Ken Vandermark: The Passion and Ascension of a Brilliant Mind
KV: Historically, it would seem that the visual arts have a long history of respect in Western culture. Jazz is this weird anomalous music that isn't highbrow enough for people to consider as art music and too esoteric to be considered pop music. It's stuck in this ghetto somewhere. And it's ironic because it may be the most inclusive approach to music in terms of its sources and ability to take influences from all kinds of music and organically apply it to the thread of improvisation and narrative expression. There is an issue with improvised music that I wrestle with all the time. If you keep it doing what it should be doing, then how do you make it valid to a world that doesn't want something to be ephemeral? People want to know that it's the best band or the greatest performance.
Everything is quantified and qualified but this music isn't designed for that. It's designed for experience in real time and it's about risk. If you take risk, then sometimes things fail. Even in the process of something failing, it's totally crucial to the aspect of what's going on and that creates tons of problems. As far as I can tell, the motivations connected with the Lincoln Center are to try and codify the jazz vision of Ken Burns, Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and promote that as the thing that will replace symphonic music in this country. There is a huge amount of funding in support of that vision and that vision cannot include things that are contrary to that thread. If you read comments by people who are very strongly sided with that vision, they get very critical about music that doesn't fit into it. But the frustration that I have is with the vast majority of the funding that goes towards this vision and they know that and are trying to control it. That's why they become very defensive about things that don't fit into their paradigm because it challenges what may or may not be happening with the music and the funding for it. I think a lot of the people that are associated with the Lincoln Center viewpoint really honestly believe they are saving jazz and the art form and that they are keeping it alive. From my perspective, they are totally into a museum piece. They are turning it into those paintings on the wall so everyone can say that this is a classic, this is a masterpiece. But I don't need to actually look at the damn thing because I know that that's what it supposed to be.
LP: Do you have a philosophy that you try to impart on younger musicians or students?
KV: The most creative musicians working today, like those of the past, have been individualists that have their own innovative and personal approach. And anytime I'm playing with people who are younger than me, I try to emphasize the fact that you've got to find your own voice, pursue your own ideas, and understand that the ideas that you have as an individual are completely valid and need to be pursued. The ideas and explanations for why I have done things a certain way are just personal solutions. It's very necessary for people to find their own set of solutions to the problems they are faced with and to pursue those influences that strike them the most. Therefore, you cannot give people the answers to the problems you have found. You have to suggest the problems and suggest that you have to go solve them yourself.
LP: What characteristics do you look for in the musicians you collaborate with?
KV: My favorite musicians are people who are extremely open-minded and open to the tools they have available as players. I very rarely play with people that are only familiar with one type of music or are only interested in jazz and not interested in playing music that isn't connected with jazz and improvised music. At times, the musicians of the Vandermark 5 need to be able to work with materials that have nothing to do with jazz, and if they are not familiar with the music or not motivated to explore things on their own, the band wouldn't work.
That's much more common for musicians now and certainly for musicians that I work with who are even much older than me. Most have come from backgrounds where they are extremely aware of many developments of music, whether it's improvised, composed, or music that's not connected to jazz at all. I can't imagine playing with someone who wasn't like that. I know that there are people who are only concerned or focused on one kind of music and I can see why there might be merits in that. You can explore deeper in terms of the relationship within a specific set of limitations. There is certainly merit in doing that but I don't work with people with that focus. For the kind of music that I play, the broader your sensibilities, the more potential tools you have to express your individuality.
LP: You seem to have more control over the rhythm most. How much of that aspect of your music is taken into consideration with the musicians that you are involved with?