A Fireside Chat With Taylor Ho Bynum
“ I think it is not a music that is there to be consumed, to be an easy product to sell. That has always been one of the joys of the music. As our society has become more and more consumerist, I think that becomes a more difficult thing for jazz to come to grips with. ”
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Taylor Ho Bynum: Both of parents were music lovers and so I was exposed to music from an early age. After my parents got divorced, my mother ended up housing a lot of people and ended up housing a lot of opera singers. So I grew up in this household full of musicians and opera singers, some of whom have gone onto be international level artists. Music was always around. I started out playing piano and then I was playing trumpet, just because that was the instrument that appealed to me.
As for getting into improvised music, I was very lucky to hook up with a great trombonist and composer named Bill Lowe when I was in high school. He was teaching at Northeastern University and my high school had cut its music program and I had a friend who was going to Northeastern who told me that they needed another trumpet player for the big band and so I went in there. Bill took me under his wing and found out that I was eager to learn and I really consider him my musical father. We stayed close throughout my life up to now. That was really through Bill's guidance that I got into jazz and improvised music. We still work together. He is family. We talk together regularly and work together as often as we can. It is always a really special thing to be working with him because we both sort of get a kick out of it. He has played with my band and I have played with his band and at this point, we both seem to get hired on the same projects so it is always fun when we are sidemen together. So that relationship has been incredibly special to me and it is something that I am very lucky and honored to have.
FJ: Do some name dropping of opera singers who stayed with your family.
THB: Well, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson stayed with us for about seven years and she is singing Les Troyens at the Met this season. She is incredible. She has done everything from early music to new music. I think she is one of the best mezzo-sopranos out there. Right now, Lisa Saffer has been living with my mother. She is a dear friend of mine, who just did Berg's Lulu with the English National Opera. She is an incredible soprano. It is actually great because luckily my mother had really good taste so the opera singers that she did have ended up being ones who were not the type to sort of be the diva complex, but real great musicians. People that were interested in improvisation, who were interested in the way Handel used improvisation in early music, were interested in new music. Lorraine is actually married to Peter Lieberson, who is a modern composer. So it wasn't just people hanging around the house singing Puccini, but people who were really musical and really great musicians in the house and that made a big difference for me.
FJ: Having checked the "Asian" box on my college applications, I know as a standard music education is a priority amongst "Asian" families.
THB: Yeah, playing music wasn't a choice (laughing). You are going to take an instrument. When I got to the point when I was twelve or thirteen years old and I could make the choice, that is when I went to the trumpet. No, actually, I started playing piano when I was eight and started playing trumpet when I was ten or eleven. But that was the choice and that is the one that stuck with me until I switched to the cornet.
FJ: What are the subtle and obvious nuances between the trumpet and cornet?
THB: It's a good question. Originally, once I started working with Braxton, I got very interested in multi-instrumentalism and timbre issues and trying to cover as many timbres and use as many mutes as possible. So timbre has always been something that I have been really interested by. For a while, every gig, I would be taking my trumpet and my flugelhorn and my pocket trumpet and three bags of mutes and a trombone that I would play with a trumpet mouthpiece. That was just a drag (laughing). I am supposed to be the trumpet player. I shouldn't have more gear than the drummer. So that just got difficult on a logistic level.
Also, once I started playing the cornet, what I love about the cornet is that it gives me a little bit of all of those. I find it, in some ways, a more malleable instrument than the trumpet. It can really attack like the trumpet. It can have that forceful attack. But then, it can give you a really soft, round flugelhorn tone. I play a 1910 old, vintage Conn and the intonation is weird. It is a strange horn, kind of like a pocket trumpet because you never know what is going to come out. So it gave me a little bit of all the different horns I was trying in one horn. So that ended up being great for me. The other part of it, for the cornet is this cornet in particular, the main group that I have been working with for the last four years is the Fully Celebrated Orchestra and that is the band that I play with most regularly and the leader of that group, Jim Hobbs plays a vintage Conn alto and the first time we pulled out the two horns together, I think they may have come out of the factory at the same time and it was just a totally great blend.
FJ: You've led a charmed life considering your two primary teaching influences were Anthony Braxton and Bill Lowe.
THB: I agree. I was incredibly lucky. I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have two teachers like that. You are right. The thing that is incredible is I came up when I was sixteen and Bill has played with Henry Threadgill and then you hit Braxton and Braxton has done everything from full orchestra pieces to solo saxophone. He is the full spectrum of music. I think coming up in that kind of a context, I think was incredible for me. It just makes me aware of how rich music is and how rich the music we call jazz is. You can't define it. You can't prescribe it. You can't say it is this box. If you look at it in its totality, it becomes such a richer experience. I agree. I dropped out of Wesleyan for a while and I went to the New School for one semester and I couldn't take it there. It was like that. It was this is what jazz is. This is the bebop style. This is the hard bop style. The music ended in 1960 and this is how you are supposed to play it. Not everybody there because there are some really great teachers there, but the overall atmosphere there was one that didn't look at the music in its totality and also look at the culture in its totality. The thing that is really important is to not take the music in a vacuum and look at it in its larger cultural context and talking about dance and literature and film and history and politics and that is something that Anthony always does and Bill always does and I try to do now when I teach.
FJ: Collaborating with Braxton must be akin to being a sponge.
THB: Certainly his dedication and his focus on music and his analytical, the great analytical lengths to which he applies to his music is incredibly inspiring and incredibly devoted. For anyone who takes this music seriously, it becomes a spiritual thing because obviously, you are not doing it for the financial reward or the cultural cache. You have to have that spiritual intent. Music has to be your god. It has to be your focus. At the same time, Anthony is one of the funniest people I know. He has an incredible sense of humor. He is an incredibly grounded person. We have also been talking about the political situation right now and the war that is on the horizon. His devotion to the music is incredible, but he is also a very real human being.
FJ: Why did you return to Wesleyan?
THB: It was a couple of things. One was a chance to work with Braxton, just because he is such an inspiring figure, teacher, and thinker. Another part of it is that I have been doing a lot of teaching and teaching is something I really love and it is very important to me. I think, partly, because I have been lucky enough to have some very great teachers in my life, so it is the thing that I have always wanted to return to. I got to the point in my teaching, I knew to get any type of position beyond a contract to lead a jazz ensemble for one semester, I needed to have a higher degree. That was another part of it. Part of it was purely practical. Part of it was the chance to set aside two years and just focus on writing music and studying music in a very rich and flexible environment, which was pretty sweet. The nice thing about Wesleyan is that once you are in the program, it is fully funded. To be able to get a Masters without any debt and it is close enough to New York and Boston so that the gigs that I care about I can keep. All that together made it seem to be a pretty good choice.
FJ: Let's touch on your work in the Fully Celebrated Orchestra.
THB: I am so psyched that I get to play with them. I started working with them a little over four years ago. I had just moved back to town and I was playing in a big band that Jim was also in. He asked me to come by and sit in with the band a couple of times. They have been together for over fifteen years now. When Jim originally started the group with Timo, they started back when they were nineteen-year-old kids back in Boston. I think they always envisioned it as a quartet, but could never find the right fourth person. That is how I started playing with them and then immediately, I fell in love with the music. One of the things I love that to me is not happening in jazz, I think is a great shame, is a real concept of a band consciousness. You still see it in rock and roll. This is the band. Record labels keep saying that this should be the Jim Hobbs Quartet and all of us would be psyched to play in the Jim Hobbs Quartet, but Jim says that this is a band and we need to think about it like a band and that is something I have so much respect for and I think makes the music richer. The music is some of the best stuff out there. Jim writes at such a high level that it is really trans-idiomatic to use one of Braxton's phrases. I think one of the problems marketing wise and publicity wise is that it is too in for the out guys and too out for the in guys. We love melody, but we want to be able to go anywhere and luckily Timo is such an incredible virtuoso, his bass playing continually stuns me. It is the group's flexibility that makes it great, but in some ways is out curse because it can't be pigeonholed or easily marketed.
FJ: And it isn't really, in the literal sense, an orchestra if John Q Public is getting flashbacks of big bands.
THB: Oh, no, it is a quartet (laughing). They called that when it was a trio and I think the idea is with these four people and with these four instruments, improvisation gives you the possibility to create an orchestral pallet. How much depth can you get out of four committed musicians playing together.
FJ: You have two collaborations on record with percussionist Eric Rosenthal: And Only Life My Lush Lament and Cente.
THB: Eric is a dear friend of mine. He lived right around the corner from me and so we would get together two times a week and just play. We actually came up with the same teachers. Eric is about ten or eleven years older than me, but he went to Wesleyan when Bill was still teaching here and Eric stayed in Middletown after he finished school and then Anthony came in and he was working with Anthony too. So we shared a common lineage as far as who we studied from and so our musical perspectives are similar. We had an immediate connection, both personally and musically. I think for us, that project was very much a product of and a reaction to the Boston free-improv scene at that time, which is a very rich scene, but at that point, I think both of us were interested, at that point, the improv scene was very focused in on free improvisation and sort of extended technique and microtonal aspects of the music. There is some really outstanding stuff in there, but I think both Eric and I had a deep love and interest in jazz or the jazz legacy, the jazz songbook, the jazz continuum. That for us was a chance to use some of the experiences and techniques we developed in that Boston free improv scene and apply them to more of a traditional jazz canon.
FJ: Interesting take on "The Way You Look Tonight."
THB: Yeah, well, I think for us, there is still a lot more to explore in these tunes. I think one of the problems with jazz, is in defined by the academy and the institution is this is what jazz is. You play these tunes and you improvise over these chord changes and this style. That is not all you can do with it. Even if you go back to what Ellington was doing and what Lester Young was doing, there is whole other levels of textural things, timbre concepts you improvise with, rhythmic concepts you can improvise with, form that you can improvise with. So for us, it was a chance to take these melodies and really dig into them a different way with the greatest respect to people who still do that. I think it is great to focus in on doing the changes to "My One and Only Love." Those are great changes. It is an inspiring way to work. There is also weird nooks and crannies in the melody that are really inspiring places to investigate too.
FJ: More recently, Innova has released a collaboration between you and Braxton, Duets (Wesleyan) 2002. You are no stranger to Braxton's music, but does it still present a challenge?
THB: I think every composer's compositions are challenging, but I think people have more of a background in it because it can be put in more of a follow the changes kind of way to play their music that people can fake it better. You can't fake Braxton's stuff unless you've been trying to figure that stuff out for years because one of his geniuses is that he has been really focused on creating his own language. So to play his music, you really have to understand his language and really respect it as its own entity, as its own being. So it is an incredible challenge. One of the things that is good for me is that I started playing it young. We are working on a, in one of the ensemble classes here at Wesleyan, I was playing an incredibly hard piece of his called "Composition 96," but it is something I have been doing since I was seventeen, so it feels like home at this point. Which still doesn't mean that it is not the hardest stuff in the world to play. It still kicks my ass, but it has very much become a part of me and very much a part of my language. I can't claim to be an expert in it. It is such a deep place. I have only scratched the surface, but I have been scratching the surface long enough to have some familiarity with it to be comfortable with it and have a good time.
FJ: What is SpiderMonkey Strings? Animal, mineral, vegetable?
THB: I have had different projects called SpiderMonkey for the past ten years. That relates to, I have a fascination with trickster myths and trickster mythology and so SpiderMonkey, of course, being named after the two great trickster spirits: Anansi the Spider and the Monkey King, from Africa and Asia respectively. For me, the trickster embodies a lot of the attributes that are necessary to be a creative artist, a sense of humor, a sense of reverence, a type of spirituality, a willingness to play in the ambiguous areas. It is not all black and white. It is not all good and evil. It is the unknown and we should celebrate that. So I have always had this fixation with that and so often, when I have a project of unusual instrumentation, I named it SpiderMonkey. This new group is something I just started working with. That actually started because my brother-in-law is a filmmaker. He asked me to do a soundtrack for his next piece and wanted a string quartet. So I put together this group with some of the best string players I knew of: Jason Hwang and Jean Cook on violin, Okkyung Lee on cello, Stephanie Griffin on viola, and Pete Fitzpatrick on guitar. We just started working and just started writing for them, but that has been a great time. It is a totally different instrumentation. It is a totally different place to be. It is an incredible challenge for me because there are certain things that I know how to do when I am in front of a bassist and drummer that I just can't do in this context. It is a whole different way to blend, for me to blend as a cornet. I don't want it to be me with strings. I want it to be a band that has a sound that has strings and a cornet in an organic way, as opposed to a featured soloist with a string quartet behind them. So for me, it is a great challenge to figure out how to write for that, how to be a part of that, how to play in that. It is a lot of fun. I hope to keep working in that group and eventually record it.
FJ: A brother-in-law filmmaker and an opera angel mother. Must make for interesting dinner conversation.
THB: (Laughing) Yeah, and my sister is an incredible, creative writer. She is a really great fiction writer. I feel very lucky. It is a very inspiring family to be in.
FJ: And the future?
THB: I am trying to focus, especially while I am here, back at school, is to use the resources I have here to do projects I can't do in the "real world." So I am doing an orchestra project and I am doing a lot of work. My partner is a dancer. To add to my wildly artistic family. So I have been working with her. I have always been fascinated on working with dance and so that is the thing I really want to dig more into. So we have been working on duo stuff to create a compositional, choreographic language and then I want to be able to expand that. Ultimately, for me, the SpiderMonkey ensemble is one that should involve musicians and dancers and visual arts. I am taking a chance to really develop that work. And then keep playing with Fully Celebrated every time I can. Keep playing with the many musicians that I am very lucky to be playing with. There is a couple of things that I did with Braxton four years ago that is supposed to come out on Delmark soon, which I am very excited by and very frightened by because I was twenty-one, twenty-two at the time. I am worried to look back on my youthful follies. Hopefully, those will be good. Right now, I feel as though I have glutted the totally minuscule market that might be interested in my work (laughing). I think I should give it a rest for a little bit.
FJ: Where is the music going? Better yet, where should it be going?
THB: I don't know. That's a great question and it is an incredibly difficult one. Right now, the relationship between jazz and the institution is such a tortured one. It is one of those things where it deserves every once of institutional respect that it gets, but that is also something that strangles it at the same time. You want it to be taught in conservatories, but how can you teach creative, counter-cultural improvisational music in a conservatory? How do you grade that? Part of me wants to support something like the Ken Burns' Jazz documentary. It is great to get this music out in front of people, but then to do it in that way and to limit the definition of it and to exclude so many people is so problematic. They have a new club called the Dizzy Gillespie Coca-Cola Lincoln Center Jazz Club. That is horrifying to me. How can you find financial support for it in this consumerist, capitalist culture without selling out? That involves how do you get it into an institution? How do you teach it in a college setting without making it button down and without killing its spirit? That is something that I am always struggling with.
FJ: A damned if you do, damned if you don't dilemma.
THB: Part of the way is to expand the fact. That is what we talked about before. You can't teach it as a set of harmonic tricks over a 2, 5, 1 pattern. You have to teach it in its cultural context and teach it in its historical context. Then I think it is more a matter of enlightenment. I don't want to teach people how to play music like Charlie Parker or to play music like Anthony Braxton. I want to teach people how to live their lives with a kind of creative energy that Bird lived his life and Braxton lives his life. I think you have to teach it in a mentor way rather than an institutional way. If you have to do that through the institution, that's fine. But you can't teach it focused on grades and focused on exams.
FJ: My attitude toward mainstream jazz is equivalent to my distain for summer blockbusters. They are a necessary pariah.
THB: Exactly, yeah.
FJ: Improvised music should be in the context of its current culture, e.g. free jazz and the civil rights unrest, swing and big band music with the roaring Twenties. What soundtrack will accompany our current state of media hype and consumerism?
THB: Yeah, I think it is not a music that is there to be consumed, to be an easy product to sell. That has always been one of the joys of the music. As our society has become more and more consumerist, I think that becomes a more difficult thing for jazz to come to grips with. As you said, the other thing that people have to realize is that they are so busy fetishizing the jazz of the past and the historical periods of the past to realize that we are at an incredibly, radical, transitional period in our country's history and the world's history right now. I think it is imperative that the artists deal with that and try to cope with that and translate that and figure out what is going on. We are in totally uncharted waters right now. Our country's foreign policy has changed to a really frightening degree. Our standing in the world has changed. Our relationship with different countries of the world has changed.
Now, more than ever, the artist has to go in there and figure out how to make sense of all this, or try to make sense of all this. One of the things is to look back at the history and be inspired about how they did that. Be inspired by how Ellington's music dealt with Jim Crow and racism and the history of the African-American in America, the same ways that Bird's music dealt with some of those issues and the same way that Jimmy Giuffre's music could deal with his experiences. That is what we have to do and not say that we want to play this because Miles, who I love, played like this. No, I want to play this music because Miles had this urge to deal with the reality that he is presented with. I have a totally different reality. I'm a Euro-Asian, grew up in Boston in the late Twentieth Century. I can't pretend to have had the experiences Miles Davis had and play the music he did. But the experiences that I have had are as valid and I have to deal with that.