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Frank Lowe : The OFN Interview

Making it as a creative musician in America has always been a hard prospect. It's a reality Frank Lowe is painfully and intimately aware of from first-hand experience. Sadly his experiences are the norm rather than the exception in a world where imagination and original vision are often forced to buckle under the weight of commercial concerns. Working along the periphery for many years Frank has never stopped testing himself, his colleagues, or those fortunate enough to be cognizant of his music. Through scattered recordings and performances, his message, purpose and resolve continues to grow, and while he has often been faced with indifference or hostility his tenacity remains unmitigated.

Photograph ©Tony Getsug. Used by permission.

I recently had the opportunity to organize a performance for The Jazz Doctors, a collective that has been one of Frank's most resilient associations over the years, the current line-up being Billy Bang, himself and Abbey Rader. After the gig we had an opportunity to sit down and talk. From an interview standpoint the situation proved difficult. Frank seemed reluctant to view it as a forum directed toward a larger audience and treated it instead as an informal conversation between the two of us. As a result some of my questions (particularly the early background ones), along with my attempts at covering ground it was obvious that I already knew, appeared to try his patience. In addition he was totally worn out from the gig and not feeling well besides. All of these factors were obstacles, but the honesty and passion of his responses transcended them. Our interaction became a vehicle for him to voice his frustrations, as well as his thoughts both musical and otherwise. As his words bear out, he is a man of deep integrity and intelligence—an individual who has suffered for his art, but who continues to strive to have it heard. He possesses an intense and passionate understanding of his craft, both in terms of history, and of those (including himself) who have shaped it. I came away from our meeting not only with a broader understanding of Frank Lowe as a person but also of the creative process in general. Our conversation in its entirety follows.

What was your path into music?

As a kid I listened to all kinds of music. All kinds. It wasn't jazz or R&B, it wasn't called that. It was just music, you dig. Just music, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, all kinds. The labels were for marketing. Trying to fit it into packages for the market, but when it came to the people it was just music.

Was the saxophone your first instrument?

No man, I started on drums. I was around 12. I did drums because a friend told me I didn't need to learn charts to play. But it wasn't like that. And then I switched to horn. I was a Trane freak. But then everyone was a Trane freak. I realized I didn't want to be a Trane freak, I had to find my own sound. So I went and checked out Ben Webster and other older cats. I started out in Alice Coltrane's band. I met Donald Raphael Garrett in San Francisco and played with Alice. My own first recording Black Beings was later.

How did you hook up with Don Cherry?

Ornette Coleman is the one who brought me to New York, man, and got me the gig with Alice Coltrane, it went like that. I knew when I first heard Don Cherry that I wanted to play with him.

What made you feel that way?

That record Complete Communion. So I knew what Don liked, so I just did everything I thought Don would like and it was cool. Yeah, that was cool and it worked out.

So then you did recordings with Don.

Man, don't you know this? There's an LP called Relativity Suite. You don't own that? There's one called Brown Rice. And then there's one by me, Decision In Paradise. I was with Don for a couple years.

I'm familiar with these, but there might be people who aren't. I've heard also that you played with Sun Ra.

That was in San Francisco for awhile.

So you were part of the Arkestra?

Yeah. John Gilmore showed me a lot.

How did the Jazz Doctors come together?

Raphael [Garrett] was my teacher you know and I just wanted to pay him back, so me and Bang had a tour in Europe so we asked Raphael if he could make the gig. I just wanted to repay him for what he did for me. It was me, Denis Charles, Raphael Garrett and Billy Bang.

So, now…today…what kinds of music do you listen to?

Everything. Not just jazz. I find it everywhere. Its not categorically one thing or another. Everything that comes in contact, if someone created it, it could be classical, it could be ethnic, whatever. It makes no difference, you dig. Whatever appeals to my sensitivity at that time turns me on and I want to utilize it, it's there and I utilize it. That's what jazz is. Jazz is a thing where I can utilize all of myself and I know I can hook into it. I'm not limited by influences, you dig. I mean I'm not gonna listen to just one kind of music and let that move me. Man, you only got a certain amount of time on the planet so what the fuck you gonna do? Just go around and miss half the shit? That's the reality of it.

What sorts of things do you do, outside of music, to fuel your sense of passion and purpose?

I get creativity from plays, from somebody's biography. I mean everything man, ANYTHING. Some sports thing. From Tiger Woods. Any of that shit. You dig? The same thing is like, Tiger Woods man, it's just a manifestation of creativity. You know all of the stuff man, it comes through you, you get it from discipline, you're like a vehicle for it, you dig. If you open to it these things will come to you. You practice this stuff, you get a discipline, and then you get better and then you know, it's opened up. And I mean whenever you see somebody like Tiger Woods that's just like seeing Charlie Parker or Coltrane. You got to be able to understand this man, it's all the same thing. It ain't no difference in that. I mean you got to know this. I mean not to realize this is Out man…it's just creativity, you dig, through discipline and then… DISCIPLINE man! Yeah, when you see cats like Tiger, or some basketball cat or somebody that goes to the edge with the stuff or…whatever. It's like when you practice this stuff man, it's the same thing. It's just a manifestation of the Creator, man. It's the same thing that comes through Coltrane and Dolphy and shit. It's not just limited to music, man; you're a fool if you think it is. I mean it's really stupid, I'm serious. I mean it comes through anybody that excels at something and goes in deep and takes you to another level of the shit. You gotta realize what's happening, man; you gotta see it for what it is.

So it's all drawing on the same source.

Man, when you practice on some shit and you work on some stuff, and you have discipline and you just go into it and you focus, you break through some barriers—it's all the same. Whether it's music, or sports, or you're studying for a speech, or whatever. It's logical. You never thought of this?

Yeah, I have. It's something I think about a lot. Everything is connected.

It's the way life is. When people don't look at this… I mean how you think the universe is run? That's the way it's run. People excel in things cause it's like that. It's like that.

That makes a lot of sense.

I mean it all makes sense man. It ain't no big mystery. You dig. You don't own the music. I don't own the music, man. I'm just a vehicle for it to pass through me. You dig what I'm saying? You ain't never own the shit, you dig. You know you stay open to receive things and you look for it and… but you don't own it. Nobody owns it. Nobody!… shit.

Do you think there are people out there that think they do?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don't want to go through that though… but you know that.

One of the things I've thought a lot about is… you look at Europe and the United States and the ways that music, and creativity in general… the creative arts…

Recognition of music, of Black music in the United States would be recognition of Black people creatively and that's why they have a problem with this. This is the only art form that was created in this country. You know this.


So there it is man. These other countries do it and they kind of make America look bad, cause America won't do the shit. I mean that ain't no mystery man—YOU SEE IT RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOU! I mean it's logical. I mean…

So, have you experienced that? Playing in Europe let's say. Playing in Paris, or Amsterdam, or wherever.

Most of my work is in Europe, man. Most… how I really make money, you dig. I mean it's opening up in the United States, BUT IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN OPEN A HUNDRED YEARS AGO! SHIT MAN, I'M TIRED! You dig. It should have, man. It should have. It shouldn't be my thing to try to break through in the country where the shit was born. This is the only art form that was created in this country, man. European music, Bach, Beethoven, that is from Europe. You know. Shakespeare, them plays, that's… you know… that's European. The art form was created with these Black people dealing with these European instruments, and then they wouldn't let them play the drums nowhere but in New Orleans. You understand this? The Congo Square. That's where that rhythm, that second line shit comes from, you put this together? Okay. I mean everybody should know this man, I mean it's in history books. You read about it.

It's there if people seek it out.

Yeah, I mean I know about it because you know… 'cause I used to wonder what the fuck was happening.

What was it that made you realize it? What was the catalyst for you?

Experience. I been doing this… it's been 35 years now, what is that? That's experience, man. But I knew it before I got into it that it was like that. Maybe intuitive I mean, man… but I knew it. I just dug the music. You know music is the one thing, man, that I could escape to. I don't… really man, I don't like the way sometimes humans treat each other man, we're so fuckin' cold, man. Like with these words and these things man. People just say these fucking harsh words to each other, man, and then you say I'm sorry and people go for that shit. It's like, I got this ability man, just like with talking, I'm able to be on the outside listening to my conversation. Like when I'm playing, I'm sitting out in the audience listening to myself. And anybody can do this. Sometimes some people say I'm over-sensitive. But it's just normal; I been like this, you dig. I mean some people, we got ways in society, I grew up man… you grew up, you know what it is, it's hard out here. And a lot of the shit is a little too harsh, man. I mean we're so fucking hard on each other. And I never dug it, so I always retreated into music, man. It was like cooler for me. You know, cause it just seemed so fucking evil man, to do this, to say you have to hurt somebody's feelings to show you're better. I mean it wasn't just competition man, it just a little of… I don't know what to call it… some people call it civilization, you dig.

But that's not civilized… what you're talking about.

Man, that's… look… we act like it's civilized, everybody acts like it's civilized, cause' we go for it. Like when somebody tells me they sorry I don't really believe they sorry. I mean cause you have the chance not to say that, I mean like, like this… if we worked in bookstore together, me and you, and we got some customers and then you do something, you say "Aw man, fuck this shit" and then later on you say "excuse me Frank that customer was bothering me." I'm thinking like, he didn't really mean that, cause no matter what's bothering you, I'm not the one, you dig. But you went ahead and said that shit without thinking about that shit. See, I mean I experience this shit all my life. I SEE IT EVERYDAY, MAN! I see now everyday. All that, you see it, you see it, come on! You see it with people you love, and everybody, man, and we're too harsh and shit. Man, it's fucked up!

What do think… and maybe this is a hard question… the solution is?

Check out yourself. You understand? Learn and live with yourself, you dig. Try not to have to hurt somebody to get… to make yourself up. Try not to have to be bigger than somebody else. Look at yourself, man, come on! You look inward and the shit's right there. You know so… man, and you can't blame it on competition and all that shit and all that man, it's just some evil shit to me, man… that happens all over. But some countries are little more relaxed than others with that shit.

Which ones have come further in that way?

Check it out, how old is this country?

225 years?

Alright man, sometimes when I'm in Europe man, a cat tell me "check this castle Frank, this building, this castle is like 1200 years old." What's here that old? You understand? So, I mean sometimes I just know this, it's all fucked up, but sometimes a few of those countries seem like they know how to enjoy life a little bit more. But it's still fucked up with the systems that they use and stuff. This is a Big Mac country, man. You understand, and it's like that, we live like that. And it's like you gotta be macho to get the shit to happen really, you know. And it builds legends and shit. You gotta be super strong, you got take on the shit. And it takes away the subtlties and the variations and the innuendo and the things that can go on between the shit. And it's like every motherfucker is either a winner or a loser and everything inbetween is fucked up. You dig. But in between lies a whole life story and shit. I mean it's simple man, all this is simple logic. And we are hurtful people man. I mean especially, I know as a Black person I see… but not just talking as a Black, I mean people from other ethnic things and people get all in each other's shits like that. I noticed the shit since I was a little kid. And the only thing I could relax in, and cool myself out in was the music because it seemed to have less of that than anything else. And it still goes with me today. As a kid, man, I thought the most intelligent cats on the planet was Charlie Parker and Lester Young and them, moreso than the actors and the intellectuals and everything, because they were all over the world man, and they were expressing themselves, you dig. And I knew what they was doing and I still do today, really, you dig. Fuck some nationalism! You understand. Fuck some nationalism! I got drafted and I went to Vietnam man, fuck some nationalism! You know. Fuck that! You dig. I mean can see what you got to do, but all the shit is nationalistic and all this shit. You know, when I was in Vietnam man, many people died. It means nothing now. It was all nationalistic. And I'm not talking about being unpatriotic, I'm talking about nationalism. I'm talking about all this kind of bullshit, I'm talking about what I observed. And I never bought into it, you dig. I was… they drafted me man.

When was this?

When I got out of college, when my deferment stopped. 1965. Two years, no, I was in the Army for two years, I was over there for a year. But believe me man that was liberating.


The Vietnamese man, they were cool. Sometimes they would ask me man… 'Çen' means Black. They say "You 'Çen' same as me, what you doin' over here, man?" And I'd have to tell them the government told me to come over here, either go or four years in the penitentiary. And they say "oh, yeah, it's like that." And that's the fucking truth, you understand? No nationalism and no fucking American flag man, I'm talking about when you out there you talking about saving your life and shit, you ain't thinking about no shit like that.

You're thinking about coming home.

Yeah, but I was lucky man, I was not in the jungle, I was in the city. And I sent home and got 250 records that I could play and I was in a club, I was in Saigon see. But it was still negative to me, cause I was over there. But I was a lucky cat, you dig. I wasn't out there; I didn't have an experience like that. But I was still nervous for a whole year. I was still fucking nervous. It took away. They took my freedom man, and I don't like that. They took that shit. You dig. But okay. Man, that's real, come on. And I'm not talking about just some oppressive factors. I just never bought into it. You know.

So when you were over in Vietnam…

Let's leave Vietnam alone man. Fuck that.

Alright, okay, let's do.

I told you I was there a year. I'm doing something with Bang. And he's doing something with me and [Henry] Threadgill and Butch Morris, and all the cats that was in Vietnam, we're putting it out soon. It was like a bad experience, I put it in the back of my mind. If I gotta use something, utilize part of it to call on it, I call on it. Otherwise it's back there stored away, locked up, like some bad experience that everybody have. When you have these bad experiences man, you gotta tuck them away otherwise they gonna be fucked up in you like that, you dig. If you faced with a situation where you gotta utilize some part of it you come up, you unlock it and you deal with it. And then you send it right back. I don't thrive on negativity.

Getting away from that…


…and back into the music. Something that I've noticed is that there are a lot of people coming to jazz through other so-called 'kinds' of music.

Uhmm. You mean musicians themselves, or listeners, or just…


You mean hip-hop and shit like that? Oh, yeah, that's normal man, that's how it's supposed to go. Shit. You be on this, and then you like this, and you hear this, and you like this, you hear this…


Man, whatever turns you on, turns you on. Can't nobody tell you what to like. Can't nobody… that's why when they play some of them top-forty shits on them there, man I get, I really get angry man... anything… I mean, you can play Tiny Tim a hundred times a day and everybody's gonna buy that shit. You understand what I'm sayin'? That's the reality of it.


Yeah, realize this and understand it. And don't act like you don't know this and like it's above you or something.

That makes a lot of sense.

I mean it's the truth, you've experienced that. The things I'm talking about you've experienced. How old are you, man?


Awh shit, man (laughs). You've known what the fuck I'm talking about for the past, probably 25 years. It's marketing strategy man.

Tied into that. Recordings are the primary way a lot of the time that people are hearing music. Let's take you. A lot of the time people are hearing you through recordings and they don't have the opportunity to hear you in person. Right?

Ummhm. That's true. Yeah, in this country. But I'm remedying that. That's why I'm here, in Madison. That's why I'm so fucking tired now, boy (laughs). To try and let some people hear me in person, you understand. That's the reality of that.

I guess what I'm asking though is how do you feel about having recordings often be the primary ways that people come at the music?

It's cool. Shit, it leads them to the live stuff.

Okay, but do you think there is a difference between the recorded and the live stuff?

Sometimes. Sometimes no. Sometimes some cats play just like it. Sometimes I play just like the recording and sometimes it's completely 360 degrees different. It's like that man. It's almost open to… open to environmental things. And location's got a lot to do with it. The environment, the room, the place…


The place you are has a lot to do with how you do this stuff. The place you are, the feedback you get, or don't get. Or your inspiration comes right there at that moment. That's why you play way past some stuff or way into some stuff. Cause' you're so motivated, or not motivated.

Let's take tonight for an example.

Well, we were motivated tonight [laughs]. Extremely. We were really tired and beat, but the people seemed so warm and like… receptive. So it was motivating.

Tying to this, you did some recordings for CIMP. They're known for having this special kind of atmosphere in their recording space, The Spirit Room.

I don't believe in that. I don't go with that. In recordings there's always going to be tension there man, 'cause there's a microphone up there you dig. You try to put something down and document it. So you always gonna have some tensions in that. It's up to me to try and like go past it and just bring the looseness of the moment ideology to the music. But wherever it is, anytime someone puts a mic in front of you and say "okay, we're tapin'"…

Then things change.

Yeah, the shit freezes up, cause you know it's down there. You know I look at it like the stuff is there and I can't take it back, and it's gonna be there when I leave the planet so I always want to do the best that I can. So when it's the Spirit Room, or wherever it is, it's the same way to me every time. When the tape starts rolling, wherever the fuck it is… cause I'm puttin' it down there man. This is my… this my life.

It's a document that will outlast you.

That's it. So I'm trying to do the best that I can. I don't care where it is, it makes no difference. No difference what-so-fucking-ever. No difference! As soon as the mic is turned on I'm tensed up 'cause I know that shit happenin' and it's down there for posterity. But I'm always trying to bring it together, but the mic freezes, it brings extra tension. The tape machine or whatever.

Is that true too in a concert? Let's say you know it's being recorded.

No, sometimes you can get lost in the moment. Because of the people. And sometimes even when there are no people there you can forget about it. You have to play past certain barriers, the tensions. That's all that happens with people. It happens without the people. When it's just you and the engineer. It's about playing past the tensions, the stiffness. You dig. People give you feedback faster. But eventually with the microphone you find a system where you can just go off into yourself and that's what you lookin' for. To go in there and give yourself and get beyond yourself really.

Talking about playing too. The way that you play is often very melodically-centered.

That's right. See, man as a kid I used to hear people talk about all the avant-garde cats just screamed overtone scales, that used to fuck me up, I was always against it, shit I was nervous and just being a victim. Sometimes I hate playing overtones and screaming because it's so… so fucking… dig man, you know when I see people just try to take… there's more, it's much beyond that. Avant-garde is much beyond that.

It seems like when the avant-garde was getting going, with The New Thing in the 60s, that was always a critique that was lodged against it. That it was just people screaming.

Yeah… yeah, but you know that shit changed up. You know Trane wasn't just screamin'. You know that for a fucking fact. If I hear you say Trane was just screamin'… I'll have you assassinated, man [laughs]. So I mean you know that was a lie. People just was scared of the music. Trane was hittin' motherfuckers in the heart. Fast. And they weren't used to it. You dig. They wanted everybody to be like some Uncle Tom form of jazz where it didn't reach out and grab you by your fucking throat. But that's what the music is supposed to do. Bird was doin' it man. I mean, Clifford Brown was doin' it. But they were doin' it within something that was really close to what you might call swing and dance music with the people.

This is really interesting.

Tell me, tell me, tell me man. You can hear Trane… you can hear Trane goin' through like this cathartic thing. You can hear it. Actually Charlie Parker was doin' it too, you know what I'm saying, so… and time passes and it just got more and more real, that's all. Some people say… they don't call it real, they say it was 'anti-jazz.' I call it real. R&B cats, Illinois Jacquet and them was doin' it before. You understand. Trane and them just put that shit together and came out with that. Albert Ayler took it a little further. But then that stuff is 40 years old, so when I hear cats playin' like that and people talking like that and calling it avant-garde they really bullshittin' and they don't want to study man, cause after Braxton and Roscoe and them, they took that shit to another color in like '67 and shit with Sound, you dig. So it went to another color. It got subtle. It ain't just altissimo at the top of the thing screaming, it can go any fucking way. All you need is a system. You need to study and have a system. You dig. I don't know what it takes, but you got to study. And you've got to find out what you need to study. You dig. And in order to get the shit and really change it, you need a system. And you get that system to work for it and you can do it.

So it's about coming up with a way to access it.

A system man. You got to have a system. All them people that was successful, Bird and them, Trane, Monk, they all had a system. Do you think they was just playing intuitively? I mean those are fucking geniuses man. With systems man, like Einstein and shit. Know this, man. Know this about the music man. Very intelligent cats, man. I mean, they had to kiss ass and shit and go along with you know, act they was just playing music. But those cats was studying, working on shit, man, practicing, going on through shit, through life, man, giving they life up for this shit. I look at it like this man, I look at Charlie Parker and Coltrane sometimes like Jesus Christ man, on the cross, like giving themselves for us. You dig what I'm saying? I mean you know Bird was using drugs and shit, people still listen to that shit and know he was a dope addict and got off, the word is uh…vicariously through Bird, you understand. He gave them that feeling. If he hadn't a done it, they wouldn't a got it. But they got it and they felt it, and they still called him a fucking dope fiend. You understand. But they was living and liking and getting that feeling, and that's the reality of it. That's no bullshit. That's why I look at Bird and Trane man, like Jesus on the cross, giving that shit up for us. I mean I've been doing this for so long and for people, I know they don't give a fuck really. 'Cause I mean it didn't take me long to figure this out. But I mean, when people talk about Bird being a junkie and shit, but still they listen to his records so fucking much, man why do they that? Why in the fuck do they do that? They enjoyed that shit. Bird was sacrificing his fucking self. Killing his fucking self to feel good to do that so he could put that shit out. And that's why he was dead at 34.

Trane was dead at what… 42?

Yeah, cirrhosis man. The same shit. The same thing, with Dolphy… it goes and goes and goes and goes. But people listen to their music. People go on and on about Bird. So that mean 'cause he was a fucking drug addict he wasn't no genius too? No, you can't take away the genius from a cat, man. People want things in a neat little package and into compartments, and they don't come like that. Life is not like that, man. You're not offered the opportunities to write the script like that. Bird was playing, man… from experience. You dig. From them mistakes he made, Bird recouped and turned that shit around and made everybody start doing it. But if he hadn't a been high, that shit never would have happened. You dig what I'm saying.

So you think drugs took him to another level?

Shit yeah! And it killed a lot of musicians too. But I mean, you know, so that means… that's the dilemma. I mean some people sometimes, like Clifford Brown was to able to attain it without stuff like that.

But then he died young too.

Umhmm. But what I'm saying is he didn't do drugs. To get nirvana, to get into the shit, you dig. And he was able to go way past the stuff. Most of the cats have to go in there and get this fucking foot off of their head man, have to get the pressure off. And all the drugs did was put it into a world where they could just focus on the music. It wasn't just Bird. Stan Getz, all of them motherfuckers, man, all them cats. And all it was doing was getting the pressure off of them so they could be relaxed man, and play, and think, and not have to act like middle America, that's who they are. No, they some Bohemian motherfuckers, man. You know I was always enamored of the Bohemian thing. Kerouac, Ginsberg, all that shit. 'Cause it seemed closer to who I was as a person. And that's the truth. People, Black people I saw, didn't really dig that. So I guess that's why the hippie thing came in. I was always for it myself. I don't dig stiffness man, rigidity. 'Cause, I seen that lifestyle man. Before I became a musician. I mean, that's why I think being a jazz musician is one of the few things were I can utilize all of my Blackness. Any other profession I had I would have to leave a little bit at the door. I can utilize my great grandmother's field holler, you undertand. I don't have to be ashamed of it. I can utilize that, you dig, into my art. If I was the President of the United States I'd have to be pleasing some other people or other things too. Like I do it, but I do it by going into myself. Being myself. Not by trying to find out something what they might like, you understand. I do it by just going inner and getting whatever really is me. But you can't do that with other professions. You got to censor that shit.

Or you're beholden to somebody.

Yeah. Most likely you got to censor it, man. And make it appealing to everybody, and palatable. And I basically… I do that with jazz, but I can be the freest in that than I can with anything else. See when I'm doing this man, you know, actually when I play I'm relieving myself of daily situations. I'm frustrated too, just like everybody else. I mean I'm not just a happy-go-lucky jazz musician. So sometimes when I play I got problems and when I finish they don't bother me as much.

So it's cathartic.

Yeah. Every inch of the fucking way man. Every inch of the way.