|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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
It seems in this day and age that it's no longer
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
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
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
When you were a child you started out playing the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
[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
[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.
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.
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—
But in defense of the whole thing, how accessible
is the music that is happening today going to be to the average
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
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."
the flowers must have been so telling too. How did you go about interpreting
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.