Barry Altschul: Another Time, Another Place
“ No matter whose music I was playing, if they called me, it was because they wanted not just the concept I was bringing, but the feeling of swing, even if it was music that didn't swing in the sense of 2 and 4. ”
Born in the Bronx on January 6, 1943, drummer Barry Altschul was quickly ensconced in the hard bop scene of the late 1950s, but it was a gig with pianist Paul Bley's trio that put him among the ranks in New York's burgeoning free-jazz scene of the next decade, one which resulted in tours of Europe and a slew of recordings with Bley. Altschul also worked regularly with staunchly avant-garde reedmen Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers throughout the 1970s, though his familiarity with "the tradition" landed him work with Lee Konitz, Art Pepper and Tony Scott as well as leading his own free-bop units. Following a Paris sojourn in the eighties and nineties, Altschul is back in New York and as busy as ever. Thankfully, his schedule allowed for a conversation with Clifford Allen in January 2008.
Barry Altschul: I studied with Charlie Persip and another teacher by the name of Sam Ulano. I really started playing drums when I was about eleven; a guy in public school was already playing drums and he showed me how to play a roll, and that fascinated me and just took me out. I was born in the South Bronx and there was music everywhere in the streetsjazz, music from Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the Dominicans had just started coming in at the time. There was blues, tap dancing, basketball dribbling, shoeshine rags, all that stuff. The South Bronx and Harlem were kind of bordering each other, and we went into Harlem quite a bit.
All About Jazz: Was there much familial encouragement to play music?
BA: To a point. My sister is a Julliard graduate, a pianist, and she's six-and-a-half years older than me. When she was practicing, I used to go to the piano after her and pluck out the tunes she was playing. You know, classical music, and I got these themes in my head and I would play them on the piano. That was at about age two. So piano was my first instrument because they forced me to study until I was fivefrom two to five I took actual piano lessons with my sister's teacher.
But it was too much; it shouldn't have been done, actually. I then rebelled against the piano till I was about sixteen. In the meantime I tried clarinet, and the drums were at age eleven. That got me, and from then on there were people in the streets and jailhouse musicians, friends and I listened to a lot of music that's pretty much how I started learning.
AAJ: It seems like with a fertile ground present in the South Bronx and Harlem, that it would've given you a diverse range of influences at an early age. I am not sure how the other boroughs would compareI'm not from New Yorkbut I would guess that you had a very unique experience.
BA: Oh yeah, sure, Hunt's Point Palace was a couple of blocks away where Tito Puente and Pachaco and all these Latin salsa bands were playing. The superintendent of my building was a blues singer and he hung out with all the super heavy bluesmen and they used to get together in this cement garden, singing blues all the time.
Jazz was in the streets too; I lived in a neighborhood that was very close to [pianist] Elmo Hope's house, and when I was olderabout sixteenI went over to his place all the time. Junior Cook was there, Jimmy Lyons (who was a Charlie Parker player at that time), Philly Joe and all these people came by. There was Arthur Sterling, a pianist who was very influential on a number of kids, and he still plays around. He got known with Leon Thomas, and he lived in a building with Donald Byrd. When Herbie Hancock came in from Chicago, he moved into Byrd's house. Jimmy Cobb lived up around there for a whilethis was all in the South Bronx.
BA: Persip was in Manhattan; he was from New Jersey and he was with Dizzy at the time. I had heard that he was teaching, I called him and we had an interview, and he took me on as a student. He's one of the guys that was very involved with the Jazzmobile later on.
AAJ: Who did you first come into contact with for gigs?
BA: As a kid, there was a whole group of musicians in the neighborhood, most who have since died. If they'd have lived, they would've been motherfuckers. They were great at fourteen and fifteenvery mature players. I have some tapes, as a matter of fact. There's one tenor player by the name of Frank Mitchell who eventually joined Art Blakey and did some recordings with Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley, and he got killed when he was in his early twenties. Frank and I grew up together.
The boroughs got togetherall the musiciansbecause of jam sessions. There was one place in every borough, so a different borough every night of the week would have a jam session. Wednesday nights was the Bronx, Thursday was Harlem, and Sunday was in Greenwich Village. There was one in Brooklyn and one in Queens, and that's how all the people got to know each other.
There was this pianist named Jimmy Hunter; at twelve or thirteen he was told by Cedar Walton "I can't teach you anything; you just need experience." He became Harry Belafonte's musical director at eighteen, and he burned up in a fire when he was around twenty. He was also just about to go with Art Blakey. And of course [pianist] George Cables and [drummer] Lenny White, all those cats, a drummer by the name of Lonnie Rudstien, so there were a bunch of people who all got to know one another.
I don't know what one of my first gigs was because we all knew one another and most of the time we didn't really get paid. There was one guy, Alfie Wade, who was older and had come into the city from Montreal. He was working as an engineer in a recording studio. On Sundays, he would have all the neighborhood kids come in and play big-band arrangements. He had a band called Mixed Birds; Billy Cobham was the other drummer, and all these cats who became studio musicianskids from the Newport Youth Band, so that was going on. I was also going up to Montreal at that time, playing with the guitarist Billy White and Errol Garner's brother Linton, Sonny Greenwich, Nelson Biddles and Nelson Simons, another guitarist.
One of the first gigs I do remember was at the lounge where we had jam sessions. I got a New Year's gig for a trio; I must've been sixteen or seventeen, and it was Larry Willis on piano, Walter Booker on bass, and myself. Larry was from Harlem and we knew each other from the scene.
AAJ: You were all pretty much the same age, am I right?
BA: I think Bookie was a little older; he had already made kind of a name for himself while he was working in Washington with the JFK Quintet. I was lucky to get him, and it was nice.
AAJ: It's interesting to think of how many young players were putting together gigs at that time, and also one gets the impression that the jam-session environment sort of cleared out in the late '50s, when that's obviously not the case. It may not have been historicized like it had been for the previous decade.
BA: When I was young, they were happeningthere were still sessions at Birdland, the original Birdland, and I remember going to the Apollo to see three bands, a comedian and a movie one time. Horace Silver and Miles Davis, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, and I forget what the movie was! It cost a dollar and started at eleven in the morningthe first thing that went on was the movie, then the show of three bands and then the comedian. It repeated until one or two in the morning, and you could stay the whole day and night for a dollar. We used to cut out of school and hear music.
Birdland was also open to young people; they had what was called the Peanut Gallery, where they served Cokes and for a dollar you could go to Birdland. Your parents could put you in the Peanut Gallery and know you were being taken care of while they were at their table, so we used to go to Birdland for dates when we were in high school.
One of the first groups that I was playing with in the Bronx was with Frank Mitchell and Jimmy Hunter and a bassist named Nat Valentine, and another bassist who has since become quite well known in soul music, Jerry Jemmott. He was Aretha Franklin's musical director and did some work with Freddie Hubbard. We had little gigsyou work at a bar on the weekend and you get local gigs 'cause you just want to play. We would try to put into action what we were practicing, and you were never alone because we all hung together, going to one another's houses dissecting records and blindfold-testing each other, learning to sing solosit was a great education, and I was very involved in learning the bebop language at that time.
AAJ: That's interesting to me, because you got caught up with some of the more avant- garde players early on in that scene, with Paul Bley and The Jazz Composer's Guild. I'm very curious how the environment you're describing translated to your experiences with free music.
BA: The only way I could connect thatmy sister is a classical pianist, so while she was practicing at home, I used to sit with drumsticks and a drum pad and play to her. It wasn't keeping time; it was becoming a melodic instrument in my head, and I was playing that with her. So that, to me, must've been the roots of a concept because I have no idea where that came from.
The way I met Paul Bley is that I was a janitor at a recording studio, Mirasound Studios, with Alfie Wade. I needed work and money, and he said, "Come down to the studio; they need someone." I was literally a janitor and a button-pusher, an assistant engineer. I helped cut acetates. So I was doing that and Paul Bley came in to do a recording; he did two around the same time, one with Don Ellis [Essence (Pacific Jazz, 1962)] and the other with John Gilmore [Turning Point (IAI, 1963)], and both were with Gary Peacock.
Anyway, Paul and I got to talking and a few weeks later I got a call from him. I was living in the Bronx and he asked if I wanted to play a gig on a Sunday afternoon. I said, "Sure," and this was about '64. The place we played, we were the first group ever to play in Slugs.' Slugs' was a few doors up the block from David Izenzon; he was very friendly with Jerry Schultz, the owner, who I have since become very good friends with. David persuaded Jerry to try and have some music at the bar, and this was a sawdust-on-the-floor bar.
Barry Altschul with the Anthony Braxton Trio, 1976
AAJ: Yeah, I've heard some of the anecdotes about Slugs.'
BA: It was really David Izenzon who talked Jerry Schultz into having a music policy, and Paul Bley, David and myself were the first group to play there. When I got there, Paul says to me, "Listen, do you want to play standards or do you want to play some of the stuff that I'm into?" I didn't really know what he was into, and I was an arrogant kid (as Persip once told me, that was what he liked about me) so I said, "Play whatever you want." So he started to play this stuffand Izenzon had played with him, so he knew what was happeningand I just played what I heard. My feeling was coming from jazz, and whatever I played I approached something that I felt was the next thing. I was trying to extend bebop in my head, maybe not intellectually, but I thought of myself as a jazz player and I still do.
AAJ: And yet it was a situation where you were combining what you had been playing along with your sister, on drum pads, and what you had been playing with the bop guys.
BA: Plus the street, because Bley was also very into Latin music. The thing was that Bley's experiences with Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, with all of these people, where he went musically was a result of all those influences and experiences. I think what he heard was that I could conceptually deal with what was happening while still dealing with the jazz continuum. It was mainly instinctual, because I hadn't listened to free music or contemporary classical at that point. When I went to Europe with Bley was the first time I heard some of these other approaches, and actually some of these European percussionists influenced me (as well as early Duke Ellington and Papa Jo), especially in augmenting my drum set.
AAJ: Could you elaborate on the Bley Trio's maturation and how your approach may have changed?
BA: There was one guy in particular who was playing with Irene Schweizer, a guy named Mani Neumeier. Mani was putting tubes in his drums, blowing them and changing the pitch, and he had all these kinds of bells and so on. It made a lot of sense to me, especially as I related it to the trappings. In the trap drum set the trappings were actually percussion instruments on the side that the Vaudevillian guys and the guys from silent movies would playtemple blocks for horses' hooves, you know. The guy from Duke Ellington's band of the '30s, Sonny Greer, if you see early pictures of the orchestra, you see the drums set up with chimes, gongs, kettles, tympaniand I related to that as well as to Papa Jo Jones who had a record called The Drums (Columbia, 1973) where he's not just playing but also talking, using cowbells and wood blocks. I was really able to relate to that, and bringing that tradition was part of jazz, no matter what it sounded like to me, it was an extension.
AAJ: Exactly, using what you have to go forward. Did you get much of an impression of whether there was greater acceptance of the music you were playing in Europe at the time?
BA: Absolutely. There was no acceptance of that music in the United States, and the musicians had to create their own environments to play in. The first loft scene was the Jazz Composer's Guild, who had a loft over the Village Vanguard [subsidized by painter/filmmaker Michael Snow], and they had performances on the weekends in the '60s. From there, the October Revolution happened and every place in Manhattan "Don't tell us, let us play here"just to get the music out.
AAJ: Even if, as in the Cellar Cafe, it had to be by candlelight.
BA: Right, and that was the first wave. The second wave happened in the '70s with Studio Rivbea, the Ladies' Fort, Environ, Studio We and a couple of other lofts. All of a sudden, some European agents and bookers started to invite us to play in Europe [in the '60s] and they called it "Loft Jazz." We went to Europe having to explain that a loft was a place, not a style. But anyway, there was a big thing in Europethe Chicago cats and a lot of Americans from all over the country playing this music went to Europe, and some stayed for a while. At least you could work.
So I started going there with Paul Bley, and we were playing very out music. First we had Steve Swallow on bass, then Kent Carter came in and Mark Levinson, and intermittently Gary Peacock. Later he moved to Japan to study Japanese macrobiotic medicine, and he played sporadically with [pianist] Masabumi Kikuchi. Paul and I went on tour in '76 or so, and we persuaded Gary to do a tour of Japan and it resulted in him coming back to play.
AAJ: The group was rather well-recorded during that time in Europe; it seems like alongside the Lacy band, the Bley Trio was one of the most recorded American bands over there.
BA: Well, I don't know about "most recorded" but we did record quite a bit. I mean, in Europe and especially with Lacy and Bley, they both had come from a more inside place in the music. They had a history in the music, and then they took their shit out, which was appealing to the Europeans because of the lineage that was kept.
But then the Europeans rebelled against America musically because they wanted to get their own style of free music. They didn't want to admit to or deal with American music for a while.
AAJ: Until it eventually came back around.
BA: Well, they had to, really, because they didn't have an improvising traditionthe Germans and Dutch didn't have it, whereas like the Italian players who were playing out at the time were very inside. Franco D'Andrea, Enrico Rava, Giorgio Gaslini, Bruno Tommasso, Giorgio Burattiit's interesting, I guess I hadn't thought about it before.
AAJ: It seems like from very early on, you favored the trio format. Whether that was conscious I don't know, but it's something that I associate with your name. Could you elaborate on that?
BA: I don't know how that happened. I started playing with piano trios, and a piano trio to me is like a big bandthere's so much you can do with it. I worked with Bley's trio, with Hampton Hawes (that was never recorded) and I worked with Chick Corea. Those are the three trios. Sam Rivers and Dave Holland, well, Sam just wanted to be the horn though there were some gigs where he had [tubaist] Joe Daley or [guitarist] Ted Dunbar. He expanded it a bit [into an orchestra], but he really liked that format. Braxton was a quartet pretty much, and Brahma (when I started to form my own bands), that trio at first was a quartet with [pianist] Anthony Davis and [trombonist] Ray Anderson.
AAJ: For Stu (Soul Note, 1979), right?
BA: Yes, For Stu, but my first record was an all-star date, You Can't Name Your Own Tune (Muse, 1977), and that was with Muhal Richard Abrams on piano, Sam, Dave Holland and [trombonist] George Lewis.
AAJ: There's mention in the liner notes of an unreleased leader session that you made in the late '60s, at least Cuscuna mentions it, but I wasn't sure what that refers to.
BA: No, no, dates were starting to be offered for me in the late '60s but nothing came about until ten years later. Yes, I remember that from the notes and what Cuscuna was referring tohe was finally on the way to the record date! People started offering me dates but nobody came through.
Anthony Davis left to form a band with [flutist] James Newton, and Rick Rozie, who was the bassist at the Time, left for the New Haven Symphony. Ray was left and Mark Helias came in on bass. Mark and Ray had already been playing in a trio format with Gerry Hemingway, and we started to do some playing and I said, "This is completewe don't need anybody else." We went to Europe and the first gig we played was the Moers Jazz Festival, and when we walked off stage there was an agent there who wanted to take us on, so we worked for five years as the Brahma trio.
AAJ: Another example of Europe offering opportunities that America lacked.
BA: Yeah, really, and she was a great agent.
AAJ: Could you talk a bit about the formation and dissolution of Circle?
BA: I was with Paul Bley and Chick and Dave were with Miles, and when Miles started to get into the Bitches Brew style of playing, they didn't want to get into that particularly. They wanted to play acoustically, and freer. So they called me to form a trio, which I did. That trio lasted about a year-and-a- half, and that was great. Then one day, somehow Chick and Anthony met. We had a gig as a trio at the Village Vanguard, and Anthony came down to the club and Chick invited him to play. That was the first time Circle got together. Chick asked Dave and I how we felt about Anthony joining the band, and that's how it became Circle.
AAJ: It's interesting to me that Chick would've felt that the electronic palette Miles was into wasn't the right thing, because not only would he embrace it later, but what he was getting into by playing inside the piano and augmenting the instrumentation wasn't that far a reach coloristically.
BA: At the time, Chick was into macrobiotics and feeling very pure about things, and he wanted it to be so in the music also. It was more the pure instrumentation and getting into what was happening organically. Afterwards, he wanted to be more commercially-minded as far as making a name and more money (not necessarily coming off an artistic thing), and he embraced other things. Then he got involved in certain philosophies [Scientology], and I don't think that was the reason he started to play different music, but it did make him realize more of what he wanted deep down inside. I guess that's how I could put it.
Barry Altschul, 1976
AAJ: Was there any correlation between Paul Bley's increased use of electronics and your leaving that group for a time?
BA: No, no, as a matter of fact it's because of the Paul Bley experience of electronics! [laughs] At the time it was a big Moog synthesizer, and everything had to be patched and it took hours and hours and hours! To perform with that on the road was really a bitch, I have to say.
Now, where I went with that was, "I could get that sound by using a flexatone," so part of the percussion I chose to use was what I felt had electronic-like sounds. Shaking a piece of metal or these kinds of things, you know. One time I was on the road with twenty cases of instruments.
AAJ: It's interesting how a lot of European electronic musicand the influence goes both waysis about finding ways to produce sounds beyond the palette of traditional instruments, yet traditional instruments were finding ways to expand their reach as well.
BA: Yeah, there was this improvising group called Musica Elettronica Viva with, among others, Frederic Rzewski and Ursula Oppens, these great pianists. There was Robert Ashley, the great composer [from Sonic Arts Union], all these catsthat was also a peripheral crowd and I met all of these people through working with Braxton. That was another part of the community, and all of these ideas were being exchangedit was a real creative period. People were mixing electronics in and finding new sounds, eliminating bar lines from composition and dealing with non-metered music, all kinds of stuff.
AAJ: I'd like to get back to your own composing. When did you first get interested in that?
BA: I actually didn't start writing until Circle, when I became encouraged to write by Chick and Braxton and Dave"You should write, too." The first writing that I actually considered decent was for the You Can't Name Your Own Tune (Muse, 1977) album.
AAJ: What you had written before were mostly solo percussion pieces.
BA: Yeah, right, which really I didn't write, I just improvised. I wrote pretty much all the music for the album, though, and I found that that's how I like to compose. I need the pressure of a project to get new music together.
AAJ: How did that first date for Muse come together? I suppose it was a merger of several projects you were working on.
BA: Mike Cuscuna and I have been friends since he was in college, and at the time he got me the date for Muse with Joe Fields, who was the producer (and I also got production credit). Muhal was living with mehe had just moved to New York and he spent nine months with me. My house became the focal point for a lot of Chicago musicians who came by to say hello to Muhal. I remember actually, straight from the airport came [saxophonist] Steve Coleman and [guitarist] Jean-Paul Bourelly.
At the time I was working with both the Sam Rivers Trio and with Braxton. Dave and me were the rhythm section, and I had known George through Braxton. When I asked them to do the date, they said yes. First of all, I didn't think Sam would say yes, and also I was with him and saying to myself, "Maybe I should use another saxophonist, just to make it my own project." I'm not gonna get into what happened, but eventually I spoke to Sam and he said, "Why don't you use me?" and I said, "You got itthat's it, no problem!"
They were all great, it was the first time I composed and they dealt with the music beautifully, and they treated me and it with a lot of respect. It was beautiful, easy, the whole date was done in six hourswe'd rehearsed in my house, so when we went into the studio we knew the music, and it was up to them to get the sound together. I don't think there were more than two takes on anything.
AAJ: Both of those Muse records are interesting because they offer a number of aspects of your work and the groups you were with at the time. I take it that was a conscious decision on your part.
BA: Well, see, I didn't think of it as different aspects of my workI just thought of it as my work. To me it was all the music, and it all was part of the same thing. On the second record we did a Monk thing ["Suite for Monk"], which was an Anthony Davis arrangement, and that was really nice to do. I was able to get [guitarist] Bill DeArango, who was this Cleveland legend who worked with Bird and Lester Young, and all of a sudden he got into electronic stuff, which blew everybody away from his hometown. We met and I asked him to do the date; he got very nervous in live and studio performing, but he was great in the house. And I asked Dave to do a string thing.
Speaking of which, one of the things I was involved in (and Jerry Newman may have the tapes), was that I was the drummer with this bass choir.
AAJ: Bass Is (Enja, 1970).
BA: Well, there was that toothat was Peter Warren's thing, but Dave Izenzon was getting together a bass choir. There were thirteen basses and me! It was fabuloushe had Steve Swallow, Percy Heath, all these great players. Peter Warren, Jaime Faunt, Dave Holland, Glen Moore, and Ron Carter...
AAJ: Predating the New York Bass Violin Choir, I guess.
BA: Yeah, that was Bill LeeSpike Lee's dad. This was different, and we just recorded once and the tapes are probably at Newman's. John Lindberg has a lot of Dave Izenzon tapes too, because he studied with him. I have a couple of tapes with Dave Izenzon and [clarinetist] Perry Robinson, some performances from when Ornette had a performance space.
AAJ: Is it true the story of Izenzon putting a bass in every room of his building? I heard that from Burton Greene, I think.
BA: I'm not sure about that part, but he certainly had enough basses to do it!
AAJ: You mentioned that, where it says on Bass Is that you play tabla, you're actually playing rhythms with your hands on the bottom of one of the basses.
BA: It was Dave Holland's bass.
AAJ: It's interesting that there was a short period of these bass groups coming together, like Barre Phillips had his thing too. It's an idea that I wish hadn't flamed out. Did Bass Is work or was it just the recording?
BA: It was just the date. One of the best bass concerts I ever heard was lying in my hotel room listening to Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and Dave Holland improvise bass duos. They just played together, and I think at one point they may have pulled out some classical music and done duets with that also. I was in heavenwe were in the same town, on the road, they got together in a hotel room with their basses, and I was lucky enough to be there!
AAJ: Enlighten us to what you've done over the past couple of decades of your workmy understanding of the history gets a little spotty here, though I know you've worked with Adam Lane recently.
BA: There was a period from '84 to '93 that I lived in Paris, which were considered the "lost years" by some. Truthfully, I was very busythere was a record with Pepper Adams, and I was kind of the house drummer for Black Saint and Soul Note. I did a number of records with Kenny Drew, Niels-Henning, with [pianist] Franco D'Andrea and a bunch of people. I also had my own band that recorded for Soul Note [That's Nice (1985)], with Andy McKee on bass, Glen Ferris on trombone and Sean Bergin on saxophones.
AAJ: I am familiar with the one you put together with [reedman] John Surman for Soul Note. [Irina (1983)]
BA: Yes, there was that one with Surman that also had [trumpeter] Enrico Rava and Mark Helias. There's another one I did with Helias, myself, and pianist Simon Nabatov called For All the Marbles (ASP, 1991). There were a couple of bands I had that didn't record, one with [bassist] Jack Gregg and a pianist named Mark Thompson, marvelous, who passed away a few years ago. There was another band that had [saxophonist] Turk Mauro, [bassist] Wayne Dockery and Glen Ferris, and a group with [trombonist] Frank Lacy, [trumpeter] Graham Haynes and Jack Gregg.
And, of course, I played with various Americans that came over for gigs, and I was also part of the Cultural Exchange Program for the States through their Paris office, which allowed me to go to Africa and the Middle East quite a bit. I also did some things with Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath.
For me, one of the high points was that the French government made me the artistic director of a regional big band. I had twenty people from an audition of 120 musicians, the government paid for everything with six months of rehearsals and a year and a half of gigs.
AAJ: Has any of this been recorded?
BA: There are some tapeswe did the Nancy Jazz Pulsations and that was taped, but no records are out. It's a footnote in history. [laughs]
AAJ: And it's a testament to your big band playing.
BA: Well, I didn't play much with the band but I conducted (I took some classes in order to get that together) and wrote the music, and Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson worked with me on the arrangements and orchestration.
AAJ: He had the pedigree of also being Max Roach's arranger and conductor.
BA: Way more than thathe's got a pedigree and a half as one of America's great composers and one of the great Afro-American composers whose music has been played by classical orchestras all over the world. He recently died, and was a good friend of mine. He also did the arrangements on Donald Byrd's choral record [A New Perspective (Blue Note, 1963)] and recently did some work with [pianist] Barry Harris' Glee Club Chorus. He was also at Columbia College in Chicago, as head of the Afro-American Music department.
AAJ: So was the move to Paris on the heels of any particular experience?
BA: No, family-oriented and I've always spent time in Europe, of course. Going to Paris at the time, George Lewis and Steve Lacy were living there. Mal Waldron was around, Don Cherry, and all the various bands these people had. Aside from cats like Dexter Gordon and Kenny Clarke, who were also there and we all hung out togetherit was great.
AAJ: It was probably a lot more stable than it was in the late '60s.
BA: Yeah, when I arrived George Lewis said to meand I'll never forget this"You've been on the scene a while, but you've never been a professional musician. You're gonna be here for six months and then you'll know what it's like." At six months I was booked for two years, and it was never like that for me in America. Dizzy was booked for three years in advance (in America), but me I was never booked like that, not at that time. I stayed ten years, and I didn't bother working in AmericaI came back often, but I just came to listen and hang out. I remember once I was walking down the street and Jaco Pastorius ran over and picked me up, saying "I thought you were dead!" He was serious.
AAJ: What prompted the return?
BA: After I did that big band thing for two years with the French government, I kinda felt I did everything you could do in Europe. What really got me back, though, was swing. Though I was playing with a lot of Americans over there, the American feelingno matter what kind of music it isI really started to miss it. So I came back in '93.
AAJ: I guess that's quite a testament on whether it's more important to have numerous engagements or to really feel one's environment.
BA: You know a lot of cats eventuallyDexter came back, a lot of people come back. It could be for that same reason, but there was also a kind of thing where you could do what you wanted and they looked at you as an artiste. Even if you were doing the most self-destructive shit, stumbling around and doing all this weird shit, they thought it was romantic and cute that you were falling around. In one sense, that was a real drag, and in another sense you feel safer there 'cause you're not getting arrested!
When I came back, I became a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, and I took gigs but I was in semi- retirement mode. There was a club called the Internet Cafe, and I had missed the Downtown scene but there was this place in the Village where I was able to play and get to know these cats. I called people like Dave Douglas, [tenor saxophonist] Ellery Eskelin and all these people, and said, "You want to play tonight? Jam session, you get paid this much." I've kept up because, fortunately, I'm able to play in my apartment, I'm always having people over, and my chops never went away. I was playing three or four times a week, I just wasn't performing three or four times a week. Then I did a record for CIMP [Four Beings (2002)] and that's when people realized I was still alive.
AAJ: And that was the gig led by [bassist] Adam Lane?
BA: Adam Lane called me to do this tour and record with him. I didn't know him at all and I didn't know how he played, and I was going to say no except that he had two cats in the band alreadyone I wanted to play with, and another I had already played with, a good friend I hadn't seen in years. So that was [trumpeter] Paul Smoker and [reedman] John Tchicai, and through Adam, I have a relationship with them. That was great, though, to hook up and play.
After that, three or four things started happening. I started to play with Dave Douglas, in a band that included Roswell Rudd. Me and Ros had known each other since the '60s, so we hooked up and I'm playing in his Trombone Shout band. We just did a recording that was six trombones and myself in the first half, and the second half will have [bassist] Henry Grimes and myself. It was with Roswell, Eddie Bert (who is 85 years old and playing his ass off! Not only that, we were in the studio from one until six and he had to run off for a gig that night!), Sam Burtis, Ray Anderson, Steve Swell, Deborah Weisz, and Wycliff Gordon. I recently did a duo recording with Braxton, as yet to find a home, and I've also been involved with the FAB trio with [bassist] Joe Fonda and [violinist] Billy Bang. So that's Fonda-Altschul-Bang, FAB.
BA: [laughs] I'm also involved in a group with [trombonist] Steve Swell and Gebhard Ullman, the German reed player, with Hilliard Greene on bass.
AAJ: Are you still teaching?
BA: Privately only, not through the school, but I expect to go back to adjunct next September. I also have my own band with either Ed Schuller or Hilliard Greene on bass, Hayes Greenfield on alto saxophone, and Jake Saslow on tenor (and when he can't make it, Paul Smoker covers for him). We did a thing called the New Orleans Congo Square Project and recorded a couple of tracks for that, but we're about to go in and record a CD. There's another trio I have with an electric bassist named Eric Udell, whose money gig is with the Blues Brothers, and Hayes Greenfield.
Finally, I just had a discussion with Mark Helias and Ray Anderson about doing the reunion thing. And of course there was the Sam Rivers Trio reunion recentlywe hadn't played in 25 or 30 yearsthis was in March at Columbia University. Me, Sam and Dave Holland did a concert with no rehearsals, just a sound check, and we hit and it was like old times! A couple of weeks ago, I did a reunion at the Iridium with Cameron Brown on bass, Roswell Rudd, Lafayette Harris on piano, and [vocalist] Sheila Jordangoing back to Flexible Flyer (Arista, 1975). Friday night was Roswell's birthday and Saturday was Sheila's.
AAJ: With all these experiences, has your philosophy shifted much?
BA: Philosophically, I've always felt that no matter what style of music I was involved in, it was part of the jazz continuum the way I see it. I always felt that no matter whose music I was playing, if they called me, it was because they wanted not just the concept I was bringing but the feeling of swing, even if it was music that didn't swing in the sense of 2 and 4.
Barry Altschul present day
AAJ: Right, the "ragtime to no-time" thing.
BA: Whereas the no-time was swinging as well. You know that's not my saying but Beaver Harris,' and I'd like him to get credit for that (because nobody ever gets that right).
AAJ: I noticed that it's been attributed to you, but I know Beaver Harris and his recordings are the germination of that idea.
BA: Yes, I always say, "As Beaver Harris said" and want to be sure he gets that. It's not my shit, but it's exactly how I conceptualize what I play. For me, the no-time is swinging in a way that just makes your body move, whether you're swaying or doing some kind of body motionwhatever makes your body move is swing, you don't necessarily have to snap your fingers.
AAJ: It's interesting how people give you looks if you're at a free gig and your body is moving with the music, tapping your feet, and it seems to confuse some folks.
BA: Well, it's motion, so if you put bar lines in there it'd be mathematically defined. Taking away the bar lines doesn't mean that you take away the feeling.
Thanks to Barry Altschul, Tom Marcello and the staff at All About Jazz New York for making this interview possible.
Joe Fonda/Barry Altschul/Billy Bang, Transforming the Space (CIMP, 2003)
Adam Lane, Four Beings (CIMP, 2002)
Barry Altschul and Brahma, Somewhere Else (Moers, 1979)
Barry Altschul, Another Time, Another Place (Muse, 1978)
Barry Altschul, You Can't Name Your Own Tune (Muse, 1977)
Sam Rivers, Paragon (Fluid, 1977)
Anthony Braxton, The Montreux/Berlin Concerts (Arista, 1975)
Circle, Live in German Concert (CBS, 1970)
Chick Corea, The Song of Singing (Blue Note, 1970)
Paul Bley, Blood (International Polydor, 1966)
The Jazz Composer's Orchestra, Communication (Fontana, 1966)
Paul Bley, Closer (ESP, 1965)