Chris Washburne: Instrumental Activist
“ A political act can be anything. My music on this record tends to be a little more energetic and high-powered. It's a wake-up call. ”
Trombonist, composer and educator Chris Washburne has added another titleactivist. Washburne and his longtime partners, The SYOTOS Band, are making a bold political statement on their new album, Land of Nod (Jazzheads, 2006). Like all bold political statements, this one is... danceable? You read that right. Washburne manages to pack the same punch on the dance floor as always, but he's coupling it with an ideological message intended to give listeners a meaning behind the music.
In September, Washburne was a guest on The Jason Crane Show, hosted by All About Jazz contributor Jason Crane. The following is a transcript of the interview. You can listen to the full interview and selections from the new album at the show's Web site.
All About Jazz: You've made an overtly political instrumental album. What are the challenges associated with recording a political album when you don't have lyrics to get the message across?
Chris Washburne: That's a really great question. For a number of years, I have always been politically active in my non-musical life, and I've been thinking about how to incorporatebecause I mainly play instrumental music, at least the music I write is instrumentalI was really trying to ponder how I could put across political messages within that context. I realized that it really has to do with the political climate of today that forced this upon me. I was becoming more and more frustrated with our current administration, and the way things are moving in the world is very troubling to me.
I realized that being on stage week after week with a microphone in hand, there was a way I could convey some messages in the midst of the entertainment, and convey how I was feeling and voice some of my frustrations and connect with some listeners that way. So I started to write songs that were in some way inspired by feelings stirred by the current political situation. And then what I would do is have brief introductions to them on the microphone, and cue people in who wanted to be cued inpeople who were on the dance floor or were in a jazz club listeningthat there's something behind what this tune is about, and that's the sentiment and message that we're trying to get across. It was quite effective because you allow the listeners to make the connection in terms of the literal meanings, but the emotions are obviously there. It also served to incite more of an emotional display from the musicians in the band who had similar feelings.
AAJ: The new album is called Land of Nod, which is a Jonathan Swift reference, and also a reference to this country, which seems to have fallen asleep. For folks who know your music, they know that it's really danceable Latin jazz and salsa, and this album is no different. Do you try to connect the serious political content with danceable music?
CW: I think the music can be enjoyed on many different levels. Some people are just not willing to engage politically, and that's fine. I'm not really here to indoctrinate anybody or proselytize at all. I'm more interested in making people feel good with this music, but also in making them realize that there's something behind it, a personal meaning. If they can grasp some of that, it makes it a more meaningful musical experience for myself, but of course I understand that that's not necessarily always going to be the case, and that's cool, too.
Jonathan Swift has been a big influence on the way that I think politics and art can come together and serve as a creative force. The way that he did it in Gulliver's Travels, for instance, is really remarkable. A way to politically critique the state but at the same time provide a really engaging and creative storyline. So the Land of Nod is this place where everybody walks around in this slumberous state, which I tend to find is part of the political climate of the United States now. The Land of Nod is representative of the country we live in.
AAJ: In the Land of Nod, is the simple act of making music a political act?
CW: It can be, right? A political act can be anything. My music on this record tends to be a little more energetic and high-powered. It's a wake-up call. A wake-up call to those who are slumberous to say that political action can come in many different ways, just by paying attention to the political act. But also there's a way to resist by just moving your body and dancing to the grooves that have this meaning behind them.
AAJ: You're the leader of a band of independent-minded musicians. When you make a political record, is it important that the band buys into it?
CW: That's a great question. I could sense that there might be some discord in some groups. SYOTOS has been together for close to eighteen years now. Not only are the musicians close musical pals, but they're all my friends. I spend a lot of my free time with them, and I've learned a lot from them. We share openly our philosophies of life and politics. Most of them are pretty closely aligned with the ideas behind the record, so they were really enthusiastic when we embarked upon this project.
AAJ: In terms of the political content more than the musical content, is this a record you could have made eighteen years ago when SYOTOS started out, or have you become more radicalized in recent years?
CW: I absolutely would not have made this record until about two years ago. In the past I had always thought music should be there for entertainment and for art's sake and to instruct, but politics should be kept separate from that act. Playing in clubswhy do people come out to jazz clubs and listen to music? There are a variety of reasons, but the main one is social. To forget about the political struggles. And nowhere was that more apparent than being a jazz musician after September 11.
After 9/11, I had a gig that week at Smoke [jazz club in Manhattan], and I really wasn't in the mood to play. Nobody was. Nobody wanted to do anything. We were all depressed. We got there and the place was packed. There were so many people wanting to go out and commune, to just be together and to enjoy. And it was really important that our performance was not political, that it was a celebration of life, and a celebration of moving on. Nobody wanted to remember what had just happened for that set or for the few sets they were there. In that sense, music was really a powerful tool for healing, and at that point politics didn't belong.
God forbid if anything should happen again, I don't know if I would be saying the same things on the microphone that I do now in those settings. But as time has progressed and our political climate has changed, I couldn't remain silent anymore. I was compelled to say something, and the outlet that I have as a musician is a jazz club on stage or in a dance club on stage, so I take those few moments to state my perspective and move on.
I remember we were playing at Smoke not too long ago, and a very close friend of the [Bush] administration from Colombia was there. A politiciana right-wing candidatewho had just come from Washington, D.C. They heard our music and heard our rap and looked at the ambassadors who were with them and said, "My goodness, they really don't like George Bush in New York City, do they?" But they could enjoy the music, and since the message came along with this joyous musical expression, they were okay with that. I'm sure they didn't agree with me, but they certainly didn't stand up and walk out. They really enjoyed themselves. They even bought a CD afterwards. [laughs]
AAJ: Protest music is often perceived as the domain of rock and folk. Before we spoke, I put together a quick list of jazz players who've done protest music, and came up with folks like [drummer] Max Roach; [singer] Abbey Lincoln; [saxophonist] John Coltrane; [bassist] Charlie Haden; [bassist] Charles Mingus; [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk; [singer/pianist] Nina Simone; [singer] Oscar Brown, Jr.it's an impressive list. It seems like in the 50's, 60's and 70's, people were doing that kind of thing in jazz, and then in the 80's it just went away. Now it seems to be coming back. Do you see political jazz as always having been there, or is the pendulum swinging back?
CW: I definitely see a swing of the pendulum. I think that the 1980's especially was a decade where the slumberous state started. I remember it. I was in college at the time, and the fervor I grew up with during the Vietnam era was just not there. There were not protests like there used to be. And I was at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which is a bastion of left-wing thinking and protest, and even then there was a lack of an edge to some of those political movements.
I remember coming to New York City and seeing the Mingus Dynasty perform in Central Park in the mid-80's. Of course this was [after] Charles Mingus's time, but my professor [bassist] Richard Davis was playing in the group and I went, and it was the first time that I saw [tenor saxophonist] George Adams play. They did a version of "Fables of Faubus" where George was using Mingus's original words to that and riffing off them, taunting the KKK to come after him, and it was just so powerful. Knowing that this music was written in the 60's, and Mingus was saying this stuff at a time when it was really dangerous to be saying that. It really moved me.
George Adams has had a huge influence on the way that I think about performancethe energy and messages that he was able to portray with his saxophone. I remember one time he was playing at a club in New York. It was a Friday night, and there were so many drunk people in there. It was so loud. He was playing with his quartet acoustically, and you could barely hear him. And he was probably one of the loudest saxophone players in the entire world. All of sudden, it got really quiet on stage. You could see that he was playing, but you couldn't hear anything. The people at the bar were looking because they couldn't hear any music. They started quieting down and looking. Everybody got quiet and you could hear him play, really softly, [sings first few bars of "America, The Beautiful"]. That's what he was playing. "America, The Beautiful." So quiet, like this whisper tune.
And then I saw him; his eyes rolled back into his head, and he leaned back and took a big breath, and there was the most devilish, diabolical sound that emerged from the saxophone. It just resounded in the depths of everybody's soul that was there. The entire place jumped, and from then on, the rest of the night, he quieted down and everybody listened. That power on stagethat was a form of protest in some ways. To really grab people's attention. He grabbed my attention in Central Park singing "Fables of Faubus," and I'll never forget that.
AAJ: I don't think there are a lot of other ways to have that effect on people. If George Adams had been speaking stridently and then quieted down, people might have stopped to listen. But his use of music to grab at the core of what it means to be an Americanthat seems like a powerful ability to have.
CW: That's right. That's the power of music without lyrics. Everybody gets to put their own meaning on it. As a performer, you're guiding the different types of emotion and the different ideas behind that, but you really don't have as much direct control. You never have full controleverybody's going to interpret things the way they want to, of course. But it's so much more open and fluid that way, and that's the beauty of it.
AAJ: Let's talk for a second about Paradise In Trouble (Jazzheads, 2003), the SYOTOS album that preceded Land of Nod. I wore out my copy of that one, and it seemed to me to also be a political album with a bit of a commercial critique as well. Was I reading my own agenda into it, or was that really there?
CW: You're absolutely spot on. That record was written in the months following September 11. It's not an overt political statementI wasn't ready to make thatbut it was a lament. Paradise In Trouble was a lament for my city that I live in and love, and how it was forever changed and forever marked. That was the beginning of where I was searching for musical ways to deal with the feelings that I was having. It's a much more personal and introspective record in terms of the issues that I was dealing with, as opposed to Land of Nod, which is a much more overt stance and dealing with issues outside of my own personal life that affect all of us.
AAJ: In addition to playing in your band, you've played with a remarkable array of musicians from [percussionist] Tito Puente and pianist] Eddie Palmieri to [singers] Mark Anthony and Celia Cruz. When I think "Latin jazz trombone," I of course think of the University of Wisconsin. But seriously, how did you get from there to here?
CW: I grew up in Ohio, in a very rural setting, and then going to school in Wisconsin, I had no exposure to Latin music whatsoever, other than reruns of I Love Lucy. After Wisconsin, I went to the New England Conservatory for my Master's. I was living in Boston, and one night I was playing really late, practicing at school. There was a janitor who worked at the school and also played in some local Latin bands around Boston. So he knocked on the door and said, "Chris, you've got to help me. I've got a gig tonight and I can't make it." I asked what kind of gig it was. He said, "It's a salsa gig." I said, "What's that?" He said, "Don't worry about it. Dress up nice, show up on time and play really loud, and they're going to love you." So I did that, and they did love me. They loved me so much that they fired him and hired me. It was cool, though, because he wanted to quit, so I didn't steal his gig.
I didn't know anything about the music, but I had an affinity for the rhythms. I found them to be infectious and joyous. I loved the fact that the trombone played such a central and lead role in the ensembles. It was rare that the trombone could be in that lead solo position in any group. It was something I think I'd been searching for since fifth grade, playing trombone and figuring out how to play in rock bands and blues bands and getting occasional solos but not being the center of attention for very long.
The next day after I played with this band, I went to this mom-and-pop record store in Boston that doesn't exist anymore. I went in and said I want to know more about salsa. The guy working behind the desk must have been Puerto Rican, because he got this glint in his eye and he said, "This record is all you'll need." And he handed me Eddie Palmieri's "White Album" [Eddie Palmieri (Barbaro, 1981)]. I didn't know who Eddie Palmieri was. I put it on, and of course the trombonist with Eddie Palmieri was Barry Rogers. Barry Rogers was a Jewish man from Brooklyn who transformed the modern Latin trombone sound. He grew up playing in rhythm-and-blues bands and rock bands, and really brought that street-smart, gritty sound into the salsa milieu. I heard his sound and said, "I want to do that." So I went back to the store and bought every Eddie Palmieri record I could and threw myself into it, transcribing Barry Rogers' solos and really starting to study the form seriously. That's how I got my start.
When I came to New York, [I was at] one of my first gigs, and guess who walked in with a trombone case? Barry Rogers, my hero. I got to know him and hang out with him, and he taught me a lot. Because I was so engaged with it, I was very lucky. Within two years of coming to New York City I had my first gig with Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, and moved up through the echelons of the Latin music business and got to tour and play with them for many years.
AAJ: The trombone has always struck me as an instrument with no mediocre players. There are either great trombone players or really bad trombone players. As a very talented trombonist, do you find it easier to get work than if you played a more common instrument such as the saxophone?
CW: It's hard to get good work on any instrument. It doesn't matter. In New York City, the problem is that there are so many great trombone players here. It's a real inspiration, but the competition is really stiff as well. It makes you grow. I remember I was living on 8th Avenue for a while, and my practice room window overlooked the street. Slide Hampton lived right down the street, Benny Powell lived right around the corner, and all the Broadway cats would walk byJim Pugh and these great trombone players. I'd see them go by and then end up practicing for another hour, just knowing the level that's required to play in this city. That said, what's hard is to create a situation where you can be musically fulfilled on your instrument and not be on an instrument that easily plays a lead role. Often trombones are the instrument that's cut when a big band is cut down or a jazz group is cut down. There are many more opportunities for trumpets and saxophones. Of course there are more numbers there, too. You have to carve out your own space and gravitate to those places where you naturally excel.
AAJ: You've been leading SYOTOS for 18 years. The name is an acronym for See You On The Other Side. For folks who don't know, will you talk about the story behind the name?
CW: That was a moment of inspiration in a very difficult time that I was going through personally. I was diagnosed with a very deadly form of nerve cancer, and unfortunately the tumor was right on my face. I had to have it removed very fast in hopes of surviving. This was about 15 years ago. When the surgeon said we have to operate tomorrow, I said "Look, I'm a trombone player." And he said, "I have to remove all the muscles and nerves from one side of your face. You're never going to play trombone again."
It was just before Bastille Day, and I had a gig at a French restaurant with the band that's now known as SYOTOS. So I said, "Can we delay the surgery for a few days so I can play this one last gig?" He agreed, and I played the gig, but of course it was one of the most difficult gigs that I played in my life, because I assumed it was the last time I'd ever be playing the trombone. I was 28 years old, and it was integral to my personal identity. The thought of being something other than a trombone player was so daunting. Not only that, but [there was] the fear of not making it through and not surviving this battle that I was about to embark upon.
So in the middle of that set, this phrase "see you on the other side" just occurred to me. I remember writing it down, and I started introducing the band as the "SYOTOS" band. The guys were looking at me like "What the hell does that mean?" At the end of the night I said, "Guys, I'll see you on the other side. Whatever other side it's going to be. Whether it's me not being a trombone player or the other side of life, I look forward to jamming with you wherever that is." So that's where the name came from.
After the surgery, I had a lot of reconstructive surgery on my face to put the skin back together, but I didn't have any feeling, and a lot less muscles. The surgeon tried to cut out as little as possible in order to preserve something. Luckily, the surgery was successful and I beat the cancer. It didn't come back. About three months after the surgery, I was looking at my trombone sitting in a case in the corner, and I said, "You know what? I'm going to play again." I picked it up, and I could play for about 30 seconds and then it was painful. I figured if I can play 30 seconds today, and I played five notes, I'll play six notes tomorrow and 45 seconds. That's what I did. I did that for three months and did my first gig about six months after that surgery. I had to relearn how to play just on one side of my face, but within a year I was about ninety percent back and I started to gig with SYOTOS again. I kept the name as a tribute to that experience and as a reminder that every gig is a precious one. It keeps me humble and keeps me in line.
AAJ: After the surgery, did your trombone playing sound different?
CW: It did at first. It took me two years to get back the sound that I was hearing in my head. It actually was a great rebirth. I was able to relearn and correct some of the bad habits that I picked up as a kid, so it was actually a wonderful experience in the end, even though it was very frustrating because for two years I couldn't play the way I had played before. But then I surpassed what I could do technically before, and the sound was enriched by that experience. I can listen to recordings of me before and afterward, and you can hear a depth that wasn't there. That's an experiential depth that comes with life experience.
AAJ: Besides your playing career, you also have a very successful academic career. You hold a PhD, you've taught at the New School. How do you see jazz and academia coming together? You currently teach at Columbia, right?
CW: I actually founded and direct the jazz performance program here at Columbia. I founded it five years ago. I'm also an assistant professor in ethnomusicology.
I think that jazz has ended up in the ivory tower, and it's one of the last places where you can actually learn how to play it. People say you can't learn jazz in school, but you know what? I learned in school. I learned at the University of Wisconsin, and Richard Davis was my teacher, and it was a profound experience. I grew up too late to be in the big bands and to be in those "learn on the job" musical experiences. There just weren't very many left to do. But I loved the music and I wanted to learn the mechanics of it.
True, you can't really learn the music unless you explore on your own and you're on the bandstand. That's where the real experience comes. But school can serve such an important part of that development. You learn the history, the mechanics, the theory, you learn how to write. How do you teach creativity? You don't necessarily teach ityou facilitate it. You create a space where students can go and explore their own creativity. That's what school can give. So in many ways, it's one of the last vestiges for jazz in this country. If you think about where jazz musicians can actually make a living in the United States, many of them are teachers to supplement their playing income, because the music is not supported in this country like it is in other places around the world. I think it's a real shame. Thank goodness that colleges are open to support that, to teach new generations of students. Of course, that profoundly is going to change the sound of jazz in generations to come, because it's a much different experience learning in a university setting as opposed to the bandstand. But there are just so few bandstands left.
AAJ: I once heard an older musician say that all these college-educated guys play from their head, and we play from our gut. I don't think that's true, though. I think that a lot of what used to be "head music" is now "gut music" for the folks who've come up more recently, who've learned about strange keys and rhythms and polytonality in their theory classes.
CW: Absolutely. If you think about it, there's always been this generational divide within jazz. There have always been people complaining about the newest thing. Even Louis Armstrong was complaining about bebop when it first came out. That's part and parcel for the scene. I'm in the second generation now, in my early 40s. You see these young guys come and sit in with my band, and I really see the difference. You can see the music changing in ways that you can't necessarily relate to because they're bringing something new to it. For me, that's really exciting and vibrant and it gives me energy. But I can also see where it could be interpreted as a threat. A threat to livelihood, a threat to what you know. It's something strange. So it's really about the attitudes between those generations. But young people have to realize that those older cats have a lot to offer. It's really important to play with them and to take the time to hear what they have to say and how they approach it, because they're a wealth of knowledge.
AAJ: To bring it around full circle, back to your new album Land of Nod: Do you find now that you've recorded an overtly political album that your students relate to you differently, given that universities are usually "hotbeds of radicalism"?
CW: It's funnythe more activist I become, the more the young people, the idealists who are left in the world, really respond. It wasn't a conscious effort to reach out to them, but when they come and see the band and hear those political statements and hear the ideas behind the music, they become much more engaged with it. Especially the ones that are not musicians, because you're inviting them into this arena, [giving them] a new way of thinking and a new way of hearing, and that's really exciting to see.
AAJ: Thanks a lot for coming on The Jason Crane Show. Before you go, is there anything I forgot to ask that you'd like to mention?
CW: I'd like to plug my weekly gig at Smoke. SYOTOS has the longest-running weekly jazz gig in New York City. We've been playing weekly for more than fifteen years, first at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe for ten years, and now for five years at Smoke. Every Sunday night we're there starting at 8 pm, so I invite listeners to come and check out the band live.
Chris Washburne & The SYOTOS Band, Land of Nod (Jazzheads, 2006)
Chris Washburne & The SYOTOS Band, Paradise In Trouble (Jazzheads, 2003)
Chris Washburne & The SYOTOS Band, The Other Side (Jazzheads, 2001)
Chris Washburne & The SYOTOS Band, Nuyorican Nights (Jazzheads, 1999)
My Conversations With Chris Washburne (Interview, 1999)
Courtesy of Chris Washburne