Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Joe Manis Interview

Sometime last year, I got an email from a dude named Joe Manis, who said he was from Eugene and he wanted me to make a recording with him. He wanted me to play organ. I said to myself," Hmmm. Tenor player named Joe Manis. Never heard of him. Wonder if he's any good?" Well, turns out, Joe Manis is killin! It was a pleasure to make his latest recording, "North By Northwest," which is now available on the Steeplechase label ( which means on itunes, which means you barely have to lift a finger to own it!.) Manis has a big tenor sound, and an aggressive improvisational approach, which is the polar opposite of his unassuming personality. Hopefully, this new recording will make more folks aware of Mr. Manis and his tough young tenor.

GC: What are your earliest memories of music?

JM: I took piano lessons when I was little, but I didn’t stick with it.  My dad played clarinet and my mom took piano lessons through high school for both of them.  There was always music playing on the stereo at my parents’ business and around the house.  They took me to lots of concerts after I started band in elementary school.  My parents and my grandma were always very supportive of me playing music even though they weren’t musicians.  My dad made me practice, which could have really backfired, but didn’t.  I still play my dad’s clarinet.

When did you know it was going to be your life's pursuit?

JM:  After I started playing saxophone, I played by ear a lot.  My parents had a satellite dish and they would watch Jay Leno three hours earlier than network TV – so, as an elementary schooler, I got to watch.  This was when Branford Marsalis was the bandleader and Jeff "Tain" Watts was in the band.  I recorded the closing credits on our VCR, learned the closing theme music, and wrote the noteheads down (with no rhythms) on a homemade piece of manuscript paper (a piece of notebook paper with a staff drawn on the lines).  My private teacher saw my “transcription” in my music folder along with my Rubank saxophone books and asked me what it was – I played it for him.  I think he liked that I had done that on my own, but it’s hard to say because he was kind of a gruff guy.  Seeing those guys play on TV really made me want to be a musician, even though I didn’t really know what that meant!  I consider that period to be a pivotal time in my development as a musician and deciding that music was what I wanted to do.

GC: Why tenor?

JM:  I went to a small high school in the country with about 450 students total.  Despite being a small school, it had two full big bands and there were more people that wanted to play than there were spots in the bands.  The top jazz band was competitive at high school jazz festivals.  My first private teacher, Mike Wiggins, was the high school music teacher.  I started on clarinet in elementary school band, then played alto and bari.  Mike Wiggins switched me to tenor because he was always looking ahead to what his top jazz band was going to need.  I just went with it.

GC:Who are your tenor sax heroes?

JM:  Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Warne Marsh, Dave Leibman, Steve Grossman, Joe Lovano, Chris Speed, my teachers Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone…  The list isn’t limited to these players, but these are the first that come to mind.

Do you have any affinity to the other saxophones?

JM:  The tenor is my favorite.  I play sopranino, soprano, alto, C melody, and baritone.  I also play piccolo, flute, and clarinet.  Being able to play various woodwinds has made me more employable, playing gigs in big bands, musicals, recordings, orchestras, rock groups, etc.  However, sometimes I feel that because I can play the different woodwinds it ends up that really one of the only people that hires me on tenor is me!  I also have my uncle’s vintage Rogers drumset that I enjoy playing.  I think that my drumset practice has helped my writing and arranging with drummers in mind, as well as my ability to communicate effectively with drummers in rehearsals.  When I coach student ensembles I try to have something to show the drummers that they can’t already do.

GC: Who are your musical heroes who aren't saxophone players?

JM:  Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Lennie Tristano, Roy Haynes, Booker Little, Kevin Congleton, George Colligan…


GC:What was your practice regimen?

JM:  Early on, I did: a lot of solo transcriptions; playing along with the recordings and trying to match all the details, such as time feel, cutoffs, articulations, vibrato, sound, etc.; learning vocabulary in all twelve keys; scales; scale exercises and arpeggios; and learning tunes.  I would begin everything initially at a very slow tempo and work it up incrementally with the metronome.  I would take a piece of vocabulary and practice starting it on every different 8th note of the measure and/or play it in triplets, trying to get the most mileage and flexibility out of it.  I think I was always a slow and methodical type when practicing. 

Jerry Bergonzi was a great teacher because he gave me enough information to work on for the rest of my life, and I still practice that material to this day.  He is probably the person who’s had the most influence on my practice regimen.  He has endless numbers of assignments, but if you came into the lesson with a different question, he’d go that direction.  He has so many methods that he’s worked out and he’s taught them so many times to so many people so well that it feels natural: you never get the sense that he’s just taking you through the book.  Plus, he’s just a really nice guy.
GC:Are you able to maintain a practice regimen currently?

JM:  I’m always trying to make time to practice, but it can be pretty inconsistent between being a dad, everything teaching entails (prepping, grading, commuting 400+ miles a week, etc.), rehearsals, gigs, the logistics of being freelance, etc.  I’ll have periods where I’m practicing regularly and others where I realize that I have touched a saxophone in 11 or so days and that I have a gig the next day…  Sometimes it’s nice to be able to take a break so that when you come back you can enjoy just hearing and playing the instrument instead of just chipping away everyday practicing and losing perspective. I had kind of a “duh” realization about five years ago that the sound is what people hear, meaning that if your sound isn’t good then what you’re playing really doesn’t matter.  So, when I’m putting time in daily, I practice longtones, especially on flute and clarinet as well as saxophone.  It helps you to be able to play loudly with a big sound as well as maintain your embouchure and air support.  I also spend practice time learning music for upcoming gigs.

GC:Why did you want to do organ trio?

JM:  Larry Young’s album Unity is one of my all-time favorite records.  The first album of any genre that I got was Sonny Rollins Way Out West, so I just always had that “saxophone, bass, and drums” sound in my head and didn’t care that there wasn’t a comping instrument.  I have performed in that setting since 2001.  More recently I was playing in a trio of saxophone, guitar, and drums, which I guess was an even weirder instrumentation, but was a fun setting to play in.  The funny thing is that the absence of bass or a comping instrument is really only “strange” to jazz musicians.  I think the average person doesn’t notice if any particular instrument is “missing.” 

I heard that you had moved to Portland and that you also played organ.  I started checking out your recordings on organ: both with Gary Thomas and as a leader.  I wanted to do a new recording with my friend Kevin Congleton, a great drummer who I’ve been playing with since I was 16, but I wasn’t sure what the third instrument should be.  My wife Lillie, who is a violinist, always wanted me to do an organ group.  I mentioned the possibility of doing a recording with you and she was very supportive of the idea.  I feel that the organ suits my music well.  I like working in trio settings because of the openness and the fact that the lines of communication are very direct between the musicians.   
GC:How has fatherhood changed your music and your career goals?

JM: I feel like the time leading up to and since our son Ellery’s birth has been the best and most productive time in my life.  I feel like I’ve always been a pretty motivated person, but within the last year and a half or so, I think I’ve really accomplished a lot, contrary to what I might have expected. He has definitely made my life better.  I think I’m a happier person now: he always makes me smile.  I really enjoy being his parent. 

But, as you know, being a dad is challenging.  It takes time and patience, and, as a first-time parent, you have no idea what to expect: there’s no manual.  I’m not quite sure how it’s affected my music, because he’s only 13 months old.   I can say it’s made me want to continue to be a person of integrity for my family – both in my professional and non-professional life.  

GC: What's your take on jazz education?

JM:  I have a Bachelors and a Masters in Jazz Studies.  I teach rock history, world music, jazz history, and lessons at a community college.  I enjoy teaching and have learned a lot doing it.  Teaching is a part of a many professional musicians’ lives: teaching privately, at camps, doing clinics, etc.  College jobs are the most coveted, but it seems even adjunct jobs are hard to get these days.

Being a musician is fun, but pretty hard professionally.  I think college is too expensive in relationship to what your actual job prospects will be upon graduation: as a musician specifically, but really as anyone with any type of bachelors degree.  I think there should be more music business courses in jazz programs: sometimes jazz programs put too much emphasis on being creative and not enough on being a successful gigging musician.  Or, sometimes you’ll be talking to someone with a jazz degree and you’ll mention a player or a certain album, and you can tell that the person is only pretending to know what you’re talking about: it’s clear that they’re not listening to classic albums or familiarizing themselves with important players.  Not to that say that jazz musicians have to be neo-classicists, but it’s good to know how this music developed.  Plus, a lot of that older stuff is really good.  It sometimes seems like a lot of people with jazz degrees don’t actually want to play jazz, but jazz was their best degree option in order to play in a band.  I wish that there was more music education in public schools so that there would be hope for more music appreciators, if nothing else.

GC: What's your next project?

JM:  I’m always transcribing tunes to see if I like playing them.  I try to look for tunes that aren’t overplayed and/or have interesting forms.  I like to arrange standards and try them out in performance: some of them stick and develop over time.  I’d like to write some new original material, too.  Once I compile a set of tunes that I think would make a good album, I’d like to make another recording: I’m already about halfway there. 

GC: Any upcoming recordings or performances we should know about?

JM: I have a series of album release gigs with you on organ and Todd Strait or Randy Rollofson on drums.  Randy plays on the Salem gig, and Todd plays on the rest.

 Joe Manis is performing at the following:
Thursday, August 8th at Christo’s Lounge in Salem, OR
Friday, September 20th at Tula’s Jazz Club in Seattle, WA
Friday, September 27th at Sam Bond’s Garage in Eugene, OR
Saturday, September 28th at Ivories Jazz Lounge in Portland, OR

Monday, July 29, 2013

Viewer Mail: Multi Instrumentalism

I got some questions in the mailbag recently which almost made me feel like I was being interviewed. This came from bassist Vince Guarna( yes, brother of guitarist Tom Guarna). 

How did you decide on what your main instrument would be when you were younger? I heard that you weren't 100% decided on the piano as your main instrument until college.. is that accurate?
 (I am asking because I am kinda in a similar position
between piano and bass.) Was the piano the instrument that you felt most gifted on? Did that help make the decision for you?

In a way, the piano chose me! I was getting the calls on piano. People seemed to like my piano playing. I wasn't getting the calls on trumpet. I had a dinner theater gig on trumpet that paid 25 dollars. I had 2 nights a week on piano that paid 110 dollars. (this is around 1988, 89, btw. )I weighed the evidence and went with piano and I suppose I never looked back.

I think in some ways being a jazz musician is more than about just what instrument you play. We are all dealing with the same stuff: harmony, rhythm, melody, improvisation, etc...
Some people really need to feel as though the instrument they focus on is their calling. I think if that was the case for me, I would have been a drummer!
But for me it was more practical. I needed to make rent and piano was helping me do that. Unfortunately nowadays, no instrument might help that! So in that sense, maybe you should go with
whichever instrument you feel the most affinity.

I still feel like bass is the one in terms of getting work. Everyone needs a bassist. Maybe if I had known that years ago I might have switched. I've been messing around with bass and I think it's fun.

I did kind of have a natural feel for the piano. That came from listening and trial and error, and also learning on the job. My right hand was all my trumpet licks and my left hand was drum rhythms!

My advice is maybe do both bass and piano until you decide for sure. Then maybe the decision won't be yours. The universe will decide.

Jack DeJohnette was an established pianist but he started messing with the drums. Eddie Harris told him that he thought he could really have something special on the latter instrument.

I think multi instrumentalism gets a bad rap. The thinking is: "jack of all trades, master of none." I don't think that's true. But people tend to get reputations on only one instrument, especially in cities where there are so many choice on each instrument. And I believe that professional loyalty might foster an attitude of "Well, I know that so and so plays great drums, but I really should call this guy cause he plays drums full time and he needs the work. So and so already works as a bassist enough..." Something like that.

Nick Payton plays really well on all his instruments. He could be first call on trumpet, drums, piano, bass. I heard he plays saxophone. I like his singing, despite what others seem to think.
But I think the issue in jazz is more about THE MUSIC and not THE INSTRUMENT. If you can improvise, you know tunes, and you can get a vibe, you don't need to be THE BEST on your instrument.

Sometimes whomever is THE BEST on their instrument can be THE MOST ANNOYING because they are never going to leave their virtuosity at home and just come out and play some music.

How do you define "Talent", and to what degree is "talent" a deciding factor in one's musical abilities? Do you believe talent is something people are born with?

I think there is such a thing as talent. But in music, and in life, it's vastly overrated. I do not consider myself talented at all. I'm kind of an idiot, truthfully. Well, maybe not an idiot, but at least average or just below. However, I have managed to somehow muster the strength and discipline and perseverance to eek out a little career for myself. You might be the best player on whatever instrument, but if you don't make the scene, if you don't present an image or a personality that people want to have in their band, or fronting a band, or what have you, then your talent is useless.

There are so many "talented" people who are scratching their heads as to why they aren't household names. Not only do you have to work hard, you have to work hard at being original! You have to stand out somehow. You need to give off energy-energy that folks want to be a part of.

I worked really hard and despite living in the city where young people go to retire and the homeless come for vacation, I still work pretty hard.

Did you take classical piano lessons? If so, how long?
You must have had serious legit piano training when you were younger.. right?

I had about a month's worth of piano lessons when I was 6 and I hated it and didn't practice and didn't care at all. I wasn't serious at all. I mean a month's worth of lessons- that's 4 lessons!

I started trumpet in 4th grade and didn't practice. In 6th grade, the band director was so awesome that it made me want to be a part of the concert band.

I never really had serious classical piano lessons, except from a grad student at Peabody named Fred Karpoff. He showed me the Taubman technique, which is the subject for another blog….I did
I mostly learned some classical pieces on my own. I did of course get my degree in Classical Trumpet and Music Education. But that's very different from the life of a piano student. Better parties. But quite a different lifestyle.

Do you regret at all not spending more time playing classical repertoire?

Yes. However, that's just a part of what makes me the player that I am. I'm somewhat unorthodox. There are plenty of jazz pianists who have lost of classical pieces under their fingers. I don't. But I have enough technique to do what I want to do.

Any piano books that you would recommend, both technically oriented and repertoire stuff?

The Mark Levine book-"The Jazz Piano Book." That's what you need for jazz. Essential. I never did Hanon. I did some Czerny, real easy stuff. I would recommend the Bach 2 part Inventions. I taught all of those to myself. I write out fingerings and played them very slowly. You could spend a long time perfecting those. I need to get back to them. I found it interesting that Billy Childs spent a lot of time with the Inventions also….

McCoy Tyner-Soliloquy

Heroes give us inspiration to achieve our own goals. One of my heroes is pianist McCoy Tyner. I've been inspired by his piano playing for as long as I've been listening to jazz. I first heard Tyner on the John Coltrane album "My Favorite Things." It's interesting because I used to listen to the title track quite often; Tyner's piano solo on this track is much more meditative than what most listeners have come to expect from a McCoy Tyner piano solo. It wasn't until I heard "A Love Supreme" and Freddie Hubbard's "Ready For Freddie" did I start to really understand. After hearing things like "The Real McCoy" and "Supertrios" and "Expansions" and "Inception" and Coltrane's "Live At Birdland" and "Impressions" and Wayne Shorter's "Ju Ju" and so forth, I was really hooked.

When I was just starting to get serious about jazz piano, I was what you might call a McCoy Tyner "clone." A saxophonist named Phil Burlin wrote a song called "Colligan's Groove" which was essentially a catalyst for my McCoy Tyner imitation. As much as I loved what I believed to be Tyner's conception, I felt as though I need to move on to other influences. In essence, I had to STOP listening to McCoy Tyner. I know other musicians who had similar realizations; for example, another pianist had the same issue with Herbie Hancock. I believe it's important for musicians to have at least a handful of influences; that way, your source material is more varied, and you end up sounding more original than if you only check out one or two players.

All that being said, I suppose that the Tyner influence will always be a part of my playing. Furthermore, there is so much Tyner that I haven't checked out; perhaps surprisingly, there are times when Tyner takes different approaches than the muscular pounding we have come to expect from him. For example, I saw Tyner performing solo piano in the early 90's; he played standards, ballads, stride piano, and was actually rather laid back. That performance was a real lesson for me.

I was turned on to a wonderful solo piano recording of Tyner's called "Soliloquy." Marcia Hocker, a
Marcia Hocker
DJ on Portland's jazz radio station KMHD, told me several times about how much she adored this recording. Finally, she was kind enough to actually bring me a copy. I've been listening to it since then. It's given me a whole new reason to be obsessed with McCoy Tyner's music.

"Soliloquy" was released on Blue Note in 1992. It's an interesting recording for a number of reasons. It sounds as though it was recorded with the microphones somewhat far from the strings of the instrument, more like the way many classical piano recordings are made. There is a lot of room sound. The tone Tyner achieves is completely even, and it's somewhat darker overall from what you might be accustomed to. We are used to hearing Tyner with a rhythm section, so we know about Tyner's rhythm. However, even alone, his time is impeccable, but also, he has a really beautiful sense of rubato; tunes like "Tribute To Lady Day", "After The Rain", and "Twilight Mist" would rival the solo recordings of Bill Evans in terms of sensitivity.

Tyner has enough variety to sustain one's attention throughout; there's a tune called "Espanola" which begins with an almost classical touch, but then builds into a Spanish-tinged romp, but with a lot of dynamic contrast. There are some old favorites like "Effendi", 'Three Flowers" and Coltrane's "Crescent." It's super cool to hear how Tyner approaches tunes like "All The Things You Are," and "Bouncing With Bud,"lest you thing that Tyner is only capable of modal excursions; he has way more depth than he is given credit for.

"Soliloquy" is available here.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Viewer Mail: O Canada

Here's an email that came in a while ago. I'm just getting to it now, and for that, I apologize.

Hi George, I am graduating Eastman with a doctorate in spring of 2014 (assuming I pass the comps exams) and thinking about living in Canada. My wife has family in Toronto. What do you think of the job market there for someone like me, I mean for teaching music? Any comments or advice for me regarding Canada versus America etc.?

First of all, it depends on what kind of teaching you are looking to do. I suppose nowadays, the golden prize is considered to be a tenure-track university teaching position. These sort of things, especially in jazz, are few and far between. I still receive the College Music Society job listings, and lately, I have seen not one opening, not even at Shady Creek Bible College in Duluth, Minnesota. (I'll bet they have a great jazz program, though....)

Furthermore, when one of these jobs becomes available, it is highly super competitive. I competed and was in the finals for a job a few years ago which was not only tenure track, but actually CAME with tenure and a six figure salary. ( tenure, by the way, essentially means a job for life. If you have tenure at a university, the only way they can get rid of you is if you burn down the school, or are in jail , or if they eliminate your position or program. The latter has actually been happening recently, which is pretty scary. Also, keep in mind that the trend across the nation is to end the notion of tenure altogether. So you might be seeing even fewer tenure track jobs and more positions such as Lecturer or more adjunct positions.) The competition was fierce; I was in the running against Geri Allen, Louis Hayes, and Matt Wilson. Clearly, they wanted a name that would draw students. I don't even know why I would be even close in name recognition. However, for some strange reason, none of us won the job; they ended up going with the legendary Joe Chambers.

Yes, even jazz legends are looking for these kinds of jobs. I've recently written recommendations for legendary players who used to write recommendations for ME! This is the new hustle. Having a tenure track job at a university is what getting signed to a major label was 15 years ago. Except that you get health insurance with the university job. And you won't get dropped due to lack of sales!

So not only is it always highly competitive, it's also highly political. There might be someone in mind long before they even begin the process of looking. That doesn't mean it's hopeless; just because someone has the perceived inside track doesn't mean that you might not come in and change the committee's mind. I suppose anything is possible. However, you'd have to be pretty naive to think that there isn't more than "we want whomever is the most qualified" lying underneath the surface.

I was in the finals for another job, thinking I had a decent chance. I told a friend about it, and he shook his head; "No that job is slated for Jimmy Keys." I was surprised. " How do you know that? Isn't this an open search?" My friend explained. " No, Jimmy Keys has been at that university for 10 years as an adjunct. They want to create a full time position for him. Jimmy Keys wrote the job description HIMSELF!" I went through the process anyway, and tried my best during my audition. Alas, I didn't change anybody's mind.

The committee might be looking for things that aren't actually in the job description. They can't really tell you this, but it's true. They might be looking for somebody famous. They might be looking for someone of color. They might be looking for somebody they can go out drinking with! Of course, they can't list that in the ad. They might say, "someone with an international reputation." They can't say, "must be willing to spend Saturday nights drinking at Sal's Tavern with other faculty members..." (Of course, you might find that out when you arrive...)

They can insist on a Doctorate, or at the extreme least, a Master's degree. (There are rarely instances where you don't need a degree at all, or even just a Bachelor's.) I applied for a position in the Southwest early on in my search for a teaching job. I thought that, in this case, my professional experience would override my lack of a Master's. Turns out, I was wrong. If it's advertised as "Master's required" or "Doctorate required", then they can be sued if they don't maintain this as the minimum criteria. Of course, they could say, "Doctorate preferred," OR they could say "Doctorate or equivalent professional experience preferred." So it's good that you are nearly finished your Doctorate. (Good luck with that; I eventually went to Queen's College to get my Master's in Jazz Studies. I don't know if I have the energy, or the money, to complete a real Doctorate.)

Although yes, I did win a job at the University of Manitoba, I would have to say that it is even tougher to break into the Canadian system. I benefited from the the fact that the director of the jazz program at the U of Manitoba was an American named Steve Kirby, who was open towards getting American musicians into the program. This is not to say that they could advertise "must be American" or something. On the contrary, the trick seems to be that if a non-Canadian is in the running for any of these jobs, you must present special justification as to why the candidate is uniquely more qualified than the Canadians who applied. This was the case when I won the job, and I know it was the case in later searches( because I was on the committees). Canada is very protectionist in certain areas. Protectionism sucks if you are on the other end, however, when you consider how easy it is for Americans to do gigs in Canada, while any foreign musicians coming into the U.S. have to file months in advance, fill out lots of paperwork, and deal with huge hassles.

Canada is a beautiful country. Typically, folks think of Canadians as super cheerful and friendly. But you would be surprised; I applied for another job in Canada in 2008 and was, in my view, not treated well during the process. Many of their questions were not about music and they didn't seem to have any idea or interest in my accomplishments or the fact that I had played with many major names in jazz. I knew right away that even if I won the job I would be unhappy working with these sort of people. After having me fly across the continent (at my own expense), they didn't even want to hear me play the piano! So you never know.

 I was in the finals about 10 times in 8 years before landing a job. (By the way, I beat out 100 other applicants for my job here at Portland State University. I consider myself extremely lucky!) The moral of the story is it's not easy.I think you might want to at the very least look for adjunct work. You might actually be able to make some money without the pressure of being full time faculty. And if you can become a Canada resident, then health care is free, which is why many of us are looking for full time gigs anyway. Anyway, good luck with the Doctorate and good luck with the search!

Saturday, July 20, 2013


A few years back, I was on tour with a jazz quartet, hurtling through the Midwest in a van. On long drives, musicians can have pretty involved conversations. Some border on the mundane, or sometimes you just throw jokes or stories back and forth. Sometimes, you try to take apart the entire world and solve it like a Rubik's Cube. On this ride, we were talking about 9-11 and conspiracy theories. (If you've ever watched documentaries like "Loose Change", you might have the same questions about 9-11 that I have.) The most common conspiracy theory is probably the one that 9-11 was not the work of terrorism; it was instead, our government attacking its own people, thereby creating an excuse to invade Iraq. But even as lefty as I admit to being, it's difficult to imagine my own country essentially attacking itself. I had one of those moments where, upon speaking, I could hear how naive and stupid the words were as they resonated: "Why would the government do that to its own citizens?" I was the only white person in the group, the other three musicians were black; two were a fair bit older, old enough to have a vivid recollection of the turbulent 60's. The two older black men, justifiably so, gently laughed at my sentiment, as if to say, "Ah, this poor naive white boy..."As they laughed, the full weight of my words hit me. When you take an honest look at U.S. history, you would have to think: why WOULDN'T the government kill its own people? Look at our history. If you really look at the sordid past of our beloved U.S.A., it's a wonder that we ever have any justice at all.

The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman fiasco is a perfect example. I didn't follow the case that much during the sensational trial. I'm not a lawyer, and I only know as much as I am able to read about in the news. The more I read about it, and the more I think about it, the whole thing is a nightmare. The jury decision, while disgusting and tragic, doesn't surprise me. To think that we live in a "post-racial" country is incredibly naive. Sure, we don't have separate drinking fountains and restrooms and baseball teams. Having a black President does not magically fix the problems of the entire black population of the U.S. (In fact, white people who say "We have a black President! Why are black people still complaining?" should be sent into outer space.) The racism which created Jim Crow, segregation, minstrelsy, separate but equal, lynch mobs, the KKK, and the current state of Black America is still very much alive; in some ways, the election of Barack Obama has brought the racism out of the woodwork (in the form of the "Tea Party" and the "Birthers). So to say that the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is not about race is completely insane, especially in a state like Florida.

I suppose the jury in this case, on paper, made their decision based on the "stand your ground law." It's interesting that somehow this "law" is on the books in Florida, yet when I consider the fact that the U.S. Congress NEVER passed an anti-lynching law, it reminds us of the hypocrisy that is our government. Thousands of blacks were murdered by lynching from the late 1800's through the 1960's. Many anti-lynching bills were introduced during the 20th century, but they were always blocked by southern Democrats (the Democratic and Republican parties used to be quite different). This was basically mob rule; fewer than 1% of lynchings ever resulted in a murder prosecution. So in effect, folks in the American South could decide that a black person was a "threat" and murder him without regard for any legal consequence. This aspect of U.S. history, like many other aspects of U.S. History, makes me ashamed of my country.

Now, the Zimmerman verdict has once again affirmed that self-righteous citizens (or just plain old white racists) can murder without punishment simply because they are "threatened" by someone. Most lynchings were attributed to things like "a black man looked at a white woman" or false accusations of rape and so forth. Now, you can just be walking down the street with a hoodie, and you can be considered a "threat". Lynching was not legal, but it was sadly tolerated (in fact, many lynchings were public spectacles). "Stand Your Ground" is a LAW, and versions of it are on the books in about 30 states. This law, at least in Florida, was controversial BEFORE the Zimmerman case. From Wikipedia:

Stand-your-ground laws are frequently criticized and called "shoot first" laws by critics, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In Florida, self-defense claims tripled in the years following enactment. The law's critics argue that Florida's law makes it very difficult to prosecute cases against people who shoot others and then claim self-defense. The shooter can argue that he felt threatened, and in most cases, the only witness who could have argued otherwise is the deceased. This problem is inherent to all self-defense laws, not just stand your ground laws. Before passage of the law, Miami police chief John F. Timoney called the law unnecessary and dangerous in that "[w]hether it's trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn't want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you're encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn't be used."

Many are angry about the verdict. Some people are saying, "Well, the jury spoke, whether you agree or not. It wasn't about race; it was about the law." OK, fine. What about the case of Marissa Alexander, a black woman who tried to use the defense when she shot a warning shot at a wall to deter her crazy violent husband from killing or hurting her. She got the mandatory 20 year sentence-that's right, 20 years in jail, for STANDING HER GROUND! What gives, Florida? Does the law not apply to black people? Here's some highlights from the Chicago Tribune article:

"In one case Mr. Zimmerman kills a young man and walks away, free to kill again," Jackson said. "And Marissa shot no one, hurt no one, and she's in jail for 20 years."

"Ours was a moral appeal," he said. "This mother has three children. They need their mother," he said, noting that Alexander had already served the three years originally offered to her by the state in a plea deal.

Michael Dowd, a New York domestic violence attorney handling Alexander's appeal, contends she should not have been charged with felonies, but rather a misdemeanor, such as unlawful discharge of a gun.

Alexander, a slightly built woman, said her husband, Rico Gray, was moving toward her threateningly when she fired into a kitchen wall. He had previously been convicted on a domestic violence charge for attacking her.

Alexander filed a "Stand Your Ground" claim, but a judge ruled against her because Alexander chose to go back into the house with her gun.

A jury took just 12 minutes to find her guilty of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Because Alexander fired a gun in the incident, Florida's "10-20-Life" mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines required the judge to sentence her to 20 years in prison.
At the time, Alexander had an active restraining order against her husband and she carried a concealed weapons permit.

The injustice is crystal clear. What's being done? Jesse Jackson, the NAACP, and other groups are calling for Alexander's release. There are also many protests and rallies going on around the country in response to the Zimmerman verdict. There is a call to boycott Florida Orange Juice and tourism of Florida. Some don't think it will work; Democratic leaders in Florida say this:

"The right-wing ideologues who control the Florida legislature couldn't care less about a state-wide boycott. All they care about is the right – these so-called rights – for everyone to bear arms," Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said Friday.

Yes, the SO-CALLED right to bear arms, or in this case, the right to kill black people without consequence.  Just like the lynch mobs of history. These ideologues are insane; they can't listen to reason. They don't care about justice; they care about their own jobs at best and at worst they really believe in white supremacy. (There, I said it.) George Zimmerman was a one-man lynch mob, and the mostly white jury, ironically all women, let him off in a showing of southern good ol' boy justice.

And if you are black........."Oh, I'm soooory...... but that law doesn't apply to YOU. But thanks for playing. Good luck in jail! I guess you shouldn't have stood your ground..."

"But why would our government and our laws and the system be unfair?"

Why would it EVER be fair? When WAS it fair?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Buster Williams Interview

I first heard bassist Buster Williams on a Herbie Hancock recording called "VSOP Live." I remember thinking that their version of Hancock's "Toys" was pretty wild stuff. In addition to hearing him on some other recordings like Hancock's "Sextant", the group Sphere's "Four in One", or Sarah Vaughn's "Sassy Swings The Tivoli," my friend David Ephross and I used to sit around and listen to a recording Williams made as a leader called "Something More." Ephross transcribed some of the tunes off of this recording; we would play Williams classic "Christina" on many gigs. Williams is a gifted composer, but as a bassist, he is iconic; you always know his sound and his approach. There's no one else like him.

I met Williams at the East Coast Jazz Festival in ( I think) 1994. Williams called me for a 3 night gig in
 Detroit sometime around 1995. I didn't even live in New York yet; drummer Aaron Walker and I took the bus to New York to rehearse with Williams, and then drove to Detroit from New York. I remember thinking that I had a vibe with William's music, but maybe I wasn't ready to really do it justice. Aside from a week long stint at Bradley's( it was actually my gig with Williams and a then unknown tenor saxophonist named Mark Turner) I didn't really hear from Williams again until 2001; I was in Basel, Switzerland, checking my phone messages on a payphone: "George, It's Buster. I want you to join my band." I've worked with Buster on and off since then. The band was usually Lenny White on drums and Steve Wilson on alto and soprano, although we also had Stefon Harris on vibes occasionally. 

I had so many great experiences on tours and gigs with Williams' group over all those years. Playing with Williams requires total concentration. You can't just expect to plow through tunes; in Williams' own words to one drummer who was looking more at the charts than listening to the music: "ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!" Williams, in the tradition of Miles Davis, always tries to hire musicians that inspire him, and that bring the music to a higher level. I always have fun on the bandstand trying to find just the right reharmonized chord to make Williams go "Whoooo!"

We just finished a weekend jaunt at Smoke in New York City. I was able to sit down with Buster in the dressing room and score this wonderful interview.

GC: So... How are you?

BW: Good, George. How are you doing?

GC: Good. How’s your health? Everything’s good?

BW: Great, yeah, everything’s good.

GC: Okay, good. What are your earliest memories of music, when you knew what music was in the world?

BW: Well, there was always music in the house because my father was a musician. He played bass, drums, and piano. He always had his musician friends over playing, they had rehearsals at the house.

GC: In Camden, New Jersey?

BW: Yeah. But even before then... at that time we had one of those roller pianos. You can play the rows with your foot and stuff. And my father was always playing his 78(rpm) records. Between the records and the roller piano... and I liked to sit there and play on the piano. Between the musicians and the piano and my father playing his records and
practicing - that was another thing. I loved to watch him play the bass, I thought it was just so brilliant. And I can’t remember a time where there wasn’t music. It was always there, as far back as I can remember.

GC: When did you start playing bass?

BW: I started playing the bass, I guess I was about 13 or 14 or something like that. After I begged my father to teach me - ‘cause I had asked him to teach me piano and he started teaching me piano and I didn’t stick with it. Then I asked him to teach me drums and he started teaching me the drums and I thought I was just going to sit down and start bashing and he’s talking about “mamma daddy” paradiddle and I said “nah, this isn’t what I want to do, I want to play the drums!” So anyway, I didn’t stick with that. But I marveled at him playing the bass. Also he played a record with Oscar Pettiford, where Oscar Pettiford played “Star Dust”, solo bass.

GC: Ah! That’s funny, one of my students just transcribed that and learned it.

BW: Really! But you know what captivated me? The way they had mic’ed the bass, I could hear his thumb squeak as he slid up and down the neck of the instrument. And that squeak - I mean, the notes were unbelievable but that squeak - it was just so personal. I don’t know, that never left my head. It was like a psychic event, I don’t know. But then when I heard that, I pleaded with my father to teach me the bass and he finally agreed.

GC: You were telling me a story before about him making you hold it with your thumb, right?

BW: Well he showed me the function of the thumb in the left hand. And the tendency - to play the bass correctly, it requires a sort of unnatural thing with your left hand. Well, unnatural until it becomes natural to you. And it caused pain. The natural tendency was to not do it correctly and just hold the neck, grab it like you’re grabbing a ball or a stick. And he refused to let me acquiesce to those cowardly measures. And that was my moment of truth, when I realized how strict my father was going to be, and that I wasn’t gonna get away with nothing. So I had that moment of “do I really want to do this?”. And I decided that I wanted to, and that it was worth the pain.

GC: So when did you start playing gigs?

BW: Well... let me see. I guess it was in junior high school. My father had a friend named Louis Judge, played saxophone. And Louis Judge had a gig and my father couldn’t make the gig ‘cause he had another gig, so he sent me on the gig. And I think that was one of my first professional jobs. I think I made $5. In those days, they called it a nickel. If it payed $10, it was ten cent. Twenty cent... fifty cent... hundred dollars was a yard.

GC: So you were in junior high... at what point did you start doing major gigs?

BW: Well... Jimmy Heath was in Philadelphia. And Jimmy Heath had a band that included a piano player named Sam Dockery. And Sam Dockery was from Camden.

GC: Would you say that Camden is kind of synonymous with Philly? Because it’s basically the same area.

BW: Yeah, it was right across the bridge. But Camden musicians always wanted to be known to have come from Camden and not Philly.

GC: Ah, interesting.

BW: In fact, when I left home to go on the road to go with Gene Ammons, I was admonished
by all of my Camden musician friends. “Hey man, when they do interviews, don’t tell them you’re from Philly, tell them you’re from Camden!” So to the day, that’s always... that’s where I’m from. Anyway, Sam Dockery was working with Jimmy Heath, and I was a “scener” by now. And I would go over to Sam’s house every day and play. Sam taught me a lot of stuff. And I wanted the gig with him and Jimmy Heath. And I mentally prepared myself for that gig. The bass player on that gig was also a bass player from Camden. His name was Bill Collick. Bill Collick, I liked the way he play. But I wanted Bill Collick’s gig. Well what happened was that Jimmy had a gig at a place on Vine Street in Philadelphia. It was one of those places where they had a dance, and people brought their own set up. They had two bands. The first band was Sam Reed, an alto player. And the other band was Jimmy Heath’s band. So I got the gig with Sam Reed. And the way I got the gig was there was a jam session at this club called Rip’s around the corner from where I lived. My father hosted the jam session, and on this Monday night my father gave me the gig. He said “you call who you want to be the band.” So I called guys from Philly and I called Sam Reed. Because I always figured that I wasn’t going to talk my way into my career, I had to play my way into my career. So if I wanted these guys to hire me, they had to hear me. And I wasn’t going to go and make myself a nuisance. So I got a gig, and I hired Sam Reed. And sure enough, on Wednesday, Sam Reed called me for a gig that was on Saturday, which was this gig where he was the band along with Jimmy Heath’s band. So Jimmy Heath heard me play with Sam’s band. That following week, I got a call from Jimmy Heath to join his band. So my strategy worked.

GC: And at a certain point, you went with Gene Ammons.

BW: And I was with Jimmy Heath and the time that I got the call to go with Gene Ammons.

GC: You were still a senior in high school?

BW: I had just graduated from high school. And this gig was Nelson Boyd’s gig, the bass player who played with Charlie Parker. He was a friend of my father’s. And just like my first gig, my father couldn’t make the gig, Nelson Boyd couldn’t make the weekend with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. So he asked my father to do it and my father couldn’t do it, so my father sent me.

GC: Wow!

BW: So I worked with Gene Ammons. Friday night after the first set, him and Sonny Stitt told me they wanted me to stay with the band. So we played Friday and Saturday and early Sunday morning, like 5 in the morning, we left Philadelphia in two cars and went to Chicago. And I was on the road from then on.

GC: Wow... so you never went to college?

BW: You know, now during the time that I was with Jimmy Heath, I was attending Combs College of Music, in Philadelphia. And then I went on the road with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, and I was still in college, trying to balance the two things. And when I’d come back, when we’d have some time off, I’d go back. I had this great teacher named Whiggins. And Whiggins was an astonishing piano player, he made some great inventions also. He helped me make up all my stuff, my courses. He was my primary teacher. So I never really sat in a classroom, other than his. He taught me composition, syntax, harmony and theory - he was just amazing. He was my all-around music teacher. He didn’t teach me anything about the bass - my father taught me all that. But he taught me so much stuff about music.

GC: It’s interesting, as people get older it’s easy to get accustomed to being a professional, but can you remember what it felt like to be in a car with these jazz heroes? Was that an incredible thrill?

BW: Oh, I’ll never forget it. Yeah. But you know, the thing about it George, I don’t know about anybody else, but for me, it’s still an incredible feeling. I marvel at what guys do on the bandstand. My biggest thrill in playing this music is what I get from the guys and girls that I play with. You know? I think it’s astonishing, just astonishing! And I’m always saying “how do they do that?” So I’m always trying to get to something. And I don’t think that that’s anything remarkable - I just think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be trying to get to something, man.

GC: Always.

BW: So you know... as I get older, of course I know a whole lot more than I knew back then, but man, it’s sort of like peeling an onion skin. There’s no core like an apple, or a piece of fruit with a pit like a peach - there’s no end! So I can’t fathom myself thinking of it any other way because that’s the way it presents itself.

GC: So just going back - you were with Gene Ammons and Sonny Sitt - when did you move to New York?

BW: I moved to New York in 1968. I was with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, and then I did a period with a lot of singers. I worked with Dakota Staton, then I went with Betty Carter, then I went with Sarah Vaughan, then I joined Nancy Wilson.

GC: Did you learn anything from working with all those singers?

BW: Oh, every one of them. Every one of them.

GC: What would you say to a young bass player, or rhythm section player, or really anybody that is interested in playing with singers?

BW: I’ll tell you, you know... see, there’s this weird idea that musicians don’t want to play with
Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams, and Billy Hart
singers. Well, everybody’s got their little idiosyncrasies. But I tell you, if you have an opportunity to play with a great singer, it’s something that’s going to shape your approach to music in a big way, and in a very positive way. Every singer I worked with, there’s something in particular that I took away. Sarah Vaughan had perfect pitch. Sarah Vaughan made me really pay attention to each note that I played. Betty Carter could sing a ballad slower than anybody could even imagine. So she taught me patience. And she had a sense of swing. Dakota Staton had a power about her. And Nancy Wilson was just - she had emotion. And see, the thing that every musician needs to know is the power and the significance and the real meaning of melody. And if you are working with a singer, you get to see the importance of these things. I remember one time my father was out on the road, and I was out on the road with Nancy Wilson. And we happened to be home at the same time. And I was telling my father how I was getting bored playing with these singers, playing the same repertoire over and over, and I don’t get a chance to express myself. My father told me, he says “I want you to remember that the true gift is to be able to have your instrument in your hand, night after night. If your job just demands that you play a whole note tonight, then you just play this whole note better tonight than you played it last night.” I’ll never forget that. That gave me not only a respect for the opportunities that I had, but also how to view everything as a point of development. How to use
everything to develop. In my career I’ve played a lot of different kinds of gigs, I’ve played rhythm & blues, all kinds of stuff. But I learned from my father that if you’re not in the moment, you’re missing the moment. And if you’re missing the moment, then you’ve missed a valuable time in your life that was necessary for you to appreciate the next moment.

GC: Wow. Very wise... (pause) So you were with Nancy Wilson when you got called by Herbie to play with Miles?

BW: Yeah. That was in 1967. And that was like a dream come true. I looked at each gig as a stepping stone to the next one. And Miles was it, it’s where I wanted to go. Interesting enough it came at a time in my life where I was making good money. And I had a wife and a house.

GC: You were still in New York?

BW: I was living in Los Angeles. Had a yellow Corvette Stingway...

GC: (laughs)

BW: I’m in L.A., I’ve been working with Nancy, she’s got me on retainer, and I’m working with the Jazz Crusaders, and I’m in the recording studio every day, I’m the number one sub for Ray Brown, and so everything was just great. So I got the call to go with Miles, and that’s just icing on the cake. But I couldn’t give up everything to stay with Miles, ‘cause Miles asked me. And I said “well, Miles, this is what I got.” And he says “well, I can’t give you a retainer.” And that’s it!

GC: Wow.

BW: And Nancy at the beginning of the year, you got an itinerary that covered the whole year. And she would take her times off but you knew when you were gonna be off, so you could play on other things. And I was still paid while she took her - what do you call them?

GC: Breaks? Sabbatical?

BW: Sabbatical! ‘Cause that’s how I worked with Miles for 5 weeks. She took another Sabbatical and I worked with him again, another 5-7 weeks, something like that.

GC: What was the most important thing you learned from playing with Miles?

BW: How to listen. How to listen, and how to respect what everyone else was doing. See, in that band, Herbie Hancock had developed this phenomenal ability to hear what everyone else was doing, and react to it in a way that wasn’t mimicking, he could react to it in a way that was not only answering what you said but preparing you to say what you wanted to say. It was remarkable. And Miles did the same thing. So Miles never told you what to do. He just demonstrated through his ability how to do it. I mean, I learned so much from Miles - see that was one of those times in my life that shaped the rest of my life. Miles had a sensitivity. When he played a ballad, you knew he loved ballads, he’d play a ballad that really described his heart. He could play any tempo and not be jarred by anything you did because he was always aware of the quarter note. He played that quarter note precisely. So whether it was a whole note or half note, eighth note or sixteenth note, or thirty-second note or sixty-fourth, he played it precisely. I’m still trying to do that.

GC: Have you seen Bob Gluck’s book about Mwandishi?

BW: Yes, it’s a very good book. He came to interview me when he was first preparing to start on that book. And then throughout his writing the book we talked off and on. I like the book. Have you read it?

GC: Yeah. What was the best thing about that band for you?

BW: Oh, the searching. The searching. The feeling that, if there’s no searching involved, there’s no creativity. I mean searching to the point of really denying yourself comfort. Searching to the point of - this is my quest, I’ve gotta find it, I’ve gotta find something tonight. And it wasn’t easy. It was painful sometimes. But the beauty of it was just the greatest reward.

GC: Can you tell me when exactly you discovered Buddhism and how that changed your life?

BW: That was in 1972. My youngest sister had started chanting. She was going through a divorce, and she told me that while she was going through this she was chanting. This is what she was chanting for, this is how she wanted it to go. And it was one of those nasty divorces. And she came out in top shape, against all odds. And I was amazed. But that’s not what necessarily made me chant. My wife was in a car accident, she had a brain concussion. She was going back and forth to the doctors, they gave her a couple of spinal taps and did all kinds of stuff with her brain, and the prognosis was very negative. But she ran into my sister one day and my sister told her about the chanting. And I was in Europe. My wife and I were seperated at that time, and I was in Europe with Herbie. I called my wife to see how she was doing, and she told me that my sister had told her about
Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō. I’m going “what is that? I don’t know what that is.” And says, “well, she wants me to go to a meeting, you think I should go?” So I said “sure, it sounds like it might be something that could help you.” So anyway, when I got back to the States I went to see my wife and she and my sister started telling me more about chanting and they took me to a meeting. And I found that all of the things that they were talking about made so much sense to me. And this religion was giving them something that my attempts at religion had never touched on. And I was a vegetarian at this time. But all of the things that I was doing weren’t even coming close to what kind of results they were getting from chanting Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō so I tried it. And you know, sure enough, I started seeing amazing results. When I started chanting, I had a prostate condition that I had had for ten years, and it had worsened to the point where they were getting ready to do an operation. And I was afraid of that. I started chanting, and just as it was time for me to go do this operation, my doctor checked me out and he says “wait a minute, you’re perfectly normal.” And this is after ten years of my prostate being swollen to the point of having to sit on hot water bottles. I couldn’t eat spicy foods, I couldn’t sit for long periods of time. I was constantly in pain. And the pain was gone, and my prostate was normal. And that was when I was 32 years old. Now I’m 71 and I’m still going. So that convinced me to continue, needless to say. There’s been revelations and benefits in abundance every day. But more than that, the change in my life that’s so subtle. It’s like your hair turning grey - you can try to watch it, but you’ll never see it turning grey. Putting on weight, you can watch but you never see it happen. You look at your fingernails, but you never see them grow. But the positive change, and the happiness that has come about in my life as a result of chanting has been amazing. Far beyond what I even dared to expect.

GC: Does Buddhism help you stay positive in the face of everything that we face in humanity these days?

BW: Oh yeah. Yeah, you know... if your environment has to become something that is unstressful to you, or something that changes in your favor... we all look for that. “If I had a better job.” “If I had a prettier wife.” “If I didn’t have all these children.” “If I had more money”. We all look for something outside of us to change, in order for us to change. But it’s totally the opposite. Buddhism teaches that if you change, then everything else will change. You’re here, and I’m here, but the environment could be totally different depending on each one of us, according to what’s happening in your life and according to what’s happening in my life. The puppy could come in, it’s a different environment for that puppy. The roach crawls around, it’s a different environment for that roach. So contentment, the feeling of happiness or not in your life is not determined by your environment, it’s determined by you. And that’s the great power of
Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō - it connects you with that unchanging force in the universe called the mystic law. “Renge” is cause and effect. Cause and effect. To chant Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō is to become in tune with this mystic law that’s in the universe, that’s in your life itself. So when you chant Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō, it’s like an explosion taking place in your life. Being out of tune, now you’re aligning yourself with this Myōhō Renge Kyō, this Buddha nature. And then you start seeing the changes in your environment, because your environment is always a reaction to you. So as you bring forth your Buddha nature, the Buddha nature in your environment starts to show. Things starts to work for you.

GC: Do you think that that kind of attitude has helped you musically, for example, being a sideman in countless different types of situations?

BW: Sure, sure. But I mean, the greatest thing is to be a sideman.

GC: Really?

BW: Yeah.

GC: Why?

BW: Because that’s when you learn something. It’s hard to learn something when you’re the boss. Ain’t nobody gonna tell you nothing. Plus, as the boss, you’ve got a whole bunch of different problems.

GC: (laughs) Yeah.

BW: But as the sideman, I can learn. I can listen, I can learn. So being a sideman has taught me how to be a leader.

GC: Right. So I assume you believe in the philosophy of apprenticeship?

BW: That’s the thing that’s missing these days. That’s the thing that can possibly destroy the music. I say possibly because I don’t think the music will ever be destroyed. We can sink to the lowest level, but we’ll always rise again. But the mentor-disciple relationship is absolutely necessary. It’s a requirement for learning this music. Without it, there’s always going to be something missing in a person who has not experienced that relationship.

GC: Your advice to young musicians?

BW: Choose another field! (laughs)

GC: (laughs) Wow! Well, uh, that’s...

BW: No no, I’ll tell you what - my advice to young musicians is to do it because you love it. Do it because you have to. Do it because it’s the one thing that makes you happy. Do it because it’s your decision. And strive to be the best, because that is your potential, and also, that is the real truth of the noble ego. And see, the other thing too, is that if you don’t strive to be your best, then you’re no good to anybody else. There’s a big poster on bus signs, out there in the street, of a picture of [Nelson] Mandela. And the caption is something of... inspiration. I mean, it’s great to be an inspiration to others. If you’re not, your whole life on this planet was for naught.

GC: Lastly, what do you think about tonight’s band?
[Buster Williams, Mark Gross, George Colligan, Paul Bollenback, Lenny White, Jean Baylor]

BW: I love it! We’re gonna kill! Taking no prisoners.

GC: Thank you, Mr. Williams.