Allen Lowe: No Holds Barred

by Troy Collins

Allen Lowe © 2023 Mark Rappaport

Allen Lowe is a post-modern renaissance man who has worked with a host of jazz icons, written a series of historical treatises on American popular music, and taught himself the art of sound restoration. Lowe grew up in Massapequa Park, New York in the late 1950s. He started playing saxophone in jazz groups at age 15 and later dropped out of the Yale School of Drama after one year of studying to be a playwright and moved to Brooklyn to complete a master’s degree in Library Sciences from St. John’s University.

After graduation, Lowe moved to New Haven, where he became active in the local jazz scene with bassist Jeff Fuller and drummer Ray Kaczynski. He issued his first album, For Poor B. B., in 1985 and then recorded a series of albums with musicians like Julius Hemphill, Don Byron, Loren Schoenberg, Jimmy Knepper, and Randy Sandke. Mental Strain at Dawn: A Modern Portrait of Louis Armstrong (Stash, 1992) captures a cross-generational band live at the Knitting Factory that featured trumpeter Doc Cheatham and tenor saxophonist David Murray. He recorded sessions for Enja Records and Music & Arts, including the three-disc Blues and the Empirical Truth (2011), which features the late trombonist Roswell Rudd, pianist Matthew Shipp, guitarist Marc Ribot, and pianist Lewis Porter.

In 1990 Lowe became director of Jazz New Haven, an annual, free festival that he ran for three years. In 1996 Lowe moved to South Portland, Maine and taught himself audio restoration in lieu of performing. During this time Lowe wrote a series of books, including: American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo on Record, 1893-1956 (published by Cadence and issued with a 9 CD set); That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History 1900-1950 (published by Music and Arts and issued with a 36 CD set); God Didn’t Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970 (published by Constant Sorrow); and Really the Blues? a Horizontal Chronicle of the Vertical Blues 1893-1959 (published by Constant Sorrow and issued with a 36 CD set).

In 2020 Lowe self-published Turn Me Loose White Man, or Appropriating Culture: How to Listen to American Music, 1900-1960 Volume 1. (Volume 2 arrived the following year.) The companion to this tome is a 30 CD set corresponding to the overlapping origins of country, blues, and early jazz. More recently, Lowe self-published Letter To Esperanza: Or: The Goyim Will Not Replace Me - Looking for Tenure in all the Wrong Places – Writings on life, music, race, and culture, a collection of critical writings made over the last ten years, on race, jazz, the blues, rock and roll, cultural equity, cultural appropriation, Maine, anti-Semitism, and white and black country music.

Lowe did all the mastering and sound restoration for all the books that he issued with CDs, and eventually began doing freelance sound work. The last two historical reissue projects he has done (That Devilin Tune and Really the Blues?) are considered two of the largest independent projects on the history of American music, completed without any institutional support. As a result, one reviewer called Lowe “the Harry Smith of the 21st century.”

In 2021 and 2022, Lowe’s discography expanded with two different releases on ESP-Disk’: Cool with That, a freely improvised set by East Axis (a collaborative quartet with Lowe on alto and tenor, pianist Shipp, bassist Kevin Ray, and drummer Gerald Cleaver); and Lowe issued A Love Supine: Ascension into the Maelstrom, a two-disc set that expressed his admiration for Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

Lowe underwent treatment in 2019 for throat cancer and the removal of a sinus tumor a year later that left him unable to play, sleep, or even see clearly. Lowe’s struggle with cancer sidelined him for the last few years, but recently he reappeared with two more releases on ESP-Disk’: a three-disc set, In the Dark, Volume 1, which surveys a range of large group approaches to jazz composition; and America: The Rough Cut, on which Lowe is backed by a smaller group. I interviewed Lowe during the summer of 2023, just after the release of those albums.


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Troy Collins: You’ve just returned from a trip abroad in Europe. Assuming the nature of your visit was music related, would you care to elaborate on the specifics?

Allen Lowe: I have been going to Denmark on and off since about 2018, at the invitation of the drummer Kresten Osgood, who I first contacted around 2017. Kresten knew of my early work with Julius Hemphill, Roswell Rudd, etc; and since then, I have been there three times, mostly for the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. I love it over there, I love the place, the people, the clubs; there is just a humane vibe which I have never experienced in the USA, and people come out to listen, to experience. Now Kresten, in addition to being one of the greatest and nicest human beings on earth, is also one of the greatest drummers I have ever heard (or played with); and I mean this, having heard Alan Dawson, Billy Higgins, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Roy Haynes – Kresten is really in that class. And, he has an absolutely terrific band, who are electrifying in their presentation because – because the music and the performance is perfectly paced, the repertoire is brilliantly varied, it is vastly entertaining (they even do some hilarious Monty Python-esque recitations). So, I play with them a bit, and this year led a quartet at a club, featuring the great trumpeter Erik Kimestad, Kresten, and a quite amazing bassist named Anders Christensen, a great veteran of the scene who has worked with people like Ted Curson and Joe Lovano. So, it’s loads of fun, I get to play a bit (and lately I am lucky if I do six gigs a year in the USA so it is nice to just loosen up and just play) and the accompanying musicians are perfect.

It’s sort of a working vacation, my wife comes along, and we spend some extra time in Denmark. In my old age and with some of my medical problems it is getting a little tougher, but I hope to keep going.

TC: Speaking of medical problems, how are you feeling? Do you still have any residual symptoms from your illness or related cancer treatments? I assume you must be tired of talking about it by now, but I’m curious if you’re still undergoing any sort of treatment at this point. If so, how does that impact traveling abroad for an extended time period?

AL: I have no problem talking about it; I am much improved at the same time that I am very discouraged by certain aspects of my physical condition which will last me the rest of my life. Due to some radical and lifesaving surgery I am currently cancer free, and the long-term prognosis is (probably) good. But my eyes will never be the same, and I have to treat them regularly for a dryness that can be quite debilitating. But my sight is almost back to normal. My left sinus, from which a large tumor was removed, is tolerably uncomfortable, and will also need lifelong treatment (I just turned 69). It all impacts, not on the physical act of my playing – strangely enough I feel like I am playing better now than ever – but on how tired I am before and after the gig, depending on how much travel it requires, etc. But the best I ever composed was when I was in the midst of nightmare sleeplessness, that left me, as I mentioned, feeling suicidal (and I have to admit I still from time to time have what the shrinks call “suicidal ideation” at the thought of the physical struggles I still, and will probably always feel.) But as an improviser I have more energy than most of the younger musicians I encounter. I have always taken to heart Pee Wee Russell’s dictum to “play every solo like it’s your last.” And truthfully the music and the act of composing (plus my wife) saved my life, so even if I cannot in the future travel great distances to perform, if I can pick up some gigs and still compose, that will mean a lot. As for future European trips, I came off this one, satisfying as it was, exhausted and debilitated. I have one more surgery (August 8) to finish reconstruction of my nose and my face and I will see how that goes. This will be surgery number 15, and I get more frightened before each one, even though the dangers and risks have been in inverse proportion to the number of procedures. This will be quick, but I never know how long recovery time will be, and anesthesia feels like a form of death, and I figure there’s only so many times you can die before you won’t be able to come back.

TC: I’ve read in recent interviews how you’ve said that you felt like maybe desperation and fear were motivators for you to compose while undergoing treatment – which resulted in four full-length albums worth of material in relatively short order. That’s quite an accomplishment for anyone, even for someone not in your predicament.

That said, do you feel like your latest round of compositions (as heard on America: The Rough Cut and the 3-disc set, In The Dark), are any different than your previous compositions, in terms of structure or form?

AL: Tough question – they are similar in one important respect, I think, are along the same artistic/technical progression – they are based, melodically, on complex triadic harmony of a type that no one else is doing today, in my opinion. And no one else is doing such a thorough – and I think successful – integration of harmonically-based themes and free improvisation – which we use on some but not all of these pieces. For instance, one is based on the old tune “Idaho,” blowing and all (which I learned off of a Bud Powell recording); “Nita’s Mom” has changes, as does “Belasco’s Revenge.” There’s some blues – and then a bunch with basic key centers, built from what appears to be the predominant harmonic center of various tunes. And then there are more open, free pieces like “Hassan’s Nap” and “Out For Brunch.” They are different than my past work, but I have had some weird epiphanies in the last few years based on simple isolation and depression from various cancer treatments. In other words, I had a lot of time to think, and this music is what came out.

Maybe the difference in all of these was the quality – I was just able to put together a compelling and long program of tunes such as I don’t think I had ever done before (and which I will probably never be able to do again). And I am not even thinking yet about America: The Rough Cut, which was a whole separate thing. This CD is basically my argument with people like Nicholas Payton and Bill Frisell, both brilliant musicians.

In Payton’s case he loves to talk about how white folks are creating the whole agenda for jazz and the study of his history, in a negative and repressive way, and he advocates for black American music – which I do as well, only the difference is that I actually know a lot more about it than he does. I realize this sounds arrogant, especially coming from a white guy. But think about it; if this music is about America’s cultural heritage then I, too, am entitled to look at it, engage with it, perform it. I have spent a good portion of my life, in my writing endeavors, working to preserve it, so I have earned, I believe, the right to appropriate it for personal use. And I won’t even get into the argument, from Ralph Ellison, that Jews are not really white, anyway (and I am Jewish). We do tend to exist on the margins, and this gives us a unique perspective on culture and its expression, on alienation and rejection (which I know lots about).

As for Frisell, I love his playing, but his approach to Americana is based on a very white, idyllic, historical myth. This music is not settled, placid, passively spiritual – it is angry, rough, disreputable, delirious, embattled – just for starters.

But to answer your specific question (I hope) it probably was all related to my physical and hence, mental condition, of being awake for about 6 months. It’s really hard to honestly analyze all of it, but I spent hundreds of hours at the piano, composing music that I felt fit into random sonic spaces. It did feel like a race against time, but one that I was watching from the sidelines; not so much an out-of-body as an Out-Of-My-Mind Experience. At that point I didn’t think I was going to die, but there were plenty of times when I wanted to.

TC: I would say that in addition to your composing, your playing also seems to have changed somewhat. I know you’ve stated yourself that you feel like you’re playing better than ever (perhaps ironically, all things considered), but I think I hear a difference myself – there’s a real urgency and vivaciousness to your phrasing, attack, tone, etc. that seems different than before.

Other than situational factors, is there anything different (technically) that you’re doing, or is it the result of something even you can’t quite put a finger on?

AL: There are definitely technical reasons. First off, I feel like only in the last ten years or so have I come to really understand the science of mouthpiece making – not that I can make or work on mouthpieces, but I have discovered some of the secrets to how mouthpieces can alter your sound and approach, can help you with response and articulation and volume. I love a big, edgy sound, a bit to the brighter side but not really. Also, a little sloppiness helps, a little less precision, a sense of not quite hitting all the notes in a hammered way, but rather like with a glancing blow. This was heavily effected by all the research I was doing into old black music, very old music. Also, everything all came into place after I retired from day work in 2016. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have a day job and kids and was able to do just music. I was already 62, and a lot of older musicians at that stage become settled, satisfied with their own approach. Not me; I started spending a lot of time at the piano literally envisioning the notes and the chords, how things went in and out of scale, about adjacent intervals, how chords could go over chords – and how to construct improvised lines from all of this. There is like a form to the form, ways that lines arc and fly and resolve or don’t resolve; it depends on mood, group, accompaniment.

So, we (I) now have more understanding of the technical tools. More time for study and contemplation. And then, as you say, there is a new aggressiveness to my playing, enabled by my greater technical grasp, by a deeper understanding of interval/harmonic convergence. And by a true emotional understanding of the trials of American black music. And I haven’t mentioned what may be of almost the most importance in my new creative impetus – the 20 awful years I lived in Maine. It saved my son, who was autistic and found the life he needed to find there, but for me it was career disaster. I literally didn’t gig for 20 years. There was a very corrupt local arts scene, and when I was publicly vocal about the money that was supposedly being targeted toward the arts but was being wasted on people’s friends, I was officially blacklisted; they started rumors that I had falsified my musical resume, hadn’t done all this prior work with Julius Hemphill, Marc Ribot, Roswell Rudd, David Murray. It was cruel and unusual punishment, and I just gave up, and my wife and I left as soon as the kids were independent. It does feel like every note I play today is a giant FUCK YOU to certain jazz promoters up there, particularly a guy named Paul Lichter, who helped to spread the word that I was a musical imposter (when I came back from recording in NYC with Matt Shipp, Paul said to me “he played YOUR compositions?”). And in my latest book, Letter to Esperanza I give more detail on Lichter’s attempt to damage my reputation.

So ... I escaped Maine and finally, in my old age, began to realize how little time I had to use all these new things (and I wasn’t even sick yet). And then a few years passed and I did get sick (twice) and I just thought, to hell with it all, with pleasing an audience, with trying to please the critics by reinventing myself musically over and over. And suddenly my composing seemed to also focus itself and I thought “I don’t want to die without expressing all these new ideas and feelings,” and so I just kept playing and recording through it all. And the edge, the rawness of my own nerves, amplified by the personal abuse I took in Maine, has definitely shown in my later work. It’s like suddenly there is nothing between me and the music, I am what I play. There is nothing to mediate between me and the sound. It feels right, finally.

TC: Your relatively newfound freedom for expression reminds me that you’ve mentioned free jazz before and I know you have strong opinions about it, its history, and the way it’s currently played. Since you occasionally use it in your own work, what aspects of that tradition do you currently find inspiring about it, compared to established practices that you find creatively constraining?

AL: Free Jazz – ah, what a minefield. Let us step carefully through the Valley of Angry People.

Free Jazz, though many of the old beboppers thought it was an abomination and killed the audience (I don’t believe that) was a necessary step. But like any “new thing” (to coin a phrase) it didn’t take that long to consume itself, to begin to feed on its own formal cliches. And to start acting as a shield to what I really feel were some true charlatans. No, I won’t name any names, but I, who have a great tolerance for radical changes in aesthetics, can rarely listen to it these days – unless, and this is an important qualification, it is like a formal interlude, an insert in a larger sonic picture, shape, and/or form. I feel like a lot of the players have gotten lazy – gigs pay so little, so let’s just get up and be free; but as the NRA used to say (really, I hate guns and the American right wing, but I had to insert this) “freedom isn’t free.”

In music this is true. Supposed freedom comes sometimes at the expense of continuity (and I don’t mean continuity in the old-fashioned, conservative, linear narrative sense, but rather like an unconscious dialog that comments on itself and on the outside world, coherently creating feeling, distance, and a sense of life itself, even if in a seemingly disordered way), even if those playing it think they are on to something. But this is old news, Giuseppi Logan, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Roswell Rudd, and Noah Howard and hundreds of others were doing this in 1963. And Ornette – the central figure in some ways – was a genius of melody, an exception to the formal rule (as was, in another way Ayler, who was his own sovereign universe). I love playing without harmonic constrictions, but it has to be as part of a greater whole, a merging of harmonic and rhythmic and melodic material. I will say immodestly that we have solved a lot of this problem in my own recent recordings; listen to Aaron Johnson, a genius on alto sax, tear through certain harmonies to reach a new perspective in both harmonic resolution and free tonal extension. Listen to Ken Peplowski, who does some free playing here, inspired, I think, by these surroundings, by the fact that it wasn’t just aimless musical wandering, but a very free extension of certain kinds of musical narrative.

I still love the older players and listen to old music regularly – Pete Brown, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Bird, Bud Powell, Duke Jordan, Babs Gonzalez, Duke, Sonny, James P. Johnson, Donald Lambert – this could go on all day, But I also listen to old Sanctified Church screaming gospel music, 1920s white hillbilly singers, black songsters, white Baptists, Holy Rollers, Jelly Roll Morton, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Marion Harris, Bert Williams, Doc Walsh, Harmonica Frank – there is a world of nearly-vanished music out there from which to learn and to receive inspiration. I find it inspiring because it is so new, there is such a sense of discovery in these old recordings, in so much of this ancient music. There is the natural space of analog recording, the honest emotion of unselfconscious singers and players. And I intend to never stop learning from it until they pry the CD player remote from my cold, dead hands (because the sound on streaming services tends to be terrible for old music and I have spent a lifetime collecting good sound sources that have presence and life).

TC: You’ve mentioned your fondness for combining triadic harmony and extended improvisations into your compositions, which you’ve also said is an approach that you feel relatively few other current composers are using. Would you mind elaborating on that for non-musicians? Perhaps, breakdown an example or two from your most recent recordings?

AL: Sure, as soon as I figure it out ... but all seriousness aside, as Steve Allen used to say.

Theoretically it’s very straightforward, which is proven by the fact that I understand it myself (I am virtually completely self-taught on my instrument and am completely self-taught in the realm of harmony).

To start, I love triadic harmony because it is, to my ears, the soul of American song – by which I mean the standard song forms, the American Songbook, whatever you want to call it. Most writing today is, when based on chords, seemingly built on vamps, on repeated harmonic patters that are mined for a certain scalar approach to playing, sequenced with little harmonic/melodic imagination. My compositions are, for better or worse, unlike anything else being done in contemporary jazz; I come from the legacy of Bud Powell, Mingus, Monk, plus Harold Arlen, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Creamer – this approach employs progressions of chords that state or imply the triadic feeling – which is the chordal sense of root tone, the third, the fifth, but with various extensions. Listen to Bud to get the idea of this – even at his most abstract – and with Monk too – you can always hear the root tone, the C in the C7b9b5 chord, or wherever he is going. Even Bill Evans, who helped to bury the root with certain tonal ambiguities or Gil Evans who used tone clusters – even with these two you hear the chord progressions as they move around the tonal center of the tune, even when it seems suspended, in slow motion. I love this sound and it is the basis for both my composing and playing, because even when I improvise freely I am always thinking of chords, chords, chords, and the scales and intervals that go with those chords.

What we do differently is that we often follow these harmonically dense passages with opened-up improvisation, with complete freedom – or sometimes a narrow harmonic passageway through which to improvise. I think this is what makes us unique (and is what led the late Larry Gushee, a great jazz historian, to tell me that I had “reinvented free jazz.” Though I do think Miles was doing something like this in his mid-1960s groups with Hancock, Shorter, Carter, Williams).

ESP-Disk’ put out a box a few years ago of my historical work and the subtitle, as I named it, was An Avant Garde of Our Own. I really meant that – I feel like the so-called new music scene, both musicians and audience, excludes musicians like myself, who don’t fit into their mindset about what modernism is, of how artistic novelty is achieved by other means, how newness is pursued artistically by approaching tonality in a traditional way. I have spent the last 30 years fusing open improvisation with song forms and an unusual use of harmony, with a different way of sequencing triads – and it works, the proof is in the music we do. And yet I can’t break through that glass ceiling of rarified artsy gestures that tells me I am invalid because I am so deeply ensconced with the roots of jazz and American/African American music. Well, Julius Hemphill didn’t feel that way about my work; neither did Roswell Rudd, who reveled in the root sounds we produced and loved the music for the way I fused new and old techniques. And I have come to the conclusion that if I have not really cracked that glass ceiling by now – at age 69 – it ain’t gonna happen. I won’t get a lot of gigs, festivals, new music seminars – because we are too accessible. This makes people suspicious – how can good music be so assimilable? Well, because this is that kind of art form – African American music is both art and entertainment, at least if it’s done right. And audiences love us, we sell out venues which then won’t have us back – and I can only conclude that it has to do with them not trusting a certain version of reality – as the old saying goes “who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?”  Well, I believe what I hear and see, with happy audiences, with bands that I think are the best around, musicians who don’t get us much recognition as many less interesting players, compositions that comprise a real wholistic vision of what jazz and American music can be. THAT is the avant garde of our own, one without fear of artificial boundaries, that doesn’t worry about trends and audience and critical myopia.

As for the recent recordings – compositional examples of this: “I Remember Barry Harris”; “Duke Dreams”; “In the Dark: For Helen”; “In the Dark: For Francis”; “Tears” – all based on heavy chord progressions, with the blowing alternating between changes (“Barry Harris,” “Duke”) complete freedom (“Helen” and “Francis”) and a tone center (“Tears”). It keeps it varied and, I hope, interesting. And two other pieces – “Out for Brunch” and “Hassan’s Nap” – are compositionally based on chords, as I discussed above, but improvised freely by everyone.

I should say that one of my prime inspirations in all of this is Eric Dolphy, who was brilliant at negotiating chords; also Bud Powell, whose method of voicing those chords was the most profound in all of jazz; Jaki Byard, who once said to me he was “bored by those bebop cliches” and who was, himself, a great human being and a genius at altering built-in harmonies, at playing things that continually violated expectations; as a matter of fact I realized belatedly that my own compositional approach was profoundly influenced by the sense his playing had of constant motion, constant changeability, as though negotiating between different states of reality. Duke Ellington was another; I once remarked that some of his compositions were like one long, continuous sentence (and “Innuendo in Blue” is my take on this). I think this has heavily influenced the way I write.

I hope all of this makes some sense.

TC: Yes, it does make sense, thanks for explaining in detail. Are you aware of any other contemporary jazz composers who are working in a similar compositional vein as you, if even only tangentially? And if not, have you heard any new compositional approaches that you feel indicates a fresh new direction for the future of the music?

AL: I am not aware of anyone else doing this all the way we do it – I am not saying it’s not out there, but I really am not aware of it.

As for a fresh new direction – tough question. I honestly think the most interesting, but no longer new, direction, was suggested by Julius Hemphill in his writing for the WSQ and in his big band album, which is the best large-group composing/arranging of the last 50 years, though no one mentions it any more, sadly enough. Julius had the vision and the open-ness and the technical ability. His sextet writing, as well, is really the future, though not one that anyone seems to be aware of anymore. So maybe it’s a future that never happened and never will.

TC: Your writing is equally indebted to both pre- and post-war jazz styles, which helps explain your camaraderie with Roswell Rudd, and conceptually connects you to Steve Lacy, a fellow innovator who drew inspiration from the entire continuum of jazz history. Predating early post-modernism and even the AACM’s “ancient to the future” credo, Rudd and Lacy seemed to develop on a fast track from Dixieland to the New Thing, with only brief stops in-between. Do you see your own work as an extension of the sort of maverick tradition established by artists like Rudd and Lacy? Or do you feel it occupies a different place entirely?

AL: I would love to be associated with that school, of Ros and Lacy. I think I sort of am, but it’s not an easy fit. Conceptually they are a bit different, but, on the other hand, both were deeply schooled musicians. Ros was particularly amazing, and I would have done a lot more with him except for some circumstances which I cannot really talk about (nothing horrible, just management issues). But these are two musicians who understood the history without being a slave to it, which immediately makes their methods sympathetic to mine. I also loved Ros personally, he was a wonderful and generous human being who could really do anything musical (not putting down Lacy here, I just didn’t know him or work with him).

But truthfully, I don’t consciously mimic anyone, I just use third-parties for inspiration, as a way to get my musical brain jump-started, particularly in fallow times. At this stage of my life, I have composed compulsively for so long that it does sometimes require external stimulus. But I think in other directions – toward Boyce Brown, or Duke, or Mingus, or Elvis (really), or Julius, or toward what Julius called The Hard Blues, the most basic and deep sources of American sound, which includes even hillbilly music, gospel music, rock and roll, as well as Pete Brown (the alto player), Brother Claude Ely (a Holy Roller guitar evangelist), Utah Smith (same) and Harmonica Frank (an old-time songster/hillbilly). A lot of people don’t realize this, but I recorded Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James pieces back in the 1990s, before anyone was even thinking about it; I was the first, uncredited. So musically this gestation has lasted a long time. There was that unfortunate interruption for 20 years in Maine, a state which I consider to be a disgrace to culture and expression, where you were over the hill if you passed age 30 or were not physically attractive (I kid you not on this, as there was one particular arts institution, The Space Gallery, which rejected a young woman I knew because she was overweight and not particularly attractive; they didn’t tell her this, but she knew it to be true as they would not even take her as a volunteer and every volunteer they had was young, skinny, and white).

And I should add that in terms of influence I am particularly affected by certain schools of Euro-Modernism, by Brecht, Beckett, Buchner, Robbe Grillet, Antonioni, and the critical writings of Richard Gilman. I got attacked once on Facebook as being an old white man citing other old white men, which to me is the cheapest of cheap shots. No one in jazz knows the American musical heritage as well as I do, and I am not obligated to justify the works that have sustained me intellectually all these years, especially the ones which don’t fit into dogmatic ideas of what constitutes “the tradition.” None of this – literature, music, theater – exists in isolation, and it has all led me to the place I am in today. The proof of the legitimacy of my approach – which is highly analytical and very intellectual - is that my work is not some mere intellectual exercise, but a constant engagement with life, emotionally valid, and full of feeling.

So – I guess it is true that I am inspired both as a player and composer by the full length of jazz and American music, but I think it is so free ranging that I would be hesitant to say “this jazz guy and this jazz guy and this jazz guy” (though of course I have listed a few). I just do what I do and hope somebody shows up to listen.

Kevin Ray, Marc Ribot, Rob Landis, and Allen Lowe at Roulette © 2023 Fredda Gordon

TC: Considering all the artists you’ve mentioned that have inspired you throughout the years, there are two I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned. Personally, I consider them both to be among the earliest progenitors of post-modernism within the tradition (similar to what I feel you’re doing), who each incorporated every stylistic advancement found in the jazz continuum throughout their careers: Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Sun Ra. Granted, their theatricality often overshadowed their sonic innovations, but they seem like exactly the sort of outsider artists that might appeal to your own sensibilities. I’m curious what your thoughts are on them?

AL: Ah, funny you should ask. Well, let’s go by performer:

Sun Ra: I am a greater admirer of Sun Ra in the abstract, about his theoretical place in the universe and even some of his overarching philosophical ideas. I love the 1950s band, which seems to predict a lot of the post-bop stretching of form and tonality. But later, into the ‘60s, with the occasional exception, I rarely listen, though there are a few albums that are excellent. I just get weary over the long stretches of space exploration. However – as a pianist, Sun Ra is one of my absolute favorites. I own all of his solo piano records; he has that same thing that I love in Jaki Byard, a brilliant way of abstracting theme and harmony, of redistributing them as perceived in fragments, in such a way that he seems to be putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Clearly this was a great musical mind at work, and his piano playing is the epitome of the kind of jazz I prefer: built on harmonic exploration and somewhat vague thematic disbursement, but tied together by a deep, really old-time sensibility that looks very perceptively at the jazz/American song confluence.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: OK ... his performance, with Jaki Byard, of “Memories of You” is, to my mind, one of the greatest recorded jazz performances ever. No bullshit, no honking horns, no fake horn section, just Jaki playing his wonderful, swirling piano accompaniment and Kirk showing his incredible harmonic reach. There is so much in this that even some of Kirk’s more gimmicky gestures fit right in as a kind of commentary on the main event. And that was Kirk’s greatness – once again a very deep, old-time sensibility that, like Sun Ra’s, look respectfully at the material of American song while at the same time shredding it in favor of sonic and harmonic novelty; a kind of acceptance/rejection. I love this about Kirk. My only caveat is that so much of his work is fish and then cut bait, as first he seems to be looking in the great musical depths for sounds and ideas that are both original and compelling – but then it’s a bailout, two horns going at the same time (and honestly he seems to be just playing unisons, which come out as fourths and thirds apart because of the instrumental pitch). People overpraised his multiple-horn playing, and though I agree it was technically impressive, musically it usually sounds to me like just a gimmick. I want to hear him play, without the (literal) bells and whistles. But that’s just me, I understand the ritual aspect in this music, I just don’t find it, as he lays it out, to be compelling – it can be, but too often it just sounds like musical autofill.

On the other hand, listen to his more playing-oriented recordings like Rip, Rig, and Panic, and you will understand – if you don’t already – his greatness when unleashed from the ties of commercial yearning, because I think he was trying hard – often successfully – to be a crossover artist, which I guess he was, judging from his audiences, past and present. I have no problem with that, I just offer my musical opinion.

TC: I agree, but I’d like to shift gears a bit and talk about audio restoration. I know you’re self-taught in that regard; how, why, and when did that all come about?

AL: Back in the 1990s I was starting to work on some projects about the history of American music; my first book, American Pop, had a 9 CD set accompanying it. I figured if I wanted to get it all out, I had to do it myself (as usual). I did find a record company to issue the nine CDs, and got Cadence to publish the book, so I guess I did have some assistance, but I mastered the entire CD set, using CEDAR, which was an early restoration module. I did a pretty good job, I think, within the limits of my own experience. I was always adept at finding good sound sources, the less work required the better. I also have extremely good ears, though I have certain mathematical learning disabilities. The math problem has made technical things more difficult, but the fact that my ears gave me good sonic judgment compensated. The key was to set up a technical workflow that I could handle, a relatively easy chain of wiring; the restoration part meant not going too far, not introducing digital distortion (which was shockingly common in those days). But most important was that I taught myself about equalization which, in the acoustic musical world, recording engineers know too little about. Sometimes it was necessary to increase the noise level on a recording in order to get more music, more clarity. But it all came down to understanding where the right frequencies were and either boosting or lowering them, but balancing it all with noise reduction, which remains a wonderful but dangerous tool. You can easily, in the pursuit of noise reduction, destroy old recordings, and I have heard this done time and time again.

One thing led to another; next I did a 36 CD history of jazz set with book (That Devilin’ Tune), and this was put out by Music and Arts, owned by a great guy who has since died, Fred Maroth. This was a ton of work, but honestly, I love sound restoration. Though it is quite labor intensive, nothing is more satisfying than taking a recording and making it more accessible, cleaning up what you can and making it sound like music, even to modern ears. I followed this with a 36 CD blues set with book (Really the Blues?) and have since done some smaller projects (I just finished one for University of California on early New Orleans Jazz).

I have found that my work in restoration trained me to do the final mastering on most of my recording projects, which I love to tweak and work on. I am actually pretty good on it, but it requires good equalization software and, most of all, reliable speakers.

TC: Speaking of such things, I generally like to ask musicians what their thoughts are on the state of the recording industry, especially with regard to archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming). But you’ve basically just answered that question. So now my question to you is larger in scope: Do you have any predictions for the future of recording, based on current streaming models, the vinyl resurgence, the comparative affordability of pressing CDs instead, etc?

AL: I wish I had some insight here – my usual advice is to listen to my predictions about the music industry and just assume the opposite will happen.

My only sense is that CDs will come back – and this may just be wishful thinking, but they are still the most efficient and safe storage medium for music. And they sound great; the whole vinyl thing is marketing, I think (I know). Correctly done, old analog recordings will sound absolutely the same on CD. I myself have made direct transfers from vinyl LP sources to digital that sound great – sometimes even better because I know how to eq them and I use decent speakers. A lot of engineers just won’t take the time in the transfer, and as I mentioned earlier, their knowledge of equalization is piss poor, even though that is what they do for a living. And this occurs even when they have much better sources than I have had. It’s a matter of ears and patience, having enough respect for the music to treat it as art (well, unless someone like it’s Taylor Swift, that great triumph of amateurism; but that’s another issue).

I don’t like streaming music unless I have to do just a quick check of something; but thinking of the low resolution of much streamed music, plus imagining how they are listened to – often on cheap headphones or bad speakers – just puts me off. We wouldn’t put low resolution photos of great artwork on our laptop and then just watch them on a screen and think of that as equivalent to going to an art museum – well we shouldn’t do the same with music. The whole listening experience is warped by many current formats; it’s like watching a great film on a tiny television screen, which no one does any more. There is so much lost in streaming music – not to mention that the sources they use for historical music are often horrendous. This is why people don’t like to listen to “that old music.” Well, I’ve got 1920s recordings on CD of the Moten Band and country groups like The Carter Family that sound like you are in the same room as they are. Same with Jelly Roll Morton – though one thing I have to say is that I often, to get these sounding their best, have to play with them, with eq in particular, and no consumer is going to want to do this. But we need a national historical effort to find these old recordings in their original state and preserve them. Have you ever heard a master Victor recording from the 1920s? It’s astounding how much info is on it, a revelation. The major labels in particular need to step up, but they never will.

This is a roundabout way of saying I like CDs and their method, convenience, and sound. I still have some LPs, and a high-end audiophile turntable, because it makes a huge difference. But I also have thousands of CDs and cannot find anyone who wants them as a donation – and yet they constitute, I will say, the finest American music collection in the world, curated so that virtually every aspect of American music – jazz, country music, ragtime, gospel, early rock and roll, blues, songsters – can be seen comprehensively from the years 1900-1960. But no one wants it; a lot of this stuff will disappear when I die if it doesn’t find a good and safe home.

As for CDs for musicians, for replication – I will keep doing this kind of issue until I die. I am sorta lucky because my (small) audience still wants CDs, wants to buy them and yes, it has become extremely inexpensive to manufacture them. To me it’s like writing a novel, a matter of cover, notes, presentation, and it is probably my favorite thing to do in life.

TC: As a fan of CDs, I agree with you. Since everything is cyclical, there’s actually been an uptick in CD sales over the last year or two, prompted by a combination of factors, not the least of which is post-pandemic supply chain delays for vinyl pressings and increasing costs of production.

Thinking about technology and artists like Sun Ra, who fearlessly embraced new instruments, I’m curious about your decision to occasionally include digital-sounding electronic instruments on some of your releases. For the most part, your recordings are very naturalistic and organic sounding. For example, Ray Suhy’s distorted electric guitar sounds perfect for the primal analog music that forms the basis of America: The Rough Cut. But Blues and the Empirical Truth features the electronic drums of Jake Millet, and Woyzeck’s Death features Andy Shapiro on synthesizer. Each of those instruments sounds somewhat at odds to me in the context of the (mostly) acoustic bands they’re part of. Shapiro’s synth actually reminds me of Don Preston’s synth playing on John Carter’s Roots and Folklore series of albums, which always sounded a little out of place to me.

To each his own, of course, but I’m curious about your thoughts regarding the role of technology in music production, specifically in relation to innovation versus tradition.

AL: I love the mix of acoustic and electronic – when recorded correctly and performed in a non-robotic way, in a real improviser’s context (I have never heard the Preston). If you listen to Lewis Porter on In the Dark, on a number of pieces he is playing a synth/Farfisa organ, and he is so interesting and creative with it that it fits – maybe it’s a bit jarring, but that’s the point. I like something which throws the listener off balance. Shapiro’s playing I loved, it was a perfect mix of electro and acoustic properties – you will notice on Woyzeck he plays both at the same time. I also loved working with Jake Millet’s electronic drums, though I know there were a few critics who were negative about it. I like sound as sound, as a stimulus for the improviser to react musically in non-accustomed ways. I like the mechanical, metallic aspect of synthesized sound, in the old musique concrete sense. It is like combining two separate worlds of consciousness and allowing them to clash and settle.  It is a new frame of reference, and done correctly it opens up new worlds of musical consciousness. Part of the problem is that it is generally used as a cushion, a musical softener, a way to make certain music more accessible – I have (sort of) the opposite intention, to use it as a way of combining musical worlds, to make the listener work a little harder, to challenge ideas of how electronics can be used (of course there are noise artists, but honestly, I think that’s the easy way out, and anybody can do that). As far as I know, in recordings of jazz electronics are never used to destroy things, only to cool them off, which I think is a mistake. This is another reason I love Ray Suhy’s playing so much. I think he is the best guitarist in the world, and can do everything from heavy metal to so-called “straight ahead.” He uses not only the idea of line, but the electric sound of the guitar in a way that no other jazz guitarist uses it; most go for that neutralized, somber-jazz guitar sound, which has run its course, I think.

As for innovation versus tradition – well, I have no fixed position on this question, and the whole argument about knowing the history of the music before playing it has certainly also run its course. I have worked with semi-traditional sounds and material, and of course I idolized Jaki Byard, but I also love Julius Hemphill, whose big band album from years ago – the 1990’s? – was the best large group writing of the last 50 years, as important as Gil Evans, even Duke Ellington’s. There is orchestral Hemphill but I wish there was more of this particular kind of jazz format. But I guess my answer is that I have no dogmatic ideas – I love Julius, I think Jon Erik Kellso is brilliant, as is Randy Sandke. And I love Louis Armstrong, particularly from the 1930s, and all of Jelly Roll Morton. I think what makes me unique among musicians who give lip service to “the tradition” is that I have a more flexible, organic way of approaching it, unselfconsciously, and I am not trying to prove anything except for the fact that this is beautiful and deep music, that it comes from specific African American traditions and sources, and that it is the most profound and plainly enjoyable sound on the face of the earth. And I don’t take this lightly, as I truly believe that without all of this to work with I might not have survived these last four hellish years.

TC: I was actually going to mention my fondness for Porter’s farfisa playing on In the Dark, which reminds me a bit of Sun Ra, in a really, really good way. But, getting back to audio restoration – your initial interest coincided with your scholarly forays into the history of American music, all of which first occurred while you were living in Maine. You’ve expressed your discontent with living in Maine and have since moved to Connecticut, so I wonder how does your new home compare to your previous?

AL: Well, I had started to do this historical work just before – I wrote my first book, American Pop, and restored its nine CDs when I was still living in Connecticut – but you have the right idea. My complete boredom with living in Maine, my lack of things to do and absence of friends, led me to find ways to fill the time. The first way was to write a book and put together 36 CDs of music (That Devilin’ Tune). It was, indeed, at this point that I become so heavily ensconced in American and African American music. I was instantly dissatisfied with so much of the literature and I just decided, arrogantly I suppose, that I could do it better.

We moved (back) to Connecticut in 2016 and I have no regrets. I live in Hamden, right next to New Haven, and though I am having my struggles with current so-called “trends” in the arts, I am very happy, have easy access to NYC, teach at Jazz at Lincoln Center, work the occasional gig in New York (of late, Dizzy’s and Smalls). It’s always a struggle in the arts and in the jazz business, but I am accustomed to that. The truth is that the arts scene in New Haven in particular, which was once a hot bed of creativity and activity, has pretty much died, largely at the behest of the City of New Haven’s Department of Cultural Affairs. They have decided to re-define the arts as only their friends and as only social action and social justice. If you work with them, they want you to sign an anti-Racism pledge, which I refuse to do. My work speaks for itself, and this is not the McCarthy era with loyalty pledges. And their idea of diversity – in reality, the more diverse we get the less diversity there is. So they don’t know from white musicians and white artists, and so in the name of unification they have divided everyone. There is another festival in town, called Arts and Ideas, and I have been trying since 2016 to get involved, but they have consistently excluded the local community (though I am currently trying to make some inroads; we shall see what happens).

I did get very sick in 2019, so that slowed my various efforts, and the pandemic interrupted everything and everyone. And I have to come to grips with the fact that I will be 70 next year, an age at which everyone looks at you as a relic. Even though my playing has never been better, I work with both old and young musicians, and I am unafraid to go against any musician or group.

So I just do what I do; this is a nice community, friendly and open, if clueless about the arts. We are trying to put together a jazz festival in Hamden for 2024, so we will see how it goes. I am also trying to make a film, which is a whole other, gigantic can of worms. All in all, I remain cautiously pessimistic.

TC: I read recently that you thought maybe you were done writing books, as they require so much time and effort, and you really wanted to just focus on composing and playing. But a film is a completely different and much more (potentially) time-consuming project. What is the film about?

AL: Yeah, that’s a good question. The film is about ... well, me, sorta, and the musicians I work with. I have one potential funder; if that doesn’t come through, I probably cannot do it. I just wanted to make a film that wasn’t the same-old-same-old when it comes to jazz. All the jazz documentaries are the same, solemn spokesmen and women explaining the importance and greatness of Ron Carter or Duke Ellington, using the same cliches and pompous explanations. So I want to do one that is a form of cinema verite, just let things happen, let the musicians play (they always get interrupted in those other documentaries), let the dancers dance (I was thinking of having dancers). We will see; if I get the cash, I will do it. If I don’t, I will file the idea away for another day.

TC: Coincidentally, I just saw a film that might interest you if you haven’t seen it: All Night Long, a British noir from 1962, directed by Basil Dearden that is loosely based on Othello, but set in real time in a private jazz club with performances by Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Tubby Hayes, and John Dankworth, all starring as themselves. And they get to play, uninterrupted for a change. Kevin Whitehead told me that was where Mingus and Brubeck recorded “Non-Sectarian Blues.”

But I digress. I’d like to return to a topic you mentioned in your previous answer relating to diversity. Anyone who knows you, is aware of your thoughts on our current political situation (via your Blog, Facebook posts, etc.). You said, regarding the City of New Haven’s Department of Cultural Affairs: “And their idea of diversity – in reality, the more diverse we get the less diversity there is. So they don’t know from white musicians and white artists, and so in the name of unification they have divided everyone.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on that statement. How do you feel that mandated diversity programs actually create less diversity?

AL: I have seen that movie; quite fascinating, especially the presence of Mingus.

As to your other question, I wouldn’t say that they create less diversity in general; I certainly believe that the movement in the USA toward Affirmative Action (which I believe in) and diversity in college admissions, hiring, etc., is extremely important. What I am objecting to is what I have seen up close in certain specific instances and with certain agencies. Locally: the City of New Haven’s Director of the Department of Cultural Affairs has committed serious crimes against the arts and has pretty much helped to destroy the local arts scene by providing zero support to any real grassroots efforts of any color. She (the director) commissioned a Cultural Equity study, which was filled with empty, woke rhetoric and not a single example of what they were referring to – espousing reparations for supposed cultural exploitation of black artists in New Haven without giving a single example, and talking about the city’s rich, African American cultural heritage without – yes without – giving a single example of an artist or an art form which has flourished here. She/they know nothing about the history of the arts in this area, nothing about the active African American artists and their activities over the years – and yet they think they understand diversity, which to them means completely ignoring white artists and hiring only their friends for various and pointless showcases. And declaring “all art is social justice,” which is what she wrote on her Facebook page before blocking me for disagreeing. So – as they diversify it all narrows down to a highly racialized concept of culture which doesn’t begin to grasp the complexities of African AMERICAN (with the emphasis on AMERICAN) art. Honestly, I have worked too long and hard, for over 50 years, promoting this music, writing about its African American sources, to listen to this bullshit. Enough rhetoric – you believe in great black art forms? Well, hip hop is not the only kind there is – it is just the only kind these people know. How about black dance? New Haven has a very rich history in this respect; as I recall it used to have African-style dance troupes; there used to be a great dancer named Larry Ferrell; and there is an incredible dancer now who lives locally named Wes Yarbor – but they haven’t a fucking clue because all they know is pseudo-woke rhetoric, and so they have nothing to show for it. And as I said the more diverse we are the less diverse we are – their friends and contacts do not constitute diversity in the accepted sense of the term, and they exclude white artists, older artists of all colors – it’s just disgusting to me that they are collecting salaries while doing absolutely nothing but issue woke pronouncements.

That’s what I meant.

And just to close with an example of the ultimate stupidity of these attitudes, I give you the following quote:

“White writers don’t have the emotional, experiential, existential, historical connection to jazz. I got my experience through following bands, listening to my elders, and really reading and studying on my own.”

As said by Jordannah Elizabeth, who seems to be an accepted NPR and Jazz Journalist’s Association critic. And it is doubly amusing because, when it comes to jazz, she is clueless, misinformed, lacking in insight.  If you don’t believe me, Google her and try to read her bizarrely inaccurate takes on jazz history.

This is the New World Arts Order, as far as I can tell. Yes, there are smart exceptions – the African American writer Greg Thomas has written about this kind of racialization and how destructive it is to honest discussions and appraisals of life and art, but as far as I can tell his is an isolated opinion. I would have liked to hear what the late Greg Tate might have had to say on this. His death was one of the great tragedies of American culture over the last few years. Greg was something of a nationalist/advocate but he was too smart to have accepted idiot pronouncements like Jordannah Elizabeth’s. And I would point to Robin DG Kelley as another very racially and politically aware critic who understands that these questions are much more complex than some of these other writers proclaim. Also, Gerald Early, who doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of public writing these days, but is/was one of the most brilliant writers we have had on race, culture, and American life.

TC: Not to be a reductionist, but it sounds like a new wrinkle on the old “it’s who you know” syndrome that has dictated who gets ahead in the arts since day one. Do you find discussing these topics with others in online forums or via social media to be rewarding or frustrating, or a combination of both?

AL: It feels a little different than that, because it is much more politically-based, and such a corruption of not only the progressive movement and instinct but of the original principles of Affirmative Action. I blame a lot of it on white folks, who fold quickly, afraid to respond in public because they are worried that they will be considered racists or non-woke. This is a large part of the problem; I have seen it on Facebook more than once – someone makes anti-Semitic comments (usually along the lines of “the Jews control all the media”) and is met by silence by white and black respondents, all of whom should know better – except for the noise I make, if I am aware of the comment. Even when that hip hop tune came out some time ago which mentioned that the “Jews” supposedly own most of the property in NYC, someone I knew, who should have known better, responded to my objection by saying “well, it’s true.” Oi. First of all, we don’t know it’s true, but that’s not the point – which is that the accusation, classically antisemitic, is saying that there is something about Jews, ethnically and religiously, which makes them exploit people, some basis in the religion. Bullshit of course, but let’s check The Talmud – not. But just because there are Jews, yes, who engage in unethical activity does not mean that one example makes a rule. As I pointed out it’s like saying it’s ok to be a racist because your grandma got mugged by a black guy. There is no excuse for this kind of ignorance.

But I am wandering a bit here – to your original question – I have found Facebook to be a perfect medium for this kind of discussion, as a matter of fact I compiled a book based largely on my Facebook posts about culture, religion, race, and politics (Letter to Esperanza). There are the occasional nasties – someone recently attacked me for being a bully (I pointed how un-musical Brandee Younger is), which is nonsense by any definition of bullying. I have also been called self-aggrandizing (apparently because, as I pointed out, I don’t say enough bad things about myself on my timeline) and, most annoyingly, “an old white man.” Twice by the same person (though with irony noted, I did advise this person – who thought he was of color – that since he is Indian, he is considered to be Aryan and so is as white as me, if not whiter, taking into consideration Ralph Ellison’s advice to Jews that they should stop trying to pass, stop thinking of themselves as white). And both times I was discussing how important the work and ideas of certain European artists, philosophers, writers, and playwrights were to even non-literary types like the contemporary jazz musician. I was thinking of the artistic ability to construct a musical life, as something, in jazz, that is more than just playing the changes or building musical structures that are really non-structures and highly disposable. I was thinking of modernist modes of thought and philosophy (and here I was referring to those who had influenced me, like Brecht, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Gilman, Buchner, David Antin) as a basis to produce music which was new and devoid of cliches and not just a repeat of old musical gestures. I honestly think this is one of the prime reasons jazz sometimes seems trapped in a maze of its own construction, because it lacks a certain intellectual/theoretical rationale of the kind that might allow it to escape its own past. And all I can say in defense of my theory is that I truly think my own music – which is real jazz, not some abstract and detached thing intellectually molded into academic dullness – works, is effective, and really is in its own way on the compositional cutting edge today, proving the legitimacy of my theory.

I have found these discussions, on Facebook, to be illuminating and constructive. Unlike some people on there I don’t censor opposition, though I do draw the line at personal insults and ridicule. And some of the smartest people I have ever met are on there and I have made many great friends, so I cannot complain.

TC: It seems somewhat appropriate then, that Letter to Esperanza could very well be your last book (if I recall correctly, you mentioned that in another interview), seeing as how it brings readers up to date with your opinions on the state of the art, as it were. That said, if you’re not planning on writing anymore books, and waiting on funding for an autobiographical film, but have said you plan on focusing on composing and performing, then what’s next for you? What do you have planned, musically, for the future?

AL: Well, my immediate plan is not to die (sorry, semi-quoting Adam Sandler here), and my prognosis is good though I often feel lousy from surgical issues with my eyes, sinus, and throat (though there are still parts of my body that function normally; but two rounds of chemo and two rounds of murderous radiation have certainly left their mark, something for which I will pay a toll for the rest of my life).

But I love to compose, and I am playing pretty well right now. As a matter of fact, I get nervous thinking about at which point playing will become difficult due to disability plus aging, to the point of really effecting my sound and articulation (right now there are issues; in 2019, as I might have said already, I had high intensity on my jaw which pretty much destroyed my embouchure; I fought my way back but I will never have the physical, playing stamina I had before the radiation).  So I want to document as much of my playing as I can while I can, which means recording, recording, recording. I am also back to composing like mad again, and one project is a suite of pieces I am calling Valley of Sorrows; I am also writing original music for a showing of the new Max Roach documentary here in October. Instead of playing his music, I am composing in relation to certain aspects of his musical career and his musical advocacy (a piece that is Tristano-ish; a variation on Bird’s Koko; some Benny Carter-type piece – since he played with Carter’s big band in 1943 – and something based on one of his Abbey Lincoln collaborations; also probably something Bud-ish).

I don’t gig much, but I love to play. We are thinking of trying to organize a local jazz festival, and I hope to get into Smalls every once in a while. Dizzy’s last May was a major success, though the first time I played there (2018) we got a Times writeup, sold the place out, and then didn’t get another gig there for five years. It’s a strange business, and I have to be realistic about the way I am perceived, age-wise. There is tons of discrimination. One club owner actually said to me “we like to hire younger musicians.” Or look at Emmett Cohen’s show, which is about 90 percent younger players. Once in a while he brings in someone over 40 or even over 50, but that proves nothing. Where I live, there is a Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective, and they never book anyone over 30. It sucks, but it will never change.

But to sum up, if nothing else happens I will still compose and record. And try to get that film made. And will always look for something new to do, to make sure that neither my music or my life is ever a repeater pencil. As Prez said, “you fight for your life until death do you part, and then you got it made.”


© 2023 Troy Collins

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