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A Fireside Chat with Roswell Rudd

By Published: February 21, 2004
AAJ: You have been a champion of Herbie Nichols' music.

RR: Yeah, Herbie Nichols was an artist. He was a storyteller, a writer, a great chess player, a trickster, a fine accompanist to many singers, and wrote material in many different genres from cabaret shows to West Indian music. He was very knowledgeable, but again, a student, an eternal student. He was not a great entrepreneur. So as far as being a bandleader and a hustler, I didn't learn any of that from Herbie, but I did learn so very artistic devices and intricacies about composition and improvisation and style in this music of ours.

AAJ: Let's touch on the New York Art Quartet.

RR: That formed at the beginning of 1963. We kept that going until the end of '65 and then John (John Tchicai) went back to Denmark and he pretty much divided his time between Denmark and the States and I didn't see him too much after that. We all kind of went our separate ways.

AAJ: You have collaborated with Steve Lacy through the years, how have you seen him grow as an artist in that time?

RR: Yeah, well, he didn't compose at all back in the Sixties. And even when I was starting up with John Tchicai and Milford and so on and so forth, so I was starting to write and that was one of the reasons that I joined up with them because I would be able to do a lot of free improvisation and derive material from this and be able to write stuff. With Steve, it was the pursuit of just a repertory of Thelonious Monk's music and I was happy just doing that actually because I was finding out so much about composition from doing this with Steve. But once he left the States and was over in Europe, actually working a lot, which was something he couldn't do in the States and one of the reasons why he went to Europe was so that he could really be working and not just study or support a habit with alternative means, but actually working in music. This is what he was able to do in Europe and after a year or so of that, then he started writing and he done an awful lot of writing. When I play with him now, it is mainly his compositions and then a few of Monk's that we like to do, some Ellington and Strayhorn, and things that he likes, but mainly, he has such a large body of compositions now, he even has his own classics. That's what we are involved with Steve now.

AAJ: You attended Yale University, is an Ivy League education any different from that of a city college?

RR: Oh, Fred, that would depend. I think really when you go to college, you need to probably take an extra two years, maybe an extra four years and you have to have marketable skills. To go four years and get a liberal arts degree anywhere, what it means is that you have got to go out and create a situation for yourself. I think that is what I learned from the four year degree was just, first of all, figure out what I wanted to do and then try to create a place on the American market for myself. It has taken a long time, but I think like now, there is probably more of a place for me than before.

AAJ: What place did you wish to create for yourself?

RR: Well, I was looking to support myself through my musical activities. I was never able to do it purely from playing, but now, it has built up in all the different experiences of teaching and the ethnomusicological work and compositions and the few recordings that were made a long time ago. All of this has built up into some kind of a legacy now. It seems to have some importance in the year 2000, even though it was forty years ago when a lot of this stuff was done. It doesn't mean I did it forty years ago and it stopped. It means that I had to continue in various ways to get myself out there. But now, the weight of all that seems to be the thing that is responsible for things opening up the way they have in the last year or so.

AAJ: Eric Dolphy, although he was cherished by some while he was living, it was not nearly as much as he is beloved and respected now, years after his untimely death.

RR: That's true, Fred. I think that there are more people aware of him and are more influenced by him now than ever before. I would say the same with Herbie Nichols. It is wonderful.

AAJ: It must be gratifying that it did not take your death for people to appreciate Roswell Rudd.

RR: I'm always humbled when I am in the presence of great personalities and great seekers and so forth. 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. The frustration of not being able to quite get into the mainstream and whatever it takes to support yourself this way, I think McCoy Tyner called it a privilege and so I kind of think that is humbling to, to have gotten to this point to have the privilege of supporting myself this way. That is something.

AAJ: You won the Guggenheim Fellowship for composition.

RR: Yeah, I finally hit it this last May. I submitted three examples of my work. It was an early piece and then something sort of halfway between then and now and then something that I recently wrote.

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