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Dave Douglas: Music, Commerce and Culture Wars

By Published: June 26, 2006
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.

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