Marty Ehrlich: The Long View

by Troy Collins


The Julius Hemphill Sextet (clockwise from bottom): Julius Hemphill; Marty Ehrlich; Kenny Berger; Andrew White; Carl Grubbs; James Carter                                                                        © 1990 Steve Berman


Marty Ehrlich has spent over 40 years at the center of New York’s creative improvised music scene. His musical career began in St. Louis, Missouri, performing and recording with the Human Arts Ensemble in the early 1970s while still in high school, before attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, under the tutelage of George Russell, Jaki Byard, Gunther Schuller, and Joseph Allard. Since arriving in New York after graduating in 1977, the woodwind multi-instrumentalist has recorded over thirty albums worth of his compositions for a variety of ensembles, including his own Dark Woods Ensemble, Traveler’s Tales Quartet, Rites Quartet, Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble, and numerous other collaborative groups.

Blessed with an exceedingly lyrical tone and sense of phrasing, Ehrlich has performed, toured, and recorded with a long list of luminaries, including but not limited to, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and John Carter, as well as collaborating with contemporaries like Ray Anderson, Bobby Previte, and John Zorn. He has also performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony, the New York City Opera, and the Jose Limón and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance companies.

In addition to working extensively with Julius Hemphill – becoming musical director of Hemphill’s Sextet after his passing in 1996 – Ehrlich is chief researcher for the Julius Hemphill Archive at NYU, where he continues his work presenting and preserving Hemphill’s music. I interviewed Ehrlich in the winter of 2021, prior to the release of The Boye’ Multi-National Crusade For Harmony, the 7-CD collection he curated for New World. The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound’s Ehrlich-conducted recording of Abrams’ final album-length composition, Soundpath, had been recently issued on Clean Feed.

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Troy Collins: As the curator of the new Julius Hemphill box set, The Boye’ Multi-National Crusade For Harmony, you begin your liner notes with a quote from Hemphill about the tradition, “Well, you often hear people nowadays talking about the tradition, tradition, tradition. But they have tunnel vision in this tradition. Because tradition in African-American music is wide as all outdoors.”

This quote reminds me of the first time I heard your music. When I was in my early-20s (back in the pre-internet days, when researching obscure records required serious commitment), it was relatively easy to find recordings by long-established jazz legends, but not by living jazz musicians working on the cutting edge. A fateful trip to an independent local record store yielded a trio of albums I still have to this day: Sun Ra’s My Brother The Wind, Part II, Allen Lowe’s Mental Strain at Dawn, and ... Falling Man, your duo with bassist Anthony Cox. I was familiar with artists like Zorn, Berne, and Frisell, but Falling Man was the first album I heard by a living artist that bridged new music with “the tradition,” putting the puzzle pieces together for me at a key time in my early listening development.

That said, I’m curious if there was a pivotal recording or concert that galvanized your decision to pursue creative music as a career.

Marty Ehrlich: The question Julius poses, and how “pieces come together” is a central one for me. It is at the core of things. In 2002 in my liner notes to The Long View I wrote about my work with painter Oliver Jackson and of the music I had composed and realized on this large ensemble recording, saying “My compulsion is to give expression to the place where beauties that should not be forgotten, and beauties that have yet to be imagined, collide, coexist, and transform. It is in this place that my artistic heart resides, and it is in this radical spirit that Oliver’s work has spoken to me over the years.”

In truth, what Julius is saying (and there is one sentence of his quote I do not include, “I don’t want to be stuck in the same walls of harmony”) is not that he has some other language or musical form he is insisting on. He knows that he works from the space I have awkwardly tried to name above, and he doesn’t want anyone, including you or me, telling him what he can and can’t use. Because he uses a lot of it, and he hears it his own way, and he hears music that seems fully unique to his own ideas as well, and music that finds its own form and syntax as it is heard.

As to a pivotal recording or concert, that shaped or influenced me, that is hard to know. Things did not happen in an orderly sequence. There were many things that were new and challenging, and there were steps forward and back. I can’t easily reduce it to a clear narrative. Though I have been known to talk on.

How about this, a brief slice of history, all told with a smile and an awareness that all autobiography is at least a part-truth. I start on clarinet when I am seven or so, living at that time in Louisville, KY. In Louisville, my mom finds a teacher, who taught in a room over a drugstore. He led a swing band, and he had a silver lame’ tuxedo hanging on a hook on the wall, pressed and ready to wear for the evening gig. In that first lesson he told me that I would need to learn to play saxophone and flute as well to make it in the music business. He wrote out the song “Deep Purple” for me. He proved to be prescient. At least about the three instruments, less about “Deep Purple,” and maybe it’s not too late to get my silver lame’ tuxedo. (Julius Hemphill wore one years later for his “Roi Boye and the Gotham Minstrels” project.) Okay, bad idea.

My family moves to St. Louis, and more specifically University City, MO, in 1966, when I’m eleven or so. I add on saxophone sometime in Junior High School and join what was called at that time The Stage Band of the Junior High. I vividly remember the first concert and standing up to do my first improvised solo in front of an audience and being scared to death. I don’t think it went well, but I remember sitting back in my chair really wanting to do it again.

TC: Did you discover anything about Hemphill’s music during the process of curating The Boye’ Multi-National Crusade For Harmony that surprised you, despite your long association with him?

ME: I have done an extensive amount of scholarly writing on the Julius Hemphill Archive. It is in three places. In completing the archival scholarship, I have written a 240-page annotated document of all it contains. My document starts with a 15-page introduction that explains the contexts of Hemphill’s work as I see it. I expand on these thoughts in my essay contained in The Boye’ Multi-National Crusade for Harmony box set release on New World. That essay is available in the box set booklet, and also as a download at the New World website. And finally, I have written individual introductions for folios of Hemphill compositions being published by Subito Music Corporation. I speak directly to many of your questions in these documents.

And I should not be too humble, which I probably am not anyway. The Marty Ehrlich Papers were taken by NYU Fales library a few years before this Hemphill work. I never thought about having an archive, but I am proud to have one. Someday I need to catalog it like Julius’, but I am still young. The people at the Fales have been wonderful in extending their enthusiasms. Archives begin to speak to each other, across time and institutions. I am all for artists preserving their legacies as best they can.

The work of digitizing all these recordings and videos, so they could be heard and seen, and then connecting them with the compositional scores and parts, was very moving. The focus and the growth, the flowering of a connected conception became fully clear. The long lines, the Long View if I may, is very moving. As I write in my conclusion, it is a rich and generous endeavor Julius took on and realized.

What amazed me was how much more music Hemphill composed than was generally known, and surely commercially recorded in his lifetime. A big part of my work was that of making a full accounting of all we can tell from the scores, parts, and audio and visual recordings. Julius doesn’t announce song titles during live recordings, and few cassette or tape boxes had listings, so there was little help there. I think that I was able to connect 40 or so “new” compositions with live performances, going back and forth between music notation and listening. Throughout this process, I am bothering many colleagues for their memories, which sometimes bore fruit, sometimes not. My own memories were often wrong, and I think of myself as being pretty on it in that department. Life comes at you with many facets, and we are looking at things 50 years ago.

We also were able to greatly expand the video representation of Julius’ early theatrical work with Malinke Elliott and others, where much of this music was used. In general, you see Julius get very inspired by projects. His earliest works for the Real New York Saxophone Quartet, soon to be the World Saxophone Quartet, are big pieces, unique imaginative worlds, complex. As WSQ grows as a virtuosic and charged improvisational ensemble in performance, Julius moves more toward works that point clearly to improvisational imperatives, often featuring his horn or one of his colleagues. These early works I mention, some of which the JH Saxophone Sextet recorded posthumously on At Dr. Kings Table (1997), stand on their own, full of rapid harmonic movement. The idea of musical “style” doesn’t help in describing them. But they point to the range of endeavor Julius will get to ten years down the road, writing for all types of different contexts, including his two large scale inter-disciplinary works, Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, and The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Promised Land. As well as his Big Band, his Sextet, and a growing number of through-composed works for chamber music contexts.

The legacy of the collective work done by Julius, Oliver, David, and Hamiet with WSQ is its own musical study. WSQ recorded 30 Hemphill compositions during his tenure, but there are another 25 or so more. Over time, it is a goal to have the majority of these works available in score and parts for performance and study, through his publisher Subito Music Corporation.

TC: In the liner notes for The Boye’ Multi-National Crusade For Harmony you mention this anecdote:

“In the winter of 1976/77 I go down to New York from Boston to hear Julius in concert with trumpeter Lester Bowie, and Sun Percussionist Famoudou Don Moyé. The concert is presented by composer Arthur Custer, whom Julius had befriended in St. Louis, and is held in a small theatre at the old Brooklyn Academy of Music. I connect up with saxophonist Tim Berne, walking over from his nearby loft/residence, a former second floor office space in downtown Brooklyn, where Julius often rehearsed. Tim and I are about the only audience.”

I have unfortunately found myself in similar situations when attending creative improvised music concerts. The damning aspect of this, of course, is the revelation that it is not economically sustainable to continue performing for free, for friends and family, especially in light of often small remunerations from limited record sales. I’m curious what this phenomenon is like when viewed from the stage, as a performer?

ME: I would not want to represent that particular concert in a tragic light. I think it was poorly advertised, if much at all, sort of a one-off event without other context by Arthur Custer. Probably Arthur welcomed the chance to hear some of Julius’ music, whom he had much admired in St. Louis.

To answer for myself, it is a complex question. Each artist makes their own peace with things. Or tries to. What does it means to play to few here (usually America), many there (usually Europe).

Yes, we get a whole range of “audience participation,” to put it satirically. The first time I ever played for large audiences was at European jazz festivals. And yet, some of the greatest nights I remember, in America and in Europe, were in small spaces, full of energy, where we played some of our most daring and galvanizing music. The difference in Europe is that the promoter of that concert in a small space had government funding, and you still got paid, and it was part of how you pulled off the expense of touring a group. Here in America, that is rarely the case.

I will add some biography here, to give context to where I am coming from in 1976/77. I attended the New England Conservatory of Music from 1973-77, where I received an amazing education, one whose resonances move through my life to this day. My teachers were George Russell, Jaki Byard, Gunther Schuller, Joseph Allard, Ran Blake, Joseph Maneri, Carl Atkins, and others. I left there vowing to be a musician, and saying that I would make it with my horn, and I was willing to play any music (and I loved a lot of music) to stay a musician. I moved to the Apple, Brooklyn to be exact, and Tim Berne’s generosity in giving me a room to live in for my first year there, and having Jerome Harris as a roommate for numerous years after that in Brooklyn as he and I had been in Boston, was a big part of things. This move in 1978 led to my playing in my first year there with the George Russell Big Band at the Village Vanguard for many nights, touring with Chico Hamilton, going to Europe with the Anthony Braxton Creative Music Orchestra, and things went on from there. I connected with Muhal, Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell, and Wadada Leo Smith from the Braxton tour. I supported myself by accompanying modern dance classes during the day, playing flute with a tambourine under my foot keeping time, something I had learned from the great Stan Strickland in Boston. I played weddings and parties, got work in some Off-Broadway downtown theatre, some at the Public Theatre, and I had some private students. It took a number of years for “Creative Music” money making to become the substantial part of my income, from touring and recording, grants and composition commissions. I married and started a family, and when an opportunity to have a teaching job presented itself at Hampshire College, I did what I could to make it work. (Before the teaching job, I also worked 18 years as the co-op manager of the artists co-op my wife and I helped start in the East Village in 1986.)

TC: You mention in the liner notes to The Boye’ Multi-National Crusade For Harmony that you first started working with Hemphill in 1978. How did that association come about?

ME: Of the Black Artist Group musicians, I knew Julius the least in St. Louis. The Human Arts Ensemble recording I play on, Under The Sun (1972) included Oliver Lake, Lester Bowie, J.D. Parran, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Jim Marshall who I will speak to, and numerous others, but not Julius. I was 17 years old at the time. My work relationship with Julius begins in New York City, where I moved on January 1, 1978. However, this archive work has reminded me that he hired me to do a quartet performance at the Creative Music Studio earlier in 1977. And, that I acted with Malinke and him in a theatrical video, a rather humorous affair, in some summer month in St. Louis during my college years.

Actually, the first time I ever shared a stage with Julius was at the (John) Hicks Family Day celebration in Harlem at the church Reverend Hicks, the great pianist John Hick’s father, presided at. In Fall 1973, my first semester at NEC in Boston, I went to New York City for the first time, to visit Charles Bobo Shaw and Joe Bowie at the La Mama loft on East Third Street which Ellen Stewart had let Bobo and Joe live, in exchange for giving music classes and putting on concerts. New York in the 1970s! I had troubling getting a cab to take me to Avenue B, they told me I shouldn’t go to that neighborhood, clean cut looking white kid like me. Anyway, I got there. The next day Bobo says we are going up to Harlem to perform with John Hicks (who I had met sitting in at a club in St. Louis). When we got there for the rehearsal, we met Julius, drummer Philip Wilson, and bassist Mickey Bass. I remember Julius sitting sort of quietly, in overalls with a sharp shirt, one of his “costumes” over the years. I can still see him in my mind. He looked introspective, and someone asked him if he was okay, and he brushed it off.

In the rehearsal John asked who knew “Naima” in the horns, which I did, and he featured me on it. The event was held in the church social hall and was packed. John’s sister sang an opera aria, there was a range of family talent. Hicks had also invited the legendary Babs Gonzalez, who sang some blues and entertained all with “Get You a Big-Legged Woman, She Won’t Run Out on You At Night.” Risqué or not, the church ladies loved that one. Babs knew his crowd. It was an amazing day. I was really honored to be part of it.

There is nothing so exceptional about St. Louis, now or then, other than the individuals I am speaking of. It had a progressive side, here and there, but its racist history as we all know from the news, very alive to this day, is a constant. Within this history, and against it and around it, the city has fostered some great artistic movements, the Black Artist Group being as important as any. The waves and echoes that BAG engendered, in so many areas of artistic and social endeavor, continued for many years after its existence. When I came onto the scene as it were, there were many musicians working on their own directions, as BAG, like the AACM, emphasized. My experience there as a young man finding out about this new music and this artistic scene, was surely a fortunate moment for this life I’ve led. The saxophonist Jim Marshall took me under his wings, I spent a lot of time at his house, playing every day. Jim was quiet, respectful, passionate, very knowledgeable about Non-Western music before that was common, and he had a great record collection, including all the most recent new jazz recordings. Jim was pretty much the one white musician who performed in some contexts with BAG during its years. He put on concerts and produced recordings as The Human Arts Ensemble. I met Oliver Lake and Lester at his house, and Luther Thomas. Bobo and Jim were very close, so I had another good friend there, rest in peace Bobo. Bobo continued the name The Human Arts Ensemble for his work in Europe and elsewhere. I toured with him in Europe in 1979. Or 1978. It’s a blur.

I first met Malinke Elliott, the director of the theatre school in the Black Artist Group, when I took a weekend theatre class with him in 8th grade. I knew nothing of BAG at that time. Malinke said I was lousy in the class, but I was always interested in the music he played. At the end of one class he handed me Albert Ayler Live at the Village Vanguard and Ornette Coleman’s Empty Foxhole, and told me they’re for me to keep. (It’s the ‘60s, people did things like that.) Over the next years, I spend a lot of time talking with Malinke, going by his house to hang. I pretty much gave up on teenage life around me.

Move forward to I believe the summer of 1974, I am back in St. Louis from Boston and NEC, and spending time again with Malinke. Julius drives through St. Louis from California, as his aunt in Oakland, CA had given him a car, and he was driving it cross country back to NYC where he lived with his family. He stops over in St. Louis for three days, and gets the car worked on. I remember driving him to the mechanic to pick up the car. In those three days I spend a lot of time with Malinke and Julius, and I think that is where our conversations begin.

Julius drives the car up to NYC and it gets stolen off the street the first day there.

TC: Wow, what a story. Many of the ensembles included in The Boye’ Multi-National Crusade For Harmony have not been previously documented. I’m wondering if you know the reason?

ME: Of course, there is never any one reason. But let’s look at a positive thing: Over time, the World Saxophone Quartet becomes more and more successful as a concert ensemble, growing in their brilliance and virtuosity, performing on the major stages of the jazz world and beyond. Julius puts a lot of energy into this group. He also works on inter-disciplinary collaborations in an ongoing way. He himself says that he did not need to play his horn to feel “validated.” In all of that, I think that his small groups, his quartets and trios, gain less traction on the business side. He did ask Max Gordon once for a week at the Vanguard, to no success. Yet, he does European tours, he makes some records, he plays lofts and clubs and art spaces. He is equally serious about all of it. He uses his quartet with Baikida Carroll, Abdul Wadud, and Warren Smith often within his inter-disciplinary works, as he will with WSQ and later on his Saxophone Sextet. His JAH band, which is woefully under recorded, is a great expansion of his music, and he loved that group.

Let’s circle back to the opening quote. Julius wrote his own tradition within the tradition. He loves the tradition, all of it. It is his tradition. In some interviews, he speaks of how in his college years he wants to move away from it, to not be contained only by it, but it would be wrong to read that as a rejection. He needs at that time to widen the frame, for artistic and other imperatives. And over time, he becomes expressive in a most free way in that widening frame. He played, with few exceptions, and those all in later years, only his own compositions. His compositions include blues and ballads and up-tempo bebop lines, using traditional forms when he chose to. But they include many other approaches as well, and it “Ain’t No Body’s Business if I Do.” As Wadada Leo Smith once said to me, Ornette Coleman showed the way to play your own music, to not have to prove you could do someone else’s. Well, that is Julius. It’s a whole package. Within that package are some very simple and if I may use that fraught word “accessible” compositions and contexts. But he didn’t do the more standard path as an improvising instrumentalist. And in truth, he told me that he wasn’t so interested in playing any one context all the time, he needed variety and new conceptual challenges.

Which is the wonderful story of his creative life.

TC: Although Hemphill eventually worked with John Carter (his former junior high school band director!), I was unaware that Ornette Coleman was Hemphill’s older cousin by eight years. Did they ever play together, that you’re aware of, or have any sort of regular communication?

ME: I believe that Ornette, who is 8 years older than Julius, was a cousin by marriage. I think that Julius can trace some family connection to Dewey Redman and Cornell Dupree as well. When I asked about this, he told me that the Black community in Ft. Worth Texas was a small but close one, and that they had to stick together. Well, what he first said, in his deep voice to my seeming lack of understanding to all these family connections was, “Marty ... Everyone Black in Ft. Worth is related some kind of way.” We’ll take his word for it.

I never heard that Ornette and Julius performed together, though Julius did perform with his own groups at Ornette’s loft. Perhaps they did. I was visiting Julius once in the hospital, near the end of his life, when Ornette and James Jordan came as well, and Julius and Ornette talked at length about this relative and that, “what do you hear about Aunt Clara” type thing. They didn’t talk about music. It was warm and wonderful and sad in the context it happened.

Poet K. Curtis Lyle told me a story of Julius visiting Ornette in NYC when he first moved there, and he asks Ornette the $64,000 question, “Ornette, how do you write these pieces?” I forget what Curtis remembers as the answer, but it was cryptic enough in the Ornette fashion. I imagine that Julius got the point. It was worth a try. But Julius did not see himself in any way in Ornette’s shadow, other than his deep respect for Ornette’s work, whom he called “Coleman.” The one person Julius always spoke to in tones of reverence, blind at times, was Charles Parker. As I write in my notes, that is what HE shared with his cousin.

TC: Changing gears, you were invited by Philadelphia-based saxophonist Bobby Zankel to lead and conduct an augmented, all-star version of his Warriors of the Wonderful Sound in a concert performance, and subsequent studio recording, of Muhal Richard Abrams’ final composition, Soundpath, which was recently released by Clean Feed Records.

You wrote, “Lending credence to its name, the extended composition moves ceaselessly forward in continuous motion, without repeating motifs or variations, constantly evolving until the final coda.” There is an interesting quote from you about how “Simultaneously, each performer is asked to step out as interpretive individuals, with solo lines not doubled by other instruments, melodic lines that connect into one long shaping, an instrumental role similar to that required in a Eurological orchestral work.” I wonder if you could elaborate on that unifying aspect of the composition?

ME: I don’t think I said it well in my quote above. This work, Soundpath, is a large score of notated music. It has spaces within the score for improvisational creativity, including before any notated music is performed. What Soundpath does, and what it is in a lineage of works that do, is that there is no theme and variations. There are no song forms that repeat. And within the writing itself, musical motives are under ongoing variation. Muhal developed his own compositional focus, one in which there is a lot of independence of lines, and a lot of counterpoint between the lines. In some ways, he is bringing the notated music closer, at least in some sections, to the textures and the in-the-moment processes that happen in collective improvisation. Equally so, we as creative improvisors, can think to bring our collective intention closer to the “vibe” of what the notation opens up. THAT is the Soundpath he is talking about.

I have been asked about this a lot since the recording came out, which means that we did a damn good job of pulling this off. We use many instrumental combinations for improvisation connecting the composed section. Everyone in the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound are creative improvisors, and everyone in the ensemble contributes in that way to the full realization of the work. The improvisational transition may be subtle, gradually extending the written material. It may be sudden, a sharp change. It may feature one person soloing over a rhythm section. It may be a grouping of diverse horns, or a sax and bass duo. In concert, we let the piece open up to a length that would have taken two CD’s. Live performance is bolstered by the drama of seeing the person play, it is its own dialectic. For the recording, we aimed for a balance time-wise between the notated music and the improvisational music, to keep the structure charged. I think we pulled it off.

As to my comment on performance practice: saxophone, trombone, and trumpet instrumentalists with strong big band performance experience, develop focused skills in blending and phrasing with their sections. These sections work as a unit with the other sections in a polyrhythmic way, the great African retention brought to angelic heights by Count Basie, for one great example. Muhal uses this approach in Soundpath. But he also works against it at times. He puts lines in rhythmic unison for three horns across the sections, moving in counterpoint to a whole range of other voices. He also writes sections where each horn in a section is mostly independent, and your lines and notes are sometimes background, sometimes foreground. It is what we do in collective textures realized through improvisation. It is what is often notated in a chamber music work for example. So, everyone is exposed, you can’t hang out safely in the middle of your horn section, or your rhythm section, for the whole piece. It is a challenge, but it is not new. This is the musicianship that is asked for.

TC: In reference to Hemphill and Abrams, since you’ve had a lot of involvement with both of them, are there any specific lessons that you feel you learned from either of them that inform or influence how you compose and/or improvise in your own music?

ME: I don’t think any artist, any artist facing what is involved in developing their individual voice, that imperative however felt, likes to trace that work to specific sources. I started at a young point in this music, I have worked in the ensembles of a long line of what I call “stubborn individuals” in the music. My whole career as a side person, with the fewest of exceptions, is playing people’s original pieces. Hundreds of World Premieres you could say. I have been fortunate. And we will see what the future holds. Within all this, alongside it, away from it, I have created my own body of work.

When you are young, surely, you emulate. And let’s face it: you can’t CHOOSE to be Charlie Parker, etc. You can work as hard as he did, and you can hear the love and passion in his playing and let it be a guide. Yes, you can choose to imitate it directly, and that is not simple. In truth, all artists of note are evolutionists and revolutionists, Charlie Parker being a prime example.

So, with Julius and Muhal, and all the long list of artists of an older generation I worked with, I think I got that imitation was not considered flattery, that how they did it wouldn’t directly help me, and so get on with it. With this caveat: the old saying, whomever you attribute it to, “Good artists borrow, Great artists steal.” I can trace a few thefts in Julius’ music for sure. I have surely slipped a melody or a chord sequence in my pocket at some point. And one song title that I didn’t realize ‘till years later was first his. (Well, I did this with an Ellington tune as well, so I steal from the best.)

TC: Beyond your associations with Hemphill and Abrams, and early work in the Human Arts Ensemble, some of your formative sideman work was spent in the company of such luminaries as Anthony Braxton, John Carter, and George Russell. When did you meet Anthony Braxton, and what was it like touring and recording with him for over a decade, from the late seventies to the early nineties?

ME: I met Anthony in NYC in 1978. Other than Lester Bowie, who had a family and house in St. Louis, and had grown up there, I did not meet the AACM artists till I got to NYC. (Well, I met Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell once in St. Louis, and had no idea who they were, other than that they heard me improvise on flute with a local poet in someone’s house, sort of a poetry soiree, and afterwards they said they liked it. But it wasn’t ‘till like a month later I buy an AEC record, look at the pictures, and say “What the F…!”)

Anthony had amazed the music world with his Creative Orchestra Music recording in 1976. In 1978 he is taking a full ensemble from America to play in Europe. He is rehearsing at La Mama on the Lower East Side, where Bobo Shaw and Joe Bowie lived, and they invite me to watch the rehearsal. At one point in the rehearsal, he asks me to play some of the parts, and then asks if I can go to Europe in three days! At the end of the rehearsal, he asks me my name again, and then thanks me and tells me he loves me. That is my first conversation with Anthony Braxton. I didn’t have a passport, but in that long ago age, we set up a conference call between the NYC office, the St. Paul, MN office where I was born, and my mother in Miami, and they gave me a passport the next day. I was going to Europe for the first time, with 23 or so musicians!

Now, I had seen Braxton play in Boston at the Jazz Workshop, with his quartet with Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. I went multiple nights. It blew my mind. The second time he came through was with George Lewis on trombone, still a quartet, I went the first night, and I think it was George Lewis’ first set with the quartet. George reads all the trumpet parts like water, and in front of the full audience, Anthony, Dave, and Barry gather around him at the end and congratulate him. They were pretty amazed. That is George.

Anyway, I never introduced myself at that time. But one thing, I always remember. I saw so much amazing music at the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall between 1973-77 in Boston. All the giants of jazz still played clubs then, soon to end. I saw Mingus, Miles, Rollins, Hubbard, Tyner, Betty Carter, Sun Ra, CT, Dexter, Woody Shaw, Blakey, Larry Coryell, Eastern Rebellion, THE METERS!, and on and on. It was a big part of my education. St. Louis had BAG, and some great hard bop players who did not leave, but it did not get national acts.

In all these groups, as was the practice, horn players would usually leave the stage when it wasn’t their solo. There wasn’t much room, but they got off and sometimes went to the dressing room. Not Braxton. He never left, when he wasn’t playing he listened with great intensity, as he always does, you could tell he was with every note. It was inspiring. And when I get to Europe for the first time with the Anthony Braxton Creative Orchestra, he does the same thing. He only conducts. We are doing his composed pieces, and between them, he is orchestrating collective improvisational contexts. Each section of the orchestra had language sheets, with numbers next to sound events he would cue. Trills, air sounds, large leaps, idiomatic things to your instrument. Meanwhile, you never knew when you might be pointed at to stand and improvise, or with whom, and over what type of texture. One night you might blow over a roiling rhythm section. The next night you might create with three trumpets playing short gestures on their mouthpieces. It was exhilarating. Anthony did such an amazing job of it, and more often than not, the audiences got it, they got into the drama of it all. Now, he also had his ace up his sleeve, the wonderful March from the 1976 recording. We did end the concerts with that, which always brought the room to their feet. Wadada Leo Smith’s solo over the vamp at the end blew my mind night after night.

TC: You were also a member of John Carter’s Octet, which recorded his “Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music” series for the now defunct Grammavision Records. What was working with Carter like?

ME: John Carter was such a gentleman. I loved him much. Actually, one of my first concerts ever of my own music, in Los Angeles sometime in the late 1970s, is in the Century City Playhouse series organized by Lee Kaplan, where many concerts were held, with Alex Cline and John Carter, a trio. I used to have a tape of it, alas.

Fast forward to 1986, and John is in NYC to rehearse and record his Octet work Castles of Ghana, which is the first of the four he will realize in the series you mention above. (He actually did a prequel, if you will, earlier on in Los Angeles.) Anyway, David Murray has to back out of the session due to performance conflicts, and he kindly recommends me to John to play bass clarinet. I end up doing the series of recordings, and a number of concerts in America and Europe.

One connection for sure was John’s deep passion for the clarinet. We all loved his sax playing. But when John fell in love with the clarinet, he found HIS voice, and he didn’t look back. (Let’s not forget his “Clarinet Summit” project with Alvin Batiste, Jimmy Hamilton, and David on bass clarinet.) Being the bass clarinetist in tandem with John was exhilarating and challenging. He’d bring in some hard lines that he had been working on for a long time and put them on the stand. Hey, that’s how we do it here in NYC, we are ready! Most importantly, John was looking for specific moods, he could be wonderfully specific about how he wanted a section to communicate, in an Ellington sort of way. I really appreciated that. He also led from his instrument. We didn’t always know how things were going to fit together. Castles is the most through composed on paper. The next three were developed in the studio and shaped in the editing and mixing process to some extent. Always clear to him, he was looking for a layering of musical events, in the rich orchestration and individuality of this Octet. The sound of Terry Jenoure’s violin, Bobby Bradford and Baikida Carroll and Benny Powell in the brass, our clarinets, Andrew Cyrille and Richard Davis or Fred Hopkins, and the brilliant Don Preston on keyboards and synth. It was a rich world.

TC: Braxton and Carter both went on to become educators, much as you had, serving as Associate Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Music at Hampshire College. You’ve been involved in academia since around the turn of the Millennium, and I’m curious – since you studied under Jaki Byard, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller, and eventually went on to work in Russell’s Living Time Orchestra, have you ever played with any of your former students in a professional capacity, in say a live concert or recording situation?

ME: I became a full professor, in my last four years, and am now Professor Emeritus of Jazz and Contemporary Music at Hampshire College. Which means I am currently retired from Academia. We will see if that changes. I might be semi-retired. Maybe I can do like the Modern Jazz Quartet and keep returning from retirement, always for more money I imagine. (Probably not.)

I was fortunate at Hampshire in having some very talented and engaged students. However, it is a liberal arts college, with a small music program that was actually part of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies. It is not a music conservatory. In my fifteen years at Hampshire, a few students continued musical performance, composition, or theory work, but most did music as part of some larger academic and career focus, including ethnomusicology.

Sometimes you are lucky with timing, sometimes less so. If one is blessed with a decent time on this Mortal Coil, hopefully it all balances out. I was very lucky in those first few years in New York City. George Russell called me in April or May of 1978 and asked me to come meet him at the Village Vanguard, at around 3 in the afternoon. I got there, he was sitting on a side booth, no one else was there but the bartender – yes this is sounding like a scene for a Mafia hit – and he tells me that he is starting a New York Big Band and he wants me to be his alto player. I was pretty blown away. (In the good way.)

We end up doing a number of weeks at the Vanguard, which led to the August 1978 recording on Black Saint. We tour Europe twice, and make a second recording in 1982.

TC: As a composer and bandleader, do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your band mates’ strengths or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?

ME: For my own ensembles, I have always written for the players themselves, or for an idea of the players and the context. However, over the years, I have moved compositions that I wrote, for example, for my Traveler’s Tales group with two saxes, bass, and drums, to my Dark Woods Ensemble with cello and bass, or back and forth. Sometimes a piece that didn’t quite work in one context, for whatever reason, finds a home in another, perhaps with some revision along the way, whether with the eraser end of the pencil, or the sharpened end.

All my composing, with the fewest of exceptions, engages with and engenders improvisation. I think about this as I compose. That is my tradition. It has many avenues. So yes, I am often thinking about how to highlight and activate areas the players express, some lyricism here, some extroverted density there, a deep groove here. Have I always pulled this off? Probably not, but it is a guiding light.

TC: How do personal and stylistic dynamics end up shaping the inner workings of your various groups?

ME: There is no one answer to that. It connects to the previous question. As with life, all is in flux.

Let me just add one musical decision here, which will lead to the next question. In my own groups, I always change the set order from night to night. This is true as well with the majority of the New Jazz contexts I have worked in as well. This is different as far as I can tell from earlier practices, where a whole tour is based on one set. (I have only done a few tours where the set was not deviated from for the whole tour.) For music where collective improvisation is used at length, collective COMPOSING is used at length, I think that mixing things up helps.

I treasure some Lester Bowie quotes, he often told the truth with humor and insight. He says “We had some awful nights with the Art Ensemble. But we had to have those nights to have the great ones.” Something like that. What I take from that is that they were willing to skate on the edge of things, knowing that not every in-the-moment idea worked, or worked right away. Now, I don’t think Lester meant that he played a lackluster solo, that he missed some of the changes that night. I hear it as, “we are willing to take on some idea of ‘failure’ in the pursuit of transcendence.” And this gets to the great power of the music to bring the audience, the congregation, the supplicants if you will, into the process. I saw the AEC a good number of times, and I never felt “awful” in a traditional sense. However, I can bore you on a long train trip with my telling of the transcendent moments, when things came together and soared during one of their sets. I think that is the power of this music, it is a spiritual and social/political process within its aesthetic dimensions. It is not one THING.

TC: The jazz bands of a previous era featured long-term personnel for extended tours, but that has largely changed today, for various reasons, both aesthetic and economic. What advantages and challenges do you personally find in maintaining so many different groups (Dark Woods Ensemble, Traveler’s Tales Quartet, Rites Quartet, Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble, etc.)?

ME: In truth I don’t maintain all of them. At different times, some groups gained traction, and I was able to record the group and new music for the group over many years. Some did not gain traction and had a shorter life. Or worked quite well, but the musicians had other commitments or interests that ended that particular unit. This is the case for everyone. People deal with it in different ways.

I took a bunch of time a few years ago to put all my compositions together in folios for each group I did them in. It was a lot of music. I needed to physically see and feel what I had been attempting.

I get intensively involved with the music I am performing and recording, we all probably do. But once it is recorded, mixed and edited, or the tour is over, I don’t revisit recordings much. I may be a coward in the main. Doing the Hemphill archive, I heard solos I took with Julius in 1980 and they sound pretty fine. Not sure I have “improved” all that much. Maybe I have successfully “maintained.” But I have grown extensively in the larger sense. Music still is a raw experience to me, creative music. So, to answer your question, it can be a great thing when you got a workflow going, keeping things moving. I am sure my colleagues much agree. You have to have a little faith.

TC: Although your compositions and improvising are quite adventurous, you seem to prefer a more structured approach overall; most of your writing is extremely melodic, whereas quite a few of your contemporaries tend to compose far more oblique themes. How do you balance the disparity between freedom and form, both in your writing and improvising?

ME: I am at my core a melody person. Dexter Gordon and Ornette Coleman make sense to me. I work a whole lot on tone on my instruments. I have a fascination with sound. And the power of the voice. Some of it is just a feeling, elusive at times and deeply rewarding at others.

As I have been speaking to, my passion for the music started with the new jazz of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I did not relate much to the American Songbook, even in the hands of the great interpreters. I liked funk and rock and blues and the counterculture, and Dylan, but not Cole Porter. In many ways, my education at NEC was a working backwards, even as I was exposed to much new music.

My dear friend Anthony Coleman, who by 17 was an Ellington and early jazz scholar, while equally being an adventurous new music person, taught me a lot. He was the only person at NEC when I got there who knew that I had recorded an album with Lester Bowie and Oliver Lake. Anthony taught me a lot about the early years of jazz. (In my archive I have a small notebook where Anthony has written out a long list of important records to have, all of which are surely long out of print, if available elsewhere.) Most jazz education at that time, and in some ways today, is centered on bop and hard-bop eras, because they are easier to codify and teach theoretically. A focus on the eighth note line. Listening with Anthony, I felt a great connection with earlier jazz languages and the new jazz I had assimilated. I realized that Lester Bowie had slyly, like the Great Thief mentioned above, taken the entire Ellington trumpet section, put it in a hyper-sonic spinner, added his gumbo seasoning, and made it a personal voice. The key difference being that Lester translated these approaches and sounds into new musical contexts.

I related to modal music, and I do think that my deep family roots in Jewish liturgy played a role in that. I grew up attending Synagogue, and there was a lot of ritual in our home, with music. I always posit that Coltrane touched on something universal in that cry in his sound, first deep in his cultural history, while pointing toward the connections that bind so much religious music practice in the world. So, diatonic harmony did not sing for me at first for improvising. I was never good at playing “I Got Rhythm.” But I worked at it, got better. I got fascinated by Coleman Hawkins “Body and Soul” solo, as we all do. And it struck me that that was “Free Jazz,” an awful way to put it, but that Hawkins was as free as free could be to create within the language and form of this AABA song. And one day, I found myself feeling pretty comfortable in it as well.

So that points to the idea of being a “pan-stylist.” That is George Russell’s word. It can mean many things. One is that you use musical forms, musical languages, and musical syntaxes of a wide range for your own expressive purposes. Which gets us back to the top of the interview.

TC: Considering your ability to navigate multiple styles in an array of different ensembles, are there any aspects of the jazz tradition that you currently find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

ME: The constraints are my limitations, not the music. And I am not sure that there are so many established practices these days. We hear that God is in the details. (Put in your own word there.) Sometimes it is a small thing, a dynamic or a shading, a time the player took their hands off the instrument that makes one performance inviting while another not so much. I will add this, at the risk of it being again a sort of half-truth. We have so much information at our fingertips. Young musicians can access a massive amount of material. We see a consistency of virtuosity all around. In a funny way, some of the most individual voices in the music’s history developed within a limitation of information, making a way out of, if not no way, a narrow way. Perhaps this current state of affairs makes it more challenging to “get to the point.” But just perhaps.

This time away from performing has been informative. I have had this scholarship to do, and I am grateful for it. I am starting to hear new spaces in my mind. Not new musical styles, just musical space. We’ll see how I get to it. Some may be on paper, some in collective improvisation.

I had an amazing two nights of performing with Andrew Hill in his last year of life. It was a quintet with Charles Tolliver on trumpet, John Hebert on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums. Hebert and EMac had figured out some Zen space in playing with Andrew. It breathed, and Andrew added his amazing deep chords, always with a range of attacks, the music had light and depth and space. I had not played with Andrew for a few years when I did those concerts, after five or so years in his Point of Departure Sextet. And maybe with some blessing of egolessness, I stopped trying to make anything happen in my soloing. I just added something here, something there. It felt like the music could go on forever. Nothing HAD to happen. Yet, things did, it was not detached, it was and had, if I may, the Cry of Jazz. I learned something that day.

TC: In reference to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

ME: They are different, and most musicians work out, or work on, how to mitigate this. It’s hard when we are talking about group improvisation in the studio. We know that the visual engagement in a live concert, which I speak to above, the physicalness of it all, keeps people involved. We know that on a record, less can be more. On a record, tentative moments that may have been all heard as part of the process in a live concert may be heard less kindly. I don’t think there is any one strategy or solution: it is an ongoing dynamic. No matter how many times I record, each experience is different.

TC: In a similar line of thought, how do you listen to recorded music nowadays, with so many options available – CDs and vinyl, or downloads and streaming, or a combination? And what method do you prefer, if any, and why?

ME: I still have a CD player and stereo speakers in our living room. And I have some decent monitor speakers in my work room, connected to my computer. But I also listen on my phone, it’s pretty haphazard. I know the pleasure people are getting with the quality of vinyl, and it is something to think about. I don’t currently own a turntable. Which, gosh darn it, I should remedy.

I have quipped that it is hard to be a producer and a consumer all at the same time. All us musicians listened in depth in our younger days. The first thing when you woke up, the record went on. With automatic turntables, the last thing you heard when falling asleep was a record. But over the years, as my own work took on pressing dimension, I listened less in a random way. Sometimes I focus on one piece, one song, one solo. Sometimes I go weeks without putting anything on. Listening is never casual to a musician, you are always listening with two minds. It’s a blessing and a curse.

When time allows, I welcome hearing my colleagues play live. Hey, we live in NYC, this rent has to be good for a few things. And I like to buy my colleagues product, because this is crazy out here trying to sustain income streams.

TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

ME: Alas, for the immediate future, we need to take seriously that COVID-19 is still very much with us. We have to help each other. A very hard idea for the body politic, as we see with the resistance to social distancing and mask wearing.

So, I am not sure when live music as we knew it, concerts and gigs and tours, kicks back in in a concerted way. When my teaching job came to a close, and my work with the Hemphill papers at NYU came to fruition, I started a few new performance ideas: a quintet, a trio, a duo, and a solo woodwind performance using prerecorded music. Then we faced a pandemic. During this quarantine, I got part 2 and 3 of the scholarly work done. The New World box set is complete, and my musicological work editing Hemphill scores and parts for sale through his publisher, Subito Music Corporation, should be up and running when this interview goes online. As I always like to remind myself, the next solo will be the ONE! Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share some thoughts and what I hope are a few engaging stories. All good thoughts to you who are reading.

© 2021 Troy Collins

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