OFN Home

Joe McPhee : McPhee On McPhee And Other Matters Of Relevancy

Joe McPhee is one of the finest multi-instrumentalists in creative music. This past year has been a good one for him. He has played almost continuously in the States and in Europe. He has enjoyed a plethora of new releases. The reissue of one of his earliest recordings, Nation Time, has enjoyed a revival of sorts in more than just the music. When Joe agreed to this interview I was elated. Here he discusses himself, his past, his influences, his current projects, and the facets of life and music that make him tick. Now enjoy some words from a man who is eagerly willing to share his craft and educate the inclined.

Ok Joe, would you mind discussing your family background?

I was born in Miami, Florida. Both of my parents are from the Bahamas, my father from Exuma—Georgetown, Exuma, which is on one of the outer islands in the Bahamas. And my mother was from Nassau. I have one brother and one sister. I have lived in Poughkeepsie, New York since I was about three years of age. Our house was struck by lightning in a storm, and everything was destroyed in a fire. So our family decided to move from Florida to New York State and that is how I grew up there. I'm quite happy about that because New York has been very good to me. And I like Poughkeepsie.

What compelled your parents to move to Miami from the Bahamas?

Well, my father wanted to become an American citizen, and he had expected to get his citizenship easier or earlier on by becoming a member of the U.S. military. And of course at that time the military was segregated and he was going to join some Army band in Arizona or someplace. That group was disbanded and he ended up in Florida. My mother and father obtained their citizenships in 1951 and both became naturalized in 1960.

You are in Poughkeepsie, New York at three years old. What is your father doing for a living?

He worked for a hotel—it was called the Nelson House Hotel—and he worked there for a number of years. After the fire in Miami, he knew a gentleman who was either one of the owners or the editors of the paper at that time called The Poughkeepsie New Yorker. He was offered a job. And he wanted to raise children in the North anyway; he didn't want to raise children in Florida or the South. Fortunately for me that was the case.

That was fortunate for you?


Did you meet any cultural barriers growing up in New York?

Cultural barriers? It was rather interesting because my family, an immigrant family, and I grew up in a neighborhood that was very mixed. There were a number of immigrant families from Italy, from Greece, from Yugoslavia as I remember. And we all went to a neighborhood school. And until it became socially untenable—at least for some people, for kids to mix, you know—we all went to each others' homes and it didn't seem to be a problem until we were becoming teenagers and were beginning to date. I remember, for example, in the seventh grade, at a dance one of the teachers told me that I should dance with one girl and not another one. And it was apparent after some time that it was clearly racial. The girl I wanted to dance with happened to be white, and she also happened to be someone who helped me with my math all the time. And I liked her. She was very kind to me. And the girl I was told to dance with, whom I also liked, was a very nice person. There wasn't a question to that. But the teacher decided for me that I should dance with one and not the other. Going to high school where we had always been a family with these various groups of people, our school was in a sense a kind of a family. Suddenly the kids who I used to meet on the corner on the way to school didn't meet me. And I started going by myself, which seemed kind of strange. But it became even more difficult later, because after a while only the black kids met and hung out together and the white kids hung out together. So this kind of division began. And also, I'd say in nineteen fifty…five, I believe, there was an incident where a young fellow was lynched. He was somewhere in the South. I don't remember exactly where, but he was lynched, killed. His name was Emmett Till and he was killed for allegedly whistling at a white girl. So it became crystal clear what this was going to be about, what life was going to be about. Talk about the barriers…those were the kinds of barriers I can remember.

So you're growing up in a northern state that's pleasantly mixed—

—Yeah, one would assume, but it wasn't. You know, things seemed on the surface to be ok, but of course they were not. Then, this was just prior to all the civil rights activity that happened later in the 60s.

As a black teenager, really innocent to any of these ideas that are circulating around, especially in the adult world—things like inequality, civil rights—

—When we say innocent, I don't want to say absolutely naïve and that I wasn't aware that such things were going on. But one had the idea that you were sort of removed from all of the problems because of being in the North and not having to deal with that sort of thing. I mean, that's something that happened someplace else! It was like on another planet or in another country or something. But in fact it was right on top of you, there was nothing you could avoid and eventually it was going to jump on you anyway.

When you first hear the word "minority", did that word in particular have any impact on you?

I didn't know what that word meant in relationship to me and I still don't, you know? Because I don't accept myself as being a minority anyway, I'm a human being like anyone else. I'm not a minority anything. But I understand that it has a certain pejorative kind of, very negative kind of thing to it. I don't like to be put in some kind of little box like that.

It certainly had meaning back then.

Oh yeah.

It seems in this day and age that it's no longer a term.

It's a term. And you know what it means. And you have to put it in its proper perspective. I understand what it means, but it doesn't mean that I have less opportunities than anyone else or that I have to do "this" more or "that" more. It's one of those kind of operative terms that tries to manipulate you, manipulate your thinking. If you want to accept those kinds of labels and identities then you have to deal with what that puts on you. Personally, I don't accept minority anything.

These days the term "American Dream" seems a bit distorted from what maybe we understood it to be in our youth.


In the generic sense it used to mean a nuclear family, a home in the suburbs, job security, season tickets, so on and so on. What is, as an adult now, what is your version of the American Dream?

Well, I know what it meant for my father, for example. It meant to have an opportunity as he was raising a family for basically the same kinds of things that you mentioned just now. For me to have a greater opportunity for success and happiness, whatever all that means, than he did. And he struggled to have that kind of thing. The American Dream now? What does it mean? I'm not certain, but I think it still means to have a bigger, faster car for your 2.3 children and all of that. I think that for a lot of people it still means the same thing. Nuclear family? I have rather an extended family. In fact one of the reasons I'm here on the West Coast is to spend Thanksgiving with some friends who are down in Morgan Hill, California, and also my friend Craig Johnson. We've all become kind of a very large extended family that reaches out around the world. It has nothing to do with your biological connections at all.

Do you have children of your own?


When you were a child you started out playing the trumpet.


And the trumpet is no longer your main instrument.

It's not a primary instrument, no. I play a lot of different instruments, the trumpet still being among them. I play the saxophones although I don't really consider myself a saxophonist, which might come as some shock to you.

It does.

I've gotten more of a reputation as a saxophonist because I've made more recordings on that instrument than the others. The reason I say that I'm not a saxophonist is because there are people who really dedicate themselves to the study of that instrument, but I play a lot of different instruments. The saxophone is just one way for me to make music. I think of myself clearly as a musician. I didn't start playing the saxophone until I was about twenty-eight. I have never had a lesson on that instrument. I taught myself how to play it. I bought a method book and I knew how to read music after studying the trumpet, so it was just a matter of learning the technique of the instrument. I pursue it as a sort of sound generator. I also play PVC pipe, didgeridoo, things that I make, you know.

Was going to the saxophone an easy progression for you? Did you find that you were a natural?

It was natural for me because I was looking for a sound, actually, and a voice, a way of extending a voice on the instrument. I had always been interested in saxophonists and their sort of longevity. They seem to last longer and live longer than trumpet players. Trumpet players keep falling off of the planet faster than you can imagine.

[laughs] So it seems.

Also they could play for longer periods of time because of the way that the sound is produced, with the vibration of the reed, as opposed to on the trumpet where the sound is produced with the vibration of the lip itself. You will eventually have bits and pieces of you flying through the horn on the trumpet. And there seemed to be more opportunities for saxophone players at that particular time, which was in the late 60s. The innovators in jazz, for me, were the saxophone players.

The saxophone has always had a sort of romantic quality.

For me it also has to do with—especially with the tenor saxophone—the quality of the voice: the image, the sound associated with blues and especially the tenor saxophone with its range. And the facility of the saxophone, you can play eight billion more notes on a saxophone than a trumpet. That's because of the nature in which it operates. The trumpet, each octave requires a different fingering technique, a different embouchure and so on. With the saxophone, you press a button and you're in a different octave through a certain range of the instrument. People such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, they were the innovators. They were the people I was listening to. And then eventually Ornette Coleman of course. And Albert Ayler. When I heard the sound of Albert Ayler, that was the sound that I went looking for.

The saxophone is unique from the trumpet in that, like you mentioned, you press down one of, or a combination of, the keypads and a different note will be sounded.

Right. And it's—unless you really screw it up—going to be easy to find the combinations to get a C or a G or whatever. The trumpet, you can aim for it but you might not necessarily get there. You have to really work on your ear training. Because as I said, in each octave the fingering can be different, and it depends on the embouchure. So it's a little bit different.

You can also take that note and manipulate it, develop it. You can bend the note…

Yeah. That's true. I also found later—re-investigating the trumpet and thinking of it more in terms as a sound generator as I do the saxophone—that I could employ techniques like multiphonics. I try to find now, other ways of using extended techniques, especially on the trumpet. And I'm very fond of the thing that, for example, Bill Dixon does. And Don Cherry was always one of my heroes, as was Miles Davis. Those three in particular had very unique sounds that they were able to develop.

Could you define sound generator?

Well, an oscillator. I get that concept from my friend, John Snyder, who for a number of years played synthesizers, ARP-2600 synthesizers in particular, which are sound, sine-wave generators and sawtooth-wave generators. John presented the synthesizer in the manner in which he used it without a keyboard, where there were not these delineated pitches, like with a piano. And he could play more microtonally and so I tried to do that. Also, when I was a kid growing up there was a cartoon character whose name was Gerald McBoing Boing.

Gerald McBoing Boing?

This was a character that originated in the newspaper comics and he was only capable of making sounds. He couldn't speak. In order for you to know what he was talking about they would make a balloon over Gerald's head. Inside the balloon would be an object, a train or a firetruck or something, and you would have to imagine what those sounds were. Well that fascinated me. And Spike Jones. Spike Jones' band was full of all these strange instruments and weird sounds and stuff like that. That always interested me, fascinated me. On that kind of pursuit I listen a lot to construction places and trains and noise. I like noise. All of it is usable, especially in a definition of music as being an organized progression of sounds. If you can accept that as a given then you can do whatever you want.

That's interesting! Using so many different instruments, particularly the instruments that require a mouthpiece, do you find it difficult through the years to maintain your embouchure?

It is difficult because the trumpet requires constant attention, for instance. You have to stay on it almost daily, and I don't really do that. I'm always in the process of catching up. It's like being in orbit, always falling downhill - it's always just over the edge there somewhere. I don't find it so difficult anymore because when I pick up one instrument, like the trumpet, I'm just locked into that mode: I know how it operates so I don't think about the saxophone. In fact, I find that thinking is a big hindrance in the process because it slows you down. Also, I say to the musicians I'm playing with, to remove any hindering thought processes, "I want you to be as closely linked to your instrument and the music and your thoughts as you can possibly be. Get that other stuff out." Sometimes I'm in a quandary as to which instrument to pick up or which one to leave home.

You also play the valve trombone, another one of many instruments in your arsenal of expressive devices. That's a fairly drastic mouthpiece to become accustomed to.

Yes, it is. But as far as the technique is concerned, especially on the valve trombone, it's identical to playing the trumpet. But again you have to think about it. After a while, I can get it to where it's very comfortable and I just have to remember that it's in another range, that's all.

You started to read music early, when you were eight years old, when you first picked up the trumpet?

Oh yeah, my father insisted upon it.

So it's essentially a language that has always stayed with you.

It's there, I use it. I use it probably less now because I think it interferes with the ideas and the communication that I want to have with the other musicians who I'm playing with. I'm playing a lot more improvised music today than I ever have and will probably do more so in the future. I just prefer it that way.

I'm glad that you mentioned improvising. Let's take a blues standpoint: musicians are on the stage and they want to improvise something in the blues. I'm thinking in the generic sense.

Uh huh.

The leader will call off, "Ok, let's do a twelve bar blues in… C".


How do you go about improvising with other musicians on stage outside of any notation, outside of—

—Any kind of form?

Any starting point.

The blues is a standard, so if somebody's going to call a twelve bar blues, that's very standard. Everybody knows what that is. They know where the changes are in the song.


Now to get on a stage and just improvise straight out? One way I do it with a lot of the musicians that I work with—we get together, have something to eat and we talk. And we drink and we get to know each other, we may watch something on TV. But what we do, we try to find a common ground in who we are. And then we've got what would amount to probably hundreds of years of study, so we know technically how the instruments work and how music works. Then it's just a matter of putting that all together and actually making music. Ned Rorem wrote a book called Knowing When to Stop. I think it's just as important, probably in some cases even more important, to know when to stop playing as it is to start. Anybody can start. You can go on and the music can wander on and on and just be some meandering, something that doesn't have any meaning. What's interesting to me in improvised music is putting together something on the fly, which is akin to probably trying to repair a car that is broken while it's running downhill. Making all of that stuff work, and in the end coming out with something that is musical. Sometimes you don't know. Sometimes you're always in the process and sometimes it doesn't work. In fact, I'm having an interesting time listening to some music that I probably have to give the closest attention to of any music that I've ever been involved with. I'm not sure if it all works. It was with a large group of four bass players and myself playing a tribute to Albert Ayler. It was very complex and there were some difficulties in organizing that music. And now listening to it back, I'm really having a hard time with it.

Is there the possibility that it will be published?

There's a possibility that it could be released. I find that I have to let go of some of—in order for me to find the music—my preconceived ideas of what it should be. So I have to give it really close attention. I brought some of it with me on this trip and I'm still working on it. Sometimes the process is easy. You think, "Oh wow, that works," right off the bat. But this is the hardest thing that I've ever had to deal with.

But that's good, right?

Yeah! It's a learning process for me. At first I just dismissed it and said, "I don't want to have anything to do with this." But then I listened to it some more and said, "Well, maybe if I don't try to put my thing on it, then maybe I can discover something in there." And then ultimately I have to decide that it's something I want to be associated with. [Chuckles]

Those little bumps can be the most telling of experiences.

Yeah, also I try listening to it through the ears of the other musicians who are involved, because they all come from another perspective. And so it's interesting to have another point of view. I look forward to hearing what the other musicians involved have to say.

Who are the key players in your evolution as a player and as a composer?

Primarily my dad. My father didn't play jazz, but he was the person who gave me the gift of music. And I say that in really the deepest sense. When I was a little kid he would say, "Come in now, it's time to learn to play the trumpet," which I hated. All my friends were out playing stickball or whatever they were doing and I didn't want to go in to practice. And I fought it for a long time. When I finished high school I didn't want to play the trumpet anymore. It was quite by accident that when I went into the Army I wrote down that I played trumpet. I was studying electronics technology and I wanted to get involved with computers and that sort of thing because I liked computers and I liked electronics. There was not a space in the electronics school for me at that time, although I had qualified for that field. And they said, "Well, we have an opening in the band for a trumpet player. Do you want to do that?" I thought about it and they said, "You don't have to, you can be in the infantry." So it was a no-brainer, I chose the trumpet. For two years I was in an Army band in Germany, where I first went to a band training school which was the equivalent to attending a very good music school. My job every day from nine to five was playing music.

There's nothing wrong with that.

I met some wonderful people and it was because of that that I am playing today. I would have given it up otherwise, I'm sure.

The Army band played traditional music?

Yeah, showtunes and marches and that sort of thing. But it put me into contact with some musicians who had been playing jazz. I had never even seen a piece of jazz music. A friend of mine gave me a composition by Miles Davis called "Four" which had chord changes and all that. Eventually we put together a composers' workshop and each week we were supposed to present a composition to play. So I got to learn composition and traditional harmony.

That must have really revved your engines.

Yes. I began to realize that if I was going to write the music out, to use elements that worked for me, and elements that had not so much to do with traditional harmony. Listening recently to an interview with Jimmy Giuffre for example, he talks about the same thing: you can take normal chord structures, traditional chord structures, and put notes into a melodic place. Or you can put the notes you want into a piece and move them around with the rhythmic concept that you want, and what you are trying to find is this sound. This is why I think about instruments being sound generators more than anything else because I try to produce the sounds that I feel and that I hear as opposed to what may be right or wrong. It comes to be right or wrong as it relates to me and eventually as it relates to the listeners.

I started out playing the blues almost exclusively. Eventually, as of lately, I have been trying to make a steady, if not slow transition to jazz. What I have found is that it challenges your thoughts well beyond the head-solo-head form.


It takes you away from what you recognize as style. It takes you away from concepts that you recognize. It allows you that total liberty of expression.

How would you define jazz?

To me it's anything that allows the individual musician liberty to express his or herself in as creative or as innovative a process as the moment allows. It's about improvisation.

There are as many different definitions for the term as there are people who listen to it or practice it. Of course from a commercial standpoint the moment you stamp jazz on it, it means that you're going to be allocated X number of column inches if you're writing, if you're recording it will be X number of slots in somebody's bin, or so much space in a historical concept. So I'm not entirely sure what that word means. I know what it means, of course. This has a lot to do with why I started Po Music.

Yes, I was going to ask you about that.

One of the reasons I started Po Music is largely due to the work and philosophy of Edward De Bono. I used "Po" Music, which I co-opted from Dr. Edward De Bono's work on lateral thinking. The word "Po" is a language indicator. Po simply indicates that provocation is in place and you should not necessarily take a statement as being absolutely true, but rather as a jumping off point in an attempt to using one fixed set of ideas to discover some new ones. "Po" itself comes from an ancient Minoan symbol represented by a reversed horse's head: take caution with a statement, it might not be what you think it is.

Well, you read my mind.


We lightly discussed traditional music. You still nod to it in some of your music. I hear a lot of respect for the blues in your playing.

Oh yeah.

I'd like to know when exactly in your life that you decided, in your musical thought, to break from traditional music theory and embark upon your own language of expression.

Precisely? Hmm. Thankfully to Craig Johnson, the third recording I did for the CJR label was a recording called Trinity, which is going to be reissued probably in February. It was a trio with a drummer by the name of Harold E. Smith and a pianist by the name of Mike Kull. There is a tenor-drum duet. I think it was that point that compelled me to move away from following other established formats of music. I was also inspired by Cecil Taylor at the time. These were extended pieces and we were not so much concerned with how much time it would take on an LP at that time. We were just able to play until we said what we wanted to say. So it was about not being stuck into any kind of time frame or format. It does contain a blues, but a blues more about feeling than form as an expression. After that I suppose it became more about just making a statement and not worrying about what those kinds of forms would be, and considering the people I wanted to play with. I think in that sense it was more in the tradition that Duke Ellington wrote, because he wrote for specific people. That is an interesting question you ask because I've always tried to pay very careful attention to the literature of jazz, the people who have come before me who have made it possible for me to play the kind of music I play. Whether it is a blues guitarist or someone like Charles Mingus or Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman, I've always tried to use something of the music from those great composers. They make it absolutely possible for me to do what I do.

You and so many other great musicians, what allows you to stand out is the ability to break free from what has been done before you and what has been written. Even if you want to interpret what has been done before you, it is manufactured in your own style. There are musicians that are a dime a dozen who will play Sonny Rollins' "The Bridge" note for note every night.

Right. Now, I appreciate that and I respect what they are trying to do. For me, I have a tremendous amount of respect for those composers and those musicians. One way for me to show it is to just investigate what they have given us and try to extend the language. It would be silly for me to try to play some John Coltrane licks, even though I play some of Coltrane's compositions, because you can go buy a recording from John Coltrane and you'd be better off. What I want to do is share the space and recognize the fact that the music comes through this conduit of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, whoever, and that these are marvelous gifts that they have given us.

They are indeed gifts, whether you are a musician or not. On to something else. December 12th will mark the 30th anniversary of what you and Craig recorded years ago, Nation Time.

Oh wow. Yeah.

Considering the intentions of the music and the philosophy behind it, are we any closer to Amiri Baraka's goal with thirty years behind us?

No, I don't think so. It's interesting to see what we have happening right now as we speak with the election. We can't even figure out who the President is going to be.

Another good thing!

Yeah, ha! It could be. I think that what one must never do is to forget the lessons of history. We were talking about the Civil Rights movement and all... It has become very important to understand that a lot of young people have no idea what that meant. When we talk about freedom for example, freedom to do what? To allow drug dealers to invade neighborhoods and such? What are we talking about? Because the drug dealers didn't have to fight for anything and the kids just accept it. It's a constant struggle. They [young kids] have to know what it's about. The ideas that Baraka was talking about at that time are interesting and I think are important to reinvestigate. So maybe this Nation Time might allow that to happen, although I doubt it. People would probably be more interested in dancing than anything else and worrying about what kind of shoes they are wearing.

Hey now, it makes me want to dance.

[laughs] You know, I played in a soul/rock kind of group, it was called "Ira and the Soul Project". Ira was the leader of that group, a singer. He sang in a Marvin Gaye kind of fashion. We used to play in these bars on Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday nights and people came and danced and it was great fun. Each night before the dance music there were jam sessions that could be very open. Well, the first time I played my saxophone—I probably shouldn't have, I had only been playing for a day—I said, "I'm going to go on down there and play this thing." And the guys told me at the end, they said, "Naw, please don't come back with that thing. This is our gig here. We can't have that going on!" So I didn't bring the saxophone back. But I would go there and I would wear these coveralls and big, round dark glasses and a white shirt and bow tie and sit there in the front row like this [folding his arms]. And everyday they didn't know if I had it with me or not. I would just go there and I'd listen. They'd let me play the trumpet but never the saxophone. A year later I ended up hiring them for my first recording. They didn't mind me playing the saxophone after that.

[laughs] The past three decades have been possibly more of a struggle than any other period for creative musicians. Not just for a paycheck, but for what audiences deem as credible music. Is the music becoming more complicated? Are audiences more closed-minded?

I don't think the music is becoming more complicated and I don't think that audiences are particularly becoming more closed-minded. I think that there is more of everything and that there is more, for example, of an MTV-type mentality, which tells you what's good and what's bad and what you should listen to. I am encouraged by the fact that some young people are finding alternative music clubs, which don't necessarily put labels like jazz or hip-hop or whatever on the music. Young people just go there to hear music, whatever it may be. Good quality music. They don't want to hear bullshit, they want to hear and experience something. They want to feel something. They want to be able to say, "I like this," or "I don't like this." I have found this out by playing in places like The Empty Bottle in Chicago, which is basically an alternative music club. I've played in a number of different situations there and the club is always full. They just want to hear some good music that they can relate to. Last time I was there they were singing stuff from Nation Time! It shocked me that they found that interesting. And the solo situations! They just want to hear some good music and I think that is very healthy.

I agree. It is perplexing though that there was a time when the music was accessible, where young kids could go down the street and pop into a club, pop into a record store, and the music would be playing right there on the jukebox. People would be dancing to it—

—Or, you could find it live. The time that Nation Time was recorded we could go from Vassar College, where it was recorded, down to one of the bars downtown and the music would be there live for us to just go on in and listen. And there were also DJ's who played tapes and recordings. People would say, "Could you play such-and-such a record for me?" But if it wasn't played exactly like they heard it on the radio, they didn't want to hear you. They weren't interested in this kind of development of the music or experiencing something new. They wanted it precisely the same each time.

Now maybe this is a misinterpreted notion, but it seems to me that if we were to take 500 young kids it would be surprising to find that a handful of them knew who John Coltrane was. Or who Fred Anderson is. If they do know these musicians and if they do enjoy the music and it is a part of their extracurricular enjoyment, would you attribute it to educators?

I would think more so by their friends, somebody who has heard it and felt it. Or while they were visiting friends who had it on, playing it. Educators? I'd be suspect to that. I don't think that there is enough jazz education or exposure to jazz. There is the Lincoln Center/Wynton Marsalis school which, for my money, is simply saying that, "We know what it is and we are going to tell you what it is and that is all that it is." At the same time there are living, breathing musicians around who can't work who are creating some very exciting music in our own time and they can't even survive.

It's disturbing that the music is—by such talent as those that you mention—is encapsulated.

Uh huh.

And treated as if it were in a museum.


Have you heard any of the developments or about any of the particulars with Ken Burns' jazz project?

Oh, the jazz program? I'm looking forward to seeing how he is going to present that. I don't know. I'll just keep an open mind. I'm really interested in seeing it, having seen Baseball and The Civil War. It will be interesting. I don't know what the Marsalis/Lincoln Center crew have had to do with that or how Burns is going to approach it, I really don't know. I hope he touches on all of the aspects of the music. I hope he spends a good amount of time on the music that is being created today and the directions that the music is going. That would be interesting and important. You know, this is not museum music that is being created, that we are creating now.

No, it isn't.


Ken Burns is a documentor whose work we can all appreciate. Works like Baseball and the Civil War series I believe are appropriately indicative of exactly what America has become through such important developments in our own cultural history. What I do know of the program—unofficially—is that your wish, which is mine as well [at least a significant amount of time dedicated to current music] is limited to one episode out of around ten. I believe even the first seven or so episodes are from the beginning, Jelly Roll Morton and such, to 1950's and 1960's hard and post bop.

They've put a stamp on it. I was afraid of that and I had heard that too. I am still hoping that won't be the case, that there will be more, because they have got this tremendous opportunity to educate. At least, if not educate, to expose an audience to a creative process in the works which would be fascinating in itself. And they are just going to keep it as a museum piece, at least it seems to me.

It is an incredible opportunity. It has been said that Ken Burns—even by Burns himself—was not very familiar with jazz before he embarked upon the project. He hired on some people to point him in the right direction, Wynton Marsalis being the keystone—

—I'm sure.

But in defense of the whole thing, how accessible is the music that is happening today going to be to the average American listener?

He's not going to go out of his way to find this [our music].

No, probably not. Do you think America is going out of its way to look at its roots?

No. And we have to remember that this is a commercial venture, they are selling something here. And to be fair also, it's a niche kind of thing that we are dealing with. It's not for everybody. For example, someone asked me recently, "What would you think if some major record label came and wanted to record you?" I'd be very suspicious. I mean, why? What would they want to do this for? Because it's not for everybody.

I would be reading the fine print.

Yeah, exactly. I certainly hope they give a fair amount of space to someone like Ornette Coleman. That would be nice. "Give them their flowers while they are here." That is a quote I got one time from Jackie McLean in a television interview I had seen. It's like, give the creators their due now, don't wait until you have to do it posthumously. Just do it now. Jimmy Giuffre is somebody who I think also is a contemporary of Ornette Coleman's and such who doesn't receive his due because he is the wrong color. If he was black he would get a lot more space in the press. He's done a lot of work and his music was as important as it was creative. It went in a different direction, slightly.

Giuffre was considered a heathen by many for what he did in the early 60's.

Well, there is a recording called Jimmy Giuffre Plays and Talks and it's on the CELP label. One CD entirely of Jimmy discussing his musical processes and it is very, very important and interesting.

You did something for that label too. For Jimmy Giuffre, in fact.

Yes, Impressions of Jimmy Giuffre. The saxophonist I was working with at that time, Andre Jaume, came to the states to study with Jimmy. I drove Andre up to Jimmy's house and we had dinner and we were talking and I had mentioned "The Train and the River", this piece that he had done. Well, this particular piece is personal to me because of the trains and the Hudson River where I live in Poughkeepsie, New York. I mentioned this to Jimmy and he went up to his attic and came back down just smiling, beaming. He had brought down the music! I'm standing there and I can't believe this, I'm holding this manuscript. Uniquely, Andre, Raymond Boni and I had a similar instrumentation as Jimmy's group with Bob Brookmeyer and Jim Hall. We had thought that it would be great if we could play some of that music sometime. So we thought, for Jimmy's 70th birthday, "Why don't we just do that and give it to him as a gift?" That was another way of saying, "Thank you, here's some flowers for what you did for us."

And the flowers must have been so telling too. How did you go about interpreting the music?

What we wanted to do was get the feeling with what he was doing with the music. The sound, the absence of a drummer, keeping in mind his explanation for the music. His were similar to our own feelings about a drummer. There is just some music where a drummer isn't necessary. You know? Not with a guitarist like Boni, who is an orchestra in himself. Also we were thrilled to interpret it the way we wanted to and still find something close to what Jimmy was trying to do.

Your ideas and the outcome of projects such as this reveal that your music is every bit as much spiritual as it is technical.

Oh, of course. Absolutely. It's much easier, for example, to translate those ideas by simply playing. The audience will feel it too and that is what they will take home with them. Often, when we play, people are sort of just floating. They say, "What is this? What just happened to me?" Well, what happens in many of those cases to the audience is the same thing that happens with the musicians who are playing, where we say [whistles], "Wow, that was it." It can be very spiritual.

I know what you mean. There are times, as a listener, when I leave a show and I question myself: "Was that valid for me? Did I really understand that?" And in the end, in instances such as this, it's all what's going into your heart. It's all whether or not you have goosebumps on your skin or not.

Aaaaab-so-lutely. That's exactly it. Because, I mean, if someone was to say to me, "Well, I don't understand this." I say, "Do you understand a sunset? Or a flower, when you see a beautiful flower? Are you going to tell me that you understand that?" If so, then you're full of shit. Understand what, what's there to understand? Either you get it, or you don't. It'll touch you or it won't.

What would you tell someone who doesn't understand creative music at all? Or someone who is afraid of it, or apprehensive?

I just say listen and keep your ears and mind open. And at some point you'll get it. There are those though who never will.

Can you give us an assessment of current creative music, your own and that of your contemporaries?

I think that there's a lot going on. I think that there are more directions that music, especially the type of music that I am involved with, is going. The internet has made it possible for almost instant critiques of music. For example, I can play a concert now and immediately after it's over, somebody is on the computer discussing it with someone else. I think that is great.

I've seen that.

It's amazing. It raises curiosity, people ask questions. That's actually linked to the reasons for some of the titles that I use on recordings. Like Nation Time, or another one of the earlier recordings, Underground Railroad. "Message from Denmark" is a title attributed to Denmark Vesey, a slave revolutionary who wasn't content with turning the other cheek. Or "Harriet," which is for Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Back then I thought, "If I have the opportunity to do this, and people question those titles, and go and see what I mean by them, go look it up and find out who these people are, they will carry something on." They will find it's much more than just music, it's like a conduit. And I hope that it can open some doors and become more than just the music itself.

That's a noble endeavor. You seem to have an affinity for European tradition and players, such as Andre Jaume and Raymond Boni. How do you feel about people associating you with this strain of music?

It doesn't bother me. It is because of them that my career has been possible. I have had more of an opportunity to play in Europe than I have here in the United States, especially the kind of music that I am playing now. Their music is more universal, it's not necessarily related to one general idea. When we play together it's not European or American, it is whatever we are doing, which is really outside of those camps. There is a kind of British improvising tradition, which has nothing to do with jazz. There is the German school and the French school and they don't really mix all that much. I can go into any of those camps and be perfectly at ease. It's ok with me. I don't have a problem with that.

Tonight you're doing a show with an American bassist, Mike Bisio.


Tell me about your association with him.

Well. I first met Michael in a recording situation in 1995. I had a quintet which had performed at the Earshot Jazz festival at the Tractor Tavern. We have been playing together ever since. I think it was the next year that we did a recording for CIMP called Finger Wigglers. We had a tour that came out of that recording. While on that trip we were in the Southern United States. We passed a sign that said "Zebulon—[So Many] Miles". And the distance kept decreasing and decreasing and eventually it started increasing. We never saw this place called "Zebulon". It seemed like a mystical kind of a place, like infinity or something. So this inspired the title of the second duo we recorded. Subsequent to that were a couple of other recordings for CIMP, In the Spirit, which was basically spirituals, ballads and blues. Another one we recorded at exactly the same time was called No Greater Love. And there is also what I alluded to earlier, the Albert Ayler 2000 Project, which included four bass players, Michael being one of them. I dubbed them as "The International Bass Quartet": Michael Bisio, Dominic Duval, Paul Rogers, and a wonderful French bassist by the name of Claude Tchamitchian. It was a tribute, a celebration of the music of Albert Ayler for the year 2000. Here we put all these musicians together, but we never had a rehearsal. It was something that was an idea in my head, but I didn't know exactly how it was going to work. Four bass players, just in terms of logistics, was incredible. Trying to move those four basses around… Then was the task of quickly putting together people who had never worked together before—all wonderful, very powerful, individual personalities. I wasn't quite sure what would become of that mix. Now listening to the tape, I'm still not quite sure. We certainly all played well. But I'm not entirely sure that everything meshed together the way I had originally perceived it, so that's what I am struggling with. Did this work? If not, why not? And why am I worrying about it anyway? That's part of the process of being leader of the group: coming to grip with all that stuff.

For a gig, whether it's a recording date or for a show, what inspires that process?

[laughs] Having the nerve to get on the stage would come first! What inspires the process is having an opportunity to interact with such wonderful musicians and to share a common language. Also the experience of playing together. That's what sets the tone. We then just try to be healthy and to get on stage and speak to each other.

There are many people out there who would like to pick up an instrument and become a musician. For instance, I would love to—after almost 20 years—pick up the alto saxophone again and get back into it. But of course I'm not off my ass and doing so. What would you say to those who may be lacking the self-esteem or the drive to do it?

Get off your ass and do it! Just pick it up and don't worry about it. If you want to become a great classical alto player then you will have to study hard. If you want to play the horn and just express your language then it's cool, just go get one and play it. To improvise, for me, I use the analogy of playing by heart or playing by ear. I really mean that—playing from the heart: playing from the inside out. Playing by ear: you have to listen to yourself and listen to everything around you including the people you are playing with. There's nothing to it but to do it. Just go get an alto and play. You don't have to please anybody but yourself.

How do you go about composing your music?

Sometimes there's a certain kind of idea that I have. For example, for In the Spirit, I knew that there were some pieces that I wanted to borrow from. I wanted to play some blues, some spiritual interpretations, that sort of thing. As far as my own raw composition is concerned, sometimes I start with a concrete idea and then work towards getting the right people, the right instrumentation. I can lay it out in graphic notation or I can use standard notation. With the people I am playing with now the music is often composed on the fly. It is often not written. Once it is played I can go back and transcribe it and write out the parts. Of course now with computers you can just play your music into the computer and it will notate everything.

So the magnetic or digital recording of what you play is just as valid as a written transcription?

Oh I think so. I am more interested in what they sound like than what they look like written on paper. It's all interpreted anyway. It's in the ear. And it's in the heart, which is most important to me. I have a composition that is about an hour long with Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening Band. It is based on a feminist science fiction novel. The piece is written in a kind of graphic notation, more like a roadmap. It tells people where to go, but not how to get there precisely. However the piece is fixed, I know that it will be an hour long when played, and I know what will happen in terms of the attacks and such. We intend to start mastering this piece in the middle of next month, so some time early next year it should be on the market. Composition is mostly about getting the right people together.

What do you think about Anthony Braxton's work and his style of composition?

Oh I love Anthony Braxton's work! The reissue of a recording I did in 1976 called Tenor: the title itself comes from not only the fact that I am playing tenor saxophone on the recording, but also for one of Anthony's first recordings, For Alto. For Alto very greatly inspired that. I know Anthony and I like him very much. He has been an important part of my work. In fact, the first time I heard For Alto was at Craig Johnson's house. Craig had often tried to get me to play solo, but I just refused. I thought, "Who would want to hear me practicing??" Tenor was almost an accident because it was not intended to be a recording, but a practice session for a solo concert that I had approaching. It just happened that a cassette recording captured the session.

Twenty years later, on As Serious As Your Life, you took advantage of the assets that you had at your disposal, such as electronics. On "The Death of Miles Davis" you use an extended delay to create a beautiful effect.

That was an important recording, there were several things going on. First of all, Miles Davis was one of my first heroes on the trumpet. He died in September of 1991. Also my father had died about five or six months prior to that. There had been a long period of time where I took care of my dad, he was 90 years old. Because it took up a lot of my time I didn't have time to record or work on music. I was mostly just taking care of my elderly father. So As Serious As Your Life was very cathartic for me, it was something I felt that I needed to do. I also wanted to tie it into a 20th anniversary kind of celebration for Tenor. There were all kinds things in the music: Conlon Nancarrow's music, the player piano stuff, and Sun Ra, Coltrane's "After the Rain"… it was like a collage.

We can really hear you pulling from yourself and making use of the current in that recording.

Yeah. There were mixed reactions to it. Some people wondered why I used all the instruments and why all the electronics. Well, that's what I do and that's what I like. At first it was really rejected by Hat Hut. I'm not certain why. At first they thought it was too similar to some other things that I had done. I had no idea what that meant. Eventually Hat said, "Ok, this is interesting and we're interested in putting it out." And I'm very happy that it did come out. I would have put it out myself if they hadn't.

Do you see any solo embarkings in your future?

I do. I have never recorded solo trumpet or brass. However I have recorded one complete duo brass recording for Okka with Jeb Bishop, a very fine young trombonist from Chicago. It's called Brass City. I have never released a solo soprano recording either, although I have recorded one. It was a solo soprano concert performed in Guelph, Canada a couple of years ago. There is the possibility that it could be released at some point. There are some other solo concepts that I'd like to explore as well.

What are your current motives regarding your music?

A few things have been recorded that I am waiting for to come out. They are dream projects. One is a tenor duet with Evan Parker, which was recorded two years ago on Okkadisk. I'm just waiting for it to come out. I've known Evan for a long time. Evan's playing is just remarkable. Just in the breadth of stuff that he is doing, I think this recording is quite different from what people are used to. For some reason I wasn't feeling that well on that recording date. I couldn't circular breathe to save my soul. But it worked out because you have the tendency to use everything in your arsenal, and I don't think it is necessary to do that. Another project is a set of duets that I recorded about a year ago with Hamid Drake.

A master drummer.

Oh, Hamid is just incredible. Also waiting for release is a recording I did with Mat Maneri and his father, Joe Maneri. Randy Peterson was on this project too. Joe played alto but he kept jumping up on the piano and playing it. He is a very funny guy, Joe Maneri. During the date he would just hop around and Mat would try to push him back down. Man, you can't get that excited because it throws the recording all out of balance! So the recording with him on piano is aptly called "Crazeology".

Anything else?

I was on tour with the Brötzmann Tentet. We went into the studio for two days in Chicago while on a tour here in the summer. And just recently I recorded with a group from London, Ontario called the Nihilist Spasm Band. This is an interesting band that has been together for 35 years. They are noise band and they play mostly in a gallery. They drink beer and in a way are curmudgeons (like myself), wonderful artists, painters and philosophers. They also invent their own instruments. One guy plays what he calls—his name is Art Pratten—the Pratt-a-various violin, which he invented. He also uses a tube made of plastic that he calls "the walking stick". The bass player plays a three and a half string electric bass, which he created. And they play kazoos and all kinds of stuff and make the most wonderful noise. I was thrilled that they invited me to play with them.

You seem to be enjoying a variety of settings. As we get older, we can tend to become set in our ways, or so to speak. What makes us strong is our ability to accept change. Is this true of your individuality?

I think so. I think that flux and change are cornerstones of what jazz is all about. Change is something that I embrace. I don't look for things to be the same. One of the reasons I keep changing instruments…often I will play an instrument that I have the least confidence in myself playing, because I want to push it. Not that I want to do something stupid, I think the whole thing is about walking naked on the edge of a razor blade. The idea is not to slip. So I try to be physically and mentally in the condition to do what I want. I try to be able to reach my ideas and to execute them. I try to keep the thinking thing out of it. I want to be as close to the music as I possibly can, to whatever the creative process is and the projects. I embrace change. I think it is absolutely essential.

You mentioned the election earlier. What do you think?

Well, first of all, this is the greatest hands-on civics lesson that you could imagine. Kids are learning more about how the government works. Children are primarily asking the most interesting questions, as far as I'm concerned. I also think that we give lip service to the idea that every vote counts. You are finding out that maybe they do and maybe they don't, depending on how your machine works, the technology, etc. People are now going to say, "I want my vote to count," and mean it more than ever. There are some major changes going on here. The news networks, all of it, man. It might all soon be up for grabs. This is a great time to be alive.

Every once in a while a piece of literature or a cultural hiccup comes along that challenges our sense of ethics. When was the last time that you were challenged in this way?

I've got a project that I am working on to do some music for Paul Robeson. Reading about Paul Robeson's life and his idea of putting your ass on the line for what you believe in... Here is a man who practically had his life and everything that he believed in stolen from him by the country he loves. Just investigating that has really made me think about where I am and what I am doing. Sure, I can give lip service to ideas and talk about things like "Nation Time", but it's really about doing something. I'm still in that process, it has given me cause to examine a lot of things.

You are where you stand. Everything you have done in the past, everything you have lived, everything you have played, everything you have felt is all behind you, a catalogue of experiences. It is a history. What do you see of your future?

If I can wake up just one more morning and find you still here beside me, Sweet Song... then all my life, in the factories where I have worked and all of what I have done before will not have been in vain. Just get me up one more morning and I will do the best that I can. Nothing is promised to me, I am just grateful.