Tag: jazz

18 Composers Receive 2019 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards

The ASCAP Foundation has announced the 18 recipients and 4 honorable mentions of the 2019 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards. The recipients, who receive cash awards, range in age from 11 to 29 and hail from five continents. They were selected through a juried national competition; the ASCAP composer/judges for the 2019 competition were: Fabian Almazan, Erica Lindsay, and Nate Smith.

The 18 winners of the 2019 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award... Top row (left to right): Eri Chichibu, Eddie Codrington, Shimon Gambourg, Ariel Sha Glassman, Philip Ryan Goss, and Takumi Kakimoto; second row (L to R): Brian Krock, David Ling, Martina Liviero, Ben Morris, Peyton Nelesen, and Yu Nishiyama; third row (L to R): Jueun Seok, Sara Sithi-Amnuai, Elliott Turner, Gregory Weis, and Alex Weitz, and Matthew Whitaker; bottom row, The four honorable mentions (L to R): Samuel Boateng, Thomas B. Call, Andrew Schiller, and Yoko Suzuki. (Photos courtesy of the ASCAP Foundation)

The 18 winners of the 2019 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award…
Top row (left to right): Eri Chichibu, Eddie Codrington, Shimon Gambourg, Ariel Sha Glassman, Philip Ryan Goss, and Takumi Kakimoto;
second row (L to R): Brian Krock, David Ling, Martina Liviero, Ben Morris, Peyton Nelesen, and Yu Nishiyama;
third row (L to R): Jueun Seok, Sara Sithi-Amnuai, Elliott Turner, Gregory Weis, and Alex Weitz, and Matthew Whitaker;
bottom row, The four honorable mentions (L to R): Samuel Boateng, Thomas B. Call, Andrew Schiller, and Yoko Suzuki.
(Photos courtesy of the ASCAP Foundation)

The 2019 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award recipients are listed with their year and place of birth, current residence and the titles of their award winning compositions linked to audio recordings of them (for the youngest winners, only the state of residence is given):

Composers and their works receiving Honorable Mention this year are:

The Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards program was established in 2002 to encourage young gifted jazz composers up to the age of 30. It carries the name of the great trumpeter and ASCAP member Herb Alpert in recognition of The Herb Alpert Foundation’s multi-year financial commitment to support this program. Additional funding for this program is provided by The ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund. The Newport Festival Foundation will feature one of the recipients of the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards during the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival in August.

Remembering Randy Weston (1926-2018)—A True Musical Giant

On September 1, 2018, we lost a true musical giant, innovator, NEA Jazz Master, and a warrior for the elevation of African-American pride and culture. His compositions disseminating the richness and beauty of the African aesthetic are unparalleled.

Randy Weston was born during an era of extreme racism, segregation, and discrimination in the United States. His life’s mission was one of unfolding the curtain that concealed the wonderful greatness and extraordinary accomplishments inherent on the African continent.

I am super blessed and honored to have been a member of Randy’s band for 38 years. Baba Randy was a spiritual father and mentor for myself, and so many people. Our last public performances were in Rome and Nice in July, with Billy Harper on tenor sax, Alex Blake on bass, Neil Clarke on percussion, and myself on alto saxophone and flute.

I will always remember Weston’s extreme kindness and generosity. My first four impressions of him revealed who he was and what he cherished:

The first time I ever heard Randy Weston perform live was at The East in Bed-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in the early 1970s. His band was a duo with his son Azzedin on African percussion. The communication and symmetry of father and son were beyond belief. This was a clear demonstration of his love for and mentorship of his children. I also remember Randy inviting the great James Spaulding to sit in on flute.

In the late 1970s, I performed with the legendary South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim at Ornette Coleman’s Artist House Loft in Soho, New York City. Randy attended this show with his father Frank Edward Weston and his manager Colette. I witnessed first-hand his profound love, respect, and reverence for the elders and his admiration for other musicians especially from the continent of Africa.

Also in the late 1970s, I had my first opportunity to perform with Randy. It was at a fundraiser in support of the South West African People’s Organization, which fought against apartheid in South Africa. This was yet another demonstration of his commitment to the struggle for civil and human rights worldwide.

Then during the summer of 1980, I was overjoyed by having my first hired performance with Randy and his African Rhythms group at the House Of The Lord Church in Brooklyn, which again displayed his support and commitment to keep jazz alive in the black community and his in-depth love for the African-American church.

Much more recently, when my mom Lois Marie Rhynie passed in 2014, there was a last-minute issue with the church piano. Weston paid for the rental of a beautiful baby grand and performed gratis.

My last visit to Randy’s place in Brooklyn was on August 18, 2018. He was so happy and energetic. Coincidentally when I walked in the room he was listening to a CD of his solo improvisatory piano incursions of the highest level. With each note and phrase, both of us were in a profound state of excitement. I asked, “Hey Chief, where’s this from?” He candidly replied, “The Spirits of Our Ancestors.”


May 20, 1991 marked the first day recording sessions for The Spirit of Our Ancestors, a landmark recording by Randy Weston and African Rhythms at the world-famous BMG studios in New York City.  When I arrived at the building lobby, the elevator door opened and standing inside was Dizzy Gillespie with his longtime close friend and associate Jacques Muyal, who was living in Switzerland. On my first trip to Tangiers in 1985, I visited Jacques’s home and met his mother and brother. Mr. Muyal is an extraordinary gentleman and jazz producer with a deep love of our music.

I was quite overwhelmed knowing I would be on the same recording as the great Dizzy Gillespie, responsible for the major evolution in jazz history called bebop. We hit it off right away and Maestro Gillespie greeted me with a warm smile and hug. Once we started the session I handed Dizzy a Bb trumpet lead sheet for “African Sunrise.” He stated his preference for a concert lead sheet. After his perusal of the music he noticed an E minor7(b5) to A7(b9) resolving to D minor7. Dizzy then went to the piano and said, “Look at the E minor7(b5) as a G minor6 with the 6th in the bass.” Then he proceeded to play the most gorgeous chord progression. He was a pure musical genius! When he later did the first and only take of “African Sunrise,” Dizzy never looked at the music.

Soon to arrive in the studio were the leader Randy Weston and his longtime arranger and trombonist Melba Liston. Melba had recently endured a stroke and was confined to a wheel chair. However she taught herself how to compose and arrange on the computer using her left hand only. (Her right hand was incapacitated due to the stroke.) Preceding this recording Randy and I were performing in Los Angeles and we would frequently check on Melba to see how she was doing health wise and how the arrangements were unfolding.

Shortly after their arrival an A list of jazz practitioners blessed the room with their astonishing presence: First Idrees Sulieman, the great trumpet player and who also could burn on alto sax. Next was Benny Powell and we had become really close since our joint performances and tours for African Rhythms dating back to 1985. (I was also featured on his album Why Don’t You Say Yes, Sometimes? which was recorded around the same time as Spirits of Our Ancestors.)

There were three tenor sax legends. Billy Harper—I first heard Billy with his band at Joe Lee Wilson’s jazz loft The Ladies Fort Festival in the mid-1970s.  He was on fire and I also heard him later with Max Roach. Dewey Redman—Dewey often spoke very highly about a young upcoming tenor titan that was not yet very well known, but soon to be the unconquerable master tenor sax player Joshua Redman, who also happened to be his son. It was my first time to play with Dewey and he was also featured with Randy’s band for a concert at Lincoln Center not too long before he passed away. He was a gentle man and a giant on the tenor sax! Up next was Pharoah Sanders—I was a huge fan of Mr. Sanders since my high school days in Long Island. During my senior year the early 1970s “The Creator Has A Master Plan” was our anthem. It was quite awe-inspiring to have an opportunity to record with a master and spiritual beacon of improvisation.

On bass, Alex Blake—Alex and I are best friends and his artistry on the bass is quite breathtaking. This was our first recording together, but I had first heard him in duo with Randy at the Village Vanguard in the mid-1970s. Also on bass, Jamil Nasser—Maestro Jamil and Randy were extremely tight. Randy credited Jamil with introducing him to four great pianists: Oscar Dennard, Lucky Roberts, Phineas Newborn, and Ahmad Jamal. (I was blessed to be a member of Benny Powell’s Quintet since the late 1980s and Jamil was one of the bassists. His knowledge was vast and deeply spiritual.)

Idris Muhammad played the drums. It was my first opportunity to perform with Idris. Wow, he always displayed an in-depth sensibility for the second-line New Orleans aesthetic and kept everything modern with melodic underpinnings. Randy loved Idris dearly and they had previously recorded together for Verve Records. Arriving next was Big Black, an outstanding percussionist.  Words are inadequate to describe his dexterous rhythmic interplay and soulful drive on the hand drums rooted in the Mississippi delta blues, jazz, and the traditions of Africa and its diaspora. (I was so overjoyed to perform many concerts with Big Black since then; his sense of time and swing was quite astounding!)

Randy’s son Azzedin Weston also played percussion and his rhythmic pulsating groove remained ever present. He was a natural genius who also spoke several languages fluently and his artwork could rival Picasso’s!!! (We were like brothers and I was very sad at his passing.)

Finally, there was Yassir Chadly on genbri and karkaba. Yassir was part of the Gnawa musical tradition from Morocco and he resided on the west coast. Randy’s original plan was to have six Gnawa musicians from Morocco but they were not allowed visas at the last minute. Yassir did a wonderful job as their replacement.

I will always remember Randy’s extreme happiness to have so many heavyweights in the same room. Randy treated all of the musicians as family and our respect for the Chief was quite evident. There was so much history between Randy and Melba, Melba and Dizzy, Idres Sulieman and Jamil Nasser, Big Black and Randy—they already had tremendous musical collaborations during one of the most fruitful and fertile period of jazz’s evolution. But there was an unbelievable bond established among all participants. The first 2 and 1/2 hours of very expensive studio time was dedicated solely to warm greetings, hugs, handshakes, more hugs, more handshakes, etc.

Finally the producer asked me to help him coral the troops so we could start recording.  It was physically difficult for Melba to direct, so I was called to the task. I also had to solo after Dizzy on “African Sunrise,” which was a daunting endeavor. Melba wrote some immensely memorable arrangements capturing the spirit of our ancestors. Please check out the three tenor saxophones in battle on “The African Cookbook”!!!

Subsequently I went on to record the following projects with Dr. Weston: Volcano Blues, Saga, Khepera, and Spirit, The Power of Music. And on his last two ensemble recordings—The Storyteller and The African Nubian Suite—my duties included being an associate producer. I was truly fortunate to spend 38 years performing, recording, and touring the world with Randy Weston, a true African Griot.


Randy Weston is the last pianistic link between Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. His forays into improvisation are clearly a manifestation of the highest tier regarding a creative genius with astounding originality. His compositions are in the pantheon of renowned jazz standards.

Words are inadequate to express my love, admiration, appreciation, and gratitude for such an incredible human being. May his spirit rest in paradise for eternity. We will miss you Baba Randy!!!

Jane Ira Bloom: Valuing Choices Made in the Moment  

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

While thinking beyond musical genres is a hallmark of a great many of today’s musical creators, Jane Ira Bloom clearly maneuvers within a genre while at the same time subverting any attempt at making generalizations about her work. The primary mode of music-making she engages in is performing her own instrumental compositions on the soprano saxophone in the company of a small group of like-minded collaborative improvisers, and those compositions are clearly indebted to the jazz tradition. But there are important exceptions to just about every detail of that description that are key to defining who she is as a musician.

She primarily performs her own musical creations, but just about every album she has ever recorded, as well as most of her live performances, also include at least one example of her own extremely personal interpretations of an American standard or a classic jazz composition. But while the American songbook has been an unending fount of inspiration for her improvisations and has even informed the ways she has constructed melodies in her own compositions, she has never featured a singer in any of her projects thus far. And, with the exception of her most recent recording, Wild Lines, which includes recitations of poetry by Emily Dickinson, all her performances are un-texted instrumentals. She performs almost exclusively on the soprano saxophone (there’s been a stray track here and there over the years of her on alto), but she began her musical studies on the piano, and the grand piano she keeps in her living room is the main instrument on which she composes. She has primarily performed with and composes for a small cadre of fellow travelers with whom she has worked for decades (e.g. Fred Hersch, Mark Dresser, Bobby Previte), but she has also written music for orchestra, wind band, dance and film, and has participated in improvisatory world music collaborations with Chinese pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen and South Indian vocalist and vina player Geetha Ramanathan Bennett (who died just a day after we recorded our talk with Jane Ira Bloom). Bloom acknowledges and embraces the jazz tradition, but for more than 30 years her saxophone improvisations have incorporated an electronic music component which she triggers in real time through the use of foot pedals, and sometimes the other musicians in her combos operate electronic devices as well.

“I’m definitely a lateral thinker,” Bloom acknowledged when we visited her to talk about her various musical experiences and how they have shaped her aesthetics as a composer and a performer. “There’s no question in my mind that my strong background as a melodist, as someone who’s loved and studied melody in many forms, takes me wherever I go. I’m a saxophonist who’s very much interested in sound, and I’ve spent a long time working on a particular sound that I really invested a lot of thought in on the instrument I play—the soprano saxophone. And I’m interested in phrasing and breath. All those things travel with me wherever I go, and when I’m using the live electronics, that’s where they’re compelled from. It’s me; it’s not a black box. It’s not an idea. I’ve learned an awful lot from the Afro-American music tradition and the American songbook, as well as exposing myself to world musics and all kinds of contemporary classical music. … I know what’s authentic and real about who I am, and I take that with me wherever my imagination takes me.”

In addition to the aforementioned 2017 Emily Dickinson-inspired album, Bloom’s imagination has led her to create a series of responses to abstract expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock (“the freedom he was in touch with … is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily”) as well as motion-inspired melodic improvisation (“I collaborated with choreographers who were much more cognizant of this quality … you could make sound change by moving”). Her use of real-time live electronic processing in her saxophone playing has been an ongoing component of her musical explorations. Her description of it makes it seem a lot simpler than it actually sounds:

Basically what I do with the electronics is I still play the saxophone, but I play through microphones that access electronic sounds that I blend and combine with my acoustic sound. And I trigger them using foot pedals, live and in the moment. Over the years, I’ve gotten skillful playing on one foot and tapping my toe on some pre-programmed settings that I’ve designed—on basically an old harmonizer and an old digital delay—and combining them in unusual ways. … I’ve spent some time trying to get the way I use them as an improviser as fluid as if it was a key on my saxophone. … It makes sense to me when the sounds appear and when they don’t, when I choose to use them and when I choose not to use them. It’s got to be fast. It’s got to be intuitive, because I’m using them very much in the moment of improvising.

Perhaps the most unusual place Bloom’s imagination has taken her was to work with the American space program, which happened, as she explained to us, as a result of an unsolicited letter to NASA that her friend, actor Brian Dennehy, suggested she should write.

“I thought he was nuts,” she remembered. “But some time went by and I actually sat down and I wrote a letter in the dark—a letter in a bottle, right?—inquiring whether NASA had ever done any research on the future of the arts and space, in zero gravity environments. Something I was always fascinated with. Six months later, I get this envelope back, which has the NASA logo on the front of the envelope from a guy by the name of Robert Schulman, director of the NASA Art Program. … Bob and I corresponded for years. He was interested in jazz musicians—lucky me, you know. Eventually I posed the idea, how about NASA commissioning the first musician for the Art Program? And he loved the idea.”

Dennehy’s “nutty” suggestion ultimately culminated in a 1989 concert at the Kennedy Space Center featuring the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Fire and Imagination, an original work by Bloom scored for soprano saxophone, electronics, orchestra and “a whole bunch of ringers, the jazz musicians that were in the piece.” Although the work has yet to be performed in its original version since the premiere and has also never been commercially recorded (though some reworkings of that material surfaced on her landmark 1992 album Art and Aviation), Bloom’s association with NASA has had some unusual ripple effects. In 1998, an asteroid discovered on September 25, 1984 by B. A. Skiff at the Anderson Mesa Station of Lowell Observatory was named after her—6083 Janeirabloom!

As for what her next project will be, she has no firm ideas and, as an adherent to valuing choices made in the moment, she seems to like it that way.

A conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Bloom’s Manhattan apartment
August 14, 2018—5:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  You do a variety of different things.  You’re a composer, a saxophonist, and a bandleader. Is there one word that you gravitate toward more than any other to describe what you do?  If you were to meet somebody randomly, say on an airplane, and that person asked what you did, what would you say?

“I’m definitely a lateral thinker”

Jane Ira Bloom:  Wow, nobody ever asked me that before!  I’ve got to think about that.  Usually I always call myself a saxophonist-composer, but I’m definitely a lateral thinker because I’ve always been interested in multi-disciplinary thinking.  It’s an interesting question, but I haven’t got an immediate answer.

FJO:  That’s fine, but there’s a corollary to that, which is perhaps equally unanswerable. You have been inspired by so many different things—such as electronics and non-Western musical traditions—and you’ve even composed works for symphony orchestra and wind band, as well as collaborated with filmmakers and choreographers, but your music primarily exists within a rubric that, for lack of a better term, we call jazz.  So if that same somebody asked about what kind of music you do, what would you say to that?

JIB:  I can’t come up with words.  I think the world of my imagination goes wherever it goes and has been its own explanation for itself, whether I’m interested in dance, lighting, theater, film, movement, painting, or whatever grabs my attention.  I’m just trying to keep myself interested. I think, as time has gone on, I’m just letting that process happen more fluidly than it did in the beginning when there were more careful definitions to the different areas where I worked, whether I’m working with world music musicians or with jazz or new music improvisers or in an environment that looks even slightly more classical.  It’s just me being interested and still being curious.  Maybe that’s why it’s not so easy for me to find the categorical word for what it is, but I can tell you how it feels.

FJO:  So how does it feel?

JIB:  It feels open.  It feels like there are possibilities.  It feels like I can’t always anticipate what’s going to happen next.  I go through periods of time where I get interested in a topic and go down the rabbit hole. Then there are also fallow periods where I don’t know what’s coming next, and I start getting nervous.  It’s a kind of ebb and flow.

FJO:  So are you okay with the word “jazz” to describe your music?

JIB:  Sure.  Creative improvisation.  We’re improvisers who make up musical ideas in the moment and value that—that’s the important thing.  We value those choices.  I guess the thing I’ve learned over time is that the more you’ve done it, the more environments and the more experience you’ve had doing it, sometimes you can make better choices.

FJO:  I would posit that in addition to what you said about valuing the choices that you arrive at in the moment, you also value the choices that other musicians make in the moment who are performing with you. That seems to be a very big part of it.

JIB:  Absolutely.  I’m a completely collaborative animal.

FJO:  One of the reasons I wanted to begin our discussion by asking these questions is that one of the reasons we have these conversations on NewMusicBox is so that music creators have an opportunity to describe their music in their own words and it is not filtered through someone else’s ideas about them. In preparing for our talk, I was reading a lot of things that others have said about you and one thing that struck me, which I read in a few different places, was seeing you described as “an avant-garde jazz composer.” While there are certainly elements of what you do that are extraordinarily progressive and very innovative, I personally don’t think the term avant-garde accurately describes it since, no matter how out you go with some of these worlds, you’re always very clearly mindful of the tradition at the same time.

JIB:  Well, there’s no question in my mind that my strong background as a melodist, as someone who’s loved and studied melody in many forms, takes me wherever I go.  I’m a saxophonist who’s very much interested in sound, and I’ve spent a long time working on a particular sound that I really invested a lot of thought in on the instrument I play—the soprano saxophone.  And I’m interested in phrasing and breath.  All those things travel with me wherever I go, and when I’m using the live electronics, that’s where they’re compelled from.  It’s me; it’s not a black box.  It’s not an idea.  I’ve learned an awful lot from the Afro-American music tradition and the American songbook, as well as exposing myself to world musics and all kinds of contemporary classical music.  But I don’t reflect a lot on what I call myself.  I know what’s authentic and real about who I am, and I take that with me wherever my imagination takes me.

FJO:  One thing that definitely strikes me about your love for the jazz tradition and the American songbook is that although most of your recorded output is devoted to your own compositions, with the exception of your album Modern Drama, I can’t think of any recording of yours that doesn’t include at least one reinvention of either a song standard or a classic jazz composition.

JIB:  You’re absolutely right.  I guess I can’t let go of that.  And Sixteen Sunsets was a compilation of American songbook standards.  It was my ballads album.

FJO:  So what motivates you to keep going back to that material?

“I didn’t learn it; I grew up listening to it. It’s in my bones.”

JIB:  Those are primary sounds for me.  That understanding about how melodies work comes from knowing that music on the most primary level.  I didn’t learn it; I grew up listening to it.  It’s in my bones.  I know the lyrics to all the songs.  So I think the knowledge of that music and that largely Jewish songwriting tradition—whether it comes from cantorial song or not—also follows me, and it informs me even when I’m writing. The kind of linear line-writing that you hear on many of my original compositions—they have this different kind of motion and flow, but it’s informed by the same kind of pearl stringing that I’ve learned from studying Harold Arlen or Richard Rodgers, their great melodies and why they work.  That stuff still informs even the melodies that I write that don’t sound anything like that.

The pile of pencils and erasers that Jane Ira Bloom stuffs inside her piano on the frame in front of the strings and some music manuscript paper.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about melody and line and breath as I stare to my right at your beautiful old grand piano, which has manuscript paper on it and a bunch of pencils and an eraser stacked inside it.  And I’m remembering reading somewhere that although you’ve been playing the saxophone since you were a child, your first instrument was actually the piano.

JIB:  A composer needs to know the piano, and I studied piano for a while. I started when I was very young. But I must have been 9 or 10 years old when I started studying saxophone in public school.  Then it wasn’t long after I began studying that I started to study with this master teacher Joe Viola, when I was living outside Boston.  Saxophone players know about this guy.  He was a great woodwind virtuoso, and he had this special feeling for the saxophone. Why did I pick up the saxophone in the first place? I was in third grade and it was shiny, that’s why.  But the soprano saxophone—I think when I heard that sound, I said, “Yeah, I like that!”

FJO:  Of course, the soprano saxophone has the most unusual history of the entire saxophone family in jazz.  There isn’t this through line the way there is with alto players or tenor players.  There was Sidney Bechet early on, but later a huge gap during the bop era. Then all of a sudden Steve Lacy appeared on the scene and soon after that John Coltrane takes up the soprano sax, but not as his primary instrument.  And starting in the ‘70s, the soprano sax has had this other whole life as a smooth jazz instrument due to Grover Washington and, later on, Kenny G who is almost an exact contemporary of yours.  But what you do sounds nothing like that.  Going back to running into that random person talking to you at the airport, when you say that you play the soprano sax, I’m sure the first thing that person is going to say is, “Oh, like Kenny G?”

JIB:  Not any more.  Actually, the latest thing people say is, “Do you play pool?”  They see the soprano case, and it looks like a pool cue case.  But it used to happen a while back, and the fact that people knew what a soprano saxophone looked like was pretty interesting—just on a general audience level.  That’s certainly what Kenny G brought to the instrument, so thank you.

I’ve always thought that if you’re the kind of person that’s interested in playing an instrument that doesn’t have too much of a stylistic lineage attached to it—unlike all the great saxophone players on the tenor and the alto—and that if you’re interested in doing something new, soprano is maybe not a bad choice.  It suits me, for sure, that it has the history that it does and that I’ve been able to create a sound on it.  I suppose you could think, not having been over-influenced by a whole stylistic lineage, to create a new sound on it.

FJO:  That’s a very inspiring thought, although you were not completely without influences. You mentioned Joe Viola.

JIB:  A primary influence, yeah.

FJO:  But since there isn’t this lineage in terms of who you grew up listening to and who you gravitated toward musically, it probably wasn’t other soprano players.

“I pick my own notes.”

JIB:  No, not at all.  I was listening to Sonny Rollins.  I was listening to all kinds of things.  I was listening to violin players, but especially trumpet players.  And I was listening to vocalists.  I was getting ideas from other places that I’ve attached to this instrument.  I spent some time studying how people negotiated on a different instrument.  For example, I’ve always loved the sense of struggle that’s in the trumpet.  That’s what I’ve always loved about Booker Little and Miles Davis, so I’ve gleaned something from them.  Same thing with Sonny Rollins.  It’s not necessarily looking around for influences to imitate the notes that people play; it’s more getting a kinesthetic feel for where they were that informs me and what I do.  I pick my own notes.

FJO:  Now in terms of picking those notes, you said that the piano is a necessary thing for composing.

JIB:  Yeah, there it is.

FJO:  So you compose your music at the piano, not at the saxophone, or do you do a little bit of both?

JIB:  Sometimes ideas come from the horn, too, so a little of both.  But primarily I sit at the piano.

Jane Ira Bloom sitting in front of her grand piano.

FJO:  One of the most interesting comments we recorded in a conversation in the last few years was when we did a talk with Béla Fleck, who’s now writing for orchestra.  He talked about how he came up with clarinet lines in the orchestration at the banjo.  He composes from the banjo. He jots down ideas in banjo tablature and then someone else turns it into something that other players can read from.

JIB:  Cool. That’s so unique.

FJO:  I thought that your compositional process might have been somewhat similar, but then I learned you had a background in piano. When we walked in and saw the piano with all the manuscripts on it, I realized that the way you write music was completely different and that the piano plays a significant role in how you compose.

JIB:  Well, for the harmonic information that you hear on my original compositions, yeah.  But let’s face it, I’m a line player.  I’m a horn player, so I play the piano like a horn player.  They inform each other, believe me.

FJO:  In terms of what informs your musical ideas, for almost a century people have come up through improvisatory music by woodshedding and apprenticing as a side person in other people’s ensembles.  What’s amazing to me is that you really didn’t do that at all.  You seem to have emerged fully formed. I’ve only heard two albums that you’re a side person on, and I think there are only three.

JIB:  There are a few.

FJO:  Well, the two that I am aware of are both really wonderful records, but you recorded them after you had already released recordings under your own name.  The first one is this really odd record from pretty early on in your career, Frederick Hand’s Jazz Antiqua.

JIB:  Oh my goodness, yeah. This flute player, Keith Underwood, was a friend of mine from New Haven, from Yale.  He was doing this work with Fred Hand, so when the call went out for soprano saxophone, I think Keith told Fred about me.  That was a long time ago.  I’m trying to think of some other ones.  I apprenticed with vibes player David Friedman and recorded with him.  I also recorded some albums, but it wasn’t at that early time, with vocalist Jay Clayton and did some guest appearances on some other people’s albums. But you’re right.  Largely I had a different path.

Coming out of New Haven in the ‘70s, I was around a fascinating community of new music improvisers and jazz musicians.  I’ve read books about this. They now call this the New Haven Renaissance. If I listed all the musicians who were actually in New Haven at that one time in the ‘70s—it was this fascinating creative music community and everybody was inspiring everybody else.  At that time, Wadada Leo Smith was in New Haven, and he was making albums on his own—LPs; there were no such things as CDs then.  He had important music to document that he was playing, and there were no record companies that were getting Leo to record for them.  So he was making his own albums and documenting his own music. Everybody got inspired by him: George Lewis, Gerry Hemingway, Pheeroan akLaff, myself, Mark Dresser, and Mark Helias—loads and loads of musicians were there, and it inspired all of us.  I was inspired to start my own record company.  It was like 1976.  I had been playing duets with a bass player named Kent McLagan.  We had important music that we were making.  Why not document it?  And I learned how to make a record and how to promote my own music. Trial by fire, I learned how to do it myself, by asking a lot of questions and making a lot of mistakes and figuring it out. They turned out to be my calling cards when I moved to New York City.  That’s a really different path than going off to apprentice with some great. I have a few early stories. I remember I sat in once with Mercer Ellington. But I knew that wasn’t my path.  It just wasn’t me, so I followed this different direction.

FJO:  I have to confess that I don’t know either of those first two records, aside from the little snippets from them that you posted on your website—one of which was a very intriguing gamelan-tinged piece.

JIB: Oh, “Shan Dara.” That’s with David Friedman.

FJO:  I’d really love to hear the whole thing one day. But after these two completely self-produced and self-released albums, you recorded an album for a very highly respected independent label, Enja, with an unbelievable cast of characters.  Two of the members of the quartet album you recorded had been part of the landmark Ornette Coleman Quartet—Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell.  And the other player was Fred Hersch, who went on to become a very important collaborator of yours. So how did this come together?

JIB:  Thank you Matthias Winckelmann, the head of Enja Records. He knew about me through David Friedman, the vibes player, because I’d been on tour with David.  He said, “I’d like to make a record; who’d you like in your rhythm section?”  I was given the chance to name my dream rhythm section. So wow, hell, I want to play with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell!  I want Fred Hersch playing piano with me! It was just me having my chance to pick the dream rhythm section of all time.

FJO:  So you didn’t know those people?  You’d never worked with any of them before?

JIB:  I had met Blackwell and I had played with him in New Haven.  And Fred and I had also done some playing together.  I don’t think I had played with Charlie, but I knew I wanted to play with him.

FJO:  To stray a little bit from the chronology here, I find your history of making recordings to be somewhat emblematic of our times.  You formed your own record label.  After that, you recorded an album on this really prestigious independent label.  Then you got picked up by one of the global Goliaths, Columbia/CBS, now Sony.  You did two albums with them.  Then you went back to do doing stuff on indies—a series of really important albums on Arabesque, a terrific label which no longer exists, and then a disc on ArtistShare. But your recent albums are back on your own label. So you made a full circle.

“I was the only self-producing jazz artist at CBS.”

JIB:  Complete circle.  But having all the skills as a producer from the get-go has been an asset throughout everything.  I was the only self-producing jazz artist at CBS.  I produced those albums myself.  It was unheard of.  But it was because I had the skills.  At the time, George Butler was the A & R person at CBS.  He knew I could do it.  He had evidence. But isn’t it interesting—the full circle?  I started off on Outline Records, went around the block, and now I’m just back doing what I always did on Outline Records.  And, you know, it just has kind of worked.  I’ve been making albums for so long now that I’ve been fortunate enough that even with an independent label, when I’m ready I can produce an album and it comes to the attention of people in the writing community and the jazz radio community and they look forward to it.  I have a long-time history with people.

And I work with a terrific team. Max Horowitz at Crossover Media has been working with me for over 15 years, and now my niece Amanda Bloom is working with him. So I’m not doing it by myself anymore.  I’ve got good help.  And I also work with Jim Eigo at Jazz Promo Services. These are people who are very, very helpful.

FJO:  I imagine the same has been true for how you’ve published your music.  You’ve written several works for wind ensemble, as well as for orchestra, so you had to prepare scores and parts for all of these.  Is there a place where people can go to get this material?  I imagine it’s all self-published.

JIB:  Yeah, I’ve got them.  All the scores and parts are sitting behind those two cabinets over there.

Shelves in Jane Ira Bloom's cabinet filled with her orchestral scores and parts.

FJO:  So you had a whole self-publishing operation, preparing performance materials, renting them out, etc.?

JIB:  Well, at that time I was getting grants and I got help from some great copyists to find my way through the orchestra.  I remember a particularly wonderful copyist by the name of Randa Kirschbaum, who is the best there was and who helped me get through my orchestra experiences.  That’s a whole other issue.  But I didn’t find a continuation of that work that was easy for me at that time, and I was less successful about recording a large ensemble work.  So the stuff that you hear is for smaller ensembles.

FJO:  It’s all very personal and very intimate; the exact opposite of orchestral music. You’ve mostly recorded quartets—you with piano, bass, and drums. But you also frequently feature unaccompanied soprano saxophone solos on many of your recordings and Early Americans, the recording you made just prior to your most recent one, is with a trio of just you, bass, and drums, no piano.

JIB:  Yeah, I’m just getting comfortable with that.  I’ve been playing in a trio for years and years with Mark Helias and Bobby Previte, and finally the guys said, “Hey, Jane, it’s time to document this thing.”  So we literally just went into the studio and did what we do.  It was a long time coming, but you can feel how natural it is. And winning a Grammy for surround sound for that, I can’t tell you how it makes me smile on the inside, collaborating with the engineer Jim Anderson and my co-producer Darcy Proper.  These were people who took me to a new place.

FJO:  So in your experience does winning a Grammy still have the ability to get significant attention for a recording? Does it increase sales? What role does it play at this point?

JIB:  Well, I did start getting more calls. It’s just more public awareness of my work, that’s all.  There’s just something about the mystique of it.  The fact that this jazz trio album won in a category of music against musics from all other kinds of disciplines was really a very satisfying moment for us.  We didn’t expect it.  There were all kinds of music, but it was about the surround sound technology and the music that made it happen.

Jane Ira Bloom's Grammy

FJO:  Going back to talking about your earlier large ensemble music for a moment, creating music with a small ensemble of people you’ve worked with for a long time is such a stark contrast to how, especially, orchestra music gets rehearsed, performed, and—if you’re fortunate enough—recorded. It’s a very different experience to create music for a large group of people that you might never have met before to working with a small group of creative improvisers who you’ve known for years. You know what they can do and you have an idea about what they’re going to bring to your music, as opposed to when you’re dealing with a large ensemble, for whom you have to have everything worked out in advance and very clearly notated and with whom you’re lucky if you get two rehearsals.

JIB:  Oh believe me, I know.  You spend several years writing a piece of music, you get a few hours of rehearsal, and boom.  That was a startling realization.  They’re completely different worlds, and the task and the skill of the colorist, the orchestrator—their knowledge of instruments and their combinations and the unique qualities that create sonic originality in the orchestra—is a skill like no other.  I was dabbling.  I was just taking my world and seeing where I could go in that playground.  But the world that I largely work in is, as you say, more long-term collaborations with people who I’ve gotten to know over long periods of time.

“My greatest excitement comes from playing with musicians who I know really well.”

I tend to stay playing with people a lot longer than most.  I think it’s because of what you’re talking about, that unconscious communication that develops among improvising musicians over long periods of time.  Not that it shouldn’t be informed by new input and new ideas, because we’re all growing and are going in different directions at times, but I do truly value what’s very special about musicians who’ve known each other and played with each other for a long time—particularly when you go into the studio, which has its own set of issues.  How do you get spontaneity and creativity and the unexpected to still happen in places where just about everything in the environment is trying to tell you the opposite of that?  I tend to find my greatest excitement comes from playing with musicians who I know really well.

FJO:  That’s very different from that first non-self-released recording where you picked your dream team, and then they just showed up at the studio and you recorded an album with them.

JIB:  Yeah, I think I got together with Blackwell and Fred a couple of times, but I don’t think Charlie was ever there for any of the rehearsals!

FJO:  Now, for Modern Drama, was that an ensemble that had been touring or was that also put together just to make the recording?

JIB:  We’d been playing together some.  It was a combination of some of my work with vibist David Friedman and some developing work over a long period of time with Fred Hersch, and at that time it was Ratzo Harris on bass and Tom Rainey on drums.  That was an expression of things I was doing with live electronics, compositions that expressed that, and I wanted to document that and this very special chemistry with those people.

FJO:  It would be great to have you explain how you operate the electronics in a performance, but first, how did you first become interested in working with electronics and how did you learn about it?

JIB:  I always loved electronic sound—I’m talking early electronics, analog electronics.  I’m talking about when the Moog synthesizer first hit and when some of the first composers integrated electronics into their music, like [Morton Subotnick’s] Silver Apples of the Moon.  I can remember being in college and studying electronic music with Robert Moore, having our first hands-on sessions with these synthesizers that looked like refrigerators.  There were lots of faders and dials.  That’s how I learned about electronics. It was really old fashioned.  So I have a predilection in my thinking toward this less digital and more analog approach to these Forbidden Planet kinds of sounds.  That’s what appeals to me.  So I worked with some specialists who helped me design what you would call an effects processing setup.

Basically what I do with the electronics is I still play the saxophone, but I play through microphones that access electronic sounds that I blend and combine with my acoustic sound.  And I trigger them using foot pedals, live and in the moment. Over the years, I’ve gotten skillful playing on one foot and tapping my toe on some pre-programmed settings that I’ve designed—on basically an old harmonizer and an old digital delay—and combining them in unusual ways.  What you’re hearing on the recordings is balancing that electronic sound with the acoustic.  It blends a little easier because I’m dealing with more analog kinds of electronic sounds.  They’re not as cold and digital sounding as some can sound.  I’ve spent some time trying to get the way I use them as an improviser as fluid as if it was a key on my saxophone.  I wanted to have the breath that still compels my saxophone sound to the electronic sound.  I still wanted to have the phrasing that’s behind who I am as a saxophonist.  I’m still a saxophone player.  That’s really what’s at the core of it.  It’s just I hear this expanse of electronic sound that can open up from the acoustic.  And that’s why I feel like it makes sense to me.  It makes sense to me when the sounds appear and when they don’t, when I choose to use them and when I choose not to use them.  It’s got to be fast. It’s got to be intuitive, because I’m using them very much in the moment of improvising. And it has to have a warmth and a breath that is still compelled from being a saxophone player.

FJO:  So in terms of it being in the moment, you’ve got these pre-set things, but you might decide to take it out of the recording studio into a live performance, let’s say, which comes with another whole set of baggage.  How do you make sure the space can handle the balances with that?

JIB:  It’s always a balancing act.

FJO:  But it could be that the spirit moves you in a live setting and there are tons of electronics in some of them, or it could be that the spirit doesn’t move you and you’re completely acoustic.  That decision happens in the moment.

JIB:  It does.  And also the composer in me is thinking about a set of music that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and also hears when the ear needs to relax from being saturated with electronic sound, when things needs to thin out, just as an orchestrator would go from a thicker density to a thinner density.  There’s a lot of skill to thinking about how you go from an acoustic to an electronic place in a piece that helps listeners’ ears not feel jarred.  I have thought about that a lot.  When you hear the electronics on the recordings, there’s a lot of extra help from Jim Anderson, now my almost life-long engineer. How we work, how we record the saxophone, how the electronics appear in the sonic picture, lots and lots of detailed thinking goes into making this thing that I’m talking about in a recorded fashion.

FJO:  I wish I could have heard this material live, if it was done live, but one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours is Like Silver Like Song, which is the one record where you’re not the only person using electronics.

JIB:  Jamie Saft, what a foil.  Mark Dresser. Bobby Previte.  All master composers, by the way, in their own rights.  And, interestingly enough, whether they’re playing acoustically or not, all are clearly influenced by electronic thinking in their sonic palette.  It was another dream team.  I love that recording, too.  I treasure listening to the music that we made together.

FJO:  How did that material work live?  Did it work live?

JIB:  It was easy.  When the guys are on same page with you, it’s just fun.

FJO:  But in order to make it cohere in a live performance setting, did you have a live mixer with you on stage?

JIB:  I would have loved to have had an onstage mixer.  But we were all composers balancing our instrumental contribution live somehow and doing the best we could.  We played in all kinds of spaces.  I remember once playing in the Rose Planetarium with Jamie and Mark. Somehow we make it work.

FJO:  To take it back to Modern Drama, there’s a lot of stuff on there that seems like it would be hard to replicate live.

JIB:  The only thing that would be hard to replicate was the gizmo designed by my friend Kent McLagan, a bassist whom I spent my early years performing with who is also a mechanical engineer and physicist.  We designed this strain gauge attachment that we put on the bell of the soprano so that, based on how fast I was sweeping the bell of the horn, it would create a flurry of sound regeneration in the harmonizer.  So I kind of hot-rodded my harmonizer to be controlled by this strain gauge—Kent called it a strain gauge; it was measuring velocity.

FJO:  So that’s the wacky sound on “Rapture of the Flat”?

JIB:  Yeah, and it appeared on many things.  On “Over Stars,” a lot of the electronic, silvery, shimmering sounds that you hear, that’s the strain gauge of me swirling the soprano around.

FJO:  I’m a huge fan of “Rapture of the Flat” since it’s such a strange combination of things. It starts out with this kind of straight-ahead rock and roll riff, but then all of a sudden it becomes this insane, out-there electronic thing.

JIB:  It’s one of the pieces I dearly love listening to.  I’ll never forget Fred Hersch playing the Hammond B3.  That was a great time we had doing that. But the strain gauge wasn’t very portable.  It looked like a piece of equipment out of War of the Worlds actually.  But I still travel with the harmonizer and the digital delay. They look like antiques.  And I have these foot pedals and stuff, it’s very old-fashioned, live-electronics effects processing.  It’s not fancy, but I can still do it.

FJO:  Now when you say War of the Worlds, where my mind immediately goes is thinking about how you got connected to NASA.

JIB:  Wow, that’s a story.  Flashback to me in the 1980s.  Things were not going great with my career. I was having dinner with a friend of mine, the actor Brian Dennehy.  And I said, “Brian, things just aren’t looking so good.”  This is a true story.  Brian said to me, “Well, what are you interested in?”  And I said, “Well, I’ve always been interested in the space program.  I’ve watched every launch since the Mercury days, and I’ve always been fascinated with space exploration.”  He says, “Well, why don’t you write a letter to NASA?”  I said, “What do you mean, write a letter to NASA?”  “Just write a letter.  Tell ‘em what you’re interested in.” I thought he was nuts.

“Brian Dennehy said, ‘Why don’t you write a letter to NASA?’ … I thought he was nuts.”

But some time went by and I actually sat down and I wrote a letter in the dark—a letter in a bottle, right?—inquiring whether NASA had ever done any research on the future of the arts and space, in zero gravity environments.  Something I was always fascinated with.  Six months later, I get this envelope back, which has the NASA logo on the front of the envelope from a guy by the name of Robert Schulman, director of the NASA Art Program.  I didn’t even know what that was.  I’d just basically written this letter saying I’m a jazz artist and I’ve been interested in exploring. Anyway, turns out a correspondence develops between me and Robert Schulman, and I learn about this organization that’s been in existence at NASA since the beginning of the space program called the NASA Art Program where they commission visual artists, famous ones, to experience what goes on with the space program and everything, from the launch, the landing, the deep space program, astronaut training.  They invite artists to observe this, and from this, to create a work of art, a visual work of art that they would contribute to NASA’s Space Art Collection, which I didn’t even know existed.

Bob and I corresponded for years.  He was interested in jazz musicians—lucky me, you know.  He started sending me all kinds of wonderful stuff, press releases and stuff from NASA. Eventually I posed the idea, how about NASA commissioning the first musician for the Art Program?  And he loved the idea.  That was the start of it.  We had all kinds of corporate sponsors for this big concert to happen.  I basically joined a NASA art team that came down to the Kennedy Space Center for the first launch after the Challenger accident.  It was the space shuttle Discovery.  I traveled with the artists and went to all the facilities, to the launch and the landing at Edwards Air Force Base.  I went to a jet propulsion lab to see the deep space telemetry.  It was a peak experience in my life, no question about it.  And from that, I created a new work, which we premiered at the Kennedy Space Center.

FJO:  Now when you say NASA commissioned it, there was a concert, but then what happened?  Did they send it into space?  What was NASA’s role in it?

JIB:  Well, I can tell you about the concert.  It was an experience like no other.  It was this wonderful special NASA audience concert that was held at the Kennedy Space Center with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra. I brought down a whole bunch of ringers, the jazz musicians that were in the piece.  In addition to the visual artists who were also there contributing to the evening, there were several astronauts who gave talks before the concert took place.  I remember meeting Astronaut Robert Crippen and Astronaut John Young. I shook hands with a guy who went to the moon.  It was a NASA evening that was documented; it was video-ed.  Where did the piece ultimately land in NASA’s Space Art Collection? Wherever it goes. There’s a piece of my score that’s there, and there’s this video recording of the piece.  But more importantly, it turned out to be an experience that’s informed almost all my musical thinking and writing since then.  It was one of my first large orchestration experiences, and it was also a time when I was integrating live electronics and surround sound. So many concepts that were channeled into that experience are still with me in work that I’m exploring today. I cite that experience as incredibly pivotal in my thinking.

FJO:  And yet it has still never been released in the original format you conceived it.

JIB:  No, just the electronic trio piece that’s in the middle of it—a piece that I performed with Jerry Granelli on electro-acoustic percussion and Rufus Reid on bass and prepared electronic tape, and me on electronics—that’s called “Most Distant Galaxy.”  That’s recorded on my album Art and Aviation. That was the second or third movement.  I forget which.

FJO:  Although most of the pieces on Art and Aviation also have space-inspired names.

JIB:  Yeah, it was right around that time, but that’s the only one that’s directly material from that. Art and Aviation was a spin-off of the work that I did for NASA.  I did a huge piece at Town Hall.  Oh, I’ll never forget that one.

FJO:  I was at that concert.  It was the first time I heard you perform live.

JIB:  Wow!  Yeah, that was a fun one.  That was the first time I integrated getting the brass section up in the balconies to do some surround sound effects.

FJO:  Now the other thing that’s on that record, which I find funny because it’s quite a contrast from all these space exploration-inspired things, is a piece called “I Believe Anita.”

JIB:  That piece was very important, and it’s important today.  I still perform that piece, and I still believe her.  Absolutely.

FJO:  Anita Hill was just in the news again recently. They were talking to her about how back then there were no hashtags.  There was no #MeToo back then. A lot of people believed her, but it ultimately didn’t make a difference. Clarence Thomas still got nominated to the Supreme Court.

JIB:  Hard to believe, but I believe Anita.

FJO:  So when you play that piece now, how do you frame it?

JIB:  History.  It’s bearing out history—sticking to your convictions and seeing how history plays things out.

FJO:  You were talking earlier about being a melodist. That’s another area I would love to talk about in greater detail with you because you developed this whole technique that you call motion-inspired melodies, which you’ve also described as painting with sound.

JIB:  On a detailed level, there’s always been an interest in melodic lines that have their own unique sense of motion flow—accelerando and deccelerando, groups of fives and eights and nines, not just chugging along in eighth notes and sixteenth notes.  It’s been a characteristic of my melodic line writing for a long time.  You can hear it in almost all—I can show it to you.  It has informed so much.  It comes from this sense of motion filled-ness, physical motion.  I’ve always been interested both in my own body when I play and then translating that into sound and how that compels melodies in different ways, too.  It’s all one thing.

“Even before I even thought about it, I always moved a lot when I played.”

Intuitively, even before I even thought about it, I always moved a lot when I played.  I didn’t know why I was doing it.  I just felt things in my body when I play.  As time went on, I collaborated with choreographers who were much more cognizant of this quality and interested in it and actually made me look at it in a much more concrete way, to think about what you could do, to look at it and think about it, and how you could make sound change by moving. It was really choreographers like Richard Bull—who did Improvisational Dance Ensemble—that got me really thinking about it.  So much other compositional thought was generated from the movement, whether it was making melodies or being inspired by Jackson Pollock in the Chasing Paint album, trying to think of arcing sound in space the way Pollock moved a brush.  I was always a visual thinker, so this was a real natural place for me to go, to think of sculpting sound with movement and then augmenting that with electronics and melodic line writing.

FJO:  Your first Pollock piece goes all the way back to your first combo album, and then it grew into this larger six-movement suite that’s on Chasing Paint.

JIB:  Yeah.  I was always interested in Jackson Pollock. He spoke to me, I guess, as he’s spoken to many improvisers.

FJO:  A painting of his was even used for the cover of Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz.

JIB:  Absolutely. He speaks to improvisers.

FJO:  So, in terms of this arcing sound, do you encourage the other players in the group to also move around?  If you’re sitting at a piano, that seems like it might be hard to do.

JIB:  Well, I don’t dictate.  But I know there was a period of time when I was recording with Fred, I can remember one piece called “The Race (for Shirley Muldowney),” where we put some of the effects processing in the strings of the piano, so Fred was actually playing with effects processing in that piece.  I can think of times where Bobby Previte—although he himself was not using any extended electronic sounds, his compositional thinking on the set is so compelled by visual thought.  It’s just in his head.

FJO:  Yeah, well he’s created a whole cycle of pieces based on paintings by Joan Miró.

JIB:  Oh yeah.  Right.  I was on one of his Joan Miró pieces.  I’m with like-minded collaborators.  So again, I don’t dictate to people about that, but clearly there’s something in the air.

FJO:  So were your Pollock pieces inspired by specific paintings?

JIB:  Absolutely.  And when we played the pieces, I made some really good color printouts, the best I could, so people had them on their stands. And then at one point, we did play at the Museum of Modern in Art in Houston, where we actually played in front of a Pollock. It was not one of the ones that I’d literally written a piece about, but it was right behind us.  You could just turn around and look at it.  And that was so cool.

FJO:  And the group you performed those pieces with was another dream team.

JIB:  Yeah. Fred, Mark Dresser, and Bobby Previte—wonderful quartet.

FJO:  There’s a real chemistry between the four of you.

JIB:  Absolutely.  And sometimes it’s not what people think, that you put likeminded people together.  Sometimes it’s the very unique characteristics of each of the players, and the strengths that they bring that are very different from one another.  And those people had it.  That’s what I remember about that quartet. I think very fondly about that collaboration now.

FJO:  You’ve recorded at least two albums with that exact lineup, and then others where there’s almost all of them.

JIB:  Yeah, it shifted a little bit.  But we did the Red Quartets and then the Pollock album, Chasing Paint.

FJO:  Another thing that’s probably related to your being inspired by painting is that you are also a photographer.  When did that start?

JIB:  High school.  I was one of those people who spent a lot of time in the old days in the dark room sniffing chemicals.  I just had a passion for black and white photography.

FJO: Interestingly though, in terms of everything we were saying about the melody line and hearing something, having it be balanced and wanting it to be just right, is that it shows how mindful you are of the world around you—in the way that a photographer also usually is, but in a way that perhaps abstract expressionist painters aren’t as much.  Their processes inform their work, and the work is what it is.  So even though you’ve been inspired by Pollock, your aesthetic is very different from his.  Or at least it seems to be.

“The freedom Pollock was in touch with is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily.”

JIB:  Who knows?  He just speaks to me.  The freedom he was in touch with, this motion in nature is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily.  I know so much about what he was talking about, that fractal nature of the movement of wind and moving grasses or branches or trees, and how that manifests visually in the natural world, and also feeling how that might be in sound.  You don’t know how people inspire you.  It’s not that you’re like them; it’s that they speak to you about something.  Thank you, Jackson Pollock.  That’s all I can say.

One of the many pieces of art that is hanging in Jane Ira Bloom's apartment.

One of the many pieces of art that is hanging in Jane Ira Bloom’s apartment.

FJO:  Jumping to the present moment, when I first heard about this I thought it was so incongruous, yet it totally works.  Another person who’s inspired you, another great American cultural icon, is Emily Dickinson.  But I never would have made that connection.

JIB:  I think the first time I was exposed to her poetry was through The Belle of Amherst with Julie Harris on WGBH in Boston. It was a basically one-woman show about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson.  I think that’s where it began.  It took a long time simmering, but I think I went to a lecture on Dickinson’s poetry given at the Philactetes Society.  I’ve forgotten who the poet was who gave that lecture, but that’s what sparked it.  I forget when that was.  But then I started re-reading.  Somehow I didn’t understand her, but I got her.  I don’t know why.  I don’t intellectually understand her, but there’s something about the way she used words that feels like the way jazz musicians abstract notes and ideas.  That’s where I started from.

FJO:  And it’s so fascinating that you issued performances both with the words being recited and without them, so listeners can either hear it with the words or not.  You can have two completely different experiences with it.

JIB:  Those fragments of the poetry inspire the music that you hear, where we go with it.  But it’s a different approach to intersecting music and words than traditional settings of poems.  I was not interested in that approach at all.  It’s really a much more abstract relationship to her and to her poetry.

FJO:  You mentioned performing with Jay Clayton, but on your own music you’ve never worked with a singer.

JIB:  No, nor had I ever done anything with words.  Never.  This was the first time.  And my husband is an actor and a director!  But this was the first time that I actually did a collaboration with literature, and it was very meaningful to me.

FJO:  I find it somewhat strange that you’ve never included a singer in your music, especially after hearing all of the stuff that you’ve said about melody, as well as being inspired by the American Songbook.  I could imagine a recording of you with a singer that would be as symbiotic as the album that John Coltrane recorded with Johnny Hartman, which really sounds like two singers—Hartman singing the words and Coltrane singing on his saxophone.

JIB:  That’s right.  It may be in the future.  In truth, I do think when I play ballads that I am singing those songs into the saxophone.  But what collaboration might be in the future, who knows?

FJO:  Okay, so what would be a dream project that you’d love to do that you haven’t done yet?

JIB:  I just went this weekend to the MOMIX Dance Theatre.  Years ago, I wrote some music for the dance company Pilobolus and one of the original dancers, Moses Pendleton, started this company called MOMIX, which is dedicated not only to dance but a high use of stagecraft in lighting and illusion, to create very magical looking effects on stage.  I remember thinking when I left, “I wonder if I could get a grant to get together with a really powerful design team, lighting designers and stage production designers, people who do this kind of thing.  How fascinating it might be to create the music that I create with this other kind of visual element—simultaneously.  But we’d definitely have to get a grant for this one.”  That’s the latest thing that occurred to me.

A pocket-sized audio-recorder on a pile of music manuscript paper in one of the corners on the right hand corner of Jane Ira Bloom's grand piano.

Along with all the music manuscript paper, Jane Ira Bloom also keeps a pocket-sized audio-recorder at her piano.

FJO:  One area that we didn’t touch on that we should are those fascinating world music collaborations that you did about ten years ago, which really took you in new directions.  I actually heard a connection between those performances and your Early Americans trio album, where there’s finally no piano which means you can freely venture beyond the 12-tone equal-tempered scale and improvise on other modes. I did hear things that hinted at this terrain in several of the pieces on that album, like “Dangerous Times” or “Other Eyes,” which perhaps came from your experience in those world music collaborations.

JIB:  Well, I’ve always been interested in world musics.  Not that I’ve studied any in great detail as some of my colleagues have, who have gone to different parts of the world to study shakuhachi or Indian music. But I’ve always had this open ear.  It all started probably in the 1970s when I listened to the Nonesuch World Music Explorer series in the library.  I used to listen to music from all over the world and let it into my musical thought.  Over the years, I’ve collaborated with musicians who were more studied than I in traditional world musics, whether it’s Geetha Ramanathan Bennett and her husband Frank Bennett and being exposed to beautiful South and North Indian music, whether it has to do with the years listening to Asian music, the shakuhachi or the Chinese guqin, having experiences improvising with the master pipa player and improviser Min Xiao-Fen or Korean music, being exposed to it through my friend Jin Hi Kim. Again, it’s all learning by doing and being around the musicians themselves.  And they themselves were interested in collaborating with jazz artists.  I was improvising together with musicians who wanted to share vocabulary with me.  That’s how it happened.

FJO:  It was so incredible hearing Geetha Ramanathan Bennett play “Cheek to Cheek” on one of those performances. That blew my mind.

JIB:  Wasn’t that amazing listening to “Cheek to Cheek on the veena, how she can handle the harmonic changes on a veena?

FJO:  That would be a great thing to take into the studio and record.

JIB:  I know.  I still talk with Geetha every now and then.  She’s out on the West Coast with Frank.  We’re longtime friends and collaborators from 1970-something.  Again, the collaborations that I really value are deep, long-term ones.

FJO:  So we’ve already planned at least three new projects for you, something with a singer, and a multi-media improvisation with music and lighting, and a cross-cultural recording.

JIB:  Thank you.

Two shelves in Jane Ira Bloom's living room reveal some of the sheet music and books that have been important to her.

Two shelves in Jane Ira Bloom’s living room reveal some of the sheet music and books that have been important to her.

FJO:  A last area I was curious about, because it’s been a part of your life for a very long time, is your teaching at the New School.

JIB:  I’ve been there 20 years.

FJO:  So what keeps you doing it?  What inspires you?

JIB:  I’m the most reluctant educator there is, but what inspires me is I like being around young people.  I like being around unfettered enthusiasm, the idealism, all of the energy.  It fuels me. I give it back to them, but they give it to me.

FJO:  So what sort of projects do you do with them to get them thinking out of the box?

“I like being around unfettered enthusiasm.”

JIB:  There are several courses I’ve taught over the years to do just that.  A class called “Linear Composition for Improvisers”—definitely getting improvisers into a composing mode and thinking outside of their comfort zones.  I’ve taught the music of Ornette Coleman.  I’ve taught a course on how to play ballads.  Teaching young people how to play slow.  I have a course that I designed that I teach with my husband called “Improvisatory Artist Lab” where we combine classical artists, jazz artists, and drama students, to do new creative work together.  For them to learn about each other’s vocabularies, cross-disciplinary projects and thinking.  There’s a course I designed taking young composers up to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, having them research a topic of their choice and then creating a new work of art that we perform at Lincoln Center at the end of the semester.  All of it is pushing the boundaries.

Beats, Record Bins, and Retail Life: A Tower Records Appreciation

Tower Records — the legendary, uber-mega record store chain — was long gone before its founder-owner Russ Solomon died recently at the age of 92. If you were born, say, after 1996, you have lived entirely in an age where you are only a digital download away from your music. No one would deny the convenience of having studio-quality sound at your fingertips, especially if you are a radio DJ. However, when brick-and-mortar record shops went the way of the analog dinosaur, some very important, humanistic interactions that advanced the music culture went with them: namely, the group experience of listening, evaluating, debating, and enjoying music face-to-face.

I knew that experience very well as the Jazz Buyer for the Towers Records store at 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington D.C. from 1987 to 1989. I came there from a smaller, but distinguished local chain, Olsson’s Record & Tape on 19th and L, NW, a few blocks from the old NPR headquarters. The move from the former to the latter was akin to moving up from the minors to the big leagues. My jazz room at Tower was larger than the entire Olsson’s store I came from! We had the deepest jazz collection in the city, and what we didn’t have, we could order faster than anybody else.

There was an expectation that jazz would be profitable.

So there I was, 26 years old (but looking 16), running a jazz department for one of the world’s largest record stores. The perks were manna from music heaven: I picked the music played in my section; I got promos galore; and, most importantly, I got on the guest lists to see jazz artists who played at Blues Alley and One Step Down—two of DC’s best jazz clubs. But it was so much more than those spoils for me, because it was at that position that I got to see the business of jazz from a multitude of perspectives. In addition to working at Tower, I was also working as a freelance reporter/producer at NPR, and I was a substitute DJ at WDCU-FM, the University of the District of Columbia’s station. I got a chance to see first-hand how a record played in a record store or on the radio becomes popular, and how the record companies market and promote their product, especially if one of their artists is coming to town for a gig. More importantly, I saw all of this during the so-called Young Lions period of the ‘80s, when, much to the chagrin of veteran musicians, younger and more marketable whippersnappers enjoyed the benefit of full label support: posters, pre-recorded interviews and radio voiceovers, tickets to gigs and in-store appearances. It shouldn’t go without saying that there was an expectation that jazz would be profitable, visible, and accessible — a far cry from today.

But I wasn’t a one-man show at Tower Record – far from it! I worked with a fantastic crew of fellow jazz travelers: Herb Harris was a teenage college student and tenor saxophone colossus-in-the-making who went on to record with pianist Marcus Roberts on his critically acclaimed LP, Deep in the Shed as well as with Wynton Marsalis. Katea Stitt, the daughter of alto sax legend Sonny Stitt, is now the program director of DC’s WPFW-FM.  Bill McLaurin, a radio veteran who came to Washington from Philadelphia’s jazz powerhouse, WRTI-FM, hosted a very popular show on WDCU-FM and, would later go on to make history as the first African-American store manager in Tower’s history. He stayed with the company for nine years.

We deeply respected each other’s takes on the music. We would often get into some long convos and debates about the music, sometimes for hours at a time. This was much to the horror of our store managers but to the delight of our customers, who not only listened but would often join in on our extended verbal jam sessions and leave with more music than they intended to buy.

I marvel at the customers we had.

When I think back to that time, I marvel at the customers we had. Some were famous: Senator and ex-New York Knick Bill Bradley asked me to recommend three jazz trombonists for his nephew, and he bought albums by J.J. Johnson, Robin Eubanks, and Kai Winding. I distinctly remember the rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork sifting through the bins before heading on into the classical department in the next room. There was Fred Kaplan, a graduate of Oberlin College and MIT, who became a superb journalist, covering international relations and foreign policy for Slate, as well as the author of several books including 1959: The Year That Changed Everything and Dark Territory: The Secret History of the Cyber War. And then there was Mr. Ellis Marsalis, the pianist/patriarch of that famous Crescent City family who had just moved from New Orleans to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and who would perform in D.C., often at the One Step Down, which was about ten minutes walking distance from the store.  I remember Mr. Marsalis going through every bin from A to Z, pointing out to me which musicians and recordings were important to study. He insisted that I check out Louis Jordan, whom he considered to be a key transitional figure in jazz and R&B.

The last days of the San Francisco branch of Tower Records showing the Twoer Records logo on the storefront covered with a "Going Out of Business" banner.

Tower Records, no more (2006) by Yaniv Yaakubovich

I left Tower in 1989, to work at NPR fulltime as a production assistant. The next year, I worked for about nine months at The National Jazz Service under the direction of Willard Jenkins, then left D.C. for Atlanta and became the program director of radio station WCLK-FM. Even after I left Tower, it continued to play a significant role in my jazz life, as evidenced by the many articles I wrote for Tower Pulse! magazine, under the editorship of Marc Weidenbaum. In those days, the magazine, pound-for-pound, held its own against bigger-name periodicals and was free.

…a lost anthropology of how people listened to, loved, and bought music…

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that I saw the writing on the wall: that the days of Tower – and of the mega-record store – were coming to an end. There were rumors of something called MP3 files, where you could download digital copies of your favorite tracks to your computer. It didn’t take a genius to conclude that this would eventually make redundant the need for behemoth record stores. By the beginning of the 21st century, Tower Records stores were closing, and with them a kind of lost anthropology of how people listened to, loved, and bought music. I’ll miss the little things that went on between the record store worker and the customer that young people today would consider alien: like when somebody asked you for “the grandma song,” and you knew she meant Dianne Reeves’s love letter to her grandmother, “Better Days,” or the dude who didn’t know the name of that Al Jarreau song, but thinks you’d know it when he attempted to scat it! Sadly, track-identifying apps have all but eliminated the need of those musical detective skills.

But just as vinyl made a comeback after its supposed demise, maybe in a future time, people will want more than the digital domain can deliver, and the retail records store will reemerge, reborn and remixed to suit the day. In the words of Ornette Coleman, “Tomorrow is the Question.”

Harmonies That Welcomed Imagination—Remembering John Abercrombie (1944-2017)

John Abercrombie set the template for me as far as how to play music with an open mind. His manner towards fellow musicians was one of total respect and equality. Through his playing and compositions, John embodied the essence of the truly great musicians that came before him.

While we all have spent/spend time practicing, John was more focused on using the process of playing as the main way to learn and get better. He loved it!  In his groups, he unselfishly provided an encouraging environment to grow and deepen as a musician / player.

Thomas Morgan, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron looking over a score during the recording session for the 2009 album Wait Till You See Her (Photo © Robert Lewis, courtesy ECM).

Thomas Morgan, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron looking over a score during the recording session for the 2009 album Wait Till You See Her (photo © Robert Lewis, courtesy ECM).

The special thing that stands out about John is his natural democratic manner as a player and writer. He could not help it—it’s just the way he was. John always welcomed his bandmates’ ideas and was a fearless team player. He had the whole package: energy, beauty, surprise, lyricism, soul, and swing.

The special thing that stands out about John is his natural democratic manner as a player and writer.

I never witnessed John having a “bad night.”

I remember he was a special guest on Jim Hall’s last gig (November 2013 at Lincoln Center’s Allen in New York.) Jim started the evening playing solo. John and I were backstage listening and John just started freaking out waving his hands up and down exclaiming, “Holy shit! That’s Jim Hall out there! He’s my hero! And he’s playing his ass off!!! What the hell am I supposed to do when I go out to play!!!!”

John made me feel that same way whenever I played with him.

An early ECM promotion photo of John Abercrombie (Photo © by Robert Masotti, courtesy ECM)

An early ECM Records’ promotion photo of John Abercrombie (Photo © by Robert Masotti, courtesy ECM).

In spite of the countless hardships that life as an artist in an oppressive society presents, John never gave up his commitment to making music the way he wanted. He wrote beautiful melodies and harmonies that welcomed imagination. What a gift!

I believe that when a person we love passes, despite the traumatic, deep sense of loss and sadness, we get to keep the best parts of that person forever through memories. I am forever grateful to have been part of John’s life and music. He was one of a kind. An incredible listener. A truly great artist. With tears on my face and a smile in my soul, I miss you John.

Drew Gress, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron (photo © by Bart Babinski, courtesy ECM).

Drew Gress, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron in 2013 (photo © by Bart Babinski, courtesy ECM).

The Big Man with the Big Sound–Remembering Arthur Blythe (1940-2017)

Big Arthur Blythe, the big man, with the big sound.

That’s the way I will always remember him: big sound / big heart / big laughs / big personality.

I can hear him now, saying playfully, “You’re good, but you’re not that good.”

He had many phrases of playful wisdom, but this is the one I remember most. A reminder of his humility, he was not only saying that to who ever he was speaking to, he was also reminding himself to keep searching, HUMILITY TO THE END.

He inspired me and many, many others, a great man, with the great sound.

He will be missed!

Ed. Note: This Spotify playlist of recordings by Arthur Blythe is but a small taste of his output. But whether he’s playing his own compositions or finding new ideas in a standard, you can always clearly hear his big sound.

 

Arthur Blythe and Oliver Lake wearing matching outfits and holding saxophones.

Arthur Blythe and Oliver Lake

2017 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards Announced

The ASCAP Foundation has announced the recipients of the 2017 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards. The recipients, who receive cash awards, range in age from 15 to 30, and are selected through a juried national competition.

The 2017 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award recipients are listed with their age, current residence and place of birth. The youngest winners are listed with their age and state of residence:

Composers receiving Honorable Mention this year are: Lucas Apostoleris, age 23 of Miami, FL (New Milford, CT); Mario Castro, age 28 of New York, NY (Humacao, Puerto Rico); Andrew Leung, age 15 of California; Gina Ramirez, age 19 of Los Angeles, CA; Jordan Seigel, age 28 of Sherman Oaks, CA (Los Angeles, CA); Sara Sithi-Amnuai, age 22 of Los Angeles, CA (Australia); and Andrew Van Tassel, age 28 of New York, NY (Short Hills, NJ).

The Newport Festival Foundation will feature one of the recipients of the Herb Alpert Awards during the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival in August. The awards were established in 2002 to encourage young gifted jazz composers up to the age of 30 and carry the name of the great trumpeter and ASCAP member Herb Alpert in recognition of the Herb Alpert Foundation’s multi-year financial commitment to support this program. Additional funding for this program is provided by The ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund. The ASCAP composer/judges for the 2017 competition were: Anat Cohen, Keyon Harrold, and Yosvany Terry.

2017 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awardees

Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Ethan Iverson

Who will interview the interviewer? I’ve always wondered at the asymmetry in interview situations. As a cussedly un-hierarchical thinker, I find myself asking why one person’s opinion matters more than the other’s. This sense of discrepancy was heightened last summer when I was interviewed for Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do The [email protected]. Ethan is, of course, in addition to his role as writer, interviewer, and general chronicler of the music of our time, a very widely regarded jazz pianist and a composer in his own right, so it felt awkward that my personal history and opinions were receiving such marked emphasis.

Luckily Ethan and I have an ongoing relationship (unfortunately not a feature of most interview situations), so I had plenty of opportunity to ask him if he himself had ever been interrogated in a similarly in-depth fashion. Sure enough, it emerged that he hadn’t. Since I knew I had a guest-blogging run at NewMusicBox in the offing, I thought that a great way to top it off would be to interview the interviewer, to take the occasion to learn some things about Ethan’s history, development, and interests that I hadn’t known before.

As NewMusicBox is geared towards composers, we thought we’d take as our subject Ethan’s passion for classical and contemporary music, from the jazz-eyed perspective. If you didn’t know it already, you’ll see that Ethan has an extremely interesting and idiosyncratic take on new music based on years of serious study and experience from which I think we can all both be entertained and learn quite a bit.

Ethan Iverson walking across a roadblock in the middle of a street. (Photo by Jimmy Katz)

All photos by Jimmy Katz.

PZ: You were raised in the jazz tradition. What was your first contact with classical music? With contemporary music?

EI: These days everything is accessible. But back when I was a teenager in small town Wisconsin, it was so hard to get any information.

I was determined to become a jazz pianist. However I also could sight-read pretty well and played Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart at an amateur level. I didn’t have a piano teacher. I just went for it. There wasn’t much 20th-century music around, but when I could find it I read though the easier things of Bartók, Robert Starer, Kabalevsky, Tcherepnin, Flor Peeters, and Khachaturian.

In jazz I developed a real love of Paul Bley. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his great work of the 60s has the ambience and texture of modernist European classical music. It’s abstract, and his two in-house composers, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, had a modernist sense of flow.

PZ: It’s amazing that you had no piano teacher at all! Could you mention some specific Paul Bley albums for readers who might not be familiar with his work?

EI: The one I knew best at the time is Ballads. Closer and Mr. Joy are two other classic works.

When I moved to New York in 1991 to go to college, one of my first connections was you! You showed me Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg. You probably don’t remember this, but I gave a little recital at NYU of the Bach E minor Partita and the easiest atonal music I could find: Schoenberg’s Op. 11 and Op. 19, the Webern Variations, Babbitt’s Duet and Semi-Simple Variations.

PZ: I do of course remember that concert! It’s funny you considered those pieces easy, because in fact it’s a very ambitious program.

EI: Well, you are right, it was certainly too ambitious for me! I definitely didn’t play it well.

The Babbitt piece I really liked was Three Compositions for Piano. As you will remember, Babbitt was at all the new music concerts, especially if his music was programmed, which was all the time. Never lacking for gumption, I introduced myself and told him I had just purchased the score to Three Compositions. He gave me his phone number: the next day I called him and he gave me several corrections to the score. Sadly, it was way too hard for me to really work on back then, although I kind of learned the notes to the first movement at a slow tempo. Sometimes I wonder if I might get back to it someday.

Around that time my girlfriend got me the job of rehearsal pianist for the Gregg Smith Singers. The first day was Stravinsky’s Mass with Robert Craft guest conducting. The Sanctus movement of the Mass has an exposed slow quintuplet that used to be a serious rhythmic challenge to the average oboist. In rehearsal with Craft, I somehow kind of nailed that quintuplet the first time (probably a mistake as much as anything). Craft looked over at me and muttered, “Not bad.”

That tiny exchange was an extremely helpful inspiration: almost an injunction to keep learning about classical music.

PZ: That’s amazing that you worked with Craft! Do you have any other impressions from that experience?

EI: I was the rehearsal pianist for Craft just that one time, and I’d never worked with a conductor before. However the whole Gregg Smith Singers experience was great. Gregg loved all sorts of music, and in addition to a steady diet of modern choral composition he would give masterclasses in the Monteverdi Vespers. I asked a lot of questions, and he was always very kind. Gregg must have liked my enthusiasm for learning; he suggested I play Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments with orchestra at his music festival in Saranac Lake. I refused, thinking (quite rightly) that it was beyond my capabilities.

Through that job I briefly met many composers, including several that have gone on to be important in my more recent studies: Hale Smith, Louise Talma, William Duckworth, and Leo Smit.

PZ: So what direction did your continued investigation of classical music take?

EI: There used to be a dusty and overstuffed music store on Broadway just above Houston called (I think) Lee’s Music. Lee had piles of sheet music at discount prices, and I bought much of the standard piano repertoire there. Stravinsky’s Serenade in A was a key purchase. I vividly remember reading the opening pages and thinking, “This is my future.” Eventually I listened to every Stravinsky work. The other composer that had such an impact was György Ligeti, whose complete work is relatively easy to acquire and listen to.

PZ: Before your career took off with The Bad Plus, you worked for many years as the musical director for Mark Morris. Can you tell me how that came about?

EI: One thing that was clear to me in the 1990s was that I needed to keep working on my ideas. I was still planning on being a jazz pianist, but I was in no rush to try to crack the secret of how to have a career in that music. To make money I did a lot of stuff, especially playing in a tango band with Pablo Aslan and Raul Jaurena and accompanying dance classes at Martha Graham.

The dance class work led to playing for Mark Morris’s company class in about 1995 or so. Eventually Mark asked me to be the rehearsal pianist for a full production of Rameau’s Plateé. At the first rehearsal Mark played everybody the complete opera on the stereo. To my surprise, when I checked something against the piano, the piano’s A was more like an A-flat on the record. I had sort of heard that Baroque performance used a lower tuning than modern A=440, but this was my first time encountering it in a professional situation.

At the end, I went up to ask Mark about the discrepancy between piano and the recording. He was changing, and I accidentally caught him between dance clothes and street clothes. Indeed, he was entirely naked when he got interested in my question and offered a learned and extended disquisition on 440, 415, and the varieties of contemporary interpretation of Baroque pitch.

I listened carefully. When he finally finished I said, “You know, Mark, I’ve never discussed intonation with a naked man before.”

Mark gave me a wicked grin and replied, “Stick around, baby!”

Which I did: Not long after the premiere of Plateé, I became Mark’s music director [and stayed] for over five years. This is when I really learned something about conventional European classical music. Mark Morris has an incandescent mind. I have often said, “I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.”

I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.

In addition to watching his work every night, I got to play in the pit, and sometimes the other musicians were big stars. Somehow the very first chamber music from the standard repertoire I really worked on was Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style with Yo-Yo Ma.

Later I met Mark Padmore through Mark Morris and we performed Schubert’s Winterreise together a few times. To this day I don’t know why I got to have these kinds of profound experiences, but I assure you I took detailed notes while they were happening.

I have several more fun stories about famous classical musicians from that time with Morris.  Simon Rattle came to a gig in Philadelphia, where were touring the marvelous dance V to the Schumann Piano Quintet. Afterward Rattle was standing around waiting to talk to Mark, and there he was, stuck next to the musical director. Rattle smiled at me and said, “Nice rubato in the Schumann!”

Of course he was just being nice, but it’s also true that we had played the piece many times and that I (along with the other musicians in the pit) had shaped a fairly unusual version of the score that really clung to the choreography onstage.

By the way, by this time I had figured out I needed a steady piano teacher and was working intensively with the brilliant Sophia Rosoff. When the [Mark Morris Dance Group] went to Florida that gave me the chance to take a lesson with Sophia’s friend Robert Helps shortly before he died in 2001. I hacked my way through the Roger Sessions Second Sonata in front of him. I thought this was a good idea because Helps was a renowned interpreter of Sessions; indeed, I was at a Merkin Hall concert of “Helps plays Sessions” that was also attended by Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Garrick Ohlsson, and Alfred Brendel. After listening, Helps asked, “How long have you been working on this?”

A couple of months.

“I’ve been working on it since 1946.” He closed the score. “Let’s look at the Chopin études you know instead.”

It went on to be a great lesson and post-lesson discussion. Helps is still an underrated composer. His recording of Quartet (not the more familiar Piano Quartet, but the solo work from a hard to find Desto LP) is one of the finest documents of a composer-pianist that I’ve heard.

PZ: What do you think is the relationship between jazz and contemporary music? Of what value is contemporary music to you as an improviser?

EI: Many major jazz musicians know a lot about European classical music, then and now.  I treasure the liner notes the great Herbie Nichols wrote for his first 1956 Blue Note LP, which begin, “Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish,” before going on to cite Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Piston, and Bartók as inspirations.

These days I think there can actually be too much “classical” sounding stuff in jazz.

However these days I think there can actually be too much “classical” sounding stuff in jazz. In a master class I heard Paul Bley warn about this. Bley thought it was better for young jazz musicians to study Louis Armstrong than Alban Berg.

Indeed, it is important to remember that any Dexter Gordon record has so much more meaning and validity than most modern nerdy music-school jazz connected to formal composition.

Taking that a step further, in no way do I feel that the greatest jazz is lesser than the greatest 20th-century composition. Indeed, I’d argue the reverse. The best of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman with their most sympathetic collaborators is clearly the greatest 20th-century music.

Back to present day jazz: The Bad Plus recorded a faithful arrangement of The Rite of Spring, which in our rendition sounds like a lot of modern jazz except that the pitches are better. I can’t speak for Reid or Dave, but for me part of that was a little tweak to some of my contemporaries: “Look, if you want to jump in these waters, why don’t you hang out with these kind of masters, too?”

At any rate, Paul Bley’s warning be damned, I am committed to some kind of blend and can’t stop now. I certainly appropriate Stravinsky, Ligeti, Richard Strauss, Alfred Schnittke, and Thomas Adès in my improvisations.

As an American musician, I’ve developed a strong taste for the pillars of American classical music: Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow. It is astonishing how bad some of Copland is, but his best stuff remains essential. (In jazz we mostly reference Copland through the prism of Keith Jarrett’s appropriation.) Ives is kind of a must: he’s also an easy resource for the improviser. Nancarrow is a similarly obvious musician to spend some time emulating. (On YouTube there’s a version of James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston” à la Nancarrow. I thought that made sense because James P. was also a master of the piano roll.)

A more recent American master is Frederic Rzewski, and several years ago I created a series of “improvised” arrangements of folk songs inspired by his North American Ballads. On my recent recording The Purity of the Turf, I improvised a noir-ish “Darn That Dream” that has clear overtones of Adès and Rzewski.

PZ: What excites you the most about written contemporary music?

EI: In all the art I admire, there’s some kind of voyage of discovery. After a first hit of intoxication, you open the door and explore the work or the genre further.

On the other hand, I don’t want to work too hard. Obviousness can be a virtue, not a sin. Perhaps some professional composers regard Ligeti as “too easy,” but he’s just about perfect for my speed.

My tastes in atonal music have evolved. Now I like stuff that is chunky and theatrical. I don’t listen to much Babbitt or Carter any more, but I do listen to a fair amount of Aribert Reimann, Harrison Birtwistle, and Ralph Shapey, all of whom offer more discernible narratives than Babbitt or Carter.

Of course it is still very hard to absorb this music the first time through. It’s best to pick a single piece and listen over and over again. For Reimann, I’ve heard Neun Sonette der Louize Labé many times; for Birtwistle, I know The Triumph of Time very well (and also wrote it up for DTM); for Shapey, my standard is Sonata Profundo. After repeated listens the harmonies become old friends and the story becomes clear. This is a very rewarding process.

A lot of it comes down to piano music. I haven’t heard everything yet, but by the time I’m done I’d like to be aware of all significant 20th-century piano music. The dimensions of this marvelous repertoire are simply extraordinary. If the piece at hand isn’t too hard, I might be able to play through the simpler sections, audit a recording, then sight-read it some more. Of course I don’t understand everything about all the music I survey casually, but for my general output I don’t need to. It just sinks into the subconscious.

In my way I’ve tried to shine light on neglected corners. I produced a concert of three major mid-century women composers—Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, and Vivian Fine. I have interviewed George Walker and Alvin Singleton, and am working towards making an album of piano music by composers who interacted with jazz on a deep level. That project would include not just great black composers like Walker and Singleton but also Benny Goodman’s pianist Mel Powell and Thelonious Monk’s arranger Hall Overton. Ron Carter told me I had to be aware of Noel Da Costa. I chased down Da Costa’s Extempore: Blue, an obscure piano piece that is like a slower and bluesier Cecil Taylor. I love it!

The point for me, really, is to simply keep learning. Repeatedly playing Talma’s Alleluia in Form of Toccata or Overton’s Piano Sonata in concert has been great for me in every way—great for my chops, great for my focus, great for my imagination. In this category I must put our recent adventure with your new composition Clockworks, certainly a great learning experience!

PZ: What schisms in your mind exist in 2016? Do you hear any music coming from the younger generation of composers that you find striking? What do you think of “alt-classical,” if anything? Of the music that follows on the heels of any of the above trends?

EI: I’ve always wanted to stand out of the crowd, be someone different. Most jazz pianists love French classical music, especially Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. I have rejected that influence. I’d rather get my added-tone harmony straight from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Red Garland, musicians who prioritize the blues.

I don’t listen all that much to many young American composers.

So bear my contrary nature in mind when I say I don’t listen all that much to many young American composers—although recently I was exploring the work of Scott Wollschleger and Jason Eckhardt, two authentic and inspiring American composers who couldn’t be more different.

PZ: I’ve known Jason for years, and I agree his music is very heartfelt, full of passionate immediacy and poetry. I don’t know Wollschleger as well, though I remember being moved by Music Without Metaphor, which you played at your solo set at the IN/TERSECT Festival.

EI: Neither Wollschleger nor Eckhardt is alt-classical or indie-classical though.

Indeed, I’m not entirely convinced that the influence of Philip Glass and Steve Reich—both of whom certainly are geniuses—is always benign. The phrase “alt-classical” suggests to me adding an overt influence of rock to minimalism. These are tricky waters that might end in unconscionable banality.

It’s actually hipper for actual rock musicians to appropriate minimalism. Radiohead and Sigur Rós are perfect examples, not to mention any pop, rock, or hip-hop producer worth their salt these days. For that matter, The Bad Plus album Made Possible has some of those references, especially in the pieces written by Reid Anderson and David King. (Anderson’s “Seven-Minute Mind” offers kind of a Glassian bassline meeting the dance floor, with my piano improv being rather Lisztian.)

Jazz is American. The best jazz has usually been made by Americans. There is great fully notated music everywhere, but those born overseas have the richest heritage to draw from, especially in terms of romantic harmony. I already mentioned Adès, Reimann, and Birtwistle. Among the other living composers I wish I had time to explore thoroughly are Poul Ruders, Lera Auerbach, Hans Abrahamsen, Alexander Goehr, Magnus Lindberg, Wolfgang Rihm, York Höller, George Benjamin, Georg Friedrich Haas, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Tristan Murail, Benedict Mason…I feel like the more names I add the more I’m going to leave out.

Most of those fabulous composers went through the crucible of high modernism before setting into a mature and comparatively accessible style. They all also operate within their tradition. For the Germans, the ghosts of Brahms and Bruckner are blessedly present. For the Russians, the French, the Nordics, whoever, there’s a connection to an internal tradition of masterful formal scores and at least some kind of general audience attuned to that national language. For example, there’s a superb new album by Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century, which builds on the heritage of earlier English composers John Dowland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Herbert Howell.

It is harder for contemporary American composers to navigate personal identity, especially faced with so much indifference and lack of government support.  At this point our general audience “great composer” is John Williams. One step down in popular recognition but one step up among the cognoscenti, John Adams has been awarded keys to the kingdom and status as “our great American composer.” I mean, I like listening to both John Williams and John Adams sometimes—at their best they are awesome—but neither interface with the hopes and dreams of classical music like any of the living European composers on my above list.

The late Peter Lieberson impressed me as someone who found a charismatic voice while remaining true to the highest standard of esoteric compositional craft. After he died, I wrote a survey of his complete recorded work. Getting to know Alvin Singleton’s output was a revelation. Next up for my interview series on DTM is James Newton, whose formal scores are astonishingly beautiful. Singleton and Newton share a deep love for Mahler. I’d usually rather listen to Strauss or Bruckner, so their perspective broadens my worldview. There’s always something to learn!

Through Mark Morris I heard a lot of Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, and Harry Partch. Compared to conventional classical music, that’s all outsider art, and it’s great music, too. No one writes a prettier tune than Lou Harrison, although I admit I have seldom used him as a resource for my own purposes. The current composer making the most of that tradition is John Luther Adams, and I support the wide acclaim given to Become Ocean.

PZ: How does all of this relate to your compositional practice—specifically, what is your catalog of compositions written for non-improvising ensembles? What are your future plans as a composer?

EI: I haven’t written much for non-improvising ensembles. Truthfully I doubt it would be a valuable use of my (or anybody else’s) time for me to work on becoming a professional formal composer, although it’s pretty easy for me to sit and write something when there is a good enough reason for the piece to exist.

I doubt it would be a valuable use of my (or anybody else’s) time for me to work on becoming a professional formal composer.

I did write a short string quartet for Brooklyn Rider, Morris Dance, dedicated to my old boss, and there’s a piano suite without improvisation for Dance Heginbotham, Easy Win. A long time ago there was Kolam with Zakir Hussain, Yo-Yo Ma, and the Mark Morris Dance Group. I have a suspicion I’ll be working on something for Mark Morris again soon. Looking ahead to 2018, the American Composers Orchestra has asked me to write some kind of modest piano concerto.

My style in that world is somewhat neoclassical and dance-based. I write at the piano by ear, and only use some mathematical system for generating pitches when a lot of notes are required. A good way to get a classical group to groove is by writing some fun polyrhythms.

My piano technique keeps improving as well. Sophia Rosoff isn’t teaching anymore, so now I am enjoying a continuous stream of revelations from John Bloomfield.  Later in 2018 I will be playing the Schnittke Concerto for Piano and Strings with A Far Cry in Boston. I was reading the piano part last week. While five years ago I would have thought it was too hard, now I think it is perfect for me. At the least I certainly understand the style. Indeed, playing it feels like I’m playing in The Bad Plus.

In my daily piano practice I’m still working on the blues and rhythm changes with a side helping of Bach and Chopin; 43 is a bit old to feel like I’m not settled into a total groove yet, but I’m still taking in what is possible and making up my mind about what really works for my personal aesthetic. Mark Turner told me something once that I found helpful: “It takes us longer to be great now, since there is so much more to learn.”

Anyway, while I won’t rule out writing formal scores for others, I don’t see that process as a requirement to accomplishing my tasks. If a little ways further down the road I achieve some inarguably valid synthesis of jazz and modernist European classical, I’m reasonably certain that my own piano playing will be at the heart of that success.

A Man at Home On the Road—Remembering Mose Allison (1927-2016)

Mose Allison. (Photograph © Michael Wilson)

If you live, a day will come
If you live, a day will come
When the sun will shine and the crops will grow
And you’ll think that you’re a not gonna worry no mo’
But if you live, your time will come
Your time will come.

—Mose Allison “(If You Live,” from Mose Allison Sings, Prestige PR 7279, 1963)

I don’t know any musicians who don’t love Mose Allison. Like Ray Charles or the Staples Singers or the great blues and jazz artists who’ve stood the test of time, his appeal cuts across all musical boundaries.

—Bonnie Raitt (from One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison by Patti Jones, London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1995; back cover)

I got my first call from Mose Allison around 1982 or ‘83. I can’t remember much detail about the call and lost my records about six years later in a fire. But I remember him asking if I was the person who bore my name, which I answered in the affirmative. He then introduced himself and asked if I’d be able to join him at a particular place (which I don’t remember) on a certain date and time (which I don’t remember either). I’m sure I said that I had heard him in 1976 with drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Rich Gerard at the El Matador in San Francisco and I remember that he said George Marsh, one of the great West Coast drum gurus who I had the good fortune of playing with while I was in my teens, gave him my number. When I heard that George recommended me, I accepted the offer without hesitation.

There would be no rehearsal but Mr. Allison (who insisted that I call him “Mose”) assured me he’d bring charts and that I should bring a music stand. He hired a conguero as well (whose name I, of course, don’t remember). I had a few weeks before the date and, because I was familiar with his work, didn’t get as nervous as usual for me in anticipation of working for a new client. I’d first heard “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” on the radio when I was in high school (it was a big hit among folks involved in San Francisco’s anti-Vietnam War scene) and I would catch some of his sets when he played The El Matador. I was fascinated by the work of Addison Farmer, the bass-playing twin brother of trumpeter Art Farmer, on Allison’s “Parchman Farm” and “Swingin’ Machine” and spent a lot of time practicing with the radio where Mose’s music made not daily, but frequent, on-air appearances. So I was sure it’d be smooth sailing once we hit the stage. But I had a little trouble getting to the venue, a rustic restaurant/bar that looked like it may have been an inn at one time (and I don’t remember the name of it, either), and showed up fashionably late—with enough time to set up and play, but not much time to talk over the charts Mr. Allison—I mean Mose—wanted me to read.

They were well-calligraphied, accurate, and organized in a leather binder with two, three and even four tunes per page, which were each given a large page number. Instead of calling a tune by name, Mose would call the page number, either out loud or by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, which could look a little odd as the book had over 30 pages. To call the charts “terse” would be an understatement, they were the barest of bare-boned and meant to be read by one person: the bassist (of course, he carried a set of charts for guitar and other transposing instruments when needed; but they, unlike the leather-bound bass book, were kept in manila folders). The bass charts consisted mostly of chord symbols above slash marks, peppered with the notes that were essential to the tune as well as directions about when and how to play them. Mose was considered by many to be a “blues artist” and a large part of his material was blues—which he usually didn’t bother writing out, but rather leaving a space in the stave for directions like: “C-minor (or major) Blues” or “Calypso Blues.”

Mose wasn’t one to insist on how one was to play his music, other than the few indispensable notes in some bass lines and the chord progressions, which were very open to interpretation. But that wasn’t an indicator of a laissez faire attitude towards his own music: he was very particular about certain elements that he wanted to hear. The way he explained these elements to his sidemen, however, challenged some of their basic instincts. When we sat down in the club’s “green room” during the first break, he looked at me, smiled and began explaining to me what he didn’t have time to say before we started:

“When we get into the blowin’ during the blues numbers, go to the flat-six chord before the five, unless the chart states otherwise. And don’t play the third of the chord unless it’s preceded, or followed, by the other third.”

A nice way of saying that I had done the first set almost entirely wrong!

To be sure, I understood the part about going to the flat-six chord: instead of going straight to a G7 (if you’re in the key of C) in the ninth measure of the 12-bar form, you play an A♭7 for a measure and then play G7 in the tenth; it’s a tritone substitute for the minor-two chord (D-minor 7)—pretty basic, but jazzy stuff! But he could tell that I was a little confused about the thirds and elucidated:

“That means that if you play the major third of a chord in your bassline, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the minor third and, conversely, if you play the minor third, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the major third.”

I’d do my best over the next 30 years to follow that directive, but leaving out thirds for three sets can be tricky. Sometimes, when I made the error, I’d play the “other third” the next time the chord came up. That seemed to resonate with Mose, so I tried separating the thirds by a chorus, which seemed to be okay as well. When I tried to use the major third on one tune and the minor third on another one, however, he let me know it didn’t work. Once, when we were opening for Al Kooper at the Bottom Line, I played a chorus using just roots and fifths, first one, then the other. Mose, who was not one to heap liberal amounts of praise, congratulated me for the first time: “Ratzo, you’ve just inspired me to create a new rule: No alternating between roots and fifths.”

The bass players were in charge of the book during the gig and sometimes had to explain the contents to new drummers—when Mose wasn’t looking. I once booked Mose at a club, Just Jazz, in St. Louis with Mark Wolfley, a fantastic Cincinnati-based percussionist who I met while he was studying at the New England Conservatory. Since I knew he could read music, I offered to share the book on a tune he didn’t know. As I was turning my music stand so that he could see the chart, Mose, who also was a lexicon of off-color aphorisms, leaned into his microphone and declared, “No, don’t do that! Givin’ sheet music to a drummer is like givin’ whiskey to the Indians!” (Of course, Mark’s next drum solo employed a war-dance rhythm as its principle motive.) It would be a mistake, though, to assume that he had no aesthetic rubric to share with his drummers. In an unpublished interview conducted by Marsh, the matter is explored:

GM: How many different drummers would you say you play with in any given year?

MA: Maybe 30 to 40 drummers a year. I play over 200 nights a year. Most of that is scattered all over the country and Europe. Very seldom will I play more than a few days or a week with the same drummer.

GM: What things do you look for when you hire a drummer?

MA: The first thing I ask a drummer is to not play a back beat. No heavy back beat. And I’d just as soon not have the sock on 2 and 4. And I don’t like rim shot patterns where the drummer hits the rim on 2 and 4 or just 4.

For those unfamiliar with jazz or blues, the rhythmic patterns described above are considered the virtual backbone of the genres (the last, hitting the rim on just the fourth beat of the measure, is what happens on “If You Live”). Hearing jazz or blues without these elements is, for many, akin to hearing the music of Beethoven with no major scales. But, in One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, he goes on the record comparing the backbeat to “construction work,” suggesting that: “the backbeat is another form of pollution, bad air.” He once told me that he thought of the genre(s) that featured the abhorrent backbeat as “Le Blues Banal, with the emphasis on Le.” His reasoning was explained to Marsh:

Over the years I’ve come to regard these as “automatic marker” type things and being unnecessary. The concept of the drummer as time keeper is sort of passé anyhow. All the musicians in a jazz band are supposed to be timekeepers…. The drummer should embellish the time while he responds to the soloist. He … isn’t the sole proprietor of the time. For me the whole idea of jazz is for everybody to be swinging with the time. It should release the drummer from that role of a “mechanistic” time keeper who plays only automatic patterns and things. It frees the drummer to do more things. It also frees me so that I can go into different time figures.

I think that it was the “different time” that brought me to my knees on that first night. We opened with an instrumental number called “Promenade.” If you’ve been clicking the links, you heard the stately and relaxed original version from his 1959 Prestige release, Autumn Song with Addison Farmer and drummer Ronnie Free, which bears as much resemblance to what we played as lemonade does to tabasco. Comparing the version of “Swingin Machine” from the second paragraph above with the one preceding this paragraph illustrates their dissimilarities: the latter’s tempo is much faster (and gets even faster) and Allison is fairly free with the form, digging into an open-ended extemporization over the tonic chord until the time seems right and then playing the turn-around back to the tonic. He repeats this ad infinitum and finishes by playing the song’s bridge for the last time. Listen to “Promenade” and notice that, while the chord progression is more involved than in “Swingin’ Machine,” the blowing follows the same idea of playing over one chord until a cue to move on. Mose’s tempo for “Promenade” that night was at least q = 220 (compared to q = 118 in the original). We played it a little slower later, but never as slow as on the recording. It’s a fact that Mose Allison loved to play long solos at break-neck tempos—something that I can find exhilarating as well—but taking my first bass solo after accompanying a 10-minute Mose Allison tour-de-force was … humbling. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened during the opener throughout the rest of the set, which didn’t help with sight-reading his Spartan bass book. It seemed like every time I looked up from the book for help, Mose had a grin that was masking a chortle.

Things went a little better during the set break, after we’d talked about thirds. That discussion included instructions on what kind of bass lines to use on the blues: “Unless the chart says otherwise, you shouldn’t walk” (play one note per quarter-note—another jazz and blues signifier), “try to use something like the calypso [lines suggested in the book].” I prayed that all I had to do was channel Addison Farmer and I’d make it to the parking lot with most of my dignity. What I remember about the second set is that it went pretty much the same as the first, only this time I didn’t get sucker-punched by the opening tune and I knew some of the ones he called (or signed—he would save his best-known stuff for the last set; I assume to keep the die-hards in their seats). In other words, I had no excuses! When it was over he paid me in cash, took the bass book back, said “it was nice working with you” and was gone before I had the instrument in its case. I was sure it was the last time I would get to play with Mose Allison.

Which is exactly how I felt after the second gig with him. It was at Folk City on West 3rd Street in the Village. This time Mose hired Scott Napoli, a deep-swinging drummer who, as the saying goes, “makes it look easy.” He held me together for the two nights we were there. Looking back, I see that my problem was that Mose had evolved as a pianist since he made the recordings I was familiar with from the 1950s. In them you can hear his allegiance to the diatonically-informed post-bop “cool” school, highlighted by long bop-ish lines that displayed an even more confident command of melodic invention than his very capable trumpet playing. By the time I heard Mose at the El Matador, though, he was accessing the style less and, for all intents and purposes, quit playing trumpet (I recently learned that his horn was stolen and he took it as some kind of sign). By the time I got the first call he had pretty much stripped his playing of anything resembling even a hint of bebop cliché. I thought I knew what the singer-pianist Mose Allison played like, but this guy with the white hair—who sorta looked like Mose Allison and sang a lot like Mose Allison—played piano like no one I’d heard before. I started to realize that my strategy of infusing Addison Farmer into my on-the-job audition wasn’t going to help the job of accompanying the pianist Mose Allison (but I still dig Addison Farmer’s playing)! For the rest of the night I would be searching for the bailing-wire to hold together the crack (me) in his swingin’ machine. In retrospect, I know I switched to the right strategy: go with the drummer. I decided to examine how Scott negotiated Mose’s rules with the hope that it might help me imagine an effective strategy to deploy, should he employ me again. (Thank you, Mr. Napoli!)

For the next five years I was absolutely convinced that every gig I played with Mose was the last. I tried calling the bass player who I was ostensibly subbing for, Dennis Irwin, to ask him about his experiences, hoping to get pointers, but he would just start singing the middle verses of Allison’s tunes and the subject would change to something else. I was starting to hear the songs in my sleep because, like most people, I felt like they were written with me in mind. Mose had the ability to expose in the space of a chorus or less, basic truths about daily existence that most of us tend to ignore. He was so good at this that an extremely musically erudite friend whom I had comped into the Iridium Jazz Club to see us was so taken by the prose of Mose that, after he got drunk, he gave me a very nice note, almost a little letter, to pass along saying he needn’t worry, all will get better! For me, the songs “What Do You Do?” became an admission of my own inextricable part in the woes of life and “Hello, Universe” a prayer to the Most Magnificent that, despite all my concerted efforts, things are all right, while “How Much Truth” disclosed the hard evidence they’re not. But then, right after we played at the Bottom Line, where the new rule was invented, he said, “See you on the next one!” I barely knew what to say—and I don’t remember what I said. Maybe it was: “Cool, when will that be?” If so, he probably gave me a general idea of when he planned to be back in town and that he’d call soon to let me know the particulars, which was pretty much how things went for the rest of my tenure.

The Bottom Line was also the first time I accompanied Mose with Tom Whaley on drums. Up to then, and besides from Scott Napoli, he’d used Paul Motian (we’d later record two records with Mose: Gimcracks and Gewgaws and The Earth Wants You) and Jamey Haddad. I met Tom previously, around 1981, in New York City. He was part of the Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet and our paths crossed in the mix-‘em-and-match-‘em milieu of New York’s jam session network. My new “partner-in-time” had several years of experience working for Mose with Dennis Irwin on bass (they would also record with him) and he knew the book (as much as any drummer was allowed to) forward-and-backward. Tom had already figured out how to negotiate the terrain of Mose’s blues and piano playing, which meant that I could devise accompaniment strategies focused more on interacting with Mose in the moment and less about marking the progress of his charts. From then on it wasn’t about playing the book, now we could get down to making music!

Mose was a guiding light for truth, justice and the jazz life. He was serious, funny, swinging and always—always—himself. He never, in all the time I knew him, changed to please somebody else or to become more commercial. This made him a hero to many (including Van Morrison) who not only loved his hip musical story-telling but also his ethos. He was totally focused on playing the piano and making the 9pm hit each night with as much integrity as possible. He lived for the gigs and for the road. Recording was more or less a necessity, but it was the piano and the music that drove him. An honorable man, down to his socks. We will miss him terribly, but of course, we have his music to help us through these hard times. – Ben Sidran

The reason Mose played with so many drummers per year is that he was in the practice of using “pick-up” bands in the cities he played. It was a common practice, back in the day, for bandleaders to reduce their overhead by “picking up” local musicians, instead of taking a band on the road.

I don’t believe that Mose did this merely to save money. Mose became accustomed to traveling light early, since he was born in an era and area when and where leaders toured their localities with bands whose personnel could easily be replaced. These “territory bands,” although they waned in popularity with the advent of radio and the record player, were the norm. Mose was a jazz man at heart who mostly played with small groups and employed improvisation in his music and improvisers as accompanists. And he preferred his accompanists to not know his book as well as he did. He liked to mix-and-match his sidemen; it added to the uncertainty he craved, an uncertainty that kept the experience of playing the same music 200-plus nights a year as fresh as possible. Having a group of core musicians in key locations throughout the world assured Mose that he could maintain the sense of comradery that was essential in presenting his unique contribution to music, but it could (and never will) replace a regular touring band as quintessential to that end. This becomes obvious when considering how the tradition of jazz club performance in America has evolved (or, if you wish, devolved) over the last sixty years. Gone are the times when a jazz musician might play for several months in one location (the average now is a couple of days with many venues booking several bands in a single evening). The four- and six-week runs that were commonplace in the 1960s became two- and three-weeks long in the ‘70s and the one- and two-week runs of the ‘80s shortened to one week or less in the 1990s and so-on up to now. While this might be a godsend to a senior-class touring musician when it comes to getting one’s rest, it minimizes how much an audience can immerse itself in the artist’s live performance process. The ramifications of this are numerous and profoundly far-reaching, but what is pertinent here is that Mose wasn’t able to develop the same rapport with his bands that he could on the longer nightclub stays.

Mose did what he could to make the best of it. He knew that his repertoire was steeped in the blues, but it was a different kind of blues than the majority of what the culture machine considers “commercially viable.” For one thing, the instruments of choice for the overwhelming majority of blues singers who also play one is the guitar and/or harmonica, not the piano or trumpet. (For a long time, the most prevalent keyboard instrument for blues groups has been the electric organ.) Because the instrument(s) that one chooses to study profoundly influences the kinds of music one learns to play, most of the blues you hear are played in E, A, G and D: keys which lay well on the guitar.

But the home key of the piano is C and for the trumpet: B-flat, so a tune like Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind,” which was originally presented in the key of E by Bertha “Chippie” Hill and Louis Armstrong (many blues players and so-called “blues players” play it in A, G, and D as well—but, if you’re fact-checking the links, know that many guitar players tune their instruments a half-step lower) is played by Mose in B-flat and F, both very common keys for jazz musicians when playing blues. In One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, Mose gives the impression that he made a study of a wide variety of music, especially if played on the piano. Yet, while he data-mined Scriabin as well as Ellington and Meade Lux Lewis, he never resorted to imitating their styles. Instead, like so many of the jazz musicians he was exposed to (e.g. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, et al.), Mose took what was idiosyncratic about his playing and made it iconic, incorporating the raw materials found in the music he studied into a sound all his own.

As Ben Sidran alluded, artistic integrity was Allison’s bottom line, and he found that playing in jazz clubs with jazz musicians satisfied his (pun intended) standards. For Mose, who lived the first 18 years of his life in rural Mississippi (he was born on his grandparent’s farm), jazz was the music of Duke Ellington and Lester Young and had its roots in the playing of Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and (according to his biography) his personal favorites: Nat King Cole and Erroll Garner. (Mose called his first band the Nat Garner Trio.) But, while the genre blues (often, and I believe mistakenly, called “the blues”) wasn’t as popular nationally as jazz, it was ubiquitous in the area where Mose grew up and he was very (again, according to his biography) familiar with the recordings of Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, and Roosevelt Sykes.


I was lucky to be Mose Allison’s “regular” bassist living in what could eventually be called his hometown, New York City. (Mose lived on Long Island for most of the time I worked for him.) I was over at his home a couple of times and got to know his wife Audre and two of his kids, John and Amy. We played regularly at Iridium, The Jazz Standard and, while it was open, Fat Tuesdays in Manhattan. We did a stint or two at The Blue Note, Visiones (before it closed) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (before it moved to Columbus Circle). These were top-line venues for jazz in Manhattan and usually packed with fans (although when Fat Tuesdays started to go under, we played a few empty nights) ranging from curious tourists to the royalty of rock.

I look at my stint with Mose as having two stages. The first was when I was a hardcore drinker and the second was after I stopped imbibing altogether. As I stated before, there was a point early on when I thought certain tunes he performed were written with me in mind. One of them, Johnny Fuller’s “Fool’s Paradise,” kept me on something resembling the straight-and-narrow while I removed alcohol consumption from my daily routine, which included relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana from 1990-93. While there, I commuted back to New York to play Mose’s jobs there and booked two Midwest mini-tours for him. The first, in 1991, included two days in at the Blue Wisp in Cincinatti, The Place to Start in Indianapolis, Bear’s Place in Bloomington, and Just Jazz at the Hotel Majestic in St. Louis (where I tried to share the book with the drummer). The second, in 1993, included drummer Stan Gage, who worked with Mose in New York before Tom Whaley. We returned to Cincinatti and St. Louis, but the venue in Indianapolis closed (we were actually the last act to play there; now the room is called The Jazz Kitchen), so we played at a theater, The Vogue, and finished the tour at The Tuba Club in Kansas City. The last was an eye-opener for me: not only did the audience talk the whole time we performed, but at one point a customer sitting close to the stage lit a cigar and blew smoke at Mose while he was singing. That incident was one of the (many) deciding factors in my decision to move back to New York.

But working with Mose away from home was also inspiring. He and his wife drove out from New York to Cincinnati for the first date (and acted like they were on theirs). She took their car to visit family somewhere not horribly far away while he rode with me for the rest of the tour, flying back to New York from St. Louis. I learned something about levels of knowledge, attaining or not attaining them, and a lot about booking tours. (After the 1993 tour I began writing a song I’m prepared to never finish: “Don’t Hire Your Boss.”) After returning to New York I continued working with Mose, but I never tried to book him again. Instead, I passed along recommendations and contact information for new venues—my days as a booking agent were done. There was an incident, though, that forever changed my views about American music that should be related here. In looking for local support for the first tour, I approached the Indianapolis Jazz Society. They informed me that they considered Mose a blues musician and rejected my advances, suggesting that I go to the Indianapolis Blues Society instead. I asked around for information about that organization and was directed to the local radio station, WFYI-FM, where I should talk to Jay Zochowski, a champion of Indianapolis-based bluesman Yank Rachell and the on-air-host of the blues program, Nothin’ But the Blues (and where I hosted a show, Jazz Focus, throughout 1992), who agreed to interview Mose the day of our appearance at The Place to Start. But Mose was tired from the drive from Cincinnati and said I should do the interview instead. I checked with Jay and he agreed. During the interview, he inquired if we’d be playing Parchman Farm and, fortunately, I had already asked Mose about this because it was one of his biggest hits, but we never played it. When I asked him why this was he began with another aphorism:

It’s like givin’ matches to children. The Parchman Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a maximum security correctional facility. If you go there and ask, the inmates all claim that they’re innocent. Each stanza of the song is one of their excuses for bein’ there—the last one goes: “I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life / an’ all I did was shoot my wife.” As I went around the country singin’ it, people would come up and tell me how they could sympathize with me! Turns out there’s a lot of people who are into that, so I don’t play it no more.

For the next tour I approached the Indianapolis Blues Society to help underwrite the night at The Vogue and Zochowski was the person to talk to that year. He explained that, as far as the Society was concerned, Mose wasn’t a real blues musician so they couldn’t lend support. However, Lady Luck appeared in the guise of an Indianapolis jazz fan, Mary Rose Niemi, who generously stepped up to the plate to cover the event. I thought we’d sell enough tickets to pay her back and recover some traveling expenses, but we had an empty house. Zochowski gave us no mention on his show, and the jazz community wasn’t much help either. The Vogue doesn’t even include the date in its roster! I was bellied-up until we got to St. Louis. On our way to St. Louis, I asked him about whether he considered himself a jazz or a blues musician, since there seemed to be some controversy about that among music experts. He laughed: “Well, I’ve been tryin’ to figure that one out, too—good luck!”

I still resided in Indianapolis when we recorded The Earth Wants You, but the session convened over three days at Paul Wickliffe’s Skyline Studios in New York City. Wickliffe pretty much let the artists “do their thing,” mostly listening for glaring errors and watching the clock, but our producer, Ben Sidran, ran a very different ship. A pianist-singer-songwriter (among his many hats) whose work is highly informed by Allison’s, Sidran was involved from the project’s inception and planned well for the date. He and Mose presented thirteen tunes in four different settings: piano and bass with (1) drums and three horns; (2) drums and guitar; (3) drums and harmonica; and (4) congas and guitar. The first day was dedicated to recording Mose’s horn charts: Bob Malach (as noted earlier) on tenor saxophone with Joe Lovano on alto and Randy Brecker on trumpet. I had a bit of down time while the horns rehearsed their parts and spent it mostly drinking coffee and hanging out. On one trip back from the coffee machine I detoured into the control room. Ben was talking with a lean, dark-haired fellow who he introduced as Jon Paris, a harmonica player checking out the music for date’s final gathering. I believe, and the discography in Jones’s biography agrees, that this is Mose’s only studio recording with harmonica (there may be others recorded after One Man’s Blues was published, but I couldn’t find any). We exchanged pleasantries until it was time to record. On the second day, we recorded with John Scofield on guitar and Ray Mantilla on congas for half the session and Motian on drums for the other half. On the third day, I came in expecting to see Paris, but was introduced to a fellow named Hugh McCracken who, I was told, played guitar on a lot of sessions and “doubled on harmonica a little.” One of my shortcomings is names and bios and I had no idea who McCracken was. It wasn’t until I attended his memorial that I learned that he had a reputation for being non-punctual, showing on occasion as much as a day or two late. I surmised that this was why Sidran, anticipating a potential problem, had Paris there: as backup! The long and the short is that McCracken played great, the session went really well, despite the decision to use the recording studio world’s tightrope-without-a-net method of recording direct to two-tracks, so everything was done “live” without overdubs. I found a place to sublease in November, drove back to Indianapolis and packed my bags.

As usual, The Earth Wants You wasn’t a huge commercial success, but some of the tunes resonated inside the music community, especially “Children of the Future,” that couches an anti-war theme as an apology to children who come from “mixed” (aren’t they all?) partners from groups who are killing each other. Many are the times I’ve found myself accompanying someone on it. My favorite is the title track. It advances the blatant truth of “If You Live,” but with fresh rhetoric; it’s the blatant truths Allison exposed in his words that attracted me to his music in the first place. But don’t think he would fink on himself after cutting down a cherry tree, many are also the times I heard Mose say that he was proud of the song; but, when pressed for why, he would usually and deadpanly deliver: “It took me three months to find the name of a village in Vietnam that would rhyme with ‘done you wrong’.”

Mose grasped the obvious: that we are all victims of circumstances of some kind, but he was blessed with an ability to understand what those circumstances really are and cursed with the need to identify them in words. Despite his borderline nihilistic leanings, Mose acted with the knowledge that most of us are trying to do the best we can with whatever we have, even if that isn’t much. He set his moral compass to treat everyone with an even-keeled application of “do-unto-others-as-you-have-them-do-unto-you.” Although I was proud of our work on The Earth Wants You, I was not so proud of how the last Midwest tour worked out. I began to feel, once again, like the Swingin’ Machine may have swung shut, even though I was back in New York. But Mose kept calling with things to do.

For the most part I was available, but sometimes a prior commitment would require sending a sub, usually Mark Helias or Ron McClure. Even so, I was surprised when, in late 2000, Mose called me to do another record date with him. When he called with the particulars he disclosed that this would be his first self-produced, or mostly self-produced, recording project. Knowing that he was more in-control of this project than was his norm was a profound honor for me. Paul Motian would, again, be on drums, but this time the “guest” forces were reduced to two: Mark Shim on tenor saxophone and Russell Malone on guitar. And he gave me the introduction to the title track “Gimcracks and Gewgaws,” a 14-bar blues with no IV chord. Mose’s wordplay, like his humor, is subtle on this tune and reaches beyond the lyrics as he “drops” a beat at the end of his solo and returns to singing with: “Well, I guess I dropped it on the floor.” This was the first album Mose recorded since the publication of One Man’s Blues and could be said to represent a new chapter for him. Besides taking a more direct part in the financial affairs of the project, he presents new original compositions, except for “Somebody Gonna Have to Move” and records two “oldies,” W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Russ Morgan’s “So Tired.” The material is presented by quartets: piano, bass, drums and either saxophone or guitar. The one exception is his solo performance of “Old Man Blues,” a reworking of “Young Man’s Blues,” which The Who turned into a rock ‘n’ roll classic. The new lyrics tell a bitter downside of the situation Mose humorously addressed in “Certified Senior Citizen”: how growing old changes one’s relationship with society. Of course, he supplies the underlying reason: “The young man knows how to wheel and deal / The young man’s got that sex appeal / The young man is the man of the hour / Thirty Five years of purchasing power.” We recorded two ballads that impressed me mightily: “Texanna,” a lament to the grandmother he never met for reasons he’ll never know and the masterpiece, “Numbers On Paper.” While I don’t believe that Mose wrote anything with me in mind, I have a similar relationship with my grandfather that he describes in “Texanna” (he was estranged from his wife long before I was born, and the only person who knew him, my grandmother, wouldn’t talk about him). But what is impressive is how well Allison tells the whole story without need for programmatic explanations (like the one supplied here); with a fearless application of words that his audience may not understand: “You were taken from your baby child / But he grew into that same profile / Just a lonely photograph / Of my mystery distaff.” But “Numbers On Paper” is nothing less than an examination of the single most dehumanizing thing a society does to its citizenry: apply numbers to them. He opens the song by reminding his listener that, at first, we almost gleefully accept the process while at the end, he suggests that in the end, we’ve lost our identity because of it. He uses a bittersweet tone that had become more apparent in his conversation. About a year after Gimcracks and Gewgaws was released we were talking during a set break and politics reared its ugly, yet popular, head. I proffered my opinion: “it seems like these guys read 1984 and told each other, “hey, we can DO this.” Mose kind of smiled and offhandedly, “yeah, but who would-a thought they’d make it fashionable! And Mose, who was a fashion unto himself, was no fan of it! That was something clearly stated in “Who’s In, Who’s Out” from The Earth Wants You.

Mose memorized his book and composed in his head. He would work on tunes over long stretches of time, sometimes years, and keep it all straight in his memory. So I was a little surprised when he started to mess up his lyrics. (This link contains another coincidence that shakes my core a bit and I’d like to share: the bassist, Kelly Sill, is playing the bass I used on my first gig with Mose!) At first, he would just repeat a verse, which isn’t that strange; it happens a lot more than most artists would like to admit. But there came a time when he called a number and would start a tune from a different page. I knew the book well enough to roll with that, but then he brought in a tune, “My Brain,” and I knew something was afoot. He had gone on record saying that his tunes pretty much conveyed everything he wanted to pass on to his public.

One of the last times I played with him was a tribute that Elvis Costello and Amy Allison had put together at the City Winery. Mose and I played at the end of the concert. We got through it without any incidents worth mentioning and he conveyed his borderline nihilist philosophy to great applause. He brought his lyrics along as a safeguard, but he didn’t need them. But throughout 2012, his condition worsened and he retired from the stage. My last conversation with him was later that year to congratulate him on being named an NEA Jazz Master. I told him that it was a great thing that he was finally being recognized for his contributions to American Music. He intimated that he guessed they finally figured out how to get him to play for free. I laughed. I told him that if he needed an extra testimonial, I’d be happy to supply one. He laughed (I talk a lot worse than I write). I think that we knew that we’d never play together again. I would bump into his daughter Amy on the streets of New York and offer to come out and hang, play some, but I never heard back about it. I think that he had no interest in watching his sidemen try to convince him that everything was cool with the music, being with his family was enough.

When I look back at the great bassists Mose Allison used on his records: Taylor LaFarge, Addison Farmer, Bill Crow, Aaron Bell, Henry Grimes, Ben Tucker, Stan Gilbert, Earl May, Red Mitchell, John Williams, Bob Cranshaw, Chuck Rainey, Clyde Flowers, Jack Hanna, Putter Smith, Jack Bruce, Dennis Irwin, Bill Huntington, Tom Rutley, Roy Babbington, and Bill Douglas—I feel more humbled than when I did on my first encounter with him; so many of them are legend to my craft. The list doesn’t include the non-recording bassists, the ones he would call to join him for a week or two per year in their hometowns: Kelly Sill, Mel Graves, Rick Kilburn, Ron McClure, Kelly Roberti, Charlie Haden. We all met a guy whose words were prophecy and whose piano playing was so special that it rang in your head for weeks, months, years. We were part of Mose’s “60 years of on-the-job training” and knew that we were better players for the experience. We accompanied and created music for a man who was, for the industry we’re proud to be part of, uncategorizable. I, honestly, haven’t played a blues of any kind for 30 years without thinking about Mose Allison. I guess, if I ever do, it will be time for me to retire as well.


I want to thank: Ben Sidran for the citation that is included in this remembrance; Tom Whaley for spending hours on the phone helping me get my timeline straight, Bill Goodwin for putting me in touch with Tom and talking about Mose’s directions to drummers; George Marsh for sharing his interview; Amy Allison for loaning me her copy of One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, and for taking the time to talk to me about him when he no longer did; and finally John Allison whose remembrance of his father I’ve included below in its entirety.


A few Words about My Dad, Mose Allison

By John Allison

I often get the question, what was Mose like at home? My answer to that is, the man you see performing and the man you hear singing those lyrics, that is the man he is was at home. My dad had no hobbies, did not golf, did not play tennis, and did not spend money on a single hobby that I can recall. He spent his time listening to music of all sorts, the stranger the better, he did some yoga stretching in the morning and some Tai Chi that sometimes embarrassed us kids when we had company over. He liked to run at the track in his younger days, then switched to swimming and actually had a schedule of high and low tides for the Long Island Sound; the beach was just a couple miles from home. Other than that, in his free time he liked to cook and read books, many books. He made lists of “to read” books on small pieces of paper. Mose read esoteric type books with content about the cosmos, the Human Brain, books with titles like, The Fabric of Reality, A Field Guide to the Invisible and The Nature of the Universe. And yes, he did play the piano at home, but he only played repetitive hypnotic runs to keep his mind sharp and his fingers limber.

Mose was one of the least material persons I have ever known. He was not one to ever be seen shopping with the exception of grocery shopping. His entire wardrobe took up 5 feet of space in his closet, most clothing purchases being made by my mom. He called me long distance one time to tell me his luggage was missing and in his luggage contained his only belt. He described the belt to me in detail, hoping I could assist him in finding an exact replacement. I also recall the time my mom replaced our 20 year old couch with a new one. My dad’s space in the den was at one end of this old couch. The new couch was placed in the den and the old couch was placed in our foyer by the door awaiting a ride to the local Thrift store. When I walked in the door, dad was sitting on the old couch at his usual space at the end of the old couch reading his book. Mose eventually warmed to the new couch.

My dad never had much of a record collection. I started buying records when I was 9 years old. I could play a song over 40 times and each time feel a sense of elation. Dad was different, he listened to a song once and it made a connection in his brain, like a mathematical equation, and that was all he needed, that one time. That to me is very strange. To this day I have many favorite songs I still play over and over. With dad, one listen was all it took.

About receiving awards, I know Mose always has appreciated praise but never let it get to his head. He did not believe in the show off, look at me, I’m great, attitudes that run so prevalent through the entertainment world. I was with him in Sedona AZ when he received a beautiful Lifetime Achievement Award, he smiled and thanked those responsible then handed the award to me and said, “I am not carrying that on the plane.” When I asked him why he did not want to go to the Grammy Awards after he was nominated, he replied, “I don’t believe in renting shoes.” In reality he may have already been booked at a small club in Des Moines, OH, and Mose, after 65 years of what he called, “On the Job Training,” never missed a single gig.

Mose preferred the setting and intimacy of a jazz club and that is where he really earned a living. The record companies all tried to cash in and make Mose a commercial success. Mose wanted nothing to do with backup girl singers and A&R men arrangements. He wanted to sing his songs his way at the places he liked best. Atlantic tried to get him to Muscle Shoals, Mose declined. Burger King offered him a huge payday for one day’s work. He told me, “I ain’t singing about no hamburger.” Mom was not happy.

I knew a club owner and promoter that told me, “After 35 years of promoting shows, Mose was the only performer to ever to give me money back.” The promoter had paid Mose but lost money on the show. Dad gave him some money back, why? Because Mose was also interested in keeping his club going so he could keep coming back to play.

In 1989 I accepted a Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame award on his behalf. Mose had a gig somewhere else that date so dad wrote a little something for me to read to the crowd after accepting his award. It read:

There are very few places in the world where a person could have heard as many different kinds of music as I was able to hear growing up in Tippo, Mississippi. Also, the aphorisms, the ironies, the speech patterns with their exaggerations and understatements have served me well and are still a part of my dialogues with myself. If it takes a village to raise a child, then I was certainly raised by Tippo, Mississippi.

Ten years before Elvis got to Beale Street Mose had already been there, getting Zoot suits made for him and performing on keyboards with the BB King Orchestra at Mitchell’s Hotel, a blacks only club in 1947. Dad told me years ago that he first heard rock’ n roll on Beale Street in 1942 from the band Tuff Green and the Rockettes. Mose also remembered hearing a matinee solo performance at the Orpheum Theater by harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson that made a huge impression on him.
Mose was in New York City in 1956 playing piano with the giants of jazz, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Zoot Simms, Stan Getz and others. After a short time Mose presented a cassette tape to Prestige Records. The executives at Prestige loved what they heard and immediately had Mose in the studio recording. What Mose gave them was a suite of sketches, songs, evoking the atmosphere of his home town, Tippo, Mississippi. Mose called it his Cotton Country Suite, the record company renamed it, Back Country Suite. Songs from that era included; “Parchman Farm,” “Blues,” “One Room Country Shack,” “Highway 49,” “The Hills,” “Mojo Woman,” “Devil in the Cane Field,” and “Creek Bank.”
From that first record Mose was receiving critical acclaim from audiences and critics alike. Mose went on to record two more albums that same year. It was 1957. Today there are over 50 albums to choose from. My dad wrote over 220 songs. Most folks know four or five. My advice, listen to more Mose!

One of my favorites from his Grammy-nominated album on Blue Note Records, Ever Since The World Ended, is titled “Top Forty.” This song to me represents the way my dad looked at the business of the recording industry.

When my dad passed, he was comfortable and with family. We each got to kiss him, tell him we love him and that it was OK to let go, go home. So he did. No one gets out alive. Dad was 89 and his was a life well-lived. I only feel very fortunate and grateful to have had such a cool dad. I get to ride the turnrows of Mississippi and listen to Mose and I can do that till the day I “go home.”

Finally, a reporter once asked Dad, “You were socially relevant before Dylan, satirical before Newman and rude before Jagger, how come you are not a big star?” Dad simply and honestly replied, “Just lucky I guess.”

A Composition Competition and the Quest for Standard Repertoire

A few years back I entered a pipe organ composition competition. I have a brother who’s an organist and have written a bit for the instrument, so I’ve seen enough to know that the organ world is a world unto itself, with its own idiosyncratic concerns and ideals. So I was particularly struck by the fact that the competition required an accompanying essay asking the composer to explain how the proposed piece would consist of an “important addition to the repertoire.” I had to wonder whether this question had produced the desired results in the past—or whether, indeed, it would do so in the present, no matter who won the commission!

In fact, the more I pondered the question, the more I felt like it got to core issues regarding what music was about. Is music meant to be ephemeral or enduring? And indeed, are those two goals consonant with one another, or at odds? For those who take as their mentors, our sources of inspiration, and our measures of quality long-dead Germans like Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, perhaps the ultimate goal would be to write, like they did, something of value that transcends our era. But can one write a piece with the goal that it become “an important part of the repertoire”?

The overwhelming majority of music that’s being created today is, of course, being made with an entirely different goal in mind—to create a hit, catching fire with the broadest possible listening public in the moment, with no concern or regard for any kind of historical endurance.

On the other side of the continuum, though, is concert music, written for a very small, elite audience, a subset of an already-small classical music listening public. I have a feeling that every composer of concert music harbors a secret desire that their work have a life beyond its original premiere, that it be labored over, loved, interrogated, and admired by future generations. And yet most enduring works are very grounded in the specific circumstances of their origins (very few have been born from composition competitions!), and if the phenomenon of 21st-century concert music is going to be regarded at all from the rearview mirror, it too is almost surely to be seen through the lens of the peculiar circumstances from which it came into being.

Be that as it may, there is surely some kind of a continuum between the impulse to write a work that will be effective for a specific occasion and the impulse to write something that will stand the test of time. There probably are composers who only swing for the fences, who write for history exclusively, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

I often write for jazz musicians, and in jazz one writes for a specific player or set of players, for their unique personalities or voices. When I perform myself, the music is that much more localized, as I strive for a kind of unique sound in my playing that’s not intended to be replicated. So in that sense the music is not necessarily intended to have a life beyond the musicians for which it is written.

But when I write for a strictly classical instrumentation, I confess that I do somewhat indulge my more grandiose tendencies. After all, if you’re writing for string quartet or orchestra, you’re writing for a medium whose core repertoire is more than a century old. You’re automatically entering into a dialogue with the past, and have enduring works as models. So it’s natural to give some thought as to what it might take for your piece to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and even epochs.

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (www.flickr.com/photos/brownpau/)

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (www.flickr.com/photos/brownpau/)

That Elusive New Piece of Organ Repertoire

The desire to write a piece that would enter the organ repertoire is particularly apposite since, despite the tireless efforts of musicians such as Carson Cooman who proselytize for contemporary organ music—and notwithstanding noteworthy contributions by eminent composers of the last 50 years as diverse as Philip Glass, David Lang, Milton Babbitt, and Györgi Ligeti—contemporary works simply do not figure prominently in the organ repertoire.

It may seem difficult to define precisely what the standard organ repertoire does consist of, but I think a survey of organists would yield a broad consensus around a group of works all of which have existed for at least a hundred years. As varied as the pieces in that group may be, they tend not to avail themselves of any particular extra-musical theme, program, or “concept,” but rather are pieces that succeed as pure music.

What features would a piece that could make its way into the organ repertoire have? Again, perhaps a difficult question to answer definitively, but one can arrive at some at least preliminary answers, some necessary if not sufficient conditions for a piece to have a chance for lasting success.

For a piece that is at the center of the organ repertoire, in terms of its ubiquity, I cannot think of a better example than the Widor Toccata (originally composed as the finale of Charles-Marie Widor’s 1879 Symphony for Organ No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1). The piece may not possess the depth of the organ music of Bach, Brahms, or others, but it has acquired a permanent place in weddings and other services as the quintessential recessional and is frequently heard in concert programs as well.

A series of Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (www.flickr.com/photos/rexroof/)

Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (www.flickr.com/photos/rexroof/)

Based on a close look at the Widor, as well as a reflection on many other pieces that are widely performed, I have identified seven necessary conditions for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire.

1. Style and Stylishness. Works in the repertoire traverse a broad swath of styles; a piece apparently doesn’t have to be written in any particular style for membership. On the other hand, inasmuch as style, in the sense of stylishness, is the essence that makes a work stand out, that reaches out and grabs the listener, that commands instant attention, it is of crucial importance. Stylishness bespeaks self-confidence. Canonical works like the Widor, soaked through with neoclassical triumphalism and grandeur, are brimming with stylishness.

2. Substance. As important as stylishness is, a piece has to have substantive ideas, or better, one overriding idea that unites it through multiple transformations—the Schoenbergian grundgestalt—for it to endure. Schoenberg regards the idea, and the working out of the idea, as the highest objective, much more important than style, but I think this is overstated. Nonetheless a unity of thematic, harmonic, and melodic means is essential.

3. Integrity. Pieces that have entered the repertoire tend to have been written with a great seriousness of purpose, a fervent desire.

4. Craft. Exquisite manufacture is essential, from the micro scale of melodic construction and counterpoint to the macro scale of formal structure. There must be a kind of perfection to each event, and a perfect equilibrium in the flow between events. The work needs an inner propulsion that carries the listener forward from start to finish. This can—indeed must!—include surprises and the unexpected, but the “long line” of the piece cannot abate. In addition, it must wisely deploy the forces at its disposal and be effective for its medium. And finally it should be as idiomatic as possible, intelligently written for the instrument; it should be at least somewhat challenging, but never unreasonably so.

5. Simplicity. At the heart of every canonical work there is a simplicity. Strong, simple, iconic ideas abound. The Widor Toccata, with its repetitive keyboard pattern and very simple scalar chorale melody in the pedals, is the essence of simplicity.

6. Complexity. There must also be an element of intricacy that balances the simplicity and that creates intellectual interest. Simplicity has its limits; there needs to be subtlety and sophistication as well. In the Widor Toccata, the complexity inheres in the surprising modulations and asymmetric phrase structures, the form beautifully molded to create a satisfying sense of a musical journey.

7. Contrast. Also important are contrasting ideas that create a kind of intellectual tension. The Widor Toccata has less contrast than many pieces, but still there is dynamic contrast and certainly plenty of tonal contrast—causing the listener to wait with bated breath for the final return of the F Major.

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/)

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/)

Ananke—Need

I’ve outlined seven attributes that are prerequisite for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire. Looking at the issue through the lens of the organ, and the Widor Toccata in particular, gives focus to a topic that’s already potentially too broad to be meaningful. If you look at standard repertoire in classical music generally the variety is unmanageably immense—it’s hard to talk about the attributes of the Widor and, say, Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the same breath. Then again, the very fact that both of these works are still widely performed more than a century after they were written argues that things like scale and instrumentation are completely irrelevant to the discussion.

But, in attempting to dissect elements of works of the standard repertoire, I’ve ignored a factor that is less reducible, yet has perhaps more weight than the rest of these factors combined. It’s the idea of inevitability or need, a difficult-to-articulate but much-discussed sense that a piece must exist.

The ancient Greeks had a term for this—Ananke, a goddess who personified the need, the compulsion that leads to existence. Beethoven, that quintessential manufacturer of standard repertoire, had his own expression: Es muss sein.

Whatever you call it, this sense of inevitability may indeed have to do with forces completely beyond the control of the composer. How does one come to be a composer in the first place? For most of us, the origins that lead to our dedication of a great portion of our lives to an arcane art are shrouded in mystery. We all train, study, and prepare in innumerable ways in the hopes of making a strong, and ultimately a lasting, contribution. But ultimately the confluence of factors that lead to the enduring popularity of a piece like the Widor Toccata—which extend to matters sociological, political, and circumstantial—are beyond any mere mortal’s power to comprehend.