Tag Archives: George Lewis

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 http://www.jazz.com 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 http://www.jazz.com 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 email.exchange. There’s still the autodidact tradition in the AACM. People are teaching themselves to compose, teaching themselves to teach—all kinds of things. 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, Jazz.com, Muhal Richard Abrams, Trombone, Wadada Leo Smith, WKCR

For Roswell Rudd’s 80th birthday, An Interview from 2005 and an uncut Blindfold Test From 2001

Master trombonist, musical conceptualist and  free spirit Roswell Rudd turns 80 on November 17th. In anticipation of the occasion, I’m running an uncut interview that was boiled down for a brief piece in Jazziz in 2005, and an uncut Blindfold Test for DownBeat from 2001.


Roswell Rudd Blindfold Test (8-9-01):

1. Bill Harris, “Bijou” (from Woody Herman, Blowin’ Up A Storm: The Columbia Years, 1945-47, Columbia 1945/2001) [Ralph Burns, composer] (5 stars)

That was “Bijou” with the Woody Herman Orchestra, featuring Bill Harris, the great trombonist, one of my favorite singers on the horn. Arrangement by Ralph Burns; it’s really a gem. A Latin flavor. I don’t know if at the time… I think this is late ’40s. I don’t really know how many American swing bands were doing Latin-influenced music. This may be one of the first things like this. Ellington had one called “Flaming Sword,” which was a Juan Tizol vehicle. In terms of the ’40s, there were Latin bands, but non-Latin bands getting into African-influenced rhythms, Caribbean rhythms, Latin American rhythms… This is a wonderful early example of that.

Bill Harris, when I was about 11 years old or so and started hearing this stuff on records… The quality Harris had of attacking certain notes and making them swell, like Flamenco singers… I was over in Portugal and I heard a couple of good Fado singers, and they do this with these longer notes that they sing; they start soft and then they fill out. There’s a crescendo. It’s uplifting. It just grabs you, takes you out of your seat. Then when they go into a string of embellishments after that and bring the line down, they’re with it all the way. But that swell into the first note is the launching pad to a lot of the phrasing in that music, and I’m sure it’s in a lot of other places, too.

I can’t say enough about Bill Harris and the great Woody Herman bands at that time. I’m not sure who the other people were in the band, for instance, if it might have been Dave Tough on drums, who was a very innovative man in this day, or Chubby Jackson, another innovative guy. I think it was Woody Herman playing the alto sax obbligato there. A wonderful thing. A real gem. It makes you thankful that there are ratings. 5 stars.

2. George Lewis-Bertram Turetzky, “The Ecumenical Blues” (from Conversations, Incus, 1997) (5 stars)

To me, this was a wonderful example of two people listening closely to each other and making music through the process of their interaction in the moment, a wonderful sort of crossing-over by the trombonist into the realm of bowed string colors, how he could complement those on his instrument. I loved that great nasal sound the trombonist had at the beginning, kind of matching the sound of the bowed contrabass. A little later on, if he had a mute in there for that…he took the mute out and got a different color at one point, and carried that through to the end. It was a nice changeup in his color, and it also was a way of complementing the bass. I use this technique myself with a single mute, which is a Harmon mute that I’ve loosened up with a screwdriver, so that if I turn the outer part of the mute a certain way, it’s very loose and it sounds like a giant kazoo, and if I turn it another way it tightens up and it sounds more like a bad Harmon mute. But this business of imitating each other’s sounds, like a cross-gender kind of playing, is a wonderful way of developing textures in music.

I also want to say that aside from these two performers being so beautifully attuned to each other, as far as dealing with sound, getting into the sound and letting the sound tell them what to do, the content of the trombonist’s playing was beautiful, too. There’s some good blues in there, a kind of lament. It was a bit like Bill Harris at the beginning; the kind of tone production that the trombonist was getting could relate very strongly to that. Very vocal. Somebody singing, somebody talking. It’s beautiful, very beautiful. 5 stars. But I can’t tell who it is.

3. Jimmy Knepper, “Invisible Lady” (from Charles Mingus, Tonight At Noon, Label M, 1961/2000) (5 stars)

That was a quintet — bass, piano, drums, baritone sax used very judiciously — and it just has to be Jimmy Knepper on the trombone. Because nobody else can do what he can do, the way he does it. It’s masterful continuity that I love, and the way he sequences his lines, where you have the sudden doubling up of tempo in the middle of a phrase… It’s the tempo acceleration thing that was so prevalent in Charlie Parker’s playing. I think Jimmy was one of the first people to pick up on what the Bird was doing. It was really a heroic musical achievement to take this concept of Charlie Parker’s saxophone dexterity and apply it to the trombone. Jimmy was one of the people that really freed up the instrument and at an early time. I don’t know when this is done. But it’s the 22nd Century as far as I’m concerned! So expressive and so… Again, pushing the instrument to places where it’s never been before and keeping the emotional musical content wherever he goes with his dynamics through phases of tempo modulation. He’s just a master. Absolutely 5 stars.

The portimento is the word that should be in here. It means that the line is unbroken even though it’s going through these incredible transformations. It’s the mastery of the breathing.

4. Conrad Herwig, “Africa” (from The Latin Side of John Coltrane, Astor Place, 1996) [Eddie Palmieri, piano]. (5 stars)

Nice African rhythm section. It’s a theme that I associate with Coltrane. I like the way that the trombonist built his chorus. He opened up with this long lip trill that gradually crescendoed, then there was some linear improvisation, some shouts, and he reached a point where there was a nice kind of drumming on two notes a minor third apart, very effective, and some more shouting, and playing on either side harmonically of the drone. I think it was a great effort.

Just sticking to the piece the way it is, and without saying I wish there could have been more or less of this or more of that…checking it out the way that it stands, it holds up. Somehow…it may be the result… If it was a live recording perhaps, the profile of the trombone gets lost in there sometimes. But he’s there, he’s staying with it, and he brings it up front again. I’ll give it 5 stars, because I know what kind of energy and ears and knowledge it takes to do this kind of thing.

Who it might be? I can’t say. Steve Turre maybe? Barry Rogers? Fine, fine playing. The clarity of the recording somehow bothered me, because he was doing interesting things but they got kind of masked out. This is just the way things go sometimes. But if I listened to again or maybe a third time, I would try to go further and further inside the sound of the recording and then be able to get behind the mask a little bit in those places. But this was a tour de force.

5. Julian Priester-Sam Rivers, “Heads of The People” (from Hints On Light and Shadow, Postcards, 1996) – (5 stars)

What I notice so far between all these examples we’ve listened to is the infinite possibilities of trombone. Because every player brings a different thing to the instrument, and most of these players are composers, too, so it’s not just bringing a new voice, a new personality infused into the instrument, but also beyond that, into the other components in the performance. Here we have a beautiful tension built up between maybe a prerecorded tape and… Really nice. It sounds like an African sound system. You get some terrible sound systems over there, as you do in other places in the world; but in Africa the sound system becomes a part of the music. As beautiful as the balafon and the great stringed instruments and the tuned drums sound acoustically, it all goes into this sound system and comes out sounding another way totally! What’s going into the system is so good to begin with, that when it comes out, it still comes out good; even though the system has got it completely screwed up,. it still has a beautiful structure to it, but the original timbre has completely disappeared. I got that effect from the taped part of this.

There was a nice tension built up, because the trombonist stayed in the same mode throughout. He was just playing the blues in one place and keeping it there, changing the register from time to time, and he had his timing so that the prerecorded part shone through all the time and maintained that tension between a kind of moving, weird jumble, street-sounding, sound-effects-sounding wall that was going on behind the trombone, and he never attempted to imitate any of that. He never attempted to go across and into the taped part, for instance, the way that George Lewis did with the bassist, where they really reversed their roles and exchanged roles as far as the sounds of their instruments go. On this, the trombonist created a tension between himself (or herself) and this background that was kind of in flux all the time. It was very interesting for me.

It’s uneven, in a way, but that’s part of its beauty. The main thing is that it works, that it has moments which are unachievable any other way. It’s real, and if they performed it again it would be different. But the concept of creating a tension was fundamental to the success of the music here — the music being interesting, the music having impact. Beautiful. Beautiful execution. Again, putting yourself in a corner and coming home with the goods. I’ll give this 5 stars, too. I was going to say maybe not 5 because it was uneven in places. But I realized at the time I really need to have those other places in order to have moments of impact. So it was a fluctuating thing, with this very static quality in there, too… I think there was good interplay between those two elements. Yeah, I’m going to give it 5. I was going to take it down a notch, but I’m going to give it 5.

It might be Julian Priester, because he used to do stuff with tape — just some sound, something to create another component — and let it run and just work with that.. It reminds me of what Johnny Dyani used to do. He used to turn the water on in the sink in the bathroom just to hear the sound of the water running, and off the harmonics of that he would practice his bass and play along with it. Again, it wasn’t exactly the same as this… I’m just talking about the nature of the components here. Because Johnny would play inside and outside the sound of the water, but he wouldn’t play as if he was in a different room than the water, which is more the effect that we have here of these two different things going on simultaneously and the tension that’s created between them. But hearing this brought that situation with Johnny to my mind.

Oh, it was Julian? 5 stars for the adventure, my man. It was beautiful.

6. Ray Anderson, “Green Eyes, Fireflies” (from Bonemeal, Raybone, 2000) [Mark Helias, bass; Matt Wilson, drums] – (4 stars)

Quartet — guitar, bass, drums and trombone. I think it might be Ray Anderson; it sounds like plunger things I’ve heard him do in the past. I don’t think this is as successful as other things I’ve heard by him. But he’s a great humorist, and he has so much heart in his playing, he can bring it off. I would have loved to hear this melody played a little straighter. It was kind of a Strayhorn-influenced thing, and I was frustrated, in a way, that I couldn’t hear the actual pitches. There was so much siding off the preconceived melody, if there was one, and I missed knowing specifically what that might be. That in a way is the reverse magic of the thing, like: Damn, I wonder if he was going to score this, what the actual notes were. So the sliding around effect had a way of making you wonder what was the real melody. I enjoyed that kind of inversion. It was pretty successful, because he was consistent with his inconsistencies. But it frustrated me because I know there was a beautiful melody there, and I wish I could have heard that, too. But maybe it’s up to me to take this and factor it down to what I might conceive of as the real melody, because there’s so much playing around something there. My trip would be to see if I can average it out to something that I could just pick out on the piano as a beautiful melody. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but let’s leave it at that.

I would say 4 stars in relation to other things by Ray that I think were just clearer to me. But I’d say 4 stars for not coming up to other things that he’s done, but 5 stars for the attempt at this kind of inverse humor — if that’s okay for a rating.

7. Steve Turre-James Carter, “Eric The Great” (#6) (from TNT, Telarc, 2001) – (5 stars)

That was a beautifully conceived track. I love the very minimal horn playing with the sax and the trombone, and featuring the bass at the slow tempo, and then the change of tempo. It sounded to me even though it was measured, that it was free harmonically. And I enjoyed the continuity of the trombonist. He went to a lot of different places, but he remembered where he was. The saxophonist made just a great entrance that marked a special place in the performance, and he, as the trombonist, went to different places, but kept a continuity. The recapitulation back to the first section after the fast tempo was very effective. Was it Steve Turre? I want to give it 5 stars for the concept and something… I don’t know, some ingredient was missing there in the playing. But the experience of hearing these different trombonists…. I realize how great they are and what a great instrument it is. All these voices are so distinctive, and it’s the same old B-flat trombone. It’s amazing. But something was missing, some kind of heart-sincerity thing. It was kind of stiff. It may have been the intention of the players, but I felt it kind of stiff at times, kind of dry. I didn’t get the personality, the warmth part of it. But they were executing the concept, and I have to give them full credit for that.

8. J.J. Johnson, “How Deep Is the Ocean” (from Vivian, Concord, 1992) – (5 stars)

Hearing this melody played, “How Deep is The Ocean,” I’m trying to put my finger on the composer. He’s one of America’s greatest songwriters and he lived to be 100 years old. I can never remember his name…Irving Berlin…even though I can play 50 of his songs or whatever. And to hear it played so statuesquely on the bone made me realize what a great legacy we have in American melody. Sometimes I thought it was J.J. Johnson, sometimes I thought it was Bennie Green. I wasn’t quite sure. It was maybe somebody right in between those two people. But the phrasing was fine. It had the kind of clarity that J.J. brought to his performances. He’s so sorely missed. And Bennie Green’s kind of intonations, and the way that he would alter the density of his sound from time to time, and his phrases. It’s probably neither one of these guys, but well-done.

It’s J.J.? Was it recent? It’s a little flawed in places. But there’s only a couple of people who can really play this way. A lot of people who try to play like this, but there’s really only a few who really do it — who innovated it actually. That’s the important thing. We’re talking about somebody innovating this style which is something we think was brought about collectively, the work of many hands. But when you think about people like J.J. and Monk and Louis Armstrong and so forth, they innovated this stuff. We just take for granted that it came from many, many people. Maybe it did, but it all came through one person. This approach to performance on the instrument was the creation, was the invention of one person. 5 stars.

9. Carla Cook-Craig Harris, “Dem Bones” (from Dem Bones, MaxJazz, 2000) (Fred Wesley, composer) – (5 stars)

It seems to me that Joseph Bowie does something like this. Maybe it’s him, and he could be overdubbing himself. I love the concept (I do a couple of these things myself) of songs about the trombone, and featuring the trombone. The one that I do, “Slide, Mr. Trombone.” Dinah Washington used to do one. It’s great. It’s like a novelty thing. The singer was into it. I think the novelty part of it was achieved, and the humor was great, especially when the trombone was in the foreground toward the end with the mutes and the gutbucketing and the hooting and heavy breathing… I love it. So I think it achieved its intended effect. I felt that as far as the blues part of it went, there wasn’t too much depth to that. When you’re ripping and you’re playing modal phrases, it’s difficult for me to separate the content of this kind of melodizing from…to strip the content out of it and just play the notes, kind of. I felt that it was just kind of playing the notes sometimes here, without the feeling going into it. So I missed that. You could knock off a star for that. But then, you have to say that on the whole it achieved its effect as a novelty and just getting people up off of their seats and getting them to dance and getting them to move. It had a nice invitational thing going on that way. I found it attractive that way. Even though taking the soulful phrases and just playing the notes without having the feeling in there put me off a little bit. But you can do this in music. You can lift notes off of the feelings, and you can play them dispassionately and create a certain effect that way. Put them in another context. This is all going on. It always has. It’s part of the continuity of musical progress in the human race, the way it fuses and defuses and disconnects and reconnects. It’s all part of the process. I think the recording achieved its purpose, and I’m fine with that. So I’ll give it 5 stars for achieving its purpose as I hear it.

10. Wycliffe Gordon, “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues” (from The Search, Nagel-Heyer, 1999) – (4 stars)

“Ba-lues Bolivar Ba-lues Are,” a Thelonius Monk masterpiece. Good execution and good interplay between the sax and the trombone. I like the way they break it up with each other. I like the different voices that they change into on their instruments the different colors that they get from time to time. It makes you think there are different people who just walked in to play 8 bars and disappeared again. It’s a great effect. I had a problem because I heard the composer play this a number of times, and there are some things happening in the structure of this particular blues that I think it’s helpful to deal with when you improvise on it. Working with Monk’s variables is often very helpful as far as building a good foundation in your own playing. So not to take advantage of them, it seems to me that you miss the opportunity here to really… There are many ways to improvise. But one way that really interests me is if you know the structure that you’re coming from, and you deal with the ingredients of that structure, you get a certain kind of continuity that you don’t get any other way. .. And having done this with Monk’s compositions for some time, it’s hard for me to approach them in any other way. I would give this 4 stars, because I think it achieves the humor that they found in the piece. I just wish they had dealt with the musical variables of it a little more. But they were great players. Could that have been Bill Watrous? Curtis Fowlkes? It might be somebody I just don’t know. Wycliffe Gordon? I’ve never heard anything by him. He’s new to me and I have to check him out.

11. Quentin “Butter” Jackson, “To You” (from Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, Columbia, 1961/1999) – (5 stars)

Thad Jones-Mel Lewis? Is it Thad’s arrangement? I don’t know who the trombonist was. Let’s see, who could do this? Booty Wood? Or Britt Woodman, who recently passed. Oh, he had people who could do this. It wasn’t Lawrence Brown or Tricky Sam or any of those guys. It was I think a younger guy. [AFTER] That was Quentin Jackson? Wow, I missed that. I feel bad about that. 5 stars.

12. Vic Dickenson, “Squeeze Me” (from Art Hodes Blue Note Jazzmen, Hot Jazz On Blue Note, 1944/1996) – (5 stars) [Edmond Hall, clarinet;

[INSTANTLY] Vic Dickenson. You know it right away from the sound. Every note that he plays. He’s got so much personality. This is something you find in the older players, that every note they play is imbued with their own character. I guess it breaks down to where nowadays it’s hard to separate people by the particular personality that they have in their sound. But back in the days when there were fewer people doing this, there was more identifiable individuality. But now so many more people are doing this that it becomes harder and harder to identify the individuals. But they’re still there! I’m telling you. And especially on this instrument, which is all about imbuing the sound with your own personality so that you can be identified just from the sound of a few notes that you play. Edmond Hall on the clarinet, who I played with at one time. He’s the same way. You know who he is right away. I don’t know whether it’s because I was there or I grew up on it. But these sounds are so distinctive, these voices. Vic Dickenson liberated the trombone into linear improvisation the same way Jack Teagarden did, and this was a heroic thing. There’s some of Vic’s humor. The name of the tune is “Squeeze Me,” written by Fats Waller. This is great free counterpoint. We’ve heard some good free counterpoint today. I think this is something that trombonists know how to do. It’s in our blood. We love collective improvisation. We know how to find the part. We know how to share with other people. We know how to complement. We know how to play behind. We know how to accompany. We know how to go out front and solo. 5 stars.



Roswell Rudd (Feb. 15, 2005) – (Jazziz):
TP: When I was assigned this piece, the editor initially wanted me to talk to you for their Traditions issue, but this now will be in the World Music issue. But it seems to me that both would work, because it seems that over your 45-50 years playing professionally, everything you do is informed deeply by transmuting traditions into the present tense, whether those are the traditions of American jazz, or ethnomusicology… What I’d like to do now is start with some concrete facts and figures about your current projects, and extrapolate out. We should probably start with Malicool. How did it begin? I gather you went there in 2000?

RUDD: I would go back a little farther and say that I started collecting African recordings back when I was in college. I was fascinated with what I could understand about the sounds of these recordings. Folkways and labels in Europe, notably France, where they did a lot of recording of West Africa, and the Hugh Tracey records. Whatever I could get my hands on. Then I went to work as an archivist for Alan Lomax, and I did that on and off from 1964 until shortly before his death. I would work occasionally for him, and I got quite a bit of exposure that way to what was available in the way recordings from all over the world. But I didn’t start really playing with musicians in Africa until 2000. I want to say that the inspiration for doing it… It’s been a dream to travel there and play with some of the musicians. Toumani Diabaté is someone Verna turned me on to, and I thought it would be out of this world to try to do some stuff with him. So we went over in 2000, and jammed a little bit, and did a concert of… I mean, it was basically a spontaneous concert. The chemistry was so good that we decided we’d come back a year later and try to do a recording. That’s the Malicool recording. It was first out on Universal, and a couple of years later came out on Sunnyside here.

TP: Before going there, had this been building up in you for years? Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do when the opportunity arrived?

RUDD: Yes, that was the point I was trying to make. My curiosity was really piqued by this time, so that the opportunity to travel, which I really hadn’t been able to do, came along at just this time. We were able to go over there in 2000 and spend some time informally, and then go back in 2001 and take into the studio in Bamako, and record with the musicians there. We’ve been back… I took the Shout band over there to play on the desert last year. This year I just spent a couple of weeks in Benin with some brass players, with a brass band…

TP: A local band, from Benin.

RUDD: Yes. They’re all from Cortino(?). I just don’t have words for it. The young lions in Africa on these horns. Forget it. And the drumming is just… I can’t believe how young the people are who are playing this stuff. The old masters are there, and they’re touring a lot. They’ll come through the States and they’ll be in Europe and Japan and so forth. But these kids, these African kids, are playing so much great stuff.

TP: It’s an interesting phenomenon to be at the stage of life and intellectual development that you’d achieved by 2000, when you were 64-65 years old, had taught ethnomusicology, had been listening to African music for about 45 years (if you started doing it in college), and you have a certain point of view on what African music is. But you haven’t been there. And now you go there. What surprised you?

RUDD: What’s missing with recordings, wherever they’re from, is the context. I’m talking about the cultural context —the smell of the place, the feel of the place, the vibe from the people. 99% is missing. This gave me a chance to go to one of the older places in Africa where there’s still a homogeneity to the sound of the place. It’s not so barraged by Western media that there’s just a morass of all kinds of music in the air. No, it’s basically Malian music that’s in the air. I mean, traditional music. There’s a tonal system to this music which you can hear wherever you go in Mali. You can relate to it right away. You know that it’s from there. I’d never been in a situation like this before, where thousands of people are in this system, and there’s very little disrupting it. That’s the first thing that got to me. Then the more I got inside of that sound, which was in the environment all the time anyway and with the people I was playing with. Then I started to feel that way and hear that way, and I was really trying my hand at expressing myself in that system.

It’s something that is a great challenge for improvisers. Basically that’s what I am. I don’t consider myself a jazz… I only consider myself a jazz musician in the sense that I am an improviser—basically an improviser. The challenge in America always was to be able to play with different people, to be able to fit in—into the old music, into the swing music, into the now music, into the future music. The thing was just to be able to go from the sound, play from the sound of what’s happening, and develop that, make a performance out of it. Basically that’s what I’m doing when I go to Africa.

TP: But it was never quite so spontaneous as that. If you’re going to sit in one of those situations, you seem pretty prepared. You’ve had one famously documented master-apprentice relationship with Herbie Nichols, and I’m not sure what other master-apprentice relationships you’ve had… Have you had anything like that with the African musicians?

RUDD: Well, see, there we go. Context. This is one context. New York City, the boroughs. That’s kind of one context, and it’s a myriad of styles. Herbie Nichols, he had this thing going. One guy with a universe. Then the more I explored around here, I realized that there were many musical universes walking around.

TP: You got into Monk’s universe in a similar manner.

RUDD: Yes, I followed him around. That’s another universe. So it’s all in the boroughs here. But believe me, there is to me a tremendous difference between Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk. It’s almost the same difference as playing in Bamako with Toumani Diabeté and playing with a Dixieland band here. Worlds of difference. That’s always been the most satisfying thing to me, is to go into these different musical worlds and try to find myself in them.

TP: What do you do to ground yourself so you can function.
RUDD: [POINTS WITH BOTH FINGERS] Ears. And the acoustical experiences that are built up inside of you. That has everything to do with your ears.

TP: Do ears come before systems, or scales, or…

RUDD: It’s hard to say. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. But I think a lot of what your vocabulary is musically… [PAUSE]

TP: We’re talking about grounding yourself within the improvisational context.

RUDD: It all collects inside of you, all of your experiences with different players and different bands. It can be in your locale, where you were raised, and it can be in other other cultures, in other continents. The way that you adapt, I think, has to do with your collective experience. It’s not easy to adapt. Playing with a Mongolian band, which I’ve done recently…

TP: There will be a record out in the Fall, right?

RUDD: Yes. There will be a recording coming out of some things that we’ve collaborated on. Even though that was happening here. They came here. I was able to work with them here and record with them here. This was really an extreme adaptation for me, because this is basically a five-tone system. Africa allows for a little bit more than that. So coming out of the Malian system, that was a new parameter for me. But you see, every time that you are in a different system, you could call it the limitations of that system, but it brings out certain kinds of unlimitedness in yourself that you haven’t explored before. That’s what I love about this. So it meant that with the Pentatonics… We call ourselves the Pentatonics, because we’re basically working with a five-note system. We get the effect or the richness of a larger tonal system through the kind of embellishment we do, and the kind of bending, sliding, all of that very-very musical stuff that goes with just exploring with sound, playing with sound. Those kinds of things. The nuances. You discover nuances. It brings out your ability to nuance, the more that you limit yourself away from chromaticism and…

I can’t wait to get to India. That’s the next thing I’ve got to do. I’ve got to get to India. I’ve got to get to China. Because these people really know how to embellish. If they only had two notes to work with, they would be able to… They could keep you happy for hours exploring the sound of just two pitches, and with all that rhythm and sense of color and dynamics… Oh, man! This is what I live for. This is what improvisers dream of. Going into situations like this and just having to find in yourself the resources to blend with what’s going on. I love this. That’s basically what I’ve been doing here for 45 years, from the time that I was playing along with Spike Jones and Duke Ellington, up until now.

TP: What initially sparked your interest in African music when you were at Yale? By the way, what was your major?

RUDD: I was liberal arts. I wanted to major in music composition. But my professor in freshman year, my theory professor did me a favor. He didn’t know it, but he did me a favor. I was prevented from majoring in composition. So I put together a curriculum for myself out of what was being offered in the way of theory and history courses at Yale, which was very European. There was very little about traditional music in the curriculum. Yale was all very European. They didn’t get into the European folk music at all. It was just European composed music from the earliest notations up through the present, up through Webern and Stockhausen, the big maestros of the 20th century.

TP: So what spurred you to start listening to African music and other things?

RUDD: Curiosity. Because I knew that a lot of American music came from other places, and I was curious about these places, these other cultures. Sifting through the record bins in stores where I would go, occasionally I would find these things.

But the real breakthrough for me was working as an ethnomusicologist with Alan Lomax at a time when he was putting together an archive of field recordings. He had contacts with people who were doing their theses out in the bush somewhere, and they would be sending back very bad recordings of what was going on around them in these communities. It was my job to analyze a lot of this stuff, according to this cantametric(?) system that Victor Grauer put together for Lomax. I was just learning a great deal about what I wish I had learned in college. I was finally getting an education in traditional music, which I think is really important for people now.

It’s time. We had a lot of American music that never got into the educational system until recently. Now I think it’s important to expand from there and maybe get more of the world into the educational system. Because for a long time, if you wanted to study traditional music, you had to take anthropology, and that way you would get into comparative musicology. You would be able to get maybe an inkling of the vastness of musical tradition that was going on in the planet. Otherwise you would just be doing your Mozart and your Brahms and your Stockhausen. You would not be getting down into the roots of this stuff, where all this stuff is coming from for millions of years. I mean, hey! I used to get really bummed at these professors who’d say, “Ro-co-co” your ass off. But where are these guys getting their stuff? It’s got to be coming from a lot further around than their associates and their little tradition that they’re building up here. There’s a hugeness to this thing that we’re not looking at, that goes beyond this stuff that you’ve picked out.

TP: Now, I’d assume a traditional musician like Toumani Diabaté has some knowledge of jazz and other forms by dint of living in Paris, where so many worlds are converging.

RUDD: Toumani’s been out of Mali. He’s been over here, he’s been in Europe a lot.

TP: But how does that interaction impact the different traditional musics? Do you focus on that dynamic when you play with these musicians? Or are you trying to get to some essence within the root or pristine condition of… Do you see this music existing in some pristine way, or do you see them as evolving musics?

RUDD: I see the music in terms of the carriers of the music. That’s something that I was turned on to with American music when people were categorizing our classical music here, or when they were saying there was this era and that era, and now here comes the New Wave and the Avant Garde and so forth. I was saying, “No, really, it’s just about Charlie Mingus. It’s about him. It’s about his music. It’s about Ornette Coleman’s music. It’s about Ornette Coleman, this thing coming out of himself, and orchestrating other people into that to make the music.” It’s really about the carriers.

So going to work with Toumani Diabaté, it’s about him. It’s about what’s inside of him. Not everybody is a great improviser. It’s not only true here. It’s true anywhere in the world. But there are improvisers out there everywhere you go, to some degree or another. Toumani Diabaté, in his culture, is a great improviser. And there are not that many people in Africa who can improvise on his level, believe it or not. With all that incredible drumming and singing, the Djeli improvising new lyrics every day for what they’re doing, extemporizing their asses off… There are really supreme improvisers and there are improvisers just on a simpler level, people who are just making a few variations from day to day. But somebody like Toumani Diabaté is a formidable improviser. I can give him a theme or a form, and he’ll work with it, take it apart, and put it back together again until he’s got it inside of himself. Then he’ll really be able to speak, not only himself, but in terms of this form, in terms of himself. It’s both things.

But when we started talking about this, it’s not so much about… I think these categorizations of traditions and trying to corner them and put a label on them… I think that maybe is a way to start; it may be a way to start learning from a distance. But what it always come down to is the players. The play is the thing, the players are the thing. The guys that have the music in them. The living repositories. That’s where I think…

TP: When you were in a position of having to set up a curriculum and a pedagogy yourself for six years, what did you do? What were your first principles? Apart from faculty politics and everything else. Just in terms of trying to communicate information to six new classes of students, who were sort of blank slates, what were your first principles?

RUDD: As I said, from a distance you have to work with whatever information you have—the books, the recordings. You try to bring some players in, some living examples of it. But you’re at a disadvantage. You’re thousands of miles from the actual people who are part of the tradition or living in a different culture musically. I did enough. I think I inspired people enough, opened them up enough by bringing in American improvisers. And they got into the spirit of what it is to do something spontaneously, wherever you are, in whatever culture you are. Again, it’s a combination of what you’ve been taught, what’s in your environment all of your life, and what you can pull out of yourself. It’s a combination of those things—what’s been put in and what’s in there, what’s churning around in there. I don’t know what the process is, really, that’s going on inside of me, but I keep coming up with stuff. That’s just my thing. That’s what I was put here to do.

TP: I was at a concert you did last fall at Merkin Hall on Ornette Coleman’s music, where Wynton Marsalis played the second set. Very interesting concert, in the contrast between the first and second half. You were mentioning Mingus-Ornette-Diabaté as the carriers, and there’s something very fundamental and universe-unto-himself about Coleman’s music. I’d like to ask you two things. What was your response to Ornette’s music when you first heard it, and second, what was your approach to addressing and interpreting it.

RUDD: That’s a good question. Yeah, he opened up at the Five Spot on my birthday in 1961, so I was there. I guess I played a couple of his songs, took them off the recordings… But I’ve listened to a lot of his music, and I could sing parts of his music through all these intervening years. Then this opportunity came to do a concert of his music, and I found out that really this was the first time that I seriously went into 10 or 12 of his songs, and had to learn them from the inside. But you know something? It really helped to have been singing those things to myself, what I knew about them, just in my blood from those days. It was like a ticket. It was like a ticket into the inside of the music. It made it so much easier at that time last fall to inhale so many details that you have to do when you are really performing somebody else’s music, especially music that is as individual and as original as Ornette’s. You’ve got to learn a lot of detail. But just having a sense of his music and having heard it for so long, and just enjoying it that way as a listener, made it much easier, I think, to apprehend a lot of detail, enough to do that concert.

TP: What spoke to me most was the way you and Marsalis draw out the folkloric elements, these deep southern roots—the stomps, the deep blues tropes. Drawing out the folk forms, and extrapolating them into the narrative you were expounding.

RUDD: That’s beautiful, what you said about the tropes. Because the tropes are the things that I knew from the music. That’s what you remember as a listener. When you spend an evening listening to somebody’s music, you go out troping, you go out on the riffs that you remember. These are the things about Ornette that were kind of in my blood. I knew these stylistic features of his, the feeling of them. It was just a beautiful opportunity. I have to say that there never would have been this concert if… Greg Cohen, the bass player, knew that I was desperate to get together with somebody before this thing, and to work out some of these songs, work out some parts, make it more than a jam session. Sick as he was, he came over here the night before that thing, and we ran down a dozen songs from the inside. That is what enabled that concert to happen to the extent that it did.

TP: Did Marsalis have charts? It looked like he did.

RUDD: No. The only music we used was stuff I had taken off his recordings. I had spent a little time transcribing parts of these things. But I was desperate to get together with somebody else before this, and not have to just go on total recall to do these things. So I have to say that Greg Cohen is my hero.

TP: Herlin Riley’s uncle was Melvin Lastie, who was Ornette’s friend, and his grandfather, who raised him, grew up in the foundling home with Pops. So he comes from a very specific, deep New Orleans tradition, and Ornette is kind of family to him. And Wynton’s father was very close to Ornette and to Blackwell. What was the interaction like?

RUDD: Herlin Riley is exceptional. This guy has precognitive hearing. This is what you look for in improvisers, people who are waiting for you in an unknown situation. They’re there. They know the space. They know it ahead of time, and they’re there. I was getting a sense of that from him. That was great.

Wynton Marsalis plays the most perfect eighth notes I’ve ever heard. You just can’t carve out better eighth notes. So it was a unique experience for me to play some counterpoint with him. Because my eighth notes are… I’ve got different kinds of eighth notes. But Wynton Marsalis, boy, he’s got the eighth note to the Nth degree. I have to say, he really astounded me from that point of view. Something about his mechanical perfection as a player was very meaningful to me. And he’s a very broad musician. But when you get into a free counterpoint situation with somebody, it’s about their rhythmic orientation and how you express this. It’s the temporal thing that you’re going from. And to have a great drummer and a great bassist at the same time… Whoa! We were getting into it.

TP: During your hiatus, when you were off the scene, doing the shows in the Catskills, teaching, etc., was that to your benefit as an instrumentalist? Did you firm things? Were there certain things you could work on and get together that were to your benefit when you began to perform again on a more regular basis?

RUDD: Let me say this in regard to that. I’m one of these people since I was a kid, really, where I had to play every day. It didn’t matter what I was doing with the rest of my life. I pretty much managed to find a way to take time out every day, and blow a horn, or sing, play some piano, dance around, scat—find a way to express this thing inside me. So that regardless of whether I was teaching, or playing commercial music, or driving a truck, or working in a store, or working in a hospital… I’ve done a lot of different things. But the thing that’s been a constant line through all of this, and where I think the effect of a lot of this living experience has gone is into this… What would you call it? It’s like a musical lifeline of just playing every day. I said to someone that the reason is that it’s my therapy. He said, “No, you’re wrong. It’s your practice. It’s not your therapy. It’s your practice. So you’ve been practicing since you were a kid every day.” A lot of it has just been pure improvisation, coming home from a day’s work, and just letting the feeling that’s accumulated from the day come out in some kind of acoustic expression.

So I’m telling you that all the musical experiences I have had informed me. This is true of the Catskills show band. There was a lot of great Dixieland and sight-reading, working with comedians and fire-eaters, puppeteers and dancers… Life is about learning, and learning is essential for growth. Man, there’s nothing like growth.

TP: A lot of the older musicians with whom you played when you were a young guy came up in tent shows, where they had similar experiences. A lot of them played circuses and were on the trains and did that sort of stuff. The territory days.

RUDD: That’s true. The vaudeville, the standup… This is a great tradition. This is the old travelling carnivale outfit.

TP: We’re talking about context again.

RUDD: There’s a context here, and this is definitely a part of it. Any way that you can inform yourself about this is helpful. But I think this was missing in my experience, that vaudeville thing. I got a little bit of it through the Dixieland. But in the mountains, the whole show was there. You’ve got the tummler, the standup guy or standup lady, whoever it is. You’ve got this person sort of playing the audience, playing the musicians, and getting the whole thing into this wonderful complementary uproar. So pretty soon, the whole place is improvising. This is the great thing about that tradition, that it really is… Or there was. I don’t know much of it is left. But there was, at the heart of it, a great spontaneous and improvisational essence. The success of the show largely was dependent upon that kind of energy. Unknown things happening, coming out of the wall, coming out of people, and somebody who knew how to play off that and make that develop.

TP: Did you have anything analogous to that in the ‘60s and ‘70s in your quotidian life as a musician?

RUDD: Oh my goodness. I would have to say that the musical associations that developed from the earliest time that I came down here to live in the late ‘50s… These were improvisational hangs. The thing that I developed with Herbie Nichols was really, in large part, an improvisational thing. He would throw his compositions into it, and that would just be more fuel for me, because I would have to bring my creative thrust into his kind of format. You need those two things to create a compound, to get more. The thing with Steve Lacy… We started off with a lot of different music, and we ended up just pursuing Thelonious Monk’s compositions because they were the right… It was the right music for this instrumentation. The soprano sax and the trombone resonated with Monk’s tunes more than any other music. These were just the right tunes for the soprano saxophone and trombone. So there was a whole unknown thing flowering out of that.

Particularly with Lewis Worrell, John Tchicai and Milford Graves, that was all improvisation for quite a while, until songs, little tunes kind of congealed from all the improvising. But that was just getting together. Even if all of us couldn’t make it, we did it, 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, in different configurations, and just kept a spontaneous conversation going on. We were never able to work that much, but what we were able to do…

TP: Was Milford still playing a snare drum then? [END OF SIDE A]

RUDD: …but rather than a snare drum… Although I think that was there from time to time, the snare drum effect. But he could have been inventing that. But it seems to me that the tuning of the drums was very important, the tuning of the whole set. Well, Milford Graves, we could talk for a few hours on that…

TP: What’s occurring to me is that all of the different musics you approach, whether musical carriers or systems of music, you seem to approach in some sense from an ethnological perspective. I don’t mean that in a dry sense.

RUDD: What does that mean, “ethnomusicological.”

TP: I’m simultaneously writing a piece on Nguyen Le. His parents emigrated to Paris from Hanoi in the ‘50s. He started off playing jazz, playing Hendrix, played in an African fusion band, and then in the early ‘90s, when he was in his early thirties, he hooked up with a traditional Vietnamese singer and began to bring those influences into his composing, and then he started bringing North African, particularly Gnawan influences into his music. So now, within one personality, you have Gnawan music, traditional West African music (possibly some of the Malians you know), Vietnamese music, jazz musicians like Art Lande and Paul McCandless, and he just did a record on Hendrix’s compositions with Terri Lyne Carrington. He spoke of approaching Hendrix, and all his records from an ethnomusicological point of view. But it isn’t schematic…

RUDD: Each of these people carry a certain amount of their cultural context with them, but they carry their individuality, too. But the culture rubs off.

TP: What was your cultural context that made you so open to the different musics you encountered when you arrived in New York?

RUDD: The thing I tried to tell you before is that the improvisation was the thing that was there in Spike Jones and in this old jazz that I grew up with. There was a mystery. There was an unknown variable drifting through this music that somehow flourished and kept it alive for the 3-minute 78 experience, and going beyond that, and hearing these people performing live, doing concerts and playing in clubs and stuff… It’s the energy, the spontaneous expression, the individuality, the thing that’s inside people having a chance to come out. Their individuality. That’s what you hear in that old music. You hear the individual voice. That somehow affects everything else that you hear. I was disappointed because I couldn’t find that in a lot of music. It kind of narrowed down what my alternatives were as far as enjoyment goes, because from an early age, that’s what I was listening for in the music—the voices and the individuality. I know at the same time that everything I’ve experienced ,acoustically and otherwise, in America since the time I grew up… I also know that if I jumped into another country somewhere, they would probably say, “Oh yeah, he’s American; you can tell by this or that.” But I can’t, man.

That’s why I asked what you meant by ethnomusicological. I think I can perceive it better if I go to another world than I can in my own. Although New York is a great place, because the whole world, in a sense, is here. So people do stand out. Believe me! Herbie Nichols really stood out. Spending a day with him was like going into another galaxy. So you don’t have to go that far to find individuality or other musical universes. But ethnographically, I would have to say Herbie Nichols is New York. That’s what he represented to me. All of the West Indian, European, Hispanic…the mix of all of this place… There’s so much. It’s just hard to sort it out and say, “This is that…”

TP: It’s all coming at you at one time here.

RUDD: Yeah. Your culture is you, kind of. It’s what’s been pouring into you from the time you come out into the world. Your family and then beyond the family into the culture at large. Maybe that’s been defined by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I don’t know.

TP: Your father was an amateur drummer, so you heard music. Your grandmother was a choir director, I think. She liked the spirit of jubilation, you said.

RUDD: Yeah. When I was a teenager, and having kids come to my house to jam… And believe me, it was raw. It was horrible. But she was there. And to her, that was like religion. It was the same thing that she went to church for, was like the joyful noise, the exaltation, just people pouring themselves out in a very naive and joyful way with the sounds. Yeah, she really encouraged me. My parents kind of hated to see me… After going to college and everything, they were really concerned about my future when I decided on music. But not my grandmother. Man, she said, “wow, if you can just do this, it’s enough.” I think the clincher was being at one of Armstrong’s performances at the Paramount Theater when I was a kid. That really clinched it for me. I couldn’t think of anything else for months after that. That made such an impression on me.

TP: It sounds like you had a sense of music as a ritual from the very beginning, in the same way that Diabaté’s music emanates from ritual, and in the way a lot of the musicians you were performing with in the ‘60s were trying to achieve with their music. The notion of music being a spontaneous conversation, a lot of it comes from trying to reimagine the ritual that some of the black musicians got in the church when they were young. Sounds like you had that, too, in your own way.

RUDD: Ritual. Yeah, let’s just talk about ritual. Because it is. Daily ritual. That’s great. Can we leave it right there. I’d like to leave it with ritual. That just summed up our whole conversation, man. Thank you. Thank you for ritual. Is improvisation a ritual? Because if it is, that’s my ritual. That could be a very basic ritual, improvisation. That can be a personal ritual, improvisation.

TP: But of course, we’re speaking of music that emanates from social ritual. Black church. Village functions.

RUDD: But Ted! The individuals that comprise the black church. The individuals. My grandmother, God rest her soul, she was the highest voice in the church. That was her thing. Descant. Back in the day, and even in the black church, you’ve got to have somebody that can get up over everybody else and be the voice in the sky that just puts the top layer on it, that clinches it. That was her thing. This is the Protestant church, a New England kind of energy. Compared to a black church, it was pretty toned down. But that was her function in the church. This is the musical ritual that she carried in herself. Then there were a couple of other good singers there, and a good organist and so forth. But to me, if you can look at the individuals down in the heart of these great traditions that were built by the work of many hands, so to speak… If you can get down into the individuals, then I think that’s where you’ll find, like, the improvisational spirit and the people who are really carrying this thing, really shouldering this load.

Cecil Taylor! Whew! This guy can comp for 15 musicians, and lift the whole room.

TP: Do you see yourself in any way embodying these New England traditions? They are kind of at the core of a certain level of American identity. Emerson, Thoreau…

RUDD: Oh, the Transcendentalists?

TP: Is that encoded in you on any level?

RUDD: Yeah. I get a good feeling about Transcendentalism, what I pick up about these people and what I’ve read by them. Yeah, there definitely is an effort about perception Beyond. Trying to get closer to the unknown. Trying to get closer to the mystery. Trying to have a more open perception of the energy, of what’s coming, of what’s around us. Yeah, I definitely get that. So those guys have always been a lift for me. Yeah, I think that’s one of the positive things in what you could call that New England culture.

But there’s another side to that, and that is a lot of repression. That comes from… I think we’d better stop before I get into historical precedents in the roots of New England life. But there was the other side to it, thankfully, that I was exposed to through my father and my grandmother. Once people instill that in you, once they let you know that there’s another world besides this, that sets you on your way. You’re on your way. You’re a seeker. You’re a seeker from that point on. That’s always what I’ve been. I’ve just been investigating the hell out of it. As far back as I can remember, when my father got on those drums, he changed. His expression changed. He was a different person. In fact, I liked him better when he was doing that. So I knew that he went somewhere else, and it seemed like a good place to go.

Louis Armstrong lived there. Louis Armstrong had a foot very solidly in both worlds. But you see, my father had to kind of suggest it to me, and then other people made it plainer and plainer, that that was the reality.
Ritual! Ritual, man. Ritual on the one hand, and ethnology and this other stuff… Ethnology. Study of ethnos. I’m down on the individual ritual. I’m more down on the individual ritual than I am in the big stylistic contours of continents and all that stuff. Lomax did some great studies, I’d have to say. After all that analysis of all these little performances, he was able to actually make a statement about big prehistoric cultural traditions, like the great American Indian tradition. Incredible. When you think about all the individual contributions inside of that big-big-big tradition that goes all the way around the planet. Millions of individual carriers making it possible for him to make this big general statement about it. So I think the general statement may be where you have to start, from a distance, when you’re looking at this. But when you get down in the forest and into the individual trees, that’s more where I am. That’s where I’ve been.

TP: Except that there’s an element of your personality that comes out in your writing and your discourse on music that’s intensely analytic. You break everything down into its constituent components. Your improvising is not coming from nowhere.

RUDD: This is what improvisers do. This is how you get in there. This is what I do. This is my ritual.


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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, Roswell Rudd, Trombone

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

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

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

* * *

 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* * *

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

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Evan Parker’s 70th Birthday, a 2010 DownBeat Feature

The sui generis master soprano and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker turns 70 today. I’ve been enthralled with his music for several decades now, and have had several opportunities to interact with him, initially in 1990 through the auspices of Ben Young, who organized what I believe was a ten-day festival of his music, and allowed me to participate in an on-air interview. In the early aughts, on assignment from Jazziz, I interviewed Evan and photographer Thomas Struth (it wasn’t published). Then, in the winter of 2009-10, I wrote a long profile for DownBeat framed around  a long residency at the Stone. The piece ran a little shorter than I would have preferred, and for the occasion, I’ve offered a director’s cut, a bit more lugubrious than the final copy, but more thorough.

* * * *

 Evan Parker Article, Downbeat, 2010 (Early Draft):

“I believe that when you’re playing freely with other people, it helps if you know what they’re about, that there’s a life in that relationship or set of relationships that underlines the group, that there is an ongoing discussion, as it were, or dialogue. The notion of the ideal group improvisation being something that happens once, and then you say goodbye, doesn’t make any sense at all.  You have nothing to judge it by; there’s no point of reference. It can be acceptable in a context, which has not to do with the specifics of any of those people’s work, but simply the background of the context. Of course, every relationship has to start with the first hello. But I’ve found it necessary to terminate some relationships fairly soon after they were started.  I’m trying to be wiser about all of those kind of things, and not to initiate new projects simply for the sake of working or keeping busy, but to have a reason behind it.” – Evan Parker, 2003

Forty-five years into his career as a professional improviser, saxophonist Evan Shaw Parker remains a  perpetual road warrior, pursuing a lifestyle—on the move at least six months a year, long rides in cars or trains or airplanes from one destination to another, irregular sleep and meals, less than stellar accommodations—that could wear down most artists half his age. Yet Parker, who turns 66 this year, embraces the sacrifice of itinerancy with the enthusiastic attitude of a circuit-riding preacher or union organizer of days gone by whose imperative it was to deliver the message in person.

Parker travels not to praise the Lord or organize the masses, but to find as many contexts as possible in which to present his sui generis conception of the saxophone. He drew first principles from the innovations of the ‘60s avant-garde—John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were Parker’s window into the use of multiphonics, overtones, and circular breathing—and grafted onto this aesthetic bedrock the harmonic extremities of European post-12-tone modernism, a global array of scales and intervals drawn from Herman Helmholtz’s authoritative lexicon, and independent fingering and projection techniques associated with playing the Scottish bagpipes and the launeddas, an ancient three-pipe Sardinian reed instrument. He’s refined his language with micronic precision, developing his ability to articulate and develop two or three simultaneous lines in a sort of musique concrete counterpoint.

“A lot of material is completely in the muscles and in the nervous system—there’s no effort to control it, no effort to think,” Parker told me a few years back of the way his imagination functions as he plays solo. He describes a process analogous to ars memoria, the medieval system of memorizing large systems—and also the oral traditions of preliterature cultures—by placing objects in familiar places. “I enter that room where the music is,” he said. “I can do almost anything to open the door, then I look around until my attention lights on some particular place and I know roughly where I am. I look again. What is this place about?  What is new?  What didn’t I find out the last time I was here? I stay until something happens, and takes me somewhere else.  Not really leading the music, but following it where it seems to be going.”

Even by his standards, Parker took on, as he put it, “an exceptional schedule” over the last three months of 2009, bringing his tenor and soprano saxophones to an extraordinary array of encounters. There was an October duo in Barcelona with Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez and workshops and concerts with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton in Cannes and Paris. A two-week tour with the Schlippenbach-Lovens trio included engagements in Berlin, Ulrichsberg, Prague and Brataslava, where Parker also found time to play a recital with Alvin Lucier, a concert with the Globe Unity Orchestra, and a gig with the electronic unit Groovetronic. He guested with the out-trio Marteau Rouge in Tours, Paris, and Brussels; navigated composer-cellist-electronicist Walter Prati’s processed structures with a medium-sized ensemble in Milan; triologued  with regular mates John Edwards and Tony Marsh at London’s Vortex, where he has a monthly hit, and with keyboardist Stephen Gruen and drummer Philip Marks in Liverpool.

Prior to all of these events (directly following a 3,000-mile, 7-gigs-in-7-nights tour with extended techniques sax master Ned Rothenberg that had begun on the West Coast and ended in Montreal), Parker presided over an audacious first-two-weeks-of-October residence at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue,where it was evident that he listens as attentively to others as to the voices deep within him. Directly after a seven-hour drive from Montreal to New York, he launched the event with a solo recital executed with characteristic derring-do, followed an hour later by an avuncular duo with synthesist Richard Teitelbaum in which Parker, playing soprano saxophone, created instantaneous acoustic responses to Teitelbaum’s assorted burbles, birdcalls, critter onomatopoeia, virtual percussion, swoopy waves, Bachian cello, celestial harmonics, and prepared piano pings—they ended spontaneously on the same pitch.

Such energy and acuity belied whatever exhaustion Parker may have felt, and he delineated the harmonics with such precision that only the most educated ear could discern that he was playing with a stock mouthpiece, having recently left his three painstakingly customized ones on a train. But to wallow in self-pity was not an option, and Parker would carry on. Hunkered down three blocks away in a small flat on Avenue D, he took on all comers, two shows a night of one-shots with partners representing vastly different predispositions and ways of thinking about music.

In the opening section of his meeting with Fred Frith, Parker projected droll tenor responses to Frith’s Dadaesque antics on lap guitar (he brushed it as though polishing a shoe and prepared the bowed strings with a tin can and chain metal); then unleashed a jaw-dropping unaccompanied interlude on soprano before rejoining the dialogue with with vertiginous intervals and audacious unisons; then uttered a long tenor drone which Frith somehow complemented with more prepared bowed strings.

Earlier in the run, before a house so jammed that the fire marshals cleared it before they were done, Parker and Milford Graves played a five-part suite marked by incessant rhythmic modulation and dynamic ebb-and-flow. After Parker unleashed Coltranesque torrents in the tenor’s lower register in the second movement, he switched to a balladic seven-note theme that received intense theme-and-variation treatment. Graves’ slow rolling tom-toms that crescendoed to jet-force, propelling Parker into a multiphonic whirlwind. An hour later, with George Lewis on trombone, laptop, and interactive electronics with which to modify and manipulate the pitch qualities of Parker’s soprano saxophone lines, Parker—his face beet-red, his embouchure visible as a dimple-line running 45 degrees from nose to jaw—went with the flow, circular-breathing to create a feedback loop of chirps and crackles and waves.

To honor Thelonious Monk’s birthday a few nights later,  Parker, Matthew Shipp and William Parker played an informed 55-minute abstraction of “Shuffle Boil,” interpolating other Monk fragments at various points. “If they’d jumped on the tune at the very outset, well, it would have gone another way,” Parker said two days later over a lunch of roast chicken, tostones, and rice-and-beans on Avenue C.  Salt-bearded and bespectacled, with a barrel chest and thick soccer legs, he wore a charcoal shirt, black jeans and black loafers, and carried a just-purchased copy of Robin Kelley’s new Monk biography. “But they played ambiguously in relation to it,” he continued. “The point is to do it in such a way that it’s there if you want to hear it, and not there if you don’t want to hear it. It’s raw material. It’s a free choice. When you say you’re playing freely, it also means you are free to play things that you absolutely know and things that are rather predictable.”

Parker related that for his sixtieth birthday, outcat pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, a constant associate since the latter ‘60s on such Eurocentric projects as the Globe Unity Orchestra and a long-standing trio with drummer Paul Lovens, most recently documented on Gold Is Where You Find It [Intakt], had presented him with a handwritten folio of Monk tunes, transposed for saxophone, that also contained a drawing of Parker (Schlippenbach refers to his mild-mannered partner as “The Bishop of Faversham”) topped with a Bishop’s mitre,

“I’ve since got the official book, which Steve Lacy told me was accurate, and I’ve been trying to memorize them all as an homage to Steve,” Parker continued. “When I was here as a teenager I heard his School Days band at a Bleecker Street coffee shop called Phase 2. At the end of the first set, Steve said to the audience, which must have been five of us, ‘We’d like to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that we play requests; the band will play any tune by Thelonious Monk.’ On his way back to the bandstand, I said, ‘Mr. Lacy, I’d love to hear “Four In One.”’ He said, “Uh-HUH”—and they played ‘Four In One’!

“Since then, it’s become almost a rite of passage to get to grips with those things, to play on the structures or just use them as study material. Monk had a very rigorous approach to constructing a line, a melody, which Steve distilled in his own work—systematic combinatorics of limited interval types in order to bring out their inherent characters. There are a thousand ways to define what we mean by a fourth, a major third, a minor third. The material goes beyond scales and arpeggios—the idea is to get it to fall under your fingers in a way that you’re not simply playing from the riff book. You have to hear your way through, know what is the underlying cliche and how to disguise it. I make the analogy with the armature in a sculpture. A sculptor might use a steel frame underneath to hold the clay in certain positions which otherwise it wouldn’t hold. But it’s not the armature that’s interesting. It’s the form of the clay. Without those things it’s just…formless might not be the word, but lacking in structural integrity.”


The weekend after Parker left town, in an odd quirk of scheduling, the Abrons Center on Grand Street, a half-mile south of the Stone, hosted a two-day festival dedicated to the legacy of Incus Records, the label that Parker, Bailey and Tony Oxley co-founded in 1970. After Oxley departed a few years later, Parker and Bailey—who died in 2005—served as co-directors. They ran an efficient operation, producing some of the seminal documents of European free improvisation. They split on acrimonious terms in 1985, with Parker keeping possession of his own copyrights and master tapes. Since 2001, he has been bringing back into print—along with new material by himself and various associates—on Psi, his imprint, which now boasts a catalog of over 60 items.

“It functioned quite well for a while,” Parker said. “But it’s very hard for two people to agree about everything, and we didn’t agree about everything. In fact, towards the end, we didn’t agree about anything. I wasn’t happy being treated as though I was number-two in a situation where we should be equal. So I just thought the best thing to do would be to take my ball and go home.”

This was all Parker had to say about the rift. “Derek is no longer here to speak up for himself,” he said. However, George Lewis, who was close to both, offered some observations.

“Derek was a very forceful personality,” Lewis said. “He was a little curmudgeonly, very determined and single-minded. That attracted a lot of people. At the same time, uncompromising people like that tend to have very few friends, because people can’t handle it for long periods of time. But Evan seemed to be a person who could handle that, and was able to mold things that Derek did to his own requirements. Derek was very private; part of him would be very suspicious if he thought people liked it too much. Whereas I think Evan is more comfortable with being liked. Being loved, really—people love both these guys. They were together so much that when they finally stopped being together, it was wounding not only to them, but to the larger community.”

Parker was willing to discuss the ways in which his and Bailey’s respective personalities played out in their musical production, “Maybe the most crucial difference between Derek’s approach and mine is that I’m interested in a much more adaptive language, a much more flexible sense of musical persona,” he said. “The main job is to select the relevant material, much more of the material that I use to represent myself, the music masks that I use to play behind, or through, varies with the context than Derek’s. ‘Mask’ is a much more complicated idea than simply a disguise, something to hide behind.  Think of the way masks are used in African music ritual. The mask is a particular chosen projection of identity.”

Unlike Bailey and most of his contemporaries from the first generation of European experimental improvisers, Parker chose to embrace American jazz as a lineal, if often hidden influence. “It’s just where I come from,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t know about Boulez and Stockhausen and Xenakis and all those other things. But in shaping the idea of personal direction, the point that Coltrane got to, especially in Interstellar Space, is a kind of defined place. Even the idea of kind of multi-linear approach to soprano is derived from thinking about certain things Coltrane was doing on the longer solos on “My Favorite Things,” where he’s sort of hinting at two lines and keeping two lines going. There’s an enormous lack of modesty involved in thinking you can do anything past that, and you have to be aware of this. But through practice and effort and concentration on what makes your direction YOUR direction, there are some corners left to work in.”

Told that Rothenberg had remarked on his “whirling” time feel, “with a pulse that tends to breathe in a kind of ebb-and-flow,” Parker described it as his “default mode,” citing not only “the work I had to do to play with John Stevens,” the British drummer with whom he made much music in the ‘60s and ‘70s (“it was a baptism of fire”), but also “the constellation” of the New York Art Quartet with John Tchicai and Milford Graves, Milford’s duo with Don Pullen, the Coltrane-Rashied Ali duos, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. “These were the very last bits of concerted influence, where you feel, ‘Ok, these are the materials that I must learn to deal with,’” he said. “After that, it became essential to deal with what John Stevens was doing, what Derek, Paul Rutherford, Paul Lytton, Barry Guy, and all the people associated with that first generation of London-based free improvisers were doing.”

Parker’s simpatico for the American—or, more accurately, New York—context stems from the summers of 1962 and 1963 when, by dint of a free flight enabled by his father’s position with BOAC, the predecessor of British Airlines, he was able to see his musical heroes on their home turf. Ensconced in a YMCA on 34th Street, he bought records by day and haunted clubs and coffee houses at night. In addition to the aforementioned encounter with Lacy, he heard Eric Dolphy with Herbie Hancock at Birdland, Cecil Taylor’s trio with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray at Phase 2 on Bleecker Street, Carla Bley in duo with Gary Peacock.

“Coltrane was always out of town, so I didn’t hear him here, though I’d heard him in England in 1961,” Parker recalled. “But to hear Cecil Taylor before he came to Europe for the first time, to hear Dolphy and Herbie Hancock before Herbie went with Miles—I’m not going to forget those things. From that point, New York was the center of the world as far as the music I was interested in.”


“I’m ready for a break,” Parker said at the beginning of February from his home in Kent, referencing his recent travels. Over a month or so of down time, he would work on “thinking about how to practice, practicing, organizing for the label and for events coming up.” Most important among the latter, he said, were several concerts with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, a project that he has documented since 1997 on five ECM CDs, increasing the number of participants from six to 14 on the most recent iteration,  The Moment’s Energy, which includes Rothenberg on clarinets and shakuhachi, Peter Evans on trumpets, and Ko Ishikawa on sho, a reed-based Japanese mouth organ, an orchestra’s worth of real-time electronic processing vehicles. In distinction to the prior ECM dates, Parker used the studio as another instrument, remixing and realigning the  materials of the real-time version to construct a final document. It’s the latest development in Parker’s ongoing investigation of digital media as a tool to transcend the limits of what he can do with the saxophone.

“What works for a concert is not necessarily what works for a record to be played in people’s homes,” Parker said. “It’s partly to do with dynamic range, partly with what Manfred Eicher  calls dramaturgie. You don’t quite know the circumstances under which the record will be played. So the idea of modifying something in response to that is no longer a kind of heresy for me. It’s just part of the work, and if people want to discuss it and take positions for or against, well, that’s fine.”

For all the audaciousness and fire that he projects through his horn, Parker’s extraordinary chops have brought him trouble with members of the “avant-garde police,”  who have accused him of being a sort of overly technical, non-interactive Johnny-one-note more concerned with attaining individual transcendence than dialogic interaction. Bailey’s biographer Ben Watson, a doctrinaire Trotskyite, most memorably expressed this critique with the shit-sling, “the totalitarian afflatus of [Parker’s] technique steamrollers specific ambiance, turning his music into the kind of dependable commodity required by promoters and applauded by the general public.”

Lewis addressed this issue in a more nuanced way. “Derek liked to smash genres together, people from different traditions and practices,” he said. “Evan was starting to do this as well, but then he broke away from it. Now it’s reached a new level where he is content to be at the center of his own world than ever before; he’s found ways to make music that bears his stamp, music that’s him,  through the medium of improvisation. It’s not being an improviser that’s important. It’s what Evan’s music is.”

For Parker, who developed Anarcho-Socialist leanings during university days, philosophical materialism coexists in pragmatic equipoise with his investigations into the mysteries of shamanism, as he denotes with his label’s name.

“I juggle those things every day,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by current developments which are more related to finding consensus on the solution to specific problems, and less concerned with building an overarching ideology that purports to solve all problems at a stroke. Shamanism, by the way, is one of the ways that you can solve some of those small problems. It’s metaphysics, but it’s also practical. Spiritual is material, too. If you define materialism as to recognize the way things work, then we have to include psi phenomena, the things which physicists can’t explain.”

Parker himself found it difficult to explain the criteria he uses to decide what constitutes a successful performance, and what to release and not-release, either on his label or others. He had not yet found time to evaluate his massive output at the Stone, which was professionally recorded and line-mixed. “It would be crazy not to release some of it, but I want to make sure I do it properly.”

“It’s a total response,” he added. “It can be a good idea sometimes to wait a year or more before you listen, otherwise you just reinforce the memories of the struggle that was involved, which may affect your objectivity and not be at all important in the bigger picture. It’s easier to be positive about some solo thing that you feel came out well. Everything else is complicated about expectations about what other people may or may not do. All I can say is that if I think that the thing is a failure, I have no problem leaving it on the shelf.”

He remarked that he had worked for a decade on Time Lapse [Tzadik],  a critically acclaimed high-concept unaccompanied suite in which he juxtaposes unaccompanied and overdubbed solos, an endeavor he launched in 1991 with Process and Reality [FMP]. “I wanted to give John something special,” he said.  “I had to think and plan something that wouldn’t disappoint John, who I think of as a man with very high standards, both ethically and aesthetically,” Parker said. “It’s not that I would set out to disappoint anybody. But in John’s case, it’s a case of ‘Among roses, be a rose.’”

He added that he had taken similar care with House Full Of Floors,  his 2009 Tzadik release, on which Aleks Kolkowski, playing Stroh viola, cylinders, and musical saw, joins Parker, guitarist John Russell and bassist John Edwards on a pair of quartet  improvs—on the final track, the trio responds to a Kolkowski-generated wax cylinder of their playing.

“John proposed the New York event, and we negotiated the programming,” Parker said. They met in 1978, the year Parker first came to the U.S. professionally, doing 29 solo concerts in 33 days, and remained in touch ever since.

“It was a highly memorable two weeks,” he retrospected. “New York was always a special city for me, from its mythic origins to my first experiences there as a young man. Every time I come back, I get a feeling that I don’t get anywhere else in the world. There’s an incredible community of players to draw on. And John’s support for the venture allowed me to be among friends. The Stone is absolutely my kind of space, like a non-denominational chapel of music. There’s no frills. It’s a room where you can play some music and some people can come and listen.”


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Anthony Braxton Turned 66 Yesterday

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

There are many places to investigate Braxton’s life and oeuvre — it’s a life study for some. I did my bit in 2007, when DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a long piece on Mr. Braxton framed around the release of his nine-CD-plus-one-DVD box set 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 [Firehouse 12]. Initially I felt it was still a little too close to the run date to feel sanguine about posting the piece, but I think the time has come to insert my final draft of that article into this post, along with  the second of two interviews that I conducted with Braxton during the reporting, in his office at Wesleyan University.

Anthony Braxton Article (final draft):

It’s unlikely that Anthony Braxton, even in his wildest flights of fancy, ever conjured the scene that unfolded at Downtown Music Gallery on the final Wednesday of March.

It had been a very long day. Hewing to the fierce work ethic that fuels his activity, Braxton, pushing 62, had risen at 4:30 that morning in Middletown, Connecticut, where he is Professor of Music at Wesleyan University. From 7:30 to 11:30 he worked on an in-progress opera, Trillium J, then taught an early afternoon class, then packed his instruments for the 2½-hour drive to New York and a four-night engagement at Iridium that would begin the following evening. Now it was cocktail hour, and Braxton, a black windbreaker covering his trademark black cardigan and blue button-down shirt, sat at a folding table in the long, narrow Bowery storefront. He sipped white wine and made small talk with a stream of admirers as co-proprietor Manny Maris presented one pre-sold copy after another—150 all told—of 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006 [Firehouse 12] for his autograph and personal salutation for fans from several continents.

Far from Braxton’s most accessible project, 9 Compositions is a summational statement of Ghost Trance Musics, the most recent iteration of his system. It comprises nine CDs, each containing a continuous, hour-long set performed by Braxton’s “12+1tet” over four nights at the Manhattan club in March 2006, and a single DVD showing both the final set, Composition 358, and a documentary that juxtaposes performance excerpts and Braxton’s avuncular analysis. Inured to selling minuscule numbers of his more than 230 albums over forty years, Braxton appeared alternately bemused and shocked at the volume of interest.

Later, Braxton and Taylor Ho Bynum—a trumpeter who studied with Braxton at Wesleyan during the ‘90s and is now is a frequent collaborator and de facto straw boss of some of Braxton’s ensembles—settled in across the street at a pan-Asian restaurant on the premises of the old Tin Palace. Braxton ignored the waiter, and recounted how the Ghost Trance concept evolved from the “coordinate musics” he had presented with an intrepid, combustible quartet—Marilyn Crispell, piano; Mark Dresser, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums—that played from 1985 until 1994, when Braxton, two years into his tenure at Wesleyan, won a MacArthur “Genius” grant, decided to invest the proceeds towards producing an opera, and disbanded.

By then, Braxton said of his corpus, every composition was “an orchestra piece and a chamber piece and a solo piece; more than that, every composition can be connected together. Imagine a giant erector set where every component can be refashioned based on the dictates of the moment.”

As Braxton refined his system, he realized increasingly that “the concept of dynamic intellectualism, in the end, was not the highest degree of my hopes in my own work.” Taking advantage of Wesleyan’s world-class ethnomusicology department, he researched a global assortment of ritual trance musics, “events that start but do not end”—Native American First Nations musics, Gregorian chant, Indonesian gamelan and shadow dance, African and Sufi forms. “As I came to recognize the spiritual implications of this information, I found myself looking for something greater than the individual mechanical components of the system.”

Using the quartet’s “collaging” strategies as a jumping-off point, Braxton consolidated his discoveries into a “fresh formal space.” Within this construct, 12 is the optimal number—extrapolating from 12 core “language types” (textures, or “sonic units,” drawn from a codified array of extended techniques), his model contains 12 “generative processes,” 12 “axiomatic principles for form-building,” 12 “area spaces” in which to “map” those schemes, 12 characters representing “ritual and ceremonial states” of the system. Ghost Trance Musics, for example, explored the House of Shala, his first language type, devoted to “the reaffirmation of the long sound”—a metaphor, by Braxtonian metaphysics, for continuous state universe theory. The Ghost Trance Music is “a utility prototype,” a kind of conveyor belt by which his ensembles can spontaneously coalesce compositions from different levels of his corpus at any time—“it lays down the railroad tracks on which I can transport to different points in a spatial configuration.”

With a “nuclear ensemble” of 12 musicians at Iridium 2006, Braxton could subdivide into ad-hoc units of three—the number at which, for Braxton, an orchestral quorum starts—to work simultaneously with at least four compositions from different “species” in every performance. On the other hand, the sextet assembled to perform the forthcoming week would “function with origin species materials—that is, we play, say, Composition 265 and bring in tertiary or additional materials from that plane, or floor.”

“If I may use the analogy,” Braxton continued, “the sextet is one solar system, with implants; the Iridium music is three solar systems being governed by one solar system.”

It was pointed out to Braxton that he had not yet bothered to eat. As he picked distractedly at his food, Bynum pitched in.“Anthony’s music contains an incredible openness for the performer to express their individuality, to discover their own ideas and contribute them to the process,” he said. “All 12 languages have a clear sense of definition, in each composition you can clearly see what idea he’s working with, yet there’s always that X-factor, that sense of mystery. I’ve seen other musics in which I can express myself—that’s not hard. I’ve seen other musics that completely represent a composer’s identity—that’s hard, but I’ve seen it done. But to balance the definition and the mystery to me is magical.”


The following evening, a forest of instruments filled the Iridium bandstand. Braxton’s contrabass, bass, baritone, alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones stood stage left, sharing space with a trumpet and flugelhorn (Bynum), a tuba and euphonium (Jay Rozen), a drumset and electronics (Aaron Siegel), a violin and viola (Jessica Pavone), a bass and bass clarinet (Carl Testa), guitars (Mary Halvorsen), and flutes (guest artist Nicole Mitchell). Several strategically positioned blackboards lay about, and a large hourglass stood center stage. A crew of videographers checked light levels, and engineer Jon Rosenberg set up shop in the stage right soundbooth.

Braxton flipped the hourglass to commence the first of the week’s eight sets. In breathe-as-one unison, the ensemble played the main composition, a long melody based on a steady stream of eighth notes stated in repetitive cycles 40 to 50 beats long, propelled by a rather plodding march-like or machine-like pulse. Embedded within this architectural frame were portals, from which the ensemble could opt either to keep going or veer off. Braxton presented four brief secondary compositions, in graphic notation, which anyone could cue at any time for development by a sub-group. The members also were asked to interpolate “tertiary material” of their choosing from Braxton’s corpus of over 400 pieces. Often, Rozen said, Braxton would “end the evening” with language musics, say, long tones (#1), trills (#3), or multiphonics (#6); other times, he’d “cue the last page of the main composition, and we play it to the end.”

Hemingway attended the rather reserved first set on Friday night. “It sounds like a totally logical evolution from the quartet, except then it was generally in pairing and sometimes solo,” he said. “We could draw from about 200 pieces; we’d make decisions, either prior to the set or on the fly, to insert some passage out of some piece. This had a slightly more elaborate design, with potential for 3 or 4 different things to go on at once. Braxton’s music is nothing if not dense in its structure, sometimes to a fault; there’s too much going on, or orchestrationally it gets lost in the sauce. But the set I heard was very well-balanced, and you could discern all the parts.”

Before one of the sets, Rosenberg remarked that Braxton had rejected his suggestion of a blended sound in the 9 Compositions mix, instead insisting that all voices be transparent and separated. This “multiple-hierarchic” attitude, which Braxton internalized during his formative years in ‘60s Chicago as a member of Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, when he embraced the notion of multi-instrumentalism, permeates Braxton’s thinking.

“The amount of freedom Braxton gives is unlike any composer I know,” Dresser said. “It’s like he’s created this ship, and once you get in, whatever direction the people want to take it is there. It’s almost shamanistic. That collective quality is unlike any music I’ve ever played. Whether the music was powerful or sensitive or textural or rhythmic, however you did it, as long as it was with total conviction, he loved it all!”

“What seems important to me is the sublimation of individual ego to a much greater extent than in some of the earlier musics,” said George Lewis of the Ghost Trance pieces. Lewis played trombone in Braxton’s bravura quartet with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul for most of 1976, and participated in other Braxton projects here and there until 1983. “Everyone is allowed their space, but for 90% of the time they are engaged in the effort to create a unified, collective group sound. Everyone takes a certain responsibility for the collective articulation of form, but at the same time, there’s this sense that everyone has agreed on the basics. People are less concerned with expressing their own individuality in radical ways, but instead with trying to work together both to interpret and create the composition at the same time. It’s a curious hybrid, intellectually and psychologically, in terms of the musical identity of the performers.”

Not least so for Braxton, who noted that his leader responsibilities entail “starting the music, bringing in different unities at different time spaces, and ending the performance.” Still, he emphasized, “This is a multi-hierarchical thought unit that allows for controls to come from different points in the space. The components of the music’s actualization process can be shared. Any choice can be made right. Any portion of the materials can be used. That is a system designate. So the challenge is not so much ‘Can something be used?’ but trying to find a way to use it.”

For Ghost Trance performances, Braxton has worked primarily with students and colleagues from Wesleyan—Bynum, Testa, Siegel, Ted Reichman, James Fei, Brandon Evans, Roland Dahinden—who understand both the idiomatic particulars and philosophical bedrock of his music through intense rehearsals over the long haul, and possess the requisite technique to execute its complex intervallic and rhythmic demands.

“I’m playing with musicians who can play anything put in front of them on the highest possible level,” Braxton had said at dinner, responding to Bynum’s remark about degree of difficulty. “So I’ve tried not to disrespect them by bringing baby music, but give them something to dig into. I think they’re stronger than my generation in every way—technically, conceptually…”

“I would see it differently, I have to say,” Bynum interrupted.

“Just their mobility,” Braxton continued. “People read better. They know their instruments better. They might not all be original on the same level as the guys I came up with. But they are better musicians pound-for-pound.”

“You guys had to fight to make the argument that your music CAN be transidiomatic, to establish the fact that you could pull from Coltrane or Schoenberg, pull from Sun Ra or Stockhausen,” Bynum countered. “I can dial up the computer and get this incredible diversity of music in seconds, whereas you guys would have to fight to find a record. I think something in that fight gives your generation a strength that ours doesn’t always have.”

“Your generation is now at that point where the fight begins,” Braxton said. “The question becomes: Can you go the distance?”

“I have been able to have a real life, with real ups and real downs, and I am not angry at anyone,” Braxton said two weeks later in his book-crammed office at Wesleyan, which is almost the size of a small Manhattan studio.

He sat between a large piano piled with music—Hanon, Bach, Eddie Harris’ Intervallistic Concept Book on top—and a large desk holding a souped-up new Mac and a stack of CDs—Stockhausen’s Samstag aus Licht and his piano pieces, Coltrane’s Half Note radio broadcasts, the Jimmy Giuffre 3, the Max Roach Trio with Hassan Ibn Ali and Roach’s Paris duo with Dizzy Gillespie, Braxton’s own 1985 quartet.

As Braxton spoke, it was apparent that both the generative and metaphorical components of the Ghost Trance Music system, which he has described on various occasions as a means of recapturing memory, were a palpable response to his life experiences.

Braxton’s parents each migrated to Chicago around the cusp of World War Two. Out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, his mother, whose own mother “looks like a full Creek Indian,” would bring her two sisters and a brother to Chicago; his birth father, who worked for Ford, moved north from Greenville, Mississippi, and his stepfather, from Yazoo City, loaded cars at the Burlington & Quincy rail yards and worked his way up to foreman. Growing up on the ‘50s South Side, Braxton avoided gang culture and street life; with a clique of two friends, he built models, discovered Werner Von Braun, and the V-2 Rocket, spotted LPs with intriguing covers at a record shop on 58th and Calumet that lured him not only to progressive jazz, but also Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.

“As a young guy, I recall thinking, ‘I know there has to be more to life than what I am experiencing on the South Side of Chicago,’” Braxton said. “I learned that many things were happening all over the planet, and life is an incredible gift that goes by very quickly, so if there’s something you want to do, you need to do it. We were always told that there were no challenges we could not undertake. At some point, as Muhal Richard Abrams’ composition so beautifully puts it, your thoughts are your future.”

Braxton met Abrams in November 1966, when he joined the AACM, after a two-and-a-half year stint in the elite Fifth Army Band. “I wanted to play or die,” Braxton said. “Before I enlisted, I heard Roscoe Mitchell play a solo on Bye Bye Blackbird at a session, and I decided that I had to get away and go through everything I thought I had known. The Fifth Army Band was awesome. We played all the marches, which for me was heaven, plus classical literature from Prokofiev to Bach to Stravinsky. I was playing with musicians who were a hundred times better than me, and I learned from them. I studied with one of Roscoe’s teachers, Joe Stevenson, who told me, ‘You know, Anthony, the last time I had a guy this crazy, his name was Roscoe Mitchell. He reminded me of you!’”

Like Art Ensemble of Chicago members Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, Braxton emerged from military service self-sufficient and disciplined, determined to resist jazz conformity at all costs, imbued with an esprit de corps that sustained the multiple-hierarchic attitude—”I am not going to confuse my work with the fact that somebody might have a different way than me…and it’s not about one way anyway!”—that defined the AACM’s activities.

“From the beginning, the base axiom of the AACM was respect for similarities and differences,” Braxton said. “These men and women believed that the music might go in any direction, and that anybody had the right to go in whatever direction they wanted. The AACM was way past idiomatic concerns, and that in itself was restructural. More and more, I think of the AACM in the same way that W.E.B. DuBois talked of the Talented Tenth. The AACM was a community of people who decided to stake out a position that said, ‘We can look as far as we can see ahead and as far as we can see backwards.’ I came to understand that no single ethnic group owns creative music.”

During the ‘60s, Braxton “got special flak from the African-American nationalist community and from the African-American middle class constructionalists,” as well as hardcore jazz elders who took umbrage at his idiosyncratic approach to “in the tradition,” a phrase Braxton coined to denote the jazz canon.

“The idea of the African-American human being is rejected by the nationalists and the antebellumists,” snapped Braxton. “By ‘antebellumist’ I mean a psychology that says you had better stay in your place, which, with respect to our conversation, means blues and swing. It’s especially sad to see forces in the African-American community cutting off possibilities as opposed to adding possibilities. Especially the New Orleans guys have worked to bring about a perspective and synergy that not only does not respect or include our work, but in many cases have defined things in a way that questions whether we’re actually African-Americans.”

The African-American community was not the only source of slings and arrows—to wit, a 1979 piece by Russian Punk-Outcat pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin entitled “Who’s Afraid of Anthony Braxton.” “Anything goes when it comes to Braxton,” Braxton said. He referred to a 1985 episode of The Cosby Show in which a character named “Anthony Braxton” sells marijuana to young Theo, played by Malcolm Jamal Warner. “This was my favorite television show, with an African-American family of intelligent people. Imagine my children seeing that!

“The Neoclassic musicians in the ‘80s decided that the music is really about a style. That decision has had profound implications. With respect to changing information systems in this time period, suddenly the African-American community is not always sure of its connection to modernity and beyond. This retreat into an isolationist, ethnic-centric circle, in which one component has minstrelsy and the other component is the Good Negro, is again solving today’s problems with yesterday’s materials. By reducing the components of the music to a style, they have misdefined the music.”

At Wesleyan, Braxton teaches the history of African-American music, the oeuvres of Lennie Tristano, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, composition seminars on Stockhausen, Xenakis and Sun Ra. He first documented his approach to American Songbook material in 1970-71 with Circle, the collective with Chick Corea, Holland and Altschul—like Corea, he joined Scientology during an ill-fated Los Angeles sojourn; unlike Corea, he left after four months—that gave his name currency in the international jazz community. Over the ensuing 20 years, he recorded four quartet albums drawn from songbook and canonic jazz, plus Thelonious Monk (1987), Tristano (1989) and Charlie Parker (1993) recitals. However, since 1994, coinciding with the gestation of the Ghost Trance system, such projects comprise a more substantial slice of his discography; he neither arranges nor restructures the lines of Parker, Joe Henderson, Dave Brubeck, Andrew Hill, and a slew of others, but rather approaches them as raw material for improvising.

“I still find harmony exciting, although it doesn’t have much relevance to what I’m building in my system,” Braxton said. “I’ve always loved the repertoire, and now and then I need to go outside my model, to experience and learn compositions by other people, to stay sharp with the instrument. I can use that material and not be plagued by generic definitions about rhythmic logics or harmonic logics. As with my own music, I try to move it around, do different things, so that I can stay excited, and not simply try to play the composition in the same way that one of my heroes might have.”

No longer writing Ghost Trance compositions, Braxton now is building models to work through the implications of “staccato line logics,” his fourth linguistic “House,” or “sonic geometry.”

“Fourth House Emanations will involve interactive video, interactive electronics, and poetics,” said Braxton, who has studied SuperCollider programming language over the last 30 months. “I am trying to move towards holistic strategies that factor body movement, spatial location, poetic disposition, real time interactive experiences, virtual positioning, conversion experiences—a kind of expansion of the Disneyland experience.” One typology already in play is Braxton’s installatory Sonic Genome Project, in which musicians move within a physical space of any scale, allowing an audience member—“friendly experiencer” in Braxtonese—to hear a nuanced viola-accordion-bass trio in one quadrant, four squawling saxophones in another. Other subsets are Falling River music (“extraction from graphic visual scores, like playing from a painting”), Diamond Curtain Wall music (interactive electronics), and Echo Mirror House Musics (“all the material from every CD I’ve ever made will be put on iPods and used as electronic music with video”).

Even more phantasmagoric are the GPS-like “Lydia” musics, now in beta-testing. “For instance, I play a note, BUHMP, and on the screen you see this road, a highway is moving, you’re going forward,” he said. “Let’s say I play BUM-BUH-BUH-BUHMP. If it’s correct code, then the road goes to the right. If I say, VOO-OO-OOM-OO-VOOMP, it maybe goes up this road to a target at Sam’s House.”

Braxton is “in a panic” about the slow pace of his “opera complex cycle.” “The way things are setting up, I won’t finish until I’m in my eighties,” he said. “I want to retire. I’ll get a pension, and I can wake up and compose for as long as I can go, and maybe in my seventies I can catch up with my original projections.

“My experiences for the last forty years haven’t been money experiences. In fact, I usually pay to play. People say Braxton has a lot of CDs out. I have documented my work because for me, a CD is closure to a project, and I can go to the next one. I just try to avoid situations where I go into debt for eight years, like I did for Trillium R after the MacArthur. Although in the next five years, if I have to, I’ll be ready for the next 8-year plunge, because I plan to get at least two more operas performed before leaving this planet—if I have my health.”


Anthony Braxton (Wesleyan, April 9, 2007):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   I come from upper poor class.

TP:   Factory worker? Blue collar…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   The ‘80s actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Much more dramatic, narrative music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   That’s a good question.

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

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

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

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

TP:   Most teenagers don’t know that.

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

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

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

TP:   Does your mother have Native American ancestry?

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   Yes. I wanted transparency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   I’ll talk about it.

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

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

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

BRAXTON: Propositional logics in the sense of…

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

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

TP:   Can you speak in a more general sense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So going back to your questions about actual devices…

TP:   Melody would be another one.

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

TP:   Is that one of the research papers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


TP:   Intervals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   I was very satisfied and grateful at the tremendous work of my colleagues. Two weeks ago, when we played the Iridium, it was approached in a different way. It was the sextet nucleus, and we added different instrumentalists, depending on the set. In this second engagement at the Iridium, which probably will be my last engagement there, I wanted to explore second- and third species Ghost Trance Musics with one or two accelerator class structures. So we really played different music every set. Plus, Taylor and I brought the large instruments so that we could have the expanded timbre space, from very high to very low.

TP:   You played a great deal. Much more than the year before.

BRAXTON:   Well, with less musicians, we have a different transparent space, and there are more opportunities to extend a little more. With 12 musicians, 12+1 in the case of the ensemble, I did not feel that there was a need for super-extended solos. In fact, my interest more and more is not for extended solos, but rather to fit in the ensemble and to have a nice balance between intentionalities and improvisation.

TP:   Given the level of autonomy you give the other musicians within your system, when you’re up there in real time, how much temptation is there to seize the moment and make it go in a direction that you want? How do you separate your identity as a participant in the mix and being the creator of the system, being part of the ensemble and being a leader?

BRAXTON:   That’s a good question. When we go to play the music, as the leader of the ensembles, I have certain responsibilities concerning starting the music, bringing in different unities at different time spaces, and ending the performance. But outside of that, I am another friendly experiencer, and that’s part of the beauty of it. This is a multi-hierarchical thought unit that allows for controls to come from different points in the space. This for me is a breakthrough, that the leader doesn’t have to control every component of the actualization process of the music—that it can be shared.

TP:   Are there structural commonalities within your music that allow you to draw on your entire body of work within one piece? What makes it possible to incorporate… Taylor and Carl Testa blogged that the second set Saturday night was their favorite of the week. Are there wrong choices, or can any choice be made to be right?

BRAXTON:   Any choice can be made right. Any portion of the materials can be used. That is how the system works. That is a system designate. So the challenge is not so much “Can something be used?” but trying to find a way to use it. This is where the experience comes in and knowledge of the system comes in, and knowledge of how to make things work comes in. But in fact, a multi-hierarchic action space in this way establishes very unique encounter sonic experiences that are outside of the domain of a mono-hierarchical model.

TP:   What did you do today before you saw me? How did you spend your morning? Was it a typical morning?

BRAXTON:   It was a good morning. I was up at 4:30 this morning. I started composing Trillium J at around 7:30, and I was able to work until around 11:30, and then I stopped and tried to watch the phone. But it was a good morning, because I was working on Trillium J. My hope is that I can get a good push forward this summer.

TP:   Are you writing the libretto yourself?


TP:   What did you do between 4:30 and 7:30? Do you exercise? Is there a routine?

BRAXTON:   I exercised today, and my hope is to do this every day, but sometimes I don’t, and I will use the weekend sometimes to have an excuse to not exercise. It’s not really good, but I need to do more exercise, not less exercise.

TP:   How much time do you to get to read?

BRAXTON:   This is part of academia. This is what we have to do. I’m always reading. My hair is white. I have to read even faster!

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Article, DownBeat

The Pile (#2): Two Recent Releases by The Cream of the AACM First Wave

The Association  for the Advancement of Creative Musicians means a lot to me.  I encountered a number of the members as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the middle ’70s.   The Art Ensemble of Chicago had recently returned from Europe, and Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman,  Don Moye, Henry Threadgill, Ajaramu, Amina Claudine Myers, Douglas Ewart, Wallace McMillan, Pete Cosey, and a bunch of others were living in proximity to Hyde Park and playing concerts locally, including the UC campus — the New York migration had not yet begun. Critics John Litweiler and Terry Martin were on the scene.  So was Chuck Nessa. So was Lorraine Black. One time in 1974 or 1975,  Fred Anderson brought his sextet to Reynolds Club, I think, for an afternoon concert, and on my way in I heard amazing, Coltrane-in-the-gutbucket trombone lines that traversed the horn’s registral range. Turned out they were from George Lewis, who had recently moved back to Chicago after graduating from Yale.

I’m a New Yorker, grew up on Bleecker and Thompson, and New York attitude bebop — Sonny Rollins, to be specific (friends used to tease me about my boast that I had all of his records—which, I’ll confess now,  I didn’t), not to mention Bud Powell and Bird and Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and ’50s Miles and Coltrane — spoke to me above all other music. I related to them, I think, because I spent so much time at the West Fourth Street basketball courts as a kid, and their music seemed like an analogue to the ballers I looked up to — among them, Billy, the fastest guard I’ve ever seen who could tomahawk at about 5’8″;  Valentino Willis from the Harlem Wizards; Butch Barbizat, who at 6’2 was the leading rebounder on  the Power Memorial team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played; Timmy, who had what I considered a superior bank shot to Sam Jones. On the musical tip, pop didn’t seem serious enough — as a wiseass Bleecker Street kid, the folkies seemed too self-satisfied, Dylan too solipsistic, Cream and the Rolling Stones too bridge-and-tunnel. I liked Motown and EW&F, and in Chicago I went to the South Side and West Side blues clubs with my friends, and checked out rootsy stuff by David Bromberg and Dan Hicks, but I couldn’t patch into funk.   Nor was I feeling out jazz then.

That afternoon at Reynolds Club,  my paradigm began to shift. New worlds opened up. Jarman did solo concerts that incorporated kabuki and Asian ritual. He performed on campus in duo with Leo Smith and Oliver Lake. George Lewis began learning how to develop improvising software, and  joined Braxton. I got into the magic of Von Freeman. I stopped believing in the sanctity of my personal taste, and began making an effort  to explore modes of expression  that fell outside of it.  I’ve never stopped loving the main-stem of jazz expression. But the aesthetics of speculative improvisation and experimental music mean every bit as much, and brought me into other areas that I once disdained from ignorance. Or, to cite one of my all-time favorite homilies, from Ellis Marsalis:  “son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.”

Muhal Richard Abrams:  Duos with Fred Anderson and George Lewis: SoundDance (Pi)

There’s an old master quality to these barely-roadmapped musical conversations between Abrams—elected  NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Famer last year at 80—and long-time AACM colleagues Anderson, the late outcat master  tenor saxophonist and  charter member of the organization (from 2009, a year before he passed), Lewis (recorded in 2010), the polymath trombonist, electronicist, improvising software creator, and professor of music at Columbia University, who met Abrams in 1971 while on sabbatical  from undergraduate duties at Yale. There’s a call-and-response quality to the former duo, as Abrams supports Anderson’s huge-toned idea development, then spins off variations of his own; whilst the latter performance is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite, transitioning from one concept — the range spans stride piano to post-serialism — to the next without a blink, as though the music were creating itself.

The proceedings bring to mind that one of the key tropes of Lewis’ magisterial history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself (U.Chicago Press),  is the autodidactic learning path that Abrams imparted to such ’60s members as  Roscoe Mitchell,  Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, John Stubblefield, Malachi Favors, Douglas Ewart, and on down the list. They also evoke an exchange I had with Abrams and Lewis in 2007, for a Downbeat piece framed around Streaming, a spontaneous triologue with  Mitchell, when I asked them about Quartet (Sackville), a 1975 encounter that marked the first recorded meeting of the three.

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

    “It seems like we’re going too far back there,” Lewis said.

    “You were just talking about histories.”

    “Only in reference to coming together to perform,” Abrams explained calmly. “It’s very important to accept, if you can, how we view the basis of this. George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

    “Questions like that lead to a species of mythmaking,” Lewis added. “I’ll take it to the place of procedure. Whenever we first began to play with each other, 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 multi-perspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Roscoe Mitchell Note Factory, Far Side (ECM)

The third and most cohesive recording by Mitchell’s Note Factory project, a kind of double quartet in which Mitchell on saxophones and flute and thirty-ish trumpeter Corey Wilkes (Lester Bowie’s replacement in the Art Ensemble of Chicago) interact with two pianists (Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer), two bassists (Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead, who also plays cello), and two drummers (Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis). It’s dense music, and though I’ve listened twice, I’d probably need another two or three to start breaking things down.  Suffice to say that Mitchell’s bandmates are sufficiently intimate with his intense concept as to be able to engage each other in what Iyer once described as “immersive counterpoint,” generating clear, non-imitative ideas simultaneously like a Dixieland band in a parallel galaxy. Although Mitchell, who turned 70 this year, offers healthy helpings of spirit-catching circular breathing and multiphonics, what comes through most palpably is the innate soulfulness and lyricism of his songs and his instrumental sound.

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Filed under AACM, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Piano, Roscoe Mitchell, Tenor Saxophone, Trombone