Julius Hemphill: The 1978 Coda Interviews

by Bill Smith and David Lee

Julius Hemphill                                                                                                       © 2021 Gerard Futrick

Part Two: David Lee Interviews Julius Hemphill

This interview took place on March 2, 1978, in Toronto. On the previous evening, Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake had recorded a series of saxophone duets; and on the evening before that, The World Saxophone Quartet (Hemphill, Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, and David Murray) had performed at York University.

David Lee: I enjoyed the entire performance of the Saxophone Quartet, but sometimes it felt as if everyone was just blowing – and the music seemed to lose meaning. As if people weren’t listening or something, it was just four very violent horn players, just blowing. Do you feel that happens?

Julius Hemphill: Violent horn players? Well, make that “vigorous.” As we were speaking before, sometimes the sympathetic response doesn’t necessarily have to enter into it. Now, as to how interesting these moments might be depends more on individual preference. Some of things you might thought were interesting, other people might not have thought so.

Sometimes it’s not about a particular cohesiveness. Sometimes it’s autonomous. From my perspective, I hope we cover a serious spectrum of levels of intensity, whether they might be delicate of whether they might be, as you said, vigorous. Again as we were talking earlier, the collective thing requires ideally a good bit of association, I mean in playing.

But the whole thing is not necessarily caught up in purely musical considerations, purely musical aspects – a great example: we were in Amsterdam, and you know the sunrise and sunset thing is weird in the spring there. At ten o’clock p.m. it’s just getting dark. So we’d be up, and before we realized it night had already begun. By the time it clearly got dark it might be ten-thirty. So anyway, we were experiencing a bit of jet lag, we hadn’t stopped moving since we got there, and we hear this rooster crowing at dawn. Bluiett had his flute, and he started playing what the rooster was doing. So at another time, during a performance, we used that incident, the sound of it – I’m not saying somebody couldn’t pick that up simply as a musical phrase and do something with it as such – it was more of a specific reference when Bluiett used that phrase because even though I understood the notes, I knew more on other levels what he was talking about. It wasn’t just a melody, you could get that externally. But I had a whole internal group of associations and understandings. Aside from merely playing together over a period of time, there is also a richer experience in that.

As I was saying about the big free ensembles, improvised ensembles as opposed to a strict big band-type arrangement. Okay, you can come up and play the arrangement, it just requires that you play a certain kind of thing in concert with the other people there. But when you have more of a mental framework than a notated one to deal with, then associations like what we were talking about at lunch, or how the reception at the hotel was, or whether the rooms were any good, whether the food was any good, how delightful some lady might be, warm, friendly or whatever, all those kind of things are more readily usable in a way. Ideas, conversations, we have access to the use of that material more readily than we would have if every chart was laid out, with “x” amount of room for solos, where this is underscored with a specific harmonic foundation. We don’t really have to transcend those kinds of arbitrary situations in order to communicate through sound about conversation – colors – love – hatred whatever. We’re able to use those experiences if we care to, we’re able to use those almost immediately. And when they’re group experiences it’s a more intense thing.

But all of this is in regards to liberties we might take in improvisation. That’s a large part of our perceptions but it isn’t a priority consideration. Now so far we haven’t really done a large piece of notated music in such a way that a person would know it was a single thing. We’ve played some material that comprises a kind of suite but we’ve used the written aspects more like conventional arrangements, even to the point of playing one section, stopping – usually there’s applause – then playing the next section, stopping – so that from the outside it seems like we’ve played three or four pieces. But we haven’t played a piece yet of that duration, of purely notated music. But at one point of another, when somebody feels the urge to put together a piece like that, then we’ll do that.

Sometimes we use purely improvised pieces. There’s one way to do that that probably allows for a certain kind of clarity, which is what you were suggesting, I think in your comment about there being no particular thread. It’s possible to do a purely improvised piece, but prefacing it with some agreement, in terms of sequence of events or something of that nature. Using words, I mean, saying, “Okay, we’ll do this.” Which almost gives you a chart. Then sometimes we’ll say, “Okay, the second piece we do will be improvised,” without any particular description or anything, and when it’s time to play the second piece, we start playing. Well sometimes that works extraordinarily well, and sometimes it doesn’t work so well, if you make evaluations of things. Particularly with the ability to listen back to things now [indicates cassette recorder], you’re constantly surprised, some things you thought worked well were ho-hum, and something that didn’t feel like it was working so well, when you listen to it, it’s very interesting.

DL: You feel that’s a chance worth taking, in improvised music?

JH: Oh, I don’t see that as a chance at all. Because the only standard or rule of thumb as far as I’m concerned is to come away with the feeling that I did the best I could do. Which sometimes means shutting out distractions, from physical to spiritual, emotional distractions, someone knocked the music over, the PA system went out or whatever, so I don’t look on it as taking a chance. I have confidence in my ability to improvise – I do that most of the time, so it isn’t really like taking a chance. The only chance is that initially it would be fantastic if we all had that inspiration that had symmetry, so that when we bop, when we hit, everybody was tuned in to same kind of vibes, so bam, you start right out working, from the front, and that is interesting, that’s really a good feeling. This is really an organic type of situation, so what in the strict sense might be irregular isn’t necessarily regular in this organic approach we have.

You can do anything better sometimes than you can other times, in a more inspired manner. So sometimes it’s competent, and then sometimes it’s exhilarating. And in our kind of thing it’s hard to program exhilaration. “Okay, we’ll be exhilarating this time.”

DL: Least of all you can do it in composed music, at least when composition consists of, for example, notated music that you play every night ...

JH: Well, that can be exhilarating too because sometimes the endeavor is like putting together this patchwork quilt. Sometimes you make it flow in such a way that even though you’ve played that same part many times, that can be exhilarating too because all these precise, in human terms, precise inputs, all of them come together in a really flowing way. That’s nice too. That’s exhilarating. And it’s easier to understand immediately than a large collective situation that feels that way, but you can’t hear the whole thing at once, not really. You may hear all the parts but you can’t get the entity. But with an orchestrated, notated piece, everybody knows what the other parts are so you can anticipate how it’s going to be and see if in fact it lives up to your anticipations. “Oh well, my entrance was good this time! I didn’t come in too softly or I didn’t come in out of character ...” Things work better sometimes, whether they’re written or not.

DL: Have you and Oliver Lake been playing together long?

JH: We’ve played together since about 1967. We played in this rhythm & blues quintet. The leader sang and played guitar, plus electric bass and drums. Oliver and I were the horns. We did that for a long time, maybe a couple of years. In BAG [the Black Artists’ Group] we played together pretty often, and we were doing this R&B thing three or four nights a week, so we played a whole lot together. The thing about this band was that we weren’t really that confined to playing R&B-type music. I guess it was mostly blues-oriented, but we played some ballads and stuff. The leader, James Bonner, was quite sympathetic and enthusiastic about playing different things. He wasn’t all that schooled in harmonic things and so forth, but if he felt comfortable playing it, he’d played anything – in doing his number, of course, because he had his following. We played in small clubs, small in name anyway, and we played for dancing a lot, although we had a mixed audience. If they knew we were going to play somewhere some people would just come to listen to the things that Lake and I would do, and what the other people would do too. Because we weren’t really confined to playing in any particular vein. The tune that James would play might be a James Brown piece or something like that, but we had license, we could play. It was a really warm friendly band, with some nice guys.

So Oliver and I have played lots of times, many hours ...

DL: You both have very vocal approaches to your horns, it sounds like to me. Did you consciously acquire that very vocal way of playing, the alto in particular?

JH: As far as I’m concerned voices are the most rich instrument, and the variation of voice reproductions are seemingly infinite. And maybe I’ve done that, I can’t speak for Oliver particularly because I don’t know, he would have to answer that. But I’ve played with a lot of singers of one description, or another. Joe Turner, lots of different singers. Joe Simon. A lot of singers. And I was probably influenced by that.

One kind of approach was used with the tenor saxophone. The tenor was used in one kind of way, it’s kind of hard to put into words, and the alto saxophone was used in another kind of way. It seems to have a character such that it could become an extension of the singer – particularly blues singers. It has something to do with the timbre of the instrument. And I’m sure I’m influenced by some of those people. I remember especially doing these things with Joe Turner. He can get to grooving, just doing his regular numbers. And other singers, people who have what I might say a wider range of nuance than him, because he had his particular style and it was pretty consistent. The quality of the voice, the sound of his voice, was pretty consistent. Whereas other people, I know this guy I used to play in this blues band with in Fort Worth, named Robert Gaston. We would make up these pieces right on the spot, just announce the key and count off the tempo, and you know it was going to be a blues, so the basic harmonic thing is given. And he would sing these kinds of asymmetrical lines. He would acknowledge the harmony and form, but as far as the lengths of the phrases and stuff like that, that would depend on the number of syllables in the words, and the number of words in a phrase and stuff; and he had a few different kinds of sound, he would sound a few different ways, he would go into this tenor business; and then he had what used to be called a whiskey-type voice, a husky-type voice, and it would be very interesting playing with him as far as an inner sound. At the time I was learning this stuff, and I didn’t really think about it. Now you’re asking me about it, so I’m saying well, that might account for it. Then I don’t know ... Johnny Hodges! He was a plastic man – again, it’s an alto. But I don’t know, I never really thought about it too much.

DL: A lot of your music sounds very bluesy, too. On Dogon A.D. and that other side on Arista, “The Hard Blues,” the band sounds to me like a big blues guitar, there’s a lot of space to the music, and it’s got those kinds of lines to it. And Abdul Wadud is someone who to me plays like a blues guitarist. Have you ever thought about that aspect of that band?

JH: Well, obviously “The Hard Blues” is a blues. And the cello is utilized in a way that suggests a guitar, in that piece particularly, and in “Dogon A.D.” it plays a somewhat ostinato figure in the composition itself, in the improvised portions I think it continues to use one of the figures, but that use of the cello wasn’t particularly imagined as having a guitar character. But I think its function is definitely that of a stringed instrument, some of the times like a bass, and some of the times like a stringed instrument, with the particular characteristics of a string instrument ... single notes for the most part, as opposed to chordal stuff, Abdul does employ some chordal techniques. But from my point of view I appreciate the similarities between the guitar, particularly acoustic guitar, and a cello. It seems to be between that and the bass. I am really in love with the cello.

In “Dogon A.D.,” I was trying to achieve this kind of a natural, non-urban sound, with a dance feel. The idea was based on this tribe, the Dogon, in Mali, in the Upper Volta. I was reading an article in this magazine published by UCLA called African Art. In this article it was reported that the Dogon had made a decision to feature some of their sacred dance rituals as a tourist attraction in order to beef up their economy. I thought it was interesting how they made the decision to do that, actually gave it long thought. I’m sure they gave that genuine consideration, probably it wasn’t such a glib move as it would be in some other society. It occurred to me about exposing their dance so to speak. So I thought that I would try to capture what I thought represented the sound of the Dogon, and address that sound to a context that would have a dance impulse associated with it – this is all totally subjective! – but this is how it came about. The instrumentation I thought did that pretty well. So it made me realize that it didn’t have to do with the instruments particularly, but achieving it had to do with the sensibilities behind it.

Also as far as it being a blues kind of thing, the alto part to me is something like – well, it’s voice-influenced, say. I don’t know what I was thinking of the voice aspect of it as much as the guitar, how the guitar is capable of getting this really vocal type of sound too, with the nuance and stuff, you know. That’s possible on the saxophone, on any instrument, well any reed instrument. Brass instruments with mutes and things really are able to produce that kind of inflection. But you’re able to manipulate the air better I think with a reed. And better still with a string.

The other thing, “The Hard Blues” is precisely out of my experience. There’s a bridge that does some other stuff, but the basic, the outer edges of it are straight-up blues, basic blues.

DL: Do African motifs mean a lot to you? They surface in your music from time to time, overtly. Like “Dogon A.D.” and elsewhere ...

JH: Does “Dogon” sound African to you?

DL: No, it sounds, like you say, non-urban, and the sound reminded me of a country blues guitar kind of sound.

JH: Well, a country blues guitar is a very African entity, you see.

DL: I was thinking of it as a distinctly American entity.

JH: Uh huh. It is an American entity also, but you have to realize that American entities have their roots in a somewhat arbitrary situation – because America’s not that old! So the same ways Italians and French people brought cuisine, say, and their music tradition and whatever, the African people brought theirs too. The whole vocal thing that we’re talking about is an African phenomenon – that’s the key to the whole thing. It’s difficult for me to respond musically without introducing some of my African perceptions into it ...

All the vocal applications you made reference to in a saxophone’s sound have to do with America for sure. But they come out of that non-urban sensibility, which removes it a step and brings it to the juncture where the influence of Africans when they were introduced into the slave markets and whatnot, and their musical sensibilities, customs, and so forth, where they weren’t eradicated, the whole sound comes from that. It’s not French music, it doesn’t proceed from that kind of folk sensibility, it’s African. The music in the Caribbean, and South America, is what emerged where there has been a cross-pollination so to speak between maybe Indian, Spanish, and African. And then Spanish, you take that back to the Moors!

DL: ... and it takes you back to Africa again anyway ...

JH: Right! So that’s in part where the sound comes from. Some of it is simply the properties of the instrument. Again, it’s like, the sensibilities behind it.

DL: Are you interested in using electronics at all in music?

JH: I don’t have much interest in electronics. I like the idea but personally I don’t even like record players. For me, they’re a pain in the ass. Intellectually I find electronic music interesting but for one thing I don’t have access to electronic gear ... I guess I could gain access to it but I’m really not much interested in doing so.

DL: Have you been interested in classical music to any extent?

JH: Yes, I find most music interesting, but classical is only one aspect of the whole music scene. I have studied a bit of classical music. But it seems that classical music, rooted as it is, or has been, in Western society allows for an ongoing pursuit of change and of the reworking of basic harmonic materials. As for the theoretical aspects of music, to me you have this rather basic foundation to proceed from. And if you understand the workings – there’s more than one set of workings, actually – but if you have some basis of beginning to understand what the traffic will allow in the harmonic practice, then you can proceed from there using taste or preference or declaration, you can proceed from there so I don’t listen to a whole lot of music. I have; I don’t now particularly I listen to a lot of live music, so I don’t really have much need of recorded music.

I don’t like to be ... to keep up with things, like items: cassettes and this and that. I just feel that there’s this thing that I know something about, this set of experiences or this set of phenomena that I can set in motion in certain ways, that I can activate. And I find that stimulating.

DL: How did the Arista records come about? Had you been in New York very long when you made that deal?

JH: Yes, I had been there for about a year, I think. I had released [Dogon A.D.] when I lived in St. Louis. Some people were aware of that and they were interested in it. They were interested in developing a whole catalog of heretofore less widely-known stuff, along with the work of people who were established, like Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp. So they got in touch with me. I was able to swing some kind of deal with them. But they seemed to have mixed purposes in that series. I’ve been out of town and I don’t know what their policy is right now. But it wasn’t such a fantastic deal, it was mostly a matter of expediency, and I must say I’m not particularly excited about the way that whole series has been handled, it seems quite haphazard.

I haven’t been doing much in New York lately. I think I’ve been in New York four weeks since September, and not all at the same time. I’ve been working out on the west coast, California, Oregon, Washington D.C.; did a little tour of Holland, back to Philadelphia, back to Washington, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Oliver and I played in New York last Sunday, we played a matinee at Axis in SoHo. And that was the first time I played in New York since November. So, I haven’t pursued a lot of New York activity because I was trying to get some momentum from making appearances in other places. A lot of places I hadn’t performed before, and there’s some response to the recordings I’ve made. I wanted to help that whole thing gain momentum, and I’ve seen that public performances are the thing to do that. Recordings do when there’s airplay involved, but there are not enough stations that present out material, or material of that nature. So we strike out for various parts of the globe.

DL: You find at this point you can get gigs that can keep you circulating and playing your own music, consistently?

JH: Well for quite some time that’s all I’ve played. Since 1970 at least, I think 99% of the time I’ve been playing my own stuff.

DL: Did you know Anthony Braxton before you did that session with him on Arista? (Arista 4032 – New York Fall 1974 – features a four-saxophone piece with Braxton, Hemphill, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett.)

JH: Oh yeah, I’ve known Braxton for fifteen years. He’s from Chicago, which is only five or six hours from St. Louis by auto – I’ve done it less than four hours. We used to do a lot of exchange programs between BAG in St. Louis and the AACM in Chicago. So I knew Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Lester Bowie, Muhal Richard Abrams, all those people who been associated with the AACM for quite a few years, I’ve known for quite a while.

DL: Do you have ideas for further configurations, such as large groups?

JH: Yes, I’m very interested in doing something with a large ensemble. I haven’t done much of that since the Black Artists Group in St. Louis. The problem is that I’m interested in doing several things, and end up sometimes not getting to do that and doing something else that is equally interesting.

DL: It sounds like BAG was a really creative period. Like there was a lot music happening there at that time.

JH: Music and theater too. It was very useful to me. Prior to that I had been exclusively in some kind of traditional, usual context. Bands, clubs, that kind of thing. And I didn’t find that all that exciting. Just at moments would it be interesting or fulfilling. Then rather suddenly I had an opportunity to exchange ideas and work with people in other areas, theater and dance. And we had no restrictions on what our musical endeavors might be like. So it was lovely, I loved it. I can’t say enough about it. I hadn’t been involved in anything remotely like that prior to that, so it was a really rewarding experience.

The group was operating full strength from about 1968 to 1971, then a lot of people moved and so on. I got to meet painters – I may have met them anyway, but not in the sustained way I was able to because of the existence of the group and the establishment of a single location where there were “no holds barred” so to speak, just open to doing things.

DL: So you found that you had common interests with them, despite the fact that you were working in different disciplines.

JH: Yes, common interests and particularly all of them were way up into music. It seems like music might be a common denominator among in different disciplines because many of them use music in some kind of way. I know personally a couple of painters who play music while they work. Music seems to be a common ground.

DL: Who is the Roi Boyé persona that you’ve used in Roi Boyé and the Gotham Minstrels, and elsewhere?

JH: That name came from my college days when a couple of my friends would call me Roy because I gave my name as Roy one time to a lady in the infirmary. I went in there to visit a friend and I went through the wrong door. I went through the back and it was a very small place. This one matronly nurse was there, so she was about to reprimand me and said, “What is your name?” I said, “Oh hello, my name is Roy. And you?” And another time we shared a house, about four of us, and there was a movie on television. One of the characters in it was called “Dude Boy.” And he was a pretty free-spirited, funky guy, so they started calling me that – Roy Boy. So it’s just kind of a nickname.

As for utilizing it in this piece, I wanted to get a more interesting presentation together for a soloist. I sure didn’t want it to be like Music Minus One. So I’ve tried to come up with an imaginative vehicle to address this solo performer question. Like you’ll have one or two ideas, and once you start exploring them you come up with others.

© 2021 David Lee

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