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A Fireside Chat with Roswell Rudd

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I guess I really lament the premature demise of so many geniuses. I consider myself very fortunate to have lived to see the fruition of so much labor. —Roswell Rudd
I once saw Roswell Rudd play a show with Steve Lacy where he rapped about soap. At the time, in the confusion, I was unable to fully appreciate what it was he was doing. I thought it was avant, but now (with maturity and the grace of wisdom in age) I have come to realize that if anything, it was at least interesting, which is far more than I can say for most of the music that is coming down the pipe these days. I was blown away that Verve had the brass to put out a Lacy with Rudd release (but they also released the Cecil Taylor, Dewey Redman, and Elvin Jones ditty last year). The trombonist and I spoke about his collaborations with Lacy, his time with the New York Art Quartet, and his new release on the Knitting Factory house label, Broad Strokes, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz (AAJ): Let's start from the beginning.

Roswell Rudd (RR): My father was an amateur drummer, who played just about every day in the living room from the time I was born. He played along to recordings. These would be very old recordings from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties. This was a sound that was in my life from the earliest of times. One thing I noticed about my father when he played were the different expressions that came across his face, only when he played the drums. They indicated to me, even then, that he was going somewhere else when he played. I was aware of another world where music and sound could take you. I liked the idea of that world being a groovy place. I started taking melophone in the grammar school band when I was nine or ten years old. Then I moved up to the French horn in a couple of years, but there were no French horn players on the jazz records, so the closest thing in sound was the trombone and so I asked my folks to get a trombone and they found somebody who was going down to a town where they had a pawn shop there and they brought me back a trombone and I started playing that along with the records. Pretty soon, I was playing that in school. That being the music that I started with, I pretty much stayed with that. What I liked about that music was the fact that the instruments sounded like people talking and laughing, vocal sounds. Each of the players on these different records, even though they might be playing the same instrument, they were all distinguishable from each other because it was their personalities that they were projecting through the music and I found that very colorful and exciting and kind of theatrical. These elements of the music have remained in tact for me and I have just tried to develop them on my own and I've always sought out other musicians in whom I heard a similar process going on.

AAJ: Who are some of these musicians?

RR: Well, the earliest one and the one who really clinched it for me as far as what I was going to do for the rest of my life was when I heard Louis Armstrong play. That was such a thrill for me, I decided right then and there that if I could somehow create the experience that he created for me that day, that I would try to create that experience for other people. I would make that my calling. I started to hear some other jazz. I'm talking about live. Jazz at the Philharmonic, this is where you get your underage kind of concerts, no alcohol being served. It was just a good place to go and listen to real upscale jazz musicians in a jam session kind of format. There were other clubs that I liked to go to, Birdland, the Half Note.

AAJ: So how does one go from listening to something as tame as the Jazz at the Philharmonic to performing with advanced progressives like Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, and John Tchicai?

RR: Well, the music I grew up with was one that depended on, leaned very heavily on collective improvisation. The music of my contemporaries, when I was in my twenties in New York City, they were calling it avant-garde, but it leaned very heavily on collective improvisation. That's how I was able to go from one traditional generation to another traditional generation because they both involved collective improvisations and there is probably a continuum that you could find in improvised music anywhere in the world, collective improvisational things. What I really needed to study was bop and fortunately I had some help there. I had a great teacher who was playing in a traditional band and the small bop combos. He knew how to find a part for himself, play a role in either situation. He was able to show me some things about bop that would supplement my experience and my knowledge in collective improvisation. That was sort of the thing that was missing for me. Herbie Nichols was very helpful because he was really a high bop composer and performer and the experience that I had with Steve Lacy, the great saxophonist following Thelonious Monk around, that was very helpful too. But I am still going to be studying music the rest of my day. You really never know enough. The new material and the future of what you do comes from improvisation and so any kind of a way or system or no system at all really that will generate a situate where there is improvising is going to give you your future musically. This is where all the new stuff has come from for me, from improvisation. I guess that is why it is so important for me to keep improvising.

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