Foreword by George E. Lewis,
This interview was done during my November 1975 visit to Toronto to perform a solo trombone concert, a medium that, as it happens, I later renounced forever. On previous visits to the city I got to know such innovative Canadian artists as Victor Coleman, and people who later became close associates in Vancouver, such as Eric “Doctor Brute” Metcalfe (http://www.vancouver2010.com/more-2010-information/
cultural-festivals-and-events/event-listings/metcalfe-lewis--ikons_70634gu.html), who was involved with the campaign to elect “Mr. Peanut” (alias Vincent Trasov) mayor of Vancouver. My hometown of Chicago was still being ruled by Richard I, so the possibility of a little cross-cultural transference of consciousness seemed deliciously inviting, even if, as the “colourful” Chicago pol Mathias “Paddy” Bauler had already famously declared, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”
Bill’s mid-1970s Coda interviews allowed free rein to musicians to say whatever they liked, for as long as they wanted. This interview ran to over 14,000 words, about the length of the best-known extended format of the period, the Playboy interview. Part of the reason why the Coda interviews ran so long, I suspect, is that for the most part and for whatever reason, most musicians operating in jazz-identified networks (and I include improvised music practitioners in this, all demurrals and exceptions admitted) were not publishing their own written work – not even their scores. Thus, the Blindfold Test, the interview, and the record and CD liner note became prime opportunities for the dissemination of musicians’ textual expressions.
I imagine that for many readers, part of the interest in the interview format lay in the encounter with an ostensibly spontaneous expression by the subject (always central to the image of jazz), now transposed to the written page, where readers are implicitly invited to compare the two registers of spontaneity. As with music, however, apparently spontaneous improvised dialogues actually undergo multiple mediations – of desire and intention, personal and social history, time, space, memory, diverse methodologies, and power relations. Certainly Joseph Jarman, who counselled me early on about developing “interview technique,” understood this well.
Perhaps this was why Adorno dismissed the products of jazz as “not really improvised,” and I have lately found it rather odd that critics of his decidedly dour view of that music (myself included) have concentrated on (or explained away) the philosopher’s lack of affinity and understanding for jazz, while failing to interrogate the larger issue of Adorno’s notion of improvisation, with the inchoate notion of pure spontaneity that lay at its root. But I’m sure that such a keen analyst of the culture industry could not have seen jazz as the only purveyor of ersatz spontaneity. The practice of electronic punditry had come into its own in his final years, and by the time this Coda interview was published, live television entertainment was fading as a medium, made redundant by the greater control over message offered by recording and editing. Imagine a modern late-night talk show taking the time to explain and perform meditative brainwave music, as John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and David Rosenboom did on a 1972 Mike Douglas show that you can search out on YouTube if you like. For today’s media monopolies, there is no reason at all to allow potentially inconvenient and uncontrolled expression to threaten their fraught stewardship of the public airwaves.
Twenty years after this interview, I published “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives” in Black Music Research Journal – perhaps the first scholarly article to critique John Cage’s published views on improvisation, sociality and African American musical culture, and later reprinted in Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble’s The Other Side of Nowhere. The afterword I wrote for that book took up the editors’ implicit suggestion that a diachronic understanding of both Cage’s work and my critique would allow for change, development, and even progress, a notion still active at the personal level, if not on grander historical stages. Thus, a historian picking through the artifacts of Cage’s life would find contradictory viewpoints emerging from – well, not the same source, since not even Cage could step into the same river twice.
Much later in my career, I discovered that I had been labouring under a certain naïveté with regard to interviews. In fact, interviews in other areas of the art and academic worlds were routinely edited with the consent of the interviewers. In the jazz sector of my career network, I had never heard of such a thing, and I began to realize that other sectors of the cultural and historical landscape took a very different view of the function of the interview as historical document; precision of expression was believed to trump the pleasures of spontaneity and display.
Although Bill kindly invited me to retroactively edit this version of the interview, I suggested instead that I write this foreword, borrowing Daniel and Ajay’s riff. After all, the original interview is still around in libraries and archives, and discrepancies between the two versions of the historical record rightly invite suspicion. Thus, as with small, specific moments in the musical products of my life, I find myself cringing at some of the more callow statements in this somewhat rambling dialogue. Perhaps Bill’s cover photo for “The George Lewis Solo Trombone Record,” taken around the time of the interview in the home he shared with Chloe, his wife of those years, and their two young daughters, now with children of their own, could serve as a visual companion for this public coming-of-age narrative, guided by a sympathetic, cosmopolitan writer and photographer of a slightly older generation, who as it happens, was just coming into his own as a creative musician as well. In this context, the photo seems to tell us that “the child is father to the man,” that sort of thing.
What we encounter in this interview is someone who was learning the pleasures of the grain of the voice, a phenomenon that intrigued both Roland Barthes and, considerably earlier, Dale Carnegie, who brought the phenomenology of the sounding voice to the business world with his famous book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, which my father obliged me to read while I was still in lower school. At the same time, I hear the voice of someone who was trying to understand the epistemological dynamics of socioprofessional networks and the nature of improvisation as a form of composition, and looking to throw off readymades: “If you find out that in terms of the music that you want to play, Harry Partch suits your thing more than any trombone player you’ve heard, go with that.”
In the end, I was pleased to rediscover at least one other area of remarkable consistency between then and now—the ardent assertion of mobility of method and cultural reference, an artifact of first-generation AACM thinking emerging in a second generation. Or, to put it more succinctly, paraphrasing The Prisoner: “I am not a genre; I am a person.”
The first part of this “slightly cleaned-up” interview was done on the evening of November 21, 1976, after the taping of George Lewis’ first solo album.
Bill Smith: I don’t think I ever heard a “jazz” trombone player write a piece of music like “Piece For Three Trombones”. How does that kind of concept arrive in somebody who’s basically involved in the jazz tradition; who is supposed to be an improviser; who writes a music that is very formal?
George Lewis: I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “jazz” trombone player. Now let me qualify that! What I mean to say is that I’m not considering myself to be a trombone player, or a jazz trombone player, any of those things. I’m involved in music right now, so being involved in music right now, immediate music, for me that means using the trombone as something that’s getting my thoughts out – an instrument or vehicle for the realization of what I’m thinking. And when I’m thinking I’m thinking – in this case – trombonically if you will; now there’s a nice word. So that means that whatever I’m doing is coming out in terms of the trombone. In terms of what I’m playing, in terms of writing a piece for three trombones or whatever, it’s like a trombonic thought, but at the same time it’s not like I want to say, “Well this is another one in the tradition of trombones”, or “This is one in a long line of pieces that are geared to that”. It is that, but it’s something else, too. Do you see what I mean?
Bill: You deal with your instrument in an historical perspective? You didn’t suddenly hear a trombone player who made you freak out?
George: No, no I never did. The thing is, I didn’t suddenly start playing trombone in response to an idea, like hearing a bunch of guys on the radio playing trombone and saying “oh wow, I want to play like this guy”. I started playing for completely different reasons. It was to help my social adjustment. That’s what my parents figured. That a nine year old kid, changing from the school I was going to, which I guess would be classified as a ghetto type of school, in Chicago, and moving to the University of Chicago laboratory school, which is another trip; it was a mostly white school, differences in the socioeconomic background of the people who were going. Like, changing from a situation where most of the kids don’t have any dough to a situation where most of the kids do.
Bill: The trombone was like a therapy?
George: I think that’s what they thought at the time, that if I got involved in a band that would be a bona fide school activity that I could get into that might hasten my interest in assimilation into the community at large, which was the dominant theme then. To assimilate you as much as possible into the scene, even though you’re black. So one of the ways to do that was to have everybody in the band, or in some sort of activity, so my parents told me I ought to play an instrument. I said well, I thought that was a pretty decent idea, but I didn’t have any idea what instrument I wanted to play. I was nine years old – I liked music, but had never considered playing it.
This is at the “why I play the trombone “ stage… it was just a little social adjustment, and seeing the trombone there out of all the instruments that I went to see. I bought the trombone the same way I buy everything else – impulse, and it was the biggest one, and I guess I figured that if you were playing the biggest one you became the most well-adjusted, which is actually the reverse of the truth. The flute players and guitar players got considerably more press time than trombone players. Trombone players were like the lowest of the low. Trombone players and German students, and I was both. There were three trombone players in the entire school, one of whom dropped out in the third week. There were twelve German students. Out of all the students in the school, twelve of them took German, it was like a little elite club…
Bill: It’s a perfect German instrument, like “Oom-pah! Oom-pah!”
George: Right. You say, “Ynnaaarp, ynnaaarp” and then you try to do it, the guy gave me one and said, “Okay now, what are you going to do when you play this?” So I blew and blew and blew and nothing happened. “What’s this? Is it broken? “ He said, “No, you have to buzz”. So he showed me all this buzzing. And I became a master buzzer, but I never practised for years and years and years, until I started thinking I wanted to play jazz. At that point I said, “Wow, I’m going to be a jazz musician.” I was about eleven or twelve. I wasn’t going to be a jazz musician, I was just going to start playing and see what happened. I wanted to improvise because you get to stand out in front and do your own thing, you didn’t have to read a chart and sit in the back.
Bill: Did your band play show tunes?
George: No, mostly we played a lot of march crap. That was the band, that was the concert band. Now the orchestra, naturally, played Prokofief, and Beethoven, whoever else was on the scene at the time. I was in that too, because with only three trombone players, they had to stretch them through the whole music program. Of these three players the top cat was Ray Anderson, who plays in New York. This cat can really play, he’s pretty bad. He has always smoked me. From the very first, this cat took hold, took charge, learned how to read music very well, really got together, and by the time we were in high school, this cat was so far ahead of me I was thinking of quitting. He was just amazing. I’d sit up there and listen to him pop these high “C”s and “D”s, you know, for a kid…
He’s got a very original style on the trombone. And a lot of my stuff comes from things that he’s shown me to check out, in terms of just thinking about well, what are you going to do on the trombone? And knowing that some of the things were possible that I was thinking about, or hearing some guy and saying, if this is possible how come I can’t do it, or how come I’m not doing it?
Bill: Did you discover at some point that you were a trombone player?
George: Yes, at the twelve-year old stage. I had a horrible embouchure, my embouchure was absurd, it wasn’t allowing me to get out of the middle register. I was always playing second trombone. By then, they had added a jazz band, and a junior jazz band. There was a lot of jazz in this school, the University of Chicago school. They had Frank Tiro there. Frank is now doing analyses of Bird. He played alto. I never made the connection until years later. I knew he played alto, but I never knew he was into Bird as much as he was. So now I’m reading in music journals about this guy, he’s analysing Bird and so on. And he was the guy who gave me my first lessons on the trombone. I didn’t know he was into jazz, he never said anything about it. I guess he sort of kept it out of the way, but when it came time to form a jazz band, he was right there and he dealt it and got the band together, the band won prizes at these suburban jazz contests and all this sort of thing. It was a very white scene at the lab school, but it was the only school that I could see that had a jazz contest at the time.
This was way past the days of Captain Dyett, the guy who’s responsible for all those players like Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore. Roscoe was talking about this cat, but I don’t really know about it, so I can’t really talk about it except to say that he was a teacher in the Chicago public school system who taught a lot of guys who are now very well-known Chicago cats. I get the feeling he was a very strict disciplinarian about playing. He’d give you the right horn, Von Freeman talks about this cat a lot. He would force you to get into your stuff. I’ve heard stories where he’s chased the saxophones, chased the whole trumpet section out of the room for playing a part wrong, threatened them with all kinds of stuff and got cats together on their horn. Henry Threadgill studied with him, a lot of the Chicago cats. He taught at DuSable High School.
DuSable. Named after the black man who founded Chicago but never gets any credit. He was a trading-type cat, he’d be black by our contemporary definition of it. Or some sort of mixed cat, but anyway he was the first guy to establish some kind of trading thing in Chicago, long before any of these cats like John Kinsey. I’m not a history buff, but he was the first cat. And they’ve never really acknowledged that. They have a “DuSable Day” every year, and a school named after him, and a little plaza that they just did three years ago, dedicated to him, but it’s a very tardy recognition of this guy’s role in forming Chicago.
You’ve got plenty of guys coming out of that school, starting in the fifties. People even got to the point where it’s like “The DuSable Gang” or something. But we weren’t involved in any of that at the lab school, it was a different set of circumstances, and they were involved in this suburban white scene. It was like a city school, with private school leagues, a very closed sort of scene. A prep school, most of the kids who went there were children of University of Chicago professors.
Bill: Is there some point around here where you start realizing that you have some inclination towards your instrument and the music that you’re playing? A special kind of interest in the instrument?
George: I’ve always had a special interest in trombone playing. Really. The thing is, there’s a difference between that and knowing “I want to play music” and not “I want to be a nuclear physicist” or whatever.
Bill: I doubt that when you’re ten years old that you have the capacity to realize that that’s going to be some kind of lifelong occupation. But at some point you must realize that. Do you remember some kind of realization of that? When it started becoming more important than other things?
George: I don’t think that really happened until college, which is way up the road, before that it was a totally different scene.
Bill: Did you go to college as a music student?
George: No, as a philosophy student. The first thing I did was decide to be a political scientist. I had a big plan to study political science, then I’d go on to law school, and then make some money, or something like that. My first year in school they had a big student strike, with thousands of people running through the streets demonstrating for various things like “Free Bobby Seal”. So I gave up trying to be a lawyer, that got to be a drag.
At that point, my trombone broke. I had the same horn for ten years. These things have great significance, they seem rather sentimental, but it’s weird. This thing broke, the slide fell off. After ten years the slide had finally fallen off, I said “I don’t have to play trombone any more, I’m not going to, I’m going to bag this shit, I’m going to stop being a musician, this is absurd, I’m practising in my room everyday for nothing, there’s nothing coming out of this, everyone hates jazz here…” – which they did, everyone hated it. This was at Yale. People would completely downgrade what I was doing. The music school in general has never been a big fan of improvised music.
Bill: Why is everybody afraid of improvised music?
George: I just figured that these guys, first of all they’re not able to improvise, secondly I don’t think they’re afraid but they just have a big interest in keeping it out because they’re not doing it. If they were doing it on a wider scale they would start introducing it.
Bill: If they were doing it, it would be cool; right?
George: No if they were doing it they’d be cool! We’d still be out of it. The thing is that they’re not doing it on any scale, so if they say, “okay your stuff is horrible and our stuff is what’s happening right now”, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter so much as improvised music, it’s just the form of music that they have going is composed music primarily and the form of music that we have going is improvised music.
During our last years at school it became in to attend our concerts. People who were in the know, they didn’t attend rock concerts, they listened to our stuff. Guys would come up and say, “Well, I’ve really been listening to your music lately and I think it’s far better than this rock stuff”. And we’d appreciate that, because it was nice to be finally recognized, but at the same time we’d get a lot of people who were being very in, then it got to be a drag too, because it wasn’t like you were playing for an audience, it was like you were playing for contemporaries, and people you had in classes and stuff, so it got to be on a very personal level and it got to be sort of out there. See, there’s a certain impersonality about audiences and musicians, which serves as a dramatic focus for the performance or the concert. A lot of the time, you don’t know the person that’s up there performing. Like personally know them. I don’t think most people do, so they can’t approach the music in the same way. And it’s better that you can’t, because it’s not part of that zone to do that.
Bill: You don’t feel the audience’s role is subsidiary, the audience is part of the performance, isn’t it?
George: Absolutely. But the role is dynamic, it’s not a static thing. You can make an analytical proposition and say, “Okay, the audience is part of the performance”, fine. But that’s not talking about the dynamics of the relationship between the audience and the performer, which is what I’m trying to get to. If you don’t know the performer and the performer doesn’t know you, you ‘re not going to make the same sort of assumptions about your responses to the music and how they fit into the total picture as you would if you knew the person. People respond to the music in so many different ways – they start making all sorts of inferences about the musicians that are playing, about their psyches, their backgrounds, their preferences of whatever kinds. All these inferences start happening along with the music a lot of times. Sometimes people will come up and tell you what they got out of it and that will be the form that they’ll use to tell you, an analysis of you.
Bill: But sometimes it’s not what you are at all. Their reaction to you is not necessarily what you are.
George: Well, it almost never is. But it almost always contains some aspect of what it is. But it’s them, because most of the time you can’t interpret the musician in that way if you don’t really know them in some personal sense. But even if you’ve had the vaguest kind of interaction with a musician, on the level of like, we’d be giving these concerts in school, and people would see us in classes, they’d see us on the street or something like that. That’s enough context to start a whole different chain of associations from when for example, Miles came to the school. And so you’ve got so many different complexes there.
Bill: You were playing with other players at Yale. Was that Anthony Davis…
George: …and Wes Brown, Gerry Hemingway, Hal Lewis. Jerry Hemingway plays drums, Hal Lewis is a saxophone player.
It started out with them. I wasn’t with them from the beginning, I guess it was basically Anthony Davis and Hal Lewis and a drummer named Steve Knapp who I guess is now getting his Ph.D. in English or something and is no longer involved in the music, but he’s a good drummer, and then very floating bass players, playing Anthony’s compositions which at the time were very free, a lot of them very modal. He had a suite for Coltrane, a lot of different pieces he was composing even then, very super music. There were only six or seven people in the whole school who were interested in this kind of music, out of the whole population and they were constantly being shit upon by everybody. Seven cats versus five or six thousand, plus the whole New Haven community. Well, not the whole New Haven community because there were guys like Eddie Buster, you know?
We played a lot of different places. We finally started getting gigs everywhere. At first it was just campus gigs, for the door or something like that, and everybody would just get together and try to play free. So these guys heard me playing in my room and told me to try and join up. They had some other guy, some other trombone player and something happened with him so they got me into the band. But then I flunked out, so we had to start all over again after I came back.
I flunked out, I failed in my mission to become a political scientist. I became so bored, I became so terribly bored that I had three papers to complete, did not complete a single one.
The way that I look at it is that the political scientists failed to interest me in their theories. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do those papers, the papers were easy. In this case it was a combination of things. I guess I don’t regard it as a failure, because it cut across several things. What happened was, I could have had a chance to do the papers over the summer. I said no. I won’t do them and the guy said, well you’re going to have to take off for a year and you can re-apply in ‘72. So I said okay fine but I’m not doing this shit. One of them was a music thing, a history of romantic music which I had to do a paper for. I didn’t feel like doing a paper on that, either. We learned about Berlioz, Meyerbeer, these types of fellows. They wanted everybody to do a paper on some aspect of this, but I just couldn’t see it. The guy who was lecturing us would never even look at the class while he was talking. He would always hold his hand in front of his face and look up at the ceiling while talking in this rambling monotone. It would be for an hour and a half, twice a week! Are you kidding?
So I stayed out for a year, and on my nineteenth birthday I walked into this basement and found all these fellows from the AACM playing. In Chicago, about six blocks from my house.
I had a summer job painting chairs, painting chairs by the side of this pool in the North Shore Cabana Club. You know what’s happening on the North Shore of Chicago. A big high rise scene. No blacks. Thousands of wrinkled people, in t-shirts with alligators on them. All these old people sitting around there, and if they didn’t have money a lot of them would be on welfare. A lot of them were sick, had no way to fend for themselves, not anything. They were sick, that’s a drag, to be sick, but on the other side of the big fence there were people who were sick who were out of it. Because once you got past this high rise, you were in the uptown area with all the white Appalachian immigrants, people who had come to Chicago from the Ozarks. These people had absolutely no money, and they’re sitting up there staring at this high rise, with all these people cavorting around in Cabana Clubs. And I was painting chairs in my street clothes.
Bill: What players were playing in that basement six blocks from your house?
George: Muhal, Kalaparusha, let’s see – oh, a whole bunch of guys. Steve Galloway, John Jackson. I don’t remember very much about it because I didn’t know any of the people at the time. I wasn’t around musicians. I had no connection whatsoever with the musicians, the community of Chicago.
Bill: Did they invite you to play?
George: No, in fact they tried to keep me from playing. You know how it is, they have to see if you’re serious first. Because I was talking about playing with them. That’s another matter. I mean they can encourage you sure. A guy will say, “Oh yes, practise practise practise!”. But it’s a different thing from saying “practise, practise” and saying, “Yes, come and play in this band.” First they have to see if you can play. And that requires a little persistence on your part. So that’s what they do, they test you. This happens all the time, I didn’t regard it as any big deal. I knew it was going to happen, so I was already prepared for it. Because it happens in everything, people are constantly testing you to see if you’re really committed to checking them out, and then they’ll check you out more seriously. It’s just social interaction, and nothing to be afraid of.
I didn’t know anybody. I knew about the Art Ensemble from listening to records, and I knew about Roscoe Mitchell from listening to records, and that was about it. And I’d gone to some live AACM concerts. Fred Anderson, I’d gone to the Art Ensemble – before Don Moye was in it, and I’d gone to a solo Joseph Jarman concert. This was while I was still in high school that I went to these concerts. But it never occurred to me that there was an organization called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians that I could possibly get involved with, or where I could go and play. I wasn’t at that stage yet, where I wanted to go out and see how great I was. I still figured I wasn’t really any good at playing. I’d better shape up, or pretty soon I’d ship out, and my teacher was saying, “Well, you’ll probably stick with this until you graduate from college, then you’ll probably bag it”.
Bill: So when you came back from Yale to Chicago, they were a more powerful influence then? There were more things happening with the AACM?
George: No, I don’t think so. I think the AACM was in a very transitional period. The older cats were getting older and there weren’t any younger cats coming up. When I joined the AACM there was a big generation gap, which exists now, but the majority of the AACM is now players under 28, 25, something like that, which wasn’t the case when I joined. Now the majority of the players are around 25, 26, that age, whereas when I joined the AACM in ‘71 I was the youngest player, I was 19, then the next cat was like 25, 26, and then it went up to the forties. Plus the guys that I never even saw, like Anthony Braxton, John Stubblefield, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, all these cats had disappeared.
The thing is, being in the AACM encouraged me to check out the AACM. It wasn’t a process of “I’m in the AACM because I dig the AACM and I want to be apart of it”, I was in the AACM because it was my vehicle into playing the music. That was my first contact with musicians, ever, the musicians who were involved in the AACM’s music. It’s not a situation where I came to the AACM from something else, the AACM was it. And it still is it, in most respects that I can think of.
Bill: Do you think of Chicago as some kind of spiritual/central force for a music for the last twenty years? Like Sun Ra, Muhal Richard Abrams, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, George Lewis… ? Does it have some kind of association to Art Hodes and Muggsy Spanier and Louis Armstrong? Does it have some kind of association that far back? Is there some kind of historical continuance? Is that that true?
George: No, “true” is not the word I’d use to describe that. That’s just a potential path of validity that you could follow. But “true”, I don’t know about “truth”, I don’t know about that. I mean I know I’m hedging a little bit, but the basic point that I’m making is that when you’re talking about historical movements and historical figures, you don’t talk about “truth” and “falsity”, at least I don’t. You talk about movements that you can detect. If you see a direct line of inference between Louis Armstrong and what’s happening now, and what happened later on in Chicago There are other schools in Chicago too, like this Beiderbecke thing was happening.
It’s hard to describe because I’m not of that generation of cats that’s giving this a great deal of thought. I see the connection, but I don’t think I understand it yet. Because I’m not at the stage. It takes time to be out here playing this music. Guys like Muhal can really show you about the historical thing that’s coming out in Chicago’s music. I’m learning about the history of Chicago music not from records or from reading a bunch of books. Not that I don’t want to look at them, but that’s not my primary mode for learning about the different connections in Chicago music. And seeing how different people who everyone has never heard of have contributed greatly to the music, and seeing little fillips about them in strange places. I’m finding it’s a more personal education that I’m getting, from the inside out rather than from the outside in.
I’m not ascribing any kind of cause and effect relationships at all to what exists. It’s never been about a cause-and-effect relationship with me. It’s more dynamic than a cause and-effect relationship, I don’t want to limit it to just that aspect. When you hear anybody who’s playing in any style of music, when I hear anyone who plays any instrument, there’s always something that comes out of it and I see the connections with the line of people who have been playing the trombone, from the earliest cats, from the Honoré Dutrey type of thing, and from the cats who preceded them, and the role of the whole thing. Fine, but I’m also seeing the cross-influences which became clear when Bird arrived and wiped out the scene but which have always been going on. With different guys citing like, Frankie Trumbauer as their main influence, and he wasn’t even playing their particular style of music, you know you couldn’t see the connection at first. But then you see it later, and these cross-influences are what I’m getting at, and this is the thing which is happening today – people are taking a view of the music which transcends their instrumental concept. I don’t think it’s any more about “Well, you play the trombone, so this is your thing right now, this is your line of development, you play the sax, this is your line of development… “Everybody’s drawing from everywhere at this point. So if you find out that in terms of the music that you want to play, Harry Partch suits your thing more than any trombone player you’ve heard, go with that. That would be my opinion. Listen to everybody. But go with what you hear. And then you find that you’ll become a part of the historical thing, you are a part of it. It’s not something that you learn how to be by reading about somebody or by listening to his records. You are that, just by playing.
I grew up in a family where everybody listened to music of some kind. My father didn’t sit down at the time and show me, “well this is what’s happening”, but he had his ideas about what the different styles in the music were, and he ran them down. He’d say, “Okay, this is a Count Basie style arrangement”, or “This tenor player plays like Illinois Jacquet”. And this was at a stage when I had no interest in who these guys played like or who they were or anything. I didn’t give a damn. I was four years old! It gets through, but it gets through in a subconscious way. People in my family claim that my father brainwashed me, but it took hold late. It didn’t take hold for years, because I resisted it with all my might. And then all of a sudden…
Bill: Does your father think that the kind of music you recorded today is legitimate music? Does he like it as much as when you played with Count Basie?
George: I think he finds it relatively boring, terribly academic and so on, but he doesn’t think it’s bullshit. He knows it’s real music.
Bill: Does your father play an instrument?
George: No he doesn’t. I would suspect that he always wanted to play because of his lifelong interest in music, but he’s never actually played an instrument. I’m about the only musician in my family.
Bill: Is he proud that his son plays trombone?
George: Well, he started it. He was responsible for that whole sequence of events in terms of my playing the trombone. He was always the guy who’d say, “Look, you’re not going to stop practising after I’ve paid all this money, and you’re claiming you still want to play! You have to practise for this amount of time every day”, and “I can tell when you’re not practising because your lips get big. When you practise properly your lips will remain the same size because your muscles are in shape”, he’d say all this.
I guess my parents enjoy the idea of what I’m doing. I guess they enjoy the fact that I’m not a drain on their resources. That I’m trying to make ago of it, and no matter how meagerly my scene is happening, I’m trying to do it on my own. So they’re into that, as much as they’re into the idea of the music, because they’ve always taught me this big self-reliance thing. Which is why they’d never bug me about practising or anything if I didn’t want to, they’d just say, “Well, he’s doing something else.” I had a lot of freedom to do basically what I wanted to do in most respects. So that was the upbringing type thing, which has an influence. But my mother likes the gospel type of music. She goes to church regularly, she goes to different choir things that they have. And my sister is heavily off into the current popular music of the day. But she has to have it – with us it’s always like a fanatic thing going on. Like if we want to listen to music we want to listen to it, all the time. All day, every day my record player plays. When I’m there there’s always something on. I’m not interested in what’s going on on television, and I don’t like movies. But I do like to listen to people play music.
Bill: Is there some point in this career where you begin to think that you have some kind of talent that’s worth pursuing?
George: When I came in, everybody in the AACM seemed to like what I was doing on the trombone.
Bill: Was Lester Lashley another trombone player in that period?
George: Yes, but I didn’t actually get a chance to play with him until much later. You know Lester often quits playing for a long time. He does art, he’s involved in cinematography, in visual art, in theatre, in a lot of things. He has a vast art output, he also does leather work, so any of those interests can get him away from music. And especially as it was happening in the Chicago period, nobody could make a living playing the music. There was never a big gig scene where you could work or anything like that. I had a job throughout the entire time that I was off from school playing with the AACM. I played in the Monday night big band in the Pumpkin Room until four o’clock in the morning and then I’d go to work at seven in a slag plant. Slag is a by-product of the steel-making process. The iron melts off and there’s the slag. Slag is made into all kinds of useful substances. So I was a labourer. I’d be a creative performer until four and then at seven I’d labour. Then at three-thirty I’d go back to being a creative performer.
Bill: But when you finally come to Toronto George, you’re a star. You’ve been here three times now: once with Roscoe Mitchell, once with Count Basie, and once as George Lewis. Here, you see, you’re treated with some kind of respect.
George: Yup! But everybody laughed at me back then because of my slag affiliations.
Bill: How did you get out of the slag industry?
George: Well, I decided to go back to school. I stayed out for a year, re-applied and got back in, went in and finished up. I went back as a philosophy major. I’d read Kierkegaard over the time I was a slag person. I thought Kierkegaard was out. I’d read this thing and I didn’t understand a word, so I decided that anything written in the English language that I couldn’t understand was certainly worth investigating. I’d been reading since I was three and a half years old and I’d never read anything I didn’t understand until I read Kierkegaard. I said, “What in the hell is this? “… a nineteenth century Danish philosopher! He comes after Hegel, as a critic of Hegel. And he’s involved in theology and so on. He’s written some interesting stuff. Either/or. A lot of religious works. Fear And Trembling. The Sickness Unto Death. He’s a precursor of guys like Paul Tillich. Anyway, he was kind of intriguing, and I read some Nietzsche and all that so I decided I wanted to be a philosopher.
Bill: I kind of think of the trombone as a philosophical kind of instrument. Philosophy has always seemed to me to be very inaccurate, sliding about all over the place, there aren’t any fixed positions…
George: A slush-pump science.
Bill: The trombone has always been associated, to me, with street music, folky kinds of things. In England we used to call it “push me off the pavement”. It seems that it’s very hard to bring some kind of sophistication to the trombone. It’s always been a “brrrawpbawp bup bup brrawrpbop” kind of music.
George: Instruments go through phases. Read what Mendelssohn has to say about the trombone. It was the expression of a commonly accepted idea, that trombones were not to be used except in sacred music contexts. They would bring the trombone out for the voice of God.
The earliest classical Western literature doesn’t refer to the trombone. Then the later literature uses it up to a point. In the Romantic period they start using it all the time. After Beethoven it becomes a very important instrument, and they have a whole trombone section and so on. This is what I gather from my meagre studies of it. The trombone also has an important aspect in marching bands, these street music bands. Because you can go “dyiaahhdup dit dit dit dyiaaadat”, that’s a beautiful effect, that’s very important. So everyone wanted to do that, you had to have that in your band. Saxophones couldn’t do that, that’s why they didn’t allow saxophones in the orchestra! No, that’s not true.
Bill: I’m not going to respond at all to that kind of comment.
George: I’m just bugging you about the sax.
Bill: We understand the superiority of the saxophone against the trombone, we’ve already decided that that’s a fact of nature. A slush-pump, versus an articulated instrument which has pads and mechanisms, balance and curvatures…
George: …a precursor of the analog computer!
Bill: We’re getting back to this same question again. Is there some point where you discover you have some special kind of talent?
George: I never discovered it, I just had people saying, “oh, this cat plays all right. “Go to the Pumpkin Room, sit up scared and everything, take a solo, everyone says, “Oh wow!” I said, “What’s this???” I was playing in the key of D-flat. Ornette talks about how this D-flat blues really gets to you. When I learn how to play the D-flat blues better I’ll be in charge.
This time, this was “Blues Forever”, one of Muhal’s compositions, that the band has played at least fifty million times, and that several generations of cats have played. Everyone remembers playing this, Braxton remembers playing “Blues Forever”. So it’s “D-flat blues, slow”, and I’m going oh shit, and then he points at me to take this solo. I thought, “well, maybe I should have practised my D-flat scales more, uh, carefully”. So I just went free. Well, I was out, I couldn’t believe it. And then everyone stood up and applauded. So then they asked me to stay in the band, make rehearsals. That’s how I got to know a lot of these cats personally, although I’d been checking them out, and I’d heard about different cats like Lester Bowie, I’d heard about Roscoe, heard about Muhal, heard about Jarman. I hadn’t heard about Anthony [Braxton], that was out of my zone at that time. And these cats came back about the time that I joined up in the AACM. They came back from Paris, there’s this big ballyhoo. “Jarman is coming back.” It’s like a tradition in the AACM, a whole historical thing, ten years of being together, and before that, in the fifties…
Bill: Is Sun Ra not linked into that somehow?
George: I guess what I’m describing is how I learned about the AACM’s history. He’s not linked into that. People didn’t go around talking about Sun Ra all the time, although he was involved in the stuff. People would go to hear him. There were a lot of cats who were off into a lot of the spiritual aspects of what Sun Ra was talking about in Chicago, a lot of them weren’t musicians either. There’s always been a strong Hebrew contingent in Chicago as well. There’s a whole cultural thing that you come to know because of your involvement with the music, but not all of the people involved with it are musicians, and not all the musicians are Hebrews, or people who follow any particular mode.
Anyway, in terms of knowing guys like Jarman, if you don’t know them at first, you have to come to know them. Once you are involved in a musical circle you know them on a different level, it’s like you know them, it’s not like they’re involved in a historical process. You meet them, and you become aware of their involvement in the historical process as you become aware of their involvement with you. Like when I met Sun Ra this summer, that sort of thing. I know about his influence on the AACM, but there’s nothing like meeting this cat, and seeing how everyone acted towards him and their relationship with him and seeing how that came out, that was more valuable than just “knowing” it in the abstract. When I say “abstract”, I mean by just listening to records and figuring it out. By “concrete” I mean actual experience in the historical process, which is social interaction. How Muhal acted towards Sun Ra when I saw him. What happened when Braxton showed up in Chicago for one day. Everyone’s saying, “Braxton is back, Braxton is back”, and I ‘m sitting around saying, “who is this ‘Braxton’? Who is this?” Or when Joseph and Roscoe came back and immediately took over the big band, and started bringing their compositions in and getting them played. Anyway, this is the point I want to make clear. It’s a different scene to be involved with musicians not knowing them as the musicians of the day or the people who are shaping the music. I didn’t know who was shaping the music. I just knew who I liked. And a lot of them I didn’t even know.
Bill: People don’t come consciously to originality, do they?
George: I don’t think they go to originality consciously, because that’s not a goal, it doesn’t mean anything. “Okay, I’m going to be original now”. At some point you may come across the realization that you might have something, your own little corner of the world, your own little ironic situation where you know you have something that no one else is doing quite like you. But that’s not really enough. That’s fine, but that’s just the first step. You have your own thing that you think you’re going to work out of. Fine. But you could have your own thing, and still not know anything about the dynamics of actually playing your instrument. You hear guys all the time that have their own original concept. You say, “Wow! This guy has his own original concept. It’s fantastic, but his tone is horrible” or “he can’t play this” or “he doesn’t read” or something. Just any number of things. I don’t think these things come about in a logical order. It all happens at different times. I think also that everybody I’ve heard from Chicago has their own original style of playing. Whether certain large groups of people have taken up their cause or not, that’s something else again. But I hear lots of cats in Chicago right now who amaze me. And I think I put them on the same level as the cats who are currently being written about and are getting a lot of press time. That’s true of every musician. I think that people tend to put people who have become more famous up and they become images, you know? And I’ve always tried to get past the image aspect of everyone who’s involved in it.
Bill: How did you stop being a local musicianß? How did you get to play outside of Chicago?
George: People kept asking me to play with them. All different kinds of people. I’d play with everybody. Anybody who asked me, I figured that if I had the time and I always had the time, I haven’t been working a great deal. So if a Latin band asked me to play a gig with them, I’d play a gig with them. The AACM had some gigs in Mississippi, I played with them. And whatever type of requirement that they had for their music, I was usually capable of running it down. If they had heavy chart reading, I was into that. If they had freedom or whatever, I was into that. If they had a particular kind of rhythmic style I was either into it or I could learn it within a few minutes, or do a creditable enough imitation of it to make the gig. If it was a music with which I had absolutely no familiarity… nobody ever asked me to play a Greek wedding or something.
Bill: There’s been a big rush for you out of Chicago in the last year and a half. It’s been Michigan, Toronto, New York, Europe, America…
George: But with all different people. That’s the thing, the diversity of contexts that people have seen my stuff in. Although I seem to have become known right now for playing this “new music” that everyone is talking about, or that’s currently being rapped about in some papers. When I first came here I came with Roscoe, I’ve been here with Basie’s band and I’ve been here with my own thing as we were talking about. A lot of different situations playing different types of music in different contexts. It’s not so much people knowing about you as musicians. The musicians invite you to participate because they know you can do what they’re doing. Braxton I’m sure wouldn’t have asked me to play on his thing (“Creative Orchestra Music 1976” on Arista) if they hadn’t told him what was happening. Because there’s big chart reading and some solos. So they say, “yeah, you should get this cat because he can also read charts” in addition to play a little bit. So whatever the requirement is, if you can deal it you have a better chance for getting a lot of gigs. So that means your musicianship has to be at least up enough so that you can play in a context which you’re not practising every day and with which you’re not entirely familiar. And go in there and become familiar with it right off and deal it. Which is what these studio cats amaze me at, their ability to do that. I’d really like to find out more about the requirements of doing that, whether I could meet those requirements. In terms of serious strict attention to what’s happening with a page of music. I mean I’m good, but it’s not... I mean I’ve seen guys just go on stage: “okay let’s go on this” (snap!) nothing. Just incredible. Then I hear, “Oh, they’re not the top players! These cats are the really bad cats!
Bill: Do you feel privileged in being able to play exactly what you have inside of you out to a very open public?
George: I can’t believe it. Especially when I hear about… I came in on the tail end of what these cats have been experiencing for like fifteen or twenty years. When I came in, nobody was listening to the music at all, it was completely out, the AACM was doing concerts and very few people would come and so on. That’s still true in Chicago but the New York phenomenon of the AACM didn’t exist; and I’ve seen the music rise to a position where there are more records coming out now than ever.
I’m not saying there’s some big amount of dough in this or that people are getting what they really deserve for their artistic output. I don’t even want to give the impression that that’s what’s happening. I think it was Threadgill who pointed out to me that something like ninety per cent of all the national endowment money in the States goes to classical music, which only about three per cent of the people listen to. Which is also not the American music. You can get five or ten times the amount of money in the States for a classical group than for a jazz group.
Now the music scene is on a different level, so it’s talking about a redistribution of the wealth. There’s always been a situation where certain musics have been downgraded and other musics have been upgraded. This is great, this sucks. This is real, this is fake. Like jazz is – “you know how to improvise, that’s faking”. That means, playing the real notes versus the fake notes you’re just making up out of your head. Aside from the fact that that’s a terrible thing to call your own music, a bunch of fakery. The psychological consequences of that must be tremendous.
Bill: Recently you’ve been coming to some attention with Anthony Braxton. Do you think that’s part of your overall concept, that you’re still playing with a Chicago musician? Is it happening by accident, or did you arrive at this situation logically?
George: I think it’s a natural consequence of what happens when you’re around people who are involved in a particular sphere of the music. If you affirm that line of development, then your development follows those lines. And what happens to you comes out of your involvement in the area. I don’t think you come out of the blue and start playing with anybody in the Chicago school, that’s not to say you’re not involved in something else. I had Braxton describe to me his experience playing with Ken Chaney’s band in Chicago, and then I described to him my experience playing with Ken Chaney’s band five or six years later. And the music had changed and different cats were playing and so on. Or playing in Morris Ellis’ band. And that sort of thing enables you to jump in on that set without coming out of nowhere, because you can’t come out of nowhere into a situation. It arises as a product of what you’ve been doing before. So I see whatever I’ve been doing with any Chicago music as a natural outgrowth of what I’ve been doing all along.
Bill: Do you feel that way about what you’ve been doing here in Toronto this weekend, a solo concert?
Bill: This is your first solo concert. Was it an alarming experience for you?
George: It’s not my preferred medium. For one thing, it takes a lot of chops.
Bill: Have you ever made audiences laugh like that before? Made them that happy?
George: Oh, audiences always laugh when I play. People are always cracking up. Well, I like to make a joke every now and then. There’s no reason why it can’t be funny. I mean, you listen to Lester Bowie, now there’s a joking cat. He doesn’t say a word, and he’s funny. But there’s humour in all the AACM stuff. I’ve never seen any big deal in doing something funny. When I play a concert with Douglas Ewart in Chicago, we get involved in theatrical stuff. He’d be playing little instruments, which I’ve never been able to get into. For some reason I’ve never felt comfortable with them. But I had a set of things that I would play, and Douglas had this whole setup of little instruments, and we’d do a whole play or something. Acting is not my thing, I don’t think so, but we’d do a play with music. And that’s the way it would go down. Douglas would say, okay, would I give a concert with him today? Very seldom was it an austere kind of thing where people say, “oh my”, very closely examining and “don’t laugh, shut up”…
Bill: I don’t agree that acting’s not your thing. I still think that every trombone player of merit since J.J. Johnson that I’ve seen was an actor. The first one after J.J. that made any kind of impression was Roswell Rudd and he had a bent instrument just to prove that he was an actor. It’s a very dramatic instrument, trombone.
George: J.J. Johnson. Let me say something about him because I think he’s a far-out cat. For me he’s the cat who shows the direction that the instrument can really take if you really think. Because he thought. And that’s the thing that really wipes me out about him, that he’s a thinking guy – he had to think about how to play that fast. I’m seeing now the approach he had to take to think about the possibilities of playing quickly on the trombone, getting over the horn in a big hurry, because I had to go through the same process and lots of musicians have described to me the processes they used by which they jump over a certain hurdle to get to the next one. Through a very logical process of deduction. It’s very cold and analytical.
All music makes me feel the same way. I have to confess that. I’m sorry to say this, you may think this is wrong, everyone I tell this to says “you’re crazy!” But all music, if it makes me feel something, if I like it, it makes me feel the same way. And I get the same feeling from all music. I don’t mean to say that I get the same content, or emotional content, from all music. I’m saying that the basic feeling I get when I enjoy a piece of music never changes and I know the feeling and I’ve come to really love it. It’s not the same thing as saying that all music is the same, because it’s not. I’m talking about a specific feeling that comes over me when I’m listening to a piece of music that I’m really enjoying, that I really dig. It has nothing to do with anything else beyond that.
It takes a long time to make these kinds of things clear, but it’s better to make them clear than to gloss over them, as I see in a lot of situations.
Now J.J. Johnson has been a major stylistic influence on everybody that plays the trombone. He wasn’t everybody’s favourite player, that’s a different thing. But everybody who has played it has had to deal with structural aspects of what this cat is playing. Today as well as in the past. Because of what he showed is possible on the instrument. That’s all you need to show, possibilities.
But when I think about the sort of thing I’m looking for in my playing, I think about Johnny Griffin’s playing, or Coltrane’s playing, in terms of that driving sort of rhythm that I want to achieve. The sort of thing which pushes and has a certain intensity, then it backs off for a while, then it increases with renewed force, that sort of thing, which jumps, seemingly without regard for lines and bars and chords and produces layers of rhythm besides the basic one, layers that don’t even get into these transcriptions of solos that appear in magazines. Because they don’t understand that aspect of the music which is basically the drum aspect. Where a rhythm is played on two drums, one is high and one is low, it’s ba-boo-bup, is different from boopbup-boop, even though they’re notated the same. That’s the thing that these formularizers of jazz music tended to wipe out. People who tended to put jazz into a particular kind of, “well, this is the line of development” or, “this is what you must do and if you don’t conform to this line of development… “. It’s not like an interrogation – you listen to what somebody’s line of development is, then fit it into the total picture. Because history is not determined by the past. The past is a component of what’s happening now, but it’s not unalterable. You’re here now, you can alter what you want to do. I can stop playing this bullshit. I feel I have the freedom intellectually if not emotionally. I can say okay, no more of this new music scene, I’m going to go off and join the Chicago symphony. People do that and they don’t have any qualms about it. That’s not to say that the symphony is great and that playing this music is absurd, that’s to say that you have that power of altering your destiny. It’s not like you’re determined by your background, and you’re going to play this instrument at this time, you’re going to listen to these cats. Sure, you’ll do all that. But the number of ways you can do; fascinating.
When I hear about most guys’ development I’m always amazed because they came from a point at which they aren’t even listening to the music. Like I listened to Braxton talk about how he was already listening to Ornette in grade school, and that’s fine, because he was from an earlier period of time and it didn’t take long, it only took five years. But people in my generation weren’t listening to Ornette. At least the people that I knew weren’t listening to Ornette. I knew blacks as well as whites. When I came back from the white thing, out of school, I was back on the block with the cats – they weren’t listening to Ornette either. They were off into the popular AM theme of the day… (end of first tape)
Afternoon of November 22, 1976:
George: We were talking about whether people were listening to this new music, or whatever it is. I’ve never been in a community where that was happening to any great extent, until I got involved with the AACM people. We were talking about Braxton telling about when he was a kid in grade school they were trading ideas about Ornette, saying “Ornette’s great” “Ornette sucks”, and so on.
I’d been listening to Braxton’s music for a long time, since college. That record he did, “Three Compositions of New Jazz”, that got me off of Coltrane. Before that, I had every Coltrane record, I was saying, well, this is where it’s at right now, this is where it’s going to be, Coltrane’s the greatest ever and so on and so forth. So I was doing that, and someone gave me this record. So I listened to it – “hmm, it’s all right” – I got hooked on this record. I couldn’t stop listening to this record, I listened to it every day for like a year. It was just very good. I had always known that this type of music existed, but I was never interested in it until I got to that point. It was a natural outgrowth of the AACM music that was happening all along. It’s just that that got to me more than most of the AACM music. It got to me on an immediate emotional level that most of the records didn’t. Even though I like the records, I think they’re great, that one in particular really hit me on an emotional level.
Bill: Is Braxton your first experience of travelling outside of Chicago with other players and going to different parts of the planet?
George: The first time I went to Europe was with Braxton, but the first time I went overseas was with Basie, going to Japan. But all that’s happened in the past year, since I left my insurance job.
Bill: Was that a peculiar experience, touring with Basie? I can’t really associate you with that kind of terminology, in the trombone section of the Basie band.
George: Actually, it wasn’t very peculiar. Because I certainly had training for it, and I’d played a lot of the arrangements in other bands. Or at least something akin to the arrangements, because you know how people get arrangements for bands, they take them off records. In fact we played with a band in Japan that had done exactly that. I sat in with this band, and I was playing my own part. I’m sitting up there reading this part: it’s mine. This cat copied it off a record. So that type of music is not unfamiliar to me at all. It wouldn’t be for any AACM members who’d been listening. That’s the thing about the AACM, it’s not as if you were ordered, but it was considered to be very silly if you didn’t check out all the different types of music that you possibly could. That’s why I said earlier that all music that I like affects me in a very similar way.
Bill: Are you aware of Basie’s historical order, like Lester Young, Wardell Gray, Buck Clayton, all of those famous players that came out of the Basie band in the thirties and forties?
George: That was how I started listening to Jazz music, listening to Lester Young. Before that I wasn’t interested in that at all. By accident I got this record by Lester Young, “The President plays with Oscar Peterson”. I played it a lot, tried to play some of the solos, that was when I decided I should really start I trying to practise more. I was about twelve. He’d go “dadadadaduhduh-daduhdaduhduh, duhduhduh-dadaditdada “. I said okay, that doesn’t sound too hard – “splrrp “. Of course it was ridiculous.
It was a two-month hitch with Basie. I did the big replacement for Curtis Fuller. The band had a very good trombone section. It was a big learning thing for me, these cats are so tight. You play the same music every day, so you know what the whole program is from start to finish, for the most part. He always throws in a couple of ringers, but usually it’s the same thing every day. The major thing I liked about being in that band was the opportunity to jump on music in a formal chart-reading sense where you’re concerned with dynamics and attacks and shadings and blend and balance and all these sorts of things. They’d do that to the max, like when they’d do a release, or they have a certain way of phrasing a line, they hit with that, and that’s all there is to it. Their interpretations of charts. I had some battles with cats over interpretations of a chart, but it’s silly for you to battle with those cats because they’ve been playing those charts, so I had to get with their interpretation: even though it was my solo. You have to get with what they say about it. That’s fine. I got to play solos. There were two solo chairs, the third chair that I was playing, and AI Grey. Mel Wanzo was playing lead, and Bill Hughes was playing bass. All three of those cats showed me different parts of what’s happening with being a trombone player in a band of that kind. A lot of cats were very helpful in terms of showing me different things, not so much just about music as about, just existence. The existence of a person on the road. I learned a little bit about what sorts of things are important to those people, the concerns of the Basie band, memories. John Duke the bass player, he’s always a very friendly, open guy. He was one of the oldest cats in the band and I was the youngest, as usual. And there were well-known cats, Danny Turner plays in that band, he’s a very good player; Jimmy Forrest played in the band – Freddy Green. These cats sort of thought I was strange, but I wasn’t obnoxious or anything, so I think they enjoyed having me for the time I was there. It was important, it really was.
Plus the thing of meeting and being able to talk with Basie. He’s freaky, I began to see why he’s such a great leader, how this cat can assemble a band, year after year and do different things. Now I don’t know anything about any sort of stories that anyone has heard about what this cat has been doing, none of that means anything to me. I was never involved in it, that’s the baby of these cats who have been on the scene for years and know all the stories. What I saw in Basie was a real willingness to listen to what people were doing. Like he would hear me playing the piano, he’d say, “Well, I know you don’t really know how to play the piano, but you sound good. I don’t know what it is you‘re playing but… you mean you get enjoyment from playing that style of… ?” I said yeah, it makes me feel relaxed. He said, “Well… yeah, I can understand that.” And he sat down and listened. I started to get up, I thought he wanted to do some practising. “Oh, no no, sit down “. I played about a minute, then I got up, you know I couldn’t sit there and play in front of this cat, I don’t even know how to play the piano. But listening to him, night after night, listening to the various terms he would use, how he would introduce a simple blues thing with an incredibly complicated progression, how he would move the band with a note or two. And how when he got on the stage everybody shaped up. There was grumbling and all that, but when he got on stage, music time, no more arguing. Music time.
Bill: You don’t feel inclined to periodize music anyway, do you? A lot of people who listen to the music, and a lot of people who play it tend to set everything out in patterns like this is Jelly Roll Morton, Armstrong, Bechet, this is EIlington, Lunceford, Calloway, this is Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, like a historical process. Music is an open thing for you.
George: I’m interested in seeing influence and confluence but I’m not interested in periodization if that means that if something comes in that doesn’t fit with your idea of a period then you just ignore it. I’ve seen too many instances where you try to fit people into boxes and they just don’t fit. Not into neat little categories. So I try to avoid categories as much as possible. Some generalizations are really unavoidable though when you’re considering a music that has evolved over just about a hundred years when you consider the precursors of ragtime music and all this sort of thing. The slave thing, what was happening with the music that these cats had going. All that is a development that leads up to this. It’s not like, “Here jazz starts, today”.
Bill: Is travelling with Braxton similar to travelling with Basie?
George: No, the big band scene means travelling by bus. You’re riding on a bus with a whole group of cats. That’s where I learned about the inter-personal dynamics of bus travel. In other words, everyone had their own seat on the bus. It’s a sacred entity, don’t sit in someone else’s seat. I had seat number 27, that’s right in the back, behind me off to my right sat Danny Turner, behind me sat Bill Caffie the singer, behind him sat John Duke, next to him sat Freddie Green, Basie sat up at the front, but he didn’t sit in the front seat, he sat in the third seat or something like that. You had the same seat on the bus every time, plus you had the space directly above your seat for your luggage, your garment bag and your suits and all this kind of stuff. Because there’s so little privacy on the road, people value just that little bit that they do have.
Whereas with a small group it’s a different kind of thing. The Braxton band is more closely knit, naturally, and not only because it’s a smaller organization but because Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul have been playing together for a long time. And the number of things they know about each other from having played together that long, and having been personal friends – they know each other’s wives – is absolutely staggering. Sometimes I still have this feeling: “Well, maybe I should leave the stage”, because at times if my stuff falls down they just take it, they say, “Well, he’ll come back”, because they’ve been playing and they know. They know something about each other’s capabilities, and they know how best to utilize them. And they’re all super players, I really enjoy it. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but I haven’t found its equivalent in anything I’ve been doing before. Playing with this band allows me to get a full measure of learning about collective improvisation, solos, construction of solos, compositions. It’s not like… the Basie band has a book with a thousand tunes, they call number 427, you take it out, play it and put it back. But Braxton does it with some tunes, and most of them are kind of challenging. I had to practise the tunes for a long time, or at least for an extended period so I could get them down, it takes time. But even then that’s only the surface part of it, and after about a month of the surface I discovered what was really happening, how far I really had to go to learn the open improvisations that they’re doing, how to function in the context of Braxton’s written music. And it’s given me a chance to try my own written music out, that’s one of the things I like most about it, it gives me a chance to do my written music with people who are really up on it, who can play it technically, and who have the emotional commitment to it as well, which is something I didn’t find as much in Chicago although I did find players able to do it.
Bill: I remember that when we first met a year or so ago you weren’t actually aware of lots of other trombone players except for people like Joseph Bowie. Were you surprised to discover Albert Mangelsdorff, Gunter Christmann, Radu Malfatti, all these trombone players from different places who are at a very high stage of development?
George: I’ve never been a person to go out and buy all the records of people I don’t know anything about. And these people are never talked about in any circles I’m ever in. Braxton was really the person that got me listening to these guys because he had been going out, and knew all these cats, had heard them and so on. I don’t know if he thinks they’re the greatest or whatever, but he used to say well, you should at least listen to them, because they’re out there playing. So I decided to go out and listen to them and, well… it’s nice.
I find that what these guys seem to be investigating the most is getting new timbral things out of the trombone. That’s what I’m learning the most from these cats. Mangelsdorff has developed what he’s doing, with his chord-progression thing up to a very high level. He played opposite us once in Europe. When I heard this guy play, it was amazing. It was even more amazing to hear him practise this for a minute. Then in Berlin I heard Christmann play. It’s not that you haven’t heard it before, it’s that you hear it and you say, “hmm, what’s that?” and then you listen and you say, “oh I see, that’s what it is”. It’s just that nowhere have you thought how to do that, you listen to the cats and say, “hmm, I never thought of that”. Then you go and see what it is this guy is doing. It doesn’t take long, because there’s only a finite number of variables. So you just investigate all the different variables and come up with what the cat is doing, or something like what the cat is doing. And Paul Rutherford, he’s the guy that really interests me. Aside from being a very nice cat, as all these cats are, he’s not using a developmental thing in his playing, the thing of a melodic or harmonic or timbral development, I don’t see that. But he’s investigating the use of all different kinds of mutes, he’s using a lot of them. I don’t think he’s using as many as I am, but he’s using them. He’s using them in non-traditional ways, he’s using the things you can do when you hit the trombone, strike the bell. A lot of these things evolved from these classical cats like Vinko Globokar, with using reeds and so forth.
It just looks like there are a lot of trombone players right now because there were so few before, but there are still only a very small group of cats that are dealing this. We’re talking about maybe six or seven, maybe ten cats at the most that I know about that are actually dealing it, but there are hundreds of saxophone players, so it’s not like there’s a big trombone explosion and everybody’s going out and buying one, it’s not on that level yet. But I think that the reason that more people are investigating it and it’s getting more of a play, is that so many saxophone players sound alike right now. Coltrane is such a major influence on so many cats and, well, people are getting tired of hearing cats sound like Coltrane. I know, because I wanted to sound like Coltrane – kind of a tough deal when you’re playing trombone. So I was going to switch to the saxophone.
My feeling is that the reason people want to sound like anybody is that they feel good listening to this cat, and then when they start playing this cat’s thing it’s like they’re this cat for a minute, they’re Coltrane for a second. And they borrow some of his magic, it’s like the African thing where you put on the lion’s skin and you become the lion, the attributes of the lion come to you.
That’s one of the reasons why people are investigating the trombone. It has to go back to when these cats were young, though. Like Mangelsdorff hasn’t just started.
Bill: He was a bebop player for a long time. He even played dixieland music.
George: And he told me what he was doing before that. He used to play guitar, also. I said, “What?” And Christmann, he’s not a young cat, Rutherford isn’t either, at least they’re not my age. They’ve been coming along and coming along and coming along and right in this period where with the saxophone you either sound like Coltrane or you can’t get a gig. The trombone cats have never been encumbered by having to sound like Coltrane or Charlie Parker, so a whole new avenue opened. And they can go and take from the old cats, and make up stuff of their own if they think it’s happening, too. Without the need for people to compare them with some guy. Even a guy like Roswell Rudd, he’s an important cat in the music, that’s not to say I thought he was the greatest.
Bill: He was very traditional, wasn’t he? Even though he was playing in another situation he was actually almost like a New Orleans-style tailgate trombone player. Even though he was involved with Albert Ayler, Marion Brown…
George: Yes, but it’s hard to put him into that. The best thing I ever heard him play was a solo he did with Archie Shepp live in San Francisco, where he does this long solo, it’s very well-constructed, not just a technical thing, it’s like he’s playing music, that’s what wiped me out about that, but not enough to try to sound like him, I’m just not interested in that. But in terms of what he’s doing, I dig it, and that’s as far as it went with him. But even he didn’t wipe out the scene like Coltrane wiped out the sax scene in general, and I don’t think anybody’s going to wipe out the scene like that again.
Bill: You think the days of the startling genius on the pedestal are over?
George: Oh no, no. But the nature of the startling genius is going to change. It’s not going to be like oh, here’s this guy playing alto… who did Braxton listen to on the contrabass clarinet? This is why it’s getting to the conceptual artist stage. The thing I’m seeing about all the different cats that are playing today is that in order to play their music you have to patch into their conception. What they want out of their music, like reading Leo’s [Smith] rhythm book. It’s very exact what he is doing but you must patch into his conception in order to play it. The same with any of these cats’ music. The music is not standardized the way conventional Western notation is now. The newer forms, the extensions of it, are becoming conceptual again. In other words, it’s the conception of the moment: “okay, this is a graphic page, play it like this” – all right. But that’s not standardized, the player’s input is too great for it ever to become a standardized thing. Like when Braxton showed me these pages that he had going, he’d say, “okay, this is the way this music is played.” Boom!, you play it like that. So I’d listen to him, I’d have it. It wasn’t something that you could read like one two three four . Braxton would say, “this is it”, and you played it like that. Then when he showed you another composition in the same vein, that was his system, so you’d think back to his system, you’d play it like that and you’d be right again. Not because it was standardized but because it was standardized for him in a conceptual way. Maybe I’m not explaining that too well…
Bill: Do you feel that you have some special way of dealing with that yourself? You just did this thing with three trombones… a concept where you think your music is going to become that recognizable too?
George: Well, if it keeps getting out I think so, if I can avoid getting wiped out by trying to copy someone. I think my stuff has a little originality. A lot of it needs work. The piece is not perfect but the thing I’m trying to get to is to get more of my written music performed so that I can hear it so I can continue to advance in writing it, and listen to more notated music to find out what sort of interfaces between composed and improvised music are possible. How far you can go in welding the two together, which is the plan in the three trombone piece. Improvised music, composed music, coming together. (end of first side of the second tape)
Bill: My final question is: How important do you feel Muhal Richard Abrams has been to you and to the AACM in general?
George: I know that every interview with every cat I’ve read about who has been involved in this has rapped about Muhal, and how great he is and so on. I agree. But in terms of me personally, I’d say, crucial, not just important or interesting or any of those things. He was the first guy that I met in the AACM. Learning about attitudes to deal with myself, learning about philosophy, he was the person who convinced me to go back to school and study philosophy because of his interest in philosophies of all different kinds. He was the person who encouraged me to go out and study other forms of music of whatever kind, and he had some of it that he could let me listen to. I consider he and his family to be my friends, as well as he being my musical mentor in many ways. And my parents credit him with saving my life! They thought that I was really out of it, but that being around this cat’s influence really got me straightened out. From being a very uncentered, undirected sort of kid, to trying to grow up a little bit. So that’s like a father-figure in a sense, I saw him as being that then, it’s not that way now. It’s like I can go and play on a set with Muhal. He’s always treated me as if I was his musical equal, which is absurd. He’s always treated me as if we were collaborating on music - “oh, we’re just collaborating! – actually, I’m just listening, he’s doing all the talking. You can collaborate in silence, I guess that’s possible too. And I’ve seen how he’s affected a whole generation of newer AACM members my age and younger, and how he’s still trying to do a lot of things he was doing back then in the earlier days of the AACM, in terms of bringing younger players to the fore. He’d never put out a set of dogmas that you had to follow. Or if he did, I never listened to them anyway, I don’t think he did, the point is that he would show you, “I’m doing this now… “ He was the first person who gave me any lessons in theory that I could understand and relate to. In music theory, in composition. I credit him with anything I know about composition, as based upon things that he showed me. Anything. In the class, giving a lecture on composition, he’d say, “well, I’m doing this right now”, this is the approach that I’m using or these are the approaches that I’m using, “but I haven’t investigated this approach, I think it might be nice, what do you think about this?… okay, bring back an exercise based on this concept”. And you’d come back with it, he’d look at it, sometimes we’d play it, go over it on the board. He’s the person that got me into transcribing solos seriously. He’d transcribe solos like piano things and Bird things by writing, but usually he’d just transcribe them by ear to the piano. I think that’s a very good method for learning, and he’s very quick at it, that’s one of the major ways by which he has learned about music and that’s why he values it so highly.
He was the only teacher I could ever really relate to in terms of him actually teaching me something which I thought was useful in a field that I was passionately interested in. I was passively interested in philosophy, but none of the teachers I had in philosophy could really stack up with Muhal. If I had had Muhal in philosophy I might have been a philosopher. Well, he’s just a hell of a guy, that’s my opinion. Maybe that boils down to the same thing everyone else has said about this cat. Muhal, to me, is someone that I came to knowing nothing about, knowing practically nothing about the AACM, knowing nothing about the entire Chicago music scene except having been to three AACM concerts. I hadn’t even been to a nightclub before I played with these cats at the Pumpkin Room for the first time. I’d never been inside a nightclub, I didn’t know what it was like. My parents had to go to make sure I was all right – “he’s going to a nightclub!” You know, you’re not allowed in nightclubs until you’re 21.
Braxton said he tried to sneak in to see Coltrane one night. They wouldn’t let him in, he cried, so Coltrane and the cats got him in. Once I went to see Miles on a Sunday. You never play Sunday matinees, I didn’t know that though. So I went to see him at the Plugged Nickel. Of course he didn’t play, I was heartbroken, I really wanted to see this cat, it was my first experience. But you couldn’t get into a nightclub. And there’s no way I was going to sneak in!
George Lewis on Sackville:
with the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet
(Sackville SKCD2-2009 also featuring Muhal Richard Abrams & Spencer Barefield.
The Solo Trombone Record
Available from Sackville Recordings, Box 1002, Station O, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4A 2N4 (Fax 416-465-9093)
George E. Lewis
A Power Stronger Than Itself The AACM and American Experimental Music
“An important book… Mr. Lewis narrates [the AACM’s] development with exacting context and incisive analysis.… Because the book includes biographical portraits of so many participating musicians, it’s a swift, engrossing read.”– New York Times
728 pages, 4 colour plates, 71 halftones 6 x 9 © 2008
Cloth $35.00 - ISBN: 9780226476957 Published May 2008
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