Gonzalez : The OFN Interview
Some of you reading this interview might have occasion to pause and
think, "That interviewer guy sure does think he has a lot to say."
But I can explain... Dennis Gonzalez is one of the great collaborators
of the last quarter century of creative and improvised music history.
The evidence for this claim can be seen below, and my own loquaciousness
only strengthens the argument. Dennis, in his graciousness and generosity
of spirit, in his ability to listen actively—even to a writer—welcomes
articulation, opens up a comfortable space where you could swear you
hear beguiling melodies and harmonies in the coursing of conversation.
He is a great orchestrator of talk.
Yells At Eels live at Moontunes
Industries, Dallas TX, September 2000. left to right: Aaron
González, Dennis González, Kim Corbet, Stefan
In other words: Dennis Gonzalez, mostly known to some jazz listeners
as a radio personality, record producer and occasional trumpet improviser,
continues to explore every avenue of aesthetic expression that discloses
itself to him. Dennis Gonzalez lives in a manner that refutes the
notion of the jazz musician as a character at the margins of society,
a person displaced and wounded by the vagaries of their own talents.
Dennis—as a musician, a poet, a visual artist, an educator,
and a man of the family—is the ultimate example of the jazz
musician as a central figure in and vital contributor to the life
of his community. Through the valor of their own expressions, artists
such as Dennis thrust the boundaries of that encompassing social order
ever outward, and facilitate our understanding of ourselves, our new
neighbors, and our world.
What follows are several email exchanges and a sit-down conversation
between the author and subject, all of which took place over a two-week
period from the end of January through the first days of February,
Email exchanges, 21 January 2001 - 30 January 2001
The first, most compelling question: what are
your current activities centering around?
I'm involved in so many disciplines that I could probably lay
out a typical day of my life at this time to explain what my activities
are centered around, but I'll spare you the melodrama and give you
a glimpse of what I'm doing...
First of all, my real job consists of teaching at two schools for
the Dallas Public Schools. I teach French and Jazz Studies at Spence
Middle School in East Dallas in the morning, and in the afternoon
I teach Estudiantina, which is a class that used to be called "Mariachi".
We now have so many students from all over Latin America, that we
play not only Mariachi, which is Mexican music, but also all types
of musics from Cuba, Argentina, even Gypsy music from Southern Spain.
I'm in the process of helping put out my most recent "jazz" recording
which I did in Chicago in 1999 at the Chicago Humanities Festival
with poet Yusef Komunyakaa, drummer Susie Ibarra, bassist/sitarist
Mark Deutsch, and harmonica player Sugar Blue, who plays the famous
riff on the Rolling Stones "Miss You", you know... [hums a few notes]...
Not only did I write and arrange the music, I'm also altering a few
images taken by 8th Harmonic Breakdown Records producer, Tony Getsug
(he's the guy putting out the recording).
My improvisational trio, Yells At Eels is preparing a new CD which
I'm going to try to sell to some record company or put out myself...
we've done the first 4 tracks and will do another two when Assif Tsahar
and Alvin Fielder are in town for a gig at Moontunes. Yells at Eels
is me on trumpet, keyboards, and samples, along with my son Aaron
on acoustic and electric bass, and my younger son Stefan on drums
and what we call Stain Vocals, which is the kind of singing he does
when he and his brother play hardcore punk as Akkolyte.
Akkolyte is in the process, as am I, of putting together a website
(akkolyte.tripod.com), and I'm doing the scanning and sending to webmasters.
My website is dennisgonzalez.com...
I've also started working on a new series of healing fans made with
parts of stringed instruments and feathers, and yarn and wire. I hadn't
made any talismans or magical objects since I finished a series called
"Archetypal Objects" back around 1994, and its good to get back to
that combination of visual and ritual art.
I'm also working on booking a European tour for Yells At Eels for
mid-summer and a tour for Akkolyte in early June. It's going OK, but
we'll see how it actually works out in the end!
I've also just been invited to submit a proposal for a commission
on a new piece for my second Chicago Humanities Festival. Hopefully,
they'll be pleased, and I'll be in Chicago in November of 2001!
There's a (phonetic) pun to "Yells at Eels", isn't there?
I've played with African-American jazzers from the South (as well
as the North, East, and West) and there was a time when it was slangy
to respond positively to a question by saying "Yes it is!" in Deep-Black
Southern slang (Yells At Eels!). Now, it's hip to say, when you're
asking if everything's OK, "It ain't nothin' but a thang...!", but
I couldn't find a way to use that as a band name.
You mention that Yells at Eels involves both your sons. There
have been a number of famous families in improvised music—Detroit's
Jones Brothers, the Freemans of Chicago, Jackie and Rene McLean, Charles
Moffett and his sons—but most listeners to what most often gets
called "free jazz" don't give much thought to the life choices made
by their favorite players. Nor, I think, it is easy to imagine a "free"
player opting for a life that involves for serious domestic responsibilities.
But your children have also been an inspiration to you (if your recordings
are any indication). How gratifying is working with Stefan and Aaron
in a creative capacity? And how, if indeed it has, has it affected
your parental existence?
I always had in the back of my head a wish, which I never expressed
in words, maybe not a wish, but a "what if?", that my sons would allow
me to play with them. If you listen to their band Akkolyte practicing
and writing music, you can see how particular they are about the quality
of music they play. I don't get that same "quality filter" from a
lot of the older musicians that I've played with. They're like "let's
just jam", and I don't just want to "jam"... there are ideas that
I want to explore, and I need time to do it. My boys are there for
me, ready to take the time and give what they have, and more, to the
Yells At Eels Chicago IL,
March 2000. back to front: Dennis González, Stefan González,
Aaron González. photo by Tony Getsug.
I've really put some work the past three years into keeping my home
together. My wife is the most supportive person I've known, and it's
my turn to support her and shore up my end of the family responsibilities,
and that includes being at home most of the time that I'm not at my
job—which is part of the responsibility. Plus, I not only love
the three other people that make up my family, I like them a lot.
We've weathered the ups and downs, and they've all 3 taught me in
their three different ways to survive, to keep floating in the storm,
and to come out smiling and working on the everyday aspects of daily
We've gone on road trips for relaxing: Cuba, Northern Ireland, the
desert U.S. and other places; and on road trips for gigs, and it's
always fun. Hard work, but fun.
I've learned a lot about punk and hardcore and even the new forms
of "free" jazz because my sons seem to be more open to newer forms
than I am, and I used to think I was open! We're playing all that
and more in the music, and I'm excited to be allowed a chance to play
Clearly, working with young people is important to you. Your
sons, but also your students. How do the values you hold dear as an
improvising musician and the values you hold dear as a educator interface?
I highly value individualism, and because of that, I allow and
encourage creative movement to happen within the strict forms that
I'm teaching. If, for example, we are learning a cumbia in my Estudiantina
class, I let the students put their own style, their own artistic
stamp onto the music. I have singers from Cuba and different regions
of Mexico who sing more or less in the different styles of their regions,
and are sometimes criticized for that artistic license by the students
who are more "purists" in their understanding of cumbia. I allow these
differences to come in, and then later, the students realize on their
own that the ensemble is theirs, and the music we make has their stamp
on it... it sounds like them.
Another value I "hold dear", as you put it, is racial unity, racial
harmony. My ensembles have always been multi-ethnic and interracial
in their makeup. I've always been intrigued by the differences that
make us all alike. When I teach languages, I stress the beauty of
difference in ethnicity, in culture, in race, and how the synthesis
of all of these different colors is a living music in our lives.
I have pointed out to several of my Latino students in the past few
months that the African-American student they are making fun of could
be a cousin, and it gives me a chance to point out genetic traits
that show that African blood flows through their veins, through their
movement through space, in the rhythm of their voices and the timbre
in which their speech is centered.
I believe that family is so important... If the student has no involvement
from his or her family in his or her life, I show that student affection
and guidance and tell that person that I'm there whenever I'm needed,
the same way I'm available to my own two sons. Sometimes what is needed
is just a listening ear, and I'm there for that too... Anyway, the
message of my own music reverberates with togetherness, tolerance,
kindness, beauty, all those values that have been lost in the 21st
That globalism has always been a hallmark of your recorded
work, for certain. The political circumstances that first obtained
at the time "free jazz" was being independently developed by Coleman,
Sun Ra, Coltrane, Dolphy, Taylor, Shepp, the AACM and BAG musicians,
led to an early and by-now hard to dissociate emphasis on such music
as authentically expressive of African-American consciousness. Yet
jazz in all its permutations has always had a strong Latino orientation.
Jelly Roll Morton had his "Spanish tinge", Dizzy Gillespie his Afro-Cuban
Orchestra, and we even have to consider phenomena such as bossa nova.
How, as a Latino or Hispanic-American, have you made space for yourself
in a music that is widely perceived to be, if not exclusive, the rightful
property of another ethnic and cultural constituency? And do you feel
being Mexican-American—little represented in new music circles—has
played a role in this process?
I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church, which is unusual
for a Mexican-American, and the music of the church, a lot of it comes
from Negro Spirituals, and the hymns written by Southerners who were
influenced by the music of African-Americans. I hold those songs,
those hymns deep within my heart and deep in my spirit. So when I
started playing jazz (I was originally a rock'n'roller) I felt the
spirit of the hymn-form in the music I was listening to, and of course,
it started showing up in my music. Part of the reason I claimed African-American
music as my own was because of that.
By the time I started playing jazz, in the early '70's, Black Power
and the Black-is-Beautiful movement had already been established,
and established African-American Free Jazz players frequently did
not work with Caucasian-Americans, but I think they recognized that
my being Latino put me in a similar predicament... "my people" were
also struggling to be heard and recognized, we also were involved
in the struggle to claim our Civil Rights, and they saw me as a "brother",
not in color, but in spirit. So when I began recording for better-known
international labels, I began working with mostly-Black ensembles:
John Purcell, Malachi Favors, Ahmed Abdullah, Charles Brackeen, Max
Roach, Cecil Taylor, "Kidd" Jordan, Alvin Fielder, Roy Hargrove, Louis
Moholo, and many others, carving my place in the circles of Great
Black Music, while at the same time, working with European musicians:
Elton Dean, Keith Tippett, Lado Jaksa, Kazimierz Jonkisz, Svetlana
Makarovic and so on.
Your music, your poetry and prose,
and the physical artifacts you've produced all evince a passionate
engagement with things spiritual and, in some cases, physical. What
was the role of religion in your own upbringing? Was Catholicism a
strong force in your household?
I've recognized over the years that I live in a world of spirit.
When we see the husk, the body of a living being, we are seeing the
outward manifestation of an internal spirit. Sometimes it is very
difficult for the spirit, which is light and ethereal to move this
body to its bidding, and so we frequently make mistakes and bad choices
in the physical realm, whereas the spirit is pure and radiant, and
we must always strive to see past the physical to the spirit that
pervades the body and this world that we see physically. The Unseen
is truly the real, and I am expressing what I see and feel as Spirit
because as I said, that's the real stuff. As the Hindus say, all else
is illusion. King Solomon says in the biblical scriptures that all
is vanity... that's what he was talking about.
When I was growing up, our church was located right next door to the
home of a family of devout Catholics, and frequently, during our evening
prayer services, especially during the hot, hot South Texas summers,
the windows of the church would be wide open and the neighborhood
kids would all be gathered in the backyard of the Catholic family
reciting the Catechism and the Novenas, and other important and sacred
works. Half of my brain would be listening to the old ladies of the
church saying their long prayers, and the other part of me would be
fascinated by the repetitive mantras that the Catholic kids were reciting,
and I would be transported in a sort of primitive ecstasy to a New
Place, some kind of Heaven, where I understood that the suffering
on earth that I was going through was temporary. That place is the
Related to considerations of the mystical in music, you've
said you're very much interested in doing things other than just free
improvisation in your own music. Anthony Braxton—another global
thinker and maybe the most unique structuralist thinker alive in the
world—has gone on record as saying:
|I think that open improvisation has become—not
irrelevant, exactly, but it strikes me as being very close in
spirit to the Neo-Classicists at Lincoln Center, in the sense
that it's now well over thirty-years-old as a style. Avant-Garde
Incorporated. It's like saying that nothing has happened in
the last two-thousand years that we can continue to build on,
so we're going to move into a state of Neo-Paganism. [from the
liner notes, complied and edited by Francis Davis, to OCTET
(NEW YORK) 1995, Braxton House Records BH-006, 1997]
This comment seems to aim at and strike some of the concerns
and interests you've already expressed. How do you respond to this
I feel that open improvisation is only one of the many tools or
techniques to discover one's own music, and frequently it becomes
the lazy way out for a lot of people. It's certainly easier to go
buy fast food than it is to cook a good solid prepared meal, and yet,
the prepared meal is much better for you than the fast food. Too much
of "no form" is like fast food. It's quickly depleted and then you
have to go find something solid to eat. That solid food in music is
your own self-statement, and it takes time and practice, just like
As a writer, what do you feel the relationship
of language is to music? And what makes "good writing" about music,
to your tastes?
On those rare occasions when we hear a musician play an instrument,
and out of the instrument comes something that sounds like the human
voice, then we are truly touched because the human voice is one of
the essentials for feeding ourselves and staying well. Our mother's
voice is one of the earliest musics we hear, after the music we hear
inside the womb, and those of us who remember early on in our young
lives the soothing sound of a mother's voice can intuit the relationship
between language and music. After all, music is a language as well
as a way of communicating, as is writing and speaking.
writing" about music is usually based on finding the way to plumb
the depths of the music and coming up with a near-poetry that closely
parallels the music one is writing about. Good writing about music
should be mystical in quality, because music itself is a mystery.
I read once a review by one of our local writers of a new album by
the rock group Pink Floyd, and I was disappointed in his writing,
not because he referred to them as dinosaurs and didn't like the music
because of his being a "modern" listener, but because he didn't see
the poetic side of the music, he didn't see the struggle that this
group had to go through to re-phrase in language and in sound the
things that they've been saying for 30 years (or more?). I try to
always come away with something beautiful and healing from whatever
music I hear, whether I like it or not, and then take it with me and
learn from it and feel what another human felt at the time of the
making of the music. Writing about it should be like that!
We've talked a little, then, about your upbringing. Texas has
its great tenor sax tradition, of course. Less discussed are the many
fine trumpet players to come from the state: Hot Lips Page, Charlie
Teagarden, Kenny Dorham, Richard Williams, Bobby Bradford, Hannibal
Peterson all had Texas roots. When was it you decided on the trumpet?
Why? Was there any explicit or implicit sense of these or other fellow
Texans—even extend that to Southwesterners—that influenced
your decision? Has your relationship with your instrument—if
we can talk about such—changed over the years? How?
I've been playing trumpet since I was 10 years old, and my relationship
to the trumpet has certainly changed over the 36 years that I've been
playing. When I first started playing, it was because I realized that
in the school band, the trumpet was usually THE solo instrument. I've
been shy all my life, and I guess it was one way of bringing attention
to myself without trying too hard. Plus I liked the brassy loudness
of the thing... it was my first expensive toy. Then, as I began to
understand how it is played and the work that goes into it, I began
to have a healthy respect for it, and realized that there are days
when the horn is my friend, and then there are days that I have to
fight it. It's a very abstract instrument to play compared to the
keyboard instruments and the woodwinds and the strings—even
compared to the percussion family. These other instruments are linear
and visually so. To go up and down pitch-wise, you simply go physically
up and down on the instrument. The trumpet, however, has a series
of valved movements that must be memorized in order to remember if
the particular combination of pushed valves will move you up or down,
or even if you'll stay at the same pitch!
At home, the jazz we listened to was from the swing era, since my
father loved swing. I preferred his Stan Kenton records because he
was so experimental for that time. Truly I was not aware until around
1969 of the history of the jazz trumpet, when an assistant band director
noticed my rapidly decaying interest in concert band music and gave
me a Sam Rivers album on Blue Note, "Contours" with Freddie Hubbard
on trumpet. The music was so exotic and "out" and exactly what I needed
to keep my interest on things at hand, namely the trumpet and concert
band music. The first jazz trumpeters to re-spark my interest after
entering university were the Europeans: Tomasz Stanko, Enrico Rava,
Manfred Schoof, Dusko Gojkovic, that group of players. Even the Miles
that I was listening to was post-Bitches Brew, the album Big
Fun with the long-extended electric improvisations. I didn't know
the Texas players or their history until London's Wire Magazine
wrote a "Best of..." article about my music, and they pointed out
that I had drunk in Hot Lips Page's spirit with my mother's milk the
year he died, which was the year I was born. That's when I started
researching Texas trumpeters.
Speaking of Hannibal Peterson, his record with the Harlem Boys Choir
came out, The Angels Of Atlanta, and I loved the hymn-like
singing on the record, his cousin Pat Peterson being the singer. I
began looking for her, and it turned out that she lived in Dallas
at the time. I contacted her and we recorded together with John Purcell
on the album Little Toot, named for my son Aaron, who now plays
bass in Yells at Eels.
How would you personally define "jazz"? Is "jazz" even a word
you find worth keeping in the vocabulary at-large?
I think that the word "jazz" is dated, except for those neo-trad
players who actually play jazz, you know like Marlon Jordan, Donald
Harrison, Joshua Redman, and so many new players that I've only read
about. I think that jazz is slowly being absorbed by the music that's
out there today... you hear jazz in all kinds of music, so that now,
jazz isn't absorbing all these influences like it used to, it's being
eaten up, expropriated, if you will... I guess with the open approach
to music that I take, I could be the epitome of the jazzer, though
I'm nowhere near a traditionalist... what a contradiction of terms,
Conversation, 1 February 2001
I'm guessing that a lot of people who are going to be
reading this might have heard your name, but probably don't know much
about what you've done. So you were born in Abilene, Right?
Yes, I was born in Abilene, Texas, and my parents moved down to
South Texas, to the border, to a town called Mercedes. I was born
in '54 when they were in Abilene for the summer. My dad was a schoolteacher,
then he became a principal, and through the years he kept getting
bumped up a little more. He was finally offered a job in Abilene,
but he came to Dallas instead, in '71. I was already in college. When
I graduated, I got married, and moved back to my hometown of Mercedes.
And jobs in South Texas, they paid very, very poorly. I mean, the
economy down there is so bad. My dad said, "If you come up to Dallas
there are plenty of jobs. The DISD [Dallas Independent School District]
is looking, so come up". I've been here since, I guess, '76. For all
intents and purposes, I am a Dallasite.
You really are. For good and bad. [laughs] So, where did you get
Believe it or not, I went to Arkansas State University.
Arkansas State—where is that?
It's in Jonesboro, in the Eastern part, near Missouri, Kentucky,
Tennessee. In the Delta area of the Mississippi. But I got a degree
in French, actually.
And what happened is that, I really wanted badly to be in the
jazz band because I had just become interested in jazz, and they didn't
think I was good enough. They never asked me to audition. It's kind
of an exclusive little clique, but in the end, I'm the only one from
that school who's gone on to actually have a career in this music.
Funny how that works. So do you have any brothers or sisters?
I have two brothers and I have a sister. They live here in Dallas
and they are all schoolteachers for DISD.
did you first teach when you came to Dallas, which school?
I was in South Oak Cliff in a middle school called Boude Storey,
teaching French. I was right in the African-American area and I had
never been around the culture, so I had a lot of learning to do. It
was very, very different. At that time it was also kind of a battleground.
Lots of things dealing with desegregation and things like that. So
that's where I got my chops in teaching, a baptism by fire literally.
Two years later, 1978, the principal at North Dallas High School asked
me to come over to take over the Mariachi position. The instructor
who was teaching it was about to retire and go to Monterrey [Mexico].
The principal said, "You're a jazz musician. You can learn Mariachi".
What was interesting is that when we were growing up we never listened
to Hispanic music. My dad listened to swing jazz—we never listened
to accordion music, never listened to Tejano. No Norteña. My Dad really
didn't like it. He really liked jazz a whole lot, though.
That's funny though because there is a great deal of improvisation
in Tejano music. I mean, to me somebody like Flaco Jimenez or even
Esteban Jordan, they're great improvisers really. Especially Esteban,
he's got a great sense of humor. His slight parodies of polka rhythms...
I don't know what he's doing now. I'd love to find out.
He's still down in Austin as far as I know.
I hear he is very hard to get a hold of. He's kind of reclusive
and all he does is what he wants to. I'd love to do something with
It's interesting to me that people who have never lived down here
probably don't realize that there is a strain of improvisatory music
in this area has little to do with jazz, in fact you might even say
it is pre-jazz.
[laughing] Well, yeah,
not so much that. Also that Tejano music, conjunto music, there was
that Germanic presence in Mexico that you hear in the polkas and everything.
Which, actually, figured into early jazz. Because early jazz was all
about concert music and marches and things of that nature.
A lot of the people who listen to Tejano and Norteña music have
no idea of the Germanic influence. They don't realize that Fredericksburg
[in central Texas] and those little towns were so instrumental in
combining the Germanic and the Hispanic and making a new music out
of it. It's one of the newer music forms.
It is. It's
comparable to jazz in that regard in terms of being a synthesis of
all these different strains.
I think it's probably even a little younger than jazz. You know,
I do have a Tejano / Norteña trio called Banda de Brujos, with accordion,
bass. I play guitar and trumpet, and I sing too—all traditional
Who's your accordion player?
His name is Jesus Vasquez. He was a student of mine at North Dallas.
I remember one day somebody told me that there was a little accordion
player who wanted to play in my group. Yet they were saying, "But
you teach Mariachi and he plays accordion." I said, "Wait a minute,
come here, bring him on." And when he showed up in my class, I said,
"What do you know? Why don't you play something?" He said, "I don't
know anything." "Well, do you know maybe a song?" And he said "Yeah,
maybe." Then he started playing! All the kids just were just so entranced.
He ended up playing two hours of the little that he didn't know. When
he was a junior, he became a member of my trio and helped me to learn
more Hispanic music, which I had never really played in a legit form.
Before that point I had just kind of "mixed it in" with my jazz.
It's interesting, you hear the accordion a lot in some
of these newer ensembles. Maybe the legacy of the past 10 years will
really be the continued expanding of the possibilities of the small
jazz ensemble, accordion and violin also being just two prominent
examples. Dave Douglas has his group with Guy Klucevsek, who's also
a contemporary composer. Ellery Eskelin works in a trio with Andrea
Parkins, who augments her accordion with electronics and samplers.
Dino Saluzzi, who's from Argentina, has been working on his own unique
fusion for years. And then there are also several more players in
Europe who draw extensively on local traditions. Richard Galliano
is the Italian-French virtuoso, and he's rather amazing.
Yes, Galliano is fantastic.
I call him the Billy Bang of the accordion.
He gets that rapture going.
Have you heard the symphonic pieces of Werner Pirchner, who's
played with [Jack] DeJohnette and Harry Pepl? He does symphonic music
for Brass Quintet... in fact, he calls it something like "String Quartet
for Brass Quintet". He has one work that sounds almost like pipe organ
music but it's a bass accordion and a tenor accordion and it is beautiful
symphonic music. He has a double album called EU, which is
"EU", or maybe its pronounced "Oi"... [laughs] very interesting works.
He uses a big huge keyboard accordion, the bass accordion.
Kind of like when the AEC would pull out the bass saxophone.
Oh yeah, the contrabass sax that was 8 feet tall? [laughs] You've
heard the accordion joke haven't you? There was a guy who had a gig
on the bad side of town, and, he just left his car for a few minutes
to check to see exactly where the gig was, and left his accordion
in the back seat. And he was just gone for a couple of seconds...
He gets back and, of course, his back window's broken out. There's
another accordion lying beside it.
[laughs] Know any
bassist or drummer jokes?
Nils Petter Molvaer told me one that was really silly. He starts:
Bu-vana—you know Bwana, the white man—was going through
the jungle with his porters and they keep hearing drums. "Dum da dum,
Dum da dum." You may have heard this, I don't know... Anyway, and
the guides stop him to say "Bu-vana, wery"—and Nils says it
in his Norwegian accent—"wery, wery bad. Bad. Bad omen." "Why?"
"Oh, the drums, the drums..." But they keep going and the drums keep
getting louder. And the guide stops again and says, "Bu-vana, getting
worse, wery, wery, wery bad." "Why, what do the drums mean?" "Bad,
bad." But they keep trudging. Finally, Bu-vana can't stand it anymore
and he stops them as says "What, what it is about the drums?" And
they drop their packs and they say "Don't you know? When drums stop,
bass solo." [laughs]
And they tell me that they love Terje Rypdal so much, he's practically
their mentor. And they call him Turgid Reptile.
I have to ask you about the radio station, though. How did that come
about? When did you first start working for KERA-FM [Dallas-area public
I started working for KERA in 1978. What happened is that I had
been in town a year and a half, and started listening to KERA. That
was when they had a full, 12-hour jazz program at night, say, from
6 in the afternoon until 6 in the morning. I would listen when I could.
One guy named Dave Thomas used to play really interesting music. One
day I called him and said, "I'm not going to bug you, I just want
to send you some things on tape so you can hear them. It's new stuff,
it's about some areas where you could expand your program, you know..."
And I don't know why I thought he would listen, but he did. He called
me at home and said, "You know, there's a Blockbuster coming up"—KERA
used to have Blockbusters on Saturdays, and for 8 hours they would
feature a particular style of music or some kind of holiday programming—Dave
said, "We're going to have a jazz Blockbuster and I want you to do
it." I said "I don't know anything about radio." "Ah, you'll be fine.
You'll have an engineer and we'll talk about it beforehand and make
sure you're prepared." So I prepared my 8 hours of music, went
on the radio, and I played my stuff and talked about it and I loved
it. I had always wanted to be a DJ anyway. Another chance for another
Blockbuster came up about 6 months later and I did that one, too.
Then, KERA hired one of the Dallas Cowboys to do a jazz show in the
evenings... What was his name? He ended up going to the Denver Broncos.
Butch Johnson. The year that he went to the Broncos, he told our
manager, "Look, I'm not coming back. I'm moving to Denver", and the
manager called me and said, "Would you like to do a show?" I was just
blown away. I was at the right place, I was daring enough...
Management kept moving my program around, slowly doing away with jazz,
and I tried to stay with it. But, after 21 years, we got a manager
that I just couldn't get along with. I told him, "You know, I was
doing this for fun, because I love it, and because I know I can do
a good show. But you're not giving me a chance." Everyone was really
surprised when I went in and said, "That's it!" KERA had become all
talk radio anyway. I think they were just waiting for me to either
die or give up. [laughs] I said, "Fine. You can't fire me because
I'm going to leave."
I never knew that about Butch
Johnson. He was probably more famous for his touchdown dance than
anything else. The California Quake.
It was so strange, because Butch didn't really know jazz. He listened
to jazz, but I remember one time he was talking about Sonny Rollins.
I think somebody gave him playlists for what to play, and they just
used him because he was well known. But he was on-air saying something
about, "Sonny Rollins on tennis... uh, tenor." [laughs] Totally out
of it. Anyway, he was a nice guy.
And so it was also
about this time that you first started to really participate in this
collective movement here in Dallas. The daagnim group.
The daagnim thing. When I moved to Dallas I figured out that the
jazz musicians have a traditional system of "paying your dues", which
means you go and make an appearance. Then you make an appearance every
other night, and then you take your horn and beg the guy to let you
play after he's heard you... you know, that old "paying your dues"
thing. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to take the time, and
I certainly didn't like the music they were doing. I mean, I like
standards, but I didn't feel like I wanted to play standards at the
time. I was already composing my own music. Plus this music that I
heard in my head was far different than what these guys were doing.
Little by little, I started seeing that there were people out there
who were not crazy—like I thought I was—there was actually
some music out there like mine. Somehow we started hooking up with
each other. I just kept my ears open. Plus, I was on the radio playing
a lot of this music, and people would call me and say, "Wow, you mean
you play Art Ensemble? You know who Julius Hemphill is?" Even the
quiet ECM stuff, they were surprised somebody was playing it. Little
by little we started visiting each other and talking to each other.
Twenty years later, how would you describe that music you heard?
How would you describe what it was you wanted to do? How important
was improvisation, and how important the use of predetermined materials?
First European Concert
Tour, Dennis González New Music Workshop Ensemble. Ljubljana
Mednarodni Jazz Festival: Ljubljana, Slovenia, July 1982.
left to right: Dennis González, Ratko Divjak, Bogo Pecnikar,
If you're asking about the music I heard in my head, it was a
very eclectic, almost wild-sounding music based equally in form and
improvisation. I heard strange meters and tempos in crazy-sounding
combinations with strange-sounding instruments. I wasn't aware before
1968 of people like Pharoah Sanders or even the early screaming saxophone
of Jan Garbarek. I'd not heard Balinese rhythms or Bulgarian singers,
but in later years, it seemed like all these elements of music were
being beamed into my ears and brain for later use. So when I decided
to put my own music together, it was all that stuff working its way
out of my head through the 49 instruments I used on "Air Light (Sleep
Sailor)" and onto the 4-track machine that my wife had bought me.
Before I met the daagnim guys, I was laying down songs myself one
track at a time, painstakingly, making lots of mistakes, just trying
to learn how to use the 4-track and the 2 microphones Carol had bought
That whole first record was improvised, but as I would go back and
listen to and study what I'd done, patterns began to emerge, melodies,
harmonies, whole songs waiting to be released. I began to understand
then the importance of silences in the music, the importance of movement
and change within a song, the emotional meaning of certain sounds,
and just what those sounds did to the body and the mind.
All of us daagnim guys somehow came to these same realizations independently,
and when we finally met and started working on our collective music,
we figured out that we'd all been hearing the same music in our minds
for a long time now, and how we gravitated toward each other I've
never figured out...
We began playing and composing and working together, kind of "ad hoc",
with no real goal or direction. I guess we were waiting for the big
moment to happen, and the big moment happened in 1979. I was in California
with my brother and I decided to call Art Lande. He was very gracious,
very nice, and said, "Come over." That started a 4 or 5 year relationship
where he ended up coming to Dallas to do a three-night solo piano
thing at Bill Tillman's club downtown, The King's Club. Bill Tillman
ended up not paying him. I had to take it out of my own pocket to
pay him, which Lande appreciated. He had a big workshop session for
the musicians I had been playing with, and he addressed the bunch
of us, saying, "I 'm going to suggest something, guys. Not only am
I going to teach you modern techniques, new things that we're doing,
things that they are doing in New York, Stockholm, and Cologne. I'm
going to show you how to start a little organization. Everybody is
doing that kind of thing in order to survive. The AACM, the BAG guys;
you know, Houston has a collective, Minneapolis / St. Paul has a collective,
even Atlanta has a collective." So, we said, "OK," and I headed it
up. As the years went on, I was the only one who was working on the
organization and putting out records. I eventually put out 21 records.
The thing that was really funny was that even though these guys were
my cooperative pals, they never really offered to do a project, to,
say, bring Braxton to town, to spend a little of their own money.
They were not interested. So, after a while, I just kept putting out
my own records, quit supporting the group, and started concentrating
on my own music. That's when it took off for me. That's when I met
John Purcell. Things opened up. I met DeJohnette and he was very gracious
to me, very nice. Momentum started to build and I met more people.
So really in a way daagnim was a workshop, and composition was
a big part of it.
It was composition, but it was also to support each other.
If I needed somebody to play bass, I had 4 or 5 bassists to choose
from. It was much easier to take a gig, especially a gig that was
going to take some doing and people who wanted to rehearse. Nowadays,
people don't want to rehearse unless they get paid. And I understand
that, but—we were available to each other at the time. And a
lot of times we would just show up at somebody's house and somebody
would have a recorder and we would record it, get it mixed-down and
put it on a record. We were chronicling daily what was going on.
And yet were bridges burned in that process of daagnim's dissolution?
Is there something you miss from that way of working?
When it ended, I think all of us burned a few bridges in our own
ways. We've never gone back to that time and way of working, which
had its advantages and disadvantages. The thing that ultimately broke
the bonds I had with daagnim "the organization" was when John Purcell
said to me very bluntly, "You are a world-class musician who needs
to play with world-class musicians. You have been putting all this
time and money into this local organization and music, and yes, of
course, these guys have helped you reach this point, but it's time
to concentrate on YOU!" I was pretty shaken up by this revelation,
both in good ways and bad, and I fought myself over what I thought
was a selfish attitude. Some of the guys who were dependent on me
were very hurt when I decided to press ahead with my own career and
kind of left them standing alone. I don't regret it now, and the only
facet of the organization's positive affect on me personally, and
on my music, is the times we played real creative music—the
bond that comes from doing that, and having a forum to try out my
compositions and ideas on almost a daily basis. Again, we were building
our own musics, our own approaches, our own system to work in.
Right. You don't break the system, you create an alternate system.
Yeah, Lester Bowie was talking about that in Jazz, the
Ken Burns documentary. He said what a lot of people felt: "Nobody
was doing it for us. People thought we were very strange, and nobody
would hire us, so we had to do it ourselves." That is what we here
in Dallas ended up doing, and I think Art Lande knew that's what we
needed to do.
And it helped if you had an acronym. You could
Well, the thing was that I actually copied the AACM. I mean, I
knew that they were the Association for the Advancement of Creative
Musicians. It had two A's in it, and I thought how could I get two
A's... [laughs] And so many people from Europe would call me after
we were established and got the name out there, and they would be
talking about "Dawg-nim", "Daahg-nim"... and I would have to tell
them, that's "Dagnim, cause we're in the South" [laughs].
I tell people who occasionally ask about the pronunciation: Imagine
something that Yosemite Sam would say if Bugs Bunny dropped an anvil
on his head. Dagnim!
And yet, one of the ways they got attention,
and got subsidies, and got membership too, they knew, one of the ways
was you have an acronym. You present this public face that lets people
know, "We're organized. We're efficient. We've got our shit together."
Even if there were dissensions within the group, and if nobody
else were working, anytime there was a concert or a project or, say,
when the [Buddy Mohamed and Jamal Mohmed's] Beledi Ensemble would
play, or one of our other ensembles would play, they'd say "Sponsored
by daagnim." Even if we hadn't put any money in it, it was like, "OK,
we are daagnim people." In fact, I still get letters for daagnim.
I still get calls. "Is this Dennis Gonzalez of daagnim? What is that,
Finnish or something?" [laughs]
Better late than never—what does daagnim stand for?
daagnim stands for "dallas association for avant garde and neo-impressionistic
music". At the beginning, we considered ourselves very "avant", and
a lot of the reviews about us centered on that fact, as well as the
fact that much of our music was a branch of "impressionistic" music,
but with a decidedly 20th Century lilt, soft music with a vengeance!
Moving on to some of those daagnim recordings, one of the first
ones that you did was with Prince Lasha. What was that like?
Lasha knew about me through people in Ft. Worth. My records had
gotten out, distributed, my name was going up in places and he called
me one day. He said, "I'm back in Ft. Worth. My mom is sick and I'm
visiting her, but I would like to come and talk to you about working
with you some." Now, I had heard of him, and heard his music. He was
one of those obscure but well-known at the same time, paradoxical,
musicians. Like Sonny Simmons. I told him, "Come on over to the house."
Carol made some food and we sat down and ate. He had brought Webster,
[vocalist] Webster Armstrong... And the thing is, these guys from
Ft. Worth, I don't know if you've ever talked to Ornette.
They have a way of speaking that, it reminds me of a black hole.
The only reason you can see a black hole is because you see the stars
around it illuminating this hole. That's how they would talk. When
they wanted to talk to you about something, they didn't talk about
the subject at hand, they talked around it. You had to glean from
what they were saying, "they're referring to this because they're
talking all around it". So I had to get used to that particular way
of talking. Once I got that, it was easy. And we didn't even do a
concert. I just got a bunch of the daagnim guys to come over to the
house. I set up my 4 track and I said, "Let's blow." We took off,
and I recorded it. About 6 months later, Lasha came back to town and
said, "Let's do a gig." I didn't quite know what to do, so I talked
to the guys at KERA, "Is there any money available?" In those days
they were open to that kind of thing, so we set up in the KERA studio
and Lasha brought Webster with him again, and Webster wrote some of
the most strange poetry I'd ever heard. I mean, it's perfectly jazzy,
and interesting, but so strange. And then his singing voice... You
know, Ornette was crazy about him... And Webster sold aquariums in
Ft. Worth. That was his life. He owned an aquarium shop... Anyway,
we all got together and recorded the second part of the LP. We put
both tapes together and came up with a good deal. It was maybe a year
later that we had one more concert. By that time I had met Kidd Jordan
and Alvin Fielder. The concert featured Lasha, Kidd Jordan, Alvin
[Fielder], and myself and Alex Camp. I have it on tape. I never have
mixed it down, and I've never offered it to anybody. The concert was
probably three and a half to four hours long.
It was at a club in what is now considered the Deep Ellum part
of Dallas. Back then the area had gone through a time where they didn't
call it by any name. The concert was at the old Prophet Bar. I have
probably seven reels of music from that night. I have never sat down
and mixed it, or tried to sell it or even do anything with it, even
as an archival thing.
Have you kept up with Lasha?
I think he's still alive. For a while, Lasha would call me every
6 months or so—he used to call me Little Miles—he'd call
me and say, "I want you to hear this", calling long distance from
California. He would have his phone near his bass clarinet and he'd
play a solo concert for about 45 minutes over the phone for me. Lasha
also once told me that one time when Freddie Hubbard was playing at
the Caravan, and I had a band at Caravan [of Dreams, a jazz club in
Fort Worth] the following night Freddie apparently came to see me
play. At that time I was playing a lot of pocket trumpet. Supposedly,
Freddie Hubbard had told Lasha, "I tried to play the pocket trumpet
and I'm not good enough. But Gonzalez plays it like I would play it."
Wow, Freddie Hubbard, you know! I remember Freddie Hubbard being around
but I don't think I even knew he had heard me.
I'd heard from people that Miles Davis had a great affection and respect
for younger players who were doing music that was different, and that
he had wide open ears. If he liked something, he would go and buy
the whole discography and call the people and talk to them, just out
of the blue. One day, I came home from work—I had probably 3
or 4 records out at the time and they were pretty "out"—and
there was a message on my phone machine. The voice sounded just like
Miles. "Hi, Dennis Gonzalez. This is Miles Davis, and I just wanted
to tell you that you are doing some great work and I think you are
on the right track. Let's talk sometime." And I kept racking my brain
to see who it sounded like that was a friend of mine. And I just started
passing the word that somebody was fucking with me, you know. And
then one of my friends said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Do you
have a copy of the message?" "Yeah I think I kept that cassette."
"Because I've heard that Miles is so interested in so many new musicians,
and that's what he's into. He'll buy that particular person's work
and that he'll call them and talk to them and befriend them." "Yeah
right," I said. Who knows? I have never found out. No one ever came
forward after all these years and said "Say, do you remember my Miles
[laughs] You never know. I think one of the only sustained
critical evaluations of your work is probably in, of all things, the
Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. Dave Oliphant, a writer in
Austin, has also written a good study called "Texas Jazz". But no
mention of you. Though you've been here for, as you've said, the past
20 or 30 years or so.
There are some other encyclopedias of jazz that have, oh, 4 or
5 listings and things like that.
They're very brief. I would have been nice if Miles were still
around and we could pick his brain. But for now we have the Penguin
Guide, and their discussion is pretty in-depth. And of course
the parallel they draw—largely because of your working with
musicians from all over the world, I gather—is Don Cherry. Would
you say that he was a primary influence?
It was really strange because not only was Don Cherry instrumental
in my understanding of this new music, and influential to the nth
degree, but everywhere that I would go he was either there the day
before me or the day after me. The studio where I recorded Welcome
To Us in Oslo, Don Cherry was just down the street the next day
recording something himself. We were always—I'll have to show
you some of the foreign press on some of these things—we are
always listed together in reviews. It would be Dennis Gonzalez's such-and-such,
and Don Cherry's such-and-such. And they would have reviewed both
of them together. I have probably between 20 and 30 reviews from Denmark
and The Wire and different places that listed us together and
being in the same, I guess, spiritual league. I did run into him,
so to speak, one day in New York. I was checking into the hotel with
my wife and I saw him. And he was just beat. He had probably just
come home from Stockholm, and I told myself, "You know, there's one
of your heroes but, look, look how tired he is. Leave him alone. Talk
to him later." Later never came. I would hear that he had asked about
me and people would say that they would tell him that I had asked
about him. We kind of had this back-and-forth thing going on but we
never met, never actually met. And then he died.
Is that something you regret?
What might you have said to him, do you think?
"Come on over to the house. Let's eat some of my wife's 'down
home' cooking and talk a while, and then let's play!" No, I don't
regret never meeting him, I imagine we'll meet each other in some
other place at the right time. Anyway, we can plan ahead and look
forward to working with someone in this life, and it might never happen!
A similar thing happened with Collin Walcott. We had a long-distance
communication with each other and set up a show in Houston where his
wife would choreograph these huge marionettes to his music. We were
going to work together. But, not long before this was supposed to
happen, my Mariachi students had done this big concert at North Dallas
High, and it was so beautiful, but all through that concert I had
this really strange sense of something... When I got home, on my answering
machine was Collin's manager in New York saying that he had died in
East Germany, that he'd bled to death there, or they had not been
able to get him to the hospital in time...
he in a car accident?
He was in a car accident and he—they were on that highway
that was in no-mans land and the East Germans didn't want to cross
and the West Germans didn't want to cross and they argued. And both
he and Joe Hœrting died.
Sounds like the old Bessie Smith
Yeah, what happened with that? I've heard so many different things.
The myth—I don't think we'll ever know the exact degrees
of truth and falseness to it—but the myth is that she was in
a car wreck and they would not take her to the "whites only" hospital
and that she bled to death on the way to the segregated hospital.
But many people have refuted that. John Hammond was involved in the
perpetuation of that story, too, and we all know the kind of power
he used to wield as an ambassador between white and black America.
You don't know what the true story is?
So they refused to treat Collin in Germany. I had heard the same
thing about Eric Dolphy, that he could not get treatment in Europe.
The story I always heard about him was that Dolphy didn't
even really know that he had that condition, had he known how serious
his diabetes was, he would probably have lived. He just never knew.
But about Don Cherry, he had this voracious appetite for music from
anywhere and everywhere in the world.
I think that a lot of people saw the parallels between Don Cherry
and me because I was always combining so many different forms. It
wasn't like a fusion where I said, "I'm going to put this here and
that there and..." It just happened, through my listening. For example,
the first couple of times I went to Europe, I kept getting reviews
saying that "the Hispanic-tinged style of Gonzalez..." I thought,
"What do you mean? I don't play Hispanic music." But then I heard
the same thing from Terje Rypdal, that Rypdal thinks it's funny that
people hear the fjords in his music. "Do you hear the fjords, the
echo of the fjords in your music?" [laughs]. Kind of the same problem.
And then when I really started playing Hispanic music, songs like
"Dos Cosas", which is a traditional Spanish hit, I did it purposely.
Yet people didn't catch on to the origin of it.
precipitated a turn towards that music?
Everything I come in contact with eventually emerges out into
my visual art, or writing, or music, and the fact that I had to learn
Mariachi / Tejano / Hispanic music in order to teach it means that
I was immersed in it almost 24-hours a day at one point in my life.
That is bound to make its presence felt in a rather strong way, and
I ended up not only teaching this music, but playing the new music
I'd learned with my jazz ensembles, and now, with my Tejano trio.
Understand that in order to teach Mariachi, I had to learn, in about
2 weeks, a repertoire of about 50 songs on guitar, guitarron, vihuela,
violin, trumpet, saxophone—plus the vocal parts AND the complete
lyrics in Spanish. In the intervening 19 years, I've added trombones,
drum set, percussion, electronic and acoustic keyboards, marimba,
vibraphone, electric guitar, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and other
instruments I can't think of. In fact my current group at North Dallas
High School is made up of 29 students, including six singers. The
only time I've led a bigger band was the 35-piece New Music Workshop
Orchestra in Ljubljana, Slovenia... for that band we added sitar as
Well, I for one am glad that you've not paid much attention
to critics who carp about jazz musicians who they think are too much
into "ethnic recreations", who denigrate the whole idea that you can
learn something from and integrate any kind of music into what it
is you're already doing. Now, you've worked with Louis Moholo, and
you've also written a tune in dedication to Johnny Dyani. What was
it that drew you to the music of those South African expatriate musicians?
Being raised in the Southern Baptist Church had a lot to do with
it. The black South Africans relied a lot on church hymns, all the
church music, to get them through hard times. Their music, their hymns,
sounded so much like the music that I was raised on - plus the fact
that we sang the hymns in my South Texas church in Spanish. And when
you hear a hymn sung not in English but a "foreign" language... The
Xhosa language singing sounded so much like my home congregations
here, and the sufferings of the people were somewhat alike. Somehow,
there was this affinity. When I found out that Moholo had played on
some recordings with Elton Dean—and I was in touch with Elton
to do the Catechism date with him—I asked him, was Louis
Moholo available? "Yeah." Alright; well, how about Johnny Dyani? And
Elton told me Johnny was sick, "he's probably at death's door as we
speak and he's fading." The guy who ended up playing on the date,
Marcio Mattos, I asked for him because Johnny was so ill. So I missed
out playing with him.
My own feeling is that Dyani is
woefully under-valued, and that very few scholars have accorded his
music the attention it deserves. Would you say Dyani is under-appreciated
as a musician, and a great cohesive spirit of improvised music?
I know that he was a great spirit who brought people together,
and we who heard him at least once, even those who knew him from his
recordings, came away from his playing and singing with a sense of
humility and celebration. I remember hearing him sing with the trio
he had with Don Moye and Joseph Jarman... he did this little song
called "Mama Marimba", and the joy he imparted to his music and, in
turn, to the listener, was practically unsurpassed in New Music. His
bass playing was unrefined, unfinished. It was almost as if the bass
and the great music he plucked from it both paled in comparison to
his boundless zest for living.
And Dudu Pukwana?
I did one gig with Dudu Pukwana before he died. We were on the
same bandstand. We never really were part of the same band per se,
but we did happen to end up in the same ensemble, with John Stevens
and his guys. Pukwana was truly magical...
a very powerful player. One of my favorite records is still Witchdoctor's
Son, especially the track "Magwaza", on which he plays this unbelievably
moving solo. And the relationship he has with John Tchicai on that
Did you know about my "Tchicai connection"?
No, but I also wanted to ask you about Pierre Dørge. He studied
extensively with Foday Musa Suso—another Don Cherry connection
there—Suso being the kora master from Mali.
Well, I've never played with Dørge, though I know a lot of people
who have been in his ensemble. The connection I have with Dørge is
Tchicai. I have a cousin named Frank Dominguez living in California,
in Sacramento. He documents the Hispanic civil rights struggle. In
fact he is one of the leading visual documenters of the final years
of the Chicano activist, Cesar Chavez. He is also very well known
for his extensive documenting of the Bay Area jazz scene. Those are
his two loves. He became good friends with Tchicai, who lives in the
Bay Area now. He would go see John, say, once a month, and they became
quite good friends. One day, out of the clear blue, Tchicai says,
"Do you know this Hispanic trumpet player from Texas who's disappeared,
who's not playing jazz anymore, not recording anymore, Dennis Gonzalez?"
"He's my cousin!" "Right, right." "No, really..." Anyway, Tchicai
was going to be in Chicago in November of 1999 recording for the Chicago
Humanities Festival, for the 8th Harmonic Breakdown label, and something
happened. We were supposed to work together, but, at the last second,
the whole line-up changed. But I went ahead with the project, after
putting so much time into it and I had faith that it would be fine,
and I ended up doing this record with Susie Ibarra , Mark Deutsch,
Yusef Komunyakaa and Sugar Blue. But John Tchicai and I are still
waiting to record.
I would love to hear that.
I would too!
Tchicai has been more active recently.
His last record was with Francis Wong. It's interesting that you bring
up the Bay Area, because, another thing that I think people will look
back on from at this period in jazz history and note, is how jazz
has been picked up by other minority communities, in a way, and they've
put their own stamp on it. It's less about solidarity and more about
locating some universal sensibility in the processes that make jazz
what it is. And the Asian-American movement in the Bay Area, which
is very self-reliant, is a great example of that.
Fred Ho and that group. You know, for about 5 or 6 years I did
not listen to any "jazz", quote unquote, or any jazz-influenced music.
I had just had it with jazz. Not that I don't like the neo-traditional
guys. I just did not want to go back to doing that kind of thing.
I had never really done a whole lot of it anyway. I wanted to continue
Let's talk a little more about your
decision to leave something in which you were so involved, and at
so many levels. What factored into that decision, other than feeling
saturated with the music? Was it difficult to pull yourself out? And
is that kind of sabbatical something you'd recommend to other working
I went to India, Nepal, and Tibet in 1993 and was completely overwhelmed
with the truth of it all, the extreme beauty and extreme ugliness,
the extreme poverty and suffering and the extreme luxuriousness of
India, the clash of the extremely ancient with the extremely new.
It was, for me, the last straw in a time of last straws...and my mind
and spirit yelled at me "Stop!" I didn't perform in public for several
years in the US, in Dallas, and everything was put on hold, except
my own personal projects which I did for me, to keep me in practice.
I took those years to absorb all I'd learned, all I'd seen and felt
and heard, even the huge amount of music, art, and writing I'd done
just before that time. The only thing that I continued doing was teaching
daily... I had to continue supporting my family, and that's how I
was paying the bills. Then, for the second time in eight years, I
almost died. I had a motorcycle accident that tore me to shreds, and
again my patient, faithful wife put me back together; I didn't understand
why she would keep putting me back in one piece... I didn't understand
her love for me. I had a feeling that I didn't deserve love that pure
and I think I set about to dissect and destroy it.
When I came to my senses, it was she who brought me back. I re-entered
the world again, I woke up, and I had two fantastic almost-grown-up
sons who I realized were such a delight and a beautiful house protecting
me from the rain. I had a bunch of wonderful students who, when I
was down, would tell me that it scared them when I was sad, and they'd
make me laugh. And so I'm here at this point and the world for me
is a miracle again, because Carol kept the faith. Now she buys me
candles all the time, and flowers, and I light the candles to remind
me of what she's taught me, to live in the light, even in my darkness
I recommend that working musicians, creative people of all walks,
take a sabbatical, as you say, but I recommend that they take it before
their world falls apart. The world is much too much for any of us
to discover it alone, we truly need each other to keep moving ahead.
Back to Fred Ho...
He and I were on the same bill at London's Jazz Cafe Festival
that happened 8 or 9 years ago. That was really the last time I heard
any "jazz" for a long time. And Fred Ho and I talked a little while.
About what? Do you remember?
Fred Ho was really the last person I asked about which way jazz
was going, because I didn't understand what role I needed to play
in the new era of jazz, or even if I should stay in it. And I remember
telling him that I was so impressed with his exuberance, with the
life of his music, the life force flying out of his playing, the infectious
excitement that he put into it. The group I played with, Mark Sanders
on drums, Paul Rogers on bass, and Mark Hewins on guitar and digital-guitar,
were fabulous, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing, and I must say, I
was playing really well during those years... but still, I was questioning
my direction and that of jazz. Fred talked about his difficulty in
breaking in to the world of jazz, especially as an Asian-American
living in the U.S., but he also had a sense that the struggle didn't
diminish his interest in The Music—as Braxton calls it. It,
in fact, excited him to keep fighting, to persevere.
My own theory, and it's, no doubt, something of a specious one,
probably, because it reads too much into a subtext of a lot of what
you hear from the neo-trad champions. But I'll rattle it off anyway.
It's this fear that "jazz" will finally be taken away from African-Americans
to a large extent with the increased participation of these other
people. Especially European improvisers. And, to me, it can never
really be about that. Because the music was never exclusively the
property of one person or another. I think that's the most unfortunate
thing about it. It's one thing to disagree on the level of taste,
but it's another to revive a nasty political process that "jazz",
to most people, ideally, is meant to overcome.
Last night, On Ken Burns' Jazz, Abbey Lincoln was almost
being paranoid in talking about what happened when the Beatles came
over. She was getting into the conspiracy theory area. I know that
our government has done a lot of strange things. I know that there's
a lot of strange things going on behind the scenes that I have no
idea about—that I really don't want to know about. But Abbey
said that she knows that the government purposely buried jazz by bringing
over the Beatles and this British Invasion. And she was angry and
just raging, and I thought "Whoa." If it's true, I would like to see
some kind of proof, because I know that things like that have happened.
But I'm not going to get angry at some conspiracy. Another thing is
that there was a time when certain African-American musicians would
not allow Caucasian people into their ensembles. I heard that from
some Black jazzers who knew about it. Of course I never would ask
those people what that was about. But, I never really had that problem
because, I think I told you, it was that "brother" thing. "We're Brothers
in the struggle." When I was in college, I was one of the only Hispanics
on campus and the rest was a redneck campus. And the African-Americans
on campus asked me to join Omega Psi Phi. The only reason I didn't
join them, Omega Psi Phi, was because I didn't want to be branded.
I would gladly have joined. It would have been fun, but somehow I
really treasured my skin.
Let's go back to Catechism.
The liner notes to that release, which you write, are very interesting.
Because one of the things you talk about in them, is, I think, how
you always come to the music not just as a musician, but with a real
awareness of yourself as a fan. You've always worked with people that,
in that case in particular, you heard a Keith Tippett recording and
you relate that you thought to yourself, "I'd really like to work
with these guys." Has this, you think, kind of been a theme in your
work, that you've always pursued interests that grow out of your own
Yeah. Being isolated down here in Dallas has made it—not
exactly idol worship—but whenever I had a chance to see one
of these guys, I was just excited. If I lived in New York, I'd probably
be pals with all these guys and be, "Yea, I know so-and-so. He's cool.
I just saw him last night, yeah..." Whereas if I see one of these
guys who I really like here in Dallas, it's really a filling experience,
because they're not going to come here unless I bring them, or unless
somebody else that I know will open up their pocket a little bit and,
well, that's not happening much. Some of these recordings and concerts
have come about accidentally / on purpose, I think. I think that we
guide the direction that our lives are going, and we'll intersect
with these areas, because that's the turn that we make. For example,
in the 80's, I knew that Caravan of Dreams was going to start bringing
in a lot of these people that I really enjoyed. And so I would go
there and boldly seek them out. A lot of them had already heard about
me, because the "underground" at that point was small. The underground
is growing again, in all different directions. But I would go and
talk to them at Caravan and say, "Come to the house. Sit down and
meet with me, let's talk. Even if we don't play, let's just talk."
As so I started to reach out to all these people. There was a theme
of trying to explore similar musical interests with people I appreciated
and who I love—at least in a musical sense—and people
who were close enough to what you might call a grassroots level, people
who were not stars yet that I could access. For example, I could probably
at some point have played with David Murray. But I did not approach
him. I approached [John] Purcell when he and David were DeJohnette's
sideman and John wasn't yet a leader like Murray had already been.
Is that an association you'd like to renew?
If it happens again, I'd have to make sure everything was cool
business-wise. That's what kept me from playing with a lot of people.
Even early in the daagnim days, some of my fellow-musicians would
speculate out loud about all the money I was making on them. The truth
was, I always paid them first for a gig, and if there was any money
left, then I'd try to recoup the cost of doing the gig, but I usually
lost a lot of money for the sake of the music. John Purcell was wonderful
to me. He taught me much about the business of music and about music
itself. But though he very kindly gave me his performances and recordings
as a gift of friendship, and we shook hands on it, his managers thought,
without even asking me, that I was making a killing on John's name
and music. My wife and I lost thousands of dollars on the daagnim
recordings, because New Music was not very well known those days.
When Silkheart came along, all money matters were handled by Silkheart,
and so music was always in the forefront at those sessions. The business
side never came between any of us musicians.
It was fun, though, connecting with John in that manner. I went up
to him on the bandstand and said to him, "I love your playing. Let's
visit later and then do some playing at the house."
And you took this same approach with other players?
Yes, for example, Elton Dean. Though he had been a leader in his
own right, he was truly more effective adding to people's musics,
and I thought that he would be perfect to be in an ensemble with,
so I looked up to him, for all his other connections (Soft Machine,
all that). In the case of like a Susie Ibarra, just up-and-coming,
but so quickly, there are certain things that are going to come to
you if you aim in those directions. There are people out there doing
work for you, even when you don't know it, and that's been the most
amazing thing to me. That's how a lot of these hook-ups have happened.
People are out there, trying to find a way to get the nerve to call
me—thinking that maybe I'll blow them off, "Don't call again"—whereas,
most of the time, I'm pretty open.
St. James Cathedral, Chicago IL. Rehearsal for the concert/recording
BLUES JUMPED A RABBIT AND RAN HIM A SOLID MILE. Gonzalez/Komunyakaa
Quintet, 5 November 1999. left to right: Dennis Gonzalez,
Yusef Komunyakaa, Susie Ibarra, Mark Deutsch.
How exactly did you and Susie come to work together?
Tony Getsug, producer of the 8th Harmonic Breakdown label in Chicago
had been asked to put together a band to work with Yusef Komunyakaa,
a great poet who's won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing about the
South, for the performance I mentioned earlier, at the Chicago Humanities
Festival in November of 1999. The festival wanted Longineau Parsons
on trumpet... Tony wanted me. They'd never heard of me, and so he
set about educating and negotiating on my behalf, without my knowing
it. Komunyakaa had already worked in duo performance with Susie, and
he liked and understood what she did with a drum kit, so she was on
the bill already, so to speak. When the festival agreed to take me
on, they contracted with me to write the music and arrange it, without
my ever having met or played with the musicians or even met Yusef
himself. I knew I could do it, and I spent many hours listening to
available recordings of the musicians and piecing it together in my
head as if I were on stage with the group. Anyway, I got to hang out
with Susie, and we played together that November evening to a packed
St. James Cathedral audience. The recording of the concert is scheduled
for release in May.
Now, I'm guessing that most people would, because they are
the most readily available, be most familiar with you through your
work for the Swedish Silkheart label. How did that association come
Keith Knox had written to me, saying, "I keep hearing your name
and I know that you have this daagnim record company. What are you
doing now? Let me write about you. Let me feature you." He was writing
for the Polish jazz magazine, "Jazz Forum." He said, "I could write
a huge article about you, because they are very open to this music.
Send me photographs, and tell me everything that you're doing. I won't
even ask you questions. Just tell me about yourself." I wrote back
to him, told him what I was doing, we fine-tuned it, and he wrote
the article. He casually mentioned this to me one day, "We're going
to start up a new record company that's dedicated to a particular
kind of improvised music." And immediately I said, "If you need my
participation, I'm available. Believe me, you can trust me, I will
do it—because I've been doing this for years on my own." It
wasn't more than a month later that he was sending me a twenty thousand
dollar check, in the mail, without even really knowing me. "Here.
Do the project. But I'd like for you to so-and-so." I had been working
with Purcell, and Keith said, "Would you like to work with Purcell
more?" I said, "Yeah, but I'd like to pay him." [laughs] Anyway, Keith
went on, "What about this guy you've played with a couple of times—Henry
Franklin?" "I would love to play with Henry again," I said. "And then
somebody from Dallas who I've heard is really great is W.A. Richardson."
I said, "We'll do it." For the next date, Keith said, "You know, I'm
really interested in people like Alvin Fielder. Do you know where
he is?" And so he put me on Alvin's trail. And I found out from Alvin
Fielder that Charles Brackeen was playing duos with Billy Higgins,
and through Billy Higgins I found out that Brackeen was mowing lawns
in Los Angeles, and that that was the only way Brackeen could make
his money. You know, Charles Brackeen has been reported dead thirty
or forty times in the pass thirty or forty years. [laughs] I brought
Brackeen back out of seclusion, and just from talking to him over
the phone! He'd only been waiting for me to ask. Interesting that
someone will be thinking about me—I'm over here in this isolation—but
for some reason there's either a beacon or something going out from
here that people see.
People should take away from your Silkheart years that not
only were you recording your own projects for them and putting out
your own music, but you were playing an important organizational role.
And a lot of those records were made in Dallas—5, 6, or 7 made
They were well put-together. I don't say that just because it
was me doing it, but because I knew it had to be done right. I knew
that if it said "Dallas" on the back of the CD, people might be inclined
to say, "Pshhh, yeah, right..." But then they hear it! All the reviews
have been so good, so positive, how "clean" the mix was...
Recording vocal tracks for Charles Brackeen's ATTAINMENT Dallas
TX, November 1987. left to right: Fred Hopkins, Charles
Brackeen, Dennis González.
And I think that listeners were just appreciative of the fact
that they had another chance to hear someone like Charles Brackeen
again. There was a real danger that we might forget utterly who he
I had read in Downbeat that he had died. Lars, the owner
of Silkheart announced to the world that Charles had died. He said
in an interview, "Well, we've lost one of our greats, Charles is gone..."
And then about a month later, it's one o'clock in the morning—I
was sound asleep—the phone rings and my wife picked it up, and,
truly, I was spooked. Because it was Charles Brackeen. I said, "Charles?"
He said to me, "You thought I was dead, didn't you?" [laughs] "Is
this really you?" I asked, and, really, I thought I might be dreaming,
you know, as if I couldn't snap out of it. Really, it was kind of
scary, talking to a "dead" person.
When you weren't playing with Charles, Olu Dara was here in
town making Silkheart dates with him. Did you have much contact with
Olu while he was down here?
He stayed at the house for rehearsals and meals, and he and my
wife got into it because he started complaining about women. And how
women were full of the devil and "everybody knows that, all the scriptures
say that." And Carol just told him to get the fuck out of her kitchen,
and if he didn't want to be around her, don't be eating her cooking
either. Afterward, she came to me and said, "I'm sorry, I couldn't
shut up. He was just being an ass." Anyway, he's a fine trumpet player.
He really plays beautifully, he's such a fine player. And he has a
son who's now a rapper.
Nas, and he's on Olu's Natchez record, his blues record.
Did Olu have any contact with Alvin Fielder, the original drummer
of the Art Ensemble? I know they're both from Mississippi.
Yeah, they know each other. In fact, what's funny is Cassandra
Wilson is a good friend of Alvin's because her dad was a good friend
of Alvin's. Alvin is a pharmacist in Jackson. When the Art Ensemble
decided they were going to go to Paris, he said, "I'm going home to
Mississippi." He already had his pharmacist's degree. So he went to
open up his drugstore, and that was his thing. But Cassandra's father
and Alvin used to eat lunch all the time, they were really good friends.
There's this whole Mississippi, Natchezippi thing, you know? That's
kind of where I got my idea for DallasOrleansippi.
Kind of like the Invisible College.
But, Olu, he's a fabulous musician, with such great resources
at his fingertips, and in his mind. He's obviously in his own world.
That gets said of artists very frequently. If you ever
personally knew the artists who you admire so much, you probably could
not stand them as people.
Keith Jarrett, for example, used to be a really big asshole—at
least he was to me when I saw "Belonging" [with Jan Garbarek, Palle
Danielsson and Jon Christensen] in Houston. But, hey, you know, I
didn't raise him. I still like his music, what's the big deal? Same
thing with Olu, I don't care about his personal life. I don't care
what he does. I just think he's a fabulous musician. So I always have
to kind of preface the whole thing when anyone asks me "what's he
like?" "Well... he's made it this far."
about Olu, and this is so true of his work on his blues records no
matter what he plays, he makes every note count. He doesn't have much
room on those records.
Or like his work on James Newton's Ellington record, and he plays
those wah-wah, 1920's-sounding solos [sings] I mean, that's difficult
technique for a trumpet player. And he just does it really natural.
I mean, he just plays. And Cassandra [Wilson]. She was on that Jazz
thing too last night. She sang beautifully. I love her voice.
She has had to overcome a lot, though. There was a lot
of resistance to her when she first started working with those guys
out of Brooklyn. I was reading some old press on her, some nasty reviews
in fact. Not just pointed at her singing, but at the content of her
Well, she's very open. She was with Threadgill's band for a while,
sang with Olu for a while... Again, it's a personality thing. Let
the girl sing! She's fabulous. There was out a program out of Washington
Public Radio, called "Even the Sounds are Blue". And I was one of
the people featured with [Julius] Hemphill and [David] Murray. She
narrated it, so she knew who I was. I think that her low husky voice
is perfect, for whatever situation.
You've worked often with vocalists. The human voice was always
been an important element in your music—singing, speaking, praying.
Given the chance, what might you ask of her as a collaborator?
I'd ask her to sing like she's never sung before, like she's always
wanted to. To go to that hidden place that's rarely seen the light,
and light up my music! But what did they say about her lyrics?
I think the word I remember is "puerile". They just thought
the lyrics were silly, or embarrassing. I think it might also have
had to do with the fact that this critic couldn't—and I can't
recall who this was - well, it was at the very beginning of her tenure
with the M-BASE group. And, of course, she's moved on from that. But
this writer was very skeptical of the M-BASE hype, which is just seen
as the product of some New York critical rivals who decided they needed
another "jazz movement", that they needed another label to slap onto
something. The minute you label something you can commodify it and
move it in bulk quantities. And so she kind of suffered from his need
to debunk the whole thing.
I still love her singing.
I want to ask you about the last thing you've released on your
own. Forever The Falling Of Stars. That record, to me—my
reaction to it makes me think of a disagreement I had with someone
over the latest Andrew Hill record, Dusk. This person expressed
disappointment in it, for it's not being "jazzy" enough. And my rebuttal
was along the lines of, well, Andrew Hill has a long of wide-ranging
interests, and, for me, this new record is the best one he's ever
done because it's total music, or pure music, that encompasses all
those concerns and obsessions and maybe even addresses some things
he's felt he's never been able to do, or do properly, before. It doesn't
matter what generic label you could put on it, to describe it. Dusk
is just a moving, musical experience, and there's a lot going on in
the recording. Improvisation being just one of those things. And the
interesting thing to me about Forever The Falling Of Stars
is that it is about a lot of different kinds of music, and a lot of
different kinds of sound. And there are moments on the record where
you can pick up a hint of Bitches' Brew-era Miles Davis, or
this, or that. But that, as a document, it was really about—I
want to use the word transcending, but… That it was about maybe not
improvisation as a practice, but improvisation as a way of viewing
the world, almost. A perspective. So that improvisation can guide
you or be the principle by which you design sounds in a modern recording
studio, for example. And I found Forever The Falling Of Stars
interesting and pleasurable, just in that kind of philosophical regard.
That's a very fine observation because there is so much out there
nowadays. There's always been, but nowadays there's the Internet,
there are so many books coming out, everybody has a 'zine, everybody
has a record label. There are billboards everywhere with so much information
on them. You turn around and the music you hear on the radio… You
have 100 different stations playing exactly the same thing, but in
degrees and shadings, and picking all that out... I had to express
all the things I had been listening to and hearing up to that point.
I had to express which things meant the most to me, and a lot of that
had to do with sampling. A lot of it had to do with random noises.
A lot of it had to do with repetition, because I had read somewhere
that repetition is a graphic way of representing infinity. That that's
the only way our minds can perceive in a graphic sense, the infinite.
Robyn Hitchcock has been telling a little joke about that
for years. Two mirrors make infinity, put you can never look to see
what infinity looks like because your head will cut off the view.
Mirrors are a visual repetition.
And that's the thing about mantras. You repeat and you repeat
and you repeat until you catch a glimpse of this infinity. I wanted
to use repetition, but repetition on this planet is an imperfect repetition.
And, I'm sorry, but you want to be perfect? Here, on this earth, we're
going to be imperfect.
How was this approach like
or even unlike the composing and arranging you'd done in the past?
And were there other, specifically non-musical personal experiences,
that you might say were responsible for making Forever The Falling
Of Stars sound the way it does?
Really, this is the same approach I've always used in putting
together an ensemble, except that the ensemble is not made up of several
people on this particular recording. The "personnel" on "Forever..."
are samples and noises and tape inadequacies, and me, like on my first
recording, playing as many instruments as I could remember to play
halfway decently. I asked the samples and noises to do the same thing
I always ask my live ensembles to do: "Play you. Play yourself. Play
what nobody's ever allowed you to play. Play what you've never dared
play. And if you can't do that, play what you can." Once I say that,
I can't go back on my word. I have to accept what is given me and
use it the best way I know how.
One of the things that brought me back to my senses musically, and
which opened up my musical world again was some of the harsh new rock
that my sons were buying and playing on their stereos. I'm originally
a rock musician trained classically, and so when I hear distorted
guitars and industrial noises, I can dig it, you know? Nine Inch Nails,
some of the Seattle grunge bands, Einstürzende Neubaten, that whole
noisy scene, and now the Punk Hardcore Political Underground: Damad,
Eyehategod, Noothgrush, Napalm Death, these extreme sounds were reaching
me, making the world more real and awake, and you'll hear a lot of
that noise, with a softer edge, of course, in "Forever..."
As far as my own playing on the record, I've always told interviewers
that my technique in playing trumpet is an accidental technique. I
learn as I go. And I've never relied on changes or things like that.
I rely on the feeling. Frequently I hit wrong notes, but, if I extend
them to the next movement of the bass or the drums, it becomes the
right note. And my approach is totally accidental. Every time I listen
to "Forever..." I find things that are accidental that I didn't know
were in there, so that one of my sons will say, "Where did that sound
come from?" And we rewind it. And I hear it again. "Whoa, I've never
heard that." It's almost like the sounds are inserting themselves.
I think they are, I think that's true to a degree. You
hear. You know, your ear is an instrument. It's a finely tuned instrument.
You're going to hear certain things and not hear certain things, but...
One of the only pop groups that I really listen to is Stereolab.
My son Aaron loves Stereolab.
They are all about that kind of minimalist groove. But it is
repetition, repetition, repetition. It comes out of minimalism but
it also comes out of their affection for what was called "Krautrock".
And they've taken all these influences over, and applied their politics
to them too, and made them express something far exceeding their origins.
You know, Yells at Eels, Alvin Fielder and Assif Tsahar, we were
doing a workshop concert at North Dallas earlier this week, and Alvin
Fielder gets up and somebody asks him, "What do you call this music,
and where does it come from?" You know, I've heard this music a million
times, but the kids haven't, and Alvin says "It comes from the sound
of the birds!" And that struck me. You know when you're driving down
the street, you hear so many different rhythms and so many things.
Your mind is so overwhelmed that it stores it for later use. And this
is one of the ways that it's used. And then another student said,
"Well, it sounds like you're angry and you're defusing tension." Well,
sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes the sounds on the street
are so loud that they bother the fuck out of you. And later you have
to express it a certain way. But by now it's become a positive thing.
That sounds also like the Freudian interpretation of dreams.
Dreams as the manner in which we process the details of our daily
existence. Dreaming out loud, and in public.
Also, it's finding a way to solve your problems. You have questions,
and your mind knows that it has questions. From what it has
learned, the mind processes the information and gives you an answer.
That's how this music is. It processes the answers. These are answers!
Sometimes maybe they weren't the answers you necessarily
wanted to hear, or were expecting. How do you come to terms with that?
Doesn't that transform those answers into another kind of question?
You have to realize that in this life, you're—all of us
are—frequently going to run across answers that are not to your
liking, and then you've to choose whether to fight for the correct
answer, or to just go with the one you were given. My mom has always
said, "Pray with faith to the Lord, but be aware that sometimes he's
going to say 'No' or 'Wait'." Sometimes we do receive a question as
an answer, like you've said, and that question turns out to be exactly
what we already knew was going to be the answer but were afraid to
face up to. As a writer, you've seen this happen before...
[Novelist] Joseph McElroy once told me something along those lines,
except he put it in terms of learning something you never wanted to
learn, and, in fact, of a good deal of time spent resisting advice
or influence from someone or someplace you really don't like. When
you could have spent that time making the most of that important bit
of knowledge. I'm paraphrasing... And one of the things I've written
is a piece on Frank Lowe, who is a musician I greatly admire. He's
traditional and yet absolutely unique. He's traditional in sound but
unique in conception. In other words, he has all the traditional things
that we love about tenor sax players, he can play that really bluesy
stuff, he's got that really wonderfully tone. He's a moving player.
But you get the sense sometimes when he solos that every note is so
important. One of the things I wrote in that piece, and I don't know
if he'd agree with me or not, but the thing that I admire about him
is that his music is about honoring every decision that you make.
Because life is about that, one decision after another, and there's
no stopping. Often they are just momentary decisions, but decisions
nonetheless, and who can really predict all the consequences. And
so Lowe's improvisational model honors what it is in improvisation
that you can take out into the way you deal with the world on an everyday
basis. It's more than just an aesthetic experience, in a way. It's
more that just that kind of, "Hey, just go with it..." It's more serious
Sometimes when you "just go with it", it's in the wrong direction,
or with the wrong momentum.
And other people may be
going in the opposite direction.
I did some gigs with Frank, in Washington, D.C., with Reggie Nicholson.
It was fantastic hanging with him. He was another one of those people
I just kind of looked up after hearing him on a Don Cherry record.
Instead of calling, say, Don Cherry, I called Frank, and he was fabulous,
very wonderful. I learned a lot just talking to him.
Could you elaborate on that?
Frank asked me to stay at his home in New York, so we spent time
doing a lot of exchanging of information about the music business,
living in New York as a musician with a family, travel and the best
way to do it while still retaining your senses and your resistance...
that sort of thing. It was Fall of '89, and I still entertained the
notion of moving my family to New York for my career's sake, and he
discouraged me from doing that, making a case that if I'm already
successful in the New Jazz scene while living in the "Provinces",
I might as well continue that. There's more space out here, more sky,
and the urban congestion of New York would not be that conducive to
raising a family, plus the simple issue of economics. The price one
has to pay for housing in New York has always been exorbitant compared
to the small space you have to live in. We did a few gigs and promised
we'd get back together. I keep seeing his picture, and people keep
telling me about him. So I think, eventually, we'll work together
again. It's been, I guess, almost 12 or 13 years now.
I'm happy to say Frank still works these days. In fact, I think he
and Billy Bang has reconvened their "Jazz Doctors" group, and have
even made some tapes. And I admire Billy Bang about as much as I do
Frank Lowe. The first time I heard him, I thought, "Here's the Coltrane
of the violin."
You know, so many people don't understand Billy. People have said
that he didn't even know how to play. It's funny, I've played in Slovenia
probably four or five times, and the second time, the Ljubljana Jazz
Festival had already promised the Ljubljana Big Band that they were
going to play, and the festival pulled them out to put me in. They
were angry at me and raised all this hell. One of the things that
the leader of the big band said about me to the press was that I did
not even know how to hold my trumpet, much less play it. So here I
am at the biggest hall in Ljubljana, doing the biggest summer festival
in that area. I'm up on stage and they're introducing me and the MC
says something in Slovenian. Everybody cracks up, stands up, gives
me a standing ovation. I was stunned. And the MC starts to run off.
I said, "Come here, come here. What did you say?" "Oh, you know, the
old bit... I'll have to explain it later." So I play, and I don't
know exactly what all is going on. Later, the MC tells me, "I got
up on stage and introduced you and said: 'And now, here's the man
who doesn't even know how to pick up his trumpet... MUCH LESS PLAY
IT!'" Here are 5000 of my fans were out there just laughing... I told
him, "Well, thanks, I appreciate that..." [laughs] Ahmed Abdullah's
manager told several people, when Ahmed and I recorded together, that
I couldn't play, I'm not a trumpet player. Why do I even dare pick
up a horn?
Well, you can be the most technically perfect
trumpet player in the world. Like Wynton Marsalis. OK, he's made some
good records, I think.
Of course he has, of course he has...
But maybe his chief problem is that he's been too prolific.
He's been undone by his own phenomenal popular success, to a large
degree. Because there is this perception that everything he does is
automatically of great value. And that's not fair to Wynton, I don't
think, or to anyone else for that matter. How else is he ever going
to grow? You read Downbeat, and the reaction is this automatic.
"Oh, that's great; he's great." What else is there for him to do?
When I first heard him, I heard that song "Hesitation", and I
was so blown away. His playing, I couldn't believe it—[sings]
And then he solos... [sings] Oh my God, I thought, this guy is incredible.
But the more I listened to it, the more I realized he was a little
boy playing mechanically. He was not—he didn't have his heart
so much in it—he was enjoying the shit out of it, you know,
but he was playing scales. And he was just so good and so quick that
he was kind of like washing it by us. I had a lot of compassion for
him after that, because a lot of people started dogging him, started
saying, "Well, you know, he's too perfect." I understood. I know.
But he's a young man. At least he is this talented. In a few
years he'll mellow. And then I saw him last at SMU with his group,
and they did their blues music. I thought it was a beautiful concert.
And all those words that I had said about him, I ate those words.
And I was very open about saying, "This young man has grown."
pared his style down quite a bit. And, of course, he worships Armstrong.
And I think that surrender to an influence like that has been good
for him. It's bled a lot of that "proficiency-for-proficiency's sake"
out of him. It could also be that he gets such a bad rap from the
free guys because, well, the tendency is to measure the worth of a
solo by it's length. And Wynton says what he needs to say, however
long it takes. Duration doesn't even matter all that much. To me all
the best players have this kind of internal editor. You can play two
bars, you can play 40 minutes, you are still communicating something
of value. You don't measure it any other way. Maybe you don't measure
it at all...
You've asked me about Hannibal Peterson. I remember hearing Live
At The Public Theater, where he's doing the tune "Copenhagen Sight".
He's playing his solo, very lyrical, very beautiful, and then he gets
on this circular breathing thing... [sings] and just does this for
6, 7 minutes... [sings] and the more he does it, the more I'm convinced
that that's it. That's it. Those are the notes. Those
are the ones that are saying it all. He can play anything, all night,
all day, but when he starts on that trill—that's what it's all
about. And people have criticized that five minute interlude. "Why
is he wasting all of his time?"... He's not. Again, it's like one
of those mantras. You have to say it over and over until you learn
it to the nth degree, and you have to learn it in so many different
Yes, there's a moment almost like that on a Coleman Hawkins
record. Idrees Sulieman, one of the original boppers on his instrument,
is the trumpet player. He starts his solo and he plays one note and
holds it—and holds it—and holds it—and holds it,
and holds it. And someone has written, "Well, he's just proving that
he can hold it." No... In one way, he letting you hear everything
that's going on underneath his solo. To me, everything that comes
after that initial stunt, if you want to call it that, is extraneous.
The whole point was that first part.
There was a time whenever I would get my ensembles all riled up,
where they were just noisy and banging and just screaming and howling.
And the whole ensemble was just up in arms. And then it would be my
turn to solo, and I would just wait for them to shut up. To quiet
down. "Ok, we've been there, you've said it... It's time to relax."
And they would rein it in. And then I would play a very quiet solo.
I couldn't compete with that cacophony of sound, I couldn't compete
with the tenor sax players. I had to do it on my own quiet terms.
Besides, that was the only thing my lip could stand at the time. [laughs]
John Litweiler, who has written about the late-60's Chicago
scene, although he's a great admirer of Cecil Taylor, he's written
about how sometimes its all too much. It's a sophisticated brand of
screaming is what he calls it. But there's that record Taylor did
with Bill Dixon, who is a very different kind of trumpet player. And
Dixon pulls the music in such a different direction. And when Dixon
solos, everything kind of quiets down all of a sudden. It's one of
the most interesting of Taylor's records because of that. Because
here he has this person who is willing and able to resist him—in
a major way. And I think that maybe that's what Wynton needs. And
maybe Wynton needs to be the person who resists himself more than
I'd love for Wynton to play with Cecil Taylor. The thing is—Wynton
has got it, and in a balance that could compete with Taylor. But could
he play WITH him? That would be interesting...
To begin to round things off. Your sons, and a mutual acquaintance
we all share named Dave Aponte, they've all helped me to remember
how the DIY punk scene here in Dallas shares some of the same modes
of operation and hopes and dreams as that movement which began with
those musicians who first played what was called "free jazz." "Do
it yourself"—run your own performance spaces, put out your own
records. But maybe its not so much the "do" that's so important. It's
equally yourself. Express yourself. Is that the promise you see in
Like Sam Rivers and all those guys? Sure. And it goes further
back than that. What was I hearing about the other day, that guy who
first started his own loft scene in New York in the '50s? The painter,
David X. Young. What a way to begin.
He just gave
musicians a place to play.
People are just now beginning to recognize what he did... The
reason I started playing again in Dallas, really, is because my sons
started their own DIY or "do-it-yourself" thing. And they said, "We
want to include you." And then people like Dave added their encouragement.
"You know, you're 'DIY' Mr. G." And, "Let's just go do it."
I think you have a lot to be proud of as far as your sons are
They're wonderful musicians, too. I always enjoy playing with
them. And they're tough on me, they won't let me slide.
And I wanted to say about Stefan... It was interesting to hear
him with Alvin Fielder. Because Stefan is a very loud drummer. He
comes out of a tradition—you have to call it a tradition—where
the muscle is so important. And yet there was a delicacy to the concept
he was expressing.
Well, that's how he is as a person. He's very, very sensitive.
Very delicate. But if you cross a particular political line or you
offend his sensibilities of rightness—he's right there, you
know? Alvin told me that he was so happy to play with Stefan—and
Aaron—having another drummer to play with. He used to do that
with Rashied Ali, and Alvin put Stefan in that category of being a
fellow drummer. Alvin said to me, "I was so happy that I just wanted
to color what he did, that's all I wanted to do. Stefan laid out the
sketch, he laid out the lines—I just wanted to put the punctuation
and the coloration there." I thought, wow, that's very... What a sweet
thing to say, first of all, and its very giving. And you know Alvin
doesn't have anything to prove.
No, he sure doesn't.
And he helped support what Stefan knew. Plus he gave him a free
Email exchanges, 5 February 2001 - 7 February 2001
Your recording Welcome To Us is, in one sense, very
much about being in Europe. The trip—to Poland, 1993—it
documents (for lack of a better verb) was by no means your first,
however. What was it about this time and place that made such an impression
on you? When was your first trip to Europe (or overseas in general)?
Under what circumstances? Could you give us a sense of the many places
you've played and worked? And were you ever tempted to wholly embrace
the expatriate lifestyle? What, in your view, were the pros and cons
attendant upon such a decision?
My first trip to Europe was summer of 1980, after releasing my
first self-produced album Air Light (Sleep Sailor). I'd played
in the Cecil Taylor Orchestra with French bass clarinetist Denis Colin—he's
doing a lot of work with Daunik Lazro these days—and had an
open invitation to visit with him and play in Paris with him and his
group. We did some fabulous playing at the then-much-sought-out loft
28, rue Dunois. The next summer, I went to Finland to make
myself known at the Pori Jazz Festival among my Northern European
heroes, Tomasz Stanko, Juhani Aaltonen, Edward Vesala, and to meet
Chico Freeman, Reggie Workman, Amina Claudine Myers, and others. Then
I got a letter that took about six months to reach me from the Ljubljana
Jazz Festival in the then-undivided country of Yugoslavia, where I
would finally play as a leader with a trans-Yugoslavian all-star band,
the Dennis Gonzalez New Music Workshop Ensemble summer of 1983 between
Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy and the Sun Ra Arkestra!!
The recording of Welcome To Us was very much European in scope.
The spring before the recording, I'd played the VossaJazz Festival
on the west coast of Norway with my New Dallas Quartet—John
Purcell, W.A.Richardson, and Henry Franklin—and I'd hung out
with Terje Rypdal, Jackie McLean, Arild Andersen, Nils Petter Molvaer,
and other wonderful musicians. In fact, it was Rypdal who first inspired
me to write seriously... I contacted Nils Petter and told him that
I'd like to record in Oslo with him, Bugge Wesseltoft, Sidsel Endresen,
possibly Pål Thowsen, and a bass player of his choice, which turned
out to be Terje Gewelt, and that I'd like to do it the next summer.
He was so pleased, and he got the players together after I told him
I wanted to combine a trip to Norway and Poland, which I'd never been
to before. A young man (Larry Srubas) from Dallas had started a fund
for young musicians in Krakow, brought a group of jazz students to
perform (and asked me to write some music for them and perform with
them, along with Roger Boykin) from Krakow, and then had the wherewithal
to ask me to go to Poland with him to do workshops and play concerts.
So, here I go to Poland, a beautiful and strange country with so many
different facets, the language I didn't know, and although it was
almost spring, it was cold and lonely, though the students I worked
with and the musicians with whom I shared the stage were fabulous...
and so I wrote about it, got some music together and headed for Oslo
to do the recording. We didn't even rehearse, and the songs were all
first takes! The only other time the situation had been that way was
when I recorded in London with Keith Tippett, Elton Dean, Rob Blakeslee
and those guys.
I may sound jingoistic, but I've never thought about going expatriate.
The U.S. is really a good country to live in with all its faults and
such, but when you get back home after being on the road, especially
overseas, you know this is where you belong, at least, this is where
I belong. I've always bent and twisted the straightness of all that
is America to fit my needs. I feel that I have lots of power in the
political system and I'm teaching quite a few of America's students
to take advantage of what is here for the taking. I've been on the
radio, done my visual art, composed and played what I wanted, and
met those in other countries who've eventually given their life or
their freedoms to do what I do here. I can even travel anywhere I
want, and I have, and I've gone places that it's illegal to go to,
and come back here to my safe home and family.
The world is still a mystery and a miracle, and there are beautiful
people everywhere I've gone. The mountains in the north of Nepal,
the seawall in La Habana, the circular road around Isla Mujeres off
the coast of Mexico where my wife and I rode a scooter one day, the
cool green hills of Northern Ireland, firecrackers celebrating some
unknown event across the border in the Ukraine, Route 66 from Amarillo
to Meteor Crater, the grand cathedral in Escariche, Spain where my
friend Geo and I played music with the choir of old women, so many
other places to talk about...
You've often worked with a "second" trumpet-player on your projects:
Rob Blakeslee on Catechism, Ahmed Abdullah on Namesake,
Marlon Jordan on Debenge-Debenge? What is it about this instrumentation
that appeals to you, or intrigues you? Also, in our conversation,
Nils Petter Molvaer has come up quite frequently. He appears on Welcome
To Us, in a beautiful mixture of brass tonalities, and last Sunday
(Jan. 28, 2001) Yells at Eels performed a tune you'd written called
"Nils Petter Molvaer's Foxtrot". For the benefit of those unfamiliar
with him, could you give us a little background on him and your relationship
I'm a trumpet player, and I'm very picky about the trumpet players
I like and spend my time listening to. I also feel that playing with
other trumpet players is the best way to learn how to play the horn,
which is difficult to play. I can gain so much from watching another
trumpet player wrestling with his trumpet... how does he overcome
the difficulties? How does he react to an insensitive sax player?
How can these changes possibly do any good in this song? All those
questions that come up frequently, especially because there are not
nearly as many trumpeters as there are saxists... you know, calling
up a trumpeter, a brother in the brass, and saying "Let's hit it!"
And it just sounds good! And there are some trumpeters who've kicked
my ass, and how else am I going to learn to play?
I've not talked to Nils Petter in a long time, mostly because I've
been trying to get myself together and haven't been reaching out like
I used to, but he very graciously approached the executive producer
at ECM Records in Munich to try and get Welcome To Us released
on ECM. He's done quite a few things with other groups and as a leader
on ECM, and really liked the record we did, but Manfred Eicher didn't
say much about it... I listen to all the new DJ'ey stuff that Nils
Petter is coming out with, and I think that we're doing lots of the
same kind of music, especially the Forever The Falling Of Stars
CD, and in fact, when I wrote "Nils Petter's Foxtrot", it seemed to
me that Nils Petter and I were reaching across to each other mentally
after these few years and re-establishing contact gradually. We almost
toured in 1993, but it didn't work out, and then, you know, time flies
and its time to do it again. Like I always say, "Tempus sure as shucking
The majority of Nils Petter's discography resides with his work on
ECM, so he's easily looked up, his music is accessible, though he's
also worked with some of the other Norwegians on the Odin label, and
with people like Marilyn Mazur after she left Miles' band...
About daagnim, could you give us just a short list of the musicians
who have passed through or had an association with the organization?
In particular, I'm curious about flutist Joe England, who made a lovely
flute / bass / drums record for the daagnim label called La Flor.
Who is he, and do you know what he's doing currently?
There are two brothers, born in Lebanon, who first brought Arabic
styles and beats to everything daagnim did, Jamal Mohmed (who plays
percussion and flutes) and his brother Buddy Mohamed (a fabulous bass
player). They've since gone on to record their own material on their
own labels, and are known in Dallas for the excellence they bring
to their instruments. Jamal makes instruments and teaches hand-drumming,
and he also plays percussion for SMU's [Southern Methodist University]
dance classes. Buddy travels a lot and is in great demand all over
the country as a bass player. When they play together, their group
is called the Beledi Ensemble. Burnett Anderson is a trumpet player
who works in the post-bop idiom around town, I've not seen him in
a few years. Gerard Bendiks did a couple of European tours with me
as a drummer-lecturer. He now works at Guitar Center in Dallas and
plays in various ensembles with trombonist Kim Corbet. Jim Sangrey,
a fine tenor player, also plays with Kim in various blues ensembles.
Bob Ackerman is one of the finest woodwind "scientists" in the world.
Woodwind players from all over the world take their instruments to
him—he now lives in New Jersey—and he's recorded several
albums for Silkheart and a couple of other labels in the past few
years, Blackhawk in particular. One of the original founders of daagnim,
trombonist Bill Emery has disappeared from sight. I last heard he
was selling sheet music in Plano, Texas, but haven't known where he
got off to. Joe England recorded his CD and shortly thereafter moved
to Amsterdam. Ever so often I hear that he's done New Classical/Jazz
concerts with a visiting American, or one of the BVHaast crew, Willem
Breuker and the gang, but I'm not sure where he is now!
The one musician who was with daagnim too short a time, but who's
gone on to record some wonderful records, and who I'm still in awe
about, is Rob Blakeslee. His own work, as well as his work with Braxton
and Vinny Golia, continues to amaze me and make me proud of the short
time we shared studio and bandstand.
It seems to me that there are some similarities between your
career and that clarinetist John Carter. You're both Texans, specifically
East Texans (one by birth, the other by acclimation). You're both
educators. You're both multi-instrumentalists who at one point made
the conscious decision to concentrate on one voice as a primary means
of expression. You've also written a composition in his honor—"Hymn
for John Carter", on your Catechism. Could you talk about him
and his music a little?
I loved his spirit, the fact that he was not well-known outside
player circles didn't distract him from his path. I was in LA with
Henry Franklin and Sonship Theus doing concerts in California prisons,
and we went by John Carter's house just to say hi. He was so warm
and kind, he and his wife invited us in with open arms, and filled
our stomachs and our hearts. I knew he was sick at the time, so I
wrote the "Hymn" on a Ghanian bow-harp, the connection being that
he'd written a suite of Ghanian-inspired songs on his Gramavision
record, The Castles Of Ghana which lamented the decline of
Western African civilization due to the effects of slavery. Shortly
after I recorded the "Hymn for John Carter", I called Henry to ask
for his address, hoping that he'd like his little tribute, and I was
told that John had died the week before. Maybe up there, wherever
he's playing that clarinet, he listens to his tribute song in happiness,
and maybe it makes his journey more pleasant!
Yells At Eels rehearsing in Chicago for show at The Empty Bottle,
March 2000. left to right: Aaron González, Dennis González,
Stefan González, David Boykin.
You've shown a rather courageous willingness in your career
to work with electronic sounds and instruments. In fact, one of your
most recent projects, Forever The Falling Of Stars, is about
these kinds of tones and processes. Would you say most "straight"
jazz musicians have a phobia about working with electronic / electric
instrumentation? How would you describe your own experience with non-acoustic
I used to be afraid of the computer, mostly because I thought
it would take away the "warmer" functions of humans. I think this
is the same syndrome that afflicts jazz musicians. They don't feel
adept at using synths, electric pianos, guitar synths, and the like,
even as coloring instruments. Plus, they don't realize that they've
practiced their own instruments for 30, 40 years, and still haven't
mastered it, so why do they expect good results from an electronic
instrument after 4 or 5 attempts? It can't be done! About 15 years
ago, I was tired of the straight sound of my trumpet, so I bought
a microphone and a stereo chorus pedal—partially in deference
to what Miles was doing in the early 70's—and when I came out
of that period, I realized I understood the pure straight sound of
my trumpet playing even better! I could hear the nuances and shadings
better than before, probably because I used the pedal in such a blatant
way, and that is actually where I learned to breathe and take time
with the sound, my sound on the horn. Since that time, I've used electronic
keyboards more for coloration and support, and my boys are not at
all afraid to use electric instruments if it helps get their music
across. I keep learning from them what works and what doesn't... they're
painfully honest with me about the music, but I wouldn't have it any
other way. I've also started working even more with mistakes and samples
of sounds, glitches on the tape, using older equipment to get a lo-fi
sound, pops on records, and such... shortwave radio broadcasts, like
on "Nils Petter's Foxtrot".
Finally, what would you
like to say that hasn't been addressed or suggested by any of these
I'm looking forward to the years of music to come, with all the
changes that are coming, with working with my sons, and the record
that we're working on as Yells At Eels. We're going to bring in some
guests to work on the sessions... New Orleans saxophonist Tim Green
(who, Russ Summers' announcement notwithstanding, is not dead)...
do you know who Tim Green is? He plays with Peter Gabriel, the Neville
Brothers, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Maceo Parker... He's been offered
a chance by Gramavision, HatArt, and a lot of people, to do records.
And he never has done it. He and I have been partners for years. We're
like brothers. Tim Green will be on it, and Alvin Fielder doing some
drumwork, maybe young AACM'er David Boykin on tenor... John Tchicai
has been in touch as well. I'd like to add him as a guest. We'll wait
and see what happens!