Tag: jazz

When Jazz Was Cool

He stands, primarily illuminated by the light from the screen reflecting off his trumpet. Cigarette smoke curls. It’s almost a cliché, but it’s real, and at the center is an artist who himself famously stood at a diffident point from the mainstream of society. He’s creating music on the spot that, as John Szwed wrote, “helped define the sound of film noir. It made viewers think the genre’s films had always sounded just so, with slow-walking bass beats and muted, slithering horn lines miming the characters on the screen–and underlining their emotions.”

In December 1957, Miles Davis went into Le Post Parisien Studio with film director Louis Malle and, accompanied by the rhythm section (pianist René Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot, and drummer Kenny Clarke) from his contemporaneous booking at a Paris nightclub—along with tenor player Barney Wilen—improvised the immaculate score for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). The result is some of the coolest music ever made.

Cool in ways that define and surpass the term. Yes, Miles was there at the start of the style called cool jazz, with the Birth of the Cool sessions, but Miles never played cool jazz in the manner of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, or even the proto-cool of Lester Young. Miles was cool himself beyond all music, and this moment, captured on film, is the ideal portal into this story; it’s the story of how jazz was the embodiment of the cultural idea of cool, and how that all went away.

Cool—you know it when you see it. Although it turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because cool doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Like sonata form, we have the advantage of hindsight with which to analyze the past and the self-consciousness that undermines contemporary attempts at being cool.

Cool turns out to be easier to define, or at least encircle, than many other cultural concepts, not least because it doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

What was cool? Miles, Steve McQueen, Marlene Dietrich, and Humphrey Bogart all both expressed and helped create the modern idea—a combination of social stance, state of mind, and aesthetic. Cool was Hemingway’s grace under pressure, insolence toward authority and conventional wisdom, the confidence and internal equipoise to present oneself as in but not a part of society, to exploit the Man without the Man ever getting his hands on you. Cool was action rather than words, the ability to do something that people, especially men, admired, and to make it seem both easy and alluring to the opposite sex. Cool was looking good without being fancy or fussy, cool was the ultimate response to existentialism.


Cool is an American thing. Its meaning comes out of African-American culture, and it is integrated with the enduring American cultural myth of the outsider. Thematically, that myth is most prominent in the figure of the cowboy, bringing social order and justice (through violence, albeit often reluctantly) to the chaotic frontier. The cowboy was essential to the story of the spread of American civilization, but always stood outside of it—he wanted to be left alone, like Cincinnatus, or else was half chaos himself, like John Wayne in The Searchers.

Cool is an American thing.

The era of the cowboy ended in 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed. The myth has never gone away, however, and it was gradually vulgarized by economics and politics into lotteries and supply-side tax cutting magical thinking. There was a time when the myth was prominently transferred from the legendary white, pastoral countryside to the multi-racial, polyglot urban setting of immigration and striving—hipsters, detectives, criminals, jazz musicians. This was the great era of cool.

The private detective became the new cowboy, Raymond Chandler’s man who walked the mean streets, disdaining authority while valuing honesty, morality, and justice, those positive qualities depending on the same sense of natural law that steered the cowboy. The private detective came out of his office, set some small disorder to right, cleaned up a mess, then retired to his sanctum.

The detective’s foe is the criminal, also an outsider, and while a vehicle for vicarious thrills, the criminal is too extreme for most to emulate, especially the urban, bourgeois movie-goer and consumer. Occupying an enticing, ambiguous, and tenuous middle ground, flirting with criminality while seeking to carve his own community out of society, was the hipster. Norman Mailer, in his 1957 essay “The White Negro,” called him “the American existentialist […] the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war … or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled […] the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. […] One is Hip or one is Square […] one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell … doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.”

As easy as it is to mock Mailer’s mysticism and his generalizations about and privileged romanticization of race relations in America, he does get at some key perceptions regarding the idea of cool in the overall culture: “In such places as Greenwich Village … the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip […] in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. […] jazz … spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, ‘I feel this, and now you do too.’”

Braid that all with the purifying and regenerative power of violence in the American cultural narrative, and what Mailer identified as the hipster’s self-conscious aspiration to the concept of criminality—the romance of the outlaw without actually being Jean Genet, the idea of making one’s own rules and laws, the vicarious thrill of the criminal or anarchist in narratives. Peter Gunn, now remembered mainly for Henry Mancini’s swaggering, driving big band score, was a private detective, a figure we can also see as an embodiment of American hipster as existential hero, operating at the edge of, if not outside, the law while forming his own, if temporary, concept of order and justice.

The hipster aspired to the state of the black jazz musician, who could easily be beaten up by white cops outside the very club he was headlining, as happened to Miles Davis. The jazz musician was the soloist, creating, responding to, and communicating mood and idea in the moment, the improvisation itself—especially in bebop and after—an existential art.


TV is now enjoying a vogue of being cool, but the great era of TV cool was the 1950s. You could catch Miles and John Coltrane on TV, and jazz was all over its soundtracks. That and the movies were the mediums with the broadest and deepest reach in popular culture, and they brought jazz to millions in America and around the world. It wasn’t that they had to convert audiences into thinking jazz was cool, it was that jazz was inherently cool and hip, and movies and television used that to signify their own place on a spectrum of style, and even rebellion.

Jazz movies had jazz soundtracks, of course, and ones like The Benny Goodman Story and The Gene Krupa Story were Hollywood productions around popular figures. But other movies, important movies with lasting appeal and meaning, had jazz soundtracks, because the filmmakers needed the music to underline that the characters, elements, and themes were cutting edge.

Here is a partial list of movies with jazz soundtracks. Many of them are easy to find on all-time great lists, and certain of them remain not only satisfying but also at the forefront of aesthetic possibility: Breathless, Black Orpheus, Knife in the Water, The Hustler, La Notte, Sweet Smell of Success, Touch of Evil, On the Waterfront. Leonard Rosenman’s score for Rebel Without a Cause wasn’t jazz, but the soundtrack to the documentary The James Dean Story definitely is jazz. (It was composed by Leith Stevens, who wrote the soundtrack for The Wild One with Marlon Brando. More on him below. Some of the music was arranged by Johnny Mandel and Bill Holman, and featured trumpet solos by Chet Baker.) On television, there was Peter Gunn, 77 Sunset Strip, M Squad, The Untouchables, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and The Naked City.

Watching these movies and shows, viewers caught:

The NBC series Johnny Staccato (it ran 27 episodes from 1959 to 1960), which starred John Cassavetes as the title character, a jazz pianist who worked on the side as a private detective to make ends meet. Episodes featured the likes of Shelly Manne, Red Norvo, and Barney Kessel (all, interestingly, cool jazz players). The hip, swinging soundtrack came from Elmer Bernstein.

Before the Johnny Staccato gig, Cassevetes made his film Shadows. The story involves three siblings, two of whom are jazz musicians, all of whom are part of the Beat Generation. Charles Mingus provided the soundtrack.

Godard’s Breathless features Martial Solal’s jazz score, which alternates between swaggering big band passages and Solal, on piano, playing the insinuating theme. The protagonist Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, wants to be like Humphrey Bogart, an archetype of American cool. The movie itself, and the French New Wave movement in general, stands on the shoulders of American film noir and the cool stance.

Something of a one-man planet of cool, David Amram played jazz on the French horn and was not only a pioneer of the Third Stream movement, but one of the few who successfully integrated jazz and world music into composed forms and structures. He was either a friend and/or colleague of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Davis, Mingus, Aaron Copland, Dimtri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Langston Hughes (a partial list). His film scores include Splendor in the Grass, The Manchurian Candidate, and Pull My Daisy (a Beat film narrated by Kerouac).

Marlon Brando, there at the dawn of cool in The Wild One, and later starring in A Streetcar Named Desire with Alex North’s score, was the lead in Last Tango in Paris (1972). Last Tango has a great, burning jazz score from Gato Barbieri. Brando is at the center of the picture below, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory. This was taken in 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram, perhaps catching a glimpse of cool disappearing over the cultural horizon.

A group photo from 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram. Marlon Brando is at the center, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory.

A group photo from 1978 at the end of The Longest Walk, a 3,800 mile protest March from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Muhammed Ali sits at far left, and at the far right is David Amram. Marlon Brando is at the center, sandwiched between Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory.


This was pop culture with mass dissemination and appeal. More people watched John Cassevetes play the piano and solve crimes to a jazz soundtrack than ever buy a jazz record nowadays. Overseas, the French New Wave was consciously trying to create a new idea of cinema, and for that they turned to jazz. Just Roger Vadim alone used jazz for And God Created Woman, Dangerous Liaisons (that one was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers), and No Sun in Venice, with the Modern Jazz Quartet. In Poland, director Jerzy Skolimowski (who once said about movies, “There must be boxing, there must be jazz, there must be a cool guy who has a scooter and meets pretty girls, and from time to time has some reflections”) hired Krzysztof Komeda to make the jazz score for Innocent Sorcerers. Komeda, possibly the most important European jazz musician, went on to score important Polish movies in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. More than just the style of the music, it was an existential political statement, a vote for intellectual and aesthetic conscience in a totalitarian society. Jazz was not just cool, it was the sound of freedom.

Jazz is no longer popular which ensures a niche in the landscape tiny enough to be inherently cool.

Jazz still is cool, almost by default. It’s no longer popular, which ensures a niche in the landscape tiny enough to be inherently cool. Hip things are happening in the music, but it’s so under the radar that painfully un-hip squares like John Blake at CNN turn out sesquiannual complaints about how jazz lost its audience, how you can’t hum along with the tunes anymore, how jazz should be more like the smooth R&B I hear when I’m driving in my Lexus—now that’s cool!

This has been going on for some time. There’s a story about Miles being approached by a fan during the ‘60s, when his music was loping ahead of every genre and convention. “Man, I could get with you back in the ’50s, but I can’t get with what you’re doing now,” the fan said to Miles, who responded, “Well, you want me to wait for you?” This may be apocryphal, and the historical truth of it matters not compared to the thematic truth, which is that the cutting-edge proceeds to cut, trailblazers continue to show us their backs as they move forward into the unknown, and for an important period of time, the movies sought to be at the edge, and so they sought out jazz.

Jazz didn’t let down listeners or the culture, the culture let down jazz; the culture got square. Look around for something cool, there’s almost nothing left. There are certain things that are considered cool, like industrial and graphic design, but those are inextricable from materialism and consumerism, the predominant -isms of our culture, the very type of thing from which cool in the past had deliberately separated itself. There are figures in pop culture who at times impress cool upon the world at large, like George Clooney and Walt Frazier, but they move in and out with seasons and events, and are far from constant presences in our minds and in the culture as a whole. President Obama is perhaps the only true cool person left, certainly showing that quality through the years of the most frenzied racist response to his very existence.

Jazz didn’t let down listeners or the culture, the culture let down jazz; the culture got square.

Perhaps cool is turning out to be a historical curiosity. It came out of African-American culture, which has always been at the leading edge (as well as heart) of American culture, and it specifically came out of jazz, which—even when it was popular—was counterculture before there was even a mainstream popular culture, with nice vines and reefer a part of the scene for musicians and music lovers alike.

Then came WWII and a host of social changes: continued African-American migration from the South, women in the workplace (and armed forces), the GI Bill. There was money, ideas, a sense of independence, and a massive number of Americans who had been under the authoritarian command of the military and left wanting to be “free fucking agents,” in the words of Beat poet Jack Spicer. Add to that the contemporaneous rise of consumer culture and the mass culture of television to amplify it, and a handful of giant figures bestride the pop culture landscape in the form of musicians and movie stars, and you had cool as a thing to emulate and aspire to, a thing that seemed almost within reach. But with the corrosive power of water, capitalism eventually subsumes everything. A reaction to the last, decadent stages of the tail end of cool, punk was commodified immediately. “You say you want a revolution,” was used to sell Nikes, and, largely because of Steve Jobs, making money through technology became the cool thing to do. Everyone has a hoody because rich man Mark Zuckerberg has a hoody, but Mark Zuckerberg isn’t cool; wearing a hoody doesn’t make you cool. James Dean is long dead, and James Deen is a pornstar. Humphrey Bogart weeps, while Mr. and Ms. Businessperson drive down the highway in their leased luxury coupe, searching for music that rewards their own success.

In an uncool world, where does a mass audience find jazz? We don’t go to the movies anymore, the movies come to us, on demand, more and more frequently pre-packaged for an audience that seeks the comfort of their anesthetic pleasure of choice. Contemporary hipster soundtracks reflect what has happened to that social group—no longer outsiders, their lifestyle of exacting consumer choice is as conformist as it comes. Exceptions cannot help but stir a feeling of nostalgia for what has been left in the past. In the great tradition of jazz soundtracks and the brilliant political paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View comes Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies. Made to be experienced live in a theater, accompanied by a film that is a fascinating exercise in propaganda by innuendo, assertion, and insinuation, the music runs with smooth intelligence through vignettes about government mind-control experiments, the Kennedy assassination, the faked moon landing … oh, it wasn’t faked? Are you sure? Ensembles and solos make meaning out of action, trying to make sense of the bewildering flow of information. It’s not meant to please; it’s meant to seduce, exactly what coolness is supposed to do. It’s enough to warm an old hipster’s heart.

Nicole Mitchell: Endless Possibilities

For composer/flutist Nicole Mitchell, participating in the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago this past October was something of a homecoming even though she has lived in a variety of places. She was born in Syracuse, New York, grew up in Orange County, California, and has since returned to Southern California where she currently serves on the faculty for UC Irvine’s Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology program. But Mitchell’s move to Chicago as a young adult was a transformative experience, and the activities she was engaged in during her years in the Windy City were what ultimately determined her path as a creative musician.

“It’s an amazing community that embraces the arts,” Mitchell exclaimed during her ten-minute monologue with music at our NewMusicBox LIVE! showcase which took place at the Harris Theatre, the second of three such presentations that evening. (You can see the first, featuring Andy Costello, here; and we will post the third, with Shulamit Ran, later this month.)

During her time in Chicago, Mitchell was deeply involved with the legendary AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization which she has been a member of since 1995 and for which she later served as its first female president. In recognition of her impact within the Chicago music and arts education communities, she was named “Chicagoan of the Year” in 2006 by The Chicago Tribune. But Chicago musicians had just as much of an impact on her as she did on them. Before she arrived in the city, most of her musical experiences came from her classical training and her years as an orchestral performer, but the many mentors she came into contact with showed her a way to think beyond the binaries of the specificity of notated composition and the flexibility of improvisation, confirming for her the endless possibilities that had already been instilled in her by her mother, a self-taught painter who was actually born in Chicago.

“She would take that blank canvas and create things that were a mixture of things that existed and things that never existed,” Mitchell explained. “She would draw a landscape of three setting suns.”

This sense of new worlds is something she hopes to instill using her own music.

“I can create new environments for us to come together,” she said. “There’s always something else we can reach for.”

In Defense of Jazz

Jazz, once revered as America’s classical music, has come in for a beating lately at the hands of popular culture. A music with its origins in the poorest enclaves of American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz rose to become a symbol first for a kind of celebration in the face of oppression, then a renegade cool, and—increasingly—an intellectual richness and artistry. How did it go from that august status to one where it exists in the imagination of American popular culture simply to be mocked?

How did jazz go from its august status to one where it exists in the imagination of American popular culture simply to be mocked?

The trend may have begun with The Simpsons, whose creator is a musician himself, and whose portrait of jazz is, if often critical, nonetheless loving. One of the main characters, second-grader Lisa, is a baritone saxophone player and jazz aficionado. One episode features a scene at a record store, complete with detailed renderings of jazz album covers in the background from Coltrane, Dolphy, and even Carla Bley. Yet in that same episode (wherein Lisa’s mother has to pay one of Lisa’s friends to go listen to jazz with her), and throughout that series’ long life, there have been many barbs directed at jazz, from comments like Bart’s grumbling “no one actually likes jazz that much—even the guy playing it had to take drugs” to the motto of the local jazz station: “154 Americans Can’t Be Wrong.”

A somewhat harsher reproof came on September 20, 2006, with Stephen Colbert’s parody of John Zorn. Zorn had just won the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and Colbert played a clip of one of Zorn’s more abstract flights on saxophone, followed by himself trying to make some sounds on the horn. Finding (as one would) the results not dissimilar, Colbert defiantly holds out his hand and, looking squarely at the camera, says “Genius Grant, Please!”

Some years later there came the out-of-nowhere broadside on an episode of the TV series The Office, in which one of the characters is sitting on a park bench with another, a woman who is upset and feeling stupid. Her sympathetic co-worker, trying to assuage her, ventures a non sequitur: “You’re not stupid…jazz is stupid.” To which she responds, “I know. Jazz IS stupid!” Sobbing, she continues, “Just…play the right notes!”

Even the comic genius Jack Black, married into jazz royalty as the son-in-law of storied jazz bassist Charlie Haden, got in on the act, devoting an entire album—an entire album, released on Columbia records no less!—to a humorous takedown of jazz. The two 20-minute tracks feature Black’s guitar noodling over an up-tempo rhythm section while he sort of sprechstimmes an absurdist rant about jazz, along the way mocking the emptiness of aimless improvisation and the genre’s inherent unpopularity.

In the blogosphere things have not been much better. A wickedly sarcastic blog appeared not long ago called jazzistheworst, intending to expose the current state of the music as one in which supposedly deep but actually intellectually arid musicians with an overly inflated opinion of their cultural worth are awarded grants of great financial magnitude, so that they might play for a vanishingly tiny audience of mostly music students. The blog is not as far from the jazz mainstream as one might think/hope—it is avidly followed by such important figures of today’s jazz world as Christian McBride, who seem sympathetic to its ideas.

Things really came to a head with the 2014 New Yorker piece entitled “Sonny Rollins: In his Own Words,” wherein Sonny Rollins, supposedly speaking for himself, regrets his wasted life, saying that he hates jazz music and that Miles Davis felt the same, among other things. “Jazz is the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with” is among the lines.

This strange, not-very-successful satire really got the juices flowing among jazz lovers. Much to the surprise of the writer (a part of what one might call Generation Onion, who take for granted a subgenre of spoof written from the perspective of a public figure imagined to be saying things they would never actually say), there were many jazz fans who simply didn’t get the joke.

So The New Yorker later published a disclaimer stating that the article was a work of satire (indeed, the piece being not that funny didn’t help the confusion).  Various pundits weighed in, some supporting the article and saying that jazz had lost its sense of humor, some saying that a Great American Art Form had been gratuitously slandered.

These may seem like isolated incidents, but they are not the only examples in an alarming pattern of offhand derision and dismissal of jazz in popular culture. Why are these media denizens suddenly picking on jazz? What does it mean?


Jazz-man by Enrique Domínguez (a porcelain figurine of a tuxedoed musician playing a double bass) www.flickr.com/photos/darkdruid/

“Jazz-man” by Enrique Domínguez

1. What’s Wrong with Jazz?

Jazz has been an art form in perpetual evolution, since its most embryonic appearances in the late 19th century. However, things changed significantly in the genre in the late 1960s, for three principal reasons: first was jazz’s growing awareness of itself as a capital-A Art form and the concomitant rise of an avant-garde wing of the music; second was the beginnings of jazz education, from play-along tapes to university programs, which marked the entrance of jazz, formerly a music taught through a kind of apprenticeship system, into the academy; and third and not least was Beatle-mania and the ascendance of rock ‘n’ roll, which precipitated jazz’s traumatic loss of cultural dominance.  The rise of jazz fusion, an attempt for jazz to regain its footing in the popular imagination, which, despite generating some interesting music, was overall not a wholly successful enterprise.

Avant-garde jazz, whose formation was nourished by the political changes and general freedom zeitgeist of the ‘60s, did not, by and large, share the intellectual substrate of much avant-garde classical music, where freedom was nonetheless constrained and wholly governed by invisible and inaudible—but no less real—compositional techniques. An effort to find freedom through emphasis on improvisation and tonally exotic playing was created and then sustained by some immensely strong musical personalities—first mavericks like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, then more centrist, galvanizing figures like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. With Coltrane’s death and Miles’s departure into fusion, and then from the scene generally, there was a vacuum at the top that was too often filled by epigones who profited from their associations with these masters to purvey what often amounted to a brand of musical snake oil.

With Coltrane’s death and Miles’s departure into fusion, and then from the scene generally, there was a vacuum at the top…

Meanwhile, jazz fusion and its commercial descendant smooth jazz, occasionally rising to the levels of popularity that were unknown since the days of Armstrong and Ellington, met with derision and scorn from the jazz establishment itself. This backlash was itself not sufficiently interrogated, as Columbia jazz scholar Chris Washburne has noted. After all, Miles Davis himself never went back to acoustic music after his initial experiments with jazz-rock in the late 1960s. But it’s difficult to argue that most smooth jazz has the musical sophistication and nobility of spirit of the greatest jazz that came before it.

As the ’70s rolled on into the ‘80s, a neo-traditionalism also emerged as a reaction to both electronic and avant-garde jazz, wherein musicians like Scott Hamilton and Harry Connick, Jr. would unabashedly attempt to re-create the jazz of an earlier time. This contributed to the perception in some quarters that jazz was a thing of the past, strictly nostalgic. And while this style of jazz continues to produce artists who are able to have strong careers (Gregory Porter and Melody Gardot would be examples), it often struggles to capture the “je ne sais quoi” of the great masters of the past that it strives to emulate and, whatever the case, it doesn’t really contribute to a sense that jazz is a vital art form, relevant to contemporary society.

A more “modern” but still ultimately traditional group of musicians worked in the aesthetic space opened up by Miles and ‘Trane in their acoustic, mid-‘60s avatars—the Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams on the one hand, and the Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. These musicians worked at codifying and building on the intellectual facets of their visionary progenitors’ work, and it was this strain that was taken up so wholeheartedly by the academy. But in the absence of the volcanic presence of its creators, the music began to feel less like a unified whole, thus more easily broken down into technical features that, in isolation, did become mockable—the way-too-long solos, the formal and harmonic obfuscation in the name of freedom, and the cascades of theory-inspired, virtuosic, but ultimately self-involved and uninteresting improvised lines that began to just sound, indeed, like a bunch of wrong notes.

The music began to feel less like a unified whole, thus more easily broken down into technical features that, in isolation, did become mockable.

As a musician coming up in jazz music in the 1990s, I was extremely sensitive to jazz’s genre-wide issues and had many more qualms than most of my peers regarding the music. Long before these pop-culture parodies emerged, it was vividly clear that jazz was not moving in a direction that would lead to broader cultural relevance. And indeed, the genre continues to thrive in largest part thanks to its increased presence in the academic context, a radical increase in foundation support, and the benefits accorded to specialist forms by the web and narrowcasting.

There are numerous reasons for this decline, socioeconomic factors perhaps foremost among them. But the jazz community does tend to treat its artists with a lack of critical distance. The great legends can do no wrong. There’s an odd defensiveness behind jazz lovers’ insistent idolization of their favorite players, as if they need protection from something. I’m convinced that this lack of critical distance has played a part in jazz’s decline. If we aren’t willing to see things as they truly are—if we aren’t willing to treat our greatest jazz musicians as human—how can the art form move forward?


Porcelain statue resembling Louis Armstrong playing a trumpet and wearing a cap that says "jazz"; image by jbarreiros https://www.flickr.com/photos/tintedglasssky/

“Jazz” by jbarreiros

2. But What’s Even More Wrong with Pop Culture Itself?

Okay, so we can all agree that jazz has problems. But does this justify the attacks to which it’s been subjected in the popular culture?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly has made me so uncomfortable with these critiques. It feels to me that in order to be critical of something you have to have something better to offer.

In order to be critical of something you have to have something better to offer.

I looked up the definition of “profound.” What makes something profound? Dictionary.com gives as its first definition “penetrating or entering deeply into subjects of thought or knowledge.” I doubt if the well-paid writers of commercial comedy shows such as those mentioned earlier, for all their talent, consider such thorough explorations of their subjects to be a goal.

This is manifest in the critiques’ lumping of jazz’s various and diverse strands under one umbrella. They necessarily gloss over the fact that there are so many varieties of jazz, each with its different strengths and foibles. Underpinning this is the idea that it’s okay to mock something one doesn’t understand. That encourages a complacency that’s completely at odds with any kind of spiritual or intellectual growth.

What all the snarky attacks on jazz have in common is a cleverer-than-thou nonsensicality. When the goal is to be nonsensical, any thought or idea is defensible. Down that path lies nihilism. Disconnected from any higher goal, unwilling to assert positive belief, much of today’s pop culture surrenders any claim to a deeper significance.

Jazz even at its worst is aiming for higher goals.

At least jazz—indeed, even at its worst!—is aiming for higher goals. Jazz music springs from a rich tradition, it is rooted in the best work of the past, and is tasked with somehow encompassing and expanding on that enormous intellectual and spiritual tradition, in a way that resonates with a culture of ever diminishing attention spans, of ever diminishing ideals.


Jazz by Lynn Allen (www.flickr.com/photos/lynnallen/)

“Jazz” by Lynn Allen

3. What’s RIGHT About Jazz?

If even the worst of jazz seeks depth and meaning in a way that quirky pop culture is at pains to avoid, the best of today’s jazz can be transcendent.

I’ve had the pleasure to work with some really wonderful artists from the jazz world, and the most successful among them—people like Luciana Souza, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, the great drummer Jeff Ballard, Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus—all evince an acute day-to-day concern over the pitfalls of jazz. These are not, by the way, the musicians that come in for a mocking at the hands of blogs like jazzistheworst. They take it for granted that engagement with an audience is paramount. But they also are daily trying to better themselves musically, to make the best artistic statements they can muster.

These musicians subscribe to the idea that the best art is born from a true humility, a constant opening of the senses, a constant attention to the reports of everyday experience, a constant striving for excellence, an obsession with not only craft but with wit, pathos, humor, charm, and ultimately with the highest artistic goals.

Let’s pay attention to what’s outside ourselves, and not just play for vanity.

So let’s heed the call of these pop-cultural armchair jazz critics. Let’s play shorter solos, and yes, let’s play the right notes! Let’s pay attention to what’s outside ourselves, and not just play for vanity. Let’s take a stand for what really matters, what’s really most important, let’s give only the very best of ourselves to our art. But in doing so, let’s know that we’re aiming to go way beyond those who are content to take others down by a kind of weak cynicism and a cowardly hiding behind absurdity. All of us, jazz artists and critics alike, can do better than that.

A Universal Music

“I hear what you are going for,” Hafez said to me. “You have clearly worked on this music and developed these Indian ornamentations within your improvisation.” It was my first week at the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music in 2013, and I was fortunate enough to get a lesson from saxophonist, composer, and conceptualist Hafez Modirzadeh. I had just played a solo saxophone piece that I had developed over the previous couple of years and my adrenaline was pumping a little more than usual. Hafez’s recordings were frequently on my playlist, and I was excited by this opportunity to study with him. After a slight pause to think about my solo, he suggested, “But you know the goal is to move beyond ethnic stylizations towards a concept of universal music.”[1] Universal music? No ethnic stylizations? That blew my mind. “That’s not even my idea,” Hafez continued. “John Coltrane said that.”[2]

I felt the thrill of the unknown. Prior to this lesson, I was fervently driven by a personal mission to express the hybridity of my biology and experience as a half-Indian/half-Euro-American person within my music. The search for stylistic confluence manifested itself in numerous trips to study in India and four recordings of original music that explored Indian concepts, environments, and sounds within my jazz quartet. Despite my commitment to an ethnic-identity-driven music, Hafez’s words resonated deeply within me. On an intuitive level, I knew that this was the next step in my journey. I had a deluge of questions. How is universal music possible? Is not music, like language, born of culture and environment? Is not each musical style a unique expression of place and experience? For years, ethnic stylization had been one of my favorite aspects of music. I treasured the diversity of forms music seemed to take across cultures. Could I really abandon an idea so integral to my identity? In a sense, Hafez’s challenge threw into question everything I believed in artistically. The nature of music itself—what it is, why we make it, and its function in our lives—may not be what I was conditioned to think it is. It was a life-changing moment that sent me down a path of inquiry, exploration, and creative destruction that I am still traversing to this day.

Hafez’s call to action was only the first of many revelatory experiences during that opening week in Banff, Canada. Composer/pianist Vijay Iyer gave me the first building block I would use to develop my ideas surrounding universal music. In a room full of workshop participants, he said something akin to, “Genres don’t exist. They were invented by record companies to sell albums. Genres are an attempt to categorize a community of people who come together and create something.”[3] Once again, I was confronted with a paradigm shift. My musical training, rhetoric, and artistic upbringing had been a world of categories, styles, and genres hinged together. I thought of the countless hours spent trying to play a style correctly and how often I seemed to fail in that goal. At that time, I was already bothered by the mentality that our musical ancestors had somehow received the divine right to invent and that all the rest of us could hope for was to imitate. Yet I was encumbered with the popular notion that I needed to “learn the rules” before I could “break them.” At what point were the rules learned and the breaking could begin? The goal of stylistic execution was perpetually in conflict with my interest as I attempted to occupy both worlds. I embraced Vijay’s comment. He was giving me the words I needed to articulate what I believed and felt all along.

I also tried to untangle myself from some of the ideas about art that hold us back from reaching our imaginative and creative potential.

Over the past three years I have thought long and hard about Hafez and Vijay’s words. It is a topic that I am always eager to discuss with the artistic communities I encounter in my work. Through this series of essays, I am excited to share the recent odyssey that changed the way I conceptualize and create music. Though the story begins in Banff, Canada, it crosses the globe to Kolkata, India, and lands in New York City. Inside these environments, I played music with numerous people and gathered experiences that would contribute towards a concept of universal music. I also tried to untangle myself from some of the ideas about art that hold us back from reaching our imaginative and creative potential. However, before I could start building a model of universal music, I had to remove a large obstacle that was in my way: the genre.

Genres Don’t Exist

As I ruminated on my Banff experience, I began to understand that the idea of musical genre is an illusion that ignores the plurality of ideas, experiences, and sounds that exist within a community. When a sonic experience is reduced to a category, we establish boundaries that inhibit creativity with notions of stylistic correctness. This approach creates myriad problems that throw into question the objectivity that is inherently placed on genre. Among these problems are two issues that I feel are of particular importance.

The concept of genre divorces music from the people who create it.

First, the concept of genre divorces music from the people who create it. In order to define a style, we homogenize seemingly congruent elements across people and time to assemble a grocery list of digestible characteristics. Jazz is reduced to a collection of ride cymbal patterns, walking bass lines, seventh chord voicings, and improvised chromaticism. Hindustani music becomes a modal jam within odd time signatures peppered with exotic ornamentations. Music that was once riding the crest of mutative feedback loops becomes frozen in time. What is left is a shell of compiled theories, historical patterns, and reductive features often devoid of the processes and unquantifiable elements of creativity. The genre now exists abstractly. It looms over us large and menacing as we struggle to determine if this composition is ambient or minimalist and if that improviser is playing hard-bop or post-bop. In our desire to identify the sound, we lose the nuance of each performance that made the music so powerful in the first place.

In his paper “On the Convergence Liberation of Maqam X,” Hafez Modirzadeh addresses the problem of defining and abstracting music:

Essentially, musical systems are neither bound to nor described completely by fixed, geometric abstractions (including scales or tunings), for they are developed qualitatively, through a personal relating to acoustical properties and organizing principles of sound not fully understood through a quantifiable lens.[4]

In this statement, Hafez touches on several critical points. To truly understand the art experience, we need to embrace the unknown. Much in the same way the ancient Greeks resisted the mathematical concept of zero in order to protect their certainty in a static universe, we depend on genre to bolster fixed artistic beliefs.[5] Modirzadeh acknowledges the existence of musical systems while simultaneously liberating them from the world of “fixed, geometric abstractions.” This embrace of the infinite offers an alternative viewpoint to the one fixed by idiom. The unknown allows us to focus on the infinite processes of creativity.

When examining art through the lens of style, we are immediately bombarded by another problem: what person or which group of people has the privilege of defining a genre and its characteristics? In the history of music, the role of the definer becomes a political conflict. Within North Indian communities, the term classical was often attached to raga music as a way to equalize their own complex and highly structured sounds in the context of colonial rule.[6] Definitions of jazz often illuminate racial polarity and social movements in the United States, while European classical forms often frame class and patronage systems. Who has the power to define music? The critic? The academic? The audience? The artist? In the book Forces in Motion, Graham Lock shares Anthony Braxton’s view on definitions of jazz:

The problem with jazz, and this is a point I’d like to stress, is that they’re defining the music in such a way that you cannot do your best. So there’s something inherently wrong with how jazz has been defined. They have it defined now where, if you think of writing a piece for 500 saxophones, you’re looked at as having nothing to do with jazz. Or if you practice your instruments to where you really gain the kind of facility you need, and create the kind of language that expresses that, they say it’s not jazz. Take rhythm. How many articles have I read about the fact that my music doesn’t “swing”? Yet all of the masters have developed their own relationship to forming, to rhythmic contours, etc. The situation now is designed so that jazz is framed in a little box and if you don’t follow in someone else’s footsteps, someone who is so-called jazz, then you’re automatically excommunicated. But all the masters followed their own steps, so it’s a contradiction in terms.[7]

Anthony Braxton immediately challenges the act of defining jazz and the limits these definitions put on creative work. As soon as a category gains specific criteria, such as the common phrase “jazz must swing,” the problem of definitions continues. What is “swing” and who gets to define it? Braxton aligns himself with the masters who “followed their own steps” as a reference to his creative process. This emphasis of process over product further contests the role of the definer as one that is actually removed from the history of the music, rather than upholding it. Ultimately, the act of establishing a genre risks becoming the act of one group of people defining the identities of another group of people.


Our society loves the illusion of a lone genius. When we dig a little further, we uncover the reality that creative work is born of collaboration and community.

Once genre was out of the way, it became easier for me to understand that music is about communities of people. People making sound, people listening to sound, people moving to sound, people navigating sound, and even people trying to ignore sound. In place of static and definitive categories what we have are people. And people are messy. People have fluid identities, can be unpredictable, and are trying to navigate an existence they do not fully understand.

When I started looking at music through the lens of human interaction, what emerged was a world of collaborations. I realized that my favorite works of art were born of very specific relationships that existed within a flowing spectrum of social dynamics. One of my favorite polymaths is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose friendship with C.S. Lewis was pivotal in his work. Tolkien once said of Lewis, “The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence,’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”[8] Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother Theo acted as patron and critic to the artist in addition to his familial role.[9] We could list creative dyads for the rest of this essay: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha. Individually these people are certainly hard workers and creative thinkers, but what struck me was the realization that their work was always collaborative. Our society loves the illusion of a lone genius re-inventing genres within a vacuum. When we dig a little further, we uncover the reality that creative work is born of collaboration and community.

A community of people

Hafez Modirzadeh student ensemble at Banff International workshop, August 2013.

This emphasis on human relationships brings into question the idea of artistic tradition. Tradition implies groups of people sharing behaviors over a course of history, so wouldn’t it be simple enough to replace the word “genre” with the word “tradition”? Yet this also falls into the same trap of categorization. While traditions encompass human activities, it is still too easy to define them as collections of static practices and performances devoid of the immeasurable nuance of artistic process. Traditions fall prey to the same questions that confront styles. They often take on a life of their own and are subject to the politics of definition. Every tradition was at one time a new idea, previously untried and wholly experimental. The process of someone teaching another person how to create a sound will always mutate the practice and performance of that sound.

What is left now that we have crossed out the words genre and tradition? Rather than upholding a tradition, I argue that we are really contributing to a continuum.[10] The continuum implies a process that includes the past, present, and an undetermined future. Instead of working towards a fixed arrival, it allows us to be the next segment of an indefinable shape. The continuum acknowledges that we wouldn’t be in our present state without what has come before, establishes the importance of the present moment as the only one that exists, and allows for a future of unlimited possibility.[11]

Continuum Model

In this argument against genre, I am not suggesting that we eliminate the words bebop, minimalism, or dhrupad from our vocabulary; rather, I am advocating that we change the way we think about and use these words. These words represent people who lived in a very real place and time. They navigated the struggles of life while creating, discussing, disagreeing, and influencing each other. Yes, past communities of people shared musical vocabulary, but each person’s use of that vocabulary was ultimately unique. This recognition that traditions and genres are simply people engaging in the exact same creative processes we have today is liberating. We are no longer obliged to contain our creativity within someone else’s box, and we can take the “greats” off of their pedestals and bring them back down to earth.

Aakash and Julius at Banff Recording Studio

Aakash Mittal and Julius Schwing in the Banff Center recording studio. August 2013.

What Music Can Be

What is left when we have eliminated the terms, groupings, and rules of style? Sound.

This break from categorization and genre towards communities and relationships reveals a universal thread that ties musical continuums together. What is left when we have eliminated the terms, groupings, and rules of style? Sound. It is so simple and yet is so profound. Hafez and Vijay were not trying to tell me to abandon all concepts of ethnic identity. They were encouraging me to see past the illusion of static categorization towards the reality of our nature, which is that we are making sound as part of a spectrum of human relationships.

This emphasis on sound was further clarified for me in a letter the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams wrote in response to the chairman of a graduate composition program. “My traditional background is sound—an intense love for sound and very little else. The power of sound will always be more important to me than any techniques, conventions or traditions.”[12] Adams’s prioritization of sound over genre allowed him to create imaginative works such as songbirdsongs and Strange and Sacred Noise that blur the lines between the categories that societies use to define art. His music often explores the liminality between sound and noise. Within his music, I hear rigorously composed designs that could be improvised or aleatoric. The process that Adams uses to reach the sound is secondary to the sound itself.

I was similarly struck when the mythologist Joseph Campbell said that “sound is the transcendent unknown”[13] during his interview for The Power of Myth. In simple terms, Campbell is addressing the importance and weight of the sonic experience without reference to genre, style, or even music. The word transcendent implies a journey “beyond ordinary limits,”[14] which can also be viewed as a “bottom-up” approach, whereas genre purports to fill the void with definitive answers where they don’t exist, which could be conversely thought of as a “top-down” approach.

Top down and Bottom Up Model

The bottom-up model is a continuum that starts with fundamental elements and experiences that build in complexity and direction over time while moving infinitely towards the unknown. The top-down model starts with a definition or arrival point and works backwards establishing a concrete path towards the destination. The top-down model is useful for many things in life, but all it takes is one hiccup along the way to remember you are actually traversing a continuum.

Without the boundaries of style, we are only limited by our imagination, patience, and stamina.

It is easy to confuse this denunciation of category with the abandonment of rigorous study and hard work. Where would we be without the hours spent practicing etudes, transcriptions, and paltas (north Indian scale patterns) that are so often tied to the concept of genre and tradition within music study? I am not encouraging a rejection of the theory and systematic practice that frequently accompanies the study of a genre. These elements are very important to numerous people’s creative process. Theories often provide tools, logic, and systems for creation. Rather, I am advocating that we prioritize human connections and sound when embarking on a creative endeavor. We can keep theories theoretical and open them up to examination and reinvention. This will allow us to explore the process from which systems emerged and use that process to create our own methods. Let us remember that at the core of our musical traditions are sound and people.

This viewpoint gives us an opportunity to enter a new dimension of creative potential. Without the boundaries of style, we are only limited by our imagination, patience, and stamina. Other people become fellow creators and sound makers rather than members of musical castes. These relationships create landscapes of human activity that generate dynamic and meaningful work. When this work is divorced from top-down constraints, it has the potential to resonate within our primordial being as well as design futures previously unimagined. When we let go of the need for genre and embrace the plurality of sound experiences and human relationships, we become open to “not just what music is but what it can be.”[15] We also take a step toward creating a universal music.


Notes

1. This is how I remember my conversation with Hafez Modirzadeh.

2. Specifically Coltrane said, “If you want to look beyond the differences in style, you will confirm that there is a common base . . . take away their purely ethnic characteristics—that is, their folkloric aspect—and you’ll discover the presence of the same pentatonic sonority, of comparable modal structures. It’s this universal aspect of music that interests me and attracts me; that’s what I’m aiming for.” Quoted in: Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. pp. 211

3. This is how I remember Vijay’s talk at the Banff workshop.

4. Modirzadeh, Hafez. “On the Convergence Liberation of Makam X.” Critical Studies in Improvisation, Vol. 7, No. 2. 2011, Criticalimprov.com pp. 1

5. Seife, Charles. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.. Penguin Putnam Inc. 2000. pp. 46

6. Banerjee, Prattyush. “North Indian Classical Music: Traditional Knowledge and Modern Interpretations.” Lecture presentation at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. March 20-22 2014. In south Asian languages it is called Hindustani raga music.

7. Lock, Graham. Forces in Motion: The music and thoughts of Anthony Braxton. Da Capo Press, 1988. pp. 91

8. Carpenter, Humphrey, Tolkein: The Authorized Biography. Ballantine Books, 1978. pp 165

9. Suh, Anna H. Van Gogh’s Letters. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2006. pp. 9

10. The idea of thinking in terms of continuums was introduced to me by reading Anthony Braxton’s interviews and writings.

11. I chose to represent continuums linearly for the sake of this essay. In reality, I believe they are even more webbed, curved, and more complicated than my simple drawing.

12. Adams, John L. Winter Music: Composing the North. Middletown, CT. Wesleyan University Press. 2004. pp. 31

13. Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers. Anchor Books. 1991. pp. 121

14. “transcendent”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 21 Sep. 2016. Dictionary.com

15. This is another Vijay Iyer quote that I remember from Banff.


Aakash Mittal

Aakash Mittal

Hailed as “A fiery alto saxophonist and prolific composer” by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Aakash Mittal is emerging as an expressive artistic voice. His self-released album, Videsh, has been regarded as, “point[ing] toward new possibilities in improvised music.” (The Denver Post) As a composer and improviser, Mittal employs colorful dissonances, meditative silences, and angular rhythms to express environments and spaces ranging from the American west to the dense streets of Kolkata.


Acknowledgments

Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and NewMusicBox for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. Hafez Modirzadeh and Vijay Iyer for their ongoing support of my artistic growth. New York City Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.

Adam Rudolph: Languages of Rhythm

It’s very difficult to categorize Adam Rudolph and that’s perfectly fine with him.

“I prefer not to adhere to the idea of a genre or category,” he advised when we visited him at his home in Maplewood, New Jersey, over the summer. “I think those things exist for the convenience of buying and selling.”

But verbal communication—by its very nature—often involves categorization. It’s how we explain things to each other and try to make sense of the world we live in. And making sense of the world we live in seems to be one of the focal points of Adam Rudolph’s life, even though the way he has chosen to do so is through making music, most of it collaboratively. He could just as well have become a philosopher—he even looks and sounds like one when he speaks—but that would not be hands-on enough for his worldview. As he explained:

[E]verything is vibrating in the universe. So, we’re sitting on this planet. We’re sitting on these chairs. We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit. By spirit, I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about mystery. Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration. But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality. That’s what you were referencing. The duality being motion and color, we could say. What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being. And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody. But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing.

Although Rudolph tries to eschew compartmentalizing music into different genres, he does acknowledge that music has emerged for three distinct purposes among most of the world’s peoples: an “art” or “classical” music which has “a pedagogy associated with it and a certain kind of codification of elements and a class thing about who consumes it”; a “folk” music that comes straight from the people, usually poorer people; and finally, devotional music. But he’s quick to point out that most of his musical heroes—such as John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, and Don Cherry—played all three. All of the musical activities that Rudolph himself engages in blur and merge these demarcation points as well. He has played hand drums and a variety of other percussion instruments both alone and in improvisatory collaboration with others (such as in his duos with Lateef, fellow multi-instrumentalist Ralph Jones, Moroccan Gnawa master Hassan Hakmoun, and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, as well as in the seminal Mandingo Griot Society he co-founded with Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso in the late 1970s). In the 1980s and ’90s, he composed for and fronted the quartet Eternal Wind, which incorporated instruments from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas; since then he has led an equally eclectic octet called Moving Pictures. He has also composed fully notated chamber works for a variety of ensembles, including the Oberlin Percussion Group and the Momenta String Quartet. Perhaps most importantly, he has established a new kind of orchestra which seamlessly weaves composition and improvisation and has involved musicians from across generations and the world’s musical traditions.

“I was interested in trying to solve the challenge of how you can have as much freedom in this spontaneous compositional setting as possible with a large orchestral ensemble,” said Rudolph. “The Organic Orchestra came about because these musicians were from different backgrounds: people who were trained in so-called classical music; people who were in world music, especially percussion—Indian, African, Indonesian, Middle Eastern musicians; and then people who wanted to expand their conception of so-called jazz, or we’ll call it spontaneous composition American music.”

While Rudolph’s multifarious musical activities seem almost by design to exist beyond labels, in his conception they all relate to one another and speak a common language—call it a language of rhythm or an acknowledgement, through music, of the vibrational forces that are always at play in the universe as he has explained, all of which ultimately derive—at least for him—in the physical gesture of playing hand drums.

[T]here’s no doubt that when the hand strikes the drum it’s a kind of sacred act, because it’s a motion. … If you took that sound and slowed the other waveforms way down that would even be a symphony. That’s what’s being informed through me physically interacting with the wood from the tree and the skin of the animal—the vegetable world and the animal world, all of those things are in the act of playing the hand drums. … It absolutely has informed who I am as an artist and as a person. So it manifests when I write a through-composed string quartet, that activity, the physicality of it. I think about my music as a kind of yoga. … [T]ension and release, moving through different colors, all of these different processes inform one another.


Adam Rudolph in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Rudolph’s home in Maplewood, New Jersey
July 15, 2016—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  World music is a label that gets attached to you for a variety of reasons, so I was wondering how you feel about that term.

Adam Rudolph:  I prefer not to adhere to the idea of a genre or category.  I think those things exist for the convenience of buying and selling.  You can go to the fresh vegetable section of the grocery store or the dairy section.  It’s like that.  When I started being interested in doing research and performing in an arena that is now referred to as world music, there was no term like that. But I like even less the word jazz, which has also been attached to my music.  So I don’t know.  We all live in the world.

FJO:  You grew up in Chicago. What was the first music you were exposed to there and how did you get connected to it to the point of wanting to make music yourself? What initially sparked your passion?

AR:  My father was a music lover in the best sense of the word. All his life, he went to at least four or five concerts a week.  Always.  He had an LP collection and it was enormous. He had all kinds of music up until probably 1955 when I was born, when I think maybe he had to start buying diapers instead of LPs.  He also took me to hear Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Mongo Santamaria, and Max Roach and quite often to the Chicago Symphony just at the tail end of when Fritz Reiner was conducting.

I did some classical piano as a child with a teacher who was uninspiring for me.  But I came to have a passion for music and a real relationship to it myself.  It was something I wanted to do.  When I was 14, I lived in a neighborhood on the South Side called Hyde Park.  Steve McCall lived a couple of doors down from me.  Henry Threadgill lived on 56th Street.  Most of the AACM members were my neighbors.  Leroy Jenkins was good friends with my high school music teacher, so a lot of those musicians played at our high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. And they also played around the neighborhood.  Also great artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, and Muddy Waters lived nearby.  On Sunday afternoons, you could go to the Checkerboard Lounge and just listen if you were under age.  So I used to go to the Checkerboard and I took some real life-long lessons from experiencing that music.

Being around the AACM musicians really showed me a lot about the idea that whatever you can imagine your music to be, if you have the facility, you can do it.  And not only the facility, but the courage to really pursue whatever it is your vision is.  On 55th Street, there were a lot of drummers playing hand drums.  It wasn’t Caribbean drumming.  I would call it African American Folkloric Indigenous drumming.  I just really enjoyed it and when I sat down, these drummers were really generous with me.  After hanging out all day, they’d let you play.  And it was something that called to me, and came to me.  So that’s how I got involved in playing hand drums.

Later on I did a lot of study and travel, but right from the get go, I was interested in developing my own language and way of approaching hand drums to play the music that I was interested in because I was also listening to the Art Ensemble and to John Coltrane, and then Bitches Brew came out.  So it was a completely intuitive idea.  There wasn’t really a precedent of somebody I could look to who could play that way, so it’s always been for me a process of being self-taught and self-directed in terms of what I’ve developed on my hand drums.   And that expanded into my compositional approach.  Hyde Park, the South Side of Chicago, in the late-‘60s, early-‘70s was an incredibly fertile place.  These hand drummers I was playing with, many of them were part of a group called The Pharaohs, which had come out of Phil Cohran, who had come out of Sun Ra.  Then a lot of drummers with The Pharaohs actually later became members of Earth, Wind & Fire.  So there’s all this incredible history and cultural vibrancy that was going on at that time.

Some of the many hand drums in Adam Rudolph's studio.

FJO:  One of the musicians you mentioned being taken to hear live by your father was Max Roach. He seems like someone who could have been an important role model for you.  The reason I wanted to ask you what first sparked your passion for music was to get a sense of what aspect spoke to you first. Many people say that before they started making their own music, there were certain melodies they heard—either live or on recordings—that they latched on to. Others have spoken specifically about certain sonorities, instruments, or the sheer power of the sound. And then there are folks who were captivated by rhythms, harmonies, even bass lines.  But the way many people are taught about music initially is that there’s a melody and then everything underneath it.  But music is much more than that.  It’s all of these components.  On your website you include an autobiographic essay in which you mention vibrations being the prime thing that brought you to music. But I think, and maybe you’ll debate with me on this, that vibrations are perhaps an ur-concept that then trickles down first to rhythm, and then to everything else.  Putting rhythm first is about looking at music in terms of how it happens in time and in pulsation.  In Western classical music, the role of percussionists has mostly been marginalized. The role of even the most prominent orchestral percussion instrument, timpani, is mostly just as an embellishment in the repertoire. In jazz, the drummer has historically been a core member of a combo or a big band, but was usually still a side man. Then Max Roach came along and was the leader of his own groups. He really foregrounded the element of percussion to the point where when you listen to a Max Roach solo, he’s playing melodies on his drum set.  Art Blakey, too, and as the leader of the Jazz Messengers, he nurtured generations of musicians. You described the epiphany you had with the hand drummers, so clearly you were responding to the physicality of percussion and rhythm.

AR:  You’ve said a lot of really interesting things.  There’s a great quote of Max Roach that I can paraphrase that resonates with me today: “I’d rather be a musician than a drummer, and I’d rather be an artist than a musician.”  That’s always been very inspirational to me and it’s what I strive to do.  There are a lot of great musicians, but not everybody has a vision about what they want to do.  He did, clearly.

But the other way to respond to what you’re talking about is that our culture in some ways is sort of this upside down world.  When I lived in Ghana in 1977, I experienced what people call a “master drummer.” It meant that you had a significant understanding of a lot more than just playing music.  Often times the people actually looked to the drummers as sort of a moral compass and people who approach things with a certain kind of ethic.  They understood about the virtuosity of what they did in resonance with the functionality of what you were trying to do.  Like if you’re trying to call down spirits, or help somebody pass beyond life into what comes next, or come from what came before into life.  All of these kinds of things.  You have to have a really deep understanding of that.  It’s very inspirational to think about that idea.

Whereas here there’s a sort of denial of the idea of rhythm. I think it’s related to the history of slavery and racism. But even beyond that, I think it goes to the roots of European so-called classical music. It has to do with the denial of the idea of the play of Shiva and Shakti—the male and female energies—which has to do with sex, the fundamental thing from which everything happens and is created and born.  I think that denial or repression of rhythm in European classical or upper class music was also transferred over here.  In this so-called jazz world, there’s this upside down idea that Elvin Jones was accompanying John Coltrane, or Tony Williams was accompanying Miles Davis.  That’s not how it worked, and that’s not even how they themselves thought about it.  Coltrane could never have done what he did without being in dialogue with Elvin Jones.  And vice versa.  One time I was at Ornette Coleman’s house, and we were listening to a duet record that Yusef Lateef and I had done, because he loved Yusef and his playing, and he said, “It sounds like Yusef is accompanying you.”  And I knew exactly what he meant.  It wasn’t that I was out front or anything like that, but we were in a real dialogue.  And actually I think during that period of the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially after Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, there was a certain kind of codification of instrumentation and functionality of what the instruments did.  Yet even when you go back before Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, there’s much more of this sense of dialogue going on.  But let’s be clear: the drums were banned here.  And there’s still a stigma about it.  I mean, every pianist can be a band leader and go out and front.  But for a drummer, it’s difficult. Beyond that, for a hand drummer, it’s even something else again.

More of the drums and other hand percussion instruments in Adam Rudolph's studio

People have fixed ideas about what they know—about genres, what’s expected of you, and who’s allowed to do what or what should be doing what, or whatever.  To me, the creative impulse goes back to when I was 14 and this intuitive idea of developing my own language on hand drums to play the music that really fascinated me and that I started to imagine.  I didn’t really know what that was going to be, but it’s amazing because now, going on 40-plus years later, it still is serving me, and I’m still pursuing that.  The idea of the cultivation of intuition is very important because there is this interplay, of course, between the intellect and intuition.  But, a lot of times, the cultivation of the intuition itself is fascinating.

To address something else you said—because you actually said a lot—when I was talking about vibration, what I mean is that everything is vibrating in the universe.  So, we’re sitting on this planet.  We’re sitting on these chairs.  We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit.  By spirit, I’m not talking about religion.  I’m talking about mystery.  Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration.  But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality.  That’s what you were referencing.  The duality being motion and color, we could say.  What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being.  And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody.  But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing.  And they relate to each other in a very specific way because when you move into dimensionality, the overtone of the [perfect] fifth is the overtone that gives you the dimensionality of all the pitches possible.  In rhythm, it’s the three and the two element which gives you all the potentiality of rhythms, both horizontally and vertically.  So it’s very interesting because three and two is the sonic relationship of the fifth [3:2], so that’s the same thing.

In 1977, I went up to the Dogon. I stayed in a village called Sanga, which was not so easy to get to then, and I started to learn about the Dogon philosophy.  The female energy they call tolo and the male energy they call nya. They have a proverb that roughly translates, “Everything is a marriage and an interplay between male and female energy.”  So Tolo/Nya, Shiva/Shakti, Ying/Yang, this kind of thing.  Again, we’re into this idea of this energy that becomes creative.  As I said before about the harmonic series, you have a linearity of the octave, but as soon as you have the fifth, the next overtone, that opens it up to the fifth of the fifth of the fifth, the circle of fifths, and the pentatonic scale.  Everything becomes possible, so that three and two, that male-female energy, is very interesting.  Those manifestations of vibration are really significant.  Now why is that important?  It’s important to me because as a composer, as a spontaneous composer and a writing composer, I’m interested in elements.  These are the most pure elements.  I read a book by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace, and in it, he’s talking about theoretical physics where there are 11 dimensions.  What’s interesting is as you move into the higher dimensions, the laws of physics become simpler and simpler.  And I think this is true in music, too, as we move from style into elements.  And it’s liberating to me. It’s a full circle back to Max Roach and this idea of being an artist and what is your vision of what that could be. How that manifests in this culture, in this time and place, is a challenge for many of us in a lot of different kinds of ways.

The doorway into Adam Rudolph's sitting and listening room.

FJO:  I’ve never heard such a succinct correlation between the rise of Western classical music and the suppression of sexuality.  I’m curious about how these relationships play out in other cultural paradigms.  I’m thinking about the North Indian and South Indian classical music traditions where there’s either a vocalist or a melodic instrument in a musical dialogue with a percussionist. They are equal partners to some extent, but there’s still an idea that the musician playing the melodies of the raga is somehow the lead soloist and that the tabla or mridangam player is the accompanist. So even though they feed off of each other, there is a perceived hierarchy.  But then when you get to Africa and all the various musical cultures there, whether it’s the Manding culture that spans from Senegal and Gambia through Mali or the traditional culture of the Shona in Zimbabwe, that hierarchy is largely eroded. In other places, such as Ghana where you spoke of master drummers, the hierarchy is completely flipped. The principal drummer is the central figure.

You could say there’s three kinds of music—classical music, folk music, and devotional music.  John Coltrane played all three.  Yusef Lateef played all three.  Don Cherry played all three.

AR:  I personally don’t believe in class systems, in music anyway—you know, hierarchies.  What I think you’re talking about is actually true in Africa. And the diaspora—we grew up in it, all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not. If you’re fans of James Brown or ZZ Top, you’re basically listening to music that traces its origins back to the Aka and the Babenzelli and the Mbuti, which is where I personally feel is the root of all of that kind of conception—a rhythmic conception that deals with what I call ostinatos of circularity.  And that provides a kind of lift.

Actually when you look at it, you could say there’s three kinds of music—classical music, folk music, and devotional music.  John Coltrane played all three.  Yusef Lateef played all three.  Don Cherry played all three.  But these are not distinct; there are all these overlaps.  So even in India, for example, this hierarchy of the melodic soloist over the drums does not exist in the folk music.  In a lot of the devotional music, too, drums are very, very important—the whole thing about circularity and lifting of the moment.  I studied tabla for over 20 years, and I used to be able to play a one-hour solo in matta tal, an 18-beat cycle. My teacher, Pandit Taranath Rao, shared that with me.  There is an elevation of that drumming there also.

But these classical music traditions, so called, where there’s a pedagogy associated with it and a certain kind of codification of elements and a class thing about who consumes it, a lot of times rhythm can be sort of shunted aside.  I don’t know so much about the history of it, but to me, it kind of has to do with the church origins of European music—Gregorian chant—and of course that exquisite beauty, but also the elimination of this idea of what we call the groove.  But that groove can lead you into the cosmos, too, to transcendence, if we know anything about George Clinton or Bata drumming. Right?

FJO:  I don’t know when you started writing music, but I find it interesting that you didn’t go on to study composition or pursue a performance degree. Instead you got a degree in ethnomusicology. I’m curious about what led to that and how the orientation of that academic discipline helped to shape your musical thinking.

AR:  Well, let me go back.  I was on my way out the front door—I finished high school young.  I was 16—metaphorically with my drums on my back—congas—on my way to New York, and my parents were like, “Hold it.  Get a degree.”  So I went to Oberlin. At that time, ethnomusicology was not considered an undergraduate study.  But you could design your own major, so I designed my major and I called it ethnomusicology. It was a way for me to study everything that was interesting to me as a young artist that I could.  So I read books and things, but it was more of an informal discovery.  I don’t consider myself a formal ethnomusicologist.

Going back to the question about when I started writing music. When I was taking classical piano lessons and playing my Czerny and Mozart, I was already making up my own pieces.  Finally one day, I got my courage together to show my piano teacher. God bless her, poor lady, she didn’t know any better.  I played them for her and her response was, “Okay, now let’s look at your E-flat major scale.” Nothing else.  That was the beginning of my being out the door. I said, “I don’t want to do this.”  But when I really came to starting my own compositional ideas was when I lived with in Don Cherry’s house in Sweden in 1978 and he started showing me a lot of Ornette’s pieces by rote on the piano. It was an inspirational environment where I just started creating pieces. I was also motivated to start composing because there wasn’t really any music that existed that was the vehicle for what I was doing on the hand drums.  Ever since then, there has been this kind of interplay between how and what I play and how I write.

Adam Rudolph at the piano demonstrating his "ostinatos of circularity."

Of course, I’m now writing string quartets and percussion pieces that are completely through-composed and that’s a fascinating process, too.  Process is what’s crucial for all of us.  If you can generate your own creative process, then your music is bound to be prototypical.  So I’m interested in exploring different kinds of processes.  When we say composing or improvising, both of which are ambiguous terms, especially improvising, it really just has to do with different ways of approaching the creative process itself.  Anyway, I started putting music together in 1978.

FJO:  Was this after you first met and started working with Foday Musa Suso?

AR:  Well, okay, a little bit of linearity to answer your question.  You were talking about hearing a transformative concert.  The Art Ensemble of Chicago did a concert at Ida Noyes Hall, not long after they came back from Europe. It was the first time I heard them, and it was a magical experience.  Then, of course, I heard many concerts. There were a lot of great series.  I remember hearing Marion Brown and Steve McCall playing a duet.  And the first concerts of Air.  Of course, all the concerts my father took me to were great, but experiencing music on my own as a young adult or teenager was really transformative.  And also Sun Ra and the Herbie Hancock Sextet—the Mwandishi group.  I saw them many times.  To me, still to this day, they were really playing some kind of future music—Miles’s group at that time with Mtume, the early Weather Report, and what Alice Coltrane was doing, too.  There was so much to listen to and I was hearing it all, along with the blues musicians.  So I was inspired. McCoy Tyner would pull out a koto. All of a sudden they’ve expanded the orchestration, and they’re bringing in these colors, and also these approaches to things.   So, my thought was that I should go deeper into these ideas.  Also, I should mention Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite.  It’s a very important early record for everybody in “world music.” Don, along with Yusef, was a pioneer in collaborating with musicians from so many cultures.  He had musicians from different cultures and concepts from different places going on—Mali, India, China—but somehow in this very integrated, beautiful way. Hearing that record and records like [Miles Davis’s] On the Corner, my thought was, “Let’s study these and then go as deep as possible.” That was the beginning of following my intuition into studying Afro-Cuban drumming, Afro-Haitian drumming, tabla, Indonesian—wherever it led me.

I drove a cab when I finished Oberlin and I started playing in Detroit a lot, which is where I got introduced to Schillinger and a lot of rhythmic ideas, working with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet.  By this time, I’d been playing with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin, who were really important mentors. The courage that they demonstrated opened this up for me.  So I spent a year in West Africa, kind of on my own; I was 21 by then, living there and experiencing the living philosophy of it there.  And I traveled around.  When I came back, Foday Musa Suso and I started the Mandingo Griot Society in ’78. Then we invited my good friend Hamid Drake—whom I met in a drum store when we were 14—to be part of the Mandingo Griot Society.  He’d been playing with Fred Anderson, and we had listened to Don Cherry together.  So we contacted Don, and he came and played on the record.  He’d liked what Hamid and I were doing, so he invited us to come and stay in Sweden in this farmhouse that he and [his wife] Moki had in the countryside. We spent the summer there.  Then we went on tour in the fall.  That’s how Don became a very important mentor for me, as he was for many people, I think.

Side by side album covers for Mandingo Griot Society's three LPs, two of which show a young Adam Rudolph with Foday Musa Suso, Hamid Drake, and Joseph Thomas.

Mandingo Griot Society (Foday Musa Suso, Hamid Drake, Joseph Thomas, and Adam Rudolph) released two LPs: their 1978 eponymous debut which featured a guest appearance by Don Cherry followed by Mighty Rhythm in 1981. With the shortened name Mandingo they released the Bill Laswell-produced Watto Sitta on Celluloid in 1984.

FJO:  There were so many different musical elements that came together in the Mandingo Griot Society. There’s obviously the Manding tradition of griots singing epic tales and accompanying themselves on the kora; Foday Musa Soso grew up in a family of griots in the Gambia and is one of the world’s greatest masters of that instrument.  But there were also all these other elements that the group incorporated.  Earlier on you talked about there being three different kinds of music—the so-called classical music of the nobility, the folk music of the people, and sacred music.  One could argue that popular music is a kind of folk music, but as it evolved it really morphed into something else—certainly by the time you were growing up. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, people like Miles and Weather Report were doing stuff in the jazz scene that incorporating elements of rock and R & B.  At some point some musicians even started incorporated disco elements, like Herbie Hancock doing stuff with a vocoder on the album Feets Don’t Fail Me Now.  I can also hear those elements on Mandingo Griot Society records.  “Woman Dance with Me” is almost like a disco tune.  It’s certainly very directly referencing the popular music of that time.  So I’m curious about how far the group was interested in going in that direction.  I think it was a very pioneering group in terms of that.

AR:  Well, thank you.  I think it was, too.  There had of course been others.  We talked about Max Roach. He helped present [the Ghanaian musician] Guy Warren to the world—and Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Randy Weston and Dizzy Gillespie and, of course, Yusef Lateef.  So there was this interest.  But the Mandingo Griot Society was unique and ahead of its time in that it was a griot musician bringing his repertoire and tradition, but in terms of the conception of it, it was really a collaboration in the sense that Hamid and Joe Thomas and I brought our sensibility of growing up with what we call rhythm and blues and what we call jazz and blues, in particular, to the table.  The connection is very organic in that way.  So we were one of the first groups many people heard doing something like that, for sure.  People had never seen a kora.  Now there’s a gazillion of these kinds of collaborations, but we were amongst the first and we toured all the time.  We were on the road from ‘79 to like the mid-‘80s, pretty constantly—trains in Europe, driving a station wagon around in the U.S., playing everywhere all the time.  And people would come and they would dance to the music.  So it was exciting.  We didn’t have any sense of what it meant in any continuum; it was just what we were interested in.  The tradition is to sound like yourself. So even though the framework was Mandingo music, and also Wolof and Fulani music, the resonance of it was contemporary.  It was our experience of who we were in our time and place.  That’s been a key part of a lot of the collaborations that became very important for me, like working with Hassan Hakmoun and L. Shankar.

FJO:  Now, in terms of how the Mandingo Griot Society developed, it gradually got more electronic. I’m thinking of Watto Sitta. It definitely seems to be tapping the same well of what groups like Talking Heads had been doing—somehow reconciling traditional African music, contemporary pop music, and a wide array of electronic elements.  It all came together in a way that I think must have overlapped audiences in the same way that had happened in the late 1960s when there seemed to be a great deal of common musical ground between what composers were doing in various electronic music studios, what psychedelic rock musicians were doing in recording studios, what so-called free jazz musicians were doing, etc. They were tapping into a very similar energy and I think a similar phenomenon happened in the early 1980s.

AR:  That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way.  I felt like what we were doing was an extension of my fascination with or appreciation of groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago—but also reflecting on [Herbie Hancock’s] Head Hunters and whatever else was going on.  A lot of us had come up playing rhythm and blues.  For me the really interesting period was the ’70s. There was a real breadth of ways of approaching things—what Tony Williams was doing, and people like Marion Brown and Terry Riley.  It was just an amazing period.  But by the ‘80s, the Mandingo Griot Society just traveled and traveled and followed that thread through.

FJO:  What strikes me as so interesting is that you had started another project concurrently that continued on—Eternal Wind.  Once again, there were tons of different influences from cultures from all over the world.  But I think it was an extremely different sound world.  Eternal Wind and the Mandingo Griot Society are almost a yin/yang. The Mandingo Griot Society was very rhythmic whereas Eternal Wind was much more expansive.  So I’m wondering how that came about and how the collaboration with the other musicians in Eternal Wind worked.

AR:  You’re right. They’re very different.  The framework for the Mandingo Griot Society was the music on the kora and the dusungoni.  There’s something special everybody gets to bring to the equation.  One of the things I learned from Don Cherry was how to be able to play with a musician from any culture, to have enough respect and understanding of what they do, but still maintain your own voice and identity and apply your own musicianship to the overall lifting of the musical moment.  So we were doing that in the framework of what that music could do.  But we couldn’t really go outside of that.  So even while the Mandingo Griot Society was going on, I was starting to write my own music and so I wanted a format for that.

I actually moved out to California from Chicago after living in Sweden, and I reconnected with somebody. I have to backtrack.  While I was at Oberlin, Charles Moore and Herb Boyd were driving down from Detroit every week and teaching African-American music, or so-called jazz.  When I met Charles, I’d already been playing with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin.  He started inviting me to go up to Detroit and play with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, which at that time had expanded into a larger group.  This is the group with Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet.  They did some incredible records for Blue Note, but now they were also opening up.  So I’m this kid.  I mean these are very, very advanced musicians, and I’m like 17, just kind of hanging on.  Charles was the one who really introduced me to Schillinger’s concept.  It was the beginning of my real connection with the Detroit scene which, later on of course, working with Yusef, was my second home and my second school, like Chicago was.  Kenny Cox and Charles Moore were very important mentors.  By the time I came back from Sweden, I was playing with a lot of Latin bands and Haitian bands and things around Chicago, but I was ready to move on and decided to go to California because there was more going on there in African music and Indian music and it was something different. It just felt like I wanted to go somewhere else.  So I reconnected with Charles Moore and Ralph Jones from Detroit, and we started the Eternal Wind group, which became the first real vehicle for my compositional ideas.

The covers for the three Eternal Wind LPs

Eternal Wind released three LPs on the Flying Fish label: their eponymous debut, Eternal Wind (1984); Terra Incognita (1986); and Wasalu (1988)

And it was collaborative. Charles and I were the primary composers, but not exclusively.  It became the outlet for our vision of music.  We were doing what’s now called world music where the orchestration is really huge.  There were instruments from different parts of the world, percussion especially. Conceptually we were thinking about a lot of different things also, but the root we go back to is the so-called jazz world.  We’re coming from that as this tradition of creating environments in compositional functionalities that have spontaneous composition involved in them and were looking for new ways of structuring that and of opening up the instrumentation.  Why do I have to have bass, drums, piano, and horns?  Why do we have to have this kind of formalistic idea of playing a tune and then there are solos? What other things could we do?  Again, this is also what was beginning to be opened up in the early ‘70s.  We talked about ethnomusicology.  My interest in music from other places was not just about studying tablas and different kinds of African drumming and Indonesian music. I also became interested in the construct of the music, which was a deeper element for me—ways that you can organize. For example, how gamelan music is organized with these layers of colotomic structures.  It’s very interesting as a formula, or as a way, or process.

Even beyond that, and what interests me more and more as time goes on, has to do with relationships—what the relationship of musician to music is. (By the way, it’s not always even called music and musician in every culture.)  What is the relationship between the person and the instrument?  What is the relationship of the human being to the context in which they create music? That’s hugely varied, so that can open you up to different kinds of ideas, too.

FJO:  Another term that is largely misunderstood and which once meant something very different is the moniker New Age, which now has a somewhat pejorative connotation.  Groups like Oregon, which was doing a lot of exploration of various world music traditions, got folded into the original definition of New Age. Now we think of Windham Hill and George Winston, even though he has a very broad range of things that he does. People associate a certain sound with what New Age is.  But not originally. So I’m curious if you would have considered what you were doing in Eternal Wind to be New Age.

To reflect the sense of who you are in where we are now is our task.  Every generation has the challenge to manifest those things for themselves.

AR:  Again, I don’t feel like and have never felt like being part of any of those things. I can’t comment on the people you’re talking about who are New Age. I feel more and more like part of the lineage that came from the African-American tradition of so-called jazz, which also is an ambiguous term that I don’t subscribe to.  In terms of how we approached what we did—in other words, creative attitude and the way of thinking about things—we were definitely and I am still now, really dealing in an extension and an evolution from that tradition, I think.  But the tradition is, as I said, to sound like yourself.  To reflect the sense of who you are in where we are now is our task.  Every generation has the challenge to manifest those things for themselves.

FJO:  Toward the end of Eternal Wind’s existence, the group played with a full orchestra in what was in essence a concerto grosso that was composed by Yusef Lateef. I’m curious about how that connection to Yusef came about, especially since it determined a lot of the subsequent course in your musical life.

AR:  Absolutely.  In 1988, I was invited to actually complete my dual masters at Cal Arts.  They gave me a scholarship because they wanted me to teach. I was also collaborating with Peter Otto.  We were doing some work with a lecturer who was working with Morton Subotnick doing electro-acoustic research.  When I finished I then lived in Don Cherry’s loft in Long Island City, downstairs from, I think, one of the people in Talking Heads by the way.  At that time, through Eternal Wind—because of the Detroit connection with Charles Moore and then Kenny Cox—we were put in touch with Yusef Lateef.  He had recently returned from four years of living in Nigeria.

By the way, you mentioned New Age music.  He won the first New Age Grammy for his Little Symphony, the first record he did when he came back.  I remember him calling me and saying, “What is New Age music?”  Anyway, when Yusef came back I think it was another period for him; he was really looking for another kind of orchestration.  He heard Eternal Wind and invited us to do this concert with him in the summer of 1988 at Symphony Space, along with Cecil McBee.  And by us, I mean the Eternal Wind—Charles Moore, Ralph Jones, Federico Ramos, and myself.  And Yusef, in the way that was so beautiful and generous of him, actually invited us all to bring our own compositions.  We played, I think, three or four of my pieces along with Yusef’s compositions.

So the way the Cologne Radio project came about was I was on tour with Don Cherry, Hassan Hakmoun, and Abdul Jalil Codsi and we played at the Moers Festival.  I ran into Uli [Ulrich] Kurth [from the radio station WDR in Cologne]. I said that I was working with Yusef now, and he said that Yusef is such an innovator in so many ways.  One of them is that he was one of the first musicians coming from an improvisational, African-American music background to really be writing very extensive pieces.  Yusef had already written some pieces for orchestra, and so they commissioned him to write the African American Epic Suite, with the Eternal Wind plus himself as soloist, and the Cologne Radio Orchestra.  And that’s how we did that.

Photos of Adam Rudolph and Yusef Lateef in front of various ethnic percussion instruments.

FJO:  It’s an extraordinary piece.  Thankfully it’s documented on a recording, but it could and should have an ongoing life in live performance, I think.  I imagine all the orchestra parts are fully notated.

AR:  They are.

FJO:  But how much of what Eternal Wind was playing was created in the moment?  Could it work with another group?

AR:  I think absolutely it could work.  It’s a shame that it hasn’t been performed more.  We performed it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and also the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  And I think that’s been it.  Charles Moore passed away and Yusef has passed away, but there’s absolutely no reason why it couldn’t be performed.  Yusef invited each of us to bring to the table that which we do best.  So, the orchestra players are reading, but my parts were somewhat episodic. They were very descriptive in some ways about what to be thinking about.  There are parts where there’s harmonic motion outlined for Federico Ramos or whatever guitar player would be there.  So yeah, it would be different, but the same—which is of course referencing the tradition of so-called jazz, but also referencing the real essential tradition of European classical music, too, where pieces were not rendered in this very codified kind of way.  It would be incredible to perform this piece again. The piece is very playable and straight ahead for a quality orchestra and for any improvisers who have some kind of imagination.  But it’s a challenge.

FJO:  So it makes sense that the next step in your own musical evolution after Eternal Wind and then working intensely with Yusef, including being a part of a large-scale orchestral piece of his, would be to form your own unique kind of orchestra in which the strands of what is composed and what is improvised are impossible to differentiate. That in essence seems to me to be what the Go: Organic Orchestra is about.

AR:  Well, coming from Eternal Wind, I started this project called Moving Pictures, which was sort of my compositional vehicle for a mid-sized ensemble.  And it’s still going on.  I’m mixing a new record now of the Moving Pictures.

Covers of the six commercially released CDs of Adam Rudolph's Moving Pictures

To date Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures has released a total of six CDs: their eponymous debut (1992); Skyway (1994); Contemplations (1997); 12 Arrows (1999); Dream Garden (2008); and Both/And (2013).

Go: Organic Orchestra had its beginning in 2000 when I was living in California.  There were a couple motivations for it. This music is an oral tradition.  It’s really about mentors.  For myself, it’s going back to starting with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin in Chicago, and then Charles Moore and Kenny Cox in Detroit, and then Don Cherry and Yusef Lateef. We stand on their shoulders. It’s not about the information they shared with us, but it’s about creative attitude and the way of thinking about things—creative process, an attitude of courageousness, cultivating your imagination, cultivating intuition, and about, as I said, your relationship with your art.  Those were very important things that those mentors shared with me.  So in 2000, when I living on the west side of Los Angeles, there were a lot of musicians who were interested in what I was doing.  So I thought it was maybe time for me to create a format for me to share a lot of what I had been so fortunate to glean from these great artists. The Organic Orchestra came about because these musicians were from different backgrounds: people who were trained in so-called classical music; people who were in world music, especially percussion—Indian, African, Indonesian, Middle Eastern musicians; and then people who wanted to expand their conception of so-called jazz, or we’ll call it spontaneous composition American music.

When you listen to those Eternal Wind records, they’re very orchestral.  We did a lot of overdubbing.  One of the fun things was creating these amazing palettes of sound.  I was interested in trying to solve the challenge of how you can have as much freedom in this spontaneous compositional setting as possible with a large orchestral ensemble.  That’s how I began to experiment with this idea of the Go: Organic Orchestra.  Those were the two impulses for me.  And it was just a fascinating thing right from the get go, the idea of it not only cutting across musicians from different backgrounds, but the idea of having the instrumentation be wide open.  Also having it be cross generational. Great artists like Bennie Maupin have been in the ensemble.  And he might be sitting next to a 14-year-old flute player. It’s about trying to create an environment of sharing and community that I grew up around.

I still go every year to Los Angeles and I maintain a Los Angeles orchestra.  I go every year to Austin, Texas; I have a regular orchestra there, too.  I also have one in Naples, Italy.  And in Istanbul.  And of course in New York, now, is the core orchestra I work with the most.  We started that in 2005.  Most of those musicians are still performing today with the Go: Organic Orchestra, so there’s something really of value.  But I travel all over the world and teach and do residencies because, through the process of how Go: Organic Orchestra works, there is an introduction to elements.  I’m sharing elements and trying to allow people to have an opportunity to express themselves.  It’s a 21st-century vision of what an orchestra is.  The dynamic of the community of it is setup with a different kind of hierarchy.  It’s not like this hierarchy of composer and conductor and then musicians rendering their vision.  Of course, it’s my vision in the sense of how the process works and what the elements are, but every Go: Organic Orchestra concert and ensemble sounds different than the others.

The covers for the eight Go: Organic Orchestra CDs released thus far.

The Go: Organic Orchestra discography thus far: Go: Organic Orchestra: 1 (recorded live in concert Friday, Nov. 1, 2001 at the Electric Lodge Venice, CA); Web of Light (recorded live in concert March 1 and 2, 2002); In The Garden (with Yusef Lateef, March 1 and 2, 2003); Thought Forms (June 2006); The Pietrasanta Project (recorded live in Italy in 2009); Can You Imagine … The Sound of a Dream (live at Roulette Intermedium, NYC, March and November 2010); Sonic Mandala (studio recording, April 20, May 5 and 6, 2012); and A Glimpse (included in the Ensemble Dissonanzen’s limited edition five-CD boxed set Dissonanzen, 2014).

FJO:  I witnessed the performance you did a couple of years ago at the Shape Shifter Lab, and it was mind-blowing.  It made me want to learn more about how spontaneous, improvisatory conducting works. How much of the material that the musicians perform is written out?  How much is improvised?  I couldn’t tell.

AR:  That’s so interesting. Sometimes you listen to music and you call tell if they’re reading or improvising; it’s very clear.  I’ve always been interested in setting up parameters, through composition, that become the arena in which we discuss things aesthetically and functionally.  With the Organic Orchestra, a lot of things are going on there. But in the most basic sense, there’s a score of three pages.  Page one and two are made up of what I call matrices and cosmograms.  They’re basically interval systems.  It’s not written in the Western notation.  Some of them are related to classic retrogrades and inversions. One of the great things we can do in music syntax is read it forward, backwards, upside down, up.  So they’re based on interval systems.  And then there are these cosmograms that are also based upon thoughts about ways of thinking about intervals—things like triple diminished patterns, symmetric hexatonic scales, plus tonal patterns: pentatonic and some of them are based on actual ragas and makams.  All of these are different and there are ten of them. I have ten fingers, so I can cue people to improvise inside of those.

Or I can orchestrate with various conducting signals also.  This can happen when I have somebody improvising. I can create the orchestration around them based upon listening to what they’re doing in the moment, or we can create dialogues that way.  The reason these matrixes and cosmograms have become so successful is—I won’t say the opposite, but—they’re very different than a lot of times when you see graphic notation.  I’m not directing what kind of shape or phraseology or breathology people bring to it, but we are deciding that this is a topic of conversation.  Like a raga.  Every raga is not like every other raga.  Right?  So it’s more than a scale; it has to do with this combination of intervals and the sound and the rasa.  In Indian music, rasa is what informs the raga.  Rasa is the emotional coloration.

So each one of these matrices and cosmograms have to have their own kind of emotional coloration or topic that we want to talk about.  But the reason it’s beautiful for me is that somebody who comes from a background of, say, rock guitar or somebody who comes from a background of playing European classical music on bassoon or a saxophone player—everybody’s going to bring their own breathology and phrasing, and hopefully project their feelings through this matrix, which is the topic.  They can communicate with each other because we’re talking about a certain kind of sound arena.  Beyond that you can combine these arenas against each other, and then you get into this beautiful, fantastic realm of painting coloration and motion.

Now the third page is what I call ostinatos of circularity.  These are interval patterns that are based upon the same kind of materials you find in the matrixes and in the cosmograms, but they’re patterning like what you find in Aka or Mbuti or Babenzele music—not that sound but that concept.  That is the link to the other part of the Organic Orchestra concept, which has to do with the rhythm concept. Going all the way back to when you talked about Max Roach, Max Roach also famously said something to the effect of that there was another evolution of this music when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Monk started using extensions of chords and higher partials—the rhythm concept really changed.  This rhythmic evolution of the music is not talked about as much, relating to what we were speaking about before.  So my thought has always been how we move the music forward into the next idea of what we can do rhythmically, how we can create new languages and new concepts of rhythm.  Because rhythm ultimately leads to form.  And form next, along with process, are the most significant things that I’m interested in.

FJO:  That 2015 Cuneiform CD of the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra sounds completely different from any other thing of yours that I’ve ever heard.  You’re conducting it improvisationally, but you’re actually not playing on it at all.  I was reminded of this a few months ago when I went to hear your string quartets at Roulette and you actually couldn’t be there because you had gotten really sick.  So you weren’t there. But you were there because your music was there.  That’s the weird magical thing about this rarified tradition of notated Western classical music. You can be responsible for music that you actually did not perform, whether by conducting what other musicians play or writing the notes that the musicians read and perform from.  You didn’t make a sound on the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra recording and, in the performance of the string quartets, you weren’t even in the room. At yet you were.  For you, as someone who initially became involved with making music as a physical process—playing hand drums—to venture into this other non-physical way of making music is actually pretty fascinating to me.

AR:  It is fascinating.  What a great thing to be an artist and to be fascinated by and be in involved in a lot of different things.  It’s what I’m saying: creative process itself is so significant.  The process of writing a through-composed piece for the Momenta String Quartet and a series of pieces for the Oberlin Percussion Group, where I don’t have to be there, is fascinating to me.  As is the process of conducting the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra—which by the way, is the same as how I conduct all the Go: Organic Orchestras. I think there are 12 recordings out now of the different Go: Organic Orchestras, and I don’t play on any of those recordings.

The cover for Cuneiform's 2015 CD of the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra

The 2015 Cuneiform CD Turning Toward the Light documents Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra which differs from all previous incarnations of the orchestra in that all the musicians play the same instrument. So while the concepts behind the music are the same as those of previous Organic line-ups, the result sounds like nothing else Rudolph has ever done.
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That process of conducting that music spontaneously and the interaction between the score materials that I’ve generated in advance—I actually call it decomposing.  Or finding those elements that have the most flexibility and then playing in my Moving Pictures Group, where I’m playing drums. Or when I would play a duet with Yusef Lateef.  We would generate forms and we would also play inside of compositional forms.  We got to the point where we didn’t need to speak about what we were doing at all anymore; we would just go out and begin our conversation.  Why not be interested in all of those things?

Four CD covers of duo album featuring Adam Rudolph with Wadada Leo Smith, Yusef Lafeef, Omar Sosa, and Ralph M. Jones.

Four of the many extraordinary duo albums Adam Rudolph has made over the years are Compasssion (with Wadada Leo Smith, 2006), Live in Seattle (with Yusef Lafeef, 2014), Pictures of Soul (with Omar Sosa, 2004), and Merely A Traveler On The Cosmic Path (with Ralph M. Jones, 2012).

The last recording that came out at the same time as the Go: Organic Guitar record is this Hu Vibrational recording, which is the percussionists from the Go: Organic Orchestra.  Since I lived in Africa, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of composing rhythms; this is a great time-honored tradition that people don’t really talk about much.  Look at someone like Doudou N’Diaye Rose [from Senegal] or Jnan Prakash Ghosh in India, or my tabla teacher in fact, or the Diga Rhythm Band with Zakir Hussain, or James Brown for that matter.  This idea of organizing thinking about that, that’s something that’s a big part of what I do with Go: Organic Orchestra, composing these group rhythms.

I felt like this was a new arena that we could be moving into, bringing that idea to this tradition of music that I’m trying to extend or make my small contribution to.  So with the Hu Vibrational record, I actually took those to James Dellatacoma whom I worked with at Bill Laswell’s studio.  We did very extreme, very in-depth, electronic processing of those sounds, which harken back to my work on a Buchla at Oberlin in 1973.  That also referenced my interest in the idea of African handmade musical instruments, which are often designed to complexify the overtone sounds, like on a kalimba or on a djembe or a dusungoni. I wanted to look for ways of complexifying these overtones and creating these sort of secondary voices moving like ancestral voices with these electronics.  So that record was not a document of what we played.  We played, but then I used the recording, mixing, editing, and incorporating electronics as part of the process.  So I’m interested in all of these things.

The cover for Hu Vibrational's 2015 CD, The Epic Botanical Beat Suite which features a drawing of a cat.

The other most recent recording by Adam Rudolph is Hu Vibrational’s The Epic Botanical Beat Suite (2015), a studio creation that could not be performed live.

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What a great thing to be an artist and to be fascinated by and be in involved in a lot of different things.

But there’s no doubt that when the hand strikes the drum it’s a kind of sacred act, because it’s a motion. It’s moving from what in India they call nadabrahma. In the Kongo they call it sese, the unstruck sound, the audible realm of om.  If you took that sound and slowed the other waveforms way down that would even be a symphony.  That’s what’s being informed through me physically interacting with the wood from the tree and the skin of the animal—the vegetable world and the animal world, all of those things are in the act of playing the hand drums.  It’s a really unique instrument that way.  It absolutely has informed who I am as an artist and as a person.  So it manifests when I write a through-composed string quartet, that activity, the physicality of it.  I think about my music as a kind of yoga.  I’ve been practicing hatha yoga since 1975.  And yoga means limbs—the relationship between body, mind, and spirit.  All of those things are always moving, circling around to one another.  Those things inform all of these different processes that are interesting to me as an artist.  It’s great to have a lot of different interests, right?  It’s inspiring.  And they all inform each other.  I mean, writing a string quartet changed my whole way of thinking when I went back to playing, because now I’ve really had this time to sit back and look at life. And wow, how does this form? How do you lay this out?  And you know, tension and release, moving through different colors, all of these different processes inform one another.

Right now I’m in the midst of mixing this new Moving Pictures recording. I don’t even know how I’m going to deal with that yet, and it’s very exciting.  I’ve done a few dozen records now of my compositions, and I try with every recording to do something that I haven’t done before.  And that’s what makes it fascinating and inspiring and interesting.

The inside of the "art car" designed by Adam Rudolph's wife Nancy Jackson

One of the most amazing things we encountered when we visited Adam Rudolph’s home in Maplewood was the “art car” designed by his wife Nancy Jackson with whom he also collaborated on the 1995 opera, The Dreamer.

2016 Doris Duke Artist Awards Announced

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has named the recipients of the fifth annual Doris Duke Artist Awards.

In recognition of their creative vitality and ongoing contributions to the fields of dance, jazz and theater, awardees will each receive $275,000 in flexible, multi-year funding as well as financial and legal counseling, professional development activities, and peer-to-peer learning opportunities provided by Creative Capital, DDCF’s primary partner in the awards.

In the area of jazz, the awardees are:

Dave Douglas
Fred Hersch
Wayne Horvitz
Jason Moran
Matana Roberts
Jen Shyu
Wadada Leo Smith
Henry Threadgill

With the 2016 class, DDCF will have awarded approximately $27.7 million to 101 artists
through the Doris Duke Artist Awards.

Many of these artists have been profiled on NewMusicBox and/or received support through grants from New Music USA.

FRED HERSCH: JUST HEAR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

MATANA ROBERTS: CREATIVE DEFIANCE

JEN SHYU: NO MORE SEQUINED DRESSES

WADADA LEO SMITH: DECODING ANKHRASMATION

HENRY THREADGILL: NO COMPROMISE

Sixteen Jazz Composers’ Works to be Performed by Three Orchestras

The official logo for EarShot, the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network

Between May and September 2016, three different orchestras will give public readings of new works for symphony orchestra written by a total of sixteen jazz composers as part of the third Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) Readings, a program coordinated by EarShot, the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network. In addition to the reading sessions, the activities at the three orchestras—the Naples Philharmonic (May 25 and 26), American Composers Orchestra (June 15 and 16), and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (September 20 and 21)—will involve a variety of workshops and other opportunities for the participating composers.

The 2016 JCOI Readings are the culmination of a process that began in August 2015, when 36 jazz composers of all ages were selected from a national pool of applicants to attend the weeklong JCOI Intensive, a series of workshops and seminars devoted to orchestral composition held at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in Los Angeles. After completing the Intensive, sixteen composers were given the opportunity to put what they learned into practice by composing a new symphonic work. The composers, working in jazz, improvised, and creative music, were chosen based on their musicianship, originality, and potential for future growth in orchestral composition. Each composer will receive coaching from mentor composers and a professional music engraver as they write their new works. Composers will also receive feedback from orchestra principal musicians, conductors, librarians, and mentor composers, throughout the readings. Each of the three orchestras will workshop and perform between four and seven composers’ new works.

Robin Holcomb, Sonia Jacobsen, Yvette Jackson, and Nathan Parker Smith

The four composers participating in the Naples Philharmonic’s readings (pictured from left to right): Robin Holcomb (photo by Peter Gannushkin), Sonia Jacobsen, Yvette Jackson (photo by Ava Porter), and Nathan Parker Smith. (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

The Naples Philharmonic readings will take place at Artis-Naples Hayes Hall, with mentor composers Vincent Mendoza (composer/arranger), James Newton (JCOI Director; University of California, Los Angeles), and Derek Bermel (Artistic Director, ACO). The featured composers’ works will be conducted by Naples Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Yaniv Segal. The participating composers are: Robin Holcomb (b. 1954), a Seattle-based composer and singer/songwriter whose music draws on both her childhood in Georgia and her stints working among avant-garde musicians in New York and California; Sonia Jacobsen (b. 1967), a much-awarded composer, jazz saxophonist, and founding director of the New York Symphonic Jazz Orchestra currently based in Chapin, South Carolina; Yvette Jackson (b. 1973), a composer, sound designer and installation artist focused on radio opera and narrative soundscape composition from La Solla, California; and Brooklyn-based performer and composer Nathan Parker Smith (b. 1983), who leads the Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble which performs throughout New York City.

The Readings will include an open, working rehearsal on Wednesday, May 25 at 2pm, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Thursday, May 26 at 7pm. Both events are free and open to the public.

Jonathan Finlayson, Dawn Norfleet, Ben Morris, Ethan Helm. John La Barbara, Guy Mintus, and Brian Friedland

The seven participating composers in the ACO Readings: (top row, left to right) Jonathan Finlayson (photo by Scott Benedict), Dawn Norfleet, and Ben Morris; (bottom row left to right) Ethan Helm, John La Barbara, Guy Mintus, and Brian Friedland. (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

The American Composers Orchestra’s readings will take place at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Anthony Davis (University of California, San Diego), Gabriela Lena Frank (composer in residence, Houston Symphony), and James Newton. ACO Music Director George Manahan will conduct. The participating composers are New York-based Jonathan Finlayson (b. 1982), a disciple of the saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman who has performed alongside Mary Halvorson, Henry Threadgill, Von Freeman, Jason Moran, Dafnis Prieto, and Vijay Iyer; Boston-based Brian Friedland (b. 1982), whose music is rooted in jazz piano traditions but also shows his love of genres ranging from Balkan Folk to classical minimalism; New York-based saxophonist and composer Ethan Helm (b. 1990), who co-leads the jazz quintet Cowboys & Frenchmen; Israeli-born, New York-based jazz pianist and composer Guy Mintus (b. 1991), who has collaborated with master musicians from Turkey, Greece, Iran, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, and Mali; Ben Morris (b. 1993), a recipient of two Klezmer Company Orchestra Composers’ Prizes, three Festival Miami Composers’ Awards, and an ASCAP Morton Gould Award who is currently pursuing his masters’ at Rice University; John La Barbera (b. 1945), a composer/arranger whose music has been performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, Chaka Khan, Harry James, Bill Watrous, and Phil Woods; and Dawn Norfleet (b. 1965), a jazz flutist, vocalist, and composer residing in Los Angeles who is on the faculty at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County and the Colburn School of Performing Arts.

The Readings will include a private, working rehearsal on Wednesday, June 15, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Thursday, June 16 at 7:30pm, which is free and open to the public (reservations suggested).

Hitomi Oba, Gene Knific, Anthony Tidd, Emilio Solia, and Amina Figarova

The five composers participating in the Buffalo Philharmonic readings (pictured from left to right): Hitomi Oba, Gene Knific, Anthony Tidd, Emilio Solia, and Amina Figarova (photo by Zak Shelby-Szyszko). (Photos courtesy Christina Jensen PR.)

Finally, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra readings will take place at Kleinhans Music Hall, with mentor composers Derek Bermel, Anthony Cheung (composer, University of Chicago), and Nicole Mitchell (composer/flutist). All of the works will be conducted by Stefan Sanders, associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The participating composers are: Amina Figarova (b. 1966), an Azerbaijan-born, New York-based pianist and composer who studied classical piano performance at the Baku Conservatory as well as jazz performance at the Rotterdam Conservatory, Netherlands, and attended the Thelonious Monk Institute’s summer jazz colony in Aspen; Gene Knific (b. 1992), a pianist, composer, and arranger based in Kalamazoo, Michigan who has won seven DownBeat awards for his performances and compositions; Los Angeles-based saxophonist and composer Hitomi Oba (b. 1984), who holds an MA from UCLA in Music Composition and whose album, Negai, received a Swing Journal jazz disc award; London-born, Philadelphia-based Anthony Tidd (b. 1972), who has performed with Steve Coleman, The Roots, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Wayne Krantz, Meshell Ndegeocello, Common, and Jill Scott, and has produced albums by The Roots, Macy Grey, Zap Mama, and The Black Eyed Peas; and Buenos Aires-born, Brooklyn-based Emilio Solla (b. 1962), who has recorded more than 40 albums performing with Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo O’Farrill, Cristina Pato, and Billy Hart, and whose latest album, Second Half (2014), was nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album. The Readings will include a private, working rehearsal on Tuesday, September 20, and a run-through of the composers’ pieces on Wednesday, September 21 at 7pm, which is free and open to the public.

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JCOI is a new development in the jazz field, led by ACO in partnership with the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in Los Angeles and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University in New York. While many jazz composers seek to write for the symphony orchestra, opportunities for hands-on experience are few. Since the first JCOI readings in 2011 and with these new sessions at three orchestras, nearly 100 jazz composers will have benefited from the program and so far 27 new jazz works for orchestra have been created and workshopped. EarShot, the National Orchestral Composition Discovery Network, initiates partnerships with orchestras around the country; provides consulting, production, and administrative support for orchestras to undertake readings, residencies, performances, and composer-development programs; identifies promising orchestral composers, increasing awareness and access to their music; supports orchestras’ commitment to today’s composers and enhances national visibility for their new music programs. EarShot is coordinated by American Composers Orchestra in collaboration with American Composers Forum, the League of American Orchestras, and New Music USA. It brings together the artistic, administrative, marketing, and production resources and experience of the nation’s leading organizations devoted to the support of new American orchestral music.

(—from the press release)

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Getting To Know Who I Am

Rudresh Mahanthappa

A conversation at his home in Montclair, New Jersey
January 21, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

It has become common practice to describe jazz as “America’s classical music,” but in some ways doing so misrepresents jazz’s role in this country’s culture and also creates a false hierarchy between this extraordinary American-born music and many other valuable musical idioms to which Americans have made invaluable contributions, including so-called “classical” music. Perhaps even worse it circumscribes jazz as a musical practice, limiting what it can be as well as the aspirations of people who create music that has been defined by that word. Last year, Boydell Press published a book with the provocative title The Other Classical Musics edited by Michael Church. The book looks at a total of 15 different musical traditions from around the world and, in the process, redefines the words “other” and “classical”; one of the 15 traditions featured is Western classical music since this music is in fact an “other” to people who grew up thinking of, say, Carnatic ragas as the building blocks of classical music. Another one of the traditions featured in the book is American jazz.

The Italian-born, Boulder, Colorado-raised composer/saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa creates music that is deeply informed by at least four of the traditions featured in Church’s book—the Carnatic music of his ancestors, the Hindustani music that most folks in America assume is the sum total of India’s contribution to classical music, Western classical music which got instilled in him while studying the Baroque recorder in elementary school, and jazz—his pedigree in which is backed up with two academic degrees. But the music he first fell in love with was Grover Washington’s and, he acknowledged when we visited him in his home in Montclair, New Jersey, his earliest attempts at original material were inspired by Kenny G.

That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.

Rudresh ultimately wanted to be somewhere else. And the ticket to that somewhere else was, first, the Berklee College of Music and then DePaul University, where he finally came to terms with his identity as an American of South Asian origins who wanted to blaze a trail in jazz.

I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. … When I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am. … In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation.

For the last 20 years, Rudresh has explored his composite cultural identity through an extremely wide range of fascinating musical activities. Some of these projects have been direct attempts to synthesize contemporary jazz and much older Indian traditions, such as the duo Raw Materials in which he collaborates with like-minded pianist Vijay Iyer, and a trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition in which he performs alongside Pakistani-American Rez Abbazi on electric guitar and Jewish-American Dan Weiss on the Indian tabla. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, have been projects in which jazz and Carnatic elements co-exist alongside many other components such as Gamak, which incorporates the microtonal guitar experiments of David Fiuczynski, and Samdhi, on which Rudresh also performs on a laptop. In the last couple of years, Rudresh has composed a quintet for saxophones which he performs along with leading contemporary classical saxophone quartet PRISM, and Song of the Jasmine, a score he performs with an ensemble to accompany the Ragamala Dance Company. And his most recent album is an homage to Charlie Parker. In all of these projects, he has come even closer to finding his own voice by deeply probing some of the world’s greatest musical traditions.

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Frank J. Oteri: This morning I started reading a really interesting book called The Other Classical Musics, which was published last year. There are two very loaded words in that title: “other” and “classical.” But the book is an attempt to turn both of these words on their heads. There are a total of 15 kinds of music featured in the book, and one of them is Western classical music, since for some people it is an “other” classical music. Anyway, among the different musics discussed in the book, you’ve dipped into at least four: jazz, Carnatic music, Hindustani music, and Western classical music in terms of working with an ensemble like PRISM.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Right.

FJO: In the book’s introduction, there’s a reference to a comment by the musicologist Harold Powers, who has claimed that the difference between a classical music and a folk music is that you can be from anywhere and still be able to learn a classical music with application and talent, whereas you have to be born into a folk music.

RM: You have to have lived it for real. Wow, that’s really interesting. I have this conversation a lot with people about jazz. Jazz has this international scope; everyone’s playing jazz and everyone’s making their own jazz, but there’s always this kind of lurking intimidation among people from these countries outside of America feeling—depending on the population—that they don’t have access to black culture or black American culture. So there’s a bit of a sinking feeling that their jazz is not authentic. And yeah, that’s an interesting issue for me and an interesting thing raised to me by others because, you know, I’m not black, I’m not white, and I’m not Latin. I came to this music through jazz-rock fusion or instrumental soul R&B—people like Grover Washington, David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, and the Yellowjackets—because that was music that also sounded like the music that was being played on Top 40 radio. I was born in 1971. I’m really a child of the ‘80s in many ways, so that music all made sense. It wasn’t like I was listening to Charlie Parker when I was ten years old. It wasn’t until I got older that I was finding a place where I felt like I was safe playing jazz. There were plenty of times where I felt like I didn’t belong because of ethnicity, the color of my skin.

The industry had no place for me, either; they didn’t know what to do with an Indian-American jazz musician. They knew what to do with a black jazz musician or a white jazz musician, and Latin jazz is a huge genre unto itself as well. So there was a lot of stereotyping that would take place. I remember talking to an entertainment lawyer who was trying to help me get a record deal when I was 24 or something like that. And she said, “We definitely need to have Ravi Shankar as a guest on the first album.” I was like, “Really? We do?” Here I am with a band that’s piano, bass, drums, and alto saxophone, and we’re playing very traditional jazz forms—blues, rhythm changes, nothing very wild by any means. A common reaction from an audience member would be, “wow, this is great music” not “you should have a tabla player in your band,” which doesn’t even make sense musically. I’m South Indian, you know; tabla’s a North Indian instrument. So do I have to have that conversation, too, about the prevalence of North India as opposed to South India in the United States?

But that’s really interesting because I think at its roots, jazz is often talked about as being American classical music—and in some regards it is. But at the same time, its folk origins are really undeniable. I’d be interested to read that book, because you could argue jazz’s roots having such a strong folk tradition that maybe it isn’t accessible. But I would like to think it’s accessible because I am one of the biggest anomalies in my musical genre that I know of, with a handful of others.

But, you know, those issues of authenticity and validity are the things you confront regardless of what you do in the art world. To find places that are encouraging and nurturing is sometimes more than half the battle in making your way through and making a career out of this. The example I always bring up is everyone feels like they can own jazz across the world. But if they were going to study Indian music, they would all go to India to study it. So why is it that more people don’t come to New York City to study jazz, or New Orleans? But I would say New York City is more the capital of jazz, and there are a lot of people that are making jazz in the world that have never been to New York City. I always tell them that they have to go to the place where Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and innumerable others really made a mark on this music. This is like going to Madras to study Carnatic music. You have to do it. You don’t have to live here, but you got to do it a little bit.

FJO: It’s interesting where you took that comment; you talked more about jazz than you did about Carnatic music except for your assertion about the certainty of going to Madras to study Carnatic music versus people’s lack of certainty vis-à-vis needing to go to New York City to fully understand jazz. Theoretically you can learn jazz from anywhere in the world, but there is this cultural root to it. Then again, there’s a cultural root to any music including Western classical music.

RM: Sure.

FJO: In a way, it’s sort of presumptuous for someone to assume that you’d be fluent in South Indian music just because your parents came from there. You grew up in Colorado and you were actually born in Italy, so technically you should be singing bel canto opera!

RM: We weren’t there long enough, but yeah. This is a really interesting issue. Everybody should try to go visit the roots of wherever what they do comes from. Opera singers spend time in Italy, most of the great ones do. Everyone has to visit the mother tongue of whatever it is they do, the cultural homeland. It might not necessarily make you better at what you do, but it’ll give a perspective to what you do that I think is very important, and also place what you do in the larger scope of what it means to be producing something on this planet—music as a community event.

FJO: So Boulder, Colorado, in the 1980s is your personal cultural homeland—listening to Grover Washington, the Brecker Brothers. How did you get interested in making music yourself?

RM: My older brother played clarinet and he used to practice before school, if you can imagine. It was so early. It was still dark outside in the winter. I was often eating breakfast. It was getting close to the time where I could be part of the music program in elementary school. I think you could start in fourth grade or the summer before fourth grade. Everyone played recorder in elementary music school class. Everyone played “Hot Cross Buns.” But I actually came home and told my mom I loved it and I wanted private lessons. So actually I had two years of Baroque recorder in second and third grade, which was great. I already knew how to read music and the fingerings are practically the same [as the saxophone’s fingerings]. So it was a smoother transition than having played nothing before. But I remember this very distinct conversation one morning where my brother said, “You should play an instrument that allows you to be in the jazz band, because those guys are having a lot more fun than I am.” He also said that they take solos where they get to make them up. He was talking about improvisation, but that was totally intriguing. And the other thing he said was that often times the baritone sax, especially if you’re a kid and not tall enough, will rest on the floor and it will shake the whole room. My mom had all these kitschy knick-knacks from all over the world, and the idea of those shaking off the shelves—I mean, that was it for me. I was really hoping to destroy my mom’s stuff by playing the baritone sax. But I never got to play that.

I’m still very much in touch with the father of my elementary school best friend. My friend actually passed away, but I’m still close with his dad. He was really psyched that I was playing saxophone. He actually was an amateur musician, and he gave me that first Grover Washington record when I was in fourth grade. It’s that famous one with “Just the Two of Us.” Then shortly after that, Grover was on tour and my dad took me to the concert at Red Rocks. We got there early and got third-rows seats. We couldn’t hear for three days, but it was really, really awesome. Everybody was up dancing in the aisles, and it was like going to church or something. It was really amazing. So those were a lot of the inspirations. I heard Charlie Parker by the time I was in seventh grade. I was in it by then. From ninth grade on, I’ve always had a band of some sort and was trying to write stupid songs, butchering Charlie Parker’s music, and eventually butchering Coltrane’s music. I was always into leading a band and just trying to get out there and play.

Some people might know that Boulder, Colorado, has this pedestrian mall that’s very famous for its street entertainers—jugglers, magicians, savants, whatever, and musicians, of course. I think my dad was joking when he said, “Why don’t you go out there and try to make some money?” I was in sixth or seventh grade, but I went out there. I was just playing T.V. show themes and songs like “Mandy.” My brother had this [book of] pop classics for the clarinet, and I just played them on the saxophone. But I met so many other musicians playing out there that were much older than me. Eventually I heard a Dixieland band playing in a restaurant across the way. I went in there and I had my horn in the case. For some reason, the leader of the band saw me and saw the case and he came over to me with a list of tunes and said, “Do you know any of these?” I said, “I think I know ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’” So he said, “Come up and play.” They played every Friday afternoon, and I played with those guys for like five years. So the first tunes I learned were all these Dixieland tunes—which most people would be shocked to know actually—like “Up a Lazy River,” “Avalon,” and “Undecided.” I know those tunes better than I know what are considered the classic jazz standards. Then I met other older, amateur musicians who would get little gigs at coffee houses, so I was kind of out there playing already when I was 15.

FJO: Now when did you go from playing standards to wanting to create your own material?

RM: I was writing tunes in junior high and high school. I had a little funk-fusion band. We would write some tunes together. The keyboard player was really good. We would try to write tunes that probably sounded more like Kenny G. tunes to some degree. That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.

I tried to keep writing through college. I had a kind of hiccup in college because the school I started at was a bit oppressive in its way of teaching jazz, so I was a little bit lost there for a couple of years. But then I ended up transferring to Berklee College of Music and had a much more creative experience. That’s when I really started writing a lot and getting a better grasp on what I wanted to do.

FJO: So what would be an example of an oppressive way of teaching jazz?

RM: I think it was very patternistic. It wasn’t about learning from records. It was what we call learning licks, piecing together vocabulary but more from books, so I felt like the aural tradition of jazz was missing. It was all very academic. It was also very big band oriented, which I wasn’t so much interested in. I was really into small groups and improvising, and I felt like all of that was an afterthought. There was also an almost classist sort of feeling within the student body. You know, “I play in the top ensemble and I’m a first class citizen.” It went all the way down to the zero class citizens, which was the world I was in. But I was already thinking about different approaches to creating vocabulary, both as an improviser and a composer back then. In between the first and second year, I went back home to Colorado. I went back to my original teacher, but he said, “You don’t want to study with me, you want to study with this guy.” His name was Chuck Schneider. They weren’t saxophone lessons; they were theory lessons, but they were always very far-reaching. Like, we’d talk about some sort of intervallic concept, let’s say, and he would say, “You see it in Coltrane, but you also see it in Bartók, and in Schoenberg here.” It wasn’t just about jazz; it was about a whole sphere of music. That’s the summer I became a total theory head—Persichetti, Schoenberg, whatever. I went to the library and checked out as many books as possible. The following year we were using Allen Forte and different methods for analysis in the classical theory program, and the first thing that struck me is why can’t we reverse engineer this method of analysis to actually create fresh vocabulary to improvise with and to write with? So I was thinking about serialism and I was thinking about pitch sets. I was thinking about playing 12-bar blues also, but I was thinking about all these things in the same space.

Then also as a listener, I had the same teacher from fourth grade until I left for college—Mark Harris. I was his first student. He was a sophomore in college when we started. And he had just a very open-minded approach to music in general. First of all, every time I saw him play was different. He might be with something that was considered more avant-garde, like two horns and a drummer screaming. Then I’d see him with an Afropop band. Then I’d see him with a prog rock band. He was in a band called Thinking Plague that was actually signed to Cuneiform way back when. Then I’d see him with a big band. So I had this sense that music was large. It wasn’t just about playing jazz, or certainly just playing saxophone. He also came to my house for lessons. Remember those days when people came to your house to teach you? He would always bring three records with him and there’d always be an incredible variety. There might be Stravinsky, Sidney Bechet, and Yes. Then the next week it would be something else. So I was listening in this way that really had no boundaries with genre. It was about music being played well and played with integrity. I was listening to Ornette and Grover Washington at the same time. I just thought they were two great saxophonists. I didn’t really think that one was out and one was in. When I went to college, people were talking about hard bop and all these little subdivisions. I was like, “What are you talking about? This is all just great music.” Those perspectives were instilled in me at a very young age. I didn’t know it at the time, but I look back on it and say holy moly!

FJO: Have you kept up with Mark Harris?

RM: Oh yeah. He stood up at my wedding. He’s one of my best friends.

FJO: You had this really important mentor, but you also had official academic training. As a jazz player, you’re a product of the whole jazz education thing. You actually have a graduate degree in jazz composition.

RM: I do. Well, there are several reasons for that. I didn’t know of another way to gain access to the music in Boulder, Colorado. You have to understand, at the time I graduated from high school in ’88, there were really only ten schools in the country that had a jazz studies program. They were all very competitive, and they all meant moving thousands of miles away. It’s very different now because your local college has a jazz studies program. Everybody has a jazz studies program now. Anyway, at that time there was still a level of commitment that meant displacing yourself at the age of 17. I knew that moving to New York was not an option. I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. My mom was the more artsy one. While I was listening to this music, she would say, “oh, I really like that” or “oh, I hated that,” or “what you played sounded great” or “that was awful, what you were doing.” She actually had feedback. With my dad, it was really like, “Well, I don’t know if it was good or bad. I don’t know enough about it.” So that’s to say that I think my dad is really pleased with degrees and awards. And that’s great. I like calling home and saying, “Hey, I just got this.” And you know, my parents are ecstatic, but I can tell that my dad loves it more.

But I didn’t actually know there was another route without going to college. For someone finishing high school in the ‘80s, that’s what you do. It wasn’t until I met people like Steve Coleman, who just moved here and practically lived on the streets. He’s made some of the most important music in the last 20 years. Now I know that’s a possibility. Getting a master’s degree wasn’t really my plan, but there’s this preordained path now—it’s actually quite dumb—that you finish your bachelor’s and you move to New York. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a jazz musician, whether or not you’re prepared to. You either move to New York or you go to school in New York to get your master’s, or something like that. More and more at this point there’s so many great non-New York communities that are producing great music. You don’t need to do that anymore, so I guess that’s all to say that we were all finishing up at Berklee, and everybody was moving to New York. I’d only been here once, for a long weekend, and it was like a 72-hour panic attack. I didn’t want to have anything do with this city. So I was pretty confused. And a friend of mine was like, “Why don’t you come to Chicago? It’s a very healthy scene, you’d probably play a lot and work a lot and get a lot of experience, and by the way, there’s a school here and you could probably do your master’s here.” I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” Then I had mentioned this in passing to a teacher at Berklee who said that school’s called DePaul University and it’s a great school. He said, “You know, the best man in my wedding runs a jazz program there. Let me make a call for you.”

So it just kind of barreled forward and it was great. The school was great. And Chicago was great, and it was a great stepping stone to New York because I got a lot of experience and exposure, but more experience than I would have if I had come to New York. I’d probably be temping. I’d probably be an expert in Photoshop now if I had moved to New York. I really got to play in Chicago. I had a steady Monday night gig. I was writing music. A little local label put out my first album. And I learned stuff. I learned how to get a gig. I learned how to get a radio station to play your music. I learned a lot of business stuff. And then every band that was coming through from New York, I went to meet them and would take them out for South Indian food or cook for them.

So, when I moved to New York, I knew all these people. “You’re the guy who took us out for idlis and dosas.” “Yeah, that was me. Here’s my CD.” I was always thinking about the music and the business together because I saw, in some sort of maybe subconscious way, that the industry was—well, I didn’t predict MP3s and the internet and piracy, but I knew that stuff was going to get harder and harder. It was very clear to me. The schools are turning out so many proficient musicians. There’s a lot more to wade through to make sure you are heard, especially if you have a real personal voice.

FJO: During the years you were at DePaul you also played as a sideman in a big band led by Clark Terry.

RM: Well, that wasn’t really true. The university band had hired Clark Terry to be a guest with the group. So I wasn’t really doing that. That was the other thing. I saw very quickly that I was not going to be called as a sideman very often. I always modeled myself after Michael Brecker in the sense that Michael Brecker could do anything he wanted to do. He was amazing. But whenever you saw him as a sideman in anything, or playing a solo in a pop track, it wasn’t because they needed a saxophonist—it was because they wanted his sound. So even back then, I thought of it all as a high road. I was like I don’t want someone to call me just because they need an alto player. I want them to call because they want me specifically. And that meant being just a leader for a very long time. I had those revelations pretty early.

A common summer job for a jazz musician is to go out on a cruise ship and play in one of these mickey bands. So that was my first professional gig when I was still at Berklee. I was 20. It was like, “This is great. I’m going to spend the summer in the Caribbean. I’m going to save a lot of money. I’m going to practice. I’m going to do all this stuff.” And I was horrified. I was horrified by the music, by the other musicians, by the amount of substance abuse. There were a lot of people like me. “I’m just going to be on here for the summer.” And they’d been on there for ten years, you know. There was one guy who—I don’t know if he forgot—almost every day would tell me about how he was going to get off the ship and go study with Joe Lovano at William Paterson. And I was like, “Do you know you told me this yesterday?” I actually jumped off after six weeks. I was very depressed, but I came out of that summer realizing that I was a really good teacher and that I could sustain myself doing that. And also making a real vow to myself that I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where the saxophone was in my mouth and I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. So I set up a different career path for myself. When I moved to Chicago, everyone was playing weddings and private parties on Saturday nights, putting on their unwashed tuxedo and playing out in the suburbs. In four years in Chicago, I think I did 15 of those gigs. And it was always like a ticking clock when I got on the gig. As soon as there’s a saxophone solo, I know that at the end of that solo I will not get called by this band leader again, because I’m gonna play nutso; I’m just going to do what I want. So it actually became this joke to me. I’m going to get hired and fired by another band in one night. Not that I was trying to be a jerk, but I would look at these people next to me and say, “Is this what you thought you’d be doing when you went to music school when you were 18?”

FJO: So when did you feel you became you, as opposed to just an interchangeable saxophone player, in terms of what you were playing?

RM: Already in college at Berklee I felt tinges of that. I was not only checking out a lot of modern voices in jazz, I also just felt like it was really important to—not just vocabulary and composition—have a sense of what I wanted to sound like. I really listened to a lot of tenor players instead of alto players. After Charlie Parker, it wasn’t really Cannonball and Sonny Stitt. It was really Coltrane and people that came after him, so my sonic picture was very different. And I was listening to all this double reed music from India, like Bismillah Khan on shehnai and players on the South Indian nagasvaram—really reedy. I really liked that. I was kind of trying to put those two together. I had different ways of thinking about embouchure and just the way you position your body when you’re playing the instrument. They weren’t necessarily new, but I just didn’t hear those conversations happening a lot around me.

FJO: So you were already starting to get immersed in Indian music.

RM: A little bit, you know. Indian music was always tough for me because when I was younger, say like in high school when I was playing with all these musicians, there was this assumption that I was an expert on Indian music just because of my name and the color of my skin. So I always felt like I had to know a lot about it, even though I knew nothing about it. My parents weren’t actively listening to it, speaking of that folk/classical thing. They were mainly listening to bhajans, which is temple music. I always describe the difference between bhajans and Indian classical music as the difference between church hymns and Debussy. Indian classical music has the same tools, but it’s much more complex and orchestrated.

Anyway, these certain sounds were in my head from a young age, but I certainly couldn’t pick apart a Ravi Shankar track or a Subramaniam track or anything like that. And I had this thing hanging over my head that Indian music is not a safe space. In Boulder, it was easy to just kind of consider myself white, because that’s what it was primarily. Then when I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am and also just the newness of an Indian-American identity in this country. The idea of being children of immigrants wasn’t something that was at the forefront. Now we’re everywhere: we’re in Hollywood; we’re on T.V.; we’re writing books; we’re making music. But back then, in the late ‘80s and even going into the ‘90s, there weren’t any role models. So it was all quite scary.

In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation. In ’93, I had already finished at Berklee and was living in Chicago, but Berklee sent a student band to India comprised of the few students from India who were attending Berklee and then a few other musicians like myself and the great bass player Matt Garrison. We did this tour, and we managed to hear some really great music. Outside of Bangalore, which is where my parents are from, there’s this tradition of the all-night concert—a concert that starts at sunset and goes to sunrise. And we went to one of these and I didn’t know that at the time it was really some of the great names in both North and South Indian music; it was just an amazing night. I went to the record store the next day and just bought as many CDs and cassettes as I could handle of the artists I’d heard and then I asked the store owner to recommend a bunch of stuff, too. So I went back to Chicago with all this music in hand and a lot of that very first album that came out in ‘95, all those compositions, is very loosely inspired by that trip to India.

That trip was eye-opening in lots of ways because it wasn’t just about the music. It was my first time going as an adult. It was the first time going without my parents. And it was the first time going to play music. I hadn’t been there in ten10 years, so my relatives were all going to ask why I didn’t speak their language. I was prepared for lots and lots of anxiety, which resulted in some really, really cool music. Then shortly after that, Vijay Iyer and I met, and then we finally had a partner in crime to kind of learn from each other. And we learned a lot of stuff together. You know, we listened to a lot of albums together and picked them apart, and we had very different perspectives on what we wanted to do musically, but enough common goals and agendas that it was amazing. We’ve been playing together for 20 years now.

FJO: When does Rez Abbasi come into the picture?

RM: I actually played a session with him at someone’s house right when I moved to New York in ‘97, my third week in town. But Rez was not so engaged in his ancestry. I think what turned it around for him is he ended up dating Kiran Ahluwalia who’s this great ghazal singer. He started playing with her, too. He started playing with her first, I think. He had lots of agendas at once, I’m sure, but I think that’s when he really started thinking a lot about Indian music. I heard him and Dan Weiss at the same time. And I couldn’t believe—here was this Jewish kid from Jersey who was playing tabla better than anybody. So we had this trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition. I had started a band like that in Chicago with the same name, but it felt very inauthentic. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable working with Indian concepts or instrumentalists, or Indian musicians, because I felt like I wanted to be in a place where the dialogue was meaningful and that it was a real synthesis of ideas and with the right people who wanted to blur the lines. There are so many East-West sorts of projects where it’s two people playing in a room together and not only are they not pushing each other, they’re really just showing up and doing what they do. That’s what the f-word is for me—fusion. You know, it’s really like, ugh, when people say my music is fusion! Please don’t use that word because that connotes all those projects from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were really about exoticism and smoking weed and listening to Indian music. The way Indian music got presented in America initially was a little bit sad. I always say that Ravi Shankar playing at Woodstock was the best and worst thing that ever happened to Indian music.

FJO: At the onset you were saying this lawyer thought that Ravi Shankar should be on your first album, even though you’re South Indian. Immediately I was thinking about how Indian music influenced Western music—jazz, rock, and classical music. Most of that influence was coming from North Indian music, which has a very steady drone and develops very gradually. To me, Carnatic music is much more frenetic and raw; it’s more like early bebop.

RM: Absolutely. The rhythmic engagement is on such a high level. It’s funny because when I talk about blurring those lines, I hear Jack DeJohnette or Max Roach and the greatest mridangam players on the same rhythmic playing field. It’s couched differently culturally, of course, but those things are rather seamless to me; it all kind of makes sense in my head. Plus I’m Indian and I’m American every second of every day, so the music has to reflect that and has to be respectful of that.

FJO: Well, in terms of identities, when the Indo-Pak Coalition really gelled and came together it was Rez, Dan Weiss, and you. You mentioned the Jewish guy from Jersey playing the tabla, which is the Indian instrument, and the two guys from South Asia are playing Western instruments. But that’s a ridiculous way to think about it ultimately since you’re all Americans.

RM: Right. Yeah, totally.

FJO: What instrument belongs to who, a saxophone, a guitar, or tabla? The saxophone was invented in Europe. The electric guitar is an American creation, but it’s a hybrid. American culture is a hybrid culture no matter what we do.

RM: Absolutely. I think so much of this country is based on hybridity and all sorts of cross-pollination. It really is a laboratory for anything to happen—maybe more so than other places in the world.

FJO: So in terms of that f-word, fusion: one thing that immediately does come to mind as a precedent for the Indo-Pak Coalition, although he’s British, is what John McLaughlin did in Shakti, his collaboration with L. Shankar, which at times really did work.

RM: Oh, it’s blazing. I love that music. But I would never call that music jazz. That’s McLaughlin playing Carnatic music. I know they had a jazz presence, because it was McLaughlin, and whenever they regroup, they play all the big jazz festivals. And it’s awesome. There are some Shakti videos that I’ve watched thousands of times, and they’re killing. But I’m thinking more things like the first coining of Indo-jazz fusion, Joe Harriott. There was a time when everyone wanted to reference that album. It actually took me a long time to listen to it. I really don’t like that album. I admire the endeavor and the effort, but the musical results are nothing that I relate to really. But maybe that’s my problem. I’m thinking more about that than Shakti. The reality is McLaughlin’s investment in Indian music is tremendous, both musically and spiritually. He really feels it. He knows that stuff better than some Carnatic musicians. And he deserves all the credit and the kudos, for sure. But yeah, people always want to think of what I do as an extension of that, whereas I want think of what I do as an extension of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

FJO: When you were mentioning the names of people who influenced your approach to playing the saxophone, I thought you’d also mention Gato Barbieri, who had such a raw sound.

RM: Oh yeah. Definitely.

FJO: But in terms of thinking of what you do as an extension of Ellington, Parker, and Coltrane, I think Coltrane was the only one who really became immersed in Indian music and was trying to find a way to internalizing it and make it completely his own. Where I hear that even more in your work is in what you’ve been doing on albums like Gamak and Samdhi, which derive not only from jazz and Carnatic musical traditions but from lots of other stuff as well. On Gamak, you worked with David Fiuczynski, who plays wacky microtonal guitar, and on Samdhi you’re messing around with a laptop. It’s a lot more than just a fusion. Oops, there’s the f-word. Anyway, it’s something that’s way beyond just two things; I think what it really is, if you need to put a label on it, is 21st-century American music.

RM: Well, the interesting thing with Samdhi and that project with laptop was that it was actually the result of my Guggenheim project, which was all based on spending two to three months in India and informally studying with a bunch of people. The intention was always to take all these ideas, concepts, and ancient techniques and graft them onto the jazz/rock fusion band that I always wanted to have, with screaming electric guitar, electric bass, and distorted saxophone. All those tunes are very much based on South Indian rhythmic cycles and ragas. It’s really funny that that was the mouthpiece I wanted for all this information.

Then with Gamak we moved into lots of different territory. We worked with some modes that are used in Javanese gamelan music. There’s also some stuff that sounds almost like country music. Gamak or gamaka refers to melodic ornamentation in Indian music. That’s the name for it. But I wanted to think about how ornamentation occurs across the world, because that’s such a humanizing factor in the transmission of song, whether it’s R&B or country music, or some East Asian genre. How that yodel you hear in country music occurs in early American music and occurs in Africa, but variations of that occur in Japanese music. So are these the primal and visceral elements of what making music means? That’s what I was trying to address with that album, but also in a very playful way.

Then I turned around and kind of deconstructed Charlie Parker on the next album [Bird Calls]. But at the same time, the first track on that is very much based on a South Indian tala. Now it’s more in my DNA. I have to say when I look back on those first things with Indo-Pak Coalition or Kinsman, a collaboration with the Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, even though it’s only seven or eight years old, is that I was trying to prove something. I don’t know if it comes across in the music, but when I go to those head spaces, I’m like, “Yeah, I felt like you have to play like this, because you’re trying to prove that you can do all these things.” And now I’m like, you know what, they’re so embedded. They’re just coming out now. And I can relax with it. It’s always going to be me.

FJO: But in terms of trying to prove something, you really made a statement by calling an album Samdhi.

RM: Yeah, the new universe. I was thinking more like the way that the Hindu calendar has this very finite place; they know when the universe is going to end. Then there’s this space while the new universe is being created. At the time I was feeling like there were new things opening up for me musically—not necessarily that other things were closing, but I felt like I was finding a new voice. So it’s more metaphorically speaking of that space between the destruction of one thing and the creation of another, and what happens during those magical times. It’s like twilight, really—all the weird things that can happen in twilight.

FJO: But I hear Bird Calls as coming from a completely different place than either Gamak or Samdhi. Not in terms of how it sounds, but in terms of how it exists in relation to tradition. I would place it more alongside projects like I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight, your collaboration with the PRISM Quartet, or Song of the Jasmine, the music you created and performed with Ragamala Dance. Working with those dancers resulted in what is probably the most traditional Indian-sounding music you’ve ever done. And working with PRISM, which is a genre-bending ensemble but one that is firmly rooted in the Western classical saxophone quartet tradition, is probably the most traditionally Western classical thing you’ve done. Similarly, Bird Calls, which is a direct homage to Charlie Parker, the most iconic saxophone soloist, is in some ways your most traditional straight-ahead sounding jazz album. You’re still creating things that are clearly in your own voice but you seem to be more directly in specific dialogue with these very different traditions.

RM: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because I was writing all that music at the same time, so I always feel like there are elements of all in each. One of the things I learned writing and playing for the dance company was that there had to be this certain melodic clarity. We get rather intellectual with what we do. How much can I throw in there? How complex can I be? I think it’s a game; at least it’s a game I play with myself sometimes. You know, what’s another layer I can add to this to make it even more convoluted? I quickly saw that that wasn’t going to work with the dancers.

Clarity doesn’t necessarily mean simplicity, but I think there’s a place where melody sings in a way that can reach a lot of people. And that’s what the dancers needed regardless of what’s going on rhythmically. So I felt like that music that I wrote for them had that, and that mindset trickled into the Bird thing and also trickled into the PRISM thing as well. I feel like I’m a different person after that year of working on these three things at once. My approach to writing music, and even how I listen to music, has changed a little bit. Doing something interdisciplinary puts you in a bit of a more selfless space because what they’re doing is equally valid and important and virtuosic. So it’s really not about me. It’s about us making this thing that seems seamless and that is seamless. In the end after all that touring, I always describe that project as ten musicians. It just happened to be that five of them were dancers.

FJO: Now in terms of the PRISM project, this was a collaboration with these four great saxophone players. They’ve done a lot of music where people write them a piece and they play the piece. And then there are pieces where people write them a piece and play the piece with them, which is what you did. But it’s a completely fixed piece, right?

RM: For the most part. There is a section where they improvise, but there are rules. There are rules to how they improvise and certain key points and stuff. So it’s not like they just go for it for a while and then I raise my hand; it’s much more structured than that. It’s based on some pitch sets. It’s very much composed, and it’s very finite. It’s always kind of the same length and the same message comes across. Well, PRISM is interesting. I’ve always liked what they do; they’ve always been very forward-looking in what they’re looking to perform. I actually met Taimur Sullivan back in ’94 at the North American Saxophone Alliance Conference. It’s also known as NASA, if anyone cares. He was a finalist in the classical competition and I was a finalist in the jazz competition. I had this very intriguing conversation with him because I had never met a classical saxophonist who was so aware of jazz and who was just so into modern music. He wasn’t into just playing the Creston Sonata and the stalwarts of the classical saxophone canon; he was doing stuff with tape loops and he was looking to do all this crazy stuff. I was like, “Who are you?” This was before he was part of PRISM, but we kept in touch over the years. Then we had had conversations like, “Hey, it would be great if you could write something for us, blah-blah-blah.” Some of these conversations go back and forth for years and then it finally happens. So that was something I was really looking forward to. And they really wanted me to write something where I was going to actively play with them. I approach that in different ways. But you know, I definitely wanted to be in there, and then the great thing about that part where they improvise is I’m actually holding it down; I’m playing a bass line for them. It’s like, you guys go; it’s not about me soloing. I don’t always want to be the one playing the melody by any means. It’s again, music as a community event.

FJO: So did doing a project like that whet your appetite for potentially doing a piece where you’re writing music that other folks play, that you’re not part of?

RM: You know, I would love to do that. I try to put it out there that I’m interested in doing that. I’ve had a few conversations with Imani Winds. Toyin Spellman, the oboe player, is someone again whom I’ve known for many, many years. It’s a question of logistics and getting calendars to align. But I would love to write something for them. I would love to write for string quartet. I did an interview this morning where someone was asking me if I’d ever thought about writing for orchestra. I would love to do all of those things. And I’m just as happy to write and not play, for sure. You know, that would be really, really fun.

FJO: You just came back from Panama and Chile.

RM: Yeah. That was with Bird Calls. Mainly the bulk of what I’ve been doing is with Bird Calls, the Charlie Parker project. That’s touring pretty much through the rest of the year. Indo-Pak Coalition’s going to make another album, but with a lot of electronics. I’m actually working on a couple of new pieces that will debut at the Walker Arts Center in February.

I also have this idea for a project with a comedian. There’s always been this relationship with comedians and jazz that hasn’t been engaged so much recently. Comedians used to open for jazz musicians. I mean, at the Village Vanguard. That was a thing! Artistically speaking, there’s something very interesting about the commonalities and timing and pace, and the ratio of composed to improvised material, and how different comedians approach that. It’s really like being a jazz musician to me. So I’d just like to see where that goes. I have to think about that a lot more. There’s this great artist I met named Eric Dyer. Do you know what a zoetrope is? It’s kind of like the earliest form of—it’s not even film. You look through this thing with slits in it that spins, and the result would be like someone riding a bicycle. It’s essentially the first form of movie. So this guy Eric Dyer has done this amazing work with a kind of modern take on the zoetrope. They look just bizarre, and then when they start spinning, it’s like a whole civilization moving around. But when it’s static, it doesn’t look like anything. He’s also done it with umbrellas. So it’s like a pretty umbrella, but when you spin the umbrella, it’s an animation. It’s really, really brilliant. We’ve been talking about ways in which he could make something that he can actually manipulate in real time. It’s not just a piece of art that spins. So I’d like to do something with him and a comedian. That’s really on my mind. So those are the two things that I’m thinking about for this year. And then who knows from there.

 

 

Linda Oh: Lean In and Listen

Towards the end of our conversation, composer and bassist Linda Oh shares a formative lesson from a recording session for her first album Entry.

I had written everything and wanted things a certain way. Then when I got together with the other musicians, they were strong players and I realized that whatever preconceptions I had, things weren’t necessarily going to be exactly how I wanted them. That was a great thing for me because it challenged me to think, “Okay, how am I going to let go of my initial vision and just go play?”

She is speaking about herself, of course, but it’s also striking how applicable it is to anyone—musician or listener—who finds themselves mentally tangled up in preconceptions before the music starts.

Oh’s interest in a malleable and personally expressive approach to music making is actually something that began pulling at her aesthetically much earlier. While growing up in Perth, Australia, she and her sisters studied classical music from a young age, an education her family took very seriously. And while she remains appreciative of the technical skill she derived, she stresses the importance of freedom and sincerity in the music she performs now.

“In the music that I play, I’m really allowed to do what I feel and be who I am,” she explains. Still she doesn’t feel she has abandoned her early training so much as continued developing her musical voice—appreciating the push and pull between discipline and freedom. “There was never one particular point where I thought I’m going to switch from classical into jazz or improvised music. I’m going to do one thing and not the other. It’s all music and it’s all tied in together in some way.”

And her instrument—whether an electric strapped across her body or an upright acoustic with which she moves almost as a dance partner—has become an integral piece of that self-expression. “That is who I am now. It is so much a part of my identity that I can’t imagine playing another instrument this seriously.”

While the idea of the bass player leading the band remains enough of a novelty to attract comment, Oh seems to find it simply an option among many offering unique strengths and influences on the music. She does acknowledge that her personal style may be a bit more democratic than some bandleaders and that her interests are often focused on “creating space or a palette for other people to work with.” But that isn’t to imply that she shies away from taking the reins—or the melody.

Group dynamics are an area that Oh is sensitive to since the acoustic bass often needs the support of amplification to cut through the band. Still, she sees the technical limitations of her own or any particular instrument as fuel for creating new spaces for sound.

“With the tradition of [the bass], especially within a jazz context,” she points out, “there has been emphasis placed on having a huge acoustic sound, which I definitely value and it’s something that I teach my students. But in addition to having a big string sound, a lot can be done by dialing things back. It’s like if you talk to a large crowd of people, you can talk really loudly over them, but if you try and talk softer it’s interesting to see how many people will actually lean in and listen more.”

Once again, the conversation swings around to just that: listening. And whether Oh is improvising in the company of familiar players or new colleagues, that’s a fundamental focus no matter where the music might unexpectedly take them.

“It’s risk, but you’re still playing with people and you’re still respecting people. The worst thing I think for humanity is when people aren’t listening to each other. And that’s not just a musical thing, it’s a life thing.”

Homage to Captain Swing

SwingletterA Swing letter addressed to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: “The college that thou holdest shall be fired very shortly.”

The letters began arriving in the early autumn of 1830, addressed to magistrates, landlords, clergy across rural England:

Sir, take notice that we send you word that your threshing machine shall be burnt to ashes before the month end

Sir, This is to acquaint you that if your thrashing machines are not destroyed by you directly we shall commence our labours

Sir, Your name is down amongst the Black hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you and the like of you, who are Parson Justasses, to make your wills

The threats all carried the same signature: Captain Swing, a supposed rebel leader, the name calling to mind a pair of macabrely mirrored rhythms: the sweep of the arm in the manual threshing of wheat—the loosening of the grain from the surrounding chaff—and the slow pendulation of a hanged body. Revenge for thee is on the wing from thy determined Captain Swing.

He wasn’t real. Captain Swing was a fiction, a symbol, a conveniently adopted veil of anonymity. He became a metaphor, an embodiment of the frustrations of England’s farm-laborers and rural poor. In 1830, that frustration boiled over, and protests swept across the English countryside. As part of their protests, the Swing rioters extended the Luddite tradition of machine-breaking, destroying the threshing machines that were stealing their livelihood. Their demands were simple: higher wages and an end to rural unemployment. They were reacting to the Industrial Revolution—but, the threshing machines notwithstanding, not so much the advent of mechanization as the change in identity, the way industrialization eroded a robust system of rural relationships and rhythms to a single, stark transaction: employer and employed, owner and tenant, capital and labor, haves and have-nots.

No one knows who invented Captain Swing. But the mascot was an unwitting and curious bit of prescience.

feature 58-38Bandleader and crimefighter Swing Sisson encounters a critic in Feature Comics #58 (July 1942).

On the cusp of a new academic year, Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music, offered a resolution destined, perhaps, to become a standard of its kind. Defending (in The New York Times) his institution’s decision to suspend the activities of its jazz ensemble (and its general de-emphasis of jazz in the curriculum), Blocker appealed to categorization:

Our mission is real clear…. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.

This intimation of musical haves and have-nots—placing jazz outside the vale of a posited Western canon of great works, then and now—is dumb in its own way (Alex Ross and Michael Lewanski were quick to point out how and why). It is also wrong on a deeper and more historically populous level. Both Ross and Lewanski make the eminently correct assertion that a curriculum without jazz is poor training indeed for the wonderfully kleptomaniacal repertoire of classical music. But, even beyond that, to promulgate a canon that does not change and expand its parameters in response to performed reality is, I think, missing the point of music, and missing it badly.

The notion that jazz is some kind of outside force attempting to breach Fortress Classical is not new. Take Deems Taylor, for instance—composer, critic, narrator of Fantasia, well-known classical music personality of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. In his book The Well-Tempered Listener, Taylor examined the practice of “swinging the classics,” making jazz band versions of classical chestnuts. This sort of thing had apparently exercised enough indignation that the president of the Bach Society of New Jersey, Taylor reported, sent a letter to the FCC proposing penalties for radio stations that broadcast such numbers. Taylor gave that suggestion a sympathetic shrug:

If you’re going to suspend the license of a broadcasting station for permitting Bach to be played in swing time, what are you going to do to a station for permitting swing music to be played at all? (You might offer the owner of the station his choice of either listening to nothing but swing for, say, twelve hours, or else spending a month in jail.) You can’t legislate against bad taste.

Taylor’s solution was musical rope-a-dope, completely certain that the unaltered classical repertoire would win out. “I believe in letting people hear these swing monstrosities because I believe that it’s the best method of getting rid of them,” he concluded. “A real work of art is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is.”

Connoisseurs may also recall last year’s anti-jazz contretemps, culminating with composer-activist John Halle’s broadside against the current state of jazz vis-à-vis progressive politics, which, on its surface, avoided the high-low divide that Taylor repointed and Blocker tripped over. (Halle’s thesis: “It’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset.”) But at the core of Halle’s article was a related view of score and performance, revealed when he took tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson to task for performing and recording an instrumental version of the old standard “Without a Song”—the original lyrics of which are redolent with, as Halle puts it, “vile Jim Crow racism” (“A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song”)—at nearly the same time Henderson was, elsewhere in his music, acknowledging and endorsing the Black Power movement of the 1960s. (“A nadir of obliviousness,” Halle concluded.)

What Blocker’s comment, Taylor’s bravado, and Halle’s litmus test all share is the assumption of a kind of one-way street between intent and performance. Halle’s implication is that, no matter Henderson’s intention, the performance is politically regressive because of the original lyrics—to echo Taylor, even a poor work of art, it seems, is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is. Taylor’s confidence that the score can survive any amount of stylistic contamination nevertheless insinuates that performance, the real-world, real-time expression of style, is ultimately secondary. Blocker’s mission statement implicitly posits a musical regime setting the verities of the written-down, published, and academically vetted canon against the presumably more relativistic and transient pleasures of a performed vernacular.

The supposition throughout is that the composer’s (or lyricist’s) intent remains paramount, that even a thoroughly transformative performance is still just a reiteration of that intent.  There is another possibility, though: the possibility that, the performance can offset the composer’s intent, simply by virtue of who is doing the performing—and how.

There is also the possibility that this is, in fact, one of music’s highest virtues.

* * *

Here’s an interesting thing. Take two weights, connect them with a string, then run the string over a pulley, like this—

atwood1

You can intuitively guess what will happen: if both weights have the same mass, they’ll just hang there, but if one has more mass, it’ll pull the other through the pulley. This seems trivial, but it’s not, not entirely—which is why the Rev. George Atwood, a tutor at Cambridge’s Trinity College, invented this apparatus in the late 1700s, the better to teach principles of classical mechanics. Playing around with Atwood’s machine, students could measure and learn about rates of acceleration, string tension, inertial forces, and the like. One thing that you can determine with Atwood’s machine is that, in the case of unequal masses (and assuming the pulleys are frictionless), the acceleration on both weights is constant and uniform. In other words, if the masses are equal, the system is at equilibrium, but if the masses are unequal, it’s a runaway system, the weights flying through the pulley, ever faster, until they run out of string or vertical space.

But if you take the two weights, run the string over two pulleys, and start the smaller weight swinging back and forth, like this—

atwood2

—some unexpected things start to happen. The swinging weight, via centrifugal force—more pedantically, via the apparent force that results from interpreting a rotating reference frame as an inertial frame—counteracts some of the gravitational pull on the larger mass. Which means that the Swinging Atwood’s Machine (as it was dubbed by Nicholas Tufillaro, the physicist who first started playing around with such systems back in the 1980s) can end up doing some very counterintuitive things. Even if the masses are unequal, the system can still reach an equilibrium, the smaller mass locking into periodic and sometimes seriously funky orbits:

TufillaroFig4(From Nicholas B. Tufillaro, Tyler A. Abbott, and David J. Griffiths, “Swinging Atwood’s Machine,” Am. J. Phys. 52 (10), October 1984)

To summarize: if you have two unequal masses that are inextricably bound to each other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the larger mass always dominates the system. The smaller can still counterbalance the larger. It just needs to swing.

* * *

LennysMahler6Leonard Bernstein’s score of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, from the New York Philharmonic’s digital archives.

It’s only a metaphor, of course. Then again, most writing and talking about music ends up, before too long, at metaphors. “Swing” itself, musically speaking, is a pretty vague concept. It has to do with rhythm, but it has to do with so much more than rhythm: it considers the flow of musical experience through the lenses of momentum and vitality. In its most poetic sense, the metaphor is ecumenical. Those old “Mahler Grooves” bumper stickers could be at once a cheeky incongruity and a recognition that, in its own way, and in a good performance, Mahler could indeed groove, that the symphonies could swing in the grandest sense. But even in the term’s more technical sense—that calibration of the ratio between stressed and unstressed notes—“swing” hearkens all the way back to the old Baroque inégale: a variance, a perturbation, an inequality, turned into a dance of emphasis and de-emphasis that pulls the music forward.

All performance is a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis; it is, on one level, about choice. And, thanks to music’s singular strangeness—grammar and eloquence forever in search of content and meaning—that choice can extend far beyond technical choices on the part of the musicians. Take the case of classical music’s great Beleth, Richard Wagner, who embodied the human possibilities of greatness and ugliness to an exceptionally intense degree. Because his medium was music, performing and listening to Wagner’s work is an opportunity to choose the greatness over the ugliness.

This is, incidentally, what Blocker gets so wrong about the canon. To use it as a dividing line is a diminishing choice, segregating musics that might otherwise yield energetic synergy. The better choice is to view the idea of a canon as an opportunity for expansion and addition—to decide that the classics not only can survive being swung, but, in the larger sense, can positively thrive on it.

From an optimistic vantage, this ongoing process of choice might be thought of as practice, training players and audience to imagine a better world, the better to achieve it. A pessimist could point out (quite rightly) that such training is taking an awfully long time to translate into concrete change.

Captain Swing, in the long run, could not prevent industrialization and capitalism from diminishing and dehumanizing the English rural poor. But the imaginary Captain Swing and his very real foot-soldiers still offer warning and inspiration. The canon, after all, is a threshing floor, separating musical wheat from chaff. The question is whether the canon is to be winnowed by hand, as it were—by individual performers, individual choices collectively shaping repertoire and style—or by machine: by institutions, by factories of learning and production. A top-down segregation of the canon recapitulates what the Swing rioters foresaw: it makes the relationship between the performer and the repertoire excessively transactional, limited in dimension and devoid of ownership.

The steady advance of technology and prosperity in certain places, among certain classes, can make us forget that all of us, rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate, live in a machine. Its gears are money and power. Inequality, greed, racism, misogyny, discrimination all remain institutionalized and persistent. The music this article has been talking about—jazz and classical—is, culturally speaking, on the margins, however luxurious; maybe to expect these musics, old or new, to alter the fabric of society, however incrementally, is excessively idealistic. (Confession: in that regard, I am an idealist.) But just in their performance, in jazz’s constant reinvention and classical’s constant re-creation, they mount a defense. In swinging, they swing the machine. They mitigate their lesser mass. They, perhaps, prevent the whole system from running away to a catastrophic end. Or, at least, they keep us from being pulled helplessly through the machine.

*Homepage featured image courtesy Petras Gagilas via Flickr