Dave Douglas: No Labels, No Compromises
Another characteristic of Douglas' music is that it often stems from political or social events. Witness , for example, stemmed from thoughts about war, poverty and unilateral political action. Still, while the music has such concepts as inspiration, Douglas is careful to clarify that it has no overt social conscience. "Not the music itself, thank God," says Douglas. "Music exists in its own space, independent of all of that, and I think that's why it has such power to uplift and raise us to a better place as humans; because music doesn't play favourites, doesn't have emotions; it's just a thing, it's just there in the air. And you can't ignore it. I was talking, the other day, to someone who was making a point about this period of abstract expressionist painting I hate using terms like that, so let's just say modern painting that developed in the United States after World War II Jackson Pollack and Jasper Johns, and how they were so close to composers like Morton Feldman and John Cage.
"Nowadays," Douglas continues, "those painters are household names; they sell out shows at the Metropolitan Museum. Everyone knows who Jackson Pollack is, and you may go to the exhibit and say, 'my five year-old son could do better than that,' but at the same time there is a general acknowledgement that this is important stuff, and a lot of people want to go see it; whereas if there were a concert of Morton Feldman music, chances are ten people would come and at the end there would be two left. With painting you can ignore it, it doesn't envelope all your sense, whereas music, you put it on and it's in your face. I think a record like Witness , right from the first track, it's kind of like, 'you're either with us or you're against us; this is what we believe,' and it's not just me writing a political statement, but the nature of the music itself is a part of what I believe about the world and about action and doing something.
"If, as an artist, I have any conscience at all," Douglas concludes, "it's about the way I treat my fellow musicians, it's about how I include them in the process. Maybe that's enough of a model for society; an example of how people can work together and collaborate, rather than there always being a fatherly figure who leads the troops into battle in remote parts of the world and monopolizes all our natural resources at the expense of education and other important things."
Working With The Majors
Such strong personal convictions affect all aspects of Douglas' life and art. Most remarkable is that he maintains a successful working relationship with a major label who is lending strong support to all his efforts. "That just comes down," says Douglas, "to what you're willing to accept when you sign an agreement with someone. I was very careful, when I signed with RCA, to let them know that I was only interested in doing what I wanted to do; you just decide that's what you want in your life and your art. That hasn't been the difficult part. I have to say I'm surprised to still be there, but they're supporting this latest record like crazy, and it's great and I have to give it up to them. It's the result of a few very courageous people in pretty high positions that are willing to put their necks on the line and support me."
Still, with the major upheaval going on in the recording industry, Douglas sees the possibility that things could change. "I may move on," Douglas explains. "I have fulfilled all my obligations so now I have to make a decision as to whether this is an arrangement that I'm still happy with, or do I want to move on, start my own label, do something else. With the recording industry going through enormous changes that may be something I decide to do. I think it's great that people are moving towards more independent models, that's what gave me a career in the first place, recording for independents."
Regardless of Douglas' future business arrangements, one thing is certain; Douglas will continue putting together projects that reflect a diversity of artistic and life interests. With twenty-one recordings as a leader in the past twelve years constituting twelve different projects, and upcoming collaborative efforts with artists including Louis Sclavis and Steve Lacy, Douglas is clearly one of the most forward-thinking artists in improvised music today. With a style so rich that it challenges categorization; so broad that it makes a strong argument for the elimination of labels, it is no surprise that Douglas regularly wins top honours in critic and reader polls. By defying conformity and the need for compromise, Dave Douglas will unquestionably continue to be one of the most important artists in modern music.