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Monday, July 27, 2009


‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, as the saying goes. Well I’m in the middle of a period of doing absolutely no work, having secluded myself in rural France – seriously rural France – Aveyron. Aveyron is allegedly the last ‘undiscovered’ part of France and I must say from the evidence I’ve seen it deserves that moniker. There really is nobody here. Of course the people who live here permanently are here – farmers to a man, and woman – but there are almost no tourists and you can literally drive the roads for dozens of kilometres before meeting another car. The pace of life here is incredibly sedate and this is a perfect oasis of calm for me – I get to read lots of books, eat stupid amounts of great French food and drive aimlessly around the countryside stopping wherever and whenever I want, for a coffee, for a look at the beautiful scenery or to eat even more food.

In recent years, as my life has become busier and busier, I’ve found the need to do things like this more and more. The need to reconnect with the idea of guilt-free leisure time has been something I’ve been aware of for the past while, and last January I took the entire month off to do things unrelated to work – I read books, I took a French course in Paris, I took an Asian cookery course etc. etc. It was great, and it’s something I intend to do in the future – and need to do. Because there’s no doubt I have a tendency to be a workaholic and I think a lot of musicians have become workaholics. As we take control of our own destinies in this self-sufficient technology driven age, we also take responsibility for lots of areas that were formerly taken care of by publicists, recording engineers, managers and even - with the advent of Youtube – film makers! And with the portable nature of the technology (I’m writing to you from a rural farmhouse 5 Km from the nearest town), we are able to take our work with us wherever we go. And so as we service our websites, our Myspace pages, our Youtube channels, answer our emails etc. we spend huge amounts of time that would have previously been either devoted to leisure time or practice, (remember THAT concept!) working, working working. And when we’re not working there’s a low-level chatter going on in the back of our minds concerning work - ‘must send X that email’, didn’t hear from Y about that gig’, ‘must update my website’, ‘must email the guys about the rehearsal’ etc. etc. It’s a workaholics charter!

And so I came here without my bass and with a determination to do no work at all. The fact that I don’t have a cellphone in real life (no really, it’s true!), means that I’m even less contactable by phone out here then I am at home, where the landline is my only means of telephonic communication. The only leeway I’ve allowed myself in doing stuff that I do at home is in writing my blog – hence the preponderance of posts this month! Blogging is something I find quite therapeutic anyway, I find writing to be a bit of an escapist thing rather than a work thing, and I’m allowing myself the luxury of doing a fair bit of blog activity on the grounds that when I get back the work shit will hit the fan in no uncertain terms and I’ll have little or no time for blogging or other fripperies for a while.

One great thing about travelling without the instrument and being without it for a while, is that it makes me miss it! ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ (I’m big on aphorisms in this post, amn’t I?), and that’s certainly true in this case. As the fortnight of the holiday progresses my fingers start twitching in anticipation, and in a direct correlation to the speed my calluses begin to soften. I have a bunch of gigs a week after I go back and I’m really looking forward to playing again, but I’ll have to try and get my chops back to some kind of working order. So I’ve a week of practicing lined up and as the effects of the enforced bass absence takes hold here, the thought of this upcoming time with the instrument is becoming more and more attractive. One of the things I’ll be doing when I get back is playing with a group called Electric Miles which plays the music from the Bitches Brew period – music that’s rarely played and that, because it’s so loosely structured, gives the group great freedom to explore. With his band I get to play electric bass, something that’s very rare for me and enjoy very much – but those round wound strings definitely put the calluses to the test, so bring on the practice room!

Recently I’ve been involved in something which typifies the way we jazz musicians have become taken away from the actual act of playing and into other worlds. The critic Nate Chinen did a blog about the rights and wrongs of grant aiding jazz, and there was a very enthusiastic response, (including several from yours truly). It was a fascinating discussion, and one that attracted many heavy hitters in the jazz world. But though this was a subject concerning our livelihood and how the jazz world works etc., I couldn’t help thinking, as I contemplated the hours we all spent on writing back and forth, shouldn’t we all be practicing.....................?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Musicians on Music

One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was because I’ve always liked reading musicians writing about music and I’ve always felt that there wasn’t enough of this kind of writing out there. There are lots of text books and educational books, and technical treatise kind of books and all of these are of course written by musicians. But of the other kind of writing – music criticism and analysis, opinion, musings on the philosophy and history of music – nearly all of this kind of writing is done by non-musicians – professional critics and writers. Musicians writing on this more non-technical level is still rare, unfortunately.

It was coming across an essay by Ethan Iverson from his blog ‘Do the Math’ on the subject of Lennie Tristano - a model of its kind in my opinion - that inspired me to get into the blog thing myself. I’ve written musical essays from time to time in the past, usually for music magazines or more latterly for inclusion on my website. With the advent of Blogging it seemed a natural home for these occasional essays.

But apart from wanting to keep writing occasional essays on stuff that interests me, I also wanted to try and add to the all too rare places where musicians write about the job they do, their work, how they view the music and its place in their lives and society in general. There is no question in my mind that no matter how good a non-musician critic or writer may be, in the end they have to have a different perspective on the music than that of somebody who not only makes their living from playing the music, but also knows how it works. A musician knows the real nuts and bolts of music – knows the trade and the craft as well as the art. And they know this in a way that’s just not possible for a non-musician – no matter how much music they may listen to, or how much they may read about it. Without wishing to be offensive to anyone – because there are some really good jazz writers out there, especially these days – there is still a certain truth to the adage that ‘a critic is someone who knows the way but can’t drive the car’. This ability to drive the car gives the working musician an insight to music that’s just not available otherwise.

Of course not all musicians wish to, or even have the ability to write about music. But I know from my professional life that I’ve been involved in many conversations – nearly always casual, on the road, in restaurants, hanging out etc. - with musicians in which the music and its history and practitioners was discussed at a depth and a level that’s almost entirely absent from most jazz writing. I’ve often thought, while involved in these conversations, that it would be great if more people, from outside the circle of the musicians themselves, could be privy to these discussions – how much more illuminating that would be to the general public regarding the real world of playing creative improvised music. Instead the general public has for the most part been served – sometimes very well, sometimes incredibly badly – by the writing of non-musicians, many of whom don’t know anything about the structural and technical aspects of the music they’re writing about.

This lack of technical knowledge has unfortunately been a feature of much jazz writing in the past and, equally unfortunately, is still with us. I remember at one point several years ago, when I was trying to expand my knowledge of the classical music world, reading the English classical music magazine ‘Gramophone’, and being struck by the clear erudition of the critics and reviewers. Whether one agreed or not with their opinions, you could always see that the writers had a clear understanding of the technical facets of the music they were writing about. In one edition the magazine gave potted biographies of their writers and every one of them had been to music school to a relatively high level. This gave their opinions a certain foundation that I as a reader found to be very helpful when reading about unfamiliar music.

Then when I would pick up Downbeat, or one of the other mainstream jazz periodicals and read Gramophone’s jazz counterparts, the comparison was often depressing, with not only much garbled English on display, but often an additional lack of understanding of the music and its history and repertoire. The phenomenon of the ‘fan with typewriter’ was rampant in the pages of the mainstream jazz media. I remember one reviewer in Downbeat referring to Chick Corea as a ‘chopsmeister’ and another reviewer in Jazz Times describing McCoy Tyner’s performance of Monk’s ‘Little Tutti Frutti’ (sic) at a festival in Lisbon. The fact that a reviewer in a respected jazz magazine not only didn’t know the title of a classic Monk piece (‘tutti frutti’ is probably how he heard it over the mic), but that the sub editor obviously didn’t know it either made it depressing enough, but what made it even more depressing was that the dedicatee of the original piece – T.S. ‘Tootie’ Monk – was the featured cover artist of that edition of the magazine!

Things have improved somewhat in recent years, but this kind of sloppy ill-informed writing is still with is – here are a few quotes from reviews that I’ve taken from respected jazz blogs that have appeared in the last two weeks. I’ve not appended the culprits’ names – this is more to make a general point than to do any personal online flogging:

‘The duo play back and forth between each other with Hancock dominating the sonic spectrum of the song with low bass thuds and high register melodic runs.’

‘this is still a fantastic three minutes of interaction from one of the best to have ever done it and one of the most promising talents of the future.’

‘I am not sure who is playing percussion behind Loueke but it's a nice addition, giving the track some much needed flare (sic).’

‘However, it’s Baron who is the biggest star of this show. He propulses this song into a wide orbit with shimmering cymbals, subtle fills, well-timed rumbles and bombs.’

‘Potter re-enters with bass clarinet in hand, playing skronky high notes in a manner that I’ve never heard the instrument being played before’

‘Propulses’ the song? Much needed ‘flare’!? ‘Skronky’ high notes!!? Are there no editorial standards on these blogs? What criteria do the reviewers have to have in order to make the cut onto the reviewing team? Even the English is terrible, never mind the musical descriptions. ‘Low bass thuds’, ‘well timed rumbles and bombs’, and ‘skronky high notes’ are classic examples of the kind of ‘fan with typewriter’ jazz writing that has bedevilled attempts to have serious and informed discussions about musical issues in the jazz media. We have little enough opportunity to get the message out there in print (or now in online print) it’s a shame to have this kind of writing take up any part of that.

But as I said, things have also improved with the advent of blogging – some very fine writers are in action, some of whom are musicians, some not. I would never claim that you have to be a musician to write well on jazz – there are several writers out there whom I don’t think are musicians (though I could be wrong) whose writing I enjoy very much, such as Nate Chinen and Patrick Jarenwattananon, and of course writers such as Nat Hentoff have made great contributions to jazz journalism. And then there are writers whose activities, these days at least, seem to be largely in the literary field but who are also musicians – Ted Gioia (who has written a marvellous history of jazz), Bill Kirchner and Lewis Porter spring to mind. I find in their pieces that the musical knowledge they have illuminates their writing.

But it’s still rare to find musicians, whose primary activity is playing and composing, writing about music – and I think this is a shame because when they do apply themselves to it, the results are often startlingly good and refreshingly different. Ethan Iverson’s blog is probably the best known current example of this ‘musician as writer’ genre and his imaginative ways of approaching music criticism, reviews, musings and interviews has really set a benchmark for how good this kind of writing can be. There’s an insider knowledge here that gives the writing the edge I mentioned earlier – that extra spin that only an accomplished practitioner can add to a piece. There are several others I enjoy – Darcy James Argue’s blog for example and the blog of the Australian pianist and composer Mark Hannaford would be another. Another blog well worth checking out is the English composer Graham Collier's blog - there's always something of interest there.

And one of the earliest ‘bloggers’ is still going – Dave Liebman! I remember back in the 80’s Dave used to send out a printed ‘newsletter’ that was to all intents and purposes a blog – it contained information on his doings and opinions on various musical and extra-musical topics. This is now hosted on his website under the heading ‘Intervals’ and I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t checked it out already.

And I recently discovered some fantastic writing on jazz by jazz musicians from over fifty years ago – from the pages of a magazine called ‘The Jazz Review’. This was a magazine founded by Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, and Hsio Wen Shih in New York in 1958 and the standard of writing in it is of an extraordinarily high level. One of its innovations was to invite jazz musicians to review the work of other jazz musicians. So far I’ve only worked my way through Volume Two, Number Two, but there’s so much great stuff in that edition alone – bassist Bill Crow on Cannonball’s ‘Somethin’ Else’ album, the Belgian saxophonist Bobby Jaspar on Elvin Jones’ style, and Cannonball writing about Ahmad Jamal and Tony Scott!

One thing that’s fascinating about their writing is how frank they are about the work of other musicians with whom they must also have been meeting on a social level in the New York scene at the time – yet they pull no punches when describing what they like and what they don’t like. For example Cannonball’s description of what he sees as Tony Scott’s strengths and weaknesses is of a level of outspokenness that you’d never see today, since we now all love each other – at least in print!

Here are several example of the kind of insider stuff you can only get when a musician, who knows how music works, listens to music. Here’s Cannonball on the difference between Milt Hinton and Henry Grimes on Tony Scott’s album:

The rhythm section on this record is beautiful. Paul Motian is one of the steadiest drummers around. Paul and Bill Evans work very well on this. The rhythm section plays better when Grimes rather than Hinton is the bassist because Milt's beat is so dominant. Henry has a tendency to sit down on the beat so that it's there when the soloist arrives.

And here’s Bill Crow on the recorded sound on Cannonball’s album:

I wish engineers would stop adding all that echo to the horns. Both Miles and Julian sound like they are playing in a large hall, but the rhythm section is recorded flat. The resulting illusion is that the horns have a built-in resonance that continues even when the note is stopped. I know this is done to satisfy the hifi fan, but this sort of distortion strikes me as a far cry from "fidelity."

And finally Bobby Jaspar on Elvin – I find this particularly fascinating since Elvin was in the process of developing his style at the time this was written, so you’re reading an analysis of Elvin’s style from someone who was playing with him on a nightly basis (In JJ’s band) at the time – and it’s a brilliant essay too:

I must especially emphasize the absence of the afterbeat accent on the high-hat. When one is not used to its absence, one feels a sensation of freedom, as though floating in a void with no point of reference. Actually this kind of freedom is a trademark of the greatest jazzmen. Charlie Parker carried this kind of floating on top of the time the farthest, I think"; and the great soloists at their best moments seem completely free of the alternation of "strong-weak, strong-weak" that some people mistakenly call swing.

I would highly recommend that you check out the issues of this magazine that are now available online – you can see them Here

And the issue in particular that I’ve mentioned is Here

At the beginning of this post I stated that one of the reasons I got into this blogging game was to be able to add to the places where jazz musicians talk about music - among other things I wanted the blog to be a place where music could be discussed at a maybe less general level than is often the case. But this does not always meet with the approval of other jazz bloggers as evidenced by this post by UK jazz blogger Sebastian Scotney about my essay on the nature of rhythm - ’The Art and Science of Time’:

If you like what Ronan Guilfoyle is saying , then be my guest, and try The Art and Science of Time...and I will give a prize for the best explanation in no more than 50 words of what it means.

50 words or less – that sounds about right for what’s considered to be in-depth jazz writing sometimes............

PS Found this very witty letter to the editor printed in the 2nd edition of above-mentioned ‘The Jazz Review”

Congratulations on the publication of your first issue . . . I am . . . enclosing a money order for $4.50 for a year's subscription. I have thought about saving $3.50 by taking a three year subscription but have decided that with the wonderful advances in ballistic missiles and automobiles, it is unwise to commit yourself for more than a year in advance.

David Givner, New York

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Iverson interviews Jarrett

Very interesting BBC online interview with Keith Jarrett by Ethan Iverson available for the next few days. You can listen to it for the next five days, after which it will be available as a transcript on Ethan’s blog

It’s fascinating in particular to hear Jarrett talk about his early days and his work with the American Quartet. For someone so famously temperamental Jarrett sounds very relaxed and it’s definitely one of the best and most lucid interviews of his that I’ve heard. I’m sure he was aware that he was being interviewed by a high level musician rather than the usual jazz journalist type and he responds very well to a discussion about music as opposed to being questioned about things peripheral to the music itself.

For me, I enjoyed the first part of the conversation more than when it got into a discussion of Jarrett’s own solo concerts. After a while I just find Jarrett’s self-absorption to be wearing. He seems to have little or no interest in anything or anyone outside his own music and his now tiny musical circle, and as you can hear in the interview, he never lets a compliment go unaccepted! That’s why I found the earlier part of the interview so much more enjoyable, his discussion of his interaction with others and with the music of others just seems so much more interesting than than his fascination with his own doings. For example he describes in the interview how he discussed with DeJohnette and Gary Peacock the ‘privilege’ of being a sideman – yet as far as I can tell the last time he indulged himself in this ‘privilege’ - even on record – would be in 1975 when he played on Kenny Wheeler’s wonderful ‘Gnu High’, a recording he subsequently completely dismissed and was very scathing about in his biography. As far as I know that’s the last time, bar one recording with Paul Motian on drums instead of DeJohnette, he’s played with anybody outside his own European Quartet and his Standards Trio. As far as I can recall his European Quartet disbanded in 1979, so for the past thirty years he has only played with two other people – DeJohnette and Peacock - an extraordinary piece of self-isolation for a jazz musician.

Undoubtedly his discussion of his solo work also has musical interest, but I found it so wrapped up in his own self-regard that it made it a bit off-putting. Of course he is a genius, and I number several of his recordings as being personal ‘desert island discs’ and he’s certainly got no reason to believe anything other than the fact that he is one of the greatest living pianists and improvisers on the planet. And maybe (or perhaps certainly) he needs this isolation and self-absorption to do what he does, but still it would have been nice to learn that his musical view and interests went a bit further than the four walls of his studio and the three corners of his trio.

One final thing I noticed about the interview was the almost complete airbrushing out of existence of the European Quartet Jarrett had with Jan Garbarek. For some reason the only mention they get is when Ethan, in discussion about the interview with the BBC’s Jez Nelson, imagines how a piece played by the American Quartet would have sounded if the European Quartet had played it - he describes it as probably sounding like ‘Smooth Jazz’ (!). In the interview, as far as I can tell (I was listening on a dodgy online connection in rural France) Ethan never questions Jarrett about this band, nor does Jarrett mention it. Whether this is by accident or design – or maybe lack of space – is hard to tell. In the interview the American group is lauded to the heavens as being very influential and one of the greatest modern jazz groups, but the European Quartet was also highly influential – especially in Europe. That group had a way of playing rubato together, through changes, that has never been equalled in my opinion, and there are some incredible recordings like ‘Belonging’ which surely deserve a mention in any overview of Jarrett’s work? And in the retelling of the story of Jarrett’s own groups I can’t imagine any history that doesn’t include the American Quartet, the European Quartet and the Standards Trio. It’ll be interesting to see if Ethan mentions the group in his blog, and why they were not mentioned when he posts the transcript of the interview. Did Jarrett not want to discuss them? Did Ethan prefer not to ask about them? Or was there just not enough time?

One amusing sideline to the interview – Jez Nelson, several times in the interview, thanks Ethan for taking the trouble to go to see Jarrett and interview him for the BBC. I know of very few jazz musicians anywhere who wouldn’t give their eye teeth to have a chance to meet Jarrett, let alone have the opportunity to go to his house and talk music with him!

More on Jazz Education

I've been amazed at the huge response to my post on jazz education. Not only has there been direct responses in the comments section to the blog, but there’s also been an avalanche of responses to my various email addresses, website etc. I really didn’t know that this subject would elicit such a reaction, but I’ve been amazed....

I got one very irate response from the writer Stuart Nicholson concerning the quote from his book Is Jazz Dead? (or Has it Moved to a New Address) that I used in the post. An argument I’ve often heard by boosters of European jazz is that American jazz has been ruined at least in part by jazz education – an argument which ignores the fact that most European jazz schools are very similar to their American counterparts. However Stuart has pointed out to me that the quote I used from his book to make this point is a misrepresentation of his position and he sent me other quotes from the book to show how I had erred in using the quote in that way. And he’s right - so my apologies to him for that – I’ve removed the quote from the post and rephrased it so that it has no reference to his position on this subject.

The purpose of these posts is always to discuss the ins and outs of creative improvised music, they’re never meant to personally offend people. I remember meeting Stuart several years ago and found him to be a very nice man who was kind enough to later send me a copy of his excellent biography of Duke Ellington which I enjoyed very much so I hope he’s not too offended.

Several other reactions have suggested other aspects of the whole jazz education thing which deserve further exploration, and I’ll come back to them in a subsequent post. Thanks for all the interest and reaction – of all kinds!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lieb on Elvin

I took advantage of being at the recent International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting in Lucerne with Dave Liebman to interview him about his time with Elvin Jones in the early 70s. Dave was of course in the Jones quartet that recorded the seminal ‘Live at the Lighthouse’ album, a recording that’s still considered to be probably the greatest album under Elvin’s own name and one that captures the live experience of post-Coltrane jazz to perfection.

I was conscious that Dave had been interviewed on his time with Elvin dozens if not hundreds of times, but I wanted to try and get a bit more inside the story from a musician’s point of view and really try to find out what it was like for a young musician to work with someone of the stature of Elvin Jones and how things were organized in relation to the usual things we experience as musicians – touring, recording, playing, rehearsing etc.

Dave of course is not only a great musician but the perfect interviewee - honest, enthusiastic, well-spoken and funny. And I think the interview is fascinating not only because of the info about Elvin, but in how it gives a glimpse into a musical world and way of working that’s all but disappeared.

RG: Can you remember the very first time you played with Elvin?

DL: I was living on 19th street, I got a call from Gene (Perla) who’d been playing with Elvin, (with Joe Farrell), for about 6 months and who had said, when he joined Elvin, ‘I will get you and Steve (Grossman) on the gig’. He was the first in our generation to get this kind of gig and was very heavy in the little community we had. And sure enough, at 11.30 one night he called me and said ‘Slugs, now!’

RG: So at 11.30 one night you got a call saying come down and play!?

DL: ‘Come down and play now, he wants to hear you now’, or whatever he said, and it was from the West Side to the Lower East Side – Slugs, in a terrible neighbourhood, you know all the stories about Slugs. I went, I walked in, there might have been 8 people in the place, Elvin was standing at the bar with Joe Farrell, I didn’t see Gene. I walk in, Elvin is standing there smoking a cigarette, he says, ‘Are you ready?’ – it was a real set-up! I said, ‘Yeah, I guess’, and he said, ‘Get your horn out’, We go up to the stage and Joe stays at the bar, so it’s just me, Elvin and Gene! He says ‘what do you want to play’ and I played what I played the first time I played when I auditioned for Pete LaRoca, with Steve Swallow and Chick Corea two years earlier (A whole other story!).

RG: Which was?

DL: ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’, and I played that, and finished that, and he said ‘Got another one?’ and I played ‘Yesterdays’, he said ‘Another one’, and I played ‘Tunisia’. So, three tunes, Joe stayed at the bar, I think there were three people in the place, it’s 1.30 in the morning, Elvin says ‘I’m recording next week, be at Rudy’s on February 12th, next Thursday, 10 O’ Clock, bring a tune’ – and that was ‘Slumber’ on ‘Genesis’

RG: Wow!

DL: So that’s it, I did the record date and six months later, in September of that year – ’71 – Keiko called me at 4 in the morning, I was living in a big loft, I didn’t want to answer the phone, my girlfriend said ‘you gotta answer the damn phone!’, but I said ‘no, I’m not answering’ so she answered the phone – it was on the other side of the loft – so it’s four in the morning and it’s Keiko, and she says ‘Elvin wants you to play tomorrow in Chicago at noon, you have to take the next plane at La Guardia, there’s a ticket waiting for you’.

So I take a 7am plane and I end up in Chicago, I get to this school in the middle of a suburb, a 12 o’clock concert for high school kids – me Elvin and Gene. Joe’s still on the gig, he just didn’t make that particular afternoon concert. After the gig we go to the hotel – the Croydon Hotel – very well known for jazz musicians, and Elvin…….. I had no idea if I was supposed to play with him for the next few nights or what, I don’t remember, but he said ‘Come and see me in my room’ and I go up and he’s sitting there, smoking a cigarette, looking like a King (laughs), and he says ‘I’d like you to be part of the band for good now, you start right now, tonight. Joe’ll still be here, you’re gonna take his place, we’ll work you in’. Nothing about saxophonist Steve Grossman yet, though he knew Steve, so from then on I started working with him steady – from that one day, right there.

RG: Let me ask you a specific musical question – so, you’re playing with Elvin Jones, whom you saw many times with John Coltrane, but once you were on the stage, playing with him….

DL: Well I was scared – scared like shit! (Laughs) Shaking!

RG: Of course, but to get to the actual music - at any point in the first night was there a point where you got over the fear and got a feeling of how it felt musically to play with him?

DL: I don’t remember a specific time, but that first audition night probably not. But six months later, after I joined the band, going home every night was either a nightmare or a celebration, depending on how I felt about my playing that night.

RG: Depending on how you felt?

DL: Yes, depending on how I felt – though nobody really said anything. Of course Gene was there and then Steve joined and eventually it became our thing. Me, Gene and Steve were like a loft crew anyway, so with Elvin it became like a family vibe, you know?

But of course the main thing, and the story I tell everybody about playing with Elvin, is the time – playing behind the beat. I mean, if there was anything you knew Elvin for, besides the power, it was the back of the beat. And I just knew it, and understood it, and cognized it, and taped it, but just couldn’t fucking do it! (Laughs) I mean, I always say – I was rushing for six months – and I was! I was very conscious of that aspect of it – that cymbal beat.

And of course the other thing was, after seeing Trane so much, I just wanted Elvin to……….I thought, you know, ‘I’m gonna get Elvin to open up’.

RG: You mean open up playing-wise?

DL: Well you know – start to bash, start to burn! And I’m on my knees, literally and figuratively, and he’s just - {imitates the classic Elvin grunting sound that he made when he played} – he ain’t givin’ up NOTHIN’! And he isn’t givin’ it up until he’s good and ready to give it up. You know, my first chorus I’m squeezing my neck, and he’s just tippin’ like this, and once in a while he’ll say ‘take your time’ – he’ll yell ‘take your time’, and he’s just tippin’, and then eventually he does his dance so to speak. But what I realise is number one, obviously, this is not John Coltrane, and number two - Elvin is not the same Elvin – it’s Elvin Jones the bandleader – the architect of the set. He’s gonna do it in the time that HE wants. And of course he’s now the leader, not the sideman. You know, understanding all this came later on – that this is not him with John Coltrane. So these are the first cognizant things I remember about it. And then of course when Steve got in the band, we had our little scene together, from all our playing in the lofts, It felt more normal, more natural. I mean we just started having a good time then.

RG: So when he said ‘take your time’, do you remember if there were more instructions on playing, or was it just occasional things?

DL: Occasional things, we rehearsed a little – we tried ‘Picadilly Lilly’ but it didn’t work, but he liked ‘New Breed’. Picadilly had a funny bridge and he said ‘I don’t know if we want to do this…..’ kind of thing. Once it didn’t work with him, you know, with those guys – it wasn’t like what we do, like ‘OK, let’s try it again’ – if it didn’t work with them, if it wasn’t natural for them, you knew you were never going to play it again! (Laughs)

Now ‘New Breed’, for some reason, worked, though at about half the speed I had contemplated it at. You know that tune?

RG: Yes

DL: And I had thought of it like that Tony Williams ‘Spring’ record, with brushes and Sam and Wayne and Peacock, and I’m thinking of it like (sings fast snatch of the melody), and Elvin says ‘I don’t think so’ (Laughs), ‘let’s go here’ (sings it much slower). So he’s slowing it down to half of what I ever thought it as being and that became ‘New Breed’

But no, he never gave instructions, in fact I think in Miles’ way Miles might even have done a bit more, and even that was very little. Elvin never said a word about the music really – he never really said anything, and the other thing was, once you had a set, you pretty much played the same set every night.

RG: Once he was happy with it….

DL: Yes, for a couple of years we more or less played the same set – you had your ballad feature etc., and then there was my famous story about playing ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ every night and going to him and telling him I had nothing left to say on it. It’s a dramatic story that I’m sure you’ve heard, but the point he made to me was ‘it’s your job to make them believe it every night - nobody ever heard it before tonight – don’t be thinking you can play something new every night - refinement is the name if the game’ that whole lesson – that was a big lesson for me when he gave me that. But otherwise, not much really in the way of instructions.

RG: And you said earlier about during the first six months with him, going home was either a celebration or a nightmare….

DL: Depending on my state of mind

RG: Yes, I guess he didn’t say much after gigs?

DL: Oh no, he never said ‘you played good tonight or you played bad tonight’ nobody ever said anything. I mean I learned that from LaRoca, because with LaRoca, who was my first real test, with Chick, with Jimmy Garrison – it was always a different piano player or bass player – with Swallow….. I mean I was a nut case. This was already two/three years earlier in ’69, and I said to LaRoca, you know,’ I’m so nervous here, I’m ready to commit suicide!’ And he said to me, because he was very smart, he was a real intellectual, ‘You’re doing that to yourself – you wouldn’t be up here if you weren’t doing it

RG: Yeah

DL: in other words he said, ‘Don’t expect to be patted on the head, but if you’re playing, then you’re doing it’, and that was a very good piece of advice and I kept that with Elvin, you know, I’m not waiting for him to cop, this is not my mother, no gold star or anything. In other words if you’re there and they’re not saying you’re fired, then you’re doing good! Don’t expect them to say you’re doing good though – they’re not going to come up to you and say ‘you played good tonight’ – it’s just that you got the gig, if you got the gig then you’re doing good.

The truth is, you know, with those cats, the way they were, if you weren’t doing good they’d just say ‘I got a replacement’. Look, I took Carlos Garnett’s place with Miles – he came to the first rehearsal I had in Miles’ house. I was in Miles’ house playing and he comes expecting to play! And the road manager says to him ‘go upstairs’, and he goes upstairs, and then walks out

RG: Because he sees someone else playing?

DL: Yes, because you know, with these guys, when you’re fired, you’re fired! It’s simple, there’s no ‘you know man you played good, but I can’t use you’ – it's more like the next day you come to the gig and there’s another guy there. Those cats didn’t….. for them it was a job – so I didn’t expect Elvin to say anything, and he didn’t! (Laughs)

RG: So also with Elvin, you rehearsed very little?

DL: We did a few rehearsals, but mostly at record dates – if you had a record date then you rehearsed at the record date and it was a first take. Almost invariably a first take – you would rarely do a second take – he wouldn’t do it! You’d finish your tune and he’d say ‘Next’. I learned very quickly – and this was a good lesson for playing with Miles – don’t expect a second take. You’d better be in tune – which was a struggle for me at that time – and you better play good because you’re not going to be able to say ‘I don’t like my solo’ (laughs). And I can tell you, a few times on record, how it sounds – I’m sorry, I didn’t have a second take!

RG: So, recording in general, recording with Elvin….

DL: Three or four hours – max. Because you know, time was money – three hours was a session, over three was a double session, and Blue Note didn’t want to pay overtime. ‘Merry Go Round’ with Chick and Jan Hammer, there was a couple of tunes with a couple of horns – there was one with Farrell, me and Steve, and Frank Foster – four horns – I think that was a six hour session. But it was really like ‘next’, ‘next’ – the first time you saw the music………

RG: That was it

DL: Yeah – that was the way they worked.

RG: So when you were in his band – what did that mean in terms of the amount of work you did – was it a certain number of weeks, months………?

DL: It varied – he certainly worked more than Miles – you’d do a couple of weeks on a week off, a week or a couple of weeks, then another week off. Or you’d do Canada - Montreal, Toronto etc. Or we’d play the Vanguard and then do Boston immediately afterwards – I remember doing that with him at least twice in the time I was with him. With Miles you might do a few gigs and then be off for a month or more. Of course Miles played concerts while Elvin played clubs – I hardly ever played clubs with Miles, though it was great the few times that we did it. And of course the money was better with Miles – with Elvin it was about $300 a week, while with Miles it was $400 a gig.

RG: And after you finished playing with him, you played again with him several times later on.

DL: Yes, in the 80s

RG: Did it feel any different

DL: Yes

RG: In what way?

DL: I was better! (laughs). Just like with LaRoca, I was finally able to keep up with him, and I can’t say lead him, but there was confidence, I had confidence. So the gigs I did with Elvin, they were all in Italy – Palle Danielsson, JF Jenny Clarke, Albert Mangelsdorff, Swallow and Scofield…….. there were three times when we did it, three years in a row where a promoter would put this together, so I had three or four gigs with Elvin for a couple of years, just these little special situations. And I was kind of the leader, because now I was kind of the heavy.

On the gig with Swallow and Scofield, at the soundcheck, we’re trying out ‘Day and Night’, you know that tune?

RG: Yeah

DL: Well Keiko comes running up to me, she says (pointing to Swallow)
‘What’s he playing?’
‘Electric bass’
‘But where’s the other bass?’
‘He doesn’t play the other one, this is Steve Swallow’
and she says in her Japanese accent,
‘I don’t know who he is, Elvin don’t like that – Elvin don’t like that bass!’ (laughs)
I didn’t say a goddamn word, I didn’t say anything and Sco was asking ‘is it cool, will it be alright?’

(You can see a short clip from that gig here)

RG: So what happened? Elvin didn’t say anything?

DL: No he didn’t - he did the gig. You do the gig – it’s a gig, those guys did thousands of gigs. They don’t care about one night, nobody cares – they’ve done it all before. That’s the other thing, they didn’t give a shit – I mean they cared about it at the moment, but they never thought about it before or afterwards. For them it was just another night of thousands of nights. We don’t have that – we have the big deal thing, which is why I was a maniac those first years. But once you do that for years it’s just like, ‘this is just another night – so what?’ And they were really like that and it took me a minute to get to that - this not a big deal – you might think it is, they don’t! (laughs)

RG: On the later gigs, his feel – did it feel any different in the 80s

DL: It was just so mature, what can I say – mature. Everything was perfect, his touch was perfect, he would turn on the energy in a perfect way, he was soulful…. He was classic by the 80s, he was classic Elvin Jones. It was beyond the records he did with Coltrane in the sixties – he was like a Max if you know what I mean….

RG: He was like an institution?

DL: Yes, he was an institution – you went to see Elvin Jones, which was why when sometimes the bands weren’t that great it didn’t matter, you went to see Elvin and watch him turn it on. And of course he had that wonderful smile, that personality, that charisma – which of course was another part of his attraction to people, because he was open and friendly.

I mean in my opinion, as far as I was concerned, he was the heaviest guy I knew in terms of the combination of the spiritual, warmth and knowledge. You know he was a wise man, who’d been around the block, and who was really open and friendly and nice to everybody. I mean he could get out too – if he saw something wasn’t right he’d call it, he could get tough. But for the most part with normal people he was a real gentleman, and not just a gentleman, but inclusive – like ‘come in here and hug me’

RG: As a person, was he a good hang?

DL: He was a great hang! He could be cool, and with me Steve and Gene we really had a good time – the chemistry was great, I mean he said it was his best band and ‘Lighthouse’ was one of his favourite records etc. We had a really good vibe, he would get high with us a little bit, just a little bit – he definitely enjoyed us. You could tell he liked us and loved playing with us, and we had a real band spirit there for a year, a year and half. Don Alias was on congas in the band for six months, and that added even more to it – they were great together.

It was a completely positive experience for me, there’s not one negative thing that I can think of with Elvin. Sometimes his personality, like everybody, sometimes he would have a bad night, that could happen from a physical standpoint – whatever. But he was pretty good, and he was going through methodone, he was kicking, he was on methodone and so when things were good they were good and when they weren’t it could be a little tough. But he was really trying to be cool, trying to control himself, trying to get himself straight. Because he could see that in order to live long he had to be cool. And Keiko, and you’ve got to give it to her, she kept him together – without her he would have been gone – everybody says that and I definitely agree with that.

RG: Great Dave – thank you!

DL: God bless Jonesy!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

In Defence of Jazz Education

I think it’s fair to say that in the jazz media, jazz education (or at least formalised jazz education in institutions) gets a bad press.

Which is ironic, since many from outside jazz find the idea of it both intriguing and admirable. I once had the good fortune to spend some time with the great American classical composer John Adams, and when he found out I was a jazz musician he went into a eulogy about jazz musicians and their abilities, comparing them to classical musicians and expressing the opinion that fully trained jazz musicians were generally superior to classical musicians these days due to the incredible range of their abilities. His son is a jazz bassist and Adams told me about watching him playing in an ensemble in his school, playing Wayne Shorter tunes. Adams expressed amazement at the harmonic sophistication of those young musicians and their ability to undertake something as challenging as that.

Yet playing through the repertoire of Wayne Shorter’s music is precisely the kind of activity that draws the ire of jazz education’s critics - ‘everyone learns the same stuff’ is the mantra – or one of the mantras – used to reinforce the argument that jazz education has a negative impact on jazz and its practitioners.

Before going further, I should explain that I myself am not a product of the jazz education system. I learned how to play this music in a way that would have been familiar to earlier practitioners – mostly from playing gigs. The jazz scene in Ireland in the late 70s was a throwback to an earlier era in that it was essentially a bebop environment – Broadway and jazz standards, little or no originals, and everyone was supposed to know every tune from memory – no Real Books (I think I saw my first one in 1981 – it was like seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls!). I read music books, picked up whatever info I could from other musicians and figured stuff out for myself – there were no jazz schools here then.

Now, thirty years later I am the head of a jazz programme here in Dublin – a typical jazz performance degree programme with eighty students, with content typical of this kind of education.

So I see both sides of the argument – I see the benefits I gained by being self-educated: self-reliance, development of instincts, ability to think on one’s feet and take decisions without always being told what to do. And I also see the disadvantages to that mode of learning – lack of access to useful (and sometimes vital) information, and making the kind of mistakes for years that could have been set right by a good teacher in 10 minutes. For example: although I knew most of the major and minor modes (found them in a Rick Laird bass book!), and could play them, I was playing them for years before I found out that they were related!

Having been involved in starting a school from scratch here in Dublin, and having seen the positive effect of that in the local jazz community, and having been able to give young musicians access to the kind of information and resources I didn’t have at their age, I’ve always been somewhat exasperated by what I see as the knee-jerk attacks on jazz education. Usually these take three forms:

1) Jazz education turns all who partake of it into clones.

2) The proof of jazz education’s failure is the fact that though there are more practitioners than ever before the percentage of great players hasn’t got any higher.

3) What is the point of turning out jazz graduates when there are no gigs?

To take each one of these in turn -

1. Jazz education turns all who partake of it into clones.

The first thing to remember when dealing with this argument is that academic music education, of any sort, is not ideal anyway. In music schools we tell students that you must learn X amount of information in X amount of weeks, but of course students are always of differing abilities and may have different life circumstances, and while one student may absorb the information fully, another may struggle. In non-academic ways of learning music (such as the one I undertook) you spend as long a time with a piece of information as you need or want and then move on. And in traditional cultures (and in rock music for example) this is primarily the way to learn music. But in western society we have developed a system of education which is geared to educate the many rather than the individual. While this is ideal for certain subjects (science and maths for example) it is less than ideal for music. But for better or for worse, this is the structure we have and the one we have to deal with.

If you want to train young musicians in the techniques of music, and give many of them access to that, rather than a few hand-picked individuals, then you don’t really have a choice other than the academic model – for economic reasons if for no other. It would be clearly impossible to take students in and keep them in school until such time as they felt ready to move on, treating each one individually, so that student X spends three years on harmony while Y spends 6 months on the same subject. It’s just unworkable – an open ended school is just not a practical possibility – for the school or the students. If you discard the academic model you must also discard many of the students - there is no other way to educate larger groups of people efficiently.

Having accepted the jazz school as the most practical model in which to operate, you then have to make a decision as to what to teach. The argument that the schools all teach the same stuff, therefore making all students into homogenised clones, is an argument based on the idea that the older practitioners were helped by the fact that they didn’t go to school and their originality was predicated on their differing knowledge. But their originality was the result of their originality – it had nothing to do with their empirical knowledge or lack of it. What a lot of critics forget about is that most high level jazz school courses are staffed and run by professional jazz musicians. These are musicians who deal with the realities of playing the music, and who are aware of the skills necessary to survive in the professional milieu. And it is largely these same musicians who decide the curricula for the schools – not some faceless bureaucrat. So the information that is provided is largely that body of information which professional musicians agree are basic prerequisites for a life as a professional jazz musician. This basic information – harmonic, technical and rhythmic as well as repertoire – is generally agreed by most professionals to be part of the essential toolkit of the contemporary jazz musician.

Yet the writer James Lincoln Collier says:

‘With students all over the United States being taught more or less the same harmonic principles, it is hardly surprising that their solos tend to sound much the same. It is important for us to understand that many of the most influential players developed their own personal harmonic schemes, very frequently because they had little training in theory and were forced to find it their own way.’

So – there we have it, the noble savage syndrome – for the sake of your creativity and originality it’s better to have no training. It’s hard to know where to start with the refutation of an argument this stupid. It’s like suggesting that if you want to become a writer it would be better to to be illiterate and figure out the rules of English yourself, rather than go to school and be taught how to read, how spelling, grammar and syntax work, and being directed towards great writing of the past. Yet this is the bizarre subtext of much of the criticism of jazz education – in order to be creative and original it’s better to be uneducated. But though these writers idealise the self-taught musicians of the past, how many of these same jazz greats would have taken advantage of educational institutions had they been available to them? Most I’d say. And if they had, would it have stifled their creativity? Would Coltrane have sounded like a thousand other saxophonists of he’d gone to a jazz school? To suggest that he would have is to deny his innate genius and originality.

Some champions of the European jazz scene also use the 'jazz education = lack of originality' argument to attack the US jazz scene, claiming that it is the jazz education system that has largely contributed to American jazz stagnating while European jazz forges ahead. This argument conveniently ignores the fact that most European jazz schools teach (with variations) the same basic core curriculum as their American counterparts. European jazz schools take the American system as their basic model, so all of these young European musicians who are lauded so highly come from a very similar educational background to their US counterparts.

And as to the charge that jazz education produces only clones, consider the following musicians:

Brad Mehldau, Jim Black, Branford Marsalis, John Scofield, Tom Rainey, John Abercrombie, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jeff Watts, Pat Metheny, Scott Colley, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade. All of these have spent time in jazz educational institutions – are they all clones?

2. The proof of jazz education’s failure is the fact that though there are more practitioners than ever before the percentage of great players hasn’t got any higher.

Schools do not teach creativity nor originality nor do they stifle it – creativity and originality have always been in short supply. We are educating the many, but in the end, only a few will ‘get it’ so to speak. The number of musicians of real creativity, the ones who are head and shoulders above everyone else, have always been in the minority. And contrary to the mythology, the pre-jazz education scene was not always peopled by complete originals – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Lester Young, and Bud Powell (to take just a few examples) all had droves of disciples who tried to emulate their heroes. Jazz has always been peopled by a few innovators and many imitators. The imitators either find a personal wrinkle for themselves within the canon created by the innovators, or they just vapidly regurgitate the surface gestures of the great ones. It was the same in 1930 as it is now.

What a good school will do is provide the environment that will give anyone who studies there access to information which will help them towards their goals. A student’s originality will not be created by a school, nor will it be destroyed by it – original people will always be original people. No matter how many people go through the jazz education system the percentage of true originals will not rise. However everyone coming through the doors of a good jazz school will be given access to tools which will help them create a musical career for themselves should they wish to pursue it. Jazz schools cannot manufacture creativity, but they can facilitate in speeding the journey of the truly creative while giving a good music education to those who may not be among the elite in terms of originality, but who nevertheless are talented and wish to partake in the great musical tradition of jazz.

3. What is the point of turning out jazz graduates when there are no gigs?

This is a genuine concern among jazz educators and musicians, and recently Ethan Iverson wrote the following in his blog:

“There’s positive aspects to jazz education, but I do worry about how corporate and money-driven it can seem, especially now that the bubble has burst. As we all know, not only do young players fresh out of jazz college have trouble finding gigs, but for musicians of all ages the current market is completely over-saturated, making it extraordinarily difficult for anything to have any economic value whatsoever”

While it may be true that gigs are getting harder and harder to come by, the question has to be asked, is this the only value that jazz education has – economic value? The bassist and educator Todd Coolman puts it very well:

“We have to quit thinking of college as a vocational school. College, to me, is a place where you go to learn something, to develop intellectual and social skills so that you can become a contributing member of society. No one needs to go to college to learn to play jazz, anyway. In the same respect, college doesn’t create a brilliant economist.”

This point is well made – the idea that teaching the techniques of an art form becomes devalued if there is not immediate or automatic economic benefit to the student is simply wrong. Surely the main point of getting an education is to become educated? The benefits to young people of being involved in jazz are manifold. For example, one of the things that I find most attractive about jazz is the democratic and social nature of the music. The music is brought about by the efforts of a group of people working together, and communicating with each other. Yet within the tradition of this sociable music, the idea of individualism is not only encouraged, but highly prized. So here we have a music which is completely dependent on co-operation between the participants, yet which at the same time encourages each to make as personal and individual a statement as possible. What a wonderful ethos for young people to be involved with!

Another benefit of being in a jazz school and one that’s never even noticed by the critics of jazz education is that schools provide a space in which communities of jazz musicians can exist. In previous times these communities were centred around gigs and clubs and jam sessions, but this environment has almost entirely disappeared. The jazz community has become dispersed, and one of the few places where it still exists is in jazz schools. With the possible exception of New York and a few other larger cities where some gig-centred socialising by musicians still exists, the only place where large groups of jazz practitioners foregather is in jazz schools. Schools not only create a teaching environment, they also provide a place where information can be exchanged, gossip caught up on, new recordings discussed, gig information exchanged, tips for work opportunities given and camaraderie shared.

Like anything, jazz schools are not perfect – in the wrong hands they can churn out graduates without any consideration for the individual. But in my experience that’s the exception rather than the rule - most schools have dedicated teachers with a real love of the music and its traditions and a genuine concern that their students have access to it. In the schools students learn the basic techniques of the music and hopefully are also exposed to the creative ethos of jazz. They provide community environments for musicians whose love of a minority music sets them apart from the mainstream.

I’ve just returned from the International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting in Lucerne, where 50 high level jazz students from schools all over the world – from Japan to the US, from Finland to Israel, from Russia to Brazil - got together for a week and played music together and got to know each other through the medium of jazz. I watched them perform six concerts of very high level creative music put together after only three days rehearsal, and watched their mutual delight in sharing this experience with each other. Try telling THEM that the jazz education system was a negative influence on their lives and creativity!