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.
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.
Photograph ©Tony Getsug. Used by permission.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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!…
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
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'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
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
Which ones have come further in that way?
Check it out, how old is this country?
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.
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.
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.
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
Yeah, realize this and understand it. And don't act like you don't
know this and like it's above you or something.
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.
but do you think there is a difference between the recorded and the
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
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.
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
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
So it's cathartic.
Yeah. Every inch of the fucking way man. Every inch of the way.