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Dave Douglas: Music, Commerce and Culture Wars

By Published: June 26, 2006
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.

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