Šodien 5.jūnijā Rīgā notiek Latvijas valdības un Starptautiskā Valūtas fonda (SVF) kopīgi rīkota konference par Baltijas valstu ekonomiskās krīzes pārvarēšanu, ekonomiskās izaugsmes atjaunošanu un progresu ceļā uz eiro ieviešanu, kurā piedalīsies arī SVF direktore Lagarde.
Gan SVF, gan Pasaules Bankas amatpersonas vairākos publiskos izteikumos Latvijai piešķīruši ‚paraugskolnieka‘ titulu, kā tikt galā ar krīzi, un premjers Dombrovskis atlabšanas recepti jau izklāstījis grāmatā un neskaitāmās publiskās lekcijās. Šķiet, šī konference ir loģiska kulminācija šim pozitīvismam, kur krīzes risinātāji – skolnieks un skolotāji – viens otram uzsitīs pa plecu un saliks paši sevi apaļus pieciniekus (skolniekam – par kārtīgu mājas darbu izpildi; skolotājam – par mācīšanas prasmēm). Konferences runātāji ir rūpīgi atlasīti, kuru viedokļi var minimāli kaitēt šai pozitīvisma gaisotnei. Arī konferences apmeklēšana ir strikti pēc ielūgumiem, tā teikt – „nepiederošām personām ieeja aizliegta“ (tiek solīta gan konferences tiešā translācija internetā). Nešaubīgi, arī konferences vietas izvēle – Lielā Ģilde – ir rūpīgi…
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Anthony Braxton: The Third Millennial Interview with Mike Heffley
Copyright Š 2001 Anthony Braxton & Mike Heffley. All rights reserved.
Extracts, with Commentary by Ralph Dumain
The plain text in each numbered selection is commentary by Anthony Braxton extracted from the interview and published by The Autodidact Project with permission of Mike Heffley. Italicized paragraphs are commentary by Ralph Dumain (© 2003 Ralph Dumain).
I’m no fan of Spike Lee’s, but the fact that he would have a project dabbling in minstrelsy, on whatever level, is just further proof that the components of the third millennium will be very different from what we came up with in the ’60s. For instance, much of the hip-hop music that we’re experiencing right now has a minstrel component. More and more, it’s the tough guy celebrating vulgarity—which isn’t to say this is the only component of hip-hop. I have a feeling hip-hop, like every other form of music, has many different levels, but the one that gets through is the level that the marketplace co-signs. So we’re seeing the same thing that has happened to the jazz world.
The comment on Spike Lee and on the minstrel quality of contemporary popular culture, especially the representation of black people, is very perceptive. This minstrelization indeed was once imposed on jazz musicians as well, but now the image presented by the likes of Wynton Marsalis is one of respectability (though, tellingly, Marsalis romanticizes the ignorant behavior of the past even as he admonishes that of today: see for example his treatment of Sidney Bechet in Ken Burns’ Jazz). This freezes the image of jazz in another way.
As far as I’m concerned, the political decisions of the last 15 years have involved what I would call quadrant-specific coalition politics. Quadrant-specific in the sense that, looking back on the last 15 years we see a movement that has sought to move toward idiomatic certainty, as opposed to what my interest has always been, which is responding to composite reality. Idiomatic certainty is a way of talking about the kind of reductionism that has come to characterize present-day notions of what we call the jazz musician. Reductionism, in the sense of where in the beginning, we could look at the continuum of the music and the recorded materials available demonstrating the music as the artifacts, the sonic footprints of the path of evolution and experience of the great creative masters who have brought us to this point in time. Reductionism, then, is my way of looking at how that information has been redefined to where the language and conceptual experiences from the great lineage of mastership of those individuals that we call jazz musicians have been frozen, and have become the sonic artifacts that have been used to reduce the composite conceptual and vibrational implications of what that information originally meant. And so when the term jazz musician is put forth in this time period, it’s put forth as part of a grand Southern political strategy. Southern political strategy in the sense that since the 1980s, in my opinion, what we have seen is a continuum of political decision that, one, would reposition the New Orleans experience as a point of definition of this erected concept of canon, at the expense of a composite American creative experience that reflects on American experiences in a way that transcends the political and ethnic position parameters that have characterized, even historically, how American progressionalism is viewed. What am I saying? I’m saying that the emergence of the modern era—say from 1880 to 1920—can be viewed on many different levels. The most important level in this example would be the concept of the IQ as a reflection of Darwin’s evolution of the species, on the one component; and on the other side of that composition would be the concept of rhythm and blues as a way to establish a thought unit that on one side says the European and trans-European continuum is responsible for all of the intellectual advances of our species; and on the other side, the concept of rhythm and blues as a way of saying that African Americans have this special feeling, and that the Europeans, with all their intellectual advancement, are somehow retarded in the area of natural human feeling. I see this intellectual gambit as profoundly flawed and false; in fact this is a political gambit that is consistent with the original Southern gambit that would involve the concept of 3/5ths of a person as a way to justify a political decision that would enslave non-European, especially African American people.
Quadrant-specific, idiomatic certainty, reductionism, racial mythology of white (cerebral, unfeeling) and black (emotional, instinctive, non-intellectual), artifactual approach to a musical “tradition” vs. composite reality, vibrational dynamics: the freezing of a complex living reality into a fixed, monumental, Platonic archetype and fetish-object alienated from the living process in which the creation of music took place, and thus mirroring the ideology and social structure of a racial classification scheme. Southern strategy: a very important observation. Braxton links the victory of the reactionary South in the American power structure to the emergence of the contemporary ideology of jazz as institutionally dominant in the person of Wynton Marsalis and his confreres.
. . . part of my problem, or part of the complexity of my creative struggle, has been that there’s no category for an African American person who’s interested in composite reality and in responding to it. I think in the very beginning, many of the problems that I would experience would come about because, for many sectors, I was an African American who did not know my place; who embraced the trans-European and trans-Asian musics to the same extent that I embraced the trans-African musics because I did not experience a natural opposition to those continuua. Part of the complexity of the ethnic politics that has been the political gambit leading into the modern era would be that the African-American person has to function within a defined zone, or parameter.
Yes, popular culture remains relentless and absolutist in pigeonholing and confining black people within a rigidly defined cultural and ideological position.
In fact, part of the beauty of my life was the experience I had with the AACM, and the information that has come out of that experience. The AACM was a restructural and mystical union that was dedicated to advance composite information dynamics. . . . . These people were and are dedicated Americans, people that we can be proud of. They were seeking to advance a position that would be consistent with what America is all about. Their work has not been interpreted correctly because, again, it goes back, in my opinion, to the axioms that would determine what I call the Southern Strategy 2000. Southern Strategy 2000 is a way to regain an ethnic-centric parameter that would determine what musicians could be successful and from which value systems. Axiom 2 would determine which individuals would be allowed to be successful, and what subject and area focuses those individuals would have to talk about to become successful; and Axiom 3, the nature of what kinds of flexibilities the creative musician would have to entertain: flexibilities involving vulgarity, and input from the A&R people as far as what projects could be documented and what musicians would be used. As far as I’m concerned, the last 15 years was prepared in the 1980s, and we’re seeing a fulfillment of this Southern Strategy, which would also be connected to the African American middle class, and finally the African American upper class. Also, connected to this strategy would be manipulation of image-logic quadrants; I’m thinking of the work of Hollywood in the last 20 and 30 years, and also image logic manipulation on the television set.
Fascinating example of Braxton’s abstract, quasi-scientific/mathematical terminology: restructuralism, composite information dynamics, parameters, quadrants, image-logic. Yet these abstract structural terms are resonant as well as suggestive for deepening one’s perception. The Southern Strategy: a crucial avenue to explore. Braxton suggests the power ascendancy of the reactionary South is not just a white thing, but has restructured the class and cultural dynamics of Black America as well. Note also the language of Americanism from a black perspective: a radical democratic language spoken by other great Americans such as Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, and Ornette Coleman. The AACM as exemplary, dedicated Americans: beautiful!
Let me put it like this: what we’re talking about transcends individuals, but Southern strategy is a good way of talking about this, in that the concept of a Southern strategy, and its success, in my opinion, has been that in many ways the Southern strategy trumps the composite intellectual strategy. By that I mean that the depth of slavery, and the actualness of slavery, was of such a dimension that everyone has to genuflect, especially in the trans-African American intellectual community, to the profound weight of the slavery experience. So the concept of the Southern strategy in this context is a strategy that sets the parameters for the intellectual dimensions of the music, and trumps any thought unit that goes outside what is considered race-generic, if I can say it like that.
While Braxton describes these dynamics according to his own personal terminology and conceptual system, fleshing out this characterization shows it to be very revealing. In actuality, the opposition between North and South could not be more central. It goes to the very struggle within modernity, between the fluid and the fixed, the progressive and the reactionary, modernism and the anti-modern reaction. Braxton also highlights the process by which blacks and black ideologies are as complicit in this split as are whites, not just as objects of the political dynamic, but also as perpetrators.
The Southern strategy is also a way to understand the exclusion of the contributions of the trans-European creative musician, or in this context the European American contributions to the creative music tradition. I’m convinced more and more that the whole idea of black music, jazz music doesn’t really encompass the correct context to talk about the evolution of American creative music. Jazz works because, one, the European American political structure, from the beginning of the modern era, would place a quadrant circle around the black community, because the black community serves several functions in America. The black community would be of a zone where the trans-Victorian component would not be allowed to be dominant. The black community would be the quadrant that would challenge the trans-Christian and especially the trans-Pythagorean component; the black community would be the quadrant that would allow for extended morality, or existentially posited psychologies. So the black community was isolated because, one, the European American power structure needed to have it isolated because of the psychology of racism, first, and also the psychology of financial and economic dynamics. But the evolution of American creative music, and finally the evolution of world music has always been much greater than any territorial experience. In seeking to understand the discipline of creative musics and the phenomenon of vibrational dynamics, more and more I think in terms of territorial experiences into continental experiences into, finally, global experiences. From that paradigm what we call white and black doesn’t work in the same kind of way, because the real history of our species and of creative music evolution has been a history of human beings responding to one another, based on coming into contact with one another, and that was the case in the Byzantine period, in the Ottoman Empire period, in pre-classical Greece time period, the period when the classical Greek information would go into the Islamic world, to later be re-translated into the European universe and locale; it was the case in the forming of the American area space, and it was the case in the time period of colonialism. What we see in this time period, in my opinion, are efforts to undermine continental experiences as a way to continue present-day notions of ethnic politics, of coalition politics, that’s what we’re really dealing with: ethnic and racial politics, idiomatic politics, and the phrase Southern strategy in this context, in my opinion, involves the latest component of this reconstituted agenda from the 1880s that seeks to put everybody back into their place again. By that I mean put the African Americans back in their place, put the homosexual community back in their place.
The curious quasi-mathematical terminology—quadrants, trans-[X], etc.—is not the usual way these dynamics are described, which makes Braxton’s statements even more interesting. Braxton outlines the economic, political, racial, and ideological system that institutes a division within a perverse unity—trans-Victorian vs. licentious zone, etc. Braxton recognizes and names a composite reality as the true nature of human interaction occluded by an oppressive ideological/political filtering mechanism.
The whole jazz platform, everything that’s happened since the 1960s in the jazz world, in my opinion, has come about through the liberal sector, and that sector has postulated a concept of “we are with you in communion around trans-African matters,” while at the same time, what they’re really saying is “we’re with you, but you had better follow our concept of what you should be. We’re with you as long as we can say that jazz goes to 1965, and everything after that is not black.” By chopping off the restructural component of the music, what we’ve seen in the last 30 years has been that without the head you start taking from the body, drawing from stylistic influences. From that point, the musicians would start to go further and further back in time; now we’re back to the minstrel period, back to Stagger Lee. But it’s taken for granted in every other community that evolution is a point of fact.
To best appreciate this paragraph, one should decode it into a more concrete framework. The “liberal sector” names but does not adequately describe the dynamic involved, but clearly points to the liberal integrationist politics that finally enabled the recognition of black people and their cultural contributions and their incorporation into the mainstream social order, within a certain framework. The final result is the recognition of the sins of America’s past and the celebration of progress, embodied within the contemporary, respectable image of jazz, acknowledged by official society at last, proffered by Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns and co. The respectability and the frozen artifactual presentation of jazz are such that jazz must be delimited, framed, and tamed, and that the evolution beyond the mid-’60s both culturally and socially is too dangerous and close to present problems to touch.
As long as they accept the parameters of what they call jazz. What they call jazz is a reductive proposition that takes away the restructural spectra of the music. We can talk about jazz from many different standpoints, but one thing is certain: jazz was the only quadrant where an African American creative person would have the right of definition, to seal a definition; but that has now changed. All of the musicians who would define a way for themselves based on their understanding of affinity dynamics have been kicked out. In their place we have a concept of jazz that is generic, that is a reductive attempt to create an artificial quadrant that would have the properties of what they call jazz but in fact jazz was always much more profound than what these people want to deal with anyway. Their problem with the restructuralist tradition has always been that the Establishment was never prepared to accept that an African American person could have an intellectual thought that would be equal to the Europeans.
Restructuralism implies an attitude to received input which must be transmuted in some way, reflecting the paradoxical position of black people in American society. In Hegelian terms, one would say that black culture is not self-identical; it can only be understood in terms of the social totality, in terms not only of what it is as a delimited entity but of what it is (allegedly) not. “Restructural spectra”, “affinity dynamics”—terms in a language redolent of physics, engineering, and calculus—suggest a different perspective, a living (composite) reality, which would constitute a black intellectual perspective denied recognition by the racial-mythological order.
And the psychology of the entertainment musics has been the aesthetic goal of the Southern strategy; they’ve moved the creative music that guys like myself were working with, they’ve changed the aesthetic concept to entertainment being the highest goal again. We’re back to the Eisenhower years; I’m waiting for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to come out of his grave and take away Brown vs. the Board of Education.
I feel that this time period, in many ways is analogous with the dawn of the modern era. That’s why I keep going back to the late 1800s to 1920s. The same components are at work; and in this time period, in seeking to understand those components, we can look at the phenomenal success of Wall Street over the last 15 years; the greatest gains in the history of our country. We’re seeing mergers on a level that’s equal to the early 1900s. We’re seeing a new tier of super-rich people, that 1 per cent Al Gore liked to talk about; and on the other side, the gap between rich and poor is widening. The Southern strategy, in my opinion, is part of this greater component that really reflects on multinational reductionism, and multinational reductionism in this context has kicked out 3/4 of the recording companies and merged them into one; controlling the performing outlets, bringing in a group of guys who are working all over the planet because they play ball. This is political, and part of a political strategy: if you play ball, you can be successful, because the ball has never there’s never been greater abundance, because we are again at this cycle of dynamic technology that has resulted in new possibilities for making money. Jazz is a part of that; the jazz business complex is that zone that controls the music; the motion picture industry is the zone that controls image logics in the film; television has its domain; so we’re talking of political and aesthetic domain parameters.
I think the connection between politics and the economic control and shaping of culture is made clear.
It is coming out of New York; they brought the South to New York. By Southern strategy in this context, take the blues, for instance. The blues is being posited as the legitimate projection for African Americans to function inside of. More and more, the blues is being defined as an idiomatic generic state as opposed to an infinite affinity state, which is what it really is. The blues, in my opinion, is being used as a way to marshal and limit, or define the parameters, of African American intellectual and vibrational dynamics. With the blues, they can say “this is black music.” If it’s not the blues, if you write an opera, they can say, “oh, this is not black music.” If it’s blues, it can be received and appreciated as consistent with what African Americans are supposed to be involved with.
North vs. South: very important. And shameless ideological manipulation informed by black conservatism: Albert Murray’s blues ideology, etc. Sickening! So shameless and obtrusive in PBS documentaries: the Murray-Crouch-Marsalis pipeline. A shame it is, as these people do have valuable things to say.
For me, then, what we’re really talking about is some attempt to understand this time period, the concept of the modern era and all of what that concept implied, as far as what tenet components would comprise the variables that all of us as human beings would find ourselves dealing with in the last 100, 120 years. By the term “Southern strategy,” I want to be clear with this; I’m not only talking about the “New Orleans phenomenon,” I’m talking of the political psychologies and strategies that have dominated the domain of information and vibrational dynamics in American culture, and what that domination would pose for the erection of quadrant politics, coalition politics, ethnic politics, intellectual dynamics, and the resulting decisions that would come out of that alignment, and how that phenomenon would set up the constructs of the modern era.
For myself, I see my position as consistent with African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation. I have from the beginning sought to find a viewpoint that would allow me as a human being to participate in composite reality, in the sense that I wanted to have an experience that would reflect my interests, those things that I’ve discovered in life, and to have the possibility to integrate that information, and hopefully to evolve in a way that would be consistent with my beliefs. The concept of the modern era would also of course have a spiritual component, and that spiritual component—especially the trans-Christian aspect of it—would also fuse on the tri-plane the various axiomatic tendencies that have become the accepted norm in this time period as far as general perceptions of reality. It is from that point that I’ll try to respond to your question.
In seeking to explore and learn about history, I think the most basic focus that I can come up with at this point would be that period of exploratory recording that we generally associate with Alan Lomax and, later, John Hammond. It would be in that period when we would see the manipulations to contain idiomatic and vibrational quadrant spaces concerning African American affinity postulates, and the gradual move to create alternative quadrant spaces for African American experiences as opposed to integrating those experiences into a composite platform that reflected American vibrational dynamics. It would be with those quadrant political strategies that the first echelon of idiomatic parameters—i.e., “African American music”—would be undertaken.
I read this morning in a magazine that some basketball player who’s making multimillions—who, of course, is angry, since all African Americans are angry, whether it’s justified or not, since anger has become one of the qualities that our young people seem to embrace, which is to say it’s become almost a minstrel tenet, what has happened with anger in this time period. This young man is doing his hip-hop CD, and the article talked about how foul this CD is in terms of language. For me, it triggered the early notions of how the African American community would gravitate toward blues, how in the initial gambit of what we now call race recordings was to present the African American community as being more fascinated with “blues” than with composite initiations. I disagree with that viewpoint. I think of the American master Abner Jay, who spoke of his work and himself as the last of the minstrel musicians. I recall that when talking with Mr. Jay, he talked about his struggle, and finally his rejection, or the rejection of his music, by the African American community. For me, Mr. Jay’s experience and the conversation I had with him was indicative of the profound forces at work.
The abstract and esoteric terms Braxton uses as a method of analysis are not scientifically or sociologically adequate to the task, from my perspective, but they conceptually structure the phenomena discussed with great significance. The characterization of composite reality vs. the simplistic monovalent ideology of black cultural expression (note story of Abner Jay) could not be more important.
The distinction is that what we call minstrel music is complex. There are at least three or four different levels. There’s the first level of European Americans recognizing the creativity in the slave quarters as a component for attraction and assimilation; two, there would be the response from the African American community that would mimic the mimicers; and three, there would be a contingent of African American creative musicians who would seek to parlay that polarity—that is to say, to take the original and dynamic components of that experience, and attempt to do something with that.
The fourth level would be minstrelsy as an “ism,” that being a parameter that would become part of the idiomatic character components that would be used to define the identity state of what is “correct” for African Americans—i.e., translating into Amos and Andy, translating into those components and ideas that would form the early attempts to frame African American vibrational dynamics and identity.
Part of this gambit, and this idea that through the race records the marketplace manipulators would frame this viewpoint that the African American community was only interested in blues part of that gambit would involve sacrificing the composite creative spectrum, especially the creative experiences taking place in the North. It would be in that context that the thrust continuum of experiences from the African American composers like Frank Johnson, William Grant Still, James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook—this continuum would be sacrificed in terms of the significance of their input as conceptualists and composers. What we would have instead would be glorification of folk music into blues, with the solidification of race recordings taking the position that the African American community was really an outgrowth of the blues psychologies exclusively. This is my point.
Note, aside from the characterization of this historical process in general, the dynamic of North vs. South. The South is the embodiment of fixed, quasi-feudal tradition; the Northern urban experience brings fluidity, complexity, and modernism.
If we were to look at the emergence of the great American musics, we would be forced to look at the fusion solidification of Irish and African American music moving into the country string-band continuum, which would later set up propositions for active rhythmic-logic folk musics, moving into country music and rhythm and blues, all as one unit, as opposed to how it was segregated by the marketplace because of social reality, political reality, ethnic reality, and finally racialist/racist psychologies. That would be one tenet component of the modern era.
Note Braxton’s use of the widest range of historical information possible, and how it figures into composite reality.
The prescribed realm of idiomatic qualities, all of which goes back again to the period between 1880 and 1920. We’re talking about the slave master looking at the Emancipation Proclamation to set the image logic parameters of African Americans in terms of how they would be perceived. At the same time, with the new technologies developing—i.e., the movie industry—Birth of a Nation would be a vehicle to posit idiomatic qualities as regarding the image characteristics of the African American. The recording industry would create “race records,” separating African Americans from composite realities, creating the special circle for the black community. Some would say—I think Max Roach said it beautifully—that the music was able to evolve because nobody would accept African Americans in the composite space, so the black community, turning in to itself, had no choice but to do the business of living and creating within this sanctioned sphere. And yet, on the one hand, the positive implications of that experience would bring forth a whole new category of invention dynamics and exploratory musics; on the other hand, the principle axiom of the modern era would involve an overseer quality by the European American community, which would determine what components of the African American experience could be viewed as valuable, and on what terms that overseer position would also define the vibrational synergies of the black community. And in every case, their definitions would always function with respect to what was in the interests of the European American community.
A noteworthy, sophisticated analysis of the constraints and manipulations imposed upon the black community and its relations with the powers that be within the larger society.
But this has been, what you’re describing, in my opinion, one of the axiomatic tenets of the modern era as far as the imposition of quadrant experiences and ethnic experiences. In that context, African American creativity is used as a stimulant for American culture; for the Europeans, it would also function as a triggering mechanism that would provide vibrational stimulus through the parameter of the Other, to reactivate dynamic European creativity and curiosity. And we’re talking about the 1880s when that started.
Abstractly (quasi-mathematically) stated, but very important.
And the modern era says that everything has to be redefined from a Eurocentric perspective, and it’s at that point where it gains value. Now let me be clear about this. I have no problems with whatever Paul Simon decides to do; I’m a Paul Simon fan, so Mr. Simon’s not what I’m really talking about. What I’m talking about is the position of European Americans in this time period, and their ability to appropriate whatever they want and be able to define it in whatever way they want to define it. At the same time, if I go and try to have an experience and seek to define it, I’m looked at like I’m a fool. Plus, the same opportunities are never available in reverse, like for the African musicians to be able to use Paul Simon, or musicians from that ilk, and have their work respected based on its fulfilling some aspect of their experience. My problem is not with Paul Simon. As far as I’m concerned, he understood in his own way the dynamic implications of globalization, and the fact that the creative person has to, if he wants to keep growing, find fresh parameters. Not only that: just as I hope to have more experiences with the great Latin musics, the great Asian musics, it would make sense for Paul Simon to look towards Africa, and Latin America. I have no problem with that. My problem is that the Metropolitan Opera won’t give me a performance, because somehow it’s outside the natural order for me to write an opera; but it’s not out of the natural order for André Previn to go and do a trio record of My Fair Lady tunes with Leroy Vinnegar and Shelley Manne, and have everybody say, “wow, this is great jazz, it’s jazzy jazz;” then he can go and conduct and do his opera.
Very important. The black creator is denied the full expression of composite experiences by the culture industry.
Well, it’s not for me to have any kind of stipulations about what another person should do with their creativity. In fact, the more I explore myself, the more I find that the axiom tenet that says it’s impossible to judge anybody but myself is the only position that makes sense to me. The problem, as far as the spectrum of experiences and humanity the problem is that the modern era defines African Americans as a people that can only function in an idiomatic quadrant, one that contains an ethnic mechanism that has not been understood. So when I use the phrase “Southern strategy,” I’m talking of a political coalition that is functioning under a particular psychology, and that psychology is connected to what the modern era is, and it manipulates quadrants, manipulates who is going to be successful and under what terms—and invariably that quadrant is concerned with the elevation of trans-Eurocentric definitions and value systems and political proclivities.
Stated in an abstract, schematic, metaphorical terminology that would profit from more concrete scientific exposition, but the meaning is clear. In one way or another, the cultural definition and functioning of blacks within the American (and world) polity are relentlessly jim-crowed, even in a post-apartheid society.
For instance, I think one of the things that surprised me, which I was starting to intuit in Chicago, when seeking to understand the African American community in New York City, for instance, and the Black Power movement and the music itself that was evolving, the post-free jazz musics, how narrow this music was as compared to the great work of Roscoe Mitchell, and the broader concept space that these guys were working with; the great work of Julius Hemphill, out of St. Louis, and his connection with theater, and broader strategies. The New York platform and the jazz business complex would, in effect, be co-signing this reductionism that was taking place in New York. I think of Amiri Baraka and the Black Power movement, and the viewpoint of Africanisms that would evolve in that period. As a young guy, even in the middle ’60s, I was very much aware that there was a reductionism taking place in their psychologies as well. More and more, I would come to look at this phenomenon as part of what for me, even in the 60s and 70s, was the strangeness of the East Coast and its politics, and how that strangeness would allow for a special reductionism in the black community and in their understanding of what they called free jazz and the political associations they attached to it. It was a kind of a pro-Garveyism.
A very sophisticated take on the ideological, political, and regional configurations of the times and places discussed.
. . . the South lost the war, but the value systems and political mechanisms of the South have come into prominence. And he mentioned jazz as one of the components, from New Orleans, right now permeating the scene, and drawing on the New Orleans period, and I felt he was right. The New Orleans strategy then, in this period, has culminated in the successful blockage of the restructural musics and the re-installation of the New Orleans psychologies: those being, of course, ethnic quadrants, idiomatic quadrants. The black man is back in place, in other words.
The Southern strategy again, and very important. “Back in place”—this should be spelled out—means the peculiar racial class-divided social structure of the post-apartheid era. The “jazz” essentially of a former time is now marketed to the educated, professional classes as an authentic, classical product (artifactual freezing and suppression of “vibrational dynamics”), while hip-hop is marketed to the poor and ignorant to keep them poor and ignorant and to the middle classes of all races so they can go slumming and sweat off their inhibitions and frustrations. This cultural divide reflects a rigidified class structure and cultural sphere.
But in fact Mr. Armstrong, whose connection with the minstrel tradition, no matter how honorable it was—who was cited as his hero, Steppin Fetchit, or Bill Bojangles? I’m not sure, I’ll check that—that connection is usually cited as the source of his interest in minstrelsy, and in the Satchmo film it’s spoken of as a noble attraction, as indeed I have no reason to question. However, whatever his connection to the minstrel tradition, as we know, minstrel tradition meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For the political powers that control information dynamics and image logic manipulation, the minstrel tradition was a reductionism that was effective as a psychological manipulating component. So that has come back again in this time period as well.
We’ve gone in the last 30 years from the emergence of a composite aesthetic music and intellectualism in the black community that suddenly has been squelched, and in its place idiomatic, ethnocentric psychologies and successes have been allowed to dominate. Hip-hop is celebrating vulgarity but 50 years from now the scholars will maintain that hip-hop was the music of African Americans and represented its intellectual ideals and conceptual input. That is to say, IRRELEVANT—and that is the word that came out in the Du Bois book review, that Du Bois found himself looking at the liberals and conservatives and understanding that, at best, the input of African American experiences, intellectually, creatively, scientifically, would always be viewed as irrelevant. Not we like this or we don’t like this, but irrelevant, in a corridor where it’s not integrated into composite information. It was with that understanding that DuBois lost it and decided to get out of America. That’s why I need to go back and study this guy all over again.
So these comparisons are frightening to me.
Very interesting, striking as far as the contemporary situation is concerned. The comments about Du Bois are certainly thought-provoking but the argument needs to be pinned down. Du Bois emerges as a key figure for Braxton, but still a nebulous one.
The European improviser’s continuum has a position that is very similar to 100 years ago, and that position is what distinguishes me again from Wagner and Hildegard and Schoenberg. It’s a composite aesthetic in the house of the rectangle—that being the unified, notated music—and putting the triangle inside of the rectangle, in the case of Wagner, with mythology. But there was no attempt to deal with improvisation. A hundred years from the first of the so-called “modern era” sequences, we see a European continuum that says it’s only about improvisation, and you can’t have any notation. That’s the same position as 100 years ago too, only in the house of the circle [free improvisation—MH].
So it’s interesting in the Satchmo film that much is made of Louis Armstrong’s Jewish music teachers in New Orleans. I’m just trying to understand America’s racial political decisions, because Louis Armstrong, for me, was like a summation master whose work took the language of the region, of King Oliver, and just did it better, fast, higher. It wasn’t like he put together a new language. Plus, coming to the north, it would be in the northern regions where Mr. Armstrong as a soloist started to evolve, and the concept of the soloist in the music has always involved the concept of self-realization and extension—and in the North, that phenomenon cannot be separated from the vibrational psychologies that evolved in the North. And African-American middle class and upper class in Chicago, in the early period, was not on a second plane to the European American community; there was a healthier interaction.
So this is another aspect of that first wave of migration of African Americans, and Louis Armstrong’s music would be a part of that; his travels to come up and play with King Oliver would be a part of that. This is another aspect of creative music progressionalism that I’m seeking to understand.
South to North: the ramifications of this dynamic are much greater than I think most people realize.
. . . the teachers we had made us feel that we could compete with anybody. We never thought of ourselves as being programmed to be in second place. I think that’s important: the psychology of thinking we could change the world was a psychology that was bathed inside of the vibrational quadrant of the northern geographical experiences in a way that was the norm for me. Only later would I start to see the different psychologies, the different geographical realities, and have a greater sense of what that was.
For instance, it was always clear to me that in a crunch, the southern experience would trump the northern experience, and that has been what has happened. And by trump, I mean when times get tough, the southern guys can say, “you know, the experience of slavery was a real experience, and people really suffered, and if you don’t go for our agenda, it means that you’re not black. If you don’t play the blues, if you don’t have allegiance to the southern experience, you’re a traitor.” And by positing that viewpoint, it would always trump a guy like me, because I could be held in suspicion of not being black enough.
North vs. South: could not be more important. The Northern urban experience as liberating, democratic, expansive, even under bad conditions. The North creates a wider and freer vision of human possibility. The pull of slavery—of the Southern experience—is deployed metaphorically, but it’s an abstract depiction of a movement characterizable by another abstraction—modernity.
I’m saying that the experience in Chicago, in my opinion, was much more healthy than the experience in New York. And that the experiences in Chicago and New York were both much healthier, in some respects, than the experiences in the South. But then it gets complex. Because one component of our conversations have been inside what I have called the Southern experience. In many ways, the Southern experience has been a more honest experience, to gain insight into the composite American psychology, than the Northern experience. Because the Southern experience, as we’re seeing now—if you function within the Southern parameters of their concept and quadrant of what is ethnically correct, you can be appreciated and you can be advanced. The Northern experience, where everybody talks about how they’re “liberal,” has always been more complex, and more insidious. And in the northern geographical centers, I have come to feel that the concepts of liberal and conservative—and this is why I want to go back to DuBois—in the end, the African American experience is marginalized, and whatever happens in the African American experience, at best it’s irrelevant to determining the real information dynamics of the culture, the real documentation of the culture. Because in the north, they don’t even respect you second place or third place, not to mention first place; they can’t even relate to an African American as equal. The South can relate to an African American not as equal, but as a second-place good boy.
Intriguing but still cryptic and hence in need of decoding. Du Bois is emblematic of an enigma. Du Bois himself started out very New England and non-“black” culturally, yet saw the South and wrote an African-American version of Hegel’s Phenomenology, i.e. The Souls of Black Folk. Now, it seems as if Braxton is struggling here to analyze a differentiated totality difficult to characterize: what is the North, and what is the South, what is liberal and what is conservative? (Speaking of Southern Strategy, what about the political configuration embodied in Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—anti-working-class, economically conservative, yet racially inclusive?) Braxton suggests here that the paradoxical fluidity of the North means that a creative black intellectual drops out of the picture altogether, with no assigned place. Curious: further investigation is required.
But I grew up in a black community, it wasn’t an integrated community, it was the South Side of Chicago. I did not know any European Americans when I was growing up, so it was me, Howard Freeman and Michael Carter, and a handful of other guys. We did our little projects, had our little baseball games, watched the television. We didn’t even know about anything outside our neighborhood, but we had all the dreams of every other American. Having a TV set, one of my heroes would be Roy Rogers. Not only did he have two guns, unlike Gene Autrey, but even in a fight his hat wouldn’t fall off, and he wouldn’t even get dirty. This was the kind of guy I could use. My hero was Werner von Braun, the V2 rocket scientist, and I had all kinds of charts in my room of different stages of the V-1, and finally the V-2, the White Sands testing grounds and all this kind of stuff. By not having any contact with European Americans while I was growing up, I did not experience any kind of hurt feelings or rejections; instead, I just kind of felt like I could take over the planet, as did my friends.
Although we also noticed that there was a sector of African Americans that we could not relate to. This was the gang sector, toughie-tough guys, who weren’t interested in any intellectual anything, they were just tough guys, athletic guys; I liked them, but at some point I would have to back away from that community, because we were interested in the world of ideas. But what was far out was that there was a beautiful kind of synergy where all of the qualities of the community could work. For instance, it was taken for granted that the girls were the smartest; I mean there was no doubt, we all knew these young girls could run us into the ground intellectually. They were the ones who did the homework, they were the ones who got the good grades, they were the ones we had to go to for help
This description of Braxton’s environment and vantage point could not be more touching: it’s the American democratic vision at its best. Braxton expresses the impressions and feelings of millions, reflecting from one vantage point the experiences of all races as well. Where can we find the public articulation of this quintessentially American experience? Ralph Ellison paved the way, but where is the black Route 66 where we get to journey through the nation and tell all these untold stories?
So when I grew up, I kind of felt like I could be whatever I was able to work toward, and that if I applied myself, I could do my best. Later when I fell in love with Karlheinz Stockhausen, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t want to build on Stockhausen, and do my operas and my pieces for four orchestras; Stockhausen did it, I wanted to be able to do it. He’s one of my heroes. I didn’t know I was crossing into quadrant spaces that were outside what was acceptable for me, not only by the European American community, but by the newly modulated African American community of the ’60s. Black Power, which in the beginning started with a broader agenda, would in fact by 1966 be exhibiting a reductionism that more and more would form along the lines of Garvey versus Du Bois.
Poignant. Who else will speak up for this experience?
Starting with Stokely Carmichael, moving into H. Rap Brown, moving into Amiri Baraka, and then the Black Panthers. More and more, an intellectual position would be advanced, but rather than butttressed with intellectual arguments, it would be instead buttressed by “if you don’t accept this, your butt’s going to be kicked:” toughie-tough arguments. And that toughy-tough psychology would parlay through Gil-Scott Heron’s beautifully intellectual dynamic, creative work, into the Last Poets, whose hopeful inspired work would translate finally into Niggaz with Attitude, toughy-tough psychologies that would merge into post-Baraka Black Panther psychological experiences, and Huey Newton—two positions that could be expressed more or less as “Either/Or:” either you’re with me or against me, everything is politics, everything is everything no more room for gradations; follow my agenda or you’re the enemy.
Braxton sees through all this.
. . . I would also say that it has become fashionable to talk of Congo Square as an experience where the transplanted Africans who became African Americans would have a free space moment of information dynamics. Those experiences were important, to be sure, but I would only add that the first and second Great Awakenings, in the Northern states, would also be a component that would contain the same kinds of experiences. Remember, the European transplanted settlers were always frightened whenever the slaves got together without supervision, especially if they had a drum, especially if they had the opportunity to start making their music. It was because of that fear that finally they started trying to bring the slaves into the church, under the banner of civilizing the heathens, in hopes of reducing the intensity of their experiences, because to the European settlers, these guys looked like wild savages, and they could not be trusted after having these quadrant-communal cycles; so it would be at that point that the first Great Awakening would come together, not just for African Americans, but as a point of definition for the Pentecostal American Protestant groupings that would emphasize self-realization and emotion. Before that, in Europe, if you were in church and started shaking your butt to Wagner, they would kick your ass. And the Pilgrims and the Puritans, they were some toughy-tough guys: enjoy the music, but don’t have a mind-body connection, they could not handle that. And that of course is all they were seeing with the African slaves. So the First Awakening—which, by the way, if it’s on target, it should be coming back in the next 10 or 20 years to America [laughs].
What a use of historical information! And dig this: ” . . . in Europe, if you were in church and started shaking your butt to Wagner, they would kick your ass.” Brilliant! Hilarious! America vs. Europe. What would C.L.R. James make of this?
I saw myself as interested in composite reality by the time I joined the AACM; and I would also say that I did not see myself as unique in the sense that I was the only person who had solidified a fresh aesthetic position. In fact, part of the significance of the AACM would be that all of the principal guys would solidify an aesthetic position that would reflect something fresh. By the time the guys had started writing about me, it had become clear to me even then that there was a political-racial component that was distorting our work.
For instance, when I got out of the army, the record Sound, by the Roscoe Mitchell sextet, had already been recorded. That record, for me, was one of the greatest records then and now, from the time period of the ’60s. I’d like to hope that when the mature histories are written, that that recording will be reevaluated. Not only that—I feel that the universe that Roscoe Mitchell would put together represents then and now one of the great bodies of music from my generation; I feel that the universe of Leo Smith, the universe of Joseph Jarman, the great work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the great music of Muhal Richard Abrams, has been seriously ignored and undermined. There was a guy named Troy Robinson; he didn’t survive it, but he was another African American who had a store front, who trained his own people, ā la Sun Ra, and was doing a music of total integrity; everybody was postulating positive goals
That continuum is the template of my experience; I would come to understand that. It is from that template that my relationship to Europe can be understood. For instance, in the late ’50s I started to read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and this continuum of writers. The work of William Grant Still was very important to me by 1964, because I was always looking for African American equivalents of everything that touched me, as I got older, especially, when I came to see that there was a continuum that I didn’t know about. I think the time period of the ’60s, for me, would be when I would always look to that continuum to better understand who I was. When I discovered Berg, and as I started to develop a taste for notated music, the next question I would ask myself was, were there any African Americans doing this kind of music?
So what I’m going to talk about now, I’m going to talk about but I can’t talk about it in a sequential order starting from say 1954 or 5 in the way I can talk about discovering Ahmad Jamal or Brubeck, because I didn’t like notated music as a young man. But in the end, when I talk of the template of my aesthetic qualities, I’m talking of a continuum of African American men and women who have tried to meet the challenge of existence in every space. Many of them I still don’t know about—scientists, agriculturalists, spiritualists—I’m still in need of education.
William Grant Still, for instance, was very interested in the composite tradition but was not an instrumentalist or improviser himself, so you’re right, there was a limitation there. But at the same time, this guy would compose across the spectrum from solo piano music all the way to an opera cycle that has never been performed. His work is neoclassic in the same sense as Bartok—taking melodies, ethnic melodies, folk musics, and building a symphonic logic out of them. William Grant Still would do the same with blues, put it in a symphonic context. That was revolutionary in his time period. And the actual music is as unique and as separate as Bartok, but we never talk of it like that. This is my point, that that continuum would just be marginalized; it doesn’t matter, it wouldn’t be integrated into a Charles Ives—we talk about Charles Ives and his move toward dissonance and complexity, but William Grant Still’s music was exploring fresh materials, in his use of blues scales, in his decision to bring it into a symphonic context, but it’s just not talked of in that way; it’s kind of
Well, his [Joplin’s] work would come along at a time when the piano would become a part of the salon culture of America, when the piano roll would be introduced. Ragtime would become very popular; but Ragtime, of course, was a composer’s music. Joplin was not a leading exponent of the improviser’s Ragtime, but he was able to translate it into the notated space and achieve success, but they would not accept the opera or the grand ideas. This is why the man became a depressive and eventually lost it. He was the beginning of the continuum that I’m a part of. But I consider him a great American master. After him, William Grant Still as a dynamic master, kind of like Wagner but not as encompassing in terms of bringing in a mythology. Although the operas—have you ever heard the operas? I have one on videotape. He’s dealing with African Americans, placing them in mythological contexts and dealing with the battle of good and evil, a la Wagner. This isn’t to say he’s a point of definition for that integration, Wagner’s the point of definition. I’m only saying that Joplin was a small-time poor guy like myself who had great dreams, and his work would respond to the improvised restructural strategies of Ragtime as well as the dynamics of Chopin. So you have a Chopin-Ragtime integration that was uniquely American, that he tried to, that he did in fact parlay, transform, expand into the operatic context. He wrote two operas; one was lost.
But it would be at that point that we can start talking of the grand African American composer’s tradition, Joplin into William Grant Still. The next group would be an academic group that was interesting but also complex, because that group would be a part of the African American middle and upper class that would draw its information mostly from the academy, while at the same time drawing on African American thematic materials. That group was greatly misunderstood, but it was a complex group because in many ways they would accept second-place status. We’re going to see them reappear in the next twenty years, now that the Southern strategy is back, guys are graduating from college; they’re going to start writing correct African American notated music, papers; some of them will achieve success. But the success is predicated on that second-class status.
[much on Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, George Russell, AACM musicians, and others]
Well, I see Duke Ellington as occupying the same position that we give to JS Bach, that his music is all-encompassing. And yet, his music is politically being used in this period to stifle guys, like myself, when in fact his whole career was a struggle, as an African American person, to have the right to do his music and to have it respected based on his value systems. For instance, there was a period when Duke Ellington’s music was put down in the jazz community. It was being undermined by a viewpoint of trans-Africanisms that would say that his extended compositions were somehow not correct for an African American composer, that it was too Eurocentric. So, you know, here I am fifty years later getting the same kind of viewpoint, where parameters are being set that seek to determine what is correct for an African American composer, that seek to reduce the dynamic possibilities of the music as opposed to seek to understand the breakthroughs, the possibly unique possibilities that have come from the African American experience. So Mr. Ellington then had the same objections put on his music.
Stanley [Crouch] has been quite effective in the last 20 years as far as positing a viewpoint about what constitutes the correct aesthetic parameters and alignment for African American music. From the beginning, we’ve always had a different viewpoint about this subject. When I think about my understanding of Stanley’s viewpoint, I find myself feeling that it, again, is a reductionist one, that on the one hand insists on the inclusion of Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus, and rightfully so—that continuum of composers as equal to anything that has been created by the European or European American composers community. But on the other hand, his viewpoint of Eurocentric [sic] in many ways has distorted his understanding of African American creativity. In doing so, Stanley’s viewpoint, in my opinion, is involved with those reductionist forces that have historically sought to limit the vibrational spectrum of African American experience. In my view, while on the one hand, Stanley’s writing and political decisions have been very important for elevating and exposing people to the work of Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, and the blues tradition; on the other hand, his work is directly connected to the suppression of African American composite vibrational dynamics. For me, this has been the tragedy of his viewpoint.
Tragic indeed. More specificity is needed though about Crouch’s position and what makes it tick. Crouch like Marsalis fights the contemporary cult of black degeneracy, but at the price of another ideological construct. This to me symptomizes the impasse of American culture and politics as a whole.
Twenty years ago everyone was saying you had to refer to African Americans as black. I see his [Crouch’s] use of the term [Negro] as consistent with his composite attempts to transport the musics back into the 1920s and ’30s. All of this, in my opinion, is part of this retrogressive movement. He wants jazz to be jazz, negroes to be negroes, jazz musicians to wear suits; he wants one rhythmic logic, that he calls swing; he wants idiomatic certainty, from a continuum that was based on evolution and responding to the dynamics of real time. Just as, in my opinion, the devices of the bebop language are the sonic bones from that continuum, the use of the word “negro” is only relevant in the sense that psychologically, this is an attempt to pull everything back to the ’20s again, and to celebrate the psychology of the ’20s and ’30s as representing idiomatic and vibrational certainty.
Well, it is an attempt to fix a past that can be used for purposes of the present—to create an alternative time-line— which is not exactly turning back the clock, but to consolidate the gains of integration of a generation within the political order of the present. Crouch eschews narrow racialism, to be sure; he wants to be as cosmopolitan as anyone. But like all black public figures, he is inherently defined as black; he defines himself not only by what he is for but by what he struggles against. There is also a generational issue involved. I am with his generation against the young, with qualifications. There were no good old days, but those of us who straddle at least two epochs know what has been lost as well as gained. The relation between past and present, and the lack of perspective for the future—this is the key issue that has been silenced.
I think Ornette Coleman’s use of the blues has been a vehicle that has helped him. They include Ornette Coleman, but they don’t include, for instance, Cecil Taylor, who Stanley likes to talk of as including too much Oliver Messaien in his music. In saying that, Stanley is really helping us to see how little he really knows about the European art musics, and how little he knows about Messaien’s music. I think Ornette Coleman’s Texas blues qualities have helped him. I guess I would also say the dynamics of the early quartets; it’s kind of hard to deny. But then again, they’ve been able to deny so much music. I guess they could have simply denied all of Ornette Coleman’s music; but I think it’s the blues quality
All of Braxton’s musical-historical reflections are noteworthy.
I would position my work as such: Duke Ellington’s music as a fresh synthesis music demonstrating composition and improvisation; Charlie Mingus’s as a post-Ellington music demonstrating the extremes of that position, plus extending into new global music domains; Cecil Taylor is a point of definition for modular structural devices, moving into the oral tradition, but even using that material modularly; and I see my work as a point of definition for propositional logics, in what I’ve come to call a tri-centric music; propositional logics as a way to talk about the connections in my music—in the house of the circle, the house of the rectangle, the house of the triangle. Tri-centric in the sense of the connection between domains, between the Tri-Centric writings and the actual compositions and the integration of those components. Propositional in the sense of in the house of the circle, a concept of language music as a point of definition for mutable logic syntax geometry as a way to create improvisatory language in the house of the circle. From that point, expanding the same information to the house of the triangle, to the architectonic domain; and from that point to create languages based on syntax and logic; propositional in the sense of defining strategies based on the twelve components of my system; from that point, propositional in the sense of defining language syntax, then architectonic syntax. From that point, defining synthesis integration point of definition with respect to ritual and ceremony and philosophical components.
So how would I distinguish my work from Cecil Taylor’s? For me, Cecil Taylor’s music demonstrates a modular structural space that would extend into world music vis-ā-vis santaria, with an occult component that is holistic; my work, for me, demonstrates a multi-hierarchical thought unit that is tri-centric, and when I talk of it in this time period, I talk of a tri-centric music that demonstrates propositional constructs, syntactical constructs; tri-centric as a thought unit that demonstrates a mechanism, or structural mechanism, or active mechanism; and finally, tri-centric as a thought unit that demonstrates an occult position—which is to say, no wonder I’m broke.
That has been one of the secrets of American music, that much of it was based on existential, just kind of positing an idea, because you didn’t have a tradition that told you you couldn’t do whatever you were hearing. So it was a fresh psychology that brought in the new American musics, and that psychology, one would hope, would be part of understanding America, especially what it could mean in the third millennium. But what we’re seeing instead of attempts to really understand what we’re talking about, we’re seeing the components of the modern era come into place, and those components, in my opinion, have axiomatic components that have very clear ideas of which individuals are going to be able to effect culture, which individuals and groups are going to have access to the possibilities of the composite forces and factors shaping change. So in many ways, I find myself that’s consistent with this kind of dynamic change that America is going through right now, as we get ready for the real Third Millennium.
“Secrets of American music”: America is different, hallelujah! An important vantage point. What comes next?
As far as how my work will be viewed in fifty years, I’m not even worried about that, because the music will fight for its own life, and in the end I think all of these things are cosmic. I think all I can focus on is trying to do my work and to know that, one, it was always first and foremost a personal matter. Second, it was something that I felt that I could be involved with that would also be bigger than me, so that hopefully I would be a part of something I could believe in, and add to. Finally, it’s not about me, or the individual; there’s a cosmic component happening. What’s fascinating to me, at 55 years old, is seeing the dimensions of change, and how quickly time and space go by in a period of 25 years, where suddenly we have the opportunity to see so much change, and the various levels of manipulation that come into play. This is why I can’t wait for the DuBois books, because I feel more and more that his position between Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington was a position that set up the propositions that I’m experiencing right now. As his ultimate viewpoint that African-American intellectualism, in America, anyway, is a subject that is basically irrelevant, because the information complex is not set up to include perspectives from non-Eurocentric psychologies, and especially from African Americans. I feel that before we can even get to a point where we can have a healthier intellectual discourse, that our country will have to go through another set of experiences or something; we’re not there at this point. So I would not be surprised if my work experiences the fate of Frank Johnson’s, and William Grant Still’s and the Philadelphia school, whose work will be kicked out of the domain of relevancy at the beginning of the modern era. Suddenly it became all about creative music as a practice perceived within the marketplace’s concept of New Orleans, as opposed to experiences taking place all over America. Now we see the primacy of the blues, the primacy of the rhythm in swing, used in a way that actually defeats the evolution of the music in terms of how those propositions were conceived a hundred years ago, or eighty years ago. They’re taking definitions of a hundred years ago and trying to apply them to now, and kicking out anything that doesn’t fit in neatly. In fact, get ready, Mike Heffley, for another period of Reconstruction. George Bush has won. When this experience happened after Reconstruction, during the Hayes-Rutherford period, part of the deal involved cutting off the Reconstruction process, and getting the troops out of the South.
Regarding the political situation, Braxton is on target. But on the meaning of his own situation, his own project, do you realize that Braxton’s self-characterization is a big cipher? Braxton has much more to say in this interview about his music and his projects, but his self-analysis here leaves us hanging. Concretely, the “meaning” of “Braxton” on the cusp of the millennium remains an “x”. Braxton doesn’t properly analyze it. Who will?
In fact, the machinery is gearing up for the Ken Burns 10-part, 19-hour extended work this guy is doing. And everything I read about it says it goes up to 1965 and jumps to 1985, and—well, we’re not surprised by that. But in fact, that period from 1965 to 1980 was a profound period in time in America; whatever one wants to say about the AACM, it’s an organization that was unique in the sense that it was a gathering of musician-composers who decided they would respond to creative music in any way they wanted to respond, and support one another. And that the musics and ideas that came out of that group would be viewed as not relevant is a tragedy. Or if it’s not a tragedy, I’m surprised that it’s not, because the men and women I grew up with and worked with were serious people who were totally dedicated, and functioning from the highest possible intentions, that being giving something back to the community, being the best musicians they could be, and finding something that was personal in the music. All of that now is being wiped out. The African American community is spinning, like the rest of America, from this last thirty-something days of political lawyering. It’s going to be interesting to see how all these components congeal on some level as we get to the Third Millennium, and sets the stage for something like it feels like the Reconstruction era is coming back. It already feels like the Swing era has come back. It feels like entertainment as the highest experience has come back. The psychology of the practical has come back. The cult of ethnicity and racial politics never really left, so it didn’t have to come back, it’s just taken a new form. And I’m basically in the same position, if not worse, as when I initially made the decision to move out in this direction. Although I have to be careful with how I say that. I’ve been able to have a whole life, until 55 years old, and to maintain a connection with my work, and play music.
A profound characterization of what has happened to this country and its culture. Note that the “period from 1965 to 1980 was a profound period in time”, not just for the AACM, and not just for music, but as one of the hugest transitions ever in American culture, whose historical memory is now being wiped out.
I think for me, a central point about this whole movement has been how we see the arrival of the same atomic components that led to the modern era in the 1900s. And the atomic components, in the house of poetic logics, we see the trans-African input components narrowed based on a post-Antebellum psychology that mask, in many ways, the real significance of the music. And the real significance of the music can’t be understood by looking at ethnic-quadrant perspectives or psychology, the real perspective of the music can only be arrived at by seeing the music as it existed within composite reality. This is another reason why I would guess that present-day attempts to wall off what they call jazz—the whole invention of “jazz,” the whole reason “jazz” was necessary was because the idea of composite reality was unacceptable to European Americans. By that I mean the significance of this fresh input, this fresh creative information coming from African Americans was simply something that the European Americans were not able to assimilate within a psychological spirit that was consistent with how they looked at themselves. So it would be at that point, with the establishment of the marketplace component, and accelerated marketplace dynamics—and the multinational structure, and the new technological dynamics that would lead to marketplace sophistication remember, the ’20s and ’30s, that was a time period where the new technology was put into service, whether we’re talking about the Nazi era and Hitler’s use of media, or about radio in America, or the building of the railroads in the middle 1800s, and how important that was: continental experiences. So I can relate to DuBois, who would come to understand that the situation was the same for the African American intellectual or restructuralist, in the sense that whatever they came up with, it was irrelevant. It was irrelevant, one, because there’s no natural constituency—and by that I mean there’s no natural constituency in the African American community, in the way that existed in the ’20s and ’30s because of segregation, and the possibility that, with segregation, the African American community was able to have an information spectrum based on its own vibrational balances, which even then had complexities, but still, everything was allowed to happen. And we see that in Birmingham, looking at the earlier experiences that Szwed wrote about, in seeking to understand what Ra came up with. We see it in Chicago; that was what I grew up in, the tail end of that Washington Park experience, where you had composite dynamics happening, guys on soap boxes talking about Islam, concepts of black African Christianity; composite music exploration and investigation. All of those qualities were included in the black community, when suddenly with the Brown versus Board of Education decision, and the deconstruction of segregation, in a composite context, those forces have not been able to be understood as clearly, because in fact the restructural tradition of the music has become gnostic, as it was in the beginning anyway. Individual, and gnostic—that being, the individual’s idiosyncratic secrets, and the secrets of the group. That’s where my system comes in.
Spot on, mostly. The mystical terms in which the dynamics are framed present an obstacle to the further development of understanding, though. The lack of a “natural constituency” is a question to be addressed, but not just in the intregation era. The “vibrational balances” were not necessarily in synch within segregated black communities, either. The figure of Du Bois in this scenario is still a cipher: what does it mean? Well, Du Bois was a theoretician of composite reality (double consciousness) to be sure, but it doesn’t look as if Braxton can place him concretely in a conceptual scheme. I hope that Braxton is aware of how different he, a Chicagoan, is from Sun Ra, who was a product of the deep South, and that the mystical perspective does not block his understanding of the process of modernization. There is not a word about Richard Wright in all this, which may not be coincidental.
That I could no longer relate to the Republicans or the Democrats, that “jazz” has become an instrument of the Democratic Party, that “jazz” has become an instrument of liberal-conservative thinking, connected to the Southern strategy, and that what we see here is a Reconstruction that involves even the reconstruction of celebrated family dynasties, which are being posited in this space, and those dynasties are controlling the composite information lines based on the agreed affinities of that group with the upper political strata forces. Which I don’t disagree with, but I do disagree with the fact that only one sector has a connection?
This is a most provocative statement, but best assimilated if it is expanded and decoded instead of just taken literally. What does it mean to say that “jazz” has become an instrument of the Democratic Party and of liberal-conservative thinking, and so on? Metaphorically, I think Braxton is right, if the terms he uses are shorthand for a political/economic structure that defines how culture functions publicly.
These components that run our country continue to run our country; and “jazz” now is finding its niche within this place, and the nature of this niche involves certain sacrifices. Sacrifices that I can’t accept, even though I can understand on some level some of the trade-offs involved. But in the end, the ante-bellum view of transafricanism has always been a view with profound limitations. As we see those views perpetuated and forwarded in this time period, I feel there is profound danger in allowing those variables to go forward. But now it’s too late anyway. I think the African American community comes to the Third Millennium in a very complex stage.
For instance, where in the past the African American community functioned as a kind of a repository for profound vibrational and mystical currents, because of the last forty years, and because of the intellectual decline that’s taken place in the African American community, we now find ourselves in a position where we see state-of-the-state generations that are actually behind state-of-the-state current qualities in many ways. And we find a reverse problem, Mike Heffley, that’s in my opinion very profound. That quality is this: we’ve seen the neoclassic guys who got into power in the ’80s [the Lincoln Center jazz scene] tell the African American young men and women, “Don’t listen to Braxton, don’t listen to Roscoe Mitchell, don’t listen to Lester Bowie, don’t listen to Muhal Richard Abrams.” So the young people took them at their word and did not listen. At the same time, all over America and all over the planet, European Americans, Europeans, Asian Americans, Asians—composite peoples—have in fact been digesting that music, have in fact been listening to the music of Cecil Taylor, have in fact been listening to the music of Sunny Murray, have in fact been listening to the music of George Russell, or my music, or the great music of Joseph Jarman and Leroy Jenkins or Leo Smith or Henry Threadgill.
My point is this: as we move into the Third Millennium, I’m seeing a generation of European Americans and trans-Europeans who have been reactivated by their ability to study this music and find that not only was the music relevant for them but to find that it also activated components in their life that allowed them to continue their work based on their own situation, having nothing to do with me. That’s how creativity functions: that is to say, creativity has always functioned on the tri-plane on many different levels: as a wonderful way to have a dance, creativity is a wonderful way to be motivated, creativity is a wonderful way to understand poetic logics, to look at narrative structures; creativity is a profound factor connected to curiosity, intellectual curiosity and spiritual depth and insight and postulation. So for the last four decades of young African Americans to not have exposure to, for instance, the AACM, or Sun Ra, people who have been totally dedicated . . . in the case of the AACM, the first organization of African Americans who came together because of their total belief in the music, and total insistence on going their own way and responding to the post-Ayler, post-Coleman, post-Taylor musics based on their own value systems—to have young African Americans not exposed to that music, or those musicians, or the results that came from those experiences was a profound phenomenon that will have profound implications in the next time period.
Niche and co-optation—true. The politics of Lincoln Center—true. Vibrational and mystical currents—I would analyze this from a different framework, but I can see what he is getting at. Black intellectual decline—it’s horrible, part of the total American cultural decline, and it coexists with intellectual advances and with cooptation in certain spheres. Intellectual advance now necessitates, in my view, a reconceptualization of all this mystical language, which was indeed expressive of the cultural complex of the ’60s, but is now beyond the historical limit of its productivity. It is an enigma to be decoded, a representation to be transmuted into Concept. (Black Hegel, where are you?) Reactivation of the creative musical heritage of the ’60s—a crucial question.
Yeah, but we’re not talking about just the crisis of integration; integration is always happening, people are always coming together in different ways. We’re talking of the crisis of composite reality, where some components are controlling the variables of that reality, and some components are becoming the effect of that position of control. That’s what we’re talking about. I’m for integration, I’ve always been for it; but what I’ve tried to focus on is the problem of a composite reality situation where certain sectors are presented with not the full information spectra of what has come out of their experience.
To have these two-dimensional concepts about blues and swing are false arguments, arguments that make sense to a certain sector of musicology—certainly, to a certain sector of music theorists, and the academy. Arguments that can be used to isolate the vibrational spectra of trans-African invention and mystic dynamics. To strip that information and use it for their own purposes, while at the same time denying the thrust of trans-African, and, finally, American invention, its proper vibrational components—because what I’m talking of is something more profound than Africa. I’m talking of the greatest nation in documented history; I’m talking about our home, Mike Heffley.
Our home is a home that has everybody here, bouncing off one another. Our home, especially as we move into the Third Millennium, is more complex than simply a Christian nation: it’s a Muslim nation, it’s a Christian nation, it’s an Indian nation. It’s a nation where women are suddenly not in the same position, and are suddenly able to ask the question, “what do I want for myself?” It’s a country where this next generation of African Americans are not going to be able to talk about disadvantages in the old way; but in fact, the components of the old way will apply.
This is our home—the black vision of Americanism! Duke, Ralph, Ornette would be so proud. This moves me to tears.
Anthony Braxton: Selected Bibliography
The Theory & Practice of John Coltrane
The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery and 19th Century African American Music
On other sites:
On C.L.R. James’s ‘On the Spiritual’
Postscript on C.L.R. James’s “On the Spiritual”
Anthony Braxton: The Third Millennial Interview with Mike Heffley
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Improvisation, Correlation, and Vibration: An Interview with Steve Coleman
Johannes Völz, Freie Universität Berlin
While working on a study on the relation between improvisation and language, I asked saxophonist Steve Coleman to participate in a Berlin-New York phone interview. Although I was well aware of how outspoken and eloquent an artist Coleman is (an amateur saxophonist myself, I had taken Steve’s improvisation class at U.C. Berkeley, where he taught from 2000 to 2002), I was taken by surprise by Steve’s endurance. After two hours, I ran out of fresh tape. Luckily I found some old ones to overdub, as Steve kept unfolding his philosophy of cosmic energy, as well as his ideas on improvisation, language, structure, freedom and innovation, often making his points with the help of highly personal anecdotes. Still going strong after four hours non-stop, Steve explained his motivation: “If we’re going to do this, we better do it right.”1
Johannes Völz: Steve, I want to talk to you about improvisation today. I am interested in a very specific aspect of improvisation, namely the relation between improvisation and language. Many musicians have described jazz improvisation using the metaphor of language. That could mean many different things. Let’s start with the idiomatic aspect of language because that has dominated the public discourse in the last years, especially in the wake of the debates around Wynton Marsalis’s views on jazz. Marsalis supports a view that he shares with, among others, Albert Murray. Murray speaks of “idiomatic authenticity,” stressing that improvisation is not about the performer trying to express some sort of interiority but rather mastering an idiom or a language. I have a quote for you from Murray’s Stomping the Blues: “Nor does the authenticity of any performance of blues music depend upon the musician being true to his own private feelings. It depends upon his idiomatic ease and consistency.” (99) Let’s touch on this aspect first, on this specific sense of the language metaphor.
Steve Coleman: First of all, let me clarify what we are talking about. You asked about “jazz improvisation.” I don’t think of what I’m playing as ‘jazz’ and I don’t think of myself as following a ‘jazz tradition.’ I also do not see Parker, Coltrane, etc. as ‘jazz’ and I see myself as being very much in the same tradition that those people were part of. Now, before we get into the language issue, I want to talk about one other thing, which is, I don’t know how much of a musician Albert Murray is. I think he is a great writer and more what they would have called in the old days a philosopher. The tradition of writing about music and thinking about music goes way, way back and that tradition is normally a separate tradition from the playing of music. Philosophers are usually very well-read and they draw upon a wide range of literary material. Musicians, for the most part, simply play. I’m not saying musicians are dumb or anything like that, but musicians draw from other musicians. Of course, you have guys like Wynton. Wynton is well-read, Coltrane was very well-read, for that matter. But initially, when they get into the music, their initial impetus is the music itself, so the decisions that they make based on moving forward with the music have to do with what’s happening currently in their time, what they have to deal with on their instrument, what styles are current, getting work, certain very practical things. In that sense, I think of music as a craft more than an art.
J.V.: Doesn’t this suggest that the musician lives in some kind of vacuum? I would think that they are involved in all kinds of issues, be they political, be they philosophical. Don’t they bring all of that to their craft?
S.C.: Yes, but that comes later. When guys start reading a lot and everything, they may get into an attitude where they start thinking about the art of music. This is one thing that happened a lot in the forties and fifties, for example, when black people in the United States were struggling for just recognition as human beings and everything, and they generally compared themselves to the culture that was the dominant culture of America at that time. So therefore a lot of times they compared themselves to their white counterparts and would say things like, “well, our music needs to be played at Carnegie Hall,” and things like that – that shows you the model that they were using. And some people even went as far as letting those elements influence their music. I see that in groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet. They were saying, my music is not conducive to playing in clubs, I want to play on concert stages. Later on, as people started getting more integrated, they also started to integrate the idea of the music. But, you know, you still had the necessity of, I got to play a gig, I got to feed my family, that kind of thing, and the actual function of the music within the community, depending on what kind of community you were dealing with.
J.V.: The community is just it. If that is the actual function, then the practical concerns of playing include the communal aspects. In that sense I don’t see how a writer like Murray underestimates the actual concerns of playing music.
S.C.: First of all, the situation today is a little different in terms of this music that we’re talking about now and the so-called community. Generally speaking, this music is not really a part of the black community – that’s the best way to say it. Not in an obvious sense, anyway. It’s coming from the black community, culturally speaking. From the standpoint of diversity, black people are doing lots of different things nowadays, and some people, like me, for example, choose to play music, and we don’t negate our culture just because we play this particular kind of music as opposed to something that LL Cool J might do or something like that. At the same time, people need a reason to play music. They need to feel like I have a reason that I’m going to do this. But to come back to the larger point, philosophers or writers are writing about an ideal intellectual situation and they’re not taking into account the complex parameters that are being dealt with and that are all happening at once. The reason why you play changes depending on what style of music you’re into. For example, Coltrane’s reasons and Louis Armstrong’s reasons weren’t exactly the same, even though you could say that Coltrane is an extension of that tradition. Therefore, Coltrane’s music eventually became a form of prayer or an inner expression dealing with the relationship of man to the universe and expanding consciousness and all this kind of stuff. And Louis Armstrong’s music was an expression of what’s happening inside of him in terms of what he sees, but he comes from a very different society and from a different time, so he thinks of the entertainment as important – something that Coltrane doesn’t view as the most important element. I mean, I know that’s true with me. When I go on stage, I’m not looking at it from a minstrel standpoint, I’m not looking at it from the standpoint. I’m coming out and when I leave, these people have to be happy. It’s more of an expression thing.
J.V.: But if you’re saying that playing is about personal expression, you’re in basic agreement with what most writers have said about jazz at least since the thirties, and what Murray, for instance, is arguing against. Jazz criticism has been based so much on the romantic idea of the individual soloist expressing inner feelings.
S.C.: Let me explain it this way: I didn’t start off playing music with some kind of theory in my mind. I wasn’t thinking exactly the way I’m thinking now. I started off playing the instrument simply because I liked music. I liked the feel of the instrument, I liked making sounds and everything. I thought it was fun. I was a teenager, you know. As I realized there was a higher level of playing involved, I decided at some point, okay, I really want to learn how to improvise. I didn’t really deal with a whole lot of psychological shit as far as why I wanted to do that. It was like, this is interesting, I’m following what I’m feeling. And I’ve always followed what I felt. I think that’s the driving force. And then what I’m playing has a lot to do, has everything to do, with what I feel. It doesn’t matter what kind of intellectual shit I’ve studied, even all of that is guided by what I feel, which things I decide to study. I’m trying to play as much me as I can and so therefore, feeling or emotion and spirituality, which are a higher form of that, have everything to do with what I’m doing. In that sense I completely disagree with what Albert is saying. From a musician’s standpoint.
J.V.: What about the other viewpoint?
S.C.: From a philosophical standpoint, looking at the whole thing more as an overview, I can see all this idiomatic stuff that Albert is talking about. But that stuff develops as a result of the dialogue between the musician, the culture and all of that. In any particular culture, in any particular place, you’re going to have idiomatic stuff. Human beings are creatures of habit. Certain habits will develop in any music any time. Even if you deliberately try to avoid habits you develop other habits trying to do that.
J.V.: But isn’t there a choice you have to make: Either approach the idiom the way Albert suggests, or go for personal expression? It has certainly been framed that way, as an either-or question. And that has led to modernist credos like “Make it new,” which often meant not only avoiding habits but also idioms.
S.C.: But it’s not an either-or question. It’s a matter of perspective. I think you’ll always be able to step back and see certain trends in what people were doing at a certain point. But just as much, you’ll miss certain things because you aren’t in their time. From the standpoint of stepping back and writing about it, your analysis is always going to be flawed – on two levels. One, because of the time difference; and two, because you’re not actually one of the participants. Now, in the case of Wynton, he’s influenced by the writings of Albert Murray and certain other people, Richard Wagner, whoever. He reads a lot of different stuff, as I do, and as other people do, too. And over time this starts to affect your thinking and affect the choices you make and everything. I am influenced by what I read and it’s generating more detailed thinking in those directions. So it could be good, it could be bad, but it usually doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the music itself because these people are usually not participants.
J.V.: That’s the reason I’m interviewing musicians, you see.
S.C.: I know, but I’m just giving you that subtext as a setup really for the differences between, for example, what musicians might think (and if they’re being honest, there’s a lot of practical consideration in there) and what you might read in jazz publications, which are generally written by non-musicians or by musicians who didn’t make it, I mean guys who didn’t quite make it to playing. They started a little bit and then they went on to write.
J.V.: Let’s come back to improvisation and language then. What do you think personally about the metaphor of language for improvising? Does this metaphor make sense to you, does it have any meaning?
S.C.: Yes, I do think about it in these terms, it’s just that that’s not the only terms I think about it in. That’s just one aspect, because I mean it depends on what you mean when you say ‘language.’ Can you define what you’re talking about? Are you talking about English, French, Spanish? Or do you mean the broader sense of communication and things like that?
J.V.: That’s what I’m asking you. See, when I first started doing interviews with musicians about improvisation, it was the musicians who brought up the language metaphor in virtually every interview. And I kept asking, “What do you mean by that?” And I would get all kinds of different answers.
S.C.: Okay, so I’ll tell you what I mean by language. The first thing is the language itself. For me, language is basically communication, and by communication I don’t just mean words, and certainly don’t just mean written words. For me, it means communication through whatever means possible, vibration, gesture, whatever. I have a girlfriend, we communicate in all kinds of ways, we don’t just sit down and talk all the time. You have some talkative people; there are girls who will say, “You never talk to me,” you know, you have this kind of thing. But we communicate in all kinds of ways, making love, for example, is communication, as is having sex without love; eating together, cooking together, going to an amusement park or just sitting there looking at each other. Especially if people are really close there are a lot of gestures and things people do in communicating which words just enhance. I look at words as the details that take over when gestures can’t do it alone. Now, the reason that I know this is true is that for a long time I’ve been dealing with this woman in Cuba. In the beginning of our relationship she spoke no English, zero. Zero. I spoke zero Spanish. I mean zero. How can we have a relationship, how did we get together? I think about this a lot. What was our initial communication based on?
J.V.: Don’t tell me it was music.
S.C.: No, it was primarily gesture. There was this understanding that came purely out of vibration, to tell you the truth. It didn’t come out of “Oh, you know, I find it interesting what you are saying.” And many of my friends, especially my girl friends, questioned the whole relationship based on that exactly. They were always telling me, “Steve! You don’t even understand her! I don’t get this. You guys can’t talk, and you’re a very intellectual person.” But I enjoyed being with her. Okay, we couldn’t talk, we had to work on that; we still don’t sit down and have a conversation about relativity – I mean we do, but it’s a struggle. But over the years, she still doesn’t speak good English, and I still don’t speak good Spanish, but we developed sort of this hybrid language of gestures, grunts, half-English and half-Spanish words. And I’ll tell you something now. I went to a restaurant with her pretty recently, it was me, her, and my bass player Anthony Tidd and one of her friends. When I talked to her, her friend couldn’t understand a thing we were talking about and my friend couldn’t understand a thing we were talking about. That’s when I realized we had developed our own language. This whole experience made me look again at language and communication, and that’s really my point. As I said, this relationship started without words, and I thought maybe words aren’t too important. It made me think of a lot of things that we are talking about right now as far as language goes.
J.V.: Communication through music, I assume, would be somewhere on a level between gesture and words?
S.C.: Music and words are on a completely different level. I mean I’ve had the experience when people have come up to me to tell me how much they get out of my music and this and that. And they’re talking through a translator because they don’t speak any English. So that makes me think, this person is receiving something very, very strong, and language has nothing to do with it, not language like French, German, English. Because I’m using sound to communicate there’s something about these sounds that is communicating to this person. So when I’m talking about language, based on my life experience, my concept of language really has to do with communication, which starts on the level of vibration more than anything else, amplified by gesture, amplified by words.
J.V.: Now, when you play music, are there specific ways in which you try to incorporate that concept of communication through sound?
S.C.: When I approach music, I start with vibration, and then I amplify that to things that another person may pick up as idiomatic. Of course, with music as a craft, there are technical things you have to deal with. There’s always a system involved, whether you think there is one or not. Music in the first place is organized sound. It’s not just any sound. If it was just any sound, then anything that makes a sound would be music. You hear people saying that sometimes, but we know, really, that that’s not true. For instance, when we hear birds, we may hear them as musical, but they don’t have anything to do with our music. We hear them and we may interpret them as music, but they’re communicating with each other, in the bird language, whatever that is.
J.V.: You’re saying birds communicate through sound but only humans can hear music?
S.C.: When we hear birds sing like music, it’s our response to nature. What we call nature is not really nature. What we call nature is really our response to nature, our interpretation of it.
J.V.: You sound like an idealist, Steve, maybe even like a transcendentalist. From a philosopher’s standpoint.
S.C.: The point is, everything is interpreted, and I don’t care what kind of experiment you think you are doing. We set up the experiment, so, by the way, it’s not objective. The only objective thing is nature outside of us, and we can’t even think, we can’t even talk about that. So going back to this idiomatic thing – was that your question about the idiomatic thing?
J.V.: Well, the idiomatic structures I had in mind weren’t derived from nature but more from specific cultures.
S.C.: Again, there is no contradiction, because this is where time comes in. Based on how I feel, and based on the vibrations that I choose to follow, I will choose to make some, let’s call it, variations on whatever is popular in my time. But I can’t escape my time, I can’t think from the perspective of someone who is living in 200 B.C., for example. It’s impossible. I don’t care how much I’ve studied it. No matter how much of an imitator I am or how much of a creator I am, all those things, they’re all connected to each other through time. The most creative and the most imitative will always be connected, in terms of gesture, in terms of time. The time has a certain power, a certain character, you could say, that imposes its influence on everything and everybody who’s living at this time. So it’s impossible for you to have a microwave oven, computers, digital watches, and not have this stuff affect your music. That’s not possible. Everything you do and everything you are has to affect your music.
J.V.: Steve, it sounds somewhat contradictory. Earlier you said that musicians are mostly influenced by other musicians and not by writers, and now you’re saying that everything around you affects your music.
S.C.: I meant on an intentional level. At first you’re mainly concerned with the practical things, but of course even at that point, you can’t get out of your culture, you can’t get out of your time, you can’t get off of your planet. You have all of that that connects us to time itself. Again, it’s a question of perspective. What we call idiomatic is all connected to pretty much one time, even when we compare it to the past. If I take the idiomatic things that, let’s say, Wynton is doing or David Murray is doing or anybody is doing today and I compare that to what was happening with Charlie Parker, what was happening with Louis Armstrong – well, see, that comparison is done by one person living in one time. I don’t really have the perspective that Charlie Parker and those guys had at that time, all I have is my opinion or my view of that from this time. As a result, even my comparison will be influenced by this time. What time do we call our own time? We don’t have a name for it. We’re simply living, we’re making decisions every day based on the influences around you. Nobody will see this detail later on, nobody will ever know that me and you are talking today, if you know what I’m saying, they’ll read the article or whatever, but they won’t really know what’s happening. You could be doing the interview with me, thinking, “Well, Steve is really going off the subject, I wish he would get back on the subject,” or whatever, you could be thinking all kinds of shit while you’re doing the interview. If you were to write that and somebody would read it a hundred years later, they wouldn’t have a clue as to the details of what’s going on.
J.V.: As a matter of fact, you’re not going off the subject, and the question is, if everybody is always, well, in his culture and time, how close or how rigid is the determination? And in the context of improvising, the question is, are there certain musical codes that pretty much determine your improvisation or are you as an individual free to choose what you want to play? I mean, this also has political ramifications. For instance, does improvisation open up any possibilities at all to break out of the strictures of society?
S.C.: The answers to those questions all depend on your direction of thinking. Are you thinking in terms of an integrative approach or are you thinking about things in terms of categories. Either you’re thinking about the differences in things or the similarities in things. Now I spend most of my time with what I call correlative thought, trying to correlate one thing with another and seeing the similarities and seeing in what sense these things are the same. So I have a lot that I can draw on for my music. I can draw on, like you said, literary sources, but I can also draw on sports. I can draw on this, I can draw on that, and a lot of times I consciously try to make direct connections with that in my music, right down to the technical elements of the music itself. In other words, not just emotionally.
J.V.: Can you give an example how that correlative thinking is reflected in your music?
S.C.: For example, in 1985 I began to program computers. It was kind of an intuitive thing that led me in that direction. Somebody told me about computers and I had always liked probing into new things. As a little kid I used to take apart walkie-talkies and radios and things like that, so I was attracted to those kinds of things, taking things apart, tinkering, and all this kind of stuff. So when someone told me about computers, which I didn’t know anything about, telling me, “they’re starting to use computers in music,” I said, “what do you mean, computers in music, that’s crazy.” The guys said, “no, no, there’s something called MIDI now” — this was very new at the time — and I said, “MIDI, what’s that?” Because of television, of shows like Star Trek, where people always say, “Computer, give me analysis!” and the computer would say, “20 percent oxygen,” you know, I thought a computer was a robot. But this guy said, “you can program a computer so it can do what you want.” When I heard about the creative aspect, my interest got sparked. I said if I can make it do what I want, maybe I can use it to investigate what I’m already doing. And I really had no idea what I was talking about, it was just a feeling. It was a feeling that I could use this instrument as a tool to further investigate what I was already investigating through music. Because, at the time, what I was particularly interested in, well, there were certain, I don’t know how to describe it, geometrical ideas, that’s the best way I can put it. It wasn’t really geometry because I’m not much of a mathematician, but it had more to do with shapes. And this had to do with the fact that I was an artist before I was a musician. I was influenced by shapes and things like that a lot, and I still am, even in my music today. I wanted to know in more detail what these shapes were and how to translate them more directly into music, and this is dealing with the language of music itself. At first it was just intuitive, just trying to go for certain shapes that I saw in my head, but after a while I thought, that’s not enough, I need to know more directly.
J.V.: Wait, wait. Now you’re saying there’s something like a language particular to the medium of music and also a visual language, and you can translate one into the other? You wanted to translate visual shapes into music?
S.C.: I wanted to be able to look at a mountain and play the mountain. I used to tell my friends that, and just like you, they said, “what do you mean? You mean being inspired by the mountain?” I said, “no, not just inspired. Of course I’m inspired by it, but I want to play the mountain, literally, play the mountain.” They said, “well, what do you mean by that?” I said, “I want to look at the mountain and see something like notation and be able to play it.” They thought I was crazy. They would just dismiss what I was saying. But I was serious. I wanted to be able to look at the flight pattern of a bee, the flight pattern of a bird, and play that. Or have that directly influence my music, so almost be able to look at nature as one big gesture. You can call it notation. I mean, what is notation? It’s a bunch of symbols that tell you, don’t do this, do this. But I wanted to be able to look at life with my eyes as well as with my ears and be able to translate that into sound. That was, and still is, one of my biggest things.
J.V.: How could a computer help you to get in touch with nature?
S.C.: I thought that maybe by using the computer as a tool I could investigate some aspects of ways of how to do this. I can explain it to you now, but it was an intuition then. Now let me give you one example: In learning the computer and in learning how to deal with the computer, of course there are certain things idiomatic to the computer. If you don’t do exactly what it is you are supposed to do, things tend not to work. And when you get into programming, this is even more true. Eventually I got into something calledassembly language because at the time computers were very slow and in order to do anything you really had to go under the operating system. So you used assembly language, or some people called it machine language, which is just this one’s-and-zero’s-kind of language, very, very raw. And you have to know exactly what it is you’re trying to do, and need to get the phrasing in a way that’s really exact. So you have to learn these structures, they’re all based on what people generally call Boolean logic. When I was learning these structures and everything, what I realized was that there is so much here that is very similar to musical structures. Because, you know, human beings created most structures, so it’s not like they’re completely different. Even before I got into what I was trying to create, I found myself looking at the similarities between the structures in the programming language and the structures that I’d learned in music. And then I saw, of course, that some things were similar and some things were different. The different things were most interesting to me because I thought, wow, you have this kind of structure in this programming language – we could use a structure like that in music.
J.V.: I never realized that your music is structured like a computer language.
S.C.: You have to look at it from the direction of correlative thought. I’ll give you one example. A lot of times in computers you have this “If-then-or”-type structure. If this, then do this. Or, do this. There could be several or’s. So it’s like this choice-kind of thing depending on the circumstance of what happens. I thought this kind of structure would be good in music. So, for example, you can have an A-A-B-A form, to use a very typical song form in this idiom. It’s also a linear form. And then you have people who don’t follow forms like that, they just simply play. What I thought was, well, it would be nice if you could have something in between. It would be nice if you could have this sort of Protean structure where you would have a form but the form is not always the same. The form depends on circumstances that happen musically. It changes according to that, but there is an exact form. For me, this was really what happens more in life. Very rarely does life go according to plan. Because anything could happen. Your plan changes. And you have to make immediate new choices. So I thought I will use this as a metaphor for my music. This happens anyway in music, but I wanted to build it into the structure, which is different than what happens just inside the A-A-B-A form.
J.V.: So what kind of form would this be?
S.C.: Let’s say the form was A-B-C-D, you had four sections, and which section came after the next depended on circumstances. That’s an idea I got from looking at programming languages first, but also from looking at life. Life is much more complicated than that, you know. I’ll give you a very simple example. Let’s say you give the drummer two possible figures to play at the end of a section, I mean, he has two possible rhythmic things that he can play, let’s call them a and b, just to give them names. Let’s say you have a guitar player with two possible melodic or harmonic figures that he can play, and we’ll call them 1 and 2. He has a choice between 1 and 2, but he has to play one of them. The same thing with the drummer. He has to play a or b, and he has to play one of them in that spot. You compose the song in such a way that this spot happens at the same time. So when we get to that spot, obviously we’re going to have a-1, a-2, b-1, or b-2. And a and b, and 1 and 2 are really short. They’re like two beats or something like that. And so, when we get to that spot, they play those things, and the combination of what they play determines which section we go to. After a-1 we go to A, after a-2 we go to B, b-1 we go to C, and b-2 we go to D. So these are like controls, you could say. They’re not random, but they depend on decisions that are being made. It’s just like the Boolean logic thing when you program. You have this contingency, and you plan for the contingency. Nothing else can happen, if the guys do what they’re supposed to do.
J.V.: On a less structured level, this could happen inside the A-A-B-A form as well. You stay inside the form, but you might switch to double time or something like that once one of the musicians signals to go there.
S.C.: Of course, we do this all the time even on A-A-B-A forms. It depends on the agreement among the musicians because you play with people that you have a certain agreement with. And some people play these standards in a way such as, we might play in the A-A-B-A form for a while, but it might be completely open after that. It might dissolve into something else. They do that by agreement, you know. And because some musicians thought of that before and it’s musically acceptable to do. People do what’s musically acceptable among the group of musicians they’re playing with, otherwise you end up playing by yourself. Others say, no, we have to keep A-A-B-A, no matter what happens. All of our freedom has to occur inside of A-A-B-A. It’s just a matter of which choices you make ahead of time. But either choice is an understanding, and you’re dealing with the understanding, and sometimes, well, many times, I’ll tell you the truth, it boils down to skill level. It boils down to what you can do. Because some musicians, they are on a high enough level that they actually get a thrill out of being able to keep a structure precisely but being completely free within that. And a lot of times that’s the thrill for me in listening to what Art Tatum or Charlie Parker might do. They sound completely free and at the same time there’s this very high level of structure. I used to have this argument a lot with Dave Holland when I first started playing with him.
J.V.: That must have been somewhere around 1980.
S.C.: After he played with Sam Rivers and Circle, yes. I started talking to him about doing something in about ’78 or ’79, but we didn’t actually get together until about ’81. When we started playing together we had these different ideas about what we liked. We would sit down and listen to records. Of course, we had differences. They were sometimes just a matter of taste, many times cultural differences, you know, he grew up in England and I grew up in Chicago. But there were a lot of other things that were obviously common, otherwise we would not have sat down and talked. Okay, so when it comes to making music, he’s telling me why he wants to play with me, I’m telling him why I might be interested in playing with him, you know. One of the biggest differences, to put it that way, was our idea about structure. For him, like I say, he just came out of this free-form and he found it really enjoyable to not give any parameters at all. And I said, “Well, Dave, when you don’t give any parameters, that’s like giving parameters.” And he said, “Well, what do you mean by that? I have the freedom to play what I want!” I said, “If you give somebody the freedom to play what they want they will tend to do the same thing over and over.” He didn’t buy this, in the beginning. I said, “Let somebody do whatever they want over and over, I mean complete freedom, and they will fall into habits and will do the same thing over and over.” Actual freedom to me is choices.
J.V.: That’s a pretty restrictive idea of freedom, considering that it’s not you who will decide what you can choose from.
S.C.: First of all, there is no such thing as freedom. We’re human beings, we’re creatures of habit. But if we have more choices, the illusion of freedom is greater than if we have less choice. The average musician, if you tell him to do what he wants, or she wants, they’re not going to develop certain skills because they will just fall into what’s easiest for them to do. If you force them out of certain habits, they will be forced to develop certain skills to deal with those things. So we had this argument over and over and over. The argument was really solved by the music itself. Because after we started playing – his approach was to write open tunes and my approach was write tunes with these varying structures, and there was also Kenny Wheeler who wrote mostly from a harmonic standpoint – the music that people heard was a combination of all these approaches. It wasn’t one approach. Eventually, these things started influencing each other and sort of coming together. I saw some points in what he said, and he saw some points in what I said, and so the character of the group was formed. Eventually he ended up doing music almost all of which had some kind of structure, as you can see from his music today. His music started to have more and more structures, he really got into rhythms, because this is what I was into. At the same time, I felt certain advantages of what he was doing and the language that he was dealing with. But actually the language that he was dealing with, I looked at it more as the people who he was influenced by, people like Sam Rivers, who I also played with. It was Sam Rivers who really had this strong open thing happening. But what I discovered was that the people who really played open the best knew structure. I guess what I’m saying about structure is that the structure itself is an influencing factor which you are forced to deal with when you impose it as an organizational factor.
J.V.: You mean like a liberating constraint?
S.C.: Yeah, but “liberating” is misleading. We’re never going be free. Forget that. But the thing about structure is that you don’t get fooled thinking that you’re doing whatever you want to do. To me, Coltrane’s life is the perfect example of that. He used structure to get to a variety. The word I would prefer to use is not freedom but variety. So you can see that he was playing a certain way and he stumbled on certain kinds of structural things around the time he was doing that Giant Steps stuff, which he felt he needed to investigate. He definitely investigated them to a ridiculous degree. He did it on standards, he did it on originals. He got a lot of response from that. A lot of response from inside the music community itself. Even from the musicians in his band. Some people were saying, “man, why do we have to play all these chords?” Other people outside the group were saying, “well, you know, that’s kind of stiff, playing all these chords.” And other people dug it. He gave an interview where he said he was talking to Ornette Coleman. And Ornette Coleman said to him, “if you want to play all these chords, go ahead, but why do you have to impose that on the rhythm section?” And so he thought about that.
J.V.: At the same time, he’s playing in Miles Davis’s group.
S.C.: Exactly, where Miles is going in the opposite direction, dealing with, what I would call, color music. That makes more sense from Miles’s perspective because Miles was never a really technical kind of player anyhow, he was always kind of a color player, more like Lester Young, even when he was playing Bird’s music and he was playing “Rhythm Changes” or whatever. So it made sense that he was attracted to that kind of thing, so-called modal music. And with Trane, you could see how both of these things came together. He said, okay, with the band, they don’t necessarily have to play all these structures. But he kept doing it. And he got freer and freer, and more and more fluent in doing it. If somebody is playing an open fifth, for example, and against that you’re running all these structures, well, the structures are not exactly set now. In other words, it’s not an A-A-B-A thing, it’s not a thing that’s exactly set.
J.V.: You mean because it’s based on a mode?
S.C.: He would be doing that not only on the so-called modal material, but also on the standards.
There are a lot of examples of him playing with Miles’s band where they were playing rhythm changes. He’ll get to the bridge, and he runs these structures every which way but backwards. It’s almost like, I say we’re going to the store, you and me walking to the store, and you say, “you know what, I’ve got to do something first, I’ll meet you at the store.” So I go off and do a couple of things, but by the time you get to the store I’ll be there. Or I’ll arrive a minute after you, or something like that. So I’ve taken an alternate path to the store, but my intention is still to meet you at the store. So melodically and harmonically that’s basically what Trane was doing. He knew where the rhythm changes were going, of course he had been playing rhythm changes all his life. He knew exactly what was happening, so he would get to the bridge and he would start going off on these alternate paths. And where most musicians would be substituting one chord, or two chords, he would substitute a whole path of chords. It’s sort of a, “I’ll meet you at the store”-kind of thing. And by the time that Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly, and all those guys got to the store, Trane was there. So, these things got longer and longer, because the structures themselves created paths. It’s almost like he’d built his own road, but it’s still structure. It’s just that the structure has become very malleable. He could mold it, sort of spontaneously, as he was going along. This was the kind of thing that I was really interested in with this music.
J.V.: So I take it for you there is no open form at all.
S.C.: Not for me. When Dave told me, this song is open, I really never played open. What I was doing was spontaneously constructing paths, as opposed to playing open. It’s almost like this conversation that we’re having. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say. So I’m sort of spontaneously constructing the path, but there are elements in the language that allow me to do that. These structures are very important to me, because they represent, in a sense, ideas.
J.V.: Here it is again. All this time we’ve been talking about structure we’ve been talking about the language metaphor. And if I understand you correctly, you don’t understand structure or language as something purely functional in terms of facilitating communication. In order for them to represent ideas their form seems to matter.
S.C.: Of course. These structures are very important, they’re not just technical things for me. They have a lot to do with, in the end, a vibration that you’re trying to put out, which I think is the most important thing. Musicians, like architects, or anybody else, have to learn the language in music, the craft. You have to deal with that whether you’re going to play Kenny G’s music or my music. But this thing that I’m talking about now is to me where the creativity comes in. What kinds of paths, what kinds of spontaneous structures – since we’re dealing with improvisation – are you going to deal with? And what kind of parameters do you put on yourself?
J.V.: What you described as Dave Holland’s initial attitude is typical I think for what a lot of European jazz musicians of the late sixties and seventies thought. Many of them embraced free jazz not because they were interested in structure but because they felt that free jazz allowed them to get away from clichés, things that were over-done and over-used. For a lot of them the aim was to produce something that was not another imitation of American jazz, but rather original and authentically European. And this also meant that it had to be new. That’s where they saw creativity come in. Of course, this whole approach seems very different from what you just described. I wonder, though, if, hidden somewhere, there are any commonalities between that approach and yours after all?
S.C.: Well, to me, ‘new’ is another one of these illusions, like freedom. There is no new, there is no freedom. My goal is certainly not to create something new. My goal is almost to create something old. This may sound strange, but I mean it maybe in a different way. I’ll explain it. The life that we live, the planet that we’re living on, is very, very old. I’m not going to come up with something new, outside of what I am, because it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what we are. This goes into what you believe about life and everything, what you believe created everything, or if it was created. But, whether you think things are created by something or not, whatever happened, we can agree that something happened. In other words, some people can say there is a God and God created such-and-such, and they think of God as some old man in the sky with superpowers. Some people think of God as some kind of energy, a living energy that is in everything, in the universe. Some people think there is no God at all, that things just happen accidentally. But, on a cosmic level, it really doesn’t matter what your opinion is. What happened, happened. It happened regardless of what you believe. So, if you believe that there is a spirit in the tree that created everything, that’s your thing. That doesn’t change the fact of where you came from, and the fact of where the tree came from. The only thing that I am fairly sure of is that what created the tree also created me. What created the planet, created me, whatever that was. I can talk about that in broad terms. I myself, as Steve Coleman, as whatever I think I am, had little to do with that. My beliefs go deeper than this, but the general thing is that I believe there is a kind of energy that is a part of all of us, and it gets expressed in an individual way through each of us.
J.V.: You mean in a pantheistic kind of way?
S.C.: I think of it in terms of energy. What I’m looking for in my music is the sound-expression of that individual way it gets expressed in us, of that individualism. I believe that basically the energy that is in you, and that is within me, that is within everybody else, whether it is a rat or a lion, is the same energy. But it is expressed, it’s individualized, in this existence. It’s projected into the world in various varieties. Therefore you are not me in that sense. When we talk about culture, and all these questions, they’re all local questions. They’re all dealing with local situations. But ultimately, these things are cosmic questions. The way this universe is built is ingenious. Things exist to a greater degree than you could ever think, to a greater degree of detail. And at the same time, I believe that the principles that run things on this cosmic level also control things right down to the most microscopic detail. It’s infinite, at least from my point of view it seems to be infinite. Infinitely big and infinitely small, and we’re somewhere in the middle of that. So we have to deal with our individualism. There is a pattern that makes all humans common, but every human being is different.
J.V.: Okay, but aren’t these people who want to play something new simply stressing that individualism?
S.C.: I don’t call my music new because of the individualism. It may be unique, if I think in broad enough sweeps, and in broad enough perspectives, and if I study enough, if I listen more deeply to myself and my inner nature. I think that that’s what makes the so-called unique people seem unique. That’s mainly a function of not just blindly following a certain thing. Most people don’t think about any of these things. They just blindly follow. They live their lives according to whatever parameters are set out for them at any given time. In other words, they’re robots, to put it coldly.
J.V.: Quite coldly, yes.
S.C.: But it’s true, most people are robots. And some people step a little bit outside of that. They work on building skills that express that. Others just simply rebel. I can rebel against everything. I could just say, “I don’t dig shit.” I don’t necessarily develop a set of skills that expresses it, I’m just antisocial. Or I could develop negative skills and go around blowing shit up, and say, “well that’s my way of expressing myself.” But I choose to express myself in a creative way that leads to, what I refer to as, a positive direction, in terms of expanding awareness. I don’t choose to blow things up, or to go around killing people, destroying things. That’s not my way of trying to contribute to change for a positive direction, because that just leads to more destruction. So, instead of going to war with Iraq, or something, I choose to deal with music. And I choose to deal with music that has an expanding nature.
J.V.: That turns music and art into quite a moralistic affair, doesn’t it?
S.C.: The point is not whether it’s moralistic or not. The point is: You have a choice. Sonny Rollins told me recently that there are two kinds of music, that which contracts and that which expands. I basically agree with this. I choose to deal with music of this expanding nature. This is my ultimate concern about structure. I mean, before we were talking about my local concern as a musician, what I’m interested in. But my ultimate concern is to deal with things that will facilitate expanding awareness. I try to deal with music that ultimately has an expanding vibrational effect.
J.V.: Now, your structures are of course extremely complex. Does the listener have to have some kind of understanding of those structures to have such an “expanding vibrational effect?”
S.C.: No, it’s not important to me at all that people understand the structures or anything I’m doing musically. In fact, that usually gets in the way. Sometimes I go to Europe and people say, “I don’t understand your music.” Understanding is not part of it. You’ll never understand it like me, and that’s not important. It’s not even a big deal. I’ll never understand it like you. The point is that some music makes you reflect, it makes you think about the nature of things, because that’s the nature of the sound. The sounds are put together in such a way that they have a kind of expanding effect.
J.V.: An “expanding effect,” what does that actually mean? Do we become better people by listening to a certain kind of music?
S.C.: I wouldn’t say “better people.” But I know people who listen to that kind of music, they ended up reading more, they ended up checking out different things, different cultures, all kinds of stuff. And music draws them to, well, it brings out those kinds of tendencies that maybe are already there, they’re latent tendencies. I know for certain Coltrane’s music had this effect on me when I was younger, and it still does. Other music closes you down. There is no doubt about that. There is no doubt that people who listen over and over to certain kinds of music become closed to ideas, become closed to even thinking about shit. There are people who deliberately use this. There are certain kinds of music playing in a shopping mall, on purpose. It’s not just, we’re going to put on any music. You’re not going to come in and hear Coltrane’sAscension. They play certain things because they have all these musical psychologists, who are trying to get you into what they think of as a relaxed mode, but what they really mean is a relaxed robotic mode.
J.V.: I think most musicians would subscribe to what you’re saying about breaking out of the robotic mode. They’re all taught, don’t repeat yourself, get out of your routine. And yet you seem to be saying that this is not yet “expanding awareness.”
S.C.: Exactly. You can have that kind of viewpoint that you are describing right now within many different directions. Generally speaking, most musicians will say what you just said. Even the ones who I think are repeating would still say that. From their standpoint they may not be repeating, because there are a lot of ways to repeat yourself. What I try to do is to always learn new ways of doing things and internalize that. I think that the growth of my music will take care of itself if I keep moving in that general direction. In other words, there are certain things that are big concerns that I can’t really control consciously. But the logic is that if I keep learning new things, keep learning new ways of doing things, and actually internalize that to the point where it becomes habit, to the point where I’m not thinking about it anymore, it will affect my music in some way, depending on which things I’m studying and why I’m studying them. And then there is the creative mode you’re in at any particular given moment, while you’re actually performing. Some days you are more creative than others. Some days you are able to flow and connect with everything, other days you’re not, and that’s all part of it.
J.V.: So it’s really an idea of growth versus stagnation.
S.C.: Exactly. But the point is, this growth is happening on microscopic levels. There’s a lot of what I call microstructure. And this is something that a lot of people have in common today. This is one of the things that you don’t escape. You can deny it, but I don’t choose to deny these things. I just internalize them and say, “okay, let’s look at some other things.” And all these little things, these little microstructures, you have a choice of adding different microstructures to your repertoire and letting them affect your music, or just going with the same ones. Unfortunately, most people’s additions of microstructures, and how they look at microstructure in the first place, are rather limited. For example, if I just look at it tonally, then that’s going to be limited, [if] I don’t look at rhythm at all, I just look at tone. Most people only have a theory of music dealing with tone material, they don’t usually have a melodic thing, structural thing, or rhythmic thing. But as you add these things to your repertoire, so to speak, they begin to affect your music in terms of the choices you make, because it’s like adding to the language. In this case, I’m using language as – I’m talking about structure, because ultimately the difference between German and English is what? In other words, you can have the same thought and I could have the same thought, even if you speak only German and I speak only English. The thought is going to be affected by culture, as it always is, it’s going to be affected even by language, because language and culture, you can’t separate them. However, vibrationally it can be essentially the same thought, expressed in different ways.
J.V.: Is it really essentially the same thought, though?
S.C.: Yes, I mean there are commonalities. Nobody has exactly the same thought, not even two people of the same culture. But we communicate in the areas that we have in common. You have to have something that draws you together, that gives you a base upon which to build. Music is that base. I’ve played with people who I can’t talk to.
J.V.: The projects that I know, like your collaboration with AfroCuba de Matanzas, are quite close to you culturally and musically speaking. Have you played with people from cultures completely different from your own? Did music still work as a base then?
S.C.: What do you mean by completely different? I’ve played with musicians in Africa, I’ve played with musicians in Brazil, I’ve played with musicians in different places that I couldn’t talk to. But I couldn’t say that we didn’t have anything in common culturally. Even, if nothing else, the desire to play with each other is also a connection.
J.V.: I agree, cultures aren’t completely different, but some overlap more than others. And I wonder how and if musical communication works if you in fact have very, very little in common.
S.C.: I went to the south of India and I played with this mridangam player; this guy was a top Indian drummer. Now, the whole tonal part of my language didn’t really relate to this guy. I mean, he didn’t relate to it. If he did relate to it, he certainly didn’t have the same base that I had. The basis on which we communicated was mainly rhythm. I say mainly, because there were some adjustments that I made melodically to him and I’m sure there were some adjustments that he made. And I played with south Indian singers, Carnatic singers. What was interesting is that one of the girls who I played with asked me about progression and the variety of sounds that I was getting. It’s even hard to describe this in language, because – she spoke English, that wasn’t the problem – but she just didn’t have it in her music vocabulary to ask these questions. She was wondering what kind of decisions I made, because she mainly sang in one raga, and she heard me kind of going all over the place. And she was like, “well, I know there is something there that you’re following, but what is it, what are you doing?” And I said, “that’s not a simple question I can answer.” Because we didn’t have the common language for me to answer the question. If you’re a classical musician, there is something there that I can use as a bridge to build between where you are and where I am.
J.V.: There are certain musical concepts that are pretty much universal. How much does that help as a cornerstone?
S.C.: First of all, many concepts that people believe to be universal, like the tonic, are not universal, and they have not always been there. Things are always in a state of change, a state of flux. Unfortunately sometimes the change is so gradual that you don’t see it in your lifetime. If you study ancient Greek music, for example, they didn’t have any concept of what we call a tonic. But there is some kind of concept of gravity in the music, an attraction, a structure and all this. There is always that, because this is something that exists outside of human beings, this is outside of our decision process. It’s transferred over to us, you could say. So when I think about music, I try more and more to think in this universal way about the music, and less and less in a local kind of way. That enables me to deal with other cultures. I don’t have a problem playing with anybody, from any culture, except when they… well, I guess it depends on the frame of mind I’m in. I can have problems playing with someone from right here if they’re in a certain mindset. In other words, some people believe in playing bebop, and when you play bebop you have to do this and this. I don’t have a good time playing with those kinds of people. Or there are people who hired me for pop records in the past, for example, and then they start telling me how to play. Well, that’s not my cup of tea. Can you make it more like Kenny G., man? You know, that kind of thing. That’s not really my cup of tea.
J.V.: Seriously, Steve, has that really ever happened? I mean, sure, many record companies are just after the money and don’t respect the artists. But a record producer asking Steve Coleman to sound like Kenny G., that sounds like a caricature.
S.C.: Yeah sure, it happens a lot. It happens when you put yourself in that situation, let’s put it that way. And the thing is, you don’t even know what to say to a person like that, because when they say that, that automatically tells you that you’re on such a different wavelength, you’re in such a different place than them, that it’s almost like you have nothing in common. I had the same conversation with Sonny Rollins.
J.V.: They want him to sound like Kenny G., too?
S.C.: No, but he tells me about things that people say all the time. And they have no idea who he is and how long he’s been doing what he’s doing. You get on an airplane, for instance, and the stewardess goes, “Are you a musician? I love music. What kind of music do you play?” Who this person is and what kind of experience they have determines the level the conversation is going to be on. I try to make it a point to maybe introduce some new ideas to some people, or to get introduced to new ideas myself. When I’m discussing anything with anybody, whether I know them or not, I try to make learning a part of the experience. Whether I’m introducing them to some new ideas, or they’re introducing me.
J.V.: Do you teach your audience, too?
S.C.: Well, I don’t teach them, but I’d say you have to be sensible, especially as a player. I have to think about my music in ways that are going to make it digestible, let’s put it that way. People who come to concerts, there are all kinds of people there. I’m playing the concert for myself and for all those people. I try, in my concerts, to think of it as a collective experience. Yes, we’re making the sounds on stage, but I like to think of it as a communion. Everyone is not communing on the same level, of course not, but the point is that our spirits resonate. That is my concept of a concert. You can’t possibly know what’s going on in the different people’s heads. I don’t want to know. Impossible. Everybody comes into it with their own experience. But the thing that we all have in common is spirit, so that’s the thing that is most important to me: What effects does sound have on spirit?
J.V.: When the audience reacts to your playing in a certain way, that in turn might affect your playing. Does that happen on a more general spiritual level, or does it go all the way to very detailed, precise musical things?
S.C.: It goes to all levels. But you have to be careful not to let it affect you on a – how can I say this – on a superficial level. We have a term that we call “getting house.” For me it’s a negative thing. It’s kind of an entertainment thing where you go for a certain effect – and all musicians know how to do this on some level, but some musicians play on it more than others. People are fairly gullible. For example, there are certain things that a saxophone player does, like circular breathing – this is what Kenny G. is good at – and you hold this note for a long time and eventually there will be some people in the audience who’ll go, wow, that’s incredible. And they’ll start screaming and everything, and they think this is really a big deal that you can hold this one note a really long time. It’s a trick, in a sense. There are lots of these kinds of tricks, individually and group–wise. I don’t like that kind of shit. It’s really simplistic and it’s really easy to manipulate the audience on that level. But it can make you a lot of money, if you take it to the extreme. In effect, that’s what popular music does. It plays off of those simplistic things that get certain reactions from people. It’s like singers who sing songs about love. That is something that is always going to get over, especially with people who are dealing with life on a very mundane level. Because money and love are two things that people are always going to relate to. Or sex, let’s put it that way. And so if you hit them there, on that level that they are dealing with every day, you are going to have a very big audience.
J.V.: Ironically, that’s one way of building upon the universal.
S.C.: Yes, it doesn’t matter whether you come from Russia, or from Germany, or from China, or wherever, these are things that today you have to deal with. You’re going to deal with sex on some kind of level, because you’re human. So these are very mundane things. Now, if you’re dealing with higher concerns – higher is really not the word, other concerns, spiritual concerns – your music is not going to be really, really popular. I’ve been in the studio with people who are sitting there, trying to figure out how they are going to sell the most records possible while they’re making their music. I don’t choose to put myself around it a lot, because I think if you’re around this stuff too much it starts influencing you. But that’s what people do.
J.V.: Isn’t that an unfair treatment of popular music? A lot of it, in its accessibility, will be extremely meaningful to very many people, and I’m not sure whether that meaning doesn’t carry over into that more spiritual realm.
S.C.: I understand what you’re talking about. We’re talking in broad sweeps here. Of course there are all kinds of levels, not just the extreme levels. Everybody has to choose their poison, so to speak, choose which way they’re going to fall. Myself, I do care about the audience, and what they are thinking, but I think more on this communion level. And I think less on the entertainment level, with me dancing across the stage doing splits, like Prince, or whatever.
J.V.: What about someone like James Brown? I thought that Maceo Parker, his alto player, was one of your early influences.
S.C.: I’ve always liked James Brown. It’s not that I don’t care for any of the people who think on an entertainment level. First of all, you can’t do everything. If you try to do everything your shit just ends up being weak because you didn’t make a choice. The music I like is music that definitely has a character and people have made definite choices. When I feel like listening to Beethoven – or the shadow of Beethoven, I call it, people who are playing Beethoven today – the music is so great that even the shadow is great. That’s the way I look at it. So, if I’m in the mood to listen to that, I’ll put on that. If I’m in the mood for Public Enemy, I’ll put on that. I don’t think that they’re the same thing, but in the end you have music with people expressing themselves and you have music that you’re doing for another reason. Some people play music to get girls, some people play music to get money. There are all kinds of reasons to play music. So sometimes when people play music just to get girls or just to get money, I can hear this in the music and I usually don’t like it. But sometimes that can be mixed in with other reasons, as you say. It depends on the mixture, I guess. But see, when I listen to Bartók’s music, for example, I hardly feel the monetary thing at all in the music.
J.V.: Some musicians make the somewhat elitist argument that the higher realm will by necessity be less popular than the more mundane because the higher realm consists of breaking established molds. That’s pretty much what I meant earlier with the stance of the European free jazzers. But then that’s not what you’re saying. Your distinction of high and mundane has nothing to do with the modernist idea to break internalized habits and instead work from an intentional level. But how exactly do you balance the two, that is, habit and intention?
S.C.: A large part of improvising is learned responses, you could say reflexes. You internalize things to the point where it’s reflex. Otherwise it’s not going to be on a high level, I can tell you that right now. You have to have this language of reflexes, basically things that you respond on, which means that you have to be playing for a certain number of years. You have to internalize certain principles, to the point where things become reaction. In that sense, it’s no different than learning martial arts, learning basketball, or learning any other skill. On top of that there’s intention, all these things that we’ve been talking about before, what you intend to do, which areas you’re moving in. What to me is most important is your repertoire of responses and how you intend them to work within your music. A lot of that is based on what has already been developed in your time. In other words, Charlie Parker would have never played the way he played without what happened twenty years before he played. He would never have developed those kinds of responses. He developed those things from listening to the guys he listened to, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and following Don Byas around and Art Tatum and all these people. A certain tradition was already there and he was building on that. It’s no different than what Isaac Newton did when he was building on Kepler and Copernicus and Galileo. And Einstein built on what Newton did. It’s the same thing. So we have this collective knowledge that’s being passed along by humanity and it gets culturalized and vocalized in certain places and then you’re born in that situation. If you don’t learn those things then you won’t be much of an improviser, or much of anything, blacksmith, theorist, physicist, whatever you are.
J.V.: If we’re so indebted to our precursors, it still is our job to make those people our precursors. But to do that there seems to be more involved than just studying their music and, through endless repetition, internalizing it.
S.C.: That’s why, when I study musicians, I try to study their circumstance, what they learned and how. What’s really important to me is the process, how they learned what they learned. I mean the process that they went through. Because this process internalizes things. Going through something, experiencing it, that’s what makes it more deeply internalized. It’s not just about what books you read, or what theory you think you want to learn. It’s the process of experiencing it.
J.V.: People in the humanities talk a lot about embodied experience these days. But there is a certain uneasiness about that. What if bodily internalization means your own voluntary subjection? So then some writers start arguing that classical music is “bad” because it makes you internalize a “proper technique,” which is another way of saying that you’ll become a robot, whereas improvisation is somehow “good” because there is no “proper technique,” and so you break out of the forces that supposedly control and shape our body. And now you’re suggesting that the improviser isn’t in control of his reflexes once he has decided which reflexes he wants to internalize.
S.C.: It’s true, for the majority of it you’re not in control. Things are happening very fast. If I’m thinking about the elements of music while I’m playing, I’m not playing too well. Occasionally musical thoughts do come, but basically I’m thinking more on a metaphor kind of level. And the elements of music that I find difficult will enter my mind when those difficulties have to be dealt with. There may be moments that you’re lost, there may be certain tonal combinations that are difficult, and when you get to those passages you may have to focus more on that. But overall I would say that most of those things are internalized, and if they’re not you try to get them to the internalized point. So your mind can be concerned with what I call higher issues, a higher hierarchy of issues. Like I talk about vibration a lot. Sound is the medium that I’m working with, but what I’m trying to say is a different thing than sound or language. It’s… the closest I can say is vibration, it’s an idea about something, not physical vibration so much as the idea of what I’m trying to communicate or speak about.
J.V.: I have to say, this surprises me. You’re disconnecting the idea from the sound, and to describe it you use “vibration,” which is such a bodily concept. I always felt that improvisation is one of those things where mind and body are really so closely connected.
S.C.: You have vibrations on a lot of different levels. If I just play one tone, then we can talk about vibration in different terms of that tone. If I play two tones, we can talk about the relationship of the vibrations between those two tones. This goes all the way up to the level that I was just talking about. In order to successfully have the vibration on that last level, the higher level, you need to know about the vibration on the other levels. Because it’s all connected, like you just said. It’s all connected right down to the things that you were talking about, vibration of the body, vibration of the instrument, vibration of the room, any kind of vibration on any kind of level that you can think about, all the way to spiritual vibration. So, if you want to have control and understanding about your ultimate thing that you’re trying to communicate, then you have to understand everything right from the initial sound thing.
J.V.: Now, if vibration is a kind of language that is more basic and also more encompassing than verbal language, the problem is: How do you explain vibration in verbal language, for instance in teaching?
S.C.: It takes years to explain those vibrational things in verbal language. And it still might not work. One time I asked Von Freeman about his voice-leading in harmony, he’s the master of that shit. I asked him, “How did you learn that shit? You’re so fluent at it.” And he said, “Well, you know, I sat down one day and I said, let me look at this thing.” He said, “I began with one tone. I studied one tone. And I studied all that I could study about one tone.” When these old guys talk, you don’t ask too many questions. You pretty much just listen to what they say. And so, I didn’t know what he meant, but I just listened. And he said, “I worked on that for a long time, you know, for months. Just seeing what could be done with one tone. When I felt pretty good about that, I moved on to two tones. That was a bit harder. I worked a lot longer, but I worked and saw all that I could do with two tones. Then I moved to three tones, and so on. After I went on for a while I realized that you can pretty much do everything that you need to do with two tones.” That’s what he told me. I spent years thinking about this shit. Years. I’m still thinking about it, you know. I feel like I have a better handle on knowing what he meant now than then, although it is not a simple thing to explain. And when I tell the story to somebody playing in my group or something, and they ask me, “What did he mean?” it takes me literally years to explain what I think he means. And I’m sure I only have part of what he means. What it means to me. Some things, you have to explain them with a million examples over a period of time. The meaning dawns on a person and when they have to explain it it’s funny. We live in this McDonald’s type society where everybody thinks everything is just quick. It’s not like that. You have to actually build the understanding, slowly over time. So this thing that Von Freeman explained to me, it sounds like a very simple thing, but it really doesn’t make any sense at all without the experience. It’s maybe fifteen years ago that he told me, and I found it to be absolutely true. I could never explain it in one day, or in a lecture over an hour.
J.V.: Charlie Parker said you can’t talk about music in words…
S.C.: …and that’s true. But on another level, that’s for us musicians to deal with, those particular issues. But that stuff gets transferred to other people on another vibration level. That’s what I mean when I say that there are these different levels of vibration. It gets transferred to the audience on another level of vibration. They never deal with that level, they never have to. Basically to me music is a medium. A musician has to be an architect. He has to understand that medium and how to work with it.
J.V.: But why does the audience feel any vibration at all, apart from the obvious fact that rhythms and grooves are somehow infectious?
S.C.: Because they’re being influenced by the same vibrations that I’m being influenced by. That’s what you hear when you hear a group together. You don’t hear four or five people who understand the same thing, they never understand the same thing. But there’s a sort of collective vibration that’s influencing all of us, the people in the audience, the people on stage, and that’s sort of like a blanket of vibration above everybody’s individual vibration. It’s the connective tissue that connects us in this time. It’s an expression of the character of the time through us. It can bring us together. I feel like, when I play music, that’s what I’m working with. That’s my real raw material. This connective vibration. I’ve got to figure out how to tap into that and how to amplify that through the sound. This may sound metaphysical, but I really feel like that’s what I’m trying to do. I think a good concert is when that happens and everybody goes away with this sort of experience that they can’t explain, but they just feel connected, at least for that moment.
J.V.: Jazz audiences have changed a lot. Do you think it was easier in the old days to have that vibrational connection when jazz – and I know, you don’t use that term, so let’s just say, when that idiom was still an important part of black culture?
S.C.: There was a different basis. Back in the days when black people were segregated in this country, that experience had more to do with their individual experiences in this country as a race. It had much more to do with that, by force naturally, because you always played for all black people in all black situations. When I was growing up, that was the situation. I had a hard time making the adjustment from playing for all black audiences on the South Side of Chicago, to just playing for audiences. I did, I had a rough time. It started inNew York, but when I went to Europe it was a real shock.
J.V.: People didn’t respond in the way you were used to?
S.C.: Yeah, on very simple levels. I was used to people going like, “Hey baby, yeah man, you play that sax.” You know, talking at the concert and expressing themselves. I was not used to playing in a concert hall where everybody was totally silent.
J.V.: Compared to Europe, I almost always notice a heightened expressiveness of American audiences in general. Even with white audiences.
S.C.: You should go to one of these places where it’s all black. Because the thing is, when I first came toNew York, I didn’t play downtown, because I couldn’t. Nobody knew me and I didn’t know anybody, I wasn’t in any band. So, I was playing mostly in Brooklyn and up in Harlem and places like that. Also, I was making a transition myself. I didn’t have the money to live in other neighborhoods, but I could have chosen to live in a Hispanic neighborhood, for example. But I didn’t. I went where I felt more comfortable. As a result the audiences weren’t really that different than what I’d experienced in Chicago. But when I got a gig with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and we started traveling and everything, and that band was half white, half black, I started experiencing other things. I started to notice that there were big differences in audiences. And I felt it as a musician.
J.V.: Just to come back to what we talked about before, I think this is what Albert Murray has in mind, that whole communal thing, from the perspective of the black community. And so, when he talks about idiomatic authenticity – he doesn’t limit it to “black,” but that kind of experience is certainly his premise, and probably his utopia as well.
S.C.: But why would somebody who is in that situation even think about that? That’s where I part with Albert Murray. In other words, this only becomes an issue when you’re explaining it to somebody who doesn’t understand it, or who’s outside that situation. Why would Buddy Guy, or Junior Wells, or Muddy Waters, or B.B. King in that situation even think about that? They’re concerned with other issues that are more “inside,” to put it that way, than this issue.
J.V.: So it’s the problem of the field ethnographer who has to create perspectives for his audience that deflect from the perspectives of the people he stays with?
S.C.: It’s like explaining African music, West-African music. The first people to write about West-African music were Europeans. The Africans themselves, what’s the point in them writing about it? They were doing it. As Africans started traveling and being associated with universities and having to teach and everything, it’s a weird kind of thing. They were influenced by the western musicologists about writing about their own shit. And you see this with cats like Nketia and Willie Anku and some of these West-African professors who are writing about their own music. You can see the influence. They’re structuring things in a certain way, they’ve learned how to list their references and all this kind of stuff. They can see in another perspective because they are who they are and they can bring this perspective into the writing, but the form in which they write still follows this so-called scholarly form, the European format. And basically their audience is Europeans, or white people here. It’s not like Africans are going to pick up their stuff and read it. Not people involved in the process, not somebody in some tribe somewhere. Their subjects, in other words, the people they are writing about are just living that experience and they’re not concerned with, as Albert Murray calls it, idiomatic gestures, outside of what is needed and accepted in that situation.
J.V.: So when you started playing in Chicago, what were the inside issues?
S.C.: When I was growing up and playing in Von Freeman’s sessions, there were certain things that were important: Your sound, your groove, and how you express yourself. Albert Murray can interpret this as idiomatic expression, but it really comes down to if you want to work, if you want to sit in. There was always this criticism for not having a sound, not having a good groove, a lot of criticism on rhythm: This cat can’t swing, he has no feel, etc. So, it’s not an intellectualized thing, it’s just a matter of learning this particular idiom from these masters who came before you. You have to get with what it is they’re good at expressing. How to make it feel a certain way, how to blend, how to swing. You get cats talking about floating the rhythm, swinging the rhythm, and all these different terms. You’ve got to get with that. Not as a writer, not in the way of explaining it to somebody, but just to be a participant.
J.V.: Most musicians I talked to packaged their story in a basic plot. When they first started out, that’s exactly what they had to do, learn the language in order to become an accepted member. But once they had reached that point, they wanted to become more mature artists and try to develop their own thing – so they cared less about idiomatic rules.
S.C.: I don’t agree with that because I think that even in becoming a so-called mature artist, you’re still following norms. It’s been demonstrated how to do that. When I talk about creativity, there are certain creative people I bring up all the time. There are certain people who are my yardsticks, my reference. Even for doing that which you just described. There’s a tradition of creativity. So those who decide to be creative are influenced by that tradition. They don’t just decide because one day they individually decide it. You get the idea from other people who’ve done it, to even do that in the first place. Everything I’m talking to you about, there have been examples of people who’ve done it. I know, I’ve looked at those examples, I’ve followed those examples, I’ve studied them. I have my hybrid version of those examples, because I bring it all together in me and what I like. You have to choose which tradition you’re going to follow. So okay, yes you have this thing, like you said, when you first come into this culture and you’re trying to be accepted and at some point you decide to, what I call, specialize, or focus on certain elements. But you still have these norms of what people set up before you. I don’t like it when people speak of it like they’re just making this decision that’s totally independent and personal. It’s not. It’s influenced by things. It may be rare, it may not be where everybody is going, or where most people are going, but nevertheless, there’s a lot that’s been set up that you wouldn’t even think of if these people before you hadn’t done it.
J.V.: So you mean that the idea of standing out is modeled after those who’ve stood out in the past?
S.C.: Yes, these things have patterns, too. It’s all about making a contribution, that’s how I look at it. When Charlie Parker did a certain thing with his music, he made a contribution. Which a lot of people use, draw from. A musician can choose to make a contribution in that way. This was a conscious choice of Charlie Parker, or Coltrane for that matter. It wasn’t just unconscious. It was the way they felt, but they knew what they were doing. Coltrane and others were well aware that they were in a special fraternity. They even talked about it, about being a part of the creative thing that was happening at that time. So today I can say, “here’s my contribution.” It’s not for me to judge the level of the contribution or what effect it’s going to have. That’s completely outside of me, beyond my control. The only thing in my control is that I can do the best I can to hook it up as best I can, as we say, and I drop it in the pool, and it does what it does.
J.V.: An interesting case in point is Sonny Stitt. He is still considered by some to have been somewhat of an epigone.
S.C.: I have kind of a unique relationship with Sonny Stitt. First of all, I knew Sonny Stitt.
J.V.: I’ve heard that you. . .
S.C.: …yes, I followed him around quite a bit. He was probably the first musician on that level that I actually knew, that I had personal contact with. When I say on that level, I consider Sonny Stitt really one of the… one of the cats, as we would say. Speaking of cats like, you know, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Bird. To me he was one of those guys. He definitely was in that higher echelon of musicians. He was right there, with everyone, improvising on that same level. When I met him, of course I recognized that, and I knew him from records. Of course I heard the similarities to Parker and all that kind of stuff. To me, especially in that time, that wasn’t even what was important. What was important was that he was way up high on this really high level. And I wasn’t. He was right there with all these guys in this music from the past, you know, Sonny Stitt was born in 1924, Charlie Parker was born in 1920; that makes them virtually contemporaries. So, that was the first thing, that I used to follow Sonny Stitt around. He was in Chicago so much I thought he lived there. He was traveling a lot because people in Detroit were telling me the same thing. They believed he lived inDetroit. Every time he was in town, I was following him around. I have tons of stories about him, when I was in his hotel room really early in the morning. You know, he was a teacher. Not in the sense of a U.C. Berkeley-type teacher, but he was always telling young guys stories and talking to them about the horn and all kinds of different things. But the main way to learn things from him was by watching him. Of course, there are records, but to me watching him play, the records don’t compare to that. I mean, the guy was a really, really accomplished musician.
J.V.: Did you get to play with him?
S.C.: I played with him a whole bunch of times, yes. Or I can’t really say that I played with him because he was on one level and I was on another. But he was the one who first demonstrated to me the things that I needed to get together. There were certain things that he did that were automatic. He could do them in his sleep. Almost. This guy had gotten this part of his playing so together that I knew I had to get this. Later on in life, I became good friends with his daughter. This is relatively recently, like over the last ten years. She had begun to tell me a lot of stories, and I got to tell her stories about him from my perspective. She’s almost the same age as me and she was telling me all the stories about growing up and what he did at home and all this kind of stuff. How he used to practice all the time, certain things, you know that filled in certain gaps about my information on him. And then I would tell her what I had learned musically about him. Because she has good ears, but she isn’t a musician. Sometimes we would put on records by Sonny Stitt, sometimes we would put on records by Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker and I would talk about what I thought were the differences and similarities and all this kind of stuff. I can say for sure that he had a big influence on my life. It is through Sonny Stitt that I met Von Freeman. When I first saw Von he was on a double bill with Sonny Stitt. It’s a very close relationship to him in terms of him being the professional, or the person on that level, that sort of first tried to open the door for me. Of course, he couldn’t do nothing for me in terms of me practicing, I had to that. But he would tell me things.
J.V.: Were they easier to comprehend than what Von told you?
S.C.: No. If I told you, they wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. He would talk to me like this: “Come here boy, what’s a whole note?” And I’d say, “A whole note, uhhh, a whole note is a note that gets four beats.” “No!” Whatever I did say, he would be like, “No!” So finally I said “Okay, what’s a whole note?” “It’s a circle with a space in it.” He would do things like that all the time. The funny thing is that now that I’m older I have exactly the same opinion. Because basically what he is saying is that it’s just this notational mark. And that’s it. Has nothing to do with music, it’s a symbol. That’s what he was saying. I thought he was being funny at the time, but in his own way he was saying the same shit that I say today to people. He was very raw in terms of his information. He did tell me that he was good at math and used numbers with music a lot. I could hear that in his playing. By that I mean I could hear the high degree of structure. I could kind of hear the numerical thing. Not in a stiff way but just that he had these relationships together. He was one of the first persons I heard who could play in all the keys really fluently and all that kind of stuff. I saw a lot of incredible things.
J.V.: Like what?
S.C.: I’ll tell you one story I saw with him. There was a saxophone player in Chicago, Guido Sinclair. Normally, local saxophone players, they have certain things they can do really well. But they’re not really very broad. I mean, not usually. There’s usually a reason why they’re local, to put it that way. But this guy had certain keys that he could play in, like really, really fluently. He had these certain little phrases and things like that. He kept his fingers really close to the keys, it looked like his fingers weren’t moving. One time I saw him with Stitt. Here the guy was whipping all over the place. Stitt was kind of a gladiator kind of guy. So they were playing, and this guy was whipping all over the place, so Stitt saw what was happening and he analyzed the situation. And the next tune he just called off something that he knew the guy couldn’t play on. He didn’t even know the guy real good but he could tell, he knew just by listening to the way the guy played that he wouldn’t be able to handle this. So he called off a tune which was a normal tune but he started off real quickly in a key that he knew the guy couldn’t deal with. The guy fell out of his place, all of a sudden all the speed and everything came to a complete stop. And Stitt was still able to do all the Stitt shit. You know, because he had practiced this stuff. So I was sitting there watching this, watching him kind of deconstruct this guy and thinking at the same time, Okay, I gotta get my keys together. Because, you know, you can’t get embarrassed like this. Stitt just tore this guy apart in public. And he looked at that guy, like, Uh huh, where is all that speed now? It was very interesting because I saw how he was a more complete musician. A lot of simple lessons like that, but they stayed with me for a long time. They were craft things. Like high up in the craft of music. So to me, Sonny Stitt was a fantastic musician who drew from his time and played in the idiom of his time. And he was one of the better ones at it, playing with the material that was available at that time. It was a new language when he came up and he got with this new language really fast and he was one of the people who showed how to express himself in this new language. In other words, he contributed to it. And when Bird talked about him, Bird said that Sonny Stitt was a fantastic musician. That’s all he had to say. I mean, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, these were the guys and they were all fantastic. Fantastic musicians. I think it is the press that takes someone like Charlie Parker and they make him the leader of what they perceive as a movement. And they always do this.
J.V.: They did it with you.
S.C.: They did this with me with the M-Base thing. They always do this kind of thing, and it’s not true. Charlie Parker moved to New York and when people asked him, “Well, why did you move to New York?” he said, “There were some very advanced things happening in New York and I wanted to be around that, wanted to be a part of that.” That tells the story, to me. It’s all a big language, but it’s not about any one guy, with the flag leading the way. They are all making a contribution and what I have to say about Sonny Stitt is that he was one of the guys who made such a contribution, whether critics recognize the contribution or anyone recognizes the contribution, because a lot of people don’t recognize it.
J.V.: From what you’re saying, it’s not only a language-pool that you drop your contribution into and then the pool is open for anyone to just jump into and you’ll come out as an improviser. It seems that for the language acquisition you need deep personal linkages.
S.C.: Yes, and you see, the connection goes on, it’s like a chain. Sonny Stitt, Von Freeman, these guys were my connection to that time. Because I knew them personally. And they made records that make a lot more sense to me through the fact that I knew them. What I got from Sonny Stitt and from Von Freeman, somebody else may try to get from me. For Jonathan [Finlayson, the trumpet player currently playing in Steve’s band], I may be the connection. It gets passed down. But it changes, of course. It doesn’t get passed down just like that.
J.V.: What gets passed down seems to be something more than a contribution of sound. What is it that’s not on the records, or that you only hear on the records if you have that connection?
S.C.: I’ll give you one example. One time I went to Stitt’s hotel room and I had my saxophone with me. The guy just woke up. He had been drinking all this vodka so he had bad breath and everything. He said, “Give me your horn, boy!” And I thought, Oh, oh. Is this guy going to blow my horn? So he took my horn, which was a student horn with a student mouthpiece with a, what we call, stock reed, which is just any old reed. I was pretty poor, so it wasn’t anything special. But he took my horn and started playing it. And he soundedexactly like Sonny Stitt. He started playing a song, he didn’t play any of the original melody but I knew which song he was playing; you could hear the whole rhythm section and everything. My father used to say the guys sounded like they had a drum in the horn, they had such strong time. Everything was there, and this cat had just woken up. Just from that I learned so much, just sitting there listening to him. I said, “Okay, first of all it’s not the horn.” You know, when he gave back the horn to me, it became nothing again. Piano, saxophone, synthesizer, take your choice, a guy who plays with me now, Grégoire Maret, plays harmonica. Harmonica! It’s not the instrument. When people make excuses about the instrument, I’m like, you’re just trippin’, it has nothing to do with the instrument. It’s all in the person. Second of all, you could hear the whole band when Stitt was playing. He was playing these melodic lines but you could hear everything. You could hear the chords, you could hear the rhythm, you could hear what the song was without him playing the melody. I mean he was really, really solid and really, really strong. And that had nothing to do with style. It’s a certain assurance. That’s where I imagine Bird was, where Bach was, all these cats, they were that solid.
J.V.: The importance of the personal connection is intriguing to me. Because that could lead back to verbal language as an extension of gesture, as you put it. So that what the student picks up from a cat like Stitt is not only what it means to be solid as a player. But in having a strong personal link, what gets transmitted is something like a whole way of life.
S.C.: I’ll tell you about a two-hour phone-conversation I had with Sonny Rollins not so long ago. He didn’t actually talk about music that much. He’s really into the environment right now. Still, I connect everything that somebody says to who they are and everything they play to who they are. So, for me just talking to him was like talking to him about music. In fact, it was like listening to him play. I don’t know how to describe that, because these guys speak in a certain manner, and that manner is in their playing and who they are. It’s just one way of being. It’s different than a philosopher, because – like I said – philosophers think about things in terms of the theory of it. And that’s great, you’ve got some great theoreticians. But the theory of something and the doing of it is a different thing.
J.V.: I notice how you keep coming back to that…
S.C.: I learned from my experience at Berkeley, looking at the faculty there, that when you have people who are talking about these things but don’t play, or can’t play well, shit just heaps up pretty fast. I’m looking at things that are practically useful to me and that can be actually demonstrated in music. There are a lot of people who are writing who are musicians now, and that’s good, that’s a good trend. As I said earlier, there’s a tradition about thinking about music that cares very little for the actual music, and that tradition goes way back. There were a lot of musicians in ancient Greek times who were into the theories of stuff and some of them didn’t even respect musicians. They thought that the playing of music was irrelevant. The point was thinking about it in this cosmic way, dealing with numerical proportions and all this kind of stuff. But then you had this one person whose writings we have, his name is Aristoxenus. He was a student of Aristotle, who was a student of Plato. He was in Aristotle’s academy and when Aristotle died, Aristoxenus thought that he should have become the leader of the academy. Anyway, this guy was one of the guys who went completely against the tradition the other philosophers were talking about. He thought that what was important was not the theory of the thing and its connection to numbers and science. He said, what is important is the sound and the music itself and the ear should be the only judge of that. He was so diligent in his examination of the stuff according to sound that he started a whole school of thinking. So now there are two schools, the Pythagorean way of thinking and then there is Aristoxenus. I actually find value in both ways, but being a musician, I can particularly relate to what Aristoxenus was talking about. For me, if it’s not demonstrated in the actual practical situation it has less merit to me. Just pure theory, that’s not good enough for me.
J.V.: Because it leaves out the experience?
S.C.: Yes, it’s all about experience. And your level of experience makes a difference in what you’re going to talk about. When you have a person like [Jascha] Heifetz, or [Vladimir] Horowitz, they’re talking from a certain level of experience. They’re dealing with a different thing than somebody who just got through graduate school. I’m not saying that everything that these guys are saying is correct, but it’s certainly based on a large amount of experience. If Sonny Rollins says something to me about improvisation I’m going to listen, because this cat’s been there. I was saying the same thing about Sonny Stitt. I hung on every word he said. He says some shit, I listen to him. And in our field, you have people who try to become musicians, people like Stanley Crouch, Peter Watrous, these people have tried to become musicians and didn’t make it. And then they started writing and telling everybody else who’s playing and who’s not. If you yourself couldn’t get to a level where you could play well, then maybe you don’t really know about playing that much. It’s not just about talent, it’s about perspectives, too. A guy who couldn’t swing himself telling you now who swings and who doesn’t, there’s something wrong with that.
J.V.: Do you feel your music has ever been done justice to by a critic?
S.C.: The dangerous thing is they actually try to talk music, these guys. You’d be better off not trying to talk music at all and just talking about the way it makes you feel. I’ve never seen one review about my music that talks about anything that was really happening, when they try to talk about it technically. Not one.
1 I want to thank Joyce Verlinden for her help in finishing up the tape transcription.
Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York: Da Capo, 1976.