Tag Archives: Leo Smith

Olu Dara — An Uncut 2001 Blindfold Test and the Transcript of a 2002 Musician Show on WKCR

Back in 2002, when he was recording for Atlantic Records, I had two encounters with trumpeter-singer Olu Dara — a DownBeat Blindfold Tests at Atlantic’s offices, and a WKCR Musician Show. The Blindfold Test has been since Olu’s 73rd birthday in 2015; I’ve just transcribed the Musician Show, after digitizing it from cassette to mp3.

Olu Dara Blindfold Test:

1.    Louis Armstrong, “You Go To My Head” (from LOUIS ARMSTRONG MEETS OSCAR PETERSON, Verve, 1956) (5 stars)

From the first couple of notes, although he has a cup mute, if it’s not Satch, it’s someone who’s been living with him all his life in the back room somewhere. [AFTER] Of course that was Louis Armstrong.  A lot of the trumpet players from that era had a certain sound, it was a staccato, but you know it’s Satch with the vibrato at the end of his phrases.  That’s how you can really tell.  And the tone.  I usually prefer Satch playing other type of songs, not these conventional standard type songs.  It’s a strange thing for me.  It’s like a hybrid of something… Knowing where he came from, New Orleans, the Southern thing, him doing this is like a Chinese singing a Puerto Rican song.  You know what I mean?  It’s hard to describe.  Now, the piano player sounds exactly like something McCoy Tyner played, almost note for note.  I don’t know who came first, this piano player or McCoy, but it’s an exact duplicate of the way McCoy played behind Coltrane on “Ballads.” [This piano player came first?]  Who is he?  Oscar Peterson?  Amazing.  In instrumental music there’s a lot of…it’s not copying, but they almost cookie-cutter each other.  It’s amazing how that happens, especially in jazz music.  Anyway, just because it’s Satch, I would give him everything.  5 stars, 6 or 7.  Because I know he can do that laying on his back.

2.    Leo Smith, “Anoa’s Prophecy” (#8) (from DREAMS AND SECRETS, Anonym, 2000) (5 stars)

It sounds like a jazz bass player and a jazz drummer trying to play funk.  But that is Miles Davis…or someone close to him.  No? [LAUGHS] That’s deep!  Keep playing it!  Is that the trumpet player who writes in film? [Not Mark Isham.] It’s not Mark Isham. [AFTER A HINT] Oh, that’s Leo Smith.  It’s funny about horn players from… I didn’t know who the other people were, but I do recognize horn players close to the Mississippi River.  There are certain things we do…we can do a lot of things, and that’s one of the things we can do.  We can go that way, we can do the Satchmo thing, we can do the Miles Davis thing, we can do the Clark Terry thing, we can do the avant-garde thing.  You’ll find that most trumpeters from this area, where we’re from, we’re documented playing all types of music.  This is close.  That’s why I thought it was Miles at first, because the sound is so real.  It’s authentic, his sound.  The concept also.  Now, the rhythm section is another story.  I’ll give this five stars because of Leo’s conceptual ability to play any type of trumpet style and really play it authentically, like it should be played.  I would say he’s one of the most creative musicians I’ve met, especially on the trumpet.  Period.

3.    Tremé Brass Band, “Gimme My Money Back” (from GIMME MY MONEY BACK, Arhoolie, 1995) (Kermit Ruffins, tp.) (3 stars)

I’ve heard this live in New Orleans.  The Dirty Dozen.  It’s not the Dirty Dozen?  [There are people in this band from the Dirty Dozen, but it’s not the Dirty Dozen.] That makes a difference.  That’s not Brass Fantasy, is it?  The saxophonist sounds like Maceo Parker.  The trumpet player sounds like Gregory Williams who plays with the Dirty Dozen.  I can’t identify the horns.  The horns sound like conventional trumpeters.  It’s hard to play anything other than conventional type trumpet on this type of beat.  So I’m sure I won’t be able to identify the trumpet player. [AFTER] That did sound like the Dirty Dozen, but not the real Dirty Dozen.  Some of the Dirty Dozen you could feel in there.  I couldn’t identify the horn player.  I know the tuba player, Kirk Joseph.  He’s one of the finest tuba players I’ve heard.  I couldn’t identify the trumpet player, because as I said, it’s hard on that type of beat…a trumpet player would have to be extraordinary to be able to create something on that kind of beat other than what trumpet players create on that beat.  But I’m quite sure I may know the trumpet players. [Kermit Ruffins] Oh, I’ve never heard his music.  For being able to play that music in this day and time, I give them 3 stars for just the idea of keeping it around.

4.    David Murray, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” (from SPEAKING IN TONGUES, Just In Time, 1997) (Hugh Ragin, tp.; Fontella Bass, vocals) (3 stars)

I don’t know who it is, but it’s…I don’t know what you can call it.  It’s “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”.  I know it wasn’t produced in the South.  They wouldn’t do that with that beat on it, and especially playing a lot of notes on the solo, since it’s a lament.  So it seems like a strange way to do that.  I’m quite sure they’re young musicians, but were young musicians doing it.  Let me see what else you got there.  Right now the introduction was too long, so I didn’t want to hear more.  Sounds like Mavis Staples singing.  But it’s not Mavis.  I can’t identify anybody.  I can’t really feel it.  That’s David Murray right there.  [AFTER] Fontella Bass.  I was in the ballgame!  I didn’t know who the trumpet player was.  But he didn’t grow up in that environment with that kind of music.  But you could clearly hear David.  David has a very distinctive concept and tone.  I didn’t know Fontella, because I hadn’t heard her since “Rescue Me.”  That’s been a jillion years ago.  She reminded me of Mavis in a way.  Just for the idea itself, once we got past the introduction [LAUGHS] and got to Fontella and David’s solo, then it made sense.  I’ll give it 3 stars for all of that.

5.    Fred McDowell, “Going Down The River” (from THE FIRST RECORDINGS, Rounder, 1959/1997) (5 stars)

[TO HIS SON] We may have it at home, but I probably haven’t listened to it.  I know it’s out of Mississippi.  That’s one of our people.  But it could be anybody.  I don’t listen to a lot of CDs as it is.  But I know he’s from Mississippi.  But there are hundreds of us who can sing like that down there.  So I wouldn’t be able to identify this man at all.  That’s creative music right there.  That’s where a lot of jazz comes from.  If you listen closely, you can hear a saxophone solo in the guitar work.  You can hear Monk in this man’s voice, you can hear big band arrangements, everything right here.  You can hear Miles Davis, “Freddie Freeloader” — BANH-BAM, it was the same note.  A good band!  Sounds very Mississippi.  Very.  But I don’t know who he is.  Mmm!  I probably know who he is and don’t know who he is at the same time. [AFTER] That was beautiful music of the best kind.  Who he was… Fred McDowell.  I have heard him before, but I didn’t recognize him.  That’s a 5-star for the whole outfit, from the drummer, guitar players — extraordinary music.  Like I said, you can hear all types of music from right there.  You can hear Duke’s band, you can hear Monk, you can hear Louis, you can hear everybody with that one song.

6.    Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In The Dark” (from THE COMPLETE TOWN HALL CONCERT, Blue Note, 1962/1994) (3 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Is that Duke Ellington?  It sounds like Clark Terry playing the trumpet.  Sounds like Duke’s band.  Mingus?  Okay..  Duke or Mingus, because they had a tendency to use arbitrary notes in their ensemble playing.  That’s what I heard.  They were one of the few bands that would use just arbitrary notes.  They’re called arbitrary notes by some, but to me it’s proof that all notes go together if they’re done with the right people playing them and the right attitude.  It’s not the kind of music I like to listen to, but I would give it 3 stars for being able to make instrumental music sound real soulful.

7.    Chocolate Armenteros, “Choco’s Guajira” (from GRUPO FOLKLORICO EXPERIMENTAL NUEVOYORQUINO: CONCEPTS IN UNITY, Evidence, 1975/1994) (5 stars)

Is that Cuban music?  Is it Sandoval on trumpet?  I love this kind of groove.  when I first heard this kind of sound, I was in Cuba many years ago. [TO HIS SON] The vocalists sound Puerto Rican.  It’s hard for me to identify a Spanish-speaking band, very difficult because I don’t speak the language.  I can’t identify the soloists at all.  They have a certain solo style that’s kind of similar, which is why it’s hard for me to identify the musicians.  But they have a Congolese-Cuban kind of feeling to it.  Sounds like they’re making music in New York City.  I can tell because of the claves and the conga drums.  Because the Cubans and the Congolese have a much heavier congo sound, but here they use timbales.  The claves are a central instrument.  But I have no idea who they are. [AFTER] Jerry and Andy Gonzalez are excellent musicians.  Not only do they play the music of their people, but they can give a feeling of Cubano and also the jazz music.  They know how to do very good mixes on music here.  I liked the trumpet player.  Was he Jerry?  Oh, Chocolate.  I don’t know if he’s from Cuba or not.  But I could recognize that pure Cuban trumpet style.  That’s why I said Cuban in the beginning. [Do you feel a connection to that style?] Yeah, there’s a connection.  Armstrong had that style, and early trumpeters had that style, and I feel that style is still in me.  I feel a connection with the Cuban trumpet style or Hugh Masakela.  Those styles are not spoken about much, but they are not as easy to play as people think they are.  You have to have a real feeling for it to play that trumpet style.  5 stars all the way.

8.    Blue Mitchell, “Hootie Blues” (from A SURE THING, Riverside, 1960/1994) (Jimmy Heath, ts., arranger) (3 stars) (Wynton Kelly, piano; Jimmy Heath, arr.)

Sounds like Wynton Kelly on the piano, which makes it a stronger blues.  The blues was kind of lightweight with the head and everything.  Wynton Kelly is one of the few pianists who plays contemporary jazz that could be identified not only by musicians, but the masses, so to speak — the listeners, the non-musicians, whatever.  He had a certain signature.  The trumpeter came in with a Miles Davis lick, but I’m quite sure it’s not Miles!  He came in with a Miles Davis lick that civilians know! [LAUGHS] I wouldn’t have done that.  Now, who could that be?  Sounds like Blue Mitchell. [AFTER] I don’t really like the tune that much.  It’s a lightweight blues head.  The recording isn’t that good because I can’t hear Wynton’s real sound, nor Blue’s.  But it shows you how great they were.  With that thin recorded sound, you still can identify Blue  Mitchell and Wynton Kelly.  I’ll give it 3 stars for them.  Without Wynton and Blue, I don’t think I could have listened to it.

9.    Sidney DeParis, “The Call Of The Blues” (#16) (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, 1944/1998) (5 stars) (Jimmy Shirley, guitar; Ed Hall, clarinet; Vic Dickenson, tb.)

Cootie Williams?  Bubber Miley?  It’s a very interesting concept he has, the trumpet player.  He didn’t play the lick form, which is very unusual.  Charlie Christian?  Is this the ’40s?  It’s really difficult for me to identify any of these people because I was only a mere child, and then I didn’t listen… The rhythmic concept is unusual, because there’s a boogie-woogie beat, there’s a straight jazz beat, and there’s a rhythm-and-blues beat mixed up in it.  An old jazz sound coming from…now they mixed that with a Dixieland sound.  So it has multiple concepts in it.  The way they do the solos is not conventional, not as conventional as famous people who will solo?  Is the trombonist Trummy Young?  Dickie Wills?  I would never guess the trombone player.  Not Al Gray?  Not Vic Dickenson?  Okay.  Sounds like somebody Clark Terry might have listened to.  Did this trumpet player ever play with Duke’s band? [Yes.] It’s not Artie Whetsol.  It’s not Cat Anderson!  Ray Nance?  Sounded like Hot Lips or Red Allen for a while.  Guy’s great, whoever he is.  Just right.  But I never heard him, ever.  But that was a beautiful record.  That’s when creative music I thought was at its best.  The horn players really played.  Everybody played what should be played, nothing more and nothing less.  5 stars.

10.    Wynton Marsalis, “Sunflowers” (#13) (from THE MARCIAC SUITE, Columbia, 1999) (3 stars)

Are all these guys under 40?  I can hear the youth.  They sound like college players.  In the tones, yeah.  Sounds like they all went to the same institution, either college or music school.  You can tell by the tone.  The tones sound  similar.  You don’t hear any individual tone.  You’d have to know them personally to know their tone.  And there’s not much space in the music.  That’s another way you can tell.  Then they have the pianissimo things, the forte things, so I can tell they’re university or music school.  Then they’ve got that Miles Davis “All Blues” thing hidden in there somewhere!  But I don’t know who they are.  There are a lot of glissandos and triplets.  They don’t sound relaxed.  They’re young, under 40.  That’s enough of that one. [AFTER] I don’t know who they are, but I would give them 3 stars just for wanting to be musicians.

11.    Craig Harris, “Harlem” (#5) (from ISTANBUL, Double Moon, 1998) (Carla Cook, vocals; Craig Harris, tb., arr.) (3 stars)

Sounds like Craig Harris on trombone.  That’s one of his licks.  I probably know the singer personally, but I don’t recognize her.  I know Carla Cook, I’ve ever worked with her, but on the CD I didn’t recognize her voice.  I don’t know what they were doing.  I live in Harlem, too, so I understand what they were saying.  It’s nice.  I’d give them 3 stars for trying to do what they were trying to do. [What were they trying to do?] I don’t know yet! [LAUGHS]

12.    Cootie Williams, “Dooji Wooji” (from THE DUKE’S MEN, VOL.2, Columbia, 1939/1993) (5 stars) (Johnny Hodges, as)

Is that Duke Ellington?  It’s part of his group.  Somebody has broken away, Johnny Hodges or somebody.  But who?  Could it be Cootie?  It sounds like Cootie’s band away from the Duke, with Duke on the piano.  It’s excellent.  This is top-grade, high-quality stuff.  I had never heard Cootie’s group, but you  could just feel it!  I hear Johnny Hodges there.  This is excellent.  That’s what I mean you can tell between the old heads and the young heads.  There’s a certain feeling.  You can dance to this.  You can get images of people, not  just men, but women, children, food and drink.  You can hear church and nightclub.  It takes you there.  Really, to me it’s all about tone.  The tone has to have that real feeling, and not just academic.  That’s beautiful.  5 stars.  You know that.  That’s it!  That’s the stuff right there.  It doesn’t even exist any more.  It’s not here any more..

13.    Neville Marcano, “Senorita Panchita” (from THE GROWLING TIGER OF CALYPSO, Rounder, 1962/1998) (5 stars)

Sounds South American.  But then it sounds Cuban also.  I’m especially attracted to this kind of music because it has so many mixtures in it.  To me, this is one of the first multicultural musics.  I hear many cultures in it.  Spanish, the island people, the African, the Cape Verdean people I hear.  Now, who this is, I have no idea.  Sounds raw.  The bass almost sounds like he’s playing a tub.  I’m sure it’s a real bass, but just the way he hits it.  And how loose the rhythm is, but still in rhythm.  It sounds like a neighborhood band.  I like that sound also!  And this type of vocalization is excellent.  It’s what the young people are doing now.  I like to vocalize like this also.  Free form vocalization is beautiful.  There’s a musician named Garth something from England.  He’s a singer-rapper.  He’s very popular now.  He’s got a vocal style that’s just exactly like him.  This kid must be 21-22 years old.  He has a moustache, like that.  He’s from England and he’s a rapper.  He’s talking about being at his girlfriend’s house and his parents don’t know he’s there, he don’t mean any harm.  He wears a little white kufi.  This is old, right?  Ah, ’60s.  This is excellent stuff.  Because the kids are using it now. [Any idea where he’s from?] It sounds like Martinique…not Martinique or Surinam or somewhere like that. [KUFI:  It sounds like from the islands.] It’s an island sound.  To me it  sounds like Cuba.  Trinidad?  That’s definitely 5 stars.  The vocal alone, just the style of it alone.  The looseness of it is beautiful.

14.    Art Blakey & Jazz Messengers, “Afrique” (from THE WITCH DOCTOR, Blue Note, 1961/1999) (Lee Morgan, trumpet) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Lee Morgan!  The greatest!!  This is a man who’s an unsung hero in the history of jazz.  There’s none like him.  They talk about Dizzy, Miles, a lot of them.  But this man here, he’s the only trumpet player I know, back in the day, who had direct fans, people who SCREAMED when he came on.  Just the average man on the street liked Lee Morgan.  He’s the only trumpet player I know in the history of the music that the common man on the street liked, the man who was not a jazz fan.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes.  Now, who Lee Morgan is with I have no idea.  Is that Billy Higgins on drums?  Wait a minute.  Is the tenor player Billy Harper?  Not Frank Mitchell?  Whoo, who is this?  John Gilmore?  Oh, Wayne Shorter!  I got it now! [LAUGHS] Wayne threw me off for a minute because Wayne is so… I’m talking about in the past.  It sounded like Wayne in the past, when he played more street; he had a street sound to him.  Tenor saxophone.  No soprano.  Beautiful.  This dude right here brought a lot of young people into jazz music.  Is that Buhaina? [You didn’t recognize Buhaina right away.] Well, because I was listening for something else.  When they came in, it was an unusual gathering of the musical instruments together doing something they didn’t normally do.  So I didn’t listen for Bu until they got to the solos.  Drummers don’t play that beat.  These are the guys who brought people of my generation into jazz who may not have wanted to go into jazz.  The tone of Lee Morgan — impeccable.  He was straight-out.  He didn’t try to do anything else but play straight out.  He didn’t try to fool you with anything or try to be different or even try to be intellectual.  To me, he was intellectual and street-wise at the same time.  A brilliant man.  The whole group.  Is that Timmons on piano?  The whole group.  Philadelphia bass player.  Jymie Merritt.  For jazz in that era, that was it.  Five stars.  Of course!  All the way.



Olu Dara Musician Show, WKCR, March 6, 2002:

[MUSIC: Olu Dara, “Okra,” “Father Blues,” “Herbman”-Neighborhoods (2001)]

TP: “Herbman” was from Neighborhoods, Olu Dara’s 2001 release on Atlantic, featuring Olu on vocals, Kwatei Jones-Quartey on guitar, Ivan Ramirez, guitar, John Abrams, tenor saxophone, Dr. John on Hammond B3, Fredger “Saïd” Dupree on Wurlitzer and electric piano; Rod Williams, electric organ; Alonzo Gardner, bass; Coster Massamba, congas and cowbell; Larry Johnson on drums.

“Father Blues” much pared down – Olu all by himself as a vocalist, guitar, and trumpeter on the aboriginal trumpet. “Okra” is the signature tune for the Okra Orchestra – Olu Dara, vocals, cornet, aboriginal trumpet; Kwarte Jones on guitars and percussion, Ivan Ramirez, guitar; Rudy Herbert on Hammond B3; Alonzo Gardner, bass; Richard James, congas; Greg Bandy, trapset; Melba Joyce, Cantrese Alloway and Darada David, background vocals.

That’s a lot of musicians, but they all deserve to be cited because they did a great job with Olu Dara. Welcome to the Musicians Show this evening.

OLU: It’s good to be here, Ted.

TP: We have a motley array of music. “Motley” is the wrong word. But it goes from Robert Johnson to Lester Bowie. By the end of the show, we’ll see how this diverse spectrum reflects Olu’s unique personality.

Before we get into the meat of the show, let’s talk about the recordings we played. Around 1997-98, the then-head of Atlantic Records, Yves Beauvais, called you (I think the story goes) 10 or 15 minutes after your son, Nassir, called and asked you to do a record. You said “no.” 15 minutes later, Yves Beauvais called, and thus a contract with Atlantic. Is this a true story.

OLU: Yes, it’s a true story. Yes, Yves and Atlantic Records had been approaching me for many years to record. I was busy. And it just happened that particular day my sons called me, asked me to come with them at Columbia, and I said, “no, I’m not interested in recording.” When Yves called a few minutes afterwards, that was an omen to me. I knew that I couldn’t say no twice in 10 minutes for something I had never done before, and never thought about doing before. But, I felt that it was something I had to do.

TP: What was the source of your reluctance to record during those years before? There are many people in New York – friends, fans – who would wonder why Olu Dara isn’t recording because of their admiration for the variety of things you do so well. What was the stumbling block for you?

OLU: There were many things involved with my decision not to record. One thing is, it wasn’t ever my ambition to become a solo artist in the record business, and even before that, it wasn’t my ambition to become a musician in New York. I didn’t come here to become a musician. I got stranded here in New York and I did other things. I enjoyed music a lot, but I had played music in my earlier days in high school, a few years of college, and the military. But I was also busy doing theater, which is what I really love to do — composing for theater. Also, writing my own plays. But just writing songs all the time, and handing them over and listening to them live all the time. That was a wonderful feeling, with other people doing my music like that.

Some other things… When I first started playing out in New York, when I came to Manhattan to play with the musicians I was recording with, they were playing another type of music that was not my game.

TP: You’re talking about when now? Back around 1970 or so?

OLU: In the 70s, yes. I was working a lot with a lot of musicians, a lot of well-known musicians. But the music that was popular at the time in the jazz world, or I would say the instrumental music world, was not my fare. I didn’t want to present myself that way. But I was getting a lot of offers to record in that genre.

TP: You’re speaking of the recordings you did with people like David Murray or Henry Threadgill…

OLU: Or just many others. The whole thing was writing music and being known as a jazz trumpeter. I wanted to avoid that by all means. I didn’t want my history to be “the jazz trumpeter,” because there were limitations to that as far as my personality is concerned. So I avoided that very well, I believe.

TP: There are different people who know you for entirely different things. Some people who might have heard you between 1974 and 1990 might only know you as a jazz trumpeter or someone in that tradition; then there are people who might have started listening in 1992, when all those records were out of print, and they may know as a vocalist, raconteur, and sometime blues singer and purveyor of a pan-diasporic blend of music.

OLU: Since I didn’t have any solo records out on my own, I had complete freedom to do what I wanted to do when I got on the stage with my own situations. I had my two bands for over 25 years, so a lot of people knew me from those bands. But a lot of people just knew me only from recordings or seeing me with some of their favorite artists, only knew me as a horn player. Then there were people who knew me as a bluesman, a singer and a guitar player and a harmonica player. Then there were some people who knew me as a theater man. So I was very happy about that because I could appear in public in any form, in any way. In other words, I didn’t have to appear with a horn, I didn’t have to appear with a jazz band, I didn’t have to appear with anything in particular of what I wanted to do – so that gave me complete freedom.

TP: But with that freedom came the responsibility of laying down a bunch of work. What was the strategy? Drawing on 25 years of work with those two bands, basically?

OLU: Yes, it was very easy. All I had to do was go in and pick from the hundreds of songs I had written over the past 25 years, especially just from theater. I’d just go and pick some. Plus, I had a lot of songs I’d been doing with my band for 25 years, like I said. I just picked from that. Then I like to make up songs on the spot, so that’s what I did. I picked some old songs. Some of the songs on those two albums are over 25 years old. But they were fresh enough for me to record in this time.

TP: Having stated that you did not want to be stamped as a jazz trumpet player, you’re a very fine jazz trumpet player and quite learned in the history of jazz trumpet, as I found out when I gave you a Blindfold Test for Downbeat not that long ago. Your comments were quite incisive. So if you’ll allow me, I’d like to explore that aspect of your background. You came up in Natchez, Mississippi.

OLU: Yes.

TP: Was picking up the trumpet something that happened through school? Was it just an accident that you became a trumpeter? Or was it something you really had a desire to do?

OLU: I guess neither. It was just destiny. We didn’t have a school band at the time. I was 7 years old. The story goes like this. A man came into town, and he asked for a place to stack his wares or whatever. I helped him stack his wares. My family helped him find a little place to live in, an abandoned church. As I helped him unpack, he told me what he was, and he did everything. He said, “I do everything. I play musical instruments, I’m into metaphysical stuff, I paint, I want to start a newspaper here – I’m going to do all kinds of things.” He did everything. He spoke 7 or 8 languages. He said, “I need a band.” I asked him why. He said, “I need to make some money.”

So he went to Natchez Junior College, went in the basement, and we found some old horns — cornets, clarinets, and whatever. I had no intention of playing any music. He said, “Look, I want you to start; I’m going to teach you and your friends how to play.” So that’s what he did. He said, “Here’s a balloon. If you can blow up a balloon smoothly, then it’s like playing a new cornet.” He started me off like that. Then he gave me a mouthpiece and said, “Play some things into the mouthpiece, some songs that’s in your mind into the mouthpiece.” Come back. The first thing he taught me was the bridge to “Sophisticated Lady.” He started humming. He called me “Senor.” He said, “Listen tothis: [SINGS REFRAIN] Now, I’d never heard anything like that in my life. Never heard any notes going together like that in an interval…I like to call it intervalactic kind of stuff.

So I learned how to play it by ear. Then come the next day, he said, “Now, this is what it looks like on paper.” So I learned how to read quickly, like that.

TP: How old were you?

OLU: I was going on 8 then. Three months later we had a band. My bands… The band was integrated… I’m saying he had 7 and 8 year old kids; he had 21 year old people. He had 17 year old people in the band. He was only 24, but he was prematurely gray. I thought he was much older, but I found out years later he was only 24 years old

Anyway, I played all the way through high school, and tried to quit the band many times so I could play on the basketball team. But they tricked me. They let me sit on the bench. The principal told the basketball coach, “He’s a good basketball player, but don’t let him play, because we want him in the band.” So that’s what happened. I went back into the band… By this time we had a high school band. It was junior high school.

So I went back and played trumpet. I found out that the cornet and trumpet helped me out in a lot of ways. When I went to college, I was majoring in pre-med for a while. That was at Tennessee State, Nashville, Tennessee. Dick Barnett had been there. Wilma Rudolph. Leon Thomas was there. Moses Gunn. Quite a few people.

TP: Were you listening to records then? Were you hearing other instrumental personalities? Was that part of what you did?

OLU: No records, because my grandparents, who lived right down the street, didn’t play records, and my parents didn’t play records. So it was like live music all the time. It’s always live. I guess until the year before I left for college… We bought a record player, and I bought a Dizzy Gillespie record.

TP: So you knew about Dizzy Gillespie, you knew about Lee Morgan, but you didn’t…

OLU: No. I didn’t. I just found a Dizzy Gillespie record. That’s the only jazz record they had in town. They had Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, but nobody else. They had one Dizzy record.

TP: Describe the music you were playing? Mostly blues? Jump band things?

OLU: Various forms of music. It’s hard to describe what they called it. They had big bands. A band called the Red Tops, which was like a territory band in Mississippi. They played for our dances and stuff, so I got a chance to hear a lot of blowing, a lot of instrumental greatness. I think they were out of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which is about 65 miles away from me. Then there were guys in my band who learned how to play very quickly – how to improvise and stuff. I would just listen. But we all had to improvise right away. In school, if you didn’t have any music… Like, baritone horn parts were missing. So I would have to play the baritone horn and I would have to improvise. The band director would say, “We don’t have any music for the baritone horn, so I want the sound.” So you’d just solo around what you think should be played. That’s how I learned how to improvise.

TP: So you were simultaneously an ear player but were taught formal skills at the same time.

OLU: Yes, at the same time. All the mentors down there, the musical guys, they want you to be able to come in and play what you hear first, because they didn’t have time to write out all the music all the time. But we had bands that had music out. The first band I was in had the music written out. But if someone walks out and calls something we don’t have on paper, they want you to know how to play it. They would have people stand off to the side and hum it to you.

TP: I’d think that tone production would have been the most important thing in those situations, really projecting your sound and…

OLU: Sound was very important. It wasn’t about the notes you play. It wasn’t about how fast you could play or what notes or scales you could play. You had to have a tone that the people liked. That’s all that people talked about when they’d come to hear us play. Even at football games, basketball games, the older people would talk about the tone. That’s all they were interested in, your tone projection.

TP: Leo Smith once talked about having to fill up the big open spaces with the sound of the horn coming up in Mississippi.

OLU: Yeah, we had to play outdoors. Most of the time you played outdoors.

TP: Let’s jump back. You were at Tennessee State, you move to Nashville, and you’re now listening to records.

OLU: My roommate had a big collection of records, people I never heard of. I never heard of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan… Only person I’d heard of was Dizzy Gillespie, and I just learned about him through that one record. And Louis Armstrong – I knew of him through early television days. But I never heard of all these guys, no jazz people at all, until I went away to Tennessee State.

TP: Is that when you heard the record we’re about to play, which is Lee Morgan with Art Blakey?

OLU: Art Blakey’s band and Horace Silver’s time was the music of the time of the youth of Tennessee for jazz. They’d listen to just a few artists — Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Coltrane. Maybe one more. I think it was Miles.

TP: But Lee Morgan struck you.

OLU: Well, Lee Morgan struck all of us. He was our favorite when it came to listening to jazz records. It was always Lee Morgan first, even if he was a sideman. Everyone loved Lee Morgan.

Once I started to learn about trumpet players, and started listening to some of my roommate’s records… He’d sit there and say, “You want to play jazz?” I said, “I would like to.” He’d say, “Well, listen to this guy.” He’d play everybody. He’d say, “Now, listen to this guy here, Lee Morgan.” They would say, “This guy has a street sound,” which is what the kids liked. He was like the hip-hop trumpeter of the day. So when I heard his sound, I said, “You’re right; he’s studied, but he’s not studied to the point where he sounds like a machine.” You could feel that he was just a natural musician with lots of talent, and he would do things that most trumpet players… He was unpredictable. Plus he had tone. The tone was wonderful.

[MUSIC: Messengers with Morgan & Shorter, “Dat Dere”-The Big Beat; Ornette-Don Cherry, “Congeniality”]

TP: During our first conversational segment, Olu took us from Natchez to Nashville, and Tennessee State University, where your roommate introduces you to jazz trumpet and plays you Lee Morgan records. Is this also when you discovered Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman?

OLU: Two years after that, when I joined the Navy, I think the first day I got into the music school in the Navy…it was full of musicians, of course…that record, right you just played, was there — one guy had it. It was being passed around. That’s when I heard it. I can almost name the date when I first heard the record. I think it was 1960 or 1961.

TP: That’s when you joined the Navy.

OLU: I joined in 1960. I went two years to college, two years in the summer. Then I got bored with that. I wanted to see the world and maybe get a chance to play some music, too.

TP: What was your academic interest in college? You said you had no intention of being a professional musician; music was more of a tool for you.

OLU: It’s always a tool. I didn’t have any plans academically at all. My mother and father had the plans. They wanted me to be a doctor. So I enrolled in pre-med courses. I found that was like backwards, so I didn’t want to deal with that. I said, “Well, what can you do while you’re taking these boring courses?” So I joined the band which was very exciting. I stayed in the band a couple of years, and enrolled in school in the summer to be ahead of time for my junior year, and I got bored right away. I saw two sailors, and I went down and joined the Navy.

TP: And you decided to try for the music school for the opportunities it would give you…

OLU: Yes. That was my plan.

TP: I guess you’re alongside dozens of musicians who through Armed Services music programs developed their skills and broadened their musical horizons. That goes back to James Reese Europe, and World War Two, and up on through.

OLU: Yes. I’d heard about musicians making their way in the military. It was easier. You could go to a school and be around musicians who really didn’t need the school, but it was a place for us to hide away from saluting and all that kind of stuff. That’s what we did. For four years I played music and traveled the earth, and it was a very nice thing.

TP: I’d imagine it broadened your horizons as far as what you were listening. And you must have played in the different places you visited outside of the Navy bands.

OLU: Oh yes. You got an opportunity to play at all times. People were hungry for musicians, professional musicians, where we were. We could play when we were off-duty, and we were always off-duty. If you’re a musician in the military you don’t have to do much at all but play and just hang out. Also, the travel. You got a chance to open up your mind to various musics of the world and just to see what the world has to offer also.

TP: What were some of your ports of call?

OLU: Puerto Rico. Trinidad…

TP: That’s where you first heard Caribbean music.

OLU: yes.

TP: Did it resonate with you right away?

OLU: Right away. It was something you knew was there, but you hadn’t been very close to it — but you knew in the back of your mind it was there on earth. The Caribbean, then Africa, many places in Africa, all around the continent. Every place we went it was different. Ten miles this way, it was different; ten miles that way it was different. From country to country, it was different sounds and different ways to apply music.

TP: So the roots of what you do now, apart from your early years in Natchez, heark to that naval experience when you went around the world and heard all these things first-hand.

OLU: Yes, it has to do with my freedom, my youth, when I didn’t have any ties to the world. I was just out there on my own. So I spent all this time being around musicians and listening to that music and playing this kind of music. So I never was a person who grew up on records. I didn’t grow up on records, so I’m not really influenced by recorded music – and I’m very happy about that. I’m very happy about it. I know a lot of musicians, my peers, the young guys especially…they’re very influenced by records. You can hear it in their voices, the things they say through their instruments. You can tell it’s not a life experience, but it’s a record experience. It’s a big difference.

TP: So you never transcribed solos?

OLU: Never. I thought that was horrible, when I heard musicians say, “But I transcribed Charlie Parker’s or Lester Young’s solo and Dizzy’s solo, and I learned this solo…” I was shocked. Because when I was growing up, reading about jazz musicians, I thought they would create on the spot. That excited me when I heard it. I said, “wow, these guys…” They got a lot of press, a lot of historical records on musicians. My thing was, these guys are the most creative musicians on the planet. That’s the way it was written up. So I’m young and I’m looking for this. I didn’t think musicians had to look for chord changes or anything. All these things shocked me. All these things shocked me when I saw it. I used to see musicians who I really heard about or respected or whatever, and they’d say, “Where are the chord changes?” I’m saying, “My goodness, what is this?” Then when they’d say “I transcribed this guy’s solos,” to me that was horrible. Not because they were wrong, but because that’s the way I think and the way I was brought up. When you transcribe a guy’s solo, it’s like transcribing his soul. It was like taking his soul from him.

My whole concept is this man that you’re transcribing had his own soul and his own life, and his own thoughts. If you transcribe a solo, you don’t know what he’s saying. You’re just transcribing notes. And if you’re bringing these things into you, then you become part of him – or almost like cloning in a way. So I said all that to say this. I thought it was horrible when I heard people transcribe other people’s solo.

TP: Did hearing Ornette Coleman somehow correlate with that sense of the world? Was it a pathbreaking experience for you?

OLU: No. No, it wasn’t. See, he’s a southerner. So I could hear… I do remember guys were gathered the record player, listening to it – the same record we’re talking about. I listened to a couple of sides, and I just kept walking. Because to me, him being a southerner, I knew exactly what he was doing. Don Cherry. I could hear the creativity in both of their voices. It wasn’t a surprise for me. It was like a surprise for others, I believe. But I knew that music had to be somewhere on earth anyway.

TP: So it was more along the lines of hearing a kindred spirit.

OLU: Simple as that.

TP: So it’s 1965, you get out of the Navy, you’ve seen the world, and then what happens?

OLU: I get stranded in New York. I was discharged in New York in July 1964, and I ran out of money. My plan was to go and live in places that I liked outside of America, places like Barcelona, Spain, which I really loved, and places like Kenya…there’s a lot of islands I liked. I was just going to take a chance. I was young enough to do what I wanted to do. But I stayed in New York a couple of days too long, and I ran out of money. So I wound up being here.

TP: Were you always playing music for money, or did that start later?

OLU: Yes, I always played music for money. Other than the time I spent playing in college bands… I think that’s the only time I didn’t make any money playing music, was when I was in college those two years, because I just played in the school marching band.

TP: Oh, you didn’t play outside.

OLU: No. When I got to college, it was a total jazz thing. The college guys, the jazz musicians, if they didn’t know you, you couldn’t get anywhere near them. That’s one of the other reasons I left college, because these guys were from larger cities and they had this little clique. If you didn’t know a couple of tunes they knew, then you were out of the picture. So that’s one of the reasons that helped me make up my mind to leave college — because you couldn’t get in the little jazz clique.

TP: I know you did many things in NewYork, but as far as the musical end of it, what sort of scenes were you involved with in 1964-65-66?

OLU: I thought it was very creative, in a way. The beboppers were… It seemed like they’d said to the beboppers, “You’ve had your turn or whatever.” But I was around a lot of those guys because they were so accessible. So many of them. Kenny Dorham… I can name many of them. So just say anybody who was playing between 1949 and 1965.

TP: You hung out and you met them.

OLU: I used to hang out at places they’d play, especially in Brooklyn. Most of the beboppers who were well-known lived in Brooklyn at the time. I lived right in the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, where most of the musicians were living anyway.

TP: So the Blue Coronet…

OLU: The Blue Coronet especially. You could see everybody there. Coltrane, Rahsaan… That’s where a lot of musicians who were just making record dates, like Freddie Hubbard or Kenny Barron, they would come there and wax out their tunes or whatever and play it there, and the next thing you know they’re recording these things. Cedar Walton. Cal Massey. Lee Morgan. I saw everybody right in the neighborhood. I wasn’t in the music as far as playing. I wasn’t going to play at all.

But I enjoyed just being around the music, listening to all kinds of stuff. At the time, there was a lot of different kinds of music – African music, Caribbean music, rhythm-and-blues. Eventually I started playing with rhythm-and-blues bands first. It was very difficult to meet the jazz musicians, in a way. They had another kind of thing. It was more like an old boys’ club, what they call it… For young guys coming up, you couldn’t get in unless you knew somebody. I didn’t know anybody. Therefore, I was out of the picture. But I enjoyed myself hanging around. And I had no thoughts about going into the music game. I had other talents.

Eventually I got talked into playing by guys who remembered me from the past. But I waited a long time. I was in my thirties before I even bought another horn. I borrowed those; I hadn’t made up my mind yet.

TP: Sound like your musical activity up to 1972 or so was rhythm-and-blues bands…

OLU: Yes. Caribbean bands, African bands – yes.

TP: That also imparted the feeling we hear on the records by the “best new jazz artist of 1998,” Olu Dara – at 56.

OLU: Heh-heh.

TP: We’ll move to music by James Brown circa 1970 or so. You have a contemporary perspective, because, though you’re younger, your span as a music-listener would match his career as a recording artist.

OLU: He embodies the feeling of the South. Everything. When I think about him. Also, his music spans the world. To me, he’s the first World musician in America. What they call a “world music musician.” In other words, he uses the polyrhythms of the African beats, mixed with the gospel, the country-blues, the funk, orchestral stuff — everything. If someone had to ask me “who is the greatest living in America?” or “who is the greatest musician ever in America?”…for me personally… I would always say James Brown. He embodied the in and outside music of the saxophone with Maceo, and the tight band of the so-called Basie-ites, and the drumming of the Afrobeat drumming. His drummers are…

Let me break this up a minute and say one thing. I went to a conference one time about ten years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, and they were talking about drums. Who were the greatest drummers in America. America’s drummers – who are they? They started naming people. All kinds of experts, critics, musicians – they named all kinds of names. They went from Buddy Rich to Gene Krupa, Max Roach, Art Blakey – everything. Ok, the place was full.

They asked one guy, I don’t know if it was me or somebody else. And somebody said, “Well, there are some drummers out here who everybody has heard before. Because all you people never heard Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones like that, but everybody in this room, guaranteed, you’ve heard these drummers – but I’ll bet you can’t tell me their names.” They say, “What? What drummers? We know?” He said, “Name one drummer who played with James Brown? I know you danced off his music or heard it many times.” Only a few people could name like Starks or Stubblefield or people like that.

But what I’m saying is, his drummers span the time. They’re universal. The whole concept of James Brown’s band is universal. They dance all over – in Africa, all over the world. And still today his music is… They talk a lot about the greatest bands and all that stuff, all the time, but his name is never mentioned. They’ll mention Ellington. They’ll mention Basie. The Philharmonic. Barry Manilow. It could be anybody.

[MUSIC: James Brown, “Lickin’ Stick”; John Lee Hooker, “Graveyard Blues”; Staples Singers, “Reach Out, Touch A Hand”]

TP: So it’s Brooklyn during the 60s, and you’re hanging out, playing in African and Caribbean and rhythm-and-blues bands. Around 1973, after various trials and tribulations, you wind up with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. How did it happen? What was the path?

OLU: He just called me. We didn’t know each other at all. I hadn’t really played in any jazz bands per se. I’ve had a couple, I played a couple of tunes here, a couple of tunes there. But I just got a phone call from him. I guess I was recommended by somebody who he had just hired in his band – all of the guys I knew. I knew Carter Jefferson from the rhythm-and-blues bands we played in together. Neither one of us has really been in a jazz band, but we were inching towards it. Rhythm-and-blues bands were really jazz bands to me anyway, because we improvised and we played horn lines together – improvised everything.

TP: That’s when every band had a horn section.

OLU: Every band had a horn section.

TP: Did you play with any national acts?

OLU: Rhythm-and-blues? We went on the road with this group out of Cleveland…

TP: You were part of a horn section that would contract out?

OLU: Yeah, we had this local band. It was called Ecstasy, Passion and Pain. It became nationally known. We were called the Sounds of Soul. Then I played in the Fatback band, but before the Fatback Band was named the Fatback Band, we were called Pretty Willie and the Soul Brothers. I would go out with these bands, and we would open for the Ohio Players and things like that. So that’s basically what we were doing in rhythm-and-blues. Plus, we played a lot in the five boroughs. Rhythm-and-blues was all over the place, and all of a sudden, boom, it disappeared. So nothing was left but jazz bands. So New York became a complete jazz band city after that. So my only means of income would be to play jazz. So Carter Jefferson, my friend, he went with Mongo Santamaria. I went with Carlos Garnett, Afro-Caribbean Jazz Band, and then after that with Doug and Jean Carn — and after that I went in with the jazz bands. So I went with Art Blakey, sight unseen. I met him in Milwaukee someplace.

TP: he needed a trumpet player, he called you, you go out to Milwaukee.

OLU: Yes.

TP: You went and hit without rehearsal?

OLU: Nothing.

TP: What was that like for you?

OLU: The funny thing about it, trumpet players dream of playing with Art Blakey. That was one of my dreams. I never thought I would ever play with Art Blakey. I never even thought about it. But he called me, and I just went. I needed a gig and I went. I didn’t care who called me. I didn’t care what kind of music it was. Although I had never really tried to practice that music, or have dreams of playing with jazz per se – but I had dreams of playing with Blakey. And I’d played with him in my dreams already, so I was satisfied! But it was a dream come true, in a way. I stayed with him for one year, and after that I wanted to do something else.

TP: But within that time, there must have been something that stuck… You and Carter Jefferson already had an ensemble sound.

OLU: Yeah, we had something going.

TP: Did he try to rein you in any way? Did he give you input?

OLU: He was the freest bandleader I’ve ever had. He didn’t say a thing. He said, “You guys take over. Whatever you want to play. Play what you want to play.” He was like that. He just wanted to have fun and play drums. And he had complete trust in us. Even when we were fumbling over the tune we didn’t know, or the heads or anything like that… But he liked the idea that Carter and I from rhythm-and-blues… We knew how to make it sound like we’d been together for years. That’s why he didn’t fire us right away! We knew how to make a band sound together. And we played a different type of Messengers sound, due to the times. He enjoyed that, because we would go all kinds of ways and bring other kinds of rhythms. He enjoyed it immensely. We stayed together for one year until we decided we wanted to do something else.

TP: This is 1973.

OLU: 73 to 74.

TP: So the sound you were bringing was really apropos…

OLU: To the times. We traveled all over. We went everywhere. For that one year, I think we only had two weeks off for the whole year. We played almost every night, all over the world. It was something that I needed to experience, so I could know what it was. It would be a shame for me to have dreamt that I played with him and never played with him. I think I’d still be worrying about that today, or thinking about it.

TP: Is that a beat that you still feel? Art Blakey was one of the most dynamic drummers, sonically and creatively, that ever was.

OLU: Yes, I feel his beat. Of course I feel his beat. His beat was a very good feeling. Like we used to say, he’s one of the few jazz drummers who was not ashamed of a funky beat, of the funky shuffles and things like that. He knew how to play the bass drum and the snare drum. It was very youthful. Not overly hip. Know what I mean? But he was a stickler for the beat. Period. He didn’t try to show off or try to be slick or anything like that. He was just an old school drummer with a big beat.

TP: You leave Art Blakey in 1974, and around then is when your name starts to pop up with the musicians from the Midwest, the South, and the West Coast who were coming to New York around that time. You play on Oliver Lake’s Heavy Spirits in 1974. You appear on some of the Wildflowers sessions from 1975 and 1976.

OLU: Mmm-hmm.

TP: So by then, you’re pretty headlong into what was called the “downtown” scene.

OLU: It’s funny how that happened, too. Because when I left Art Blakey’s band I wanted to stop music again. I said, “Look, I’ve done that; is that all there is to it?” When you get into something from the outside, it looks one way. When you get into it, it’s something else. So I decided, “Well, let me give up music now; I want to do something else.” But I got a call from Hamiet Bluiett, and he said, “All the guys are coming into town…”

TP: You knew Bluiett…

OLU: Through the military. I met him in the Navy.

TP: Anyone else we’d know who you met in the Navy?

OLU: No. He’s the only one you may know. I know I passed Howard Johnson out to sea. I asked, “Who’s that guy playing trumpet out to sea?” somewhere in the Red Sea, and they said it was Howard Johnson. I met him many years later. But Bluiett I actually met in the military. We played together when he would come through my port or whatever. But he called me and said, “Look…” He’d just left Mingus’ band and I’d just left Basie’s band, so it was like, “What are we going to do now?” Is this all there is to it?

So we both were in that frame of mind. I was saying, “I’m going to do something else; this is it for me.” So he said, “You want to play? Some guys are coming to town; they’re playing some different kind of stuff that we used to play out of St. Louis.” When I got around those guys, it wasn’t stuff I was used to playing at all. The music was somewhere else. The guys from the AACM, from Chicago, they had their own sound. The guys from California, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, James Newton, Butch Morris. Then the St. Louis people – Hemphill, Lake, the Bowies, Bluiett, Marvin Horn. Quite a few people from each area.

TP: You’d met them traveling with the rhythm-and-blues bands?

OLU: No. I met them in New York. I met some of them…

TP: I thought you mentioned playing with some people in St. Louis. That’s why I asked.

OLU: Well, I did. I met some of the musicians, like Luther Thomas, in St. Louis. But most of the musicians I met is when they migrated to New York City, and they all had different types of ways of expressing themselves, which was… I’d never spent that much time playing with those kinds of bands. Never had, because they were not here. But that sustained me for some years, and put me in a position where I made a name for myself playing music. It’s funny how life is. I made my name internationally by playing with musicians who I never thought I would play or music that I didn’t know too much about. What I found was, when I played with so many of them, the trumpet players in New York didn’t want to play anything but maybe straight-ahead jazz. I would play anything. I didn’t care. So I would take the gigs. The other trumpet players didn’t want those gigs, so I would take all those gigs. And I wound up playing with everybody. And so I sustained myself, and I learned a great deal. Although it wasn’t the kind of music I wanted to be known as playing, it was the music that helped me make my reputation.

TP: Why wouldn’t you want to be known as playing that?

OLU: Heh, it’s like… I’m from Mississippi. We play a different kind of music. It’s like B.B. King. You think B.B. King wants to spend his life playing with Ornette or somebody? Not that anything is wrong with Ornette, but B.B. King has his music. That’s the way he expresses himself. Ornette expresses himself one way. He doesn’t mean either one is inferior or superior.

TP: Absolutely. But they’re both from the South and each of them did what they did. Leo Smith is from Mississippi…

OLU: He’s similar to me. He’s a guy who migrated, and he didn’t bring a whole lot of Mississippians with him. He came as a lone Mississippi player and played with people from…

TP: But he went to Chicago…

OLU: That’s what I’m saying.

TP: …where there were a lot of people who were from Mississippi.

OLU: Exactly. But they were not born in Mississippi.

TP: Some of them were.

OLU: Let’s say this. In my experience, hardly anyone born in Mississippi. Believe me. Leo was born there, I was born there – as far as I know in this situation we were into. Leo and myself. We both happened to be trumpeters. These guys were born in big cities. They were more sophisticated than I was. Believe me, they were. They knew a lot of things that I did not know, about a lot of things. So I got my opportunity… They were bent on becoming famous people. I could tell how they migrated and said, “Look, we’re going to do it.” [LAUGHS] And I stuck with them. Although I knew in the back of my mind that this wasn’t the type of music I would present to my people in Natchez or my people out on Long Island when I’m playing rhythm-and-blues. I tried it already. It didn’t work. It did not work.

But I knew in my own mind I had my own way of doing things, and eventually I would do it. So I formed my band… They put me in a position where I could form my own band. So that’s what I did.

TP: We’ll start the next set of music with the Henry Threadgill Sextett, playing Threadgill’s “Black Blues.”

OLU: Henry Threadgill and I had a situation where he played in my band, and I played in his band. It was a very good thing. There are some songs he wrote that I got a chance… This is one of the songs that I got a chance to feature. He featured myself on this particular number, “Black Blues,” and it’s one of my favorite songs by him.

TP: I remember that band vividly, and he really made use of your sound. It was an amazing ensemble, with you and he and Craig Harris and the two drummers.

OLU: That was very good for me. Threadgill did write for your sound. I feel that he hired me not because he wanted a trumpet player; it’s because he…I respected that…he wanted to hear my sound.

TP: Your voice.

OLU: The same reason he was in my band. He had a voice.

[MUSIC: Henry Threadgill Sextett, “Black Blues”-Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket; Bluiett-Olu, “Tranquil Beauty”-Rivbea, 1975 -Moye and Bobo; Olu-Hemphill-Tacuma-Rochester, “Show Stopper”-Jamaladeen’s Show Stopper-1982]

TP: Before the next set of music, culled from Olu Dara’s two recent releases, Neighborhoods and In This World, both on Atlantic… You spoke earlier about those earlier times, but I’d like to ask more about the choice of brass instrument, which became primarily cornet as opposed to trumpet.

OLU: Why I changed from the trumpet to cornet? I started out as a child with the cornet. And as time went on, of course, the trumpet became very popular I guess after the 30s… I think the 40s the trumpet became very popular. That’s when I start playing cornet. I remember in school kids would laugh at you if you had a cornet. But after I got in the theater and had a part in a play as an actor playing the cornet back in the late 70s, it brought me back to my original instrument – which is the cornet.

TP: Is there a difference in…a more vocalized sound? Is that basically what it is?

OLU: Yes, for me it is. The trumpet is longer, slender, and to me it gets a slenderer sound than the cornet gets for me. So it is a more vocal thing for me.

TP: You were saying that doing this work in the 70s and 80s enabled you to start bringing out your own music. That often would happen at the same venues where these instrumental bands were playing. You might appear with Henry Threadgill, or music with dissonance or not necessarily a straight 4/4 beat, and then you’d enter the same venue with your band. Did you start organizing material for those bands, or did it emanate out of your theater experience?

OLU: In the beginning, I organized the material myself, before I had a whole lot of experience in theater. But I was fortunate to be able to have that kind of music within the venues we were playing. They were very strict on New York and the East Coast, period…Europe, too. They were very strict on what kind of music they would let through. But since I was part of the gang, I was in a position to get my band in those same venues. It was a strange experience, because a lot of musicians hated funky music or what you’d call roots type of music. It was a wonderful experience for me to watch the reaction to my music from musicians especially!

Then, at the same time, I was the only one who didn’t have records out. So I was an anomaly in the first place with that, being able to work these clubs and whatever. At the time, I found I could work anywhere with that band, because I started bringing out people from different communities who didn’t come out before. So I could sustain myself and be able to pay the band well and work almost anywhere I wanted to without records. Then, as we spoke before about records, that’s another reason I really wasn’t running up trying to get recorded – because I had what I needed. I had an audience.

TP: You were singing then. As a kid in Mississippi, I’m sure there was a lot of blues around. Do you remember a lot of songs, or were there songs you were making up… Has it always been a free form sort of thing for you?

OLU: My situation is free form. I don’t like to sing other people’s music because I don’t know what they’re talking about. So I like free form anyway. I like to make up my songs on the spot. I change lyrics on a daily basis. I don’t like to retain lyrics, because it’s just words. I like the moment. I like to improvise lyrics like I improvise on the instruments. When I was growing up I didn’t do a whole lot of singing. But I did a whole lot of listening and feeling. So I started to sing in New York just by being tired of playing the horns all the time.

TP: Do you have charts?

OLU: When I first started out in the 70s, everybody had music in front of them. Every band I played with you had to read music in public. That used to embarrass me. I wasn’t used to that. I didn’t like that at all. It was too sterile for me. But everybody… So I had to do it. I said, “I guess this is what I have to do, too, in order to get some recognition out here.” They want to see you what I call…they want to see some literacy, heh-heh. So you write music for the bands. After a while I said, “Well, I’m not writing any more music. I want to get musicians who can play straight out from the head.” That’s what happened. I just stopped writing music, period, and just let it happen naturally.

TP: obviously, once people are playing together for a while they get to read each other’s minds and so forth. But at first would it be a call-and-response sort of thing?

OLU: At first… As long as I had the rhythms I wanted. You didn’t even have to call it “call and response.” You know? It was just us creating a song.

TP: You just had to have the beat…

OLU: All I needed was the beat, and I could go from there.

TP: Who were your drummers back in the 70s and 80s?

OLU: I had many drummers. Pheeroan akLaff, Philip Wilson, Greg Bandy, Andrei Strobert. When I first started my Okra orchestra, I think it was Don Moye, as a matter of fact. There are some other ones I forgot about. But I didn’t employ many drummers. I always wanted… See, a lot of drummers can play only jazz, a 4/4 beat, 3/4 beats, or bossa novas or whatever. But I needed a drummer who play everything. So I needed a guy like Philip Wilson who played with Stax Records and played with Paul Butterfield, so I knew he could play real funky music. That’s how I was able to form a dance band. We played for dances and everything. Or any other drummer who can really play the beat – I mean, the REAL beat. Philip Wilson passed away, but he… Philip Wilson and Greg Bandy were the best I’ve seen since I’ve been on the East Coast.

TP: Greg Bandy is both an accomplished jazz drummer and dance drummer.

OLU: Yes. Afro-Beats, everything. So was Philip.

TP: Alonzo Gardner has been playing bass with you for a long time.

OLU: A very long time. I found out when I started playing around New York, they’d ask me, “Who’s in the band?” I thought, “Why does everybody ask me who’s in the band? They never asked me that before anywhere else in the world?” Then I found out it was a jazz thing.

TP: Well, yeah.

OLU: It’s like a jazz thing!

TP: What’s wrong with that?

OLU: I didn’t say anything was wrong with it. But I’m saying when I played in an African band, a Caribbean band, a blues band, whatever…nobody said, “Who’s in the band?”

TP: Because it’s a functional thing.

OLU: Right. But here they’d say, “who’s in the band?” They would insist. A lot of times I didn’t know who was going to be in the band. But then I found it was like what you’d call a “jazz star” kind of system they had. Sometimes you couldn’t play… I used to play with some jazz band that they wouldn’t let musicians in the clubs unless they had the individual members at the club, or a recording where the record company would say, “I want him and him and him in your band.” That was different I’d never seen anything like that in my life. So I stopped playing with a lot of bands because of that, too. I’d never anything like that. That was, like, weird.

I played in one band… I’m not going to name any names. I’d been playing with this band for a year. We played the Vanguard, and went to the Vanguard, and Max Gordon walked over and said, “Look, I’ve got my own trumpet player for this band.” The drummer gave me $10 and said, “Look, I’m sorry.” That was something I’d… I don’t even think I’d read about things like that. But then after a while I saw that they could call certain individuals. The bandleader had no authority at all. So I said I’d call all the musicians who wouldn’t get in there to play. The guys who are in my band right now who nobody has noticed…they’re the best musicians I’ve ever met, because nobody notices them, because they’re just regular guys. They didn’t call themselves jazz musicians or anything. So that’s how I formed my band, through musicians who were great musicians but who were not in that world.

TP: You have two bands. One is a 4-piece band and one is a 7-piece band, more or less.

OLU: I have one band now. I got rid of the Okra Orchestra many years ago. It’s just the Natchezsippi band I have now. I hand-picked these musicians.

TP: Let’s talk about them.

OLU: These people have been with me over 20 years. My drummer, Coster Massamba, has been with me 25 years. The guitar player, Kwatei Quartey, he’s been with me 20 years about. Alonzo has been with me 20 years or so. Greg Bandy has been with me 20 years or so. I think the newest musician I have no is Larry Johnson, who’s been with four years – because Bandy moved back to Cleveland.

TP: They have to be able to play all the different beats.

OLU: Everything. All the beats authentically. You have to play the Afro-beats, the highlife-beats, Country Blues, rhythm-and-blues, jazz – whatever comes up. And they have to be able to play for concerts and dances.

TP: What’s the difference?

OLU: It’s a big difference. A concert is one thing…you can do anything you want on a concert. You can play soft, loud, you can lay out, lay in – you can do anything you want on a concert. A dance, you can’t. A dance, you have to have the music with a beat where people can have fun and dance. It’s a big difference between playing a concert. But I can use the same music I play for a concert and a dance. I can use the same music, and it can sound like I’m playing jazz or anything. But then you have to know how to juxtaposition it. It’s called survival musically.

TP: When did you start functioning as a guitarist?

OLU: I started doing that when I was working in theater – when I was acting in theater and writing my own plays and I would be in plays others wrote, and I would be the bluesman in the play. That’s when I started bringing the guitar out in the public – through theater.

[MUSIC: Olu Dara-“Neighborhoods”; “Nobody Was There”-Conjure: Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon; “Used To Be”]

TP: You said that “Nobody Was There” came about because you were showing Bobby Womack how the piece went down, and they decided to use your version.

OLU: That’s not quite it. It’s close, though. I was running it down. Because Bobby wasn’t there. He was supposed to come back and finish the record. I missed him. I came in late. I said, “If he comes back, this is the way the song sounds.” He never came back. So they put that one out.

TP: Happy accident.

OLU: Yes, it was.

TP: Was that the first time you had sung on a record?

OLU: Exactly.

TP: But you’d been singing with your band a good ten years before that…

OLU: Well, I wouldn’t say ten years. I sang very little in my life. I was singing in the choir, in school and stuff like that, but I used to sing inside of myself. So that’s only the first song I ever sang straight out from beginning to end, that was recorded.

TP: So the Okra Orchestra was purely instrumental for you.

OLU: Well, mostly instrumental. I would sing every now and then, joking around. But I never really just came out and belted a song out. The first song I’ve ever belted in life was recorded, and that was it, and it wasn’t even planned. I’m happy about that.

TP: We’ll move now to a couple of songs by Nina Simone, who you’ve cited as one of your two favorite female singers, along with Mavis Staples.

OLU: Most of these people I’m playing are from the South, and that’s where my thing is. But female singers… When I was 15, that’s when I first heard these two songs you’re going to play by Nina Simone. I was in high school. I’d never heard of her before. There was a little juke joint I used to go. They used to play “Love Me Or Leave Me” and “Porgy” by Nina Simone, and it basically changed my life, how I looked at music or whatever. I never knew anything like that talent existed on earth. If you live in a small town, you don’t hear much music or whatever. If you don’t listen to a lot of records or if you don’t have access to recordings and stuff like that, which I didn’t, you wouldn’t know these people existed. So it was on a 45 in a little juke joint I used to hang out in, and every time I went in there I would play “Porgy” and I would play “Love Me Or Leave Me.”

[MUSIC: Nina Simone-“Love Me Or Leave Me” and “I Loves You, Porgy”]

TP: Coming up is music by Miles Davis circa 1985 from Tutu. Olu had asked for something else, but I just couldn’t locate it, which I apologize for. In our discussion about trumpet players this evening, we haven’t discussed Miles Davis, who’s such a major figure for almost everybody from your generation, and the generation before and the generation after – so many musicians.

OLU: He was beyond being a trumpet player to me. His sound was heavenly, His concept was ingenious. He represented everything to me. He represented the world through the horn. The horn became something else rather than the mechanical machinery it is. He represented to me the sound from the Mississippi, the mighty Mississippi River. It seemed like he encompassed the feeling of Americana – the pop music of the 40s, the music from the Broadway plays, the background music to movies, the funk the classical… One man expressed so many different ways of looking at life and looking at music. He is an icon in my mind and heart, and he is to the world. So he’s very special.

When I first heard his sound I think I was in college. My roommate turned me on to that also. His name was Benny Carvin. I haven’t seen him since those days. He’s from Birmingham, Alabama. I haven’t seen him since 1959 or whatever.

TP: We owe him a lot.

OLU: I know I do.

[MUSIC: Miles Davis, “Tutu”]

TP: Next we’ll hear music by Robert Johnson from the late 1930s.

OLU: this is another Mississippi spirit, I would say. Miles and a lot of people I’ve been playing were born close to the river, like I was. There’s something about it. They’re all different, and they bring different expressions from the same source. Robert Johnson reminds me…when I hear him sing, I think of my grandmother. Those Mississippi people in that era had a certain type of vocal expression. You can’t explain it in words. It’s just a nuance of feeling.

TP: Did you hear the Robert Johnson things as a kid?

OLU: No, we had no records. Like I said, I listened to my grandmother in person, and people around the neighborhood. I didn’t really hear a Robert Johnson record until I was in my fifties. I’d heard his name bounced around in New York, but I never really… Once I did hear him, it reminded me of the vocal things I heard when I was growing up.

TP: As I mentioned earlier in the show, Olu sat with me for a Downbeat Blindfold Test last Labor Day, not that long before 9/11. One thing I played for you was something by Mississippi Fred MacDowell, and you were speaking about how creative the playing was, and you heard all of modern jazz in it – you heard horn riffs, orchestral passages, everything in it.

OLU: It’s the same thing with Robert Johnson. When I finally heard him on a CD late in life, I said, “Oh my goodness,” the first thing I heard was all the territory bands, including Duke Ellington and all these bands. I said to myself; Robert Johnson was doing all this as a one-man show; his guitar was doing all the things the big bands were supposed to be doing. They were way ahead of the instrumental big bands – just one man and one guitar. The whole concept was right there, already there in one instrument and one man.

[Robert Johnson, “Love In Vain”]

TP: Now we’ll hear “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong.

OLU: Pops… My father called me “Pops” as a nickname. I didn’t know why. I guess because I had a cornet. But once I saw Louis Armstrong on television when I was about 12, then I knew who the original Pops was. But here’s another man from the Mississippi River. He’s blasting out another style. There’s so many different styles coming off that river. It’s something to feel. But he came with everything. He came with the beautiful sound, the beautiful tone, and he came with the beautiful voice – his vocal technique was out of sight. Any way the music turned, he would be right there to catch it. So Satchmo, he encompasses, even more than a lot of guys I talked about already, Americana and the world. The Ambassador of Music. And he’s lovable. I loved him because he had a nice, beautiful smile, and I liked him for his confidence in himself. It exudes from television, it exudes from things he says in a magazine or a book. So he was a very powerful person in my mind, and we’ll play some of him now.

[Pops, “West End Blues”]

TP: Now we’ll end the Olu Dara Musician Show with more music by Olu Dara from his recent Atlantic recordings, In The World: From Natchez to New York and Neighborhoods. The first track is from In The World, and it’s a collaboration between Olu and his son Nassir, also known to the broader world at large as Nas, one of the most renowned hip-hop artists around. Now, to someone like me, who follows improvised music and what we call jazz, and isn’t so into the hip-hop world, your son wouldn’t be so much on my radar – which probably is something I shouldn’t confess in public. But I know you’ve had a similar experience in sort of the irony of parenthood, of a son who becomes so well known that you’re known as his dad, as his father.

OLU: That’s a quite unusual experience for any adult to have. It was totally unexpected, when you walk down the street or when you go anywhere and they say, “Look, aren’t you his father?” or whatever. I mean, from young people, from old people, whatever – people from all ages. It’s nice. I had to get used to that, because it’s reverse of the way life should be. But the way things are, it’s a good thing. I’m glad that I did a good job. At least I can say, “Yes.” I don’t hide behind the building and say, “No, I’m not.” At least I’m not ashamed of having a son and he’s not ashamed of having a good father. So it’s good in respect that I’ve been a good father, and that’s all that’s important to me.

TP: It seems there might be some continuity in the way you approach lyrics, improvising lyrics, and what happens in hip-hop. I don’t know whether there’s any direct influence, but there’d certainly seem to be a continuity.

OLU: Yes, there’s a direct continuity. Especially with the freestyle. That’s my thing. I love it, and I still do it today. I guess I’m one of the oldest hip-hoppers on the planet. That’s the way I feel about myself, too — a free-stylist, just like he is.

[MUSIC: Olu-Nas, “Jungle Jay”]

TP: How has the success of these records changed what you do as a musician? Are you more selective now about gigs?

OLU: I have more time to do what I want now. Before I was working with Diane McIntyre, putting on plays and acting and dancing and writing songs all the time, and then I was doing theater all the time, and then I had a band, too. So I was doing a lot of things, and then trying to raise children. Now I can just concentrate on the band. It makes my life much simpler now.

[MUSIC: Olu, “Massamba,” “Rain Shower”]

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A 2002 DownBeat Blindfold Test with Butch Morris (Happy Birthday, Butch)

For Butch Morris’ 65th birthday, here are the proceedings of a Downbeat Blindfold Test  that he did with me in November 2002.

Butch Morris Blindfold Test (11-21-02):

1.    Thad Jones, “One More” (from THAD JONES, Debut, 1991) (Thad Jones, tp; John Dennis, p; Charles Mingus, b; Max Roach, d) – (2 stars)

Is that Sweets?  Howard McGhee?  Is it a youngster?  Roy?  I mean, Roy Eldridge.  This is a modern crowd we’re speaking to; we don’t want them to misunderstand.  You kind of stumped me.  And then the drummer… Play it again.  The trumpet player’s velocity was amazing, especially the way he played those dynamics and his capacity for strength.  Amazing.  He’s probably a real good section cat, too, along with being a good improviser.  But somehow to me he sounds like he could have been a big influence, but also he’s been influenced by a lot of people.  I mean, all of those people I named, I think.  There was a lot of originality, because I think at the time everybody was pretty much original.  It could even have been late ’40s, for that matter, but I think the ’50s.  I hear a little Diz, I heard a little Sweets, I hear a little Fats, I hear a little Howard McGhee.  But at this point, I’m guessing.  Do I have to give it stars? 2 stars. [AFTER] That was Thad Jones?  What year?  2 stars only because he was quoting from so many sources.  Not to say Thad wasn’t original.  But he seemed to go from… I mean, there was some Fats in there, there was some Howard McGhee, there was some Roy Eldridge.  He was all over the map.  That’s probably what made him such a good arranger that he knew the terrain.  I probably put my foot in my mouth from saying he’s not original.  But I’d prefer to hear Thad in the late ’70s.

2.    Miles Davis, “White” (from AURA, Columbia, 1985/2000) (Miles Davis, tp; Palle Mikkelborg, comp.) (5 stars)

It sounds like Don Cherry.  Huh, that’s strange.  It sounds like Don Cherry, it sounds like Miles Davis, it sounds like Ron Miles a little bit.  It’s very nice music.  But the first few notes were very deceiving.  Immediately I thought of Don. Then I thought of Miles.  Miles Davis.  I’ve never heard this before.  Whoever it is, is all over Miles.  It’s probably Miles, some Miles I’ve never heard.  It sounds like the record could be around the “Siesta” thing.  I think the music is way up in Gil territory, too, for that matter, but I don’t know where it is or what period is from.  In a way, it sounds like a lot of stuff me and J.A. Deane and Wayne Horwitz used to do, too. I’d give it 10 stars.  Even though I hear more and more similarities between Don and Miles, it’s interesting the way Miles uses history to reevaluate his present.  Because you hear his quotes, you hear things he’s going around, you hear even maybe “Stella By Starlight,” you hear things that maybe preceded this recording by 20 years in there.  But the way they’re fragmented are very interesting.  And the more it goes on, the more you realize it is Miles, by the way he says things.  But I don’t know this recording.

3.    Jackie McLean, “A Fickle Sonance” (from A FICKLE SONANCE, Blue Note, 1961/2000) (McLean, as, comp; Tommy Turrentine, tp; Sonny Clark, p; Butch Warren, b; Billy Higgins, d) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Tommy Turrentine.  That’s probably Tommy Turrentine at the height of his game — on record.  Oh, Jackie.  Is the drummer Pete LaRoca?  No?  Oh, that’s Billy Higgins.  Tommy is a motherfucker.  That is Tommy.  I know a lot of motherfuckers slept on Tommy, but I didn’t! [LAUGHS] I shouldn’t say Tommy makes me think of him, but there’s two cats I really like right in here — Richard Williams and Tommy.  They just kill.  They took care of some territory that a lot of people just didn’t.  Actually, Roy Hargrove reminds me a lot sometimes of Tommy and Richard Williams — a tiny bit. Is the pianist Cedar?  Herbie?  Wynton Kelly? Sonny Clark!  Oh, shit.  Goddammit.  I take my bebop very seriously.  I love that.  Especially in this period, I really like Jackie’s stuff, and I really like Tommy Turrentine.  What was that, “Fickle Sonance”?  Great track.  5 stars.

4.    Franz Koglmann, “Make Believe” (from MAKE BELIEVE, Between the Lines, 1999) (Koglmann, flugelhorn; Tom Varner, fr.horn; Tony Coe, cl; Brad Shepik, g; Peter Herbert, b)

Sun Ra?  Is that some of the Delmark stuff? [As in AACM?] As in AACM. [No.] I’m starting to hear what the tune is. [Kenny Dorham once recorded this.] It’s strange.  The guitar player is starting to sound more familiar to me than anybody else.  But I can’t say I know who it is.  The name of the tune is on the tip of my tongue. Is it “I Can’t Get Started”?  It’s in that vicinity.  I don’t know who this is, but let’s go on to the next one. I thought it was Sun Ra.  I think it’s a concept. [What do you think of the concept?] It’s all right.  It still reminds me of Sun Ra.  It reminds me of Fletcher Henderson, too.  It also reminds me of Gil. [FINAL SECTION] Is this from the same record?  Can I hear something else?  Is the bassist Martin Aaltena?  Whoever they are, they have good company.  So let’s go on to the next.  I don’t have to rate it as high or low.  Let’s put it like this.  They were in good company.  I don’t have to give it stars. I’ve been reading the Blindfold Test for thirty years!  I think throughout the process, until this record, I was very clear at least in stating my opinions about these.  I stated my opinion about this in the beginning, so I stated the kind of company I feel they’re in.  Now, if I have to give them stars, I’ll give them stars.  I give them stars.  Stars.  Stars.  Stars. [AFTER] Franz Koglmann.  The trumpet player.  Good company.

5.    Ryan Kisor, “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” (from POWER SOURCE, Criss-Cross, 1999) (1 star)

Is that a Mingus song?  Oh, yes.  “Ellington’s Sound of Love.”  It’s nice.  Can we go on to the next?  I think they’re giving a very nice rendition of this classic.  I think it’s nice.  That’s all.  It’s very nice.  It’s nice.  It’s very nice. [Can you be a little more substantive than that?] Than what? [Than “it’s very nice.] It’s very nice.  I think the expression was way over the top.  It was a modern rendition of something that was a modern rendition of something.  I mean, it was Mingus’ expression of Duke, and it’s their expression of Mingus. [Do you think they did justice to Mingus?] Oh yeah.  I think they did justice to Mingus.  I mean,they didn’t do him any harm.  Let’s put it like that.  It was nice. [Did the trumpet player catch your attention, for better or for worse?] Neither, for better or for worse.  I certainly don’t mean this in a negative way, but I’d like to hear somebody like Lonnie Hillyer play that.  But I thought it was good.  I think it was a little bit over the top in terms of expression.  It seemed to try too much to make it sound like sound-like, like “I can play in that groove” or “I can do that.” It was cool.  I can give it a star.  1 star.

6.    Leo Smith, “The Year Of The Elephant” (from GOLDEN QUARTET: THE YEAR OF THE ELEPHANT, Pi, 2002) (Smith, tp; Anthony Davis, p; Malachi Favors, b; Jack DeJohnette, d) (4 stars)

The drummer sounds like Philip Wilson.  Is that Leo Smith?   Oh, is that Jack?  [LAUGHS] Oh, God!  That’s Anthony and Malachi.  Well, it took me a minute to find out that was Leo, but the way he was putting that composition together with Tony, the way they were expressing it, it became clear it was Leo.  Actually compositionally more than… I mean, it came together at the same time compositionally and his sound.  The way he started to bring the piano into his lines, when he was playing.  Like, how the piano will go away from the line and then come back into the line was interesting.  And then I could hear it was Leo.  This is only an observation, but he still sounds like Philip to me! [LAUGHS] That’s by no means an insult.  I heard Philip immediately.  And I’m still hearing it, is what I’m saying. They played in Lisbon last year.  I didn’t hear the performance, but I saw them there, and I went to a rehearsal there. It’s a band of wonderful musicians.  A star for each person in the band.  4 stars.

7.    Ron Miles-Bill Frisell, “We See” (from HEAVEN, Sterling Circle, 2002) (Miles, tp; Frisell, g)

Monk.  Thelonious Monk is the composer.  Is this “We See”?  It should make me want to dance.  When I think Monk, I want to dance.  I think it’s a nice rendition, let’s put it that way.  I don’t want to guess here, because I could guess wrong.  I thought Tom Harrell at first.  But it’s not.  I can’t guess who it is.  Or the guitar player. He sounds out of Jim Hall somehow.  But I don’t know. 3 stars. [AFTER] Oh, I should have known that was Ron Miles. Actually, Ron is one of the few trumpet players I’ve heard in the last few years that I like a lot.  He’s got something I like.  And I like Frisell a lot.

8.    Johnny Coles, “Jano” (from LITTLE JOHNNY C, Blue Note, 1963/1996) (Johnny Coles, tp; Duke Pearson, p., comp; Joe Henderson, ts; Leo Wright, as; Bob Cranshaw, b; Walter Perkins, d) – (5 stars)

That sounded like Philly Joe at first.  Is it Philly Joe?  It’s not Billy again. The alto player’s got that hard Jackie thing again — that edge.  Almost like between Jackie and James Spaulding.  He’s got some kind of angular thing, like Braxton.  Did you play the head?  Did you start this tune at the beginning? [Yes.] This is strange, because the rhythm section almost sounds dated, like you could put them in one area of history, and then the horn players come on with this other, more modern thing.  I mean, the way the piano player is comping, the way the drummer is playing the time. [trumpet solo] Wow!  Sounds like K.D. now.  I’m on the warm side?  [tenor solo] When was this recorded? [Early ’60s.] Sam Rivers?  John Gilmore?  Wow, that’s familiar like a motherfucker!  I mean, that’s FAMILIAR. It’s not Billy?  Dennis Charles?  My God, I’m lost somewhere.  The pianist sounds like Cecil now. [Cedar?] No.  Cecil Taylor.  I mean, only… It’s very interesting, not only because I’m trying to think of who it is, but it’s a convolution of a lot of things to me.  That’s not Sonny Clark?  Can you play it again?  I don’t know who the alto player is at all.  Can you run the trumpet player one more time?  Strange, because it’s got this Kenny Dorham thing, and it’s got some Bobby Bradford stuff in there… That’s classic!  Listen, can we go on to something else and come back to this?

This appealed to me because…how can I say… It’s very attractive.  It’s a simple line.  It just happens to be 9 bars.  They could have made it 12 if they wanted to, and they could have made it 8 if they wanted to, and they could have made it 10 if they wanted to.  But it was very, very attractive, I think. I didn’t feel I was hearing it from the beginning… That’s why I said, “Did you play it from the top?”  It begins like it’s a continuation of something.  When you started it, and it began, it felt like a continuation.  It never felt like it was the beginning to me.  Which was appealing.  But I’d like to come back to it. There’s something there that I’d like to get my hands on.

The trumpet player reminds me of Wilbur Hardin.  But then there’s a couple of other players right in that period who had… The other cat’s surname is Young, but I can’t think of his surname.  The tune has challenging edge because it is 9 bars or so.  To turn around. So it’s not Wilbur Hardin.  It’s not Idris Sulieman. 10 stars. I’m sure I know everybody on this.  But I just can’t put them within my context right now. First tell me who the piano player was.  Duke Pearson?  Was that his tune?  Was it Donald Byrd?  Wait a minute.  Shit.  I would have got Joe Henderson on a good day.  I want to say Woody Shaw, but no… Actually, at this point I can’t identify. Johnny Coles!  Oh, God.  I love Johnny Coles, but I certainly wasn’t thinking in his direction.  I used to have this record.  Of course.

9.    Bob Brookmeyer, “Child At Play” (from WALTZING WITH ZOE, Challenge, 2001) (Brookmeyer, comp.) – (3 stars) (Bob Brookmeyer, composer, conductor, valve trombone; Marko Lackner, Oliver Leicht, alto, soprano sax, clarinet, flute; Matthias Erlewein, tenor sax, clarinet; Nils van Hatten, tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Edgar Herzog, baritone sax, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Thorsten Berkenstein, Torsten Maass, Sebastian Strempel, Eric Vloeimans, Angelo Verploegen, trumpet, flugelhorn; Adrian Mears, Jan Oosting, Bert Pfeiffer, trombone; Ed Partyka, bass trombone; Kris Goessens, piano; Achim Kaufmann, synthesizers; Ingmar Heller, bass; John Hollenbeck, drums.)

You’re out for blood today, Ted!  Right?  I’m out for blood.  Is that recent? [Yes.] It’s really great writing, I think.  Good writing and an interesting stream of thought in terms of what they’ve written.  Is that Marty Ehrlich on clarinet?  Definitely good writing.  I mean, they work that one motif to death, which is cool, that’s what you do.  It’s nice.  With this kind of band, it would be great to hear… They didn’t get a lot of chances to play through these charts.  And it would be great to hear this music after it had been played for a while, like for a year, by the same people.  It just sounds over-read to me.  Really over-read.  It’s trying to feel relaxed, but I don’t hear that.  Often, music, when it’s not read enough, it sounds too contrived.  Not to say this sounds contrived.  It’s pretty music.  It’s wonderful music.

10.    Bill Dixon, “Pellucity” (from VADE MECUM, Soul Note, 1993) (Dixon, tp., comp; Barry Guy, William Parker, b; Tony Oxley, d.) – (3 stars)

Is that Bill Dixon?  Bill’s interesting, because he gives you the impression that he’s wrapped up in every note, that he’s emotionally involved in every note, or every sound he makes, every phrase.  His flugelhorn work is really intimate, I think.  Highly personal.  Highly emotional.  I don’t know who the drummer is.  Certainly somehow out of Milford.  But I don’t know really know who it could be.  Oh, Tony Oxley?  It’s nice. 3 stars.  It’s a trio?  Two basses?

11.    George Russell, “The Outer View” (from THE OUTER VIEW, Riverside, 1962/1991) (Don Ellis, tp.; George Russell, p, comp; Paul Plummer, ts; Garnett Brown, tb; Steve Swallow, b; Pete LaRoca, d) – (4 stars)

I really don’t like this music.  The piano player keeps doing something that irritates me.  [trumpet solo] Is it Dave Douglas?   Is it Wynton?  [When do think this was recorded?] In the ’80s or early ’90s. [It was recorded in ’62.  Does that change your assessment?]  Yes, of course it changes things, because it makes it a predecessor to all this stuff that’s being played now like then.  I mean, it’s not Sam Rivers on piano. [No.  But I think the pianist is a Schillinger guy.] I’ve heard so much of the bad examples of this lately that my view of this… That it’s in the early ’60s certainly changes my view.  I’d have to listen to it in a new light now.  Could you play the trumpet player’s solo again?  Is that Bill again?  This was recorded in ’62?  Okay, who is it? [Don Ellis] Oh, of course!  Yeah, I can dig that.  He certainly was one of the predecessors to all this shit that’s going on now that sounds like that.  I’ll tell you probably why I thought it was so recent.  That is an excellent recording for 1962.  So again, yes, sure, the quality not only of the music, but the recording. [Any idea who the composer was?] Should I know by the tune?  [Not necessarily.  But you’ll feel bad if you don’t get him.] George Russell?  It sounds like George Russell.  But when you said the ’60s I was really confused, because I was trying to figure out who had control over that kind of recording in 1962.  Where was it recorded, and who recorded it? [Ray Fowler.] Really.  Wasn’t he recording a lot of singers back then? 4 stars.  4 stars for a lot of reasons.  Like I said, that’s been done over and over, especially in the ’80s and ’90s — that kind of arrangement, that kind of playing. I must admit, I was dumbfounded, because I was listening a lot to the sound of the recording, and the sound of the recording made me think of ’80s-’90s, and so I started to think in that area.  When you told me it was recorded in the ’60s, I couldn’t hear who was playing, because I was trying to figure out who made recordings that good in the ’60s, not in terms of the quality of the music but the quality of the recording.  I think this is interesting in itself.  I don’t think there’s too many records on your shelf where you can go to 1962 and find any record recorded as well as that record is recorded, unless it was done by a singer.  I like Don Ellis.  I liked him better with his electric recordings.

12.    Italian Instabile Orchestra, “Sequenze Fugue” (from LITANIA SIBILANTE, Enja, 2000) (Giancarlo Schiaffini, comp.; Enrico Rava, tp) – (5 stars)

Is this the beginning of the song?  Oh, they’re Italian!  It’s Enrico Rava.  Enrico’s covered a lot of ground better than a lot of people in terms of the trumpet thing.  He’s a motherfucker.  Motherfucker.  I’ve heard him kick butts on many, many nights in Paris in the ’70s and in Italy.  He’ll step on the gas, jack.  He’s a bad cat.  What can I say?  Is this the Instabile?  It’s interesting.  They seem to have covered a lot of ground that is non-European. It’s just their Italian thing that covers an area of jazz that is kind of clear.  This is their fresco, and it’s clearly theirs.  Really clearly theirs.  So it’s Enrico Rava with the Instabile.  It’s cool.  I think you hear Instabile one or two times, and you see the kind of… I’m not saying that’s all.  But they made a statement.  And certainly Enrico; Enrico has, too. 5 stars for Instabile and 5 for Enrico. The thing is, they’re Italian, and that’s Enrico, and this is their fresco.

13.    Fats Navarro, “The Tadd Walk” (from GOIN’ TO MINTON’S, Savoy Jazz, 1947/1999) (Navarro, tp; Charlie Rouse, ts; Tadd Dameron, p., comp; Ernie Henry, as; Curley Russell, b; Denzil Best, d) – (5 stars)

Fats Navarro.  I was trying to figure out who the piano player was first, and then the trumpet player.  Around this time, I’d think K.D. and Miles, in that range.  I was waiting for the trumpet player to go up a little higher to understand a little better where he was, and even some areas where Miles sounded a little like Dizzy, I thought it could be… I also thought Fats, but I was also thinking Dizzy and Fats would have gone up in terms of register by then.  But Fats.  Fats was such an articulate motherfucker.  Who was the piano player?  Tadd Dameron! 25 stars for everybody.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Butch Morris, DownBeat

Anthony Braxton Turned 66 Yesterday

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

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

Anthony Braxton Article (final draft):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anthony Braxton (Wesleyan, April 9, 2007):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   I come from upper poor class.

TP:   Factory worker? Blue collar…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   The ‘80s actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Much more dramatic, narrative music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   That’s a good question.

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

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

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

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

TP:   Most teenagers don’t know that.

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

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

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

TP:   Does your mother have Native American ancestry?

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   Yes. I wanted transparency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   I’ll talk about it.

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

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

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

BRAXTON: Propositional logics in the sense of…

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

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

TP:   Can you speak in a more general sense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So going back to your questions about actual devices…

TP:   Melody would be another one.

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

TP:   Is that one of the research papers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


TP:   Intervals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Are you writing the libretto yourself?


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

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

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

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

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