Other than a short visit between set breaks at a recent Hollywood gig, the last I spent any significant time with Aaron was over a year ago at a restaurant just outside Boston. In town for a gig with his OAM Trio, Aaron joined me and our musical mentor and first jazz teacher, Bob Sinicrope, for dinner at a small cafe not far from Milton Acadamy, our former highschool and Bob’s current employer.
Aaron graduated from Milton in 1995 (a year before I did), deferred his first year at Harvard University, and moved to New York City to study jazz at the New School for Social Research, the famous urban university founded in 1919 by philosopher John Dewey and historian Charles Beard (among others). Over the years, the institution has been home to an astonishing group of intellectuals, from composer John Cage to poet W. H. Auden and anthropologist Claude-Levi Strauss. Following in that tradition, the jazz program (begun in 1986) is built around a jaw-dropping faculty of jazz musicians: drummer Joe Chambers, bassist Reggie Workman, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, to name just a few. If New York City once was (and still is) the most important place for American jazz, then the New School, located in Greenwich Village, is pretty near to a center point as one can imagine: the criss-crossing mix of musicians suggests a kind of Grand Central Jazz Station.
That Aaron would move to New York City, attend the New School, and actually become a jazz musician seemed, at the time, natural enough to me and my jazz-playing friends. Aaron, like most of us at Milton, discovered jazz through Bob Sinicrope. Hired originally as both a music and math teacher, Bob’s jazz curriculum, a program built around small combo improvisation, has over time grown large enough to demand his full-time attention. While I was at Milton, Bob was still dividing his time between music and math. However, since my years there (1988–1992) enrollment in Bob’s courses has risen dramatically and the program has blossomed into one of the best high school jazz programs in the country. The recent success of the program aside, the real legacy of Bob Sinicrope’s program will be the number of devoted jazz listeners and musicians he created. Just about everyone I knew who took Bob’s classes and became involved in any depth in the jazz program is still playing, some professionally (like Aaron), others informally (like me). But all of us have committed our lives in one way or another—either as scholars, educators, writers, or performers—to jazz music and its many tributaries.
After a year in New York, Aaron moved back to Boston to attend Harvard. Playing frequently around the city, he became the house pianist at Wally’s, a small jazz club in the South End of Boston that has been one of the most prominent breeding grounds for the city’s jazz musicians. In 1999 he released his first record, Turning Point, with Mark Turner, Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland, and others. Since then he has released another recording under his own name (Unfolding, JCurve Records,
2001), and three CDs with his OAM Trio (the recently released Live in Sevilla: OAM and Mark Turner, 2003, Trilingual, 1999 and flow, 2002, both on Fresh Talent/New Sound Records). For the past several years, Aaron’s primary gig involved playing with prominent saxophonist Joshua Redman. He recorded two CDs with Redman’s group, Beyond (Warner Brothers Records, 2000) and Passage of Time (Warner Brothers Records, 2001). As is the case with most jazz musicians, Aaron has played on dozens of recordings with other artists and has performed live with many musicians including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, and Nicholas Payton, singer Betty Carter, and saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi.
Watching Aaron’s career from afar (through the press, the occasional email, phone call, or chance encounter) I wondered what it was like for a friend and fellow musician to “make it” in the jazz world. What was it like to play at such a high level and with so many great musicians? It all seemed glamorous and removed from my life and this distance certainly gave the jazz life an excitement and exocitism that was (and is!) more complicated in reality. Being in and out touch with Aaron for so long, I had hoped for a chance to sit down with him and ask him not only what it was really like, but how his thoughts on making and listening to jazz have developed as a result of his experiences. After our most recent meeting in Boston, I asked him if he would agree to be interviewed for ECHO. With maybe a little hubris I thought that my questions for Aaron might be of interest to a larger readership—people interested in not only jazz but the contemporary world of gigging musicians, i.e. people who derive the majority of their incomes from performing. ECHO has interviewed other contemporary musical figures: composer Lou Harrison, jazz drummer Billy Higgins, and former Schoenberg protégé Leonard Stein. All of these people were at the end of their careers (Harrison and Higgins both recently died) and were especially sensitive and reflective, providing rare perspectives on their life and work over the decades.
Jazz occupies a curious place in American popular music. Despite its recently gained toehold in the high art world of the concert hall, it is still performed primarily in commercial venues, bars and clubs—institutions dependent on paying patrons and not charitable ones. Jazz record sales are thin and most musicians must play out a lot to make a living.
The music has the imprimatur of academic respectibility but still lacks the same kind of institutional support such highly valued art musics usually command. Perhaps because of this situation, jazz has managed to escape the all too obvious stagnation of America’s largest concert halls. It continues to flirt with a range of other musical styles, especially those drawn from other streams of global popular musics. While there is no explicit theme that binds our conversation, certain issues come up again and again: globalization, popular music, and the relationship between art and commerce. In its struggles to be relevant and important to American life, jazz is, in certain ways, a microcosm of larger musical and cultural issues that all contemporary musicians must confront.
Dinner with Aaron and Bob was, for me, a curious form of double-vision, not the drunken variety (the restaurant, under the ambigious ownership and management of a mysterious but culinarily gifted Christian sect, didn’t serve alcohol) but of a chronological nature. It was, at one time, intensely nostalgic, the years studying with Bob Sinicrope were exciting and inextricably bound up with the minor triumphs and anxieties of high school. Even now I look back at those years almost exclusively through the lens of my musical experiences. But this nostalgia was tempered with an excitement of future possibilities. Both Aaron and I are at the beginning of our careers, with time for reflection far off in the future. The interview here is a kind of progress report and not a final summation. Our views will no doubt be continually shaped and re-shaped like the malleable music that is the focus of our discussion.
Los Angeles, California
Andrew Berish: Do you feel there is a coherent jazz tradition, a coherent practice or body of music that you are a part of? And if so, what are your feelings or attitudes towards that tradition? In New York, for example, there are people who play downtown in the Knitting Factory world, lots of local musicians, and then there are people like Medeski, Martin & Wood who do a kind of jazz but much more on the pop/funk side. Where do you see yourself in that? Do you think it is all jazz?
Aaron Goldberg: I think that there is definitely a coherent body of music comprising the jazz tradition. Of course, you find differences of opinion over what actually fits in that tradition, what fits in the so-called canon. I think it is probably safer not to even use the word “canon” just because it is a fluid body of knowledge, and the “canon” might different according to each person. Nonetheless, there would probably be many common elements cited by members of the jazz community or by practicing jazz musicians. All who might claim authority on these matters would probably be in agreement about 80 or 90 percent of the stuff that belongs in the tradition. You would have wild and passionate disagreements about the other 10 to 20 percent.
My personal take is that almost everything fits in. I’m not one of those people who say, “oh this is not jazz because it’s not this, it’s not that.” In general I tend to find most of those arguments kind of petty. I will certainly take a position about what’s better and what’s worse, but I’m not going to put my foot down and say, “goddamn it, Medeski, Martin & Wood is not jazz because it is too popular, or because it is not swinging, or whatever.” I think they themselves would call what they do something like funk/jazz or jam band-jazz, definitely jazz-influenced. I heard those guys with Randy Weston playing some straight-up, indisputable jazz when they were at NEC [New England Conservatory] and those guys still play straight-ahead jazz all the time for fun. They might not be playing music that everyone agrees is jazz, but they are definitely jazz musicians.
I think that’s similarly the case across the board with a lot of people who are in these kind of borderline areas. Many of them are jazz musicians and think of themselves as jazz musicians even if what they are playing isn’t necessarily always called “jazz.” And I think that jazz ultimately, in addition to being a canon or a set of traditions, is also a set of tools that you develop as a musician that allows you to approach other jazz musicians with a kind of shared jazz sensibility. What that boils down to is basically improvisational skills as well as the idea that good music is always creative and flowing and changing. You can bring that jazz sensibility to hip-hop, you can bring that jazz sensibility to a whole bunch of different kinds of music, funk definitely…
AB: When Ornette Coleman started getting attention for what he was doing, some people became angry
performed by Ornette Coleman
because they hadn’t heard him play rhythm changes. They didn’t feel like he had demonstrated any technique and they thought he was a fraud. You mentioned that you heard Medeski, Martin & Wood play in an indisputably jazz context, playing standards or jazz tunes, swinging or whatever. If you didn’t know that, would it be an issue? Is being a jazz musician fundamentally about a certain kind of technique and approach? Say, if you couldn’t play competently on a blues, or something like rhythm changes…
AG: I think, again, we’re going to have differences of opinion over the definition of “competently.” However, the principle that being a jazz musician is having a certain set of skills is one that I buy. I would say you don’t have to be able to play rhythm changes and sound like Wynton Kelley or sound like Bird. But, you have to be able to play rhythm changes: you have to know what the chords are and sound convincing. It doesn’t matter necessarily how you sound stylistically—it’s not your choice of style that makes you a jazz musician, it’s your body of skills and knowledge. I didn’t mean to imply that I only think Medeski, Martin & Wood are valid because they can play jazz, I was just saying that they are actually jazz musicians and they would think of themselves as such. Especially right now, the boundaries between styles are getting more and more fluid. Joshua Redman is playing a lot of jam band kind of funk-jazz stuff, Nicholas Payton is about to have a record that has hip-hop and electronica and all kinds of stuff, and Brad Mehldau is playing some electronica stuff. All sorts of stylistic boundaries are being crossed by a lot of people who would absolutely consider themselves jazz musicians and whom I would absolutely consider jazz musicians.
It is certainly possible that someone might consider themselves a free jazz musician and have no idea what the fuck rhythm changes is, but I would be surprised if they were good. I think that most people who consider themselves any kind of jazz musician would have run across those kinds of tunes in their lifetime and would have taken the opportunity to learn them.
AB: I wanted to follow up on genre mixing. There is a little bit of this in the OAM Triostuff you do. Do you think that if you mix things too much, it gets to a point where it stops being jazz? For instance, jazz and blues have always seemed like they bleed into one another and there are some players who are sort of jazzy but also definitely bluesy.
AG: Like who?
AB: I think of early players like T-Bone Walker. He has long lines and sort of makes the changes but he moved, became more and more a blues player.
AG: He was probably always a blues player—I think it is fair to say that if you were to do interviews with all these guys who are on the borderline, they would very accurately self-identify as either blues guys who like jazz, or jazz guys who like blues; or salsa guys who play jazz, or jazz guys who play salsa. I think if you let people just tell you themselves what they are, they would pretty accurately give you a portrait of where they’re coming from and it would probably match up with what minimally knowledgeable listeners would say if they heard these people play.
As far as genre mixing—jazz has always been influenced by all sorts of different kinds of music: of course blues, but also latin music of various kinds, African music. I think all good jazz has some kind of influences from outside of jazz. All jazz is in some way genre-mixed a little bit. I think real serious genre mixing is when you start getting away from the improvisational nature of jazz.
If what you are talking about is stuff like the OAM trio where we’re improvising with jazz forms and jazz types of tunes but we add some non-traditional jazz instruments like tabla, or we use some scales and flavors and rhythms that come from other types of music like flamenco or Arab music: that’s just normal jazz.
There have always been cross-currents pollinating jazz from left and right and I think we are just continuing that trend, perhaps adding new elements not explored before. I wouldn’t call that “genre mixing,” I would just say that we are bringing in influences from around the world into a jazz context. Genre mixing would be something like that last Herbie Hancock record Future to Future. There is not that much improvisation and the grooves are kind of electronica and hip-hop based stuff. After you hear it you’re kind of like, “was that jazz? Or was it electronica?” It was maybe electronica with a jazz flavor, or maybe a little jazz with an electronica flavor. You’re really not sure which one it is. So then you’re really in the territory of bending definitions of stuff and crossing boundaries.
AG: I think that, for me, jazz has ultimately always been about improvisation: if it wasn’t improvisational, it wasn’t really jazz. You could be mimicking jazz and have pre-recorded jazz-style grooves, but if there wasn’t any improvising I would just say that’s kind of “fake jazz.”
I would say improvisational music that has non-traditional jazz grooves but is still improvisational is still jazz. It’s just jazz with hip-hop beats, or funk beats, or turntable guys or whatever—you can add in anything into it and, if everybody’s improvising I would say that it qualifies as jazz. I think that that’s where the idea of a set of jazz skills comes in, because being a jazz musician capable of improvising, capable of putting yourself in new kinds of contexts, making music with all different kinds people, that’s going to allow you to investigate all these foreign realms, and bring them into your music in a kind of “jazzy” way, it’s going to allow it to work
AB: Do you see yourself moving more in that direction?
AG: Depending on what I’m doing at the moment I might be working with completely traditional ensembles, or through varying degrees of experimentation. I’m about to do some stuff with Nicholas Payton’s band which is a mixture of all kinds of shit that doesn’t sound like any of his former music. But you know, it’s definitely still jazz. He’s just interested in experimenting with new types of materials but using them in a very jazz way, very creatively.
AB: You live in New York and that seems to be the center of the jazz world. The scene seems small enough that everyone plays with everyone but that’s not really true, is it? Is it subdivided into smaller scenes?
AG: I think the answer is sort of “yes,” but that being said, there’re a lot of people who move between cliques—it’s a community of people. Ultimately there are no fixed rules because people change. First of all, they change their musical interests, they change their skill set, they change their friends and as a result the scene is fluid. So there are people who might be in one kind of…you could call it a “clique,” but that sounds too exclusive. They might be in one little community and then a second community and then move between them, and then a third if they meet somebody that likes their playing. Nonetheless, there’re still a bunch of guys who mostly play uptown, there are guys who mostly play at Smalls or Fat Cat, and there’re guys who mostly play at the 55 Bar. It’s really not fair to say that those guys are in different cliques—they just have different groups of friends, or they might live in differents part of town such that they are more affiliated with musicians who live or play in their particular region of town. All could very well have turned out very differently just by circumstance. I am always struck by how many guys I haven’t seen in a long time just because I live in Brooklyn and they live in Harlem.
AB: [laugh] It’s all New York City!
AG: It’s New York City and it’s not—stylistically we would sit together great. It’s just that they happen to be in a different place from me on a given day. On the other hand, there are guys I always keep coming back to even though they are on the road and I don’t see them very often. I think I am somebody who tends, maybe more than average, to span some of these groups. So from my perspective perhaps it seems like everybody does play with everyone. But I know full well, in the back of my mind, that that is not really the case. There are some guys, like Matthew Shipp, whom I’ve just never run across in my life. Even though he is in the New York jazz scene, and he is a piano player, and he is supposedly great—not only have I never run across him but I’ve never really even heard him. It’s not for lack of interest, it’s just like a different scene. And then you say there are people in what you were calling the Knitting Factory. The truth is the Knitting Factory scene isn’t really a jazz scene. The Knitting Factory mostly books non-jazz. They book like alternative rock bands.
AB: They have a Knitting Factory out here in Los Angeles now and they book virtually no jazz.
AG: That’s kind of the way the Knitting Factory in New York is now. All the people that supposedly comprise what you call the Knitting Factory scene, they’re playing at Tonic and a few other places. A lot of guys I play with also play in those bands—they play with people like Dave Douglas, who has gotten press as being part of that scene. All my friends play with Dave Douglas, and my friends play with me. I haven’t personally played with Dave Douglas, but I consider myself in the same scene as Dave Douglas. I very well could play with Dave Douglas tomorrow if the right circumstance arises. I think a lot of these boundaries are not really boundaries; again they’re very fluid.
AB: From what you are saying it seems that maybe the jazz press, however small it really is, somewhat constructed these things.
AG: They’re absolutely constructed. I think the idea of a wall between Lincoln Center and the downtown scene—all this kind of shit—was always bullshit, just a media construction. I think in a certain way it was a good thing to keep jazz in the media eye, because any press is good press, anything is better than being forgotten. Wynton [Marsalis] likes to shout his mouth off and there was always someone who wanted to shout against him…
AB: Well, he’s a polemicist, he likes to argue…
AG: But he doesn’t believe a lot of that shit, and when it came down to it he played a couple of benefit concerts for the Knitting Factory. He’s all about supporting jazz music in all its forms. He’ll sit and pontificate about how some shit is “sad,” but it’s not that he even believes it’s sad, it’s just more that he believes other stuff is better.
Every time I have played with Wynton, which isn’t that often, he always gives you his vision of what jazz is and what jazz should be and what the best in jazz is. He really cares about that, and he really cares about the music—it’s up to you whether you disagree with him or take his advice. I appreciate him for where he is coming from. I don’t always agree with everything he says, but it’s absolutely his prerogative to have his views and mine to accept or reject them.
AB: When you play with him, though, are there certain demands put on your playing?
AG: I would say so. I wouldn’t be called to play with him unless I had the set of skills that make him feel relatively comfortable and make good music with him. There are lots of great jazz musicians who probably would not want to deal with those kinds of demands.
I actually enjoy it. I enjoy the challenge of playing with somebody who has specific expectations and specific desires, who demands of me and then sees if I can rise to that challenge. At any given moment, the music is only as good as the ability of the guys to work together; sometimes that means crossing stylistic divides or negotiating stylistic differences and finding some sort of common space. To me, someone like Wynton could be more flexible than he chooses to be.
AB: The negotiation with him doesn’t seem to be two-way…
AG: It could be. Last time I did this gig it was interesting because the first night we played tunes chosen by the drummer and Wynton was totally capable of doing that. We played a bunch of Wayne [Shorter] tunes, all kinds of stuff. And then the second night, Wynton was like, “ok, I did your shit, now you’re going to play my shit.” And we played Cherokee and Caravan and all his old favorites. Stylistically it went where Wynton was coming from. He sent a message: “alright, we all know that I can do that shit but this is what I am about; you all are going to come with me.”
AB: When I go see gigs I always find the interaction of the players fascinating. Because you are just imagining what’s going on: sometimes you sense that there is conflict but you’re not sure, and if they’re good performers you’ll never know. But when you are on the bandstand with someone like that, you’re playing “Cherokee” and one time through a chorus you put some unusual changes in, will Wynton turn around and say don’t do that?
AG: No, no, no, no…definitely not. He’s a jazz musician, he’s not going to sit there and tell you what you should play in your solo. He’ll give you a comment after the gig is over about what he thinks you should be studying, what he thinks the really great shit is, but he would never try to tell you in the moment what you should be playing or not. Maybe if you were a total student, or if you were in a teaching situation and he was your teacher—but, no, not on the bandstand.
AB: I imagine he already pre-selects players…
AG: Yeah, totally. People definitely have this false image of him as some kind of musical facist—he’s totally not. He’s in a position of extraordinary responsibility; he chose that position for himself and that’s the way he likes it. He really cares about what his vision of jazz music is, passing it on to future generations, and carrying it on at a higher level.
AB: When we were hanging out in Boston you were
actually speaking about how Wynton sounds like himself. I thought that was really remarkable because personal style is highly valued in jazz and somehow he has done that.
AG: I think he has found a musical voice at this point in his career. I don’t think it was necessarily true back when he first came out, but I think it’s definitely true now that he’s found a convincing, compelling, and recognizable voice on the trumpet. I also think that he highly values melody. Through the example of his playing, he’s reminded everyone in jazz that being a great jazz improviser is really about your ability to create spontaneous, unpredictable, new melodies.
AB: Does change-running, the bebop language, does that get in the way?
AG: From his perspective or mine?
AB: From both.
AG: I don’t think that it gets in the way. I think ultimately Bird was not change-running, Bird
was playing a whole bunch of extremely complicated melodies. I think change-running is a term that you would use for someone who plays bebop badly versus someone who plays [it] well. Someone who plays bebop well is making beautiful melodies over complex harmonies and complex forms at fast tempos. Ultimately, Wynton is carrying on that tradition, as are we all. We should get off the topic of Wynton because he gets so much attention as it is. There are lots people like my peers, Kurt Rosenwinkeland Mark Turner. These guys—playing beautiful melodies over extremely complicated forms, structures, harmonies—are taking bebop and making it ten times harder. At their best, those guys are also playing beautiful, highly complex melodies.
AB:I wanted to ask you about jazz pedagogy and learning jazz. But first, and I guess this is somewhat related, consider the commercial viability [of jazz] and the people you mentioned building these tunes off these very complicated harmonies or rhythms or forms. That is a very “artsy” gesture and it’s very demanding on the listeners. Commercial viability means, to a certain extent—or does it?—tempering it to make it more accessible? What is the relationship you perceive with your listeners?
AG: I would say that there is not a direct relationship between the complexity of a given piece of music—be it rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, or whatever—and its ability to reach an audience. I think jazz audiences are more sophisticated than you give them credit for. First of all, there will always be a huge segment of the population that will just have no interest in what we do. And I think that’s a given, whether it’s due to a lack of education, or because people get addicted to whatever’s popular in the day—Britney Spears, the latest hip-hop, or whatever. They’re just not interested in anything else and that’s cool. Jazz is an acquired taste anyway. Some of them could potentially fall in love with jazz. But will they be exposed? Most of them, probably not.
Now, that being said, it leaves the other 10 or 20 percent of the people, or 40 percent in a different country, who may potentially be interested in jazz. Say only 2 or 3 percent of those already have a certain amount of jazz knowledge and exposure. Those are the people who may indeed clue more directly into the specific harmonic information in a tune.
They might actually enjoy some of the complexity. Then the other 8 percent of those 10 percent, those people probably have the ability to respond to complex music. Now it might not be jazz: it might be classical music, or the hippest hip-hop that they listen to now. But they have the ability to process complexity. So there is your target audience: that 10 percent of the people who have specific jazz knowledge or don’t but do have the capacity to enjoy, process, and become fascinated with it.
Maybe, some are like me when I was a Milton Academy sophomore and I heard jazz for the first time. As soon as I heard it I was totally into it—I was one of those sleeping 8 percent. If your music has the good fortune, for whatever reason, to become appreciated by an additional 10 percent, or an additional 20 or 30 percent—great, you’re psyched. But that’s going to be chance. Somebody like Joshua Redman was in the right place at the right time. He has a good story, he’s good looking, he’s well spoken, and he came along at a time when the media was paying attention to jazz. Who knows? He had, for a brief time at least, a wider exposure than other people. But most performers are not going to ever appeal to more than 10 percent of the people.
I don’t think you really have to worry so much about being commercially viable as a jazz artist on a grand scale, only on a small scale. Each person has the individual responsibility to be true to their own artistic vision—this is the way I look at it. Finding your musical self is the number one rule for every jazz musician, and this means compositionally, conceptually, artistically in all senses, especially improvisationally. Some of us are going to naturally gravitate towards a style that’s accessible to a larger percentage of the people. Others are going to naturally develop in such a way that they become fascinated with maybe slightly more challenging or less accessible forms or structures or styles. That’s the way it should be, ultimately.
Somebody like Joshua Redman is always going to be more accessible to a wider percentage (of that already admittedly small percentage) of the people
Tenor Saxophonist Joshua Redman
versus somebody like Mark Turner, who is in every way Redman’s musical equal. They admire each other, and respect each other, and they’re friends. But, Josh will always have a so-called bigger and more successful career because his musical personality is simply just more accessible than Mark’s. That is in part because of the music they write, it’s in part because of their stage presence, and it’s in part because of their life priorities. Josh is just going to be more of a money-making proposition than Mark. That being said, it would be wrong for Mark to change his personality to be more like Josh, and it would be wrong for Josh to change his personality to be more like Mark. They are both great musicians precisely because they’ve tried to be themselves, and so long as they continue to be themselves, they will do just fine. And they will leave something for the next generation to follow.
When I try to think about my own music and whether it will reach an audience, I have to only trust that what I think of as great is going to be great for some other people. It may be that’s great for a thousand other people, maybe
Tenor Saxophonist Mark Turner
that it’s great for ten other people, or maybe that it’s great for 100,000 other people, or for a million other people. A lot of that will probably depend on how it’s marketed, on luck, chance, business…but some of it will depend on my artistic personality and how accessible it is. Another part will depend on how magnetic of a show I give. Sometimes I play with great bands and great guys and the people are kind of lukewarm, and other times I play with equally great guys and the people are going crazy for no other reason that some people just have these magnetic stage personalities—Josh was a prime example of that. Wynton, he’s a great musician and he has stage magnetism; the second he gets on stage, picks up the trumpet, people are riveted. That’s just something that he’s always had and he’s going to continue to have. He exudes charisma and charm, and it’s a major source for his success. But that stuff is out of your hands and ultimately your responsibility is to your musical agenda.
AB: Even if you might never reach the other 90 percent of the people?
AG: Yes, I think your goal should be to reach all of that 10 percent. If you can reach all of that 10 percent you are going to have a great career…
AB: …and presumably be content and happy and fulfilled?
AG: Totally, totally. Unless you went in it for the wrong reasons, unless you went in it to become famous. But the only people who become famous or huge, they are not jazz musicians. And even the most “famous” and “huge” jazz musicians are not famous and huge in grand scheme of things. Wynton Marsalis is not famous and huge, neither is Branford [Marsalis], neither is Joshua, neither is Sonny Rollins, neither is Herbie Hancock in the grand scheme of things. The vast majority of people have never heard of Herbie Hancock. But, he’s been able to reach, say, 20 percent of the people. That’s quite an accomplishment and he deserves credit for that.
AB: But it was a high toll…he got a lot a crap.
AG: But he doesn’t give a fuck about it. If you interviewed him, he wouldn’t say it took a high toll, absolutely not. He would say he was having fun and he was always trying to move with the times and do something new and different. And I think that on the contrary, that movement is what’s kept him vital as opposed to him having paid a price for experimentation.
AB: I want to return to pedagogy and learning jazz. We both went through this very unusual high school program with small combos and a heavy emphasis on improvisation. I haven’t been playing a lot of drums lately, but I have been studying guitar and there is so much you can learn from private teachers and records and that is important, but there is definitely bandstand experience. But, learning to play jazz is so institutionalized. This is a relatively recent phenomenon and I have heard various opinions about the kinds of musicians it produces. Do you think something happens when it gets institutionalized? Suddenly you have degree requirements and juries and school stuff as opposed to learning on the bandstand, or learning with private teachers, or small groups, like the John Payne Center in Brookline, Massachussetts. You have seen a lot, was it all as valuable? Were there certain things frustrating about particular aspects [of your educational experiences]?
AG: The things that are wrong with institutional learning in a jazz context are the things that are wrong with institutional learning in every context. And the things that are right about it are the things that are generally right. I don’t think there is a particularly poor fit between jazz and academia, so to speak. I think that you can potentially learn a lot from any class you take in university. When you do learn, it’s because either a) you are extremely interested in the material at hand, or b) you have a great professor—or both, if you were lucky. Ultimately the same is going to be true of every jazz class as well. Basically, any kind of exposure you get to jazz is good because ultimately it is the kind of thing you have to learn on your own. As it is true of every field of higher learning, in every challenging field, it’s going to come down to…
AB: …you in the practice room?
AG: You in the practice room, you in front of your stereo, you reading a book, if we’re talking about another field. Art cannot be taught in a classroom setting in any kind of definitive way—it can only be introduced. In so far as institutions succeed in introducing people to concepts, new music they haven’t heard before, a method of learning, they are doing their job and it’s going to be up to the student to make it happen beyond that. I think that it’s wrong to demean all institutions, to say there is no place for the institution in jazz. I think if you talked to a lot of old guys, they feel that all these kids are lucky to get their exposure to this music in that kind of setting. What they don’t tell you is well, “that’s not enough.” Students sometimes think they are going to be handed everything, and that suddenly they are going to become a great jazz musician. The truth is no jazz musician learned to play that way, even if they were handed valuable information by their friend or by their mentor. It doesn’t matter whether someone acquires information in a classroom setting or in a private setting, in a John Payne Center, somebody’s loft space, or from their grandfather who handed down the music directly to them. Just acquiring information is not enough; you have to learn to apply it, you have to practice it, you have to develop it into something your own. I think you and I had a teacher who taught us that principle: that basically it came down to you and how hard you want to work.
If there is any downside to the institutional teaching of jazz it’s only that perhaps there’s a danger students could become lazy and think it will all just be handed to them, that they will emerge from their institution fully formed as a swinging killing cat. That obviously doesn’t happen. On the other hand, certain people do emerge from music schools sounding great, but if you ask them why, they’ll tell you in a second it’s because they practiced and not just because they went to class and got As.
AB: You read a lot in biographical accounts of people’s first gig or their first time out playing with better musicians and getting their ass kicked. Did you have experiences like that where on the gig you think, “whoa…there’s a lot more I need to learn”?
AG: Definitely. Well, there are probably a couple of them. Playing with Betty Carter was something like that. I was timid, I didn’t have a lot of confidence, and I think I was intimidated by the situation. I got my ass kicked basically because I didn’t have the requisite confidence to perform in that setting in that moment. It was a wake-up call that my first responsibility to myself as a musician was to play with confidence, with some kind of conviction even it was false [laughs]. That was kind of an unexpected skill that I didn’t realize I would have to develop.
As far as specific tunes, there was this time when I played a gig and I was seventeen or sixteen. Bob Sinicrope helped me hire Hal Crook, and Hal Crook played and it was great and I was very happy. My charts looked like crap, very unprofessional kid-type stuff, however. I expected that he would be able to sight-read all this horrible-looking music that I brought in my own terrible penmanship. I woke to the real world of real people. All the time, it happens on a smaller level: you play with people and they call a tune and you don’t know it and you have to go home and learn it.
AB: You know it’s funny, what you are talking about reminded me. I was watching this great documentary about Thelonius Monk called Straight No Chaser, have you seen it?
AG: In Copley Square theater [in Boston], on the marquee it said, “The Loneliest Monk”—that was the name of the movie, The Loneliest Monk…
AB: [Laughs] There is a movie out now called the Bulletproof Monk. In Straight No Chaser there is this great scene and when I was teaching a jazz history class I showed it. Monk was on tour around Europe with this octet. Phil Woods was there [in the band], and he’s like, “Is this a C or a C#?” and [Monk] he’s like, “whatever….”
AG: Monk said that?
AB: Yeah. He’s a peculiar guy. You couldn’t quite tell if he was joking or if he was really serious. It was a very interesting…
AG: I think he was probably joking because if you listen to his recordings he’s kind of a stickler for details in all his tunes.
AB: We were talking earlier about subdivisions in the field and its construction in the New York Scene. I hate to bring it up—but race politics becomes inescapable in the jazz world because of the nature of the music and where it’s from.
AG: I don’t think race politics becomes inescapable. I think racial diversity is inescapable.
AB: There is a difference between our backgrounds and someone who is black, who might face systematic discrimination, a lower class position, or economic disadvantages. Those structural inequalities do create differences in the way we look at the world, in the way we operate through the world.
I have a two-part question: have you experienced racial tension or hostility on the bandstand? I’m thinking mainly between black and white, but obviously the spectrum is wider than that. And second, taking in the larger issue about race and politics, do you have some responsibility as a jazz artist to larger civil rights or political activities in the African-American world. Is your music political? Should it be?
AG: On the bandstand I have never experienced any racial hostility. I think that race was much more in vogue as a topic on everyone’s mind—in the press, in the musicians’ minds themselves—about ten, fifteen years ago, even stretching back into the late 80s, early 90s. I feel like since I moved back to New York in 1996–97, within the jazz community (definitely not to say within the world at large) it’s kind of a non-issue in the sense that I’ve personally experienced no racial tension and I have been aware of very little racial tension between other musicians. There is absolutely tons of racism out there in America. It just doesn’t exist within the jazz community in New York City, insofar as I can see it, either in its original white on black form or its reverse form, black on white.
To be fair, New York City is one of the most liberal and educated cities in America, and it is also a city where everyone lives right on top of one another. New York is a city where the music scene is completely integrated—black and white people play together all the time. Also, I tend to play in a particularly integrated section of the integrated jazz scene, and am someone who has always played with black and white people together throughout my career.
There is a racial demographic—I don’t want to say demographic divide—that does play a role in who becomes your friend, whether for social reasons, for geographic reasons, for education reasons, for plain old cultural reasons. On the other hand, in the music world as a whole, that demographic usually doesn’t stop musicians from playing with people of other races, and becoming friends with people of other races. In New York in particular, there is a priority placed on being the best musician you can be. Everyone pretty much just wants to play with the best musicians. Some of them happen to be black, some of them happen to be white. If you can play, for the most part, everyone is cool to you because they respect you first and foremost as a musician and not as a black person or a white person.
AB: I think it sounds like a kind of model space…
AG: I think in a lot of ways it really is. About fifteen years ago it wasn’t quite as much this way. I’m not sure about all the reasons for that but I think that there was some kind of race politics being played in the so-called halls of jazz power [laughs]. The media kind of bit on that. Lincoln Center and company were making a lot of valid points, reminding America that jazz was African-American music. Now that the point has been made convincingly and has entered the mainstream, which I think it hadn’t completely say fifteen or twenty years ago, all the people who were formerly harping about race pretty much just let it go. So you don’t really hear anyone ever asking silly kinds stuff, like, can white people or can black people play, or do you like to play with black people—no one’s been asking that kind of bullshit for a long time. I don’t know of any black musicians who only play with black musicians, and I don’t know any white musicians who only play with white musicians, as a matter of principle. Sometimes it works out that way, but when it does it’s for simple social reasons or as a matter of happenstance.
AG: There are some gigs for example that, no matter how great a white musician might play, they might not end up doing. But not for racial reasons, just for social reasons: because they might not happen to be friends with so-and-so, or maybe so-and-so doesn’t feel close enough to them to take them on the road. Obviously these social factors are very important when you are doing gigs—especially when you are putting together a band. Sometimes you want not just the best musicians, but you also want the best musicians who are fun to hang with. If you’re black, the law of social averages here is that most of your friends are also going to be black. The musicians you know and as a result the people you play with might also therefore mostly be black. That being said, maybe you would happen to have a white friend, or maybe there is a white guy you know who is cool with you and your friends, who you’re down with for whatever reason, and who also happens to be a great musician. You might call him first for a gig. For example there are lots of black guys whose bands I might be in simply because I’m their friend, not even because I am the best player available. Or it might just be because I happen to be home when the phone rings. It’s not like they are calling the white guy because he’s the piano player, they might just be calling the white guy because he’s their best friend. It happens to be a nice interracial friendship. At this point, I feel like I have had a lot of shared experiences with people both black and white.
AB: That is probably extraordinarily unusual, even in New York City…
AG: But I don’t think it is so unusual in the jazz world. I feel fortunate that I have had a lot of long-standing musical relationships with some black friends of mine. I feel close to them on a personal level, even though I may come from a totally different background. I don’t think it’s that rare. I don’t know, man…my perspective might be skewed but my sense of it is that there are a lot of interracial bands in New York City, almost every band I go to see is mixed.
AB: Do politics ever come up? You play this music in this little space that you create, but the real world keeps impinging on it because you are not playing music in a vacuum. During the sixties, it was quite fashionable to be overtly political and [Charles] Mingus did a lot of very explicitly political music. How do you feel about that today? Do you seek to do that?
AG: There is no question that it was absolutely integral for those people to make that music in that time. It was probably a social responsibility of everyone living in that time, but not, I think, a musical responsibility. There was a social and moral responsibility for everyone living in a segregated America, especially those playing African American music—whether they be white or black—to speak out against discrimination, racism, and segregation in all its forms. And to the degree that those things still exist today, it remains our social responsibility to speak out against them. But do we have to do it in a musical context? No, but some people are going to choose to make their music more overtly political and other people aren’t. Other people are just going to try to take a lower profile. America has made so much progress, despite what naysayers might claim, that it is possible for a Tiger Woods or a Michael Jordan to be somewhat apolitical. Even for most rappers today to be apolitical, just to talk about money and clothes…
AB: …Well, a lot of people argue that that is inherently political anyway because they fetishize clothes and money, perhaps because they were denied them…
AG: That’s not the same thing. You’re saying their rap has political implications, you’re saying it has sociological implications. But they’re not making an overtly political point…
AB: OK, I should be clear about intentional political statements versus statements that can be read or interpreted as political.
AG: But we are talking about social or moral responsibility. In the 50s, those rappers would have been morally corrupt if they had had their position of authority and not done something with it to speak out against the gross injustice around them. We have a lot of political problems in this country today, and I don’t think that it’s more important for jazz musicians, or musicians in general, to speak out against those things than for anyone else to do so. It’s all of our social responsibility, no matter what we do, to speak out against injustice in our country and try to make our country a better place. Taking that a step farther, maybe trying to make the world a better place. I don’t think that there is in anyway a requirement that music be political, in any sense.
Of course there was a lot of great music that came out of that time of upheaval. I sometimes think that if perhaps the political issues of today were more pressing to all of us, myself included, then we might actually all be making better music. I don’t know if there is a direct connection between the quality of the music that was coming out of the 60s and the political situation of the 60s. Music in that day might have been more urgent in some kind of way. That’s not to say there’s not a lot of great music being made today. I would never say it was an artist’s responsibility to be political in his art itself. Racism was institutionalized across the country in the 60s in a way that it is not now. The problems are pressing and they remain, but they are much harder to get a handle on, and they are much harder to attack symbolically through music. They are better attacked through the ballot box, through legislation. Music can raise consciousness but it is not so easy to hammer away at what remains of the Klu Klux Klan through it…
AB: The Civil Rights movement in and of itself didn’t really collapse but it lost a lot of its steam when confronting very difficult, elusive problems. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was fighting wars on poverty and housing discrimination at the end of his life, which were more difficult to find. You had to go through housing department records and find out that they weren’t giving loans to the right people, things like that. It just became even more complicated, I guess.
AG: And I think the more complicated problems are the more difficult to address through music. It’s really inspiring once in a while when somebody like U2’s Bono uses his stature as a musician and a public figure to come out and tackle some of these very difficult issues away from the bandstand. We jazz musicians tend to be intelligent, politically aware people but not as informed on a daily basis as we could be, and also not as involved in the world outside of our music as we could be.
The other thing I was going to say about race and music: I think one reason there was increased hype about race in the late 80s, or whenever it was, was that there were a lot of young musicians getting opportunities and being put in a forum where they could express themselves. And I think that young people in general are immature in their views about race, insecure about their racial identity, and about other people’s racial identities. I remember when I was in music school in ’91, to me race seemed like such a much more pressing issue: can you play with this guy, can he play with you ’cause your black, white, black, or whatever. In retrospect I think ten percent of that was a true reflection of the jazz community in general because of the fact that a lot of these young lions were still insecure and inexperienced and creating this climate where race was talked about a lot. But I think that eighty percent of that perception, in my experience of being young and thinking race, was due to my own insecurity. It is sort of stuff you imagine is going on, a whole bunch of imagined bullshit in each one of our heads—at least some of our heads, unfortunately. But after a while, as you get older you grow out of that stuff. As soon as you are more secure in who you are, everyone around you is also more secure in who they are and everyone’s getting along fine—and suddenly you realize this person that you thought was vibing you really wasn’t. You see that they were insecure themselves and they were just vibing everyone, black or white. It had nothing to do with race. People were using race as a kind of scapegoat for their own insecurity, their own unhappiness, and their own inability to succeed. As soon as you ignore that stuff, you start to do well and you start to see that everyone really is out to find out if you are a great musician or not. They’re not going to judge you one way or another on who you are or your skin color. No matter where you come from.
AB: I knew this guy who would come to New York and walk everywhere regardless of the neighborhood. Sometimes it was probably not so safe but his point was—particularly in places like 125th St. in Harlem, which is the main drag—he would walk there and he’d be the only white face. He said part of the problem is that if everyone just walked there it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s like you were saying, the ideas in your head take over and replace a kind of reality on the street, which is very true for that example…
AG: Yes, exactly…
AB: I like jazz as hopeful, jazz as the model of liberal humanism, or democracy…
AG: I buy it. It’s my experience.