Matthew Shipp: Leaving the Door Open

Matthew Shipp: Leaving the Door Open

Matthew Shipp: Leaving the Door Open

One of jazz’s top pianists talks about why his music is jazz and why it also isn’t.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Frank J. Oteri: You mentioned hip-hop being the last genre and you then mentioned “the genre of jazz” which I thought was an interesting way of describing it. Is the concept of a genre really valid at this point? What genre do you feel you create in?

Matt Shipp: I don’t really look at music that way. I’m involved with a couple of branches of music. The first way I describe myself is as a “Matt Shipp musician.” In other words, I feel that I have a specific sensibility that I try to portray when I play or when I create an album. So when I play, I’m trying to generate the space and time of the way my DNA sees the universe. That’s what my music is an outgrowth of, period. Obviously I’m a jazz musician. I’ve also played some classical music and I have the various influences of things I’ve gone through or grew up with. If there’s any major influence on how I see music, it would probably be John Coltrane. I really associate it with the way that he was a “universal musician.” He was a jazz-based African-American musician who was open to all world musics. He was open to African music. He was open to classical Indian music. He tried to synthesize all those various aspects into a modern contemporary American music. It’s not like I’m trying to extend his music or have a sound world similar to it, but I’m just trying to be myself within the context of being an African American in the 21st century.

FJO: What the identity of jazz is and how it fits into the overall scheme of music is somewhat muddled at this point. Jazz at Lincoln Center makes a case for connecting jazz to classical music. At the Critics Conference in L.A., they invited classical music critics and jazz critics along with art, dance, and theatre critics, but they didn’t invite the rock critics. But then you go on Amazon to look for an Albert Ayler record or a Roscoe Mitchell record, and they’re in the popular music section since the only categories are classical and popular. Yet jazz is not exactly a comfortable fit in either one of these categories.

MS: If we had about five or six hours, we could talk about jazz’s position in the modern world. The way different people try to claim it or not claim it is very complex. I wouldn’t know where to begin. As far as being an artist and defining or not defining yourself as a jazz artist, at the end of the day the only thing that’s important is channeling the electricity of the cosmos. Charlie Parker and Bud Powell played very profound phrases on their instruments that were a product of them being a channel to that electricity or that mathematical frequency that creates that phrase. What you do as a jazz musician is to try to channel that equation that creates the phrases that you create when you improvise on your instrument. That’s what it has to be, that mystical or spiritual dealing with your instrument. There’s the cosmos and then there’s society. The cosmos is all energy and all information and that’s the music.

Within society, there are definitions, there are ways of selling the product, there are categories to put it in. If you’re in one category, you make more money than if you’re in another category, or you get more prestige than if you’re in some other category. All of that has nothing to do with actually channeling the phrases of the music. But for me to say that all I want to do is channel the phrases of the music and leave the rest of it up to everybody else is kinda not true. I’m very cognizant of how I’m perceived and I’m actually involved with manipulating how I’m perceived. So I’m über-aware of all the politics within the music industry, the record industry, and all that. But, when you’re playing, you have to clear your mind. And when you’re playing with a pure musical idea, then there really is no such thing as jazz or classical music or anything at that point. The idea is somewhere in the cosmos, and once you’ve channeled it through your personality and background, the genre, or whatever you want to call it, does come into play. But it’s more like the clothes that you put over the body more than the body.

FJO: But genres are also about perceptions which are fueled by marketing. You say “classical music” and most people won’t immediate associate that term with music by a living American composer. They’ll think Amadeus. Now, you say jazz, and most people think of a bygone era when people wore zoot suits. The Ken Burns documentary is just another manifestation of that.

MS: One big problem with jazz is that jazz is still under the spell of the Miles Davis paradigm, even though he’s been dead for more than a decade now. Pretty much everybody who has a significant career played in a Miles Davis band: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, John Scofield, the list goes on and on. That trend started in the 1950s when Bill Evans and John Coltrane were playing in Miles Davis’s groups and continued on with the generation of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and then John McLaughlin. He obviously was a great talent scout. On another level, it’s a real perverted thing that jazz hasn’t been able to escape that. It’s really put a certain marketing thing on it that’s really bizarre. I think the perception in the public mind is that the golden age of jazz was something that happened and I think that the Ken Burns series—I never watched it, I only watched about ten minutes of it—was the apotheosis of the idea that the golden age of jazz ended with Miles Davis. Jazz is really having to fight its way from that perception. I don’t know if it ever will. Maybe with time, if people still consider jazz something that exists, that perception will go away and maybe stuff that’s being done now will be considered just as important. It’s an uphill battle if you’re involved with trying to create new jazz now or market new jazz artists. They could be just as talented, but that perception’s out there. Jazz is not really positioned in the society now in a way that it’s meant to have meaning. You hope it has some weight at some point.

FJO: So who do you feel is your audience now and who do you think could be your potential audience?

MS: My potential audience is anybody with an open mind who’s willing to listen to music being made today that deals with today’s issues. That’s my potential audience and that’s a lot of people because a lot of people listen to music. I’ve been pretty lucky to have a good cross-current of an audience. I have a lot of people that are jazz fans that listen to what I do mainly because they can tell I have an understanding of the history of jazz—Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Andrew Hill. And there are people in the jazz avant-garde that like me because I’m an expansion of that. There are [also] people who aren’t that much into the avant-garde, but they can hear my commitment to a certain language. Then I have a part of my audience that comes out of what happened in the ’90s when people in my school were being recorded by punk rock labels. That was a great time. People like Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth are really into modern jazz, and they talked about a lot of us and recorded some of us. A lot of people that were listening to alternative rock and punk rock in the ’90s got turned on to free jazz by them. It was really an opening for a lot of young people to listen to this music. And there are a lot of people who really aren’t into jazz, but for whatever reason they hear me and they relate to the language.

That’s the thing about music—any artist who is very sincere about their art is bringing forth a worldview. When your music is very specific, you will find people who are just there. They understand where you’re coming from. And it’s not even a music thing. It’s not that I listen to Andrew Hill and John Coltrane and some of my music sounds like somebody that listened to that music. It’s more the extra-musical things, even the whole electronic fusion thing I’ve been involved with recently, doing things with hip-hop and electronica artists. When I’ve collaborated with certain hip-hop people, it’s not so much that I’m a jazz artist and they’re hip-hop artists, it’s more that we’re from the same generation and our artistic aims are very similar even though we were coming from slightly different genres. We were all modern, urban, New York-based artists. I think a lot of it has to go with the images beneath the music, not the music. I could meet somebody that maybe doesn’t know a lot about jazz. I don’t know what they’ve listened to before, but maybe over a friend’s house they heard a record of mine and somehow they could feel and relate to the internal images that drive my music. My music spoke a language of contemporary ideas that they were attuned to and they maybe got my music more than somebody who was attuned to jazz got it.

FJO: You said that hip-hop was the last musical genre. It seems like there have been three musical paradigm shifts in the 20th century. When jazz first came in, some people decried the steady rhythm of it and the improvising. But then eventually jazz became acceptable. Then rock came along, and some classical and jazz people were horrified by the amplification and poor instrumental technique. But now rock is accepted, even in some academic quarters. Now with hip-hop, some classical, jazz, and rock people go on about how it isn’t music claiming that rap is just shouting, or complaining that they’re not playing instruments. There are a lot of people who are troubled by the whole concept of sampling. But you’ve cut across all four lines.

MS: I’m familiar with some of the early 20th century anti-jazz essays. I’ve read Theodor Adorno’s essays, and they were pretty powerful to say the least. I find it very fascinating, especially when Adorno refers to Louis Armstrong as a castrato. When hip-hop first came out, I was working in a record store in Wilmington, Delaware. It was around 1979. I thought it was barbaric. We used to make fun of all the kids. They used to come in to buy these singles, and we’d just look at each other and shake our heads. I was really into funk and all kinds of black popular music, but hip-hop didn’t have the musicality I looked for and got from Stevie Wonder or Earth, Wind and Fire. I remember thinking there’s no way this is gonna last. Boy, was I wrong! One time this kid came in. He looked at me and said, “I want Instant Funk.” So I went and I found a Trouble Funk record, and I said, “Is this what you want?” “This is Trouble Funk. I want Instant Funk.” And he threw it back at me. I just stood there shaking my head.

I started liking hip-hop after I’d seen some breakdancing. I don’t remember what I heard, but one day I remember thinking this stuff is actually kinda revolutionary. Then a couple of years later when I moved to New York, I was in a cab one day and I heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, and it all clicked. I became a huge hip-hop fan. Hip-hop is obviously all over society now and yet I know a lot of jazz musicians who have attitudes towards it, even though I would say the majority of them don’t. A lot of jazz musicians see hip-hop as the new jazz. There are very few young jazz musicians who see hip-hop as barbaric. You leave that up to Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, who obviously have their prestigious uptown musicians to keep in mind. Something viable like hip-hop would obviously be a threat to them. It’s not a mistake that everybody likes it. It’s obviously speaking to something.

It’s very interesting when you look at it as the last big revolution in music. All these things that you mentioned in the 20th century dealt with technology. All of them have to do with the technology of the time, and I just find that fascinating. Jazz doesn’t really rise until the phonograph comes along. When I listen to old pianists like Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Willy “The Lion” Smith, even Duke Ellington who was not an “old pianist” in that sense, I can’t imagine that sound without a player piano. Even Monk. They learned from player pianos. They would have player pianos at their houses and they’d learn pieces from rolls as they played. You can hear that quality—I don’t know how to define it—but you can hear that in their sound. Technology has driven all musical revolutions in the 20th century from my way of seeing it. Well, I guess it didn’t drive serialism. I can’t see Webern or Boulez plugging in.

FJO: But the whole rise of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was pivotal in shaping the aesthetics of serialism in America. Babbitt was able to fully articulate total serial control in his electronic pieces and that sound affected the aesthetic of pieces, both electronic and non-electronic, that followed.

MS: Exactly. I was gonna say that. There was an electronic component to all that.

FJO: Well, one thing we haven’t touched on yet is that all three of those other revolutions we talked about also happened in the U.S.A. in the cauldron of really ugly race relations. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who were white, made the first jazz recording but they weren’t the first jazz group. Rock was created by Chuck Berry and Little Richard but Elvis and Pat Boone is what made it reach a wide audience, and it has been a predominantly white idiom ever since. And, it’s ridiculous, but a white rapper, Vanilla Ice, was the first solo rapper to crossover to the mainstream. In all these cases the music reached a wide audience by abandoning the community it came from. But jazz is the only one of the three where all people seem to meet.

MS: At this point, I don’t really think jazz exists. It does, but it is its own path. America is an interesting country. It’s definitely a bizarre energy we’ve had in the 20th century that’s allowed a lot of things to stew in this seething cauldron of activity that have not stewed in other parts of the world. America’s very vital, let’s put it that way. There’s a lot of negative things I could say about it, but there’s always been a great potential here because of our melting pot sensibilities. But it comes with a lot of baggage.