Tag Archives: Henry Threadgill

For Henry Threadgill’s 76th Birthday, A 2018 Downbeat Feature and the Transcript Of A 1996 Musician Show on WKCR

Best of birthdays to maestro Henry Threadgill, who turns 76 today. In honor of the occasion, here’s my uncut version of an early 2018 Downbeat feature, and a transcript of the proceedings of Musician Show that we did in 1996 on WKCR.

 

Henry Threadgill, DownBeat Article, June 2018:

No one applies more creative mojo to naming a band or a song—or to conjuring out-of-the-box instrumentations to compose for—than Henry Threadgill. The 74-year-old maestro maintains that standard on Pi’s parallel spring releases by two recently configured ensembles.

Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus follows Double Up’s 2016 debut album, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi). The earlier date coincided with Threadgill’s Pulitzer Prize award, bestowed for In For A Penny, the sixth consecutive album by Zooid, which premiered in 2001 with Up Popped The Two Lips. Dirt . . . And More Dirt introduces 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, which combines personnel from Zooid, Double Up, and an as-yet unrecorded brass ensemble dubbed Dimples, which Threadgill premiered in 2014.

Threadgill’s well-turned epigrams complement the music’s singular character. Yet again, he continues to find new ways to address the raw materials that define his documented corpus since Air Song, from 1975, the first of a dozen recordings by Air, a trio with fellow AACM members Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, in which he sought to expand the possibilities of the saxophone-bass-drums format along organizational principles gleaned from Ahmad Jamal, whose trio Threadgill heard while growing up on the South Side of Chicago.

After the 1979 one-off recital X-75 by a bespoke nonet (four basses, four winds, and voice), Threadgill launched a six-album run by his seven-piece Sextett, framing his oracular, spirit-raising voice on alto and tenor saxophone and flute with trumpet, trombone, cello, bass, and two drummers. The players, who included rugged individualists like Olu Dara on trumpet and Craig Harris on trombone, rendered with panache and flair his sui generis pieces, in which Threadgill deftly refracted marches, rags, the blues, sacred music, Balkan strains, Afrodiasporic pop elements, and modernist Euro-canon harmony into his own extravagant argot.

There followed three albums by Very Very Circus during the early ’90s, on which Threadgill deftly sculpted polyphonic and contrapuntal tonal combinations from the potentially lugubrious admixture of saxophone, trombone, two electric guitars and two tubas, propelled by Gene Lake’s primal, funky grooves. On another three albums by Make A Move between 1995 and 2001, Threadgill added accordion, harmonium, vibraphone, and hand percussion colors to his palette, and delved into Pan-American and Pan-Asian flavors. Then, with Zooid, he pared down, framing his instruments with an austere guitar-cello-tuba-drumset ensemble, which improvised fluently within the rules of a rigorous, homegrown intervallic 12-tone system.

On In For A Penny, Threadgill began to loosen the reins, applying a process he describes as “free serialism.” He continues that practice with Kestra and Double Up, creating environments as timbrally lush as Zooid’s are spare, while removing his instrumental voice from the preponderance of the proceedings. To navigate them, he’s recruited a cohort of New York-based best-and-brightest Gen-X’ers and Millennials who match his job description of being “without preconceptions that music and art go one way, and one way only.”

To be specific, Double Up comprises pianists David Virelles, David Bryant and Luis Perdomo; alto saxophonists Roman Filiú and Curtis Robert MacDonald, and drummer Craig Weinrib, none of whom played in Zooid, from which guitarist Liberty Ellman, tubist Jose Davila and cellist Christopher Hoffman return. Augmenting that personnel in the Kestra (Perdomo is absent) are trumpeters Jonathan Finlayson and Stephanie Richards, trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein, bassist Thomas Morgan, and—from Zooid—drummer Elliott Humberto Kavee, who pairs off with Weinrib.

“I use ‘free serialism’ as an analogy,” Threadgill said between sips of a double espresso in a café on Ninth Street and Avenue C in Manhattan’s East Village, a few blocks from the apartment he moved into in 1980. “There’s no other term I can use. These are technical issues only scholarly-type people are concerned with.”

After this demurral, Threadgill broached the matter with a pithy “serialism for civilians” explanation. “Serialism is a tone row of 12 notes arranged in order, and you follow that order strictly, over and over,” he explained. “If it’s free serialism, you’re using still only those 12 notes, but not strictly in that order. Something that goes 1-2-3-4-5, is now going 1-3-5-2-4. I really like Alban Berg, who just did things he wanted to do with his system. I like people like Debussy—people who just do what they want.”

“I think the musical language Henry uses to construct the pieces is so ingrained that he can extrapolate from it right away at any point,” Virelles said. “With the piano, you can hear his harmonies as more defined than some things he did in the past, when he distributed it between the wind instruments, the bass, sometimes even the drums. He tunes the drums specifically, in an orchestral and harmonic way, to add to the overall color he’s trying to put forth.”

Why did Threadgill remove himself from the mix? “It’s not necessary for me to play in every group,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a distraction to listeners; they focus on me as though the other musicians aren’t important. I brought these new young people on the scene with me because I think they’re extremely important.”

He added: “My music is a type of concept or system. It’s not something you can come in and do in any short period of time. Zooid rehearsed a year-and-half, without a gig in sight, before we started. That’s nothing unusual. I did it in Chicago with a number of people. I did it when I worked with Cecil Taylor during the 1980s. For these new people, I had to consider how I could modify my processes so they could be comfortable and use it.”

According to the band members, Threadgill’s modifications do not denote a concomitant decrease in the intensity of his rehearsals. Ellman noted Threadgill’s penchant for targeting areas of deficiency. “He started writing really high guitar parts, which were hard for me to read,” he remarked. “Henry said, ‘You’re wasting a whole lot of your instrument.’ But an improvising ensemble requires a lot of rehearsal to execute the music properly, with the required joy and freedom. We’re not playing every night. Henry wants the music to be tested and internalized so it really comes out as something that’s been mastered before we perform it.”

“Henry is always writing to push you to your limits, trying to expose something we’re trying not to expose,” said MacDonald, who has doubled as Threadgill’s copyist for several years. “He’ll completely change stuff on the fly. He’ll say, ‘I like that; do it again.’ He’s always curious, always listening to what other people are up to. He’s a sponge for all sorts of input and information.”

Why did it take Threadgill so long to write a consequential body of work built around the harmonic possibilities of multiple pianos? After noting his previous deployment of Myra Melford on piano and Amina Claudine Myers on organ and harpsichord on the 1993 album Song Out Of My Trees, Threadgill offered a characteristically blunt explanation.

“I always wanted to write for piano, but I haven’t used it because the pianos are so bad in New York City,” he stated. “With some of the clubs and venues we’ve had to play in, I couldn’t imagine asking a piano player to sit down at some of this junk. It’s taken this amount of time for me to feel comfortable with the physical instrument in this environment.”

Another motivation was Threadgill’s burgeoning friendship with Virelles, who moved to New York in 2009 at the instigation of Steve Coleman and Dafnis Prieto, who had alerted Threadgill to the Cuban pianist’s skills, and, in turn, brought MacDonald, Filiú and Weinrib into Threadgill’s orbit. “During our first few sessions, he’d bring me with him to hear the music playing in New York in a given week,” Virelles recalled. “We’d hear Muhal Richard Abrams with George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, then a premiere by Elliott Carter, whoever was playing at the Village Vanguard or the Jazz Gallery. We’d go to museums and galleries. I was with him or in touch with him almost every single day, talking about music or art.

“Every couple of weeks, I’d bring things to his house to work on. He’d give me directions as to how he thought I could expand and generate more material from what I already had, to transform any amount of information into something else, both for preconceived composition and improvisation. We’d have long discussions about composition and orchestration, which we still do. That’s how I became familiar with his way of thinking about music. After a couple of years, he started coming up with situations where he could use my voice.”

Although Threadgill emphatically does not see teaching as his calling, he acknowledges doing so in his ensembles. “Leaders lead people,” he said. “They trust you to lead them. You’ve experienced a lot more than they have, so you can make them aware of certain things. You have to know what you’re doing, or you shouldn’t be in that position.” His next remarks hearkened to his time in Vietnam, where in 1967-68 Threadgill served as an Army musician in Pleiku, an active combat zone. “Make the most dangerous, critical thing you can imagine, and everyone could end up dead if you get it wrong. You want the leader to be the person you believe can take you through.”

This being said, Threadgill evaluates his relationship with Virelles as a collaboration between equals. “I’d say David was using me more or less as a lead assistant,” he said. “He was a mature artist when I met him, not only an outstanding pianist but an accomplished composer. He knew my musical processes. We looked together at different ideas and problems he was exploring, and I showed him things I was working on, which he got into, examined and understood.”

In describing his interaction with Virelles, Threadgill mirrors his own 55-year friendship with the late Muhal Richard Abrams. They met when Abrams played a concert at Chicago’s Wilson Junior College, where Threadgill was an 18-year-old freshman, and then invited the aspirant to participate in the Experimental Band, the rehearsal group from which the AACM emerged. Threadgill mentioned the encounter to classmates Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors, who decided to investigate. In 1965, they became members of the newly formed AACM; in 1968, Threadgill—who had spent three years raising a joyful noise with a traveling evangelist before his time in Vietnam—joined them.

“Muhal was an example of the studious musician-student, the inquirer-scientist,” Threadgill said. “His level of intensity and the depth of his research went all past jazz and all past classical music. Once Muhal told me he was going to start tuning his piano. He took the whole piano apart. He said, ‘That leads up to tuning.’ When computers came out, he was the first one I knew who had books and materials about the systems. Next thing you know, he had three computers, including one he was opening up to see the mechanics. You saw him unravel the myths or mysteries behind things. His level of research cleared up what you had to do. It told you, ‘See, if you do this, you can go somewhere.’”

Like Abrams and his fellow AACM lifers, Threadgill weathered the ups and downs attendant to a career in creative music, before attaining golden years institutional recognition, as most recently signified by his Pulitzer.

“It was a great honor and privilege to receive the Pulitzer in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s certainly helped me get a bit more attention and have people take some of my work more seriously. Labels like ‘jazz’ put you in ghettos. I just say it’s improvisational-based music. There shouldn’t be a limit to what jazz is in terms of going forward.”

What kept him motivated over the years?

“This is what I do!” Threadgill stated incredulously. “This is what I’m here for. There’s nothing here to discourage me. If I let myself be discouraged, it’s my problem. I’m not supposed to let that happen.” He laughed. “I can’t control human agency.”

“I’m not sure you totally believe that when it comes to your compositions,” he was told.

Threadgill laughed again, and then mentioned the m.o. of his dear friend, the late conductionist Lawrence “Butch” Morris, a fellow Vietnam veteran, composer, flaneur, and Lower East Side neighbor, to whom he dedicated Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. “Butch was looking to get people out of the effect of habit,” Threadgill said. “I am, too. It takes time to understand what’s going on in music. In time, you see how people are doing things by rote almost. My idea—and what Butch was concerned with—is how to keep musicians away from automatic musical behavior. I take away all the symbols they’re used to, that tell them how to behave, and give them another set that allows them only to be spontaneous.”

In the manner of his generational cohort in the AACM, Threadgill sustains a fresh outlook through extra-musical artistic production (in his case, writing), nourished by consistent use of New York’s abundant cultural resources. As he puts it, “Why be here if you’re not going to use the museums and art galleries and libraries? Go to Paducah!”

In point of fact, Dirt . . . And More Dirt gestated in northern California, where Threadgiill was “maxing out” a 90-day Lucas Artists Residency at Montalvo Arts Center, while investigating the local “dirt and clay, huge trees, and vegetation” and the locally-based works of sculptor Stephen De Staebler and painter-sculptor-installation artist Walter De Maria. Conceptual artist David Hammonds, Threadgill’s and Morris’ mutual friend, “pointed me in their direction.”

“Sometimes I’m researching one thing, and it spills over into a manifestation musically,” Threadgill added. “I’m interested right now in arithmetic.”

Did he care to elaborate?

“Not yet,” Threadgill said. “That will become clear pretty soon.”

[END OF ARTICLE

 

 

Henry Threadgill Musician Show (7-24-96):

[MUSIC: Threadgill, “Like It Feels” (1995), “Hyla Crucifer” (1993)]

TP: We have very diverse music that reflects many experiences of Henry’s. I’d like to begin by talking to you about your early experiences listening to music and playing music coming up in Chicago in the 1950’s as a youngster and a teenager. The first set will focus on the Chicago Blues. Was that some of your earliest listening experience?

HT: Yes, some was my earliest Blues listening experience. But I listened to all kinds of music, Western European Classical music, a lot of Polish-American music and American-Mexican music, and a lot of Black Gospel music, and what we called then Hillbilly music, and of course Boogie-Woogie piano.

TP: You’d hear this music in the community, or on records in the house?

HT: Most of it was on the radio. That was before radio was programmed the way it’s programmed today. It was pretty wide-open radio. And then I would hear some music in the community, mostly coming out of shops, because I was too young to go in places where they played music other than churches, where you could hear people like Sam Cooke, the Pilgrim Travelers, people like that.

TP: What church would he play in?

HT: All around the South Side. But this was around Cottage Grove and 31st Street, 35th Street, 39th Street.

TP: In your home were there musicians in the family?

HT: No. I had an aunt, one aunt that was studying piano and voice. She was away in school, went away to a college. Then I had a cousin who played very fine piano, but I never knew it. My aunt married a musician, my uncle Nevin Wilson, a very fine bassist in Chicago. I was very close to them as a kid, because of the music. He was playing with Ahmad Jamal at the time, so I was around them for a lot of that experience.

TP: When did it occur to you that music was something you wanted to do? Was it a natural thing that happened, or was there a conscious choice when you were a kid?

HT: It was a gradual thing, just a gradual thing. By the time I started high school I knew pretty much that’s what I wanted to do, was to play music. But my ideas were very… You know the ideas of a young teenager… Well, not nearly the way teenagers think now. Teenagers nowadays, they think in terms of millions of dollars. We weren’t even thinking in terms of dollars; it was just a matter of wanting to be able to play the way we heard music being performed and played. That’s the way I thought, and my peers, you know.

TP: Did you have a peer group in junior high and high school of kids who were interested in music?

HT: Oh yeah. We had Absholom Ben-Sholomo, who was with Sun Ra, Richard Heard, Stephen Scott, the bassist Mchaka Ubu, my cousin Michael Wess. Arlington Davis, Jr.; his father, Arlington Davis, Sr., was a famous saxophone player from Chicago. There was the Pulliam family, which was a highly musical family in Chicago. I learned a lot from John Pulliam, the saxophonist. His younger brother and sister were my age. We all played together. And Milton Chapman. There were quite a few of us.

TP: At one point or another you’ve performed on nearly every saxophone and woodwind instrument, but it seems like alto has been the consistent main vehicle over the years? Was that first instrument?

HT: Oh, no, that’s my last instrument. I started out as a tenor saxophone player. Tenor saxophone, the baritone saxophone, the clarinet and bass clarinet, then I went to the flute, and I came around to the alto last.

TP: Did you start playing the saxophone in high school through a band?

HT: Yeah, in the band at Englewood High School in Chicago.

TP: Now, the famous high school is DuSable and Captain Walter Dyett…

HT: One of the famous high schools. Englewood was famous… [LAUGHS]

TP: I was leading up to ask you to tell us about the music program at Englewood High School.

HT: It was like all the high school programs, pretty much. It was a band program, and sometimes there would be small group rehearsals to work on Dance Band music or Jazz Band music. We called it Stage Band, besides being in the concert band… In other words, the concert band, the marching band, and then the stage band where we would play big band arrangements. There were a lot of great players at that school when I got there. Roscoe Mitchell, a great saxophone player Donald Myrick, Steve McCall had gone there, Oscar Brown, Jr., Satterfield, the trombone player. There were a lot of good players there.

TP: Who were some of the people who connected you into extending your research into music? Was Roscoe Mitchell one…

HT: No, I met Roscoe very late. The first saxophone player around that I really was influenced by that always was there with encouragement was Donald Myrick. Donald was older than I was, and he was a very fine saxophone player, very gifted when he was very young. There were band and solo city competitions, and he had won several of these for a couple of years. I was kind of following behind him to go to these contests, and play in the different groups. He would take me around to different sessions on Monday nights and Wednesday nights around the city.

TP: Were you listening to tenor players on records at the time? Were you starting to study different styles and approaches to the instrument?

HT: Well, I was listening to everything. But Chicago had a wealth of tenor saxophone players, and it was very difficult not to fall under the spell of Chicago tenor saxophone players, because they are very powerful players, very innovative players. John Gilmore, Eddie Williams, Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, Von Freeman, Gene Ammons, Jay Peters. There was just a list of them that went on and on, so many fine tenor saxophone players. But I never did hear too many alto saxophone players. It was mainly tenor saxophone players that I would go around to hear you always.

TP: Were there any you tried to emulate?

HT: Oh, sure. When you’re learning there’s always people you try to emulate. Gene Ammons was one of my favorites. I always went every place Gene Ammons would play; I’d always turn up there if I could. Gene Ammons and Eddie Williams in particular, and also John Gilmore. John Gilmore, Eddie Williams and Gene Ammons, and then later Von Freeman. Those were like the strong tenor saxophone players around Chicago. Later I was very much an admirer of Clifford Jordan, who became one of my favorite people also.

TP: The first group that you mentioned were all playing around Chicago when you were in high school?

HT: Yes.

TP: Which would have ’58, ’59, ’60 or so?

HT: Yeah, ’58, ’59, ’60.

TP: Were you working at all on little neighborhood gigs at this time, or doing things outside school?

HT: Yeah, we would get a job every now and then.

TP: What type of job would it be?

HT: In a bar, in a club. We would get a chance to play in a bar somewhere every now and then. But mostly we would play at somebody’s house or in the basement of school or in the band-room. We would find someplace to work out our ideas.

TP: What sort of things would you work out on? Would you take tunes sort of in general currency?

HT: Yeah, right. The general repertoire that you heard, the popular Jazz pieces, the contemporary pieces of Charlie Parker. That’s what everybody was playing, learning how to play it. If they couldn’t play it, they were learning how to play it…

TP: So learning the harmonic language of Charlie…

HT: The technical language, harmonic language and melodic language, and the whole musical aesthetic attitude of that music.

TP: Now, there were a lot of venues to play music on the South Side of Chicago at that particular time.

HT: Oh, sure.

TP: That legacy went back many years, and it was kind of the end of that very fertile period of being able to hear a lot of music on the South Side of Chicago.

HT: Yeah, Chicago was like… It was just one place after the other on 63rd Street on the South Side from Martin Luther King Drive (which was named South Park) to the Lake, which was I don’t know how many miles. There was just one place after another where you could hear music nightly, every night, where great musicians played. You’d get to 63rd and Cottage Grove, there were really big places, big dance halls where Duke and Count and people like that would play — the Trianon, the Pershing Ballroom and places like that. The Pershing Ballroom had a ballroom and a bar where Ahmad Jamal worked, and later Sun Ra worked there. Dexter Gordon and these people would come, and you’d hear them in places like Basin Street. There were so many places there.

TP: I take it you were underage to get in, but you would have been able to soak up the whole environment.

HT: Sure, you could get in if you were playing music. We used to carry our instrument around, so they would let you in. They knew you were trying to learn, so they would let you in. They’d serve you Coca-Cola or whatever soft drink they had.

TP: Were you also playing the Blues at that time?

HT: Not at that time. I was playing in marching bands. I was playing in a host of marching bands, all types of marching bands, marching bands that were playing (for lack of a better term) something close to like Dixie, similar to the style of marching bands that you’d hear in New Orleans. That was one type of marching band. Another played military tunes…not military tunes, but tunes that were written for military bands — John Philip Sousa and pieces like that. then there were some things that were just arrangements by people for these different aggregations. But there were quite a few of these things on the South Side. Veteran organizations that had bands. Post bands. You could make money playing parades. That’s what I did.

It was a while before I started playing in Blues bands. That was in the late ’60s, when I started playing in Blues bands in Chicago.

TP: Nonetheless, for purposes of our Musician Show chronology, we’re going to start with Howlin’ Wolf and “Smokestack Lightning”.

HT: For me, Howlin’ Wolf is the greatest. Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters are two of the greatest people I ever heard. It had nothing to do with the Blues; they were just great, period, when you hear what they do and how they do it.

[MUSIC: Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lighting” (1956); Muddy Waters, “Mean Mistreater” (1959); Rev. James Cleveland, “I’ll Do His Will”]

TP: Any general comments on the Blues and Gospel music in reference to what we just heard?

HT: The idea about the Blues that’s sometimes put forth in institutions and situations similar to what institutions put out, that the Blues has some kind of strict formal structure — it does not. The Blues is an internal thing. If one ever really heard the Blues, Blues had no type of structure until the Blues existed. That is, each piece presented its own development and own structure. It had nothing to do with patterns that’s often put forth, that the Blues is some 12-bar form or something like that. That’s really not true. Not this type of Blues. Maybe some type of Blues that’s gotten to be popular among certain type of musicians. But the Blues that I heard that was played on the streets of Chicago and probably played in the country, in the Delta, that Blues could take any direction and any form at any time.

Gospel music was the same way. It was music that was improvised music. It had a starting point, but you never knew exactly what was going to happen with this music. The Blues was the same way. You never knew what was going to happen with it. It was a spirit music, and the spirit was the strongest part of the music. It had the direction of the music. The direction was through the spirit, not so much through a lot of mental calculations and things of that nature. They would more or less play it by the spirit of what they were doing.

TP: If I’m not mistaken, you were out a couple of years on the road with a band for a traveling preacher.

HT: Yes, I used to play with Horace Shepherd, out of Philadelphia. It was a great experience. He was a traveling evangelist, so we got a chance to go to a lot of places, a lot of camp meetings and different churches where they would have him for a week. It was a large entourage of music people that traveled, similar to what Billy Graham has, but it was all Gospel and Sanctified people — singers, musicians that played instruments, pianists, organists, everything. Highly skilled musicians. The level of musicianship was really quite incredible.

It was a great experience because the music would just go off. It almost free. It was free because there was no expectation level. You couldn’t learn some patterns and do these patterns and think that was it. It didn’t work that way at all. You just had a place where you started, and where it ended up depended on what would happen in the emotions of church services.

TP: Did you travel the country?

HT: Yes.

TP: Did you go East to West, North to South with Horace Shepherd?

HT: Oh, yeah. We went to California, the South, the Midwest, the East Coast.

TP: Was that your first extensive experience on the road?

HT: Yes. That happened in 1963-64. It was a very new and very eye-opening experience, because I came in contact with people all around the country for the first time, and I got to see what America looked like outside of a geography book and newspaper clippings, and see real people and see what their attitudes and dispositions were.

TP: At the time you joined Horace Shepherd, the traveling evangelist, talk about where you were musically.

HT: I was playing with the AACM, but it wasn’t the AACM at that time; it was the Experimental Band. Muhal Richard Abrams and all the different people that were associated with the Experimental Band, like Fred Anderson, Steve McCall, Donald Myrick.

TP: For people who don’t know, what was the Experimental Band?

HT: The Experimental Band was a large or small orchestra at a place called C&C’s Lounge, when I came in touch with Muhal and the group. Muhal invited me over there to play and write a piece at that time, which was I guess about ’62.

TP: Was that the first time you’d written, or was it an interest of yours before?

HT: I started writing about that time. Prior to that I started writing, about 1961.

TP: You were still in high school when you began writing.

HT: Yes.

TP: What was your impetus for that? Did you have some sort of rudimentary composition class?

HT: No, it was just a natural thing. It was something that I knew I could do, and I just started doing it without any kind of formal instruction or formal information. It was just something that I knew I could do, and I just started doing it.

TP: How did you come to the Experimental Band? Was it something in the air…?

HT: No, Muhal Richard Abrams. He came and played at the school I was in, Wilson Junior College. We had a music club there.

TP: That later became Kennedy-King Junior College, I believe, and that’s where Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Jack de Johnette were all attending at that time.

HT: Right, and Eddie Harris, Bunky Green, Betty Dupree, they were all up there. There were a lot of musicians there at that time. But we had a music club, and we invited Muhal there to play with a group. That’s when I first met him. and we talked and everything. I don’t know what transpired, but I saw him again, and he invited me to come over there and play with the orchestra at C&C’s, to sit in the section and read the different charts they had.

TP: What was your impression of the music they were playing? Was it different than what you…?

HT: Oh yeah, because it was all original. They weren’t doing standards, and they weren’t doing the popular Bebop music at all. These were people who were writing music, coming from their own directions who were looking for a new direction in music.

TP: Had you heard any music up to this point, 1962, that gave you some kind of reference point to playing this music?

HT: Not really. Well, I would say Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. For playing the music, that was one thing; for writing the music, that was a different experience altogether. For playing the music, yes, I would say Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.

TP: You were already familiar with their recordings.

HT: Oh, yes. We were quite aware. They made a big impression on musicians all across America, all around the world, the step that had been made by them. Bill Dixon, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor. That move was a very significant move in improvised music in the Western world.

TP: Why so?

HT: Because it was the next move from Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, people of that school — that move. Once that move had been made, it was like everyone began to learn this music and they began to formulize this music. It became formulized, the way polyphony in Western music had become formalized by Bach. Then it had fallen into more or less a set of known patterns and predictable outcomes, and consequently it was becoming stylistic and into periodicy, I would say.

TP: What do you mean by that?

HT: That it stayed within itself within that period and style, and it advanced as far as it was going to advance, and that was it. There were refinements and arrangements and beautiful solos, but the evolution had stopped. So with these other people we were speaking of, like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Bill Dixon and others, the doors opened up again, and a number of artists around the country, like the AACM in Chicago were greatly influenced by this music. The later works of John Coltrane, which were in that direction, Eric Dolphy, they had a great influence on the players in the circles I was in.

TP: The next set will start with the only recording by Wilbur Ware, a bassist who was one of great spirit musicians of Jazz, who might start out from a point and take it wherever.

HT: Wilbur had a great influence on all the players I knew around Chicago, and here in New York, too.

TP: When did you first meet him?

HT: Oh God, I don’t even remember what age I was. He and my uncle Nevin Wilson used to run together. I’ve been knowing Wilbur Ware since I was a kid. I don’t even remember.

TP: He was a bassist and a drummer at one point. He lived with the great Chicago drummer Ike Day, and was I gather a very good dancer as well.

HT: Yes, exactly.

[MUSIC: Wilbur Ware, “The Man I Love” (1957); Gilmore-A. Hill-Hutcherson-Davis-J. Chambers “Le Serpent Qui Danse” (1964); Gene Ammons, “The Happy Blues” (1956)]

TP: I seem to recollect a conversation with you, Henry, some years ago, where you remembered Gene Ammons coming into McKie’s while Sonny Rollins was playing, or vice-versa…

HT: Yes, they played together a week on the same at McKie’s, in the Strand Hotel, the Sonny Rollins Quartet with Gene Ammons. It was quite incredible. I mean, I was a great fan of Sonny Rollins when I was growing up; he was one of my idols besides Gene Ammons. Now, you can often hear things live that will never get on record. I remember the last night that the played, the Sunday night, McKie’s locked the doors of the club around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and they wouldn’t let anybody else in. They played until the next morning, and Gene Ammons was really… I had no idea he could play like that. He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section of the saxophone, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies like an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was really quite impressive. I didn’t even know he played up there on the saxophone! It was quite a lesson.

TP: Which goes to show that no artist is giving away all their secrets on any given performance.

HT: That’s right. But those two players were two totally different styles. Sonny Rollins had some Chicago roots, too, because he had a lot of family there and had spent a lot of time, so he knew quite a bit about the Chicago style of playing. I’m sure he was struck with Gene Ammons’ playing. There were very few tenor players of that age who were not struck by Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon coming out of the Billy Eckstine Orchestra.

TP: A few impressions on Gene Ammons’ style and individuality on the saxophone?

HT: Well, I can’t say too much about Gene Ammons’ style, but his sound and the way… I used to run around behind him and watch him and listen very closely to how he would produce the sound on the instrument. It had to do with his physicality also, but he had a way of putting air through the instrument that was important for the production of the type of sound that he had. He had such a massive sound. It wasn’t so much loud as it was big. It was a huge sound that would permeate everything. He would play in a room without a microphone, and just fill up the entire room with sound. Then he played with such depth of feeling, too. He was a great balladeer. He really knew how to play a ballad. He could bleed you to death with his ballads! He was a type of minimalist player, I would say. He didn’t play a whole lot of information, the way Thelonious Monk played. He was an economy player.

TP: A few words about John Gilmore? Did you listen to the Sun Ra Band in the ’50s?

HT: Yeah, I used to be at their rehearsals. They used to rehearse on 63rd Street in Englewood, 63rd and Morgan. Ronnie Boykins lived in the area I lived, and they had a rehearsal space in a supermarket. Absholom Bensholomo and I used to be at the rehearsals every night when they would practice, so we would be back under Pat, Marshall and John on a nightly basis at the rehearsals — then also going to all the performances they’d play.

TP: So this was when you were 14 or 15..

HT: 13-14-15.

TP: What did the music sound like to you at 13, 14 or 15?

HT: It was very different. It was quite radical from anything on disk that we had been listening to. It was really quite radical. The music and the way that they improvised was really quite radical. I hadn’t heard anything like that. I heard Sun Ra before I heard Ornette Coleman or any of these people, and it was really beyond anything that was recorded that we knew of.

TP: Where would you see them perform?

HT: They played every week at the Pershing Lounge, and we’d go there every week. When they left for New York, they left from the Pershing Lounge. They finished at the Pershing, and they got in their cars and drove here to New York around 1961.

TP: A few words about the dynamics of John Gilmore’s style and individuality.

HT: His sound and his style, the information that he was playing was some very advanced harmonic and rhythmic information. His rhythmic approach was really quite amazing. John used to tell me about practicing out of drum books, when we used to go to the rehearsals, listening to them as kids, so I went out and bought a whole bunch of drum books, and I’d play with different drummers. Arlington “Butch” Davis and I used to practice together, and we’d only practice out of drum books. That gives you a grounding in certain drum rhythmics that you wouldn’t ordinarily have in your playing, playing a melodic instrument. Gilmore’s playing was very rhythmic playing. I don’t mean necessarily always busy. It could be busy, but very unusual rhythmic patterns in his playing. And also his harmonic language was extremely advanced. He and Coltrane used to consult a lot. and Coltrane used to come and listen to him play. Eddie Harris, Clifford Jordan, a lot of people knew about his musical thinking. He was a very sophisticated player, and totally original.

TP: Did you ever get to speak with Sun Ra as a teenager, or was it just from afar?

HT: Just a few words here and there. Not too much. I never had any long conversations with Sun Ra, not really.

TP: You mentioned Eddie Harris just now. Were you enamored of his sound and style at this time?

HT: Oh, of course. He was playing at C&C’s Lounge, a great group, with Sleepy Anderson on organ. They had a great band at C&C’s Lounge, with Doug Freeman, a trumpet player, I believe, and I think Ajaramu was the drummer. It was a fantastic band. It first had been Eddie Williams, a fabulous tenor saxophone player in Chicago, then Eddie Harris. That’s when I first met Eddie Harris. He was fascinating, the amount of information that was in him musically.

TP: He was also a pianist. I believe he played Mondays and Tuesdays at the Pershing when Ahmad Jamal was off.

HT: Oh, yes. He played a lot of piano. He was an all-around musician.

TP: Was Johnny Griffin around Chicago a lot at that point?

HT: No, he was pretty much gone by that time. But he used to come in there and play engagements at different clubs and play the theaters. The theaters at that time would have shows after the movie, and he and Jay Peters (another great saxophone player in Chicago) used to front a big band at the Regal Theater.

TP: Both went to DuSable High School. I believe Johnny Griffin succeeded Jay Peters in the Lionel Hampton band.

HT: Right. And they used to play together a lot, duelling tenors with a big band.

TP: A Chicago institution.

HT: Mmm-hmm!

TP: Was that something you’d engage in as a young saxophonist? Part of the Chicago musical ritual, as it were?

HT: Well, it wasn’t any formal ritual. But you had to fall up under the influence of these people because they were all original. They were very original. We were hearing a lot of the music disk coming from who was being recorded in New York, and it was a striking difference, the approach for tenor saxophone players that were out of Chicago.

TP: Presumably mature improvisers are individual in one manner or another. What was the nature of the Chicago individuality?

HT: It took a lot of chances and played a lot of information that was outside of what was being played in New York. Also the concept of sound was different, from what I was hearing on records — what people thought about sound.

TP: Different in what way?

HT: The aerodynamics of sound! The way they put the air in the instrument and what kind of sound came out. There didn’t seem to be a unison thought on that in terms of the Chicago school of players. There were so many people that was far to the left and far to the right in how they approached sound.

TP: So if you’re talking about Chicago players dealing with, say, the same tune that someone in New York was playing, it would come out in as many different ways as there were people to do it.

HT: Yes. Two of the greatest sound masters on the saxophone, in my opinion, are Johnny Hodges and Eddie Lockjaw Davis. But the Chicago school of people was operating on that same level. Von Freeman, John Gilmore, Gene Ammons, these are people that worked with sound in the same kind of way. It was a very sophisticated level of dealing with the sound.

TP: Von Freeman says that Ben Webster, one of the great sound masters, was around a lot during the early and mid ’50s.

HT: Mmm-hmm. So was Don Byas. He lived in Chicago. He stayed on 55th Street in Chicago for a long time. [I THINK HENRY MEANS COLEMAN HAWKINS, WHO LIVED THERE IN THE EARLY TO MID ’40s, ON GARFIELD BY THE NORTH-SOUTH EL]

TP: Next up is music by Ahmad Jamal, who by 1961 was an institution in Chicago. At what point did your uncle, Nevin Wilson perform with Ahmad Jamal?

HT: Oh, this was in Rockford, Illinois… Late ’50s, I believe. Somewhere in there. I don’t remember the years. But I had just fallen under the spell of Ahmad Jamal, who was not only a great pianist, but an incredible orchestrator and arranger at the keyboard. He’s still that way. He does what he absolutely wants to do at any time. He’ll play anything as long as he wants to play it. He’ll play one note for a minute if he feels like it. And his orchestrational thinking in terms of what the drums should be doing melodically and rhythmically, the tunings between the drums, the bass and the piano, has been so sophisticated over the years… It’s just incredible how still there’s not a lot of information written about Ahmad Jamal and what he’s done for music, American music. You can’t think about playing music on the trio level and bypass that. If you bypass that, you’re going to really miss some serious vitamins in your diet! I mean, you could fall dead if you don’t have that kind of information.

TP: I guess one of the reasons there’s such a dynamic interaction between he and his drummer was who his drummer was, the great Vernell Fournier from New Orleans, and inheritor of the drum traditions of New Orleans.

HT: Mmm-hmm. But those traditions were all up and down the Mississippi River. Those traditions were not unique to New Orleans at all. They were prevalent up and down that river, coming up to Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago — straight on up. It’s a misconception that a lot of things was just in New Orleans. Not at all. It was up and down that river. The only time there was a lot of information in New Orleans was in the days there was mostly pianists operating in New Orleans. You know, Jelly Roll. After that, not really.

TP: Well, Jelly Roll came up to Chicago which gave it a different flavor.
HT: Louis Armstrong came to Chicago, too.

TP: It seems to me that one of the things about Chicago music is that the New Orleans musicians had such an impact there from moving there to work in the 1910’s and ’20s.

HT: Well, they did make an impact. They had to come up. That was the only way to come. You had to come to Chicago. The stockyards was in Chicago, and it was also the center of the railroads. It was like 42nd Street. You had to go to 42nd Street here to make changes to go all over town. So the only way you could get to any part of America was you had to come to Chicago. They came to Chicago because the logistics of transportation made it impossible for them to go any other way. If you wanted to go west or you wanted to go east, you still had to come to Chicago.

TP: I guess you could go to California to New Orleans in a different way…

HT: No, you couldn’t.

TP: Sure, by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

HT: No. They all came to the center of the country, through the shipping routes. The shipping routes is the way people traveled. The shipping routes had to do with the way America was being fed, which was around the stockyards, and where all the trains came through. That was the best way to travel. Also people tended to come to Chicago because of work. There was a lot of work on all kinds of levels. You’ve got to remember, people came from the south to the northern states via Chicago. Some went on to other places, Detroit, Cincinnati, etcetera. Others never left Chicago. That’s why you have such a large community of Southern people in Chicago.

TP: Some people call Chicago the northernmost Southern city.

HT: Yeah, they say “as far down South as you can get up North.” [LAUGHS]

TP: Any ideas on the impact of that phenomenon on the music of Chicago?

HT: Well, the Delta Blues and the Gospel was very strong in Chicago, which led into the whole Rhythm-and-Blues period. That music was pervasive, and people really responded to it. So it was a part of a musician’s background. If you became a musician, that was naturally a part of your background. It was hard to get around that. Mahalia Jackson was there, Clay Evans, James Cleveland and people like that would come through, Sam Cooke was there. You had to be struck by the artistry of these people. Howlin’ Wolf. It was incredible.

[MUSIC: Jamal-Crosby-Fournier, “Raincheck” (1960); Sun Ra-Gilmore, “Images” (1958); Von Freeman, “I’ll Remember April” (1992)]

HT: Von Freeman’s rhythmic and sound approach is very distinctive. It’s almost Eastern, what happens with the sound. Johnny Hodges often worked with the sound like that. It’s different from what a lot of players think… They have this idea about a just intonation, what’s in tune. What’s in tune is what’s in tune in your mind; not what is in tune physically, but what is internally in tune. That’s really an unusual approach for a saxophonist, because in so much of the tradition of the music everyone is trying to sound so much in classical unison. It’s a wider sound band that he’s playing in.

TP: Now, in Blues situations that’s not necessarily the case. You’re in tune in a different way.

HT: Exactly. I believe a lot of it is coming from there, because he comes right out of that Blues environment in Chicago. That’s the kind of foundation that these older saxophone players out of Chicago had, how they would play variants with the sound, which is something that I think kind of goes back to Africa possibly; it might have its roots there in terms of sound.

TP: That quality of working with sound is one of the characteristics of the new music of the 1960’s that inspired you as a young saxophone player.

HT: Yes.

TP: People like you and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Kalaparusha…

HT: Roscoe named his first album Sound.

TP: Roscoe Mitchell has mentioned a great debt to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. There’s a phrase to describe the music that happened in Chicago post-Ayler Music, which it may or may not be. But I’d like to talk with you a little about those years. We spoke before about your introduction to the Experimental Band, and you were at Wilson Junior College in 1962 before going out on the road with Horace Shephard, the traveling evangelist, which is where you met Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell…

HT: Joseph and I were there in school together playing prior to Roscoe coming there. I think Roscoe had come out of the Service or something like that at that time. He came out of the Service, and then we started playing together. The three of us started playing together, rehearsing together after he came out of the Service.

TP: What sorts of things would you work out at these rehearsals?

HT: We started off with traditional things, Art Blakey or Horace Silver arrangements, and then we started to go into things — some of Ornette’s music and Coltrane’s music; basically those two.

TP: Were you with a rhythm section?

HT: Yes. That was Dracir(?) Smith on drums, Eddie Chappell(?) on bass, another bassist who played with us, and a pianist named Byron. There were about two or three pianists who used to try to work in that context, which was very difficult because the music had changed so much. We weren’t really doing anything with Muhal yet, who was quite qualified to work in that area, and Andrew Hill wasn’t around, so he wasn’t available! So it was some younger pianists who were working in that direction. Christopher Gaddy ended up being important in that circle.

TP: Was that a workshop band, or were you working…?

HT: Yeah, I guess you would call it a workshop situation. It was just a weekly thing that we did all the time.

TP: So you were doing that, there was the Experimental Band, and you were making forays at writing music.

HT: Right.

TP: This goes until 1963, when you go on the road with the evangelist minister Horace Shepherd, and you came back to Chicago when?

HT: I was in and out of Chicago. I wasn’t gone completely. Then I left Chicago in ’66 for a couple of years when I went in the Service, and came back in ’68. That’s when I started playing mostly Blues.

TP: Did you join the AACM when it was incorporated in 1965?

HT: I wasn’t there.

TP: But you kept your association.

HT: Yeah, I had some association. I really wasn’t playing too much music outside of the music I was playing with Horace Shepherd. That’s the only music I was playing at that time. I wasn’t playing Jazz or anything like that.

TP: So you went in a whole different direction in the middle part of the ’60s.

HT: Right.

TP: In the Service were you playing music?

HT: In the Service I was playing music.

TP: You were part of a band?

HT: Right.

TP: What was that experience like?

HT: Oh, it was a very good experience, because they had great bands, great musicians in these bands, large concert bands. A lot of great players I met in these bands in the States and overseas, fantastic musicians.

TP: Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman had very positive experiences in these bands as well.

HT: Many musicians. Wayne Shorter, Coltrane, Clark Terry, Lester Bowie, all these people were in bands. You name it! That was one way people used to go. It was a place where you could work out your ideas, and only work on music, for one thing.

TP: What was the scene like when you returned to Chicago in 1968? Did you immediately go back to the AACM type situations?

HT: I was playing with the AACM, but I was playing with Phil Cohran also. Phil Cohran is a very important bandleader, composer, theoretician, historian, and also one of the people who founded the Afro-Arts Theater which was an important institution in Chicago, that presented a wealth of music-dance events. They had a lot of great musicians under his leadership. The original people from the Earth, Wind and Fire group were all there. There were a lot of great musicians in that particular camp. I worked with him, and I think Stubblefield was in the band with the guitarist Pete Cosey. Sonny Rollins’ aunt or cousin I think was in that band. There was a tuba player who later became a bass player, Tyus Palmer. Phil Cohran was very important, and he’s still very important in Chicago. He’s still a great musical thinker and leader in Chicago.

TP: What were the nature of activities when you came back to Chicago with the AACM?

HT: Mostly playing with the big band at that time. I didn’t do too many… I started doing some rehearsals with putting some small groups together, but basically playing with the AACM Big Band is what I was doing.

TP: What were some of the affiliations you started making in ’68 and ’69? I know in ’69 the Art Ensemble left for Paris, and people like Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall as well, the configurations changed.

HT: Well, we kept doing things. We still had a big band, but people were making some moves around the world to try to take the music on the road and to try to get some working situations for themselves over and beyond what they could get in Chicago and around the States. I left briefly in ’69 and came to New York, and I stayed for a while and played around here. Then I came back and started putting Air together, the trio that I had. After coming to New York I went back to Chicago and decided I was going to start another group. I had some groups I experimented with, but it was Air that took off.

TP: We’re going to play “Lonely Woman,” and I’d like you to say something about the impact of Ornette Coleman on the music that developed in the 1960’s. I think we can speak about him very comfortably with the other saxophone players in terms of projection and use of sound.

HT: Yes. Also a kind of new melodic direction came from Ornette Coleman. He’s such a great melodic thinker and lyrical player. They were such fresh new melodies that came out of what he was doing. They came out of the same place we were used to listening to in the traditional Jazz music. Also, the orchestrations within the framework of the instruments they had were very sophisticated, especially what Charlie Haden was playing. Where he would be playing in reference to where another instrument was playing was quite unique. It wasn’t just a bass, it was a bass part that moved in terms of registers that were in relation to what the other instruments were playing, which gave the music a sound and made it jump out and cause certain acoustical connections to happen. Say Ornette would be playing on a certain range on his instruments; then the bass would be in a particular range that made the alto sound a certain way — it gave the whole ensemble a certain sound. This was quite new, because the bass playing we had heard previous to that was a walking type of bass that kind of went up and down. It didn’t have these big register shifts like that, register shifts that had an ultimate orchestral effect on the music. So it was really a lot of new information that came out of this music which permeated all of my thinking and the thinking of all my peers.

TP: Well, certainly that sense of unifying sound or creating sounds in relation to each other was very evident in Air, which had a very spare instrumentation, where you were joined by two extremely resourceful instrumentalists and improvisers, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. I guess there’s some element of the Ahmad Jamal concept of orchestration, too, with a minimum of elements.

HT: Yeah. Exactly.

[MUSIC: Ornette, “Lonely Woman” (1959); Eddie Lockjaw Davis, “Whole Nelson” (1961)]

HT: Eddie Lockjaw Davis, I have to say, is probably the most original saxophone player I ever heard in my life. I’ve listened to all the different saxophone players, but I’ve never heard anyone play the saxophone like that. It’s the most convoluted style of playing that I ever heard in my life. You can hear a lot of players emulate Charlie Parker, Coltrane, all kinds of players. I’ve never heard anyone that can emulate this man, or anyone who can approach the saxophone in this way. It’s a strange style of playing, and the harmonic language is very different. His way of formulating sound on the instrument is extremely different; I don’t know what that was about. If you listen to Eddie Lockjaw Davis (most people haven’t listened to him, I don’t think), you will see that the notes don’t come out of the saxophone the way they do when other people play the saxophone. It’s very convoluted. It’s the most original thing I ever heard in my life. The most original.

TP: People use the phrase upside-down to describe his patterns.

HT: I don’t even know what he’s doing, to tell the truth. Maybe he was playing upside-down, I don’t know. Whatever it was, it was the most original thing I ever heard. Because it’s not a linear way of playing. It’s convoluted. It’s a convoluted style, and I never heard anyone else play like that.

TP: You mentioned that you started as a tenor player and came to the alto saxophone last, a lot of the people we’re listening to in the course of the show are tenor players. A lot of people take the opposite tack. Given the choice between the alto and tenor, they find it’s easier to get an acceptable sound on the tenor, and move to that. You went in the opposite direction. What was it about the alto that appealed to you?

HT: It was when I was playing with this church band. The minister of the Church, when I first went to play for this particular church, asked me to play this particular piece of music, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” I played it that Sunday. Like I say, this was a sanctified church, and when I played it, the people were just polite; they just kind of looked up in the air. They usually just fell on the floor in front of my face! The minister told me, “I have an alto saxophone under the pulpit.” He told me to go put it in the shop and he would pay to have it fixed. So I put it in the shop, got it fixed, and then he said to me, “Now, play that same piece of music next Sunday.” I played it, and it was like a whole different reaction from the church when I played it. What I discovered was (I had been playing the tenor around there) that they just didn’t hear the tenor. It was too low. The tenor is great in playing the Blues, but it really didn’t work in the churches. And when I started coming across a couple of other people who were playing out there in that church circuit, they were all playing altos, too. So that’s how I switched over to the alto.

TP: Then in the AACM, multi-instrumentalism was…

HT: When I came back to the AACM I was playing all of the saxophones, the baritone and tenor, but eventually…

TP: I recollect seeing you play twenty years ago, there would be a floor of instruments on the bandstand.

HT: Playing everything. I just worked it down to…I just play mostly these days alto, flute and bass flute.

TP: In what sense did being in the AACM and being in that environment expand your compositional horizons and visions and sense of the possibilities of music?

HT: Oh, because the players were all composers, and they were all looking for and developing their writing skills and compositional language. So you would find out what other people were constantly doing, which enhanced what you were doing. Also, people’s general interest in world music. Somebody could tell you about listening to this person play music from some other country, or avail you of information to go hear concerts by the Chicago Symphony or the Chicago Chamber Players or anything of that nature. There was so much broad information now, all of a sudden. In that circle there was a broad resource of information being exchanged and previewed. It was not exclusively Jazz any more. It was music. The picture was music there. It was not a particular idiom any more.

TP: So it’s as though the musical language of the world is on your plate to do with what you will.

HT: Yeah, to investigate and whatever. Whatever approach you wanted to take to it. But it was wide open. Before that, the places I would go and be around, people were exclusively just trying to deal with just Jazz, and not looking at the music of Varese or Hindemith or Schoenberg or Stockhausen, or listening to Bishmallah Kahn. That wasn’t the case. Now in the AACM, there were a bunch of people that were aware of a lot of different music, were working within the context of different musics, and integrating it into what they were doing. The same had been done before. That’s the way it’s always done. That’s how advances are made, by infusing and accepting other things into what you’re doing until you come up with something that allows you to evolve in evolutionary terms.

TP: When you came to New York in the mid-’70s, Air continued, and then you focused on the Henry Threadgill Sextett, with two drummers, making it a 7-musician ensemble. We’ll hear a track from the last Sextett recording, Rag, Bush and All on RCA-Novus.

[MUSIC: “The Devil Is On the Loose And Dancing With A Monkey” (1988); “Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket” (1983); Varese, “Ionization”]

TP: A few words about the current organization. I asked you before if you recycle compositions, or better put, rework them and re-orchestrate for different bands, and you said it’s almost entirely new music for new orchestras. You have a new group after Very Very Circus, which doubled the guitars and tubas.

HT: The new group is a five-piece group, Make A Move.

TP: In your writing are you hearing sounds and finding people to match the sounds, or are you hearing people’s sounds and finding ways to structure them within an ensemble? Is that a clear question?

HT: It’s a clear question, but I don’t know if my answer would be the answer you want. The answer is, no, I hear a totally different situation, and it’s about finding the right people for the situation. They bring a lot of new possibilities within that situation. I have a general idea of where I want to go and what I want to do, and then when somebody comes in, you see how much information they have, so it enriches your information as to what’s possible within this new framework that you put yourself in. That’s basically what happens.

TP: Well, I don’t think I wanted one answer or the other. I just wanted to know what the deal actually was, Henry!

HT: What the deal is. I don’t actually know what the deal is until the deal is done! It’s like that. You’ve got to know when to hold it and know when to fold it and know when the deal is done!

[MUSIC: Very, Very Circus, “Vivjanrondirski”]

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For Gene Ammons 89th Birth Anniversary, a Liner Note for The Prestige Reissue “Fine And Mellow”

No one who loves the sound of the tenor saxophone doesn’t love Gene Ammons (1925-1974) who first entered public consciousness playing alongside Dexter Gordon in Billy Eckstine’s band in the mid-’40s, and had the first of his many instrumental single hits in 1947 with “Red Top”. An unparalleled balladeer and blues practitioner  who could more than hold his own in any cutting contest (his solo starts at 7:32—rhythm section is Hampton Hawes, Bob Cranshaw and Kenny Clarke!), as evidenced on a series of recorded ‘jam sessions’ that he recorded for Prestige in the second half of the ’50s, including the 1958 date, Groove Blues, on which John Coltrane played alto saxophone. Ammons spent 7 of his prime years in jail on a trumped-up narcotics charge, which is perhaps why he’s less remembered than he ought to be. He came out of the penitentiary with powers undiminished and a raw edge, recording jazz funk classics, expressionistic ballads, and straight-up swing. He was state-of-the-art; the tunes sound better with time’s passage.

In any event, ten years ago or so, I had an opportunity to document my feelings about the maestro in a liner note for a reissue of the proceedings of three 1972 sessions that were released contemporaneously on the LPs Get My Own and Big Bad Jug, which I’ve posted below.

Gene Ammons, “Fine and Mellow” (Liner Notes):

No tenor saxophonist of his generation understood melody more profoundly than Gene Ammons, whose ability to make his metal instrument emulate the human voice with unparalleled presence and dramatic weight gave him great stature among his peer group.

“Jug’s one of my heroes of all time,” says tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, referring to Ammons by his nickname.  Now 81 and saying more on the tenor than just about anyone alive, Freeman met Ammons, two years his junior, in the middle 1930s at South Side Chicago’s DuSable High School, where both studied under the famous taskmaster Walter Dyett. “I give him a lot of credit, because he sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago. Then again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.”

Freeman is referring to the way individualistic tenormen like himself and Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson and Frank Wess — ’20s-born musicians who assimilated Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young before Charlie Parker entered the picture — blended Hawkins’ charging, arpeggiated, straight-up-and-down attack and thick operatic tone with Young’s relaxed, fluid, float-like-a-butterfly, bel canto conjurations. Ammons played economically, and he could accent his lines with stirring blues vocalizations, like Muddy Waters playing bebop saxophone. He had an unerring inner metronome, honed during an Art Blakey-booted two-year stint in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra; one Ammons note would launch the beat and the swing, and that note would permeate the room — or speaker. Plus, the ladies dug him; Ammons could bleed you to death with a ballad, smooth with quiet fire, like his idol Nat King Cole, or, a la Mario Lanza, oozing vibrato to maximize the melodrama.

Ammons possessed an incredibly powerful embouchure (Freeman recalls once seeing him snap off a saxophone neck while blowing), and in certain ways, his larger-than-life sound, which projected pain and jubilation in equal measure and seemed to emanate from deep in his innards, disguised his extreme musical sophistication. He inherited his rawer musical chromosomes from his father, Albert Ammons, the legendary boogie-woogie pianist-church deacon. He got the finesse from his mother, a music teacher and classical pianist.

“I used to go by Jug’s house,” Freeman recalls: ” They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything, but I didn’t know what I was doing. One day when I was about 14, his mother said to me, ‘Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you.’ She’d been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, ‘The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords. Come over here.’ Then she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  She started me out.”

On the three autumn 1972 sessions that comprise “Fine and Mellow,” the 47-year-old, three years out of his second stint in jail, enters Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with a cohort of New York A-list studio pros, quickly comprehends the form and the texture of the songs and arrangements – here a melange of Billie Holiday material chosen to exploit the release of “Lady Sings The Blues,” MOR pop, and a few elemental originals suffused with funk-tinged blues sensibility – and lays down a succession of declamations that contain a surfeit of heart and soul, with the occasional wild edge, as he had done for the previous quarter-century on a series of jukebox staples like “My Foolish Heart” and “Canadian Sunset.”

It’s the sound and approach that made Ammons the people’s choice in Chicago from 1947, when he formed his own unit after Eckstine disbanded, until his death in 1974. “One night we had five gigs, all dances,” recalls pianist Junior Mance, who joined Ammons not long after he departed from Mercury Records, for which he recorded ‘Red Top,’ his first big hit. “In Gary, Indiana, which was our third gig, Jug’s car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth. The club-owner took Jug to the union, and they called us down. We’re all sitting there, and Harry Gray, the local president, said: ‘You guys know better; why did you follow him in doing five gigs?’  Which was a stupid question.  If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it… Anyway, our drummer, Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band and who was very quick, said, ‘Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.’ They all laughed, and that got us off the hook.”

Musicians as diverse as Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Rollins and Henry Threadgill were hooked on Ammons. “Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine,” Rollins told me a few years ago. “He was out there doing it when I was still in school, and he was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal. When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.”

Threadgill recalls a memorable week in 1961 or 1962 when Ammons guested with the Sonny Rollins Quartet at McKie’s, a popular 63rd Street club that Rollins immortalized in a song. “You can often hear things live that will never get on record,” Threadgill stated on WKCR in 1996. “On Sunday night, they locked the doors around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and wouldn’t let anybody else in. They played until morning. I had no idea Gene Ammons could play like that.  He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was quite a lesson.”

Tenor players at all levels will find lessons aplenty in these sessions. Listen to Ammons bellow out his statement on “Lucille,” an impassioned love cry penned by Harold Vick. He imparts maximum blues impact with a minimum of notes on the downhome “Tin Shack Out Back” and on “Lady Mama,” the latter an elemental vamp on the chords of “Freedom Jazz Dance,” written by fellow DuSable alumnus Eddie Harris, who as a youngster subbed for pianist James Craig on Ammons dances at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom.  He squeezes every bit of melodic juice from “Can’t Help Myself” and “God Bless The Child,” and, in the company of maestros Hank Jones and Ron Carter, evokes the surreal ambiance of “Strange Fruit.”

For all his personal problems, Ammons played with remarkable consistency, and these statements, like so much of his finest work, transcend the particulars of time and place and genre. With the reissue of “Fine and Mellow” another piece of his career mosaic falls into place, and we are the richer for it.

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Filed under Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Liner Notes

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

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

Fred Hopkins (December 3, 1985):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.  Boy, I love it.

[MUSIC: Air, “G.vE,” “RB”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It certainly was.

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

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

This was in high school?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and so went into education.

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

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

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

You were in DuSable around 1961 or ’62?

Yes, I went to DuSable in ’62.

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

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

What kind of material would the Jazz band be playing?

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

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

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

Were you listening to Jazz records at that time also?

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

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

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

How about bass players?

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

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

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

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

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

[END OF SIDE 1]

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

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

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

How broad was the repertoire of the orchestra?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were you playing with the AACM Big Band?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crab food…

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

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

’75, ’76, ’77, ’78.

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

Sunday afternoons or Saturday afternoons.

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

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

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

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

Yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bass is a less painful instrument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is it that makes the pieces difficult?

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

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

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

What kind of amp do you use?

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

Do you double at all?  Any electric bass?

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

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Filed under AACM, Bass, Fred Hopkins, WKCR

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.”

[BREAK]

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?”

[BREAK]
“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.”
[BREAK]

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.

BRAXTON:   Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   Yes.

TP:   Intervals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Are you writing the libretto yourself?

BRAXTON:   Yes.

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

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

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

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

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Article, DownBeat

Ethan Iverson Interviews Henry Threadgill

If you’re linking to this very young blog, you probably know  “Do The Math,” the forum in which Ethan Iverson, best known as the formidably creative pianist in The Bad Plus, expresses his omnivorous interests. But if you don’t, I urge you to spend some time navigating Ethan’s archives, which include, in addition to incisive criticism,  informed, in-depth interviews with musicians ranging from Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett to Wynton Marsalis, not to mention Billy Hart, Stanley Crouch…and many more.  Ethan’s latest installment is a lengthy sitdown with the composer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill for a BBC3 profile

Haven’t figured out yet how to create hyper-links within the text,  so please find the link in the “Blogroll” section  to your right.

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Filed under AACM, Ethan Iverson, Henry Threadgill, Interview