Asking jazz musicians to talk about their music can be a tricky business. There is a huge difference between creating great music and explaining how it’s done. It is not every musician who is articulate enough to do the job, but when you get one that can, you’ve got a precious gold nugget.
Radhika Philip’s Being Here collects a series of 25 interviews with some of the most articulate jazz artists working today. Voices enough that not only know what they’re doing, but can explain it with passion, voices enough that she’s got herself a whole gold mine. Whether it’s Butch Morris explaining “conduction” or Steve Coleman talking about “natural systems,” whether Robert Glasper describing the need for music to be “singable,” or Kenny Wollesen talking about styles of music “melting into one thing,” these are serious artists with a vision. They have given a lot of thought to what they do; they are comfortable expressing themselves, and they do so with an expressive panache that is as remarkable as their music.
More often than not, Philip begins her interview with a question about the musician’s intent. And while there may be an argument to be made that an artist’s intent is not always a valid measure of what was achieved, it is a significant indication of what they think they were trying to do, of what they think music ought to do. It is interesting to note how often they resort to metaphor and the language of poetry to describe their aims and the creative process in general. William Parker tells us that “playing music is like doing heart surgery.” Billy Hart talks about the spiritual nature of performance, the need for music “to uplift the community.” Dafnis Prieto tells his music students they have to communicate and even when no one is there, God is listening. These are artists who think of themselves as something more than entertainers.
There are a number of themes which seem to come up again and again in the interviews. Many of them are concerned with what they perceive as the dwindling audience for jazz and the difficulty musicians have supporting their music. They are unhappy with the failure of the larger record labels to work with new talent. Some refuse to be labeled jazz musicians because of its financial implications. Indeed they are often unwilling to define jazz as a unique genre: jazz is music. They don’t play jazz; they play music.
There are some concerned with the racial politics of jazz and its roots. Jason Moran talks about jazz having given African-Americans the freedom to speak out: “You could speak your mind through music.” Woody Shaw Jr. III, points out that “this is our music. It will always be our music.” Greg Osby excoriates white critics for treating black musicians as entertainers, they want them to “do the jig, do the dance, play the blues.”
There is a lot of interesting commentary on the nature of improvisation. Many point out the necessity for any improvisation to be organic to the structure of the piece. They have no regard for the soloist who is merely showing off, the soloist who is playing clichés, the soloist repeating himself night after night. Steve Coleman calls improvisation “spontaneous composition.” It is a creative act that in many respects defines the form. Though they acknowledge the value of the through composed piece, most recognize the need to give the individual artist the freedom to create.
Being Here offers some valuable insights into the concerns of the jazz musician as we begin the new century, and they seek to keep alive the great tradition of Monk and Trane and Bird, not by copying what they did, but by honoring their creative impulse with their own creative new ideas.