SA8: The What Is Jazz? Issue
Ken Vandermark & Joe Morris
Joe Morris: We've both spent a lot of time studying what has happened and studying what can happen. In both cases I think of you as someone who is always very respectful of every part, and concerned with precedent, originality and invention in all aspects of this. So I feel that you see so-called jazz as a larger thing. And, in that way your view is the same or very close to how I see it. I decided that Jazz, as a term was limited and had been co-opted and made to mean a more exclusive thing than I think the music has always been, and so I stopped using it. As you know I call it all Free Music. Meaning that it is made by musicians who are not concerned with abiding by any linear tradition, or obligated by any institutional, critical, or industry oversight; people who do whatever they want to do. I also feel that all of it is made with intent, and rendered in operational methodologies that are based on synthesis, interpretation and invention. I feel that renaming this, and defining it by the what, why and how of it I can include whatever I want. To me whether or not you agree with the above, you certainly operate as if you do. You are a Free Music musician. So, I guess to move the conversation along, what does that mean to you as an artist? And is that the same as playing jazz?
I guess what I mean more directly is that I believe that what has been called jazz all these years was a collection of inventions made by a large group of very creative musicians. There has always been an interpretive side to jazz, but the inventions are what moved it forward. As those inventions became less and less about harmony the situation changes. As those inventions started to come for non-American places the situation changed. As those inventions became less about one particular aesthetic, or kind of sound, or approach to expressing pulse the situation changed. Eventually the term "jazz" seemed to aggressively omit these inventions—something that it did before of course, but this time it has a kind of Death Star institutional power behind that omission of invention. So now the term means the things that are not omitted, those that are considered to be correct to a very orthodox and limited point of view. It's a narrow interpretation of the history of inventions made by musicians. And it's because of that that I don't use the term jazz to describe what I do. I accept that the battle was lost and they won. I just call it something else and that gives me license to include more instead of exclude more.
Ken Vandermark: I'm in agreement with your point of view Joe, that the term jazz has been appropriated and turned into a cultural brand with very specific parameters and aesthetics; one that does not represent my firsthand experience with the music as a listener or as a performer either. If you remove a specific agenda from the term jazz- whether artistic, economic, educational, or political- the history of the music has clearly expressed a wide ranging series of approaches to composition and improvisation that cannot be contained within the current simple, and salable, definition. This is a fact that can be demonstrated time and again with a straightforward look at artists that are generally be agreed to represent jazz through their music: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus (to name just a few); though all of these artists used certain principles of organization in their music which had common ground (written themes, improvisation, chord structures, and a rhythmic pulse), if you compare how each of them would perform the same jazz standard, the range of possibility within real jazz can quickly be demonstrated.
As you state Joe:
As those inventions became less and less about harmony the situation changes. As those inventions started to come for non-American places the situation changed. As those inventions became less about one particular aesthetic, or kind of sound, or approach to expressing pulse the situation changed.
But, in actuality, the situation only changed from the standpoint of people who had an agenda and need to define jazz as a specific thing. The invention and directions of the music were going to continue, and still continue, after the introduction of creative perspectives that moved outside tonal harmony and conventional pulse, work that came to the fore by the 1960s, a half a century ago. In 1960, if John Coltrane suddenly stated that jazz was only authentic if sounded like King Oliver, he would have been laughed off stage. Yet, the arguments being made today in certain quarters for limiting the music to a very controlled set of elements, which are equally absurd, are considered relevant to the discourse.
Jazz is an art form, not a style; it is a creative method that is inclusive, not exclusive. The multi-million [dollar] marketing, programming, and education campaign organized on an annual basis to appropriate the term jazz and brand it as a very specific cultural concern does not have room for the complexity of art or the artists who create it. The term jazz has always been problematic, but in the past, aside from minor arguments about what it was and wasn't that cropped up each time a new generation brought the music to someplace different, this problem was connected to cultural issues attached to the horrible politics of racism, and the fight for self definition and fair economic compensation for equivalent work.
Now, whatever discourse formerly existed about the music has been eradicated because the term jazz is a dead one; it became too limited to breathe in the real world of creative music and artists. Joe, your solution to find a new and open-ended term for where the music has gone in the last decades is wise. Free Music describes what it is, but the challenge is to find a way to create an understanding of the term Free Music so that it correlates in the minds of artists and listeners with what it's about. Is Free Music a term to replace what you and I consider jazz to be as an art form? Or does it include music from other genres as well, such as rock, funk, certain aspects of contemporary composed music, all of which can have elements of improvisation in them? One of the former benefits of the term jazz, before it was completely codified and commoditized, was that audiences and artists had a sense of what was being heard and discussed. I've made the analogy with painting- a person may not like a certain painter but they recognize that they paint. Someone might not have appreciated the work of Pee Wee Russell, but they used to know that he belonged to the world of jazz.
I think that if we agree that the fight to keep jazz free to be an art form with its own life and course of activity has been lost, then the fight to be faced is the one of self definition, for a term and/or set of terminology that explains to those who care what is really being made with the music in question as we move further into the 21st century.
JM: I use Free Music as a name because I feel it is more accurate in describing the ideal approach and the actual historical unfolding of jazz—an inclusive, invented music free of the oversight of institutions, industry or the critical establishment. Beyond that I wouldn't expect to define anything. Jazz was, and Free Music is, a future-forward approach to making music. In other words, no one knew or knows what would [or will] happen. Anything might happen. Jazz used to be that, and that is what made it special. Now it isn't that. Instead it is a set of orthodox and exclusive rules and expectations that work really well for interpretive music and musicians (neither of which I have anything against) but very badly for inventive musicians. The latter will define what Free Music means through their music, which already includes idiomatic elements that don't fit the current jazz model.
Duke Ellington described Jazz as a tree, with roots, a trunk, limbs, and fruit that falls off and plants seeds. That is a perfect description of jazz before the lumberjacks showed up. We know who they are. Just like in rock, and classical music the business of jazz has become a controlling power. The tree can't exist on it's own anymore, because the lumberjacks can harvest it for money. I see the idea of Free Music as a new start for anyone who is akin to Ellington's idea of the tree. One gets cut down in the forest owned by the lumberjacks but another one is growing somewhere away from their control, or from any other control.
KV: Yes, I completely agree with the analogies, and your points about what the idea of Jazz was, and what the idea of Free Music can be, Joe. I guess my question about the understanding of Free Music is not an attempt to define it stylistically (which is what I think has happened to Jazz), but to get a grasp of what you feel this methodology includes that makes it different from other kinds of music making. This isn't an attempt to pin it down, but just create a set of loose parameters around which Free Music can be perceived from a constructive basis. For example, I'm guessing that if Free Music is an extension of where Jazz was before it became commoditized and sterilized, then Free Music focuses on issues and innovations for improvisation, but does it also include the development of pre-organized/composed materials that interface and create cause and effect between those components and improvisation?
JM: I don't define Free Music stylistically. I define it as music made through methodology. I don't define Free Music as a methodology, but rather as music made with methodology, or methodologies. I don't define Free Music as an extension of Jazz, I define it as a different, more accurate and more inclusive way of understanding all of the music that is called jazz and all of the music that is constructed in the same way that is not called jazz because the more inaccurate and exclusive view of that excludes it. And, I meant that in Free Music all of it, whether it is based on a harmonic structure, melodic structure, sound or timbre structure, is all expanded through the use of improvisation which is done by using the material embedded within the operational methodology that the performers create, interpret or synthesize.
KV: Excellent- this puts the term Free Music into a framework that doesn't limit it, yet explains its parameters in a way that shows its differences from other kinds of music, and music making. And I also like the idea of methodologies as it pertains to the concept of Free Music, the idea that there can be many systems of organization and development that are valid and that can evolve, that we're moving past the idea of stylistic concerns toward the idea of actively creative concerns. The key, for me, seems to be improvisation and how it is impacted by the "operational methodology" as you call it- which can be a compositional basis, a conceptual basis, a spontaneous basis.
From my perspective, even a term like "free jazz" can create a lot of miscommunication because it meaning was never clear. To my mind, if it was a reference to a period of aesthetics that were developed between, say, 1957 and 1967- as a kind of parallel to the way Bebop is generally recognized- then there's a way to understand free jazz that is viable in a discourse about music. However, the way it is often used as an umbrella term that includes everything developed post-chord changes in the jazz continuum isn't helpful. For example, I am often referred to as a free jazz musician, but the way I create my music is very, very different than that of Cecil Taylor or Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman. Terminology isn't useful if isn't clear and, ironically, one of the things that the neo-con jazz institutions and artists have done has made their definition of jazz so clear and so specific, and they have marketed this definition so well, that their efforts have superseded the verifiable history of nearly a century of creative work that contradicts their very definition of that artistic field.
JM: I agree. Free Jazz only meant that the music was not based on a harmonic structure. Then no one bothered to try to understand that it was based on a melodic structure, but was otherwise just as organized as the Jazz music that was based on a harmonic structure. The term Free Jazz diminished the music. The music known as free jazz was constructed using a melodic structure and just like its predecessor it also used pulse, form, interaction and was built from and aesthetic approach, performed on a distinct platform and made by a particular community of musicians. In other words it was exactly the same as Jazz but made using different materials. By the way, so-called European Free Improvisation is also exactly the same. It's certainly not jazz, but it is Free Music just as, to me, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bill Evans are Free Music too.
KV: I would add that, from my standpoint, Free Jazz was also built from a number of rhythmic breakthroughs in addition to the shift away from a specific and predetermined harmonic structure. Listening to Ornette Coleman's earlier music in retrospect, and as someone who was born after its initial impact was made, it's very difficult to hear how incredibly radical his group's music was at the time (it is of course quite easier to hear how incredibly great the music was, and is), but when I listen back to the process of Cecil Taylor (who I consider to be an essential part of the Free Jazz revolution) deconstructing the idea of the bar line and regular pulse of jazz, or the detonation of the limits of pitch and rhythm by Albert Ayler's music, I hear the expansion of rhythm, not only harmonic structure, as a crucial part of the innovations of Free Jazz.
JM: The way the pulse is expressed is also a constantly changing in Free Music. When Cecil [Taylor] and [Albert] Ayler displayed the pulse only by implying it, the haters said it was no longer Jazz. To me they were just too completely disrespectful to bother to learn what was actually happening in the music that made the pulse feel different. The same thing happened when the articulation in [Anthony] Braxton's music was more staccato, or more informed by Webern, where the articulation is like the expression of an individual sound, with an attack, envelope, sustain, and decay on every note. Or when the sense of pulse in his, or other's music was proportional rather than metric. All of these things are exactly the same in artistic value as their opposites, but the Jazz orthodoxy expects adherence to the rules. Of course they forget that the rules were never rules at all. They were ideas that helped the performers engage with the spontaneous flow at it spoke to them. The point always being to invent new music. Now it seems that jazz wants to interpret old music, or interpret old materials and ideas. I don't have any problem with that as long as it's said out loud and called what it is. Interpretation can be inventive to some degree too. But it does not replace the need for invention of a higher percentage.
KV: If we seek self-definition and a better way to discuss our work and that of our peers, the understanding of the meanings of Free Music, not as a way to limit its potential but as a way to give it a specific foundation from which it can expand and regenerate seems essential to me. Your description above is very useful to express the inclusionary nature of Free Music; I am curious about the specifics of inclusion. For example, if Free Music is (in part) a reaction against the contemporary systemization of jazz, does it still include some of the aesthetic precepts of what that music was, aside from its inherent creative freedom? Such as the nature of soloist(s), the rhythm section, tonality vs. atonality, the expansion of instrumental technique to extend artistic expression? Or does it leave these "jazz components" behind as a means to find new aesthetic ground? I'm guessing, based on your own music, that many elements from the history of creative jazz would be present in Free Music as well, but there are certainly many examples of great aesthetic developments taking place in the arts when there is (an apparent) full scale push against previous aesthetic developments and creative history in favor of a new paradigm. I'm thinking of the early work of the "British School" of improvised music, or the artwork of Donald Judd, or the cinema of Michael Snow.
Where does Free Music fit into these potential continuums? And what specific aesthetics and methods does it include or reject to make it different from other kinds of music, including contemporary jazz?
JM: The way it all works, past present and future, is the same. Every innovation is a response to what preceded it, and every period is presented as a methodology made by the musicians. But we are discussing Free Music as another way of understanding what has been called jazz. We aren't discussing composed music. Composition is a component of Free Music. In Free Music composition implies or states the parts of the methodology that informs the improvised parts.
KV: I love this statement, that in Free Music "composition implies or states the parts of the methodology that informs the improvised parts." What a beautifully succinct way to express a primary system of creative organization that was found in the jazz tradition of invention, and how it continues now in your idea of Free Music.
JM: I also don't think that there is an obligation to any particular cultural, ethnic or classical kind of continuum in Free Music. There are people who feel that there is, and follow those obligations, but historically many diverse people have engaged in making Free Music without even being permitted to be part of those more obligated groups. But I do think there is a shared (to many different degrees) sense of subversive, justice seeking, forward human evolutionary sensibility that we all aspire to align ourselves with. And I think the origins of that should absolutely be attributed to African-Americans. Their situation and the struggle to overcome it through art, music, the do-it-yourself, because there is no other option approach, the we-will-do-it-anyway, because we are locked out of every other way approach are factors that I think qualify the highest expressions of Free Music.
KV: Beautiful, I couldn't have said this better or with more agreement, Joe.
I'd like to continue this discussion with Joe for a much longer time than we have, but there are deadlines to meet, and I know that our discourse (which has never really stopped since it first began years ago) will be ongoing and will encompass many, many topics. Since I am faced with the realistic limits of duration provided by Mr. Wooley, I'd like to conclude my statements by proposing a question, something that I feel is worth considering, even if it doesn't have a specific answer or set of answers.
Why did it seem necessary for certain members of the cultural establishment to define the parameters of jazz so severely that they've limited it, as Joe aptly describes, to be an interpretive music, as opposed to an innovative art form? I ask this because if you look at the cinema- an art form that, like jazz, was created and developed during the 20th century and will always be directly associated with it- the world of film is allowed to keep moving into the future, with all its variants and methodologies, wrestling with the implications of experiments and international discourse, and not limited to what the cinema was. The discussion is also about what the cinema is and can become.
Why is this no longer true for jazz? Certainly the parallels that exist between these two art forms point to a discrepancy- the fact that jazz, as now defined in the mainstream media, has become static, while the cinema remains an active outlet for innovation and individuality. Both arts were developed very thoroughly in the early part of the 20th century, and the fundamental aspects of a functional set of languages- one with sound, one with images- were set in motion by the 1920s, and both would expand to incorporate an ongoing set of innovations and individual forms expression well past the early work of the peers of Louis Armstrong in one case, or the silent era of film in the other. Revolutions in melody, rhythm, and harmony took place decade after decade in jazz, while the cinema incorporated new technological developments (sound, color, lighter cameras) and different techniques of communication. The various analogies (including those that are negative- politically and socially- such as the racism within certain systems of manufacturing and payment; and the ongoing argument about art vs. entertainment) continue to at least the point of The Art Ensemble of Chicago's brilliant examination and deconstruction of many aspects of jazz history into the 1970s, musically and otherwise, and Jean Luc Godard's early films which explore his inquiry into film genre and semiotics.
And now? Why are the films of Bruce Conner and Michaela Grill still considered to be part of cinema, even by people who may not enjoy them, while Anthony Braxton or Ab Baars' work, as part of the jazz continuum, would be called into question by the people who currently define and run the jazz establishment? Why is the cinema alive as we continue to move into the 21st century- with all its variants and systems of expression, its creative successes and mass market failures and successes- while jazz, when defined and understood through current status quo culture, has become a dead language? Was it necessary to kill jazz by codification in order for it to survive as a commodity?
JM: Understanding the way in which music is made (codification) didn't, as you say "kill" jazz. Misunderstanding it did. But the only dead parts in the culture of making music in this way are the parts that are stuck in the past as orthodox rules or ideas based on narrow-minded technical or aesthetic practices and belief—the parts that fit within the limited understanding or people who want to control the culture of it by denying it's true formulation. That part of the Free Music canon, the part that is approvingly referred to as "jazz" has been stunted and solidified. The other parts are fluid as ever and not surprisingly still beyond the gaze and understanding of those who are unwilling to even attempt to understand them. And that situation just opens the door to more new and beautiful things.
Fred Frith & Kyle Bruckmann
Kyle Bruckmann: Well, to be jazz, it's got to have significant USRDA percentages of swing and the blues, right? Easy. Next question, please.
You know, it's all so sticky. (Hence this conversation, after all.) I was just at the Chamber Music America conference in NYC as a 'New Jazz Works' commissioning program grantee - making me, I suppose, a Certified Jazz Composer. And let the record state that I'm a goddamned white conservatory-trained oboist who approached jazz sideways - not via direct immersion 'in the tradition' or even chops-centric academic training, but as a listener, fan, and college radio DJ, stumbling along paths extending primarily from post-punk rock, avant-garde 'classical' composition, and eventually European Free Improvisation. (Like so many of my cohort, I gratefully and with all respect cite Zorn as my gateway drug - Naked City was the synapse that led me from my adolescent immersion in industrial music and Japanese Noise towards the AACM etc. etc. etc.).
I'm painfully aware of the ironies folks like George Lewis have hammered out so eloquently - that so many of the African American progenitors of 'jazz' fought tooth and nail for a lifetime to shake loose of a 'race record' designation imposed from outside, asserting themselves as Capital C Composers, period…while I can waltz in, with all my privilege and access, and essentially say 'sure, you can call what I do jazz if you want, if there's funding at stake…"
Like any cultural or historical discussion in the US, there's inevitably a big filthy ball of subtext involving race, class, oppression, appropriation, authenticity, and guilt - as I feel there should be, all the better if approached with a Sunshine Policy. Plenty of threads left dangling here that we can pursue as we continue, but I suppose a starting point is my curiosity regarding how this all appears to you from an 'across the pond' perspective. How does all this hand-wringing and turf-battling look from Europe? How does distance clarify and/or distort?
Fred Frith: Well first off, this is personal isn’t it? My road through this music is just as unique as anyone else's, I guess. I discovered blues when I was 13 via Alexis Korner (a Greek immigrant in London) and that led me to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy. Hearing Bert Jansch (a Scot) and Davey Graham (a nomad) led to Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. Eventually it was Dave Brubeck (of Swiss and Modoc Native American descent) who led me to the Willis Conover Jazz Hour on the American Forces Network, of which I became a devotee in my early teens, drinking up Ellington, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum and scores of others. Then reading Nat Hentoff's Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, getting down with Bird and Dizzy, and becoming joined at the hip to Miles, Coltrane, Ornette, and Charles Mingus. In my dreams anyway! I sang and played harmonica in a blues band when I was 16, played bass with Champion Jack Dupree at 18, and saw John Lee Hooker, and many others from 2 feet away in folk clubs. So, yes, I lived this music in my own way. At the same time I didn’t feel like it was "mine", anything I did at that time was obviously an imitation, and I could see the way British jazz musicians were treated (critically at least) as second-class citizens. As a result, the idea of becoming a "jazz musician" didn't speak to me in any realistic way. I came from a Classical background (violin from the age of 5) and was also into folk, and pop music like The Shadows. Formed a rock band, Henry Cow when I was 19 which eventually became serious and lasted ten years and travelled very far away from any of the above, via Cage, Zappa, Varèse, you name it. Long preamble, but the thing is jazz is not about “style” or “chops” or being accepted into the academic pantheon, or about institutions and grants and awards, it’s about life, it’s about finding your voice and having something to say, it’s about being defiantly alive in the face of everything and everyone who tries to take our lives away from us. That’s why it spread so fast into every corner of the world, why the biggest circulation jazz magazine is Japanese, why there are jazz departments in every music school in France, why the most amazing big band I ever heard was in Prague in 1978—alive and defiant is right. The hand-wringing and turf-battling are about money and rights, acknowledgment and ownership, respect and self-respect, and…money. Those things are important, and those discussions need to take place, but they don’t necessarily tell us anything about the music.
KB: Hear, hear. About the music, then (though it’s inevitably also going to stay personal!):
In a panel discussion on ‘cross-genre’ projects at that same conference, a musician I respect a great deal was talking about getting a string quartet to actually ‘loosen up and swing a little;’ and another was lamenting that many younger, classically-trained New Music composers have so flamboyantly embraced ‘pop’ but turned their backs on jazz; and some well-meaning but, let’s face it, hopelessly straight-laced concert presenters were fretting over how to prepare their skittish audiences for ‘crossover’ performances...and I’m squirming, violently; and I’m trying to figure out why I’m squirming, because this is ostensibly all about precisely the territory that I inhabit and believe in. We’re really still stuck talking about this stuff, on these terms, in 2014?!
It’s not for me to say what jazz is or isn’t; but if we’re going to zero in on “alive and defiant,” then I sure as heck ought to say what jazz is for me. It’s not the surface - the smoke/scotch/3-button suit nostalgia, button-pushing stylistic signifiers. Screw the ding, ding-a ding; forget the blues, because for me to play the blues would not constitute “finding [my] voice.” There are instances in which it’s more respectful to a tradition to leave that tradition to others, or in the past. I keep coming back to what I see as a crucial distinction between style and process. I’m fixated on the way I understand jazz to behave, to make itself useful to people – and that’s what I’ve tried my best to internalize, and honor in my creative practice, whatever the resulting ‘genre’ allegedly is.
And I suppose that’s the crux of the problem: these qualities I’m trying to push to the foreground (spontaneity, engagement, collectivity, empathy, resilience...and maybe an overarching stance of being “In Opposition”...) lie at the core of arguably every form of non-sucking music. So, if defined along these lines, is there any utility left in the term at all? We (culturally) seem to feel impelled to keep using it and arguing about it...we (you and I) aren’t just talking about it because Nate asked us to, are we?
FF: Utility left in the term? Of course! Because whatever we think we’re doing, and whatever box we’re willingly or unwillingly placed in, the history of jazz demands our attention, our respect, and our understanding. And no posturing about who can play it and who can’t, no jockeying for institutional attention, no attempts to turn the music into a museum, should interfere with that basic idea. Arguably we learned these qualities— spontaneity, engagement, collectivity, empathy, resilience—precisely from listening to jazz and all the contrary creative impulses jazz helped give birth to. And those impulses now permeate a whole cross-section of activity— “non-sucking music”—that would have to include composition of all kinds as well as the ever-increasing number of improvisatory splinter tendencies. Thing is though, that what we’re talking about depends on a certain way of performing or recording which transcends any one kind of cultural background or musical training or philosophy. Surely what jazz has taught us is that you can’t “cross over” simply by mixing this genre or this set of players with these ones and assume that something exciting is going to happen. You have to live it on some level. I get bored with the clichés about the deficiencies of classical players actually. Arditti Quartet playing Xenakis swings about as hard anything I know, even if my definition of swing may appear odd! But they “live” that music totally, so that a very mathematical music played by highly trained classical musicians with years of practice of working together sounds as effortless and flowing as a waterfall. Listening to and understanding where jazz came from, what it has achieved, and what it has led to is an important part of any useful music education but “what has to be present to constitute jazz now” – I don’t really have a dog in that race. I just try to play wherever I’m invited with whoever invites me, partly because it’s fun and partly because that’s my economic reality. I was talking about this conversation with my friend Jason Hoopes and he said: “I think the most fruitful and interesting conversations to be had are not about what does and what doesn't constitute "jazz", but A) Why do people want to know? B) What would they do with a clear definition if they had one? and C) How is it we've come to a place where we (musicians) are trying to solve this invented problem anyway when, if anything, we should primarily be discussing the reasons we each make the music we make to begin with?” Which brings us back to where you left off…
KB: I’ll take the bait for the second half of C), since that’s the only part that isn’t really a rhetorical question (and let me just say how much it makes me smile to now have Jason in the room with us). The reasons I make this music are the sum total of my life to date (not that my personal narrative’s so damned interesting, but in the hopes of making myself a straw man towards some general truths). I make this music because I grew up in Charles Ives’ hometown, and played The Unanswered Question in youth orchestra when I was 12. Because the local college radio station spun Minor Threat and Einstürzende Neubauten. Because I jumped off the stage and landed on the back of my head at my first hardcore show. Because I bought The Shape of Jazz to Come when I was almost, but not quite, ready. Because I saw the Boredoms and Dog Faced Hermans in a tiny club in Houston. Because I heard, and met, and cooked veggie chili for Rova and the Splatter Trio when they visited my college. Because I saw grainy footage of a Barong-Rangda ritual that Dr. Judith Becker shot in Bali…
As for (continuing to evade the question of) what ‘this music’ is: I cringe a little every time I feel impelled, for expediency’s sake, to refer to Wrack as my ‘jazz’ ensemble. But the fact of the matter is that I started that band in order to honor a particular continuum – to try to more explicitly address what I’d learned from antecedents including Ornette, late Coltrane, Mingus, The Art Ensemble, Braxton, Brotzmann…And it’s not that I was convinced that such music was better than the classical music I’d been groomed to play, but it sure offered something different from what I experienced too much of the time. This brings us back to your comments about swingin’ Xenakis: I, too, get really fed up with the ‘jazz musician = hep, classical musician = square’ trope. But so much of what passes for the big picture of classical music, as currently practiced in the US, has the swing wrung out of it. By the Market, by fear, by territorialism, by pedagogy, by institutionalism, by class warfare…name your pet evil. It’s a tragedy that in the popular imagination, the manic genius of Mozart’s real-time creativity has come to actually stand for luxury automobiles and oriental carpet dealerships.
So when The Gatekeepers threaten to ossify jazz as well – when tangled webs, circular eddies and vibrant communities get dumbed down into straight lines, Great Man Theory and who-begat-whom; when folks in positions of influence, however deserving, start mistaking their personal narratives for general truth – it breaks my heart. The lessons I glean from jazz are, for me, key to unlocking my resolve to call bullshit on all of that and joyfully assert otherwise, no matter what I’m playing.
So we’re back to ‘alive and defiant,’ then, aren’t we?
FF: Exactly! And joyful assertions of our own stories are what it’s all about in the end. I’ve always believed that the basic artistic impulse, going back to people painting in caves and hitting logs, is to say: “We’re alive and we’re here and we’re not going away”. It’s both a celebration of self (who I am) and a celebration of community (who we are). And, the problematic part, we tend to construct our communities in relationship to a perceived other, something my neuroscientist brother Chris is really interested in. Jazz and Classical, black and white, swing and no swing, and on and on. Saber-toothed tigers all. Or at least red herrings! Fact is, when any artistic endeavor—by definition curious, open, inclusive—becomes incurious, closed, and exclusive, it’s distorted into a submissive imitation of life, not the simple act of living it. Jazz, classical or anything else.
Evan Parker & Dominic Lash
Dominic Lash writes:
Very good to see you in Canterbury the other day, and exciting to have a chance to talk about this stuff with you - many thanks to Nate for the opportunity!
Something that became clear to me as soon as I started pondering the subject under discussion is that my thinking on these issues was definitely influenced early on by things that you've said in print. Something from an old interview with Richard Cook from Jazz Review came to mind, and looking on my shelf I discovered I still have the magazine. I know it's a little unsporting to throw things somebody said thirteen years ago back at them, but two nuggets I particularly liked are where you're quoted as saying "I don't want to upset anybody by claiming to play jazz", and that being asked to make a standards record "would be like asking the plumber to install the television". I feel empathy with both of those sentiments - would you still stand by them? Maybe its my natural contrariness but I sometimes find myself bristling at things that are said, whether or not they associate my music with jazz - if someone tells me it's jazz, I want to explain why they're wrong, but if someone else tells me it isn't jazz that can be just as aggravating! Does that sound at all familiar to you?
Evan Parker writes:
Without wishing to sound grand, at this point I have no idea how many interviews I have given; how many of them were published; what proportion were accurately transcribed; how many I regretted almost before they had begun... The late Tomas Schmit researched, collated and edited the complete interviews of Dieter Roth and told me he found almost all the original published versions were riddled with mistakes and misunderstandings. It seems I got off lucky with Richard Cook. My fondness for attempting amusing analogies remains undimmed. I often see quoted a remark perhaps from an earlier interview where I say, "I think of it (my playing) as jazz."
Once such a remark has been isolated from its original context it becomes grist to the journalistic mill and can keep coming back to haunt. The internet keeps all the old interviews (and quotes from interviews, and quotes from quotes from interviews) gradually churning them into a soup of apparent contradictions. I will try to take a little longer in this context to explain my relationship to the jazz tradition.
"My roots are in my record player." - this quote taken from an early interview with Michael Walters has even made it as a T-shirt slogan for Atavistic Records. Unlike the usual interview stand by - "There was always music in the house.", in my house the music came out of a record player (unless you count my father singing "We'll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again." to my mother's piano accompaniment). My mother liked Fats Waller and she had several 78s, I remember "Viper's Drag" and "Alligator Crawl". Later my sister had Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra records and when the LP era arrived Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter - "Miss Otis Regrets" and the rest.
I was aware of classical music - it came out of the radio not the record player. Once I started to buy records myself they were rock and r n b to begin with, then skiffle and blues and then came the leap into the world of Charlie Parker and, in short order, Dave Brubeck, Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank and Bob Cooper - West Coast jazz was de rigeur in the suburbs of West London in the late 50s and I was in thrall to the taste of my peers. Once I started to learn the saxophone I also started to encounter the music of the other Coast. "Modern Jazz" started to be a pantheon ("the set of gods belonging to a particular mythology" as it says here on Duck Duck Go) of musics and players that I came to recognize after hearing a few notes: Miles. Konitz, Rollins, Coltrane, Monk, Blakey. I wanted to play that kind of music. Perhaps the "Modern" in "Modern Jazz" was more important to me than the J word. I knew that I didn't want to play like Bunk Johnson or Ken Colyer.
The gradual transition from student to "semi-pro" (great term!) player led me to the scene at the Little Theatre Club. All the players I met there initially were also renegades from Modern Jazz. Later Hugh Davies showed up. He was fresh back from Cologne where head had been an assistant to Stockhausen. AMM were a puzzle with their own ex-Stockhausen, Cornelius and their dealings with Cage and his “chance operations". Gavin Bryars did one gig at the LTC with the legendary (perhaps mostly in the sense the thesaurus offers: unreal - lacking in reality or substance or genuineness; not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria; "ghosts and other unreal entities"; "unreal propaganda serving as news") Joseph Holbrooke, and then went to study with Cage in the US.
From this point on the flood gates were open, we weren't playing "jazz" any more, we were playing "improvised music". Can it be that simple? As you say, “if someone tells me it's jazz, I want to explain why they're wrong, but if someone else tells me it isn't jazz that can be just as aggravating!" and this is way before we get to the Wynton Marsalis problem.
I’ll break off for your response,
Dominic Lash writes:
It's funny, I was thinking the other day about how much I used to pore over interviews with favourite players, really internalizing certain phrases or ideas. Sobering to think how many of them may have been misquotations... Anyway, the "roots in the record player" - I remember some kind of academic event I was at once where the speaker was attempting to argue that back in the day, when jazz had been "authentic", players had learnt from live concerts, whereas now records had ossified and ruined everything, more or less. I attempted to counter this by pointing out how much Coltrane had pored over his records of Bird, but this was dismissed. Perhaps it's one of the keys to jazz how quickly its stems, if not its roots, did take up residence in the record player? For something of an outline of my background... There wasn't a record player at home, nor a CD player for ages, just cassettes - I remember Bach, Mozart (a while back I looked at the personnel on an Academy of Ancient Music box and was pleased to see that, yes, my folks did own a recording with Barry Guy on it...), Schubert (the Trout was a favourite, I got brownie points for recognizing it in a restaurant at a pretty young age), but there really wasn't that much music played. My dad always claims to have been a George Shearing fan, but never played any of that stuff. There was a Louis Armstrong tape, but that was mostly singing, and a Bix Beiderbecke, and some Jacques Loussier. The stuff I actually remember getting played by them was comic songs - Joyce Grenfell, Flanders and Swann and all that. Plus a couple of odd and rather alarming enthusiasms - Deep Breakfast?! First album I actually bought (on cassette!) was Prince's Batman album, though I fear I was more attracted by Bruce Wayne than Rogers Nelson. Then later it was the rock of the period (mid 90s - largely American I notice, though I don't remember that being an issue): Rage Against The Machine, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica... early bands were rock bands that played our own stuff and that sort of stuff, on electric bass. I actually started improvising before playing any "proper" jazz at all seriously, though I do remember doing So What with the sixth form big band... A now somewhat distressing period reading electric bass magazines and listening to fusion (Jaco is still OK but some of the rest perhaps requires a discrete veil...). Also a bit of guitar playing - and it's the 30th anniversary issue of Guitar Player which had a feature on radical guitarists, so rather oddly I have that to thank for first introducing me to Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe, Jim O'Rourke, Hans Reichel, and plenty more. Reading about things, hearing odd bits on the radio and taping things from the library, that's where it all started. I can't remember having anybody else to talk to about all this stuff until university. And so of course the sequence and genres were all muddled up, and I didn't care really - I remember the first issue of the Wire I bought (because it had an interview with Robert Fripp) also talked about Cecil's Nefertiti album, Zorn's Masada, and had Photek on the cover, and these were all things I got into but at that point could all have come from Mars as far as I was concerned. (Some idea of how messed up the sequence is can be gained by the fact that I taped Derek with the Ruins from Radio 3, only to tape over it with The Court of the Crimson King...) Funnily enough now I think about it improvised music was the first music I managed to hear live without already having an extensive background listening to it on records. I vividly remember the first time I heard your good self - all I had heard was a short track on a Wire compilation with Lawrence Casserley and Thurston Moore I believe, so a solo concert at New College in Oxford, where you played both soprano and tenor pieces, was an absolute revelation. Followed by a trio with John Edwards and John Russell at the Purcell Room, first time I heard either of them, also stunning. Mark Wastell at his shop gave me Pat Thomas' number, and that led to connections that still exist with those two, plus Alex Ward, Tim Hill (his band with Alex, John Edwards, Steve Noble, Geoff Hawkins, Harry Dawes also very much sticks in the memory), etc. etc. First bands I regularly improvised in were a trio in Oxford with David Stent and Malcolm Atkins and one in London with Sandy Kindness and Paul May. There was plenty of discussion about music but just as likely to be about Feldman, Ferneyhough, John Butcher or Scott Walker than Eric Dolphy... These days if I listen to jazz it's more likely to be Ellington or Jelly Roll Morton (but then it's actually more likely to be Charley Patton, some old Ocora or David Munrow LP, or a weird metal band like Portal instead). What does all this rambling come to? Perhaps just that looking back over the way I got into "this music" (whatever that means), jazz was never a "problem", it was part (a big part) of a (very big) picture. Alexander Hawkins gives me a hard time sometimes because he thinks I deny certain things full "jazz status" (e.g. Derek - he thinks Ballads gives the game away!), but then he once (I hope he won't mind me saying - and he was a little in his cups at the time) tried to claim that Hendrix isn't rock... That Richard Williams quote about Zorn you sent is excellent: "as close as [the Jimmy Giuffre trio] to jazz — in fact impossible without it — yet breathing quite different air" - or as you say, "from this point on ... we weren't playing "jazz" any more, we were playing "improvised music". Can it be that simple?" The difference being that for someone of my generation and background there was no "emergence" from jazz, as a listener it was one thing among many and as a player it actually came later. Perhaps it really is that simple?
Evan Parker writes:
I think I had better quickly get to grips with our age difference! The neat sequence of successive waves I witnessed from be-bop to Tristano school to West coast to cool to East coast to Free jazz to improvised music or - a fork in the path here - to jazz rock and on to Wynton's revivalism with its associated moving geographical centres was already a gross oversimplification of what was actually happening, but by the time you started listening this was all in the past with all the recordings and associated documents available simultaneously.
This availability may have been somewhat theoretical until the world wide web really came on stream, but from your references this far it is clear you were a diligent young researcher.
An example of the ease with which research may now be done:
I had started to talk in interviews in an essentially honest way about an early experience I had had. At the age of fourteen my Father took me to Brussels for a few days to see the 1958 Expo. The famous Le Corbusier/Xenakis Philips Pavilion in the day time From Wikipedia: The Philips Pavilion was a World's Fair pavilion designed for Expo '58 in Brussels by the office of Le Corbusier. Commissioned by Philips, an electronics company based in the Netherlands, the pavilion was designed to house a multimedia spectacle that celebrated postwar technological progress. Because Corbusier was busy with the planning of Chandigarh, much of the project management was assigned to Iannis Xenakis, who was also an experimental composer and was influenced in the design by his composition Metastaseis. The pavilion is a cluster of nine hyperbolic paraboloid in which music, Edgar Varèse's Poème électronique, was spatialized by sound projectionists using telephone dials. The speakers were set into the walls, which were coated in asbestos, creating a textured look to the walls. Varèse drew up a detailed spatialization scheme for the entire piece which made great use of the physical layout of the pavilion, especially the height of it. The asbestos hardened the walls which created a cavernous acoustic. As audiences entered and exited the building Xenakis's musique concrète composition Concret PH was heard. and a (hot) Sydney Bechet concert in the evening. This struck me as too neat an explanation of my subsequent interests not to be thrown into the mix. The fact that I had largely forgotten about the Philips Pavilion experience was not a problem I refreshed my memory from the internet and, furthermore, I was at was the one of the issued recording dates either July 29 and August 3.
Now where's that old passport?
Recorded live at the World Fair, Brussels Belgium, on July 29 & August 3, 1958.
Review by Ken Dryden
After moving to Europe for good, Sidney Bechet was revered by jazz fans on the continent and remained active until shortly before his death in 1959. These excerpts from a 1958 concert in Brussels, Belgium find the soprano saxophonist still exhibiting the strong vibrato and vivid imagination that made him stand alone on the instrument. With trumpeter Buck Clayton and trombonist Vic Dickenson easily fitting into Bechet's New Orleans Jazz style, the sextet offers six swinging performances. Following the rousing rendition of "(Back Home Again In) Indiana," Bechet indulges in a gutbucket treatment of his original "Society Blues." But it is hard to top his extended workout of the traditional favorite, "When the Saints Go Marching In," which generously features the rhythm section (pianist George Wein, bassist Arvell Shaw, and drummer Kansas Fields, though Bechet easily takes top solo honors for the concert. Strangely, this excellent LP has been overlooked as a reissue candidate, so consider it somewhat difficult to acquire. At this concert I felt the most powerful waves of good energy pouring from the stage. The closest I had come to that experience from live music at that point was hearing Lonnie Donegan probably two years earlier in one of the Leicester Square theatres. It seems clear now that whether it was "jazz" or not was far less important than the effect it had on me, As my listening became more informed and critical it became clear that the label meant almost nothing. The real devil was in the detail and that continues to be the case. I am not much more loyal to the "free improvisation" tag. There is plenty of work that meets the generic criteria in both forms but which lacks the power to excite.
It may be a rose by any other name but my God didn't he ramble!
From the garden of earthly delights (aka Kent)
Dominic Lash writes:
You've hit the nail on the head with the observation that "by the time you started listening this was all in the past with all the recordings and associated documents available simultaneously". Even if their availability was spottier than it is now, pre the full-on internet age. In fact this even applies to improvised music as such - something that occurred to me but I didn't say during the "Just Not Cricket" festival in Berlin a few years back, in relation to a question about the difference between playing with, say, Trevor Watts or Lol versus Alex Ward or Rhodri Davies was that I've been listening to all their music on recordings, and hearing them live, for an equal amount of time. So it's not that questions of history or age or development don't come into it, but it's much more complicated than the linear narrative might imply. The story about Xenakis and Bechet is beautiful. Totally irrelevant this, but I've recently become interested in Rosalind Franklin, the scientist whose X-ray images of DNA were absolutely crucial in working out its structure, and who has tended - and still tends - to be either written out or patronised out [as merely an excellent 'technician'] of the Crick and Watson story. It turns out she was also at the '58 Expo, exhibiting a model of tobacco mosaic virus I think. Another nice juxtaposition (especially for me given I'm married to a scientist!) and fun to fantasize about her bumping into Xenakis and how that conversation might have gone... Anyway, something I have been pondering and don't have an answer to is the alternative to a linear narrative that doesn't simply take an Alex Ross-style "everything is wonderful now because we can have a little bit of Steve Reich in the morning, some Cecil Taylor at lunchtime and some John Adams to send us to sleep" approach. I find myself being quoted back at myself in the blurb Daniel Spicer wrote for the Opabinia CD: "[Jazz] is something I’ve listened to and absorbed but it’s not a tradition I grew out of any more than, say, [Japanese classical music] gagaku. It would be odd if it didn’t crop up in various projects, but I’m also sort of wary. I don’t want to end up doing impressions of jazz." I do stand by that but it would be disingenuous to claim that gagaku had as much to do with the sound of that record as jazz does! I suppose for me it comes down to collaborators. It seems more interesting to try and play in a way that will be of interest to the people I'm playing with, and certainly Alex Hawkins isn't going to be interested in the same things that Patrick Farmer is, and vice versa. I was reminded of something Ekkehard Jost said in his Free Jazz book, which I always took umbrage at. He's discussing Braxton, and says that "The qualities and creative principles of the newest European music, however, are possibly too unmalleable to be integrated into the substance of jazz, without leading at the same time to a metamorphosis in which jazz is lost". Then he adds in a footnote that although he still stands by what he says about Braxton's sixties music ("improvisations that are neither slack or taut, with an aimlessness that does not in the least make one suspect a system of mathematical relationships as a groundwork"), in the early seventies his music "got a rhythmic drive and melodical inventiveness that made him one of the most exciting improvisers of the time". I still do take umbrage at various aspects of that, but now that I reflect on it I do think that in my own work there are groups where a certain sort of propulsiveness or momentum is crucial, and others in which it is not, and it is the former groups which seem in my mind to have the most to do with something that might be called jazz.
I've very much enjoyed the way the conversation has developed, throwing out lines of suggestion rather than pursuing a more blinkered course. Perhaps - if we're to risk something like a conclusion - there's something wider to be drawn from that. Namely, that there isn't "a jazz question" any more, more of a patchwork of different histories, preconceptions, and preferences, sometimes relatively clear and sometimes distinctly tangled - and perhaps it's best for the health of the music if it stays that way?
Evan Parker writes:
Good to see you at Cafe Oto the other night. Seeing you there with Anton's band (APARTMENT HOUSE Andrew Sparling / clarinet Dominic Lash / double bass Ruth Ehrlich / violin Andrew Connington & Andrew White / trombones Anton Lukoszevieze / cello Seth Josel / e-guitar + Jérôme Noetinger / reel to reel tape recorder, electronics Antoine Chessex / composition, backtape & live diffusion James Dunn / live sound Apartment House was created by the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze in 1995. Under his Direction it has become a venerable exponent of avant-garde and experimental music from around the World. Apartment House’s performances have included many UK and World premieres of music by a wide variety of composers. In the past 3 years Apartment House has been notable for its sell-out John Cage concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as the opening concert in the International Chamber Music Series and its continual presentation of some of the most radical music of our time. Copied from the Oto website) made me think again of earlier times and the whole complex network of relationships between musicians coming from modern jazz via free jazz to open improvisation and those coming from Cage and indeterminacy and its European relative "aleatoric" music. In the middle 60s the pool of musicians in this new community was relatively small and concerts of Cage and Cardew's notated works would often be played by ensembles made up from representatives of each tendency. The early work of AMM with Cardew was so tied up with notions of chance and all things Cageian that it was seen as a different way of improvising by the players coming from that jazz background. Gavin Bryars left England as a bassist clearly working in a post Scott LaFaro idiom to study with Cage and came home as a composer of "experimental music" (to use Michael Nyman's term). The precursor of the Music Improvisation Company played several concerts of works by composers ranging from Cage to Fluxus mixed with open or "free" improvisation. Gavin was no longer playing bass exclusively but had contact mics on a strange selection of junk (these days sometimes called "amplified objects") and the customary low grade electronics. He was replaced by Hugh Davies who was moving in the other direction having come back from a stint in Cologne as an assistant to Stockhausen. (There's a PhD thesis, a book and possibly a film right there on those two individuals in that turbulent period.) Since we started this dialogue I have been to play two concerts on a festival in Switzerland called "Other Jazz". I played on February 22 with the Schlippenbach Trio (A marvellous free jazz trio/comprising Alex von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker and Paul Lovens that has incredibly maintained group stability, artistic integrity and a staggering level of consistency and development over its period of 40 years. From the Schlippenbach website) The concert the next day was duo with Ikue Mori
(Deux figures majeures de l'avant-garde expérimentale internationale, magnifiquement inventives, se rencontrent pour explorer ensemble temps-espace-matière, territoires mouvants. Taken from the Festival website)
Not one note of anything Wynton Marsalis would call jazz was played in either concert, but Schlippenbach thinks of himself and the trio as playing free jazz, while Ikue started out as a drummer in a rock band and has over the course of thirty odd years moved via drum machine to a lap top which she plays with all the immediacy and control of a pianist, playing live electronic music. I could improvise freely in both concerts, but my approach was determined by the fundamental need to find common ground. The same point you raised, " to try and play in a way that will be of interest to the people I'm playing with"
The name Other Jazz was probably as good as any other. I think what it suggests to people is that there will be an experience that demands focused listening, that it will not have much to do with show-business. It is rare for people to find themselves at a concert of mine expecting to hear "jazzy" "jazz", but when they do as with so much else the world wide web has changed all the rules. It is so easy to find a clip of all of us going about our business that there is no excuse for finding yourself outraged and protesting , "That's not jazz!" all best
Marilyn Crispell & Kris Davis
Kris Davis: What’s it like living in Woodstock? My husband and I have fantasized about moving upstate.
Marilyn Crispell: It also has its pros and cons. It’s a small town, but it’s fairly sophisticated. There are a lot of people from a lot of places here. It’s a very international town with lots of artists. I think it has more artists per capita than any small town in the country. It’s been an artist colony since the early 1900s; both visual arts and music. It’s a small town with all the good and bad about it. Everybody knows your business. You can’t go into town to go to the post office or run errands without running into lots of people. Things close early. But, it’s a lovely city. The nature is beautiful around here. We’re not far from the Hudson river and there are lots of other wonderful towns up here.
I was afraid when I moved up here that I wouldn’t have enough inspiration; that I wouldn’t have enough to push me, but I found that that’s not necessarily true. It’s also nice to have a lot of space and it’s kind of a cliché that with that space your music will become more spacious and lyrical, which is actually what has happened to my music. But, it’s not because of living here. It’s because of getting older and allowing certain aspects of my personality to emerge that I kept undercover for a long time. When I first started out, I was one of the only women doing this kind of thing, and I wanted to be taken seriously by the men. So, I never really let that feminine side of my music to come out. Now I feel like what I’m doing is more balanced.
KD: What did you feel like you were holding back?
MC: I felt like I was holding back this very sensitive lyrical quality. If I played a beautiful ballad, I would have to mess it up or do clever things to it as opposed to just playing it. Now, I feel like I can just play it, if I want to. I’m not as worried about what people think because I’ve realized that the only valid thing is to be true to what is true for you. That’s also the only thing you have to give that’s uniquely yours. And, when you don’t pay attention to that, you’re keeping your unique voice from the world, because you’re trying to sound like someone else or do what other people think you should do. I think there a lot of women especially who do that. They want to please people. I haven’t noticed as many men concerned with that sort of thing.
KD: So you think that’s kind of the feminine experience in jazz or this kind of improvised music?
MC: I think it’s a feminine experience in general. People used to always ask me about being a woman in music, and I used to poo-poo it and say it’s just music: it’s not about women or men, and I still believe that. But, I’m more aware of certain psychological and sociological aspects of it. Because women tend to be more empathetic, I think they are more aware of what people are feeling, and then act accordingly. Whereas, with men, they are more willing to put themselves out there as individuals like “Here I am!” I have rarely heard a man express insecurity, but I’ve heard lots of women who feel that, on some profound level, they are not good enough and have to prove themselves. Do you feel any of that?
KD: I think I felt that more when I first moved to New York. I felt like I had to prove myself and follow the lead of some of the teachers that introduced me to this music. And now, just from experience and the comfort of having been here, I feel less hesitant about being myself and exploring what I think I have to offer or where I want to go in the music.
MC: You know, the other thing is, when I first started out I kind of had my own vision. I wasn’t shy with my music, but I think I was insecure as time went on and things in my music started to change. I would think, “Do I dare play what I’m hearing now, which is more lyrical, etc.” And, I’m sure that in some of the avant-garde circles they thought it was rubbish or whatever, but it doesn’t matter. Whenever I did feel insecure, it was something I kept to myself , because I felt I couldn’t show any weakness in that way.
KD: And, probably because you were one of the only women doing this, that would have been harder for you. For me, I feel like that experience is a little bit different now because there are so many more women. We can express that and not feel like we’re going to be judged.
MC: Yes, exactly. When you feel a passion for something, and you have a drive to do it, you just do it. If you really feel passionate about doing something, then I felt like you couldn’t use the excuse of being a woman as why you were unsuccessful or something. There’s no excuse. There’s an even playing field, and I was pretty adamant about it when people would ask. Carla Bley has said the same thing. And, I didn’t have a lot of patience for a lot of women who would complain that they didn’t get the same chances that a lot of the men did. I always felt like if you believed in what you did and you worked hard, it would work out. That’s kind of how it worked out for me, at that time, so it was hard for me to be sympathetic to it. Sometimes there were people that didn’t work particularly hard or weren’t on a certain level and feminism was a convenient excuse for why they weren’t getting ahead. People will hate me for saying that, but there was some truth in it at the time.
KD: I know what you mean. I’ve always thought that if you work as hard as you can, things will fall into place. And, for better or worse, that’s how I’ve continued to run my life.
MC: When you played classical music, what was your favorite music to play?
KD: At first, I really loved playing Bach and then I got into Bartok. It’s really evolved and I still have the habits I developed from playing classical music as a young person. That’s still a big inspiration for my improvising or composing. Do you play classical music?
MC: I do, but pretty exclusively Bach; sometimes Mozart or Haydn or other things. I went to New England Conservatory and left there with a Bachelor of Music in Piano. I started out as a composition major, but I still pretty much always practice Bach and not something I’m going to improvise, unless I have some music of someone’s that I have to practice. I like the improvisation to be spontaneous. I don’t want to have licks and things to fall back on. Everybody does that to a certain extent, but I try and keep it to a minimum.
KD: Do you use Bach to reconnect with the piano?
MC: I just love it. It has this mathematical perfection in all the voices. I love to play it and focus on the bass lines. I actually think it has a neurological effect on the cellular level. There have been times when I’ve been upset about something, or very angry or depressed and I’ll sit down and play Bach and I feel like it rearranges my mind. By the time I get up from the piano, I feel better.
KD: I often do the same thing. It’s not always with one composer, but I often do get obsessed with one composer, and try and learn multiple pieces to get into the ideas behind their music. And, it’s just a way to get away from thinking about improvising. I think it’s a similar experience.
MC: Do you have a routine? Do you practice and compose every day?
KD: Well, now I have a six month old, so there’s no routine. I’m trying to find ways to make it work, so I can still practice. Even before that, though I didn’t really have a routine. Sometimes I would sit and practice for hours. Sometimes I won’t practice for weeks at a time.
MC: I’m exactly the same.
KD: The same with composing, or do you try and do that every day?
MC: No. Absolutely not. In fact, I think I work better as an improviser than a composer in general. I can compose music if I have to but, in a sense, it’s like once it’s down on paper there’s a kind of commitment to those notes and ideas and it’s not fluid enough for me. I always feel like the stuff I improvise is better than the stuff I write. But, occasionally I do write something, especially if I’m playing with other people and don’t want it to be totally free.
KD: Have you tried to transcribe your improvising and use it as a piece?
MC: Occasionally I’ve done that. There was one recording for ECM called Amaryllis, where Gary Peacock started this very simple bass line and I improvised a melody over it that I really loved, and so I went back and transcribed the melody I had played. But, in general, no. When I first started, I didn’t even like the idea of recording. I liked playing the music and letting it go out into the cosmos and travels into infinity and it’s not frozen onto a disc. Just like you’re not frozen into a photograph. I sort of liked that idea. But, then I realized that I may not have ever gotten into this music if I hadn’t heard A Love Supreme, so there is that value in recording and documenting stuff, but I think everything is so documented now, that I don’t know how that is affecting risk taking and spontaneity. It used to be that you could get up and play a concert and take the risk of falling on your face. Now, you can still do that, but it’s going to show up on YouTube. And, if you care about that kind of thing, it’s going to make you more careful. Maybe you’ve had a bad night and if that’s what someone hears of yours it sends a different impression. I just wonder what kind of affect that is having on the music. It does have its advantages though, as well. You can here more things than you would have been able to maybe 20 years ago or something.
KD: And, in a way, it’s bringing out the human aspect in things. So, if people get to hear the music and it’s not the most perfect thing, they’re still hearing you in some human way. Even with the studio recordings I’ve done, I’ve just looked at it as part of a process instead of relying on the recording to be the way everyone is going to perceive me. It’s just a way of documenting a certain period of time, and then move on from that.
MC: That’s a wonderful thing to say. And it’s a good point about it being a process and not an end product. There’s a book called Blues People by Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and he talks about how, in the Western world, people tend to make icons of things and put them in museums, whereas in jazz it’s really a process and development. Not that Wynton Marsalis would agree with that, but then again maybe he would. You know, the question that Nate asked, when he asked what would be the thing that has to be there in jazz? I would say it has to have the spirit of freedom and experimentation.
KD: You mean, in what defines jazz?
MC: Yes. It’s not a stationary thing. It’s an ever-evolving thing that changes with culture and society and the times.
KD: I completely agree with that. That’s exactly what I would say as well.
MC: I think, just to further answer that question: I think if it hadn’t been for the black experience in America, there would be no jazz. Even though, in a lot of ways, it’s become a very integrated world, I think that has to be acknowledged, obviously.
KD: There are so many things that go along with that word; so many ideas and concepts. Do you describe yourself as a jazz musician? Do you use that word when you talk about yourself?
MC: I call myself an improviser. I tell people I play improvised music; that it’s somewhere between jazz and classical music, but maybe more jazz, emotionally. As far as work is concerned, you know, in terms of getting work, I don’t get hired to play classical music festivals. I get hired to play jazz festivals. And, as far as defining what jazz is or isn’t, it’s all just music, and why do you have to say what it is or isn’t. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t. People want to categorize things so they know whether or not they should like it. Or they give it a name to own it. If you call it jazz, maybe you feel like you have a right to own it because it comes from your history. I can understand where that sort of thing comes from, but somebody like Anthony Braxton; he says he doesn’t play jazz. But, in a lot of ways, I think he has been as much of a jazz musician as a composer. He doesn’t want to call himself anything, but to be just taken seriously for his music. And he hasn’t been taken seriously by the white composer world and he hasn’t been taken seriously by the black jazz world, so he’s somewhere in the middle now.
KD: I think a lot of us feel that way. We’re in the cracks. We don’t know where we belong or how we want to describe this music.
MC: I think “improvised music” covers it, but it doesn’t sound very exciting. Chamber jazz? I don’t know. I think the kind of music I play is best in small, intimate spaces. I like to feel like I can really feel the audience. But, then, to make money you have to play big halls. It’s part of the business maybe. I hate the business, actually. It’s not why I got into it.
KD: I know what you mean.