What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
This roundtable convened on 8 August as part of Jazz em Agosto at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal. Thanks to Rui Neves and Bruno Sequeira for their support and to Joaquim Mendes for his photographs.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Taylor Ho Bynum, a New Haven-based brass instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. Bynum presently leads his Trio, his Sextet, and the eight-piece ensemble SpiderMonkey Strings; he co-leads the 10-piece ensemble, Positive Catastrophe with percussionist/composer Abraham Gomez-Delgado. He has also developed a body of solo music for cornet and duo work with dancer/choreographer Rachel Bernsen. In addition to his own groups, Bynum has worked with Anthony Braxton for over ten years in projects ranging from duos to orchestras. Bynum also maintains ongoing collaborations with such artists as Jason Kao Hwang, Joe Morris, and Stephen Haynes. Bynum's second CD with his Sextet, Asphalt Flowers Forking Paths (hatOLOGY), has just been released. Early 2009 will see new releases by the Nate Wooley/Taylor Ho Bynum Quartet (The Throes, CIMP), The Thirteenth Assembly ((un)sentimental, Important Records), and Positive Catastrophe (Garabatos Volume One, Cuneiform Records). For further information, consult: http://www.taylorhobynum.com
Mary Halvorson, a Brooklyn-based guitarist and composer. Since 2000 she has been performing regularly in New York with numerous groups and has toured Europe and the U.S. with Anthony Braxton and Trevor Dunn's Trio-Convulsant. Current projects include the Mary Halvorson Trio with John Hebert and Ches Smith (Dragon's Head, Firehouse 12 Records, 2008), a chamber-music duo with violist Jessica Pavone (On and Off, Skirl Records, 2007); and the avant-rock band People (Misbegotten Man, I & Ear Records, 2007). She also performs in ensembles led by Taylor Ho Bynum, Tony Malaby, Tatsuya Nakatani, Matthew Welch, Ted Reichman, Brian Chase and Curtis Hasselbring. For more information: http://www.maryhalvorson.com/
Barre Phillips, a bassist and composer living in southern France. After studying Romance languages at the University of California at Berkeley, Phillips moved to New York, in the early ‘60s, where he performed with Jimmy Giuffre, Archie Shepp and others. By the end of the ‘60s, Phillips was spending more time in Europe, performing with figures as diverse as Mike Westbrook, Gong, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Increasingly involved with the European scene, Barre formed The Trio with John Surman and Stu Martin as The Trio, made a series of recordings for ECM under his own name (and, more recently, as part of a trio with Paul Bley and Evan Parker), and performed with a wide array of artists, spanning the classical ensemble Accroche Note and London Jazz Composers Orchestra. As a composer, Phillips has composed music for a dozen feature films, a score of ballets and several contemporary plays. Phillips also regularly receives commissions for new pieces for concert performances, music festivals and radio productions. His latest recording, A l'improviste (Kadima Collective), an album of duets with Joëlle Léandre is reviewed in Moment's Notice.
Bill Shoemaker: Welcome everyone. Unfortunately, because of air flight delays, Joe McPhee is unable to join us but we still have three musicians that will have much to say about the issues we will talk about today. One of the reasons I asked these four artists to talk together is that I wanted to show the comparisons and contrasts that successive generations of musicians have experienced in terms of learning their art, honing their craft and matriculating out into the world to do it. I’d like to start with Barre if I could and ask him to talk about New York in the 1960s, a time when New York was literally the jazz corner of the world when you arrived. In pretty short order, you were playing with an amazing spectrum of musicians from Jimmy Giuffre to Archie Shepp, and you were also playing contemporary classical music which is a practice that seems to be more prevalent now than then. How was it getting started in New York then; what sorts of experiences crystallized your plan for playing and moving ahead with your work?
Barre Phillips: Well, before we get into all this, I think we should define, you say the changing scene, what scene? I mean, let’s know what we’re talking about here. I mean you say jazz and contemporary music in New York in 1960; you’re talking about the avant-garde jazz, right? Or, the bigger spectrum? In the bigger spectrum there was still a grassroots scene throughout the whole country, where you could be a local musician and eke out a living playing in clubs and playing in dance bands. I started in New York playing in dance bands. I could live from working three days a week on the road with various dance bands. That was a very transient society in terms of the work pool growing. I started doing that until I got a little more hooked up and started working in clubs, playing in clubs, etc. As a jazz musician, because I was a fair to middling normal jazz musician, I could do that. And you could live from that. You could have a minimal living. In terms of the creative music scene going on. The ‘60s, especially the first half of the ‘60s, was incredible in New York. It might have been started earlier; might have started late in the ‘50s, I don’t really know, not being a researcher in these subjects; but there was so much playing going on and so much experimenting going on. Especially in the contemporary music scene. The free jazzers, there was the clique around Cecil Taylor and, when Mike Mantler finally got to town, the clique around Carla Bley and Mike Mantler; the Jazz Composers Orchestra people, and Bill Dixon had his scene and they were going on. I was more with the white guys; with Giuffre, although there was no black and white problem at the time. But, when Archie Shepp called me up and said “come on, we gotta play, got some stuff to do,” I was quite surprised, as a matter of fact. So, there was an enormous amount of experimentation going on. We played every day and always encountered composers in the contemporary music scene, because there were so many young composers; one of the people around Gunther Schuler told me at one time that there must be a thousand young composers trying to make it in New York at that time. That’s unbelievable, even if that was exaggerated by fifty percent. So many young people tried to get it on in composing and it was possible to get things together. It was not possible to get the best pro guys because they’re working all the time. There was also very little money around, just like today, except the whole money structure, as we all know, who’ve lived through these things or have read about them, was entirely different. As I say, you could live from working in a club where you were getting paid scale of $100 a week; you could live from that. No way could you live from working in clubs anymore, if there were clubs to work in. In a grassroots scene, you could get a Saturday night for $100 maybe, but what can you do with $100 anymore? So as we all know the economy of the thing has changed so much I don’t know if it’s even worth talking about the change in the economics. To me it is worth talking about because it’s the biggest motor; the biggest factor that has changed in the scene is you can’t be a poor artist anymore. Oh, yes you can, but you have to be very clever to be able to be in the city and survive and not spend 80, 85, and 90 percent of your time just surviving. You have to be very clever. So the changing scene, I don’t know. The years I lived in New York, it was like heaven compared to today. There was no economic stress, so you could really choose what you wanted to do, and figure it out, and pick up gigs and stuff to pay the rent and do that stuff. I mean, I worked at a high-end commercial jazz job at the same time I played those months with Archie Shepp. I had a nice, cushy commercial jazz job playing with the Peter Nero Trio; professional, upper-end gig opening for Peter, Paul and Mary, right? Playing on big, commercial stages and doing that at the same time because there was plenty of that stuff to do. It’s almost non-existent anymore. It’s gone elsewhere. I mean, for acoustic music, it seems like to me it’s gone completely elsewhere.
Shoemaker: What precipitated your move to Europe if things were so good for you in New York?
Phillips: Well, basically, the telephone. Not that the telephone is cheaper in Europe. There was so much work over here that was about creative stuff, compared to New York, and it paid money. In New York, I was a professional musician and doing just fine, doing a certain amount of creative activity that didn’t pay the rent. So it wasn’t like I just left - ‘I’ve got to go and live in Europe now because everything is better in Europe’. It was just more like, ‘Why go back to New York?’ Why go back to New York when it was all happening here through something like the middle of 1967. For a year and a half, I was in London so much because of work being proposed, of interesting things being proposed in France. Got proposed to do theatre music, a role in a film; the kind of things that never happened for me in New York. So it just made more sense to stay in Europe and after about four or five years of that I found a place out in the countryside in the south of France and it was just like a dream and I said ‘I wonder if I could live there?’ And, what do you know; I’m living there, for a long time now. So, I might stay. I didn’t get to a point of "Oh, I don’t like the United States, I don’t like America, I don’t like the scene that’s going on there; I’m gonna leave and go live in Europe because I have such a good time on tour." It wasn’t like that, in my case. So, the changing scene. I’ve been wondering about the inquisitive, investigative stuff that was going on that really started up for me around 1960 and went on for a good 15 years or more and I wonder where that went. In terms of what was going on in the ‘60s. I know I it was a very complex thing because of the social changes that were going on in the States and then in Europe, which were differently expressed in Europe than in the USA. You see it in like the hippie movement in the States and the alternative living things that were practiced in the 60s being turned into the commercial new age stuff in the ‘70s and, ah 'How can you make a buck off of this stuff?' And the economy starts to change and that squeeze on the little guy starts. Seriously, seriously starts up. So where did that curiosity and that stuff go? The possibility to do it actively, on a day-to-day basis, because the economic possibility to stay alive went away. Now you have to be commercially clever at the same time. The music business is not a good business for being commercially clever, let alone what we’re talking about – jazz and new music and contemporary things.
Shoemaker: Well, one place where that inquisitive and investigatory, experimental form of music went, many of the major exponents of it at that time, went into the American university system, because at the same time there was the whole move to legitimize these types of experimental musics into college curricula. For example, Bill Dixon signing on to Bennington in the very early ‘70s; Milford Graves and others started a trend where the American university was a primary haven for many of these artists. One of them, of course, is Anthony Braxton, whom you both came in contact with in your university experience. From your experience, hearing what Barre and others have said about that period of time, how does the university environment reflect or contrast with the experience of these musicians in an earlier era?
Taylor Ho Bynum: I think as Barre was saying, the economics have obviously changed and that’s been a huge influence on what people are able to do and what people are interested in doing. I think, as you say, the institutionalization of the music created real changes in these areas. But I think it depends a lot on the context, because I think there have really been almost two separate streams of the institutionalization of jazz or creative music. There’s sort of the conservatory stream, which has tended to, in a lot of ways, ignore the post 1960s music, the music that Barre was talking about, the experimentalism of that period and really codify a music which is much easier to teach because there is a very clear set of rules. These are the notes you can play, these are the scales you apply to those chords, and these are the song structures that make up jazz as it is defined. And then there’s the separate stream that had Dixon going to Bennington, Cecil teaching at Wisconsin and Braxton teaching at Wesleyan, which, interestingly, tend to be liberal arts schools. So it tends to be places where it’s less about gaining technical knowledge and more about sort of conceptualizing oneself, to take a very rough stab at what the liberal arts are supposed to do. Sort of conceptualizing yourself as a human being and what place can creative music play in that role. I think that stream in some ways, the little bubble of the university, gives you the place where you have a mentor like Braxton or Dixon and you’re given a place to play and develop ideas which gives you the opportunity to maybe have the sort of playground you had to some extent in the ‘60s, except it’s removed from reality. I think that’s the danger. The economic realities; all of a sudden the bubble pops, you’re kicked out into the world and either you have wonderful conceptual ideas that you developed in your lovely liberal arts sojourn but have no idea how to make a living; or you graduate from North Texas State or Berklee, and you can play the hell out of a 2-5-1, but you have no idea what to do with your tremendous post-Brecker saxophone skills. And so I think the institutionalization problem is that both streams don’t address a lot of the realities of being a music maker. I think I was very lucky in that I came up in an era where I met a lot of my mentors in an institutional setting, but they were also mentors who were smart enough to take me out of the institutional setting and take me on the road or sit me down and be like “yeah, you’re gonna have to find a way to make money.” Give me that lesson, which often doesn’t necessarily happen. What worries me now, in some ways, is how to negotiate the realities of the music being put into an institutional setting and how that interfaces with the realities of what the current economic situation is. There’s lots of jazz schools; there used to be an International Association of Jazz Education, although that recently seems to have stopped being in existence. I don’t know if schools can teach what it takes to be a musician and if that is the only place where you can experiment without worrying about how you’re going to pay your rent. You need that to be able to take chances with your music. The institutions, I don’t know if they can be that situation or not because, of course, the other problem with places like Bennington and Wesleyan is that they cost $30,000 a year.
Shoemaker: So, the university setting doesn’t necessarily relieve you of the economic stress?
Bynum: It doesn’t prepare you for the realities of the economic stress and it restricts the music to those who have the economic means - it makes the activity elitist - it restricts the activity to those who can go there or who are lucky enough to get a scholarship there or who are willing to take out $150,000 in student loans and then you have one more axe hanging over your head when you then try to go out and make a living as a creative musician. So the danger is that there’s not a place that is open for everyone to experiment yet still relates to the realities of the economic structure, so that then you just have to go out there and you’ll have to figure it out on the fly.
Mary Halvorson: When I was at Wesleyan, there was very little information about how you were going to apply this to a career. You learn how to do an art and aside from that you're kind of on your own. I personally had very little expectation for actually being able to make a living on music and that's why I got a liberal arts degree. I learned some basic office skills and worked full-time in an office for many years because I'm a really fast typist. I really didn't want to do that, but I had very low expectations for a career in music. I knew I wanted to do creative music and I also understood that it wasn't really something I could count on for a living. The way I felt was that it would be nice if it ended up working out, but because I had low expectations I was able to have a good attitude. After school, it was just playing around, meeting people, discovering stuff and I figured that if I needed to have odd jobs the rest of my life, I'd do that because that's the decision that I made
Shoemaker: What sort of distinct advantages were there for you of having gone to a university like Wesleyan and learning from an artist like Braxton, in terms of crystallizing your own sensibility and your own approach to music?
Halvorson: Well, the thing that was inspiring about Braxton was just seeing somebody who had such a strong, unique voice, and taking inspiration from that; learning that I don't have to follow any sort of a pre-existing structure. In addition to learning Braxton's musical system, I learned a lot by simply absorbing his overarching philosophies and theories about music. I also learned by being around lots of creative people. Basically, you pay $30,000 a year to meet people.
Halvorson: The beautiful thing is that anyone can just go drive there and take his class.
Bynum: But that’s rare, finding a place where these economic pressures are not on, all of the time.
Shoemaker: Barre: Did you have a mentor in your early days in New York? Was there somebody from whom you gleaned wisdom, got advice?
Phillips: Many, many. The old school, before there was jazz school, the old school was on-the-job training. You’re the youngest guy in the band so you learned. So those are your mentors, while you’re there, while you’re playing in that band. So you’d have to look at the list of bands that I haven’t written down yet. The first time I got on the upper echelon of the contemporary music scene was with Orchestra USA with Schuller conducting some of his pieces, and after the series was over, Gunther, who I’d just met for that project, said, "Thank you very much, but I don’t know how you got hired for this." Yeah, because I’d just been a self-taught player up until that point. I never studied the way everybody had. Taught myself how to read, the whole thing, all of it badly, of course. In terms of new charts, standards... ‘It worked fine in California; I don’t know what’s wrong’. Anyway,” he said, “If you like I’ll take you to a teacher.” So I said, “I like!” So he took me to a teacher, who I studied with for three years. I would say there was a real mentor, a man named Fred Zimmermann who was very active at the time on the New York scene.
Shoemaker: There’s a whole lineage of players who have that flow from Fred Zimmermann. He influenced a lot of people.
Phillips: Well, I guess you could say influenced. Eddie Gomez was, because we just went to him privately. He taught at Julliard and he taught at some other places. But, it wasn’t going to school it was go to his house privately and I met Eddie, 18-year-old Eddie Gomez, in Zimmermann’s flat. Well, a lot of people went through there. I mean when you get to New York you understand that if you can’t do all the stuff you miss out on a lot of the work. Everybody knows that today in the young generation; that’s common knowledge! But it wasn’t back then. In double bass, people who could play the bow or play the pizzicato at that time in 1960 there was just a handful of guys, four or five guys. It was unbelievable compared with today, what you find today with young bass players.
Bynum: I think one of the interesting things about the current scene or about changing scenes is that one of the expectations is almost to have music at our fingertips. You can hear any kind of music, any kind of technique, anything, on your computer within five seconds. And so there’s almost the expectation that you have the technical ability and the wherewithal to be able to play any kind of music. And that’s one of the things that’s kind of fun is getting a chance to play a salsa gig one night and a big band gig the next and a free improv gig after that. But it’s also interesting; sometimes I think it can be a mixed blessing because if everyone can do everything competently then sometimes you want the guy that can only do one thing but does the hell out of that one thing. And so trying to find a balance between being able to take this sort of overload of information that we have available to us; you know, as a young musician growing up on CD I could listen to Barre’s music, I could listen to Joe McPhee’s music, I could listen to Messiaen, I could listen to the traditional music of China, Ghanaian drumming, Icelandicfolk singing, and that was very easily obtainable. And I could get lessons in any of those musics, too. Everything is available to be learned. The question is, when you are getting that much information in, how can then one turn that into one’s own identity, one’s own kind of music? As was said, there’s a grass roots music you could come up and learn but it’s very difficult to find grass roots music now. With the widest definition of folk music being something that’s learned from another person as opposed to learned in an institution, it’s hard to find those traditions where you can get things passed down, intimately given the license to interpret it by someone who is within that tradition. That’s one of the things I think is interesting about a one-on-one mentorship, is you’re given a license to make it your own, whereas in an institutional setting often it’s harder because, to be institutionalized, it has to be somewhat defined and once it’s defined it’s harder to take risks with it. I feel that a current challenge is to take the information we’re given, take the definitions we’re given, take advantage of that, it’s an incredible advantage, but then still be free enough to make it unique and different and current. Give it the feeling of experimentation.
Shoemaker: Mary, how would you address this issue in your own work?
Halvorson: Definitely, you have to have a filter. You're making creative choices all the time, not just about music but about what you're choosing to do, who you're choosing to play with, what you're choosing to listen to. You are constantly making these decisions and, I feel like a lot of my decisions have been informed by what I hate. For example, on the institutional end of things, I also went to the New School Jazz Program, for a year and that was tough. It was tough because I felt it was focused strictly on learning a tradition with little to no emphasis on creativity, which felt a bit stifling. But at the same time I wanted to learn my instrument; I wanted to learn how to play jazz, I wanted to learn all the scales. So, again, using an example of filtering, I had to learn that stuff but I realized that it was a means not an end. I had to take the good things from it and (kind of) ignore the bad things. In other words, by observing students around me focusing 100% on technique, I was able to realize that wasn't what I wanted. In fact, I think I learned a lot that year in terms of defining my sound and what I wanted to do musically, even more than when I was in a creative place like Wesleyan. By being in a somewhat stifling environment, I was able to (be like) decide 'this is not what I wanted". (and from there I was able to sort of react. I went out every night and heard music, which was great, but) For me it was just a lot of reacting and filtering and (you sort of) weeding it down to a bunch of musical decisions, and hopefully if you made decisions that you like you come out with something you like.
Shoemaker: And the fact that what you say “no” to is just as important, often, as what you say “yes” to.
Halvorson: If not more.
Bynum: I think Mary is an interesting example for me; I’m a big fan of Mary’s playing and I think she’s someone that almost couldn’t have happened 30 years ago. She’s completely assimilated rock, punk, indie-rock, noise-guitar in a very natural way, grew up with it being part of her environment yet also growing up with jazz being part of her environment, she’s assimilated jazz guitar in a very natural way. And so since both were there it wasn’t like ‘oh, I have to be a rock musician; I have to be a jazz musician’. It was like these are the realities of what you can listen to, what you can put on
Phillips: It’s also, Taylor, the whole thing of the instruments, you know? So there’s all this research and we’re trying all this crazy stuff in the ‘60’s with the instruments because up until, I don’t know, the second half of the ‘50’s anyway, everything was old, traditional stuff. And so, Ornette comes on the scene and blows everybody away and plus other stuff going on in the society you know; ‘hey, let’s do our own thing’ and a lot of it had to do with, especially the composers which were not so much in the jazz scene but in the contemporary music scene, of new stuff, new stuff, new stuff. And that part is still going on today. In fact, as you know being an instrument player, there’s just no end- there’s absolutely no end to the technical possibilities. It’s a lifetime’s work and then somebody else is going to take that and go another lifetime. But then again, what they do with that stuff; that’s probably more of what we’re talking about now. But still, the technical curiosity between a person and an instrument, or another sound material, that’s endless and still going on. It gets so crushed down today by the business world; again, the old economics.
Shoemaker: Well, you have to have that opportunity. The telephone has to ring, or now, the e-mail has to hit your inbox. When did you start getting those opportunities, just to do your music as opposed to making somebody else’s gig?
Phillips: It was here in Europe, and that’s why I think I ended up staying in Europe. My 18 month stay in London was originally planned to be two months. But I kept getting more and more propositions of creative work in Europe and finally it just didn't make any sense to go back to New York and take up the "old life". From that point on I had enough work where I was asked to do what I wanted to do and not fulfill a pre-established role. This lead to fulltime self development of what my take on making music is, through the double bass, into group music, solo playing etc.
Shoemaker: The meter’s running.
Phillips: Always, yeah. So, as I said, in the ‘60s it was possible but you still had to go to your work in the club or go three days on the road with a band, stuff like that.
Shoemaker: So, there were no solo bass opportunities for you in New York?
Phillips: Yeah, but who knows, I mean, that happened here in Europe. Who knows what would have happened in the States? You never can really tell, but, highly unlikely.
Shoemaker: We were talking a little bit before our friends came in about touring in the United States, which is a very hard thing to do. What generally are the big differences for you to working in the US as opposed to working over here in Europe?
Halvorson: Ah...everything. I actually personally love touring in the United States but it's just not easy to do. There's less funding, it's harder to get gigs and there's less of an audience when you do get gigs. And sometimes it's great; sometimes you can go to someplace like Columbus, Ohio and get this big crowd and everyone's excited because they don't get that much music coming through there because there's no funding and all that. And also, like we were saying earlier, gas prices are so high and I don't have a car so I have to rent a car and then I end up spending too much money on gas and travel. Usually it's a pretty grass roots type of thing, at least for me, touring in the States. Because it's not easy, usually what I end up doing is renting a car for four or five days and going to up-state New York to maybe Troy, Syracuse, Boston, Providence, back to New York. Or maybe you go down to DC. I've been to Athens, Georgia like four times, you know, do the same route and go back up. I've only had, I guess, two chances to go around the entire country, and I was probably pretty lucky to be able to do that and I don't know when I'm going to be able to do it again. So, in Europe it's just more funding, more receptive audiences, just better experiences, generally.
Bynum: I think it’s one of those frustrations where art and the free-market don’t always work that well together; does it ever? It’s interesting; I feel in the States often I’ll work with people who have the best intentions and who really love the music but then also have to make sure so many drinks are sold or how many butts are in the seats. Where, in Europe, because there is at least some state subsidy of the arts, there is a cushion zone. So, they can love the music without having to compromise their choices about it. A friend of mine is doing a documentary about a club in New York, which is a great club. These guys came over from France and they loved the music and they opened a club but then they really had to start being like ‘OK, we can’t pay you; you didn’t bring in enough people; we’re not surviving as a club. OK, this kind of music is going much better than free jazz. Weirdly, funk is bringing in more people than free jazz so we’re going to have dance music four nights a week’ or whatever. I can see what a conflict it is for them because they really do love the music. I see this a lot. We tour the US and there will be someone who loves it and is like “Wow, I want to make this festival happen so I invited all these great musicians. I’m not going to be able to pay you as much as I told you because I invited too many great musicians.” Things like that don’t happen as much here; I really have no experience of it at all in Europe because, again, the state subsidy. The first time I played at the Bimhuis with my own group we had maybe one-third, half-full audience. After the gig the guy who books the club was like “Man, I loved your music, it was beautiful. I’m sorry there were not more people; next time here I promise it will be packed”. First time I played at the Jazz Standard, which is a big club in New York, same thing, about a third to one-half the club was full. Afterwards the guy was like “Hey, you guys sounded great, you can’t come back. Sorry”. But a young artist needs the chance to be heard and to play in a place and to come back to build your music and to build an audience. That’s really difficult to do when the primary concern of the club is purely “am I going to make my rent tonight?” In the US, because of the joys of the open, free market economy, that’s the concern. Britney Spears pays the rent, you know? Unfortunately, though I think Mary Halvorson is 300 times more talented, she might not sell as many tickets. So therefore, that music becomes the cultural capital. The flip side of it though is there’s still so much creative music that does come out of the US. There’s something about the entrepreneurial instinct that is heartbreaking for certain parts of the music, for the business aspect of the music, but then also I think it is part of this hardscrabble musician identity that forces you to fight for it. I think having to fight for it so hard maybe makes it stronger at times. You have to really love it to want to get into it.
Halvorson: Most of my friends my age are doing similar things and it's inspiring just seeing how everybody makes it work. I mean, there's no solution but all my friends are doing something, teaching or working some odd job. I have one friend that will go into debt for six months and then frantically work full-time for two months; everyone has a different solution but it's not easy for anybody. All these people are trying, are fighting for it and I think there's something inspiring about that.
Shoemaker: But having a circuit is something that your generation, unfortunately, didn’t inherit because it basically fell apart in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and at the same time a new circuit came up through alternative rock, punk and hip-hop. Without that support system of presenters who can plug you in on a week-night and make it work, particularly if you’re running a sextet, it makes it very arduous. How long did it take you, Barre, to develop a circuit over here? How long was it before you had presenters and club owners or space-bookers that put you into their mix of programming?
Phillips: Any day now! I don’t know how to answer that in that I got to stay here a whole other way. I created for myself, after living here for over 25 years, such a low budget living situation that everything is cool. I don’t have to. I’ve never looked for work. So, I don’t know, I don’t know where I can play, I don’t know who the organizers are, I don’t know any of that stuff. I do have an e-mail address. I exaggerate a little bit but it’s basically true. I looked at the problem of the thing and I decided that ‘OK, I’m not going to be a jazz musician, I‘m just going to play improvising stuff. OK, now how are you going to do that?’ So that was my solution. To just be so low budget that you don’t need to work and you can take the crumbs, if that’s what I get. Longevity has a lot to do with it. What interests me here is about figuring out a way to do it. It comes from a choice of, really it’s lifestyle. Even deeper than lifestyle, it is like ‘what are we doing here, why are we doing this?’ You can’t figure out, you can’t figure really how, because I can’t figure it out either, what is happening in a musical exchange with this avant-garde stuff and the public, at least as we’re doing it, which is not as entertainment music. Some of my friends are violently against being put in that bag. I’m not against entertainment at all. But that is an important consideration today, to be able to find out. OK, we gotta stay alive and are we going to become American terrorists and devote our lives to blowing up something or are we going to go another way about it and do a grass roots thing where maybe our kids, if we get into having families and stuff, or our neighbors, that there’s another way to go about things than just grinding it out some more. Grinding it out some more. It’s a really big question. Now the CD market is gonna go away, right? What’s that going to get replaced with, if at all? And so on, and so on. As we’re juggernauting down the road toward destruction. I say “quicker, faster, let’s get it over with!”
Bynum: What I love about this kind of music is that it presents possibilities. It says “OK, you do not have to accept what you’re told you have to do. You can recreate your identity. You can recreate your choices.” That’s one of the things which I find inspiring, is getting to play a music where there are rules, but if I can come up with better rules, I can make them. That’s an incredibly inspiring, sort of humanistic lesson. The flip side is that because it’s so economically ghettoized, within that music, always having to make choices because of what the realities are. If I could live in an ideal world I would have a 14 piece band, I could let those options happen. But because of the inherent realities of touring, you develop solo projects. And so trying to negotiate between wanting to keep letting oneself just dream the impossible- there’s a Sun Ra quote I love that goes something like “of course I’m going to try the impossible; the possible has already been done,” that almost sums up why I love this music, that’s what we aim for, but then having to negotiate that with the very strict realities of economics. Luckily, Jazz em Agosto was a situation where they loved us enough to give us six plane tickets to come play here. That’s an incredible gift, I can’t tell you. To be able to bring over a six-piece band to play with me is an incredible luxury because so often they’ll be like “yeah, we like you a lot; we want you to come over, but...” That’s the luxury that happens occasionally. "Great, this is the dream, this is the band I’ve always been working with, these are my people, I can present the music as I’ve conceptualized it," versus “OK, we want you to come over and we’ve got a couple of people you can play with.” I mean, that’s great, I love doing that, coming over, meeting new musicians, playing. But it’s harder to present a community of music and I feel so much music comes out of not just what I can do but what I can do when surrounded by peers who inspire me and make me think of things I would never think of and who I trust to not tell them anything and know that they’ll come up with something interesting. For me that’s what so much of this music is about and it’s hard to fight for that because, again, it’s the balance between the economic realities and what the artistic dreams are. It’s becoming an increasingly weighted battle. Maybe after the forthcoming environmental or political Armageddon, acoustic improvised music will be all we got left. No electricity, you know.
Shoemaker: Better buy an acoustic guitar Mary.
Halvorson: I have an arch-top so I’m half-way there.
Shoemaker: OK, good, because the electromagnetic pulse event will put an end to all amplification. You two raise an interesting contrast, and that has to do with struggle. So much of this music historically centers on issues of struggle, whether it’s an individual expression or an expression of individual or civil rights. I think it’s an interesting area to explore – how artists define that struggle for themselves in terms of what they’re struggling for or against and what kind of outcome they hope to have. I think Barre’s already come to the conclusion to just let it go, which I think is a perfectly legitimate reaction. I mean, why bang your head against the wall? Do you have an articulated struggle that you’re dealing with?
Bynum: Right now, in a very consumerist society, where the expectation is that one should buy and do and listen to what is sold to us, for me there’s something essential about being a human being and making it yourself, be it cooking your own dinner or writing your own story or making your own music; making your own choices in life as opposed to taking the choices that are sold to you. I feel that is the core struggle, the underlying struggle of the arts, or what I’m interested in doing as an artist, is that, and it’s hard to define one’s struggle without sounding unbearably pretentious, so I apologize for that, but that sense of wanting to create something. You can be a woodworker and create a beautiful table; you can be a musician and create a beautiful song; you be a parent and create a beautiful child. That urge to create, as opposed to taking what’s already bought or to destroy, to buy or to destroy are the dominant urges, so, that’s the fight. So there’s something beautiful about taking someone along with you and inspiring them by the way that you create, for them to create something of their own. That, for me, is the core struggle. And of course that’s not going to be economically rewarded because the economy is rushing to sell you things. That might be the crux of what we’re trying to do, but within that I do this because it’s really fun. I love making music. I love to travel and meet wonderful people and make sounds. That’s a blessing. I don’t want to get into the space where it feels like it’s a constant battle and a fight. In another sense I think of my life and I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people I can imagine. I get to work with people I love, I get to do something I love and I get to go around the world doing it. If I have to occasionally work a day job to be able to do that that’s fine because I’m getting to live my dream. And that’s incredible, but maybe that’s part of the reason I do it, too, is that we all should be able to that. We should all be able to do something that fulfills us and makes us happy.