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Interviews

Chris Washburne: Instrumental Activist

By Published: October 23, 2006
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 clubs—why 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 politician—a right-wing candidate—who 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 performance—the 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 stage—that 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.



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