The Book Cooks
Charles Gayle Michael Wilderman©2011
Charles Gayle: It’s Understanding Humanity
Charles Gayle is a rare human being who can do just about anything he wants to do when it comes to sound as it manifests as music. His music is full of compassion and love that transcends jazz. At the same time, it is right in the middle of the universal language called swing, without repeating history. It is a spiritual music, covered in the mystery of the grace of creation; it cannot be described in words. When I first met Charles, in 1973, he was playing trumpet and violin and was always a few steps ahead of time and memory. He is a survivor, always playing and living off of the changes and staying constantly ahead of those who live to box and label artists, instead of love them.
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What is your first remembrance of hearing music and your reactions to it? And what was your early family life as a child entering this world and going into the world hearing and experiencing sound?
My first recollection of hearing music was probably in my mother’s stomach, but I don’t really remember that. I think, as far as I am concerned, it would have been in my home, probably with my sister, ’cause we were singing, and my mother liked to sing. I think that would probably be my first exposure to music, aside from radio or records that we had at that time.
What was the music around the house? Who played it—was it your mother, father, or auntie, grandma?
Well, it was my mother and father, ’cause we had the records, what they called race records, what we call Afro American records, at that time. We all played them, but my mother and father played the records. They let us do it when we got old enough; they played them one as much as the other.
What kind of music?
Well, it was jazz as I remember it, and some form of church. It wasn’t like it is now, in terms of being so prevalent and not so much blues, but that was there, too, so it was the music of the times in the community. That’s what we listened to, and jazz was pretty prevalent—big bands, and, how can I say, ragtime kind of music of the twenties and the thirties. That’s what I heard.
What was the temperament in your home and your neighborhood? You grew up in Buffalo; what were your surroundings, your environment, up there?
Well, at that time, it was the projects, and, of course, there were a lot of children there. Many people were filling up the projects, coming from different areas, a lot from the south, maybe even mostly from the south—Alabama, Georgia, and things like. You know, that was the atmosphere and people would go out and sit on the benches and talk. The mothers and fathers were all pretty much teenagers; everybody had kids young at that time. That was the environment at that time. The music was still, like I say, the neighborhood of the thirties and forties, ’cause that’s when I was around. They had the music of the twenties, of course, for the parents—Louis Armstrong and stuff like that. Those were the records and that was the atmosphere; it was pretty good, I liked it. (laughs)
Was there a sense of extended community, as far as neighbors caring or watching out for you? How was that feeling in the community?
Yeah, you know, you had your neighbors, very neighborly, and people could watch your kids. It was much freer, ’cause things were a little more peaceful at that time; it was a neighborhood thing. I had a sister, but it wasn’t no problem to send the kids over someone’s house, or they come over to your house and you watch them. Of course, in the early days, television wasn’t around a lot; certain things weren’t invented at that time. You’re pretty neighborly, it was no problem, people were cordial with each other. It was an extension from one court to the other—what I mean by that, one building complex to the other—we pretty much knew everybody so it was like a little village, I guess. Okay.
You were into sports? What were your activities? How did you grow into going from a listener to actually getting an instrument and playing?
Well, the interest was there. Most people have some sort of interest in music, I guess, around the world. I got involved because I was obligated; I had to take piano lessons, I don’t know the exact age. It was seven or eight. But, at that time, I didn’t have much say about that. I had to do it; it was part of my life at that time. Also, I grew into sports. I was an athlete from a child on, participating in sports pretty much. Along with music, but you had to get your grades right and practice or you couldn’t do nothing. It’s like any other thing; you had to do what your parents wanted you to do. So that you would be on top of things, then you could go ahead, do sports, whether it was outside or in school so.
Did your sister also play or was the piano bought just for you? How did that work out?
Well, I have a sister, my parents worked and they bought a piano for that purpose, and so we both had to take piano lessons. We went to the music teacher together. She was my older sister and I was the little brother. That’s pretty much the way it went.
What year are we talking about?
It would be 1946 or 1947, somewhere in there; I can’t say exactly, but I know it’s in there. It might be a year either way.
What kind of academic student were you in school?
When I went to school, I was pretty much an “A” student. It’s hard for me to say that, but I was pretty curious. I read, loved math, loved books, loved to draw. I tried to invent things like my daddy did, so I always did well in school. I had a pretty good memory, so that was pretty much it.
Your father liked to invent things?
He liked to create things. He was an artist, but liked to invent things. He did it on paper, more than having the material so those things could come to fruition. My mother loved to sing all the time; they were both thinkers and quiet people. They each had their skills and they passed them on to my sister and me, so we’d sit around and draw and figure out things. When you talk to mama, she would make sure you think about what you’re talking about and sort of reason. She was pretty quick and he was, too. I sort of had to do well in school; that was just understood, there wasn’t much option about that.
On a Friday or Saturday night, what was the house like, what did you all do?
It depends on what age. We were a tight family, we would sit around and talk—there was no television, so people talked, or communicated more. We’d sit and do that. Sometimes we had a car and we would take a ride around different parts of the city, sometimes with the neighbors’ kid and things like that. We would read, and, I don’t know, daddy or mama might read the Bible—things like, or read other little things. We were quiet; we were not a super-noisy family.
Your parents came up north from the south. It sounds like they had a deep background. Did you know anything about your grandparents?
It depends on what side of the family. My grandparents were from Alabama and Georgia—one side from Alabama, one side from Georgia. From my father’s side, his mother was a teacher; his father was a worker. They had a lot of kids on that family, a lot of them. On my mother’s side, they were from Georgia. They were farmers, workers. They moved up north. All of them were church-going people, as most families were during that time. Very warm people. I don’t know, most people didn’t have much education, at least in that family, but they were pretty on it. And they knew right from wrong; they made sure they instilled that in you. That’s pretty much it. They had a lot of kids.
It sounds to me that they were very much the epitome of the other side of brilliance. What I mean by that is, there are a lot of people, as far as black people coming up in America, there are some people, where their grandfather went to college, their grandmother went to college, they went to Fisk, or to this one or that one. Then there is the other half of the people—they are like my grandfather, who was a sharecropper, who didn’t know how to write his name. Neither my mother nor my father finished school. Regardless of that, there is this thing happening, there’s this thing happening. That thing seems to be connected to the music in a way. People can’t put a handle on it because they don’t know how it got there, how it arrived, and how it functions, you know what I mean? There were like a lot of black folks, just breathing and living and being what they are, and somehow this, I don’t know what to call it, this thing was passing through them, they were really like vehicles for what I call the music of life.
Well, you know, it’s true, because, in my family at that time, there wasn’t much education, but they instilled in us not only music, because I took music, they told me you may not be a musician, but if you’re going to do this, whatever else you do, you’ll have this also. They insisted on that. They used to have an expression—“There’s a poor rat that don’t have one hole.” And that means it’s better to have two things instead of one, in case things fall apart, you got something to fall on. It wasn’t just in my home; it was in other homes, too. A lot of people wasn’t so-called formally educated, so they had to find a way to do things. You didn’t have other options; you did it. So they insisted on that, you know, to a little—you could get knowledge without being in school. If you go to school, you do, but if you don’t, that shouldn’t stop you from attaining things in life. That was pretty much instilled and that was to the core. As a matter of fact, that was the thrust of the music during those times, because, in fact, most people weren’t educated formally. But that shouldn’t stop you from doing anything and that’s what I understood. That permeated our home—to never stop, never give up, not to ask other people, not to lean on other people, to use your own skills and study. I did it.
Did you see any evidence of scars from the south? My father would never go back down south, you know. He came up to New York when he was twelve or thirteen. He hitchhiked up to New York where his sister was. He never really told us what happened, but talked about running through a graveyard and people chasing him. In my house, there was this thing about, not fear of white people, but you could see evidence of scars from the south in subtle ways. My mother did housecleaning and laundry for people, so there was this feeling of we are who we are. Some people get the strength to just forget about it or they put on a face that it doesn’t bother them. I mean, you could get those scars from just living in America.
Well, there was evidence of those kinds of scars, you know, coming from the south, and the stories. Even during the time when I was young, they were still hanging people. My daddy would go back and forth because he had family and everything. But what you’re saying about the scars, turning the back, and even coming up north where you worry about how things would go, and you would be intimidated. You see, what happened with my parents, they were quiet but they were very outspoken—they were fighters, in a way. I’m saying that they would never back off. If there was a problem, they would go towards it, not away from it. I’m not saying that to bill my parents up as special—they’re special to me, of course. They had that and they passed that on to me. I am pretty much the same kind of person, whether people think it’s good or bad. They always insisted, no matter what, you know, have no fear and keep on going. We had segregation even in the city up north. In Buffalo, segregation was still going on—you can’t go in this restaurant, go in this one. Go in the movie—go up there, don’t sit down there. So you still experience it, especially at my age, because I was young, integration had not come about. So there were scars, but I can only say from my family that they were very forward in addressing things and not running. I even got in marches and all that; as I grew up, I was part of movements, so they were sort of that way. In their time, they went against school segregation and all that stuff. If the teachers had a thing, and it was color, they would address it. Go to the school and address that. So I just come from that kind of family. I can’t speak for nobody else’s family, although I saw evidence of people who were certainly almost crushed by these kinds of things, that’s all I can say.
When did you move from the piano into playing the saxophone? When you were playing the piano, what did you play?
I played the piano for, as I remember, three years. I learned how to read and knew what they called European classical songs, but I didn’t get to the point of really getting into that. I knew a piece by Beethoven, one by Bach, Rachmaninoff. I didn’t really get into the depth of that. I didn’t get as far I could have. I got to the point that I could read what they would call book one or book two. I studied theory a lot. I mean, little books about how music is made up, key signatures, I call that theory and stuff like that. In the so-called classical music, I learned a couple of pieces, but my interest was gone and they let me stop because I didn’t feel like going anymore. I liked the blues and boogie-woogie (laughs) and I guess they figured he gonna go with that. They didn’t let me quit without a couple of major discussions, because I was still a kid. But I quit because I didn’t have no more interest in that and that’s what happened. I got enough to go on and learn how to try to play jazz. I had to try and figure that out ’cause I didn’t have no teacher and I knew the blues. And so I had to figure out how to play chord changes and the rest of it.
What was the turning point, when you went from one thing to the other? What musician or who did you meet that said, come down to this place and listen to this or jump in here?
Well, I’ll go real quick with that. I mean, I was on piano and then I stop maybe for an interlude of a year or two. I went back when I really started to hear what people like Earl “Fatha” Hines, Art Tatum, Albert Ammons, and people like that were doing. I heard boogie-woogie players. Then I heard Tatum and them. That sort of really got me going. I loved it, but I knew I couldn’t play it, so I went through that and learned how to play piano, just figuring out chord changes on my own and how to solo. I was about twelve or thirteen. I started playing and trying to get little groups together. But to answer your question, I went to the saxophone later. That was just on a little funny thing, because I was starting to go to jam sessions. I found, when I got up from the piano, I couldn’t sit back down, and the horn players would stay up there forever. Once you got up from the piano, you ain’t going to get back, because a piano player sits down and they take their turn, and then another one comes along. But the horn players seem to stay up there longer. So I looked at that and said, wait a minute, (laughs) I am getting left out of this, so I switched to saxophone. I mean, I kept playing piano, but I switched to saxophone when I was in my late teens or I learned how to play it. A guy from Buffalo named Alvin Sheppard gave me one, which I really thought was nice. I knew some on piano, so I just transferred that to saxophone and started going to jam sessions and playing in people’s houses, and so I fell in love with it.
So you know you seem to have a natural thing for music. You were able to transfer the music to a lot of different instruments. How does that work?
Well, I like all the instruments. You know, we all do, but I wanted to play them all one day. I got a trumpet and I practiced a lot. I played for years. Then, another time, I got a violin and played that. I didn’t play guitar, but just about all the rest of them. I got a clarinet once and I got the basics of it. I played trumpet and I finally got an embouchure together, and I thought I would try to be Clifford Brown. That didn’t work out too good. I never thought about it as being hard or anything, as I remember. I just thought like that. I just thought, why couldn’t I? When I heard Louis Armstrong, I wanted to play like that, so I got me a trumpet. Then I heard Coleman Hawkins when I got a tenor saxophone, this was sort of before Coltrane and all them. So I heard of all them and I wanted to be them, too. I went from person to person and music to music; it was a challenge to me. I couldn’t understand how I couldn’t be able to play all of that, so I tried to learn how to do it and that’s why I learned how to play a lot of different instruments. I didn’t feel good if I couldn’t play ’em, so I just learned them, that’s all.
The Buffalo scene was vibrant at a point; when did that change? Did you outgrow Buffalo and you had to leave there? Tell me a little about the scene and how the scene changed, or how you changed and what circumstances got you out of Buffalo.
Buffalo, when I was growing up, was a music scene that was as vibrant as any city in the country. When I grew up, I lived one block from this long strip called Williams Street, where everybody in the world came to play, everybody who was anybody. I got a chance to experience that and then there were a couple of other streets. At night, when I was a kid, I walked down stairs, I’d hear all this music all the time. You could stand next to the club and hear all the music or walk in there if you were a kid, certain days you could, and certain days you couldn’t, a matinee or something. So that’s what happened.
There was a scene when I was playing. It was nice to be there, but I was playing more free music. At that time, it was called Black Revolutionary Music, at least in my neighborhood, but they call it avant-garde or free music now. I decided that, okay, I am by myself, all right, I’m going to come to New York. I had a group in Buffalo and I thought we all three would come, but it didn’t work out that way. I went to Bernard Stollman and all these record companies; I got a deal but something fell through I don’t understand about. I just got on the bus. I said, I am going to come to New York. I put sort of a gym bag together, whatever you want to call it, put in some clothes, got on the bus and came to New York. That was how I was coming down in the sixties, anyway. So I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with it. I had played some gigs in the city. But I made up my mind I was going to come here to New York and I got a gig on the first day or the second day I came here. A guy, a saxophone player, saw me with a saxophone, and after that I got a gig. So things went from there.
So what musicians did you meet?
When I was coming down at first, Buell Neidlinger was the cat. I met him up in Buffalo and we came to NY and hooked some things up. He was the cat that I knew at that time. Later on, I met Eddie Gale. I met another saxophone player; I don’t know who it was, I was sitting in the park, feeding pigeons. I didn’t know too many people. He asked me, did I want a gig? He said he was going to California. So he gave me a paper, he wrote something down, and he told me to go see this cat. So I went to see Eddie Gale. He was living in Brooklyn. Then I went up to Mount Morris Park in Harlem and had a gig playing. I had some other gigs, but I don’t remember everybody’s name. I met Ronnie Boykins and some other people. Frank Foster, he heard me up in Buffalo and asked me to call Elvin Jones to get a gig. I called, but he told me to come down—this was early—to audition. I told him I wouldn’t audition. I told him I’ll take the gig, though. (laughs) So obviously I didn’t gig, but that was just the way I was. I just came to New York on my own, and things worked out.
Isn’t it interesting how you meet certain people and things happen?
It’s amazing. You reach earnest people and things happen. You know, I have to say this, I been in New York a long time. It’s been up and down, but, to me, it was mostly up; no matter how down it got, it was up. Hopefully, it will work out. I can’t take credit for things. It was a beautiful thing; it still is. I was just very fortunate, and I say that because, a lot of times, things don’t work out for people. But somehow, on its own, it did for me. So I just say it’s a beautiful ride.
What do you think of the scene right now, the music world that is inside the bigger world, and then there is your world inside of all of this?
Well, of course, when we talk about the music and the music world, if you just mean in general, there are a couple of areas I could go with, but just to stick with jazz per se, I think it’s nice I can say this, there’s a lot that I don’t know because I sort of stick much to myself in life. I mean, I don’t go around too much, so, in some ways, I am very happy about it. Obviously, the main reason is young people continuing to play, to grow with it. In some ways, I am disappointed, because, not with my personal thing, I was sort of thinking we could get past what is called commercialism, especially in jazz. It could open up more, not necessarily avant-garde, but open up more from staying too traditional. I mean, I think music—it’s fine to have the tradition, even if it stays like that. If Louis Armstrong was here and the music was vibrant and what he did and people were still into that, I would applaud that. The music is just beautiful, why change it? But, having said that, I just feel that, because the scene is changed in terms of that, most of the music during my time wasn’t necessarily taught in schools. There was a different input in how to create the music, so I feel like it should open up. I could be a little happier with it if it could open up more. I do say that mainly because I’m known as an avant-gardist. I am not limited to that, though; I don’t even like that terminology. But I am a musician—we’re all musicians—but don’t let me get into that. I just feel I’d like to see it open up more, even the musicians who are in school, to start taking more of a personal approach to music, as opposed to following the so-called set thing that’s out there. It’s good, what’s out there, but I just like to see a little more personal stuff happening.
That’s with the general realm of music. As far as my world, I am fine. I don’t have no problem with my world in music. I just think that it would be better to have, as far as the personal music, I call it—as opposed to avant-garde—more venues for that, and I mean that sincerely. I think it will always be here, but we need more venues, institutions, to deal with more personal music, as opposed to people who are just coming up playing and in a more technical way. This area means having to investigate your mind even more. It’s not about the music; it’s about your thinking process.
I think there is just not enough communication in that area—the pros and cons of what we do. We can just come out and play, cut a record. There is no yardstick for measuring certain things. I would even, myself, like to be measured up under that, because it will help you grow more and think of more things, and scrutinize your music even more. So that’s what I think about, as far as music, but I am saying all of this in a positive way; it’s all a school that never ends. So that’s all I can say about that. We can never stop learning or becoming critical of each other in a constructive way to broaden the music. It’s forever; it never ends. So that’s my take on it.
Are you concerned with people understanding you or getting your music?
No, I’m not. I think it’s nice if people appreciate it. It’s nice if some people don’t appreciate it, because it means that they have a prerogative and they’re using their own senses to deal with something. So if somebody says to me, I don’t like what you’re doing, I am not offended by that, I am very thankful—at least they can be honest, why should they like what I am doing? I also appreciate the people who do like it. I am not concerned about myself in terms of what people think of me as a musician. I am not concerned about what I think of myself as a musician or how I rate and everything; that’s people’s decision. If a person asks me, would I like to be the best ever, I don’t know. I guess I am trying to do the best I can. I don’t really read too much about what I do and what people think. I am just trying to work. It’s a lot of work. You practice the rest of your life. I enjoy the work, and I like to use my own criticism to see whether it needs to fine-tune, because you just keep learning, I figure. I don’t hardly know anything, compared to what there is to know. So I am not concerned about all of that. I am not much in the music world, personally, to think about them kind of things; I just want to work and get better. I don’t even know what “better” is—just to keep fighting and fighting to discover things and just keep putting it out there. I am amazed that people come out to see me play; it’s like a new experience, because, in truth, as a musician playing, I know I play, but it’s amazing that they would come to hear me play. It’s like magic; they come to hear me play. I haven’t figured that out yet. That’s it.
Can we develop America and can America get any better?
My thoughts have been sort of the same for a long time. I am looking at America through everyone’s eyes, but also certainly as myself, a black person, but it’s not limited to that. I am looking at the whole landscape, trying to look at it through everyone else’s eyes. But I have to say this, when you ask does it get better. That terminology, everyone has a different interpretation of what that means, and I can say honestly, as a black man in America, I lean more towards independence in the black nation. The reason I say that is, I don’t know what it is to be governed by my own people. I say independence not in a racial term—not a dislike for anybody or a super love for anybody—it’s not about that. I feel, if we had territory here, we could feel free. What it’s like to do things by our own intuition and our own ingenuity, we never really experienced that. Not even in the neighborhoods, because we don’t own the factories, the airplanes, the manufacturing companies. We would make our houses look differently and the cars look different and our clothing. You know Michael Jordan plays basketball different, the same way Coltrane plays saxophone differently, basically, than Europeans do.
The music, for most musicians, is supported more by Europeans than by black people. Is that a concern? I know, when I get on an airplane going to Europe, I always can count on one hand the number of brothers on the plane. I am aware of that when I do a concert and there are no black people in the audience. Where are they? I joke about do they know we exist and we are calling out to them?
When I grew up, all the music was in my neighborhood up until the sixties. All the jazz, and music that black people made, was supported by black people, because it was all in the neighborhood. But what happened in the sixties, across the nation, things changed as a result of what they called white flight, and the neighborhoods changed. The money left the neighborhoods. When I grew up, that was basically all I played for was black people. But it’s changed now and that concerns me. In a way it does; in a way it doesn’t. Most of the music, especially jazz or the bulk of it, is not in the black neighborhoods no more. There are black clubs within the black community in America but they are not as prevalent as they were when I was younger, or, I’ll just say, years ago. Now, having said that, it goes back to support the idea about what I said about a nation within the United States or the United States borders.
We don’t have control of certain things; we’re guided by the economy, us being in the minority. In terms of that word “minority,” I don’t want to use that, talking about people of color, I resent that personally. As far as numbers, the population, we’re not the majority of the population. We basically don’t control certain things. I mean, I don’t want to say “control” in an arrogant way. That is one of the things that’s out of whack within our own nation. Of course, we could have more control of these things. I don’t want to just talk and let that be the centerpiece of the discussion. But it does not bother me. For me, the music is for everybody. I have a love for everybody in the world, regardless of a color. That’s just me, so I’ll put it like that. I don’t like what everybody does, but I love people because they’re human, and everybody don’t like what I do, so it goes both ways. It concerns me, the lack of black people in the audience. When I am in Europe, it doesn’t concern me so much, but when I am in America, the lack of black people does concern me. But I do understand—to a degree—it is that way, so I don’t get too bent out of shape. In my mind, I have solved my problem, as far as how I relate as a human being in America. I had to get the solution, not keep asking what the solution is. If there is a problem, I like to know what the solution is. The only thing I see that solves the problem is independence for people who consider themselves second-class or have second-class access. And that’s in the music field, or every other field that we have. So that’s why I don’t get bent out of shape, and until I get that, I don’t know.
So the revolution has to be continued?
Well, it does. There was always a revolution going on, but, you see, during the most recent revolution of the sixties, we got caught up in terms of equality—that was the key word out there—and integration. Well, integration is fine. Equity is fine, but the problem is, how do you make everything equal? You see, nobody can stand up to this day and say how to do that one. Of course, when I was young, I pretty much figured that you gonna get equality. How do you do that? I mean, there’s a way to do it but you can’t have human beings touching it. You probably have to do it through machines, because once we touch it, it’s not gonna be equal. We all have our biases, not that being biased is a bad thing in certain areas, but we have these human qualities and we’re going to lean towards our preferential things. So, to me, that word “equality” is not even realistic. It’s just a funny word; it’s not real. To get to what you said about a revolution, when I use that word, I absolutely don’t mean anything physical to ever hurt anybody. I don’t mean a physical, armed revolution against any human being. I wouldn’t want anybody’s blood on my hands for any kind of cause, for that in particular. See, the thing is, for me, what do you want if you say you want equality? Tell me how to get it. Okay, if you want freedom, freedom for us is called equality; freedom for other nations is called independence. When we go to an African nation and, on the surface, we say they are independent, they got it back in the sixties. Or if we go to Haiti or Jamaica, they say it’s independent; they don’t say equality. We bought into the word “equality” or the word “freedom” and we attach it as if the word “freedom” means being equal. Well, nobody has a formula for that within this nation of America. So we have to consider the word “independence” in our vocabulary, to talk about freedom, whether we use it or not. To me, the revolution was started in the wrong direction.
What about Europe?
We’re all world citizens and the people that support me are my family, you could say. But Europe is not a panacea for lack of racism. I won’t get into that. You can go live over there, but if you understand the dynamics of the people of color who are not integrated into that society at all, they can walk around and be free in the general sense, but they are disenfranchised and continue to be. In America, I’m speaking about a group of people who have been ghettoized, not only because of poverty, but because of color. It’s not just because of a lack of education. Ghettos just don’t come about on their own. So I am talking about a group of people who have been ghettoized, disenfranchised, or made second-class citizens, regardless of how much or how little money they have. And that continues to go on. I am thinking about these children, I am not thinking about myself. Generation after generation continues. Basically, one of the elements that causes that is racism. I understand racism is around the world, so I am not going bark at racism. I am just going to say the solution. I am saying that I wouldn’t personally go to Europe or any other nation to deal with that problem. Some people can do it. I am saying this: my problem is solvable within the land of the United States. We don’t have to get up and go back to Africa. Well, then the Europeans can go back to Europe and the Japanese can go back to Japan and give it up to the American natives and let us all go back. So if we want to keep continuing in that thought process, let’s get back to the way it was seven hundred years ago. Okay, I am saying that, if we want to run our own thing, we can do it. We have enough people and we have enough power to do it, but we don’t do it. So I don’t have to go anywhere. So that’s my solution. When I say the word “freedom,” you’ll get twelve different answers if you have twelve different black leaders. If you ask five hundred people, the word “independence” might not come up once. That’s a thought process through slavery that’s been put on us. It relates to George Washington, the people who got independence when they came over here from Europe. That’s what independence was. That is not in our psyche; we are living off of someone else’s independence. We have Independence Day in America, but that’s not our independence. It’s a glorious word, a very beautiful word, but it isn’t because of us and it wasn’t done in our favor.
Music criticism is a weird thing. Most of the time, critics don’t get it, they don’t understand or accept the music as a form of praise.
When you play music, why does the word “anger” always have to come out? There seems to be a connotation of anger automatically put on anything that has volume. (laughs)
The other thing is, of course I am angry. I am angry because that little kid died; I am angry because you can’t breathe fresh air. The fish are dying in the rivers due to chemicals dumped by factories. But I am not a boiling pot, spitting venom. I am upset because certain people just won’t do the right thing that will benefit the people, not just themselves. On the other hand, they don’t say anything about dropping bombs on people.
It’s really interesting when, say, for instance, Gato Barbieri started putting that big growl in his horn, they didn’t use the word “anger” to describe it. When Coltrane did it, they put the word “anger” in it. It’s like they just don’t get it. The reason people just don’t get it, I can’t say. I get it all the time. I don’t know how you tune in. What is the formula for tuning in so that you do get it?
Well, if you think that you own the world and the world was created for you and there is no humility in you, how can you get it? When you think you know more about what Coltrane is doing than Coltrane and therefore you can label Coltrane, Albert Ayler or Charles Gayle. You can label these people, you know what is going on in their head because you’ve done research and you’re so-called intelligent. So what are we? We had this conversation years ago; some people think that there is no intellect involved in the music that we do. Let’s think about the intellect of an ant. You ever study them? There is something going on at a different level, things that we will never know, no matter how much we study them.
You see, you’re more than a musician. Musicians are human beings concerned about all kinds of things, and, if you look at them as human beings, not just musicians, you’ll get it. They go to work the same as anybody else goes to work and they come home. But there is a thing hanging over us, I don’t know if we talk about it enough. It’s the basic perception of a black person living in America. Just a general perception, not through anybody’s fault. Is a musician an athlete? Is a musician a politician, some kind of semi-ghetto mayor? We’re more than that. I don’t fault the people for having that concept, because that’s the concept that’s in the papers, the concept that’s in the books. If you think “black,” you think Martin Luther King, or if you think “sports,” you think Michael Jordan, but we’re more than that. That’s because we’re not labeled as advancing certain themes and inventions in the general books of psychology, philosophy, general art or medicine. We’re not even perceived in that way, and it’s a serious thing. It’s an observation that is true, it’s not bias; the perception of us is show business, sports and limited politics. Even if there was a black president, it would still be limited politics. You think of Socrates. When you use the word “genius,” what head do you put up there—Einstein? That’s ludicrous. Every kid in America sees this. I don’t even know if he was a genius, I am not even sure what a genius is, but that’s the perception. So we’re under something and it’s very difficult to escape. And we don’t become anything but what you want us to be in your mind, or what has been fed to you in your mind. Even to talk about what I am talking about becomes ludicrous. This could be a black man who wants to be in control of his destiny with his people. But every other thing I’ve heard, basically, is, it will never happen, we’re not ready for that. It will never happen, we’re not ready for that. It will never happen; you see how they’re killing each other. I never hear, that’s not a bad idea. We’re set up, because all societies are set up to think a certain way, to keep them going. You have the herd in sync and you have the exceptions that do things. They fed things to the people and the people feed it back. If everybody was a thinker, I think it would be a better world; you would have freer societies. I think everybody is a thinker but not everybody takes time to do it. You see, you can’t get it in school, it’s not about school, they don’t teach you to free think in school, or think; they teach you to learn not to think. My mother said, think, I don’t care if you’ve got an education, think! Think about what you’re saying, think about it in the broadest terms. That’s just my thought on it.
There’s another thing in music. I wondered this a long time ago. I am not trying to preach Christianity. I will if you want. I love it; it’s my faith. But I must say this—I looked years ago at the titles of the thousands and thousands of records that I have seen, heard, whatever, and I caught about four that confessed to faith on a record. I thought, why could that be, when about 99 percent of the people who grew up black in America grew up Christians, or lean in that direction, if not totally Christian. Is it because you have to be on a gospel record, or is it because people feel intimidated, or are they saying this is just a private matter, or is it because people are intimidated by record companies and are afraid to do it? I come to the conclusion that we didn’t feel the freedom to do it because we put ourselves in a label—jazz. Jazz can be writing about a flower, a truck, God, a tire, a microphone, anything. You label it everything in the world—sorrow, joy. But we never—maybe Duke Ellington and a couple of others—talk about God. That is too serious of an omission to not think about it. Why? Something that is a major part of your life is excluded in your work, especially a work where you have the freedom to write what you want.
I looked at that, not because of me being religious, I just looked at that and said, why is that? How could that be? And you draw your own conclusions. You can say, we’re not free, we’re threatened by the old image that has been put upon ourselves by another people. I am not saying that it was done to hurt anybody. It was done because this is what is happening. We’re living in a Western society and that is what is put on us. There’s not conspiracy here; I don’t think anybody’s that smart to do that.
It’s 2007. Forty years ago, people were still being lynched in the world and in America. Their infection caused by racism and the antibiotic has not killed it yet. People say, I am over here playing music, so what am I complaining about? At the same time, things have gotten only slightly better. There is a long way to go, because it is institutionalized. It’s in the fabric, it’s in the beams of the building; it’s the foundation upon which America was built. So it’s going to take a while to get to the point where people can look at you and not think we’re supposed to tap dance and sing and I am supposed to control the tap dancing and singing. Meaning, you do the tap dancing and I will do the business, I will tell you who are the good tap dancers and who the bad ones are. But Fred Astaire, he’s an artist; you guys are entertainers. The rest of us can run, jump, catch and throw balls. I can throw a ball through a hoop or roll a ball on the ground so it goes in a hole; I can hit a ball with a stick and kick a ball and they will pay me to do this. They own the stadiums and the teams, the television and the radio. Even if I think I own the team, they really own the team. One of the things bothering young people today is, what to do. Shall I be a gangster or I can go into sports or I can go into hip hop, which actually rhymes with bebop. I can be an illegitimate gangster or I can be a legit gangster like the CEOs who work for the banks, Wall Street and big business. Until we see an American Indian on the money or Mount Rushmore, until they remove Columbus Day as a holiday, then nothing has changed.
Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, all these cats made the music. The music was controlled and owned by others. Their destiny, on a business level, was not in their own hands. Those people—writers and critics—for the most part do not understand or respect intuitive knowledge. It’s not in the schools. It’s not in the books. Until they understand that, they will never be one with the music.
It gets to the same thing—it’s understanding humanity. I don’t mean on the furthest-out level, just understand humanity. Understand man’s inhumanity to humanity, what that means. Sometimes try to put yourself in another person’s position and then maybe work your way into that and see where it takes you. Because if you are from a group of people who dominate a situation, that means you have a certain privilege, not to even knock it. How can you understand a person who doesn’t dominate? You have to understand the—I don’t want to say dichotomy—the difference of the mind, the ideas coming from the dominant group, what that means, how it can scar a person. Nobody wants to be scared about anything. I know the world can’t be perfect. Sometimes you have to be in a different position to understand the other person. But if you think, you don’t even have to experience. Because if you think about yourself and then say, when I look at this picture, does it in fact represent this other group or does it represent me? In fact, this picture, does it have meaning to me, does it have the same meaning to the other person? And if you start looking at it like that, you start to get it. We are all human beings, but we have these levels of demarcation between us. All of us haven’t risen above all of this, so that the world becomes one beautiful thing of human beings who treat each other well. We haven’t gotten to that yet.
We don’t think; that’s why I don’t read the paper anymore. It’s not out of frustration, it’s that I will get nothing out of it. The newspaper will give me nothing except a recapitulation of the things that often bring scars, but are often trivial. I see no breakthroughs—the thought is the same, the same images, the same results. Well, you know, it’s like that, so why you reading it? Addiction. So I am going to break the addiction. Can I go without the newspapers? Yes. Can I go without the TV? Yes. Do I miss anything? What I miss is the addiction. Can something else take its place? Yes. My mind.