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A Fireside Chat With Ken Vandermark

By Published: April 17, 2003

AAJ: And earlier in your career, I was banging my head against the wall with all the Eric Dolphy references. Have people gotten over that?

KV: (Laughing) It is funny that you mentioned that, Fred. I haven't seen it in a while, so I guess people have, you know you play bass clarinet and everybody says Dolphy and on one level, it is understandable and Dolphy has had a huge impact on my playing. His use of interval motion has been really, really important to the way I thought about playing the saxophones and clarinets. There is no question that he has had a major influence on me. To say that I sound like Eric Dolphy is kind of nuts. When I see Dolphy's name, it is always in reference to my bass clarinet playing and I think that is because nobody knows anybody who plays bass clarinet, just because they haven't spent time to look at who does the work on it. David Murray has been playing bass clarinet. Hans Koch has been playing bass clarinet. There is a lot of other people. Br'tzmann's played bass clarinet. All those kinds of things get warn out. You can't keep saying those things forever. You have to find something new to talk about, so they will find something else to complain about with me (laughing). It is like with the Dolphy thing, I think it is kind of the same. They have used that up.

AAJ: Another knock on you has been you propensity to play with Europeans.

KV: They are great musicians over there. It is pretty simple. I think some of the best players in the world are in Europe now and in Japan. I haven't been fortunate enough to work with too many people from Japan, but I think that, to me, when I look at the history of jazz in the broadest sense of what that might mean. I am not just thinking of swing or this and that. I am thinking of improvised impulse that came out of Black-America concepts of music. To me, up until the Seventies, there is no question that the major, major innovators in the music have been Black-Americans and there is a few exceptions, guys like Charlie Haden, Jimmy Guiffre, Pee Wee Russell, but generally speaking, the major innovators, you can't make an argument against the fact that they have been Black-Americans. After the late Sixties, I think you can make an argument that there have been major innovations that have happened in the music and they've come from Europe, people like Derek Bailey or Evan Parker, Tony Oxley, Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens, Misha Mengelberg. There is a long list of very, very significant European players who, for my ears, have really affected the course of music and I think that in the United States, there is a tendency to think that the music is still centered in New York City and that all the best music comes from the United States. I think that is just, to be frank, is just a set of ignorance on the part of people not being aware of what is going on now in 2003 with the music. There is great music coming out of New York and it is fantastic, but there is no center anymore. I think the center is a connective set of communication that runs across the globe and the scene isn't in one city. The scene is the collective of people that you work with internationally or nationally, depending on where you live or how you work. So for me to not work with European musicians is to cut myself off from some of the major creative work that is being done in the music that I am involved with, that is happening now, and that just doesn't make any sense to me at all. So yeah, Fred, I definitely work with a lot of Europeans because there is a lot of music there for me to examine and discover.

AAJ: Can an artist be true to the art while still maintaining a commercial viability?

KV: Oh, yeah, for sure. Look at Miles Davis. Look at Duke Ellington. I think it is totally possible to do that. I think it is also incredibly difficult to do that. I think that one of the main things that I have been preoccupied with is that very issue. I don't think that there is a badge of honor to being obscure and I think there is a lot of people who are involved in this music who feel that way. There is a lot of musicians who do not see the unfortunate necessity of being a business person connected to the music and every time that I talk about finances and talk about business and talk about trying to get the media to understand the music in a broader sense, people really bock at it. They get, in some cases, very angry about it and I think it is usually connected to the belief that I am trying to make commercial concessions to become famous. If I wanted to be famous, there is a lot of other things I could do that would make it a lot easier to be famous than work in this music.

I think that, to me, the music I play doesn't belong in some kind of cultural ghetto. The music that I play and the people that I work with belong in a visible way amongst the other people doing serious cultural work right now. The truth of it is we are in a position where very, very few people are aware of what we do and the responsibility to change that falls on us. It falls on the musicians. It falls on us to work with the presenters and the media and with other musicians and record labels to help position what we do, in the music listener's viewpoint, as being a viable thing, connected to their life, in this time. The problem is that many people see jazz as being connected to something that has nothing to do with them. There is a huge number of reasons for that and many of those reasons actually come out of the jazz media and jazz musicians in general. There is a very elitist attitude attached to some people involved in this music on different levels. There truth of it is that hurts the music because it is music and if it is music, it belongs, potentially, to anybody who has a set of ears, who wants to listen.

My motivation has really been, in many ways, to expand the audience through touring, performing, trying to get the music out to people, being willing to talk to people about it and help them see that if you like Fugazi or if you like Sonic Youth, you can like the Peter Br'tzmann Tentet. You can like The Vandermark 5. You can like any of this music that we work with because like the stuff that they may be familiar with, it is music about serious passion and commitment to being creative. That is something that any single person, if they have even a mildly open mind, can receive in a performance context and so I perform a lot and try to make a big effort to try to go to places and play to people all over the work and be willing to play in any context that will enable me to work with people in a situation where we can be creative. The problem is that when you start talking that way, people think that you are just jabbing away and what you are really trying to do is tone down and dumb down the work that you are doing and that is just bullshit. I don't think that anybody has to make a commercial concession to reach a wider audience.

The issue becomes how to you present the music in a way that people's curiosity will motivate them to want to seek it out or want to go to it if it comes to their town or their city. I make absolutely no changes whatsoever at anything that I do musically on the basis that I think it might be more successful with audiences. I play a huge range of music and all the music I play is completely connected to my belief in it. So a band like Spaceways Incorporated plays music that is definitely influenced by funk and reggae, but it is also influenced by free jazz and that all makes sense to me and it makes sense to the people that have actually heard the band. There is not some big discussion about how those kinds of music can't be side by side and that is because when we play it, we believe in it. We are not trying to do funk because hopefully, we do five funk tunes and then we can slip in a Sun Ra tune and maybe educate somebody. That is just a really elitist, stupid point of view as far as I am concerned. To me, Sun Ra's music belongs alongside Funkadelic and it makes sense alongside one of my tunes or Nate McBride's tunes. Cecil Taylor's music makes sense alongside a Vandermark 5 tune. It is all this amazing, vibrant, creative, living music that belong to our time and in our time, it makes sense to make the effort to expose people to it because there is so much crap out there.

I think the music is strong enough to withstand any impact from any side. I don't understand what people are afraid of. We are talking about numbers. No record is going to sell a million copies. I don't believe that for a minute. We're talking about records, maybe five thousand. If you sell five thousand records in the improvised music world, that is like a triple platinum album. What I am saying is that there are more than five thousand people who could receive this music and be excited about it. That is what I am looking for and I think that is a completely legitimate and completely important thing to do because the people who don't see it that way, what is their argument against it?

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