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Dave Douglas: Music, Commerce and Culture Wars

By Published: June 26, 2006

I dont see jazz music as an isolated part of American society; I see it as a central part of American society and so the discussions that were having come right out of what it means to be American--where weve come from and where were going.

Dave DouglasTrumpeter/composer Dave Douglas is one of the best-known players and bandleaders in jazz music. With countless performances, groups and recordings to his credit, his success hardly seems surprising, or anything less than hard-earned. One struggles to list his accomplishments. If you randomly name a New-York-based improvisational heavyweight, Douglas has probably played with him. His longstanding role in John Zorn's Masada is sufficient to establish his bona fides as a supporting player, and his bands like the Tiny Bell Trio, Parallel Worlds, Charms of the Night Sky and his eponymous quartet, quintet and sextet demonstrate a vast stylistic range. The overall quality of Douglas' recorded output is very high.

When Douglas' RCA contract expired in 2004 he teamed with his old friend Michael Friedman to form a new, independent record label, Greenleaf Music. Since 2005, the label has released five albums. The newest Greenleaf release is Meaning and Mystery, a terrific set from the Dave Douglas Quintet. As Greenleaf continues to explore the possibilities of what a modern record label really is nowadays, the CD is only available online. I sat down with Douglas in Chicago a day before his quintet played two nights at the Green Mill—and spoke with him again via telephone ("I keep thinking of more I wanted to say, he told me after the final set of the second night of the Green Mill stand) a couple weeks later.

All About Jazz: Let's start by talking business. Then we'll have that out of the way and we can discuss music.

Dave Douglas: It's so appropriate that we're hearing this muzak here in the hotel as we're talking business.

AAJ: I'm just anticipating the joy of hearing this music play as I transcribe the interview.

DD: [Laughing] Well, maybe you can transcribe this flute solo.

AAJ: Yes, it's such good stuff. I used to be so scornful of this music—and it's still horrendo, but now I just feel sorry for the musicians who have to play it. The music business is so difficult.

DD: Well, look at it this way: they have a job. And God bless 'em. If you're playing music, that's what it's all about. It gets used for nefarious purposes after the fact sometimes, but I think that when people talk about the music business, I think sometimes they're not aware how diverse it is, how broad it is, how many different kinds of jobs there are—workaday jobs, creative jobs, all kinds of stuff. In a way, I think that's really wonderful. Not that people aren't aware of how many people are making a living in music, but that there are millions and millions of jobs. I think that's not appreciated sometimes among cognoscenti who want to talk about the finer points of whatever genre they're into.

AAJ: After recording for a variety of labels, most recently RCA/Bluebird, you've chosen to do it yourself—or actually, with your friend Michael Friedman—with your Greenleaf Music label. You've already released three Dave Douglas studio records and a live set through Greenleaf as well as stuff from Kneebody. This is, I think, an attempt to be an ethical record company, and I know you've got a quick turnover between creation and release—your new CD Meaning and Mystery was recorded just two months before its release in April. Tell me the story of the label and what it's allowing you to do.

DD: Well, it's really interesting that you mentioned the "ethical label thing because it's something that I struggled with a lot for a lot of years. I don't think there's any clear-cut meaning as to what that really means—there are so many sides to the equation of who's investing in who and who's getting what and who gets it back.

I just knew that in starting a label, I wanted to, first of all, be as creatively free as possible to work fast—and like you said, to get something from the studio to the street in two months is wonderful. I could never have done that on any other label. The ethical part of that is something that I think you'll find at almost every one of these new artist-led internet-based companies that are sprouting up all over the place—like ArtistShare and all the people with various different relationships to ArtistShare, but also Dave Holland and Branford Marsalis and of course, John Zorn, who started it fifteen years ago.

I think that for artists who decide to take the reins of their own recorded production, the first step is often, "okay, how do we define what a fair deal is? It seems to me that a fair deal is that for the recording, there's an agreement that any profit that's made from these recordings is split between the artist and the company. The artist obviously puts in innumerable hours and years perfecting what they do, and the label puts a ton of work and investment behind this specific recording. So I think that's subtly and egregiously different from the label model, from majors down to independents. Very different.

And I just believe that it can work. I believe that it's good for everybody. We know the classic model of the record companies, and the fact that, starting in the twenties at the dawn of the recorded music age, everybody was getting intensely ripped off, and over the last century, progressively less and less ripped off. And I think this new burst of artists doing it themselves and relying on the internet as the basic motivating force behind the distribution is just another step at freeing all of that up.

I guess I should return to your question a little bit about the story behind starting the label. When I was offered the deal with RCA in 1999, I struggled with that a lot—whether I wanted to sign the 80-page deal with the devil. And I just decided that it was the kind of opportunity that comes along very rarely for creative music, for music that's outside of the normal cookie-cutter, packaged music productions. So I went for it. Actually, the deal was for six different albums and the agreement was that I could make each one be a different sound, a different direction, a different concept. And at the end of those six records, I'd be free to go. As it turned out, RCA added one record in the middle, so I actually made seven records for them.

Then I was at the end of the defined contract period, which is very unusual because usually a major label would have you on some kind of a leash at all times, so you wouldn't be free to just do what you wanted to do. I'm not saying that as a putdown; they do that because they want their marketing and distribution departments to have a free hand to sell your stuff. I think a lot of artists are very quick to say, "oh, the man, and sure, there's a certain truth to that. But at the same time, there are reasons that things happen.

So anyway, at the same time that I finished that contract, Sony was buying or merging with BMG, and in the six years that I was at the label, the name of the label changed five times and the head of the label changed four or five times. There was hardly anyone still there that had been there when I signed. So I just knew a big change was coming and I also knew that to continue, I needed certain conditions met. So I had a very friendly meeting in which I said, "this is what I want, and they said, "well, everybody's getting fired, and it's crazy here and I know we can't give you that. So thank you very much, and friendly handshake, and I left.

And it was kind of a relief. It was this huge burden off my shoulders. And I'm not complaining about all that that did for me in terms of where my music got to—a lot of places it wouldn't have gotten to otherwise. But I just knew, leaving that meeting, that I was going to start my own label, It was time. The internet was facilitating lots of things. And I also have been friends with Michael Friedman for 20 years and he was ending a relationship with EMI, who had been distributing his label Premonition. He was ready to start a new venture.

The artist that he had had a lot of success with, Patricia Barber, had decided to leave Premonition and move on over to Blue Note and EMI. So he kind of had this moment of "okay, what's next? So we started talking again, and at first the talks were just hypothetical—two guys talking about the industry. "What do you think the future is, and "what's going on, and "are masters worth anything anymore? Then that quickly progressed to "what are you going to do?

You know, I feel like I wouldn't be where I am without all the support I had from independent labels early on in my career. Yet I knew I didn't want to go back to that; I wanted to take the next step and own my masters and take a step into the new way that this business seems to be going. So that was when we decided to start. We released the first couple records as the traditional brick-and-mortar CDs with Koch as our distributor and it was fine, but we just found that the traditional mode of distribution is very constricting.

I don't know, it's a really tough, tough area of the business right now, trying to distribute to big chain stores with this kind of music. Anybody reading this interview will know that—it's tough. It's not the same when you go down to your Tower Records or Virgin Megastore as it used to be ten years ago. There are buy-ins at every level: you buy your spot in the store. The biggest issue for us is just on a very simple level of cash flow: it was impossible. Neither of us is this incredibly independently-wealthy European playboy from St. Moritz, unfortunately. So we're trying to be realistic. We both made an initial investment, and we're trying not to have it be the kind of thing where we just pour in money, money, money.

We want to find a sustaining model to make that work. With traditional distribution, the money comes so much later and there's a lot of deductions and it's just very, very complex—I can't even pretend to really understand it myself. But that was when we decided to take a look at this new internet way of doing things, and I think that we're honing in on a model that's self-sustaining at this point with these new releases.

And that's wonderful. I think that, as everyone knows, Maria Schneider getting the Grammy with the first record that was not available in stores [Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)]—that was a huge step, and very inspiring. And then [Douglas'] Keystone (Greenleaf, 2005) being nominated for a Grammy in that same position was really interesting and exciting for us. So I'll say that I'm thrilled. I love being involved in it every day, because whatever I want to do is what we do, and that's tempered by Mike's wisdom and even-handed rationality [laughing].

If you asked me, "what's your frustration right now, I would say the frustration is that I can't record more people. I went into it wanting to record more widely, and I get all kinds of stuff—great, mad, crazy music. And I have to say no to so many things. That's the hardest part, and so I'm hoping that once we're on our feet with this model, it'll be a model that we can offer to more artists.

AAJ: Enough business, then. Your new record is Meaning and Mystery. After a couple of other projects, this is your recorded return to the Dave Douglas Quintet—sort of your flagship brand. This is the first one from this group since Strange Liberation (RCA/Bluebird, 2004) and the first with just the quintet [Bill Frisell guested on Strange Liberation] since The Infinite (RCA/Bluebird, 2002). Before we talk about the actual tunes on this new record, let's just talk about this band generally. What is it that this band does? I mean, obviously it plays Dave Douglas songs, but what do you see as its specialty, if it has one?

DD: I've put a lot of thought into that, so it's hard to just give you a sound-bite answer. I've put a lot of thought into what the language of playing tunes coming out of jazz really is—what are the constituent parts and how do you move forward within that? Which is really a challenge. And so what we do is exactly what you said: we play my tunes [laughing]. That's very different from what I do in any other band that I lead. But I think there's something really challenging to me about exploring the boundaries of freedom with limitations. We do that in this band in a way that I think is kind of at the forefront of what people are doing with the language coming out of playing with forms and structures. And melodies, harmonies.

Dave DouglasI have to say that when Wayne Shorter started leading a small group again and I heard them, what they were doing—he's always been an inspiration for me, but I think that the way that they were doing it was so, I hate the word "revolutionary, but revolutionary! It was a way of taking the songs and then throwing out your assumptions about the way they're supposed to be played, and who's supposed to play what part, and what's supposed to happen when, and what does the idea of tempo, and key, and texture mean. And they shook it all up and poured it out on the table and it's this beautiful mosaic of all the constituent parts of the music—but without the glue of all of our assumptions about the way it's supposed to be. That inspired me, and I feel like we're going for something like that. At the same time, of course my tunes are very different than those tunes. Our references are different, I think. I have always felt like I'm not comfortable unless I'm uncomfortable.

AAJ: Good for you.

DD: Well, I just feel that we're not really doing anything if we're not questioning our own assumptions. That may sound very trite and sappy to say that, and okay, that's fine. But at the same time, once you question certain assumptions, then you get underneath that and there's a whole bunch of other things in there. Then you get behind that, and there's a whole bunch of other things. Like the earth is resting on a turtle and then what's under the turtle? Another turtle. Then the women says, "well, what's under that turtle? and the guy says, "you're not going to get me on that one! I know it's turtles all the way down!

So [laughing] I'm interested in peeling away all these layers of things, and I think a lot of times when people talk about that, about being free and about losing our preconceptions about what we're going to play, they're referring very specifically to harmony and melody and rhythm. Which are certainly the three main biggies in writing and playing music. But then, there are so many other things, and so many of them have to do with who we are, and where we grew up, and who we talk to, and what we eat, and what kind of a car we drive or don't drive, and whether we read the newspaper or not. And what kinds of elements of different musics we're willing to countenance in the examination of our own voice.

And I've found maybe that's the toughest one of all—to get away from thinking, "well, that over there is not okay. Everything is acceptable in my music except that. I don't want you to get the feeling that I'm sitting here saying this is what everyone has to do; if anything, what I'm trying to say is that the age of huge manifestos is over. We had manifestos in the 20th century and look where it got us! We're mired in a war in the Middle East still, and we still argue about what jazz is.

AAJ: Or what it isn't.

DD: And the argument about what jazz is—God, we should take pleasure in that because there's people dying over there on the other side of the world. And even here. But I'm just talking, for me, about what I've found. I guess in a lot of my projects I feel like I've addressed very specific issues about that, and chosen to be very focused from one album to the next on chewing on a particular piece of what I'm trying to break through to. And in the quintet, I feel like it's much more global and broad. And as I'm saying this to you, I realize that that's probably because my background was playing standards. It's the way I grew up—from the age of ten, eleven, I was learning tunes. So that's maybe my deepest, strongest suit: having learned forms and how to mess with them and play with them. So, now, to answer your question, that's what we do.

AAJ: Donny McCaslin's the new saxophonist in the band. That's a very obvious change.

DD: People who know this group know that Chris Potter was with the band for the first five years, and Chris is, deservedly so, really busy as a leader. I'm sure you've heard his record and he's been out there on the road, and he still tries to do the tours with Dave Holland. It just got to the point where I was using subs so much of the time that it just didn't make sense anymore. So I think that people who hear this record and who come to hear the band live will realize that Donny is more than an adequate replacement for Chris Potter. He's just one of the most astounding musicians that I've every heard.

AAJ: Besides that change that anyone can look at and say, "oh, look, a new member —do you think this band has changed?

DD: Well, yes and no. This tour has been really interesting because we now have a book going back a ways and we now have, I guess, 40 tunes that we can play and they're all different shapes and sizes and different concepts and strategies and approaches. We're able, night to night, to completely change the set. So we do go back and play the songs that I wrote in 2000 when I started the band, but they just sound really different now. So I think that we've changed, but that's more of a reflection of the way that we play and the different experiences we've had.

Every day while we're traveling, [Fender Rhodes player] Uri Caine is writing, finishing this piece, a double concerto for two pianos and orchestra that he's premiering next month. So that brings a certain quality to the stage, not just from him but from everybody, because it's such a wonderful, exciting thing to have happening. [Bassist] James [Genus], as you know, is in the Saturday Night Live band now; he has been for a couple of years. So he plays with these names—these people where you just can't believe it. And I think that's wonderful. There's been such a broadening of the way he's playing and his language—it's somehow deeper.

And I think that [drummer] Clarence [Penn] is the kind of musician who is always kind of tinkering with something, always learning something, and sometimes I get glimpses of what it is at the sound check. Then I'll try to play something that would trigger that on the gig. If I hear him working on a Brazilian pandeira rhythm, when we get on the gig I'll play something from that vibe and see if I can get him to do it. Of course, like any great musician, sometimes he will and sometimes he won't. But that kind of conversation is, I think, enriched by all the other things that we do.

AAJ: Meaning and Mystery may not have as explicit a concept as Keystone or Mountain Passages, your last two albums, but it is, to some extent, devoted to paying homage to various perhaps unsung—or under-sung, if that's a word, musical pioneers and combinations. This would include people like Tim Berne, Anthony Braxton and Kenny Wheeler, Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw. I called it an "enough about Miles template in a review.

DD: [Laughing] I like that, but I think—you know, you don't really go around Miles. But I do think that maybe the theme is the language of contemporary jazz. And blowing that out. You know, words, words, words—they get used all over the place. To some people, you say "contemporary jazz and that means smooth jazz. To some people it means the forties or the fifties. I try to use the word "contemporary in the sense that it's happening now.

I look around on the scene and I hear what Jason Moran is doing and what Wayne Shorter is doing, and the Bad Plus, Roy Haynes, Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris, Kneebody, Jonathan Finlayson, Cuong Vu, ICP from the Netherlands, William Parker, Henry Grimes, Henry Threadgill. I hate making lists because you always leave someone out and then somebody will say, "oh, I can't believe he left out blah-blah-blah. But it's just this incredibly rich moment in the music and so I feel like, if anything, we're part of that. That's the theme.

AAJ: "Painter's Way is the first song on the record. It was called "Song for Susannah on my prerelease copy, and you do quote "Oh Susannah in your opening trumpet part. This is built around that Americana theme and that descending vamp that threads throughout the piece. James is quite prominent on this one and sounds like a man happy to be alive, and I especially like Donny's counterpart tenor to your trumpet. I find this song to be a very unassuming and beatific way to begin the CD. Any thoughts on this song?

DD: Well, it's a song that I wrote for my wife, whose name is Suzannah. But her middle name is Painter, and she's a photographer and a dancer. Mainly a dancer, but she does a lot of visual things, and it just reminded me of her before I realized that there was the tune "Oh Susannah built into it. I don't know how that happened. I struggled with how to start the record, but this one seemed like the one that was the most about the whole band. It's very much an ensemble piece, and I think it's interesting to try to do stuff with a band like this, with such great soloists, that's not about all about soloists. And I think that it's a very visual kind of tune.

AAJ: "Elk's Club is my current favorite on this record. It's got a theme that's sly and rather lovely at the same time. The song's got some tight stop-time and some tough unison stuff that Donny has no trouble with. Like a lot of your stuff, it's got a structure that produces some fascinating soloing where you can really hear the soloist—in this case, Donny, Uri and you—veering through the harmonic framework.

DD: I was writing this one in a hut up in Banff National Park [in Alberta, Canada] and while I was working on it, I had this really strange experience. I struggled with that free part in the middle. I wanted it to be this kind of groovy tune that would be, all of a sudden, just derailed, like you'd lost the trail. It just goes into another key, like, whoa! Very destabilizing. Yet I wanted to have it all happen in this very cyclical, subtly-multi-tonic harmonic situation.

And as I was writing it, I wanted to go out of the hut, take a break, so I went out—and there were these three elks outside the door of my hut. And they're kind of nasty animals. Cecil Taylor used to go up and work up there and he said running into an elk in the evening was like being in Alphabet City, New York in the seventies. It was calving season and, you know, they warn you when you get there: "don't confront the elks. So the elks clearly didn't want me to leave the hut. They were like, "what are you doing here? So I was trapped for a little while and that's how I finished the tune. It was kind of like they wouldn't let me go until I had finished it.

AAJ: Very aggressive muses.

DD: Yeah. And hence the title. One thing that I think is interesting about the way that we can play now is that you can create these non-metrical, nonmathematical situations and relationships, that have a non-logical, nonlinear reality and interaction—but they don't have to stay there. This is something we learned from what everyone did in the sixties, all that free music. Now we can take it into a context where's it's interacting with all kinds of other things.

AAJ: Let's talk about "Invocation. This one feels like an epitaph for something. Whatever it is, I'm for it.

DD: That's really nice to hear you say that. I wrote it for a series of rallies and benefits against the war in Iraq and then subsequently raising money for and for the Kerry campaign. It was kind of the invocation piece that we would play at the beginnings of these shows. And despite me writing the tune and playing it at these benefits, the war happened anyway. And W. won again. I used to assume that everybody who was into jazz and creative music was on the progressive side of the political spectrum, and I now know, from having been outspoken for a number of years, that that's not true.

So I don't assume that everyone reading this is going to agree with me—and I think that sometimes, within the progressive community, there's just an assumption that everyone is going to agree. And they're not! So I think it's important to make the arguments cogently about what facts are out there on the table—and I'm not going to do that in All About Jazz, because even if I told you, it would probably be excised.

AAJ: It wouldn't be, actually.

Dave DouglasDD: It's a conversation that needs to happen. I've had so many people come up to me and say, "oh, just shut up and play! We don't want to hear what you have to say! I'm like, "well, okay, good, but I'm a citizen of the world, and we all are—so everyone should be talking about it. People are dying, and I don't see where we get off pretending like everything's okay. That's very upsetting to me.

But, if I may continue on my mini-rant [laughing]—after Bush won, or "won for the second time, I had a kind of reassessment, as many people did, of my involvement in movements for social justice and political action. And I felt that in terms of my contribution, what I know how to do is music. And I know how to organize music and concerts and musicians. So that was also what went into getting much more deeply and committedly involved in the Festival For New Trumpet Music. I felt like, for me, that was a political act.

Okay, maybe I can't get Bush out of the White House. But I can give a voice to all of this diverse music that deserves to be heard. I mean, that says volumes about who we are in this country! So that's why I've worked so hard on that festival—because I feel that voices are getting left out. History is getting erased. So it becomes even more important to tell the story of the creative music and the new things that are happening, to make them just as vibrant as the story that we read about Chris Botti in JazzTimes, or whatever.

Wow, I got off on a tangent.

AAJ: Well, that tangent has led us rather appropriately to the song "Culture Wars. I sort of overdid this song. I became so enthusiastic about it when I first got the CD that I played it incessantly and forced it on my friends. I do think it's a classic piece. The components of this one are relatively simple—that little phrase that recurs throughout the piece, a consistent groove—and the results are magnificent. I love your opening trumpet section where for several minutes you sort of declare possibilities for the song to come.

DD: It's a very emotional piece for me and it's all about the unfolding. For me, I was trying to write a song where there would be something that seemed static, but had a lot of micro-level change going on through it. So the harmony is very sinuous, yet it seems like nothing's happening. Then before you know it, the thing has shifted into this whole other dimension. And what you get at the end of the dimension is this climax that suddenly stops. Then there's a very simple melody that comes out of the kinds of harmonies that were happening. It's very soft and subtle, and you don't get the full expression of the melody until the end of the piece twelve minutes later.

So to me as a composer it was worth waiting, because I don't think it would have the same impact if you were to just go, "one, two, one-two-three-four and just play the theme right away. It would kind of be like, "right, okay, here's another tune. So it's very much about how the shape of the discussion is sometimes so intertwined with the meaning of what you're saying.

The culture wars, as generally understood, are really hard for me. When I read that we're still arguing about what to teach in science classes, whether evolution should be taught, or see people pontificating about people's lifestyles and what's acceptable and what's not, or taking the gay marriage thing and turning that into an issue to drive people to the polls, or recreating the whole idea of what science is by replacing scientists with ideologues in our national government, I just feel like it's a discussion—on so many levels in our society—about whether we're going to accept who people are or whether we're going to try to enforce these laws about what things should be and shoot down anybody who doesn't stand up to that.

What you find is that so often the people who want to shoot the others down—there's this hypocritical level where they're just as bad themselves. So I always read about Rick Santorum and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and I feel like, "he who has not sinned should cast the first stone. You always find out after the fact that these guys were running up enormous gambling debts in Reno or something. And hey, nothing wrong with gambling debts if that's what you want to do, but don't go wagging your finger at everybody else.

I don't feel that any of this stuff I'm saying is particularly original. But suffice to say that it's really something that gets under my skin and I get very emotional about it. And I think I see a parallel in the discussion we have within so-called jazz music about what it is and what it can be. And that's also kind of upsetting to me at times—pushing these hard-core hot-button terms to try to put somebody else down or shut them out.

And I'm not pointing a finger at anybody, because it happens on all sides of this discussion. I mean, there are people who are into so-called free improv that are just as hardcore radical exclusionary as anybody else. And there are smooth jazzers that I meet that think anything but that kind of Muzak-y CD101.9 sound is just not acceptable. And then we've all hopefully been up to the wonderful Lincoln Center—the new building that they have that I think is just remarkable. I love it and it's fantastic. But there is a certain bias to the history that they are telling about music in America.

So I just feel that, okay, we're always going to argue. Fine. But I think to not see that as part of this larger culture war that's going on in the country is to miss part of what's going on. I don't see jazz music as an isolated part of American society; I see it as a central part of American society and so the discussions that we're having come right out of what it means to be American—where we've come from and where we're going.

[After a pause] I'm so lame. Don't print that last bit.

AAJ: No, no, it's good.

DD: Words are just hard sometimes. I just think it's so easy to misconstrue and music is one of the hardest things to talk about in the world. That's probably unique to musicians—to say music is so hard to talk about. But I'll bet tennis players will tell you that tennis is so hard to talk about.

AAJ: That's because these activities are not about talking. They are about action. It's really just music writers that talk about music, and we're forced to use metaphors: music is like "flowing, dancing waters, that sort of thing.

DD: Did you read that Anthony Braxton quote? I don't remember where it came to me from, and I can't quote it for you, but it's something like, "when I joined the academic world, I realized I would have to shift the focus in my music to the poetic and mystical because I am forced to talk about and explain my music all the time. I didn't want that to be the it of the music. I wanted the focus of my music to be something I didn't understand and couldn't explain. And I love that! I love that—I think it's one of the reasons I picked the album title here. Because music means so much to us and yet the reason that it does is completely a mystery.

AAJ: It is. I hope that I still have the capacity to at least occasionally listen to music and not think, "oh, there's a nice vibes part, or "the drummer made a mistake. Instead, I want to actually experience it physically, the way I did before I was so burdened with opinion or knowledge.

DD: But I also think that with a deepening of that opinion and viewpoint, you might find that even after you've learned all the technical jargon, and who's making a mistake where, you can then still step back and say, "okay, now let me just experience this physically and viscerally. What I find missing sometimes when people talk about music is that there are so many planes on which to check it out, so many perspectives to look at it from. I think you can get as close to it as you want and you can still step away and put it on in the kitchen and go in the living room and then say, "okay, now what is it saying? That's really important.

When I talk about composition up at Banff [where Douglas is director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music], there's a metaphor that I use. I think when I'm composing like a sculptor sometimes; I'll make something and kind of hold it up in the light and then try to look at it from different sides: what does it look like from here? What about over here, and what if I go up above? Then I try to pick the most unusual way that you can look at something—so that I really understand, from every dimension, what this piece is, what the elements are that I'm working with and what is the full weight and effect of it.

AAJ: You've just come off a U.S. tour. After quite a few gigs with the quintet, did the shows give you any new insights into the music you've been playing or about the band? Did anything new occur to you about this music?

DD: First of all, let me just say that touring in the States is really important to me. When I first became a bandleader and a touring artist, I would constantly hear, "well, this music is really popular in Europe, and you guys tour in Europe all the time, but nobody in the States knows what you're doing. And that was really frustrating to me because I'm an American artist. I'm American! I love America, and I feel like what I'm playing is American music. So that whole cliché about progressive music only succeeding in Europe was something that really pissed me off.

First of all, I feel it's not true. But second of all—since all stereotypes generally come out of something that has a basis in a perception—there's something wrong! So I made a concerted effort to tour in the United States starting, oh, 12 years ago. At a loss, initially—I lost money. But it was just really important to me to get beyond New York—to get to the West Coast, to play in Chicago, to be able to go around the States. Because I think that on the level that music speaks to people, it speaks to them culturally as well, and it was important for me to play this music for American audiences.

I also feel that the response we get in America is somehow more heartening to me. By "heartening, I mean I get the sense people are really getting it in America in a different way than they do in Europe. I do tour in Europe quite a bit, but at this point in my career, I actually tour more in the United States. That's because of all that footwork I did in the last decade trying to make a viable touring model in the U.S. I love playing in Europe, and we get great response, and yet I sometimes get the feeling that people aren't always getting it for the reasons that I'm putting it out.

People there will come up after the show and they'll say [in a Teutonic accent] "ja, this is really like rock-and-roll jazz. And they're loving it, and, hey, great. But I don't really think it's rock-and-roll jazz, or that that even means anything. So I guess my feeling is in the States, even if somebody doesn't know about the music, they get the cultural references—where the music is coming from, whether it's blues or jazz or old American music or even just people expressing themselves as individuals, as who they are and not as a representation of something else.

AAJ: As a band, and not as Jazz with a capital J.

DD: Yeah, maybe. You were at the Green Mill. It was just exciting. A lot of people there are connoisseurs and know a lot about the music, and a lot of them are just there because it's a nice scene. And that's going on all around the country, which is very heartening.

I have to get back to the rest of your question. I think that when you play a book of music night after night, you get more in touch with what you really meant when you wrote the music. And I see in myself this search to get back to the earliest language of the music that I played when I was a really small kid, which is the American songbook. That sounds trite, but I think there's something in writing tunes that have rules and forms and strategies. That comes from that place in me, and I feel a very real, personal connection to that.

AAJ: Let's talk about your previous big project, Keystone, which was both the name of your last album and the name of the band that toured it. This is, of course, your tribute to Fatty Arbuckle—sort of an attempt to produce a new set of soundtracks to some of his unfairly neglected films.

DD: I wouldn't call a tribute to Fatty Arbuckle. I never said that. It was writing new soundtracks to his films—and in the process learning about his life. I felt like he was a neglected figure. But I don't feel like I know enough about him, or maybe that my music doesn't have enough to do with him, to actually call it a tribute to Fatty Arbuckle.

AAJ: Point taken. In any case, it's really lovely, interesting music that stands alone. There were, in a sense, two different presentations of this stuff—the individual tunes on the CD like "Just Another Murder or "Mabel Normand —and the scores that were performed for the films live that incorporated sections from these tunes into longer live pieces. At a distance of a year or so, do you have any oversights, insights?

DD: Well, you know, the reason that the film scores worked the way they did was that my goal, first and foremost, was not to put handcuffs on the band. Having [saxophonist] Marcus Strickland play a melody is a really deep and specific thing, so when I wrote the themes, for me it was all about leaving enough freedom for Marcus to do his own thing. But the theme had to be strong enough to go along with the moving images as they moved.

And that's a little original for a film score, because I think usually things tend to get very set. The same with [drummer] Gene Lake; I think Gene is one of the preeminent drummers of this day and age, and I wouldn't have wanted to write for him and just ask him to give a rim shot every time there's a knock at the door. So the challenge was, how do you write a music in which everyone can be free to do their own thing from moment to moment and still reflect the sense of the scenes that are flickering by on the screen?

So my approach was to write themes that would be flexible enough to be able to be reinterpreted, to be played a lot of different ways, but that would also work with the scenes as they went along. That's why I felt it was important to record the songs as discrete songs not in relationship to the film, and then to also do a version where we actually played it in real time with the film. I think that was a difficult challenge to set in writing a film score—to write music that would serve the players just as much as it would serve the film.

AAJ: I put this album on recently and hadn't heard it in a while. I was immediately struck by the eeriness of its overall sound. Everything's very close: a small room in the rain. I suppose Jamie Saft's Wurlitzer and DJ Olive's turntables are a big part of its ambience (it was DJ Sundance and Adam Benjamin when I saw you live). Certainly you made no effort to make any self-consciously "period jazz or comedy music. How did you go about inventing this particular style of music for these films?

DD: Well, that's a very generous and huge question. First of all, I think on the record you have to give credit where it's due to David Torn, who did a lot of editing and mixed the record—and the mixing process was a huge one in this case. So a lot of the shaping of the way the Wurlitzer and the turntables sound with the acoustic instruments has to do with his brilliance as a recording engineer.

Now, you're saying that I invented a style, which is [laughing] really, really nice, and I hope that in each recording project, in each book of compositions that I write, I try to invent a new way of thinking about things, and if that comes up with a new style, hey, fantastic. I would never claim that for myself. But in the case of Keystone, I watched these films with the music soundtracks that were on the VHS tapes that I found the films on. And Fatty Arbuckle, being the overlooked genius that he is, was very obscure and hard to find. The first VHSs that I found were at Kim's Underground in the East Village, and they were kind of in the back far corner underneath the X-rated naughty videos. I'm not sure why. And very poorly labeled. And so I would watch these things, just as part of my research—I didn't know that I was going to be working with these films when I first saw them.

But the music really made it hard for me to watch the films and enjoy them, and the reason for that was that it was music that was made later that was trying to evoke what we think of as silent film ambience. This is music that was mostly made in the seventies and eighties, probably during the second or third revival of watching silent films. And so it was, you know, stride piano and old-school, but a lot of rah-rah Yale 1920s collegey-sounding stuff. And taken on its own, wonderful. But for me, put with those films, it kind of did a disservice to both. It just turned the whole thing into a cliché of what we're supposed to be thinking about when we see old silent movies. It was an artifact of neither.

So very quickly, I started to watch these films with the sound off, and then I could sense the films very, very differently. I started to go and grab records from my collection and just play things along with it, and so many things worked. Some things didn't work, but you'd be surprised. So I said, "well, let me see how far I can go, and I would pick the most opposite thing I could think of to play with these Arbuckle films. And I felt like it made the films stronger. They have so much character as it is that they were strong enough to coexist—and if anything, the images got more vivid with the challenge of an unexpected kind of music.

So that was my first inkling that I could write some music to this, because I got this kind of picture of music that, quote-unquote, wouldn't belong—running parallel to the films. And I felt that it could bring the images back to life on some level to have a 21st-century music soundtrack. Then one of the other things that was a spark for me was reading about Arbuckle's process of making the films, which was kind of revolutionary and exploratory. A lot of the technology was new and they were improvising a lot, and I got the sense that he would come to the lot with these new ideas of how they could use the cameras to capture something in a new way. Like, you know, the scenes of him going up the slide backwards, or dancing on the telegraph wires, or falling through someone's roof. And all these falling-down type gags that he found a new way to capture.

So part of what was new was the technology and his experimenting with the technology—and since I was making this electronic score, I felt like I was experimenting with the technology as well. I had gotten ProTools for my own computer. I was building these beds of sound only with trumpet sounds. In other words, I went in the studio and I recorded an hour of just trumpet, and then chopped it up and put all kinds of effects on it—just wanted to mess around with the bare sonic artifacts that came out of those sounds.

And a lot of the tracks on the record are built out of those first experiments. So I saw a kinship on a technological level with Arbuckle. I guess on a very, very surfacey level, I just felt like the movies were cool and I wanted to write a cool soundtrack for him. And have fun—a lot of my music is very serious, so I felt like it was time for me to just do something enjoyable. I didn't realize I was wading into the whole American scandal issue [Arbuckle's career was destroyed by a very dubious rape/murder accusation after the death of actress Virginia Rappe] until after I was well underway writing the music.

AAJ: Well, it's not as if the music really comments upon that aspect.

DD: Well, a lot of people say that it does. That there's a dark edge to the music and I wouldn't be able to deny that that dark edge is in there because of all the reading I was doing about his life and what happened to him. It's hard to watch him without having that in mind—for me, anyway.

AAJ: I do think you raised Arbuckle's profile from this. And you may be the only musician this century to go on the road to play along with films.

DD: Well, Frisell went on the road with films, and I toured Mark Dresser's score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari back in the nineties. And Philip Johnston writes these wonderful scores for—is it Tod Browning? So I came to the thing thinking, "well, all classical composers write a string quartet and all modern jazz composers do a silent film project. So here's mine. I'm being a little facetious, but to put it in context: I didn't feel I was revolutionary on that level.

AAJ: Let's talk about your Blue Latitudes project, which I believe you did very recently with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. This was, I think, an hour of music for three improvisers—percussionist Susie Ibarra, bassist Mark Dresser, and you—and an ensemble of 14 instruments.

DD: And a conductor. We hope to release it later this year on Greenleaf if we can get the rights to the recording. Boy, that was such a huge project. I guess I started thinking about it over two years ago. And yeah, I wrote an hour of music for this great, great ensemble of contemporary instrumentalists. It's 14 players, all soloists: four strings, four winds, four brass, percussion and piano doubling harpsichord. And I think I really wanted to get at this problem of contemporary music and improvisers. So there are all different strategies, all different ways that I tossed paint at the canvas of that problem.

I was pretty happy with the results; a large part of that came about because the conductor, Peter Rundel, was so wonderful. He is the guy who was the violinist in Ensemble Modern for many years and gradually, more and more, became a conductor. Now all he does is conducting. He had a unique ability to understand what I was looking for, and what were the clashes and interesting aspects of the improvising—how it should all be put together, timing-wise. And of course Susie Ibarra and Mark Dresser are just towering figures as improvisers.

We had to work really hard to find the right thing, the right way to play from moment to moment. But they're so dedicated to doing that anyway that it was a joy; it was wonderful. Blue Latitudes came from a book by Tony Horwitz about the voyages of Captain James Cook in the South Pacific, which is a great read. But I also like the fact that "blue for me refers to the jazz side of things and "latitudes referred for me to this idea that I was trying to find a way to create a latitude for players. There's a little bit of improvising for the ensemble, but mostly it's me, Mark and Susie, who have no written notes.

I found a metaphor in Cook running into these cultures and peoples that he didn't ever know anything about—and some of them didn't know anything about him—and we all know the horrible things that followed those discoveries. But at that time, it was a very Age-of-Enlightenment kind of meeting of cultures. And I think we're still, in this day and age, fighting with this idea of the clash of cultures. So improvising and notation is no different, in a sense, from oral histories and written histories. They're ways of viewing our human history that are very much at odds. So that's how the piece came about, and I'm hoping that the recording will be available sometime later this year.

AAJ: Any other new projects?

DD: I'm working quite a bit, actually, on the Festival of New Trumpet Music, which this year will be on September 15th to October 15th. Roy Campbell and I are going to do a living tribute to Don Cherry in which we both perform a short set with our quartets and then we come together and do a symphony for improvisers. That'll be at Merkin Hall [at New York's Kaufman Center]. A lot of people are thinking about Don Cherry this year because it would have been his 70th birthday.

I'm working on something with John McNeil, the trumpeter, who was my teacher at New England Conservatory, and who introduced me to the Carmine Caruso method that saved my life. So that should be an interesting thing to work on.

I had so much fun working with Fatty Arbuckle that I'm almost 100% sure I'm going to score another set of 1915 Fatty Arbuckle films with Keystone, the same band.

AAJ: I saw that band in Chicago.

DD: Oh, at the Old Town School. That was fun.

AAJ: It made me very happy to see you actually laughing at a film you'd no doubt seen 40 times or so.

DD: It's so funny! I still laugh. Other than that, now that I've finished Blue Latitudes, I'm just beginning to put my mind around the next so-called classical piece. Over the last decade, I've always worked in the background on one of those while everything else is going on. I have this idea—I've been invited by a ballet choreographer named David Justin, who lives in Austin, Texas, to write a piece for his company. I'm talking to you about it, so I guess I've decided to do it. But I'm looking at the next project being a classical piece that I don't play in and writing a sextet for string quartet, clarinet and piano coming out of this Aaron Copland piece that I love, "Sextet.

Just coincidentally, I now live in the same town where Aaron Copland lived. They have his house renovated to the way it was when he was there, and composers go up there and they can write in his workroom. It's interesting. I guess as I get older, I think more of what it means to be American—getting in touch with the things that I ran away from for so many years. And I think that maybe musically, there's something that's always been a challenge to me about that period when they were trying to say, "okay, this is American classical music and trying to come up with an American language. Copland was very much at the center of that. So that's something I'll probably be working on.

AAJ: What is your least favorite side of what you do?

DD: Sitting in the airport, without a doubt. The travel. It's not romantic like people would like to think. It's just a drag. Another frustration for me, and I don't think I'm alone in this, everybody goes through it—is just when you're on tour, getting the sound to be right night after night. There's no finger to point, there's no one to blame; it's just that every room is different. We all show up, we get on stage and then we have to go through whatever we have to go through to figure out how to play the room and get it to sound right in the P.A.—that's a big concern for me.

Dave Douglas I know a lot of musicians don't worry that much about it, but I know that the room you're in affects how you play. So that takes a lot of work and I think it's a part of making the music that a lot of listeners don't see. They walk into the room and then you come onstage and play, and it's as if nothing else happened between the last gig and you being up there. That's a pretty meaty part of the job of being a bandleader, I think—getting the band to sound good in a room.

I think that part of what makes my life difficult is that I do a lot of different things. And I think people have different viewpoints about the value of doing all those different things. But all I can say is that for me, that's what I enjoy. I enjoy being involved in what the cover of a record is going to look like. I enjoy being involved now with the label in actually distributing the music. I enjoy composing quite a bit. I'd say that's the driving force behind everything that I do: composing as a force to create new contexts for myself as a player and as a human being.

And then the trumpet takes up a lot of time—practicing and trying to be a performer. And studying all kinds of music. So I think that's what's the hardest work: trying to keep all of that going with friends and family and keeping the band on the road. I'm not complaining. It's wonderful. I can see that a lot of musicians are going this direction nowadays of doing all kinds of things, and maybe to what we might call the old-school view of a jazz artist, that would be anathema. That would be something not seen as a positive. I can relate to that viewpoint, but I also just think that times have changed and they are changing. Some things die and some things are born and new realities are created. So I just follow through all of that.

Selected Discography

Dave Douglas, Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf Music, 2006)
Martial Solal/Dave Douglas, Rue de Seine (CAM Jazz, 2006)
Dave Douglas Quintet, Live at the Bimhuis (Greenleaf Music, 2005)
Masada, Sanhedrin (Tzadik, 2005)
Dave Douglas, Keystone (Greenleaf Music, 2005)
Dave Douglas, Mountain Passages (Greenleaf Music, 2005)
Dave Douglas, Strange Liberation (Bluebird/RCA, 2004)
Dave Douglas/Louis Sclavis/Peggy Lee/Dylan van der Schyff, Bow River Falls (Premonition/Koch, 2004)
Dave Douglas, Freak In (Bluebird/RCA, 2003)
Dave Douglas, The Infinite (Bluebird/RCA, 2002)
Patricia Barber, Verse (Premonition/Blue Note, 2002)
Jubilant Sykes, Wait For Me (Sony Classical, 2001)
Misha Mengelberg Quartet, Four in One (Songlines, 2001)
Masada, Live at Tonic 2001 (Tzadik, 2001)
Dave Douglas, Witness (Bluebird/RCA, 2001)
Dave Douglas, El Trilogy (RCA Victor, 2001)
Dave Douglas' Charms of the Night Sky, A Thousand Evenings (RCA Victor, 2000)
Masada, Live in Sevilla 2000 (Tzadik, 2000)
Dave Douglas, Soul on Soul (RCA Victor, 2000)
Dave Douglas, Leap of Faith (Arabesque, 2000)
Mick Rossi, They Have a Word for Everything (Knitting Factory, 1999)
Cibo Matto, Stereotype A (Warner Bros., 1999)
Dave Douglas, Songs for Wandering Souls (Winter & Winter, 1999)
Dave Douglas, Convergence (Soul Note, 1999)
What We Live, Quintet For a Day (New World Records, 1999)
Patricia Barber, Modern Cool (Premonition, 1998)
Dave Douglas, Magic Triangle (Arabesque, 1998)
Masada, Yod (Tzadik, 1998)
Dave Douglas, Charms of the Night Sky (Winter & Winter, 1998)
Dave Douglas, Moving Portrait (DIW, 1998)
Sean Lennon, Into the Sun (Grand Royal, 1998)
John Lindberg Ensemble, Bounce (Black Saint, 1998)
Masada, Tet (Tzadik, 1998)
Dave Douglas, Stargazer (Arabesque, 1997)
Dave Douglas, Sanctuary (Avant, 1997)
Masada, Het (Tzadik, 1997)
Jamie Baum, Sight Unheard (GM Records, 1997)
Tiny Bell Trio, Live in Europe (Arabesque, 1997)
Uri Caine, Urlicht/Primal Light (Winter & Winter, 1997)
Greg Cohen, Way Low (DIW, 1996)
Han Bennink/Dave Douglas, Serpentine (Songlines, 1996)
Masada, Zayin (DIW, 1996)
Dave Douglas, Five (Soul Note, 1996)
New and Used, Consensus (Knitting Factory, 1996)
Cibo Matto, Viva! La Woman (Warner Bros., 1996)
Doctor Nerve, Skin (Cuneiform, 1995)
Mark Dresser, Force Green (Soul Note, 1995)
Uri Caine, Toys (JMT, 1995)
Masada, Vav (DIW, 1995)
Tiny Bell Trio, Constellations (Hat Hut, 1995)
Dave Douglas, In Our Lifetime (New World/CounterCurrents, 1995)
Masada, Dalet (DIW, 1995)
Masada, Beit (DIW, 1995)
Masada, Alef (DIW, 1994)
Mark Dresser, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Knitting Factory, 1994)
Tiny Bell Trio, Tiny Bell Trio (Songlines, 1994)
Mosaic Sextet, Today, This Moment (Konnex, 1994)
Dave Douglas, Parallel Worlds (Soul Note, 1993)
New and Used, Souvenir (Knitting Factory, 1992)
Doctor Nerve, Beta 14 OK (Cuneiform, 1991)
Mark Whitecage, Liquid Time (Acoustics, 1990)
Marc Wagnon, Shadowlines (Sunjump, 1988)
Doctor Nerve, Armed Observation (Cuneiform, 1987)
Second Sight, Flying With the Comet (Sunjump, 1986)

Related Articles:
Dave Douglas & Keystone at SFJAZZ (Concert Review, 2005
Dave Douglas at Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago (Concert Review, 2005)
Dave Douglas: No Labels, No Compromises (Interview, 2004)
Dave Douglas New Quintet (Concert Review, 2004)

Photo Credits:
Photo #1: Jimmy Katz
Photo #2: Michael Kurgansky
Photo #3: Mephisto
Photo #4: Jimmy Katz

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