J.D. Walter: Being a Verb
AAJ: You're often called upon as a teacher and mentor. I know some singers in Philadelphia who feel they owe a lot to you that way. Let's say you have some competent, talented vocalists in a master class situation. Where are you trying to get them to go, where are you trying to push them?
JDW: I want them to get the underlying landscape of the music, what they're trying to paint. Ultimately, I'm trying to get them to find out who they are as performers. I'll have them either sing or improvise over a song, and I'll say, "I don't believe you." And they'll look at me like I'm out of my mind, and I'll almost get down to the point where I'll say, "I want you to improvise over this song. If you don't have anything to say, don't sing anything. Sing only if you feel compelled, and there's something you really mean and feel compelled to say, even if it's only one note." It's like the way Miles Davis used the fewest notes possibleminimalism. That's what I'm going for, to encourage intention, like any artist, to say something meaningful. And I frequently find with this exercise that they'll break down crying afterwards, realizing how much was stirred up in them.
AAJ: It's as if you have an emotional encounter with them. The truly great singers come from somewhere deep in their hearts, and that's what really moves an audience. So that's what you're trying to get them to do.
JDW: I'm trying to get past the superficialthe cute phrase or whatever. I want them to be really searching in their emotional recesses for what triggers something. I want them to have peak experiences. I have students from around the worldKorean, Swiss, Norwegian, Russian, Greek, Japanese and so onplus I want them to bring their own experience to the table wherever it comes from. To a Japanese student, for example, I'll say, "I'd like you to improvise over this song using a childhood story that you would read to a nephew or a niece, in your language. And beautiful music comes out of this. I want them to utilize their own cultural sensibilities, because, after all jazz is an international art form but more importantly a story.
AAJ: It's truly world music, with so many different influences, and even more so now. And with your own multiple influences and your dedication to the art form, you must be a fabulous teacher. I really appreciate your approach. You evoke something from within the student, rather than imparting a formula.
JDW: I think any teacher should not hand out the fish, but teach how to fish. And I don't believe in cranking out students on a hourly basis. I limit the number of students I have because I spend as much time as I need with each student, and expect a lot from them as well.
AAJ: Of which of your students or former students are you especially proud?
JDW: There's Venissa Santi, who was a very prodigious student of mine. I encouraged her to get back in touch with her Cuban roots, which led her to visit Cuba several times and contact master percussionists and singers there. She's now combined Cuban music with straight ahead jazz, and just came out with her first CD, Bienvenida (Sunnyside Records, 2009).
There's Meg Clifton in Philly. She's terrific with the standards. I have students from other regions and countries as well. I just want them to be happy and to do what they really want for themselves. There's a great already established singer named Roseanna Vitro, who works with Kenny Werner. She studied with me for improvisation. I also had a singer who was a runner up on American Idol. This is not an easy business, and I'm always concerned about the music world that is always looking for that "new, young sensation," whereas the average age of gestation of jazz musicians coming into their own is 35 to 40 or later, like Cassandra Wilson and Bob Dorough.
AAJ: I'm appalled by the inequities of recognition and money in the jazz business.
JDW: You know, Miles Davis became a superstar in Europe when he started out. But he practically starved in New York during those early days. I myself have to go out of town and to other countries to make any money.
AAJ:: So, to finish up, give us a rundown on your current and future activities.
JDW: I'm in the midst of forming my own company so that I can have control over my recordings. At the end of the year, I'm hoping to put out a recording, Live at the 55 Bar, taken from my various performances there and some of which are being recorded. And very interestingly, I've been approached about putting out a recording a capella, with no accompaniment, which I find very challenging.
The producer is looking to distribute it through more commercial places like Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, and that type of outlet. Each song would begin and end with multi-vocal layers that lead in and out of the song into the next ones. And, of course, I will continue to teach as well. I have some touring coming up in Mexico, the Ukraine, Russia., hits in NYC, and I'll be down in Philly for the Live in Portugal record at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus and Chris' Jazz Café.
AAJ: Finally, jazz has its roots in spirituality. Coltrane said his music is his spirit. So, do you have a spiritual or religious practice? And what is your central philosophy of life?
JDW: As I said, I want to constantly be a verb, to evolve and grow both as a musician and a person. Religion is something I'm very much interested in, but I don't yet have a religion that I subscribe to as such. I've studied Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, the Bahia faith, and Confucianism among others. For me, it's a search, and it goes hand-in-hand with my musical search.
I have a thirst for knowledge, and spend the free time I have watching movies, reading and cooking. John Coltrane once played a tape he made of a performance, and when he listened to it, he couldn't understand what he played, and asked his wife Alice, "What is this? Where does this come from?" And she identified it as a Bartok piece they had recently heard. He was always searching and growing, and his musical growth coincided with his spiritual growth.
Similarly, I want to grow as a musician and a person. I want inner peace in my life, and in my music. Ravi Shankar listened to Coltrane after Trane had gotten clean and was becoming very spiritual. Shankar commented that from what he heard it sounded like Trane was a very spiritually unsettled person. Maybe so, but Trane was on a search for it.
Whether or not the search takes us to those dark places or not, we do have to confront these things. So if some of the music is dark, maybe it's because life has that, too. I once brought Billy Hart to Philadelphia to play, and I got him a teaching clinic at the University of the Arts. And one of the more seemingly silly questions a student asked was, "When you're playing drums at a gig, and you get bored, what do you do?" And he said, "Well, I try to do something stimulating, like go to a museum or take a long walk, or try to learn something new." And that's the point. Our lives and our music reflect one another, and life gives us the emotional fodder for our musical expression.
J.D. Walter, Live in Portugal (JWAL Records, 2008)
Steve Rudolph Trio, Dedicated to You (PACT Records, 2004)
J.D. Walter, 2 Bass, a Face and a Little Skin (Encounter/Dreambox Media Records, 2002)
J.D. Walter/David Liebman, Clear Day (Doubletime Records, 2001)
Steve Rudolph Trio, Featuring J.D. Walter, Sirens in the C-House (Encounter/Dreambox Media Records, 2000)