ISB member Larry Gray is one of the jazz greats based out of Chicago, Illinois. He was one of our presenters at ISB 2013. Here are his thoughts on all things bass. Thanks to Chris Kosky (CK) for interviewing Larry Gray (LG) back in November of 2013.
CK: Will you speak about sound production (on the bass)…
LG: Well, to me sound production all comes out of vibration, it’s really the vibration of the string, which is an example of the vibrating column of air that’s inherent in any musical instrument’s sound production. So the first thing I feel, and what I try to get across to my students, is the idea of really getting in touch with that in a deep and profound way. Once you’ve experienced that in one note—probably it’s going to be an open string at first—the idea then is to try to get that throughout the instrument, to feel that roundness and fullness of sound; and fullness of sound no matter what the dynamic is, throughout the full range of both dynamics and of range, of range of the notes. So that’s difficult, [it] takes a long time to really develop that, and you have to sort of be a stickler for a certain kind of result—having a sound in your head—so everything I do physically& technically on the instrument goes into making that happen, hopefully, and so it really does come down to the basic parameters that all good string players talk about: with the bow, it’s location, speed and weight or pressure. And I think that all players—jazz players who tend to specialize in pizzicato—still should get in touch with some aspects of arco playing, whether or not they feel like that becomes a voice for them, or that they feel like they’re going to play a lot of solos, they should investigate it, because it informs the pizzicato sound, because the pizzicato sound is really just a different side of that same coin. Basically you can’t do anything about the note, as [is] true with vibraphone or piano or any other instruments where you’re hitting the note in the first place and then it’s really just ringing, so there it’s about how you understand that same vibration of the string, but you understand how to get it started, and then how to maintain it as you need to produce a musical sound. So if you have a lot of experience playing arco, to me it gives you a goal with pizzicato, to sound like arco, and then sometimes vice versa, to try to sound somewhat like pizzicato when you’re playing arco, but ultimately it all comes down to vibration and then applying those elements to it as you’re changing strings and changing the length of the string. It’s pretty simple in a certain way, but in another way it’s very complicated [laughs].
CK: Your demeanor while you’re playing is very calm, I’m going to read you what I wrote while at your 2013 ISB recital, “you look supremely relaxed when you play. It’s like watching a waterfall or a tree swaying in the wind…”
CK: By that I meant the tree doesn’t sway on its own, the tree is just there—if the wind blows, it sways, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t…
LG: I’ve kinda been swaying lately, I notice myself doing it a lot. It just feels good, it feels like I’m feeling energy coming up from the ground, feeling more connection with my feet, and I do feel really relaxed when I play… usually. [laughs]
CK: I wondered if you could speak about focus. There’s a real focus when you play, and this is perhaps superficial, but [at the ISB convention] you were playing, and for a long time looking kind of off and to the right—I wonder if that’s part of how you focus…
LG: Yeah, well, I’ve observed a lot of different players that I admire on different instruments—I don’t particularly just go to bass players, I love bass players, I wouldn’t be playing bass without all the great bass players that have come before me—from Jimmy Blanton to Ron Carter & everybody else that we all know and love—but I do have certain people who I admire, that I’ve probably picked up on things. There was a story about Charlie Parker, that he would apparently turn to different parts of the room, he was always looking for a place—a sweet spot—so I’ve had that on my mind a little bit. I watch certain people, like John Coltrane, seems to me that he was probably a pretty shy person, and so he tried to find the vibration of a room, and tried to find out where his sound fit within that. Jack DeJohnette’s eyes seem to go up a lot when he plays, when he’s looking for something; I admire Jack so I emulate that. I think the main thing is finding what works for you. I also try to change, I think you can get locked in one position, and then you can get kinda hung up, so it’s important to remind yourself that you’re free to move around—maybe that’s why I sway a little bit too when I play, I want to try to move around a little bit and do different things, shift the weight, sometimes I lift my weight off one foot—I’ll stand on one foot or another foot, anything at all to be free, and so I think the visual is really part of it. Another thing I try to do, is look out to people and see if I can find somebody that I feel can help me play, maybe help me find some notes, or help me find a certain kind of a feeling—get my energy from the audience. Years ago, I was playing with Joe Williams and right in the middle of a tune, he turned around to me and said, “hey man, look at that audience, look at those people…” I was closing my eyes because I was really trying to find a vibration from another place, I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the setting that day, I was just trying to find a groove, and I looked out at these people who were some pretty wealthy people and they were very nicely dressed, and he said to me, “get your beat from them.” Which was kinda, huh? What did he mean by that? And I don’t exactly know what he meant by that, but it’s been cool pondering it, and I actually took it in a really respectful way, just to think get your energy, get your feeling, get your beat, your groove, everything, from an audience. You know, we really need audiences and sometimes there’ll be a negative force out in the audience, maybe somebody’s talking, or maybe they’re just projecting something else, and I’m kind of a sensitive person so I sort of respond to some of those things, so a lot of times it’s been for me, how to counteract that, how to turn something around that’s coming toward you that’s perhaps not positive or maybe worse, and to just realize that it’s coming from a force that’s really common to all of us, and turning it around in a way that makes it positive. And those vibrations that I spoke of earlier are really the core that we’re all doing—when a drummer is playing, and those cymbals and the drums are really singing; when the piano player is playing a chord; when I’m playing in a group and all these instruments are resonating through my bass and vice versa, that’s when the stuff is really working. So I’m really looking for those vibrations—I know it sounds a little “new age-y” but it’s OK, you know—if it’s working, when an instrument is really in tune, for example when you’re playing a low note on the bass or cello or any instrument, you’re triggering other parts of the harmonic series, and you want to have an awareness of that when you’re playing. A lot of bass players I’m sure are aware of this… that’s why bass players need to play alone—a lot. That’s why I love playing solo bass—I love playing with people, and I do it all the time, but when I come to the ISB [Conventions], I feel like it’s a 50-minute opportunity, so I like to present the bass alone, because it’s a good opportunity, plus I do those recitals regularly because they kick my “you know what”—they challenge me. To get up there without anything else, and just tune-in on that… That’s another thing, just variety, in terms of types of gigs & performances, I think keeps me healthy, keeps me interested.
CK: Speaking of that, of playing solo, I love the way your mind works, musically—the way you weave improvisations with tunes or different tunes with each other. I’m curious about your creative process, is some of that planned when you get on stage—do you know what tunes you’re going to play, or how you’re going to get from one tune to the other; or do you just walk out there and say, “ I feel like Star Eyes, but I’ll play a free intro into it…” How does that work?
LG: There’s a lot of freedom in those gigs that I play at ISB. Sometimes I’ll have a program—I frankly can’t remember exactly what I did at ISB . I think one of my concerns was trying to read the audience and trying to think about what would be familiar, so that there could be some points of reference for them, as opposed to coming out and trying to play something that was really, really free. Maybe I’d have a tone row in mind or a mode or a set of changes or something like that, I do think about trying to do something that’s familiar, so undoubtedly I have some tunes set up in my mind, but I’m really able to call audibles and change and move around—I do that a lot of the time. There definitely is a lot of freedom, I do want to leave lengthy space for improvisations, and I want to play games with clarity versus obscurity in that I want to sometimes play something that’s really familiar, but if I obscure it enough, it’ll have this air of familiarity to the audience, but they won’t quite be sure what it is, as opposed to if I just go out and give a definite reading of it. Whereas if I play something that’s totally obscure, like even up to and including some tone rows, if I can make that clear, if I can put something behind it that makes it sound like a gesture that really communicates, then it’s successful. It’s a dichotomy, you know, between the two extremes, much in the same way as improvisation and composition being a dichotomy. Dave Liebman says all improvisers are composers, and composers are improvisers, there’s a relationship between the two, and so in some sense you might argue that the best compositions sound improvised. At least they sound improvised in the sense that, when you hear a Bach suite, the idea would be that it’s going to sound like the first time it was ever heard to a human; and at the same time if you’re playing something that’s totally improvised, one idea might be to have it sound like something that’s composed. Of course that varies from example to example. It’s also nice to just deal with things that are textures—textures can sound really cool. I really like Steve Reich, and I’m not sure where the melody is when I listen to that stuff, but I find that music really soulful; and there’s something about it that really resonates for me. It’s really different than other music I love, like maybe Webern or John Coltrane or lots of other things, but with Reich a lot of times, it’s just textural stuff—I like that, I’m interested in that, too. A lot of guys I’ve been playing with lately—Muhal Abrams— [there’s] a lot of stuff with textures rather than the melodies. Throughout my career, I think I’ve mostly focused on clarity—I admired players who were really clear, like Wes Montgomery—I love Wes Montgomery, so clear, and it was like everything was sort of composed—that was what I went for. So lately I admire things that are a little more obscure.
CK: When you’re improvising freely, how do you know when it’s time to stop? And a follow-up to that: have you ever gotten so into it, that you played longer than you thought you did, or you played stuff that surprised you when you heard it back on a recording, because you were just lost in it?
LG: Oh yes, that’s the whole idea! That’s the whole idea. It’s like tennis, like playing above your head. [In tennis they say], “you played over your head today!” You know how that goes, somebody’s in the finals at Wimbledon, and they play a perfect game—like “how did he do that?” I have moments like that in all kinds of gigs, where [I say], “how did that happen? How did I know to do that, right at that point?” So that’s definitely what you’re going for. Sometimes I have moments where it’s like pulling teeth, like something’s just not coming out at all, and I listen back and think, “hey, it wasn’t actually that bad…” the whole gamut is in there. And so you have to be forgiving of yourself when things don’t go so well, but at the same time, be supportive of yourself—congratulate yourself on things that go well. Like The Inner Game of Tennis, where he said (I think that Galway said this, at least…) it’s OK to make mistakes—there’s no need to make mistakes—but it’s OK to make mistakes—there’s really no need to make mistakes—but it’s OK to make mistakes… [laughter] the cycle just goes on and on and on because when you’re improvising you need to be completely unconscious, or perhaps better, conscious but not self-conscious, so that you’re able to play to your fullest extent. And at the same time you have to have a tremendous ego to think you’re gonna go out there and actually play a musical instrument, and have a bunch of people listening to what you’re going to play, but at the same time you have to be selfless and completely without ego in order for it to mean anything of substance, because the vibrations that are all of us, and the creator, and everything in between is really what’s coming out through your music—ultimately, you didn’t really create any of it, but you aligned yourself with the forces that were already there. If Schoenberg created some really cool shapes, if Berg came up with something, if Charlie Parker did this, if Sydney Bechet did that—it’s good to steal… Picasso says, “Good artists copy; great artists steal…” You know, many times with our students, we’re saying “you have to be original, you have to have your own voice” and then the other camp says, “man, you don’t have any voice, you don’t have anything to say, just sound like ‘this,’ just play like Bird, just play like Ron Carter…” and the truth is somewhere between. We all have our own voice, yet we need to get history, we need to learn craft, we need to be educated… so really, the balance is somewhere down the middle.
CK: More dichotomies, too, with the egos and the selflessness…
CK: I read your bio; it says you studied Classical music with Mr. Guastafeste—did you study Jazz or free improv with anybody?
LG: Not particularly… not really, when I came up I… well, it was a sort of haphazard beginning. I started on accordion, so I had an accordion teacher. I started playing guitar when I was about six, so I was primarily a guitar player throughout my youth—it wasn’t until 20 that I started playing the bass.
CK: Wow, that’s incredible…
LG: I played guitar, and I found my way to jazz through rock-n-roll. My parents weren’t musicians; we didn’t have a turntable in the house. The first song I can remember going around the turntable was Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds, and I loved that. So, I came up through Pop music—Jimmy Hendrix and the Beatles and all of that, but fortunately I got to hear live Jazz pretty early. I heard people like Yusef Lateef, Sonny Stitt, Elvin Jones… oh my goodness, Chick Corea, Tony Williams… people like that when I was about 16 or 17 [years old]. So at that point I was playing guitar, composing a lot of tunes for a little group that I had with a good friend of mine, a saxophone player named Tom Hahn, and we had a group, and we wrote music, and we had these other two fellas who were in our group and we used to play the local joint, and I was just trying to sound something like Chick Corea [or] John Coltrane on the guitar. I loved Wes Montgomery, I hadn’t really studied him, I was excited about him—I was pretty illiterate, but at the same time I was writing melodies, I was imitating Chick Corea a lot, and John Coltrane. I started playing flute in high school, because that gave me a chance to get some Classical background. I had a very good teacher named Janet Puskar. I learned how to read etudes—I went through a lot of etudes with her, and she taught me scales and breaking up of intervals and everything, so it improved my musicianship a lot, because I think I got to a point where I said, “hey, I don’t know how to read music… I’m 16 years old, and I know I want to be a musician, I have no doubt about it…” so it was my chance to get literacy. I went to Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University at that time and studied composition for a couple of years—I basically left school and went off on my own, and shortly thereafter started playing bass, which happened through a weird set of circumstances. I had borrowed an electric bass to start playing in a Top 40 band that was headed by a jazz pianist named Cal Bezemer and a fine drummer named Draseer Khalid, who had played with a lot of great jazz players in Chicago, Draseer came on the gig one day and said to me, “hey man, why don’t you play your upright on this gig?” and I said, “I don’t know anything about upright bass. I’m a guitar player, I’m just fooling around…” He said, “Oh really? I thought you were an upright player—you’d be a great upright player—you should think about that…” So I always think back to Draseer being the one who planted that seed, and I became sorta like the Blues Brothers—“we’re on a mission.” I was saving my money, and I got the bass, brought it home in a sleeping bag, and started practicing when I was twenty, and just started shedding like crazy. I sold my guitar—I had a very nice jazz guitar, a Gibson L5—sold that and just put everything on hold. So after that I got into Classical music. I got in the [Chicago] Civic Orchestra—Harold Siegel & Joe Guastafeste, and then from there started playing cello, studying with Karl Fruh. I got a Bachelor’s in cello and a Master’s Degree in cello performance from Chicago Musical College in my early 30’s. So it’s been a wild and crazy road, but I fell into the jazz stuff pretty early, and so that was kind of being in the right place at the right time. I met people early on—I worked with a guy named Dave Bloom who has a music school in Chicago now, and I got some advice from Dave about improvisation. I took some lessons with him before I played bass, and Dave used me in his group. He had all kinds of great jazz musicians coming through, including Wilbur Campbell, the great drummer, and Willie Pickens, Larry Luchowski, Jody Christian, John Young… all the great Chicago musicians were coming through that group, and so I started meeting people. It wasn’t just through Dave’s group of course, it was from sessions and various things, but anyway, the key element for me was Wilbur Campbell heard me and recommended me to Joe Segal, and so I started to play at The Jazz Showcase. My first gig at the Showcase was when I was 21 years old, with Sonny Stitt—so I’d been playing for a year—that was a great initiation into the whole thing. The musicians on that gig were Willie Pickens, who’s now well in his 80’s, and Wilbur Campbell. So there’s this huge Chicago connection with all these different musicians. Like Wilbur Campbell—Jack DeJohnette first started playing on Wilbur’s drums before Jack was officially a drummer; Jack was a great piano player before he played drums, and he used to go over to Wilbur’s house and play the drums when was a teenager. Anyway, the beauty of it is all these different options in this great city of Chicago; all these wonderful musicians that are in close quarters. Sometimes they don’t play with each other, but the connections are always there… Chicago Musical College, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Joe Guastafeste… hooking up with Muhal Richard Abrams… some connections with Ramsey Lewis, Charles Stepney, Eddie Harris… it’s been a great honor for me to have been part of this scene, and I’ve learned so much from each and every person who I’ve been associated with. This [past] summer, playing with Jack DeJohnette , Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell was really a career high for me, and very different from many of the kind of gigs that I get to do normally, but I love all these different kinds of gigs, and it was especially inspiring for me to play with them.
CK: I’ll bet it was! I would love to play with Jack DeJohnette… it must have given you a lot of freedom…
LG: It sure did. First time I played with him was in 1993, and that was a cool gig because Jack DeJohnette was the leader, and Jody Christian was on piano, Vaughn Freeman on tenor saxophone, and Ira Sullivan. So Jody, Vaughn & I were the old-time guys when Jack was coming up as a kid, and somehow I got on that gig, which was a great blessing for me, and we had a great time, we had six nights of that, and that’s how I first met Jack.
CK: Do you still play any of those other instruments, cello, flute, guitar…?
LG: I play them all! I actually play them all the time now, because teaching down here at the University of Illinois is a beautiful thing. We have a great jazz department here. We don’t have a full-time guitar professor at the moment, although that’s something that we’re looking for… so I find myself teaching a lot of the guitar students, which gives me occasion to pick my guitar up. My chops are pretty “up” now, so I play a lot with them. Cello I definitely play. I play some gigs on cello… actually I played a little cello on the set I mentioned before, with Jack [DeJohnette]. We did a piece where I used the cello, and I really enjoyed it. There’s a direct connection, because it’s really [cello teacher] Karl Fruh that finalized my conception of sound—not that it’s final, but he really took me to the next level—the bow arm, fingering. You see, I actually went back to school to get a degree in bass with Karl Fruh as my teacher, but shortly after coming back, I told Karl I wanted to switch to cello, and Karl said, “I think that’s a really bad idea…” and I said, “I know, but I want to do it anyway.” And he said, “well, OK, if you want to do that, you have to learn these pieces, and if you do, then we’ll accept you provisionally.” So I did, and I went and got my bachelor’s and my master’s in cello performance. I played four recitals, I played a lot of chamber music, and the concepts, the conception, the technical ideas and everything completely feed all of my work now as a bass player. And so I see this connection between all the great work I did with Joe Guastafeste, one of the greatest orchestral bass players, section leaders of all time, and a dear friend, and all the strength and power that he always exhibited in that role and as a bassist—that combined with the lyricism of Karl Fruh, the beautiful sound of the cello and everything, those two elements are what I try to channel in terms of my core sound. And then of course all the experiences I’ve had with all the different jazz players… bass players: Rufus Reid was helpful when I was young, I took a couple lessons with Rufus, and he’s just beautiful, I love him, and really just watching Rufus play… Before I even thought I was going to play bass I used to watch him, so he was a big influence on me as a bassist at first, just because he was in the scene. But all the different bassists that I saw like Gene Perla (with Elvin Jones), he was an influence, Jimmy Garrison, of course Ray Brown & people like that… everybody really, Ron Carter, and so on…
CK: Would you liken someone who plays more than one instrument to someone who speaks more than one language? And do you find a benefit in that, do you encourage your students to play other instruments?
LG: That’s a great question! I think there’s a real danger, and I see it with kids now, the kids now have so much pressure to prove how versatile they are or how deep they are. I had a kid who handed me a resume, and he had studied with probably forty different bass players. All of these different people, and I said, “how old are you?” [laughs] “You’re eighteen?” I mean, I studied with Karl Fruh for like twenty years or something. The kids feel a lot of pressure, and so I’m real careful about stressing seriousness in the course of study. And so, I think that playing a lot of instruments would be a dangerous thing; I don’t particularly recommend it. In fact, back to Karl Fruh, the first thing he said was, “I think that’s a really bad idea.” And I said well that’s what I want to do, and he said well, OK. The idea is that the more you spread yourself out, you’re going to spread yourself too thin. You want to be in an orchestra, you have to go behind a screen against 500 people, there’s a lot of pressure on people nowadays. You’ve got to be a bass player, you’ve got to make sure that the bass playing is really strong; on the other hand, you have to be a musician, and so, to be a musician means you have to understand the wholeness of the music. For a Classical musician, I think that means full ability to play the piano; to some extent to be able to score read—I’m not saying everybody’s going to be a virtuoso at the piano, but I’m saying to have those kinds of functional skills. The main thing you have to remember, Chris, I would say to the readers, is that there are exceptions to every rule. That’s the thing, we’re all different. All the teaching that I’ve done through these years now—we all have different learning styles—what resonates really well for one student, will be totally foreign and repulsive to another. I try not to have my teaching be too autobiographical. It gets that way sometimes anyway, but I’ve enjoyed playing all these different instruments, they’ve all informed my bass playing. I’m a better bass player because of the various experiences that I’ve had as a cellist and as a guitar player, it informs what I do. It didn’t distract me from what I wanted to do, in fact it helped, but it’s not a normal way of coming up. I was used to playing guitar, I could play guitar in a group—I could solo—so when I came to the bass, the first thing I did was go to the top of the bass, and I was trying to get the same sound that I was getting on guitar. Again, I don’t recommend that for everybody—I think every person has to find their own voice, and that depends on where they’re coming from. I think we find that a lot of the really great bass players, like Scott LaFaro…
CK: I was just going to mention him… he started on clarinet…
LG: Yeah, you know, everybody comes from different places. Don Thompson is a heck of a piano player, I don’t really know his background, but find your voice, don’t spread yourself too thin, and take it real seriously, whatever you’re studying. When I was playing cello, I didn’t have a handicap, like “oh, you know, by the way, I’m a jazz bass player… I just got through playing last week with so-and-so…” I was just some guy in the cellos, so if my vibrato was tight & messed up, or if I was out of tune, or if I was rushing, or if my spiccato didn’t sound good, that was what it was—it wasn’t anything else—it wasn’t anything other than I wasn’t making the gig, I wasn’t really doing what I needed to do. So as long as you’re looking at it that way, it’s good. It’s just that you have to decide on one course of action, and if you’re trying to do too many things at the same time, that’ll really mess with you. You know, Stravinsky talked about one course of action… when I sit down to write a piece of music, at first I’m overwhelmed by the range of possibilities available to me, and I’m not able to proceed, until the point at which I decide on one course of action. I think the Stravinsky quote is “when I decide on one course of action, then I’m able to proceed…” So I have options with all of the experience that I’ve had, but for our students out there, many ISB members and readers, it’s very important to get the foundation. I do think, however, that the specialization can go too far; like bass players that don’t use the bow. I have an old, dear friend of mine who used to shadow Ray Brown for lessons, and Ray would put him off to see how serious he was—he’d say “call me tomorrow” “I’m busy, call me tomorrow” and then he’d say finally, “OK, come in,” and the guy came in for a lesson, thinking he was going to play Tricotism or Green Dolphin Street or something else, and he started to play this stuff and Ray made him play scales with the bow, and the guy went out with his tail between his legs… he was really surprised at that. And I’ve heard stories of people getting grants to go study with Ron Carter thinking they’re going to talk about how he was thinking about some time shifts with Herbie… [laughing] and Tony in the 60’s, and suddenly he’s talking about Simandl hand position or whatever. And so, fundamentals are really, really important. And that’s one of the things, I never get bored with beginners, I like working with beginners, because the fundamentals are the same for them as they are for me going to play the next gig, the fundamentals are still there.
CK: That could bring us to some of the teaching questions… private teaching: what is the ultimate goal?
LG: There’s no ultimate goal, it really depends on the student’s goal. It’s really what the student is trying to achieve; establishing agreement with the student as to that goal, and then finding a common ground on which you can work. Music is a process; I don’t feel at all that I’m anywhere—I’m nowhere but here, sitting here talking to you on a computer—and I’ve got so many things that I want to work on and want to do, and that’s kind of discouraging for students because they come in and they feel like “OK, I don’t know anything…” It’s important to give them specific goals, like “how many tunes do you know? How many octave scales can you play?” Benny Golson wrote a tune called Horizon Ahead because the horizon is always ahead, so maybe the goal, if there is one— I’m rethinking my answer to your great question [laughs]— my goal is really to instill in them a joy in music, a love of music, and a love of the process, because that’s really it. The humility that you’re human when you go out and play with another person—all you can do is surrender to the moment the best you can, but at the same time, along with that surrender, you have the choice, every single minute to make that music sound better, to make everybody in the group sound that much better, so you need to learn to listen to the composite whole, you need to listen to the way the whole group sounds. There are all these dichotomies, you have to be able to play a good bass line, that just sounds great by itself, you have to be able to do all of these different skillsets by themselves, but then none of that matters because now you have to play with other people, and what works really great on one gig will be horrible on another gig. There’s a perfect example: Ray Brown’s bassline on Killer Joe—what a great course of study. So much communication, so much live energy! You can imagine Quincy up there conducting, what that must have felt like. I never heard the Benny Golson version when I was young, and I played it with Willie Pickens. Willie says Killer Joe and I played Ray’s bassline, because that’s what I knew, that’s what I heard. Willie got on the piano and started going [sings pitches, quarter notes: C G C B B-flat F B-flat…] he started playing Addison Farmer’s bassline—the Benny Golson version—but I didn’t know about that one, I hadn’t listened to that. So what you think works great in one situation, doesn’t work in all, and you’ll go nuts if you think that you’re going to have everything all prepared. You have to have reflexes, and you have to have openness and awareness, and you a have to have strength. So maybe that’s a goal of teaching. If I were teaching someone to be in the symphony, then I could say something specific, like the goal is to win the audition for the Pittsburgh Symphony or something like that, that’s a reasonable goal, but even there I think that people in that line of work would say the goal is really to be the best musician you can be—to make a good sound, to love music, to be a complete musician. Bill Basie said, “be a nice guy.” [laughs]
CK: That’s important too! How do you teach improvisation?
LG: Oh gosh… it’s a real challenge, because teaching improvisation is a balance between imitative work and creative work. So, everyone’s in disagreement as to when that occurs. Some people feel you should transcribe—transcribing is the word that they use a lot in school, you’re gonna transcribe—I don’t like the word transcribe because it sounds like I’m going to hand in an assignment, you know, to a teacher, and then they’re going to put a grade on it, they’re going to look at it and say, oh that is a B-flat, and it should have been something else. Really what you’re doing when you’re doing imitative work, is you’re trying to sound like somebody else. You’re trying to sound like somebody else. Jim Hall says he never transcribed anybody. He never tried to sound like anybody but himself. Part of it, too, is that generation. When people were coming up playing jazz in those days, if you came in and played like somebody else, that would actually be sort of a problem—like you were a dilettante or a student or something like that—it would be like, “well what are you going to do?” At least that’s my guess on it. When people my age were coming up, I was born in 1954, we were still able to be dreamers and come in and not know what the heck we were doing in certain things and pick it up as it went along, but there’s more pressure on kids now to know the whole history of the music, which is both good and bad. It’s really good to have to know all of that stuff, but the problem is there becomes a lot of what I call “police activity,” where people are going in and saying, well if you had listened to the 1965 recording of that, you’d realize that it goes to F at that point. I think the thing that we have to remember is that that recording happened in 1965, as great as it was, it might be something that I’ve listened to five kazillion times, but you can’t go on a live gig and play what was played on that recording—that’s over, that stuff’s over. Eric Dolphy says when you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air, you can never recapture it again. And that’s really true. Sousa hated recording, he was quite sure that recording was going to be the end of music as we know it [laughs], what an irony! I think he was thinking about money, you know that people wouldn’t want to buy his arrangements, because they could get a recording of it or something, but at any rate, the music we know as Jazz really developed through the recording medium, so now it’s come to the point where we have internet, and anybody in Montana or Malaysia or Antarctica, anybody can learn this music, as long as they have internet access. Of course, it’s better if you can be around primary sources, obviously, but you can see the primary sources on YouTube. Anyway, that’s the nature of imitative practice and playing. The other side of the coin is creative, so I’m really just trying to balance both in my teaching. I can get specific with somebody, I can make them write their own bassline for Falling in Love with Love, then transcribe somebody else’s bassline. Let’s see what Paul Chambers played on that, and let’s analyze it a little bit. Also the practice of improvisation, that’s the other thing—all of these things need to happen a little bit at the same time, and it can be frustrating because it can feel like there’s no direction to it, and I really try to sum up the needs of each student as it comes toward me, and I’m sure it’s going to evolve as the months and years go by.
CK: You mentioned YouTube, do you have any opinions about how, let’s say recent technology (maybe in the last 10 years)—how it’s changed things, helped things, hindered things… as a player, as a teacher, what do you see in your students…?
LG: I use technology all of the time, technology is fantastic! Portable recording products like the Zoom products, where you can really, not only hear yourself, but you can see yourself. You can put that in front on a gig and you can see a lot of the stuff I talked to you about earlier, about relaxation while playing and that kind of stuff. I can point out all kinds of stuff to students based on watching them in a small ensemble or in a big band. I can say, “are you aware of the fact that your neck clicks like this when you play?” [laughing] or “you’re holding up your fingers here… I’m really worried that you’re trying to muscle the entire instrument with your little finger… I can’t do that, and I’m bigger than you are…” You learn so much from that kind of technology. You can hear yourself, you’ve got the slow-down products, Transcribe! and the Amazing Slow Downer before it, you’ve got all the recording products that people can use… you’ve got notation products. Years ago, for example, I would travel around with a little Yamaha keyboard, when I’d tour a lot—I got the idea from Monty Alexander, he said, “man, you get these things at pawn shops,” like a little thing for twenty bucks, and it’s great. You could be in the room and doing Bach inventions or you could be singing or you could do whatever you want, and this thing cost you no money. Well nowadays, you can get a little thing that Akai makes… hang on… [shows it to me] voila! So this thing… the original price was probably like eighty bucks and I probably got it for forty or something, I waited until the price went down. It has no power source, it has no internal sounds, basically I’m talking to you right now from a Macbook Pro, I could be with this thing at Starbucks, with that little keyboard, which is just two octaves, I can determine whatever octave I want to be in, and all I’m doing is one camera cord that’s connecting to the computer and it’s powering up, and I can use it with notation software, Finale or Sibelius, it doesn’t matter—I’m a Finale user because that’s what I started on, a lot of our kids use Sibelius, they’re both great—and then Logic, I’m a Logic user for recording, like ProTools or Digital Performer, Cake Walk or whatever it is now—I can’t keep up [laughs], but my point is, I could be sitting at Starbuck’s, killing two hours, writing music or, in particular, playing it. I recently did a really cool gig, a trio that I composed for—two guys from the ACM, Ed Wilkerson on tenor saxophone & clarinets, and Avreeayl Ra on drums—I wrote a lengthy, seven-movement suite—I did all this stuff at Starbucks or wherever I wrote the charts out. I did the charts in Finale, but I wanted to give them a feel for what the charts were going to sound like, so I did real-time performances in MIDI, and then when I do mix-down I use the internal sounds that are on the computer—I’ve got really good sounds, like sampled upright sound, really nice drum sounds—so somebody could be in another city, and I just email them the mp3s and they can listen and play along. They know much more where I’m going to be at… is that cheating? Yeah, sure it’s cheating, whatever, but it’s what we have. I mean, God, the old days! You’d have somebody like Robert Farnun writing charts out in ink or Klaus Ogerman writing out arrangements on a bus, those guys are like gods! It’s unbelievable what they could do! Quincy Jones writing all those arrangements… but the fact is, this technology is definitely here, and it has to be part of our musical lives. Not to mention that it’s also how we market it. That young man from Israel—the guy who dances with his feet—he’s doing like regular streaming broadcasts of his stuff, he’s got really cool videos, so that’s the thing that we’re trying to learn about. I’m pretty slow on it, I mean, I can’t say I’m a luddite with all the technical talk I just gave you, but I am by no means an expert—if I haven’t done something for a month or two, I’ve got to get the manual out, start calling support and everything—it’s a huge pain, and the stuff upgrades all the time, but as musicians we now have to be somewhat in touch with this stuff, which is kind of unfortunate—all of these things kinda spread us a little thin. I mean, Lester Young, what did he have to think about? All he had to think about was being Lester Young, living life and everything. We’ve got to think about, oh, I’ve got to learn some new software, I’ve got to transcribe… there’s a lot of pressure on young people coming up, and that’s why I like to say the Stravinsky quote: you’ve got to pick what you want. It’s like a buffet, you can’t eat everything that’s on it; I guess you could have a little bit, but if you really want to get into something, just pick a few things and really get into it. But it’s a great time to be alive, as a musician—it’s a challenging time, because there’s so much information that’s already out there, we expect these kids to know everything that we knew when we were growing up, and more! And then they know all kinds of stuff that we don’t. My daughter could wipe me out, she just turned 19, and I keep going “who was that? Was that My Chemical Romance?” That’s like 15 years old now or something, and she says “I’ve never even heard of that.” But what am I supposed to do? Go listen…? How long would it take me to get referenced to all of that? It’s a bit overwhelming.
CK: It is, definitely—that’s a great answer. You mentioned your daughter—do you want to say anything about balancing work and family?
LG: [sighs] It’s a really difficult thing. Family is the most important thing of all. Family is a special thing that we’re really blessed with. And it’s not a given, it’s something that’s given to us, it’s a gift, and it’s a gift that has to be cherished, and it’s just plain hard. It’s hard for artists to do that, to put their work on the side, to put their family first, and music can be kind of like an addiction. You have to try to put it aside, you have to try to do it in your head, but then you’re distracted. Sometimes you just have to learn to wait, you have to learn to do what’s most important at that moment, again, in a certain sense, deciding on one course of action—maybe that’s really what that is.
CK: Approximately how many songs have you written?
LG: Well… I don’t know. It’s probably pushing one hundred maybe? It depends on how you define song, I’ve written a couple suites—the suites tend to go in groups of 7, so maybe 75, maybe 80… not thousands or hundreds.
CK: That’s still a lot! Do you write at the piano or the bass, or both?
LG: A little of everything. I work away from the instrument sometimes, sometimes I just sing… I just hear in my head. I like to work more at the bass, in fact one of the things that’s on my “to-do list” is a book of etudes—to try to get a connection between my improvisations and notation—I think it’d be a good thing, I think people would be interested in it, and I think it would be a good educational product. I’m getting really fluent with Finale, but obviously sitting at Starbucks with a 2-octave Akai keyboard is not going to be the same thing as really feeling something on the bass, so I think it’s probably going to be the idea of improvising etudes, and then perhaps building on them, and having it be an organic kind of thing, as opposed to just sitting and composing etudes. I probably will do more of that as well, but I think all the instruments teach us something. I play a lot of piano. I love to play piano, and I’ve studied piano for a long time, and I practice. I play a lot with my students, because that’s one of the things that I do in teaching, I vary whether I’m modeling for my students, meaning we’re both playing basses, trading basslines, trading solos, we’re talking about how we finger something—all those bass-specific kind of things. A lot of times what I’m trying to do is replicate what they’re going to be dealing with as a bass player; and if they’re going to be jazz bass players, the odds are they’re the only bass player in the group, unless it’s a “John Coltrane revisited” [laughing] where we revisit Africa Brass or something. Basically they’re going to be playing with a group, so when I play piano with them, I’m teaching them about where time is—where their time sits in relation to another musician—I’m able to talk about that. Because the whole point is a lot of “non-expert” musicians, people who don’t really play jazz, think that everything should be quantized, that everything should be lined-up—that the ride cymbal and the bass should be hitting exactly together, you know, that all of these parts should be working together—but actually, that’s what gives various kinds of great recordings and bands that we admire, that’s what gives them their personality—where a bass player put his sound in relation to what a drummer was doing. One quick example of the type of thing I’m talking about: let’s say I’m playing duo with one of my students, and I’m playing piano, so I’m trying to sound like Barry Harris, I’m trying to channel a behind the beat, bebop kind of playing, so that means I’m playing a little behind the beat to fatten it up, so it’s necessary for the student to learn where to put their beat in response to that. Many times my students will hear me do that, and they’ll start following what I’m doing, so of course, guess what happens? We start dragging; we get slower and slower—so we have to have an awareness of that—the bass player has to listen to the composite whole, the composite effect of what their sound is doing in relation to what the other musicians are doing. And the key principle in all of this—you remember if you took four-part harmony, that you were chastised if you wrote parallel octaves or parallel fifths, you were taught that that was not a good idea, well this is the same kind of principle; it’s the principle of something being complementary, only this time around we’re talking about rhythmic things. So what we’re saying is that when one player is doing one thing or when one part of the ensemble is doing one thing—sometimes a unison is definitely powerful, and there’s something that’s really hypnotic and intense about it—but oftentimes doing something different is what creates the fullness, the full energy. So the sound of a bass player being slightly—well perhaps behind the beat or perhaps ahead of the beat—all those things create a certain kind of an effect, there’s no right or wrong, it’s just that if they’re not on the same page with what it is that they’re trying to do (not that it needs to be overtly communicated, it just needs to be understood) then if they’re not, then you’re going to have problems with the way that the music feels. The students don’t really understand that. Another example of what I’m talking about is, they’ll hear somebody play a fill or a hit, and they think that means they’re supposed to do the same thing, but actually what would be better, would be that they hear what that is, and just think about what they can do to make that sound that much better, and perhaps find a way to answer that—wait for a lull, wait for an opening. Like a football player looking for the end-around, you know where the linemen are on the other side. Something along those lines, if you like sports analogies, but complementary is basically what it amounts to.
LG: The rhythm of jazz is so complex overall. If you take any recording, for example, Kind Of Blue, one of the most studied and admired and sold records in the history of jazz, and you just look at those three feels of those three soloists, just those three horn players, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane—those are 3 different ways of looking at the universe. The timeline hasn’t changed, the tempos are great—Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb—even that, how that rhythm section worked together, what kind of agreement that they had. The Classical musician coming in and trying to look into jazz, it’s a different kind of rhythmic universe, and so it becomes, “well, what’s the right way to do this?” “What do I do?” So there’s randomness, both in terms of that there’s a randomness within the individual player, some of the notes change, it’s always morphing—it’s alive! It’s constantly growing and has the DNA stamp of the player; the way Cannonball articulates and plays his eighth notes is so completely different than John Coltrane’s. And so, when we teach in school—that’s the other important thing—what are we going to do? We’re expecting John Coltrane, and so we’re going to mark them off because they’re Cannonball Adderly? It’s crazy, you can’t possibly do that. The student’s personality will lead them toward that; they’ll like Cannonball more than John Coltrane or vice versa. They’ll like Ray Brown more than Ron Carter or vice versa. They’ll go to certain things and so you just want to encourage them to go with those things, but at the same time, if they’re playing on an ECM tune, or a free composition, kind of like Ornette, or a bebop tune, each one of those situations is going to require something a little bit different, and they have to figure out how to do that. Another thing that’s amazing, is to realize how well those players will do other things that you didn’t think that they knew how to do. I’m talking about people like Elvin or Ray Brown or Ron Carter, you’ll suddenly hear them sound a little bit different, because they’re listening to the composite whole and they’re going to make the gig sound good. And that’s the experience of being a professional, you know, playing a lot of gigs, which, nowadays the kids have to do this in college because they don’t have the same kind of experiences that these players had when they were coming up—the community more and more has become the college scene… it’s just different, a different set of emphases.
CK: Bonus question: What is Jazz?
LG: What is jazz? [laughter] Alright, there’s going to be a long pause on this one… Two answers: one, it’s a wide-ranging, beautiful American artform; two, it’s impossible to fully define, because it’s really an expanding universe. It becomes hard to rein-in the boundaries, because the creative principles that were part of it, and its original cultural orientation are growing and changing by leaps and bounds, and so, if it’s going to be a living, breathing music, it’s going to inevitably have to grow and change, which it’s doing. Or it needs to be reined-in and defined, and that’s what we see nowadays, we see that with the different camps. And I think ultimately it’s becoming wider and wider… what was the William Butler Yeats poem? Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer… that’s The Second Coming, a William Butler Yeats poem—that’s kind of like what jazz is, and it’s really impossible to define. If you look at its history, and you say what Louis Armstrong was, or what Charlie Parker was, or so on and so forth, but each successive generation is taking it into other things, and that’s what I meant about the “police” factor—I just think that it really is subjective. It really is subjective, and you can’t completely argue why one thing is good and why something else isn’t, it just becomes your opinion. People are still arguing about serial music! Everybody’s real opinionated about the stuff, so I think it’s better in a certain way to just say, “I like that.” I was listening to great cellists the other day, I was listening to Jacqueline du Pré and Rostropovich and Leonard Rose. I’ve always admired Leonard Rose, I’m really knocked out by his control and everything. There’s this thing he plays with Glenn Gould, and you can see these two real different ways of looking at the universe up there with those two guys. And this Rose, is so beautiful and ultimately controlled; and Glenn Gould, he’s just coming from another place! Then I was looking at Jacqueline du Pré, and she was kind of coming from another place, too. She’s so into it, she’s so animal, she’s just beating up on the cello—it’s so emotional—she’s just going for it in every way! It seemed really natural. I think when you start trying to define what something is, and saying what it is and what it isn’t, there are going to be limitations to it. There are people who used to say, well, Beethoven wasn’t really a Classical composer, he wasn’t a Romantic composer, he was a dramatic composer—which is like saying he had his own music, he had his own style. Miles Davis used to say “there’s good music, and there’s bad music” and that’s the way I feel about it. When I listen to a bunch of Jerry Butler or Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions, it’s like really refreshing—especially after I’ve been listening to Webern—I was listening to Lulu and Wozzeck, and then Webern and Schoenberg, like non-stop for a month—I mean, it’s all I wanted to hear! I would kinda go nuts when I would hear Pop music or something, it would make me crazy! And then all of the sudden, I’m listening to Sergio Mendez and Brasil 66 or I’m listening to the Carpenters or I’m listening to some Irish music or whatever. All these different things… I don’t really have a problem with that. On the other hand, I played some Irish music around somebody who’s playing a pennywhistle, playing a left-handed flute, and knows like 5,000 reels & jigs—can’t read a note of music—and I think this guy is incredible! This is fantastic! I want to be just like him when I grow up! (I stole that line from Benny Golson.) See what I’m trying to say? We all have to find our own voice. You know, somebody from “the police” is going to come along and go, “that’s very nice what you’re doing, but that’s not really Jazz.” It’s no different than Classical—don’t you know that you can’t use vibrato on Bach? Didn’t anybody tell you that you need to hold the bow at the middle of the bow? Don’t you realize that you need to be tuned to 416? I work with Harry Allen, he’s an incredible saxophone player, and I come from a really different place, a different mindset than he would come from—that cat’s a bad cat! He can play anything he wants to play! He’s found a place, he feels that that’s his voice, that’s what he feels, he means business, and that really works for him. I’m a little more eclectic, I like a lot of different things, and I’m not afraid of losing my personality in these different things that I play. I feel like I’m going to have my own sound within things, and you’re not going to hear it so much if I’m playing on an Irish folk record and I’m just playing some whole notes, but I love that music, and I respect it, and hey, who says I have to be at the head of the class? Inevitably you’re going to have somebody who’s going to really like what you do. I’ve got a band right now with Paul Wertico—the drummer from Pat Metheny—and we’re playing with a guy named David Cain, who plays an iPad, and we play improvised music, and a lot of people come out and they go, “this is terrible! What tunes are you guys playing? What are you doing?” And that’s OK. And when I got with Muhal and the guys, that was the spirit. They know darn well who they are as human beings, and that’s what they’ve been doing—they’ve just been playing who they are and what they feel, and I think that’s something that I personally found inspiring. But I think that for students coming up right now, it’s that balance of imitative and creative—it really is. Finding your own voice is very, very important, but at the same time, really being absorbed in whatever music you love. A love of music—a true love and respect for music—that’s what we’re all talking about. You know, Winton Marsallis loves and respects all the music that he plays. John Zorn loves the music that he plays. All great artists do that, and yet they might not be able to play the same gig together, and that’s good, that’s OK, it doesn’t work. You can see Pavarotti and James Brown on YouTube, they actually performed together! [laughs] It’s kind of fun, they’re both cracking up! It was kind of interesting to hear, it’s kind of comedic in a certain sense. Either way, they’re both great singers, in my opinion, they’re both incredible, but so completely different. So anything can be brought together, it’s just the audience ultimately will decide, and reviewers, I suppose—really the test of time will decide about what something is. You can’t get away from Duke Ellington, the Blanton-Webster band, or Wayne Shorter Speak No Evil, or anything Charlie Parker did, or anything Lester Young did—when we’re talking about Jazz—that’s a core body of work, so I think it’s important that it be celebrated. You know the idea about calling it Black American Music and all that—I have nothing but support for that, because that’s African-American music, you know, definitely. But that’s just one part of music. Music is a seamless energy that goes between many cultures. So when you’re hearing John Coltrane, you’re not just hearing African-American culture, you’re hearing European culture coming out as well because of his love for various kinds of music, whatever he was listening to—you’re hearing Indian music; you’re hearing all the music of the world really coming together. That’s the ultimate thing: one human race, one world.
CK: that’s probably the best way to close, so I’m not going to ask any more questions.
LG: Things that are dogmatic and not open do feel a little less comfortable, and if that aspect comes out, especially in the young players… I see it in young players, and people think it’s hip to be dogmatic or to be real negative about things. I mean, I can be negative from the standpoint of “hey, you’re turning the time around… you’re playing out of tune… you’re rushing” or something along those lines, I suppose that’s negative, that’s critical, but that’s specific stuff. But when somebody comes in and has an agenda—and I’m talking about players—the only agenda we should have is to make everybody sound good. That’s really it in a nutshell.