Sidelined for much of the late 1990s with what is commonly called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Keith Jarrett undertook an aggressive treatment regimen which has succeeded to the point that he now performs several times a year. However, the pianist still combats the parasite-induced ailment daily. Jarrett has the advantage of fighting it on his own turf, his idyllic 19th Century farmhouse, tucked in the hills outside an historic town in western New Jersey, about an half hour from his hometown, Allentown, Pennsylvania. And, a rarity in such situations, he has the clock on his side, in that he has a self-determined schedule that promotes his improving health.
Still, Jarrett does not pencil in his calendar for many things, as he is still vulnerable to short-term relapses. To insure that he keeps his concert commitments, the window on chores like press interviews is closed weeks in advance. When an interview date is confirmed, it is made clear that a last-minute cancellation is a possibility. Additionally, it is proffered that Jarrett’s insistence on punctuality precludes the option of a late arrival. Even arriving at his gate ten minutes early is not cause to relax, as, seemingly out of nowhere, his neighbor -- who is also his chiropractor -- appears at the car window en route to Jarrett’s pre-interview crunch, and reiterates Jarrett’s exact schedule.
None of this is proper preparation for Jarrett himself, however. Initially, Jarrett seems to be an unpracticed host on the brink of shyness. With a pouring rain preventing the use of his studio, his venue of choice for interviews, he is indecisive in choosing between the dining room and his study, his concern about the latter, which he opts for in the end, being the fragile, high-end audio cables running across the threshold. Once he settles in, however, Jarrett proves to be very personable. Often, self-deprecating humor, man-on-the-street skepticism, and jazz nostalgia propel his conversation. He is frank about his health, adamant about his art, and matter of fact about what he thinks is wrong with today’s jazz scene.
The most impressive thing about Jarrett, based on an afternoon's proximity, is his sustained focus in conversation, despite obvious, if occasional back discomfort, and the need to take medication and supplements every half hour or so. If anything, conversation seems to recharge him; even after the tape machine was put away and a last glass of water was finished off, Jarrett was shifting into high gear, anecdotally, with tales of early '70s Impulse! package tours and the American debut of "Arbor Zena." Anyone with a chronic condition will tell you that the hardest thing is getting your mind out from under its thumb. Jarrett seems to have recovered to that crucial degree.
Still, the best current measure of Jarrett’s mettle is his recent recordings with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, Inside Out and the newly released Always Let Me Go (both issued by ECM). Jarrett’s forays into free improvisation are an apt musical correlative of his recovery, a process where each moment must be dealt with on its own terms. For Jarrett, on and off the bandstand, there is only now, and he is facing it straight on.
Bill Shoemaker: In your original notes to Inside Out, you promised music that was even more "radical" was forthcoming.
Keith Jarrett: In the original notes, yeah. Not the notes that were published. Only people who got pre-publication versions have the "radical" in it. It’s important for people to know that notes change.
S: True. "Radical" is a very intriguing, provocative word, the usage of which I would also like to discuss. Does Always Let Me Go fulfill that promise of a more radical music, and if it does, what would you point to on the album as examples of such an approach?
J: We already had the tapes for the album when I wrote that, so that was what I was actually referring to when I used those words. The performances were more extended, but had less forms in it. They were radical in that I was being very vigilant not only about letting forms appear, but not letting them appear. Inside Out was only the first or second attempt at doing whatever that is we were doing in concert. Whatever we were doing tended to become forms of some kind, and I wanted to take even more of that away. That’s what I meant by more radical.
S: The reason I latched on "radical" is because its usage is often paradoxical. Radical often refers to something far from the mainstream, but radical also means fundamental. It’s the latter usage that resonated with me while listening to the album.
J: We -- the trio -- had a constitution when we formed in '83 that we would play songs we already had in our blood. We could then play ourselves because we didn’t have to think about material. So, in part, what I’m saying that this is radical for us, and also for the listener who thinks they know what we do. That was the context that I put that word in, which we eventually got rid of, anyway. The reason we got rid of it was that there would be too many interpretations of it. Some avant garde players think that playing standards is radical. When I first talked to Gary (Peacock) in '83 about playing standard tunes thought that it was radical. And, it wasn’t happy radical. It was: What? Radical is something that can cause trauma in a listener. Someone who likes Mozart may never be able to get into Webern, because the language had shifted so much. They can't go from one language to the other. That would be a radical experience, and for that reason, they would probably be turned off before they have a chance to know what’s going on. The purpose of the liner notes for Inside Out was to briefly and almost chattily get any kind of listener to come from wherever they were and listen to what the trio did.
S: Is this a more fundamental approach to making music?
J: I don’t think it is a more fundamental approach. I think it’s much more complex. It might be based on simpler and less underlying rules, and it is it a more direct approach from coming from zero to sound, but that’s the only way it could be more fundamental. It’s more complex as an emulating music. So, it’s radical in both senses of the word.
S: It’s an approach where form follows content, whereas a standard is a predetermined form into which you pour content.
J: Exactly. Form doesn’t even have to follow. That’s what makes the new release different from Inside Out. We were used to playing forms, and when I lit upon something that sounded like a form, I would let it be one. I was perhaps not exerting as much will by allowing it to become a form. I was also not as responsible for every second, because once something becomes a form; you have to deal with it on its terms. Even in the sections of the new album that you could call ballads, or little songs, you can tell that I don’t want them to rest when they want to rest. I don’t want them to become something clearly defined, even if the melody demands it, screaming, "Do that again!"
S: There are points where you seem to be going to lengths to stall any resolution to the cadences.
J: Also melodically, too. For us as a trio, this was radical because we didn’t realize this as a possibility after all these years. We weren’t thinking about it. Then one day we were doing this at a sound check and it sounded so good that I said, "Let’s just throw the tunes out." The first time we did wasn’t particularly good, but it was interesting as a document. We were searching as though we were supposed to find a parallel universe, instead of a completely different universe. I talked to the guys about independence, about the roles not being the same in this situation, and that we had to remember what that was like, because we hadn’t done it for so long. I realized that this kind of playing is much more fascinating philosophically than musically, sometimes. What is it? That kind of thing. It’s easy to define what’s good about someone’s playing on a ballad. You have to redefine a lot to get to what’s happening in this music. We can’t even do it a lot of the time. I was asked to do an article for the (New York) Times about free playing, and I went through I don’t know how many drafts, and finally called and said, "Get someone else. Get someone who doesn’t do it to explain it." I finally came up with a way of approaching it, but it doesn’t define what we do.
S: Some musicians who work primarily or exclusively in free improvisation try to play, investigate, discover what they don’t know, and avoid what they know by rote or heart. It there a similar process at play in your approach to free playing?
J: I’d say so. It’s almost like life. You can’t recreate something you did a few moments before. All through my adult musical life, I’ve always thought there were connections between music and other processes, like life. It wasn’t a separate little thing that you would be good at, and you had talent, and you went and got a style, and you delivered the style, and people paid money to hear you deliver it. That’s so mechanical. I was never interested in that side of it. I was interested in music because I was challenging myself, and was not sure how I would succeed. That’s the important part of that.
S: In your free playing in the trio, does the possibility of form appear on a horizon, so to speak, allowing you time for a graceful detour?
J: That’s a simple way to put it. I’m not exactly detouring around anything because it hasn’t exactly happened yet, but maybe that’s the best way to put it. I’m hearing something a split second ahead. I’m deliberately not playing that thing and playing something else that I believe will give me a much better chance of being fresh. In this flux, I don’t want to be the one to create a box. All three of us can create a box. You can think of a vamp as a box, but sometimes they feel good, and you can still do something with the little boxes that you’ve never done before. But some boxes are smaller than others. You have to remember that when we’re playing a song, we’re not thinking about this at all, what we’re talking about now. But, then we found this zone, and I went to Japan to do these recordings knowing I wanted to get something more out of this process. I didn’t know what "it" was, beyond an idea of the three of us having more independence. You have immense responsibility when there is no control required. If the rule is, you don’t need to control this, then you have to trust implicitly in something. It could just trusting that your hands know more than your brain. For decades, I believed my hands were often the problem. I think in improvising on forms, your hands develop mechanisms when a certain key, a certain chord or series of chords come by. There’s a way your hands have become more used to playing than not, so you wouldn’t automatically be another pianist in that situation, you would be like your previous self, a little bit. I always thought it was important to go beyond style, because style is simply an elimination of things you don’t like, and just playing what you like. There’s more to it than that. What I have recently discovered, and I don’t think I really discovered it yet on the playing on Inside Out, and possibly I wouldn’t have known in my head yet as of the Tokyo recordings, is that if I left my hands alone, they are less mechanical than my brain. This connects to what you were saying in a peripheral way. I want to stay out of the corners. I want to stay in a free area. If I don’t let my brain get involved at all, many things happen that couldn’t happen otherwise. I’m a receptacle for what I’m doing. But, there still has to be rules. I might say to myself, "The only rule is that I don’t want to hear anything harmonious for any length of time. I don’t mind hearing it for a split second, or a little while, but it should never just stay there." That’s the only thing I’m telling my hands, and then I’d say, "Take it, hands." And amazing things were happening. I knew the body knew more than the brain, but I had never had the experience of it before. All my life, I knew everything about the parameters of every key with my eyes closed. I was depending more on my brain to get me into trouble than my hands. I would have told students ten years ago that the problem was your hands, that you shouldn’t play the piano, that you should get away from the piano. That worked for me in those days, because my solo concerts were such that I was interested in a different result than now.
S: You have felt the need to get away from the piano more than once in your career. The making of Spirits is an instance of that.
S: Obviously, you’re not getting away from the piano literally in this work, but you seem to getting away from how you have thought about the piano for a considerable number of years.
J: To the extent of how I decide what technique or lack of technique I need to use at a given moment. I can play clean if I want to. (laughter) If anything ever irritates me it’s how clean I occasionally do play when I don’t intend it. Voicings -- notes played together -- are another thing I have to reconsider in this work. It’s great to be able to be raw, but you also have to pull something out of a texture. That takes having gone through a lot of discipline at the keyboard where you are forced to do that. I’m not talking about what jazz people are talking about when they say "voicings." The voicing of a group of notes is what I’m talking about. Now, what jazz players mean when they say "voicings" has to do with chord substitutions. What I mean is more direct. What happens when you put four or five fingers down at the same time? What are you intending and how are you going to realize it? I don’t even know how it works, completely. The neurons are firing too fast. However, in the midst of this chaos, you’re still doing something with tremendous control.
S: Voicings also bring in harmony, cadence, resolution, form, which is a slippery slope you avoid on Always Let Me Go. Your penchant for horn-like single note melodies seems to dominate your approach to free playing.
J: Yeah, it is horn related. If I did tributes to people, it would almost always be to horn players. The title of the last track on the album is an anagram, but I won’t give it away. I think you can hear Ornette in there, even pianists who have played less like pianists, who I try to get close to in this type of situation. But, what I’m really trying to get at with this music is not well described by mentioning other musicians. That’s why I wrote the text in the booklet for the new release. Manfred (Eicher) and I talked about liner notes or no liner notes. I think they can be confusing and people rely on them when they don’t know how to listen to the music. So, I included this text in hopes that the listener would connect the music to something outside of music. People think about music as music and nothing else. When I was a kid, I wondered why musicians only talked about music, and not other things, too. They only talked about music as though it was a separate and singular thing that wasn’t attached to anything else. What I would like listeners experience is the connection between, in this case, music and literature, or at least words that don’t describe the music, or the music that can be analyzed by words. So, when I had wrote this thing, I had absolutely no idea what it was for. Then I realized that we’re alive, but we don’t remember that we’re next to something that’s alive, that there are systems and processes around us that are affecting us. There tends to be music people and literature people, and I just wanted to tweak everything at the same time. This text is part of what’s radical about this album. It shifts gears to a gear that one did not remember was on the cog.
S: And it parallels something that is central to the music, in terms of expressing the idea of a different form of consciousness, an awareness of creativity outside the normal parameters of persona and left brain stacked logic.
J: That’s a big experience, and once you have that kind of big experience, you never return completely to what you were before that experience.
S: They say when you do something once, it’s an anomaly, and when you do something twice, it’s the beginning of a trend. So, now that you’ve produced a second CD of free playing, it might be said that you’re at the beginning of a trend. But, the time lag between CDs can be distorting. Often artists move on to the next area they want to explore by the time the first CD, let alone the second CD, hits the street. Where do you think you are with the trio in exploring free playing?
J: I don’t know because, for example, between the London recording and the Tokyo recording, and in between Japan and now, what we usually do is what we have usually done, except that there may be moments or times in a concert where we’re playing free, but we don’t very often at all do what we were doing in London and the new release -- that is, diving in for that long, and that much. I would say that it is a trend for me only when it plateaus. If it still keeps going up, the spirit of it, or the intensity of it, or the focus of it, it’s not a trend yet, even if it becomes a trend to other people. That was true of the standards thing. There were people all over, especially in Europe, who were saying, "Why are you still playing American songs from the '40s and '50s?" Weave been doing songs since '83, but if I hear a tape in 2002 and something has grown, or something new has appeared, I’m not going to say it’s too late for this. On the other hand, many people wondered why I disbanded my quartet when it was one of the most important groups in jazz. I wasn’t going to wait until it went downhill. If it’s reached its end, why invite a lot of bad experiences. Trends can be made with two recordings, but if it’s a trend to you, you should stop. But, if there’s more to say, you find out by trying again. I think there’s more to say. We already have a tape from Barcelona that captures the ongoing ascension. I don’t think it’s a long-term thing. I don’t think it should be, or could be. It should be about that one moment, or you should stop.
S: When you say "plateaus," it suggests a sameness, a style, a genre. Does there have to notable differences in the music from concert to concert for free playing to retain its viability as a method with the trio?
J: It’s not a method when it’s right. It’s only a method when it shouldn’t be done. I have my misgivings about the word "method," because it sounds like there’s an equation that’s involved. I don’t believe any living process can be expressed as an equation. A method is something where you make discreet choices, whereas, in what I’m doing now, I might make just a couple of choices at the beginning and letting it run. I have this feeling that many free players play free because they can’t do anything else. There is an issue of legitimacy involved in this, because as artists, they’re probably getting paid. And if they’re getting paid, they should know something more about what they do than the people who are listening to them. And they should know more than one way of playing, more than one way of making music. If they understand form and formlessness, then they are legitimate. I’m very fortunate to have been involved in music since I was very young. I didn’t have to accrue experience by the time I knew what I wanted to hear. I think that may be the opposite with some free players. They know what they want to hear, but don’t have the experience with other kinds of music that can make free playing universal. I think if you can swing and play on chords you are more prepared to play free than if you don’t. But if you can’t swing or play on chords, free playing is a good place to go. That’s the case with many influential free players. My youngest brother used to play the piano when he was upset, and he knew nothing at all about the piano. He just sat there and made sounds. At that time, I was probably 14 or 15, and had been playing for about twelve years. I was fascinated. I was hearing things coming out of this instrument that I couldn’t imagine anyone who knew the piano would make. But, that’s all he could do. If only he knew. If only he heard what he was doing, he would know what the stuff was that was so valuable, and he wouldn’t play these other things that were totally vacuous. He wouldn’t play those things because he would have an awareness of them as a listener. Maybe that’s the method: to listen and then play in a way so that you’re merciless with yourself. At least then you can say I’m not doing all these things that are meaningless. I have the distinct honor of having a trio with people who have done countless things with their instruments, and who have lived through the same periods of jazz history, and are receptive to the moment. I don’t think we could do what we are doing if they didn’t have the experience of all these years.
S: The other aspect of your foray into free playing that interests me is the timing of it, its relative proximity to your hiatus, of which you have spoken quite eloquently in terms of developing a new appreciation for the expenditure of energy. I wonder if this could have happened before at the same level.
J: Nothing could have happened at the same level before that physical experience. I now have such great respect for what energy is and what happens when it’s not there. My interest is just letting it be present when I play, not even caring that much about the topical nature of the playing, but focusing on manifesting the energy. So, yeah, I may have had more energy had I not gotten sick and gone through that period of time, but I don’t know what would have happened. I’m not sure we would have tried this. I would have been involved in other types of projects. What that disease and awareness of energy use left me no choice but to use it for something, knowing that it might not be there again. Every time I use it, it has to be for that moment. That’s my whole game plan now: to do all that I can do when I play. And, things are happening. I’m seeing my left hand play things on its own lately. There’s a release of energy happening there that I’ve never experienced before. Obviously, I’ve always been able to use my left hand, but I have a renewed respect for my left hand.
S: This has to have changed your sense of the future. I’m sure you were used to having projects lined up a year or more in advance.
J: It feels correct for now. But, it’s not a big change. Unless I was in the middle of working on Mozart or Shostakovich, I wouldn’t have a clear idea about the future. Next year is the trio’s 20th anniversary, so that’s the future. If we can get to twenty without any more health problems -- Gary had two-thirds of his intestines removed not long ago. We weren’t sure he could ever play again. For a long time, I was the guy who was sick and they were ready to go. I started to turn this thing around and then really it turned it around, and then this happened with Gary. I thought, "This can’t happen when I’m finally able to play." But, Gary was a major miracle on (the 2002 European) tour -- his just being there and getting better as the days went by.
S: You will be going to Japan soon for some solo concerts. Do you prepare differently for tours now?
J: I never used to train. I used to go into untraining. But, I’m not as young as I was, and I do have to stay in shape much more consciously. So, I’m just trying to stay in shape. I have these weird, completely opposite ideas of what’s going to happen with these concerts. One is that I might play ballads, and another is this letting my hands play thing, which is bound to come up. That’s so energy intensive, though, and it’s so new that I don’t know how I would be after I finish. All of my planning is on energy terms, even down to the keys of German Steinways. German Steinways have bigger keys than American Steinways. For years, I suspected something was going there. I have one of each in the studio, and it was harder to play for long stretches on the German piano. I thought maybe it was a deeper key bed or something. I let it go for two decades, and then finally measured them. The German keys were a couple of millimeters wider. Now, they’ve standardized everything to the German piano. So, I tried to find an American piano in Japan, and was told there’s only one.
S: So, the instrument really influences what you play.
J: Oh, yeah. The instrument is going to determine what I play in these concerts. Forgetting the size of the keys, it’s the sound in the room. If there’s a lot of bloom in the sound, it will move me towards ballads and something rubato. But, if there’s enough precision in the sound, I might be able to do what I’ve been doing in my very small room. It’s a mistake to try to prepare for a concert in a concert hall this way. At least, it used to be. But, I will be playing my 150th solo concert there, and one of the concerts will be filmed, so I am thinking about what I will do. At first, they were calling it the 150th anniversary concert (laughter) and I had to write back and say, "No, we can’t call it that." The reason the films that have been made have been there is because the Japanese audiences are so polite, they never interfere with the music. On the new recording, three tracks go by without the sound of an audience. The reason was that they didn’t know what was going on. We had never played this way in front of an audience in Japan. That made it possible to play that solo thing, the second track, which I don’t think would have happened if they had burst into applause. There was a silence after the first thing that was intact, and after the second thing, they still didn’t applaud. It was intact again, and Jack (DeJohnette) started to play something on his cymbals. Americans and even Europeans wouldn’t have let that silence alone. We played last summer in Munich and I was so disappointed in the audience. The audience was lukewarm until we played a totally free, kind of nonsensical encore. I said to the guys, "Let’s play something really short. I’ll count off, but that won’t be the time, just a cue." It was just a release of energy, but the audience went crazy. It didn’t have that much meaning.
S: Before your hiatus, you had assumed an advocacy role, writing pieces that appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere, where you weighed in on the problematic nature of the jazz market. Your critique was that everything that is currently wrong with jazz stems from corruptive market forces. Has your thinking about this changed?
J: Well, nothing's changed. The media is almost always managed, run, funded and delivered by people who don’t know their subjects at all, and reporters who are just reporting what the industry feeds them. So, people think they know what’s going on, but they don’t really test it, let alone seek out the truth when they find out they are just being sold a product. I’ve tuned out the marketplace. I said what I wanted to say, and I could say it. No one who had enough -- and I hate to say this, but it’s the right word -- entrenched power in the system was going to say these things, and have them published. I got a lot of calls and letters from great players I didn’t know or hadn’t heard from for a long time, who said, "Thanks. I could never have done that."
S: Since the nexus of jazz polemics in the past decade, including your writings, was Wynton Marsalis, do you think you were out there largely by yourself because of this unspoken 11th Commandment: Thou shall not diss other musicians?
J: Yeah, that was part of it. Musicians are always supposed to say, "Yeah, I love his work." But, then, where’s truthfulness? Is it worse to lie or say something that’s not nice? I felt there was an absence of a second viewpoint for a while there and certainly in The New York Times. It was like he owned the newspaper. It was like a machine gun, firing all the time. And, eventually, the Pulitzer (Prize) people were convinced, and so on. It’s unfortunate that things can happen like that, but that is a symptom of what’s wrong.
S: I’m not convinced that it is the media where the Jazz Wars will be won or lost, ultimately. I think the real battleground is the classroom.
J: Well, the whole education thing -- the kind of education -- they’ve pushed is completely wrong. You can’t educate people about jazz on TV. And, when you have the wrong guys thinking they’re educating people about jazz on TV, you end up with a black hole that now has millions of people in it, thinking they now know what jazz is about. They’ve gone out and bought the Ken Burns reissues, so now they have what they think they need to have. It’s a mechanism, and jazz should be the least susceptible thing to mechanisms. It’s whole raison d'etre is to express a pure personal vision on the spur of the moment about that moment. That’s all -- all, like that’s a small thing -- it is. So, you can play the notes that Louis Armstrong played on one of his recordings, but it’s only a shadow, because you’re not him and you weren’t there in that moment. But, you should play Louis Armstrong records for kids so that they know what it is. But, don’t confuse that with jazz now.
S: One point you made in your articles was that the market ultimately drives music -- real music -- underground. Did this reflect what you thought was happening to you and your music?
J: I always thought I was underground, even during the solo concert stardom years. At the time, a reporter from Der Spiegel asked me how it felt to be a star, and I said that was as far as you could get from how I felt. What I could do was surface in what I thought and continue to think is the correct way for me and what I do. That’s something a lot of musicians have been unable to do because of the Wynton thing. I’m sure there are voices we would have heard, but didn’t hear, because of that. It’s no insult to be underground. In many ways, that’s how you get the work done. All it takes is making one big mistake one time in the business part of it, when you say OK to people who are assholes. Once you’ve signed the contracts, you’re standing there like a fool. I think that’s happened to Branford (Marsalis), who thought he could change people’s view about jazz by being the bandleader on The Tonight Show. I think this flirtation with fame is the biggest problem for young players now.
S: Jazz has become like ice-skating. It’s over by the time you’re in your mid twenties, and then you go into this black hole for a few decades. If you’re lucky and come out at 70, you get a victory lap.
J: There’s no apprenticeship anymore. That started with Wynton in a way: he was with Blakey and then he was a star. Then he’s working with all younger guys, so he’s never challenged or pushed out of his world by other players. In contrast, I’ve had one band where I wasn’t the youngest guy in the group. It can be your band and you’re still an apprentice on any given night. What you really learn in apprenticeship is integrity and you only know what it is when you have been exposed to it long enough. And once you have it, you’re not going to trade it for anything.
S: A lot of what we’re talking about is symptomatic of a deterioration of the jazz ecology in the US. The reason you don’t have the apprenticeship system as in the past is that you don’t have the club circuit that existed in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, and there is no longer room in the market for labels like the Blue Note and Prestige of the '50s to bring players up session by session over the course of a year or two. I think that creates the vacuum for a would-be titan like Wynton.
J: I agree.
S: I am sure this is something you have witnessed time and again over the course of your career.
J: I have, and that’s one of the reasons I feel nothing has changed since, say, the piece I wrote after Miles died. But, my goal was never to be understood by record labels and promoters. My goal was the music, even when Charlie (Haden), Paul (Motian) and I would play for sixteen people at the Village Vanguard in the '60s. It wasn’t about getting big. It was about the music. But now, players go into the wrong spheres, work with the wrong producers, and get too much money for the wrong reasons. OK: you get a lot of money for a few big gigs. Then what? "What’s the story?" Lester Young might have asked. You have to be able to say, "That’s the wrong music for me to play; that’s the wrong place for me to play." I remember having to talk to George Avakian about this every now and then. "I’ve got a job for the trio at the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cincinnati. You need the work. You need the exposure." And, I said, "George, exposure to whom?" You don’t want to be in a situation where the crowd is uncomfortable and you’re uncomfortable. And, that’s back when I wasn’t making any money at all for anything. It’s takes that kind of attitude: the music first. How will a voice be established if everyone thinks it happens fast -- and if its not happening fast then something’s wrong and they do something else. How can you achieve mastery this way? It’s like computers. You may be a computer whiz, but you’re not producing anything new. You’re only doing what the computer can do, but only faster. How can you be an interpretator? That’s something else that’s being lost.
S: The reason I bring this up in conjunction with this concept of being underground is that there is no way to counteract the Wynton Syndrome without tacitly legitimizing it, or just becoming the Anti-Wynton, which is ultimately just another box. Going underground makes some sense: Go away until the dust settles and the rain washes it away, and then come back and try again.
J: Yeah, if you have done what you can do with words, and have pushed the button over and over when the machine falters. Then you do what you describe. I think that’s exactly where we’re at. We’re doing what we do. Manfred says it’s like the old days, when you just concentrated on making an artistic statement. The only sense in which we’re not underground is that we have an audience, a high percentage of which are really hearing the music. I can’t imagine what it would be like if everything was so confused that when I did get feedback I would have no idea whether if it was real or not. Once, (Village Vanguard owner) Max Gordon came up to me. I think it was the second time we played to sixteen people. "I can tell you guys can swing," he said. "Why don’t you just do that some more, and you’ll get an audience." That makes it an equation, not music, which brings you back to, Why are they playing? What about the old loft scene in the '60s and '70s? Those guys were playing for nothing, and they were playing every day and night. Doesn’t anybody remember that it can be like that?
S: That’s another part of the jazz ecology that’s gone by the wayside. Lofts became real estate.
J: That’s true. It’s the economy, stupid. Or is it the stupid economy? It’s tough out there. I have a son that just graduated from New England Conservatory of Music, and he’s moving to Brooklyn and trying to get gigs. Luckily for him, we need good bass players. The bad part is that there are not that many places to play. There’s just a fraction of the fully functioning jazz clubs that were there when I moved into the city, driving my station wagon loaded up with all my stuff. Each of those clubs had been famous for a long time. When I got there, Cannonball Adderley was at one club and Art Blakey at another. That was the kind of work I left Boston for. I was almost at the top of the roster for these commercial gigs there and I knew if I got to the top of the list, I would never get out of there. My life would have been based on income, instead of music.
S: Another ecological change that has occurred is that jazz has moved into the museums and the official culture palaces. Is this a change you’re wary of?
J: The real problem with most of those halls is that they’re shitty for drums. The good part is that people don’t have to wait outside for an entire set before they get in. That’s why we play them. We played the Vanguard once in winter, and there were lines around the block. That’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to the music. Making an institution out of jazz is bad, but for us, it’s always a challenge to play that kind of space. But, it’s not a history lesson for patrons of the arts. This is culture as unofficial as it can possibly be. That’s what the loft scene was. It was people doing what they felt they had to do. And, if someone came to listen, that was nice. The other problem with museums is how they turn a process into an exhibit, an artifact, and an object. That’s why Wynton is both the wrong guy for jazz and the right guy for this museum culture, because he thinks he can demonstrate style. If you can demonstrate a style, then it will always be that way; then, it’s an object. The other problem is speed. Life is just too fast now. I remember this scene from that movie, "Round Midnight," where the Dexter Gordon character is sitting at the piano. It’s a slow scene that doesn’t go anywhere. He’s just testing a chord, over and over. It’s a forgotten thing that you can sit at a piano and just deal with the sound of that one chord. That’s how you connect to music.