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Barry Altschul: Another Time, Another Place

By Published: February 19, 2008

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 tapes—we 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.

Barry AltschulBA: 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 that—he'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 together—it 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 me—and 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 America—I 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 feeling—no matter what kind of music it is—I really started to miss it. So I came back in '93.

Barry Altschul 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 eventually—Dexter 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.

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