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Chris Washburne: Instrumental Activist

By Published: October 23, 2006
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 it—you 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.

Chris WashburneCW: 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 funny—the 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.

Selected Discography

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)

Related Article
My Conversations With Chris Washburne (Interview, 1999)

Photo Credits
Courtesy of Chris Washburne

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