A Fireside Chat With Arthur Blythe
“ I am not just avant-garde. I like to play all types of music... I like music with form, not atonal or aform... Sometimes they put me into a weird bag and want me to be weird, inaccessible. I think I am accessible. ”
At one time, Arthur Blythe was part of the Columbia machine (not unlike the Miramax machine, how else do you explain the Gangs of New York phenomenon). Then trends took precedent over music and a young Wynton over a middle-aged Blythe (so the urban legend goes). Blythe still managed to record a classic Lenox Avenue Breakdown. Blythe is a Horace Tapscott throwback, having worked with the late Tapscott early in his career. I spoke with Blythe and we talked about his days with Tapscott and his years with Columbia, as always, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Arthur Blythe: I think I sort of fell in love with the sound of the music, the way it made me feel. I just had to partake in that. I remember when I was real little, I was born here in LA. I was born on 53rd off Central Avenue, between Central and Hoover. There was this little club, a little eating place, but it had a jukebox in it. You could put a nickel in the machine and some entertainment would come out. I remember that I didn't have a nickel, but someone had placed one in just before I came up to the machine and I saw Cab Calloway in there. I didn't know who it was at the time, but after a period of time, I realized and found out that that was Cab Calloway. I was inspired by things like that. That was a long time ago, back in the early Forties.
FJ: My familiarity with your playing is through your collaborations with Horace Tapscott.
AB: Oh, yeah. We were good friends. I met him when I was about twenty-two, I think. I went to school in San Diego and I came back up to LA. I had relatives and I was living back and forth. I came back up and I met him through another musician friend. I was about twenty-two. He was rehearsing one time and I went over to a friend's house and Horace was having a rehearsal over there with his trio. They invited me to sit in with them and we seemed to hit it off pretty good right from the start. That started a long relationship musically with him. They loved him. They still do love him, but they seemed to have loved him quite a bit. It was very inspiring to me when I went over that day and sat in with him. It was very inspiring to me. It seemed like I had found my people so to speak.
FJ: While Tapscott remained in LA, you made your way to New York.
AB: That was about '74. I was just looking for brighter horizons. I was just getting frustrated with LA and not being able to expand. I was looking for something. I just wanted to get more involved. I just wanted to get involved more in the music, maybe more of the professional aspect of things.
FJ: Your trio of tuba and congas was not the conventional saxophone trio by any stretch of the imagination.
AB: Yeah, I don't know. I think it was about trying to be creative. The tuba was, my first exposure playing with the tuba was with Horace's thing. He used it in ensemble situations. When I was in New York, I knew the conga player from California. He used to play with Horace too. I got a gig with the Gil Evans Orchestra and I met this tuba player, Bob Stewart, and we seemed to be like minds also. He was adventurous and creative thinking. We just tried to make something happen. It was the instrumentation and the musicians too. We were trying to be creative.
FJ: How did the Columbia Records contract come about?
AB: I think that was around '79 or '80. I had the contract until '88.
FJ: And in that time, you recorded Lenox Avenue Breakdown featuring James Blood Ulmer and James Newton.
AB: Yeah, I think Blood and I found each other. We had done some things together, that loft jazz period was happening then. I knew Bob and I knew James already from California. I had met Jack (DeJohnette). I think I met Jack, he was auditioning. He needed a horn player for his group. I auditioned and during that period, I had gotten the contract with CBS (later became Columbia) and I asked him if he would do this record with me and he agreed. I needed a bassist and he recommended Cecil (McBee). He liked playing with Cecil. So we sort of met with the group. I brought them together and we came together. We made the record.
FJ: Did Columbia pressure your direction?
AB: I think they did. They made innuendoes, but I told them that I was staying stern on needing musical freedom. I was going to be conscious about giving them something that was positive and not something way out there or too far out there that wasn't musical. I was going to give them something musical. So they let me do what I wanted to do. I guess they were looking for something that was a little bit different too. That is the way it came off.
FJ: Did you have any inkling that Basic Blythe would be your last recording?
AB: You know the strange thing about that, Fred. I haven't received an eviction notice from them yet. They just evicted me and I had to sort of figure that out. It wasn't a formal thing like they weren't going to sign me again or they didn't need my services anymore. They just backed off and let me figure it out. It was very weird. It turned me off. I just haven't been able to get a major record company deal also, but I was also fed up with those large companies at the time. I am available now.
FJ: You have done a trio of records for Joe Fields' Savant label: Spirits in the Field, Blythe Byte, and Focus .
AB: Yeah, I recorded Spirits in the Field at the Bimhuis. It was a live thing and I enjoyed it. We weren't thinking about making a record at that time, but we got a pretty good take on it, so we decided to try and make it into a record. It was a tour that we had during that period. It was about three or four years ago. It came off, so I decided to put it into record form.
FJ: Did you go with Fields' Savant label because of Cecil Brooks' already established relationship with the label?
AB: Yeah, that was essentially what it was about. I didn't think about that until after the performance. I wasn't recording it to give to Savant at the time. It seemed to work out. I am trying to change it up a little bit with Focus. I am trying to do something interesting, something organic. It came off that way.
FJ: Your rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood" certainly flies in the face of those whom have labeled you "avant-garde."
AB: I thought it was in the pocket. That is where we were coming from, playing it to specifications so to speak. I was playing the form and the changes. The industry is, we live in a capitalistic society and capitalism is part of the industry, a big part of it is about making money. The artistic value is not their first objective. I think the commercial value is more important. Then there are some record companies that might not be as commercial as others, as far as wanting the money first and being concerned about the money. But it is business and they have to make some profit to stay in the business. Sometimes the choice of music that the record companies choose is that which seems to generate the business or the money. I guess they are within their rights to do that. They have to keep the doors open and so they make the decisions on what they want to support and what they don't want to support musically. It is a business, so they have to do what they have to do. I am not just avant-garde. I like to play all types of music as much as I can play, straight-ahead or whatever they call that. I like rhythm and blues. I like music with form, not atonal or aform. I am not only there. Sometimes they put me into a weird bag and want me to be weird, inaccessible. I think I am accessible.
FJ: Having returned to your Southern California roots, how much of a hassle has the hustle been?
AB: Sometimes it is. Part of that is about having agencies and management. It is a little different. The logistics are a little different here in California. Everything is spread out so far and then you need someone working for you on your behalf to get you work out here. Sometimes I can work and sometimes I can't work. Some people have heard of me and some people haven't. It seems like it is harder to do by myself. I need a team, a team of people working on my behalf. It seems likes the business or the industry looks for new talent all the time, fresh talent. Maybe I am not fresh enough.
FJ: You are plenty fresh for me.
AB: (Laughing) I appreciate that, Fred. I have been fortunate to still be able to work in other places, in New York and nationally and internationally too. I can work in Europe. I have some European work coming up. It is a little difficult in LA.
FJ: And the future?
AB: I have a record that is in the can right now. It will probably be out sometime this year. This is with Cecil, Bob Stewart, and John Hicks. I used piano and the tuba bass. I think it came out pretty good. We will see.