Tag Archives: Muhal Richard Abrams

For George Lewis’ 64th Birthday, A Lengthy Interview from 2009, A DownBeat Feature from 2009, and WKCR Interviews from 2006, 1995 and 1994

Today is the 64th birthday of George Lewis, who has deeply impacted the course of jazz and experimental music over the past 45 years in multiple spheres of activity, for reasons described in the introduction to the extended interview we did together in Perugia in 2009, which initially appeared on the no-longer-active http://www.jazz.com website. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities to write about George over the years, most recently this spring for Jazz Timesand in a piece in which I talked to him and Muhal Richard Abrams about the CD Streaming. That article appears below the http://www.jazz.com interview, as do verbatim interviews conducted in 2006, 1995 (he was in the studio on that occasion with Wadada Leo Smith) and 1994, respectively, on WKCR. (Here’s a vignette for the NPR show Studio 360 that we did together in 2002 on the subject of Voyager, the interactive real-time improvising software that he developed during the 1980s and 1990s.)

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The WWW.JAZZ.COM Piece:

Standing in the wings of the Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater shortly after lunch on July 14th, as George Lewis rehearsed the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble for the first of their six concerts over three nights at this summer edition of Umbria Jazz, Marija Sepac, who has observed musicians closely over her eleven years as a quasi-chaperone for the festival’s various performers, marveled at the singular nature of this particular cohort.

“They are very precise—more than 20 people, and they work as one,” she said.

“Concentration. Many hours of hard work. Everybody in an excellent mood all the time. I got a feeling that the people in the orchestra are honored to play with George Lewis, but that they really like him. I can feel the connection which goes beyond respect and professionalism. It was beautiful staying with them yesterday. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing. It’s amazing!”

At this moment, Lewis was systematically checking that each sound in the orchestra—the GBME instrumentation comprises five reeds and winds, including the entire saxophone family, various clarinets and flutes, and didgiridoo; three trumpets; two trombones; cello; violin; piano; three vocalists; two basses, trapset; congas; and Lewis’ own electronics—was properly accounted for in the mix. After this was done, there was an hour to rehearse—or, better put, run through—the repertoire he had prepared for the five o’clock concert.

Sparse preparation or no, an inspired performance ensued. Lewis set the tone with a rambunctious opening trombone salvo, then put down his horn to conduct his five pieces, swaying, dancing, cuing, and, when appropriate, leaving the stage to allow the musicians to figure out their next step on their own. Over the next five concerts, which transpired at 5 p.m. and midnight over a three-night span, GBME members Ernest Dawkins, Nicole Mitchell, Douglas Ewart, Mwata Bowden, Renee Baker, Tomeka Reid, and Saalik Ziyad presented compositions that took full advantage of the possibilities presented by the 21-member unit, which executed each chart with the world-class technique, high collective intelligence, and an open attitude that has been characteristic of musicians involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since it convened in 1965.

Himself an AACM member since 1971, and now entering his sixth year as Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, where he also chairs the Center for Jazz Studies, Lewis chronicled the organization’s history in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [University of Chicago Press], published in the spring of 2008. It’s a landmark work. The bedrock of the text is an exhaustively researched linear narrative history, constructed on over 90 interviews from which Lewis traces keen portraits of numerous members; AACM archival records; encyclopedic citations from contemporaneous literature, both from American and European sources; and vividly recounted personal experience. Furthermore, Lewis contextualizes the musical production of AACM members—a short list of “first-wavers” includes such late 20th century innovators as Muhal Richard Abrams, who stamped his character on the principles by which the AACM would operate; the founding members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and Don Moye); Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, and John Stubblefield—within both the broader spectrum of experimental activity and the critical theory that surrounded it, expressing complex concepts with rigorous clarity and elegant prose.

A native of Chicago’s South Side who earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Yale, Lewis established himself as one of the major voices on the trombone tree during the ‘70s, for his seemingly unlimited technique and singular tone, setting new standards on his instrument with bandleaders as diverse as Braxton, Count Basie, and Gil Evans. As the ‘70s progressed, Lewis turned his attention to interactive computer music, eventually imagining and creating Voyager, a software program that improvises either in real time with a musician partner or on its own initiative. In a sense, he breathed anima into the computer, enabling it to function as an autonomous, social entity.

Over the course of two interviews last summer, here welded together into a single “conversation,” Lewis discussed these subjects.

 

What’s been your previous relationship with the Great Black Music Ensemble?

The genesis of my working with them was that somehow the Sons D’Hiver people (which is a kind of French play on words, “winter sounds” but it sounds like “diverse sounds” somehow to my untrained ear in the French language) managed to get the entire Great Black Music Ensemble to come to Paris in 2008 and do concerts there. So they asked me to sort of collaborate with that (because I’m not really a member of it), actually to make pieces. So I was also able to bring in some people, like the violinist Mary Oliver, who lives in Amsterdam; the bass player, Leonard Jones, who lives near Düsseldorf-he was also in Perugia; and my spouse, Miya Masaoka, the kotoist and sound artist. So I made kind of a triple concerto format surrounding them, and I made three pieces for the first half of the concert. We’re playing all of those three pieces here, plus a new piece that I wrote for them, because it’s stable enough so that I know who is going to play, and I know who can do what and who likes to do what—not what they can do, but the comfort zone. That’s what you want to do with any group of musicians.

Actually, more and more, I am inclined to just write music, and not worry about what people can and can’t do. We always hear about the Duke Ellington model, that a lot of that work apparently was improvised, although the scholarship on that is kind of spotty—it’s more like anecdotes and stories. I don’t know if anybody’s ever really sat down and said, “Look, how did you guys do it?” Part of the problem always with the interview process is that people are kind of performing, and the people who are interested in anecdotes and so on don’t really get into process that much. I would have been fascinated to find out how they improvised these parts, but there’s nothing written on what they did and how they did it. You wouldn’t be able to get that unless you bring in somebody who had the interest in documenting that part of the process, and also the outlet for being able to publish it or put it out there, and then the constituency of people who really want to read it. Because I imagine that a lot of times the musicians say, “do you really want to know this?” Or “Are you really qualified to receive this knowledge, or somehow equipped…” Not “qualified.” I guess that’s more of an insider’s viewpoint. We want to get beyond the everyday, mundane stuff; we want to get to the deep parts of this. A lot of people feel they don’t want to do that with people they don’t feel can really understand it. It’s a funny way of thinking about things.

But in any event, when I work with the group, I concentrate on the written music, and I write a lot of stuff for them. For the first concert, I wrote a lot. I’m not a “conduction” sort of person. I don’t like to improvise conducting. It’s too centralized for my work, and I’m not good at it anyway. I want people to make it up on their own, and I kind of like the idea of large ensemble improvisation without some center person pointing to people and making them do things. They should think it up on their own. But that takes a lot of time to develop, a kind of personal transformation, and a method of sorts, and we didn’t really have enough time here to develop that to the degree I’d like.

We’ll get another chance in August in Chicago. They’re having a tribute to Fred Anderson, this wonderful musician, a mentor of mine, while he’s alive (which is great—he’s 80 years old), and I’m writing a piece for the Great Black Music Ensemble surrounding his work. It emanates from Paul Steinbeck, my Ph.D student who’s going to be a post-doc at the University of Chicago this fall. He published a book of transcriptions of Fred’s solos. I took one of these solos, and I’m sort of orchestrating it. But not like Super Sax. It’s more like counterpoint. The idea is that everybody has a piece of Fred’s solo, and the solo kind of proceeds on its own logic. Looking at it on paper, being able to listen to it over and over, and reflecting on it, and so on, you realize that Fred’s solos do have an inner logic, and it’s not really that capricious. It’s pretty well-organized and very stable, and hangs together. So tearing that up and imposing your own order on it—it’s a clash, a dissonance you can feel. You’re sort of stepping on very important stuff. So I try to avoid that. I want to find ways to support from below what’s going on, and the solo just emanates. That’s the approach for that. But you can do that, once again, because the [GBME] personnel is stable. You get to see how three voices might interpret Fred’s music, or how a group of trumpet players might interpret it, and so on.

Can you elaborate on the pieces of yours that they played during the week?

There’s “Chicken Skin II,” which I actually wrote in 2003, for a group in Munich, the International Composers and Improvisers Ensemble, or ICI-Ensemble, which also has pretty stable personnel. They were great at playing the written music. Nicole Mitchell and Leonard were there, too, and Mary Oliver, so they played as a part of the group.

My feeling now is that I like to go and work with professional artists to realize things, but I also want to bring some people that I know well. It’s not so much that I want to have my people there to make sure that the solos are going to be good. A lot of people can play today; it’s not a question of that. But I like the idea of diverse experiences that come from the cultural exchange in the group. That’s very important to me.
There’s also “Fractals,” which is based on Brownian motion—1/F², statistical stuff. It’s not real 1/F². It’s not algorithmically made. I just made an impression. It would have taken more time to make an algorithm than just write it out of your head.

Then “Angry Bird,” which is a reorchestration of a small section of my orchestral piece from 2004, “Virtual Concerto,” for the American Composers Orchestra. The original piece had a solo piano part played by a Yamaha Disklavier with software that we made to play piano and listen to the orchestra, and be interactive. Basically, the orchestra played the written music, and the computer basically improvised its part the whole time, except for some little parts where, for a certain section of the music, a certain algorithm would come in. There’s a sort of violin part that got orchestrated. The nice thing is that GBME has this super violinist, Renee Baker, and a super cellist, Tomeka Reid, who both have the classical training, so that they can really play that part, that way. Then everybody kind of plays it. Then, “Shuffle,” which is a shuffle, I guess, an interpretation of that.

The big problem in working with any kind of ensemble of this kind nowadays, especially in jazz, is the social and infrastructural area. It was unusual to have a scene like that week at Umbria Jazz where all we did was rehearse, think about the music, and figure things out. You see that more often in non-jazz scenes that I’m a part of. The Morlacchi Theater is fantastic. It was built in 1780 and has a great sound. So we did have more time to do things than we did in Paris.

So I write these pieces down for ensembles with that milieu in mind. I don’t think that much about writing difficult stuff. The idea is that even if people don’t necessarily play all the right notes, it will sound good anyway. It’s sort of diverse enough so that wrong performance will still sound right, so people can feel good about what they do, and they’re not obsessing over minuscule passages and all that, and I don’t worry people about, “oh, this is a quintuplet you’re not doing”—if it ends up being a sextuplet or a bulltuplet, it will still work. So that’s ok. It’s deliberately noisy, with a lot of room for that.

The last thing, which we are going to rehearse for, which I really want to do and get on tape, because it’s new, is called “Triangle,” and it’s inspired by something I heard a while ago. A young percussionist in a New York based contemporary ensemble called Wet Ink whose name is Ian Antonio, who also does noise improvisation, performed an Alvin Lucier piece called “Triangle,” alone, amplified slightly and subtly processed. The piece was 20 minutes, and all he did was DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING for the entire 20 minutes. After the first five minutes my arms started to fall off sympathetically just watching Ian doing this.

When I was creating my gloss on Alvin’s piece, I thought, “Well, this will be a great start.” I didn’t think I wanted to have Turk Burton playing triangle for 20 minutes, though. I just wanted to give the impression. Then I didn’t know whether people would really do that, or maybe they would get bored doing it. But Turk has fantastic rhythm, so he’s playing the triangle in a super great way, and I don’t really have to conduct. People hear the triangle, and they’re on rhythm. Then there’s all this stuff surrounding it. It’s a pretty ambitious piece, so we didn’t have time to prepare it all.

You said yesterday that you’d never seen me do this kind of extended composition and conducting. Not many people in the U.S. have. It’s not like I do these things all the time. But when I do them, I tend to do them somewhere other than where I live, in another country. say. I don’t think I’ve ever really done it in Chicago except for bringing the NOW Orchestra from Vancouver to the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2001 or 2002.

You’re playing in the concerts devoted to the music of the other members. So you’re functioning not just as a composer and conductor of your own music, but as a member of the ensemble, which is very much in line with AACM principles.

Yes. The curious thing about that is they’ve been rehearsing this music, but I have to get the parts and rehearse, and then play catchup. I’m also trying to document all the concerts. So I kind of have this split brain, where I’m sitting next to the hard disk recorder, on which I did all these sub-mixes and stuff, both recording and then also playing the music. But I’ve been doing this sort of divided attention thing for a long time. I documented the AACM concerts as far back as ‘71 on my high-test cassette recorder, the first sort of so-called hi-fi cassette stereo things. I’ve got all those tapes, and this is in that kind of tradition. Setting up mikes and stuff. I can do that.

They let us say what we wanted to say about presenting the group, and I preferred it as the AACM Great Black Ensemble With George Lewis instead of Featuring George Lewis. Otherwise, you’re expected to do a lot of stuff, and I’m tired of meeting expectations. I just want to do what I want on stage. You’re supposed to play an improvised trombone solo on every piece or something, and I’m not going through that—and so I don’t. So the strategy for the first piece, the first evening of my music, was to play an improvised solo at the beginning, and then that was it. I didn’t have to play any more. I had a lot to do. The music doesn’t stand or fall on whether I play the trombone or not, just like my book doesn’t stand or fall on that. The book is the book, and if it’s any good, it’s supposed to be good because of the scholarship, and not because of some insider knowledge. So basically, you want the stuff to stand by itself.

Also, the AACM is a collective, and so it’s supposed to be a collective enterprise, and there’s no reason for me to hog the entire thing. I began to realize that it would be very boring for me to be the only composer for six concerts, not because I don’t have six concerts worth of music, but because all those other composers would just be sitting there, and that’s not a good thing to do. When you’ve got all that diversity, you want it to come out.

Could you apply some of the methodologies that you apply to the history of the AACM in A Power Stronger Than Itself to the Great Black Music Ensemble? For example, you explore ethnography, personal history, analyzing the individuals who comprised the AACM by class, by family background, and so forth. Who comprises this ensemble? Are they primarily members of the second and third wave of the AACM, with a few fourth wave people? Break it down.

I don’t remember what I said in the book about waves. If I did adopt that terminology wholesale, I was still a little murky about it. If I’m part of a second wave, then I would say Nicole would be a representative of a third wave, and then people like like Saalik Ziyad and Tomeka Reid would be representative of a fourth wave. Basically, every 7 to 10 years a new wave kind of comes about. For example, Mwata Bowden and I would be second-wave people. It’s partly generational, but the wave thing doesn’t necessarily correspond with the age of the people involved. Someone like Taalib-Din Ziyad is more of a third wave person, but he’s older than me, I think, or close in age, and his son Saalik is in the group—they’re both super singers. It’s very complex.

The book is mainly about people up to the third wave. There’s not a lot to be said about the fourth wave, because I didn’t have a chance to interview all those people. It changes a lot when you get to the fourth wave, because there’s less international visibility, which has always been one of the AACM lifebloods from the beginning. It’s not an organization that stands or falls on, let’s say, the standard hinterland-to-New York model of the jazz experience. Early on, people sort of flew over New York to Paris.

The book’s approach is to place personal experience and personal background in dialogue with what was said by scholars and historians, sociologists and historians in particular, about the experience of black people. The Great Migration, the urban sociology that came out in the ‘40s through the ‘60s about conditions in Chicago—that’s all critical to the experience of these people. So when Malachi Favors, for example, talks about how he remembers rats in the street all the time–well, that’s something that comes up in a lot of the sociological literature. Chicago has had this ongoing problem with rats in the street. If you remember, they would always post things in the alley about to watch out because they were using Warfarin to kill rats. Then Malachi talks about fires all the time, and that’s another big thing. There were thousands of fires, and a lot of them apparently were set deliberately by landlords. People got killed. That comes out in a lot of the urban sociology literature. But the other thing about that is, people didn’t know why there were so many fires. They just knew there were fires.

So what I wanted to do was to give back to these people, to kind of say, “Well, here’s why these problems came up.” They weren’t necessarily equipped to know why. For example, Oliver Lake blaming the demise of Black Artists Group on himself when, in fact, the foundation that was supposedly supporting them was planning their demise under the table. How could they know that? That only came up twenty years later through archival research with people like George Lipsitz and Ben Looker. So the approach isn’t just the ethnography itself. The idea is that somehow the stories dovetail with what’s said in a more dispassionate way, which ends up, first of all, validating the experience of the musician on another level, and showing how those experiences become emblematic of the period.

One of the overarching continuities of your analysis of the AACM is that the organization and its cultural production represents a cohort comprised primarily of working-class origin, many of them first-generation Chicagoans (although some not)—that it’s the expression of their agency. Is it your sense that the AACM still reflects a similar set of circumstances, or if the background of the membership has evolved in line with the evolution of African-American life over the years?

This is a very brief answer, by necessity. I don’t really know. African-American people, even the people who have the so-called “middle class” background, which is an increasingly growing group… In other words, maybe they were born into the working class, but a lot of them have been to college now. That wasn’t really so true of the earliest generation. A lot of them have master;s degrees or whatever, and a lot of them are searching for higher education in different ways. Things that weren’t available so much to people in the earlier generation.

I have the working-class background but I also have the Ivy League background and basically a prep school background, so that’s a strange combination. You go back into the so-called ghetto at night after coming from the University of Chicago Lab School during the day. That kind of bifurcation is part of the experience of a lot of African-American people, going back quite a long time.

So I am going to say that my initial impression is that it’s still primarily a working-class group, even for those who have managed, at this point, to develop another kind of living for themselves. Another thing about the Chicago AACM is that a lot of people do music, but they also have other jobs. They’re not necessarily on the road all the time. They have families. They’re people who have managed to combine two careers successfully. It’s always been like that. They don’t necessarily try to actively cultivate the aspiration of being like a working musician in that sense. The idea of experimentalism being supported by other kinds of work in order to supplement it, in the old days, was considered like, “Oh, you have a day job; that’s terrible; fuck that”—to be a real full-time musician, that’s great, authentic. That aspiration isn’t a big part of the thinking of a lot of people. I think this example shows it’s not as important as people think it is. It’s probably a little self-serving, in a way. A little too romantic. The idea is if you’re doing the music, you’re doing the music. That’s it. Who really cares whatever you have on the side?

It also occurred to me that you yourself, over the course of your career as a musician, which is 38 years…

I’ve always had jobs. First of all, I didn’t think of music as a full-time career all the time. I always had jobs. In New York, I had a job. For two years, I was the Music Curator at the Kitchen. That was a paying job. It was that kind of day job that musicians dream of, where you can go on the road. In Paris, I did concerts and stuff, but I also had a job. I had a commission from IRCAM, the French computer music institute, and I could have income there. Also in Holland. The time when I really had a full time itinerant position as a musician, which was in New York from about ‘87 to ‘88, I had a pretty hard time doing that. Then I started getting into academic life. So it’s not the same experience as people who have a full-time occupation. That hasn’t been a big part of my career.

You moved to New York in 1977, I believe.

Around there. There was a transition period of ‘76 and ‘77.

So in ‘76, you play with the Count Basie Orchestra for two months. Then you join Anthony Braxton, you’re on the road with him for a year—he was pretty visible, working a fair amount.

He did a lot of gigs.

You’re on recordings in 1978 and 1979 with Sam Rivers. It seems to me that during the latter half of the ‘70s, you’re a full-time musician, and that’s when you established your tonal personality very strongly.

I’m counting back from ‘82. In 1980, I started at the Kitchen. So maybe for three years from 1977 to 1980, I don’t know if I had any part-time jobs.

And a lot of activity was packed into those three years. There’s a body of documented improvised trombone playing that people still refer to when they think of your tonal personality.

I’m just basically saying that I come from the working-class background, but I’ve been very lucky, because a lot of musicians had extreme privation during those years. I really didn’t. I have to say that I was incredibly lucky to have that.

You have quite a bit of experience with orchestral music in the jazz and creative music traditions. I’m wondering if you could position the Great Black Music Ensemble within the full spectrum of such units you’ve worked with. Also, if you don’t find it too anecdotal, could you relate some of the experiences you had in big bands in the ‘70s that influenced your thinking of music as a full-time career.

Let me go first to the part about situating this group. I’ll start with the AACM. Now, the AACM has always had a tradition of supporting research in composition. In fact, from my perspective, the AACM began as a composers’ collective. In my time, at the AACM School, mainly you got lectures in composition from people like Muhal or Wallace MacMillan, or whoever showed up. They didn’t teach instruments. No one was talking about improvisation and stuff like that. Then you were always encouraged to compose your own work and present it; that was kind of a requirement. You were always encouraged to compose, and if you said you didn’t want to compose any more, people would complain. In that regard, the AACM membership itself would play your music, provide opportunities for you to explore large-form compositions, because there was no other way to do it. People weren’t receiving commissions from anybody to do anything like that. As far as I can see in Chicago, no one was calling up Douglas Ewart on the classical side to produce anything, and I’ve been on various panels where the classical ensembles are reviewed by funding organizations, and I’ve had a chance to kind of complain that these organizations never interface with the black community, and they should be called to account for that. It would be obvious that these experimental contemporary music ensembles should logically interface with the AACM. That’s one way of situating it.

For example, let’s imagine the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble in conjunction with various hybrid kinds of structures, which is the way the AACM was going. The book cites the first press release of the AACM, which Muhal and Ken Chaney wrote, which said that their mission was essential to the advancement of new music. I don’t think they were necessarily talking about the next Count Basie. I think they were trying to figure out a way to situate themselves in the broader tradition of musical experimentalism. That was really clear. I don’t want to narrow that focus.

So when you look at the various AACM big bands, as they called it, there was always this thing called the AACM Big Band, which was their way of interfacing with the big band tradition. Its precursor before that was the Experimental Band, and before that there were people like Muhal and Marshall Thompson and Eddie Harris who got together and created a rehearsal band, just to try out some ideas. The whole big band experience had kind of ossified, and a lot of people couldn’t get work going on the road—there was no longer that kind of work. As Eddie said—wasn’t that in an interview he did with you, Ted?–you didn’t learn certain things about how to perform or compose. There was no real infrastructure for that. So people had to make it themselves and create it.

Now, I think that there was a deliberate decision taken by people like Mwata Bowden—in particular, Mwata, I think—to recast that in a different way. In other words, they decided to change the name of what they were doing to the Great Black Music Ensemble. That was an important step also not in breaking with tradition, but establishing a new discourse surrounding their relationship to the AACM. Very important. They didn’t have to be the AACM Big Band any more. It wasn’t like, “Oh, here’s the next edition of the AACM Big Band.” What I realized, sitting in the band for those three nights, was that I played in all the AACM big bands, or a lot of them, for many years—the ones with Muhal, the ones with Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Henry Threadgill, and all these people who people think about from the first generation. I was kind of their student, in a way. But there was nothing like this. They didn’t have four singers or five singers. They didn’t really have cellists and violinists. With all respect to these great people, I don’t want to say that this is ‘better,’ but it’s a fundamentally different kind of animal, and it’s really, in a way, the most diverse set of possibilities that I have seen in any AACM ensemble. Things happen in this ensemble that never happened before in the AACM Big Band. Plus, they have women, a lot of women, not just a few, like we did back then.

And they’re not just singers.

And they’re not necessarily singers. They’re great players. Some of them sing and some of them don’t. With that in mind, GBME has a fundamentally different and very particular identity that they’ve established through regular rehearsal and through modification of a discourse which ends up causing everyone to reflect on how we are doing OUR thing and not necessarily just doing the AACM’s thing. That’s one thing. I was pretty impressed with that. The things that happened during those three nights couldn’t have happened in the same way with those earlier people. The earlier people should be proud of that. I certainly found myself being very proud of it.

Now, the next part of your question, asking me to situate this in the context of other experiences that I’ve had in various kinds of big bands…that’s hard to do. A lot of people who did experimental improvisation ensembles like Globe Unity Orchestra weren’t necessarily thinking about themselves as reacting to traditional big band music. They were just trying to create something different based on a broader interpretation of how you combine improvisation with composed stuff. Certainly, the standard big band model that we know and in which people have created wonderful music was based on that, in some way. The band was playing music, then you took your solo, and so on. But they didn’t have that much collective improvisation. They didn’t have everyone in the band writing a piece. For example, in Count Basie, we were playing pieces by Eric Dixon and so on, but it wasn’t a big feature. Thad Jones wrote most of the music for his orchestra, fantastic, classic pieces, like “A Child Is Born.” But it wasn’t that everyone in the band was encouraged to write music. Duke Ellington, the same thing—Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote the music. I don’t seem to remember Duke Ellington’s Orchestra playing standards, so-called, too often. That makes sense. It was his band, and it was his music, and why not?

In this ensemble, anyone can contribute. That’s like the AACM thing. As Joseph Jarman said, the difference between the AACM and Sun Ra is that in Sun Ra’s band it was Sun Ra who could say and do, and in the AACM everybody could say and do. That’s a huge difference. It’s actually a very different political model, too. You can think about it in terms of notions of radical democracy, egalitarianism, different models of ethical conduct that comes out of music. It’s not a negative example, but it’s more of a difference in orientation.

I was talking about the Globe Unity Orchestra. Basically, Alex Schlippenbach would do a lot of the writing, if there was writing, but a lot of the time there was no writing, and people would just improvise the entire gig. It was great. You had all these people who, really, that was their metier, and they specialized in it, and they knew what do in that environment. I’m not sure this band does that in the same way. I would like to see that happen at some point, where we could say, “OK, let’s improvise the entire concert with no music.” But that takes a particular kind of orientation to personal training, which might take time to develop. Maybe a retreat somewhere, a funded retreat of the sort that people coming from the jazz-identified area don’t really get, where you’ll have an ensemble come together… Composers get this. I’m going to Rome for two months in 2010, at the American Academy, composing music. I’m not going to spend my time in Rome going around and playing in bands and presenting stuff. I want to sit in Rome and compose, and talk with people, and learn about what’s happening there. But that’s the idea. Imagine if you had an ensemble for a week to play together and work this out. We did that with a smaller group in Portugal. In August in Lisbon we’re presenting the electro-acoustic project called Sequel, which we recorded in 2004—eight improvisors working with both acoustic and electronic instruments.

One of the festival chaperones told me that she had never, in eleven years, of shepherding bands around in Umbria and Orvieto, encountered a group of musicians as disciplined, organized, and good-humored as this group.

I do know where that sense of discipline and order comes from. I had never thought of this until J.D. Parran mentioned it, that the AACM people always were very organized and disciplined—he used that word, too. I never thought of us as particularly disciplined, but in fact, I had to ask people for their dietary requirements. My thing was, “Just give me some good Italian food,” but all these people were very specific about their requirements—“I’m a vegan” or this or that.

I don’t want to say this in the wrong way, but I think the reality of the jazz industry (I think I want to use that term) is that a lot of the bands that are brought to a place like this, they don’t come out of the collective experience, but out of the experience where someone gets a gig and they are hired by this or that person. They’re always on a bit of an edge, because they’re competing with a lot of other people who could also have been hired, but in fact they weren’t, so if they don’t do the right thing or play the music in the right away or don’t have the right attitude, they could get fired. I mean, nobody can get fired from the AACM. You can’t even resign voluntarily! Once you’re in, you’re in, and even if you say you’re out, you’re still in. So people don’t feel they can get fired. What are you going to do? Are you going to fire yourself? It’s a collective. Who’s going to fire you?

Isn’t what you’re describing a sort of collective characterological trait that’s been passed down from the beginning through Muhal Richard Abrams, and then various other members who had experience in the military? Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman both talked about their military experiences as crucial to what they did when they got to Europe, to their ability to survive and be self-sufficient.

You could say that.

I’m wondering if that attitude might run continuously throughout the AACM experience.

Maybe it could be. But I don’t know how many people of the younger generation had military experience. I mean, I didn’t, and then it’s whole different thing with these younger people. Volunteer army. Who wants to volunteer? People don’t want to do it. So maybe some people did. But there’s also a different kind of experience. Ernest Dawkins and Ameen Muhammad had the experience of being disciplined within the East Side Disciples, a gang! That’s a really different thing.

But you’re disciplined because this is your thing, and you’re encouraged to take personal responsibility for the outcome of the decision, whereas if you’re playing in a regular band that tours, you don’t have much personal responsibility other than to show up and do the music and do what you’re told. I don’t care whose band it is. Here you have to take on responsibility for playing your music and other people’s music. You’re contributing to the collective experience because it could be your turn next time to play the music of someone else, your colleagues. So it’s a stronger sense of collegiality than the standard kind of working-for-hire situation. We’re clearly not doing that, even though we are being “hired.’ But we’re working for ourselves as much as anyone else. We weren’t formed in response to some industry mandate, or “I’ll form a band and try to sell it.” It’s more that we form a band because we want to do this music. So we have full responsibility for it, and nobody tells us what to play. If we get hired for something, they hire us because we’re us.

I think that’s one thing that’s very important about discipline and collegiality and congeniality. It adds to the atmosphere. I remember working in bands where you were subject to one person’s way of looking at the world. There are people who like to have those kinds of groups, but I don’t. I’m more of a composer type. My band is kind of virtual. It’s on the paper.

Your mention of the Globe Unity Orchestra makes me reflect that this residency in Italy is part of a long timeline of AACM-Europe interactions, that the AACM bypassed New York and went directly to Paris at the end of the ‘60s. Indeed, you yourself had a great deal of personal experience in Europe during your formative years. I was thinking of questions of mutual influence: How you see the AACM having affected European notions of experimentalism and, conversely, ways in which European notions of experimentalism, the European avant-garde, impacted the AACM, whether in the early years or later on.

This ensemble is very interesting to me for several reasons. Early on in the history of the AACM, among the first generation of people, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, for example, studied with Richard Wang. Richard Wang was teaching them serialism and stuff like that, and they were looking at those models and trying to figure out “What’s my relationship to this?” So when a guy like Joachim Berendt says, “Well, European musicians have a closer relationship to Stockhausen than the Americans,” he seemed to be thinking about the fact of their being Europeans, but in fact music crosses those kinds of lines. Lots of U.S. musicians have studied European contemporary music as closely as anyone else. Certainly, Muhal and Roscoe and those guys knew about this. I mean, I heard about Elliott Carter from Muhal. He had the score of the First String Quartet sitting in his house. In fact, that was my introduction to scores, Stravinsky and all that. He had the scores sitting there. Phil Cohran, too. They all knew that.

But by the time you get to, let’s say, Ernest Dawkins, he says, “Well, we weren’t really so much into Stockhausen; we were trying to look at more sort of ‘black’ models.” I’m trying to put words into his mouth, unfairly perhaps. But he basically said that. It reinforces the idea that there are several models of experimentalism. Why not have an experimentalism that comes out of the black experience and doesn’t necessarily assume that any routes of experimentalism run through Europe? So you started to see that this version of the AACM doesn’t owe very much to those models of experimentalism in improvisation that arose at that time. I don’t see a lot of influence or even contact there. Now, Nicole has had more experience in that way than some of us do. Or Leonard Jones, who moved to Germany, who is much older, of course.

Now, I have had those kinds of experiences, and I find there’s a productive interchange, because I can bring to the table aspects of that experience that others did not have. This generation of people is young enough to think about, let’s say, going to composition school and studying composition in a graduate composition program, like the one I teach in at Columbia University.

As I point out in the book, the traditional route for African-American musicians was that we studied music education. You get something to fall back on, a teaching credential, and all that. That means that all of the composition programs in the U.S. mainly comprise white male composers and mainly white—and a few Asian—composing students. So I was talking with some of the younger AACM members, who were saying, “I’m going back to school.” So I told them, “Why not go to composing school?” They hadn’t thought about it. “Well, what’s going to keep you from doing it?” Then there was all this stuff about how they might have to write fugues to get admitted. People don’t do that any more! [LAUGHS]

The funny thing about jazz studies programs is that they’re probably the only programs in the world that actually require someone to learn both jazz and European music, so you have to be, like they say about anything black, “twice as good.” And they’re usually very well equipped. But the problem is that, in many cases, the model of twentieth century European music they learn is a little outdated—Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky. So as someone who’s a little older and is involved in this kind of program, my advice for people of that generation is that they can always do their jazz and other things without having to reinforce it by taking it in jazz school. Just go into a regular composition program, and learn all you can there. If you don’t know enough right at the beginning, you might have a little extra work to do.

So I have this thing now for my younger AACM colleagues that I call “modernism boot camp.” [LAUGHS] It’s really just an email.exchange. There’s still the autodidact tradition in the AACM. People are teaching themselves to compose, teaching themselves to teach—all kinds of things. But when you teach yourself, let’s say, orchestration or composition, the reality is that you are generally learning from books and recordings that are 20 or 30 years out of date. If you want to hear what’s happening now, you’ve got to go into one of these programs, and learn it from there. Since I’m in one of the programs, I can say, “well, here’s what people are doing.” Matthias Spahlinger, Olga Neuwirth–they haven’t heard about it. There’s no book published in English that you can read about people like this. You can’t get the scores unless you know where to look.

So I just sort of present the people they should listen to; sure, Stockhausen is on the list. You say, “Well, here’s the people who come out of this; here’s the generation, another generation, and I’m going to take you up to about 1985, and after you listen to these, let’s say, one hundred people and look at the scores, then you’re good until about ‘85.” Now, that’s still twenty years out of date. But it puts you in a space where you can go into a composition program and you’re not left behind, because you know who’s doing what. Then you’ve also got your jazz experience. So you know what spectral music is, or things like that. Then you’re in a position to do what, let’s say, Steve Lehman is doing in the Columbia program, which is combining spectralism with parallel ideas coming out of Steve Coleman and Jackie McLean to make this super hybrid. It’s amazing work. Tristan Murail, one of the founders of this area of music-making, loves it. It’s taking his ideas into areas he never thought were possible.

The second part of my question was your speculations on the AACM’s impact upon European musical production, experimental or otherwise.

The second and third generations of European and Asian improvisers were more influenced by the AACM than the first. They had a chance to listen to recordings and concerts, and they also are trying to do composed music more than the first generation. They are trying to combine improvisation and composition. So you get something like the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, which is great. There’s the Instabile Orchestra here in Italy. They all know about the example of people like Roscoe and Braxton in particular, who have spent more time here than the others. I wouldn’t say the experience is overweening. I would just say that the AACM thing has become part of the reference mix. People who are looking to do these kinds of hybrid things can’t consider themselves informed about the possibilities without having looked at the Braxton model at least, or the Threadgill model and then other models of how to do it.

The Art Ensemble coined the “Great Black Music” component of GBME, and the question of who that term does and does not include has been part of the ongoing discourse around the AACM. In the book, you talk about creolization as an overriding strategy that you follow. GBME is entirely comprised of people of African descent. I’m wondering to what extent the AACM today reflects strategies of creolization, or if it denotes an entirely black experience. As it’s an organization situated on Chicago’s South Side, it makes me consider the journey taken by President Obama, himself a biracial person, who formed his mature sensibility by intersecting with the many worlds that exist on that same terrain.

Well, in the US, everybody is already creolized. We hope that Obama is thinking about the AACM,

Well, Jeremiah Wright certainly knows about it. Reading your account on Vandy Harris’ memorial, I was thinking about that.

I went there. I had never heard Jeremiah Wright before that. I was stunned. He went off on this Iraq thing, relating it to a Biblical text about hubris.

He also did a recording with Wynton Marsalis. He gives the sermon on The Majesty of the Blues.

First of all, Ingrid Monson said an interesting thing—the ethnomusicologist from Harvard whom I work with quite a bit, most recently on a seminar on postcolonialism in music. She said that African-American culture is majoritarian in jazz culture. That is to say, African-American spiritual, cultural, and psychological values are majoritarian, even in all-white bands or all-European bands. So they adopt jazz models. You see people here, they’re using black slang routinely. That means that African-American ways of thinking…there’s a creolization present even in an Italian jazz ensemble. You hear it all the time. You heard it at Perugia with that marching band, Funk Off.

The second thing is that the people in the Great Black Ensemble, although it comes out of a black milieu, don’t seem averse to having Mary Oliver play, or having Miya Masaoka play. So there’s a lot of creolization there, if you want to identify that with black-white mixing, which isn’t really what the concept is about.

What I think will happen eventually is the creolization of individual ethnic provenance, which is something that the AACM is not necessarily that into on an organizational level. Although one day it could. I think it might. This is probably the moment, as Joseph said, when the third generation, or the fourth, could really entertain that notion. But it’s very difficult to do that in the context of the history of American race relations. Because there may be a majoritarianism of black culture, but there is also a sense that whiteness is still the ruling ideology of the country in terms of the distribution of infrastructure, and that tends to produce a kind of divisiveness that many organizations can’t support. Now, that may still be true, and it may not be true. A lot of people are reluctant to risk the integrity and the tradition to find out.

So anyone who does that has to be someone of whatever non-African-American provenance who understands that reality of race. It can’t be some naive, “we are the world” color-blindness strategy. That’s not going to work. It has to be someone who understands politically the complexities. That’s possible in Chicago, I think, as well as anywhere else. You need people on both sides of the aisle who understand when to account for politics and when to leave politics out. I’m talking about racial politics. You see racial politics coming into the organization not through the people, but through unconscious pressures that are being placed on them… For example, the pressures of identity politics that caused [vibraphonist] Gordon Emanuel to be put out. The organization couldn’t withstand that, which was too bad. Gordon took it quite personally. Why wouldn’t he? It was too big for him to understand. It was too big for a lot of the people who are in it to understand.

Hopefully with this book, which was written as much for the AACM as for anybody else, people will look at this example and say, “Well, how can we do better? How can we construct a multicultural, multiracial AACM?” Maybe the possibility would be that the first person is someone who is not of U.S. origin, but is an African person, an Asian person or a Brazilian person, or something like that. There are all kinds of possibilities. Then you get out of the black-white dichotomies which people get stuck with all the time routinely, without even thinking about it. Even a question like this. We are constantly being asked to evaluate things in terms of white and black because of the historical struggle that takes place. You cannot just blank that out. So even in my early scholarly articles, I tried… Like the Afrological-Eurological thing that I wrote about, which people in the scholarly world have taken up and are sort of waving around. I’m a little wary of it now. It’s uncomfortable. But it does reflect a certain historical reality. So to do better, you still have to be aware of that historical reality, and to overcome that using a revised discourse is as important as anything else.

There are not that many collectives in Europe, as far as I can tell. I also don’t see even a lot of multiracial ensembles over here, even though Europe is becoming—even Italy is becoming—increasingly multi-racial. Look on the streets–it’s incredible. You never used to see these kinds of people. I think that’s we’ll see that increasingly as a part of the new reality of Europe as well.

You mentioned writing A Power Stronger than Itself for the AACM as much as anything else. What were some of the other reasons why you wrote the book? It took ten years of your life. A lot of labor was involved, a lot of detective work, and you had many other contemporaneous duties.

Why I wrote the book really has everything to do with why I got involved in academic scholarship. I was teaching at UC-San Diego, where we were trying to teach improvisation, and, at the time, being from the performance world and not the academic world, I had a few very inchoate ideas about how to teach that. At a certain point, I was brought up short by one of my faculty colleagues. I think I write about that in the book, actually. Basically, he said, “Where’s the bibliography? How are you going to teach it if you don’t have a bibliography?” Then I thought, “Actually, he’s right.” So where is the bibliography? This was in the mid ‘90s, and the new work in jazz studies was just coming out. But even that work didn’t seem to touch upon the experience and implications of what improvisation was—what it produced, what kinds of contexts it made, how it altered our thinking, how improvisation became imbued in our everyday life experiences, and how improvisation relates to an understanding of humanity, political situations, everyday interaction, and so on. It just seemed as though that literature was not really as present.

I think the first article I got published was an attempt to come to grips with a lot of that stuff. It was sort of long, too long, and still it got published in Black Music Research Journal in ‘96. It’s that article on the Afrological-Eurological thing that I just mentioned. The issue is much more complicated than I was making it out to be. It’s nice to know that you can grow and change, and revisit a lot of the ideas you had.

We also had a couple of smart graduate students at UCSD, Dana Reason and Jason Robinson, who organized a conference on improvisation. We were trolling for people who were confronting improvisation in the scholarship, and confronting it in a different way than, let’s say, the way that early ethnomusicological studies addressed improvisation. We weren’t so interested in finding practices and forms, and finding order and vindication of improvisation as an art form. We could see that improvisation was, in fact, an everyday critical practice, and we didn’t see a lot of people talking about improvisation as a critical practice. We mainly saw them interested in looking at alternate classical traditions—Persian improvisation or Indian improvisation—and concerned to find out what forms were being used, the rhythms, the compositions, and once you identified those forms, your work was done.

It just seemed to me that your work hadn’t even started! We were having these cross-cultural discussions with people at UCSD, and we would ask them questions that were burning in the Western classical music community. We would ask these Indian improvisers questions like, “Do you think about global form?” “What?!” We’d get no response at all. [LAUGHS] So we were at a cross-cultural space in thinking about improvisation, and there was a very important musical community that had no interest in these things that are burning in the Western contemporary music community, where it’s generally said that if you don’t have the aspect of global form your music is basically worthless, or not of any intellectual interest. But this is obviously not the case.

So you had to ask yourself how are these people getting along without thinking about these things, and why don’t they think about them? Why is it so unimportant to them if it’s so important to everybody else? Because we are being sold, as improvisers, a whole bill of goods about how formless the practice is, or how it didn’t produce this or didn’t produce that, and a lot of moral posturing purely based on the writings of John Cage or people like that, which was already distorting a lot of what those people did, but somehow enlisting his words towards finding improvisation lacking.

So there were enough reasons there to write anything. If you really wanted to start writing, get started. Since then, we’ve been able to find a global community of people attacking this problem from many different standpoints. I’d say the book comes out of that more than anything else.

Beyond that, the AACM is a very important organization. It seemed that it needed to be given its due in terms of its achievements and influence and impact, and also that it needed to be contextualized historically along with other movements. But there was not enough material available to do that. So the book’s purpose also was to provide some of that material so that future scholars can come in and perhaps elaborate on things that the book only touched upon, or that didn’t get talked about at all. Maybe some people would be interested in musical analysis, which I hardly spent any time with. So many things could be done on the AACM that, as large as the book is, it’s more like an amuse bouche, in a way.

So there were a lot of reasons why it was important to me to get this work done. On the other hand, it took a long time just because I was learning a lot about, first of all, how to write a book. Then secondly, the AACM was developing while I was writing. It was kind of a moving target. It wasn’t a dead chicken or anything. It kept moving. It’s hard to pin down, but at an arbitrary point it had to be pinned down.

The book itself was probably a moving target while you were writing it. Is the final product somewhat in line with what you envisioned when you embarked upon it in the mid ‘90s?

This is the reason why I have such trouble writing. A lot of people complain that the work is always late. It’s because I can’t work like, “Oh, here’s Chapter 1, which is going to be about this, and Chapter 2 is going to be about that.” First of all, I tried to assemble and read what’s been written about the AACM in several languages. Then there was this ambitious project to interview just about everybody. I got pretty far—I didn’t interview absolutely everybody, but I interviewed more than 90 people. I wasn’t even able to use all the interviews. In the middle of that, I found a communitarian aspect. In other words, people were excited to be interviewed. They were excited that a book was going to come out. They were also afraid that it wouldn’t come out. A lot of it was sort of like the idea of Obama getting elected, and then hoping he doesn’t get assassinated or something. People are used to these projects not coming to fruition. So I got a lot of moral support. No one said they didn’t want to be interviewed. Everybody was into it, even people who I didn’t really know well, like Phil Cohran. So that was OK. I met new people through doing it.

So I sort of started in the way I generally start, which is to collect everything I could collect, and then plow through it and read it all, then throw it up on the wall and see what sticks. Then, at a certain point, it’s got to take shape in the form of chapters. Of course, some things get left out—for example, a whole section on the Harlem Renaissance. The reason is because I was the only person who was interested in it. At a certain point, it was like hardly anyone in the community of the AACM referenced the Harlem Renaissance. There was no reason for me to put a chapter in there and say, “somehow I feel this has relevance to the AACM.” Well, of course it does. Anything has relevance to the AACM. I put in stuff about the Society for Private Music Performance in Vienna. But at a certain point, if I did a whole chapter on it, it would have been a little out of place. So basically, I had to save a lot of material.

I first worked on it during a six-week residency in Umbria, Civitella Ranieri. When I came out of there, I already had 400 pages of writing. Plus, I had to transcribe all those tapes. I was in a castle, and there was a field with sunflowers, looking out on all this beautiful weather every day, and I’m basically sitting in a room, sitting in a virtual meeting in Chicago, on the South Side, listening to these tapes of people arguing about this and that, and being obtuse and being brilliant, and occasionally just not being able to help myself and sort of barging in, and then realizing that no one is listening to me! I’m listening to the thing, and this is stuff that is already thirty years old. But it was so present! People I didn’t know. People I knew.

What you’re referring to is the meeting at which the principles of the AACM were formed, which you describe in detail in one of the chapters.

Not just that meeting, but a bunch of them. I had a lot of meeting tapes, but only referenced a few. But yes, in general, it was that early period of the first couple of years of the AACM’s formation, when they were taping all the meetings in which I recognized voices of various people I knew. They had a rule that you had to say your name anyway, so even if I didn’t know the people, I could identify who spoke. A great idea. And people stuck to it.

In our conversation on WKCR in 2008, you wanted to be very clear that a lot of the boilerplate narratives of jazz historiography don’t work with the AACM.

That’s true.

The book explores multiple narratives, in addition to the broader, linear narrative—how the AACM was formed, its antecedents, its different stages, the people who comprised it. I’d like to throw out a few of the narratives that seem important, a few that you mentioned yourself, and see what you have to say about them now. One is that A Power Stronger than Itself is a narrative of an organization that expressed the agency of a group of working-class African-Americans. Another is the notion that the AACM also expressed the agency of people who had been impacted by migration, both the in-migration from the South, but also their own out-migration from Chicago once the AACM was established. Can you offer some statement on how those narratives became clear to you?

Of course, the book reflects my own experience, even though I am just one person. But I think the key image that brings all of those strands together is mobility. And the extent to which people fight for mobility. They fight against being stereotyped—all these things that tend to place you in fixed contexts, tend to root you to some spot and not let you leave. I wrote about Farah Griffin’s book on the migration. She references Foucault, who has an idea about about agency and power expressed through being able to move. At some point, these southern-based people were able to get out. As I discuss in the book, a lot of people were unhappy to see this super-exploited labor force leave the South, and even went to various agencies of the government to say, “Can’t you make some laws to keep these people here?”

That’s one kind of mobility. Then you’ve got another kind, where people start to say, before even the term comes up: “We don’t want to be stuck in one place. We want to do any kind of music that strikes our fancy. And not only any kind of music. We want to get involved in the visual arts, we want to get involved in theater. We want to do everything connected with art-making.” Performance art. People like Jarman or Muhal or whomever. That’s another kind of mobility.

I saw the AACM fundamentally as a sort of successful struggle to achieve mobility. One saw also how this mobility was very hard-won. There is a discourse of immobility which you have to combat. I love that interview that’s on the web that I think Fred Anderson and other people had copies of on tape, where Charlie Parker is being interviewed who are asking him the same question over and over again, hoping to get a different answer. The answer that they want is that his music is a logical outgrowth of the work of European classical music. At a certain point, he comes out with one of these Charlie Parker type licks. His spontaneity is incredible. He says, “Not a bit of it was inspired or adapted from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, et cetera.” That’s an incredible lick. That’s like the great alto break. For me, that says it all. Encapsulated classical music history. First of all, proving right away, in a sense, that he knew that tradition well enough to be able to do that. Then secondly, the idea that not only was he connected with that, but he had his own music. I felt that this kind of mobility—the freedom of reference—was important to bring out in the book.

The problem with this kind of mobility is that you cross-cut a lot of communities, but it’s hard to find a home base. It’s hard to find the people who will support you no matter what. You’re in this world for a while, in that world for a while, but it’s not as though there is one place where you can count on a certain kind of support. That’s why the AACM was important, because it did provide a group of people who would really support you no matter what. Even though they were critical, certainly, but the critique was offered with the idea that you were part of a community that DESERVED this kind of critique, who were invested in you by making this kind of critique. So wherever you went and whatever you explored, you would have this kind of home base, and it’s a home base that’s totally in your mind, which is where the most powerful stuff generally is.

Charlie Parker’s remark on the source of his music prompts me to double back to my question about the mutual relationship between the AACM and Europe. In our 2006 conversation, you stated that you saw the AACM and the European experimental music organizations as parallel streams. Both were interested in John Coltrane, in post-Webern music (Stockhausen, Xenakis), in collective practice, in developing certain sorts of social networks. Then you said: “Both the European improvisers and the AACM have a peculiar relationship to European classical music. That is, the AACM people, people like Braxton, like Muhal, like Roscoe, are actually working inside of those traditions as well. You don’t really find that in the European improvisers, who are working against that tradition, with the large exception of Alex Schlippenbach—but even there, they have an oppositional stance, which is partly political, to this thing which is actually very close to them, this hegemony of European classical music.”

I thought that was a pretty great riff. We could call it the great trombone break! ]

I suppose, except that it didn’t come out of my horn.

You said there was no reason for the AACM people to oppose European classical music, because for them, European classical music was the thing they were being kept out of. So for them, engagement with it was actually overcoming strictures of race.

Not just the AACM either. That’s an ongoing trope in American history and black American music history, the idea that somehow you’ve been kept out of something, and so to gain that knowledge becomes the object. Not necessarily to become part of the community. That’s more complicated. But certainly, to be in touch with that knowledge and be in dialogue with it becomes important.

Another narrative strand in the book is the notion of overcoming strictures of race in a very specific way.

Well, there is a reason why the book was subtitled, The AACM and American Experimental Music. American experimental music, historiographically, is white. That means that we are looking at a large number of scholars, journalists, producers, who have been instrumental in constructing this whiteness-based discourse network that, if you come into it and you’re not white, you have an issue with. Somehow, that network, which is implicitly race-imbued, had to be changed, extended, destroyed, transformed. Race doesn’t come up as a factor until you test the limits. Then, when you test the limits, you are often accused of injecting race into it, when, in fact, the racial consensus is already present. But to make it explicit seems to be the fate of artists of color. The problem there is that the process in itself is anti-dynamic. Somehow, you have to be the one who brings race to every situation. The artist-of-color has to be the person that represents. Or you have to somehow be on the lookout for situations that the others aren’t really thinking about. That becomes a drain on your energy as a creative person. You can also recycle it and use it creatively. But it does become a bit of an annoyance when maybe you’d rather be thinking about something else at that time, but you don’t have the liberty to do so. We’re not in the post-racial place yet. I don’t see that.

You could say that there are strictures of race, but the same strictures can also be used to enable. I always look not to eliminate race, which is impossible, but to atomize and multiply the racial dynamic. “Well, let’s get a lot of races in there. Let’s not just have one or two.” You know, the usual back-and-forth between black and white that’s defined a lot of historiography in the history of the United States. Let’s not have that. Let’s see if we can mix it up.

Let’s see if we can create previously paradoxical constructions, like “black experimentalism,” which was Ronald Radano’s construction. Very important. One of the more important things in his book on Anthony Braxton was how he managed to identify that. My contribution to that discourse was to expand it beyond the individual, which is to say, rather than regard Anthony Braxton as being THE pivotal figure, to see a whole community of people standing around him. He has antecedents. Not just distant antecedents like Duke Ellington, but immediate antecedents in the community who taught him and who prepared the ground for him. Anthony Braxton was not the only person in 1968 listening to Stockhausen on the South Side of Chicago. He was not the only person who knew who John Cage was. Joseph Jarman played with John Cage in 1965 when Braxton was in the Army. What are you going to do with that? At a certain point, we have to bring these things out. We have to ask ourselves: What does that mean? How does that contribute to the narrative of experimentalism? Is it just some background curio that we’ve identified, or is there a larger, deeper implication?

I just wrote a long piece on the black Fluxus musician, Ben Patterson, for a catalogue on a show he’s having next year at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. In a way, just by being Ben Patterson, he brings race to Fluxus. Now, at the risk of being a bit uncharitable, I would say that his Fluxus colleagues handled that somewhat poorly. Certainly, individuals in the private transcript probably have a different reality, but the public transcript doesn’t handle it very well at all. It’s part and parcel with the way the experimental music community and the scholarly community that writes on experimental music approaches race, where no one thought to ask, “what does it really mean to have a black person in Fluxus?” If you say it means nothing, that’s ridiculous. The guy himself wrote that he wanted to be the first Afro-American to play in a symphony orchestra, but he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t get a gig, so he went to Canada and actually got gigs, straight out of college, playing double bass in symphony orchestras. Then he gets over to Germany and suddenly meets up with Mary Bauermeister and all these people, and suddenly his world is changed around—and he even steps to the front and starts making very important, lasting contributions. His colleagues (on this, I’m going to give them full credit) recognize his achievements. There’s no narrative that you can find coming from the Fluxus colleagues that doesn’t mention Ben Patterson. He is not erased from that at all. He is a central figure. But, when we get to the writing on the Fluxus movement by the scholars and historians, he starts to recede more and more and more.

So I found myself thinking, when I was writing this article: “Is this the first time anybody has written a scholarly article on Ben Patterson?” He’s born in 1934. Is this the first time? It seems kind of odd. Not to say that one has to be as famous as Nam June Paik or something, but still, it just seemed off.

Now, Ben Patterson has little or no connection with the jazz world that one can see from the public record. He grew up listening to opera and so on. But he does have a connection with African-American music. After Fluxus, he was with the Symphony of the New World as general manager. I think he worked with Dance Theater of Harlem. He also did many things connected with African-American composers. So he’s not disconnected from that world, and he’s not disconnected from models of race. But often, when commentators try to examine his work in terms of race, they betray their own naivete about the current state of theorizing on race. That’s another problem with the scholarship, that because they spend so much time ignoring race, they don’t know who’s doing good work—people like Achille Mbembe and Cheryl Harris.

Anyway, there’s a lot to say about race. But my real issue is to try to take my place among the scholars. When you write these scholarly articles, they send them out anonymously, and they get reviewed, the reviews come back and you read them, and they ask you to incorporate what they said into your visions. One person said, “Well, this would be a good article just because of the person who’s writing it.” I said, “No, that’s not enough; it can’t be that.” It has to be good regardless of the person. I have to bring my experience into the book, but its authority can’t be derived from those outside factors—that somehow we read this book because, and only because of this individual who is posing as an authority, and he was there, and so we have to take his claim seriously. That’s the problem with a lot of writing these days.

You do make it clear in the text, however, that it would not have been written had the project not been undertaken by someone who, as you put it before, was somehow an insider, with whom people hadn’t played or who people didn’t know.

But that happens in any ethnographic enterprise. If people don’t trust you, you’ll get a different response. That’s why the ethnographers, the ethnomusicologists, the anthropologists live with people for a long time. They have to earn the people’s trust, people have to know they’re not going to be betrayed, and so on. Even with me, there were those questions, and in a way, it’s more acute because of being an insider.

One of the things that I discovered about so-called ‘authority’ is they’re often wrong. Or people who said they were there at a certain point, who weren’t actually there, or gave completely bogus interpretations of what they found there. At a certain point, it’s not whether you were there that’s important. Also, I wasn’t there for a lot of it. I was an insider for my generation, but not for the ones before and not for the ones after. So for those people, I am coming in as an ethnographer or an historian, trying to interpret. So I have to uphold some kinds of standards, and also I have to bring some analytic muscle to the table. Otherwise, you know, it’s a great book by somebody who was there. I want people to say, “I don’t care if George Lewis was this guy or not; he’s wrong about this-and-this-and-this, and here’s why.” That’s real dialogue at that point, instead of someone you can’t question because they played with Bird and knew what Bird was doing, despite the fact they’d forgotten a lot of what Bird was doing. Someone who didn’t forget, who read and talked to a lot of people might be in a better position to talk about what Bird was doing.

Was a process of self-discovery involved in writing the book?

My joke about the book is it’s just like Alex Haley trying to look for Kunta Kinte. Yeah, sure, you discover a lot about yourself. There are things you took for granted that turned out to be rooted in some specific historical moment. The whole facing-the-East thing. If you ask someone, “Why do we face the East?”—“I don’t know, we just do it.” Now, people who care to know have some understanding of when that practice arose and why it did.

That’s one simple example. But to go a little deeper: What I found out about the people who did this work enabled me to go a lot deeper into my own creative work. I felt better about it afterwards. Some people say, “Born too soon,” “born too late,” all the great stuff has already been done, all the innovation already happened. I no longer feel that way. I discovered that way, a bunch of people were doing great work even after Muhal and those people. People like Nicole Mitchell are doing great work right now. So there isn’t this sense, which I often heard when discussing the book, of “What is the AACM doing now?” or next trend to come out of the AACM. I’m not a trend-spotter. My response is, “Well, what’s Napoleon doing now?” Well, nothing. He’s dead. But people are still writing about him. The ideas have an impact—the way in which all that activity changed France and stretched all around the world. The way Haiti was affected. It means that his work still has an impact. If the AACM stopped functioning tomorrow, the achievements remain. But in fact it hasn’t stopped functioning.

A lot of things happened while I was writing this book that had a lot of impact. The MacArthur award. That was sort of huge, because besides being an encouragement to write the book (that’s how I took it; you don’t know why you get these things), I also took it as a validation for what I was doing. Somehow, there was an increased sense of freedom connected with it, and the sense that I should try to be more focused, and gradually to weed out the things that weren’t at the center of my interests. That’s very painful, because certain people you performed with, you may not perform with in the future. Or, people believe you’re just like them, and you’re really not like them at all, or you share some small point of commonality but it’s not enough for you—it’s enough for them. The fear that generates in people. I’ve had to experience that as I was doing this.

Another ongoing trope of A Power Stronger Than Itself is the notion of hybridity, which you embody in the intertwining narratives and diverse strategies deployed in constructing the different chapters, not least the conclusion, in which you set up an imaginary dialogue amongst the various AACM members. Were you writing towards that denouement?

I don’t remember how that came about. I do remember it being the chapter I had the most ethical problems with. In the book I wrote about those ethical problems with the idea of taking the voices from people who hadn’t talked to each other, probably from the same community, but arbitrarily so, and some of them people who were no longer alive, and bringing them into juxtaposition. It’s the idea that somehow you’re already orchestrating these into the narrative by weaving together quotations without giving everything they said. When I wrote the chapter, I read what I said to a couple of people and said, “Is this something you can really do in a book of this kind?”—which finally is a work of scholarship. If it’s a different kind of work, if it’s fiction or whatever, you can do it. But with this, it was like writing fiction at the end of the book. It was a little scary. So I’m still not sure how I came to the idea this should be done.

The function of that chapter is to reconnect the AACM with the future, which will be connected with a dialogue confronting issues that still aren’t resolved. The book does not end with everything tied up in a bow. It ends with more questions. With places to go. With some vistas that are not a modernist quest for perfectionism, but a kind of postmodern uncertainty with a multiplicity of voices that ends up being a heterophony. But I can’t remember how it came to be. Somehow it just seemed the thing to do.

For me, writing words gives you the same feeling as writing music. I’m sitting there, writing this thing, working the way I work, which is I have a bunch of stuff on the floor around me, either conceptually or in reality, and I pick this one up and see. No, that’s not going to fit. Oh, this one over here… I used to make fun of Michel Portal in my mind (in fact, everybody did), because you’d go to rehearsals with Michel, and he’d bring in this huge bag of music. Michel is a genius musically, so he can pick a piece of music—I don’t care what clef it’s in, anything—and pick up his clarinet and play some of it. He’ll pick it up, play two or three notes, and say, “Non. Pas ça.” Put it back in the box. “What are we going to play?” I think it was his way of assembling something that worked for him. My way of writing is kind of like that. It gets very intense, very emotional, especially when you start to see how the story (which is what I’m calling this piece of scholarship) is working. I guess this is the same feeling I get from composing. From composing more than playing, I think.

How much time do you get these days to devote to composition, and how much of your compositional work these days is what David Behrman dubbed interspecies, that is, between software-electronics and humans?

I was talking to somebody who said, “You aren’t really like a bandleader type person.” I said, “Well, that’s right; I’m not a bandleader type person.” I mean, I’ll lead the band if no one else is around. But I’ve come to the stage now (and this is probably the turbulence I was talking about earlier) where I don’t want to sit in the band either. I find the most comfortable place for me is in the audience, listening to my composition getting played. That’s been true for a number of years. I don’t often get to do that. It’s like with the book. It’s done. It’s out there. I can’t come to your house and read it to you. So I’m more like the composer type.

Now, in the field I’ve had at least a major role in for years, the jazz field, that’s not a regular thing. Jazz is about improvisers. Which is why I’ve been fortunate that I no longer have to put all my eggs into any one basket. That was another thing, that the MacArthur grant, in my case, sort of rewarded mobility and multiplicity. When they were talking about what I did, they couldn’t say “this person is a physicist” or “this person is a composer.” They had to say these multiple things, and it became very diffuse, and no one could figure it out. Which is great for me, because this means I get to intervene in all kinds of fields.

Look, for example, at Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis: First of all, there’s a lot of talk about Wynton Marsalis being this conservative, or whatever, who recreates this and that. Well, what is Blood on The Fields recreating? He may be referencing a lot of stuff. That’s different. But what I’d like to concentrate on is that, on the one hand, the composition is for the standard jazz ensemble, and operates in a way that you can’t really play the music unless you’ve trained in various traditional notions of jazz playing, but, on the other hand, it calls for a type of jazz player who is in extremely short supply, despite all the talk. Most of that music is unplayable by most people who play jazz. It’s too hard. Listen to it sometime. It took massive numbers of rehearsals.

See, if you have a piece for classical ensemble, you can write as many septuplets and superduperuplets as you like, and some graduate student will sit up there and read the stew out of it. You can’t do that in a jazz band. It won’t get played. Can’t do it. So there’s a limit on the kinds of complexity you can write.

What Marsalis was doing was pushing that envelope in the jazz arena. In order to push the envelope successfully, they had to create an ensemble that could do it. So that had to be done by the media corporations that support Lincoln Center’s jazz program. They had already done it for classical music. They have done it since the ‘50s. I mean, Leonard Bernstein’s crew didn’t have any problem playing hard music. I’d like to be able to write without regard to who is going to play this; I write what I want, then we bring it to people, and whatever they get out of it, they get. Because somebody is going to come along one day and really be able to do the written part.

Now, as to the playing part… See, that’s the key to the Marsalis thing, is you get people who actually are high-level interpreters of the written stuff but are also high-level players in a number of jazz idioms. That’s a new kind of musician. The paradox is that you started to see that new kind of musician first in the AACM. A Braxton type. Creative Orchestra Music is as difficult as Blood on the Fields. Some parts are more difficult. The music is of a totally different order in terms of what’s possible. The people who were trained in standard jazz were the ones who had the roughest time with the music. As I discuss in the book, that was a landmark recording for a number of reasons.

At the session were all these people from diverse worlds. There was the studio world with Seldon Powell, a great alto saxophonist, and Jon Faddis playing piccolo trumpet, and then there were people like Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and Garrett List, and then Braxton’s quartet colleagues—Barry Altschul, Dave Holland—and an AACM group—Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith. There was always this thing in the jazz world about inside and outside, free and not-free, and the story was that the so-called “free” players, whatever that means, couldn’t play regular music, whatever “regular music” means. So there was all this difficult written music, and the thing was that the people who were the not-free jazzers were having a hard time with it because it had stuff in it like quintuplets, or wider intervals, stuff that you normally don’t encounter in jazz bands. But AACM people had been writing that kind of stuff for years, and had taught themselves to play it. So in the end, it was a reversal of the expected situation, because the people who were the so-called experienced readers were the ones who were falling behind a little bit. But in the end, everybody caught up, and what you hear is this incredible thing.

With Braxton’s quartet, it got to the stage where we really didn’t have to rehearse the music. Braxton would write music every day. If we were on tour, he would go in a hotel room, he would write this music every day, and you knew not to call him or knock on his door while he was doing this. At a certain point, he would emerge with a few pieces of paper, and then we would look at them and sing them, and then go on the stage and play them—and that would be it.

After a while, you began to understand the system, and, at least when I was doing it, you didn’t have to know heavy mathematics, or look at diagrams. All the stuff that I think people asked about basically was written fairly prosaically on regular note paper, and you just had to read it. Then once you knew how Anthony thought and what his ideas were… It was amazing to me that he could do this. But then I learned how to do it, too. You could just go in and read the music, and sort of sing it, and then pretty soon you’re on stage playing it, and that would be it. It would work out.

Anthony and I did a curious duo at Donaueschingen that was subsequently issued by Hat Art; Anthony always wanted to confront people with the consequences of genre transgression. Donaueschingen has a very curious history with jazz, which is that it was introduced in the early ‘50s. Then they brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was performing in the same year as the premiere of Stravinsky’s Agon. People just went nuts over the Modern Jazz Quartet and didn’t think so much of Stravinsky. So basically, the headline in the newspaper was “King Jazz Defeats King Twelve Tone.” That was it. Jazz was banned for the next ten years from Donaueschingen. They asked the director about it it… This is stuff you don’t really get to unless you read in arcane German archives and stuff. They asked the director, Heinrich Strobel, what was the reason for banning jazz. He said, “We didn’t want the things we love to overshadow things we were really interested in.” [LAUGHS] Which is pretty direct. So on this Donaueschingen duo, Anthony wanted to play “Donna Lee,” because Donaueschingen is known one of those places which disdains jazz, and the so-called “new music” people get the bulk of the infrastructure and so on—he wanted make that point about genre transgression.

Now, I think the same year we finally got a gig at the Newport Jazz Festival. This is great! So everyone’s going, “Well, we’re going to play our normal repertoire.” Then a day or two before the concert, Anthony comes in with this 50-page, completely notated composition and says, “Here’s what we’re going to play.” There was no “Donna Lee” on that concert. So once again, people were expecting X and they get Y. That’s sort of the AACM idea, which is basically we’re playing music, and people who love music should be receptive, and not only receptive on one channel, but all channels.

You can’t create a new kind of music without individual transformations. Individuals have to change. They have to transform, they have to develop, they have to reinvent themselves, they have to do the self-fashioning, as they call it in the scholarly literature—or perform a spiritual exercise. So this was the real innovation of that, but the curious thing is that the AACM was the logical precursor of that kind of innovation. What you have now, even in the classical world, are individually brilliant performers who can do this kind of code-switching. The more of those kinds of code-switchers you get, it will change what’s possible, and you will see new kinds of music based on this kind of code-switching. You already see it. But the code-switching has to go a lot further, which means that even the people in a group like Marsalis’ have to do even more kinds of music, not just the jazz music and not just classical music before 1950, and not just Western music. There’s a huge responsibility there for people who perform or compose.

So that’s how I look at what I’m trying to do nowadays. On the one hand, I don’t want people to be put off by the music and find it impossible to play. I want them to be able to find themselves in the music. A case in point is this Fred Anderson piece I wrote for the Great Black Music Ensemble that I mentioned before. Again, the commission was to write an arrangement of some piece by Fred Anderson, and I decided to orchestrate some of Fred’s improvisations. It’s not like Super-Sax, though that was cool—not that kind of homophony. I wanted more of a contrapuntal thing. It was like when Zita Carno transcribed “Giant Steps” and Coltrane looked at it and said, “I can’t play this.” I looked at Fred’s solo and said, “well, I could practice this for 20 years; I’m not going to get it. So I could give that to somebody else, but they’re not going to get it. But how do I use the transcription?” So I hit on breaking it up into little pieces. You can play five notes of it. If he’s playing… [SINGS FAST QUINTUPLET], and you have one person who goes, [DUPLET], and another person goes, [DUPLET], [ONE NOTE], [TRIPLET]. So they play their little five-note fragment, and it ends up sounding kind of wild, but in the end, you can trace the whole sweep of Fred’s music. It was pretty faithful to Fred’s timing. I stretched out very few parts—a couple of repetitions. But basically, it’s what was on the record, except that it’s orchestrated for all of these horns and violins and cellos and stuff.

I would love to do that also in the contemporary classical arena, because these musicians are trained differently, they have a different bodily sound—in other words, their bodies are trained differently. They reproduce that history. So it would be great for me to conceptually migrate what Fred did to that arena. And it would probably be very easy to take this piece and reconceive it for orchestra. Those are the kinds of things that are exciting me.

Are you doing much less work now with software-generated improvising-composing? Are there new iterations of Voyager?

I think that work has hit a plateau for a while, while I work on something else. I’m not quite sure why. That work got pretty far. I feel comfortable with it. In a way, it’s like settled technology. It was like The Spirit of St. Louis was one thing, and now we have these things taking place fifty times a day. So for me, to have a little piano sitting on my laptop, that I can pull it out, hook it up, and play for about thirty minutes, and create a concert with it, or to let it go and play a concert by itself—to me, that’s settled technology.

Right now, I can see what will be required for the next mile of doing that. Better instrumental recognition. There are computers that can listen to music and tell you what the genre is. You turn the radio to a station and they listen and say, “Well, that’s X, Y and Z.” Or sometimes they get stuck. They report several genres. That’s very cool, too.

But I don’t necessarily want to get stuck now in creating new technologies. I already created a new technology. I’d like to try to bring those ideas that came out of the technology to other spheres of the compositional and listening experience. That’s why I’m not working on it as much.

Can you describe in a relatively synoptic way the gestation and evolution of Voyager?

I’ve been doing computer music since 1979, and the goal has always been the same (although the techniques became more advanced and certainly the computers are better), which is to create situations where software-driven musical systems are in improvised interaction with human improvisers. It’s a cousin of the piece called “Rainbow Family” that I made at IRCAM in 1984. That was a networked piece. That is to say, there were three microcomputers, all controlling three of the earliest generation of MIDI synthesizers; that is, the Yamaha DX-7. There were four improvisers—Joelle Leandre, the bassist; Derek Bailey, the guitarist; Douglas Ewart, who played bass clarinet; and Steve Lacy, who played soprano saxophone. I think we did three evenings of performances of free improvised music with computers in the large space at IRCAM. The beginnings of Voyager were there.

The next stage of Voyager was really is where it almost became something you could call Voyager. In 1985, I went to STEIM, the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, in Amsterdam. Around ‘87, the idea was to extend the networking idea. This time, instead of having three computers, we had ten, and each one controlled sort of eight voices. The idea was always to have an orchestral conception. So this was sort of a virtual orchestra of 80 voices that was done at the International Computer Music Conference in 1987. I would call that piece a spectacular failure, because the computers we were using were underpowered. But the architecture that was put on each computer is the same basic architecture that is used for Voyager now. Computers went through a period of very rapid developmental change, and got to the stage where they could execute the ideas I had in my head.

Were the ideas related specifically to the technology of computing, or was it a transduction of your own musical ideas as they had previously developed?

I think you always do any kind of music or composing from your own view of music and the world. The idea of it being non-hierarchical is extremely important. That is to say that the computers aren’t controlled by the musicians. The process of analyzing and making decisions about the music are shared between the people and the computers. That’s been my take right from the beginning.

When was the last major iteration of Voyager constructed?

I’d say around ‘94 or ‘95, the technology began to be kind of settled for me. That is to say, I concentrated less on creating new versions and more on performing with the existing versions, and then creating performances and trying to work with different collaborators. Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and Miya Masaoka are three of the interesting collaborators that stand out

Who can’t play with Voyager?

That’s kind of a murky thing. My notion of improvisation is that a good improviser is manifests an awareness of the situation, and can transform that awareness into many possible different directions in which he or she might go. I tend to make those adjustments, and I would think that anyone thinking along those lines could have a good experience in playing with Voyager. Although, at the same time, Voyager has a pretty strongly typed aesthetic [LAUGHS], and some people might not agree with that, and those people might have a hard time.

How does Voyager embody a strongly typed aesthetic?

There is the question of multidominance, which means that a lot of things are happening at the same time, that different elements in this total sound are vying for the foreground—in fact, the notion of foreground and background starts to disappear. These many different foregrounds that are vying for attention are not necessarily in any kind of arithmetic correlation rhythmically. They could be very diverse, and the groupings can change all the time. There is a lot of information—rapid changes in timbre, multiple meters, multiple keys, multiple tonalities. People might have a hard time locking in on what they would like to approach.

But the major thing that might cause dislocation for people who collaborate with me in making the performances usually comes when they assume that they should be in charge of the experience—that is to say, that they should play something and the computer should do what they say. I think those people will always be disappointed in working with me. Because I treat the computer—at least mine—the same as I treat anybody else. I don’t want to be in charge and I don’t want anyone else to be in charge. I’d like to see things be negotiated. And the process of negotiating through sound is fundamental to my way of looking at improvisation. By a strongly typed aesthetic, I mean an aesthetic of negotiation and sonic signalling, and an absence of hierarchy. That’s especially in the computer environment because of the way computers have been sold to us, as something that at last we control; even if we have no control over any other aspect of our lives, at least we can control this computer as the sort of new slave or whatever. I just don’t think that way, at least in terms of the software that I make for musical purposes.

What is the level of your intervention with the program in preparing for any specific encounter?

Well, since it became kind of settled, I don’t intervene. I just set it up and start it, and when the piece is over, I turn it off. In one of John Corbett’s books, Extended Play, Jon Rose talked about his Voyager experience, and he said something that helped me learn something fundamental. Jon said something to the effect that I was interested in the process, but not in the sound. That’s sort of an extreme version of Process versus Result. Of course, as an improviser, I’m interested in both the process and the result. Now, Jon’s notion of sound seemed to be mostly related to the standard sort of post-Cage morphologies—timbre, loudness, pitch, silence, and so on. My notion of sound comes more from the Charlie Parker remark that music is your thoughts, your wisdom—if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. That notion of sound is more related to assumptions of personality and agency. In other words, what musician-improvisers call ‘getting your own sound.’ So sound becomes very personal. I think Jon was identifying that with process. But that has to be carefully constructed, and finally that construction is a sort of a meta-aesthetic in which you think about Voyager, or any computer system, as the articulation of sound that has a background in community and history and personal experience.

I’m interested in how that notion applies to what the computer actually produces. Does the computer take into account past decisions? Does the computer itself have a personal history, an emotional history as a context for the sound it generates?

You know, it’s very interesting. I built something that allowed the system to recover things that have been done before and reintroduce them into the space. That was fantastically unsuccessful. You don’t want to aestheticize form. You don’t want to aestheticize experience. What you’d like to do is have the software embody the nature of experience, to the extent you’re able to do that. The reason why the whole business of reintroducing things into the space was so unsuccessful is mainly because when you reintroduce them into the space, you’re taking something that you stole from the past and reintroducing it at a different point in history, and often it just doesn’t fit. It’s sort of like beginning beboppers who have practiced some lick at home for a year, and then bring it to the gig and never get a chance to play it. If they’re smart, they never get a chance to play it, because the situation is so totally different, and if they’re not so smart, they play it anyway even though it doesn’t fit. I decided not to do it that way, and to go with a greater immediacy in the system’s responses to things, so that it contextualizes the immediate situation in deciding on its response. Also, as the immediate situation changes, it’s constantly adapting. So there is an embedded sense of history there, but it’s not a sort of arbitrary parsing of an historical moment.

So no licks are contained in the computer’s vocabulary. Or that’s not a good way of putting it…

Oh, that’s fine. Because actually, in fact, I used to compose licks when I first started. I thought that was the way you did it. I’d been reading all these books from so-called scientists on what they thought jazz playing was, and they said it was just a bunch of licks thrown together. I said, “Well, that doesn’t sound right, but let me try it anyway.” So I tried it, and I realized that I can make an algorithm that does this. I don’t have to make up pre-stored licks. I just hated it when I heard Lick #42 coming out of the machine.

The thing is that, even though you construct the algorithms that produce these things, the algorithms themselves are like meta-licks anyway. So basically, after a certain while, every so often I would hear the Philip Glass moment, or what I used to call the Keith Jarrett moment, or the blues moment. But these moments aren’t programmed into the machine in any way. They’re just the outcome of the process that at some point will produce these things.

What are the first principles by which the computer’s vocabulary and syntax are constructed? What are the parameters?

Basically, Voyager is quite Cartesian, just like the trombone is. With trombone, you have the X-axis (that’s your slide going out and in) and the Y-axis (that’s the lips playing pitches up and down). So you can plot a so-called fingering chart of the trombone as basically an XY coordinate system. That’s basically the same way Voyager works. Let’s say the X-axis are a set of 64 individual voices, or positions, as you would call them—Position 1, Position 2, Position 3, up to Position 64. There are 64 voices. Or there are as many voices as you can get together, but nominally for me, it’s 64. Then the Y-axis has the sets of things that it can do in terms of playing music. Those usually tend to be very simple things, like the duration of a so-called note, and that would have two parts; basically, the duration of onsets from one note to the next, and then the duration of whatever silence happens between one note and the next. And then there is the question of what scale each voice is going to use, and there are a couple of hundred of those, and these are microtonal. Then there’s a question of what transposition that scale is going to be using. That is also microtonal, so in the first voice you have a C-major scale, and in the second voice you have a C-major transposed up 10 or 5 cents, and so on. So you have a possibility of doing a lot of pretty complicated things along those lines. There’s also the question of things like the melody algorithm. Those are very simple things, step-wise things or skips or various… They are sort of like waveform generators, so that the melodies get mapped onto waveforms.

That’s the output side. Then there’s the input side, where you have to look for those elements, or things like them, in the MIDI stream. This stream of MIDI comes in from a pitch detection machine, and the software finds out whether what it’s detecting really is a pitch, and then, if it is satisfied that it is, it will write that down, and then do things like record how many simultaneous pitches are sounding at the same time, whether the pitch is on, whether it was used. It has to keep a record of the last few pitches. Then it has to decide how short or how long the silence was between the pitches. From those processes, it generates a lot of rhythmic information. Then it has to take in a lot of information regarding whether the person is active or hardly playing at all.

These are the kind of things you have to know at a minimum in order to have a system that plays with you. What gets built up is a representation of what’s going on outside at any given time, and the system uses that representation to compose a response.

One other important element is that the response can be of three basic kinds. First, it tries to follow pretty carefully what you’re doing. So if you’re playing high notes, it will play high notes, and so on. Second, it will try to sort of oppose what you do. So if you’re playing fast, it will play slow, or something like that—a contrasting mode. The third mode—which is kind of the critical one, it turns out—is that it completely ignores you, and that it just does what it wants. In fact, that turns out to be the critical moment, because that’s where difference is asserted. In other words, that’s where we find out that the computer really is asserting “a personality,” when it’s very clear that it’s not paying attention or that it’s deliberately ignoring you. It paid attention to you in the past, so why is it ignoring you now? Well, that’s where the psychological transmission of a notion of difference comes through.

There’s a fourth mode, too. When you’re not playing, it just makes the music up by itself, based on those parameters we were just talking about. So you don’t have to really be there. That’s very good, because it means I don’t have to play all the time. It also means that the computer doesn’t have to play all the time. The problem with computer pieces is that the computer is always the star and the people always have to worship the computer, and what it does, and you have to worry about whether it’s working or not working. In a group setting, that’s quite off-putting for the other musicians. I got tired of that, and I wanted to make things equal, so that you could say, “Well, I feel like playing now,” and if I don’t feel like playing now, the computer will just take it for a while. Or maybe it won’t feel like playing, and I have to take it. In a group that’s practicing self-orchestration, this means that many different ensembles can form, with and without the computer. These kinds of exchanges are fundamental to the experience, and to the composition.

Could we talk about your early interest in electronic music, how the notion of improvising software first gestated for you?

In high school, we had a cool librarian who brought us his electronic music records. I didn’t understand them. University of Illinois, Scott Wyatt, and people like that. I didn’t know what they were doing. But still, it had impact. Muhal, of course, really likes technology, so he had an idea that we should investigate it. There was a guy at Governors State University, Richard McCreary, who came out of University of Iowa, that whole scene that produced a lot of interesting new music people—but he was an African-American guy, which is a little different right away. He was very knowledgeable, and he had built an electronic music studio. That was what you did in those days. You got your Ph.D or DMA, and then you were fruitful and multiplied, so you would establish your electronic music studio wherever you could. That was your thing. You’d get a gig and convince them to spend a carload of money. So he got a gig at Governors State, and they bought a huge ARP 2500 system. We were going there twice a week, and learning on that stuff—learning about remote control and so on.

A lot of what we learned came from recordings. I remember in one class, I think Muhal brought in a Morton Subotnick record, probably The Wild Bull, which was fascinating. There was a great record store in Chicago called Rose Records, on Wabash Avenue, and somebody there was buying… I bought Phil Glass, Music With Changing Parts, Steve Reich, the stuff that David Behrman produced for Columbia—for example, the Nancarrow thing that David produced for them. This was all pulling it out of the hat. I had no idea who these people are. First of all, there’s no book about them. I didn’t learn about who they were until I got to New York between ‘75 and ‘77.

But around ‘77, I went out to Mills College. I just found a really cool picture of Jacques Bekaert, the Belgian journalist-composer who brought me out there, and Frederic Rzewski. Somehow, we were all sitting there. Blue Gene Tyranny was at Mills, Maggi Payne was still there, John Bischoff was there, David was there… I think I was staying in David’s house. David was working with these young people on software stuff. So they had hooked up a network of little microcomputers that they were using. Of course, California was already great. So I was sitting there in California, listening to this weird electronic music being generated in real time by these four computers, and I was thinking “this sounds like Quadrisect,” which was a group we had with Mwata Bowden and Douglas Ewart and James Johnson, this improvisational wind quartet. But a computer’s doing it. This sounds like something I could probably do.

So in a way, the model was to get these computers to sound like what Quadrisect was doing. From my standpoint, this was my proof of concept, seeing Jim Horton, who has passed away; Rich Gold, who has gone as well; and David and John—they had these four KIM-1 computers hooked up, and were doing stuff that was making music automatically. It really jump-started my whole interest in computer music. After that, I had to get a computer. That was it–got to get me one of these! But getting a computer then, of course, was not like getting a computer now. There were no real books. You had to teach yourself. It was like you had to have a community around you who was thinking about these things. You just could not go off in a room and do it. Autodidacticism. You had to be part of a community. They were all autodidacts, too. They didn’t go to computer music school. There was no computer music school to do this kind of live stuff. They just got a computer and started.

I hesitate to call David a father figure. But I’ll say he was the most avuncular person out there, and you could call him if you had any kind of problem in hardware or software. If he didn’t have the answer, which he usually did, he’d have something reassuring to say. When I got my Keyboard Input Module, it came with these enormous books. They were made for engineers. Artists were trying to figure these things out, and I didn’t really have a technical background—and really, none of us did. So we kind of taught ourselves. You couldn’t go to the store and buy a book. There was no Barnes & Noble and there was no Windows and there was no Macintosh, and there was no MS-DOS, in fact, and you could not go out and buy a book that said how to use Word 5, because there was no Word 5—or not even Word 1. So we were reading these books, and I read the book the first time, and I didn’t understand anything. I was despairing. How am I going to make music with this thing if I can’t even turn it on; I don’t even understand how it works. I called David. He says, “Well, I had to read the book 8 times.” I thought, well, here’s a guy who went to Columbia, he went to Harvard, and he had to read the book eight times. Well, let me try to read it again and see if I understand anything. Things like that really help you, when there are people around like Ron Kuivila or Paul DeMarinis or Frankie Mann. There was this community of people who were doing things.

The recent recordings Streaming [Pi], which is your improvising trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, and also Transatlantic Visions with Joelle Leandre [Rogue Art], remind us that before you were an electronic music composer or an educator, you were making your name as a trombonist, and imprinted your tonal personality on the world through that medium. Even you yourself cite in A Power Stronger Than Itself a critic’s remark after he heard one of your recordings that no one is going to be able to think about the trombone the same way.

OK. I didn’t want to put that in there, but it had to be…

Well, it is what it is. It happened. You made the recordings with Braxton that are still unique in the annals. But then also you played in Count Basie’s trombone section, and you played in the ‘80s with Gil Evans and in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Steve Lacy, and you recorded with Sam Rivers, and you played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, and played with all the AACM groups and many other situations, not to mention the encounters with the various European free improvisers. Now, it seems to me that in the last number of years you’ve at least publicly pooh-poohed the trombone and your instrumentalism. How does the trombone relate to your notion of yourself as a musician nowadays?

A lot of that I do just to destabilize comfortable assumptions. You know, Number 6: “I am not a number, I am a person.” When I set up the Great Black Music Ensemble concerts for six evenings of compositions, people said I should take two of the evenings because I’d set up the gig. Then people kept saying, “Well, are you going to play on our pieces?” I’d sort of taken it for granted that I would play on the pieces, and I’d contribute in any way that I could. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with anybody’s piece. So people would say, “Well, you take a solo here,” and it would be interesting because I’m sitting, thinking, “I haven’t done this kind of thing for a long time, like take a solo on somebody’s thing.” I felt good about it, but it seemed a little distanced from where I’ve been headed over the past few years.

The trombone, when it started, functioned for me like the computer did later, and like the computer is doing right now more generally, which is that it’s a point of translation. It’s a meeting point. It’s a place where people can exchange narratives. It’s a site for new work to happen. It takes you places and you meet people who you don’t ordinarily get in touch with. It’s a tool of communication across genres, across languages—all these things that the trombone was doing.

Now I feel that’s kind of substantially achieved for me. So what is the future of the trombone, at least in my work? I’m not really sure. For people who think of it as kind of the centerpiece of my work, I think if that were true twenty years ago, it certainly isn’t true now. I find myself working harder on a lot of other things, and also I don’t find the need to do anything other than what’s right in the center of my interests. After Perugia and after China, I went to Lisbon, and we did our electro-acoustic octet there. In many ways, I had the trombone there as a kind of symbol. It’s a symbol of maybe my past, or maybe it’s a symbol of a certain historical moment that occurred that I can still tap into when I went. But it is an electro-acoustic octet, and I spend most of my time in it doing live sampling or mixing found sounds.

This particular piece was done at an outdoor arena, where I think only the jazz people play. Certainly, I think part of the reason why nobody else plays there is because they’re in the flight path, and every ten minutes a big jet comes overhead, and that means 7 to 10 crossings in a 70-minute performance. For most music that’s played there, that’s a distraction, or at least a minor one. But not for us, because I got to Lisbon a couple of days early, and I sat in the theater and recorded jets for hours, then I went into my little laptop and modified the jets, added more bass, changed it around a bit, and then played them back on the gig. Whenever they had their jets, I had my jets—and my jets could actually be louder than theirs. We incorporated the jets into the performance in a way that I’ve never been able to do before. I felt really great about that.The trombone was sort of there, and the trombone can kind of sound like a jet, too.

In this group almost everyone, plays some kind of acoustic instrument. Miya plays the koto. Guillermo Brown plays the drums. Ulrich Mueller plays electric guitar, which kind of counts, then Siegfried Roessert plays the bass, and then you’ve got a couple of others—Mutamassik is in there, and she’s playing a turntable, which is kind of acoustic, then on electronics we’ve got Kaffe Matthews, who used to play… Kaffe, in a way, is kind of our role model. In classical music before 1980, there was the trope of the former jazz musician. A lot of people from that generation, Harold Budd, La Monte Young, or for that matter, Terry Riley or Steve Reich… Minimalism was full of former jazz musicians. In a way, they have different attitudes towards it, but for them, it’s clearly a part of their past.

Now, Anthony Braxton could also be considered a former jazz musician, but you won’t see that trope applied to him. But it’s very easy…

Now, Braxton has recorded numerous in-the-tradition sorts of albums. They’re out there. So ‘former jazz musician’ wouldn’t apply quite so…

Well, that’s the jazz one-drop rule talking, Ted. He’ll probably continue to do that—why not? It’s sort of interesting. I haven’t done it… Anyway, all you have to do is just do your work. But I can talk about myself. Am I a former jazz musician? I’m not really sure. A former jazz musician who runs the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Does that work? Is that a contradiction in terms? Is that a dangerous problem for New York music? I have no idea. But I think there are some people who really hate the idea of that and would like to see me leave. I get these interviews where people say, “Your music is difficult” and all that kind of thing. I say, “No, actually lots of people like it, and for them my music isn’t difficult.”

Most people didn’t play with Count Basie or Thad Jones or Gil Evans or Steve Lacy.

That’s what I mean by “former,” because all those people you mentioned, first of all, are dead, and I’m not playing with them any more, and I’m not playing with their successors. So at a certain stage, that is something that was part of a venerable and storied past, which is very important in the same way that La Monte never tires of discussing his high school experience with Eric Dolphy—but it was in high school.

Yours wasn’t a high school experience. Yours was on a level that actually changed the way people conceptualized the trombone.

Well, that’s great.

You know that’s true.

Whether it’s true or not, what do you do next? What’s your encore? Do you continue to do that? Do you continue to try again? Perhaps you say, “Maybe I’ll do something else now.” There are so many people in this creative world… I think Vinko Globokar still plays the trombone. But a lot of people gave it up, and that’s ok, too.

Would you be willing to talk about the approach you developed as a trombonist?

Florid. A lot of notes and a lot of sound and a lot of chaos, and it’s saxophonic. It’s like what I heard Johnny Griffin do or John Coltrane do, or people like that—those very florid saxophone players. That’s the music I studied and tried to emulate as a means of developing. That turned out to be pretty good, because if you can partially succeed, you learn a lot about how to get around and do things. In a way, Anthony Braxton’s music was a kind of music I had been kind of preparing for anyway because of these other studies. You listen to these records of trombone players, and at the fastest tempos they’re always playing in half-time. I didn’t want to be that person. [LAUGHS] So I was drawn more to the Curtis Fullers and Frank Rosolinos, those kind of florid people. J.J. Johnson was doing it too, but it reminded me of Hindemith’s Trombone Concerto. I didn’t hear that personally. I never really heard it. Now, there are people who have, like Steve Turre. Not for me. No.

Then the thing was, there were so many other people outside of jazz playing trombone in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘60s even, with Stuart Dempster and Globokar being prime movers of that. So listening to that, you just develop other viewpoints.

But in terms of the improvisational style, the problem with it was that being florid and playing a lot of notes only works in certain musical situations, and if you want to do something else, you have to stop doing it. If you want to work more with sounds, if you want to work with delicacy, or if you want to work with certain kinds of extremes of range, or if you want to really improvise as distinct from developing a personal style, then you have to really question everything about what you were doing. At the point you start to question yourself and really start doing these things, all of a sudden, there is your past that you have to confront, and either you have to play with new people… I could see why people who have bands get rid of people who play in the bands, because then that forces them into new areas. So you have to confront new ways of making music that are the complete opposite of how you thought about playing. The kind of florid, Coltrane-influenced thing just didn’t work with John Oswald or Zorn or with Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith. It just doesn’t work. You can’t do it. It’s too many notes, or something. After a while, the desire just faded.

In a conversation we had in 2006, you said that you tended “to listen to not the cool sounds that are being made or the extended techniques on the instruments but the kinds of meta-narratives that are being exchanged through the improvisations.” “What are they really talking about?” you said. It’s always seemed to me that you find ways to creative narrative strategies within any situation in which you find yourself. If it’s free improvising with Evan Parker or Derek Bailey, or with Joelle Leandre on Transatlantic Visions, there’s a form to the solo that transcends the techniques. You once stated that in an encounter between equals, you have to bring something of where you come from. Would this imply that there’s something fundamental about that notion of storytelling and narrative to your core sense of self as a musician?

No. You see, this is where more of that turbulence comes in. I’m tired of storytelling.

Your interest was so strong in the early ‘90s, when you did recordings like Changing With the Times [New World Countercurrents] and Endless Shout [Tzadik].

Yes, because that was the thing. I wanted to do that, and that was important. Creating a kind of radio play, a mystery theater that people could listen to late at night before they went to sleep. Like rap. There were poets and actors, verbal monologues. But now, the idea of people telling stories with instruments has become kind of a cliche in music. Then the other thing is, there’s so much non-linearity in the world. Linear narratives often don’t touch people in the same way, because they’re not experiencing it in their daily lives. Then there are the ones that want the linear narrative in order to make them feel good in a changing world. Like their head is under the blanket or something. Then there are the people who really want the linear narrative as a marker of what it means to be African-American. Those people probably haven’t read Mumbo-Jumbo, or Leon Forrest, or Nathaniel Mackey—these kinds of people. Or even Toni Morrison’s Jazz. You realize that storytelling can be a hindrance. Then you have to figure out: Do we really need call-and-response now? Maybe we don’t. So in this electro-acoustic octet, we have certain ground rules I made up. One is, you don’t have to take every utterance as a call that needs response. Just don’t respond. Let it sit there and let it develop itself. Don’t chime in. Let’s see where it goes.

One musician told me that when he started playing with Roscoe Mitchell, he was directed quite explicitly to form his own ideas, and not play Roscoe’s ideas back to him.

I’m sure I can just guess what he had to respond to. He probably started out where Roscoe did something and he did something kind of like that, and Roscoe got angry, because that kind of simplistic imitation reduces the mobility of the music. Yeah, that’s a part of it. But then, I’ve played with Roscoe a lot, and you figure that out. But for another viewpoint on that, it’s more, in my case, that not doing anything is also an idea. Just don’t make a sound. Just listen. That’s one idea, is to let your sound hang in the air. So what you get by doing that methodologically is, in a larger group, you don’t get everyone playing at once. So suddenly, it opens up the space for stuff that Phil Jackson talks about in the Sacred Hoops book, where he talks about the triangle offense, you have to pass the ball around, one person can’t dominate, all those kinds of things. What he’s describing is an improvised encounter that results in a basketball game.

Of course, Phil Jackson requires a superstar to make it work.

Well, that’s the thing. You also have to have a superstar in order to win. But you always have to have that in sports. But then the thing is, the superstar also has to pay attention to the system, and they don’t win if they don’t. That’s what the superstars learn. So the thing is that if you are inclined to be a superstar in the music area, maybe it’s better if you don’t. In the electro-acoustic band, if someone plays some lick, some material, it just sits there for a long time. It might just be there by itself. Then suddenly, all of a sudden, everybody detects, hey, there’s a change. You’re playing double-dutch, and the rope is going, you’re trying to get in, and you’re just moving with the music, moving with the rope, but you’re not actually doing anything. At a certain point, you feel, “Aha, here’s my moment and I can jump in.” It’s a bit like that. So if everyone is doing that, they’re sensitive to the opportunity, not to play, but to let someone else play… You pass the ball. When that happens, then you get all this multiplicity. What that also means is it completely runs counter to the sort of florid Coltrane moment. I’d guess that someone like Coltrane or Parker couldn’t play in a group like this, or they’d have to radically change what they did. Which I’m sure they could do, because the investigative mind is there to hear what’s going on. There’s nothing I love more than these records where Coltrane is playing a million notes for like 30 minutes. I used to go nuts. I could listen to that stuff for hours, even days on end—still do. But I’ll never do it again. It’s not going to happen. Because we don’t live that now.

Well, Coltrane also is trapped in time for us. He didn’t have a chance to grow older and develop.

Well, that’s also true. But we do have these people who are keepers of the flame. I guess I could be that person. But then you lose the possibility of… I listened to a Radu Malfetti-Taku Sugimoto duo on this Improvised Music From Japan CD, and a lot of times almost nothing is happening. I understood how for a person like Radu, who came out of the free jazz thing, that was super-liberation. So I just want to feel that free to renounce that part of it. That’s not to say, “Well, that’s all BS, what I did back there,” but more to say, “Well, you can’t keep doing it in the current environment.” That may mean that the trombone, like any composer…you don’t use the same instrument in every situation. Just because you happen to play it doesn’t change that methodological reality.

In Richard Teitelbaum’s piece Golem, you were given the job generating the Golem’s…

He said I was the Rabbi. It was my job to bring the Golem to life.

And I saw you do almost literally do that in a concert at the Jewish Museum.

Oh, that was a good concert. We even upstaged Menachem Zur, who is an excellent composer.

You’ve also developed a software language that brings inanimate circuits to life, so to speak. You once responded to something I was saying, “that sounds suspiciously like language,” and I said, “Is music language?” and you said, “I don’t think so.” Is music analogous to language in any way?

I sure hope not. Ingrid Monson wrote a great book, Saying Something. She took the music-and-language premise and worked with it in a way that implies that music isn’t a language any more. In other words, we’re not looking for a one-to-one correspondence. It’s a much more sophisticated view of language, which leads to a more sophisticated view of how communication takes place. We are pleased to say that any time communication takes place, it takes place on the basis of language. But that’s not really what happens. Communication takes place all the time without language. In a way, that’s the joy of music. It’s a non-linguistic medium, at the very least. When I hear people talk about their musical language, even somebody cool, like Messaien, I think, “ok, this is great to have your musical language, but I wonder…maybe early humans sounded more interesting than most people’s musical languages.” I have no idea, no way of knowing that. But how did those people communicate their desires, their goals, their needs, without this highly developed thing that we like to think of as language? How did that happen?

We’re faced with that situation every day as improvisers, and to the extent we have a fixed language, we can pretty much say fixed things. We have a set of things we can say and no more, because it’s not really that extensible. The music-language analogy breaks down at so many points, that once you get rid of it, you’re much freer to think about sound, the ways in which sound can signify and how many contexts it can signify in, that spoken language or written language really cannot match. This is the reason why we have such problems describing music. We don’t have problems describing things that are in the same medium. Someone says, “Well, what does Obama talk about?” You can tell him. You use one language. You can tell him in a different language. You can tell him in French. You can tell him in German. It doesn’t matter. They’re all variants of the same thing. But you can’t really tell them in music in the same way.

Now, some people would take issue with you, and say, “Of course you can,” and maybe somebody will talk about drum language in Africa or whatever they’re talking about. But I’m still going to hold to the idea that music is a fundamentally different animal, and the reason why we have it around and why it’s important is because it needs to be a fundamentally different animal. But on the other hand, you have opera, which is fantastic. So what do you about that? It’s just too complicated to get into.

As the final question, or perhaps the beginning of the final question, this notion of discarding your vocabularies, continually shedding your skin, the rebirth trope that you’ve referenced several times, reimagining who you are… Why is it important to do that? Is it actually, in truth, possible to do that?

Well, I think it’s possible. I think I’ve managed to kind of do it. The problem is the goalposts keep moving. You have to keep doing it, and once you set yourself on that path, you can’t stop. If you don’t keep doing it, then you’ll feel poorly, because you’ve set yourself up now, and you say, “Well, I’ve stopped now. All that stuff about reinventing yourself, we don’t do that any more. I’m happy with where we are now.” That could be a conscious response to new conditions.

I don’t know when I started to first think about improvisation as depending for its impact upon circumstance, as somebody who really is trying at every moment to be open and let himself or herself become transformed by conditions and situations, where you are learning, preparing yourself to encounter the world and other people, and trying to cultivate a sense that you are going to be, if not ready, at least willing to engage fundamental difference. That has to be something that you kind of cultivate.

Now, I’m talking about fundamental difference. I am not talking about someday going around the world and playing with somebody from this tradition or that tradition and the other tradition. That’s not quite fundamental, because you’ve got SOME tradition to deal with. Fundamental change can happen within traditions, or within socio-musical aggregates. Fundamental difference can occur through two individuals who are both invested there. So what you would have to do in those cases is to find in yourself the motivation to do it. Tony Robbins was in San Diego the whole time I was there, and he’s probably still there. I think he talks about some of these ideas about you have to transform yourself, and it all depends on you, and it’s your ideas that count, your view of yourself, and so on, that really matters. I’m not a follower, but that’s just one example.

A very American world-view.

To that extent, yes, it’s very American, and I can’t say I disagree with it; there’s some tangent there that I feel I can tap into. But I have mainly found in my own work that the biggest impediment to change was my fear of maybe what other people would think. It’s all chimerical, but I still have this ridiculous fear about it. It came out in Perugia. It was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to get up here in front of all these people, I’m going to be conducting, and that’s all I’m going to do, and they’re just going to see my ass. I’m not going to be playing anything on the trombone. Maybe I should just play a little bit at the beginning, so I can get it out of the way” Now, you’re not really being true to what you think at that moment. You’re getting stuck in some imagined view of yourself, some imagined community that you have been with in the past. It’s not irrational to think this way, because people come up and tell you this. “I wish you’d play the trombone more” or “stop all that computer shit”—all these kinds of things. When I was in my thirties and forties, I would be very influenced by these things. But now I’m 57, and I’m just inclined to politely not pay attention to that.

So we’re still talking about the trombone. It was a great thing, and the nice thing about… Well, I’ll put it another way. Actually, it’s a deep-seated fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on. They try to tell you, “Music is great, but you should get a degree in something, so you have something to fall back on.” Well, for me, the trombone is something I can always fall back on. But if I do that, that sort of cheapens it. I don’t want the book to stand or fall on how well I play the trombone. That has nothing to do with it. If the book is only good because the guy plays the trombone, that’s not any good. Or the computer music is only good because the guy plays the trombone. What does that have to do with anything? Is the computer music any good or isn’t it? Did the person spend the time? Did they do the work? Are they familiar with the tenets of things? Is it working? The answer to that is, “Well, the guy plays a mean trombone.” That’s not an answer. Or the thing that happens where your computer crashes and they say, “Well, you could always play the trombone.” I say, “Well, no, not any more.” “Why not?” “Well, I didn’t bring it, for one thing.” In other words, you just say to yourself that you’re going to stand or fall with what you’re doing now, and you’re going to have enough confidence and faith in yourself, and you’re going to do your best to enter this new medium without any convenient exits.

So if I might borrow your nomenclature, the trombone is one component of a multidominant personality that might be less dominant at one moment, and might be more dominant at another? Is that a possible metaphor, that the multidominance that you encoded into the computer is functioning within you?

Yes, you can say that, sure. Maybe they’re not competing. They should nominally coexist, and that one comes out according to need. If you just stick to that, then maybe you avoid a lot of problems that would come out for some other reason—fear, ego, or whatever.

*-*-*-*-

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

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

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

*-*-*-

George Lewis & Leo Smith (WKCR, 9-12-95):

[MUSIC: G. Lewis/B. Mixon, “View From Skates in Berkeley” (1994)]

TP: Our guests are George Lewis and Leo Smith, who will be participating in the AACM 30th Anniversary Series concert, next installment, Saturday, September 16th, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture at 2 West 64th Street. The concert starts at 8 p.m. The music of George Lewis and Leo Smith will be performed by the S.E.M. Ensemble, Petr Kotik, Conductor, with guest artists Quincy Troupe, poet; William Brown, voice; Warren Smith, percussion; J.D. Parran, reeds.

[FUNDRAISING SPIEL]

It’s an honor to have Leo Smith and George Lewis in the same room together. They are both very important figures in the development of improvised music. In Leo’s case, the recorded history begins in the mid-1960’s, and in George’s case in the 1970’s. You both were members of the AACM, and joined it through very different paths, I would imagine. In Leo’s case, you came from Mississippi to Chicago and found the AACM. Was that more or less the trajectory for you?

SMITH: Well, I left Mississippi and ended up in Chicago, but it took a couple of years; I went from there to the Army and places like that.

TP: Tell us about some of the specifics of that journey. You come from a Blues background.

SMITH: Well, yes. Essentially in Mississippi, the art of Blues music is practiced with voice and instrument. When I began to play the trumpet, my first exposure to music was dealing with Blues. I would say in that beginning of learning the Blues as such, it was also the beginning of the trumpet for me, meaning that I learned how to play music while playing Blues on the trumpet — if people understand what that means. It’s not that I went there as a musician. I learned how to become a musician while I was playing the Blues. So it’s kind of unique.

TP: What type of situations were you playing in after you began to reach your maturity as a musician?

SMITH: Well, just…

TP: Name some names, too.

SMITH: I don’t like names, basically.

TP: No? Okay.

SMITH: No. Basically, it’s a question of remembering names and things like that.

But I started out in the AACM in ’67, and I consider that to be the beginning of my mature moments of playing music. And all of those guys are renowned now, like George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins — all of them.

TP: And Leo Smith as well.

SMITH: Yeah. We all grew up in an environment and in a time when expectations were held very high for us, and we went out and achieved them. Meaning that we looked at the musical scene and we looked at the environment which we lived in, and we figured out some of the things that would give us a bridge across an environment that had a lot of problems in it, you see. And one of them was being able to be creative without the luxury of funds and money to do whatever your dream was, but the creativeness where you would have to design systems and stuff like that that didn’t cost you a dime, you see. So that’s a challenge and a fulfillment that everyone is proud of today.

TP: What were the circumstances that brought you to the AACM?

SMITH: I was in the Army, about to get out, and of course, I was kind of despised by the people that I played amongst. There was one fellow there that knew another fellow that was despised in the Army amongst the guys he played about — and his name happened to be Anthony Braxton. So he gave me a telephone number and said, “Well, I think you guys would get along great!” And he was right. Anthony is, I would say, one of my most favorite partners in performing duet music. Somehow we complemented each other. And we went through a lot of different kinds of things in Chicago that some people may have gone through, but we didn’t know about them, and we kind of felt like we went through them alone, but they were like very sharp and pointed things.

TP: Now, you and he linked up in a performing group. Because out of the larger body of the AACM, there were a number of smaller performance situations wherein all of the musicians would contribute ideas, and there was a real flow, I guess.

SMITH: Uh-huh.

TP: I guess Leroy Jenkins was the third member of that, and Three Compositions of New Jazz emanated from that situation.

SMITH: Right.

TP: Talk about some of the ideas that you were working with explicitly at that time in their gestative period, as it were.

SMITH: Well, we wanted to look at music that would give us a chance to express exactly who we were. And once you make that particular commitment, you have to find out how you’re going to do this. So we decided that we would write for instruments and write for ensembles. And in this particular juncture of writing for instruments and ensembles, we didn’t have to accept the history that was given to us before, and we didn’t even have to expect some kind of present history or future history. We were able to contemplate the real essence of creative music. We were able to come in with projects, for example, like… “Silence” is a piece that has silence in it, and it came after John Cage’s “Silence,” but the philosophical connection of silence in this case was to materialize music within the space, and whatever was heard in the environment, whereas in the Cage piece there was absolutely no music in the space, and the gestures were the moments of the environment, you see. So creating a piece that seemed that it would look like and feel like a piece that came out of Cage’s tradition, in fact, we didn’t have that problem, because as I say, we are not bound by what came in the past or this particular ensemble’s history — you know, like a Classical ensemble has a history that’s specifically European. We didn’t have to worry about that. If you have an ensemble that’s essentially Asian, let’s say it has instruments for India, Korea and Pakistan, you don’t have to worry about the history of that. Because you function as a creative artist, you function in a zone where you can choose and pick anything that makes a music object.

TP: At the time you got to Chicago in 1967, George Lewis was 14 years old, I guess, and a student at the University of Chicago Lab School. You’d picked up the trombone at that time. Were you aware of the AACM? Did you know about Leo Smith when you were a teenager in Hyde Park?

LEWIS: Not really. No, no. Am I supposed to admit that? [LAUGHS]

SMITH: Well, if you admit that, that’s true! See, the beauty is, you may not have known me, but in fact you knew me all your life. Because now that you meet me, you realize that you were never a stranger to me.

LEWIS: Yeah, I guess that was the feeling when I first came to the AACM, that boy, these are people doing the same thing I’m doing…

SMITH: Exactly.

LEWIS: …or something I thought I was doing or something like that. Yeah. I mean, I did get to hear Fred Anderson at that time, and I remember being very frightened going to an Art Ensemble concert and having Joseph playing these marimbas right up in my face. I thought he was going to drop one of these mallets, and then I’d lose my sight forever. A very intense situation, all these people painted up. I said, “God, who are these people, man?” I guess I didn’t connect it with my future life, but now I can’t imagine life without, you know, Leo and Muhal and Joseph and Braxton. I can’t imagine it.

TP: Well, most of the members of the AACM were raised in Chicago, but really they came from all over the country…,

SMITH: That’s right.

TP: …from Arkansas, Mississipi, even New York City and New Jersey out to the AACM. A connecting thread for just about everyone is Muhal Richard Abrams…,

SMITH: That’s right.

TP: …now living in New York. Leo, what was your first encounter with Muhal like? If you can just describe a little of the circumstances, the environment, the scene.

SMITH: Oh, it was dramatic. It was dramatic!

LEWIS: [LAUGHS]

TP: Please be more specific than that.

SMITH: Well, I had met Roscoe and Lester Bowie at Joseph’s concert on the North Side. They said, “Come to the AACM,” and Roscoe said, “Bring your horn.” So I went to the AACM that Monday night, and I brought my horn, but I left it in the car. I went in, I sat down, and they were rehearsing. I had been introduced to Muhal earlier that evening. So they were rehearsing some piece, and Muhal jumped up and he… Well, what was actually happening, whoever was playing trumpets, they wasn’t quite making it. Lester Bowie was there, too, actually. So the guy said, “Hey, man, where’s your horn. Go get your horn.” And it was an order. I just jumped up and ran out to the car and got my horn, and took it out, ran back in, sat in the seat, and he kicked it off. I didn’t even look at it; I just kind of played what I thought I saw — and it came out right. And he said, “That’s the way to play it.” So I’ve been playing with them since. That’s how I met Muhal.

TP: George, how about your first encounter?

LEWIS: I think it was kind of a random encounter. I was passing by where they were rehearsing, at Child’s City. Now, this was much later, of course. This was maybe ’71 or something. I saw all these people, some of them were wearing dashikis and all that, and I said, “Hmm.” They had horns. I said, “Well, let’s go down there and see who these people are, man.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Well, who are you guys?” They said, “Well, we’re musicians.” I remember saying a funny thing. I said, “Well, I’m a musician, too,” which was not really true. I mean, I played an instrument; that’s not the same thing. And they said, “Okay, bring your horn to the next rehearsal.” That was it.

SMITH: Mmm-hmm. That’s the generous thing. Like, whenever someone did indicate that they wanted to play, they were always open to see if you could play.

LEWIS: Right.

SMITH: And if you could play, then you were set, because they were going to do everything in their way to help.

TP: Kulture Jazz is the most recent release by Leo Smith, and it extends a concept that you… Well, your first manifestation was in 1971…?

SMITH: Released in 1971, yes.

TP: Your first solo recording. Now, of course, with digitization and the technological means available, we can hear eight different voices of Leo Smith — trumpet, flugelhorn, koto, mbira, harmonica, bamboo notched flute, percussion and vocal, sometimes performed singularly and in multiple combinations in Kulture Jazz, recorded in 1993. The first track we’ll hear is “Song of Humanity,” which I believe is a song you’ve recorded a few times before.

SMITH: A very old song. Well, it’s actually my first composition, to be truthful, that survived a booklet of 16 that started out. I started out with 16, and ended up with that particular piece as the one that survived.

TP: This has been performed by many of your groups, including…

SMITH: Every one of them.

TP: …the first edition of New Dalta Akhri, I believe.

SMITH: This is the first solo version I’ve ever done. But it’s my oldest composition.

[MUSIC: Leo Smith, “Song of Humanity,” “Albert Ayler In A Spiritual Light” (1993)]

TP: Several issues came up while the music was on, and Leo made some very interesting comments about the relationship of melody to solo, and about Miles Davis, the way he improvised, what made him so special as well. Are those things we can get back to on the on-air segment? I’m assuming you assimilated his music pretty thoroughly, Leo, as a young musician.

SMITH: Yeah, I had to look at Miles Davis, because you know, like, how do you face a mountain when you live in the delsert…the desert, you know?

TP: Well, you almost said when you live in the Delta, and actually that’s somewhat apropos, because Miles Davis came up at the top of the Delta, really, in East St. Louis.

SMITH: Well, that’s right! That’s exactly right.

TP: In the entrepot for the Delta, the shipping… Anyway, go ahead.

LEWIS: Go for it, Ted.

SMITH: Anyway, all I was saying is that when you look at the way Miles Davis made music, and particularly when you look at melody, he was gifted in a way where he could make the melody move along as if it was actually notated, but incorporate phrases or structure within that melody that would simply be natural within the curve, and you would not know… It would be seamless, in other words. You wouldn’t know exactly where the melody was coming, or where these extra phrases was being moved in. And that’s a type of free melodicism or free melody where everything depends upon a single note. Because a single note has so many other relationships above and below it, it becomes a wide area to just fuse these kinds of elements. So melody without time that’s implicitly held together through time, but yet free and still open.

TP: It sounds like an idea also of pitch values or timbral values having infinite application…,

SMITH: It’s the very same thing.

TP: …which is certainly the principle of the Blues.

SMITH: Yes, it’s exactly the same thing. And the psychological implication is also there.

TP: What is the psychological implication?

SMITH: Well, for example, the Blues itself is something that’s culturally hooked up, you see, and it expresses a particular psychic…well, how you relate and make your decisions in life. And a jazzman that’s gifted or an improviser that’s gifted with this connection with the Blues, their process of making musical decisions is based off of that kind of psychological feeling.

TP: So again, we’re talking about the Blues more as a style of life or a way of thinking about making music rather than…

SMITH: It’s a philosophy. It’s a philosophy, you see. All those guys are actually philosophers — living philosophers.

TP: George Lewis, do you have any interpolations here?

LEWIS: About the Blues?

TP: Yes.

LEWIS: Well, I don’t know. Leo, I think he said it, man. I don’t know what I have to add to it. I could always add something.

TP: Yes, I know.

LEWIS: [LAUGHS]

SMITH: Go on, George!

LEWIS: I just was waiting for Wadada to say the next thing he’s going to say!

SMITH: No, go ahead. Because that’s the Blues, too. You know, you just go on as you’re saying.

LEWIS: I guess one of the things… Actually, lately I have had to sort of confront the Blues in a more direct way, and I find that the more I confront it, the more I see that the Blues can be a part of all kinds of media and all kinds of experiences. I had to confront the Blues element in Voyager, the computer piece, and I had to sort of confront that in a very…and look at that in a light to say… You know, this stuff that Olly Wilson was talking about, about characteristics of African or Afro-American music being things like multiple meter, and there’s lots of contrasting timbres and all of that. I’m thinking, “Hey, this is Voyager. Boy!” So I finally had to look at this fake European orchestra on there as kind of, like, signifying on the orchestra rather than appropriating it. So we start to get into the Blues from that standpoint.

So once I found it there, I began to see, well, I have all these… I can sort of confront the Blues in many different types of doing music. For instance, in the concert on Saturday, both your piece and mine confront the Blues in different ways.

SMITH: Exactly.

LEWIS: You know, it’s not just the easy lick, you know, you just put in a little lick and a flatted fifth or a third or whatever, and you say, “Okay, that’s it, we’ve got it now.”

SMITH: No. It connects with the inner structure and the inner function of the relationship of the piece. So it becomes really a dynamic within the piece, moreso than something that somebody is looking to hear.

LEWIS: Yes. So in that way, it could reflect the people who are the Blues. I mean, we are that, you know.

SMITH: Right.

TP: Leo comes from the Delta, and George comes from I guess the northern outpost, as it’s often been described, of Mississippi, the South Side of Chicago.

LEWIS: Yes.

TP: Was that a major part of your experience coming up, the Blues scene on the South Side of Chicago?

LEWIS: Well, no, because my parents didn’t allow me to go those kinds of places. [LAUGHS] I mean, they had enough of a time letting me go to the AACM concert! So, no, it wasn’t a major part of it. But at home we listened quite a bit. But we listened more to religious music. I’m not saying that my parents were like religious fanatics or anything. But you could rely on hearing Clay Evans every Sunday without fail. You know that song, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do”?

SMITH: Right. I heard him, too.

LEWIS: Every Sunday that was required listening.

TP: Well, although Leo Smith and George Lewis were occupying the same physical space, although of different ages, you first met in New Haven, where Leo moved in the early 1970’s, and where George was situated as an undergraduate at Yale. So actually, George, you first encountered Leo in New Haven.

LEWIS: Yes. I encountered him there. I encountered the music in Chicago.

TP: You said there was a funny story.

LEWIS: I don’t remember the funny story. Do you remember the funny story?

SMITH: Well, it wasn’t funny. It’s just that I was standing up on the street, and George was going, and he said, “Hey, are you Leo Smith?” And I said, “Yeah. How are you doing?” We talked for a few minutes, and he said, “Well, I know the AACM,” and blah-blah-blah, and then he gave me his room number, and I think in the next couple of days I came by.

LEWIS: Yeah!

SMITH: That was it. Because basically, I couldn’t visit nobody in town. There was nobody to talk to except Marion Brown. And when George came to town, I went by George’s and hung out there, and turned him over and he turned me over. Then I’d go by and hang out with Anthony Davis. And after that, that was it.

TP: I’d say that was quite an interesting group of young musicians to be working with.

SMITH: Oh, it was. We had a good time in there.

LEWIS: Well, if you look at New Haven at that time, like if you read Willie Ruff’s book (what was it called?), A Call To Assembly… If you were around New Haven in that period, in ’72, ’71, just for a few years, an incredible number of people were around. You were living there, I think Oliver Lake was around, Marion Brown was around, (?) Johnson(?) was around, I mean just in the neighborhood. And there were all these students. Alvin Singleton was a student, Robert Dick was a student, Anthony Davis was a student, Mark Helias was a student, Gerry Hemingway was from the town — he wasn’t a student, but he was from there. And then they had people visiting.

SMITH: Dwight Andrews.

LEWIS: Oh, that’s right. Dwight, and Pheeroan was in there. Then they had people…this Duke Ellington fellowship. So Duke came, and Willie the Lion Smith came, and Max came, and Mingus came, Diz and William Warfield, Slam Stewart, Tony Williams, all these people. I just remember the list was so long. And I don’t imagine there’s… You know, those things tend to have a half-life, and I’m not sure it’s the same now as it was then. But you look at a guy like Willie Ruff, and you have to say that he helped put that together in an incredible way and used the power of the institution to do something which really affected a lot of people’s lives. I mean, certainly mine.

SMITH: Yeah, that was a powerful moment.

TP: George, you said that you were very much, however, aware of Leo. You’d encountered the music in Chicago, you said before I interrupted you…,

LEWIS: Yes.

TP: …and you were intimate with the recording, Three Compositions of New Jazz. You were just describing how intimate you were with that very vividly!

LEWIS: I listened to it the way Beavis and Butthead listen to their videos. [LAUGHS]

TP: What was it that struck you so much about that recording at that time.

LEWIS: God, it’s really hard to say. I don’t know. Don Moye gave it to me. He said, “Well, this is for you, man. This is your kind of thing.” And he was right. It was!

SMITH: [LAUGHS]

LEWIS: I don’t know what it was. I mean, if you look at those pieces, you see incredible things. It’s like one of those records that keeps giving back to you. But in terms of some specific situation, the only thing I could say was, well, it was just a reality that I hadn’t been exposed to, and I guess getting it full force like that caused me to think about other kinds of things. I guess that’s all you can really say about it.

TP: I guess the implications of those three compositions are still resonating in the work of Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins. [ETC.]

George Lewis has developed a computer program that improvises according to certain parameters. Any time I talk to various musicians about this, or to many of them about George, they sort of just say, “man, it’s unbelievable, it’s on a level I can’t…” I was saying sort of offhandedly to George that perhaps at the end of the concert Saturday we could perhaps get an improvised duo between Leo Smith and the computer, and George said, “Well, it’s not as simple as that; you really have to do some work with it.” Can you talk about the type of parameters that go into preparing the Voyager program for a specific musical encounter.

LEWIS: Well, you know, you don’t really prepare it for a specific musical encounter. What you really do is, you’re making a piece that can go in a lot of different directions. But of course, it’s not infinite. You’re going to encounter situations, and all musicians encounter situations where they don’t function quite as well as in other situations. Some people are more versatile than others, of course, but no… It’s just one of those things where even if they can do it, they might feel more comfortable doing something else.

So what I began to find was that… I think actually it was John Oswald who sort of made me think about this a little bit, that basically, Voyager makes a different kind of music from what John is doing — or was doing at that time. So basically, I would have to make a another kind of a piece, like a different piece, in order to have it work well and be coherent with him. So I began to find that, in fact… And this is a funny thing, because some people who are maybe… Well, I don’t know what their familiarity is with computers. But there is a school of thought that believes that you’re sort of making the computer to sort of play like you. And all I can say is that I’ve found that certain people actually sound better with my computer than I do. So I don’t really know if that theory holds any water.

But basically, if you want to boil it down, we’re talking very simple signals: high and low (pitch, that is), soft and loud, fast and slow, dense and sparse. Those are the big four. Everything else is a variation of that. So it’s looking at all of those things, and then it makes its own judgment on what it sees out there, and then tries to respond with something basically similar to what that is. So when that similarity of response comes, at least you get the feeling that the machine is paying attention to you. See, the thing is that there are areas, of course… There are many areas of music, and those are just the very simplest ones. At a certain point, you might find that it wouldn’t respond in a certain way, that for whatever reason the machine is not going to respond, and you don’t get any information in that area.

So what I’ve found was you really had to sort of look at the situation of Voyager, look at it as an environment, and then pick people who would fit into that environment. And that’s really what it is. Because finally, it’s kind of a piece, and you want the piece to go well, so you look for people to fit into that environment. And if they don’t fit in Voyager, well, I’m still programming, so maybe another piece will work.

TP: George mentioned specifically that Roscoe Mitchell is a musician who seems to work better with Voyager than George…

LEWIS: That’s what I think, anyway!

TP: And the results of a collaboration between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell singly and in tandem with Voyager, and then finally in an acoustic duet, are available on a 1993 release on Avan, under the title Voyager. There are eight duos with Voyager, and then “Homecoming,” an acoustic duo. We’ll hear “Voyager 8,” which is Roscoe Mitchell and Voyager, and then Roscoe and George in “Homecoming,” concluding this CD.

[MUSIC: Roscoe-Voyager, “Voyager #8”, Roscoe-George, “Homecoming” (1993)]

TP: It’s a unique occasion to get George Lewis and Leo Smith in the studio singly, and having them together is almost more than I can handle!

LEWIS: [LAUGHS]

TP: No, not really. [ETC.] We’ve spoken to George and Leo about Chicago and New Haven, where they lived, and I got to talk with George about the here-and-now with the Voyager program. But I haven’t spoken much with Leo about current events, except for playing selections from Kulture Jazz, his new release on ECM, which seems to be a very summational presentation, extending ideas from different situations you’ve been involved with over the last twenty-five years really.

SMITH: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Talk a little bit about your conception of this release, and your use of the overdubbing and multi-tracking possibilities and potentials.

SMITH: Well, for example, “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing”. It was my intention to make a piece in the studio. I knew it would sort of represent somebody that was important to me, but when I got in the studio and started warming up, I knew it would be Louis Armstrong. So what I did, I made the first line, because it’s a trio, and then I immediately recorded the second line. Then I listened to the first and second line, and made the third line. In other words, like, I didn’t listen to see what they were, basically. I only listened and responded to them. So essentially the counterpointing is that one line is made and the other line is supplied to it, but it’s a spontaneous kind of counterpoint.

TP: Did you improvise a lot in the studio in making Kulture Jazz?

SMITH: That piece is one of those pieces that’s a studio piece. I made it in the studio. What I’m trying to say is, it’s a kind of improvisation that you have information on what has been played before because you played it, but you’re not actually using that in order to play the next line. You’re only using that next line to come in contact with it and respond in some kind of play and display, and connect and disunity, which would give the concept of counterpoint — in this case, and not in the classical sense.

TP: Several of the titles have very explicit references to improvising musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Albert Ayler, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane. A few words about each of those musicians in relation to your conception of music.

SMITH: Well, for me, I feel it’s important when you make a piece of music or a music object or something that you really care about, to give it lots of special care. And one of them is poetry. And one of the extensions of poetry is through suggestions. When I make my piece, “Love Supreme,” and I dedicate it to John Coltrane, I’m dedicating it to someone that serves as a spiritual guide, so to speak. So the connection of the piece and the dedication is all one thing. It’s a kind of poetry that lets me understand my deepest self.

Like Billie Holiday, for example. I like a lot of singers. But her voice and the way that she looked at making a sound with the voice clearly distinguishes her on the outside as somebody very different. And not just different because she’s creative, but her difference is actually made in the way she shaped the volume and the weight and the release of a tone. So if I make the piece, and I say that she is the Queen or she is the Empress or something like that, I’m referring to the dynamic in which she makes her entrance or her mark in creation as a creative artist. And also as a mother. Also as someone I deeply respect. When I think about being original, and when I think about singing, and thinking about singing, I think about those people like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. I don’t know of anyone else that excites me such with voice, except Jeanne Lee.

TP: As a young musician, Leo, were you listening to all of these artists? Were these people you were assimilating?

SMITH: No. I saw my first Jazz master, I must have been… I was twenty-something in Italy. Of course, it was Miles Davis and a few guys. I never grew up around Jazz artists or creative artists or classic artists. I kind of grew up around Rhythm-and-Blues people, and always wondered what Jazz artists sounded like. And sometimes guys would tell me, “Well, you sound like you play Jazz,” and I said, “Wow, I want to know what in the hell is that.”

The first time I heard Jazz, though, I think I was graduating from high school, and we had had this band that played a few numbers that night where the trumpet player actually made a solo. After that, I walked up to the guy and said, “Look, is that Jazz?” He said, “It’s Jazz.” I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to do.”

LEWIS: [LAUGHS] Wow.

SMITH: And he wasn’t a great Jazz player. He was improvising. That’s the dynamic that struck me. Not what he was playing, but the fact that he was making up his music right then, and he didn’t have to plan it. That seemed like to me a complete weight could never be upon my shoulders, because I wanted to make music that you didn’t have to carry around, but you just released straight out with your naturalness.

TP: I recollect an interview where you said you began playing trumpet in I guess school marching ensembles…

SMITH: Yes.

TP: …and you got your conception of the sound of the trumpet from projecting your trumpet sound into a wide-open space.

SMITH: Exactly. Exactly. I still like to play the horn outside. Because you see, when you blow a trumpet, or any wind instrument, your projection is not well… I don’t know if you know Dizzy Gillespie’s description of that, but you have to be tightening the bottom…

TP: I think I’ve heard a more descriptive…

SMITH: Yes, exactly. Well, if your diaphragm is not properly done and your weight of balance is not properly centered in your gut, and you blow that trumpet or whatever wind instrument, once it reaches the end of your bell, it rolls right off like a drop of spit…,

LEWIS: [LAUGHS]

SMITH: …you see. So the wise guy centers in, gets set, and blows that sound, and makes it go all the way through the horn, you see. And if it goes all the way through, it’s going to come out of the horn. And once it comes out, because of the horn being filled and the thrust is not just coming from your lips or the cavity in your mouth, but coming from your diaphragm all the way through. The point of contact is not just the horn. It goes all the way out the horn, and the projection will come into the space. And the way to do that, you have to practice outside. You have to blow the horn outside.

TP: As a young player playing with Rhythm-and-Blues people, what type of situations would you be playing in? Who were the people you were playing for?

SMITH: Two guitars, a drummer, and me. And one of the guitar players sings, and none of them knew which key they were playing in, and none of them cared. In fact, it wasn’t even important. We played Blues in the tradition of Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and Muddy Waters. If somebody said, “Play some of B.B. King…” Any kind of Blues, these guys had the ability to articulate and make it come across. But no arrangement at all. My part, just like their part, had to be made up as we went along, because all that was known was the song, the verse of the song. So I had to make up riffs. I started out at 13. I had to make up riffs and make solos in this kind of music of two guitars and a drum and one of them singing, with no keys, or no specific tonality — but definitely making a register within the spectrum of sound.

TP: Describe some of the types of places you’d be playing in.

SMITH: Well, we’d call them honky-tonks, or juke joints, or bottom houses. They had a lot of names for them. But essentially they were large rooms that had a band standing in the back, that could hold three or four people, and the dance floor was really big. We would start at like 9 o’clock and go until the next morning almost. So a really big space, people dancing, and generally they were gambling in the joint — and of course, if there’s gambling, there’s probably other things that go along with that. There were fights, and there were confrontations. It was grim. I learned how to live, you know.

TP: Learned how to live young.

SMITH: Yeah. But also I learned how to live, because… You see, I was in high school then. I played three nights a week, sometimes four. I would go to school every day. If we drove 150 miles from the performance or the gig, I would still go to school. So I was learning how to do what I had to do, and live at the same time, and hold up my responsibility in my family. I didn’t have to go to the cotton field — because that’s what we had to do if you didn’t have no talent. So I got out of there when I was 13; I didn’t have to do that no more. So I learned how to live with that music.

[MUSIC: Leo Smith: “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing,” “The Kemet Omega (For Billie Holiday)” (1993)]

TP: We’ve had a lot of conversation with Leo and George about various aspects of the past. But in the here-and-now it’s a fresh concert with new music, again, this Saturday at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I’ll ask each of you to briefly describe the music you’re presenting this week.

SMITH: Well, the big piece is called “Black Church: A First World Gathering In The Spirits” — something close to that. It’s a work with voice, where voice and three different types of ensembles are somewhat coming together. There’s a string quartet in high voice, there’s a trombone, trumpet and percussion trio, and there is the music in the speakers, which is four pianos. All I can say is that it’s a piece for multiple ensembles. It’s non-metrical; therefore, we could consider it to be graphic in construction, but very detailed. It’s dramatic in content and also in gesture. It’s not an opera or a pseudo opera; it’s just music with a dramatic connection hooked up with these different kinds of sounding ensembles coming in, into the space. It’s a new piece. It was done over the summer. I spent the last six weeks deeply into it. It’s a considerable amount of music, a lot of music.

TP: George Lewis?

LEWIS: Well, you know, this is sort of amazing. I look at this, and I think, “Well, the AACM, thirty years old?” It’s sort of astonishing, the record of the organization and what’s been accomplished, the people who have really maintained the spirit of it with such tremendous tenacity. I mean, people look at it as being, well, the AACM is like… People are very protective of it, in a certain way; the idea of it — the idea of it and the organization of it. So that when I start to see the variety of events that have come out of this… I mean, we’ve got the recent Experimental Band performance in Chicago, where a lot of the membership came together to perform; the upcoming AACM thirtieth anniversary event, which is going to take place in Chicago, where membership will all gather there; and various other events that have taken place.

So I mean, I am looking at this in that light, although the piece is not… Well, it’s not an anniversary type of celebration. Well, I’ll put it this way. Quincy Troupe and I, since I have been out in San Diego…we’re teaching at the same school out there, the University of California in San Diego. He is in Literature and I am in Music, and we sort of hooked up right away, and have started making these pieces, one of which maybe people heard earlier on Changing Of The Times, which is based on one of his recent poems, “The View From Skates in Berkeley.” This piece, the piece I wrote for this concert, is based on Quincy’s piece, “Collage”.

Quincy lately has been putting together some pretty complex pieces which are very varied, and the range of imagery is much greater than maybe even stuff he’s been doing before — I mean, the complexity. So in a way, the challenge for me was to try to reflect some of that complexity in the music. I mean, there are rapid changes in orchestration and mood that you’ll see in the poetry that’s got to be reflected in the music. So it ended up being quite a tussle to get these things out there.

And it is for me very much an experimental situation, I mean on a personal level, in that I sort of became interested through Quincy in the interface of poetry and music, but particularly in the interface of poetry with ensemble music of varying sizes, of bigger than a bread-box. That is to say that we quickly got tired of the poet-and-trombone thing. I mean, I got bored with that almost immediately. And so, we started to figure out how we could get some sort of orchestral conception into the poetry. Because the thing is, the poetry is coming from an orchestral conception, and so we really started to find out that we need the forces to match. I don’t see any contradiction in having, you know, Quincy Troupe and Orchestra or whatever. I mean, that seems like something I’d be interested in. So that’s really the spirit in which this piece was composed, to try to bring the musical forces up to the level of the imagery that we find in the poetry.

TP: I believe you mentioned that the Voyager program will be involved as one of the musical components?

LEWIS: It’s not, no. This is an acoustic piece. I am playing Voyager on the concert as well, as a separate piece. But this piece is acoustic.

TP: Is it performed by the Ensemble, or are you performing on trombone?

LEWIS: I sit and watch. Quincy does it, and Petr Kotik conducts it, which is a wonderful thing, because I’ve known Petr for a really long time and have always been a great admirer of his work as a composer, and lately as a conductor. I just have to say that he has really provided an atmosphere in which the pieces can be done well, and the S.E.M. Ensemble is a tremendous group, and people seem very fearless. Petr has such a wide range of musical experiences that his suggestions about how to change things around, how to make this part work better, not just orchestrational things, but also interactional things and improvisational things. I mean, usually conductors, in my experience, might not be able to enter that area with the authority that Peter has done. So I’m really pretty excited about the whole experience.

Also, I am performing in Leo’s piece, which is very hard. [LAUGHS] I finally get to perform with William Brown, who is super, a tenor. And J.D. Parran is performing in my piece. So overall, it’s just a great experience for me, and it’s one that the AACM here in New York, with Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins, who have been the primary coordinators of the event, for which I think them, too. I’m sure we both do…

SMITH: Yeah, we do.

LEWIS: …for all the work they’ve put into this whole event, and to make it come off. It’s not an easy thing getting sort of a chamber ensemble piece going. It takes a lot of work, there are a lot of pitfalls — and it’s kind of expensive! The people who coordinated the work, the Helen W. Buckner Trust, the National Endowment… It’s been a considerable undertaking. But I am sort of happy to be here. I don’t come here that much, and I have never gotten to come here and play any of this kind of music, so it’s kind of exciting for me.

TP: Before I let you go, you both mentioned the Experimental Band, from, from which emerged the AACM Big Band in Chicago, which met weekly and often more than that from 1971 and on through the Seventies. Leo, what were your early experiences like? Was the AACM Big Band the focal point of your first contact with the AACM?

SMITH: Yeah, it was a focal point. You see, one of the things that made it unique was that whoever was in the AACM was also in the Orchestra, and whoever was in the Orchestra also had the possibility, if they desired, to write for it. So essentially, when I went there, I accepted the AACM Orchestra as a residence orchestra, and I began to write music immediately. In fact, it was the greatest moment of experiment for me, because I learned a lot about instruments, and the weight of instruments, both vertically and horizontally, form, I learned how to rehearse people. A lot of different things I learned in the AACM, because that orchestra met every Saturday, and there was no restriction on who could write music.

TP: Or I guess the way that you would write…

SMITH: And the way.

TP: …because you could learn almost by the seat of your pants.

SMITH: One restriction. You had to write your own music.

LEWIS: Ha-ha!

SMITH: You couldn’t bring no arrangement in and no… You had to write an original piece of music. That was the only restriction. And thank God for that.

TP: George Lewis, talk about your early interactions with the AACM Big Band.

LEWIS: I hate to say it, but I find myself repeating ten years later the exact same experience that Leo Smith had. You know, Muhal let everyone write music, and he encouraged people to do it, and I started writing music.

SMITH: Right.

LEWIS: And those were my first experiences hearing large ensemble pieces. Like Leo said, you learned how to rehearse, how to make the parts, how to negotiate with the players about how it had to be played — all those sorts of things. Practical information. It just added to the diversity. And I believe that Muhal is still interested in having this sort of open situation with regard to people writing music for an experimental band that he might make today. So it’s the atmosphere of nurturance that really made a difference, I think, for both of us.

TP: Well, I think with Leo Smith and George Lewis, we have two people born ten or twelve years apart, raised in very different…

SMITH: We’re ten years apart. Ten or eleven, somewhere in there.

TP: …raised in very different circumstances, and nurtured to the point where they are now, as we’ve heard just a very meager sample of over the past two hours, through an extraordinary institution in Chicago called the AACM. And particularly, both were influenced by the vision of Muhal Richard Abrams, which has remained constant for more than three decades within this particular institution. And I think that hearing what they say and the way their music manifests is a testament to the strength of that institution. I’d like to thank both George Lewis and Leo Smith for joining me in tandem. It’s been a fascinating interaction.

SMITH: I wanted to say thanks a million for offering the space and the time and letting us speak about the things that we think about. You know, I don’t come to New York often. I live in California, and I love living in California. So whenever I do come, I’ll look you up, Ted.

TP: When I first heard George Lewis, it was around 1974, and I was attending the University of Chicago, and I was going to hear the Fred Anderson group on campus.

LEWIS: Oh, yes.

TP: I heard this trombone player… I had some familiarity with Jazz, and I knew everything by Sonny Rollins… I went in and I heard this trombone player playing the most extraordinary things I had ever heard. I just couldn’t believe it. And it was George Lewis. I got to know him a little bit then. And although he’s gone into so many different directions, my initial impression of you as flying over the trombone and doing all of this stuff has always remained with me. So I was very excited when earlier this summer, the four-trombone group Slide Ride assembled at the Knitting Factory for a night, one night only, to be followed by one night in Burlington, Vermont, and that’s it — and a record. The group is Ray Anderson (and as has been repeated ad nauseam, he and George Lewis were in high school and junior high school together, playing trombone), Craig Harris and Gary Valente. We get to hear George in the acoustic, ipmrovatorial milieu, just playing no-holds-barred trombone. Has the Slide Ride group been an enjoyable experience for you?

LEWIS: Well, Ted, before I answer that, I’d just like everyone to know what Ted had to do to listen to this Fred Anderson group. For one thing, we started playing at twelve o’clock at night and we ended at 6 a.m., and often Ted was the only person in the audience. [LOUD LAUGH]

TP: Well, this is what’s known as a tall tale, or perhaps a fictional extrapolation or something. Actually, I think this one was in the daytime, George.

LEWIS: I don’t know, man. You remember those sets I’m talking about, right? Those midnight sets.

TP: No, I couldn’t get to the North Side. This was on the University of Chicago campus. I didn’t have a car…

LEWIS: I guess I have to strike that, then. I tried to make you a legendary figure, Ted, but you’ll just have to settle for mortality!

TP: I think I prefer that. But let’s get back to some more sober ruminations on Slide Ride.

LEWIS: Well, you know, Slide Ride turned out to be an amazing situation. I guess I’ve been in trombone quartets that haven’t been quite as interesting as Slide Ride, and I think maybe the reasons why they weren’t quite as interesting usually could be put down to various kinds of competitiveness, or ego, or simply lack of community — in other words, they were ad hoc situations. Whereas you have to say… I think that interacting with Gary and Craig and Ray as a group, and realizing that we all come from a similar musical community, we were all around New York at about the same time playing trombone, we all played in the same groups, we often played together… And to see that history… And I think Craig of us is probably the most aware of that history, and has done the most to sort of realize that history in terms of the group, in a certain way. But everybody makes their contribution.

So what I started to find was that around about the concerts that you’ve mentioned, the one at the Knitting Factory and the one in Vermont, the music started to reach this level which I didn’t expect. It was kind of a wonderful thing. It started to get to the point where you transcended this thing of just having trombone players doing things. I guess when Robin Eubanks was here earlier, he started talking about the trombone and what people think about it, and I have to say it’s… I mean, I care about what happens to the trombone, but maybe a lot of people don’t. Robin does. But I guess what I started to see in that group, it really wasn’t about… It just became people playing music, and expressing themselves, and being creative, and using their creativity in the moment, as Leo was saying about Miles Davis. So that became pretty amazing for me.

On the other hand, I read the German liner notes, and there’s a whole section on how I hate to travel. [LAUGHS] Which is true. [LAUGHS] Well, like you said, I’m happy to be here, but I also like being at home and all that. So anyway, I like this… Well, I love this band. I think it’s fabulous.

[MUSIC: Slide Ride, “Sweeps”, “Unison” (1994)]

 

*-*-*-*-

George Lewis (WKCR, 4-30-94):

TP: We’ve been listening to two selections from a recent release on the New World Counter Currents series by George Lewis…

GL: Is this the Counter-Currents series? I don’t think so. I was rejected for the Counter-Currents series. Can we put that on the air? They said it wasn’t jazzy enough to be on the Counter-Currents series. So this got on whatever the regular series is. It got on that instead!

TP: At any rate, it is on New World Records, and indeed, the title of the CD is Changing With The Times, and there are six, as the liner note says, “conversation pieces for which George Lewis has assembled a diverse collection of musicians, poets and story-tellers into an organic narrative mode to signify in style and content on his personal odyssey through the contradictions and ambiguities of being black in a non-contradictory social universe — America.”

Much of the music, George, was written many years ago, but hadn’t been previously recorded. Talk a bit about the ideas in assembling the pieces and the personalities who comprise this CD.

GL: Well, this record comes, in a way, from when I changed periods and went to California and became a music professor.

TP: When was that exactly?

GL: In ’91, the University of California at San Diego. Quincy Troupe, whose poetry you heard first, is a professor there in Literature, as is Jerry Rothenberg, who we just heard. So it seemed at a certain point like a collaboration would be a good idea. Mary Oliver was a Ph.D student at the time, the violinist. Peter Gonzalez was an undergraduate percussionist. So it was recorded at the studio there.

So there was all this talent floating around, you know, this university, and I kind of find it fascinating. Also, when I brought my father out, it occurred to me that this would be the moment to maybe do something that we had talked about doing for a long time, which was to take aspects of his narrative, the story of his life, and make something of it in terms of music.

So that’s sort of the field in which this takes place.

When you talk about the music and the text, I guess I don’t look at it as text with music, since we did try to integrate them. On the other hand, there is an aspect of arrangement about this, in that the pieces… The piece we just heard, the piece for two pianos and trombone, was written in 1980 for Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzsewski and I to play. We played it a few times, and then it kind of sat around until I decided that it needed something extra, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then Jerry Rothenberg showed me these Dadagrams, and that seemed to fit very well.

Then for the middle section we were looking for something, and then he came up with this poem called “The Chicago Poem” — this is the slow section. The thing about that is that I looked at the first few lines, when he starts talking about Amsterdam, Paris and Chicago — and that kind of sums me up in a nutshell, sums up the last fifteen years of my life. I said, “We’ll do this one.” [LAUGHS]

Then later it turns out that… The whole record has a kind of theme about it. The themes are history and remembrance, camaraderie, brotherhood, these sorts of issues. Personal friendships and the elaborations of them, how they develop and change and grow. Family. That’s what “The Chicago Poem” talks about, and that’s what Quincy’s poem is also talking about, and that’s what Changing of The Times discusses.

So that the odyssey of being Black is only one of the situations. But the odyssey of being Black, though, of course, can include all of those other things — and it does!

TP: To be specific about the pieces, the first selection heard at the top of the program was Quincy Troupe’s poem, “The View From Skates In Berkeley,” and the second, which is a three-part composition, is called “Chicago Dadagram.”

You performed a text-music with interactive imagery a few years ago at the Kitchen, though I can’t recollect whether these pieces were included or not. Have you been performing these in concert situations?

GL: Well, actually what got performed was a piece called “The Empty Chair.” That was in 1989.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the technologies that I have developed, and to expand and recontextualize them. That’s been the focus. I’ve found that I wanted to have the pieces talk about something. I just didn’t want them to be formalist abstractions, and I didn’t necessarily want to appropriate gestures from contemporary music, or Rap, or Rock-and-Roll, or anything in a stylistic way. I wanted to integrate them with things that I felt comfortable with personally.

“The Empty Chair” was an experiment in sort of multi-perspectival interactive theater, really. Bernard Mixon, an actor and singer who performs Changing of The Times, played the lead role. He was a prisoner in this piece, but no one was quite clear as to why he was a prisoner, so there was a Kafkaesque aspect. But then, finally, we know, despite his own denial and the denials he describes of others as to why it’s happened.

So since maybe many people didn’t that see that piece, all I can say is that there were two kinds of computer-generated video, and that these videos were interactive with the music in real time. One was animation, and that was done by Don Ritter with his own personal Omega system. The other one was done by Ray Edgar, and that was a transformation-based video, live cameras, mixing and adding various kinds of synthesized imagery to it. And these were responding to the music and to the speech that Bernard was doing. Douglas Ewart was playing also.

We were sitting in the back, operating the computers, but really, there isn’t much to operate. You just turn them on and let them go, because they are listening anyway. So you don’t have to really direct them. I guess when we get around to playing a little computer music, we can talk about that more. But the idea is that basically is that the computer… If you have a large enough collection of details about your representation of music, you can trust that, because it represents your ideas of music that you were hearing in another form. So I don’t have any problems with letting the things run, if they’re making a contribution. I mean, if they’re making a contribution that’s mutable, according to what’s going on at the moment. If they’re just running like a tape, I guess I’m not too excited by that. It doesn’t fit in my music. I’m improvising and I want to hear things move and change, and I want to hear the results of my action in the environment that we’re creating. The tapes and sequences just don’t do that.

So following in the footsteps of people like David Behrman in particular, I’ve wanted to have these things go on. And I’ve been fairly extreme about it, maybe very extreme about it, to the point where there isn’t anything that’s sequenced in advance or anything.

So in sum, what it comes down to is that Changing with the Times is an attempt to refine those ideas about Theater and to sort of have a radio-play. My dream was (and of course, I think it will never happen) that it will get played on NPR at two o’clock in the morning, and someone will say, “Ooh, how nice, what a nice voice,” and they sort of drift off to sleep listening to this bedtime story, this ironic bedtime story of my father, who is talking about his grandfather, and the good old days which weren’t really all that good, and it seeps into people’s consciousnesses, sort of like the old-time shows, like The Shadow, but talking about something personal.

The thing about The Shadow or any of those old-time radio things was that you could decide what the Shadow was. I mean, back in those days, The Shadow could be anything you wanted it to be. You could make up the imagery yourself. And that’s the sort of thing I wanted to happen here. But I think because of what’s being talked about, that might be more difficult. The radio plays that I hear tend to be a bit Gothic.

TP: Let’s talk about the details of the performance. George Lewis plays, of course, on trombone; Douglas Ewart, woodwinds, saxophone and percussion; Mary Oliver, violin and viola; Peter Gonzales, percussion; Jeannie Cheatham, piano and organ; and Bernard Mixon, singing and speaking voice. The narrative is by George Lewis’s father.

Was this written specifically for the purposes of this performance, or was this something he’d written that you wanted to recontextualize?

GL: He wrote it because he is retired from the Post Office. He worked there for far too long. And when he retired, he had to have something to do. The class was a writing class, because having never, I think, really gone to school, or at least not very much… I mean, in the text he keeps talking about all the times he dropped out, which leads me to suspect he never really got to go in the first place. So the idea was that he wrote this thing in order to pass this class. And the person teaching the class was smart enough to first give them a copy of The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, basically a slave narrative, and making that context for them, making the connection within their own situations, and of course, implying that you could be writing your own slave narrative right here and now, in the Twentieth Century. So that’s what they did. They sort of wrote their own slave narratives.

And his was sort of ironic and sort of funny, and minimized things that were really terrible. It sort of expressed to me something that we don’t get to… You know, there are things that used to go on in that way, like the Federal Writers Project. But I wanted to have that be not a piece of documentation, but an art piece more than a documentation of something that went on. Who knows how much of it is even true? — as Paul Carter Harrison points out in the liner notes. I mean, it doesn’t really matter. There is an aspect of the Trickster or the Toaster about it.

So that was the basic focus of that.

TP: Is your father a native Chicagoan?

GL: Yeah, he is. He’s a native. But the story is mostly about North Carolina, which is where he was brought up. So he was part of the Grand Migration, you see. It’s important to state that; it’s a theme in the piece. It’s documented in Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land, in the writings of St. Clair Drake, and there’s lots of other documentation on these successive waves of African-Americans coming up from the South to what they thought was really a better life. And really, what it amounted to was like another country. Like, it was internal immigration, really, in the same sense as what we have now. It was just “El Norte,” just another version of that.

So there are lots of stories like this. In fact, I think this is really one of the main stories for me in the Twenty-First Century; one of the main themes in Art will be this notion of location. It is now, and I think it’s going to grow and deepen in intensity, because so many people are displaced now. And even people who have lived in a certain place all their lives are starting to feel displaced because of their situation. The dislocation is enormous. I feel as though I’d like to explore the implication of that, so that’s one part of it.

[MUSIC: “Changing With The Times”]

GL: This piece really takes a bleak look at a lot of the music that my father held dear. In other words, it’s not an attempt to imitate or recreate these things. It’s an attempt to integrate other things in with it. You notice at a certain point we’re hearing microtonal things that really don’t fit in with the traditional framework of the Blues, although with the expanded notion of African creativity that the AACM, let’s say, was into — but certainly I didn’t see any contradiction there. But I didn’t really feel the need to do anything in terms of trying to make this…well, to make it anything other than… It’s not supposed to be a period piece, really.

But I did have to put his words in the context of the music he was listening to at the time, and the music he grew up with. And it’s done in the spirit of love, really.

Jeannie Cheatham I think is the real star of this thing, if can think of someone who really underpins everything about this record. She plays in every conceivable style. There are things she didn’t play on there. She can play Classical music, contemporary music, she’s playing the Blues and the Boogie; she wrote this Boogie-Woogie tune we’re playing at one point. She’s playing this strange organ in this sort of quasi-fight scene. So she’s really tremendous on this thing.

But it’s meant to be ironic. We didn’t have a drum set as such, or a bass player. You know, we could have had a bass player going BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, and had it be very much more like to peak(?). But that really wasn’t the point of it. In order to look at this period, to look at the issues, we needed to take a little distance from it, and come in at not the expected angle.

TP: Is this all music that’s part of your early musical experience?

GL: Oh yes, very much so. Yes. But you know, the thing is that you have to continually reevaluate these things. I find that now I look back on it as something that I learned because it was just there in the community, not something you really studied. It was just sort of there in the community. But now, having to study it a little bit in order to make the record, and having to sort of understand it and try and take it in a different context, you sort of start to see connections you didn’t see before. I’m not sure I can express what those connections are.

TP: Let me ask you another question related to your earlier years in the music? Was your father influential in your taking up music, or being a trombonist? Or what were those factors?

GL: Oh yeah, yeah. You know, this happens a lot, I’ve found out. You talk to any number of musicians, composers, artists whose parents told them to do something, to take up the arts or to take up an instrument — and it’s always for the same reasons. It’s always for popularity. They are so concerned about their kids being popular. Do they get along with the other kids? I guess one of those old sociologists like David Riesman can have a field day with this.

Anyway, his take on it was, “Yes, you’ll make some friends and you should take up an instrument.” And I said, “Well, fine, but what instrument do I take up?” He said, “Well, anything but the trumpet, because the trumpet ruins your lips,” and he had these pictures of Louis Armstrong to prove that the trumpet ruins your lips. I said, “Okay, we’ll just go to the store and we’ll see” — because they were having kind of a fair; you could go and look at these things. So I looked, and I don’t really remember, but all I remember was, “I think we should take this one.” That was the trombone. I mean, it was bigger than the others, and it looked pretty good, and I said, “Let’s have this one.”

I mean, I love those romantic tales about someone who always wanted to be a trombone player, and who had listened to it since they were a kid, and they really saw somebody play, and they knew that’s what they wanted to do…

TP: Or the school band director said, “You have to play trombone because I’m losing mine, and you have to come in play this,” and that’s why they played it…

GL: Right. It’s usually much more a question of need. None of this exciting, terribly romantic, “Oh, I just had to do it; it was my destiny — I saw my destiny before me.” It wasn’t like that.

TP: But apparently you felt an affinity for it.

GL: I suppose so. But I remember also throwing it against the wall in disgust at not being able to play the damn thing. I mean, it’s not so easy. One of my tasks at school was to try to figure out how we can get trombonists to learn how to play a little faster. Because by the time the trombonists sound pretty good, the electric guitarists have gone on to fame and fortune, and really some of them have probably even like killed themselves by this time. But it’s very much a much faster learning curve on some of the instruments than on others — and the trombone is one of the slower ones.

TP: Who were some of the influences that got you involved in Jazz and improvising on the trombone? Were you listening to other trombone players? Were you adapting the instrument to musical ideas that you were hearing elsewhere? How did that all come about?

GL: Hmm, what was that all about…? Oh, I remember. Okay, it was “The Pink Panther.” We were playing “The Pink Panther” in the concert band.

TP: Where?

GL: The Lab School at the University of Chicago. We were playing “The Pink Panther.” I thought I recognized it. They had this thing that you were supposed to play, this sort of written solo on it, and I decided I didn’t want to play that, that I could just play something, because it wasn’t…it just didn’t sound… I didn’t like it, for whatever reason, and being 11 years old, I thought I had the right to say what I thought. [LAUGHS] So instead of playing the thing that was written out, I played this other thing. And the director stopped the band and said, “Well, what was that?” I said, “Well, I thought I would improvise something there.” It was weird. No one said, “Hey, look, here’s how you do it” or whatever. They just said, “Do it again the next time.” So that was it. I got to improvise my “Pink Panther” solo.

So maybe that was it for me, and then later learning things in the school jazz bands and all that. Because they didn’t really have a school jazz band, so if you wanted to play anything that sounded like Jazz, you had to do it on “The Pink Panther.”

TP: There was an educator at the Lab School named Frank Tirro, I believe.

GL: But I wasn’t in that band then. The 11-year-olds weren’t in that. That was a high school thing! So when I got to the high school… They should have these things right at the beginning. Like, Kidd Jordan has five-year-olds playing Jazz compositions down in New Orleans, so it’s certainly possible to do this at any age.

But later, certainly Frank Tirro was a major influence in that way, and Dean Hay also — who were both teaching there at that time. Frank has the book now, an expanded version of his Jazz book. And Dean is playing trombone again. He went into computers for a while, which I found ironically interesting, but I think he’s back to playing now.

In terms of, like, adapting the materials, the music that was around the house, there was an old Lester Young record — I remember trying to understand and play with that. There were a few Johnny Griffin records and there were a few Miles Davis records. And then I started buying all these Coltrane records. I’d say that in terms of my own investigations on a personal basis… Also, there was a wonderful librarian, Mr. Poole, who had Charlie Parker records, and there were also records of the electronic music going on at the University of Illinois. So I’d say those things were probably the most influential on me in terms of trying to learn how to play anything, in this sort of non-formal way. Because after a while, I just stopped taking lessons. It just seemed like, well, anyone who would get up there and play “The Pink Panther,” you know, in the wrong way wasn’t likely to be sitting in there and taking lessons for such a long time. So I stopped doing it. So it was always more of a personal investigation. I’m kind of used to it now.

TP: You’ve developed an incredibly broad vocabulary of ways of expressing yourself on the trombone. So it began through those investigations.

GL: I’d say it began there, but basically the AACM was the key to a kind of mental and personal expansion and development. It’s the reason for… A current view of improvisation that we were talking about earlier, I guess… My view of improvisation is basically that personality development is an important part of it. And one of the ways is, of course, that you have to have information, and you have to have a framework also for presenting that information, and for understanding it, and for making sense of it. I didn’t really have that when I met Muhal, and Mitchell, and Jarman, and Douglas Ewart, and people like that — and I think they helped me get it, helped me understand things about life, and made you listen to things.

We were talking the other day; it was very funny… You see, I used to have this thing for Twinkies. At a certain point I remember bringing the Twinkies into the AACM meeting, and they said, “You can’t come in here with those Twinkies.” [LAUGHS] They were serious! I had to throw the Twinkies away. So little things like that.

See, that’s what I mean by sort of just personality development. They were concerned about just not about what you were playing, but also about what you were eating, what you were thinking, what you were reading, what you were listening to — the whole business. So that was a critical passage. Then at a certain point, that prepares you for other things, certainly for listening to other things that are out there. I mean, the European improvisers or the Downtown improvisers or the people writing, as Anthony calls it, Notated Music, or the Downtown composers…

I have to look at my work as kind of an interdisciplinary work, finally, so it’s got to be hard to stick it in one category or another. But I think certain people know where it doesn’t fit, and I guess Cross-Currents is one of those places where it doesn’t fit… But not to worry, because it’s here and we’re listening to it!

[MUSIC: Jeannie’s Boogie from “Changing With the Times”]

TP: …Bernard Mixon’s brilliant interpretation of the text of George Lewis’ father, and orchestrated or… I’m not sure what words to use in the 1990’s about arranging sounds and music around a work of text.

GL: It’s nice to actually think about what you just said. It’s hard to put a title on it like an arrangement or… Everything has changed in terms of the arrangement of music and text. For example, at the moment I’m working on a series of sort of computer-orchestral accompaniments for Quincy Troupe. I would like to sort of make a record with him, but I sort of want to put him in the midst of this interactive improvising ensemble, partly cinematic, using sampled sounds, sort of virtual poetry — in other words, putting him in a field where he can walk around, where as he walks, the text is being spoken, and maybe he’s just thinking about it. So we’re sort of working this out step by step.

But one thing seems clear. I think that I like the idea of the original things we did, where he would read and I would play the trombone. But that never seemed to be quite enough for me. So the piece we heard earlier was sort of a first stab in the direction of what I want to do. For example, the text is constantly being shadowed by Bernard, and also there is a very strict arrangements, there are different parts in the poem, so that at a certain point certain key words are mirrored in what the musicians are asked to do in terms of how to direct their improvisations. So then also changes in the orchestration mirror important sections in the text. So basically there is this kind of idea of making an integrative work out of it.

I guess that’s because I just didn’t feel that I could sort of do…you know, provide the kinds of colors. Let’s say, for example, somebody like J.D. Parran playing with Quincy or Hamiett Bluiett; I didn’t feel able to do those things. I’m actually much better at composing it and then having it run as an environment, and then if I want to play, I can sort of play. Then sometimes the best thing is just solo trombone, but usually it isn’t. And if you have all these other resources, the virtual orchestras that have been developed on instruments, sampled sounds, infra-red controllers that allow him to accompany himself, why not use those things and sort of give a…?

You see, the thing is about music today, you have to compete with all these other assaults and appeals (I’ll call them appeals maybe) to your senses. [LAUGHS] So somehow you have to sort of go with that, in that people take this kind of multi-sensual, multi-perspectival viewpoint for granted. That’s how you grew up. Those of us who are old enough remember how strange MTV looked when it first came on, you know, and in a lot of senses maybe how hokey at the beginning, and then borrowing some of the techniques from video artists and then making their own techniques — these super-fast montages and these sort of booming basses and all this stuff.

I’m not saying you have to do those things, just to take that. But you do have to provide a richer environment. So that’s what I felt was the point of these things. Also with the piece with Jerry Rothenberg, the Chicago Dadagram pieces, it’s to somehow have the text and the music integrated, but actually to compose pieces around it. So not the traditional settings of poetry that you might find, say, in contemporary music. I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to take a different approach. And maybe I am not the person who is going to write an aria and put words to it and have someone sing it. I just don’t hear that being a part of what I do. I’m not comfortable with it.

So this seemed like a better approach to me, to have someone reading or speaking, or, in the case of “Changing With the Times,” acting. He becomes my father, in a way. I give Bernard the tapes, I give him the script, we talk about it, we talk about the interpretation. It’s more collaborative than directorial on my part. He’s coming out of his own experience as much as he’s coming out of mine. So that leaves us to… I feel more of a cultural integration of the elements. He’s so subtle about it that you tend to forget. It was similar to watching Danny Glover reading Langston Hughes. At first I thought, “Well, what’s going on? He’s just reading.” But that was the point! Somehow the way he read and the subtlety, it just sort of overwhelms you after a while. And I think that this is the kind of sensitivity that Bernard brings to it.

TP: We’ll move on in the next segment of our discussion to…again, it’s hard to find the proper word, but I guess one might say George Lewis’s work, theoretical work…

GL: Ha-ha-ha! What?!?!

TP: …in computer interaction and improvising…

GL: Theory. It’s just not theoretical, man. You know, it’s just music. I mean, I don’t want to call it theoretical just because it’s a computer in it. But you know what I mean. I’m uncomfortable with it because it’s just another kind of sensual environment for things to happen. And the computer is a part of that, but that’s because the technological and cultural base is there.

TP: Assimilating the technological base, however, is of a different order. It’s not something that just happened, but you’ve been dealing with computers in terms of rethinking music, and now, with current technology, being able to sample and orchestrate and modify other musical stimuli. This has been an ongoing thing for you for maybe twenty years.

GL: Maybe a little less, but a fair amount of time, yeah.

TP: Were the implications of what you could do with computers clear to you, let’s say, fifteen years ago? Or when did it become clear to you what you might be able to do?

GL: Hmm, I think we’re talking about future possibilities. When will it become clear? [LAUGHS]

Actually, certain things have gotten a little clearer from the beginning. But if we heard some of it, it might be easier.

TP: Shall we play it, and then discuss you and the computer?

GL: Yes. You’re playing a piece with me on it, or playing a piece with Roscoe on it?

TP: I guess what you wanted us to do was play two pieces with Roscoe. We should make clear to the audience what we’re talking about. Another recent release by George Lewis, almost parallel to and in tandem with Changing Of The Times has been issued on Avan-014, George Lewis, Voyager. Why don’t you describe the premise of this particular project.

GL: Well, you could call it an interactive virtual orchestra. This is what I’ve been trying to make for years, interactive players, computer players that can function in the environment that improvising musicians deal with. When I say “improvising musicians,” I’m not talking about all improvising musicians. There’s a certain subset of people that are working in kind of a freely improvised field. And even within that field, it’s not a universal situation. Certain people respond differently.

So the piece is sort of the culmination, or these pieces are sort of the culmination of a lot of work that I’ve done in this area over the years. It was hard to get earlier examples recorded. John Zorn produced these Avan records, and I give him a lot of credit for getting this project going and for giving me the freedom to carry it out, and to David Wessel also at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies for helping me to produce it and record it, and having helped along the way in so many ways, shepherding me through the IRCOM experience in Paris and all of that.

So essentially what you hear is a duo between a person playing his instrument and a computer which is playing its instrument, which is a synthesizer, or a sample player, in this case. It has all these things it sort of knows how to do. It has a representation of what it plays, and it has a representation of what it thinks is going on out there in the world, what it thinks that the person is playing. So what it sort of does is, it uses that person’s playing to guide its own composition and its own performance. But its performance isn’t fixed in any way, and so you sort of have to communicate with it. You can set up events. You can set up situations. If you play in a particular way, the chances are that it will find a way to do that. That, of course, is something that is partly technological, but it’s also partly personal, in that you have to compose the way you want the orchestra to sound, its essential sound, and then you provide enough hooks so that the performer can then sort of voyage around or explore that environment to see what they can do together. So it’s very much like, or it is actually, a kind of improvised music, and a lot of the same things are happening that happen in improvised music.

Another thing that I find interesting about it for myself is that it’s not…its cultural base… When you say about “things becoming clear,” it became clear to me after a while what the cultural base of the music was. For example, the multiplicity of rhythms that go on, the sort of overt kind of emotionality that you can bring to bear on it, I didn’t to be characteristic of a lot of the European music that I was exposed to in the computer field at IRCAM. So that the possibilities of an Afrocentric computer music came to be kind of interesting, because of course, there are many kinds of theories, and some of those theories… And I don’t to associate computer with theory. I like to associate it with a kind of emotional transduction. Because all of music involves theory. In order to play the trombone you have to have a theory as well. Or if you don’t… It will be better if you do. That’s my feeling. If you sort of have some idea, some meta-idea of what you want…when you stick your arm out and spit, what’s going to happen, you’ll be in a good shape! [LAUGHS]
The thing is that you can think about this as… Well, maybe it’s better if we hear it, and then we can talk about it afterwards.

TP: The pieces we’ll hear are the two with Roscoe Mitchell.

GL: #2 and #8. Those are the ones. Those are the good ones. Mine are okay. His are really good.

[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell/G. Lewis, “#2 and #8]

TP: ‘Voyager 5,” one of eight duos between George Lewis and the computer, Roscoe Mitchell and the computer, or George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and the computer in different configurations. Also the final track is an improvised duet between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. George Lewis is our guest on this program, and we’re focusing primarily on his recent music. We’ll subsequently hear another duo with Roscoe Mitchell, which you said showed Roscoe sort of investigating the possibilities of what he could do, and then on the next one he kind of figures it out and finds his solutions to the challenge of improvising with the computer that you programmed and your improvising program.

GL: What I find fascinating about improvisation is that these are things that you can hear. It’s something that comes out from sound rather than… It’s not something that you can write on a piece of paper: “Well, I want you to explore this area.” People just do it. That’s just what they do. And improvisation is a part of that exploration. You can’t chart that out. And if you try, it’s not exploration any more.

What I found fascinating about Roscoe’s approach was the extent to which he uses these exoskeleton type methods, the degree to which he takes things that are internal, and makes them external, so that you can see a lot more of what’s underneath. He also shows, in a way, sort of the range of the computer’s own possibilities through the exploration of what it can do. He’s trying different things musically, he’s looking for the response, then he works with it to create these composite ideas. He’s really quick to pick up on things that it does, and it seems to be fairly quick at picking up on things that he does.

And in totally different ways. You see, the thing is that I don’t think it’s necessary that they… This is kind of like an interspecies small talk; that’s what David Behrman used to call one of his pieces. And it really is that. I mean, it’s two different kind of beings in the same space, communicating, in their particular fashions. They are putting out things in their particular way and receiving things in their particular ways. It isn’t necessary to equate them, or to make one into the other, or to do all the other things that people associate in these fearful ways with anthropomorphization of the computer. We don’t need to do that. All we have to do is put it in space, give it the tools.

TP: Following up on that last comment: Is the computer in any way an alter-ego for you? Because you, after all, created the parameters by which it improvises.

GL: Well, the computer does represent my theory of music. But what I tend to think is interesting is that people can realize their own ideas also in the environment, which is not really… It’s my theory of music, but it’s not my theory of my music. So there’s a real difference in that, you see. So I can play, and it’s rather different. If we play #3 on this same thing, you see, it’s a very different attitude. We can play that maybe.

TP: Well, why don’t we. #3 from Voyager.

GL: Yeah. This is a little different attitude. I think it takes a solo.

[MUSIC: “Voyager #3’]

TP: Before we begin our next segment of discussion, I’ll read program notes written by George Lewis for this CD: “What the work is about is what improvisation is about — interaction and behavior as carriers for meaning. On this view, notes, timbres, melodies, durations and the like are not ends in themselves. Embedded in them is a more complex, indirect, powerful signal that we must train ourselves to detect.” And indeed, in programming the computer to improvise on the highest level with musicians who have devoted a life to thinking about improvised music and have tremendous experience, you really had to organize, I guess, and come to grips with what your ideas of what improvising is about and the parameters of improvisation.

GL: Yeah. Well, that last paragraph is kind of a roundabout way of saying what Albert Ayler was quoted as saying: “It’s not about notes; it’s about feeling.” Or to put it another way, the Charlie Parker thing, which is, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” which I now say, if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your computer either.” So that’s really what it comes down to.

I find that this music comes out of what I have learned from the AACM, what I have learned about the AACM, what I have learned from people like Misha Mengelberg and Derek Bailey, what I have learned from many different types of improvisers. So basically, it’s more a distillation of what I have learned about these things, rather than some grand organizational scheme. Although finally with computers, if you don’t organize things, they crash. So on that level there’s organization. But at another level, I find myself…

This computer program I wouldn’t call a model of structured integrity. Different levels at which the creation is being made have to communicate with each other, and there has to be kind of an openness of channel. Like, you heard this sort of long solo that the computer does. Well, how it does it…what the long solo is based on, basically, is if I’m not playing, after a certain point it says, “Well, no one is playing; I guess I have a solo.” Then it starts to make all these random judgments about what goes on. But when I say “random,” I mean that it’s sort of random, but in order to make a note, you have about 40 or 50 random decisions to make. So that in the end, it’s random but in this room.

Let’s say the first decision is… Well, I tried to tell someone this once. To decide what instrument to use is a pretty complex process. The first decision that’s made is how many instruments… Like, when it’s time to bring in a new group of people to play some piece of music, the first decision is how many instruments are going to play, then the next decision is how many different kinds of instruments are going to play. That’s based on how jagged the rhythm is. The number of instruments is based on how loud things are. In other words, if someone is playing very softly, I don’t want to bring in 16 or 17 instruments crashing down on their head. So that’s another decision. Then you get into that, and then it gets into, “Well, what’s going to be the timbre of these instruments?” Is the timbre going to be mixed or is it going to be a homogeneous timbre? So that’s three decisions already.

So if each one of those decisions is made on the basis of random numbers… But you see, the accumulation of detail itself tends to focus that information. In other words, I could just say for each one of these decisions, “Well, just do whatever you feel like doing, and have any range you want, any number of instruments you want” — and that tends to be very boring. But if you can direct things into groups, if you can direct things into fields, if you can define an area for a certain period of time, if you can do those things, then finally the randomness of process recedes into the background, and it recedes so far into the background that you don’t really know where the randomness is.

So when people start to tell me about randomness versus non-randomness, I say, “Well, how random do you think you are? Maybe something you did today was based on a hormone that didn’t quite make it to the level it made it to yesterday or something — and what’s that based on? We can get teleological about it or you can get biochemical about it, or you can do whatever you want to do.

The connotativeness behind randomness I always relate to the innate need of people to feel that they have control over some aspect of their lives. And I think that’s important to realize that we’re in a kind of an interdependent universe here, and I’m not sure how much control that we have over our lives. I’m sure that control is not total. That’s pretty obvious. We seem to be faced with forces moving around us all. So I’m not sure what the answer is. The Voyager is not providing an answer to the question of how humans make music. It’s a piece of music that operates within certain constraints, and expresses a certain viewpoint about how music could be made, not how it should be made — which is an infinite question, really. That’s what it’s all about.

TP: We also get to a question about some of the antecedents or narrative structures of improvising, which I know are important to you, and which you’ve elaborated maybe a little more directly or explicitly in Changing With The Times. Do you have any feelings on that that you’d care to discuss?

GL: Well, there is a kind of a narrative going on. The subject of the narrative is partly Music itself, but then the other subject, or one of the other subjects… The process that’s going on…I don’t know if I used this word, but it’s emotional transduction. Transduction is a process by which one quantity is translated into another. A simple example would be an electrical impulse is fed to a speaker. That’s one. Electrical impulses, voltages then result in the speaker kind of moving. That moves air. We hear sound.

So in the same way, if I say that notes and tones and timbres and all that are carriers for meaning, and that meaning is embedded in these notes, then if there is a process by which we can sort of multiply that while retaining a certain essence of it, then what we’re going to get as the output is going to also, I feel, retain some aspect of every part or every dimension of that sound. In other words, the emotionality, I think, will be retained.

So I don’t think the computer itself has to generate emotional things or generate narratives as such. It’s more a process still at this point of transduction. But the transduction depends on detail. In other words, you can’t play a bunch of stuff in, and then what you get out is this one kind of output. There has to be a sort of an idea of the complexity of music there. I don’t want to go into all the details. But it certainly relates to things like duration, things like pitch, things like contours, things like tendencies, things like stabilities that have to be sort of gauged and mapped and responded to. In addition to the simple thing of, “What am I doing right at this moment?” there is a question of history involved in making these things work.

Also, you should be able to play very different things, and then it should be able to respond in a very different way. Like, if we played Piece #8, I think that’s one where that’s sort of shown. It’s a very different piece from the rest, from the others we played.

[MUSIC: R. Mitchell/Computer “Voyager Duo #8”]

TP: Roscoe Mitchell is a musical personality with whom George Lewis has been associated for just about two decades now.

GL: Oh, yeah.

TP: Were you aware of him as a young musician coming up in Chicago, in your teens, in the lab school? Were you aware of the AACM at that time?

GL: No. Muhal came to the school once.

You know, there’s something that… These things are kind of… This question of personalities is kind of important as well. You know, Roscoe… I mean, I’ve listened to a lot of computer music, because I’m sort of in the field and have been for a long time, and I feel I have made my tiny mark on the field. The thing is that I don’t get to hear many pieces of computer music where people can, you know, get wild [LAUGHS] like Roscoe is doing on this piece. It’s usually much more mannered. And I am finding that… The reason I guess Roscoe’s contribution is so important on this record is because it does show that we don’t have to throw our emotions away when we enter into these areas. We don’t have to become the stereotype of the computer as cold, unfeeling, whatever. We don’t have to do that. And we can sort of get much more dynamic about it.

I have this problem also, in a way, with my work with the improvisers at the university where I’m teaching now. There is something… It seems there’s a penalty for personal expression, which would seem to be something like, “What? A penalty?” — but there is. I mean, in the real world there really is a penalty for personal expression. It’s in these tiny enclaves we put ourselves in where we can pretend. But really, this complex system of music also embodies systems of values. So that someone who could really…

Often I get the feeling that my biggest job in working with the improvising students is to get them to overcome…I’m not sure what it is — their upbringing at home maybe, or the constraints placed upon them by cultures they grew up in, or perhaps the academic environment, which seems that maybe their perception is that it might not accept them so readily were they to sort of expose themselves in the way that Roscoe or I might do, and that it would be better if they just were very safe.

And then there is that question of location. Now, Roscoe is located firmly in a tradition and a culture, and can trace himself back as an improviser to Buddy Bolden, okay, and then from there even back as far as he wants to go. Okay? So that’s not really true of at least some of my graduate student improvisers, who come from a different tradition, the one that has attempted to stamp out improvisation without success. So their tradition in that area becomes a little difficult. So it does affect their personality, and then that affects the playing. As one person, one professor if you will, I don’t have the power by myself to make that environment one that’s comfortable enough so that people can really feel they can break some of these shackles off.

But that’s just one of the issues that this sort of piece brings up. That’s why I really regard it as a very high expression of what I want to do with the computer music.

TP: I’d like to continue to address the question of location in terms of the development of your own aesthetic, as someone who came up in Chicago, attended Yale University where there was a very interesting scene of talented and venturesome young musicians who you were able to work with, and coming back to Chicago in the early Seventies when things were still full flower in the AACM.

GL: Well, the Yale business. You can get lucky, you know? You can be at a certain place at a certain time. When I look at something like the AACM, I realize that this is a group of people that one can count on — at least I’ve been able to count on. I see people who have based their music and have sort of based themselves on friends and colleagues who have turned out to denounce them in later years. I see a lot of examples of people denouncing each other going, right now, in this teapot tempest of Jazz.

One of the lessons I remember from Yale was, I remember denouncing someone in the paper. The person was a dead Phenomenologist. I thought it would be safe to denounce this person. The professor’s comment was that you shouldn’t go so far in criticizing your colleagues. And I had never thought of this person as a colleague. So it’s very important, that definitional stance.

So that was an important lesson that came out of Yale, but it also was an important lesson that came out of the AACM, where there are all these colleagues. And I got the feeling that these people would never desert me, and that they would support me, and I would support them, and that would be an ongoing thing, and that sticking together as a group, we could stick to our guns and do whatever we needed to do, and we wouldn’t have to be necessarily subject to, you know, the fashions that the commercial people put up or whatever they’re going to do.

I think that’s maybe the most important lesson among the many important lessons that came from the AACM. Just the other day in New Orleans, playing with Muhal and Fred Anderson and Ajaramu and Malachi Favors, and seeing these people who had been so influential on me and had shown me so many things, and there we were still playing together twenty years later, and there hadn’t been any of this dissension. I mean, there have been conversations, certainly, and there have been differences of opinion. And then having talked to someone for whom the people that he thought were his friends ended up denouncing him in public, I started to think, well… God, I just couldn’t imagine that happening. I just couldn’t imagine that I would denounce Muhal or something. It would seem absurd. It just wouldn’t happen. [LAUGHS]

I think there is an important awareness there which maybe I’m not finding so much of, or there is something that maybe people aren’t seeing right now.

In terms of Yale, that’s just luck. I mean, it seemed that at a certain place, that institution, an academic, Ivy League conservative institution, during my short time there, during this four or five year period, there were an awful lot of interesting people running around — musically. I’m not sure that’s so much the case. It’s not a continuous thing. Things go up and they go down. But at this time, you could meet Charles Mingus; he would come… Willie Ruff did it all. He started this… He and a geology professor, John Rogers, started this thing called the Duke Ellington Scholarship or Fellowship. So they brought Dizzy, they brought Tony Williams, they brought Mingus, they brought Willie The Lion Smith, they brought people from all these genres, and you got to play with them and talk with them and stuff. Then there were people going to the school. I think Robert Dick was a year ahead of me, Anthony Davis was in my year, Gerry Hemingway’s family is from around New Haven, Mark Helias was going there I think, Jane Bloom was going to school there, Leo Smith was living there, Bennie Maupin and Oliver Lake were living there — so there was that whole influence, too.

So just real lucky, man! That’s all I can say! I mean, there was all that going on at the same time. I was just extraordinarily lucky. You couldn’t create that. Just like you couldn’t, like, write that situation where at the end of the last piece the computer started suddenly playing this ascending blues line. I mean, that wasn’t something I set down and said, “Now you will play the Blues and it will have these characteristics.” It’s just the working out of the processes, based on need and availability and environment.

TP: I first encountered George Lewis I guess around 1974 in Chicago, I think it was that year, and you were playing with the Fred Anderson Sextet on the campus there, and I heard a virtuosic trombone… I didn’t know that much about the music. But I heard somebody playing explosive lines on the trombone like I’d never heard before, playing faster than just about anyone I’d ever heard — and I’ve been impressed ever since. It’s always a wonderful occasion for me to hear you in duo or trio, or just playing the trombone. So in this next set we’ll hear George in a number of duets, I’m not sure how many, beginning with the final one on Voyager on Avan, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. I take it that this conceptually was the plan of the record, was the eight duos and then the two of you for one of what I guess must be many interactions over the years.

GL: Well, we knew that whatever happened in the duo piece, it would be called “Homecoming.” We played several takes, and Roscoe seemed to have a very firm grasp of what he wanted to do, and it was sort of up to me to respond to that. So in a way, I become the computer, which is sort of…! So if you’re talking about alter-egos, there is something there, because I tend to try to blend with what people want, try to sort of seek out what they need and deal with it, and try to enhance it, and to make sound good — as I am told Thelonious Monk used to say that your job was to make the other musicians sound good.

Also noteworthy, in a way, is that we did have to present, I felt, a person-person interaction in order to close the circle, to balance things off, not so much for the purpose of comparison, but for purposes of elucidation, for bringing certain things to the fore that couldn’t be brought out if we just had computers playing. It could be brought out in general, but we couldn’t do them on this record. People could compare the computer things with other duo pieces they might have heard, or maybe other orchestra pieces they might have heard.

The real goal of this work, and I think I’m pretty close to doing this now, is to have a really…the virtual… I realized all the way what was going on was a kind of virtual orchestra. The Virtuality situation is becoming very possible and very powerful. I have a new piece now for virtual percussion where there are no instruments on the stage at all, and people just are waving their arms and doing mime, and they are making music that way.

TP: The computer senses the motion and then processes that information?
GL: Yeah, that’s pretty much what happens. So that’s sort of like people can talk to each other with their hands, and music can be a byproduct. I have a series of pieces like that. Often we don’t get to see these pieces in New York, I notice. But I get to do them in a lot of other places, so that’s okay. I just need an outlet. I’m not particular about where it is.

But the goal of this Voyager project is to have large virtual orchestra. Right now we’re hearing kind of a chamber orchestra with pretensions to being a large orchestra. But what I’m really interested in doing is a couple of hundred voices, because this will really sort of bring problems of large-scale form in an improvised, virtual context to the fore. So this is a problem which I don’t think… Well, I don’t know who’s dealing with it. I can’t think of anyone. It’s interesting to me. Maybe it’s not interesting to anyone else. But I find it fascinating to think that… And I could never… I keep saying this (and this probably too radical an assertion, but I’m going to say it anyway) that really (and I remember offending someone terribly) that people who are really offended about the aspect of virtual instruments, which is: While visual people and people who are doing all kinds of interactive things are interested in interactivity, musicians are still clinging to this idea of the Real, which is like way back in the last century, or the Sixteenth Century or something — very Platonic.

I am very interested in the Platonic even. But I am very interested in having a virtual orchestra that is mutable and that responds to the playing of individuals, and that talks within itself, a lot more than I am interested in writing a piece for some Philharmonic band or something. That would seem like a much less intellectually challenging situation at this point than working on self-organizing large-scale structures. It would just be much more fascinating.

The other aspect is that I don’t think that the current level of social development of the Western orchestra can handle self-organization. It’s just not made for it. It’s really made for top-down control. If I wanted to think about a model of orchestral music-making that’s not based on that, it seems that the Gamelan orchestra, the Javanese gamelan would be the most interesting example, and that would be one that I sort of take as more of a model of how to proceed. Not in terms of making Gamelan-type sounds, but in terms of how information gets passed within the orchestra and between the players. It’s a heterarchical rather than hierarchical situation. So that’s how improvising works. And certainly, an improvising orchestra would have to be a heterarchically based group.

So that’s the ultimate goal of this work. And at some point we’ll start to hear these rather large, like, 200-instrument pieces — and it won’t be possible to play them in Roulette. You can’t cram 200 instruments in two little speakers somewhere. You need an orchestral-type space, or the Great Outdoors, or somewhere large enough. Because there are questions of scale involved. Already, scale is an issue with Voyager, because Voyager is really too large to be played in small spaces now, whereas pieces that I wrote years ago with one or two or three voices were more like chamber pieces. This is getting a little too big. It’s small in the amount of equipment, but it’s big in scale.

So you’re always faced with this issue. And there are so many issues that underlie this that don’t relate directly to, you know, the Man against the Machine business — you know, the cliche business. Once you get past that, you can really think about some interesting problems.

[MUSIC: Lewis/Mitchell, “Voyager”;

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Filed under AACM, Chicago, DownBeat, George Lewis, Jazz.com, Muhal Richard Abrams, Trombone, Wadada Leo Smith, WKCR

For Eddie Harris’ 80th Birth Anniversary, a 1994 WKCR Interview

In 1994, I had an opportunity to host the sui generis saxophonist Eddie Harris (October 20, 1934-November 5, 1996), who was performing in town, on my afternoon program on WKCR. Among other things, he spoke at length about his early years in Chicago. The transcript, posted below, has been available on the internet for more than a decade on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

Eddie Harris
June 29, 1994, WKCR-FM New York

[Music: “Freedom Jazz Dance” (1964)]

Q: “Freedom Jazz Dance”  became famous after Miles Davis reworked it for his own uses and recorded it. How did Miles get hold of the tune?

EH: Ron Carter came over to him. He came by and offered Ron more money while I was working at the Five Spot for a month. And I said, “Ron, you should take it. It’s more money.” And he took the tune over there, because we were playing it at the Five-Spot, and the rest is history. Miles recorded it, and all of a sudden I was hip. [Chuckles]

Q: So it was a working band that recorded your first Atlantic dates.

EH: Yes.

Q: You go and Cedar Walton go back to an Army band from the 1950s.

EH: Yes. Cedar and I were outside of Stuttgart, at Vahingen(?), and we had a Jazz band out of the orchestra that had formed. It was quite a jazz band. Leo Wright was head of the jazz band, people like Lanny Morgan, Don Menza was in the band . . . It was a very good band.

Q: Was this a band that was set up for the recording, or had you been working?

EH: No. These days it’s very seldom that you get quintets, quartets, sextets, octets as working bands. You generally get duos or trios as working bands. That’s where the business has gone. So I came in and recorded with this trio, and they had been working together. That made it easier for me.

Q: Were your originals composed for the date?

EH: I wrote two tunes for the date. Other than that, there’s a situation going on in Japan where they have some kind of deals with standard tunes in which they want you to play standard tunes. So I don’t mind. As long as they raise the ante financially, I’ll play all the standards they want.

[Music: There Was A Time: Echoes of Harlem, “Lover Come Back To Me”]

Q: I’d like to talk to you about your background in Chicago, Illinois, where you spent a good chunk of your life and developed as a musician. Your beginnings in the music are what? On piano? Saxophone?

EH: I started on piano first. Then I was singing.

Q: Where? In the church? Home?

EH: Yeah, in the church. The church. I mean, they used to stand me up on a table, because I could sing right in tune, in time, and I was only like five years old. But when I was four, my cousin was teaching me piano. She played for the church.

Q: What church was it?

EH: Shiloh Baptist Church. Later on, I was singing at Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

Q: Which I think was the largest church on the South Side . . .

EH: Well, they were very large churches. And my mother was a big wig there at that church, until she died; and she lived until 1991, and she was 91 when she passed on.

Q: Were your parents born in Chicago or did they come there?

EH: My mother was from down south in New Orleans, and my father was from Cuba.

Q: And when did they come to Chicago?

EH: I don’t know. They met in Chicago. I imagine they came in the teens, or maybe . . . I think they came in like 1913. He worked in the stockyards, and my mother worked in the laundry. And they weren’t particular about me playing music. Of course, my father didn’t really care. He died when I was a young guy.

Q: So your mother raised you.

EH: Yeah, my mother. I really took care of my mother and three aunts.

Q: How did the music develop for you? You obviously had an immediate facility for it.

EH: Well, really, Ted, I wanted to play sports. I was quite a sports advocate.

Q: All sports?

EH: All sports. And I could really play — football, basketball, baseball. To be honestly frank with you, because I was taught at such a young age, as I got older I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the people that played music. Because a lot of musicians were, like, too timid: “Oh, I hurt my hands, I can’t do this . . . ” I ran with the gangs, and used to even box at Nichols’ Gym, and I didn’t think about my hands or my embouchure or mouth. Musicians, I couldn’t really take ’em. I didn’t dig it.

Q: When did you start finding people you could relate to on a musical level?

EH: Well, after I got up in the teens. When you get in the teens, you start meeting guys, like the late Charles Stepney . . . There became a group of us. Muhal Richard Abrams, Raphael Garrett, James Slaughter, Walter Perkins, Bill Lee. There was a small group of us who were on the same wavelength in trying things. And that was interesting to me, to try things, not just sit down and play an Ellis Larkins run or a Duke Ellington run — which could easily be done, because we’d deal with music all day. But these guys, we all wanted to try some different things. You see, most guys didn’t want to try different things. They just wanted to sound like whoever was happening at the time. Now, as young guys, we were listening to the guys that were coming off the JATP, the Jazz At the Philharmonic, which was Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and that group of guys, who was a little older than we were, that was playing some strange type music!

Q: So when did music become a thing that you were doing all day? Because you can’t be playing sports all day and be playing music all day?

EH: Why not?

Q: Well, maybe you can.

EH: [Laughs] When I say playing sports all day . . . What do you do as a young guy? In those days you had clubs on every corner. I mean, you could play somewhere in the evenings. So then you could rehearse, and when you’re not playing with guys, you can play ball. See, it’s not like it is today, where most young guys are trying to lobby for a recording. Well, all we wanted to do was play! Heh-heh. That was a vast difference.

Q: When you were coming up in Chicago, there was also a community of older musicians on a world-class level. Who were some of the people who really impressed you and that you modeled yourself after?

EH: Well, I was quite a pool shooter. I would go into different cities on a bus, go in and collect up some money until they’d get hip to me. And I found, from going over to Detroit, down to St. Louis, over to Cleveland, that Chicago (you don’t realize it when you’re coming up in an environment) had more individualism than anywhere else. Anywhere else. See, in other cities you had great musicians, but the group of guys, they generally played in one vernacular. Whatever that city held, it was like that group of guys produced that type of music.

In Chicago, you could go from one club, and you could hear a Gene Ammons, you had Budd Johnson, and you had Tom Archia, Dick Davis — just dealing with saxophone. Then you had all sorts of piano players that were really. . .really different. You’d go to one club, and the guy sounds like he totally comes from somewhere else. He didn’t sound like a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.

You can imagine a guy coming up from Birmingham, like Sun Ra, playing there. People said, “Hey, they got Monk in New York.” We said, “Yeah, but wait until you come to Chicago and hear Sun Ra!” You know what I mean? Chicago had everybody coming . . . They said, “There’s a guy who can really play drums, man, Max Roach, man — he’s bad!” “Yeah. Wait til you hear Ike Day.” “This guy can play all kind of bass man, this guy is terrific playing bass, Raymond Brown.” And I said, “Wait til you hear Wilbur Ware.” See, we had guys like that in Chicago. Like you’re finally hearing Von Freeman, which was outside years ago. And people said, “John Coltrane.” We said, “Well, you should hear Von Freeman.” That’s the way I thought coming up.

Q: What do you think it is about Chicago that produced that type of individualism? Is it just an accident that all these people were there, or is it something about the culture of the city?

EH: I think it’s the latter. Because people came up primarily from the middle south; that’s Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. The train came, and Chicago was the train center, so they’d get off there. You had the stockyards and people could get work, primarily the African-American people of that time.

And the people in general were just regular people. In other words, that’s why it was considered the blues capital. They were regular people there. In other words, when you were playing on the stand, guys would just come up and tell you: “Hey, man, I really liked that. I didn’t know what that was, but it’s all right.” If you’re playing something else, a guy says, “Hey, I don’t like that, man. Why don’t you stop playing that.”

See, they were just straight out. They weren’t like the West Coast or the East Coast. On the East Coast they said, “Let me analyze what this guy is doing.” The guy maybe had just been playing two years, but they’re trying to analyze something — the guy’s trying to put something over on them. The West Coast is just write it out, have it all organized. In the Midwest they said, “Hey, man, I spent my money. Come on, play something for me. That’s nice, you experimented now . . . ” It’s like I’d play with no neck on the horn. “Okay, enough of that. Let me feel something.” And will go upside your head if you didn’t!

So therefore, guys that come out of this particular area were more rounded out musicians. Because you would experiment, then you would stop and learn a song in its entirety, knowing the correct melody or the lyrics. Because other than that, you might wind up getting beat up or have to fight some people.

Q: In Chicago at that time almost every major cross-street had several different clubs, and some, like 63rd Street, were almost wall-to-wall with clubs.

EH: Well, this was true in other cities. It was true in Philly, it was true in Detroit. But the only thing I can be repetitive on, Ted, is to say they had different sounding groups in different venues. That was the shocking part about it. And when you come up in that environment, you don’t realize it until you go elsewhere. You’d walk out of one club, and you just heard the blues, jumpin’ up and down, then go down the street, there’s a swinging jazz group, then go down the street to the next club and say, “What is that?” It’s just like you went to another space or another time. Which I didn’t see in other cities.

Q: You also experienced the very intense teaching methods of Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. Can you say a few words about him, and the DuSable situation?

EH: Well, it was a time in which it was segregated times, and therefore African-Americans primarily only were able to go to, like, five schools. And you could imagine that many people in one area . . . Before they had (what is it called?) the high rises or these lower-income homes, they had kitchenettes. That’s a big apartment with one family in the front, one family in the middle apartment, and another family in the rear apartment. So you were like crammed.

Dyett was an instructor at DuSable High School. He had been a captain in the service. And he had to be rough. Because the guys who came to that school were extremely rough. In other words, say you hit that part wrong. Some guys would just tell you, “So what? Go on and play the music.” And he didn’t tolerate that. He would either go upside your head, have you bring your parents up to school. I remember one time I fell asleep. He kicked the chair out from under me, and I got up off the floor with my clarinet all sprawled everywhere! It was really strange.

John Gilmore was in class with me, Pat Patrick — the whole Sun Ra band, as a matter of fact. He had moved into the neighborhood when he came from Birmingham, and he took us out of Dyett’s band, because we could just read tremendously. Because Dyett taught us like that.

Q: Dyett also had bands that would allow his students to work out in the community, too, didn’t he?

EH: Well, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton — I got a chance to hear all these guys. They’d come by because they just couldn’t believe the Booster Band was that hip. That was the jazz band. And when you miss a note, you’re out the band. He’d pop his fingers: “You’re out the band. Bring your mother up to school.” And a guy in the back would take out his instrument, he’d come and sit down, and he was just as good if not better. I mean, it was that kind of competition you came up under, which really helped you. And he taught you other things about self-discipline, like do not have on polkadot socks when you have on a black suit. Heh-heh. Little things like that. Being on time, knowing the music, looking at the music to first see if it’s the correct tune you’re playing, then see what key signature it is. Understand where your repeats are. Little things that you should know in music.

[Music: E. Harris: “K.C. Blues,” “Salute to Bird,” “Hey Wado!”]

Q: The first thing Eddie Harris said to me on the phone when we were arranging this was that you had been a professional musician in Chicago for 14 years, I think you said, before “Exodus” was recorded and you were “discovered.” One of these liner notes says that your first actual gig was subbing piano with the Gene Ammons band.

EH: Yeah, that was my first what you’d call paying job!

Q: Do you remember what the club was?

EH: Well, it wasn’t a club. I played at the Pershing Ballroom. The next time I played it was another place, Baker’s Casino. I didn’t play clubs more or less with him. They had a lot of ballrooms around there, the Trianon, the Aragon on the North Side, and like that. I subbed for a guy named James Craig, who later became a policeman.

Q: He’s on the very early Gene Ammons recordings, if I recollect properly.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The Pershing Ballroom was part of a hotel on 64th and Cottage that was a real center of musical life on the South Side.

EH: I played there a long time opposite Ahmad Jamal. I played there Monday and Tuesday nights, and opposite him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Q: As a pianist or saxophonist?

EH: Well, I really wanted to play the saxophone, but I had Charles Stepney working with me, and Walter Perkins and Bill Lee. Then Bill Lee left to go downtown, and Walter Perkins hired a guy from Evanston to play with us — you know him as Bob Cranshaw. So when we worked there, I played piano and Stepney played the vibes, then he doubled to go to piano and I would go to saxophone.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a few of the people that you mentioned, and some that you didn’t. You talked about Sun Ra being active in Chicago He got there in the late 1940s, and did dual duty as an arranger for the Club De Lisa, which included the Fletcher Henderson band, and having his own band of young musicians out of DuSable High School, who as you mentioned, were strong readers, and doing his own music.

EH: Right.

Q: What did his music sound like in 1950 or ’51 . . .

EH: Heh-heh . . .

Q: What was your reaction to playing those type of charts?

EH: I didn’t have any adverse reaction to it, due to the fact that I played in the orchestras; I played classical music. The big thing was looking at the way he wrote them. It was like orchestra music. You had scales, arpeggios, flamadas and like that. He would write a note and make a zig-zag line to another note, and within that time frame you played what you wanted to play. Which is modern writing today, but I wasn’t too hip to that, you know. I would have liked to stay along with him and played a lot longer, but I couldn’t go along with his teachings that he had after rehearsals and after playing, when he said, “I’ve been here before.” Because he was talking about “space is the place” and going on with that. I liked his music. I liked to experiment. But I couldn’t go along with the teaching. So not being with him, that’s when I more or less started playing with another group of guys, who I named earlier, where we did our thing.

Q: You mentioned drummer Ike Day, who was maybe recorded once, and the sound of the recording isn’t so great. A few words about his sound. Because he made an impression on everybody who heard him.

EH: Well, what can you say about an Ike Day? Who can I say that’s playing like he did? He was a combination like Max with his hands, or Philly Joe with his type of swinging. He was just a fantastic drummer. It was just unbelievable what this guy could do with just two sticks, playing on tables, on chairs.

Q: Someone told me they heard him do a solo with his toes.

EH: Well, I never witnessed that. [Laughs] But you can imagine a group of guys playing together like Dorel Anderson and Wilbur Ware, and then you’d have a guy like Ike Day sit in and play the drums. Dorel played drums . . . I mean, it was just extremely talented guys in that immediate area of Chicago, which was primarily the South Side. And I couldn’t understand why they weren’t recorded more, because it was right there. I mean, even though they had little mishaps of drugs and like that, but so did a lot of other people that were recorded!

Q: A lot of people also came through Chicago from other places. For example, Sonny Rollins a couple of times set up shop in Chicago, so to speak.

EH: Sonny Rollins worked there at a day job. In fact, they hired him, “they” meaning Max Roach-Clifford Brown. Clifford had brought me to the band to play at the Beehive, and he felt I was quite a player, that I could read the parts, I could play . . . But Max felt my tone was kind of funny.

Q: In some interviews you’ve talked about your tone. And I think in the interview for the liner notes of Artists Choice [Rhino] you said that you ran into Don Ellis in the Army, and he said that your tone was too light or something. Talk a bit about how you formulated a saxophone style.

EH: Well, the whole point of guys who were more or less envious and guys who were trying to bag on me, trying to bring down my arrogance and egotisticalness . . . Because you have to have this in order to play. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it, but you have to believe in yourself. And they’d say, “Oh man . . . ” This is prejudice times, now; this is the late ’40s or the early ’50s . . . the late ’40s primarily . . . “Oh, man, you sound like Stan Getz,” and that’s supposed to have been a putdown. I even had caucasian guys telling me that, because I played in caucasian bands. And they didn’t realize that really Getz was playing like Lester Young before he lost his teeth. Because if you listen to his old sound, “Taxi War Dance,” Prez and Hershel Evans, he played like that, with a lighter sound. As a matter of fact, any saxophone player that’s trying to play fast or trying to play skips or high notes, he or she becomes a lighter player, because you cannot play heavy and play rapido. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, they put me down. “Oh, man, you sound like Getz.” So I had to live with that. Then finally, I started challenging the guys back because I just got fed up with it. “Oh man, but you know, you did sound like . . . ” See, they wasn’t listening to what I’m playing. People are just hung up in sounds. That’s even today, a person’s sound. They say, “Oh yeah, he sounds like Trane.” But what is he playing? Yeah, but as long as I get that sound, I’m automatically in. But not in as far as I’m concerned. But so many people just go by the sound.

See, I was trying to play higher notes, I was trying to play skips like that. But I was using that timbre of sound, which was really the Lester Young school as opposed to the Chu Berry or the Coleman Hawkins way, and to use that and make articulate playing, utilization of tonguing at least every other note, which I get a brass effect. And quiet as it’s kept, only one guy ever told me, he said, “I see, you’re trying to play like a trumpet on saxophone.” That was the late Pepper Adams, who was playing on a big band. He said, “Man, you’re the first cat that really peeped that I was trying to do that. Now, you see, I can play five C’s now, and you see I can hit high notes, and I do a lot of phrasing — I hit things like Miles and Clifford and them on the saxophone.

Q: And subsequently, of course, you used different mouthpieces, trumpet mouthpieces on the saxophone, or saxophone mouthpieces on the trumpet . . .

EH: Well, I was doing that to get different sounds. I was always trying different sounds. The only reason why I more or less put that on the back- burner was electric came out; then I started dealing with electric.

Q: Your relationship with Muhal Richard Abrams goes back to high school. In 1960 or 1961, you and Muhal organized a workshop band that got together briefly, then subsequently you parted ways. This band was the core of what became the AACM. What events, as you recollect it, inspired its formation?

EH: It was a thing that trying to play around Chicago, you figured there are guys that never played first chair, there are guys that never played on a big band, and there are other guys that never had an opportunity to write for a large number of people, and there are people that wanted to sing, and sing in front of a band — “so let’s form a workshop.” There were three of us. There was the late Johnny Hines, a trumpeter from the West Side of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams and myself. And we just got this together at the C&C, which was a lounge, a large lounge. And the musicians . . . It was surprising that so many musicians came! I mean, it was just amazing. I think we must have had about 100 musicians.

But then you have this class set of the musicians who were more or less our age or older, who were astute musicians, then you had the younger musicians — and the astute musicians were like, “Oh, I don’t want to play with these guys, they’re just learning.” So a guy like myself, I’ll take a few charts and pass it out to the guys, and put guys in precarious positions. Like a guy I know that can play a good first, I’ll give him a third part. Now he’s got to play lower. [Laughs] Then you stomp off kind of rapid, and the guys would be missing notes, and then make the younger kids say, “Damn, they can miss notes, too!” And the guys would be all uptight who can really play. Then that deflates their ego some. Then we can get on with the workshop.

Lo and behold, it was going pretty good. But I had to travel, because I had this hit record, “Exodus.” But I don’t know what happened; when I came back there were divisions. Johnny Hines tried to take the musicians more our age; he wanted to go into the Regal Theatre so he could have a band to really accompany all the stars that come in there. Muhal had taken the younger musicians and let them learn in reading on scales and playing with each other. So that’s how that came about. And Muhal eventually got together with the Association . . .

Q: They chartered in 1965 and set up that whole . . . .

EH: Yes, they set it up. But that’s how that came about.

Q: Let’s hear an extended piece, I guess collectively worked out by the band from maybe around 1970 or ’71. This comes from Excursions, a double LP issued on Atlantic in 1973. The track is “Turbulence,” featuring Eddie Harris on electric saxophone and reed trumpet; Ronald Muldrow on guitorgan . . . ?

EH: That’s right, guitorgan. That was a guitar with pickups under the fret- board to make it sound like an organ.

Q: Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Rufus Reid, who was living in Chicago in that period, around the cusp of 1970, on bass, and Billy James on drums.

EH: That was a working band.

Q: And you played all over, in many different situations.

EH: All over these United States.

[Music: “Turbulence”; E. Harris/E. Marsalis, “Deacceleration”]

Q: How did this duo album you made with Ellis Marsalis come about?

EH: Ellis and I have played together numerous times down in New Orleans where he lives, so I come down there and I play with him. On other occasions I’ve come down and played with different groups. And this guy I played with several times named Dave Torkanowsky, he had studied with Ellis, and he really enjoyed playing with me. He had an opportunity to produce a record, and he said he thought it would be great if Ellis and I would do a duo. He called me up and had me fly down to Dallas, and we did it on the spur of the moment — no rehearsals, nothing.

Q: Let’s talk about the scene in Chicago as it developed in the 1960s.

EH: There were a lot of guys playing good music around there in the ’60s. There was Gene Shaw who played trumpet, who passed later on. Then of course, there was the guy who had a group called the Pharaohs, which you’d know later on as the Phoenix Horns.

Q: I’m under the impression, though, that the club scene kind of declined and there were a lot fewer opportunities to work around Chicago then — although maybe you didn’t directly experience that.

EH: Well, the club scene was beginning to decline because television was on the rise, and as more television, people were staying at home looking at more of the wrestling matches and roller derby.

Q: You mentioned in an interview that you spent a good amount of time in New York and were working a lot, but you chose to come back to Chicago.

EH: I came here, and immediately, coming up out of the subway . . . After I checked into the hotel, I went and rode on the subway up to Harlem, and I walked up, and I’m looking at the tall buildings of Harlem, because I thought maybe they might be a little smaller in Harlem, because it was residential — that’s what I thought my first time here, in the ’50s. And what happened? I ran into the trumpet man. “Dag,” he says, “you’re lost. Oh man! What are you doing here?! Hey, man, come and play with my band.” I said, “Really? “Yeah,” he said. “If you’re in town here, you can come and play with me.” That was . . . I’m getting bad on names, man. Because see, you’re going back in time on me. He wrote this tune, [Sings the first few bars of “Blue Bossa”].

Q: Oh, that’s K.D. you’re talking about.

EH: Yeah, Kenny Dorham. And I went and played with him, and I walked around town here, and all the guys would hire me, because I played piano, I could play trombone, read, you know. And I can play clarinet, the oboe, bassoon. My flute playing is sad. It’s still sad, because I don’t think that is a double. Of course, I have several flutes at home, and I can make it through an amateur part, but I don’t care to play it. But I worked nine nights a week. I worked afternoons playing piano for some people tap-dancing, and I could play in pit bands. But I never had any money! I was living with Cedar Walton and Sam Fletcher, the vocalist, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m going back to Chicago.” They said, “Man, you’re crazy. Guys don’t come here and work like you.”

I just went back to Chicago. And what happened? That’s how I made “Exodus”. I was scheduled to go back to Europe and play, because Quincy Jones was going to hire me to take a guy’s place named Oliver Nelson, and he had me to play with him when I was over in Europe with his band. He said, “Man, I’m happy to run into you. You can go back to Europe with me.” I said, “Okay.”

I stopped by to see my mother, and she asked me what was I doing, and she said, “I’m going back over to Europe with a guy named Quincy Jones.” She started crying. She just made a big issue out of this. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She said, “I understood you was going to make a record.” I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that when I come back.” She said, “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed to tell people that you play music. Because everybody’s made a record but you.” I said, “I don’t care nothin’ about that. I’m working. I’m playing.” She said, “Well, you ought to make this one record, because VeeJay asked you to make a record.”

But they’d asked me to record on piano, because they wanted me to sound like the guy down the street at Cadet Records which I used to show chords to.

Q: Not Ahmad Jamal!

EH: No, Ramsey Lewis. [Laughs] Yeah, Ahmad was down there. Of course, he’s an outstanding piano player. But this guy had the Gentlemen of Jazz, this Ramsey Lewis, and that was selling. So they wanted me to do that down the street at Vee-Jay. And I wasn’t particular about that, so I didn’t care nothing about making a record. But my mother said, “Oh, please make this one record, then you can go to Europe, Asia, anywhere.” I said, “But won’t nobody want me then if I stay here and make the record.”

So I went down to Chess, and I talked with them, and they said, “Well, we don’t want you to play the saxophone; you’re too weird.” And I told him where to go. Well, there was a guy named Sid McCoy, and a guy named Abner, who ran the company . . . It was actually Vivian and Jimmy’s company, V-J, and Abner was the president, and Sid McCoy was the a&r, artists and repertoire guy. Abner, who had gone down there to college with me, said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you play several numbers on saxophone.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair enough.” I told Quincy that. He said, “One record?! Oh, man.” And to this day, when he thinks about it, he says, “One record” — because that one record turned out to be “Exodus.” Isn’t that amazing? A million-seller.

[Music: “Love For Sale” (1965); “Harlem Nocturne” (1990); “God Bless The Child” (1959)]

Q: Eddie Harris said they used that version of “God Bless The Child” for a TV story of Lady Day’s life.

EH: Yes, yes. It was great. Billie Holiday was very instrumental in trying to get me to understand that I could not only swing, that I played melodically. I was playing at the Pershing Lounge opposite Ahmad Jamal, and played the off-nights. She had a club underneath, which at first she called Birdland, then the people in New York here wouldn’t allow her to call it Birdland, so she changed it to Budland.

She came down one time, when we were rehearsing during the afternoon . . . She came down to all these rehearsals, any time she could, and she directed the rehearsals. “Hey, don’t do that?” “Why don’t you leave me alone?” And she said, “You can really phrase. Your timing . . . ” — and she used a lot of four-letter words that I won’t use over the radio!

But the point is that she encouraged me . . . Because I’m basically a quiet guy, standing back, and all the guys, it seemed like they were hipper than me playing the horn because of the fact they played the Charlie Parker licks, the Sonny Rollins licks . . . well, whoever, you can play the Rabbit [Johnny Hodges] licks . . . And here I could read all these things and play, but when I go to play, I played more phrasing melodically. Of course, you had Gene Ammons around there who played melodically, but he wasn’t tackling the type of tunes we were tackling. We were trying to play like these other guys, but then trying to solo differently than the other guys. In other words, you play a Charlie Parker line, but if you take off on your solo you didn’t try to be Bud, or the bass player didn’t try to be Mingus, and the drummer wasn’t trying to be Max.

So she was telling me I should continue phrasing the way I was. I’ll tell you something, Ted. I’m saying this primarily for younger musicians out there, or people who might have kids that play. Sometimes you can do something that comes very easy to you, and you don’t think very much of it due to the fact that it comes easy to you. As a kid I could always play, and the house would swing, pat their feet. I mean, I didn’t need a rhythm section. I really didn’t. I could just hit a groove, and people would automatically…

But most of my colleagues couldn’t. So I was trying to play like them, playing off-meter, double-time, like that. And she was trying to explain to me, “Just play what you play, and people will just go berserk.” But I wasn’t looking at that, because you have your peers. The majority of the guys double up, run over the instrument, look like they can play faster than you. But they really couldn’t when we stomped off something fast. I could play fast, but I play in meter.

Q: When you play something like that, it almost has the quality of singing, and you said you were singing at a very, very young age.

EH: Oh, yes. But you don’t realize what you have, because you’re just swamped up by others. Because see, most musicians do not and cannot play in meter. And I didn’t realize this until later years. And I mean “in meter,” just have a guy play by himself, and he’s not playing one note, [sings one note sequence], but just trying to play — and you’ll see how his time fluctuates. In other words, a lot of people swing when they’re with swinging people, but are they swinging themselves on the instrument? In other words, you hear a guy phrasing, you can imagine if you were at the control room where you can douse the board and take the rhythm section out and hear this guy play. I mean, it’s nice. He’s making the changes, he’s making the modulations. But why did you stop patting your foot? Because he has no more support from the rhythm. Because he’s not carrying the rhythm himself — or herself nowadays.

This next piece is currently the way I’m playing, trio piano in Europe. I’ve just come back from 36 one-nighters, and playing piano with the bassist, who is Ray Peterson, and the drummer, Norman Fearington.

Q: This is the current working band?

EH: It’s the working band, yes. Ray Peterson is playing with Les and me down there. Of course, Norman had to go to Europe, so we have Ben Riley in place of Norman.

[Music: “Ambidextrous,” “Airegin” (solo sax)]

Q: We’ve heard you establish yourself as a player very much out of the esthetic of the period you came from, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and that end of it, as a rabid experimentalist, dealing with every type of imaginable sound, and always within a very functional situation. It’s amazing that you’re able to play with the reed trumpet or the clarinet with no neck in front of some very tough audiences and make it come off. And we’ve heard the high standard of virtuosic saxophone playing, some great piano playing, and some singing. We haven’t heard “Why Are You So Overweight,” but I guess we could do that, too.

EH: If you ever get a chance one of these days, try listening to “Oleo” on Excursions, and you will hear me play the saxophone with the trombone mouthpiece, which makes it sound like a valve trombone.

Q: I’ll do that. But just a word about your piano playing, which we’ve touched on. We’ve heard two examples now, one where you play “Our Love Is Here To Stay” in a very expansive, Tatumesque, Nat Cole type of style.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: On the last you were playing a Chicago left-hand boogie-woogie . . . Piano was your first instrument, I take it.

EH: Yes.

Q: A few words about your relationship with the piano.

EH: Well, I was taught by my cousin when I was a very young age, at four, and then I came up playing in the church, and I played and studied piano at Roosevelt College, where I had an awful time.

Q: Why was that?

EH: Because they wanted me to go to Piano 104, not beginning piano. I was taught in a church, and I was slow reading, and I had incorrect fingering — and I wanted to just learn the piano when I was going to college there. They said, “No, you’re not going to take this credit, because you play too well.” And they put me in a class with people running over piano, reading things — [sings fast, dense passage]. They was gone! And I stayed in there for quite a while, because I could listen to people play and I could sit down and play it. That doesn’t mean I could read it that fast, but I was telling them I wanted to learn it. I had an awful time trying to convince people that I was really trying to learn piano in the correct way. But no, they said, “You play too well.” So consequently, I didn’t go take private lessons . . . I didn’t care about the piano anyway. I just was doing that while I was in college. And lo and behold, I’ve made more money playing piano, working, than I have saxophone. It’s amazing.

Q: A lot of your early gigs were piano gigs.

EH: Yeah. Even recently, out in California, I started a club, and I played solo piano, then it wound up a duo and a trio — and now it’s one of the top jazz places.

Q: What club is that?

EH: That’s Bel Age. It’s a hotel, the Brasserie. One time I was here in New York, and I stopped on 23rd Street in a restaurant to get something to eat, and they had a piano there. I said, “Hey, can I play some while I’m waiting for the food?” The guy said, “Yeah, if you can play, man. Don’t be messing with the piano if you can’t play.” I said, “I can play.” I sat down there and played. And this guy offered me a gig! He says, “Oh, man, I like your feeling, the way you played, you know tunes . . . ” I said, “I wish this was where I lived. I live in Los Angeles.” He said, “Really? Well, come on up here and live!”

It’s strange. People like my piano playing. I wish they would like my saxophone playing like that. I don’t know what it is. The piano playing, maybe it’s because I can groove, I get across to the average John and Jane Doe. The saxophone, I don’t know what it is. I’ve never had that happen.

Q: The saxophone seems to me almost a laboratory for you, like you’re always looking for some new effect or new way to get something over so as maybe not to get bored… 

EH: Maybe that’s it. Because at the piano, I just don’t care. I just play, I make a run, when I run out of fingers I cross my hand over and I hit it with the back of my hand!


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Filed under Chicago, Eddie Harris, Interview, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

For The 91st Birth Anniversary of Von Freeman, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR

For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.

How did you get into music?

Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.

How old were you?

Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.

Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.

Oh, there’s quite a few.

The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?

No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.

You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.

Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .

Griff was after you, though.

Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

 . . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.

Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.

Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?

Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.

Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.

Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.

He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?

Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?

Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Was your dad a musician?

No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!

Amazing you even touched it.

Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”

Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?

Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.

Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.

Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.

Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.

Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.

Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.

Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.

But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.

[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]

When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?

Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.

What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.

Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.

Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.

Oh, yes. I still do.

You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?

Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.

So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.

You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.

That was your first professional job?

Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .

Who was in the band?

Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.

After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.

Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .

You were in a band with them?

Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.

Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?

Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.

From Chicago.

Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.

And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?

Right.

You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?

Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.

The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.

Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.

What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?

Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.

Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .

Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.

Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?

You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.

We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.

[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]

I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.

Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.

Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.

But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.

And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.

Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.

So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.

Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?

Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.

Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.

Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.

Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.

Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.

[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin'” (1974)]

During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.

Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.

See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .

In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.

Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .

That serious Prez bag.

Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.

Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.

I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.

And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.

So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.

Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.

So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”

Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.

Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.

We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.

Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”

So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.

So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.

As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.

Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.

[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]

Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.

Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.

In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.

But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.

See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!

But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.

But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!

How so?

Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.

John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.

What did you think of the out-there music then?

Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!

But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.

Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.

And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.

So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.

In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.

Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.

Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.

But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?

[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.

But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.

[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]

Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.

Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.

You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.

You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.

That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.

You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.

That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?

Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.

I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.

And playing the music of the times.

Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.

[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]

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Filed under Chicago, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

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

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
[–30–]

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For The 66th Birthday of Drum Master Thurman Barker, a WKCR Interview from 1985

When I started my 23-year run on WKCR in the fall of 1985, I made it my business to try to document the personal histories of many of the AACM musicians I had admired during the ’70s, when I lived in Chicago, and continued to follow after returning to New York City in 1979. One of them was drum-percussion master Thurman Barker, who turns 66 today. It’s been on the internet for 14 years on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

* * *

Thurman Barker
November 18, 1985 – WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1985, 1999 Ted Panken

Q: Thurman is a product of Chicago, Illinois, and a founding member from a very young age of the AACM. It’s there really that the sources of his music are to be found. So I’d like to now start to talk about your early years in the music in Chicago, when you were coming up, even before you became a member of the AACM — how you picked up on the drums and began in music.

TB: Well, I first used to take tap dancing. That was my first exposure to a form of art, you know, was tap dancing. I really got into it. Of course, I’m in grade school now, and I’m taking these tap dancing lessons about three days a week. But during my eighth year in grade school, we used to have these concerts on Fridays. They called them assemblies, you know, the drama department would put on a show or something. This particular afternoon, it was a drummer, and he came up with a full drum set, and it was just him by himself. His name was Roy Robinson, and he left a very big impression on me at that point.

So when I started high school, I started taking private lessons. I studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, under James Dutton, who was head of the percussion department there. I feel I got a very good training, because for the first two years I really didn’t see a drum set. I worked out of these workbooks for harmony and learning the basic notation of music and things like this, and just working on rudiments on the snare drum. So I really didn’t see a drum set until later on.

Q: Were you also working with musicians your age, doing gigs?

TB: Well, sure. But at this time you’ve got to remember, the first couple of years I wasn’t really playing any gigs. But I was very active on the session scene in Chicago. Monday nights were the big nights for sessions. Club De Lisa, which was a very famous night-spot in Chicago, the Coral Club on the South Side, the C.C. Lounge at 66th and Cottage Grove — a lot of these places had sessions every Monday. In any other city, probably it would work the same. You would go down, you’d meet people, you’d get up and you’d play. So I was very active, and I made sure that I got there. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of working; I just wanted to play. Fortunately, the activity was there for it to happen. I got to New York in the fall of 1979. I don’t know if that kind of activity is still going on in Chicago. But at that time it was like a training ground for me.

Q: Let’s narrow down the years we’re speaking of right now.

TB: Oh, it was ’62, ’63, in that period. You had a lot of jazz clubs that were still very big at that time, which the most famous one, where Miles Davis recorded, was the Plugged Nickel . . .

Q: Which was on the North Side.

TB: Which was on the North Side. So I got very active on the session scene. Later on I started jobbing around with people. People would meet you at a session, and they would give you a Saturday night, a party to play or a wedding. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I started working with this saxophone player by the name of John Epps. He was a big local guy in Chicago that did a lot of parties. And that was my first steady employment, I would say, from music, was with this saxophone player. We used to work at a North Side Club in Chicago; I can’t think of the name. I was still young now. I was still in high school, you see, really my sophomore year.

Q: Who were some of the musicians in Chicago who you admired at that time?

TB: Well, Eddie Harris was a big idol of mine. Because my drum teacher used to work with Eddie Harris. His name was Harold Jones, and he was the drummer with Eddie Harris at the time. And Don Patterson, the organist, was around a lot. Of course, Von Freeman was very active. But I didn’t know Von; I knew his brother, George Freeman, who was a guitarist. So during those years I was pretty much working few jobs with George, and I didn’t get to meet Von until later on.

Anyway, so I had my first employment with John Epps, and we had this four- night gig on the North Side. I made $7 a night. And that was a big deal for me. In high school . . .

Q: This was pre-OPEC.

TB: So I had this gig, and my parents, of course, were into it, because they used to have to take me there, and go back home, and three or four hours later come back and pick me up . . . So it was a reassurance, of course, for my parents that I was getting active. Of course, for them they weren’t really concerned about the money I was making, but just the fact that I was getting active at something that they had taken some money to give me music lessons, and they were beginning to see it pay off. One thing led to the other, you know.

Q: You mentioned Eddie Harris. And in 1961, he and Muhal Richard Abrams began to form a rehearsal band that eventually became the core of the Experimental Band, and that became the core of the AACM.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This is a convoluted way of asking how you first encountered the Experimental Band and got into the AACM.

TB: At this time the Experimental Band was functioning. Of course, I didn’t know, but it was functioning. And how I got to meet Muhal was, when I was in high school, one of my best friends turned out to be Muhal’s son, and he knew that I was in the band in high school. And in high school, you know, you hang out together at lunch periods, and talk. Of course, I was a little different, and he wanted to find out what I was always doing after school. I was going home practicing, you know. And he told me that his father had a band rehearsal and was a bandleader, and for me to come down and check it out. So I said, “Wow!”

So of course, I took advantage of it. One Monday night he took me down to the rehearsal. Now, at this particular time the Experimental Band was rehearsing every Monday night at [the Abraham] Lincoln Center in Chicago. Lincoln Center is one of the cultural centers on the South Side. So they were in rehearsal. And that was my first encounter of the AACM.

Q: For people who don’t know, just describe what the Experimental Band was.

TB: The Experimental Band was a band put together of a lot of musicians on the South Side, including Eddie Harris, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell, Delbert Hill . . .

Q: And Muhal, of course.

TB: Muhal, of course! The Experimental Band was a band where musicians could come together and work on their own music. At that time there was a lot of energy among the musicians I just spoke of, Roscoe and Muhal, and they were at the point that they were doing a lot of writing. They were also jobbing around in Chicago and playing gigs and everything with big bands. Morris Ellis was one of the bandleaders around at that time that a lot of us worked with.

But this was a place, though, for everybody to come together and work on some of their original compositions that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to perform. It was run very orderly. Whoever had their composition up would direct it (of course, they would explain it first). Because we’re talking about people who had really gotten up into their music, man. In fact, they had changed the music notation. They used different music notation! At that time, you had a few people who just didn’t like the . . . Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t like it, but they just had their own symbols, you know. So they had to explain this, you see.

And of course, this was very different for me, because I’m a kid. For me, it was something really different and brand-new, you know. And I got such a big charge out of the fact that these people, not only was the music different, but they were serious about it. I mean, they could explain what they had on paper, and they had a feeling about what they were explaining and what they were doing.

Q: So you had musicians of different predispositions coming together in a rather unique situation. . .

TB: It was very unique!

Q: What do you think were some of the forces in Chicago that enabled this? Is it possible for you to say?

TB: Well, yeah. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were equal in terms of coming and discovering new ideas and new concepts of expressing and writing music. It’s funny how it seemed to all happen with everybody at once, you see. The period that I knew of was ’65. That was my first year of visiting the Experimental Band. So I think a lot of it had to do with, well, gee, nobody had any big record contract or nobody had 20 tours looking at him . . .

Q: It took some of the pressure off.

TB: It really did, I think. And the fact that we were all there together, and we were all equal in terms of discovering these new ideas. So there was no interference, I guess.

Q: Also there wasn’t that much work in Chicago at that time, was there?

TB: There wasn’t that much work.

Q: The urban renewal on the South Side.

TB: That’s true.

Q: The organ trios had changed.

TB: A lot of the clubs. . So it did affect the music. So right there at the Lincoln Center we were able to just start sharing these ideas, and it was like school, you know. Because I used to come down to rehearsal, and here was Henry Threadgill, Vandy Harris, Roscoe Mitchell and Delbert Hill, the first time I heard a saxophone quartet. I never even thought of it. Then I came down and hear these guys, four of them in a corner, going over these quartets, and it was just great! It was just something that I hadn’t seen.

But sure, I think a lot of the fact that it was easy for us to come together, there wasn’t a lot of work happening at that time, and it was just the opportune time for us to come together.

Q: Within the rehearsal band, there were different configurations and smaller groups that developed. I know you were playing with Joseph Jarman, and in 1967 you did your first records with Joseph Jarman and Muhal.

TB: That’s right, Joseph Jarman. Song For.

Q: Tell us how you met Joseph, and some of the connections with Joseph and with Muhal.

TB: Well, Joseph was right there in the woodwind section in the Experimental Band. Of course, he had a composition. Of course, by me going to school at the Conservatory, see, I had been introduced to playing mallets, like for tom- toms and tympany, you see. So he had a chart for mallets, you see. So we went through this chart, and he was a little amazed maybe, surprised that I had a touch for playing.

Q: You could play the charts.

TB: Yeah, I could play the charts. I could read.

Q: Your rudiments were very developed.

TB: Yeah, they were pretty developed at that point, that I could read, you see. And he had music; I mean, music for the drums. Of course, I had played all these other gigs with people, and there was no music. I would just go up and play. But here I come down to the Experimental Band, and these guys not only have music for the brass and woodwinds; they’ve got a chart for me. So that was in itself different.

But anyway, after the chart he came over and told me how much he really liked the sound, and what I was into. And I told him that, well, I would like to play some music, I’m not playing with anybody. So he asked me to come down and start rehearsing with his group. So I would get down on a Monday early. At that time in the Experimental Band there was a bassist by the name of Charles Clark. He was a very exceptional player, and he also was in the string section in the Experimental Band. Obviously, Charles had done some playing with Joseph before, because I could see that they knew each other, see. And Fred Anderson, a saxophonist in Chicago, also was in the woodwind section. So when I got to our first rehearsal, well, Fred Anderson was there, Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter who lives in Evanston, and Charles Clark and Joseph and myself.

Q: Was Christopher Gaddy on that also?

TB: And Christopher Gaddy, who was an exceptional keyboard player at the time. But we were all at this rehearsal, and that was the first time that I had got together with some people who were really playing some serious music, and I could see that it was just different. So I really wanted to be a part of that, you know.

Q: Let’s hear “Adam’s Rib” from the first LP on which you participated, Joseph Jarman’s Song For. Say something about the LP.

TB: First of all, I was going to say that after four or five months of getting really active with Joseph and playing some gigs around Chicago and the Experimental Band, the surprising thing came up one day that Joseph said, “Look, we’ve got a record date.”

Q: Had you been gigging? A few jobs here and there?

TB: We had a few gigs here and there. And it’s funny, my only experience with gigs were in clubs. All of a sudden, I look up and we’re playing in a bookstore. So immediately I knew that this music was going to take me in a different place. It was different, and it was exciting, you see. So just to make a long story short, I looked up one day, after I’d known Joseph four or five months I look up, and there I am in a studio making my very first record.

Q: Do you think that Song For is representative of the music that Joseph was doing at the time with the group?

TB: Yes, it is. Because the music that you’re about to hear is the music that we were playing during this period, and this is 1967 in Chicago.

[Music: “Adam’s Rib”; example of TB’S percussion music; Muhal Richard Abrams, “The Bird Song”]

TB: This is the stuff that was going in Chicago during this period.

Q: Programmatic music of all idioms.

TB: That’s true. Of course, during this time, we were doing this in clubs! We didn’t only do concerts at Abraham Lincoln Center.

Q: There were concerts at the University of Chicago campus.

TB: That’s true. There were a lot of concerts. I can remember most Fridays there were concerts at the University of Chicago. Also, the Student Union there used to put on a lot of concerts that the AACM members participated in. So we had some people that liked this music, and supported it, and wanted it to be heard.

Q: Meanwhile, the big band was still functioning.

TB: The Big Band was functioning every Monday. And believe me, no matter what happened, we all made that Monday night available for the Experimental Band. Because hey, that was the time that somebody got their music played, and that was a real serious and big deal then.

Q: Is Levels And Degrees of Light in any way representative of what was going on in the Big Band?

TB: Yes, it is. Because in the Big Band we had people like Henry Threadgill. Well, you know Henry, he’s really into theatre, you see. So for him to use the Big Band and use some recitation and some theatre, and be able to combine it, he definitely was one who would do it — and of course, Muhal. And Joseph was doing a lot of theatrical material. A lot of stuff.

So this was all a brand-new experience for me, and I had never seen it anywhere else. Of course, by the time of this recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees Of Light, my second record, I am really involved musically and, you know, as a group. I really felt I wanted to be a part of this movement here that was happening.

Q: I neglected to ask you about some of your musical influences outside the Chicago music scene? Who were some of the tough drummers who you thought well of?

TB: Well, the first guy that stands out is Cozy Cole. Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me, because in that period Cozy Cole made a solo 45 called “Topsy.” That was the very first drum solo that I memorized, beat for beat and rhythm for rhythm. I mean, I got that down. Because it just had a lot of emotion in it. So Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me at that time.

Also Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer with Cannonball Adderley. And of course, my drum teacher, Harold Jones. During the latter part of the ’60s there was a TV show that used to come on an educational station in Chicago, WTTW, a program that used to come on once a week called “Jazz Casual.” This was my first time actually seeing the music on TV. Of course, Ed Sullivan and all them people were on TV, but the band never really got featured. But here was a TV show that featured music, you see. So I was influenced a lot by, of course, Philly Joe Jones, Roy McCurdy with Cannonball, and Elvin Jones, who was with John Coltrane’s Quartet. I saw the original quartet on this show “Jazz Casual.” The host of the show I think was Ralph Gleason. Anyway, he ran this show once a week, and I saw Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, the pianist Bill Evans.

Now, these people were coming to Chicago, but I could not get in the clubs. There was this one club that they used to play at called McKie’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove, right there by the El. The El train is the elevated train that runs in Chicago, for those who don’t know. But I used to catch there right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I used to pass by this club, and I would see these names in big letters: The John Coltrane Quartet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins. And this was the club.

Q: And cats would be jamming there.

TB: Of course they might be jamming there.

Q: Gene Ammons might be strolling by and give a lesson for out-of-towners.

TB: That’s right!

Q: Were you playing in venues outside the AACM? Were you playing classical music at this time? I know you said you studied at the Conservatory.

TB: Well, mainly it was private training and ensemble classes at that time. At this time, ’66, ’67, ’68, those three years, most of my activity was with the AACM, with Muhal and Joseph Jarman. Those three years most of my activity was that. And we got some gigs!

Q: You went to Detroit, for instance, in 1967 and ran into John Sinclair.

TB: Yeah, exactly. John Sinclair was an organizer in Detroit who used to organize concerts at Wayne State University, and one year, I think it was ’67, he got us a big gig at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. And you know, this is my first big out-of-town gig now. Joseph Jarman, the late Christopher Gaddy, the late Charles Clark, and myself on drums. So this music that we’re hearing on Delmark is a very good representation of the music scene in Chicago.

Q: And you’ve filled us in most thoroughly on things that were happening.

TB: I hope so.

Q: We’ll progress now and move to events that happened later. TB: Sure. As If It Were The Seasons, that was my third album at this time. This was a session that was put together by Joseph Jarman. We have Charles Clark on bass and cello, myself on all kinds of drums, a vocalist named Sherri Scott, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and oboe, a very good flutist who really never got any attention named Joel Brandon, and Fred Anderson is on tenor sax, John Stubblefield, who has a big feature here, is also on tenor sax, and the late John Jackson on trumpet and Lester Lashley on trombone. This composition is written by Joseph Jarman, entitled “Song For Christopher.”

Q: Everything changed in Chicago after 1969, because that’s when Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall and the Art Ensemble left for Europe.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This, of course, would have had its effect on Thurman, who was still a very young musician.

TB: Well, Joseph in ’68 had gotten involved with the Art Ensemble, and they were really into some intensive rehearsals. So boom, there I was, the late Charles Clark had died, the late Christopher Gaddy had died — and these two people were like my brothers; we did everything together. So it was a real lonely period for me, because Joseph now, you could say the quartet had broke up, and Joseph had joined forces with the Art Ensemble . . .

Q: They were lacking a drummer, however. Did the possibility of your performing with them ever come up?

TB: Yes, it did. And it came up at a bad time. And I swear, it’s one of the biggest mistakes that I regret in my life. Because the group had gone to Europe, and you know, they were pioneering some areas. They didn’t have anything really guaranteed, and they had been to Europe for a few years now. We’re talking about the years 1970-’71. So they were in Europe. But at this time, I had gotten involved with theatre, you see. In 1968 I started doing the Broadway production of Hair. Q: As a musician?

TB: As a musician. I got a call, and I was playing percussion, okay, so the Broadway show Hair was in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre — and I looked up, and there I was in theatre now.

Q: With a good union job!

TB: With a good union job! And see, that was a big deal for me. See, my father is a retired union man, so he was very pleased and very happy. So here I was working downtown at the Schubert Theatre at this time, doing Hair. That job lasted two years, from 1968 to 1970.

Q: Naturally, you didn’t want to leave that for the insecurity of roaming Europe.

TB: Well, of course. So what happened was, I get this call in the wee hours of the morning, something like two or three o’clock in the morning, and it’s from overseas — and this was Roscoe Mitchell. And Roscoe Mitchell expressed, “Well, look, T-Bird. . .” That was a nickname that came from Roscoe. He calls me T-Bird, and now it caught on, and everybody calls me that, now, you see. But he gave me that name. And he said, “Look, we’ve been over here working, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot, and we would like for you to join the Art Ensemble.” So of course, the first thing I said was, “Well, look, do you have any gigs?” And Roscoe was really honest. He said, “Well, no, we don’t have any gigs, and we don’t know where our next gig is, but we’re working on some things that we’re pioneering, some new areas.” So I said, “Well, look, I’ve got a gig; I’m doing this show” — and I never knew! Well, I had this full-time job, and I didn’t think I should leave it.

Q: It happened to a lot of musicians in Chicago, what happened to you.

TB: Yeah! So I said, look, I couldn’t make it, but I would like to join them if they got back into town. So Roscoe said, “Okay, I understand.” And the next thing I knew, months and months up the road,they came back.

Q: They came back in ’71.

TB: They came back in ’71, and they had Don Moye.

Q: That was that.

TB: That was that. I kissed that gig goodbye, and that was that.

Q: What else was happening as far as gigs in Chicago after they left for Europe? You were playing with Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]?

TB: I was playing with Kalaparusha, and I was doing a few gigs with Leroy Jenkins now. He was still there, you see, after the Art Ensemble had cut out and everything. So we had these gigs at clubs on the South Side. I’m trying to think of the names of some of these places; it’s been so long. But George Freeman, Leroy Jenkins, myself, and. . .

Q: George Freeman playing the AACM type of music?

TB: Yeah, he was into it. He plays guitar, and that was the first time that I saw guitar into the music.

Q: Was Cosey doing. . .

TB: [Guitarist] Pete Cosey was doing a few things. At this time, Pete along Sherri Scott. . .

Q: Who played with Earth, Wind and Fire . . .

TB: At that time she was rehearsing with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was getting the band off the ground. They were doing a lot of rehearsing.

But mostly in this period I had really gotten involved in theatre. Not saying that the AACM was not functioning. It was still going on. It was just that we were still doing our concert series. . . You know, a lot of people had left, like the Art Ensemble, but at the same time we were recruiting new blood. Like Douglas Ewart, who came in at that time. So we were getting new blood, and the organization was still moving on along with the times.

Q: And the Big Band was still functioning.

TB: And the Big Band was still functioning. And you’ve got to remember, even though we had this concert series happening, we were very, very supported by the community which we lived in and participated in. And I think that was one of the main differences between then and now, was the fact that. . .

Q: In New York City.

TB: Yeah, but . . .

Q: But then in New York City as well. I think New York City is just not that type of town.

TB: It just isn’t that type of town. And at that time in Chicago, we were very well supported by the community. And we used to even go outside and play outside and jam. I don’t know, this was with Muhal, Muhal would bring his clarinet out, and Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Kalaparusha, Charles Clark — We used to take our instruments out there in Jackson Park, which is a large park on the South Side, and just sit out there and play. For me it was like a rehearsal. Maybe for people like Roscoe and maybe Muhal, maybe they were thinking of, “Well, this is a way of getting this new music out to the people.” See, for me at the time, I had a comfortable gig, and I was getting gigs, and I was playing some music, and I was active.

Q: So you were active in theatre throughout the ’70s, is that it?

TB: Most of the ’70s.

Q: What made you decide to return to performing creative music, then? And let’s talk about some of the circumstances that led you to return actively to the scene.

TB: Well, one thing was that after playing in theatre, I had learned a great deal. Number one, I learned how to play with a conductor. I learned how to play in a section. Because in theatre, not only do you have a trap drummer, but you have two or three percussion players. And a lot of my training, and a lot of music that I was studying at that time, I’m having an opportunity to really try out now. But I learned a lot in the pit orchestra. And one of the main things was being able to play in a section.

So after, say, 1975-’76, I started getting back to the AACM, into that music. Because I had gotten all of this training, you see. And for the first time, I felt like I wanted to add something to the music of Muhal and to the music of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe, or whoever was doing something. The music took on a new meaning for me at this time, because I had the years from ’71 to ’75 to really think about all the music that I had performed in the late ’60s with Muhal and everybody. Because at the time I was performing it, I really had on clear idea of this new music, you see.

Q: I can think of an analogy. In the 1950’s, and in the ’60s, for that matter, a lot of musicians after their initial apprenticeships in the Army, and got their rudiments very much together in the Army by playing all the time.

TB: That’s true.

Q: And it sounds like this theatre job performed a similar function for you.

TB: It really did. And I was just able to sort of get a clearer understanding about the music. And keep in mind, I’m still studying, I’m practicing very hard. . . So when I returned in ’75, that was really a very progressive year for the organization, because everyone had really gone out and developed their personal concepts.

Q: George Lewis had hit the scene . . .

TB: George Lewis hit the scene in that year. So it was like a revitalization of everything, you know. And I think especially the Art Ensemble, Muhal, Jenkins, they all had had a taste of getting their music performed and recorded, and gotten a taste of the business, gotten a taste of the music scene outside of Chicago. Because you’ve got to remember, before that time nobody had left Chicago.

Q: And that was a time when musicians from all over the country began converging on New York.

TB: Exactly. Now, I must get in here that during the early Seventies, like ’72 and ’73, there was a collaboration of musicians from St. Louis, like for instance, Oliver Lake. Oliver Lake had formed a new music organization I think called X-BAG . . . I think that’s it; I’m not sure. But I do remember that there was a collaboration with the St. Louis musicians.

Q: I remember Julius Hemphill was coming to Chicago in the ’70s.

TB: Exactly. Julius Hemphill. We’re talking about Oliver Lake, we’re talking about Charles Bobo Shaw, Baikida Carroll. Who else?

Q: Joseph Bowie.

TB: Joseph Bowie, of course. So the AACM members even went to St. Louis. And they produced a concert in collaboration with both groups, and also we did the same thing for X-BAG, and Oliver Lake and Baikida and everybody came from St. Louis to Chicago to participate in a concert series that we did. And that was a real strong thing that happened in ’71 and ’72, or so.

Q: Let’s get back to some music.

TB: I was going to go with some more of my percussion duet record.

[Music from Muhal Richard Abrams, LifeaBlinec, “JoDoTh”]

Q: Now we’re in 1978, and in 1978 Thurman joined Anthony Braxton’s working band.

TB: That’s right.

Q: That was a very tight band.

TB: Yeah, it was. It really began in 1977. Anthony Braxton had come to Chicago, and I guess at that time he had just broke up the quartet that he had with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and George Lewis that was his working band, they’d made some records for Arista. There was an AACM Festival I remember at McCormack Place.

Q: I remember that. Braxton played a gig all on clarinets, with you and Malachi Favors.

TB: He played a gig all on clarinets. And part of that concert was a quartet with Leroy Jenkins on violin, Leonard Jones on bass, Anthony and myself. After that concert, Braxton asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I was just thrilled. I was ready. So that’s the beginning of how that started. We went out. That was the fall of 1977. I remember my very first gig with the quartet out of town was the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival, which was in Philadelphia, I think. And that was my first big out of town gig with the Braxton Quartet. I must say, at that same time Ray Anderson also was very new in the band.

Q: Another Chicagoan.

TB: So Ray Anderson and myself were the new members of the quartet in 1977, and Mark Helias had joined the quartet a few months prior, so he had already played a few gigs. But for Ray Anderson and myself, the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival was our first gig.

Q: How did you like playing with Braxton? What’s the relationship of his music to a drummer, in some sense?

TB: Well, it was really interesting, because Braxton had a way, first of all, of notating his music. He gave me the same part that Ray Anderson had or that Braxton had, see. That was one of the big differences, see. It wasn’t a drum part. It was a part that everybody else had. So now for the time in playing improvised music, I could not only create my own drum part, but I could follow along with all the other instruments to see what they were doing. So it was exciting, it was different. In a way, it was a lot easier for me to adapt to his music, because this was, I would say, my first feeling how jazz and classical music could mix together. This was my first introduction. Because a lot of Braxton’s music had these sounds and compositions that were very close to classical music for me. So for the first time now, with all that training that I watched the percussion players play in the orchestra pits in Chicago, and watching my percussion teacher at the Conservatory. . . For the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the knowledge and strokes, and the finesse and touch on my drum set playing jazz.

Q: Did Braxton produce a lot of new music during that time?

TB: He was writing a lot during this time. And I think the way the band was going. . . I know we used to travel a lot. And he would be so occupied with turning out compositions every day, just for this band . . .

Q: And he’d play them on the stand that night?

TB: He’d play them on the stand that night.

Q: Nice for Braxton, to have a band like that.

TB: It was great for Braxton! I hope he had his ASCAP and all that stuff together. But it was great for me, for everybody, because we were not only playing some new music, but we were working, we were out on the road, and we had an opportunity to perform it that night, and to see how it would go for the first time.

So for me, for the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the percussion concept on traps. All those years with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, I didn’t really know how to. . . I mean, this music was brand-new. I was trying to find my way, you see. One thing about Muhal and Joseph at this time, one thing they did give me, and that was a lot of support. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — I was trying. But they gave me a lot of support. But by the time ’77 came around, I had a pretty clear idea about how I wanted to perform and how I wanted to construct.

Q: You were a mature musician at this time.

TB: Yeah, of course. Now I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played a whole bunch of gigs, and I’ve learned a lot. And believe me, that’s the best training you can get, is right there on the bandstand.

Q: Just playing.

TB: That’s true.

[Music: Braxton Quartet, “W6-4N-R6-AH0”]

TB: That recording was done while the quartet was on tour, so it was a real special time for me. Even though I had recorded with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, it was a very good time for me. Because to record with Anthony Braxton who at that time had risen to be a very popular figure in new music, and number two, he had a record contract at the time, so that was a little different.

Q: And later that year you recorded with Sam Rivers.

TB: That’s right. What happened was that the AACM gave its first concert on New York territory in 1976, right here at Columbia University. We were able to perform our first jazz festival right here in New York. And in the audience, of course, was Mr. Sam Rivers. I had performed with some of the groups and with the Big Band. So Sam was in the audience — and this was in ’76.

A few years later, I get this call right out of the blue. It was Sam Rivers, and he was asking me to come to New York and to make a record. Of course I was floored! I said, “Sure, when are the rehearsals and when can we get together, because I need to learn your music.” He said, “Look, we’ll just rehearse in the studio. But can you be here by this particular date?” I said, “No problem.” So my very first contact with Sam Rivers was in the studio, and we made the record that we are about to hear called Waves on Tomato Records. Of course, I am now very familiar with Sam Rivers in terms off what he’s done, and all the Blue Note records that he appeared on with Andrew Hill and Tony Williams — the early Blue Note dates.

Q: Not to mention that he had used Braxton’s previous bass and drums.

TB: Exactly. Now here I go, I’m beginning to think that I’m in a circle here, because somehow Anthony Braxton’s rhythm section went with Sam Rivers — and we’re speaking of Barry Altschul and Dave Holland. At the time I joined Sam, Dave Holland was still there. This recording features Joe Daley on brass, Dave Holland on bass and cello, and myself on drums and percussion, and Sam Rivers. Like I say, I was really back, because this was my first contact with Dave Holland and Sam, and here I am getting ready to make a record. So it was quite a special event for me.

[Music: S. Rivers, “Surge”]

Q: Thurman, you played a gig this past weekend in Boston with Sam Rivers as guest artist.

TB: Exactly. It was my gig. I was able to get two nights at a club in Boston called Charlie’s Tap, Friday and Saturday, the Thurman Barker Trio featuring Sam Rivers. Anyway, I had an opportunity to be able to join forces with an artist who I was able to learn a lot of music from, and we played a lot of gigs. As a matter of fact, after the Waves record, we went on tour. Contrasts was also done while we were on tour. Sam did spend a lot of time in Boston, studying at the New England Conservatory, and then throughout the ’50s.

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Drummer, Interview, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Thurman Barker, WKCR

Anthony Braxton Turned 66 Yesterday

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

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

Anthony Braxton Article (final draft):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Anthony Braxton (Wesleyan, April 9, 2007):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   I come from upper poor class.

TP:   Factory worker? Blue collar…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   The ‘80s actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Much more dramatic, narrative music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   That’s a good question.

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

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

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

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

TP:   Most teenagers don’t know that.

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

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

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

TP:   Does your mother have Native American ancestry?

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   Yes. I wanted transparency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   I’ll talk about it.

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

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

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

BRAXTON: Propositional logics in the sense of…

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

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

TP:   Can you speak in a more general sense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So going back to your questions about actual devices…

TP:   Melody would be another one.

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

TP:   Is that one of the research papers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRAXTON:   Yes.

TP:   Intervals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   Are you writing the libretto yourself?

BRAXTON:   Yes.

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

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

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

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

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Article, DownBeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “You were just talking about histories.”

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

    “Questions like that lead to a species of mythmaking,” Lewis added. “I’ll take it to the place of procedure. Whenever we first began to play with each other, what I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration. The sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multi-perspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Roscoe Mitchell Note Factory, Far Side (ECM)

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

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