.

I love talking about music.  I was talking to Joe Wilder yesterday for about an hour.  We were talking about Emmett Berry, Charlie Shavers, Taft Jordan, Billy Butterfield, Dud Bascomb.  Do you know Dud Bascomb?  Both Miles and Dizzy appropriated his licks from the “Tuxedo Junction” solo, and played them in later solos.  Dud Bascomb was one of the important links between Swing music and bebop.  But people don’t talk about him.

TP:    Now we’ll move into the “new standard” aspect with Sex Mob’s arrangement of a tune by Prince.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s “Sign of The Times,” our arrangement, with the help of our great friend and engineer Scott Harding, who also works with Wu Tang Clan and Prince Paul and who I think is as much responsible for this arrangement as we are.

[Sex Mob, “Sign of The Times”; “Rock of Ages”]

BERNSTEIN:  Sex Mob has played at least once a week every night for the last year.  We have a steady night at Tonic.  We do midnight shows, and they’ve been getting wilder and wilder.  People have been making me CDs, and there’s a great one with Eyvard Kang from Bill Frisell’s band sitting in and Wayne Goodman from the LCJO playing together.  Trombone and violin is an incredible orchestrational device that has not been used enough.  There’s always special guests.  The next one will be Thursday the 10th at midnight, and then on Friday the 25 Sex Mob plays the music of Little Richard with special guest Brian Mitchell.

TP:    Tell me about the evolution of the band, the personnel, what it takes to play with you.

BERNSTEIN:  The bass player Tony Scherr is responsible for this.  We were playing what we might call almost a freebop kind of gig at MOMA with Michael Blake.  Ben Allison, the regular bass player, couldn’t make it, and Tony Scherr came.  I’d never played with him.  He has this very muscular way of approaching the bass, where he holds it away from his body.  I looked at this guy, and I was scared.  I was scared to play with him.  I told Michael, “I’m not good enough to play with this guy.”  Anyway, he turns out to be a great guy, we start talking, and he loved the slide trumpet.  He said to me, “Man, I love that slide trumpet.”  I said, “One day when I get better I’m going to put together a band where I only play the slide trumpet.”  Tony said, “You’re ready to do that now.”  I said, “You really think so?”  Now, Tony’s a guy who’s been through all the big bands, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Woody, blah-blah..  He’s a heavy hitter.  So he gave me the courage to say, “Okay, if this guy thinks I can really play this instrument…”

So I called up Briggan Krauss, whom I’d met in Seattle, who is a virtuoso alto player but not a virtuoso in the sense… Most virtuoso alto players play a kind of traditional alto style.  He plays a very modern, expressive style, working with styles, but he can read anything, play anything, play any tempo, play any sort of pitch, and in his own style.  Kenny Wolleson, who I’ve known since he was a kid in California — another person able to play with anybody.  And Tony.  We started playing originally with Dom Falzone on bass, because Tony was always busy.  We did Thursday nights at 11 at the Knitting Factory tap bar.  We did that for two years.  After about four months Tony joined us.  And we just developed a repertoire.

Most bands either have no arrangements or else they rehearse.  But we had one rehearsal.  After that, every night I’d bring down whatever song I’d been listening to, I’d sit on the subway and write a chart out, I’d get to the gig, and throw the chart in front of them, and we’d do it.  I still try to do that at every gig.  I try to bring a song they’ve never played before with a real bare-bones chart, I rehearse it in front of the audience, and we play it.  We have a repertoire of over 100 songs.

TP:    Each tune evolves through performance.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  And it evolves through an audience’s reaction.  Which again is something that jazz used to do more.  But lately I think jazz has developed in a bubble, where you have songs developing under the guidance of a producer in a studio or at home, in some guy’s little house.  But actually, our entire repertoire is evolved in front of an audience.

TP:    I think in jazz there’s always been a studio aspect to generating tunes, but people used to have long residencies.  A band would be at the Vanguard for three weeks, or at the Village Gate for two weeks, or the Five Spot for a month, and the things would happen.

BERNSTEIN:  You listen to band that actually had arrangements… One of the great bands people don’t talk about was the original Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams with Duke Pearson doing the arrangements.  That was a band that worked and had… Arrangements are important to me.  I’m an arrangement type of guy.  We were talking about Shorty Rogers before.

TP:    Steven left a message asking when he was coming, and said “Listen to this arrangement, bye,” and it was a Shorty Rogers arrangement of “Un Poco Loco.”

BERNSTEIN:  I had thought Shorty Rogers was a shtick of guy, and it turned out to be this amazing… I don’t think you could find people who would be physically able to play this stuff.

TP:    Did your interest in arranging start with your discovery of older jazz nd Ellington, shaping the course of improvisation?

BERNSTEIN:  Yeah.  But it also comes from growing up playing free improvisation as well as standards.

TP:    You were doing both.  Parallel track for you.

BERNSTEIN:  Parallel track.  Obviously you can tell I spent more time playing free improvisation than standards.  But when you play free improvisation, it’s about instant arranging.  It’s creating instant arrangements.  That’s kind of what I do on the stage in Sex Mob.  Then when you actually write arrangements, you have the power with your pencil and your brain to envision these arrangements and then have them come to life.

Another band that influenced me was Archie Shepp’s band with Roswell and the two basses, which was interesting because it was a real swinging jazz band, but it didn’t follow jazz forms, as far as the 8-bar form of a song.  But it had the feel of a jazz band…and they wore suits.

[Sex Mob, “Roswell,” “Come Sunday”]

TP:    Tell me about the slide trumpet and why that’s your medium.

BERNSTEIN:  I’ve had one since 1977.  Peter Apfelbaum and I were up at the Creative Music Studio, and we stopped by this little guitar store and saw these two slide trumpets on the wall.  The guy wanted $25 each for them.  So we both bought one.  And I’ve always had one.  A couple of things I could play  naturally in it, and I used to play it with Spanish Fly on a few tunes, and I’d notice the audience reaction whenever I played it… You could just feel it.  It was very visceral.  One time, I was playing at a festival in Austria, and Dave Douglas was there with Tiny Bell, he was listening to the Fly, and he said to me afterwards, “Man, that instrument is so incredible, why don’t you practice it the same way you practice the trumpet?”  And Dave is such a brilliant guy… Maybe I’m just dumb.  But I’d never thought about that.  I’d never thought about practicing it… In trumpet we have this whole series of books.  We do the Arbins(?) book and the Clark book, these traditional trumpet studies.  I’d never done that stuff on the instrument.  I’d never actually gone and played the classical type of trumpet playing.  So I started practicing it.  I mean, I still make my living as what I call a button trumpeter, but with Sex Mob it’s interesting that this is the first band of the many I’ve done that’s really gotten out into the world and people are really reacting to, and part of it is the slide trumpet.

TP:    What is it about the dynamics of its sound?

BERNSTEIN:  I think it’s as much… Well, the instrument can do anything. . The instrument can approximate a voice much easier than a button trumpet can, because you can move the slide wherever you want as far as pitch.  With a button trumpet, basically you push down a button and then you have that amount of tubing to go through and  you’re stuck with very close to what that  pitch is.  A slide trumpet is just much more expressive.  Also personally, I’ve always felt a little laden down by the tradition of the trumpet.  Because you listen to Clifford Brown… I’ll never be able to play… If I practice every day for the rest of my life, I’d  never be able to play as good as Clifford Brown.  I’d never be able to play as good as Wynton Marsalis, that’s for sure, even if I practiced every day of my life.  But certainly, you can go back to Clifford, you can go back to Booker Little, you can go back to Lee Morgan — these giants of bebop.

TP:    So there’s a tradition of virtuosity on the instrument.

BERNSTEIN:  And these guys, they staked it out, as far as I’m concerned.  Clifford alone, man, and Freddie.  I used to go see Woody Shaw a lot, and Woody was the last guy, man…  Woody wrote all that music.

TP:    Who really extended the vocabulary.

BERNSTEIN:  And not only that.  He wrote songs that featured his style of playing.  So he would play these songs, a lot of them he wrote when he was 19 or 20, songs like “The Moontrane,” and he continued to play, where it set up a sort of harmony where he felt very comfortable and where he could, within that harmony, keep extending it, as opposed to playing other people’s songs or playing standards, when he would play his own songs that he had written to feature his harmonic vocabulary.

With a slide trumpet, I feel like there’s no one to compare it to, I just play the way I want to play it.  Then, of course, it gave me this whole other tradition to explore.  Because I’d always felt like I’ve been as much a student of music as a professional musician, and suddenly here I am, and every day I go home and boom,” Dickie Wells, J.C. Higgenbotham, Tricky Sam, all these incredible trombone players.  The slide is its own world.  There’s a world of the slide, where the slide gives you the vocabulary.

TP:    Are there any antecedents in jazz of improvisers who played the slide trumpet?

BERNSTEIN:  No.  There’s a picture of Louis Armstrong playing one with King Oliver’s band.  There’s no recordings.  There’s two great slide whistle solos which I transcribed.  One is from “Froggy Moore.”  I don’t remember the other one.  There’s a picture of Freddie Keppard holding one, that pre King Oliver trumpet, kind of that era between March and Jazz.  There was a guy who played it with Kenton’s band.  I’m spacing on his name, but one of those guys who was with Kenton and Woody in the ’50s.  Joe Wilder’s trumpet teacher played it in the style of the time, the ’30s and ’40s.  I don’t know if it was quite jazz.  But I’ve found no recordings of anyone playing it.

TP:    Who were some of your trumpet mentors after coming to New York?  Apart from whatever lessons you may or may not have taken, I know you’ve cultivated relationships with older musicians.

BERNSTEIN:  Well, the main one has been Jimmy Maxwell.  When Jimmy 18 or maybe 20 he joined Benny Goodman’s band replacing Harry James, and he sat next to Cootie Williams.  After that he went on to become probably the greatest studio and lead trumpet player in New York City for 30 or 40 years.  He’s a giant of a man.  When I say “giant,” this is one of the biggest people you will ever see in your life.  He’s old school.  He’s 6’5″ and he looks like a very large grizzly bear.  The trumpet was a toy to him.  Here’s a guy who sat next to Cootie, so when he would show me plunger, he would show me the way Cootie showed him, and he would show me things about vibrato… These are things that people just don’t know any more.  He showed me things about time.  He is also a very brilliant man who taught himself Japanese and Chinese and was one of the first people in the United States who studied Zen philosophy.

We would take these 10-hour long lessons at his house.  I would come to his house, we’d eat an enormous breakfast.  The first thing he’d say to me, “How many eggs do you want?  Six or eight?”  That was my choice.  Then he’d expect you to eat like four bagels and a half-slab of bacon, then we’d walk along the beach and talk about music and he’d tell me stories,  then we’d play for a few hours, and then we’d cook, and he’d play me more Ellington music, and we’d tape it, and he’d always send me home with really obscure Ellington tapes of Rex and Cootie and other players, and also would always send me home with a book of Zen philosophy and leftovers.

TP:    Leftovers and Zen.  There’s a title.

BERNSTEIN:  He explained to me, if you want to be a professional trumpet player you should learn to cook.  Because it’s going to take a while to figure out how to make money.  So learn to cook at home and feed yourself.  Because you have to be strong to play the trumpet.  It’s a very physically demanding instrument.  Then he explained to me, “If you do this kind of session, here’s what you should eat before.”  It’s about always being physically prepared to play.

He was my main older inspiration.  When I was younger I studied with Jimmy Owens, who helped me a lot, and Kamau Adalifu (Charles Sullivan).  To be honest, most of the other ones have been my contemporaries.

TP:    You’ve also been active in recent years in film music and programmatic music.  “Get Shorty,” etc… Some of it must come out of working with John Lurie in the Lounge Lizards.

BERNSTEIN:  It’s funny, because my first movie scoring came from working with Hal Wilner, who produced the first Spanish Fly record and has been a big-big supporter of me.  He brought me out and we did Kansas City.  So my film career started with hanging with Robert Altman, doing Kansas City, being on the set every day.  The next film I did was Get Shorty, which was with John Lurie.  It’s all been downhill from there.  How can you get any bigger than a Robert Altman film and then basically the biggest film of the year, the biggest soundtrack of the year.  I’ve done three other soundtracks with John Lurie.  Also that same summer I wrote a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet, for Spanish Fly, called Fly By Night, for Christopher Debase(?), who is an amazing choreographer.  I’ve done three movies with John Lurie and I’ve done two movies of independent films with my own scores, and I’ve done a couple of TV jingles.  It’s all music to me.

TP:    Are you a self-taught writer?

BERNSTEIN:  Completely.

TP:    Did this start from transcribing older material, or functional things?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, I shouldn’t say I’m totally self-taught.  I took a semester or two of arranging in college.  But I was pretty out of it most of the time.  But when I’d write an arrangement, I’d always just hear it in my head first, and then I’d just write it out, and what I wrote was basically the same thing that was in my head.  So I realized I had a gift for that.  The way I study writing is I listen, and I try to identify what’s happening.  Writing is a science.  It’s very physical.  The feeling you get from hearing music is emotional, but it’s all physical elements that create those emotions.  So I listen to things and try to identify what physically is happening there, and if it’s something good, I try to steal it the best I can — and since I never get it quite right, it sounds like me.

The next track is arranged in the style of Dave Bartholomew, who’s     still alive, a trumpet player from New Orleans who was the musical director for Fats Domino, did most of the sessions for Little Richard.  This was written for trumpet, three tenors and baritone. [ETC.]

[MUSIC: “Mazeltov,” “Mack The Knife”]

TP:    Is Spanish Fly still running parallel to Sex Mob, or is Sex Mob it for you now?

BERNSTEIN:  Well, basically Spanish Fly is no longer.  We were together for a long time, and it’s a group that was based on improvisation and communication… It’s the thing where everyone’s life changed and people had different ideas about music, and we weren’t able to play the kind of music we had originally played, so it was kind of silly to keep doing it.

TP:    So it came to an organic and amicable…

BERNSTEIN:  An organic end.  It was like it composted itself.

TP:    We were speaking off mike about sources and antecedents, and you’re taking yours very explicitly from the older swing, or I’d call them more blues trumpet players, like Rex Stewart and Hot Lips Page and Cootie Williams and Dud Bascomb…

BERNSTEIN:  That’s a good word to call them.

TP:    …and also the polished approach to lead trumpet that developed in that period, and free improvisation.  But though you’ve talked about admiring bebop trumpet players, it doesn’t seem an area you’re as interested in exploring.

BERNSTEIN:  As we said before, I always felt that hearing Clifford Brown… It was a real epiphany one time.  I was listening to that Tadd Dameron big band record with Idris Sulieman and Clifford Brown.  It literally sounds as if it was a Star Trek episode… The band is good, but it’s kind of ragged.  It sounds like everyone is a little out of it and the arrangements weren’t that polished.  But whenever Clifford solos, it sounds like a weird Star Trek thing where someone had been transported from the future.  He’s just like a laser light!  Every note is impeccable.  At that point, I was practicing ten hours a day, I was in my early twenties, and I realized, “You know what?  I’ll never be able to do this.”  I called up Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu, and I said, “You know what?  I’ll never be able to do this.”  He said, “Yeah, that’s right; the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can be at peace with it.”

That’s not really the reason I don’t play bebop, but it certainly helps.  As I also mentioned, other people my age who are phenomenal technicians which allows them to navigate chord changes in rapid tempos.  But also, part of learning bebop… You were mentioning the concept of apprenticeship.  I don’t know if you want to say a few words about that.

TP:    Well, there are very proficient players who are dealing with bebop and postbop vocabularies who put in very serious apprenticeships within those situations, learning the language, who come up with a sound of their own.  It amazes me how fresh the vocabulary remains, among all the other things that are going on.

BERNSTEIN:  That’s true.  But something I never wanted to do (and this goes all the way back to when I was a kid) was I never wanted to play other people’s licks.  It was not something I wanted to do with music.  I don’t know what brought that about.  I don’t know if it was being exposed so early to people like the Art Ensemble where you’re hearing this very fresh music not coming necessarily from a harmonic base.  But I never felt comfortable going in and playing other people’s licks over chord changes, which is something you really need to do get to that next level.  So it wasn’t where I put my energy.  And again, as far as listening goes, because I am so arrangement-oriented, it’s not as interesting for me as something I want to put my stamp on for people to listen to.  Because the whole concept of the head, the multiple solos, and another head with no backgrounds is just not something I’m interested in.  I’m much more interested in earlier music that has very extensive arrangements.  If you go to Louis Armstrong’s big bands or Jelly Roll Morton’s small groups, or things as modern as Tricky and Bjork and Porno for Pyros, where you have these very incredible sonic arrangements, that’s what fascinates me.

TP:    You said that coming to New York is when you started to understand Pop music.

BERNSTEIN:  Yes.  Also, when I went to college at Columbia… I’d been living in Berkeley, which for me was reality, but for the rest of the United States it’s another world.  And so suddenly I’m with all these white people, and what do they listen to?  They all listen to Rock-and-Roll.  So I’m hanging out with these guys, trying to be fit in, be one of the guys, and this is 1979.  I’m trying to dig Popular Couture, and at that time it was James White and the blacks and Defunkt.  These guys were the bridge for me, especially Defunkt.  That was the bridge.  Because it took all the energy of New York Modern Downtown Punk music, which was coming from Rock-and-Roll, which is coming not so much from an Afro-American tradition of music; and mixing that energy with the Avant-Garde music, Joe’s incredible trombone playing; and then taking Hendrix’s sonic kind of music with the electric guitars and Joe’s overblowing, and that was kind of… I started to understand…

TP:    Plus the horn band concept of Black acts in the ’50s and ’60s.

BERNSTEIN:  Exactly.  That showmanship thing.  That, and then just being at these clubs… I kind of became a person of the times, and I felt much more comfortable going to a club like the Mudd Club or Danceteria than walking into Sweet Basil or the Vanguard, where I’d walk in and feel like I was some guy from outer space.  And as I’d hang out in these clubs, you would hear the music they were playing and you were living that life, and as you’re living that life and hearing that music, being in the club, being one of those people of the time just started to make sense to me.  I started to explore more of that music coming through — the early rap music.  And as my ears opened up, I heard more and more music.  I never even knew what the Grateful Dead was.  It was…

TP:    And you’re from the Bay Area.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m from the Bay Area.  But I’d hear it so much, I just thought it was a style of music.  I thought it was like hippies playing country music.  I didn’t know that was the Grateful Dead.  You’d hear it coming from people’s VWs.  It sounded like Country music with the harmonies sung wrong!  The time was really bad and they’d sing the harmonies out of key.  But I just figured it was a style of music.

TP:    When did the hanging-out aspect start to morph into your being a musician on the scene and becoming actively involved in creating the life that people were going to hang out to hear?

BERNSTEIN:  It had all started pretty early.  It was my first summer in New York.  I’d known Butch Morris since I was a kid living in Berkeley, and I went down to hear Sahib Sarbib’s band at some pier that isn’t there any more on the West Side.  And this blew my mind, because this is something I could relate to.  It kind of was like the music Peter Apfelbaum had been writing for the Hieroglyphics, but it had Sunny Murray on drums, and everyone in the East Village was there.  I said, “You know what?  I can play this music.  I can play this music as good as any of these guys and I can relate to this music.”  I dug the people on stage and I dug the scene.  So I called up Butch, who was playing, and I said, “Hey, man, can I meet this Sahib Sarbib?  Can you send me to a rehearsal?”  And Butch, being the way he is, says ,”Well, you know what?  They have a recording on Wednesday, and I haven’t been playing my cornet.  Why don’t you just show up?”

So here I am, I’m 19 years old, and I just show up at this recording, and at this recording is basically most of the people on the scene.  There’s Jameel Moondoc and Paul Shapiro and Booker T and Lee Rozi and Roy Campbell, Ahmad Abdullah, Dave Sewelson, Dave Hofstra, all these guys.  We did this recording for three days, and then Dave Sewelson says to me, “Hey, man, why don’t you come down Sunday morning at the Ear Inn and sit in?”  So here I am 19 years old, I show up Sunday morning at the Ear Inn, and it’s the Microscopic Septet, which also at that time also included John Zorn.  So here I am meeting Phillip Johnston, John Zorn, at that time John Hagen was in the band, Dave Sewelson, and sitting in was Elliott Sharp, hanging out was Bobby Previte, Wayne Horwitz — I met all these guys.

So within four days I met everyone in the East Village, and here’s this relatively fresh-faced, bleary-eyed, 19-year-old trumpet player willing to do anything.  And there weren’t many trumpet players on the scene back then.  I  had certain skills that were pretty useful. I was a good reader, I had good ears, and I was really enthusiastic.  If John Zorn said “I’m doing a Sonny Clark concert,” I said, “Oh cool,” because I knew not tons of Sonny Clark tunes, but I knew four or five Sonny Clark tunes, and I’d come and sit in.  But I loved the music of the time, more noise-oriented music, shall we say.

TP:    And here we are with Sex Mob playing Friday and off and around New York. [ETC.] This is from a tribute to James Brown…

BERNSTEIN:  Like I do anything, I don’t know if it’s from my Talmudic background…

TP:    By the way…

BERNSTEIN:  No, I don’t have a Talmudic background at all.  It’s kind of a joke.

TP:    I was wondering about the Radical Jewish culture thing, and its resonance for you.

BERNSTEIN:  I’m just very Jewish.  Socially I’m about as… My name is Bernstein.  I’m a Jewish guy.  There’s not much you can say.  It’s pretty obvious when you meet me.

TP:    And proud of it.

BERNSTEIN:  And proud of it.  That’s right, man.  Say it loud.  So anyway, they said, “Do you want to do this James Brown compilation?”  I already had tons of James Brown, but then I was like, “Man, I’m gonna get all the James Brown,” so I could hear everything.  I had always dug “Please, Please, Please” off a record called Hell, which I’d had since I was in 11th grade.  It’s a Dave Matthews arrangement with cowbells, sort of salsa-style, and he sings it.  Then I went and found… I said, “Well, that’s the tune I want to do,” because I always loved this tune, not knowing this was James Brown’s first hit.  Then I found live version from the year when Bootsy was in the band, and they do it really fast.  Then I went back to the very first version which is called the Fabulous Flames, not even James Brown — that’s a gospel quartet.  So what I did, I transcribed the original version, and I’m playing what he sang on the slide trumpet, then we do a segue to the Bootsy version for the outro to the song, and the original version of “Turn Me On” is somewhere in my head.  That’s what it is.

[MUSIC: “Please, Please, Please”, “Live and Let Die.”]

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Filed under Billy Higgins, DownBeat, Steven Bernstein, trumpet, WKCR

For Tenor Saxophonist David Sanchez’ 48th Birthday, an Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2003 and a WKCR Interview From 2008 that Ran on WWW.JAZZ.COM

A day late for tenor saxophonist David Sanchez’ 48th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did in 2003 and a WKCR interview in July 2008 on the occasion of his Concord CD, Cultural Survival, that later ran on the much-missed web ‘zine


David Sanchez Blindfold Test (12-1-2003):

1. Michael Brecker, “Timbuktu” (from WIDE ANGLES, Verve, 2003) (Brecker, tenor saxophone, arrangement; Gil Goldstein, orchestration; Steve Wilson, flute; John Patitucci, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion) (4-1/2 stars)

This is a very interesting introduction. I love the instrumentation. Oh…wait a minute. The saxophone player definitely has a Mike Brecker. But until he starts playing, the blowing, I’m not going to… It definitely sounds like Mike. I love the orchestration. It’s really interesting, and I love what the flute player was playing at the beginning. He doesn’t play like how many flute players conventionally would play. In a way, I think he’s maybe not strictly a flute player, and he plays other instruments, like woodwinds. I might be wrong, but that’s how it sounds to me. Logically, the way he’s playing tells me this guy plays some other stuff. He isn’t the tenor player, though. But I’m convinced that he plays other woodwinds — saxophone, clarinet, other stuff. The saxophone player sounds a lot like Mike. If it’s not Mike, with all due respect… It just reminds me of Mike playing. I’m sure in other contexts, maybe he sounds a little more like him. But to me, right now, he’s sounding like Mike. [He is Mike.] That makes sense! It’s funny. A lot of people try to copy Mike, but when it’s Mike playing, 98% of the time I’m always right that it’s him. Because he plays certain ideas, certain intervals in a certain way that you say, “This is Mike.” With a certain attitude. That’s what I’m trying to say. He plays certain kind of intervals with a certain attitude, and he has a certain phrasing that’s very clean. So when he plays a phrase, I know when it’s him. He sounds great. I like hearing him in this type of context. It has that world music type of thing. At the beginning I think I heard some kalimba. I’d be lying if I told you I know which record it is. But it’s definitely Mike. I cannot tell you who the flute player is. Steve Wilson? Whoo! He was killing! I haven’t heard him play flute in a long time. I knew something about the ideas he was playing. Incredible. 4-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I liked the orchestration a lot. I’ll be buying this record for sure. I was going to say something about the percussionist, and I didn’t have time. But I was going to say that it sounds like he plays a bunch of different genres, so it’s not strictly a Latin guy. You know how there’s percussionists and there’s congueros, and I was going to say this guy sounds like he’s a percussionist, but at the same time, the people playing know how to keep the feel. Of course now that makes sense — Antonio Sanchez is playing drums, Patitucci is playing bass. Patitucci has great awareness of how to put the Afro-Caribbean vibe and Latin in there, but at the same time he makes it sound open. I’ll be buying this record for sure.

2. Mario Rivera, “La Puerta” (#3) (from EL COMMANDANTE, Groovin’ High, 1993) (Rivera, tenor saxophone; Hilton Ruiz, piano; Walter Booker, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums; Alexis Diaz, congas) (3 stars)

That’s a beautiful song, “La Puerta Cesaro(?).” The first time I heard that song was by Elis Regina actually. I’ve never heard the record before, but I think I have a sense of who’s playing. I think I know, but I’m going to wait. The bass player has a very good sense of playing Latin music by the way he’s playing a bolero. It’s hard to tell who he is. The piano player reminded me of Hilton Ruiz. Ah, that makes sense! He reminded me of him because he’s him! I was going to say it’s Mario Rivera playing tenor. At the very beginning, he did something with the phrasing and his sound that made me think of Mario, but now, after I’ve heard the blowing… There’s something in the sound that reminds me a bit of Mario. It’s just the sound, but then when he plays, I’m like, “That sounds a little different.” Maybe it’s because I’ve heard Mario so many times playing songs at a pace that is not this; it’s not a bolero or anything. It’s been a long time since I heard him. Sometimes he has a tendency to play a little more, more notey, but now I’m not so sure. I liked the performance. It was Hilton on piano. The bass player could be Andy Gonzalez or… I don’t think it’s Benitez, though. Walter Booker? That makes sense, because he played sometimes with Fort Apache, and the feel he put in there shows he knows how to play the bolero. But you’ve got me on the saxophone player. At first I thought it was Mario. I’ll give it 3 stars. [AFTER] It was Mario? At least I was close. Mario is an incredible musician. He’s one of these musicians who can do anything. He can play any genre, instruments like crazy; this guy can go so many directions. And here, he was really using very well the sense of space. And he can play a lot. Because I heard him playing like incredible. I said, “No, maybe this is somebody else.” But definitely the sound reminded me of Mario.

3. Ted Nash, “Point of Arrival” (from STILL EVOLVED, Palmetto, 2002) (Nash, tenor saxophone, composer; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Ben Allison, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

It’s an interesting composition. It’s going to be a little hard to tell you who the tenor player is. I can tell right now, by listening to his blowing. I hear many influences. I hear a little bit of both Joes, Joe Henderson and Joe Lovano. I can tell you the trumpet player, though. That’s Tom Harrell. It sounds like Tom Harrell to me. No? You got me here. See, I should have listened a little longer. That trill that he did, it’s so accurate. Tom doesn’t play that. Tom plays some beautiful ideas, but accuracy is not his thing. He plays some notes that take your breath away, but accuracy is not his thing. I take that back. The tenor player, there’s no way I really could tell. I could guess, but I’m not sure because I hear so many influences. I even hear a little bit of the Mark Turner thing in the upper register. Is that Clarence Penn on drums? No? Well, at least I’m being consistent. I’m getting everything wrong! [LAUGHS] [You’re saying you have to know the record to know who’s playing.] That’s not Roy Hargrove. No. He doesn’t play like that either. At first, I thought two things. When the composition started, while the tenor player was playing, I was thinking maybe this is Tom Harrell’s record. But once he started blowing, I realized I’d made a mistake. The other name that came to mind — when I heard the head especially — was Dave Douglas. But obviously it’s not him. 3-1/2 stars. [It was Wynton. I’d like to state for the record that David is putting his head in his hands.] When he played that trill, I thought, “That’s not Tom Harrell.” I said Tom Harrell too fast because when I heard the composition… Then I thought, “Is this Greg Tardy playing tenor with Tom? It could be. So maybe this is Tom.” Then I said Tom too fast. Greg plays with Dave Douglas, too. But I was thinking more in terms of how the composition sounded and the instrumentation. But once he started blowing, he started doing some things that were very accurate. So then I knew it was definitely wasn’t Tom. But you got me. I’m very surprised it was Wynton. I would have never guessed Ted. First, I’m not familiar with his stuff. Second, he has a beautiful thing going, I like his sound a lot, but he has so many influences that I could not put it together.

4. Eric Alexander, “I’ll Be Around” (from NIGHTLIFE IN TOKYO, Milestone, 2003) (Alexander, tenor saxophone; Harold Mabern, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

That’s a nice intro. The piano player put some very nice stuff on there. It’s a beautiful song, “I’ll Be Around.” I recorded this song. The tenor player has a beautiful sound. George Coleman, man! No? I said that very loud into the tape recorder! [LAUGHS] It’s definitely not George Coleman, but he definitely has a little vibe on the top register of the horn, a George Coleman thing. It reminds me, at least. I don’t know. It’s amazing. He reminds me of that vibe. I really liked what the piano player did at the beginning. The piano player is not a younger guy, right? I know by the attitude. I like the sound. The tenor player has a beautiful sound. But I can’t help it, those notes in the top register remind me of George Coleman. The only way I could guess is go to all those guys who have some kind of influence from George. Maybe I can tell on the cadenza. You can tell it’s a newer record, because for my taste, it has a lot of compression. You can hear a lot of echo. It sounds like most records sound now. In the studio, they put on a lot of compression, the sound sounds huge, but you can tell it’s fake; they use all these effects and compression and echo, a lot of reverb. You got me, man. [AFTER] You’re going to say that I’m jiving, but I was going to say Eric, but Eric has a lot of George influence. How old is this record? I’m surprised. Often there are some ideas he plays that sound like George Coleman’s stuff, but here some of the actual sound is the same vibe — the same approach in the higher register of the horn. That’s a compliment. If somebody told me I played like George, I’d be really happy.

5. David Murray, “Aerol’s Change” (from NOW IS ANOTHER TIME, Justin Time, 2002) (Murray, second tenor saxophone solo, composer; Orlando Sanchez, first tenor saxophone solo; Tony Perez, piano; Changuito, percussion) – (3 stars)

There’s definitely a Latin vibe going on. [LAUGHS] I’ll tell you that for sure! The timbalero is not an old guy. He’s playing too many notes. It’s definitely not Manny Oquendo. It’s kind of desperate, like “let’s get this…” The tenor player is doing things that remind me of Steve Grossman! I have no clue who it is, but he did a few very subtle things like Steve Grossman. The timbal is so loud that I would think it’s his record. Why is it so loud? It’s incredible. You hear every… The nature of that instrument is that it projects. So I don’t know why it’s so upfront in the mix. This tenor player reminds me of this other guy… I hear little things by other people, but something I’m hearing in this particular moment reminds me of David Murray. Okay, so that’s what this record is. [LAUGHS] Was he playing also at the beginning? So let’s put on the record that this first guy reminded me of Steve Grossman. There was no way I was going to guess him. [AFTER] By logic, I heard that David Murray had made something with a big band, a Latin thing. He did it in Paris? Oh, in Havana. That makes sense. I’m going to be honest. There’s different ways of playing Latin jazz. There’s a way of playing just like you play when people dance, like playing in a club. In all these salsa clubs and mambo clubs, there’s one way of playing. There’s the way of playing Latin jazz exactly like you’re playing for a salsa band, and then you put a solo on top. And the other way is that, yes, you take elements from that and go with the flow at the moment, and you’re very careful in how you interact with each other. In order to do that, you have to leave a considerable amount of space to be able to listen to all the other musicians surrounding you so you can interact and find your spot. At the same time, you’re going to add all those elements in the music. Here all I’m hearing is a steady rhythm, no matter what the solo is doing, and it seems to me a little frantic, like they’re in a hurry, an urgency to say “I’m here” instead of taking your time and getting there. That’s why I said this timbal player is not one of the old guys. Maybe I’m wrong. His solo is almost as though he doesn’t have enough time; he wants to say everything at the same time. But it’s only opinion, and my opinion doesn’t really matter. To my taste, I don’t like it that much. But that’s only my taste. [And that being said…] Oh, how many stars! [LAUGHS] I’ll give it 3. [That was Changuito on timbales.] Well, let me say something. It’s contradictory, because Changuito is one of my favorite timbal players in the world. So for me, it’s weird. But you never know. Different dates do different things. So maybe the way he reacted to this particular day was like this. But Changuito is actually one of the masters. I take everything back that I said, because he’s a master. I will say that for me, for my taste, first of all, the mixing…once again, it’s the compression vibe. This is the era we live in; everything is compressed. You hear every single detail of everything. And you know that when you’re at a concert, that’s not the way you hear music. The compression kills the natural overtones of the music for me. You hear even the sticks hitting the metal. For me, if I’m in a dance club and dancing with my girlfriend or something, it’s cool. But if I’m in my house listening to a record, it could bother me. But that’s only me.

6. J.D. Allen, “Pharaoh’s Children” (from PHARAOH’S CHILDREN, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Allen, tenor saxophone, composer; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Gene Jackson, drums) – (4 stars)

I like the atmosphere. I like the communication they get. Playing music that way is a different approach, and I like it. At first, I thought of Charles Lloyd, but then immediately I knew it wasn’t. And for a quick second, I thought of Dewey, but I immediately knew it wasn’t. [Does he sound like a guy that age?] I don’t know if I would put it that it’s this age or another age. But he did a few things that reminded me of them, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that it isn’t. I liked he was doing. He utilized a great sense of space. And I liked the piece, which helps, and his communication with the pianist was very good. They were really hooking up, and that’s what I appreciate most in any genre of music. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him. It’s a great record.

7. Dexter Gordon, “Scrapple From The Apple” (from OUR MAN IN PARIS, Blue Note 1963/2003) (Gordon, tenor saxophone; Bud Powell, piano; Pierre Michelot, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s great! You can’t go wrong with that one! You play it every day. Whoo! Mmm! It’s Dex. Big Dexter. “Scrapple From The Apple.” I’m trying to remember which record it is. But I knew him from the first note. It’s that way with all the older players The funny thing is that Coltrane sounded so many different ways throughout his career, but he always sounds like Trane. Sonny, too. Even Stan Getz. I have some really early stuff by Stan, but you always know he’s in there. This is not “Doin’ All Right.” Is this “Go”? I’m trying to remember the actual album. I haven’t listened to it for ages. Dexter’s the only guy who could do that quote and make it sound great! He plays all over the horn, great sound, great sense of time. 5 stars. Is the pianist Kenny Drew? Tootie Heath on drums? Oh, Kenny Clarke. Ah, definitely Bud Powell. The thing with Dexter is that in terms of sound he’s obviously got a lot of Prez, but you can tell that a lot of stuff came from Charlie Parker. He’s really playing the bebop shit incredible, but he has a whole other element of laidbackness that’s Prez-oriented, but also has his own vibe of the sound. That’s what makes him sound completely different, because the way he laid back is not the way Prez laid back. It’s a different thing. The real weight is in his sound. Another guy who plays a quote like [sings “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”], it’s like “come on, man!” But Dexter makes funny quotes. He has a sense of humor, and still sounds so great. Probably I wouldn’t like it so much if I tried to play those licks, Charlie Parker shit, that incredible stuff. I would sound sad! But he delivers the phrases in a certain way that make it sound so hip and so personal at the same time.

8. Papo Vasquez, “Vianda con Bacalao” (from Papo Vasquez, CARNIVAL IN SAN JUAN, Cubop, 2003) (Papo Vasquez, trombone, percussion, chorus composer; Willie Williams, tenor saxophone; Arturo O’Farrill, composer; John Benitez, bass; Horacio Hernandez, drums; Joe Gonzalez, congas; Roberto Cepeda, chorus)

Nice. This is what people call Latin Jazz, but it sounds like New York Latin Jazz. It’s got some New York shit in there. It has some New York attitude to it. It’s really hip. It has a lot of content, but at the same time the groove is there. I like this. This reminds me of Papo Vasquez’ stuff, the arrangement. He’s one of these guys who writes music, like the in Fort Apache also, and he makes very good use of the bass, contrasting motion in phrases with the percussion, and then the horns are doing something different. That was a very interesting arrangement. Did you notice that the drum was not so much in your face? The clave was a little up-front; I wish I didn’t hear it so clear. Anyway, it reminded me of Papo, but I could very well be wrong. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I knew it. He writes some really hip stuff. I think the tenor player was Willie Williams. He sounded good. But sometimes, when you put cats in a certain context, I guess the natural thing is that you change a little bit your playing, but just to that particular way of playing. Here it’s a Latin thing, but it’s a really hip Latin… It’s not like the Latin jazz where you just play for people to dance, and okay, let’s have some fun and background music. This is a really hip arrangement. You could tell the interaction was a little different also. It has that New York attitude, like I said before. But somehow, because the Latin element is there, I feel sometimes guys try to change a little bit and adjust and try to play a little bit more rhythmic and so on. And sometimes… I know Willie’s playing, and I know he’s a great player, but on this particular occasion, for my taste, I’d rather hear him play the way he really plays. Was that Negro on drums? I liked it a lot. It sounded great, and Papo wrote some beautiful music, as usual.

9. Warne Marsh, “Rhythmically Speaking” (from BACK HOME, Criss-Cross, 1986) (Marsh, tenor saxophone; Barry Harris, piano; David Williams, bass; Albert Heath, drums) – (3 stars)

That sounds like someone who is influenced by Lester Young, but the rest of the band sounds really bebop-oriented, very tradition. But the tenor player is playing kind of over the bar lines. I’m not sure I’m so much into this… Believe me, I love the bar lines. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are the two greatest people to play over the bar line to me. They could play so elastic, but then, when they came back, WHOO! Monk, too. He had a very special way of playing over the bar lines. This one has a different way of doing it. The tenor player reminded me of the Tristano school, that perhaps he had some influence from Warne Marsh, that type of playing. I like that type of playing, but you’ve got to play a certain way. I thought it was cool, but I’m not going to tell you it was great. 3 stars. [AFTER] [LAUGHS] Well, at least I was on the right track. I was never going to guess it was Barry. But the other guys were more bebop, more traditional-oriented. This is a late recording of Warne Marsh. Because he had a way of playing over the bar line which was different. This reminded me of this Tristano counterpoint type of thing. But earlier in his life it was a little more accurate. On this, it sounded like he was playing over the bar line, but then after that, what? It’s falling over anything, basically. It doesn’t have the continuity after the fact of going over the bar line. This is a late recording. It sounds like it. I’ve got a great record with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, and they play all these incredible heads. They sometimes will take a standard song and put on a whole other head with a Tristano vibe. This reminded me of him, and it was him, but it was another period of him, I guess.

10. Frank Wess, “Rockin’ Chair” (from Bill Charlap, STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) (Wess, tenor saxophone; Charlap, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums)

I hear some Ben Webster. But it’s not Ben Webster. That phrase definitely sounded like Ben. The inflection is right in there. Swing. This is a tricky one, because I know it’s not Ben. Sometimes I hear a little bit of Houston Person, but I know it’s not him. I don’t recognize the song. Is this a younger guy…not a younger guy, but definitely not the generation of Ben Webster. This is a guy who was after the generation of Ben Webster. [Is this an older recording or a newer recording?] I think it’s a newer recording. Maybe not new-new, but not even from the ’60s or ’70s. This is maybe ’80s or ’90s or something? I don’t know. Is it Scott Hamilton? Nice performance, right in the pocket. I liked the feel of the drums, the ride cymbal. It was definitely swinging, right in the middle of the beat, and the tempo was very precise. The piano player actually played very beautiful. When you play that kind of style, you’ve got to be careful not to overdo it, and I liked the way he was economical, but at the same time had some stuff going on. The tenor player has the Ben Webster thing, he has the old thing, but I know it’s none of those guys, like Gene Ammons or Ben Webster. I would give them definitely 4 stars. It was right in there and it had some beauty. I liked it. [AFTER] Oh, wow! No wonder, man. I should have guessed Frank. He plays with such a beauty. I was hearing the influences. I knew it wasn’t Ben, but at the same time what I liked is that it was very mature. I knew it had some level of maturity in the way he was playing, and I suppose I should have guessed it.

11. Wayne Shorter, “Orbits” (#8) (from ALEGRIA, Verve, 2003) (Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums) – (5 stars)

I know this record, and it’s one of my favorite records. It’s “Alegria” by Wayne Shorter. I don’t remember the name of this particular composition, but this has been my inspiration record for several months. You know how you have an inspirational record, “let’s get the day started” when you’re on the road, and it inspires you. I love anything Wayne Shorter ever did. He’s so profound. There’s so much in every single phrase he plays that it’s unreal. English is not my first language, so I don’t have enough words to describe how deeply anything he does and anything he puts into it. I know some of the orchestrations on this record are his. It’s amazing. You think the voices are going to move in a certain direction, and they move another one, completely unpredictable. The funny part about this is that a number of people, as usual… For me, it’s been like this for years. They always have missed the point with Wayne. Some guys talk about Wayne’s compositions. I think he’s one of the deepest and heaviest composers ever. EVER. This is just my opinion, and it’s only mine and it doesn’t matter. But it’s not only his compositions, but his playing is at a level… The only word that comes to me in English is eloquent. All the phrases are eloquent, with soul, with heart, but very well thought at the same time, very well executed. The ideas are very wise and warm, but at the same time with a very precise way of doing things structurally. Meaning the way he writes, the way he develops a solo… He’s completely accurate. You talk about having accuracy in playing, that’s accuracy for me. For some people, accuracy is hitting all the notes and you can hear them all clear. But for me, that’s only one way of accuracy. Mental accuracy is what he does, that he takes one idea and connects to the next one, the next one, and builds up and just comes down. It’s a very impressive way of doing that. He’s unique. When it comes to that, there’s nobody like Wayne. And this record is great. It has the structure, the very well-formed structure vibe, everything is very well-formed, but it has some sections that are completely open. It’s fascinating to hear somebody going forward with something no matter what. No matter what, we’re just going to go forward. I was in London and I heard him being interviewed, and he said he was willing…his degree of commitment is at such a level that he’ll go down with the ship. To me, that was a deep statement. If he means to go down with the ship, that’s… Are you willing to commit for the moment? I got this recording several months ago, and since then I carry it everywhere. I get inspired by people who are willing to… It has a very high degree of honesty in terms of how they interact together. Danilo is very special like that also, because he has great ears, but he commits also to listen and sing with John. Outside of the fact that John can play different genres and has an understanding of playing different ways, musicianship-wise, he also has some great ears. Anywhere you take him, he can go. And when you put him together with Danilo and Brian, who has these huge ears and plays beautiful things on the drums. He gives you the energy, but it’s like martial arts energy. He has that power, but it’s not blasting. He has power and it has some depth. That’s why I love this particular group, especially with this kind of chamber ensemble. In my book, it’s 5 stars.





David Sanchez (WKCR, July 24, 2008):

It is hard to fathom why tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, who turns 40 next month, draws scant attention from the jazz press. It can’t be for an insufficiently distinguished pedigree. After apprenticing with Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie in his early twenties, Sanchez continued to be a first-call sideman with top-dog jazzfolk like Hilton Ruiz, Kenny Barron, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden, and Pat Metheny while developing a tonal personality as individualistic as any musician of his generation. Thoroughly conversant with tenor vocabulary stretching the timeline from the ‘40s (Dexter Gordon) to the hypermodern (John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter), Sanchez began to articulate his experimentalist bent—recontextualizing the folkloric rhythms and melodies of his native Puerto Rico with the harmonic and gestural tropes of jazz, and articulating them with a heroic, ravishing tone and command of dynamics at all tempos —on three Grammy-nominated recordings for Columbia/Sony (Melaza, Obsesión, and Travesía), all Grammy-nominated. He revealed himself a full-fledged master on Coral, on which arranger Carlos Franzetti framed his sextet against the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on a suite of repertoire by Latin American classical composers. Although Coral earned the 2005 Latin Grammy for “Best Instrumental Album,” it marked the end of his 7-CD relationship with Sony.

In late July, Sanchez came to New York for a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with his new quartet—guitarist (and 2005 Thelonious Monk Award winner) Lage Lund, bassist Orlando LeFleming, and drummer Henry Cole. He joined me on WKCR-FM to talk about it.

TP: Your new CD, Cultural Survival , is your first in four years.

SANCHEZ: It’s been a while. Sony was my only label since I started in the mid ‘90s, so it took me a minute to see what was the right fit and what direction I should take this time. I needed to feel comfortable for real to do whatever I wanted. I knew this recording would be a series of firsts—the first time recording with Concord, the first time recording with a quartet with guitar, after always using piano before. So the compositional vibe is different, both from that configuration and the fact that I’ve been checking out a lot of African music, especially southeast Cameroonian music and the Ari people from Tanzania, polyphonic music from Ethiopia, music from Mali. The essence of what I’d been doing is still there, but it does sound different.

TP: Melaza in 1998 was the first project on which you delved deeply into the folkloric music of Puerto Rico, and you worked with that repertoire for the next several records. Did your study of African music emerge from your explorations in Puerto Rican idioms?

SANCHEZ: It’s sort of an extension, to be honest with you. I’ve been listening to that [African] music already since Coral. All of a sudden, everything started making a lot of sense. You often think that something is from you, where you come from. I was listening to all these pygmy communities, to something that was way before, and all of a sudden I realized, “Well, this is kind of ours, but not really.” Listening to that music gave me a bigger picture. It definitely changed my perspective. We developed it this way in the Caribbean, but then again, the roots are very strong all over Africa.

TP: Your own development has followed a path of formal saxophone training, salsa, hardcore jazz. Your first gig in the States was with Eddie Palmieri. Once you started making records, you did Latin jazz dates and hardcore jazz things, as well as exploring your own vernacular. So it’s a long, ongoing journey.

SANCHEZ: Indeed. You have to bring the New York City experience into the equation, too. In New York, if you let your mind be open to those different influences and cultural backgrounds, then it’s available for you. But you have to be open. Everything is available. Whoever plays in a unidirectional way, or thinks or hears that way, it’s because they want to. Once I came here, I was exposed to all these different people coming from different places. That helps, too. A lot.

TP: You’ve been living in Atlanta for the last few years.

SANCHEZ: For the last four years, almost.

TP: How is it not living in New York any more?

SANCHEZ: Well, it’s interesting, actually! I do miss it a little. Especially my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, Park Slope, which was pretty hip. Then again, I have the blessing to come here three-four-five times a year, which is a lot. Also, Atlanta has its own musical scene. The gospel thing is huge. The R&B—as you know, all the studios are there. Everyone goes there to record. The movement of underground hip-hop mixed with jazz, the real underground (the other one, too, the one that you hear on the radio) is a very strong movement there. The jazz scene is tiny. But the bottom line is that, culturally speaking, when you analyze it, Atlanta is a cultural center. It has some kind of traditional something. It might not be jazz, but it’s something else. And the Atlanta Symphony is a really decent symphony orchestra.

But New York is unique. No other city in the United States is going to be a match for it.

TP: In the past, we’re used to hearing you in a more polyrhythmic setup, with Adam Cruz or someone else playing drumkit and usually Pernell Saturnino, but occasionally someone else, playing hand drums and percussion. Is this a different concept? Is the paredown for economic reasons? Aesthetic ones?

SANCHEZ: Both. Today it’s very hard to go out there with a larger configuration. But at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity. I was a percussionist before I was a saxophonist. I was really deep into the rhythms. My brother used to play with a folkloric group in Puerto Rico, with one of the masters in Rafael Cepeda. So I saw it as an opportunity to write music, as I did on Melaza, in a way that my percussion influence is very present, but you can either have the percussion or not have it. It’s going to be implied in the bass lines, or on the piano—in this case, on the guitar—and on the saxophone itself. Then you say: “What is this? This sounds different. This is not straight-ahead jazz, but this is not Latin Jazz either. What is it?”

TP: Continuing on your remarks about the multiplicity of musical languages that are available to any musician who comes to New York, and how the intersection of those languages creates exciting possibilities for R&D, it occurs to me that people like you, Danilo Perez, and Edward Simon, were in the forefront of a generation that arrived in New York from all over the world with a mastery of jazz language, which they used in elaborating their own vernaculars. Were you thinking about any of those things twenty years ago? Was it simply a matter of the gigs as best you could as they came up, and things just happened?

SANCHEZ: It was a little bit of both. As I said before, once you come to this city, the opportunities are out there. Don’t get me wrong. There are other cities in the world where the same dynamic takes place, like Paris. You meet colleagues who are roughly around the same age, a little older or a little younger, and you share ideas. You view the ideas and you think, “Wow, I never thought of this in this way.” If you have enough flexibility to accept and be receptive to those ideas, then it would help you and it would help the music to evolve in a different way, in a way that you’re no longer thinking of these categories, like: “Well, I play bebop.” “No, I’m post-bop jazz.” “No, I play free jazz—that’s my period.” “I’m a Latin Jazz guy.” “No, I’m a salsa guy who plays a little bit of jazz on top.” After a while, when you experience a city like this, all of this is irrelevant! It’s just the music, and you have all these ways of playing music, all these people coming from different parts of the world, different parts of the United States. It’s up to us as artists to take whatever we think can help us and enrich our own vocabularies.

TP: What was your path towards jazz? Coming up in Puerto Rico playing percussion, folkloric music, how did jazz enter your view?

SANCHEZ: I have to say a great part of it was because of my sister. She’s not a musician. She’s still into comparative theology and comparative literature.

TP: Serious stuff.

SANCHEZ: Serious stuff! [LAUGHS] She was open to so many different styles of music. I’m talking about not only jazz, but music from Johan Sebastian Bach, or Stravinsky, or Milton Nascimento or Elis Regina in Brazil.

TP: This is an older sister?

SANCHEZ: Yes. There’s twelve years difference. When she was a teenager, I was a kid. I was exposed to jazz and all the other genres because of her, although obviously I didn’t know it back in those days. . I had a dilemma when I was 10-11-12, and I went to the performing arts school. I really wanted to study drums and percussion. You had to pass these exams, and I did, but they said that there were too many drummers. I chose saxophone because I liked the sound—it was the only other instrument I liked. Somehow, I was sitting in with the percussion and doing the saxophone classes also. But not until she brought me a recording called Basic Miles, an LP with a green jacket, which was a compilation of different periods of Miles Davis’ career… I was already playing classical foundation-oriented music; which is what they were teaching—no jazz or anything. But I immediately became curious. I was like, “Wow, this is weird, introspective, and kind of dark,” but at the same time something attracted me. Then all these questions arose. “What is that?” “Was that written?” “This is unbelievable.” Then a friend said, “No, that’s improvisation.” “Wow.” That was a turning point for me to be really serious on my instrument. My sister also brought Lady in Satin, Billie Holiday and the Ray Ellis Orchestra, her last record. That was my introduction to jazz. Weird. I was growing up in the Caribbean, and I’ve got to be honest with you—not many people were into that.

TP: For one thing, the rhythmic feel of jazz, the 4/4 swing, is pretty different than the polyrhythms you knew from folkloric music, or the time feel in classical music. A lot of people from the Caribbean say that’s the biggest adjustment they need to make in playing jazz. Was this the case for you?

SANCHEZ: There are a lot of similarities at the same time. Feeling the beat on 2 and 4 is something really basic in Caribbean music generally. In Cuban music, if you listen to the conga, or we call it bacateo, and the references when they’re dancing is 2 and 4. It subdivides into that. The triplet feel, too. That 6/8 or 12/8, however you want to call it, against four, is very present in both. When you listen to jazz, that triplet feel must be there in order to swing. If you listen to Duke or Count Basie, all those people, you hear it. It’s that really African thing, going back to that subject. The European is there also, but the rhythmic foundation… You would be amazed how many similarities.

For me, the biggest adjustment was phrasing, and that has to do with language. The way you deliver the accents, the inflections. We speak open in Spanish, and in English you utilize vowels that are more on the inside of your mouth. The same thing with the music. I found that very challenging. Just the way people from the jazz world need that downbeat thing to feel more comfortable—they find the upbeats challenging. The upbeats happen in the Brazilian world, too. Still, when you really look at it, from all the different angles, there are a lot of similarities, and that comes from the African side. It’s African roots.

TP: So many tributaries, according to the particularities of each place where African slaves were brought.

SANCHEZ: There are definitely some very strong ties. But it’s still challenging.

TP: In your formative period, how did you approach assimilating tenor saxophone vocabulary?

SANCHEZ: Back when I was growing up, especially coming out of the performing arts school that did not teach jazz at all, and then entering Rutgers, it was a little less academic. I was very enthusiastic about it. For a certain period of time I’d be checking out Charlie Parker; for another period of time I’d be checking out Dexter Gordon. It wasn’t like an assignment. It was just enthusiasm and out of love at that particular time for what Dexter was doing or what Sonny Rollins was doing. I had this strong tie with Sonny, because somewhere you feel that Caribbean experience, and his way of delivering certain phrases was very percussive. I felt, “Wow, this guy is almost playing the drums at the same time he’s playing the saxophone, too, but with an unbelievable sound.” Those were some of my heroes. I got to Joe Henderson much later. Wayne Shorter, too. When you’re ready, life takes you to where you need to go. But at first, it was enthusiasm and passion for what I was listening to. It wasn’t like a report or work. Later on, at Rutgers, of course, you needed structure, and they’d tell you to check out certain records and certain tunes, and learn harmony. I owe that to Ted Dunbar. He said, “Man, you’ve got to play the piano. You’ve got to match your ears with your technical abilities on the instrument.” He pointed out all those things to me, which were priceless lessons. Kenny Barron as well. So definitely there was a structure, but before the structure there has to be that passion and willingness to be curious about something you don’t know.

TP: You worked with Eddie Palmieri as soon as you arrived on the mainland, and you’ve maintained your relationship with him over the years. Recently, you’ve performed with him in duo, and he himself has been expanding his concept since the time you first joined him. Talk about that relationship.

SANCHEZ: Without Eddie, nothing else would have been possible. First of all, he was one of my heroes. Eddie Palmieri was huge back in the ‘70s. He did some compositions in the salsa genre that became classics. And he would not settle for this. He would move on. He clearly had the New York experience, too. So did Tito Puente. You could feel it. Okay, it’s the salsa genre, but it doesn’t sound like the conventional variety—this has something else going on. I don’t know exactly what. My relationship with Eddie from the beginning was very special, because he embraced me. Just like Dizzy, too. He embraced me in a way that he knows, “yeah, this guy has a lot of potential; he has to work on this and that.” They were aware of those things, but they still embrace you.

TP: What sorts of things did Eddie Palmieri tell you and what sorts of things did Dizzy Gillespie tell you?

SANCHEZ: For instance, at the time, Eddie would always be working on how to flow rhythmically and be open and free within the clave structure. We had a connection in there right away. It might have something to do with the fact that I was very familiar with that way of playing drums. It became like if you put a hand in a glove, and it fit. Also, I’ve got to be honest with you, there is no way I would have gotten to Dizzy if I hadn’t been playing with Eddie Palmieri. I was so blessed. I was a kid still at Rutgers University, trying to learn more music and be exposed to all these ways of playing, and here I’m already playing with Eddie Palmieri, making a little bread to go back to school and buy some books and records, which was extremely hard for me to do in Puerto Rico. Then maybe a year-and-half or so later, I had the blessing to be able to play with Dizzy.

TP: Who himself knew a lot about drums and rhythms and passed on that information to several generations of drummers.

SANCHEZ: There you go. Once again, there’s a connection. I owe a lot to my very early musical development, which had nothing to do with learning to play the piano or sounds or anything. It was just feeling the rhythm and playing the drums. It actually was an access that I didn’t know I had at the time, but it tied me to great artists like Dizzy and Eddie and helped me relate to them.

TP: Now, you toured with Pat Metheny a couple of years ago. Did that experience factor into using guitar in your groups?

SANCHEZ: He called me at the last minute to be the guest with the trio for a two-month tour. I was very flattered. It was the first time in my life that I played with a guitarist on a consistent basis. It was a great learning experience. Because it is different.

The way I approach music, I can play a solo over any comp, over anybody comping—just play all my ideas on top of it. But I’ve reached a point that, in some ways, I hate doing that. I want to be receptive and try to take a risk as to how I can relate my idea to what the person is comping behind me. I’ve found that more challenging with guitar players than with piano players. It’s funny, because with guitarists you have more space in some ways, but the strings, the textures, the sound, the sonorities can also take you elsewhere. So I find it very challenging, and I take my time. I leave the space. Some people take that as tentativeness. Some writers get a little confused by that. They think that you don’t know. But what you’re doing is, you’re waiting to have a conversation with somebody. You’re not talking all the time. You take your pauses. Or if you’re writing, you have your commas.

TP: You might spend six hours looking for the right place to put that comma.

SANCHEZ: As long as emotion is happening, that’s all that matters. It’s a collective. You’re making music. It’s a composition. The only thing is that we’re improvising, so the composition happens at the moment. When you’re writing for an orchestra, the saxophone section is not playing all the time. Maybe the trombones are doing a rhythmic figure, and then, BAM, the saxophones jump in and reply to that. The same thing with the smaller configuration. Maybe he has an idea, and if I’m not listening well to that idea, I cannot take that idea elsewhere. That’s the challenge. You can approach it so many ways. You can approach the guitar as another horn, meaning you play the head, and then he lays out and you play like a trio. Then he comes and plays his solo—you could approach it like that. You could approach it as a piano or any other harmonic instrument behind your solo. You can go on and on with different ways of approaching the instrument. It’s fantastic. As I said at earlier, there’s a lot of first-times with this recording, and that’s one—never, ever before had I had a guitar on my records.

TP: So this in some sense stems from hearing it for two months with Pat Metheny, and also your investigations into string music from different parts of Africa.

SANCHEZ: I have to say that before Pat, I listened to many recordings with the kora, and also a wooden instrument called the ieta—it looks like it’s going to be a percussion instrument, but no, it has the 7 strings—as well as an 8-string instrument called the ngombi. That had a lot to do with my decision to see what sound the strings would give me. Then when I played with Pat, it confirmed everything. I was like, wow, we’re only doubling the melody, and it sounds so full. The tenor and the guitar complement each other very well. Something about the timbre.


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Filed under Blindfold Test, David Sanchez,, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

For Bruce Barth’s 58th Birthday, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002, the Proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from 1998, and my Liner Notes for the Double-Time CD, “Hope Springs Eternal”

Pianist Bruce Barth, an “unsung” master, turns 58 today. For the occasion, I’ve posted a an uncut Blindfold Test  that we did for Downbeat in 2002; the complete proceedings of a Musician Show that we did on WKCR in 1998; and my liner note for his 1998 recording, Hope Springs Eternal, on Double Time.


Bruce Barth Blindfold Test (2002):

1. Harry Connick, “Somewhere My Love” (from 30, Columbia, 1998) – (Harry Connick, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m stumped on that one. I liked it very much. Who would have thought of playing that particular tune in a jazz style? It’s a very personal, fresh approach, a definite Monk influence, maybe a bit too explicitly so for my taste. But it’s done in a personal way in terms of the harmony and the real interesting use of the time, and just the colors of the piano. I enjoyed it very much. 4-1/2 stars. It’s really creative, thoughtful playing.

2. Peter Madsen, “A Crutch For The Crab” (from Mario Pavone, MYTHOS, 2002) (Madsen, piano; Mario Pavone, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

I found the melody very interesting. I liked the use of that triadic figure very much. I didn’t recognize the tune. [Oh, I don’t know it.] I thought it was a very interesting piece, but the soloing really didn’t have a sense of narrative flow to me. It didn’t sound that thoughtful to me, what was being played, in a certain way. There was a lot of playing, but it didn’t gel for me as a group. There’s a certain busy-ness to it, and it didn’t feel like there was a certain kind of empathy for me — or it’s just an empathy I can’t relate to. I’m sure they have an empathy. 2-1/2 stars.

3. Jaki Byard, “Diane’s Melody” (from SUNSHINE OF MY SOUL, Prestige, 1967/2001) (Byard, piano; David Izenson, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I hear certain elements of pianists I recognize, but I don’t recognize exactly who that was. It sounds like an older recording. I liked the rubato playing in the introduction and at the end. The solo had some nice ideas. Some of the flourishes, the very virtuosic moments, for me didn’t completely work so integrated into the line of the solo, in terms of as a statement. There’s a bit of a pastiche element. On the other hand, I can appreciate the playing. There’s a lot of nice ideas. I heard flashes of Jaki Byard, but it’s not Jaki. [It IS Jaki.] Wow… It’s interesting, because Jaki… I loved a lot of Jaki’s playing. That’s not one of the favorite things. [What qualitatively makes this differ from the things you like by him?] The story line of the solo, so to speak. [Does it have anything to do with the accompaniment of the rhythm section?] I thought it might have been Richard Davis on the bass, but I’m not sure. [AFTER] Wow, that’s interesting. Jaki could be eccentric in his playing. 3-1/2 stars.

4. Renee Rosnes, “My Romance” – (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, True Life, 2001) – (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond, drums).

That’s “My Romance.” I didn’t recognize the pianist. I enjoyed the reharmonization. I wasn’t moved by it really. It’s pretty piano playing, but it wasn’t for me…that tune in that setting… Again, I talk about story line or melodic development; in some ways I didn’t get a sense of a strong melodic statement. A couple of things sounded like a little pastiche element — one idea, another idea. 3 stars.

5. Peter Beets, “First Song” (from NEW YORK TRIO, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Beets, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums) (3-1/2 stars)

I enjoyed it. It sounded like an original tune; a tune by the pianist, I’d imagine. A nice arrangement and nice energy in the trio. I didn’t recognize the pianist; I enjoyed the performance. 3-1/2 stars. Nice sound, nice energy.

6. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul” (from YOUNG AT HEART, Columbia, 1996) (Mulgrew Miller, p; Ira Coleman, b; Tony Williams, d) – (5 stars)

That’s Mulgrew Miller playing “Body and Soul.” Mulgrew is certainly one of the great pianists alive today. He’s a personal favorite, and hearing him play the solo, he has such a personal language, a very rich harmonic language that’s very much his own. I love his touch on the piano. A lyrical, beautiful performance. 5 stars. [AFTER] Now I get to chastise myself in print for not recognizing Tony. I think I would have recognized him more immediately with the stick playing and not the brush playing. But they had a very nice trio sound. They played together beautifully.

7. Fred Hersch, “Work” (from SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, Nonesuch, 2001) (Hersch, piano) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Fred Hersch playing “Work” by Thelonious Monk. Fred Hersch is one of my favorite living solo pianists. He’s a master at treating the piano orchestrally and creating… Listen to the integration of the two hands and the variety of textures he creates on the piano. That sounds like really on-the-edge playing. He likes to take chances, really putting himself out there on the edge. He can take a song in many different direction. A beautiful piano sound and touch. 5 stars.

8. Bill Charlap, “The Nearness Of You” (from STARDUST, Blue Note, 2002) – (5 stars)

This is “The Nearness Of You.” I’m not sure who it is yet. But it’s very pretty… I really like the way he or she is taking his or her time, letting the melody unfold in a very lyrical way. The performance had a very… It was a nice, slow tempo — and I really enjoy hearing ballads played at a slow tempo — but with space. But he certainly sustained the intensity. At one time they went into double-time feel, but they sustained a very lyrical feeling in terms of the ballad tempo. I was going to guess Larry Willis. No? I’m really a bit stumped on this. 5 stars for beautiful playing.

9. Jean-Michel Pilc, “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (from WELCOME HOME, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Pilc, piano; Francois Moutin, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums) – (4 stars)

That, of course, is Duke’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.” I loved the reharmonization, and in some ways he or she changed the melody also. A very personal and imaginative reharmonization on the first two choruses of the melody. The actual improvisation section didn’t strike me as strongly as the statement of melody. I like the idea of a dialogue passing back and forth, but I felt particularly strongly about the way the pianist stated the head. If this were a magazine article, I’d say the solo didn’t kill me. Some of the harmonic approach sounded like Jason Moran, who I’ve never heard play a standard, but then I knew it wasn’t. It’s interesting because I’ve never heard Jason play a standard… I had a suspicion for a minute, because some of the harmonic ideas and the approach to the piano. [You’re saying that you thought in the beginning, in the melody statement that you complimented so highly that it might be Jason Moran, although you’d never heard Jason play a standard.] Exactly. [However, you realized it wasn’t once the improvisation began.] Exactly. That popped into my mind. [I can phrase that in the first person. Anybody else pop into your mind?] Not offhand. I would give it 4 stars, because I liked the statement of the melody so much.

10. Martial Solal, “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” (from JUST FRIENDS, Dreyfus, 1997) (Solal, p; Gary Peacock, b; Paul Motian, d) – (2-1/2 stars)

Some very virtuosic piano playing on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. A lot of interesting ideas. I’m not really comfortable with the way the rhythm section feels in the way they’re playing together. I wouldn’t venture a guess. There were interesting ideas. I didn’t like the feeling rhythmically, the way the trio played together. [Did it sound like a working trio or a one-off?] It’s hard to say. I can’t really judge. 2-1/2 stars. I respond to the emotional content of the solo, the story-line, the narrative flow — however you want to say it. I’m not talking necessarily about motific development, but a way where you feel things happen in an organic, natural, flowing kind of way, and I can’t feel it here.

11. Eric Reed, “Round Midnight” (from FROM MY HEART, Savant, 2002) (Reed, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Cecil Brooks, III, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

Very virtuosic piano playing. I like the quote of “Four In One.” A couple of other quotes. Stanley Cowell? No. It’s not Rodney Kendrick? For my taste, it was a lot of notes. There were a lot of ideas and a certain virtuosity, but the content of the solo didn’t move me. The way I felt, the solo was pretty much at one level. It was pretty dense in terms of notes. 3-1/2 stars.

12. Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1982/2001) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass) – (5 stars)

“Sweet Lorraine.” I’d like to say on the record that, Ted, you’re a tough Blindfold Test giver. It sounds like Oscar. Yeah. Oscar Peterson. During the intro it didn’t… It is. Right? Of course. It’s very pretty playing. With Joe Pass. It’s very relaxed and lyrical. I haven’t heard this particular record. 5 stars to my first favorite jazz pianist, when I was first learning to play. A very beautiful piano sound, great rhythmic feel, a nice swinging feeling. A lot of people talk about his virtuosity, but there’s some very pretty melodic playing that’s part of him, too.



Bruce Barth Musician Show (WKCR, May 13, 1998):

[MUSIC: BB-3, “Don’t Blame Me”, BB-5, “Morning”]

TP: Let’s talk about the arc of the program of today’s show, the reasons for going in the direction you’re going.

BARTH: When you asked me to do a Musicians Show I was pretty thrilled, and also a little bit daunted at the prospect of having to pick my favorite records, because I have so many favorite records. But I thought of it in terms of groupings of music. I wanted to talk about some influences, some of the first records that I love, many of which I still love today, and also about some of the great pianists and other musicians I grew acquainted with later on. Also I thought it would be nice to play some other contemporary pianists I like who are on the scene now. And I love the whole tradition of jazz composition, so I brought along some records by different composers whom I admire.

TP: To what extent when you were coming up were records and the process of emulation with records part of your developing a style as an improviser or a sense of an individual voice that could come through the instrument?

BARTH: I think that these days records are more and more important…

TP: But for you.

BARTH: Oh, especially for me when I came up, because it’s not that I really grew up in a thriving jazz scene. I grew up in a town — Harrison, New York — a little bit north of the city. And I could get into the city sometimes to hear music, but it’s not the kind of thing… You read about jazz greats of the past who grew up completely surrounded by the music, people who grew up in many of the jazz cities, jazz musicians coming to their house. I talked to Stanley Cowell, and he told me how when he was 6 Art Tatum came over to the house. I didn’t really have those experiences growing up, needless to say, so I relied on records a lot. I started to meet some musicians when I was in high school doing some jamming, but so much of it was on the phone, “Oh, did you hear such-and-such a record?” It was a very exciting time, because I was often being introduced… People would tell me about musicians I hadn’t even heard of. I remember one day somebody said to me on the phone, “oh, I hear Oscar Peterson; he plays so fast, you wouldn’t believe it,” and at the time I was saying, “Really? I’ve got to check this guy out.” But the same thing with other people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner. A lot of times I would go down to the jazz department at the local record store because I had heard the name, and ask the guy, “Hey, could you recommend a record by Monk or by Bud Powell?” I’d take it home, the first time I’d ever heard a Monk or a Bud Powell record. It was a very exciting time.

TP: A two-part question following onto that. You grew up not only not in a jazz bad, but when you were coming up was a time when a classic era of jazz was kind of winding down, or entering a transition, or taking very a different form. How did the jazz bug hit you? What kept you with it in terms of the type of music you play in the early or mid ’70s when things weren’t necessarily going in that direction?

BARTH: I started playing the piano when I was very young, and I started with Classical lessons. But from the time I first started playing the piano, I loved always loved to play by ear and to improvise. So when I was let’s say younger, like 10-11-12, I was always figuring out tunes. A lot of it more Pop tunes-Rock tunes, figuring out tunes by ear, figuring out at the piano. But I really hadn’t heard a lot of jazz growing up until the high school years. Actually, a big influence was my older brother bought me a Mose Allison for my birthday, I think my 15th birthday — and I just flipped over it. Several of those tunes I figured out by ear. Again, I didn’t have a jazz instructor. So I just figured things out, and I probably gave half of the chords the wrong names at the time. But I was able to figure things out.

TP: But simultaneously you were reading and playing Classical music?

BARTH: Yes, I was. I was practicing a lot of Classical music at the time. In some ways, I think it’s a good thing that I figured out a lot of things for myself. I later did study jazz; I had jazz teachers later on. I studied with Norman Simmons, Jaki Byard and Fred Hersch. But by then, even by the time I hooked up with Norman, who was really my first jazz teacher, I feel I’d already learned a lot of the basic things about playing, pretty much by listening to records, and then later on into high school I started playing with some friends and that kind of thing.

TP: Did you have people to play with in Harrison, or were you a solo pianist?

BARTH: A lot of stuff just on my own, fooling around on my own. Then later on, I started hanging around SUNY-Purchase. I remember one summer I took a jazz course with Lou Stein, and I met some musicians there. Then I met some of the jazz students who were going over there and started to play some jam sessions with them.

TP: What component of improvising in a jazz sense, if any, would you say was the biggest hurdle for you, that one you got past it you felt reasonably comfortable?

BARTH: I’d say it was just a matter of learning the language. I don’t think of myself as a super late starter, but it’s interesting… Nowadays I teach some, and just being around the New York scene where there are so many talented young players, now, of course, it’s a time with I’d say a lot more interest among young people, among young musicians in jazz than when I was coming up. But I certainly didn’t have it all together. I sometimes meet 19 or 20 year olds who are already playing great now. For me I think it was a little bit more of a gradual process to really get my playing together. I can’t say the main hurdle was a rhythmic thing or a harmonic thing. I think it was just needing the experience, playing with other people and then finally getting on gigs.

TP: Mentioning Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, did you go to New England Conservatory?

BARTH: Exactly. I studied with both those guys up there.

TP: Let’s talk about that experience. The idea of studying jazz in college, which is a fairly new phenomenon… Not that jazz musicians didn’t have thorough music educations, but the idea of a specific jazz curriculum. And just going from that to the idea of music as your life, as not just your avocation but your vocation.

BARTH: By the time I went to New England Conservatory I’d already had a fair amount of playing experience, and I didn’t feel quit… At one point I did live in New York City, for about a year, when I was 20, and I was studying at Manhattan School, but in some ways I didn’t feel ready for the whole scene back then. The pressures of living in New York, partly the financial pressures also. Boston was a good place in that there was a little bit less pressure, and I was actually able to work more — which was the other thing. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Sometimes you go to a place like New York when you’re young, and it’s great being in that environment. I think that that’s the way to really improve the fastest. On the other hand, young musicians who go to New York aren’t really going to work too much, given the level of music here. So being in Boston, I think I was able to be a little bit more active. I was pretty active on the Boston scene.

TP: A little bit about what you did in town.

BARTH: Really briefly: I think the first month in town, I had a gig with Jerry Bergonzi and some other excellent Boston players. And I met some fine players up there. Teddy Kotick was still up there, and I had the chance to play with him. Joe Hunt. Of course, Bill Pierce and Garzone, two other great tenor players in addition to Bergonzi. And also I did some gigs with Grey Sergeant, the guitarist. So I actually had some very nice gigs in Boston. I had a steady trio gig Friday and Saturday night that lasted for two years. That’s something you don’t see around New York too much.

TP: I’m trying to get back into your head as a young aspirant who has something together. Would you use a gig like that as a way of, let’s say, strengthening things that you felt unsure about? How would a gig like that proceed for you?

BARTH: It was a great learning experience on a couple of levels. In terms of my own musical development, I was constantly learning new tunes. Again, it just gets back to doing things yourself rather than… I sometimes joke about taking all the real books and putting them on a big bonfire and burning them. Because I think musicians, especially young musicians, rely a little bit too much on the written music. So back then I would figure things out. Tunes I wanted to play, I would figure those out off records. So having a steady gig was a chance to try out new material, and I learned a lot of tunes in those years. It was a chance to stretch out, and also to play with a lot of musicians. Rather than having a steady trio at that time, since there were a lot of excellent bassists and drummers in Boston, I thought it would be better for me just to play with different people. One bass player I worked a lot with was Richard Evans, a Chicago bass player, who actually lived in Boston and played some gigs up there. At the time, he was one of the greatest bass players I’d ever worked with. He has that great beat, a beautiful sound.

TP: A post Israel Crosby-Wilbur Ware kind of thing.

BARTH: Exactly. He’d worked with Jamal and Dinah Washington, and of course, he worked with Sun Ra, which was one of his first gigs.

TP: Well, that must have been an education, drawing on that body of knowledge with someone like him. It must have done wonders for your time as well, playing with someone like Richard Evans.

BARTH: Very much so.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians you encountered in Boston?

BARTH: Teddy Kotick, of course, who had played with Bird; I was glad to have the chance to play with him. Bill Pierce isn’t in that generation, but certainly at the time had a lot more playing experience than I did, so the chance to work with him was educational as well.

TP: So you were simultaneously attending New England Conservatory and gigging around the Boston area?

BARTH: Exactly. Then after school I stayed up there for a few more years. I’d say I was gigging more… I was doing some gigs during school. I also had the opportunity of working with Gil Evans and George Russell. That was partly through being in the school. Gil brought in his arrangements to play with the big band at the school. It was a thrill to meet Gil Evans and play his music.

TP: He was conducting?

BARTH: He was conducting, and he also played great piano. I guess the cliche is “arranger’s piano,” not necessarily having the technical fluency you’d expect from a full-time pianist. But very interesting ideas.

TP: Did you also have an interest in electric instruments and synth and that whole sound palette expansion you can do on them? Is that part of your arsenal?

BARTH: You know, a little bit. And actually on the Gil Evans concert I played some synthesizer. Same thing with George Russell… Well, George Russell I played Rhodes and piano. But I realized early on that some people have a knack for just jumping right into it. Because so much of it is learning the technology, dealing with the manuals, fooling around with it — kind of the extra-musical aspects of it. And early on, I felt that I’d better concentrate on the piano. I felt it was enough of a challenge to try to get my piano playing together. But I’m interested in doing it; I just haven’t really been doing it in recent years.

TP: Speaking of jumping in, let’s jump into the other-music portion of the show. We’ll start with Wynton Kelly. In the liner notes to this CD, there are interviews with McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Benny Golson, Hank Mobley, Philly Joe. Bill Evans says he was almost the perfect piano player of the ’50s and ’60s.

BARTH: Wynton Kelly was my first favorite pianist. I had a friend who I bumped into who I hadn’t seen for about fifteen years. He said, “Wow, I remember you turned me on to Wynton Kelly.” I think recently there’s maybe been a lot more attention given to Wynton Kelly. At the time people weren’t talking to him that much, but of course, musicians always have admired him. What really struck me about Wynton was his beautiful sound, that really crystal-clear articulation, and the swing, a beautiful swing feel, and just great rhythm, and just the Blues, too — the bluesy aspect of his playing.

[MUSIC: WK/Burrell/PC/Cobb, “Strong Man” (1958); Bud Powell, “Cherokee” (1949); Monk, “Just A Gigolo” (1954); Erroll Garner, “Just A Gigolo” (1964)]

BARTH: Erroll Garner had a beautiful rhythmic feel, and he had a way with melody. He was such a lyrical pianist. A happy feeling, a very deep feeling all the time.

TP: You were talking about ear playing before. I think the thing about Erroll Garner that amazed all his contemporaries is that he was a self-taught player who seemed to have a natural way of harmonizing anything and could do anything in any key.

BARTH: Absolutely. Sometimes his bandmates would not know what key he would play it in. He would play things in different keys on different nights, just basically playing it the way he was hearing it.

It’s interesting hearing the same two pianists playing the same tune back to back. That’s always very instructional. Erroll Garner, you get a sense of just this rolling rhythm. People called it a guitar-like left-hand; he was strumming the left hand on every beat. Of course, Monk played it more as a ballad; Erroll Garner played it more at a medium swing tempo. But Monk you get a sense of his very unique harmonic language, very dissonant chords. Just chords that you would not really find in other pianists. He really had his own harmonic language. Not to say there weren’t influences. I think Duke Ellington was a big influence on Monk. We’ll be hearing some Duke later that had some of the same chords. But Monk very much created his own little musical world, not only in terms of the note choices in the chords, but certain effects on the piano he would use. For instance, he’ll play several notes and then release some, and you’ll be left with maybe a cluster of notes that are sustained after he had released the other notes. A very unique approach to the piano.

TP: Bud Powell was Monk’s protege.

BARTH: Very much. I very much feel I learned to play jazz from a couple of Bud Powell tunes, one of which is “Cherokee.” Just the beautiful line of the bebop musicians, like Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. These musicians brought the art of line playing to such a high level. I think of it as the Bach of the jazz world (I know that’s also been said before) in terms of the most intricate relationship between the line and the harmony that underlies it, doing it in a very graceful way and a very interesting, creative way. Of course, there’s also an element of virtuosity, in that not many people played the kind of tempos that Bud Powell could play.

TP: Bud Powell swings in a very particular way as well. Is there any way you can put words on that?

BARTH: It’s very hard to put into word. It’s harder to say on an up-tempo tune. On a medium-tempo tune, somebody like Wynton Kelly, the eighth notes are a little crisp., while Bud Powell’s eighth notes would tend to be a little more even. So less of a long-short feeling in the eighth notes. Then Bud Powell will lay back a little bit on those medium tempos.

It’s interesting you bring up the idea of the swing feeling. We just heard four pianists, and each has not only a very unique rhythmic feel, but a very unique articulation. I think when you’re talking about pianists on this level (these are clearly some of the great jazz pianists), they are such individualists… Of course you can sometimes point to their influences. But each of these musicians has really carved out his own approach to the music, and I think that’s in a way the thing, even apart from the wonderful elements of their playing… You can talk about their great rhythm or their great harmony. But just the fact that they are such consummate artists in the way that they have created their own approach to the instrument and their own approach to the music.

TP: Well, maybe the mega-influence of jazz piano, maybe even to this day (and not just piano, but Charlie Parker and Don Byas), is Art Tatum, who was playing things in the early 1930s that people still have to grapple with. Talk about how you discovered Tatum, and how a contemporary pianist can usefully assimilate the information drawn from him.

BARTH: Tatum is such a monster of a pianist that for me it’s a little bit daunting to say I’m going to try to assimilate these aspects of Art Tatum. I’ve grappled with a couple of these tunes. Of course, people talk about his amazing technique, which has been pretty much unsurpassed in jazz — his left hand which is faster than most people’s right hand. Also, apart from that is Tatum’s incredible imagination, especially harmonically. He does things that sound so modern. Things he recorded 50 years ago sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. A very adventurous harmonic spirit. And I think finally, in more recent years, he’s starting to get his due as one of the great influences. People often talked about the innovators of Bebop, they talked about Monk, Bird, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie. But like you say, Tatum back in the ’30s was doing a lot of things that the Bebop players later assimilated. The use of sharp 11 chords; harmonically very rich, very dissonant things.

TP: [START OF SIDE B] …being, as they might put it, not imaginative enough, saying that he would play set pieces and have his own set thing, and would rely on some of these incredible virtuoso turns that he invented as licks. It brings up an interesting thought on the nature of improvising and what actually it entails. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but do you have any thoughts.

BARTH: One thing before I get to that, that’s interesting, which is a little hard for us as Jazz musicians in the ’90s to relate to: Back then, a lot of these jazz tunes, jazz recordings were big hits on jukeboxes. Horace Silver once told me you could sometimes tell when something was going to be a hit, and then it would get played in jukeboxes all over the place. Of course, now popular records will get played a lot on the radio, but it’s maybe not quite the same as things being in the jukeboxes. I think it has the same relationship to its audience as Pop tunes have these days, a Pop hit. So in those days, people would come to the club and they would know Tatum’s recording of a certain piece, and they’d kind of expect to hear that. Not that they didn’t want to hear him improvise, too. But there were certain tunes Tatum had had hits with, and he would actually play them the same way. Which is a little hard for me to imagine, because I don’t know how he played it that way in the first place.

But in terms of the things he came up with, it’s sometimes interesting to hear a well-known standard, even a tune… We could listen to, say, Tatum’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” which was a Fats Waller tune, and Tatum would often say that “I come from Fats” in terms of his influence on the piano, and then hear Fats’ version. Just the wonderful things he does with the harmony and the form. It’s hard to imagine someone saying he’s not creative.

TP: On a more general plane, and again dealing with the process of a contemporary improviser assimilating information: What do the older piano players have to offer? Everybody acknowledges that the older musicians were great. But you rarely hear contemporary improvisers on any instrument really taking them as source material for the way they’re functioning right now. Any thoughts on that?

BARTH: Could you clarify that?

TP: Well, when saxophonists come up, you won’t often have someone bring in Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Ben Webster as an influence per se. If they’ve heard them, it’s sort of through someone else who had heard them as an influence. I’m interested in the assimilation of information from the older musicians particularly pre-war, on a contemporary improviser.

BARTH: I think one big element, even… It’s interesting speaking about the sax players. A lot of younger sax players are very drawn to the harmonic innovations of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, that kind of thing. So a lot of times they’re looking to those musicians for inspiration. But of course, there are those elements you get from the older players, the melodicism, the warmth… Not only the warmth of the sound, but something about the whole manner of playing. I’m speaking in really general terms, but there’s a certain warmth that often you don’t find in younger players. It might be just the society they came up in. It was a different world back then in a lot of ways.

In the case of Tatum it’s interesting, because he goes back to… When you talk about let’s say some of the early tenor players, people like Trane definitely brought the language to a modern state. In the case of Tatum, it’s interesting, because he played back then, but he sounds so modern today. So maybe the pianist equivalent would be somebody like Teddy Wilson, who was from that period, had that approach, didn’t play necessarily the modern things that Tatum played. I’ve listened a lot to Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller… The thing about pianists from that period, they really played the whole piano. A lot of the Bebop players concentrated more on the right hand. I think what happened is that a lot of the more modern pianists have gone back to that whole piano way of playing.

TP: Which Ahmad Jamal seemed to help bring back into a modern vernacular in certain ways.

BARTH: I think so.

[MUSIC: Tatum, “Tenderly” (1952); Fats, “Russian Fantasy” (1935); Duke/Strayhorn, “Tonk” (1950)]

TP: You can’t do a Musician Show without including your own favorite by Charlie Parker. Bruce is choosing Bird with Strings, “Temptation.” Talk about the role Charlie Parker played in the development of your aesthetic.

BARTH: For me, I would say that Charlie Parker is one of my very favorite jazz musicians. I love him as much as I love any pianist. Bird had it all for me in terms of… I guess the basic thing is such a depth of feeling, which came out even more so with some of the string recordings, which he loved. He said how much he was thrilled to play with strings and hear that accompaniment behind him. Charlie Parker had a great way of phrasing. Of course, he’s one of the innovators of modern jazz. He created his own language. For me it’s a matter of the phrasing, the great rhythm and the creativity. It’s interesting, too, when you hear alternate takes, and you really see… Talk about a creative player. Playing different things in different versions. Always fresh, always creative.

TP: You were talking about things Art Tatum played in the ’30s that still sound modern. There’s a school of thought, and as I continue to listen to music I agree with it more and more, that says Charlie Parker has never been surpassed in the originality of his concept, particularly in the rhythmic aspect of what he did. Any comments?

BARTH: There is a real rhythmic freedom and a real looseness, and he’ll play some wild rhythms that really make you turn your head. The same thing harmonically. He was playing certain substitutions that I don’t think anyone… Well, Tatum, of course, like we were saying, played really innovative harmonic things. But in terms of horn players, I think at the time no one had played the kinds of things that Bird played, in terms of some of the harmonic substitutions. I guess it almost goes without saying he’s been such a huge influence on all the subsequent…not only horn players, but pretty much musicians of all instruments, all jazz musicians who’ve come after him.

[MUSIC: Bird, “Temptation” & “April in Paris” (1950)]

BARTH: To me, it’s like listening to Bach for me. Brilliant, creative and beautiful — lyrical. He had it all.

TP: We’ll enter some more modern, or post-Parker players, we’ll call them, beginning with Herbie Hancock, who influenced just about every pianist of your generation.


TP: You as well?

BARTH: Yes. Again, the element we were talking about — creativity, spontaneity. You never know what Herbie will do. Once again, he’s a musician like Bird in that there are so many facets to his playing. Great rhythm, great swing feeling. Again, in terms of the sophistication of his harmonies and his rhythms. Another two-handed pianist. Way beyond just right-hand line, left-hand comp, but a wide variety of textures and rhythmic devices on the piano. He’s been a huge influence. Many of these things he came up with. He’s a real innovator of the modern piano.

[HH/RC/TW, “Dolphin Dance” (1977); KJ/GP/JDJ, “Prism” (1983); Bill Evans solo “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1968); McCoy, “Peresina” (1968)]

BARTH: Four great pianists. Again, we’re talking about musicians who aren’t just great pianists, but very unique musical personalities. All four have been very influential pianists and all four pianists that you can pretty much instantly recognize.

McCoy Tyner has been a huge influence for me. Not that I try to play like him, because I can’t. Who can? But he’s an example of a musician who created completely his own language. Great innovator. His whole manner of dealing with the harmony, using the pedal points. Just a big, powerful sound. But also, as we heard on “Peresina,” there’s a very lyrical, tender side to McCoy also. It’s a very lyrical melody. McCoy has been a great influence, as much the things he’s played… He once told me that it’s a matter of trying to take a chance, not being afraid to just try something different. He has very much created his own way of playing, and he’s been immensely influential on many people.

Before that we heard Bill Evans. Beautiful touch on the piano and great solo player. It’s nice hearing the freedom of a solo pianist because they can change keys. In this case he actually played the melody in one key, soloed in another key, and then took the melody out in yet another key. I’m not saying that not only from the point of view of understanding the technical aspect, but each key has its own color and its own feeling. So I always have very much admired Bill Evans, his harmonic language and his touch on the piano.

I think harmonically he influenced Herbie Hancock, whom we heard earlier on the set, and who I think is one of the great pianists, who also influenced me quite a bit. That’s a particularly free-blowing version of “Dolphin Dance,” the trio stretching out and playing with a lot of energy and getting into some great stuff.

Sandwiched in there we also heard Keith Jarrett, a very lyrical pianist. “Prism” is a very lyrical piece, with interesting harmonic changes, too.

TP: What are your feelings about playing solo piano for yourself, the special challenges and daunting qualities of the form?

BARTH: I think the big challenge is keeping it interesting. You don’t have a rhythm section, so you have to keep it going. That’s one thing. For me it’s not as much a problem of keeping it going rhythmically as just having something that is interesting and multi-faceted enough to sustain the interest. There is obviously such a history of great solo playing. On the other side, the rewards of solo playing are, of course, the freedom. You can do things that are difficult to do with a rhythm section. You can go out of time, you can suddenly decide to stay on a chord, you can go to a different key. It’s that kind of freedom that I think all the great solo pianists have taken advantage of quite a bit. We heard Tatum before; hearing Bill Evans now. Some of it is in tempo, some of it’s rubato. He started that melody pretty much at a very deliberately slow, steady tempo, and he soloed in kind of a double-time feel. Then when he took the melody out, he went to a third key, as I mentioned, and then it’s rubato but moving the tempo along. People often think of rubato playing as having to be solo playing, but rubato can be fast as much as slow. It can very much be faster than the original tempo.

TP: I’d like you to elaborate on McCoy Tyner’s comment about taking a chance, not being afraid to fail. Again, there’s a commonly expressed school of thought about, let’s say, post-Coltrane music, that jazz hasn’t gone past the information that Coltrane laid down, that it’s all been laid down in such a compressed space of time that people are still dealing with the implications of it.

BARTH: I think that’s a really good point. It’s interesting, because we played the Art Tatum solo piano, and I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand what Tatum was doing. Apart from the challenge of trying technically to play the things he played, just to understand what he was doing harmonically — his kind of voicing his kind of chord substitutions. The same thing with someone like McCoy. People talk about McCoy in a basic sense, the kinds of fourth chords he uses in the left hand, the pentatonics in the right hand. But it’s a very-very-very sophisticated language that he created. You could superficially say that McCoy uses pentatonics, he uses these voicings. But the relationship between the hands is so subtle, and the way he goes in and out of different tonalities, it’s just very complex — it’s brilliant. So it’s an example of a lot of harmonic information to try to understand. For me, it’s basically a process… You could, in fact, spend a lifetime studying one figure, one musician like McCoy.

For me, the challenge is pretty much taking a look at some of these things, but also trying to find out what I want to say about something. I’ve done a lot of listening. But then a lot of it is just a matter of trying to create something that’s personal, and take these influences and hope that they somehow churn around inside of you, and then you’ll play something that sounds like yourself. The way to do that, of course, is just to spend a lot of time exploring… For me, I spend a lot of time exploring my own ideas. If I might be practicing or playing, and I’ve come upon a certain chord that I like, I’ll explore that, see where I can go with that.

TP: Will you do that on the bandstand as well?

BARTH: Definitely. My approach to playing, I really like to keep things spontaneous. There are many different schools of thought. Some musicians like to play on solos. Of course, you can hear that if you hear a musician on a few different nights playing on some of the same material. For me, one reason I like some of these pianists… Herbie for me is an example of a very spontaneous trio player. He might have a head arrangement or something that happens, but in general, once the head is over, you have no idea what he will do. So I really try to keep things open-ended personally when I start soloing, not having an idea, “Oh, I might do this, I might go into this area,” but more try to keep a wide-open mind and see what develops.

The other big aspect of that is listening to the players, especially… I’m going to have the pleasure of playing with Al Foster next week, and when you’re playing with someone like Al, it’s so inspiring to hear the kinds of things he’ll play on the drums. For me, being on the bandstand, listening is a big part of it. Because really, the main thing about music is communicating with the people you’re playing with.

TP: I’d imagine that playing with someone like Al Foster would make you feel like you could go absolutely anywhere and still stay cohesive, because his reflexes are so instantaneous, like a great hockey goalie almost.

BARTH: That’s a great image. That’s the kind of drummer that he is. He’s very wide-open. He’s got a great groove; at the same time he’s wide-open. He’ll do all kinds of things that you’re not expecting. I say “you’re not expecting,” but yet they all fit the music. He’s a very musical drummer. He’ll never do things for the sake of doing them.

TP: In your recent session, Don’t Blame Me, did you follow the dictum you just stated of open spontaneity. It doesn’t sound quite arranged, but has a very thoughtful quality, which I find in your playing always.

BARTH: I try to basically have an approach for songs. So in a sense, I do think about… It’s not necessarily wide-open. In the case of my recordings, I’ve never gone into the session and said, “Okay, let’s play this tune.” That would be interesting to do. I tend to record tunes that I’ve developed an approach to over time. It might be, in the case of “Don’t Blame Me,” some reharmonization and some rhythmic things, some changes of groove throughout that we kept for the solos. So it’s basically having, you might say, an angle or a general approach to the tune. But within that framework, I really like to keep things fresh. I don’t really practice things. I don’t go into the session knowing that… Sometimes, of course, there would be security in knowing, “Well, this would work here, this would work there.” You could get security from that. But it’s a little scarier to go in there as a kind of blank slate. But that’s really the way I like to work, because then I feel that I’m more in the moment in terms of seeing what might occur to me and also being able to react to the other musicians. I think if you go in there with an agenda, it’s harder to really be fresh, to respond. Because you may have an idea of what you might like to play, but the drummer or bass player might do something that suggests a different direction. I think if you can be open to that possibility, you’ll end up with music that’s a lot more interesting and more vibrant. Because it’s more what’s happening in the moment.

[BB, “Evidence”]

TP: Coming up is a Wayne Shorter segment.

BARTH: I thought it would be interesting to hear records several years apart. Wayne is one of the great jazz composers, a brilliant composer who not only has created his own language harmonically and is a great melodist, but also in his work over the past several years he’s created large forms and rich, multi-faceted work bringing in several elements. The best analogy I can think of for some of Wayne’s recent work is that it’s like a Classical symphony. The compositions, for instance, on his last record, Highlife, involve some of his most elaborate compositions to date. We’ll start with early Wayne from his first date as a leader on the VJ label. This is typical Wayne, in that even though it’s in some ways more conventional than the compositions he later developed, it’s already very unique in terms of his approach to harmony. It’s the kind of tune where you think you’re starting in one key, but you’re actually in another key. A beautiful lyrical melody, “Pug-Nose.”

[Wayne-LM-WK-PC-JC, “Pug-Nose” (1959); WS-FH-HH-EJ, “Wildflower” (1964); “At The Fair” (1995)]

BARTH: The music on Highlife leaves me speechless. As I said before, the only analogy I can really think of is a symphony or a complex orchestral work. In this case, this tune, “At The Fair”… First of all, the whole record, which is mostly new compositions, but then reworkings of “Virgo Rising” and “Children of the Night”… But the whole record works as a suite, where certain themes might be introduced in one composition, and then come out in a more developed form later on, and then certain instrumental combinations recur throughout. Even in terms of this first tune, it’s basically two themes. On the first tune we first hear it on guitar and tenor, then the second theme is brass [SINGS REFRAIN]. Those are the two basic themes, but then with a lot of motivic development, other thematic material also. Even the way Wayne deals with those two themes, there’s such a rich variety of orchestrations, his ear for color. And it’s very contrapuntal music. There was one section where a lot of the ensemble dropped out, and the music became highly contrapuntal, different lines being woven together.

Another thing that’s fascinating to me about the way Wayne developed the music for this record is the use of the sax as a solo instrument, very much interwoven into the texture of the composition. This is such an extreme departure from the idea of head-solo-head format. Even with this intricate writing, there’s not really one pronounced solo section, but several short places where Wayne might take 8 bars, 16 bars, or there might be a solo section put in between two more composed sections. On this tune, like many of the other tunes on the record, he solos on the same tune on both tenor and soprano. So there we hear him just playing beautifully and really soloing like a composer, the solo being another element of the composition. It’s so well-integrated and it’s so rich and multi-faceted that it kind of leaves me in awe. The way Tatum might leave a pianist in awe.

TP: Has anything like what Wayne Shorter is doing orchestrationally been done before in jazz?

BARTH: I think there are great orchestrators. Mingus… Unfortunately, we didn’t hear Mingus’ music because we ran out of time. Mingus’ tunes are very interesting harmonically, with many sections. Mingus did not really write as much for a big band. Epitaph was for a larger ensemble, which was reconstructed by Gunther Schuller after Mingus’ death.

TP: His music certainly lends itself to ingenious orchestration, as you know first-hand from playing a fair amount with the Mingus Big Band.

BARTH: Yes, very much so. It’s great big band music, and there are a lot of nice arrangements. The music is perfect for big band music because there are so many elements to it — interesting bass lines, interesting counter-melodies and different things. And of course, some of the great things of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn have many things going on. So I’m not saying Wayne created this stuff completely out of thin air.

TP: As a composer, would you say that Shorter, Mingus, Ellington-Strayhorn are the main influences for you?

BARTH: They’ve been big influences for me. I’ll just mention that something I’d like to do more… Some of the recent pieces I’ve written have had two themes, and I’m very interested in the idea of not everyone necessarily soloing over the same set of changes. I’ve written a few things recently (which I don’t think we’ll get to hear today) that have two themes, with one section that one soloist plays over, then another section the other soloist plays with. I’d very much like to have the opportunity to do more writing for larger ensembles, and again to try to write more contrapuntally and find different ways of having the solos more integrated into the composition, rather than just the head, then the solo.

[MUSIC: Strayhorn-C. Terry, “Chelsea Bridge” (1965)]

TP: …that was a different tempo than we’re used to hearing “Chelsea Bridge.”

BARTH: Yes. And Strayhorn, as you heard, was doing some very interesting comping things, little rhythmic things. He was a great pianist, very original.

[MUSIC: BB, “Days of June”]



Liner Notes, Bruce Barth, Hope Springs Eternal (Double Time):

“I practice and study music by a philosophy of preparing myself to play in the moment, to be at-ease at the piano, to be able to go in different directions,” is how Bruce Barth summarizes his aesthetics. “When I start a solo, I like to have a clean slate, see what develops, react to what the other players are doing. I think of it as playing without an agenda, with nothing to prove.”

It’s an optimistic credo, to which Barth hews throughout his remarkable new recording, Hope Springs Eternal. Barth doesn’t need to prove a thing to New York’s demanding community of improvisers; he’s one of the jazz capital’s most respected pianists, equipped with capacious technique equally applicable to spontaneous combustion and introspective cerebration, an encyclopedic range of rhythmic and harmonic tropes at his disposal. He’s a consummate listener, a probing comper behind a soloist or singer, a warm melodist who deploys the entire piano with precisely calibrated touch. Conversant with the full tradition, he knows how to draw from it to tell his own story — no mean feat in an age when improvisers must assimilate enormous chunks of information just to keep head above water. “I feel I could spend a lifetime trying to understand things such as Art Tatum’s voicings and chord substitutions, McCoy Tyner’s interrelationship between the hands, the way he goes in and out of different tonalities,” the pianist comments. “I’ve tried to understand some of the musical principles that work and to use them as inspiration for developing my own ideas.”

Now 40, Barth has relished the challenge of individuality from his earliest years in music. “I began playing piano when I was 5,” recalls the Pasadena, California, native. “I always loved to play by ear and to improvise, to figure out Pop and Rock tunes at the piano. I didn’t hear a lot of jazz until my high school years, after my parents moved to Harrison, New York. My older brother bought me a Mose Allison record for my fifteenth birthday, which I flipped over. I probably gave half the chords the wrong names at the time, but I figured things out. I started to buy records by Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, and learned a lot of the basics of playing. Later I started hanging around the SUNY-Purchase campus nearby, took a jazz course, and jammed with some young musicians I met there.”

After attending several institutions of higher learning, Barth wound up at the New England Conservatory in 1982. He studied with Fred Hersch and Jaki Byard, and became active on the Boston scene, landing a two-year weekend trio gig, and getting major league experience on jobs with the likes of Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Bill Pierce and Grey Sergeant. “I didn’t feel quite ready for New York back then,” Barth confesses. “In Boston there was a little less pressure, and I was able to work more. I constantly learned new tunes, taking them off records and working them out on gigs. I had the chance to play with bassists like Teddy Kotick, who’d been with Bird, and the Chicago bassist Richard Evans, who had played with Ahmad Jamal and Dinah Washington, with a great beat, a beautiful sound.”

By 1988, when Barth took the New York plunge, he was a mature, focused musician with a keen sense of what he wanted to do. He jammed extensively with peers, worked with Nat Adderley and Stanley Turrentine, and landed in Terence Blanchard’s steady-working unit in 1990. “Terence was dealing with certain modern concepts that I wasn’t so conversant with, unconventional chord motions and rhythmic groupings of fives and sevens,” Barth states. He left Blanchard in 1994 “to concentrate on working with my own bands.”

Barth’s Enja recordings Focus (1992) and Morning Song (1994) reveal an expressive writer with a penchant for conjuring melodies that stick in the mind, exploring interests as diverse as his improvisation. The material included spirited song-book reharmonizations, compositions whose moods spanned angular Monkish grit to flowing post-Hancock sophistication, incorporating extended forms with different themes for each soloist. On Hope Springs Eternal Barth digs deeper into multi-thematic writing and rhythmic variation. The music sounds lived in, organic, improvisations emerging inevitably from the warp and woof of the writing.

“In addition to experimenting with form, I’ve explored a wider variety of grooves on this record,” Barth reveals. “I’ve checked out Latin music on my own for the past 15 years, I’ve worked a lot with Leon Parker, and in 1996 I played several months with David Sanchez. Out of the eight tunes on this date, six have some straight eighth elements.”

Given the difficulties of maintaining a fixed band, Barth relies on an elite circle of New York improvisers with whom he enjoys long-term musical relationships — “I’m never disappointed with the people I call, that’s for sure.” For the week at Manhattan’s now defunct Visiones that generated Hope Springs Eternal, Barth employed a top-shelf quartet of young masters.

In-demand soprano and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, currently with Chick Corea’s Origin, appears on his third Barth record. “Steve is constantly creative and surprising,” Barth enthuses. “He puts so much of himself into interpreting other people’s music that he’ll find creative nuances, things that actually improve the music that you hadn’t imagined.”

Of Ed Howard, bassist of choice for the likes of Roy Haynes and Victor Lewis, Barth comments: “Ed’s an earthy, versatile bass player who will experiment and take chances.”

Howard locks in with drummer Adam Cruz, whose recent credits include Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez, Brian Lynch and Chick Corea. Barth enthuses: “Adam is a very well-rounded musician, and plays piano well. Being the son of percussionist Ray Cruz and having grown up on the New York jazz scene, he can play a wide variety of grooves, which we took advantage of on this gig.”

The upbeat lead-off title track “is in two contrasting sections,” Barth says, “the first section with a sustained melody and the second vamp-like section with a more rhythmic, fragmented melody. This second section includes a few 3/4 bars and a 2/4 bar that give it an off-balance feel.”

Barth’s lyrical “Wondering Why” features Wilson on flute. The soulful slow-medium swing tempo number “starts out with a straight eighth introduction, and the kind of chords you might hear in Aaron Copland’s music.”

Barth’s fast Latin line,”Hour of No Return,” featuring Wilson’s alto, “is basically in F-minor, with a double-time Samba feel, but a very open-ended groove,” says the composer. “My idea was to have the rhythm section groove while Steve and myself float the melody over the top, rhythmically very free, almost out of tempo, followed by open solos for Steve and myself.” It’s a groove sustained by Cruz and Howard’s hard-won mastery of metric modulation; Barth’s dazzling solo echoes the mercurial spirit of Herbie Hancock’s playing on Inventions and Dimensions, a Barth favorite.

Barth showcased his command of the elusive art of the piano trio in no uncertain terms on Don’t Blame Me, his Double-Time debut; here he puts in his three cents with “Darn That Dream.” “The challenge of playing in a trio setting is utilizing the piano’s sonic resources, thinking of it more orchestrally for variety,” Barth comments. “The piano can sound like a lot of different things, and you need to use your imagination. Rather than ‘I’m going to play a G7 chord,’ you think, ‘I want to sound like a big band’ or ‘I want to sound like a waterfall’ or ‘I want to sound like bells chiming.’

“I’m a stickler about tunes. I almost always buy the original sheet music so I can see the exact melody the way it was written, and I do like to see the lyrics. I played this song for many years before I checked the melody and realized I’d been playing one note wrong — but I was so used to it, I kept doing it!”

The quartet returns for “The Epicurean,” a Wilson original. “It’s classic Steve,” Barth enthuses. “I’ve heard him describe it as coming out of an Eddie Harris-Les McCann funky straight eighth vibe. It’s a through-composed melody with some variations, and a vamp figure at the beginning and end of each chorus. Steve’s writing is very personal and recognizable, with melodies that have intriguing twists and turns, interesting chords — like his playing.” Barth’s bluesy solo conjures Wynton Kelly (“he’s my first favorite pianist”) in its propulsion and articulation, and Herbie Hancock in its variety of textures and rhythmic devices.

The Monkish “Up and Down” is Barth’s only original in standard AABA, 32-bar song form. “For me it’s just a nice relaxed tune for blowing, using some major 2nds and a melody based on arpeggiated figures, differing from the melodies I usually write,” says Barth. “I used some wider intervals. The melody goes up and down, while the last A is a somewhat inverted version of the first two A’s.” Barth’s ebullient declamation shows he’s idiomatically assimilated the High Priest’s rituals; Wilson on alto hurdles the changes like Charlie Rouse at his most expoobident.

Adam Cruz contributes “Full Cycle,” rooted in an evocative bass ostinato handled resourcefully by Ed Howard. “It’s a Latin tune with a peaceful, tranquil feeling and a lot of rhythmic interest in the melody, and we improvised collectively on it,” says Barth. “I like very much the combination of piano and soprano together. First, Steve and I play the melody in unison, then as a canon, which I think works nicely.”

“Revolving Door,” the set closer, is a two-section eighth tune featuring a Wilson alto solo that builds from simmer to full-boil, followed by a dancing piano solo that’s ûr-Barth, juxtaposing delicate chords with fleet lines so subtly that you might overlook the leader’s devastating chops if you’re inattentive. “In the first section,” Barth says, “Steve plays the strong melody over a minor key with descending chords. Then there’s a short piano interlude, almost a kind of question mark or something a bit more plaintive. The second part of the tune is a more lyrical melody in a major key. Again, rather than have one instrument play the melody all the way through, I divided the melody between the alto and the piano, just for a little variation of color.”

To the observation that on Hope Springs Eternal Barth’s morphed antecedents into the most evolved Barthian vision we’ve yet seen, Barth responds: “I feel more and more that influences aren’t as explicit. I think composing and leading a band makes it easier to develop a unified musical vision. I’m writing tunes that involve the kinds of elements I’m exploring in my playing, and the composing-arranging and the playing become of a piece. Particularly within tunes that don’t have standard chord progressions, it’s easier to explore your own way of playing, and you’re challenged to reach for something that’s your own.”

Each player on this vibrant, in-the-moment date is more than up to the task.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Bruce Barth, DownBeat, Piano, WKCR

For George Lewis’ 64th Birthday, A Lengthy Interview from 2009, A DownBeat Feature from 2009, and WKCR Interviews from 2006, 1995 and 1994

Today is the 64th birthday of George Lewis, who has deeply impacted the course of jazz and experimental music over the past 45 years in multiple spheres of activity, for reasons described in the introduction to the extended interview we did together in Perugia in 2009, which initially appeared on the no-longer-active website. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities to write about George over the years, most recently this spring for Jazz Timesand in a piece in which I talked to him and Muhal Richard Abrams about the CD Streaming. That article appears below the interview, as do verbatim interviews conducted in 2006, 1995 (he was in the studio on that occasion with Wadada Leo Smith) and 1994, respectively, on WKCR. (Here’s a vignette for the NPR show Studio 360 that we did together in 2002 on the subject of Voyager, the interactive real-time improvising software that he developed during the 1980s and 1990s.)



Standing in the wings of the Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater shortly after lunch on July 14th, as George Lewis rehearsed the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble for the first of their six concerts over three nights at this summer edition of Umbria Jazz, Marija Sepac, who has observed musicians closely over her eleven years as a quasi-chaperone for the festival’s various performers, marveled at the singular nature of this particular cohort.

“They are very precise—more than 20 people, and they work as one,” she said.

“Concentration. Many hours of hard work. Everybody in an excellent mood all the time. I got a feeling that the people in the orchestra are honored to play with George Lewis, but that they really like him. I can feel the connection which goes beyond respect and professionalism. It was beautiful staying with them yesterday. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing. It’s amazing!”

At this moment, Lewis was systematically checking that each sound in the orchestra—the GBME instrumentation comprises five reeds and winds, including the entire saxophone family, various clarinets and flutes, and didgiridoo; three trumpets; two trombones; cello; violin; piano; three vocalists; two basses, trapset; congas; and Lewis’ own electronics—was properly accounted for in the mix. After this was done, there was an hour to rehearse—or, better put, run through—the repertoire he had prepared for the five o’clock concert.

Sparse preparation or no, an inspired performance ensued. Lewis set the tone with a rambunctious opening trombone salvo, then put down his horn to conduct his five pieces, swaying, dancing, cuing, and, when appropriate, leaving the stage to allow the musicians to figure out their next step on their own. Over the next five concerts, which transpired at 5 p.m. and midnight over a three-night span, GBME members Ernest Dawkins, Nicole Mitchell, Douglas Ewart, Mwata Bowden, Renee Baker, Tomeka Reid, and Saalik Ziyad presented compositions that took full advantage of the possibilities presented by the 21-member unit, which executed each chart with the world-class technique, high collective intelligence, and an open attitude that has been characteristic of musicians involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since it convened in 1965.

Himself an AACM member since 1971, and now entering his sixth year as Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, where he also chairs the Center for Jazz Studies, Lewis chronicled the organization’s history in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [University of Chicago Press], published in the spring of 2008. It’s a landmark work. The bedrock of the text is an exhaustively researched linear narrative history, constructed on over 90 interviews from which Lewis traces keen portraits of numerous members; AACM archival records; encyclopedic citations from contemporaneous literature, both from American and European sources; and vividly recounted personal experience. Furthermore, Lewis contextualizes the musical production of AACM members—a short list of “first-wavers” includes such late 20th century innovators as Muhal Richard Abrams, who stamped his character on the principles by which the AACM would operate; the founding members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and Don Moye); Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, and John Stubblefield—within both the broader spectrum of experimental activity and the critical theory that surrounded it, expressing complex concepts with rigorous clarity and elegant prose.

A native of Chicago’s South Side who earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Yale, Lewis established himself as one of the major voices on the trombone tree during the ‘70s, for his seemingly unlimited technique and singular tone, setting new standards on his instrument with bandleaders as diverse as Braxton, Count Basie, and Gil Evans. As the ‘70s progressed, Lewis turned his attention to interactive computer music, eventually imagining and creating Voyager, a software program that improvises either in real time with a musician partner or on its own initiative. In a sense, he breathed anima into the computer, enabling it to function as an autonomous, social entity.

Over the course of two interviews last summer, here welded together into a single “conversation,” Lewis discussed these subjects.


What’s been your previous relationship with the Great Black Music Ensemble?

The genesis of my working with them was that somehow the Sons D’Hiver people (which is a kind of French play on words, “winter sounds” but it sounds like “diverse sounds” somehow to my untrained ear in the French language) managed to get the entire Great Black Music Ensemble to come to Paris in 2008 and do concerts there. So they asked me to sort of collaborate with that (because I’m not really a member of it), actually to make pieces. So I was also able to bring in some people, like the violinist Mary Oliver, who lives in Amsterdam; the bass player, Leonard Jones, who lives near Düsseldorf-he was also in Perugia; and my spouse, Miya Masaoka, the kotoist and sound artist. So I made kind of a triple concerto format surrounding them, and I made three pieces for the first half of the concert. We’re playing all of those three pieces here, plus a new piece that I wrote for them, because it’s stable enough so that I know who is going to play, and I know who can do what and who likes to do what—not what they can do, but the comfort zone. That’s what you want to do with any group of musicians.

Actually, more and more, I am inclined to just write music, and not worry about what people can and can’t do. We always hear about the Duke Ellington model, that a lot of that work apparently was improvised, although the scholarship on that is kind of spotty—it’s more like anecdotes and stories. I don’t know if anybody’s ever really sat down and said, “Look, how did you guys do it?” Part of the problem always with the interview process is that people are kind of performing, and the people who are interested in anecdotes and so on don’t really get into process that much. I would have been fascinated to find out how they improvised these parts, but there’s nothing written on what they did and how they did it. You wouldn’t be able to get that unless you bring in somebody who had the interest in documenting that part of the process, and also the outlet for being able to publish it or put it out there, and then the constituency of people who really want to read it. Because I imagine that a lot of times the musicians say, “do you really want to know this?” Or “Are you really qualified to receive this knowledge, or somehow equipped…” Not “qualified.” I guess that’s more of an insider’s viewpoint. We want to get beyond the everyday, mundane stuff; we want to get to the deep parts of this. A lot of people feel they don’t want to do that with people they don’t feel can really understand it. It’s a funny way of thinking about things.

But in any event, when I work with the group, I concentrate on the written music, and I write a lot of stuff for them. For the first concert, I wrote a lot. I’m not a “conduction” sort of person. I don’t like to improvise conducting. It’s too centralized for my work, and I’m not good at it anyway. I want people to make it up on their own, and I kind of like the idea of large ensemble improvisation without some center person pointing to people and making them do things. They should think it up on their own. But that takes a lot of time to develop, a kind of personal transformation, and a method of sorts, and we didn’t really have enough time here to develop that to the degree I’d like.

We’ll get another chance in August in Chicago. They’re having a tribute to Fred Anderson, this wonderful musician, a mentor of mine, while he’s alive (which is great—he’s 80 years old), and I’m writing a piece for the Great Black Music Ensemble surrounding his work. It emanates from Paul Steinbeck, my Ph.D student who’s going to be a post-doc at the University of Chicago this fall. He published a book of transcriptions of Fred’s solos. I took one of these solos, and I’m sort of orchestrating it. But not like Super Sax. It’s more like counterpoint. The idea is that everybody has a piece of Fred’s solo, and the solo kind of proceeds on its own logic. Looking at it on paper, being able to listen to it over and over, and reflecting on it, and so on, you realize that Fred’s solos do have an inner logic, and it’s not really that capricious. It’s pretty well-organized and very stable, and hangs together. So tearing that up and imposing your own order on it—it’s a clash, a dissonance you can feel. You’re sort of stepping on very important stuff. So I try to avoid that. I want to find ways to support from below what’s going on, and the solo just emanates. That’s the approach for that. But you can do that, once again, because the [GBME] personnel is stable. You get to see how three voices might interpret Fred’s music, or how a group of trumpet players might interpret it, and so on.

Can you elaborate on the pieces of yours that they played during the week?

There’s “Chicken Skin II,” which I actually wrote in 2003, for a group in Munich, the International Composers and Improvisers Ensemble, or ICI-Ensemble, which also has pretty stable personnel. They were great at playing the written music. Nicole Mitchell and Leonard were there, too, and Mary Oliver, so they played as a part of the group.

My feeling now is that I like to go and work with professional artists to realize things, but I also want to bring some people that I know well. It’s not so much that I want to have my people there to make sure that the solos are going to be good. A lot of people can play today; it’s not a question of that. But I like the idea of diverse experiences that come from the cultural exchange in the group. That’s very important to me.
There’s also “Fractals,” which is based on Brownian motion—1/F², statistical stuff. It’s not real 1/F². It’s not algorithmically made. I just made an impression. It would have taken more time to make an algorithm than just write it out of your head.

Then “Angry Bird,” which is a reorchestration of a small section of my orchestral piece from 2004, “Virtual Concerto,” for the American Composers Orchestra. The original piece had a solo piano part played by a Yamaha Disklavier with software that we made to play piano and listen to the orchestra, and be interactive. Basically, the orchestra played the written music, and the computer basically improvised its part the whole time, except for some little parts where, for a certain section of the music, a certain algorithm would come in. There’s a sort of violin part that got orchestrated. The nice thing is that GBME has this super violinist, Renee Baker, and a super cellist, Tomeka Reid, who both have the classical training, so that they can really play that part, that way. Then everybody kind of plays it. Then, “Shuffle,” which is a shuffle, I guess, an interpretation of that.

The big problem in working with any kind of ensemble of this kind nowadays, especially in jazz, is the social and infrastructural area. It was unusual to have a scene like that week at Umbria Jazz where all we did was rehearse, think about the music, and figure things out. You see that more often in non-jazz scenes that I’m a part of. The Morlacchi Theater is fantastic. It was built in 1780 and has a great sound. So we did have more time to do things than we did in Paris.

So I write these pieces down for ensembles with that milieu in mind. I don’t think that much about writing difficult stuff. The idea is that even if people don’t necessarily play all the right notes, it will sound good anyway. It’s sort of diverse enough so that wrong performance will still sound right, so people can feel good about what they do, and they’re not obsessing over minuscule passages and all that, and I don’t worry people about, “oh, this is a quintuplet you’re not doing”—if it ends up being a sextuplet or a bulltuplet, it will still work. So that’s ok. It’s deliberately noisy, with a lot of room for that.

The last thing, which we are going to rehearse for, which I really want to do and get on tape, because it’s new, is called “Triangle,” and it’s inspired by something I heard a while ago. A young percussionist in a New York based contemporary ensemble called Wet Ink whose name is Ian Antonio, who also does noise improvisation, performed an Alvin Lucier piece called “Triangle,” alone, amplified slightly and subtly processed. The piece was 20 minutes, and all he did was DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING for the entire 20 minutes. After the first five minutes my arms started to fall off sympathetically just watching Ian doing this.

When I was creating my gloss on Alvin’s piece, I thought, “Well, this will be a great start.” I didn’t think I wanted to have Turk Burton playing triangle for 20 minutes, though. I just wanted to give the impression. Then I didn’t know whether people would really do that, or maybe they would get bored doing it. But Turk has fantastic rhythm, so he’s playing the triangle in a super great way, and I don’t really have to conduct. People hear the triangle, and they’re on rhythm. Then there’s all this stuff surrounding it. It’s a pretty ambitious piece, so we didn’t have time to prepare it all.

You said yesterday that you’d never seen me do this kind of extended composition and conducting. Not many people in the U.S. have. It’s not like I do these things all the time. But when I do them, I tend to do them somewhere other than where I live, in another country. say. I don’t think I’ve ever really done it in Chicago except for bringing the NOW Orchestra from Vancouver to the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2001 or 2002.

You’re playing in the concerts devoted to the music of the other members. So you’re functioning not just as a composer and conductor of your own music, but as a member of the ensemble, which is very much in line with AACM principles.

Yes. The curious thing about that is they’ve been rehearsing this music, but I have to get the parts and rehearse, and then play catchup. I’m also trying to document all the concerts. So I kind of have this split brain, where I’m sitting next to the hard disk recorder, on which I did all these sub-mixes and stuff, both recording and then also playing the music. But I’ve been doing this sort of divided attention thing for a long time. I documented the AACM concerts as far back as ‘71 on my high-test cassette recorder, the first sort of so-called hi-fi cassette stereo things. I’ve got all those tapes, and this is in that kind of tradition. Setting up mikes and stuff. I can do that.

They let us say what we wanted to say about presenting the group, and I preferred it as the AACM Great Black Ensemble With George Lewis instead of Featuring George Lewis. Otherwise, you’re expected to do a lot of stuff, and I’m tired of meeting expectations. I just want to do what I want on stage. You’re supposed to play an improvised trombone solo on every piece or something, and I’m not going through that—and so I don’t. So the strategy for the first piece, the first evening of my music, was to play an improvised solo at the beginning, and then that was it. I didn’t have to play any more. I had a lot to do. The music doesn’t stand or fall on whether I play the trombone or not, just like my book doesn’t stand or fall on that. The book is the book, and if it’s any good, it’s supposed to be good because of the scholarship, and not because of some insider knowledge. So basically, you want the stuff to stand by itself.

Also, the AACM is a collective, and so it’s supposed to be a collective enterprise, and there’s no reason for me to hog the entire thing. I began to realize that it would be very boring for me to be the only composer for six concerts, not because I don’t have six concerts worth of music, but because all those other composers would just be sitting there, and that’s not a good thing to do. When you’ve got all that diversity, you want it to come out.

Could you apply some of the methodologies that you apply to the history of the AACM in A Power Stronger Than Itself to the Great Black Music Ensemble? For example, you explore ethnography, personal history, analyzing the individuals who comprised the AACM by class, by family background, and so forth. Who comprises this ensemble? Are they primarily members of the second and third wave of the AACM, with a few fourth wave people? Break it down.

I don’t remember what I said in the book about waves. If I did adopt that terminology wholesale, I was still a little murky about it. If I’m part of a second wave, then I would say Nicole would be a representative of a third wave, and then people like like Saalik Ziyad and Tomeka Reid would be representative of a fourth wave. Basically, every 7 to 10 years a new wave kind of comes about. For example, Mwata Bowden and I would be second-wave people. It’s partly generational, but the wave thing doesn’t necessarily correspond with the age of the people involved. Someone like Taalib-Din Ziyad is more of a third wave person, but he’s older than me, I think, or close in age, and his son Saalik is in the group—they’re both super singers. It’s very complex.

The book is mainly about people up to the third wave. There’s not a lot to be said about the fourth wave, because I didn’t have a chance to interview all those people. It changes a lot when you get to the fourth wave, because there’s less international visibility, which has always been one of the AACM lifebloods from the beginning. It’s not an organization that stands or falls on, let’s say, the standard hinterland-to-New York model of the jazz experience. Early on, people sort of flew over New York to Paris.

The book’s approach is to place personal experience and personal background in dialogue with what was said by scholars and historians, sociologists and historians in particular, about the experience of black people. The Great Migration, the urban sociology that came out in the ‘40s through the ‘60s about conditions in Chicago—that’s all critical to the experience of these people. So when Malachi Favors, for example, talks about how he remembers rats in the street all the time–well, that’s something that comes up in a lot of the sociological literature. Chicago has had this ongoing problem with rats in the street. If you remember, they would always post things in the alley about to watch out because they were using Warfarin to kill rats. Then Malachi talks about fires all the time, and that’s another big thing. There were thousands of fires, and a lot of them apparently were set deliberately by landlords. People got killed. That comes out in a lot of the urban sociology literature. But the other thing about that is, people didn’t know why there were so many fires. They just knew there were fires.

So what I wanted to do was to give back to these people, to kind of say, “Well, here’s why these problems came up.” They weren’t necessarily equipped to know why. For example, Oliver Lake blaming the demise of Black Artists Group on himself when, in fact, the foundation that was supposedly supporting them was planning their demise under the table. How could they know that? That only came up twenty years later through archival research with people like George Lipsitz and Ben Looker. So the approach isn’t just the ethnography itself. The idea is that somehow the stories dovetail with what’s said in a more dispassionate way, which ends up, first of all, validating the experience of the musician on another level, and showing how those experiences become emblematic of the period.

One of the overarching continuities of your analysis of the AACM is that the organization and its cultural production represents a cohort comprised primarily of working-class origin, many of them first-generation Chicagoans (although some not)—that it’s the expression of their agency. Is it your sense that the AACM still reflects a similar set of circumstances, or if the background of the membership has evolved in line with the evolution of African-American life over the years?

This is a very brief answer, by necessity. I don’t really know. African-American people, even the people who have the so-called “middle class” background, which is an increasingly growing group… In other words, maybe they were born into the working class, but a lot of them have been to college now. That wasn’t really so true of the earliest generation. A lot of them have master;s degrees or whatever, and a lot of them are searching for higher education in different ways. Things that weren’t available so much to people in the earlier generation.

I have the working-class background but I also have the Ivy League background and basically a prep school background, so that’s a strange combination. You go back into the so-called ghetto at night after coming from the University of Chicago Lab School during the day. That kind of bifurcation is part of the experience of a lot of African-American people, going back quite a long time.

So I am going to say that my initial impression is that it’s still primarily a working-class group, even for those who have managed, at this point, to develop another kind of living for themselves. Another thing about the Chicago AACM is that a lot of people do music, but they also have other jobs. They’re not necessarily on the road all the time. They have families. They’re people who have managed to combine two careers successfully. It’s always been like that. They don’t necessarily try to actively cultivate the aspiration of being like a working musician in that sense. The idea of experimentalism being supported by other kinds of work in order to supplement it, in the old days, was considered like, “Oh, you have a day job; that’s terrible; fuck that”—to be a real full-time musician, that’s great, authentic. That aspiration isn’t a big part of the thinking of a lot of people. I think this example shows it’s not as important as people think it is. It’s probably a little self-serving, in a way. A little too romantic. The idea is if you’re doing the music, you’re doing the music. That’s it. Who really cares whatever you have on the side?

It also occurred to me that you yourself, over the course of your career as a musician, which is 38 years…

I’ve always had jobs. First of all, I didn’t think of music as a full-time career all the time. I always had jobs. In New York, I had a job. For two years, I was the Music Curator at the Kitchen. That was a paying job. It was that kind of day job that musicians dream of, where you can go on the road. In Paris, I did concerts and stuff, but I also had a job. I had a commission from IRCAM, the French computer music institute, and I could have income there. Also in Holland. The time when I really had a full time itinerant position as a musician, which was in New York from about ‘87 to ‘88, I had a pretty hard time doing that. Then I started getting into academic life. So it’s not the same experience as people who have a full-time occupation. That hasn’t been a big part of my career.

You moved to New York in 1977, I believe.

Around there. There was a transition period of ‘76 and ‘77.

So in ‘76, you play with the Count Basie Orchestra for two months. Then you join Anthony Braxton, you’re on the road with him for a year—he was pretty visible, working a fair amount.

He did a lot of gigs.

You’re on recordings in 1978 and 1979 with Sam Rivers. It seems to me that during the latter half of the ‘70s, you’re a full-time musician, and that’s when you established your tonal personality very strongly.

I’m counting back from ‘82. In 1980, I started at the Kitchen. So maybe for three years from 1977 to 1980, I don’t know if I had any part-time jobs.

And a lot of activity was packed into those three years. There’s a body of documented improvised trombone playing that people still refer to when they think of your tonal personality.

I’m just basically saying that I come from the working-class background, but I’ve been very lucky, because a lot of musicians had extreme privation during those years. I really didn’t. I have to say that I was incredibly lucky to have that.

You have quite a bit of experience with orchestral music in the jazz and creative music traditions. I’m wondering if you could position the Great Black Music Ensemble within the full spectrum of such units you’ve worked with. Also, if you don’t find it too anecdotal, could you relate some of the experiences you had in big bands in the ‘70s that influenced your thinking of music as a full-time career.

Let me go first to the part about situating this group. I’ll start with the AACM. Now, the AACM has always had a tradition of supporting research in composition. In fact, from my perspective, the AACM began as a composers’ collective. In my time, at the AACM School, mainly you got lectures in composition from people like Muhal or Wallace MacMillan, or whoever showed up. They didn’t teach instruments. No one was talking about improvisation and stuff like that. Then you were always encouraged to compose your own work and present it; that was kind of a requirement. You were always encouraged to compose, and if you said you didn’t want to compose any more, people would complain. In that regard, the AACM membership itself would play your music, provide opportunities for you to explore large-form compositions, because there was no other way to do it. People weren’t receiving commissions from anybody to do anything like that. As far as I can see in Chicago, no one was calling up Douglas Ewart on the classical side to produce anything, and I’ve been on various panels where the classical ensembles are reviewed by funding organizations, and I’ve had a chance to kind of complain that these organizations never interface with the black community, and they should be called to account for that. It would be obvious that these experimental contemporary music ensembles should logically interface with the AACM. That’s one way of situating it.

For example, let’s imagine the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble in conjunction with various hybrid kinds of structures, which is the way the AACM was going. The book cites the first press release of the AACM, which Muhal and Ken Chaney wrote, which said that their mission was essential to the advancement of new music. I don’t think they were necessarily talking about the next Count Basie. I think they were trying to figure out a way to situate themselves in the broader tradition of musical experimentalism. That was really clear. I don’t want to narrow that focus.

So when you look at the various AACM big bands, as they called it, there was always this thing called the AACM Big Band, which was their way of interfacing with the big band tradition. Its precursor before that was the Experimental Band, and before that there were people like Muhal and Marshall Thompson and Eddie Harris who got together and created a rehearsal band, just to try out some ideas. The whole big band experience had kind of ossified, and a lot of people couldn’t get work going on the road—there was no longer that kind of work. As Eddie said—wasn’t that in an interview he did with you, Ted?–you didn’t learn certain things about how to perform or compose. There was no real infrastructure for that. So people had to make it themselves and create it.

Now, I think that there was a deliberate decision taken by people like Mwata Bowden—in particular, Mwata, I think—to recast that in a different way. In other words, they decided to change the name of what they were doing to the Great Black Music Ensemble. That was an important step also not in breaking with tradition, but establishing a new discourse surrounding their relationship to the AACM. Very important. They didn’t have to be the AACM Big Band any more. It wasn’t like, “Oh, here’s the next edition of the AACM Big Band.” What I realized, sitting in the band for those three nights, was that I played in all the AACM big bands, or a lot of them, for many years—the ones with Muhal, the ones with Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Henry Threadgill, and all these people who people think about from the first generation. I was kind of their student, in a way. But there was nothing like this. They didn’t have four singers or five singers. They didn’t really have cellists and violinists. With all respect to these great people, I don’t want to say that this is ‘better,’ but it’s a fundamentally different kind of animal, and it’s really, in a way, the most diverse set of possibilities that I have seen in any AACM ensemble. Things happen in this ensemble that never happened before in the AACM Big Band. Plus, they have women, a lot of women, not just a few, like we did back then.

And they’re not just singers.

And they’re not necessarily singers. They’re great players. Some of them sing and some of them don’t. With that in mind, GBME has a fundamentally different and very particular identity that they’ve established through regular rehearsal and through modification of a discourse which ends up causing everyone to reflect on how we are doing OUR thing and not necessarily just doing the AACM’s thing. That’s one thing. I was pretty impressed with that. The things that happened during those three nights couldn’t have happened in the same way with those earlier people. The earlier people should be proud of that. I certainly found myself being very proud of it.

Now, the next part of your question, asking me to situate this in the context of other experiences that I’ve had in various kinds of big bands…that’s hard to do. A lot of people who did experimental improvisation ensembles like Globe Unity Orchestra weren’t necessarily thinking about themselves as reacting to traditional big band music. They were just trying to create something different based on a broader interpretation of how you combine improvisation with composed stuff. Certainly, the standard big band model that we know and in which people have created wonderful music was based on that, in some way. The band was playing music, then you took your solo, and so on. But they didn’t have that much collective improvisation. They didn’t have everyone in the band writing a piece. For example, in Count Basie, we were playing pieces by Eric Dixon and so on, but it wasn’t a big feature. Thad Jones wrote most of the music for his orchestra, fantastic, classic pieces, like “A Child Is Born.” But it wasn’t that everyone in the band was encouraged to write music. Duke Ellington, the same thing—Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote the music. I don’t seem to remember Duke Ellington’s Orchestra playing standards, so-called, too often. That makes sense. It was his band, and it was his music, and why not?

In this ensemble, anyone can contribute. That’s like the AACM thing. As Joseph Jarman said, the difference between the AACM and Sun Ra is that in Sun Ra’s band it was Sun Ra who could say and do, and in the AACM everybody could say and do. That’s a huge difference. It’s actually a very different political model, too. You can think about it in terms of notions of radical democracy, egalitarianism, different models of ethical conduct that comes out of music. It’s not a negative example, but it’s more of a difference in orientation.

I was talking about the Globe Unity Orchestra. Basically, Alex Schlippenbach would do a lot of the writing, if there was writing, but a lot of the time there was no writing, and people would just improvise the entire gig. It was great. You had all these people who, really, that was their metier, and they specialized in it, and they knew what do in that environment. I’m not sure this band does that in the same way. I would like to see that happen at some point, where we could say, “OK, let’s improvise the entire concert with no music.” But that takes a particular kind of orientation to personal training, which might take time to develop. Maybe a retreat somewhere, a funded retreat of the sort that people coming from the jazz-identified area don’t really get, where you’ll have an ensemble come together… Composers get this. I’m going to Rome for two months in 2010, at the American Academy, composing music. I’m not going to spend my time in Rome going around and playing in bands and presenting stuff. I want to sit in Rome and compose, and talk with people, and learn about what’s happening there. But that’s the idea. Imagine if you had an ensemble for a week to play together and work this out. We did that with a smaller group in Portugal. In August in Lisbon we’re presenting the electro-acoustic project called Sequel, which we recorded in 2004—eight improvisors working with both acoustic and electronic instruments.

One of the festival chaperones told me that she had never, in eleven years, of shepherding bands around in Umbria and Orvieto, encountered a group of musicians as disciplined, organized, and good-humored as this group.

I do know where that sense of discipline and order comes from. I had never thought of this until J.D. Parran mentioned it, that the AACM people always were very organized and disciplined—he used that word, too. I never thought of us as particularly disciplined, but in fact, I had to ask people for their dietary requirements. My thing was, “Just give me some good Italian food,” but all these people were very specific about their requirements—“I’m a vegan” or this or that.

I don’t want to say this in the wrong way, but I think the reality of the jazz industry (I think I want to use that term) is that a lot of the bands that are brought to a place like this, they don’t come out of the collective experience, but out of the experience where someone gets a gig and they are hired by this or that person. They’re always on a bit of an edge, because they’re competing with a lot of other people who could also have been hired, but in fact they weren’t, so if they don’t do the right thing or play the music in the right away or don’t have the right attitude, they could get fired. I mean, nobody can get fired from the AACM. You can’t even resign voluntarily! Once you’re in, you’re in, and even if you say you’re out, you’re still in. So people don’t feel they can get fired. What are you going to do? Are you going to fire yourself? It’s a collective. Who’s going to fire you?

Isn’t what you’re describing a sort of collective characterological trait that’s been passed down from the beginning through Muhal Richard Abrams, and then various other members who had experience in the military? Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman both talked about their military experiences as crucial to what they did when they got to Europe, to their ability to survive and be self-sufficient.

You could say that.

I’m wondering if that attitude might run continuously throughout the AACM experience.

Maybe it could be. But I don’t know how many people of the younger generation had military experience. I mean, I didn’t, and then it’s whole different thing with these younger people. Volunteer army. Who wants to volunteer? People don’t want to do it. So maybe some people did. But there’s also a different kind of experience. Ernest Dawkins and Ameen Muhammad had the experience of being disciplined within the East Side Disciples, a gang! That’s a really different thing.

But you’re disciplined because this is your thing, and you’re encouraged to take personal responsibility for the outcome of the decision, whereas if you’re playing in a regular band that tours, you don’t have much personal responsibility other than to show up and do the music and do what you’re told. I don’t care whose band it is. Here you have to take on responsibility for playing your music and other people’s music. You’re contributing to the collective experience because it could be your turn next time to play the music of someone else, your colleagues. So it’s a stronger sense of collegiality than the standard kind of working-for-hire situation. We’re clearly not doing that, even though we are being “hired.’ But we’re working for ourselves as much as anyone else. We weren’t formed in response to some industry mandate, or “I’ll form a band and try to sell it.” It’s more that we form a band because we want to do this music. So we have full responsibility for it, and nobody tells us what to play. If we get hired for something, they hire us because we’re us.

I think that’s one thing that’s very important about discipline and collegiality and congeniality. It adds to the atmosphere. I remember working in bands where you were subject to one person’s way of looking at the world. There are people who like to have those kinds of groups, but I don’t. I’m more of a composer type. My band is kind of virtual. It’s on the paper.

Your mention of the Globe Unity Orchestra makes me reflect that this residency in Italy is part of a long timeline of AACM-Europe interactions, that the AACM bypassed New York and went directly to Paris at the end of the ‘60s. Indeed, you yourself had a great deal of personal experience in Europe during your formative years. I was thinking of questions of mutual influence: How you see the AACM having affected European notions of experimentalism and, conversely, ways in which European notions of experimentalism, the European avant-garde, impacted the AACM, whether in the early years or later on.

This ensemble is very interesting to me for several reasons. Early on in the history of the AACM, among the first generation of people, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, for example, studied with Richard Wang. Richard Wang was teaching them serialism and stuff like that, and they were looking at those models and trying to figure out “What’s my relationship to this?” So when a guy like Joachim Berendt says, “Well, European musicians have a closer relationship to Stockhausen than the Americans,” he seemed to be thinking about the fact of their being Europeans, but in fact music crosses those kinds of lines. Lots of U.S. musicians have studied European contemporary music as closely as anyone else. Certainly, Muhal and Roscoe and those guys knew about this. I mean, I heard about Elliott Carter from Muhal. He had the score of the First String Quartet sitting in his house. In fact, that was my introduction to scores, Stravinsky and all that. He had the scores sitting there. Phil Cohran, too. They all knew that.

But by the time you get to, let’s say, Ernest Dawkins, he says, “Well, we weren’t really so much into Stockhausen; we were trying to look at more sort of ‘black’ models.” I’m trying to put words into his mouth, unfairly perhaps. But he basically said that. It reinforces the idea that there are several models of experimentalism. Why not have an experimentalism that comes out of the black experience and doesn’t necessarily assume that any routes of experimentalism run through Europe? So you started to see that this version of the AACM doesn’t owe very much to those models of experimentalism in improvisation that arose at that time. I don’t see a lot of influence or even contact there. Now, Nicole has had more experience in that way than some of us do. Or Leonard Jones, who moved to Germany, who is much older, of course.

Now, I have had those kinds of experiences, and I find there’s a productive interchange, because I can bring to the table aspects of that experience that others did not have. This generation of people is young enough to think about, let’s say, going to composition school and studying composition in a graduate composition program, like the one I teach in at Columbia University.

As I point out in the book, the traditional route for African-American musicians was that we studied music education. You get something to fall back on, a teaching credential, and all that. That means that all of the composition programs in the U.S. mainly comprise white male composers and mainly white—and a few Asian—composing students. So I was talking with some of the younger AACM members, who were saying, “I’m going back to school.” So I told them, “Why not go to composing school?” They hadn’t thought about it. “Well, what’s going to keep you from doing it?” Then there was all this stuff about how they might have to write fugues to get admitted. People don’t do that any more! [LAUGHS]

The funny thing about jazz studies programs is that they’re probably the only programs in the world that actually require someone to learn both jazz and European music, so you have to be, like they say about anything black, “twice as good.” And they’re usually very well equipped. But the problem is that, in many cases, the model of twentieth century European music they learn is a little outdated—Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky. So as someone who’s a little older and is involved in this kind of program, my advice for people of that generation is that they can always do their jazz and other things without having to reinforce it by taking it in jazz school. Just go into a regular composition program, and learn all you can there. If you don’t know enough right at the beginning, you might have a little extra work to do.

So I have this thing now for my younger AACM colleagues that I call “modernism boot camp.” [LAUGHS] It’s really just an There’s still the autodidact tradition in the AACM. People are teaching themselves to compose, teaching themselves to teach—all kinds of things. But when you teach yourself, let’s say, orchestration or composition, the reality is that you are generally learning from books and recordings that are 20 or 30 years out of date. If you want to hear what’s happening now, you’ve got to go into one of these programs, and learn it from there. Since I’m in one of the programs, I can say, “well, here’s what people are doing.” Matthias Spahlinger, Olga Neuwirth–they haven’t heard about it. There’s no book published in English that you can read about people like this. You can’t get the scores unless you know where to look.

So I just sort of present the people they should listen to; sure, Stockhausen is on the list. You say, “Well, here’s the people who come out of this; here’s the generation, another generation, and I’m going to take you up to about 1985, and after you listen to these, let’s say, one hundred people and look at the scores, then you’re good until about ‘85.” Now, that’s still twenty years out of date. But it puts you in a space where you can go into a composition program and you’re not left behind, because you know who’s doing what. Then you’ve also got your jazz experience. So you know what spectral music is, or things like that. Then you’re in a position to do what, let’s say, Steve Lehman is doing in the Columbia program, which is combining spectralism with parallel ideas coming out of Steve Coleman and Jackie McLean to make this super hybrid. It’s amazing work. Tristan Murail, one of the founders of this area of music-making, loves it. It’s taking his ideas into areas he never thought were possible.

The second part of my question was your speculations on the AACM’s impact upon European musical production, experimental or otherwise.

The second and third generations of European and Asian improvisers were more influenced by the AACM than the first. They had a chance to listen to recordings and concerts, and they also are trying to do composed music more than the first generation. They are trying to combine improvisation and composition. So you get something like the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, which is great. There’s the Instabile Orchestra here in Italy. They all know about the example of people like Roscoe and Braxton in particular, who have spent more time here than the others. I wouldn’t say the experience is overweening. I would just say that the AACM thing has become part of the reference mix. People who are looking to do these kinds of hybrid things can’t consider themselves informed about the possibilities without having looked at the Braxton model at least, or the Threadgill model and then other models of how to do it.

The Art Ensemble coined the “Great Black Music” component of GBME, and the question of who that term does and does not include has been part of the ongoing discourse around the AACM. In the book, you talk about creolization as an overriding strategy that you follow. GBME is entirely comprised of people of African descent. I’m wondering to what extent the AACM today reflects strategies of creolization, or if it denotes an entirely black experience. As it’s an organization situated on Chicago’s South Side, it makes me consider the journey taken by President Obama, himself a biracial person, who formed his mature sensibility by intersecting with the many worlds that exist on that same terrain.

Well, in the US, everybody is already creolized. We hope that Obama is thinking about the AACM,

Well, Jeremiah Wright certainly knows about it. Reading your account on Vandy Harris’ memorial, I was thinking about that.

I went there. I had never heard Jeremiah Wright before that. I was stunned. He went off on this Iraq thing, relating it to a Biblical text about hubris.

He also did a recording with Wynton Marsalis. He gives the sermon on The Majesty of the Blues.

First of all, Ingrid Monson said an interesting thing—the ethnomusicologist from Harvard whom I work with quite a bit, most recently on a seminar on postcolonialism in music. She said that African-American culture is majoritarian in jazz culture. That is to say, African-American spiritual, cultural, and psychological values are majoritarian, even in all-white bands or all-European bands. So they adopt jazz models. You see people here, they’re using black slang routinely. That means that African-American ways of thinking…there’s a creolization present even in an Italian jazz ensemble. You hear it all the time. You heard it at Perugia with that marching band, Funk Off.

The second thing is that the people in the Great Black Ensemble, although it comes out of a black milieu, don’t seem averse to having Mary Oliver play, or having Miya Masaoka play. So there’s a lot of creolization there, if you want to identify that with black-white mixing, which isn’t really what the concept is about.

What I think will happen eventually is the creolization of individual ethnic provenance, which is something that the AACM is not necessarily that into on an organizational level. Although one day it could. I think it might. This is probably the moment, as Joseph said, when the third generation, or the fourth, could really entertain that notion. But it’s very difficult to do that in the context of the history of American race relations. Because there may be a majoritarianism of black culture, but there is also a sense that whiteness is still the ruling ideology of the country in terms of the distribution of infrastructure, and that tends to produce a kind of divisiveness that many organizations can’t support. Now, that may still be true, and it may not be true. A lot of people are reluctant to risk the integrity and the tradition to find out.

So anyone who does that has to be someone of whatever non-African-American provenance who understands that reality of race. It can’t be some naive, “we are the world” color-blindness strategy. That’s not going to work. It has to be someone who understands politically the complexities. That’s possible in Chicago, I think, as well as anywhere else. You need people on both sides of the aisle who understand when to account for politics and when to leave politics out. I’m talking about racial politics. You see racial politics coming into the organization not through the people, but through unconscious pressures that are being placed on them… For example, the pressures of identity politics that caused [vibraphonist] Gordon Emanuel to be put out. The organization couldn’t withstand that, which was too bad. Gordon took it quite personally. Why wouldn’t he? It was too big for him to understand. It was too big for a lot of the people who are in it to understand.

Hopefully with this book, which was written as much for the AACM as for anybody else, people will look at this example and say, “Well, how can we do better? How can we construct a multicultural, multiracial AACM?” Maybe the possibility would be that the first person is someone who is not of U.S. origin, but is an African person, an Asian person or a Brazilian person, or something like that. There are all kinds of possibilities. Then you get out of the black-white dichotomies which people get stuck with all the time routinely, without even thinking about it. Even a question like this. We are constantly being asked to evaluate things in terms of white and black because of the historical struggle that takes place. You cannot just blank that out. So even in my early scholarly articles, I tried… Like the Afrological-Eurological thing that I wrote about, which people in the scholarly world have taken up and are sort of waving around. I’m a little wary of it now. It’s uncomfortable. But it does reflect a certain historical reality. So to do better, you still have to be aware of that historical reality, and to overcome that using a revised discourse is as important as anything else.

There are not that many collectives in Europe, as far as I can tell. I also don’t see even a lot of multiracial ensembles over here, even though Europe is becoming—even Italy is becoming—increasingly multi-racial. Look on the streets–it’s incredible. You never used to see these kinds of people. I think that’s we’ll see that increasingly as a part of the new reality of Europe as well.

You mentioned writing A Power Stronger than Itself for the AACM as much as anything else. What were some of the other reasons why you wrote the book? It took ten years of your life. A lot of labor was involved, a lot of detective work, and you had many other contemporaneous duties.

Why I wrote the book really has everything to do with why I got involved in academic scholarship. I was teaching at UC-San Diego, where we were trying to teach improvisation, and, at the time, being from the performance world and not the academic world, I had a few very inchoate ideas about how to teach that. At a certain point, I was brought up short by one of my faculty colleagues. I think I write about that in the book, actually. Basically, he said, “Where’s the bibliography? How are you going to teach it if you don’t have a bibliography?” Then I thought, “Actually, he’s right.” So where is the bibliography? This was in the mid ‘90s, and the new work in jazz studies was just coming out. But even that work didn’t seem to touch upon the experience and implications of what improvisation was—what it produced, what kinds of contexts it made, how it altered our thinking, how improvisation became imbued in our everyday life experiences, and how improvisation relates to an understanding of humanity, political situations, everyday interaction, and so on. It just seemed as though that literature was not really as present.

I think the first article I got published was an attempt to come to grips with a lot of that stuff. It was sort of long, too long, and still it got published in Black Music Research Journal in ‘96. It’s that article on the Afrological-Eurological thing that I just mentioned. The issue is much more complicated than I was making it out to be. It’s nice to know that you can grow and change, and revisit a lot of the ideas you had.

We also had a couple of smart graduate students at UCSD, Dana Reason and Jason Robinson, who organized a conference on improvisation. We were trolling for people who were confronting improvisation in the scholarship, and confronting it in a different way than, let’s say, the way that early ethnomusicological studies addressed improvisation. We weren’t so interested in finding practices and forms, and finding order and vindication of improvisation as an art form. We could see that improvisation was, in fact, an everyday critical practice, and we didn’t see a lot of people talking about improvisation as a critical practice. We mainly saw them interested in looking at alternate classical traditions—Persian improvisation or Indian improvisation—and concerned to find out what forms were being used, the rhythms, the compositions, and once you identified those forms, your work was done.

It just seemed to me that your work hadn’t even started! We were having these cross-cultural discussions with people at UCSD, and we would ask them questions that were burning in the Western classical music community. We would ask these Indian improvisers questions like, “Do you think about global form?” “What?!” We’d get no response at all. [LAUGHS] So we were at a cross-cultural space in thinking about improvisation, and there was a very important musical community that had no interest in these things that are burning in the Western contemporary music community, where it’s generally said that if you don’t have the aspect of global form your music is basically worthless, or not of any intellectual interest. But this is obviously not the case.

So you had to ask yourself how are these people getting along without thinking about these things, and why don’t they think about them? Why is it so unimportant to them if it’s so important to everybody else? Because we are being sold, as improvisers, a whole bill of goods about how formless the practice is, or how it didn’t produce this or didn’t produce that, and a lot of moral posturing purely based on the writings of John Cage or people like that, which was already distorting a lot of what those people did, but somehow enlisting his words towards finding improvisation lacking.

So there were enough reasons there to write anything. If you really wanted to start writing, get started. Since then, we’ve been able to find a global community of people attacking this problem from many different standpoints. I’d say the book comes out of that more than anything else.

Beyond that, the AACM is a very important organization. It seemed that it needed to be given its due in terms of its achievements and influence and impact, and also that it needed to be contextualized historically along with other movements. But there was not enough material available to do that. So the book’s purpose also was to provide some of that material so that future scholars can come in and perhaps elaborate on things that the book only touched upon, or that didn’t get talked about at all. Maybe some people would be interested in musical analysis, which I hardly spent any time with. So many things could be done on the AACM that, as large as the book is, it’s more like an amuse bouche, in a way.

So there were a lot of reasons why it was important to me to get this work done. On the other hand, it took a long time just because I was learning a lot about, first of all, how to write a book. Then secondly, the AACM was developing while I was writing. It was kind of a moving target. It wasn’t a dead chicken or anything. It kept moving. It’s hard to pin down, but at an arbitrary point it had to be pinned down.

The book itself was probably a moving target while you were writing it. Is the final product somewhat in line with what you envisioned when you embarked upon it in the mid ‘90s?

This is the reason why I have such trouble writing. A lot of people complain that the work is always late. It’s because I can’t work like, “Oh, here’s Chapter 1, which is going to be about this, and Chapter 2 is going to be about that.” First of all, I tried to assemble and read what’s been written about the AACM in several languages. Then there was this ambitious project to interview just about everybody. I got pretty far—I didn’t interview absolutely everybody, but I interviewed more than 90 people. I wasn’t even able to use all the interviews. In the middle of that, I found a communitarian aspect. In other words, people were excited to be interviewed. They were excited that a book was going to come out. They were also afraid that it wouldn’t come out. A lot of it was sort of like the idea of Obama getting elected, and then hoping he doesn’t get assassinated or something. People are used to these projects not coming to fruition. So I got a lot of moral support. No one said they didn’t want to be interviewed. Everybody was into it, even people who I didn’t really know well, like Phil Cohran. So that was OK. I met new people through doing it.

So I sort of started in the way I generally start, which is to collect everything I could collect, and then plow through it and read it all, then throw it up on the wall and see what sticks. Then, at a certain point, it’s got to take shape in the form of chapters. Of course, some things get left out—for example, a whole section on the Harlem Renaissance. The reason is because I was the only person who was interested in it. At a certain point, it was like hardly anyone in the community of the AACM referenced the Harlem Renaissance. There was no reason for me to put a chapter in there and say, “somehow I feel this has relevance to the AACM.” Well, of course it does. Anything has relevance to the AACM. I put in stuff about the Society for Private Music Performance in Vienna. But at a certain point, if I did a whole chapter on it, it would have been a little out of place. So basically, I had to save a lot of material.

I first worked on it during a six-week residency in Umbria, Civitella Ranieri. When I came out of there, I already had 400 pages of writing. Plus, I had to transcribe all those tapes. I was in a castle, and there was a field with sunflowers, looking out on all this beautiful weather every day, and I’m basically sitting in a room, sitting in a virtual meeting in Chicago, on the South Side, listening to these tapes of people arguing about this and that, and being obtuse and being brilliant, and occasionally just not being able to help myself and sort of barging in, and then realizing that no one is listening to me! I’m listening to the thing, and this is stuff that is already thirty years old. But it was so present! People I didn’t know. People I knew.

What you’re referring to is the meeting at which the principles of the AACM were formed, which you describe in detail in one of the chapters.

Not just that meeting, but a bunch of them. I had a lot of meeting tapes, but only referenced a few. But yes, in general, it was that early period of the first couple of years of the AACM’s formation, when they were taping all the meetings in which I recognized voices of various people I knew. They had a rule that you had to say your name anyway, so even if I didn’t know the people, I could identify who spoke. A great idea. And people stuck to it.

In our conversation on WKCR in 2008, you wanted to be very clear that a lot of the boilerplate narratives of jazz historiography don’t work with the AACM.

That’s true.

The book explores multiple narratives, in addition to the broader, linear narrative—how the AACM was formed, its antecedents, its different stages, the people who comprised it. I’d like to throw out a few of the narratives that seem important, a few that you mentioned yourself, and see what you have to say about them now. One is that A Power Stronger than Itself is a narrative of an organization that expressed the agency of a group of working-class African-Americans. Another is the notion that the AACM also expressed the agency of people who had been impacted by migration, both the in-migration from the South, but also their own out-migration from Chicago once the AACM was established. Can you offer some statement on how those narratives became clear to you?

Of course, the book reflects my own experience, even though I am just one person. But I think the key image that brings all of those strands together is mobility. And the extent to which people fight for mobility. They fight against being stereotyped—all these things that tend to place you in fixed contexts, tend to root you to some spot and not let you leave. I wrote about Farah Griffin’s book on the migration. She references Foucault, who has an idea about about agency and power expressed through being able to move. At some point, these southern-based people were able to get out. As I discuss in the book, a lot of people were unhappy to see this super-exploited labor force leave the South, and even went to various agencies of the government to say, “Can’t you make some laws to keep these people here?”

That’s one kind of mobility. Then you’ve got another kind, where people start to say, before even the term comes up: “We don’t want to be stuck in one place. We want to do any kind of music that strikes our fancy. And not only any kind of music. We want to get involved in the visual arts, we want to get involved in theater. We want to do everything connected with art-making.” Performance art. People like Jarman or Muhal or whomever. That’s another kind of mobility.

I saw the AACM fundamentally as a sort of successful struggle to achieve mobility. One saw also how this mobility was very hard-won. There is a discourse of immobility which you have to combat. I love that interview that’s on the web that I think Fred Anderson and other people had copies of on tape, where Charlie Parker is being interviewed who are asking him the same question over and over again, hoping to get a different answer. The answer that they want is that his music is a logical outgrowth of the work of European classical music. At a certain point, he comes out with one of these Charlie Parker type licks. His spontaneity is incredible. He says, “Not a bit of it was inspired or adapted from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, et cetera.” That’s an incredible lick. That’s like the great alto break. For me, that says it all. Encapsulated classical music history. First of all, proving right away, in a sense, that he knew that tradition well enough to be able to do that. Then secondly, the idea that not only was he connected with that, but he had his own music. I felt that this kind of mobility—the freedom of reference—was important to bring out in the book.

The problem with this kind of mobility is that you cross-cut a lot of communities, but it’s hard to find a home base. It’s hard to find the people who will support you no matter what. You’re in this world for a while, in that world for a while, but it’s not as though there is one place where you can count on a certain kind of support. That’s why the AACM was important, because it did provide a group of people who would really support you no matter what. Even though they were critical, certainly, but the critique was offered with the idea that you were part of a community that DESERVED this kind of critique, who were invested in you by making this kind of critique. So wherever you went and whatever you explored, you would have this kind of home base, and it’s a home base that’s totally in your mind, which is where the most powerful stuff generally is.

Charlie Parker’s remark on the source of his music prompts me to double back to my question about the mutual relationship between the AACM and Europe. In our 2006 conversation, you stated that you saw the AACM and the European experimental music organizations as parallel streams. Both were interested in John Coltrane, in post-Webern music (Stockhausen, Xenakis), in collective practice, in developing certain sorts of social networks. Then you said: “Both the European improvisers and the AACM have a peculiar relationship to European classical music. That is, the AACM people, people like Braxton, like Muhal, like Roscoe, are actually working inside of those traditions as well. You don’t really find that in the European improvisers, who are working against that tradition, with the large exception of Alex Schlippenbach—but even there, they have an oppositional stance, which is partly political, to this thing which is actually very close to them, this hegemony of European classical music.”

I thought that was a pretty great riff. We could call it the great trombone break! ]

I suppose, except that it didn’t come out of my horn.

You said there was no reason for the AACM people to oppose European classical music, because for them, European classical music was the thing they were being kept out of. So for them, engagement with it was actually overcoming strictures of race.

Not just the AACM either. That’s an ongoing trope in American history and black American music history, the idea that somehow you’ve been kept out of something, and so to gain that knowledge becomes the object. Not necessarily to become part of the community. That’s more complicated. But certainly, to be in touch with that knowledge and be in dialogue with it becomes important.

Another narrative strand in the book is the notion of overcoming strictures of race in a very specific way.

Well, there is a reason why the book was subtitled, The AACM and American Experimental Music. American experimental music, historiographically, is white. That means that we are looking at a large number of scholars, journalists, producers, who have been instrumental in constructing this whiteness-based discourse network that, if you come into it and you’re not white, you have an issue with. Somehow, that network, which is implicitly race-imbued, had to be changed, extended, destroyed, transformed. Race doesn’t come up as a factor until you test the limits. Then, when you test the limits, you are often accused of injecting race into it, when, in fact, the racial consensus is already present. But to make it explicit seems to be the fate of artists of color. The problem there is that the process in itself is anti-dynamic. Somehow, you have to be the one who brings race to every situation. The artist-of-color has to be the person that represents. Or you have to somehow be on the lookout for situations that the others aren’t really thinking about. That becomes a drain on your energy as a creative person. You can also recycle it and use it creatively. But it does become a bit of an annoyance when maybe you’d rather be thinking about something else at that time, but you don’t have the liberty to do so. We’re not in the post-racial place yet. I don’t see that.

You could say that there are strictures of race, but the same strictures can also be used to enable. I always look not to eliminate race, which is impossible, but to atomize and multiply the racial dynamic. “Well, let’s get a lot of races in there. Let’s not just have one or two.” You know, the usual back-and-forth between black and white that’s defined a lot of historiography in the history of the United States. Let’s not have that. Let’s see if we can mix it up.

Let’s see if we can create previously paradoxical constructions, like “black experimentalism,” which was Ronald Radano’s construction. Very important. One of the more important things in his book on Anthony Braxton was how he managed to identify that. My contribution to that discourse was to expand it beyond the individual, which is to say, rather than regard Anthony Braxton as being THE pivotal figure, to see a whole community of people standing around him. He has antecedents. Not just distant antecedents like Duke Ellington, but immediate antecedents in the community who taught him and who prepared the ground for him. Anthony Braxton was not the only person in 1968 listening to Stockhausen on the South Side of Chicago. He was not the only person who knew who John Cage was. Joseph Jarman played with John Cage in 1965 when Braxton was in the Army. What are you going to do with that? At a certain point, we have to bring these things out. We have to ask ourselves: What does that mean? How does that contribute to the narrative of experimentalism? Is it just some background curio that we’ve identified, or is there a larger, deeper implication?

I just wrote a long piece on the black Fluxus musician, Ben Patterson, for a catalogue on a show he’s having next year at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. In a way, just by being Ben Patterson, he brings race to Fluxus. Now, at the risk of being a bit uncharitable, I would say that his Fluxus colleagues handled that somewhat poorly. Certainly, individuals in the private transcript probably have a different reality, but the public transcript doesn’t handle it very well at all. It’s part and parcel with the way the experimental music community and the scholarly community that writes on experimental music approaches race, where no one thought to ask, “what does it really mean to have a black person in Fluxus?” If you say it means nothing, that’s ridiculous. The guy himself wrote that he wanted to be the first Afro-American to play in a symphony orchestra, but he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t get a gig, so he went to Canada and actually got gigs, straight out of college, playing double bass in symphony orchestras. Then he gets over to Germany and suddenly meets up with Mary Bauermeister and all these people, and suddenly his world is changed around—and he even steps to the front and starts making very important, lasting contributions. His colleagues (on this, I’m going to give them full credit) recognize his achievements. There’s no narrative that you can find coming from the Fluxus colleagues that doesn’t mention Ben Patterson. He is not erased from that at all. He is a central figure. But, when we get to the writing on the Fluxus movement by the scholars and historians, he starts to recede more and more and more.

So I found myself thinking, when I was writing this article: “Is this the first time anybody has written a scholarly article on Ben Patterson?” He’s born in 1934. Is this the first time? It seems kind of odd. Not to say that one has to be as famous as Nam June Paik or something, but still, it just seemed off.

Now, Ben Patterson has little or no connection with the jazz world that one can see from the public record. He grew up listening to opera and so on. But he does have a connection with African-American music. After Fluxus, he was with the Symphony of the New World as general manager. I think he worked with Dance Theater of Harlem. He also did many things connected with African-American composers. So he’s not disconnected from that world, and he’s not disconnected from models of race. But often, when commentators try to examine his work in terms of race, they betray their own naivete about the current state of theorizing on race. That’s another problem with the scholarship, that because they spend so much time ignoring race, they don’t know who’s doing good work—people like Achille Mbembe and Cheryl Harris.

Anyway, there’s a lot to say about race. But my real issue is to try to take my place among the scholars. When you write these scholarly articles, they send them out anonymously, and they get reviewed, the reviews come back and you read them, and they ask you to incorporate what they said into your visions. One person said, “Well, this would be a good article just because of the person who’s writing it.” I said, “No, that’s not enough; it can’t be that.” It has to be good regardless of the person. I have to bring my experience into the book, but its authority can’t be derived from those outside factors—that somehow we read this book because, and only because of this individual who is posing as an authority, and he was there, and so we have to take his claim seriously. That’s the problem with a lot of writing these days.

You do make it clear in the text, however, that it would not have been written had the project not been undertaken by someone who, as you put it before, was somehow an insider, with whom people hadn’t played or who people didn’t know.

But that happens in any ethnographic enterprise. If people don’t trust you, you’ll get a different response. That’s why the ethnographers, the ethnomusicologists, the anthropologists live with people for a long time. They have to earn the people’s trust, people have to know they’re not going to be betrayed, and so on. Even with me, there were those questions, and in a way, it’s more acute because of being an insider.

One of the things that I discovered about so-called ‘authority’ is they’re often wrong. Or people who said they were there at a certain point, who weren’t actually there, or gave completely bogus interpretations of what they found there. At a certain point, it’s not whether you were there that’s important. Also, I wasn’t there for a lot of it. I was an insider for my generation, but not for the ones before and not for the ones after. So for those people, I am coming in as an ethnographer or an historian, trying to interpret. So I have to uphold some kinds of standards, and also I have to bring some analytic muscle to the table. Otherwise, you know, it’s a great book by somebody who was there. I want people to say, “I don’t care if George Lewis was this guy or not; he’s wrong about this-and-this-and-this, and here’s why.” That’s real dialogue at that point, instead of someone you can’t question because they played with Bird and knew what Bird was doing, despite the fact they’d forgotten a lot of what Bird was doing. Someone who didn’t forget, who read and talked to a lot of people might be in a better position to talk about what Bird was doing.

Was a process of self-discovery involved in writing the book?

My joke about the book is it’s just like Alex Haley trying to look for Kunta Kinte. Yeah, sure, you discover a lot about yourself. There are things you took for granted that turned out to be rooted in some specific historical moment. The whole facing-the-East thing. If you ask someone, “Why do we face the East?”—“I don’t know, we just do it.” Now, people who care to know have some understanding of when that practice arose and why it did.

That’s one simple example. But to go a little deeper: What I found out about the people who did this work enabled me to go a lot deeper into my own creative work. I felt better about it afterwards. Some people say, “Born too soon,” “born too late,” all the great stuff has already been done, all the innovation already happened. I no longer feel that way. I discovered that way, a bunch of people were doing great work even after Muhal and those people. People like Nicole Mitchell are doing great work right now. So there isn’t this sense, which I often heard when discussing the book, of “What is the AACM doing now?” or next trend to come out of the AACM. I’m not a trend-spotter. My response is, “Well, what’s Napoleon doing now?” Well, nothing. He’s dead. But people are still writing about him. The ideas have an impact—the way in which all that activity changed France and stretched all around the world. The way Haiti was affected. It means that his work still has an impact. If the AACM stopped functioning tomorrow, the achievements remain. But in fact it hasn’t stopped functioning.

A lot of things happened while I was writing this book that had a lot of impact. The MacArthur award. That was sort of huge, because besides being an encouragement to write the book (that’s how I took it; you don’t know why you get these things), I also took it as a validation for what I was doing. Somehow, there was an increased sense of freedom connected with it, and the sense that I should try to be more focused, and gradually to weed out the things that weren’t at the center of my interests. That’s very painful, because certain people you performed with, you may not perform with in the future. Or, people believe you’re just like them, and you’re really not like them at all, or you share some small point of commonality but it’s not enough for you—it’s enough for them. The fear that generates in people. I’ve had to experience that as I was doing this.

Another ongoing trope of A Power Stronger Than Itself is the notion of hybridity, which you embody in the intertwining narratives and diverse strategies deployed in constructing the different chapters, not least the conclusion, in which you set up an imaginary dialogue amongst the various AACM members. Were you writing towards that denouement?

I don’t remember how that came about. I do remember it being the chapter I had the most ethical problems with. In the book I wrote about those ethical problems with the idea of taking the voices from people who hadn’t talked to each other, probably from the same community, but arbitrarily so, and some of them people who were no longer alive, and bringing them into juxtaposition. It’s the idea that somehow you’re already orchestrating these into the narrative by weaving together quotations without giving everything they said. When I wrote the chapter, I read what I said to a couple of people and said, “Is this something you can really do in a book of this kind?”—which finally is a work of scholarship. If it’s a different kind of work, if it’s fiction or whatever, you can do it. But with this, it was like writing fiction at the end of the book. It was a little scary. So I’m still not sure how I came to the idea this should be done.

The function of that chapter is to reconnect the AACM with the future, which will be connected with a dialogue confronting issues that still aren’t resolved. The book does not end with everything tied up in a bow. It ends with more questions. With places to go. With some vistas that are not a modernist quest for perfectionism, but a kind of postmodern uncertainty with a multiplicity of voices that ends up being a heterophony. But I can’t remember how it came to be. Somehow it just seemed the thing to do.

For me, writing words gives you the same feeling as writing music. I’m sitting there, writing this thing, working the way I work, which is I have a bunch of stuff on the floor around me, either conceptually or in reality, and I pick this one up and see. No, that’s not going to fit. Oh, this one over here… I used to make fun of Michel Portal in my mind (in fact, everybody did), because you’d go to rehearsals with Michel, and he’d bring in this huge bag of music. Michel is a genius musically, so he can pick a piece of music—I don’t care what clef it’s in, anything—and pick up his clarinet and play some of it. He’ll pick it up, play two or three notes, and say, “Non. Pas ça.” Put it back in the box. “What are we going to play?” I think it was his way of assembling something that worked for him. My way of writing is kind of like that. It gets very intense, very emotional, especially when you start to see how the story (which is what I’m calling this piece of scholarship) is working. I guess this is the same feeling I get from composing. From composing more than playing, I think.

How much time do you get these days to devote to composition, and how much of your compositional work these days is what David Behrman dubbed interspecies, that is, between software-electronics and humans?

I was talking to somebody who said, “You aren’t really like a bandleader type person.” I said, “Well, that’s right; I’m not a bandleader type person.” I mean, I’ll lead the band if no one else is around. But I’ve come to the stage now (and this is probably the turbulence I was talking about earlier) where I don’t want to sit in the band either. I find the most comfortable place for me is in the audience, listening to my composition getting played. That’s been true for a number of years. I don’t often get to do that. It’s like with the book. It’s done. It’s out there. I can’t come to your house and read it to you. So I’m more like the composer type.

Now, in the field I’ve had at least a major role in for years, the jazz field, that’s not a regular thing. Jazz is about improvisers. Which is why I’ve been fortunate that I no longer have to put all my eggs into any one basket. That was another thing, that the MacArthur grant, in my case, sort of rewarded mobility and multiplicity. When they were talking about what I did, they couldn’t say “this person is a physicist” or “this person is a composer.” They had to say these multiple things, and it became very diffuse, and no one could figure it out. Which is great for me, because this means I get to intervene in all kinds of fields.

Look, for example, at Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis: First of all, there’s a lot of talk about Wynton Marsalis being this conservative, or whatever, who recreates this and that. Well, what is Blood on The Fields recreating? He may be referencing a lot of stuff. That’s different. But what I’d like to concentrate on is that, on the one hand, the composition is for the standard jazz ensemble, and operates in a way that you can’t really play the music unless you’ve trained in various traditional notions of jazz playing, but, on the other hand, it calls for a type of jazz player who is in extremely short supply, despite all the talk. Most of that music is unplayable by most people who play jazz. It’s too hard. Listen to it sometime. It took massive numbers of rehearsals.

See, if you have a piece for classical ensemble, you can write as many septuplets and superduperuplets as you like, and some graduate student will sit up there and read the stew out of it. You can’t do that in a jazz band. It won’t get played. Can’t do it. So there’s a limit on the kinds of complexity you can write.

What Marsalis was doing was pushing that envelope in the jazz arena. In order to push the envelope successfully, they had to create an ensemble that could do it. So that had to be done by the media corporations that support Lincoln Center’s jazz program. They had already done it for classical music. They have done it since the ‘50s. I mean, Leonard Bernstein’s crew didn’t have any problem playing hard music. I’d like to be able to write without regard to who is going to play this; I write what I want, then we bring it to people, and whatever they get out of it, they get. Because somebody is going to come along one day and really be able to do the written part.

Now, as to the playing part… See, that’s the key to the Marsalis thing, is you get people who actually are high-level interpreters of the written stuff but are also high-level players in a number of jazz idioms. That’s a new kind of musician. The paradox is that you started to see that new kind of musician first in the AACM. A Braxton type. Creative Orchestra Music is as difficult as Blood on the Fields. Some parts are more difficult. The music is of a totally different order in terms of what’s possible. The people who were trained in standard jazz were the ones who had the roughest time with the music. As I discuss in the book, that was a landmark recording for a number of reasons.

At the session were all these people from diverse worlds. There was the studio world with Seldon Powell, a great alto saxophonist, and Jon Faddis playing piccolo trumpet, and then there were people like Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and Garrett List, and then Braxton’s quartet colleagues—Barry Altschul, Dave Holland—and an AACM group—Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith. There was always this thing in the jazz world about inside and outside, free and not-free, and the story was that the so-called “free” players, whatever that means, couldn’t play regular music, whatever “regular music” means. So there was all this difficult written music, and the thing was that the people who were the not-free jazzers were having a hard time with it because it had stuff in it like quintuplets, or wider intervals, stuff that you normally don’t encounter in jazz bands. But AACM people had been writing that kind of stuff for years, and had taught themselves to play it. So in the end, it was a reversal of the expected situation, because the people who were the so-called experienced readers were the ones who were falling behind a little bit. But in the end, everybody caught up, and what you hear is this incredible thing.

With Braxton’s quartet, it got to the stage where we really didn’t have to rehearse the music. Braxton would write music every day. If we were on tour, he would go in a hotel room, he would write this music every day, and you knew not to call him or knock on his door while he was doing this. At a certain point, he would emerge with a few pieces of paper, and then we would look at them and sing them, and then go on the stage and play them—and that would be it.

After a while, you began to understand the system, and, at least when I was doing it, you didn’t have to know heavy mathematics, or look at diagrams. All the stuff that I think people asked about basically was written fairly prosaically on regular note paper, and you just had to read it. Then once you knew how Anthony thought and what his ideas were… It was amazing to me that he could do this. But then I learned how to do it, too. You could just go in and read the music, and sort of sing it, and then pretty soon you’re on stage playing it, and that would be it. It would work out.

Anthony and I did a curious duo at Donaueschingen that was subsequently issued by Hat Art; Anthony always wanted to confront people with the consequences of genre transgression. Donaueschingen has a very curious history with jazz, which is that it was introduced in the early ‘50s. Then they brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was performing in the same year as the premiere of Stravinsky’s Agon. People just went nuts over the Modern Jazz Quartet and didn’t think so much of Stravinsky. So basically, the headline in the newspaper was “King Jazz Defeats King Twelve Tone.” That was it. Jazz was banned for the next ten years from Donaueschingen. They asked the director about it it… This is stuff you don’t really get to unless you read in arcane German archives and stuff. They asked the director, Heinrich Strobel, what was the reason for banning jazz. He said, “We didn’t want the things we love to overshadow things we were really interested in.” [LAUGHS] Which is pretty direct. So on this Donaueschingen duo, Anthony wanted to play “Donna Lee,” because Donaueschingen is known one of those places which disdains jazz, and the so-called “new music” people get the bulk of the infrastructure and so on—he wanted make that point about genre transgression.

Now, I think the same year we finally got a gig at the Newport Jazz Festival. This is great! So everyone’s going, “Well, we’re going to play our normal repertoire.” Then a day or two before the concert, Anthony comes in with this 50-page, completely notated composition and says, “Here’s what we’re going to play.” There was no “Donna Lee” on that concert. So once again, people were expecting X and they get Y. That’s sort of the AACM idea, which is basically we’re playing music, and people who love music should be receptive, and not only receptive on one channel, but all channels.

You can’t create a new kind of music without individual transformations. Individuals have to change. They have to transform, they have to develop, they have to reinvent themselves, they have to do the self-fashioning, as they call it in the scholarly literature—or perform a spiritual exercise. So this was the real innovation of that, but the curious thing is that the AACM was the logical precursor of that kind of innovation. What you have now, even in the classical world, are individually brilliant performers who can do this kind of code-switching. The more of those kinds of code-switchers you get, it will change what’s possible, and you will see new kinds of music based on this kind of code-switching. You already see it. But the code-switching has to go a lot further, which means that even the people in a group like Marsalis’ have to do even more kinds of music, not just the jazz music and not just classical music before 1950, and not just Western music. There’s a huge responsibility there for people who perform or compose.

So that’s how I look at what I’m trying to do nowadays. On the one hand, I don’t want people to be put off by the music and find it impossible to play. I want them to be able to find themselves in the music. A case in point is this Fred Anderson piece I wrote for the Great Black Music Ensemble that I mentioned before. Again, the commission was to write an arrangement of some piece by Fred Anderson, and I decided to orchestrate some of Fred’s improvisations. It’s not like Super-Sax, though that was cool—not that kind of homophony. I wanted more of a contrapuntal thing. It was like when Zita Carno transcribed “Giant Steps” and Coltrane looked at it and said, “I can’t play this.” I looked at Fred’s solo and said, “well, I could practice this for 20 years; I’m not going to get it. So I could give that to somebody else, but they’re not going to get it. But how do I use the transcription?” So I hit on breaking it up into little pieces. You can play five notes of it. If he’s playing… [SINGS FAST QUINTUPLET], and you have one person who goes, [DUPLET], and another person goes, [DUPLET], [ONE NOTE], [TRIPLET]. So they play their little five-note fragment, and it ends up sounding kind of wild, but in the end, you can trace the whole sweep of Fred’s music. It was pretty faithful to Fred’s timing. I stretched out very few parts—a couple of repetitions. But basically, it’s what was on the record, except that it’s orchestrated for all of these horns and violins and cellos and stuff.

I would love to do that also in the contemporary classical arena, because these musicians are trained differently, they have a different bodily sound—in other words, their bodies are trained differently. They reproduce that history. So it would be great for me to conceptually migrate what Fred did to that arena. And it would probably be very easy to take this piece and reconceive it for orchestra. Those are the kinds of things that are exciting me.

Are you doing much less work now with software-generated improvising-composing? Are there new iterations of Voyager?

I think that work has hit a plateau for a while, while I work on something else. I’m not quite sure why. That work got pretty far. I feel comfortable with it. In a way, it’s like settled technology. It was like The Spirit of St. Louis was one thing, and now we have these things taking place fifty times a day. So for me, to have a little piano sitting on my laptop, that I can pull it out, hook it up, and play for about thirty minutes, and create a concert with it, or to let it go and play a concert by itself—to me, that’s settled technology.

Right now, I can see what will be required for the next mile of doing that. Better instrumental recognition. There are computers that can listen to music and tell you what the genre is. You turn the radio to a station and they listen and say, “Well, that’s X, Y and Z.” Or sometimes they get stuck. They report several genres. That’s very cool, too.

But I don’t necessarily want to get stuck now in creating new technologies. I already created a new technology. I’d like to try to bring those ideas that came out of the technology to other spheres of the compositional and listening experience. That’s why I’m not working on it as much.

Can you describe in a relatively synoptic way the gestation and evolution of Voyager?

I’ve been doing computer music since 1979, and the goal has always been the same (although the techniques became more advanced and certainly the computers are better), which is to create situations where software-driven musical systems are in improvised interaction with human improvisers. It’s a cousin of the piece called “Rainbow Family” that I made at IRCAM in 1984. That was a networked piece. That is to say, there were three microcomputers, all controlling three of the earliest generation of MIDI synthesizers; that is, the Yamaha DX-7. There were four improvisers—Joelle Leandre, the bassist; Derek Bailey, the guitarist; Douglas Ewart, who played bass clarinet; and Steve Lacy, who played soprano saxophone. I think we did three evenings of performances of free improvised music with computers in the large space at IRCAM. The beginnings of Voyager were there.

The next stage of Voyager was really is where it almost became something you could call Voyager. In 1985, I went to STEIM, the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, in Amsterdam. Around ‘87, the idea was to extend the networking idea. This time, instead of having three computers, we had ten, and each one controlled sort of eight voices. The idea was always to have an orchestral conception. So this was sort of a virtual orchestra of 80 voices that was done at the International Computer Music Conference in 1987. I would call that piece a spectacular failure, because the computers we were using were underpowered. But the architecture that was put on each computer is the same basic architecture that is used for Voyager now. Computers went through a period of very rapid developmental change, and got to the stage where they could execute the ideas I had in my head.

Were the ideas related specifically to the technology of computing, or was it a transduction of your own musical ideas as they had previously developed?

I think you always do any kind of music or composing from your own view of music and the world. The idea of it being non-hierarchical is extremely important. That is to say that the computers aren’t controlled by the musicians. The process of analyzing and making decisions about the music are shared between the people and the computers. That’s been my take right from the beginning.

When was the last major iteration of Voyager constructed?

I’d say around ‘94 or ‘95, the technology began to be kind of settled for me. That is to say, I concentrated less on creating new versions and more on performing with the existing versions, and then creating performances and trying to work with different collaborators. Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and Miya Masaoka are three of the interesting collaborators that stand out

Who can’t play with Voyager?

That’s kind of a murky thing. My notion of improvisation is that a good improviser is manifests an awareness of the situation, and can transform that awareness into many possible different directions in which he or she might go. I tend to make those adjustments, and I would think that anyone thinking along those lines could have a good experience in playing with Voyager. Although, at the same time, Voyager has a pretty strongly typed aesthetic [LAUGHS], and some people might not agree with that, and those people might have a hard time.

How does Voyager embody a strongly typed aesthetic?

There is the question of multidominance, which means that a lot of things are happening at the same time, that different elements in this total sound are vying for the foreground—in fact, the notion of foreground and background starts to disappear. These many different foregrounds that are vying for attention are not necessarily in any kind of arithmetic correlation rhythmically. They could be very diverse, and the groupings can change all the time. There is a lot of information—rapid changes in timbre, multiple meters, multiple keys, multiple tonalities. People might have a hard time locking in on what they would like to approach.

But the major thing that might cause dislocation for people who collaborate with me in making the performances usually comes when they assume that they should be in charge of the experience—that is to say, that they should play something and the computer should do what they say. I think those people will always be disappointed in working with me. Because I treat the computer—at least mine—the same as I treat anybody else. I don’t want to be in charge and I don’t want anyone else to be in charge. I’d like to see things be negotiated. And the process of negotiating through sound is fundamental to my way of looking at improvisation. By a strongly typed aesthetic, I mean an aesthetic of negotiation and sonic signalling, and an absence of hierarchy. That’s especially in the computer environment because of the way computers have been sold to us, as something that at last we control; even if we have no control over any other aspect of our lives, at least we can control this computer as the sort of new slave or whatever. I just don’t think that way, at least in terms of the software that I make for musical purposes.

What is the level of your intervention with the program in preparing for any specific encounter?

Well, since it became kind of settled, I don’t intervene. I just set it up and start it, and when the piece is over, I turn it off. In one of John Corbett’s books, Extended Play, Jon Rose talked about his Voyager experience, and he said something that helped me learn something fundamental. Jon said something to the effect that I was interested in the process, but not in the sound. That’s sort of an extreme version of Process versus Result. Of course, as an improviser, I’m interested in both the process and the result. Now, Jon’s notion of sound seemed to be mostly related to the standard sort of post-Cage morphologies—timbre, loudness, pitch, silence, and so on. My notion of sound comes more from the Charlie Parker remark that music is your thoughts, your wisdom—if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. That notion of sound is more related to assumptions of personality and agency. In other words, what musician-improvisers call ‘getting your own sound.’ So sound becomes very personal. I think Jon was identifying that with process. But that has to be carefully constructed, and finally that construction is a sort of a meta-aesthetic in which you think about Voyager, or any computer system, as the articulation of sound that has a background in community and history and personal experience.

I’m interested in how that notion applies to what the computer actually produces. Does the computer take into account past decisions? Does the computer itself have a personal history, an emotional history as a context for the sound it generates?

You know, it’s very interesting. I built something that allowed the system to recover things that have been done before and reintroduce them into the space. That was fantastically unsuccessful. You don’t want to aestheticize form. You don’t want to aestheticize experience. What you’d like to do is have the software embody the nature of experience, to the extent you’re able to do that. The reason why the whole business of reintroducing things into the space was so unsuccessful is mainly because when you reintroduce them into the space, you’re taking something that you stole from the past and reintroducing it at a different point in history, and often it just doesn’t fit. It’s sort of like beginning beboppers who have practiced some lick at home for a year, and then bring it to the gig and never get a chance to play it. If they’re smart, they never get a chance to play it, because the situation is so totally different, and if they’re not so smart, they play it anyway even though it doesn’t fit. I decided not to do it that way, and to go with a greater immediacy in the system’s responses to things, so that it contextualizes the immediate situation in deciding on its response. Also, as the immediate situation changes, it’s constantly adapting. So there is an embedded sense of history there, but it’s not a sort of arbitrary parsing of an historical moment.

So no licks are contained in the computer’s vocabulary. Or that’s not a good way of putting it…

Oh, that’s fine. Because actually, in fact, I used to compose licks when I first started. I thought that was the way you did it. I’d been reading all these books from so-called scientists on what they thought jazz playing was, and they said it was just a bunch of licks thrown together. I said, “Well, that doesn’t sound right, but let me try it anyway.” So I tried it, and I realized that I can make an algorithm that does this. I don’t have to make up pre-stored licks. I just hated it when I heard Lick #42 coming out of the machine.

The thing is that, even though you construct the algorithms that produce these things, the algorithms themselves are like meta-licks anyway. So basically, after a certain while, every so often I would hear the Philip Glass moment, or what I used to call the Keith Jarrett moment, or the blues moment. But these moments aren’t programmed into the machine in any way. They’re just the outcome of the process that at some point will produce these things.

What are the first principles by which the computer’s vocabulary and syntax are constructed? What are the parameters?

Basically, Voyager is quite Cartesian, just like the trombone is. With trombone, you have the X-axis (that’s your slide going out and in) and the Y-axis (that’s the lips playing pitches up and down). So you can plot a so-called fingering chart of the trombone as basically an XY coordinate system. That’s basically the same way Voyager works. Let’s say the X-axis are a set of 64 individual voices, or positions, as you would call them—Position 1, Position 2, Position 3, up to Position 64. There are 64 voices. Or there are as many voices as you can get together, but nominally for me, it’s 64. Then the Y-axis has the sets of things that it can do in terms of playing music. Those usually tend to be very simple things, like the duration of a so-called note, and that would have two parts; basically, the duration of onsets from one note to the next, and then the duration of whatever silence happens between one note and the next. And then there is the question of what scale each voice is going to use, and there are a couple of hundred of those, and these are microtonal. Then there’s a question of what transposition that scale is going to be using. That is also microtonal, so in the first voice you have a C-major scale, and in the second voice you have a C-major transposed up 10 or 5 cents, and so on. So you have a possibility of doing a lot of pretty complicated things along those lines. There’s also the question of things like the melody algorithm. Those are very simple things, step-wise things or skips or various… They are sort of like waveform generators, so that the melodies get mapped onto waveforms.

That’s the output side. Then there’s the input side, where you have to look for those elements, or things like them, in the MIDI stream. This stream of MIDI comes in from a pitch detection machine, and the software finds out whether what it’s detecting really is a pitch, and then, if it is satisfied that it is, it will write that down, and then do things like record how many simultaneous pitches are sounding at the same time, whether the pitch is on, whether it was used. It has to keep a record of the last few pitches. Then it has to decide how short or how long the silence was between the pitches. From those processes, it generates a lot of rhythmic information. Then it has to take in a lot of information regarding whether the person is active or hardly playing at all.

These are the kind of things you have to know at a minimum in order to have a system that plays with you. What gets built up is a representation of what’s going on outside at any given time, and the system uses that representation to compose a response.

One other important element is that the response can be of three basic kinds. First, it tries to follow pretty carefully what you’re doing. So if you’re playing high notes, it will play high notes, and so on. Second, it will try to sort of oppose what you do. So if you’re playing fast, it will play slow, or something like that—a contrasting mode. The third mode—which is kind of the critical one, it turns out—is that it completely ignores you, and that it just does what it wants. In fact, that turns out to be the critical moment, because that’s where difference is asserted. In other words, that’s where we find out that the computer really is asserting “a personality,” when it’s very clear that it’s not paying attention or that it’s deliberately ignoring you. It paid attention to you in the past, so why is it ignoring you now? Well, that’s where the psychological transmission of a notion of difference comes through.

There’s a fourth mode, too. When you’re not playing, it just makes the music up by itself, based on those parameters we were just talking about. So you don’t have to really be there. That’s very good, because it means I don’t have to play all the time. It also means that the computer doesn’t have to play all the time. The problem with computer pieces is that the computer is always the star and the people always have to worship the computer, and what it does, and you have to worry about whether it’s working or not working. In a group setting, that’s quite off-putting for the other musicians. I got tired of that, and I wanted to make things equal, so that you could say, “Well, I feel like playing now,” and if I don’t feel like playing now, the computer will just take it for a while. Or maybe it won’t feel like playing, and I have to take it. In a group that’s practicing self-orchestration, this means that many different ensembles can form, with and without the computer. These kinds of exchanges are fundamental to the experience, and to the composition.

Could we talk about your early interest in electronic music, how the notion of improvising software first gestated for you?

In high school, we had a cool librarian who brought us his electronic music records. I didn’t understand them. University of Illinois, Scott Wyatt, and people like that. I didn’t know what they were doing. But still, it had impact. Muhal, of course, really likes technology, so he had an idea that we should investigate it. There was a guy at Governors State University, Richard McCreary, who came out of University of Iowa, that whole scene that produced a lot of interesting new music people—but he was an African-American guy, which is a little different right away. He was very knowledgeable, and he had built an electronic music studio. That was what you did in those days. You got your Ph.D or DMA, and then you were fruitful and multiplied, so you would establish your electronic music studio wherever you could. That was your thing. You’d get a gig and convince them to spend a carload of money. So he got a gig at Governors State, and they bought a huge ARP 2500 system. We were going there twice a week, and learning on that stuff—learning about remote control and so on.

A lot of what we learned came from recordings. I remember in one class, I think Muhal brought in a Morton Subotnick record, probably The Wild Bull, which was fascinating. There was a great record store in Chicago called Rose Records, on Wabash Avenue, and somebody there was buying… I bought Phil Glass, Music With Changing Parts, Steve Reich, the stuff that David Behrman produced for Columbia—for example, the Nancarrow thing that David produced for them. This was all pulling it out of the hat. I had no idea who these people are. First of all, there’s no book about them. I didn’t learn about who they were until I got to New York between ‘75 and ‘77.

But around ‘77, I went out to Mills College. I just found a really cool picture of Jacques Bekaert, the Belgian journalist-composer who brought me out there, and Frederic Rzewski. Somehow, we were all sitting there. Blue Gene Tyranny was at Mills, Maggi Payne was still there, John Bischoff was there, David was there… I think I was staying in David’s house. David was working with these young people on software stuff. So they had hooked up a network of little microcomputers that they were using. Of course, California was already great. So I was sitting there in California, listening to this weird electronic music being generated in real time by these four computers, and I was thinking “this sounds like Quadrisect,” which was a group we had with Mwata Bowden and Douglas Ewart and James Johnson, this improvisational wind quartet. But a computer’s doing it. This sounds like something I could probably do.

So in a way, the model was to get these computers to sound like what Quadrisect was doing. From my standpoint, this was my proof of concept, seeing Jim Horton, who has passed away; Rich Gold, who has gone as well; and David and John—they had these four KIM-1 computers hooked up, and were doing stuff that was making music automatically. It really jump-started my whole interest in computer music. After that, I had to get a computer. That was it–got to get me one of these! But getting a computer then, of course, was not like getting a computer now. There were no real books. You had to teach yourself. It was like you had to have a community around you who was thinking about these things. You just could not go off in a room and do it. Autodidacticism. You had to be part of a community. They were all autodidacts, too. They didn’t go to computer music school. There was no computer music school to do this kind of live stuff. They just got a computer and started.

I hesitate to call David a father figure. But I’ll say he was the most avuncular person out there, and you could call him if you had any kind of problem in hardware or software. If he didn’t have the answer, which he usually did, he’d have something reassuring to say. When I got my Keyboard Input Module, it came with these enormous books. They were made for engineers. Artists were trying to figure these things out, and I didn’t really have a technical background—and really, none of us did. So we kind of taught ourselves. You couldn’t go to the store and buy a book. There was no Barnes & Noble and there was no Windows and there was no Macintosh, and there was no MS-DOS, in fact, and you could not go out and buy a book that said how to use Word 5, because there was no Word 5—or not even Word 1. So we were reading these books, and I read the book the first time, and I didn’t understand anything. I was despairing. How am I going to make music with this thing if I can’t even turn it on; I don’t even understand how it works. I called David. He says, “Well, I had to read the book 8 times.” I thought, well, here’s a guy who went to Columbia, he went to Harvard, and he had to read the book eight times. Well, let me try to read it again and see if I understand anything. Things like that really help you, when there are people around like Ron Kuivila or Paul DeMarinis or Frankie Mann. There was this community of people who were doing things.

The recent recordings Streaming [Pi], which is your improvising trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, and also Transatlantic Visions with Joelle Leandre [Rogue Art], remind us that before you were an electronic music composer or an educator, you were making your name as a trombonist, and imprinted your tonal personality on the world through that medium. Even you yourself cite in A Power Stronger Than Itself a critic’s remark after he heard one of your recordings that no one is going to be able to think about the trombone the same way.

OK. I didn’t want to put that in there, but it had to be…

Well, it is what it is. It happened. You made the recordings with Braxton that are still unique in the annals. But then also you played in Count Basie’s trombone section, and you played in the ‘80s with Gil Evans and in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Steve Lacy, and you recorded with Sam Rivers, and you played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, and played with all the AACM groups and many other situations, not to mention the encounters with the various European free improvisers. Now, it seems to me that in the last number of years you’ve at least publicly pooh-poohed the trombone and your instrumentalism. How does the trombone relate to your notion of yourself as a musician nowadays?

A lot of that I do just to destabilize comfortable assumptions. You know, Number 6: “I am not a number, I am a person.” When I set up the Great Black Music Ensemble concerts for six evenings of compositions, people said I should take two of the evenings because I’d set up the gig. Then people kept saying, “Well, are you going to play on our pieces?” I’d sort of taken it for granted that I would play on the pieces, and I’d contribute in any way that I could. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with anybody’s piece. So people would say, “Well, you take a solo here,” and it would be interesting because I’m sitting, thinking, “I haven’t done this kind of thing for a long time, like take a solo on somebody’s thing.” I felt good about it, but it seemed a little distanced from where I’ve been headed over the past few years.

The trombone, when it started, functioned for me like the computer did later, and like the computer is doing right now more generally, which is that it’s a point of translation. It’s a meeting point. It’s a place where people can exchange narratives. It’s a site for new work to happen. It takes you places and you meet people who you don’t ordinarily get in touch with. It’s a tool of communication across genres, across languages—all these things that the trombone was doing.

Now I feel that’s kind of substantially achieved for me. So what is the future of the trombone, at least in my work? I’m not really sure. For people who think of it as kind of the centerpiece of my work, I think if that were true twenty years ago, it certainly isn’t true now. I find myself working harder on a lot of other things, and also I don’t find the need to do anything other than what’s right in the center of my interests. After Perugia and after China, I went to Lisbon, and we did our electro-acoustic octet there. In many ways, I had the trombone there as a kind of symbol. It’s a symbol of maybe my past, or maybe it’s a symbol of a certain historical moment that occurred that I can still tap into when I went. But it is an electro-acoustic octet, and I spend most of my time in it doing live sampling or mixing found sounds.

This particular piece was done at an outdoor arena, where I think only the jazz people play. Certainly, I think part of the reason why nobody else plays there is because they’re in the flight path, and every ten minutes a big jet comes overhead, and that means 7 to 10 crossings in a 70-minute performance. For most music that’s played there, that’s a distraction, or at least a minor one. But not for us, because I got to Lisbon a couple of days early, and I sat in the theater and recorded jets for hours, then I went into my little laptop and modified the jets, added more bass, changed it around a bit, and then played them back on the gig. Whenever they had their jets, I had my jets—and my jets could actually be louder than theirs. We incorporated the jets into the performance in a way that I’ve never been able to do before. I felt really great about that.The trombone was sort of there, and the trombone can kind of sound like a jet, too.

In this group almost everyone, plays some kind of acoustic instrument. Miya plays the koto. Guillermo Brown plays the drums. Ulrich Mueller plays electric guitar, which kind of counts, then Siegfried Roessert plays the bass, and then you’ve got a couple of others—Mutamassik is in there, and she’s playing a turntable, which is kind of acoustic, then on electronics we’ve got Kaffe Matthews, who used to play… Kaffe, in a way, is kind of our role model. In classical music before 1980, there was the trope of the former jazz musician. A lot of people from that generation, Harold Budd, La Monte Young, or for that matter, Terry Riley or Steve Reich… Minimalism was full of former jazz musicians. In a way, they have different attitudes towards it, but for them, it’s clearly a part of their past.

Now, Anthony Braxton could also be considered a former jazz musician, but you won’t see that trope applied to him. But it’s very easy…

Now, Braxton has recorded numerous in-the-tradition sorts of albums. They’re out there. So ‘former jazz musician’ wouldn’t apply quite so…

Well, that’s the jazz one-drop rule talking, Ted. He’ll probably continue to do that—why not? It’s sort of interesting. I haven’t done it… Anyway, all you have to do is just do your work. But I can talk about myself. Am I a former jazz musician? I’m not really sure. A former jazz musician who runs the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Does that work? Is that a contradiction in terms? Is that a dangerous problem for New York music? I have no idea. But I think there are some people who really hate the idea of that and would like to see me leave. I get these interviews where people say, “Your music is difficult” and all that kind of thing. I say, “No, actually lots of people like it, and for them my music isn’t difficult.”

Most people didn’t play with Count Basie or Thad Jones or Gil Evans or Steve Lacy.

That’s what I mean by “former,” because all those people you mentioned, first of all, are dead, and I’m not playing with them any more, and I’m not playing with their successors. So at a certain stage, that is something that was part of a venerable and storied past, which is very important in the same way that La Monte never tires of discussing his high school experience with Eric Dolphy—but it was in high school.

Yours wasn’t a high school experience. Yours was on a level that actually changed the way people conceptualized the trombone.

Well, that’s great.

You know that’s true.

Whether it’s true or not, what do you do next? What’s your encore? Do you continue to do that? Do you continue to try again? Perhaps you say, “Maybe I’ll do something else now.” There are so many people in this creative world… I think Vinko Globokar still plays the trombone. But a lot of people gave it up, and that’s ok, too.

Would you be willing to talk about the approach you developed as a trombonist?

Florid. A lot of notes and a lot of sound and a lot of chaos, and it’s saxophonic. It’s like what I heard Johnny Griffin do or John Coltrane do, or people like that—those very florid saxophone players. That’s the music I studied and tried to emulate as a means of developing. That turned out to be pretty good, because if you can partially succeed, you learn a lot about how to get around and do things. In a way, Anthony Braxton’s music was a kind of music I had been kind of preparing for anyway because of these other studies. You listen to these records of trombone players, and at the fastest tempos they’re always playing in half-time. I didn’t want to be that person. [LAUGHS] So I was drawn more to the Curtis Fullers and Frank Rosolinos, those kind of florid people. J.J. Johnson was doing it too, but it reminded me of Hindemith’s Trombone Concerto. I didn’t hear that personally. I never really heard it. Now, there are people who have, like Steve Turre. Not for me. No.

Then the thing was, there were so many other people outside of jazz playing trombone in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘60s even, with Stuart Dempster and Globokar being prime movers of that. So listening to that, you just develop other viewpoints.

But in terms of the improvisational style, the problem with it was that being florid and playing a lot of notes only works in certain musical situations, and if you want to do something else, you have to stop doing it. If you want to work more with sounds, if you want to work with delicacy, or if you want to work with certain kinds of extremes of range, or if you want to really improvise as distinct from developing a personal style, then you have to really question everything about what you were doing. At the point you start to question yourself and really start doing these things, all of a sudden, there is your past that you have to confront, and either you have to play with new people… I could see why people who have bands get rid of people who play in the bands, because then that forces them into new areas. So you have to confront new ways of making music that are the complete opposite of how you thought about playing. The kind of florid, Coltrane-influenced thing just didn’t work with John Oswald or Zorn or with Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith. It just doesn’t work. You can’t do it. It’s too many notes, or something. After a while, the desire just faded.

In a conversation we had in 2006, you said that you tended “to listen to not the cool sounds that are being made or the extended techniques on the instruments but the kinds of meta-narratives that are being exchanged through the improvisations.” “What are they really talking about?” you said. It’s always seemed to me that you find ways to creative narrative strategies within any situation in which you find yourself. If it’s free improvising with Evan Parker or Derek Bailey, or with Joelle Leandre on Transatlantic Visions, there’s a form to the solo that transcends the techniques. You once stated that in an encounter between equals, you have to bring something of where you come from. Would this imply that there’s something fundamental about that notion of storytelling and narrative to your core sense of self as a musician?

No. You see, this is where more of that turbulence comes in. I’m tired of storytelling.

Your interest was so strong in the early ‘90s, when you did recordings like Changing With the Times [New World Countercurrents] and Endless Shout [Tzadik].

Yes, because that was the thing. I wanted to do that, and that was important. Creating a kind of radio play, a mystery theater that people could listen to late at night before they went to sleep. Like rap. There were poets and actors, verbal monologues. But now, the idea of people telling stories with instruments has become kind of a cliche in music. Then the other thing is, there’s so much non-linearity in the world. Linear narratives often don’t touch people in the same way, because they’re not experiencing it in their daily lives. Then there are the ones that want the linear narrative in order to make them feel good in a changing world. Like their head is under the blanket or something. Then there are the people who really want the linear narrative as a marker of what it means to be African-American. Those people probably haven’t read Mumbo-Jumbo, or Leon Forrest, or Nathaniel Mackey—these kinds of people. Or even Toni Morrison’s Jazz. You realize that storytelling can be a hindrance. Then you have to figure out: Do we really need call-and-response now? Maybe we don’t. So in this electro-acoustic octet, we have certain ground rules I made up. One is, you don’t have to take every utterance as a call that needs response. Just don’t respond. Let it sit there and let it develop itself. Don’t chime in. Let’s see where it goes.

One musician told me that when he started playing with Roscoe Mitchell, he was directed quite explicitly to form his own ideas, and not play Roscoe’s ideas back to him.

I’m sure I can just guess what he had to respond to. He probably started out where Roscoe did something and he did something kind of like that, and Roscoe got angry, because that kind of simplistic imitation reduces the mobility of the music. Yeah, that’s a part of it. But then, I’ve played with Roscoe a lot, and you figure that out. But for another viewpoint on that, it’s more, in my case, that not doing anything is also an idea. Just don’t make a sound. Just listen. That’s one idea, is to let your sound hang in the air. So what you get by doing that methodologically is, in a larger group, you don’t get everyone playing at once. So suddenly, it opens up the space for stuff that Phil Jackson talks about in the Sacred Hoops book, where he talks about the triangle offense, you have to pass the ball around, one person can’t dominate, all those kinds of things. What he’s describing is an improvised encounter that results in a basketball game.

Of course, Phil Jackson requires a superstar to make it work.

Well, that’s the thing. You also have to have a superstar in order to win. But you always have to have that in sports. But then the thing is, the superstar also has to pay attention to the system, and they don’t win if they don’t. That’s what the superstars learn. So the thing is that if you are inclined to be a superstar in the music area, maybe it’s better if you don’t. In the electro-acoustic band, if someone plays some lick, some material, it just sits there for a long time. It might just be there by itself. Then suddenly, all of a sudden, everybody detects, hey, there’s a change. You’re playing double-dutch, and the rope is going, you’re trying to get in, and you’re just moving with the music, moving with the rope, but you’re not actually doing anything. At a certain point, you feel, “Aha, here’s my moment and I can jump in.” It’s a bit like that. So if everyone is doing that, they’re sensitive to the opportunity, not to play, but to let someone else play… You pass the ball. When that happens, then you get all this multiplicity. What that also means is it completely runs counter to the sort of florid Coltrane moment. I’d guess that someone like Coltrane or Parker couldn’t play in a group like this, or they’d have to radically change what they did. Which I’m sure they could do, because the investigative mind is there to hear what’s going on. There’s nothing I love more than these records where Coltrane is playing a million notes for like 30 minutes. I used to go nuts. I could listen to that stuff for hours, even days on end—still do. But I’ll never do it again. It’s not going to happen. Because we don’t live that now.

Well, Coltrane also is trapped in time for us. He didn’t have a chance to grow older and develop.

Well, that’s also true. But we do have these people who are keepers of the flame. I guess I could be that person. But then you lose the possibility of… I listened to a Radu Malfetti-Taku Sugimoto duo on this Improvised Music From Japan CD, and a lot of times almost nothing is happening. I understood how for a person like Radu, who came out of the free jazz thing, that was super-liberation. So I just want to feel that free to renounce that part of it. That’s not to say, “Well, that’s all BS, what I did back there,” but more to say, “Well, you can’t keep doing it in the current environment.” That may mean that the trombone, like any composer…you don’t use the same instrument in every situation. Just because you happen to play it doesn’t change that methodological reality.

In Richard Teitelbaum’s piece Golem, you were given the job generating the Golem’s…

He said I was the Rabbi. It was my job to bring the Golem to life.

And I saw you do almost literally do that in a concert at the Jewish Museum.

Oh, that was a good concert. We even upstaged Menachem Zur, who is an excellent composer.

You’ve also developed a software language that brings inanimate circuits to life, so to speak. You once responded to something I was saying, “that sounds suspiciously like language,” and I said, “Is music language?” and you said, “I don’t think so.” Is music analogous to language in any way?

I sure hope not. Ingrid Monson wrote a great book, Saying Something. She took the music-and-language premise and worked with it in a way that implies that music isn’t a language any more. In other words, we’re not looking for a one-to-one correspondence. It’s a much more sophisticated view of language, which leads to a more sophisticated view of how communication takes place. We are pleased to say that any time communication takes place, it takes place on the basis of language. But that’s not really what happens. Communication takes place all the time without language. In a way, that’s the joy of music. It’s a non-linguistic medium, at the very least. When I hear people talk about their musical language, even somebody cool, like Messaien, I think, “ok, this is great to have your musical language, but I wonder…maybe early humans sounded more interesting than most people’s musical languages.” I have no idea, no way of knowing that. But how did those people communicate their desires, their goals, their needs, without this highly developed thing that we like to think of as language? How did that happen?

We’re faced with that situation every day as improvisers, and to the extent we have a fixed language, we can pretty much say fixed things. We have a set of things we can say and no more, because it’s not really that extensible. The music-language analogy breaks down at so many points, that once you get rid of it, you’re much freer to think about sound, the ways in which sound can signify and how many contexts it can signify in, that spoken language or written language really cannot match. This is the reason why we have such problems describing music. We don’t have problems describing things that are in the same medium. Someone says, “Well, what does Obama talk about?” You can tell him. You use one language. You can tell him in a different language. You can tell him in French. You can tell him in German. It doesn’t matter. They’re all variants of the same thing. But you can’t really tell them in music in the same way.

Now, some people would take issue with you, and say, “Of course you can,” and maybe somebody will talk about drum language in Africa or whatever they’re talking about. But I’m still going to hold to the idea that music is a fundamentally different animal, and the reason why we have it around and why it’s important is because it needs to be a fundamentally different animal. But on the other hand, you have opera, which is fantastic. So what do you about that? It’s just too complicated to get into.

As the final question, or perhaps the beginning of the final question, this notion of discarding your vocabularies, continually shedding your skin, the rebirth trope that you’ve referenced several times, reimagining who you are… Why is it important to do that? Is it actually, in truth, possible to do that?

Well, I think it’s possible. I think I’ve managed to kind of do it. The problem is the goalposts keep moving. You have to keep doing it, and once you set yourself on that path, you can’t stop. If you don’t keep doing it, then you’ll feel poorly, because you’ve set yourself up now, and you say, “Well, I’ve stopped now. All that stuff about reinventing yourself, we don’t do that any more. I’m happy with where we are now.” That could be a conscious response to new conditions.

I don’t know when I started to first think about improvisation as depending for its impact upon circumstance, as somebody who really is trying at every moment to be open and let himself or herself become transformed by conditions and situations, where you are learning, preparing yourself to encounter the world and other people, and trying to cultivate a sense that you are going to be, if not ready, at least willing to engage fundamental difference. That has to be something that you kind of cultivate.

Now, I’m talking about fundamental difference. I am not talking about someday going around the world and playing with somebody from this tradition or that tradition and the other tradition. That’s not quite fundamental, because you’ve got SOME tradition to deal with. Fundamental change can happen within traditions, or within socio-musical aggregates. Fundamental difference can occur through two individuals who are both invested there. So what you would have to do in those cases is to find in yourself the motivation to do it. Tony Robbins was in San Diego the whole time I was there, and he’s probably still there. I think he talks about some of these ideas about you have to transform yourself, and it all depends on you, and it’s your ideas that count, your view of yourself, and so on, that really matters. I’m not a follower, but that’s just one example.

A very American world-view.

To that extent, yes, it’s very American, and I can’t say I disagree with it; there’s some tangent there that I feel I can tap into. But I have mainly found in my own work that the biggest impediment to change was my fear of maybe what other people would think. It’s all chimerical, but I still have this ridiculous fear about it. It came out in Perugia. It was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to get up here in front of all these people, I’m going to be conducting, and that’s all I’m going to do, and they’re just going to see my ass. I’m not going to be playing anything on the trombone. Maybe I should just play a little bit at the beginning, so I can get it out of the way” Now, you’re not really being true to what you think at that moment. You’re getting stuck in some imagined view of yourself, some imagined community that you have been with in the past. It’s not irrational to think this way, because people come up and tell you this. “I wish you’d play the trombone more” or “stop all that computer shit”—all these kinds of things. When I was in my thirties and forties, I would be very influenced by these things. But now I’m 57, and I’m just inclined to politely not pay attention to that.

So we’re still talking about the trombone. It was a great thing, and the nice thing about… Well, I’ll put it another way. Actually, it’s a deep-seated fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on. They try to tell you, “Music is great, but you should get a degree in something, so you have something to fall back on.” Well, for me, the trombone is something I can always fall back on. But if I do that, that sort of cheapens it. I don’t want the book to stand or fall on how well I play the trombone. That has nothing to do with it. If the book is only good because the guy plays the trombone, that’s not any good. Or the computer music is only good because the guy plays the trombone. What does that have to do with anything? Is the computer music any good or isn’t it? Did the person spend the time? Did they do the work? Are they familiar with the tenets of things? Is it working? The answer to that is, “Well, the guy plays a mean trombone.” That’s not an answer. Or the thing that happens where your computer crashes and they say, “Well, you could always play the trombone.” I say, “Well, no, not any more.” “Why not?” “Well, I didn’t bring it, for one thing.” In other words, you just say to yourself that you’re going to stand or fall with what you’re doing now, and you’re going to have enough confidence and faith in yourself, and you’re going to do your best to enter this new medium without any convenient exits.

So if I might borrow your nomenclature, the trombone is one component of a multidominant personality that might be less dominant at one moment, and might be more dominant at another? Is that a possible metaphor, that the multidominance that you encoded into the computer is functioning within you?

Yes, you can say that, sure. Maybe they’re not competing. They should nominally coexist, and that one comes out according to need. If you just stick to that, then maybe you avoid a lot of problems that would come out for some other reason—fear, ego, or whatever.


DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


George Lewis & Leo Smith (WKCR, 9-12-95):

[MUSIC: G. Lewis/B. Mixon, “View From Skates in Berkeley” (1994)]

TP: Our guests are George Lewis and Leo Smith, who will be participating in the AACM 30th Anniversary Series concert, next installment, Saturday, September 16th, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture at 2 West 64th Street. The concert starts at 8 p.m. The music of George Lewis and Leo Smith will be performed by the S.E.M. Ensemble, Petr Kotik, Conductor, with guest artists Quincy Troupe, poet; William Brown, voice; Warren Smith, percussion; J.D. Parran, reeds.


It’s an honor to have Leo Smith and George Lewis in the same room together. They are both very important figures in the development of improvised music. In Leo’s case, the recorded history begins in the mid-1960’s, and in George’s case in the 1970’s. You both were members of the AACM, and joined it through very different paths, I would imagine. In Leo’s case, you came from Mississippi to Chicago and found the AACM. Was that more or less the trajectory for you?

SMITH: Well, I left Mississippi and ended up in Chicago, but it took a couple of years; I went from there to the Army and places like that.

TP: Tell us about some of the specifics of that journey. You come from a Blues background.

SMITH: Well, yes. Essentially in Mississippi, the art of Blues music is practiced with voice and instrument. When I began to play the trumpet, my first exposure to music was dealing with Blues. I would say in that beginning of learning the Blues as such, it was also the beginning of the trumpet for me, meaning that I learned how to play music while playing Blues on the trumpet — if people understand what that means. It’s not that I went there as a musician. I learned how to become a musician while I was playing the Blues. So it’s kind of unique.

TP: What type of situations were you playing in after you began to reach your maturity as a musician?

SMITH: Well, just…

TP: Name some names, too.

SMITH: I don’t like names, basically.

TP: No? Okay.

SMITH: No. Basically, it’s a question of remembering names and things like that.

But I started out in the AACM in ’67, and I consider that to be the beginning of my mature moments of playing music. And all of those guys are renowned now, like George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins — all of them.

TP: And Leo Smith as well.

SMITH: Yeah. We all grew up in an environment and in a time when expectations were held very high for us, and we went out and achieved them. Meaning that we looked at the musical scene and we looked at the environment which we lived in, and we figured out some of the things that would give us a bridge across an environment that had a lot of problems in it, you see. And one of them was being able to be creative without the luxury of funds and money to do whatever your dream was, but the creativeness where you would have to design systems and stuff like that that didn’t cost you a dime, you see. So that’s a challenge and a fulfillment that everyone is proud of today.

TP: What were the circumstances that brought you to the AACM?

SMITH: I was in the Army, about to get out, and of course, I was kind of despised by the people that I played amongst. There was one fellow there that knew another fellow that was despised in the Army amongst the guys he played about — and his name happened to be Anthony Braxton. So he gave me a telephone number and said, “Well, I think you guys would get along great!” And he was right. Anthony is, I would say, one of my most favorite partners in performing duet music. Somehow we complemented each other. And we went through a lot of different kinds of things in Chicago that some people may have gone through, but we didn’t know about them, and we kind of felt like we went through them alone, but they were like very sharp and pointed things.

TP: Now, you and he linked up in a performing group. Because out of the larger body of the AACM, there were a number of smaller performance situations wherein all of the musicians would contribute ideas, and there was a real flow, I guess.

SMITH: Uh-huh.

TP: I guess Leroy Jenkins was the third member of that, and Three Compositions of New Jazz emanated from that situation.

SMITH: Right.

TP: Talk about some of the ideas that you were working with explicitly at that time in their gestative period, as it were.

SMITH: Well, we wanted to look at music that would give us a chance to express exactly who we were. And once you make that particular commitment, you have to find out how you’re going to do this. So we decided that we would write for instruments and write for ensembles. And in this particular juncture of writing for instruments and ensembles, we didn’t have to accept the history that was given to us before, and we didn’t even have to expect some kind of present history or future history. We were able to contemplate the real essence of creative music. We were able to come in with projects, for example, like… “Silence” is a piece that has silence in it, and it came after John Cage’s “Silence,” but the philosophical connection of silence in this case was to materialize music within the space, and whatever was heard in the environment, whereas in the Cage piece there was absolutely no music in the space, and the gestures were the moments of the environment, you see. So creating a piece that seemed that it would look like and feel like a piece that came out of Cage’s tradition, in fact, we didn’t have that problem, because as I say, we are not bound by what came in the past or this particular ensemble’s history — you know, like a Classical ensemble has a history that’s specifically European. We didn’t have to worry about that. If you have an ensemble that’s essentially Asian, let’s say it has instruments for India, Korea and Pakistan, you don’t have to worry about the history of that. Because you function as a creative artist, you function in a zone where you can choose and pick anything that makes a music object.

TP: At the time you got to Chicago in 1967, George Lewis was 14 years old, I guess, and a student at the University of Chicago Lab School. You’d picked up the trombone at that time. Were you aware of the AACM? Did you know about Leo Smith when you were a teenager in Hyde Park?

LEWIS: Not really. No, no. Am I supposed to admit that? [LAUGHS]

SMITH: Well, if you admit that, that’s true! See, the beauty is, you may not have known me, but in fact you knew me all your life. Because now that you meet me, you realize that you were never a stranger to me.

LEWIS: Yeah, I guess that was the feeling when I first came to the AACM, that boy, these are people doing the same thing I’m doing…

SMITH: Exactly.

LEWIS: …or something I thought I was doing or something like that. Yeah. I mean, I did get to hear Fred Anderson at that time, and I remember being very frightened going to an Art Ensemble concert and having Joseph playing these marimbas right up in my face. I thought he was going to drop one of these mallets, and then I’d lose my sight forever. A very intense situation, all these people painted up. I said, “God, who are these people, man?” I guess I didn’t connect it with my future life, but now I can’t imagine life without, you know, Leo and Muhal and Joseph and Braxton. I can’t imagine it.

TP: Well, most of the members of the AACM were raised in Chicago, but really they came from all over the country…,

SMITH: That’s right.

TP: …from Arkansas, Mississipi, even New York City and New Jersey out to the AACM. A connecting thread for just about everyone is Muhal Richard Abrams…,

SMITH: That’s right.

TP: …now living in New York. Leo, what was your first encounter with Muhal like? If you can just describe a little of the circumstances, the environment, the scene.

SMITH: Oh, it was dramatic. It was dramatic!


TP: Please be more specific than that.

SMITH: Well, I had met Roscoe and Lester Bowie at Joseph’s concert on the North Side. They said, “Come to the AACM,” and Roscoe said, “Bring your horn.” So I went to the AACM that Monday night, and I brought my horn, but I left it in the car. I went in, I sat down, and they were rehearsing. I had been introduced to Muhal earlier that evening. So they were rehearsing some piece, and Muhal jumped up and he… Well, what was actually happening, whoever was playing trumpets, they wasn’t quite making it. Lester Bowie was there, too, actually. So the guy said, “Hey, man, where’s your horn. Go get your horn.” And it was an order. I just jumped up and ran out to the car and got my horn, and took it out, ran back in, sat in the seat, and he kicked it off. I didn’t even look at it; I just kind of played what I thought I saw — and it came out right. And he said, “That’s the way to play it.” So I’ve been playing with them since. That’s how I met Muhal.

TP: George, how about your first encounter?

LEWIS: I think it was kind of a random encounter. I was passing by where they were rehearsing, at Child’s City. Now, this was much later, of course. This was maybe ’71 or something. I saw all these people, some of them were wearing dashikis and all that, and I said, “Hmm.” They had horns. I said, “Well, let’s go down there and see who these people are, man.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Well, who are you guys?” They said, “Well, we’re musicians.” I remember saying a funny thing. I said, “Well, I’m a musician, too,” which was not really true. I mean, I played an instrument; that’s not the same thing. And they said, “Okay, bring your horn to the next rehearsal.” That was it.

SMITH: Mmm-hmm. That’s the generous thing. Like, whenever someone did indicate that they wanted to play, they were always open to see if you could play.

LEWIS: Right.

SMITH: And if you could play, then you were set, because they were going to do everything in their way to help.

TP: Kulture Jazz is the most recent release by Leo Smith, and it extends a concept that you… Well, your first manifestation was in 1971…?

SMITH: Released in 1971, yes.

TP: Your first solo recording. Now, of course, with digitization and the technological means available, we can hear eight different voices of Leo Smith — trumpet, flugelhorn, koto, mbira, harmonica, bamboo notched flute, percussion and vocal, sometimes performed singularly and in multiple combinations in Kulture Jazz, recorded in 1993. The first track we’ll hear is “Song of Humanity,” which I believe is a song you’ve recorded a few times before.

SMITH: A very old song. Well, it’s actually my first composition, to be truthful, that survived a booklet of 16 that started out. I started out with 16, and ended up with that particular piece as the one that survived.

TP: This has been performed by many of your groups, including…

SMITH: Every one of them.

TP: …the first edition of New Dalta Akhri, I believe.

SMITH: This is the first solo version I’ve ever done. But it’s my oldest composition.

[MUSIC: Leo Smith, “Song of Humanity,” “Albert Ayler In A Spiritual Light” (1993)]

TP: Several issues came up while the music was on, and Leo made some very interesting comments about the relationship of melody to solo, and about Miles Davis, the way he improvised, what made him so special as well. Are those things we can get back to on the on-air segment? I’m assuming you assimilated his music pretty thoroughly, Leo, as a young musician.

SMITH: Yeah, I had to look at Miles Davis, because you know, like, how do you face a mountain when you live in the delsert…the desert, you know?

TP: Well, you almost said when you live in the Delta, and actually that’s somewhat apropos, because Miles Davis came up at the top of the Delta, really, in East St. Louis.

SMITH: Well, that’s right! That’s exactly right.

TP: In the entrepot for the Delta, the shipping… Anyway, go ahead.

LEWIS: Go for it, Ted.

SMITH: Anyway, all I was saying is that when you look at the way Miles Davis made music, and particularly when you look at melody, he was gifted in a way where he could make the melody move along as if it was actually notated, but incorporate phrases or structure within that melody that would simply be natural within the curve, and you would not know… It would be seamless, in other words. You wouldn’t know exactly where the melody was coming, or where these extra phrases was being moved in. And that’s a type of free melodicism or free melody where everything depends upon a single note. Because a single note has so many other relationships above and below it, it becomes a wide area to just fuse these kinds of elements. So melody without time that’s implicitly held together through time, but yet free and still open.

TP: It sounds like an idea also of pitch values or timbral values having infinite application…,

SMITH: It’s the very same thing.

TP: …which is certainly the principle of the Blues.

SMITH: Yes, it’s exactly the same thing. And the psychological implication is also there.

TP: What is the psychological implication?

SMITH: Well, for example, the Blues itself is something that’s culturally hooked up, you see, and it expresses a particular psychic…well, how you relate and make your decisions in life. And a jazzman that’s gifted or an improviser that’s gifted with this connection with the Blues, their process of making musical decisions is based off of that kind of psychological feeling.

TP: So again, we’re talking about the Blues more as a style of life or a way of thinking about making music rather than…

SMITH: It’s a philosophy. It’s a philosophy, you see. All those guys are actually philosophers — living philosophers.

TP: George Lewis, do you have any interpolations here?

LEWIS: About the Blues?

TP: Yes.

LEWIS: Well, I don’t know. Leo, I think he said it, man. I don’t know what I have to add to it. I could always add something.

TP: Yes, I know.


SMITH: Go on, George!

LEWIS: I just was waiting for Wadada to say the next thing he’s going to say!

SMITH: No, go ahead. Because that’s the Blues, too. You know, you just go on as you’re saying.

LEWIS: I guess one of the things… Actually, lately I have had to sort of confront the Blues in a more direct way, and I find that the more I confront it, the more I see that the Blues can be a part of all kinds of media and all kinds of experiences. I had to confront the Blues element in Voyager, the computer piece, and I had to sort of confront that in a very…and look at that in a light to say… You know, this stuff that Olly Wilson was talking about, about characteristics of African or Afro-American music being things like multiple meter, and there’s lots of contrasting timbres and all of that. I’m thinking, “Hey, this is Voyager. Boy!” So I finally had to look at this fake European orchestra on there as kind of, like, signifying on the orchestra rather than appropriating it. So we start to get into the Blues from that standpoint.

So once I found it there, I began to see, well, I have all these… I can sort of confront the Blues in many different types of doing music. For instance, in the concert on Saturday, both your piece and mine confront the Blues in different ways.

SMITH: Exactly.

LEWIS: You know, it’s not just the easy lick, you know, you just put in a little lick and a flatted fifth or a third or whatever, and you say, “Okay, that’s it, we’ve got it now.”

SMITH: No. It connects with the inner structure and the inner function of the relationship of the piece. So it becomes really a dynamic within the piece, moreso than something that somebody is looking to hear.

LEWIS: Yes. So in that way, it could reflect the people who are the Blues. I mean, we are that, you know.

SMITH: Right.

TP: Leo comes from the Delta, and George comes from I guess the northern outpost, as it’s often been described, of Mississippi, the South Side of Chicago.


TP: Was that a major part of your experience coming up, the Blues scene on the South Side of Chicago?

LEWIS: Well, no, because my parents didn’t allow me to go those kinds of places. [LAUGHS] I mean, they had enough of a time letting me go to the AACM concert! So, no, it wasn’t a major part of it. But at home we listened quite a bit. But we listened more to religious music. I’m not saying that my parents were like religious fanatics or anything. But you could rely on hearing Clay Evans every Sunday without fail. You know that song, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do”?

SMITH: Right. I heard him, too.

LEWIS: Every Sunday that was required listening.

TP: Well, although Leo Smith and George Lewis were occupying the same physical space, although of different ages, you first met in New Haven, where Leo moved in the early 1970’s, and where George was situated as an undergraduate at Yale. So actually, George, you first encountered Leo in New Haven.

LEWIS: Yes. I encountered him there. I encountered the music in Chicago.

TP: You said there was a funny story.

LEWIS: I don’t remember the funny story. Do you remember the funny story?

SMITH: Well, it wasn’t funny. It’s just that I was standing up on the street, and George was going, and he said, “Hey, are you Leo Smith?” And I said, “Yeah. How are you doing?” We talked for a few minutes, and he said, “Well, I know the AACM,” and blah-blah-blah, and then he gave me his room number, and I think in the next couple of days I came by.

LEWIS: Yeah!

SMITH: That was it. Because basically, I couldn’t visit nobody in town. There was nobody to talk to except Marion Brown. And when George came to town, I went by George’s and hung out there, and turned him over and he turned me over. Then I’d go by and hang out with Anthony Davis. And after that, that was it.

TP: I’d say that was quite an interesting group of young musicians to be working with.

SMITH: Oh, it was. We had a good time in there.

LEWIS: Well, if you look at New Haven at that time, like if you read Willie Ruff’s book (what was it called?), A Call To Assembly… If you were around New Haven in that period, in ’72, ’71, just for a few years, an incredible number of people were around. You were living there, I think Oliver Lake was around, Marion Brown was around, (?) Johnson(?) was around, I mean just in the neighborhood. And there were all these students. Alvin Singleton was a student, Robert Dick was a student, Anthony Davis was a student, Mark Helias was a student, Gerry Hemingway was from the town — he wasn’t a student, but he was from there. And then they had people visiting.

SMITH: Dwight Andrews.

LEWIS: Oh, that’s right. Dwight, and Pheeroan was in there. Then they had people…this Duke Ellington fellowship. So Duke came, and Willie the Lion Smith came, and Max came, and Mingus came, Diz and William Warfield, Slam Stewart, Tony Williams, all these people. I just remember the list was so long. And I don’t imagine there’s… You know, those things tend to have a half-life, and I’m not sure it’s the same now as it was then. But you look at a guy like Willie Ruff, and you have to say that he helped put that together in an incredible way and used the power of the institution to do something which really affected a lot of people’s lives. I mean, certainly mine.

SMITH: Yeah, that was a powerful moment.

TP: George, you said that you were very much, however, aware of Leo. You’d encountered the music in Chicago, you said before I interrupted you…,


TP: …and you were intimate with the recording, Three Compositions of New Jazz. You were just describing how intimate you were with that very vividly!

LEWIS: I listened to it the way Beavis and Butthead listen to their videos. [LAUGHS]

TP: What was it that struck you so much about that recording at that time.

LEWIS: God, it’s really hard to say. I don’t know. Don Moye gave it to me. He said, “Well, this is for you, man. This is your kind of thing.” And he was right. It was!


LEWIS: I don’t know what it was. I mean, if you look at those pieces, you see incredible things. It’s like one of those records that keeps giving back to you. But in terms of some specific situation, the only thing I could say was, well, it was just a reality that I hadn’t been exposed to, and I guess getting it full force like that caused me to think about other kinds of things. I guess that’s all you can really say about it.

TP: I guess the implications of those three compositions are still resonating in the work of Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins. [ETC.]

George Lewis has developed a computer program that improvises according to certain parameters. Any time I talk to various musicians about this, or to many of them about George, they sort of just say, “man, it’s unbelievable, it’s on a level I can’t…” I was saying sort of offhandedly to George that perhaps at the end of the concert Saturday we could perhaps get an improvised duo between Leo Smith and the computer, and George said, “Well, it’s not as simple as that; you really have to do some work with it.” Can you talk about the type of parameters that go into preparing the Voyager program for a specific musical encounter.

LEWIS: Well, you know, you don’t really prepare it for a specific musical encounter. What you really do is, you’re making a piece that can go in a lot of different directions. But of course, it’s not infinite. You’re going to encounter situations, and all musicians encounter situations where they don’t function quite as well as in other situations. Some people are more versatile than others, of course, but no… It’s just one of those things where even if they can do it, they might feel more comfortable doing something else.

So what I began to find was that… I think actually it was John Oswald who sort of made me think about this a little bit, that basically, Voyager makes a different kind of music from what John is doing — or was doing at that time. So basically, I would have to make a another kind of a piece, like a different piece, in order to have it work well and be coherent with him. So I began to find that, in fact… And this is a funny thing, because some people who are maybe… Well, I don’t know what their familiarity is with computers. But there is a school of thought that believes that you’re sort of making the computer to sort of play like you. And all I can say is that I’ve found that certain people actually sound better with my computer than I do. So I don’t really know if that theory holds any water.

But basically, if you want to boil it down, we’re talking very simple signals: high and low (pitch, that is), soft and loud, fast and slow, dense and sparse. Those are the big four. Everything else is a variation of that. So it’s looking at all of those things, and then it makes its own judgment on what it sees out there, and then tries to respond with something basically similar to what that is. So when that similarity of response comes, at least you get the feeling that the machine is paying attention to you. See, the thing is that there are areas, of course… There are many areas of music, and those are just the very simplest ones. At a certain point, you might find that it wouldn’t respond in a certain way, that for whatever reason the machine is not going to respond, and you don’t get any information in that area.

So what I’ve found was you really had to sort of look at the situation of Voyager, look at it as an environment, and then pick people who would fit into that environment. And that’s really what it is. Because finally, it’s kind of a piece, and you want the piece to go well, so you look for people to fit into that environment. And if they don’t fit in Voyager, well, I’m still programming, so maybe another piece will work.

TP: George mentioned specifically that Roscoe Mitchell is a musician who seems to work better with Voyager than George…

LEWIS: That’s what I think, anyway!

TP: And the results of a collaboration between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell singly and in tandem with Voyager, and then finally in an acoustic duet, are available on a 1993 release on Avan, under the title Voyager. There are eight duos with Voyager, and then “Homecoming,” an acoustic duo. We’ll hear “Voyager 8,” which is Roscoe Mitchell and Voyager, and then Roscoe and George in “Homecoming,” concluding this CD.

[MUSIC: Roscoe-Voyager, “Voyager #8”, Roscoe-George, “Homecoming” (1993)]

TP: It’s a unique occasion to get George Lewis and Leo Smith in the studio singly, and having them together is almost more than I can handle!


TP: No, not really. [ETC.] We’ve spoken to George and Leo about Chicago and New Haven, where they lived, and I got to talk with George about the here-and-now with the Voyager program. But I haven’t spoken much with Leo about current events, except for playing selections from Kulture Jazz, his new release on ECM, which seems to be a very summational presentation, extending ideas from different situations you’ve been involved with over the last twenty-five years really.

SMITH: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Talk a little bit about your conception of this release, and your use of the overdubbing and multi-tracking possibilities and potentials.

SMITH: Well, for example, “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing”. It was my intention to make a piece in the studio. I knew it would sort of represent somebody that was important to me, but when I got in the studio and started warming up, I knew it would be Louis Armstrong. So what I did, I made the first line, because it’s a trio, and then I immediately recorded the second line. Then I listened to the first and second line, and made the third line. In other words, like, I didn’t listen to see what they were, basically. I only listened and responded to them. So essentially the counterpointing is that one line is made and the other line is supplied to it, but it’s a spontaneous kind of counterpoint.

TP: Did you improvise a lot in the studio in making Kulture Jazz?

SMITH: That piece is one of those pieces that’s a studio piece. I made it in the studio. What I’m trying to say is, it’s a kind of improvisation that you have information on what has been played before because you played it, but you’re not actually using that in order to play the next line. You’re only using that next line to come in contact with it and respond in some kind of play and display, and connect and disunity, which would give the concept of counterpoint — in this case, and not in the classical sense.

TP: Several of the titles have very explicit references to improvising musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Albert Ayler, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane. A few words about each of those musicians in relation to your conception of music.

SMITH: Well, for me, I feel it’s important when you make a piece of music or a music object or something that you really care about, to give it lots of special care. And one of them is poetry. And one of the extensions of poetry is through suggestions. When I make my piece, “Love Supreme,” and I dedicate it to John Coltrane, I’m dedicating it to someone that serves as a spiritual guide, so to speak. So the connection of the piece and the dedication is all one thing. It’s a kind of poetry that lets me understand my deepest self.

Like Billie Holiday, for example. I like a lot of singers. But her voice and the way that she looked at making a sound with the voice clearly distinguishes her on the outside as somebody very different. And not just different because she’s creative, but her difference is actually made in the way she shaped the volume and the weight and the release of a tone. So if I make the piece, and I say that she is the Queen or she is the Empress or something like that, I’m referring to the dynamic in which she makes her entrance or her mark in creation as a creative artist. And also as a mother. Also as someone I deeply respect. When I think about being original, and when I think about singing, and thinking about singing, I think about those people like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. I don’t know of anyone else that excites me such with voice, except Jeanne Lee.

TP: As a young musician, Leo, were you listening to all of these artists? Were these people you were assimilating?

SMITH: No. I saw my first Jazz master, I must have been… I was twenty-something in Italy. Of course, it was Miles Davis and a few guys. I never grew up around Jazz artists or creative artists or classic artists. I kind of grew up around Rhythm-and-Blues people, and always wondered what Jazz artists sounded like. And sometimes guys would tell me, “Well, you sound like you play Jazz,” and I said, “Wow, I want to know what in the hell is that.”

The first time I heard Jazz, though, I think I was graduating from high school, and we had had this band that played a few numbers that night where the trumpet player actually made a solo. After that, I walked up to the guy and said, “Look, is that Jazz?” He said, “It’s Jazz.” I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to do.”


SMITH: And he wasn’t a great Jazz player. He was improvising. That’s the dynamic that struck me. Not what he was playing, but the fact that he was making up his music right then, and he didn’t have to plan it. That seemed like to me a complete weight could never be upon my shoulders, because I wanted to make music that you didn’t have to carry around, but you just released straight out with your naturalness.

TP: I recollect an interview where you said you began playing trumpet in I guess school marching ensembles…


TP: …and you got your conception of the sound of the trumpet from projecting your trumpet sound into a wide-open space.

SMITH: Exactly. Exactly. I still like to play the horn outside. Because you see, when you blow a trumpet, or any wind instrument, your projection is not well… I don’t know if you know Dizzy Gillespie’s description of that, but you have to be tightening the bottom…

TP: I think I’ve heard a more descriptive…

SMITH: Yes, exactly. Well, if your diaphragm is not properly done and your weight of balance is not properly centered in your gut, and you blow that trumpet or whatever wind instrument, once it reaches the end of your bell, it rolls right off like a drop of spit…,


SMITH: …you see. So the wise guy centers in, gets set, and blows that sound, and makes it go all the way through the horn, you see. And if it goes all the way through, it’s going to come out of the horn. And once it comes out, because of the horn being filled and the thrust is not just coming from your lips or the cavity in your mouth, but coming from your diaphragm all the way through. The point of contact is not just the horn. It goes all the way out the horn, and the projection will come into the space. And the way to do that, you have to practice outside. You have to blow the horn outside.

TP: As a young player playing with Rhythm-and-Blues people, what type of situations would you be playing in? Who were the people you were playing for?

SMITH: Two guitars, a drummer, and me. And one of the guitar players sings, and none of them knew which key they were playing in, and none of them cared. In fact, it wasn’t even important. We played Blues in the tradition of Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and Muddy Waters. If somebody said, “Play some of B.B. King…” Any kind of Blues, these guys had the ability to articulate and make it come across. But no arrangement at all. My part, just like their part, had to be made up as we went along, because all that was known was the song, the verse of the song. So I had to make up riffs. I started out at 13. I had to make up riffs and make solos in this kind of music of two guitars and a drum and one of them singing, with no keys, or no specific tonality — but definitely making a register within the spectrum of sound.

TP: Describe some of the types of places you’d be playing in.

SMITH: Well, we’d call them honky-tonks, or juke joints, or bottom houses. They had a lot of names for them. But essentially they were large rooms that had a band standing in the back, that could hold three or four people, and the dance floor was really big. We would start at like 9 o’clock and go until the next morning almost. So a really big space, people dancing, and generally they were gambling in the joint — and of course, if there’s gambling, there’s probably other things that go along with that. There were fights, and there were confrontations. It was grim. I learned how to live, you know.

TP: Learned how to live young.

SMITH: Yeah. But also I learned how to live, because… You see, I was in high school then. I played three nights a week, sometimes four. I would go to school every day. If we drove 150 miles from the performance or the gig, I would still go to school. So I was learning how to do what I had to do, and live at the same time, and hold up my responsibility in my family. I didn’t have to go to the cotton field — because that’s what we had to do if you didn’t have no talent. So I got out of there when I was 13; I didn’t have to do that no more. So I learned how to live with that music.

[MUSIC: Leo Smith: “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing,” “The Kemet Omega (For Billie Holiday)” (1993)]

TP: We’ve had a lot of conversation with Leo and George about various aspects of the past. But in the here-and-now it’s a fresh concert with new music, again, this Saturday at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I’ll ask each of you to briefly describe the music you’re presenting this week.

SMITH: Well, the big piece is called “Black Church: A First World Gathering In The Spirits” — something close to that. It’s a work with voice, where voice and three different types of ensembles are somewhat coming together. There’s a string quartet in high voice, there’s a trombone, trumpet and percussion trio, and there is the music in the speakers, which is four pianos. All I can say is that it’s a piece for multiple ensembles. It’s non-metrical; therefore, we could consider it to be graphic in construction, but very detailed. It’s dramatic in content and also in gesture. It’s not an opera or a pseudo opera; it’s just music with a dramatic connection hooked up with these different kinds of sounding ensembles coming in, into the space. It’s a new piece. It was done over the summer. I spent the last six weeks deeply into it. It’s a considerable amount of music, a lot of music.

TP: George Lewis?

LEWIS: Well, you know, this is sort of amazing. I look at this, and I think, “Well, the AACM, thirty years old?” It’s sort of astonishing, the record of the organization and what’s been accomplished, the people who have really maintained the spirit of it with such tremendous tenacity. I mean, people look at it as being, well, the AACM is like… People are very protective of it, in a certain way; the idea of it — the idea of it and the organization of it. So that when I start to see the variety of events that have come out of this… I mean, we’ve got the recent Experimental Band performance in Chicago, where a lot of the membership came together to perform; the upcoming AACM thirtieth anniversary event, which is going to take place in Chicago, where membership will all gather there; and various other events that have taken place.

So I mean, I am looking at this in that light, although the piece is not… Well, it’s not an anniversary type of celebration. Well, I’ll put it this way. Quincy Troupe and I, since I have been out in San Diego…we’re teaching at the same school out there, the University of California in San Diego. He is in Literature and I am in Music, and we sort of hooked up right away, and have started making these pieces, one of which maybe people heard earlier on Changing Of The Times, which is based on one of his recent poems, “The View From Skates in Berkeley.” This piece, the piece I wrote for this concert, is based on Quincy’s piece, “Collage”.

Quincy lately has been putting together some pretty complex pieces which are very varied, and the range of imagery is much greater than maybe even stuff he’s been doing before — I mean, the complexity. So in a way, the challenge for me was to try to reflect some of that complexity in the music. I mean, there are rapid changes in orchestration and mood that you’ll see in the poetry that’s got to be reflected in the music. So it ended up being quite a tussle to get these things out there.

And it is for me very much an experimental situation, I mean on a personal level, in that I sort of became interested through Quincy in the interface of poetry and music, but particularly in the interface of poetry with ensemble music of varying sizes, of bigger than a bread-box. That is to say that we quickly got tired of the poet-and-trombone thing. I mean, I got bored with that almost immediately. And so, we started to figure out how we could get some sort of orchestral conception into the poetry. Because the thing is, the poetry is coming from an orchestral conception, and so we really started to find out that we need the forces to match. I don’t see any contradiction in having, you know, Quincy Troupe and Orchestra or whatever. I mean, that seems like something I’d be interested in. So that’s really the spirit in which this piece was composed, to try to bring the musical forces up to the level of the imagery that we find in the poetry.

TP: I believe you mentioned that the Voyager program will be involved as one of the musical components?

LEWIS: It’s not, no. This is an acoustic piece. I am playing Voyager on the concert as well, as a separate piece. But this piece is acoustic.

TP: Is it performed by the Ensemble, or are you performing on trombone?

LEWIS: I sit and watch. Quincy does it, and Petr Kotik conducts it, which is a wonderful thing, because I’ve known Petr for a really long time and have always been a great admirer of his work as a composer, and lately as a conductor. I just have to say that he has really provided an atmosphere in which the pieces can be done well, and the S.E.M. Ensemble is a tremendous group, and people seem very fearless. Petr has such a wide range of musical experiences that his suggestions about how to change things around, how to make this part work better, not just orchestrational things, but also interactional things and improvisational things. I mean, usually conductors, in my experience, might not be able to enter that area with the authority that Peter has done. So I’m really pretty excited about the whole experience.

Also, I am performing in Leo’s piece, which is very hard. [LAUGHS] I finally get to perform with William Brown, who is super, a tenor. And J.D. Parran is performing in my piece. So overall, it’s just a great experience for me, and it’s one that the AACM here in New York, with Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins, who have been the primary coordinators of the event, for which I think them, too. I’m sure we both do…

SMITH: Yeah, we do.

LEWIS: …for all the work they’ve put into this whole event, and to make it come off. It’s not an easy thing getting sort of a chamber ensemble piece going. It takes a lot of work, there are a lot of pitfalls — and it’s kind of expensive! The people who coordinated the work, the Helen W. Buckner Trust, the National Endowment… It’s been a considerable undertaking. But I am sort of happy to be here. I don’t come here that much, and I have never gotten to come here and play any of this kind of music, so it’s kind of exciting for me.

TP: Before I let you go, you both mentioned the Experimental Band, from, from which emerged the AACM Big Band in Chicago, which met weekly and often more than that from 1971 and on through the Seventies. Leo, what were your early experiences like? Was the AACM Big Band the focal point of your first contact with the AACM?

SMITH: Yeah, it was a focal point. You see, one of the things that made it unique was that whoever was in the AACM was also in the Orchestra, and whoever was in the Orchestra also had the possibility, if they desired, to write for it. So essentially, when I went there, I accepted the AACM Orchestra as a residence orchestra, and I began to write music immediately. In fact, it was the greatest moment of experiment for me, because I learned a lot about instruments, and the weight of instruments, both vertically and horizontally, form, I learned how to rehearse people. A lot of different things I learned in the AACM, because that orchestra met every Saturday, and there was no restriction on who could write music.

TP: Or I guess the way that you would write…

SMITH: And the way.

TP: …because you could learn almost by the seat of your pants.

SMITH: One restriction. You had to write your own music.

LEWIS: Ha-ha!

SMITH: You couldn’t bring no arrangement in and no… You had to write an original piece of music. That was the only restriction. And thank God for that.

TP: George Lewis, talk about your early interactions with the AACM Big Band.

LEWIS: I hate to say it, but I find myself repeating ten years later the exact same experience that Leo Smith had. You know, Muhal let everyone write music, and he encouraged people to do it, and I started writing music.

SMITH: Right.

LEWIS: And those were my first experiences hearing large ensemble pieces. Like Leo said, you learned how to rehearse, how to make the parts, how to negotiate with the players about how it had to be played — all those sorts of things. Practical information. It just added to the diversity. And I believe that Muhal is still interested in having this sort of open situation with regard to people writing music for an experimental band that he might make today. So it’s the atmosphere of nurturance that really made a difference, I think, for both of us.

TP: Well, I think with Leo Smith and George Lewis, we have two people born ten or twelve years apart, raised in very different…

SMITH: We’re ten years apart. Ten or eleven, somewhere in there.

TP: …raised in very different circumstances, and nurtured to the point where they are now, as we’ve heard just a very meager sample of over the past two hours, through an extraordinary institution in Chicago called the AACM. And particularly, both were influenced by the vision of Muhal Richard Abrams, which has remained constant for more than three decades within this particular institution. And I think that hearing what they say and the way their music manifests is a testament to the strength of that institution. I’d like to thank both George Lewis and Leo Smith for joining me in tandem. It’s been a fascinating interaction.

SMITH: I wanted to say thanks a million for offering the space and the time and letting us speak about the things that we think about. You know, I don’t come to New York often. I live in California, and I love living in California. So whenever I do come, I’ll look you up, Ted.

TP: When I first heard George Lewis, it was around 1974, and I was attending the University of Chicago, and I was going to hear the Fred Anderson group on campus.

LEWIS: Oh, yes.

TP: I heard this trombone player… I had some familiarity with Jazz, and I knew everything by Sonny Rollins… I went in and I heard this trombone player playing the most extraordinary things I had ever heard. I just couldn’t believe it. And it was George Lewis. I got to know him a little bit then. And although he’s gone into so many different directions, my initial impression of you as flying over the trombone and doing all of this stuff has always remained with me. So I was very excited when earlier this summer, the four-trombone group Slide Ride assembled at the Knitting Factory for a night, one night only, to be followed by one night in Burlington, Vermont, and that’s it — and a record. The group is Ray Anderson (and as has been repeated ad nauseam, he and George Lewis were in high school and junior high school together, playing trombone), Craig Harris and Gary Valente. We get to hear George in the acoustic, ipmrovatorial milieu, just playing no-holds-barred trombone. Has the Slide Ride group been an enjoyable experience for you?

LEWIS: Well, Ted, before I answer that, I’d just like everyone to know what Ted had to do to listen to this Fred Anderson group. For one thing, we started playing at twelve o’clock at night and we ended at 6 a.m., and often Ted was the only person in the audience. [LOUD LAUGH]

TP: Well, this is what’s known as a tall tale, or perhaps a fictional extrapolation or something. Actually, I think this one was in the daytime, George.

LEWIS: I don’t know, man. You remember those sets I’m talking about, right? Those midnight sets.

TP: No, I couldn’t get to the North Side. This was on the University of Chicago campus. I didn’t have a car…

LEWIS: I guess I have to strike that, then. I tried to make you a legendary figure, Ted, but you’ll just have to settle for mortality!

TP: I think I prefer that. But let’s get back to some more sober ruminations on Slide Ride.

LEWIS: Well, you know, Slide Ride turned out to be an amazing situation. I guess I’ve been in trombone quartets that haven’t been quite as interesting as Slide Ride, and I think maybe the reasons why they weren’t quite as interesting usually could be put down to various kinds of competitiveness, or ego, or simply lack of community — in other words, they were ad hoc situations. Whereas you have to say… I think that interacting with Gary and Craig and Ray as a group, and realizing that we all come from a similar musical community, we were all around New York at about the same time playing trombone, we all played in the same groups, we often played together… And to see that history… And I think Craig of us is probably the most aware of that history, and has done the most to sort of realize that history in terms of the group, in a certain way. But everybody makes their contribution.

So what I started to find was that around about the concerts that you’ve mentioned, the one at the Knitting Factory and the one in Vermont, the music started to reach this level which I didn’t expect. It was kind of a wonderful thing. It started to get to the point where you transcended this thing of just having trombone players doing things. I guess when Robin Eubanks was here earlier, he started talking about the trombone and what people think about it, and I have to say it’s… I mean, I care about what happens to the trombone, but maybe a lot of people don’t. Robin does. But I guess what I started to see in that group, it really wasn’t about… It just became people playing music, and expressing themselves, and being creative, and using their creativity in the moment, as Leo was saying about Miles Davis. So that became pretty amazing for me.

On the other hand, I read the German liner notes, and there’s a whole section on how I hate to travel. [LAUGHS] Which is true. [LAUGHS] Well, like you said, I’m happy to be here, but I also like being at home and all that. So anyway, I like this… Well, I love this band. I think it’s fabulous.

[MUSIC: Slide Ride, “Sweeps”, “Unison” (1994)]



George Lewis (WKCR, 4-30-94):

TP: We’ve been listening to two selections from a recent release on the New World Counter Currents series by George Lewis…

GL: Is this the Counter-Currents series? I don’t think so. I was rejected for the Counter-Currents series. Can we put that on the air? They said it wasn’t jazzy enough to be on the Counter-Currents series. So this got on whatever the regular series is. It got on that instead!

TP: At any rate, it is on New World Records, and indeed, the title of the CD is Changing With The Times, and there are six, as the liner note says, “conversation pieces for which George Lewis has assembled a diverse collection of musicians, poets and story-tellers into an organic narrative mode to signify in style and content on his personal odyssey through the contradictions and ambiguities of being black in a non-contradictory social universe — America.”

Much of the music, George, was written many years ago, but hadn’t been previously recorded. Talk a bit about the ideas in assembling the pieces and the personalities who comprise this CD.

GL: Well, this record comes, in a way, from when I changed periods and went to California and became a music professor.

TP: When was that exactly?

GL: In ’91, the University of California at San Diego. Quincy Troupe, whose poetry you heard first, is a professor there in Literature, as is Jerry Rothenberg, who we just heard. So it seemed at a certain point like a collaboration would be a good idea. Mary Oliver was a Ph.D student at the time, the violinist. Peter Gonzalez was an undergraduate percussionist. So it was recorded at the studio there.

So there was all this talent floating around, you know, this university, and I kind of find it fascinating. Also, when I brought my father out, it occurred to me that this would be the moment to maybe do something that we had talked about doing for a long time, which was to take aspects of his narrative, the story of his life, and make something of it in terms of music.

So that’s sort of the field in which this takes place.

When you talk about the music and the text, I guess I don’t look at it as text with music, since we did try to integrate them. On the other hand, there is an aspect of arrangement about this, in that the pieces… The piece we just heard, the piece for two pianos and trombone, was written in 1980 for Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzsewski and I to play. We played it a few times, and then it kind of sat around until I decided that it needed something extra, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then Jerry Rothenberg showed me these Dadagrams, and that seemed to fit very well.

Then for the middle section we were looking for something, and then he came up with this poem called “The Chicago Poem” — this is the slow section. The thing about that is that I looked at the first few lines, when he starts talking about Amsterdam, Paris and Chicago — and that kind of sums me up in a nutshell, sums up the last fifteen years of my life. I said, “We’ll do this one.” [LAUGHS]

Then later it turns out that… The whole record has a kind of theme about it. The themes are history and remembrance, camaraderie, brotherhood, these sorts of issues. Personal friendships and the elaborations of them, how they develop and change and grow. Family. That’s what “The Chicago Poem” talks about, and that’s what Quincy’s poem is also talking about, and that’s what Changing of The Times discusses.

So that the odyssey of being Black is only one of the situations. But the odyssey of being Black, though, of course, can include all of those other things — and it does!

TP: To be specific about the pieces, the first selection heard at the top of the program was Quincy Troupe’s poem, “The View From Skates In Berkeley,” and the second, which is a three-part composition, is called “Chicago Dadagram.”

You performed a text-music with interactive imagery a few years ago at the Kitchen, though I can’t recollect whether these pieces were included or not. Have you been performing these in concert situations?

GL: Well, actually what got performed was a piece called “The Empty Chair.” That was in 1989.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the technologies that I have developed, and to expand and recontextualize them. That’s been the focus. I’ve found that I wanted to have the pieces talk about something. I just didn’t want them to be formalist abstractions, and I didn’t necessarily want to appropriate gestures from contemporary music, or Rap, or Rock-and-Roll, or anything in a stylistic way. I wanted to integrate them with things that I felt comfortable with personally.

“The Empty Chair” was an experiment in sort of multi-perspectival interactive theater, really. Bernard Mixon, an actor and singer who performs Changing of The Times, played the lead role. He was a prisoner in this piece, but no one was quite clear as to why he was a prisoner, so there was a Kafkaesque aspect. But then, finally, we know, despite his own denial and the denials he describes of others as to why it’s happened.

So since maybe many people didn’t that see that piece, all I can say is that there were two kinds of computer-generated video, and that these videos were interactive with the music in real time. One was animation, and that was done by Don Ritter with his own personal Omega system. The other one was done by Ray Edgar, and that was a transformation-based video, live cameras, mixing and adding various kinds of synthesized imagery to it. And these were responding to the music and to the speech that Bernard was doing. Douglas Ewart was playing also.

We were sitting in the back, operating the computers, but really, there isn’t much to operate. You just turn them on and let them go, because they are listening anyway. So you don’t have to really direct them. I guess when we get around to playing a little computer music, we can talk about that more. But the idea is that basically is that the computer… If you have a large enough collection of details about your representation of music, you can trust that, because it represents your ideas of music that you were hearing in another form. So I don’t have any problems with letting the things run, if they’re making a contribution. I mean, if they’re making a contribution that’s mutable, according to what’s going on at the moment. If they’re just running like a tape, I guess I’m not too excited by that. It doesn’t fit in my music. I’m improvising and I want to hear things move and change, and I want to hear the results of my action in the environment that we’re creating. The tapes and sequences just don’t do that.

So following in the footsteps of people like David Behrman in particular, I’ve wanted to have these things go on. And I’ve been fairly extreme about it, maybe very extreme about it, to the point where there isn’t anything that’s sequenced in advance or anything.

So in sum, what it comes down to is that Changing with the Times is an attempt to refine those ideas about Theater and to sort of have a radio-play. My dream was (and of course, I think it will never happen) that it will get played on NPR at two o’clock in the morning, and someone will say, “Ooh, how nice, what a nice voice,” and they sort of drift off to sleep listening to this bedtime story, this ironic bedtime story of my father, who is talking about his grandfather, and the good old days which weren’t really all that good, and it seeps into people’s consciousnesses, sort of like the old-time shows, like The Shadow, but talking about something personal.

The thing about The Shadow or any of those old-time radio things was that you could decide what the Shadow was. I mean, back in those days, The Shadow could be anything you wanted it to be. You could make up the imagery yourself. And that’s the sort of thing I wanted to happen here. But I think because of what’s being talked about, that might be more difficult. The radio plays that I hear tend to be a bit Gothic.

TP: Let’s talk about the details of the performance. George Lewis plays, of course, on trombone; Douglas Ewart, woodwinds, saxophone and percussion; Mary Oliver, violin and viola; Peter Gonzales, percussion; Jeannie Cheatham, piano and organ; and Bernard Mixon, singing and speaking voice. The narrative is by George Lewis’s father.

Was this written specifically for the purposes of this performance, or was this something he’d written that you wanted to recontextualize?

GL: He wrote it because he is retired from the Post Office. He worked there for far too long. And when he retired, he had to have something to do. The class was a writing class, because having never, I think, really gone to school, or at least not very much… I mean, in the text he keeps talking about all the times he dropped out, which leads me to suspect he never really got to go in the first place. So the idea was that he wrote this thing in order to pass this class. And the person teaching the class was smart enough to first give them a copy of The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, basically a slave narrative, and making that context for them, making the connection within their own situations, and of course, implying that you could be writing your own slave narrative right here and now, in the Twentieth Century. So that’s what they did. They sort of wrote their own slave narratives.

And his was sort of ironic and sort of funny, and minimized things that were really terrible. It sort of expressed to me something that we don’t get to… You know, there are things that used to go on in that way, like the Federal Writers Project. But I wanted to have that be not a piece of documentation, but an art piece more than a documentation of something that went on. Who knows how much of it is even true? — as Paul Carter Harrison points out in the liner notes. I mean, it doesn’t really matter. There is an aspect of the Trickster or the Toaster about it.

So that was the basic focus of that.

TP: Is your father a native Chicagoan?

GL: Yeah, he is. He’s a native. But the story is mostly about North Carolina, which is where he was brought up. So he was part of the Grand Migration, you see. It’s important to state that; it’s a theme in the piece. It’s documented in Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land, in the writings of St. Clair Drake, and there’s lots of other documentation on these successive waves of African-Americans coming up from the South to what they thought was really a better life. And really, what it amounted to was like another country. Like, it was internal immigration, really, in the same sense as what we have now. It was just “El Norte,” just another version of that.

So there are lots of stories like this. In fact, I think this is really one of the main stories for me in the Twenty-First Century; one of the main themes in Art will be this notion of location. It is now, and I think it’s going to grow and deepen in intensity, because so many people are displaced now. And even people who have lived in a certain place all their lives are starting to feel displaced because of their situation. The dislocation is enormous. I feel as though I’d like to explore the implication of that, so that’s one part of it.

[MUSIC: “Changing With The Times”]

GL: This piece really takes a bleak look at a lot of the music that my father held dear. In other words, it’s not an attempt to imitate or recreate these things. It’s an attempt to integrate other things in with it. You notice at a certain point we’re hearing microtonal things that really don’t fit in with the traditional framework of the Blues, although with the expanded notion of African creativity that the AACM, let’s say, was into — but certainly I didn’t see any contradiction there. But I didn’t really feel the need to do anything in terms of trying to make this…well, to make it anything other than… It’s not supposed to be a period piece, really.

But I did have to put his words in the context of the music he was listening to at the time, and the music he grew up with. And it’s done in the spirit of love, really.

Jeannie Cheatham I think is the real star of this thing, if can think of someone who really underpins everything about this record. She plays in every conceivable style. There are things she didn’t play on there. She can play Classical music, contemporary music, she’s playing the Blues and the Boogie; she wrote this Boogie-Woogie tune we’re playing at one point. She’s playing this strange organ in this sort of quasi-fight scene. So she’s really tremendous on this thing.

But it’s meant to be ironic. We didn’t have a drum set as such, or a bass player. You know, we could have had a bass player going BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, and had it be very much more like to peak(?). But that really wasn’t the point of it. In order to look at this period, to look at the issues, we needed to take a little distance from it, and come in at not the expected angle.

TP: Is this all music that’s part of your early musical experience?

GL: Oh yes, very much so. Yes. But you know, the thing is that you have to continually reevaluate these things. I find that now I look back on it as something that I learned because it was just there in the community, not something you really studied. It was just sort of there in the community. But now, having to study it a little bit in order to make the record, and having to sort of understand it and try and take it in a different context, you sort of start to see connections you didn’t see before. I’m not sure I can express what those connections are.

TP: Let me ask you another question related to your earlier years in the music? Was your father influential in your taking up music, or being a trombonist? Or what were those factors?

GL: Oh yeah, yeah. You know, this happens a lot, I’ve found out. You talk to any number of musicians, composers, artists whose parents told them to do something, to take up the arts or to take up an instrument — and it’s always for the same reasons. It’s always for popularity. They are so concerned about their kids being popular. Do they get along with the other kids? I guess one of those old sociologists like David Riesman can have a field day with this.

Anyway, his take on it was, “Yes, you’ll make some friends and you should take up an instrument.” And I said, “Well, fine, but what instrument do I take up?” He said, “Well, anything but the trumpet, because the trumpet ruins your lips,” and he had these pictures of Louis Armstrong to prove that the trumpet ruins your lips. I said, “Okay, we’ll just go to the store and we’ll see” — because they were having kind of a fair; you could go and look at these things. So I looked, and I don’t really remember, but all I remember was, “I think we should take this one.” That was the trombone. I mean, it was bigger than the others, and it looked pretty good, and I said, “Let’s have this one.”

I mean, I love those romantic tales about someone who always wanted to be a trombone player, and who had listened to it since they were a kid, and they really saw somebody play, and they knew that’s what they wanted to do…

TP: Or the school band director said, “You have to play trombone because I’m losing mine, and you have to come in play this,” and that’s why they played it…

GL: Right. It’s usually much more a question of need. None of this exciting, terribly romantic, “Oh, I just had to do it; it was my destiny — I saw my destiny before me.” It wasn’t like that.

TP: But apparently you felt an affinity for it.

GL: I suppose so. But I remember also throwing it against the wall in disgust at not being able to play the damn thing. I mean, it’s not so easy. One of my tasks at school was to try to figure out how we can get trombonists to learn how to play a little faster. Because by the time the trombonists sound pretty good, the electric guitarists have gone on to fame and fortune, and really some of them have probably even like killed themselves by this time. But it’s very much a much faster learning curve on some of the instruments than on others — and the trombone is one of the slower ones.

TP: Who were some of the influences that got you involved in Jazz and improvising on the trombone? Were you listening to other trombone players? Were you adapting the instrument to musical ideas that you were hearing elsewhere? How did that all come about?

GL: Hmm, what was that all about…? Oh, I remember. Okay, it was “The Pink Panther.” We were playing “The Pink Panther” in the concert band.

TP: Where?

GL: The Lab School at the University of Chicago. We were playing “The Pink Panther.” I thought I recognized it. They had this thing that you were supposed to play, this sort of written solo on it, and I decided I didn’t want to play that, that I could just play something, because it wasn’t…it just didn’t sound… I didn’t like it, for whatever reason, and being 11 years old, I thought I had the right to say what I thought. [LAUGHS] So instead of playing the thing that was written out, I played this other thing. And the director stopped the band and said, “Well, what was that?” I said, “Well, I thought I would improvise something there.” It was weird. No one said, “Hey, look, here’s how you do it” or whatever. They just said, “Do it again the next time.” So that was it. I got to improvise my “Pink Panther” solo.

So maybe that was it for me, and then later learning things in the school jazz bands and all that. Because they didn’t really have a school jazz band, so if you wanted to play anything that sounded like Jazz, you had to do it on “The Pink Panther.”

TP: There was an educator at the Lab School named Frank Tirro, I believe.

GL: But I wasn’t in that band then. The 11-year-olds weren’t in that. That was a high school thing! So when I got to the high school… They should have these things right at the beginning. Like, Kidd Jordan has five-year-olds playing Jazz compositions down in New Orleans, so it’s certainly possible to do this at any age.

But later, certainly Frank Tirro was a major influence in that way, and Dean Hay also — who were both teaching there at that time. Frank has the book now, an expanded version of his Jazz book. And Dean is playing trombone again. He went into computers for a while, which I found ironically interesting, but I think he’s back to playing now.

In terms of, like, adapting the materials, the music that was around the house, there was an old Lester Young record — I remember trying to understand and play with that. There were a few Johnny Griffin records and there were a few Miles Davis records. And then I started buying all these Coltrane records. I’d say that in terms of my own investigations on a personal basis… Also, there was a wonderful librarian, Mr. Poole, who had Charlie Parker records, and there were also records of the electronic music going on at the University of Illinois. So I’d say those things were probably the most influential on me in terms of trying to learn how to play anything, in this sort of non-formal way. Because after a while, I just stopped taking lessons. It just seemed like, well, anyone who would get up there and play “The Pink Panther,” you know, in the wrong way wasn’t likely to be sitting in there and taking lessons for such a long time. So I stopped doing it. So it was always more of a personal investigation. I’m kind of used to it now.

TP: You’ve developed an incredibly broad vocabulary of ways of expressing yourself on the trombone. So it began through those investigations.

GL: I’d say it began there, but basically the AACM was the key to a kind of mental and personal expansion and development. It’s the reason for… A current view of improvisation that we were talking about earlier, I guess… My view of improvisation is basically that personality development is an important part of it. And one of the ways is, of course, that you have to have information, and you have to have a framework also for presenting that information, and for understanding it, and for making sense of it. I didn’t really have that when I met Muhal, and Mitchell, and Jarman, and Douglas Ewart, and people like that — and I think they helped me get it, helped me understand things about life, and made you listen to things.

We were talking the other day; it was very funny… You see, I used to have this thing for Twinkies. At a certain point I remember bringing the Twinkies into the AACM meeting, and they said, “You can’t come in here with those Twinkies.” [LAUGHS] They were serious! I had to throw the Twinkies away. So little things like that.

See, that’s what I mean by sort of just personality development. They were concerned about just not about what you were playing, but also about what you were eating, what you were thinking, what you were reading, what you were listening to — the whole business. So that was a critical passage. Then at a certain point, that prepares you for other things, certainly for listening to other things that are out there. I mean, the European improvisers or the Downtown improvisers or the people writing, as Anthony calls it, Notated Music, or the Downtown composers…

I have to look at my work as kind of an interdisciplinary work, finally, so it’s got to be hard to stick it in one category or another. But I think certain people know where it doesn’t fit, and I guess Cross-Currents is one of those places where it doesn’t fit… But not to worry, because it’s here and we’re listening to it!

[MUSIC: Jeannie’s Boogie from “Changing With the Times”]

TP: …Bernard Mixon’s brilliant interpretation of the text of George Lewis’ father, and orchestrated or… I’m not sure what words to use in the 1990’s about arranging sounds and music around a work of text.

GL: It’s nice to actually think about what you just said. It’s hard to put a title on it like an arrangement or… Everything has changed in terms of the arrangement of music and text. For example, at the moment I’m working on a series of sort of computer-orchestral accompaniments for Quincy Troupe. I would like to sort of make a record with him, but I sort of want to put him in the midst of this interactive improvising ensemble, partly cinematic, using sampled sounds, sort of virtual poetry — in other words, putting him in a field where he can walk around, where as he walks, the text is being spoken, and maybe he’s just thinking about it. So we’re sort of working this out step by step.

But one thing seems clear. I think that I like the idea of the original things we did, where he would read and I would play the trombone. But that never seemed to be quite enough for me. So the piece we heard earlier was sort of a first stab in the direction of what I want to do. For example, the text is constantly being shadowed by Bernard, and also there is a very strict arrangements, there are different parts in the poem, so that at a certain point certain key words are mirrored in what the musicians are asked to do in terms of how to direct their improvisations. So then also changes in the orchestration mirror important sections in the text. So basically there is this kind of idea of making an integrative work out of it.

I guess that’s because I just didn’t feel that I could sort of do…you know, provide the kinds of colors. Let’s say, for example, somebody like J.D. Parran playing with Quincy or Hamiett Bluiett; I didn’t feel able to do those things. I’m actually much better at composing it and then having it run as an environment, and then if I want to play, I can sort of play. Then sometimes the best thing is just solo trombone, but usually it isn’t. And if you have all these other resources, the virtual orchestras that have been developed on instruments, sampled sounds, infra-red controllers that allow him to accompany himself, why not use those things and sort of give a…?

You see, the thing is about music today, you have to compete with all these other assaults and appeals (I’ll call them appeals maybe) to your senses. [LAUGHS] So somehow you have to sort of go with that, in that people take this kind of multi-sensual, multi-perspectival viewpoint for granted. That’s how you grew up. Those of us who are old enough remember how strange MTV looked when it first came on, you know, and in a lot of senses maybe how hokey at the beginning, and then borrowing some of the techniques from video artists and then making their own techniques — these super-fast montages and these sort of booming basses and all this stuff.

I’m not saying you have to do those things, just to take that. But you do have to provide a richer environment. So that’s what I felt was the point of these things. Also with the piece with Jerry Rothenberg, the Chicago Dadagram pieces, it’s to somehow have the text and the music integrated, but actually to compose pieces around it. So not the traditional settings of poetry that you might find, say, in contemporary music. I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to take a different approach. And maybe I am not the person who is going to write an aria and put words to it and have someone sing it. I just don’t hear that being a part of what I do. I’m not comfortable with it.

So this seemed like a better approach to me, to have someone reading or speaking, or, in the case of “Changing With the Times,” acting. He becomes my father, in a way. I give Bernard the tapes, I give him the script, we talk about it, we talk about the interpretation. It’s more collaborative than directorial on my part. He’s coming out of his own experience as much as he’s coming out of mine. So that leaves us to… I feel more of a cultural integration of the elements. He’s so subtle about it that you tend to forget. It was similar to watching Danny Glover reading Langston Hughes. At first I thought, “Well, what’s going on? He’s just reading.” But that was the point! Somehow the way he read and the subtlety, it just sort of overwhelms you after a while. And I think that this is the kind of sensitivity that Bernard brings to it.

TP: We’ll move on in the next segment of our discussion to…again, it’s hard to find the proper word, but I guess one might say George Lewis’s work, theoretical work…

GL: Ha-ha-ha! What?!?!

TP: …in computer interaction and improvising…

GL: Theory. It’s just not theoretical, man. You know, it’s just music. I mean, I don’t want to call it theoretical just because it’s a computer in it. But you know what I mean. I’m uncomfortable with it because it’s just another kind of sensual environment for things to happen. And the computer is a part of that, but that’s because the technological and cultural base is there.

TP: Assimilating the technological base, however, is of a different order. It’s not something that just happened, but you’ve been dealing with computers in terms of rethinking music, and now, with current technology, being able to sample and orchestrate and modify other musical stimuli. This has been an ongoing thing for you for maybe twenty years.

GL: Maybe a little less, but a fair amount of time, yeah.

TP: Were the implications of what you could do with computers clear to you, let’s say, fifteen years ago? Or when did it become clear to you what you might be able to do?

GL: Hmm, I think we’re talking about future possibilities. When will it become clear? [LAUGHS]

Actually, certain things have gotten a little clearer from the beginning. But if we heard some of it, it might be easier.

TP: Shall we play it, and then discuss you and the computer?

GL: Yes. You’re playing a piece with me on it, or playing a piece with Roscoe on it?

TP: I guess what you wanted us to do was play two pieces with Roscoe. We should make clear to the audience what we’re talking about. Another recent release by George Lewis, almost parallel to and in tandem with Changing Of The Times has been issued on Avan-014, George Lewis, Voyager. Why don’t you describe the premise of this particular project.

GL: Well, you could call it an interactive virtual orchestra. This is what I’ve been trying to make for years, interactive players, computer players that can function in the environment that improvising musicians deal with. When I say “improvising musicians,” I’m not talking about all improvising musicians. There’s a certain subset of people that are working in kind of a freely improvised field. And even within that field, it’s not a universal situation. Certain people respond differently.

So the piece is sort of the culmination, or these pieces are sort of the culmination of a lot of work that I’ve done in this area over the years. It was hard to get earlier examples recorded. John Zorn produced these Avan records, and I give him a lot of credit for getting this project going and for giving me the freedom to carry it out, and to David Wessel also at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies for helping me to produce it and record it, and having helped along the way in so many ways, shepherding me through the IRCOM experience in Paris and all of that.

So essentially what you hear is a duo between a person playing his instrument and a computer which is playing its instrument, which is a synthesizer, or a sample player, in this case. It has all these things it sort of knows how to do. It has a representation of what it plays, and it has a representation of what it thinks is going on out there in the world, what it thinks that the person is playing. So what it sort of does is, it uses that person’s playing to guide its own composition and its own performance. But its performance isn’t fixed in any way, and so you sort of have to communicate with it. You can set up events. You can set up situations. If you play in a particular way, the chances are that it will find a way to do that. That, of course, is something that is partly technological, but it’s also partly personal, in that you have to compose the way you want the orchestra to sound, its essential sound, and then you provide enough hooks so that the performer can then sort of voyage around or explore that environment to see what they can do together. So it’s very much like, or it is actually, a kind of improvised music, and a lot of the same things are happening that happen in improvised music.

Another thing that I find interesting about it for myself is that it’s not…its cultural base… When you say about “things becoming clear,” it became clear to me after a while what the cultural base of the music was. For example, the multiplicity of rhythms that go on, the sort of overt kind of emotionality that you can bring to bear on it, I didn’t to be characteristic of a lot of the European music that I was exposed to in the computer field at IRCAM. So that the possibilities of an Afrocentric computer music came to be kind of interesting, because of course, there are many kinds of theories, and some of those theories… And I don’t to associate computer with theory. I like to associate it with a kind of emotional transduction. Because all of music involves theory. In order to play the trombone you have to have a theory as well. Or if you don’t… It will be better if you do. That’s my feeling. If you sort of have some idea, some meta-idea of what you want…when you stick your arm out and spit, what’s going to happen, you’ll be in a good shape! [LAUGHS]
The thing is that you can think about this as… Well, maybe it’s better if we hear it, and then we can talk about it afterwards.

TP: The pieces we’ll hear are the two with Roscoe Mitchell.

GL: #2 and #8. Those are the ones. Those are the good ones. Mine are okay. His are really good.

[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell/G. Lewis, “#2 and #8]

TP: ‘Voyager 5,” one of eight duos between George Lewis and the computer, Roscoe Mitchell and the computer, or George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and the computer in different configurations. Also the final track is an improvised duet between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. George Lewis is our guest on this program, and we’re focusing primarily on his recent music. We’ll subsequently hear another duo with Roscoe Mitchell, which you said showed Roscoe sort of investigating the possibilities of what he could do, and then on the next one he kind of figures it out and finds his solutions to the challenge of improvising with the computer that you programmed and your improvising program.

GL: What I find fascinating about improvisation is that these are things that you can hear. It’s something that comes out from sound rather than… It’s not something that you can write on a piece of paper: “Well, I want you to explore this area.” People just do it. That’s just what they do. And improvisation is a part of that exploration. You can’t chart that out. And if you try, it’s not exploration any more.

What I found fascinating about Roscoe’s approach was the extent to which he uses these exoskeleton type methods, the degree to which he takes things that are internal, and makes them external, so that you can see a lot more of what’s underneath. He also shows, in a way, sort of the range of the computer’s own possibilities through the exploration of what it can do. He’s trying different things musically, he’s looking for the response, then he works with it to create these composite ideas. He’s really quick to pick up on things that it does, and it seems to be fairly quick at picking up on things that he does.

And in totally different ways. You see, the thing is that I don’t think it’s necessary that they… This is kind of like an interspecies small talk; that’s what David Behrman used to call one of his pieces. And it really is that. I mean, it’s two different kind of beings in the same space, communicating, in their particular fashions. They are putting out things in their particular way and receiving things in their particular ways. It isn’t necessary to equate them, or to make one into the other, or to do all the other things that people associate in these fearful ways with anthropomorphization of the computer. We don’t need to do that. All we have to do is put it in space, give it the tools.

TP: Following up on that last comment: Is the computer in any way an alter-ego for you? Because you, after all, created the parameters by which it improvises.

GL: Well, the computer does represent my theory of music. But what I tend to think is interesting is that people can realize their own ideas also in the environment, which is not really… It’s my theory of music, but it’s not my theory of my music. So there’s a real difference in that, you see. So I can play, and it’s rather different. If we play #3 on this same thing, you see, it’s a very different attitude. We can play that maybe.

TP: Well, why don’t we. #3 from Voyager.

GL: Yeah. This is a little different attitude. I think it takes a solo.

[MUSIC: “Voyager #3’]

TP: Before we begin our next segment of discussion, I’ll read program notes written by George Lewis for this CD: “What the work is about is what improvisation is about — interaction and behavior as carriers for meaning. On this view, notes, timbres, melodies, durations and the like are not ends in themselves. Embedded in them is a more complex, indirect, powerful signal that we must train ourselves to detect.” And indeed, in programming the computer to improvise on the highest level with musicians who have devoted a life to thinking about improvised music and have tremendous experience, you really had to organize, I guess, and come to grips with what your ideas of what improvising is about and the parameters of improvisation.

GL: Yeah. Well, that last paragraph is kind of a roundabout way of saying what Albert Ayler was quoted as saying: “It’s not about notes; it’s about feeling.” Or to put it another way, the Charlie Parker thing, which is, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” which I now say, if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your computer either.” So that’s really what it comes down to.

I find that this music comes out of what I have learned from the AACM, what I have learned about the AACM, what I have learned from people like Misha Mengelberg and Derek Bailey, what I have learned from many different types of improvisers. So basically, it’s more a distillation of what I have learned about these things, rather than some grand organizational scheme. Although finally with computers, if you don’t organize things, they crash. So on that level there’s organization. But at another level, I find myself…

This computer program I wouldn’t call a model of structured integrity. Different levels at which the creation is being made have to communicate with each other, and there has to be kind of an openness of channel. Like, you heard this sort of long solo that the computer does. Well, how it does it…what the long solo is based on, basically, is if I’m not playing, after a certain point it says, “Well, no one is playing; I guess I have a solo.” Then it starts to make all these random judgments about what goes on. But when I say “random,” I mean that it’s sort of random, but in order to make a note, you have about 40 or 50 random decisions to make. So that in the end, it’s random but in this room.

Let’s say the first decision is… Well, I tried to tell someone this once. To decide what instrument to use is a pretty complex process. The first decision that’s made is how many instruments… Like, when it’s time to bring in a new group of people to play some piece of music, the first decision is how many instruments are going to play, then the next decision is how many different kinds of instruments are going to play. That’s based on how jagged the rhythm is. The number of instruments is based on how loud things are. In other words, if someone is playing very softly, I don’t want to bring in 16 or 17 instruments crashing down on their head. So that’s another decision. Then you get into that, and then it gets into, “Well, what’s going to be the timbre of these instruments?” Is the timbre going to be mixed or is it going to be a homogeneous timbre? So that’s three decisions already.

So if each one of those decisions is made on the basis of random numbers… But you see, the accumulation of detail itself tends to focus that information. In other words, I could just say for each one of these decisions, “Well, just do whatever you feel like doing, and have any range you want, any number of instruments you want” — and that tends to be very boring. But if you can direct things into groups, if you can direct things into fields, if you can define an area for a certain period of time, if you can do those things, then finally the randomness of process recedes into the background, and it recedes so far into the background that you don’t really know where the randomness is.

So when people start to tell me about randomness versus non-randomness, I say, “Well, how random do you think you are? Maybe something you did today was based on a hormone that didn’t quite make it to the level it made it to yesterday or something — and what’s that based on? We can get teleological about it or you can get biochemical about it, or you can do whatever you want to do.

The connotativeness behind randomness I always relate to the innate need of people to feel that they have control over some aspect of their lives. And I think that’s important to realize that we’re in a kind of an interdependent universe here, and I’m not sure how much control that we have over our lives. I’m sure that control is not total. That’s pretty obvious. We seem to be faced with forces moving around us all. So I’m not sure what the answer is. The Voyager is not providing an answer to the question of how humans make music. It’s a piece of music that operates within certain constraints, and expresses a certain viewpoint about how music could be made, not how it should be made — which is an infinite question, really. That’s what it’s all about.

TP: We also get to a question about some of the antecedents or narrative structures of improvising, which I know are important to you, and which you’ve elaborated maybe a little more directly or explicitly in Changing With The Times. Do you have any feelings on that that you’d care to discuss?

GL: Well, there is a kind of a narrative going on. The subject of the narrative is partly Music itself, but then the other subject, or one of the other subjects… The process that’s going on…I don’t know if I used this word, but it’s emotional transduction. Transduction is a process by which one quantity is translated into another. A simple example would be an electrical impulse is fed to a speaker. That’s one. Electrical impulses, voltages then result in the speaker kind of moving. That moves air. We hear sound.

So in the same way, if I say that notes and tones and timbres and all that are carriers for meaning, and that meaning is embedded in these notes, then if there is a process by which we can sort of multiply that while retaining a certain essence of it, then what we’re going to get as the output is going to also, I feel, retain some aspect of every part or every dimension of that sound. In other words, the emotionality, I think, will be retained.

So I don’t think the computer itself has to generate emotional things or generate narratives as such. It’s more a process still at this point of transduction. But the transduction depends on detail. In other words, you can’t play a bunch of stuff in, and then what you get out is this one kind of output. There has to be a sort of an idea of the complexity of music there. I don’t want to go into all the details. But it certainly relates to things like duration, things like pitch, things like contours, things like tendencies, things like stabilities that have to be sort of gauged and mapped and responded to. In addition to the simple thing of, “What am I doing right at this moment?” there is a question of history involved in making these things work.

Also, you should be able to play very different things, and then it should be able to respond in a very different way. Like, if we played Piece #8, I think that’s one where that’s sort of shown. It’s a very different piece from the rest, from the others we played.

[MUSIC: R. Mitchell/Computer “Voyager Duo #8”]

TP: Roscoe Mitchell is a musical personality with whom George Lewis has been associated for just about two decades now.

GL: Oh, yeah.

TP: Were you aware of him as a young musician coming up in Chicago, in your teens, in the lab school? Were you aware of the AACM at that time?

GL: No. Muhal came to the school once.

You know, there’s something that… These things are kind of… This question of personalities is kind of important as well. You know, Roscoe… I mean, I’ve listened to a lot of computer music, because I’m sort of in the field and have been for a long time, and I feel I have made my tiny mark on the field. The thing is that I don’t get to hear many pieces of computer music where people can, you know, get wild [LAUGHS] like Roscoe is doing on this piece. It’s usually much more mannered. And I am finding that… The reason I guess Roscoe’s contribution is so important on this record is because it does show that we don’t have to throw our emotions away when we enter into these areas. We don’t have to become the stereotype of the computer as cold, unfeeling, whatever. We don’t have to do that. And we can sort of get much more dynamic about it.

I have this problem also, in a way, with my work with the improvisers at the university where I’m teaching now. There is something… It seems there’s a penalty for personal expression, which would seem to be something like, “What? A penalty?” — but there is. I mean, in the real world there really is a penalty for personal expression. It’s in these tiny enclaves we put ourselves in where we can pretend. But really, this complex system of music also embodies systems of values. So that someone who could really…

Often I get the feeling that my biggest job in working with the improvising students is to get them to overcome…I’m not sure what it is — their upbringing at home maybe, or the constraints placed upon them by cultures they grew up in, or perhaps the academic environment, which seems that maybe their perception is that it might not accept them so readily were they to sort of expose themselves in the way that Roscoe or I might do, and that it would be better if they just were very safe.

And then there is that question of location. Now, Roscoe is located firmly in a tradition and a culture, and can trace himself back as an improviser to Buddy Bolden, okay, and then from there even back as far as he wants to go. Okay? So that’s not really true of at least some of my graduate student improvisers, who come from a different tradition, the one that has attempted to stamp out improvisation without success. So their tradition in that area becomes a little difficult. So it does affect their personality, and then that affects the playing. As one person, one professor if you will, I don’t have the power by myself to make that environment one that’s comfortable enough so that people can really feel they can break some of these shackles off.

But that’s just one of the issues that this sort of piece brings up. That’s why I really regard it as a very high expression of what I want to do with the computer music.

TP: I’d like to continue to address the question of location in terms of the development of your own aesthetic, as someone who came up in Chicago, attended Yale University where there was a very interesting scene of talented and venturesome young musicians who you were able to work with, and coming back to Chicago in the early Seventies when things were still full flower in the AACM.

GL: Well, the Yale business. You can get lucky, you know? You can be at a certain place at a certain time. When I look at something like the AACM, I realize that this is a group of people that one can count on — at least I’ve been able to count on. I see people who have based their music and have sort of based themselves on friends and colleagues who have turned out to denounce them in later years. I see a lot of examples of people denouncing each other going, right now, in this teapot tempest of Jazz.

One of the lessons I remember from Yale was, I remember denouncing someone in the paper. The person was a dead Phenomenologist. I thought it would be safe to denounce this person. The professor’s comment was that you shouldn’t go so far in criticizing your colleagues. And I had never thought of this person as a colleague. So it’s very important, that definitional stance.

So that was an important lesson that came out of Yale, but it also was an important lesson that came out of the AACM, where there are all these colleagues. And I got the feeling that these people would never desert me, and that they would support me, and I would support them, and that would be an ongoing thing, and that sticking together as a group, we could stick to our guns and do whatever we needed to do, and we wouldn’t have to be necessarily subject to, you know, the fashions that the commercial people put up or whatever they’re going to do.

I think that’s maybe the most important lesson among the many important lessons that came from the AACM. Just the other day in New Orleans, playing with Muhal and Fred Anderson and Ajaramu and Malachi Favors, and seeing these people who had been so influential on me and had shown me so many things, and there we were still playing together twenty years later, and there hadn’t been any of this dissension. I mean, there have been conversations, certainly, and there have been differences of opinion. And then having talked to someone for whom the people that he thought were his friends ended up denouncing him in public, I started to think, well… God, I just couldn’t imagine that happening. I just couldn’t imagine that I would denounce Muhal or something. It would seem absurd. It just wouldn’t happen. [LAUGHS]

I think there is an important awareness there which maybe I’m not finding so much of, or there is something that maybe people aren’t seeing right now.

In terms of Yale, that’s just luck. I mean, it seemed that at a certain place, that institution, an academic, Ivy League conservative institution, during my short time there, during this four or five year period, there were an awful lot of interesting people running around — musically. I’m not sure that’s so much the case. It’s not a continuous thing. Things go up and they go down. But at this time, you could meet Charles Mingus; he would come… Willie Ruff did it all. He started this… He and a geology professor, John Rogers, started this thing called the Duke Ellington Scholarship or Fellowship. So they brought Dizzy, they brought Tony Williams, they brought Mingus, they brought Willie The Lion Smith, they brought people from all these genres, and you got to play with them and talk with them and stuff. Then there were people going to the school. I think Robert Dick was a year ahead of me, Anthony Davis was in my year, Gerry Hemingway’s family is from around New Haven, Mark Helias was going there I think, Jane Bloom was going to school there, Leo Smith was living there, Bennie Maupin and Oliver Lake were living there — so there was that whole influence, too.

So just real lucky, man! That’s all I can say! I mean, there was all that going on at the same time. I was just extraordinarily lucky. You couldn’t create that. Just like you couldn’t, like, write that situation where at the end of the last piece the computer started suddenly playing this ascending blues line. I mean, that wasn’t something I set down and said, “Now you will play the Blues and it will have these characteristics.” It’s just the working out of the processes, based on need and availability and environment.

TP: I first encountered George Lewis I guess around 1974 in Chicago, I think it was that year, and you were playing with the Fred Anderson Sextet on the campus there, and I heard a virtuosic trombone… I didn’t know that much about the music. But I heard somebody playing explosive lines on the trombone like I’d never heard before, playing faster than just about anyone I’d ever heard — and I’ve been impressed ever since. It’s always a wonderful occasion for me to hear you in duo or trio, or just playing the trombone. So in this next set we’ll hear George in a number of duets, I’m not sure how many, beginning with the final one on Voyager on Avan, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. I take it that this conceptually was the plan of the record, was the eight duos and then the two of you for one of what I guess must be many interactions over the years.

GL: Well, we knew that whatever happened in the duo piece, it would be called “Homecoming.” We played several takes, and Roscoe seemed to have a very firm grasp of what he wanted to do, and it was sort of up to me to respond to that. So in a way, I become the computer, which is sort of…! So if you’re talking about alter-egos, there is something there, because I tend to try to blend with what people want, try to sort of seek out what they need and deal with it, and try to enhance it, and to make sound good — as I am told Thelonious Monk used to say that your job was to make the other musicians sound good.

Also noteworthy, in a way, is that we did have to present, I felt, a person-person interaction in order to close the circle, to balance things off, not so much for the purpose of comparison, but for purposes of elucidation, for bringing certain things to the fore that couldn’t be brought out if we just had computers playing. It could be brought out in general, but we couldn’t do them on this record. People could compare the computer things with other duo pieces they might have heard, or maybe other orchestra pieces they might have heard.

The real goal of this work, and I think I’m pretty close to doing this now, is to have a really…the virtual… I realized all the way what was going on was a kind of virtual orchestra. The Virtuality situation is becoming very possible and very powerful. I have a new piece now for virtual percussion where there are no instruments on the stage at all, and people just are waving their arms and doing mime, and they are making music that way.

TP: The computer senses the motion and then processes that information?
GL: Yeah, that’s pretty much what happens. So that’s sort of like people can talk to each other with their hands, and music can be a byproduct. I have a series of pieces like that. Often we don’t get to see these pieces in New York, I notice. But I get to do them in a lot of other places, so that’s okay. I just need an outlet. I’m not particular about where it is.

But the goal of this Voyager project is to have large virtual orchestra. Right now we’re hearing kind of a chamber orchestra with pretensions to being a large orchestra. But what I’m really interested in doing is a couple of hundred voices, because this will really sort of bring problems of large-scale form in an improvised, virtual context to the fore. So this is a problem which I don’t think… Well, I don’t know who’s dealing with it. I can’t think of anyone. It’s interesting to me. Maybe it’s not interesting to anyone else. But I find it fascinating to think that… And I could never… I keep saying this (and this probably too radical an assertion, but I’m going to say it anyway) that really (and I remember offending someone terribly) that people who are really offended about the aspect of virtual instruments, which is: While visual people and people who are doing all kinds of interactive things are interested in interactivity, musicians are still clinging to this idea of the Real, which is like way back in the last century, or the Sixteenth Century or something — very Platonic.

I am very interested in the Platonic even. But I am very interested in having a virtual orchestra that is mutable and that responds to the playing of individuals, and that talks within itself, a lot more than I am interested in writing a piece for some Philharmonic band or something. That would seem like a much less intellectually challenging situation at this point than working on self-organizing large-scale structures. It would just be much more fascinating.

The other aspect is that I don’t think that the current level of social development of the Western orchestra can handle self-organization. It’s just not made for it. It’s really made for top-down control. If I wanted to think about a model of orchestral music-making that’s not based on that, it seems that the Gamelan orchestra, the Javanese gamelan would be the most interesting example, and that would be one that I sort of take as more of a model of how to proceed. Not in terms of making Gamelan-type sounds, but in terms of how information gets passed within the orchestra and between the players. It’s a heterarchical rather than hierarchical situation. So that’s how improvising works. And certainly, an improvising orchestra would have to be a heterarchically based group.

So that’s the ultimate goal of this work. And at some point we’ll start to hear these rather large, like, 200-instrument pieces — and it won’t be possible to play them in Roulette. You can’t cram 200 instruments in two little speakers somewhere. You need an orchestral-type space, or the Great Outdoors, or somewhere large enough. Because there are questions of scale involved. Already, scale is an issue with Voyager, because Voyager is really too large to be played in small spaces now, whereas pieces that I wrote years ago with one or two or three voices were more like chamber pieces. This is getting a little too big. It’s small in the amount of equipment, but it’s big in scale.

So you’re always faced with this issue. And there are so many issues that underlie this that don’t relate directly to, you know, the Man against the Machine business — you know, the cliche business. Once you get past that, you can really think about some interesting problems.

[MUSIC: Lewis/Mitchell, “Voyager”;

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Filed under AACM, Chicago, DownBeat, George Lewis,, Muhal Richard Abrams, Trombone, Wadada Leo Smith, WKCR

For Lewis Nash’s 57th Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2006, and WKCR interviews from 2005 and 2006

For the 57th birthday of the unparalleled drum master Lewis Nash, I’m posting the text of a DownBeat article that it was my honor to write about him in 2006, and a pair of WKCR interviews from that year and from 2005.


Lewis Nash (Downbeat Article):

Midway through a late Friday set at a half-full Village Vanguard during the dog days of July, Lewis Nash stated a medium-slow groove on the brushes as 83-year-old trumpeter Joe Wilder improvised six lovely choruses on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.” It followed a series of songbook tunes and blues, and Nash could easily have settled for keeping time. But he was not, as the saying goes, merely “digging coal.” Instead, on each cycle through the form, Nash executed a different pattern and timbre on the snare drum, imperturbably articulating the beat with crisp precision. The back-of-the-bar patrons might not have noticed the subtlety and ingenuity of Nash’s design, but Wilder did, and he tossed his drummer a nod and a broad smile as he lowered his horn.

It was not an anomalous moment. As Andrew Cyrille noted several years ago in a 5-star Blindfold Test evaluation, Nash, now 47, has “dotted all the i’s while coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz.” After remarking that “all the great brush players like Kenny Clarke, Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe Jones would have to give kudos to that playing,” Cyrille added, “Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember whence we came and also what’s happening on the contemporary scene.”

If the vocabulary of the aforementioned masters and a timeline’s worth of hardcore swingers stretching from Max Roach to Edward Blackwell is encoded in Nash’s rhythmic DNA, so are ideas drawn from drumset abstractionists like Cyrille and Jerome Cooper, dance-infused grooves from the funk and R&B that Nash played in his pre-jazz years, and a bracing array of Afro-Caribbean meters. He weaves them together smoothly, conveying tried-and-true swing and Latin rhythms with idiomatic authority. Then he tweaks them, working with a full complement of pitches and intervals across the drumset to animate his beats, displacing figures normally articulated on one component and playing them on another, positioning his phrases to suit the overall architecture of each piece.

Nash titled his 1989 debut album Rhythm Is My Business [Alfa/Evidence], and continues to use the motto. The self-description is apt. He was one of New York’s busiest drummers in the ‘80s, building his reputation on prestigious gigs with Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Don Pullen, and George Adams, and cementing it during a ten-year run with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. As the ‘90s progressed, Nash became an A-list freelancer, building a 300-plus album resume that includes Grammy-winners by McCoy Tyner (Illuminations), Nancy Wilson (R.S.V.P.), and Joe Henderson (Big Band); Gerald Wilson’s 2003 Grammy nominated New York, New Sound; important recordings by both Carters, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, Horace Silver, Russell Malone and Regina Carter; and a slew of equilaterally oriented trios with Flanagan and such lustrous keyboard talents as Roland Hanna, Don Friedman, Kenny Drew, Jr., and Cyrus Chestnut.

“I am thrust into different situations day in and day out with people who may have completely different musical objectives and viewpoints,” Nash said last December from his Hudson Valley home. “I try to bring the same seriousness to each situation. If there’s written music, and time allows, I put the chart under a microscope. If you don’t assimilate the basic character of the piece, you can’t use your interpretative skills to be creative—you’ll still be hung up on how to get from this place to the coda.”

At the time, Nash was decompressing from a week in Osaka with a quartet of Japanese mainstreamers. That occurred not long after a one-nighter in Noumea, New Caledonia, with a pair of Hammond B3 organists, two weeks after he brought his own quartet to Taichung, Taiwan, for a four-night run. He was preparing for a week-long New Year’s engagement in Orvieto, Italy, to be followed by a three-day jaunt to Uruguay with pianist-composer Cedar Walton, an increasingly frequent employer.

“When you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid to try new things,” Nash said. “You’re manipulating time, beat, phrase, and timbre within a continuity of groove and feeling, so when the timbres change, people may not know exactly what you’re doing, but they know something feels and sounds different than in the previous chorus. I try for subtle transitions. There has to be a certain sense of freedom, of not the commonplace. Sometimes a little craziness is necessary to break through.”

In a recent conversation, saxophonist Steve Wilson, Nash’s partner on a dozen or so speculative improv duo concerts since 2003, observed that Nash’s attitude that a form is less a ball-and-chain than an opportunity to stretch boundaries makes his tonal personality a first cousin to that of Billy Higgins, who suited the needs of such antipodal stylists as Walton and Ornette Coleman with equal effectiveness while always sounding like himself.

“Higgins was always listening, and that’s how it is with Lewis,” Wilson said. “He’s deeply aware of everything happening on the bandstand, and he addresses the entire legacy of jazz and the drums—all the way back to all the way forward. Everything he does is out of the logic of where the line is going.”

Since 2000, no leader has collaborated more frequently with Nash than Lovano, both on his bop-to-free nonet and his more recent freedom-within-structure quartet with Hank Jones. “Lewis’ rhythmic attack is precise, but his phrases are lyrical, not just patterns that you play over,” Lovano said. “If I say something in a melodic phrase, he will answer and say something back at whatever tempo. His approach is refined, but his playing makes you want to jump out of your seat; it’s a force of nature, but that force changes on every piece.”

Tommy Campbell, like Nash a Sonny Rollins alumnus, remarks on his encyclopedic command of the lexicon. “Lewis makes the most intellectual and technical things sound so natural and effortless that you forget about what it takes to play it,” said Campbell. “He uses so many different degrees of character on one groove or style. For example, he must have 20 ways to play a shuffle. He does all the little things, too. For example, he never makes unwanted sounds when he’s changing from sticks to brushes to mallets. In 20-plus years I’ve never seen him miss or muff a beat. He can go from soloing to the groove as fast as anyone. It seems he’s always in both places; it’s all one thing for him.”

“Lewis will stay right in the pocket, while doing some of the most creative stuff being played,” affirmed bassist Peter Washington, Nash’s long-time partner in Flanagan’s trio. “A lot of guys feel swinging and grooving holds them back. To him, it sets him free!”


“I don’t know if I made a conscious effort to be adaptable,” Nash said. “I always played in a way that I felt would add flavor and variety rather than bring all the attention to me. I’m looking for the beauty in my instrument. There’s beauty in power as well. But a lot of sounds are available to utilize. People hear the tonal detail and clarity, and they tell me that my approach is like a percussionist in the symphony. But my concept comes out of hard-swinging jazz. I try to interject the energy and swagger of funky rhythms into swinging, straight-ahead music—although when you play the rhythms of R&B and hip-hop on a drumset tuned for playing jazz, the sound is not the same.”

Nash came to hardcore jazz rather late in the game. As a teenager he played football (cornerback) and played drums for fun in dance bands around Phoenix, Arizona, his home town, before catching the jazz bug.

“My mother listened to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and so on,” Nash said in July. A T-Bone Walker jump blues on the car stereo cosigned the statement. “I was less attracted to Rock elements in the drumming of Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, and other guys who played fusion, than to the funkier, danceable things. My influences went from James Brown’s drummers or the feeling of Al Green’s Stax records to the people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. Fusion influences came later, as my knowledge of music increased, whereas that’s the first stuff some people from my age group got into.

“R&B wasn’t played as loud and hard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More guys played time on the ride cymbal, like in jazz. Once disco and a certain period of funk became prominent, everything was on the hi-hats, and the bass drums and everything else got a fatter, heavier sound that you wouldn’t normally play in a jazz context, so the genres started to separate sonically.”

During the disco era, Nash, who majored in broadcast journalism at Arizona State, was a fixture on the sparse Phoenix jazz scene, playing in local rhythm sections with hired gun saxophonists like Sonny Stitt and Art Pepper. He led his own combo, and wore bells on his ankles in a duo with saxophonist Allen Chase that opened for acts like Old and New Dreams, Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

On the strength of a grant to study drums with Max Roach and a concurrent phone call to audition with Betty Carter, who hired him on the spot, Nash moved to Brooklyn in the winter of 1980-81. There he joined a talented crop of young drummers who included Kenny Washington, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jeff Watts, and Ralph Peterson.

“We had a lot of leeway to pursue our individual approaches,” Nash said. “For instance, Art Blakey or Jimmy Cobb might influence how you kept time on the ride cymbal, while at the same time you’d study the solo concept of Max or Elvin. The major innovators from the ‘40s through the ‘60s dealt with a true swinging jazz conception that wasn’t terribly influenced by rhythm-and-blues, and didn’t drastically change that approach. But the advent of genre grooves from soul and funk and R&B, and the greater visibility of Latin and Afro-Cuban elements, caused the concept to adapt from the swinging, triplet-based ride cymbal feeling to a less linear straight-eighth feeling.”

Ensconced in New York, Nash refined his approach, going to clubs to watch Higgins, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor, Billy Hart, Victor Lewis and Freddie Waits, figuring out which techniques to use and which to discard. On the road with Betty Carter from 1981-84 and as an ongoing member of Ron Carter’s two-bass quintet and nonet for the subsequent decade, he found tough-love laboratories in which to apply his discoveries.

The singer insisted on precisely calibrated tempos and feels, but took great pains to discourage her young accompanists from playing sets by rote.

“My whole time with Betty, at every rehearsal, she stressed not to lean on clichés, to search for something fresh to play,” Nash recalled. “You knew you couldn’t go on automatic pilot; she’d turn and say, ‘You already played that; play something else.’ You’d be on edge, wondering what change of pace is coming.”

“Ron likes to use a lot of different colors,” he continued, adding that he considers the bassist a primary mentor. “He taught me a lot about tuning, and on some of his music I could be more percussionistic, and utilize finger cymbals, wind chimes and castanets. Steve Kroon often was playing percussion, and I incorporated what Steve did into my drumset.”

“Betty told me that he read music very well,” Carter said. “One thing to his advantage is that he plays the form. Many drummers don’t. I had Lewis take up vibes, to help him visualize the piano keyboard when he soloed. He did very well. He started to study composition, wrote some nice melodies, and expanded his view of the drums as more melodic than they normally are thought to be.”

“I tune the intervals wide enough to give the impression of melodic movement up or down a scale when I play a fill,” Nash elaborated. “I like to interject phrases not just to fill space, but to continue articulating the line I just heard the soloist play. If it’s a horn player taking a breath, I’m almost thinking of continuing his linear thought process until he returns the horn to his mouth, and maybe inspire his rhythmic direction.”

During the ‘80s, while Nash was refining these ideas, Marvin “Smitty” Smith developed ways to make complex meters flow with Steve Coleman and Dave Holland. Jeff Watts began to merge the rhythms of timba with the patterns of Elvin Jones. Ralph Peterson, Carl Allen and Herlin Riley layered New Orleans streetbeats into swing feels. Younger drummers went to their gigs, copied them, and mainstreamed each vocabulary increment into next-generation argot. With the exception of a year of steady touring with Branford Marsalis, Nash played with established, older musicians “with one foot in the history of the music,” and interacted less frequently with his peer group.

“I wanted to immerse myself in the lineage, to interact with movers and shakers in the music from further back,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to lose my desire to be creative or forget how to explore.”

Some think that Nash’s impact on the younger branches of the drum tree is less pronounced than it ought to be.

“Most of the younger drummers weren’t in the audience when Roland Hanna and Ron Carter and Tommy Flanagan were playing,” Washington said. “But on every level, Lewis brought something to the drums as unique as the guys who played with Branford and Wynton or M-Base.”

“Once critics hop on a guy’s bandwagon, young drummers looking for someone to listen to will go that way,” Carter said. “Lewis isn’t flashy or domineering in the negative way that drummers can be. I can’t think of another drummer in any age category who plays brushes so well. Not many read as well as he does, and even fewer know how to tune the drums. But critics are less aware of these aspects, and they don’t tune into Lewis when they talk about drummers who are important and can take the drum scene another step, unfortunately for them and for the history of the drums.”

“My influence would have more to do with the sound of the instrument and the clarity of execution than any stylistic development,” Nash remarked, and younger drummers agree.

“Lewis can play with authority like Elvin Jones and also the way Vernell Fournier played with Ahmad Jamal,” said Yellowjackets drummer Marcus Baylor, a former Nash student. “That’s a lot of ground to cover. He’s the most musical drummer of our time period, one of the musical drummers ever.”

“A lot of situations that I play in cause Lewis to pop into my mind,” said Kendrick Scott. “I’ve studied his playing so much that I think, ‘Oh, what would Lewis play right here? It would probably be perfect.’”


“We’re not supposed to stay where Tommy was,” Nash said during a January engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Coca, where a quartet under his leadership—Washington, pianist Renee Rosnes and vibraphonist Steve Nelson—was performing Flanagan-associated repertoire. “He gave us a carpet and said, ‘Okay, I’m giving you these tools; now what are you going to do with them?’

“Tommy didn’t necessarily want me to play in a way that was reminiscent of the ‘40s or ‘50s or ‘60s. He wanted me to play with him right now—which was the ‘90s. He was an open book. When I did things that come out of developments more recent than you might associate with his roots, he’d look up and I’d see him smile and his eyes gleam. If you remain open moment to moment with all your intelligence and skills, and don’t preconceive or predirect where you’re going, that’s as fresh and modern as you can be, whatever style you’re playing.”

In 1998, Nash decided that it was time to augment his numerous opportunities “to interject my ideas and musical viewpoint in groups where I’m a sideman” and construct a context to allow him “complete freedom to express what I feel.” He organized a septet, and booked himself into the Village Vanguard, the first of several Vanguard combos of various sizes, comprised of long-time associates and talented youngbloods. Building on his yearly Vanguard gig, he’s expanded his activity, and in 2003 and 2004 recorded the Japan-market CDs It Don’t Mean A Thing and Stompin’ At The Savoy, with Washington, Nelson, and pianist Jeb Patton. As of this writing, his 2007 calendar includes 10 weeks as a leader.

During the JVC Festival in June, Nash played the Vanguard with a quintet comprising Wilson, Washington, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and pianist Gerald Clayton. The less-traveled repertoire, spanning the ‘60s through the ‘80s, included well-wrought tunes by Walter Davis, Jr. (“Pranayama”), Don Pullen (“Sing Me A Song Everlasting”), Thad Jones (“Ain’t Nothin’ Nu”), Kenny Barron (“New York Attitude”), James Williams (“Alter Ego”), and Johnny Mandel (“I Never Told You”). Nash emceed and took a couple of drum features. Otherwise, he gave the soloists much rein, swung mightily, and functioned, as Washington noted, “as the same supportive, musical drummer.”

“Everything depends on how daring you want to be,” he said. “Parameters exist in any musical situation, and they force you to get the most from the least. You try not to limit yourself to ‘this is how you’re supposed to play this kind of music.’ You jump in, let your ears dictate, and keep all options on the table. I might borrow some sound or approach from an avant garde context that works in the middle of trading fours on a blues. Sound can cross genres and styles. It’s just a sound. It’s your job to figure out how to use that sound tastefully and in context. The more things you’ve done, the more you’ll be able to interject something new.”


Lewis Nash (WKCR, December 1, 2005) – re Nash-Wilson duo at Sweet Rhythm:

TP: [MUSIC: McCoy Tyner-Lewis Nash duo]

Duets. Lewis records so much and in so many different contexts and situations, that doing an hour on your work is like looking for the needle in the haystack. You’ll be quite present in NYC area in December and directly after the New York. Next week at Dizzy’s Room with Donal Fox and George Mraz. The following week is week one of Cedar Walton’s annual fortnight at the Village Vanguard with Roy & David. Then Umbria with Joe Locke. Then at Dizzy’s Room on January 10th with Flanagan tribute, with Renee, Peter & Steve Nelson. Frequent associates.

How did the duo project with Steve Wilson come to pass? You go back a ways, and you a few records with him on Criss-Cross in the early ‘90s.

LEWIS: That’s correct. Steve and I have played through the years in various situations. As far as the duo format, I enjoy that with the horns, and, as we just heard on the cut with me and McCoy Tyner, with the piano, and I’ve done duo with organ, of course, duo with guitar even. The duo situation is a challenge in many ways. In other ways, it’s pretty much just like any other time you go to play music. You deal with certain repertoire or whatever, with one another musician, and you try to make music as best you can interacting with that person.

TP: But this is a working duo, of sorts, and a duo you’ve both chosen to stick with. It’s not a one-off situation.

LEWIS: That’s right. Steve came to mind for me when I was thinking about doing this as someone I enjoyed playing with, number one, and also someone whom I felt I’d have a nice working rapport with musically for a number of reasons, not least of which is that his time is so great. So when someone has really good time internally, you can try a lot of different things which don’t necessarily have to spell out where you are metrically or in a form. A lot of times, Steve and I come out at the right place as if it just happened naturally. I don’t have to worry about making sure that I mark time for him when we’re playing. He’s one of the musicians I enjoy playing with in any situation, but particularly in the duo.

TP: How would it differ than playing in a rhythm section with Peter Washington or George Mraz, two of the master jazz bassists on the planet?

LEWIS: First of all, there’s a lot more space without the chordal instrument being there. How that would differ from a bass and drum situation is that the sound of Steve’s instrument, of course, won’t be in that bass range, to fill out some of that range I’ll often play different patterns or motifs between the low toms and the bass drum, things like that, to give some weight and low-end sound to the duo. Sometimes Steve will even play bass-type lines, whether walking or harmonically in the bass range. We basically try to give as much of a feeling of arrangement and orchestration as we can with the two instruments.

TP: You mentioned to me that your duo playing goes back to college days when you attended Arizona State University, where one of your fellow underclassmen was the saxophonist Allen Chase, who now runs the jazz department at New England Conservatory. I think you mentioned that you and he would open up as a duo for groups like Old and New Dreams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago…

LEWIS: Mmm-hmm. Sun Ra.

TP: George Adams and Don Pullen. So not all your fans may know that you have roots in that direction as well as creating modern extensions and variations on the masters of jazz lifeblood, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. People who played with those people appreciate your playing for your ability to put your own spin on what they did in an idiomatic manner, but they don’t necessarily know about that other aspect of your tonal personality.

LEWIS: Well, those were interesting times. It’s before I moved to New York. I was still going to college. It was a good time and a good place for me to experiment with some different things, and Allen Chase and I had a duo, and we played around Phoenix. We opened for those people you mentioned, groups like that. That’s when I first met Ed Blackwell, when he came to Phoenix, playing with Old and New Dreams. I met the guys in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was always open to fresh things. Even though, as you mentioned, a lot of fans and listeners may not be aware of that experience I’ve had in that realm, still I always try to bring, even to the more conventional (for want of a better word) situations I play in…I always try to bring a feeling of freshness and openness to those situations that you might expect in a more open musical situation.

TP: One thing that might also be surprising to some people is that you came to hardcore jazz fairly late in the game. You weren’t a teenage student of every record of Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. It didn’t really happen until college.

LEWIS: Right. In my high school years I was playing a lot of R&B, Funk, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown type stuff, and I was playing football and playing sports, and being a jazz musician was the furthest thing from my mind.

TP: Is there any connection between the way you developed—not starting early, but learning rudiments, time, vibe, etc.?

LEWIS: You know, I wonder. I don’t know if I can say with any certainty. But the fact that it was always something I did for fun and I never thought in those earlier days about “this is what I want to do for a living, this is what drives me, this is what I’m here to do”—I didn’t have those thoughts. I was a broadcast journalism major, and my mentor…I didn’t know him, but Max Robinson, who used to be on ABC News, the first African-American anchor. I wanted to do things like that, and follow in those footsteps. But the music started to rope me in.

TP: When did it start to become apparent to you that you were going to become a musician and not a voice?

LEWIS: I’m a voice on the drums, I hope. But I had a professor at Arizona State whose name is Charles Argersinger. He still teaches in Washington State now. One day he pulled me aside in the hallway at Arizona State, and he asked me point-blank: “Lewis, you’re not a music major, are you.” “No.” “You’re not planning to go into music as a career, are you?” “Nope.” He said, “I think you’re making a mistake.”

TP: Why did he think that? Did he say?

LEWIS: He didn’t really spell it out, but I assume he’d heard a lot of young musicians and people he felt had potential or didn’t have potential, and he probably… He did say that “‘I think you’re someone who could go somewhere in this, and you should think about it.”

TP: What qualities were people hearing at that time? You were playing in Phoenix in rhythm section, behind Art Pepper or Sonny Stitt. What were those experiences like? Were they harsh? Were they supportive?

LEWIS: They were demanding, but not harsh. I met Sonny Stitt on the stage. I played a week. We had no rehearsal, we just came in as the local rhythm section. Of course, he used to do that all the time. The first tune he counted off I think was Cherokee at some breakneck, ridiculously fast tempo, and that was, “Hello, I’m Sonny Stitt.” Those kinds of experiences for a young musician…it’s great. It just throws you right into the fire.

TP: As far as learning the correct tone… Were you thinking by that time of the way Max Roach might be handling this situation, or Billy Higgins, or Philly Joe Jones, or Shadow Wilson, etc.? Were you trying to bring any of that vocabulary to bear by that time?

LEWIS: Definitely.

TP: How did you do that without seeing them? Drums is kind of a visual instrument, isn’t it? You have to learn to put your body in position to make transitions and so on.

LEWIS: That’s true. I didn’t have very much exposure to these great drummers—I should say none—in terms of watching them. I didn’t see any of the great names drumming-wise… Actually, that’s not true. I did see and hear Dannie Richmond with Mingus in the late ‘70s, and Blackwell. But Max and Elvin, Tony Williams, until I came to New York, I didn’t have a chance to observe them up-close, the way we do, putting them under the microscope and watching every little thing they do.

TP: How did you pick up vocabulary?

LEWIS: What I heard on the records, I tried to emulate and find the best way to reproduce those kinds of sounds and phrases, and hope that what I came up with was close.

TP: you came out of Phoenix with Betty Carter, didn’t you.

LEWIS: Yes, I did. Another into-the-fire type situation. Freddie Waits actually recommended me to her. I had met him. He came through Phoenix with the Billy Taylor Trio.

TP: I recall you saying that she was very specific and precise about tempos and feels, but wanted you to be creative within those parameters.

LEWIS: That’s very correct. It’s a good way of putting it. She knew exactly what she wanted, and sometimes we didn’t quite know how to give her that in the best way, but we’d try to find it. It was a challenge to play with her at that stage of my career. It was probably the best thing for me then.

TP: The same could be said for a number of musicians in your generation who came up in that tough-love crucible that was the Betty Carter band.

[MUSIC: “Stomping At the Savoy”; “Tickle-Toe”; then with Celtic Jazz Collective, w/ Paddy Keenan on bagpipes]

TP: You were saying that part of the appeal of performing with Steve Wilson is his musicality, his time. You both share a quality of being extremely well-grounded in the fundamentals. He plays a lot of big band sections, studio things, but when it comes to improvising and doing something creative, he’s completely prepared to do that as well. You’re a few years older, but coming out of similar experiences. Last year, there was a month when you did a weekly duo at Sweet Rhythm. How did it evolve from beginning to end.

LEWIS: Each time we did it, of course, you build on the previous time in terms of ideas, the way things evolve musically. That was good for us, because we’re both busy doing so many other things, and we have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to the duo projects. So when we had that string of performances, that really helped us to solidify the sound we heard for the duo at that time.

TP: Did the sound evolve over the month, or did it remain on the template on which it began?

LEWIS: I don’t know if the sound evolved, but the way that we approached probably became freer than when we first started. We’re still trying to find that happy medium, that balance between freedom and the opposite of that…

TP: Freedom and form, or whatever it is. You’re the kind of musician who’s able to find freedom within form in situations that other people might handle by rote. You take those fundamentals and you always seem to find a new twist or some vocabulary of your own. How much do you work on that off the bandstand? How much comes to you when you’re on the bandstand?

LEWIS: I would say that a lot of it comes while you’re on the bandstand in the middle of the moment. But you have to be daring, brave enough to take a chance in a particular situation where it’s easy to play it safe. I’m always trying to make whatever I play be logical. Just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it has to be corny or rote. But some of the most creative things done in a musical situation I think can be considered logically a part of what’s going on without them being done over and over again or something common.

TP: But you play on a lot of one-off sessions. You might not have played with the person before. You might be seeing the music for the first time. A lot of money is at stake—studio time. How do you keep both processes going, the imperative of trying to do something to at least satisfy even yourself that you’re not doing it the way it was done before, but also fulfilling the function? Is it a process of logic really?

LEWIS: It really is. I think so. I can think of many recording sessions where just what you mentioned is the case. You’re seeing the music for the first time. You’re probably not going to play it again after that live, it’s just for this recording, but maybe the music is challenging in certain ways, maybe form-wise or changing meters or something you’re just not familiar with, or maybe it’s musicians who you don’t play with all the time, so you’re still trying to establish the kind of rapport in the studio playing. So when you have these kinds of challenges, you always fall back on your basic musicianship. For horn players, it might be: Am I playing in tune? Am I reading this part correctly? Am I making these changes? And so on. For me in the rhythm section: “Am I setting up the figures, or am I making the transitions in the music smooth enough so there’s a certain flow where the other musicians can do whatever it is they need to do? Am I helping make sure that everyone who’s playing feels a certain comfort zone that allows them to play to the best of their ability? Is the time feel steady? Am I helping them to feel whatever changes might be going on in the music to the best of my ability from the drums?

TP: A lot of people in jazz particularly, when improvising on their instruments, think of other instruments. Trumpeters think of saxophones, that sort of thing. In that regard, I’ll bring up a comment I once read from Max Roach, which is that you don’t play melody on the drums, you play rhythmic designs on the drums, which is a slightly different thing, and almost gives the illusion of melody. I don’t know if you would subscribe to that statement or not. But one characteristic of your tonal personality is that you play rhythmic designs within the flow of a moment. Can you talk about creating in that way?

LEWIS: The melodic impression comes from the fact the rhythmic variations that may be played on the drumset give the feeling of a melodic line in the way the rhythms are put together. Every melody has a rhythmic component. So when you’re expressing yourself in phrases which have the same types of rhythmic components that melodic lines have, then you’re going to give the impression that you’re playing a melody. But this kind of linear approach to playing the drums of which Max Roach was the founding father in the music is something that really attracts me. It’s something I like to do or attempt to do. I’m always trying to find a way to keep that approach to playing the drums somehow involved in the evolution of the music, so that’s not just thrown away or thrown out as something that was done in the past, but it’s being made to find a contemporary way… I don’t know if that’s the best way of putting it. But a way of today’s creative jazz playing or creative improvising, utilizing that approach to the drums as well as all the other ones.

TP: Try to parse that a bit. By “today’s approach to the drums,” are you talking about incorporating the way drummers play in contemporary dance-oriented music, or the broader rhythmic palette that’s more commonly available to jazz drummers now?

LEWIS: I mean that in the sense that a lot of other influences have become a part of playing this music, influences from the various so-called world musics, and also in terms of the more recent developments in drumming going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s with Tony Williams and Elvin and Roy Haynes, who has been a part of it, it seems like, forever—and still is. That kind of freshness, without losing the approach of that linear style. I guess always trying to find a way to keep that as a part of the equation.

TP: Playing 100-150 gigs a year with Tommy Flanagan for ten years, and many gigs over a long period with Ron Carter, would be a very good way of honing those skills and that sensibility.

LEWIS: I would say so, yes. And all of the recording sessions as well. Because there you have a chance to hear back right away things that you try, and you can go in and listen and say, “Oh, okay, that didn’t come out quite like I wanted it to; I can go back and try a different thing again.” So being in the studio a lot has been helpful in refining or defining whatever it is I’m trying to do.

[MUSIC: From Sea Changes, “Verdandi”; Love Letters, NTB]

TP: You’ve done five-six dates for Japan with this group (Chestnut-Mraz-Nash), and performed about a month ago at Dizzy’s Room with them. By the way, wasn’t Elvin Jones the drummer on the original performance of Verdandi, which Tommy Flanagan made a staple of his ‘90s repertoire. With Manhattan Trinity, it’s a configuration put together for the studio that becomes a working group. It must be very different when you do it live.

LEWIS: Yes. Especially since we hadn’t really established a live group personality yet. Everything had been done in the studio.

TP: And the producer gives you the tune list and tells you to do something with it.

LEWIS: Yes. But given the level of musicianship with Cyrus and George, we could pretty much do whatever we wanted and make it work. So it’s a great situation to be part of.

TP: We were talking about being creative and fulfilling the function in the studio. We’ll play now one Grammy-winner and one Grammy-nominee record that Lewis was part of. You performed on Nancy Wilson’s RSVP this year, which won the 2005 Jazz Vocal Grammy, and you appeared on Gerald Wilson’s 2004 Grammy-nominated date, New York Sound.

[MUSIC: Nancy Wilson, “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”; Gerald Wilson, “Jeri,” from In My Time]

TP: Since 1998, you’ve been leading ensembles of varying sizes—septets, quintets, quartets, trios, been in the Vanguard, been at Dizzy’s at the Kaplan Playhouse. No records yet, though. Only a couple of dates with trios for the Japanese market on somewhat circumscribed repertoire. It seems every year that you’re doing more and more, gradually building up repertoire and a base of concerts on which other people can draw in recognizing you as a bandleader. What are your aspirations in this regard?
LEWIS: I think they are never-ending for someone who desires to continue to grow musically. I think about various things I’d like to do every day that I haven’t done yet. Wearing the bandleader hat takes a lot of work and takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s worthwhile to watch things come to fruition that began as just an idea or a thought. With that in mind, I’d like to do a lot more things in the future. Nothing specific comes to mind right now, but we have unlimited possibilities.

[MUSIC: Diaspora, from Blues for Marcus]



Lewis Nash (WKCR, June 26, 2006):

[MUSIC: Kenny Drew Trio, Apasionata]

TP: That featured one of the most prominent drum-bass combinations of our time, Lewis Nash and Peter Washington, who’ve been playing on bandstands countless during the ‘90s with Tommy Flanagan, and are performing together this week in the Lewis Nash Quintet at the Village Vanguard. Since 1999, when you first seriously undertook leading groups and performing out with them… This will be your second group-leader gig this year on New York bandstands. You were at Dizzy’s Room in January. You’ve played often with a septet, and lately a trio as well with Steve Nelson and Peter Washington, and a duo with Steve Wilson. Is this quintet a new band for you?

LEWIS: The newness this week is basically having Gerald Clayton on piano. In the past, generally it’s been Mulgrew Miller or Renee Rosnes or no piano, and others on occasion. But Gerald is a fantastic young musician who is certainly going to make a name for himself. Many people are aware that he’s the son of bassist-arranger John Clayton.

TP: New repertoire this week?

LEWIS: A few things. We do have all this various repertoire in a soup, and each night, depending on the vibe or feeling, I decide whether we’re going to play it or not. Basically, this week is not so much about new repertoire, although I generally like to do a gig in town when I do have something new to offer. But I didn’t want to let a whole year go by without playing at the Vanguard. So this week really is about our creativity on the stage in the moment no matter what we play, because there won’t be any incredible unveilings of new material.

TP: Do you approach your role, your performance in any different manner when you’re leading a group versus playing as a sideman? Does your point of view become the guiding flow for the performances when you’re leading the group? Although of course, it would in other ways when you’re a sideman.

LEWIS: Of course, since it’s more or less my musical vision in that sense, I am providing some direction for how I want it to go pacing-wise and all of that. But I am actually trying to allow everyone else to establish a direction without dictating where I feel it should go. I don’t like that kind of dictatorial way of approaching it from a bandleading standpoint. I like to be open to the input from everyone else. So while I am selecting the set and the pieces, and kind of deciding how long they’re going to be and all that, I just give some basic parameters and then let everybody go where it’s going to go.

TP: You’ve also developed a circle of people around you, good friends with busy schedules who’ve made time to play on your gigs and help develop the sound of your band.

LEWIS: You bring to mind several things to me. For me, I was listening to and enjoying Bill [Stewart]’s interview on the way here, and some of the things you were talking about… As a sideman, I have a lot of different varieties of things that I’m really happy to do, and fortunate to be able to do. So I get a lot of different looks and feels, musically speaking, from all these different things I’m doing, so when I come to do my thing, I can bring elements of those various things to mind. But also, I don’t feel like I have to necessarily explore some of the other things that I explore in other situations to greater depth just because it’s my situation. I might feel like I can do some other things. And those things may change each time I play live as a leader. But I’m so satisfied that I don’t feel a need to explore so many different varieties of things in my own situation. I can concentrate on certain things.

TP: Has being a leader evolved your own drum technique or sense of flow as a drummer? Do you find that you do certain things that are idiosyncratic to you more readily than you would in sideman situations? Ways of hitting beats…

LEWIS: Not so much now. Maybe in the earlier years of deciding to do things as a leader, that might have been the case. But I’m not even sure then how much it was the case. Because so much of how I approach the instrument and how I approach making music with people is consistent, no matter what. So whereas there may be things I’m less apt to do in one situation versus another because of the type of music or the style or whatever, I think generally there is a consistent thread that you can hear running through everything. I can tell it’s me. Whether it’s a piece of music that’s quirky and out, or if it’s a piece of music that’s straight down the middle, swinging, I know how I touch the drums, I can hear that same consistency throughout that. I think that’s an important thing.

TP: You went out with Betty Carter in 1981. So you’ve been a working professional New York musician for 25 years. There’s 25 years of musical history that you’re part of now. In an overall sense, what are some of the salient things you’ve seen change in the musical ideas people are articulating now vis-a-vis 1981, when you came up. There are continuities, but it’s a very different world.

LEWIS: You could say that in many respects. I’m not sure I’d be the best arbiter of that. I came here in 1980 the first time, and I was going around to hear as much music as I could possibly hear. At the same time, I was taking some lessons with Freddie Waits. There were certain guys who were working quite a bit. Billy Hart seemed to be everywhere in those days; he was playing every week somewhere, or it seemed like two different places a night at times! Some of the greats were still leading bands—Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Betty Carter (whose band I was in). There were these kind of iconic leaders who were still around, and young guys wanted to be in their bands and hone their craft and whatnot. For me, I tried to bring a certain sensibility to the music. When I got here to play with Betty, before that in Arizona, I had been playing a lot of different things with people who’d come through town—Sonny Stitt and people like that when they’d pick up a rhythm section—but I also had an ear to the more exploratory things. I had a duo with saxophonist Allen Chase, and we opened concerts in Phoenix—before I even moved to New York—for Old And New Dreams, which is how I met Ed Blackwell and Dewey and Don and Charlie Haden. Then we opened for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, we opened for Sun Ra., playing this duo. I had bells on my ankles. We were doing a lot of interesting and exploratory things. So I always had an ear to those kinds of things. But what I realized was that I didn’t want to marginalize myself… I don’t know if that’s really the right way of putting it. But I wanted to take advantage of whatever I could get from the people who had been the movers and shakers in the music further back, the Betty Carters and Ron Carters and Tommy Flanagans and people like that. I didn’t want to not be able to associate myself with that lineage.

TP: You didn’t want to cut yourself off.

LEWIS: No. So I felt like, okay, at some point in the future, I can always… I’m not going to lose my desire to be creative, I’m not going to forget how to explore. So I wanted to make sure I immersed myself in where the music was coming from to such an extent that I had an opportunity to interact with these great players. So over time, I have fortunately been able to do that. People like Horace Silver and McCoy and all these different people I’ve played with, all of that has contributed to whatever it is I’m offering as a bandleader, I hope.

TP: Another thing I touched on a little earlier with Bill, we were discussing about the ways in which over the last 15 years odd meters and world rhythmic structures have become more part of the musical vernacular rather than slightly more exotic, as it was in the ‘80s. From your perspective, as someone who became established during the ‘80s, before people like Danilo Perez and Ed Simon came to town, and when Steve Coleman was just starting to deal with the things he did with Dave Holland… How do you see those developments affecting the rhythmic template of jazz these days? Has that changed a lot?

LEWIS: I think it’s just become more of a wide palette, I guess. The stuff has always been there, people have been exploring things from Max and Brubeck and various people in the ‘50s, and there’s already a precedent in world music. So I think the foundation was already laid for people to explore a lot of different things, whether it’s odd meters, whether it’s interesting and different harmonic ideas or structural things with tunes that are not necessarily 32-bar song forms of AABA. People have been exploring a lot of different things for a long time. What you have to learn how to do is incorporate all of it, and not be afraid of any challenges, and then also not be afraid to be basic, too. You can be complicated and simple, and both things work. Also, everyone has a different thing to contribute to this thing. We’re not all supposed to do the same thing.

TP: Did anything new happen in the last 15 years? How would say the sound of jazz in 2006… If you’d left the planet in 1990, came back now, and hadn’t heard any jazz since, what changes would you discern?

LEWIS: I leave the planet on a regular basis, but I do come back. You know, Ted, I really never think of it in those terms. But I suppose the same way there’s new technologies… If you left the planet, came back 15 years later, and the Internet. So I imagine for your ear, yes, but when you’re in it, you can’t hear or observe the changes so clearly, I guess. It might be like if you go away and come back home and see someone who was an adolescent when you left, and when you come back they’re grown up but it’s the same person. That probably didn’t answer your question.

TP: It didn’t, but that’s fine. As Charlie Parker once said immortally on that video, “music speaks louder than words.” In 2003-04, or maybe in 2004-05 you did a few recordings for M&I, the Japanese label…

[MUSIC: “Tico, Tico”]

What’s it like to play so much with the same bass player? You’ve played a lot with George Mraz over the years, with Christian McBride and Ron Carter. But the names Washington and Nash go together in a certain interesting way. How has it evolved?

LEWIS: There are certain vibes that you feel from musicians when you play with them for the first time. Even though I’ve played with a lot of different bass players, as you’ve mentioned, the special rapport I have with Peter… I have a special rapport with the other guys you mentioned as well. But with Peter, I don’t have to worry about whether he’s going to be doing what I need him to do to make everything come across like I’d like it to. You were asking me if I’m thinking about the directions of how things are progressing as we’re playing with my group. With Peter as the bass anchor, there are certain things I know are going to be in place, and I don’t have to worry about those things. They are unspoken things. It’s telepathic almost. So it’s kind of a comfort zone, a comfort level having him there that allows me to feel free to do a lot of things that I might not attempt.

TP: Can you name what a couple of those things might be?

LEWIS: He can sense when I’m orchestrating things a certain way and breaking the time, exactly what to do to keep the forward momentum of the time going, so it doesn’t seem like we both pulled the rug out from under everyone else. In other words, we kind of share the duties of keeping the forward propulsion of the music going. Also, sometimes I can just look to him and nod if I want to change the feel, and he knows to go wherever I’m trying to make it go. His ears are wide open. He picks great notes in his walking bass lines. I’m often keying off of the bass for the harmonic structure and framework of the tune much more than the piano comping or something like singing the tune in my head. I’m more focused on the movement of the bassline.

TP: I recall reading Max Roach saying that there’s no such thing as melodic drums, but there is such a thing as rhythmic design, and people sometimes confuse rhythmic design for playing melody on the drums. You seem always to be very conscious of rhythmic design within the forward motion. How has that concept evolved for you?

LEWIS: That rhythmic design that Max was talking about, in the sense he’s speaking about the melodic interpretation… Another word I’ve heard for it is linear. I tune the drums in a way that the intervals are wide enough that it can give the impression of melodic movement. If I play certain fills, and the drums are extremely close in the tuning, you don’t get the sense of separation and you don’t get the sense of movement up or down a scale. So if I tune the drums at wider intervals, then it seems to give more of an impression that I’m playing some types of melodic things. I like to interject phrases that are not just drum fills, but maybe necessarily a continuation of the line I might have heard the soloist just playing, except I’m articulating it on the drums, so when he takes a breath (if it’s a horn player), I’m almost thinking in terms of continuing his linear thought process on the drums until he puts the horn back to his mouth, and maybe inspire him to go rhythmically in one direction or another, rather than just a drum fill for the sake of filling space and very drum-oriented—I might make it more linear.

TP: Let me repeat a couple of questions I asked Bill Stewart before. I asked him early on in his career how aware he was of the history of the drums in reference to his own development, and, if he emulated other iconic drummers, who some of those drummers might have been. That led to asking him at what point he got beyond those influences and began to assimilate them into his own thing.

LEWIS: Of course, anyone who gets involved in this music at the drums is going to have to go through a certain group of players if they’re really going to say that they’ve studied the music and the history of jazz drumming. For me, in my earliest development, before I really started playing jazz, I was playing a lot of R&B and funk, and that’s pretty much what I was playing. So I wasn’t as… Coming from an R&B, funk and blues… My mother used to listen to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and that stuff. Coming from that kind of background, I wasn’t necessarily as attracted to the Rock elements, the fusion stuff so much. Even though I could appreciate the drumming aspects of Tony and Billy Cobham and the guys who played in the fusion genre, I was more attracted to the funkier, danceable things at that time, in those earlier years. Then once I became aware of people like Max Roach and Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones, Elvin, Jimmy Cobb, and all the various people, then I started to explore the possibilities of that approach to playing the drums. So my influences went from James Brown’s drummers and the Stax records, Al Green and that whole feel, to the guys I just mentioned in straight-ahead jazz, Kenny Clarke and those people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. So in a way, I have less of the influences of, say, the fusion era, like Tony and Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, in that context. That stuff actually came later rather than earlier, whereas for some guys that’s some of the first stuff they got into. Whereas for me, I got into the other stuff, and then I kind of backtracked. With my knowledge of music being a little greater, than I think I was able to appreciate and assimilate more of the elements of the more modern players…

TP: How would you assimilate vocabulary? Playing along with records and trying to replicate the style?

LEWIS: Yeah. Playing along. Because then you turn it up loud, or you have headphones and you’re playing along, and you can almost interject yourself into the band, in a sense. That’s one way of beginning to assimilating some of the vocabulary, just playing along.

TP: Were a lot of these guys coming through your town?

LEWIS: No, not that many people came through Phoenix. I didn’t see much.

TP: Probably you’d heard Ed Blackwell before you opened for Old & New Dreams.


TP: But seeing him probably put a whole different spin on what he was doing.

LEWIS: Definitely. But I didn’t get to see that many great players. Only towards the end, before I eventually came to New York in the late ‘70s… As I mentioned earlier, Sonny Stitt came through town and I played with him, and I’d meet and see other people that way. I heard Tony Williams with VSOP I think in ‘78 or ‘79. Yeah, I began to see and hear a few people like that. But coming to New York and being able to sit in the front row of the Vanguard to watch and listen to Elvin, yeah, there wasn’t anything like that going on in Phoenix, I’m afraid.

TP: Many young aspirants will be sitting in the catbird seat or the Vanguard this week, and get there when the doors open at 8:15 to get a bird’s eye view of Lewis Nash and quintet… This puts you together with Billy Hart, who as you said was playing everywhere when you came to town… Dark Shadows.

[MUSIC: “Dark Shadows:; Ray Bryant (RRB), “Glory, Glory”; Hannibal-George Adams, Cry]

We heard Lewis getting into a very African conception of the trapset. I think you said you heard Sunny Ade’s talking drummers and were trying to get that quality, as well as Edward Blackwell. And it doesn’t get any more fundamental than Glory, Glory.

We’ll hear recordings Lewis made with several people who recently passed on. Jackie McLean, and John Hicks, with whom you performed on three Joe Lovano nonet recordings. Did you ever record trio with John?

LEWIS: I didn’t record trio with John, but I made gigs in trio with him. He brought something special to any situation. But in the Lovano dates and in the nonet, John was such an integral part of the sound of that group.

TP: That nonet gig is an interesting one, because there’s lots of room for you to roam and travel rhythmically and sonics to weave in and out of. Since Lovano himself likes to play drums… Unfortunately, the only tracks that are applicable are 10-16 minutes…

[MUSIC: w/ Jackie McLean, “Little Melonae”]

LEWIS: It was an interesting date, because I think that may have been the first time that Jackie and Junko met, in the studio. Of course, that happens quite often in jazz anyway. I remember it very well, because I remember someone in the studio mentioning something about intonation, probably someone associated with the label, some peripheral person, and I remember hearing Jackie say, “I’ve played out of tune my whole life; why should I start playing in tune NOW?” I thought that was the funniest thing I had… It was tongue-in-cheek, it was just everything. It lightened up the session and allowed us just to go ahead and play. It was a funny comment.

TP: When you hear Lewis Nash, you’ll be hearing someone who’s embodied the experiences of playing on a regular basis, at one point or another, for ten years with Tommy Flanagan, on many occasions with Tommy Flanagan’s good friend Sonny Rollins, with Ron Carter for years, with Betty Carter, with McCoy Tyner, with Don Pullen, and with just about every significant musician who made a mark on jazz from the 1940s on up, and even going to a date with Doc Cheatham and Benny Carter and Hank Jones. All those experiences are encoded in Lewis’ playing and performance and presentation in one manner or another, and you should not miss him when he’s leading a band.

[MUSIC: w/ McCoy Tyner from Illuminations, The Chase]

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