Jeremy Pelt: A Man of Honor
Just like Nicholas Payton before himwho had to hear the endless comparisons jazz critics and fans kept throwing at him with Louis Armstrong (a New Orleans association of ideas, since Payton never phrased like Pops, nor did he ever need to) and even Clifford BrownJeremy Pelt has had his share of endless name throwing as well, as if his breathtaking creativity wasn't enough to satisfy the soul, and his music needed to be explained in terms of old glories and their innovative times; when the truth of the matter is that listening to him is almost like listening to jazz for the first time. Yes, the influence of others never goes unnoticed; but rather than listening to a new version of Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan , we are faced with perhaps the way any of them would have been able to sound, had they the ability to beat time and old age, and grow with the music that gave them their immortality. Jeremy Pelt is Jeremy Pelt, and he is here today. As simple as that.
The idea of a lasting quintet lineup is almost like a thing of the past today, and yet Pelt can't wait to demonstrate that jazz can still rely on chemistry and mutual understanding to create a sound, unique in its form and recognizable to the earnot to mention what that can do to the spirit that listens, amazed and speechless. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen, bassist Dwayne Burno, pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Gerald Cleaver are Pelt's Men of Honor (HighNote, 2010)possibly the best excuse we may find to embrace the way jazz sounds today, without ever denying the fascination we will always feel for the way it sounded yesterday.
Allen's "Brooklyn Bound," Cleaver's "From a Life of the Same Name," Grissett's "Without You" and Burno's "Backroad" complement Pelt's own compositions for this album to an extent that allows the album to be enjoyable without a willing interruption, with an energy that is in constant rotation. It's a classic feel, a beautiful experiment of sounds and feelings ("Milo Hayward") that co-exist and travels from point A to point B without messing up the vibe. Pelt's phrasing is clean and direct, and reaches the height of greatness more often than not, blessed as he is with the certainty of doing what he is supposed to be doing in life. Grissett's piano keys are alive ("Illusion"); Allen's tenor sax sounds are beyond gravity, as if his notes were meant to survive away from the instrument ("Backroad"); Cleaver's drums are a perfectly balanced, elegant and sophisticated addition to the band ("From A Life Of The Same Name"); and Burno's rhythmically delicate bass playing approach is rather breathtaking ("Without You").
Five men of honor and a common ground made out of imagination and music. The rest is called jazz.
All About Jazz: Talk about the beginnings.
Jeremy Pelt: Well, I didn't start with the idea that I was going to be a classical or a jazz musician, or any other kind of player. I was just playing instruments that you were required to play. But then I started to really get into it, and I suppose it started off with classical music. As far as I can remember, and I have to go back about 27 years, I've always wanted to do it; I've always wanted to play music. And I was very interested in getting better at it, but not in a competitive way. I was never a competitor. I just did what I did, and usually I was among the best in the class. But as far as the instrument is concerned, it wasn't until I got into high school, because they had a jazz band. I remember quite vividly wanting to do jazz but it was not a devastating kind of happening. It's not like, "Oh man, jazz is coming now, classical is gone!" I still love listening to it.
It was just that I really felt like putting my all into jazz at that point. So what I mean to say is that there was nothing devastating that happened, to where it was such a radical change. Plus I had at that point decided to really make a full commitment: I wanted to play trumpet. I was really into classical music, but jazz, when it came around, it was something that it appealed more, something that took all the excitement right away.
AAJ: Is there a change in musicians today, as opposed to 60 or 70 years ago?
JP: Well, I think they studied the music even more back then, from an analytical point of view. If you look at players like Charlie Parker, they were studying a lot of classical composers. If you listen to Pops, one of his earlier solos, "Potato Head Blues," he was quoting "Nutcracker." It's not such a strange thing.
From left: Dwayne Burno, Danny Grissett, Jeremy Pelt Gerald Cleaver and J.D. Allen
AAJ: But they were not scholars going to Berklee College of Music or Julliard...
JP: No, in that capacity, no they were not.
AAJ: Why trumpet?
JP: Trumpet looked the easiest [laughs]. And really, almost through high school, I had a nearly perfect attendance record in school, and I was absent the day that the students got to choose their instruments, so by the time I came back the next day, everybody got their instrument, and I basically got a choice of either the clarinet or the trumpet. And that's what I mean by the trumpet looks the easiest because I was looking at the trumpet and it had three keys on it, and I looked at the clarinet and had so many keys on it, and I was like "I ain't gonna play that, let me get the trumpet...," and the rest is history in the making.
AAJ: Did your family have an influence in you as a musician?
JP: Not directly, I come from an actor's family. But my uncle played the trumpet in the military band and he was really into jazz. But I didn't grow up with that side of the family, so I didn't find this out until like maybe four years ago, so it wasn't really an influence.
AAJ: So why Berklee and not Julliard?
JP: Well, because at that particular point in time Julliard didn't have a jazz program. There were only a couple of schools that did that I was interested in going to, and I should clarify that I didn't go to Berklee for jazz; I went for film scoring. I still have reservations just about jazz education in general and the collision with the environment, but that wasn't what I went to Berklee for.
AAJ: So why not for jazz?
JP: Ah...because I was just really interested in film scoring, real simple. I knew that I wanted to play, first and foremost, but I wasn't sold on the concept, "Oh, I can learn to play in this school and I can be a master in four years..." It takes a lot of time, so that wasn't convincing enough for me but what was convincing enough was being able to go some place where it had a curriculum that I was very interested in.
AAJ:Why aren't you doing film scoring?
JP: Well, it's not like I said, "You know what? I am much more interested in being a musician. I don't want to do film scoring anymore," that's not the process. The process in being a film composer is even more difficult than trying to make it on the scene as a jazz musician. But it is not like you just wake up one day and say you don't want to be something. You have to really be in an environment, number one, and immerse in the environment for that to happen. For the record, I haven't given up on hope on doing some filmsthat's still in therebut my main focus was on being a jazz musician when I moved to New York. And I knew I wasn't going to move to L.A., I never want to live there again! I'm a person that feeds off of the energy of the music and being surrounded by it, and the vitality of the city and everything, and L.A. doesn't have any of that.
Sometimes you have some energy out there and the weather is good, but I've never been too concerned about weather either way. So as far as my profession and what I do and accessibility, New York was the place and still is even though clubs are closing down and it would seem like such a sad state. There weren't even as many clubs as there were when I first moved in, but still, by large, it is the place you want to go. If I was going to do film scoring and I was just interested in doing that 100 percent, then I would be living in L.A.
Film scoring, like with any kind of creative art where you feel like you want to be in a certain class of the art itself, definitely is going to take a lot of time and a lot of patience and a lot of development. Of course, there are occasions like in jazz where somebody might get signed to a big label, and they get all the money and all the label support, and they're stars within a year or two, you know what I mean? But it may not be as plentiful to the next person. That's just the way it is. Perseverance is important, more than anything. You get into film scoring because you love it but you have to find somebody that is able to work on several scores a year.
AAJ: What has changed since "The Mingus Big Band," as a musician and as a man?
JP: Why the Mingus Big Band in particular?
AAJ: Because when it comes to your career, the MBB always seems to come up.
JP: I think this band was one wild involvement and I gained a lot of experience, traveling and playing that music. The thing about the Mingus band, which was so great, was that you had a lot of different cats in the band that were obviously more advanced in years and also more connected in the scene, just by the fact that had been there longer. So once they heard me, a lot of cats were able to link me to other gigs. So the thing about it was that the Mingus band was like a link, kind of responsible in a six degree separation sort of way, of me being in Louis Hayes' band, so it is an interesting concept. I knew I was supposed to be doing that. I have never been in a situation where I was nervous, or scared because I was playing with such and such. I always knew that if I was there I was supposed to be there.
I remember the first gig I got when I moved to New York. I was playing with the The Skatalites, and I never even heard of it until I got called for the gig ...and that was nerve wracking because you're playing with the band that started that kind of music, number one, and then they have a dedicated fan base that gets younger, so it's not even like you have a bunch of old people that'll forgive you if you miss the part because young people, they get really angry if you're messing up the groove because you're screwing up the music ... So that was nerve-wracking for like two weeks, because I was trying to internalize the music but as far as jazz is concerned, every gig that I was on it was cool to be there.
AAJ: Freddie Hubbard.
JP: It goes without saying...I mean, he influenced my playing and some of my writing, too. I met Freddie for the first time in 1998 and that was right around two or three months after I moved to New York, and he was in town, and I remember talking to him. He was really cool, really down to earth...I had heard that he was like, "What you playin'? You playin' trumpet? Oh, let me hear you. Oh, that's so sexy!," like that ... so, I was on my p's and q's about meeting him but I found that he was really down to earth. I didn't get tight with him to the point where we were able to correspond with each other all the time until much later, only because at that point he hadn't really heard me play because I hadn't done any records.
So after the record I did in 2000, called "Class of 2000," that came out in 2001, that's when people were starting to say to Freddie, "Check this cat out." So from there I started to have a good foundation for him to actually have anything to say to me since he had heard me. And every time he came in town I would see him. Now that I think about it, the first time I saw him was in 1996 in Boston. I was in college but that was forgettable because I just shook his hand and spoke very little [laughs]. "Oh man, it's so great to meet you," and I was gone. So moving on, I became good friends with Freddie because I just called him all the time and Freddie loved to talk, you know?
Well, there were times when he didn't feel like talking but there were times when we were on the phone and he talked forever. I was one of those people that if I wanted to know anything, I would just rather be around that person and just listen to whatever they wanted to talk about. And that's how that was with Freddie. I would just call him and say "hey, what's going on?" and I might introduce a topic, "Hey man, I was just checking you out on that record with Art Blakey," and he would just go on and on, or something like that. It was very nurturing in that respect. There were times when he would just come to New York and I would go and visit and see him play. A couple of times he called me after playing because at that time his chops where not in the best of shape. You know, there were times through it all when he was able to play two or three courses of a solo that would be so smoking hot that you would think "damn, he's coming back," but most of the time it wasn't like that; sometimes he could rip off something...
But he would call me and would talk about it and I could tell that he dug me, and he's mentioned it in interviews, too. I remember one time that he called me and said that really dug my writing; he said it was unique. I was completely blown away because he didn't have to tell me anything. And he was just that type of person; that was Freddie for you.
AAJ: Who do you look up to as far as trumpet playing?
JP: It's undeniable; I can't sit here and, after telling you this whole story about Freddie, then say that he wasn't an influence. Especially after listening to some of the early records that I have done, on other people's and on mine, and clearly hear the influence there. It's there. I think less now than five or six years ago, but it is still there. It will always be there because he has been one of my most important influences. Same with Miles Davis, same with Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro; I'm not going to deny it.
AAJ: So how do you feel about the comparisons that I've heard, and I'm sure you have to, that some people have compared your sound to Clifford Brown's, or Lee Morgan's, Hubbard's ...?
JP: Well, a lot of times critics are just fishing for things to say, you know what I mean? I sound like Clifford Brown? I love Clifford, let that be in print, I got all his bootlegs and he is the most inspiring of them all, but I don't sound like Clifford at all. So it always tickles me when somebody says, "Oh, man, it sounds like Clifford Brown." Oh, you're just looking for something to say. And same with Lee Morgan; as much as I love Lee Morgan, I don't sound like him. I just feel like ... it always weirds me out that people are always making comments like that. When I read other people's reviews, they don't compare them with Miles or Freddie, or anything like that.
And then you get to my reviews and it is always consistently going to be like "yes, he's got the tone of Freddie Hubbard; and the vibe of this record feels like that record of the Jazz Messengers, J.D. Allen sounds like Wayne Shorter, and this and this...," and it goes on and on with these dumb ass comparisons instead of just talking about the music. So it's like, when does it end? And I am not going to sit here and say that this music sounds exactly likes Miles' 'cause it doesn't! Is there an influence? Yes. Does everybody have influences? Yes, even trumpeters that are younger than me. Sean Jones, for example, you could say "okay, I can hear some Wynton Marsalis, some Woody Shaw ..." and it's not a bad thing but they don't get it as much. And it's hilarious because that can't be denied and it's not a bad thing. But I feel like the critics, especially the ones that think they know enough to be able to dictate what's going to be new, and what's not. So what they do is put you in a place and say "Well, this sounds like that," which is not a bad thing, it's great, but it's almost like saying "I'm not prejudice, my best friend is black" [laughs].
Just give it a rest. If you're going to critique something, not everything has to be on that kind of scale. Now it would be a different thing if it was "Jeremy Pelt plays the music of Miles Davis" or "plays the music of Freddie Hubbard," playing their songs, then I could see you having a base for comparisons. But if I am sitting here playing music by Jeremy Pelt, you just wasted a whole column talking about how this music sounds like Miles and how Gerald Cleaver sounds like Tony, and stuff like that, because you are just fishing for something to say, like the band sounded like the Miles Davis Quintet. It's stupid!
AAJ: Maybe they are afraid of you.
JP: Well, I don't know about that. It's an interesting concept but I think everybody's got a stock. I'm not one of those people that walks around trying to figure out whose original, I'm just trying to play music. That's for people that don't have anything better to do. And the sad thing is that there are musicians that get caught up, some young cats, and even some older cats that should know better; they get caught up in a game that they shouldn't be in. So then they start going around thinking that they're original. Are you kidding me? And they start coming up with these silly ass theories because you know, people are starting to not listen and starting to act like they are smart. And they have acquired all this knowledge and come to these conclusions, all at the record age of 30, you know?
The thing is that if anybody wants to listen to what I do and have an opinion, there are close to a hundred records out there, and they are all completely different records. Like when you heard me with Jowee Omicil, you actually had the courage to dig deeper because that is not all that I do.
AAJ: And then there are things like "Scorpio"that's the fear factor, you do different things. Electric versus acoustic?
JP: My vision is to put different projects out there, why not? Dave Douglas got a bunch of bands. I feel like I just want to do stuff that is a representation of what I deal with when I am not playing what everybody is expecting me to play. In other words, if I am in New York and I am playing an experimental gig with some electric stuff, people might think that I just burst out of nowhere with that, when the truth is that we've been doing that stuff since 2002. That's why I named that record "Shock Value" (Max Jazz Records, 2007). So I mean, same thing with Nicholas Payton. A lot of people, especially writers, talked a lot when he came out with "Sonic Trance" (Warner Bros/Wea, 2003) and started to play with his electric band but he had been doing that for a while in New Orleans. So I guess I just mean to say that there is a lot of different things that we as musicians do, that might be different from the perception of what's out there, which is what writers focus on. When I did the electric band, it was a whole different pattern all together that I decided to do.
AAJ: So if you had to choose, would you go acoustic or would you go electric?
JP: I guess I'd choose...It's a hard question...But yeah, I guess I would choose acoustic just because that's the music that drew me in first, and that's what I always come back to and it's a good feeling to come back to it.
AAJ: What makes you feel more like you?
JP: Both of them, you know why? 'Cause I'm playing the same shit [laughs]. I'm playing the same whenever I play but there'll be some songs that obviously if I play them with the electric band you are going to hear some different textures, as far as the band is concerned but I'm still playing the same solos. It's all me, even if it's going through a processor.
AAJ: What makes Jeremy Pelt different?
JP: What makes Jeremy Pelt different? Aahhh...different from anybody else? Well, I'm just me. I'm definitely not of the competitive variety. That could be a "two-fault question" because you could say what makes Jeremy Pelt different from the whole jazz scene, or from my immediate generation of players around me. I feel like in the latter, the fact that I'm a bit more studied, if I may say, not so much as in transcribing wise, but in terms of music. I am more musically aware. I have had more music opportunities that a lot of young cats probably won't have and maybe because a lot of young cats don't actually seek them, you know what I mean? And even if they did it, sometimes it could be too late, like playing with some historical cats. And that's not to say that I'm pointing fingers, "ha-ha, you didn't do it," I moved to the scene 10 years too late to play with Art Blakey! Somebody else did get a chance to play with Blakey, I didn't. They were here; I wasn't. The same with me 10 years later. And that experience makes you stronger and more aware as a musician.
AAJ: So do you wish you would have been in this world earlier sometimes?
JP: Well, I don't make it a point to sit and beat myself over the head over it, I don't wish that was born in 1920-something, but every musician my age would say, or should say, that they wish they could have been around to see their favorites in their prime, of course. We are at a good place creatively right now; there are a lot of things happening. It is an exciting time to be in the music, creatively. Definitely not exciting from the business aspect, but I feel like it is definitely a great time for cats to be here on the scene.
So right about the time that I started to put a band together, Gerald Cleaver, the drummer, called me, and Gerald is somebody that has been on the international scene for a long time but he just moved to New York, like in 2002, so I say that to say that I hadn't really heard him play, although I heard the name. But he reached out to me and I'd never even met him. And he sent me an email telling me that he really liked my playing and that he wanted to see if I could come and do one of his gigs, so I did that. Right away I was stoked by how insight his music was. I really dug where he was coming from, because as much as his shit is insight, it also had a lot of different properties to his music that wasn't just straight-ahead but you know, the spirit of what was coming out was really in the pocket. Then he called me to do his record, called Detroit (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2008), a couple of years ago. There was one time that we were recording one of his songs, I think it's called "Found," and at the end of the song it was just this system of chords that just kept repeating, and it was a sextet line, so it was me, J.D. and this cat named Andrew Bishop, who played soprano, tenor and then bass clarinet.
So Andrew and I were playing these background parts, and it was time for J.D. to just go ahead and wail, and boy, when that guy started to play it was like the sky was open! I was like "man, this mother fucker is bad! This ain't funny, this ain't even cute!" So I heard him and I said, well...you know I always wanted for J.D. to be in my band, so I gave J.D. a call, and I called Gerald, and he was actually stoked that I called him, because really to tell you the truth, and I hope he doesn't get offended if he reads this, and I say this because he is from Detroit, and Detroit is a very musical town, and he's also quite older than me, about 13 years older, he is the oldest person in the band, and I am sure he played a lot of straight-ahead with the cats in Detroit but I know what's perceived of him on an international setting. So I think this is pretty much the first band that kinda presented him in a straight-ahead manner that was visible. So that's why I chose J.D. and Gerald.
Now, Dwayne Burno is somebody that is always around, he is somebody that you call a "cat in the trenches," that's what some call me, too. You're a soldier in music. He's a true soldier of the music in the scene since 1991 or something like that. He's got a lot of knowledge and his playing just gets richer as years go by, so he is very valuable as a band member and as an anchor. So it was really important for me to want to get him in the band and I'm glad he agreed to do it.
Then Danny Grisset is also new to the cityhe moved to New York probably in 2003 and I got a chance to get him on a gig. I have watched him grow in his playing. His playing hasn't changed, it has been tweaked. It's like my playing, I still basically play the same type of way but my playing has been tweaked by experience, and it's the same way with Danny. I've watched it and his playing kinda got that tweak.
And so, the big thing about bands is that everybody comes equipped with a generous amount of experience, it's not like I'm holding anybody's hand. It's not like I have to say much, which makes a difference because then it makes it easier for people to play well with each other and listen. That is why we don't even really rehearse that much because we know the music that we all write, and this is going to sound very new age or whatever, but it really does kind of chill after a certain amount of time. Some people love to rehearse, I can't stand rehearsing. You do it because you don't want to mess up somebody's music, so you get somebody that respects to rehearse. But if it's a band setting, man, I'm not going to get in the rehearsal studio for five hours going over this shit! That's what a band is. You may ask me how long it took to do this record: we got in the studio by twelve, and we were done by five. That's a band.
November (MAXJAZZ, 2008) was the first time that we got together, and we did that in two days. But I'm old school in the way that basically every record date that I get, it is all basically done in one day. But since you get signed to labels and sometimes labels have more money to spread out things, we can do things in two days. Sometimes it does come in handy, like when I did the strings recordyou definitely needed two days set on that one but everything else, oh, I could have done that in one day but it was just a luxury. But I'm very committed, I like doing one day record dates. And I like to record all in the same moment. The thing is that I tell cats how we record and they are all stoked because we don't record in isolated rooms, we record all in one room, just like we're playing a gig. So therefore if there is a mistake that somebody made, it's not like we can go back and try to fix it with Pro Tools and slice this and slice that and insert and all that..No, it's just what it is. So everything you hear is very honest. There was only one edit, on "Milo Hayward," where I messed up the very last note. So we just took it from another take and that was it. We were able to get through these things because we work it. That's why if you read the liner notes, I talk about that and I say it anytime.
A lot of people think, "So what?," and they are right because if you think about the old mentality, so what? You are a band, you are supposed to be that, you are supposed to sound this good, you are supposed to work together. But nowadays there is not much opportunity for that to happen. People get so consumed in different projects that they want to do. Every single record is a different project with different everything, and some of it works, some of it doesn't. But if you want to add something that's going to make it, and I will say this, we've talked about this maybe 30 minutes ago, when I was telling you that I'm not one of those people that is trying to change the music or trying to be new or be hip or anything like that, but I say this: I do want, if I had one wish, I want for this band to go down in history as a formidable aggregation and to have people remember it fondly. Just like I hear stories, "Oh, man, I used to go see Miles Davis' group..." You don't see that anymore.
In the '90s, I could say that about Nicholas [Payton] and his band, for example. That's what I wantI want to be able to have a band, and this one has been together for three years already, I don't want to ever be asked the question "so, who's in your band?" And that is the norm now and it pisses me off every time. I hate it that it's the norm because it's so spread out that people are just so used to musicians having a different band all the time. Well, I don't want that. It's going to be the same band: J.D. Allen, Danny Grissett, Gerald Cleaver, Dwayne Burno. And of course, there's times when somebody can't make the gig, but the band's still the band. You can't create a sound if you change all the time.
AAJ: One of the things I love about your album is that you gave room to the band, as far as the tunes goes. They all pitched in. What makes a tune worth recording to you?
JP: It has to speak to me; it's as simple as that. I remember when Danny Grissett showed me "Without You," and he was like "Yeah, I got a song that you might want to check out." And he sent me a file and he was just about to record it for his record. So he sent me a recording of the rehearsal that he did with his band, and I listened to it, I was just like "Man..." First of all, it has to speak to me, and second of all, I got to envision myself playing it. One of the things that make a good band is putting together a very good set list where the music just flows, and you are able to read your audience, and I think I am fairly good; getting better at it all the time. But I'm always looking for something to create a vibe.
So sometimes I'll be walking around with these grand visions of how the set is going to go; I can see it. And when I heard "Without You" I knew I wanted to record it, and even how I wanted to record it. That arrangement you hear on there is different than the one on his record, which I'm glad, because you have two different ways of playing the same song. You have the version of how he interprets his song, and then you have our version, and right from when he started playing that song for me I already heard my version in my head, immediately. So that's why that one is in there. Certain songs have to fit the personality of the band, it has to be a personality vibe. So we can't be playing something totally uncharacteristic, it has to be something that we all get down with and play and internalize.
With Gerald Cleaver, "From a Life of the Same Name," we were in Portugal this is last March, and he pulled this song out. This was with his band and I was in his gig. So we tried this one and we played it, and I was like "we're recording this song." I didn't even ask him if I could! So we recorded this song in August. That's one of those songs that I didn't do much to it, it's a thoroughly composed song right there. And it spoke to me and a lot of people love that song, and it's their favorite song in the album.
With Dwayne's song, it fits the album perfectly. "Backroad"you hear that and you get right down to business, that's why I like that. J.D.'s song, "Brooklyn Bound," it's about a vibe, you know?
AAJ: So if somebody was to ask you what this album is all about and you had to explain it with one of the songs, could you do that?
JP: No. I wouldn't even want to do that [laughs]. Really, if you wanted to say what the album is about, it's really about five points of view that aren't so different, but still five individual points of view that are coming in to make a whole. That's what the album is aboutevery time we play that's what is about.
AAJ: Is that what the name of the album is about, too, Men of Honor?
JP: Sure, yeah!
AAJ: That's a beautiful concept.
JP: Thank you. I thought long and hard about it [laughs]. I'm like, what do I want to call this record? Really, it was going to be something that was going to be... that people were going to be able to latch on to; and "Men of honor" just seemed like a good title, the musicians involved and the amount of experience that they have. I would like for people to perceive the album as music, to sit down and just listen to it. And dig it.
AAJ: What's the most important thing about the album to you?
JP: The sound, that's it. Obviously the performances are outstanding and everything but it's just the sound, the blend. It's a sonic thing; it's very important.
AAJ: Do you compose a lot?
JP: I try to. Maybe not as much as I used to, but every now and then I get the feeling. There are others like Myron Walden that they can just sit and...he's got probably about a thousand songs already, you know what I mean? And it doesn't happen like that with me. Nowadays I got so much to think about, but I do write. I am good working under the gun. If there is something that I have to compose for, I have no problems; I almost prefer working under the gun. A dead line. But even so, I'm the type of person that it has to come to me in the moment. It just pops in my head. It may sound simple or whatever, it doesn't get any deeper than that. I'll be sitting someplace, practicing, and then all of a sudden I hear an idea, and all of a sudden "Oh, let me get this down."
, and I always liked his playing. I got a chance to record in his CD back in 2001, a long time ago now and I liked his compositions. And I learned something from him on one of those rare opportunities, where you learn something from somebody on your age range. I was very happy about that; just the way that he plays, what he stands for, sometimes his solos are brief but always well thought out. They are never flashy at all and that's one of the things that I took of that, while doing his record. So when I did that I always kept him in the back of mind"I definitely want to play with this cat again." And we had other opportunities to play"I want to call this cat for a couple gigs," but there was always something that came up and he couldn't make it.AAJ: You're working on your master's in music education. How do you think music is being treated in schools nowadays, especially jazz?
JP: It would have to be more of a comprehensive program. The question is, and I can get in a lot of trouble for this, but... you go to school, you go to medical school, and you want to be a doctor. So you go to school, you do your residency, you get accepted to a hospital, you got a job.
You want to be a jazz musician. So you got to school, four years of school, doing this and that, and then you come on the scene and you ain't got a job [laughs]. So you get out of school and what are you going to do? It's funny, it's weird, but I feel like that whoever is going to be putting together the program has to do almost like an apprentice type of vibe. You can't go and say "OK, now we're going to teach you how to scat, and this is how you scat syllables," it's just stupid. And then they come out of school thinking they know how to scat because they learned it in school, they got a degree in it. When you are trying to get a gig, it's not like you're trying to get a teaching degree. You can't be showing your master's degree! "Look, I'm qualified; I got a degree in jazz performance, so I feel like I have earned my right to play," you know what I mean?
AAJ: You are seen by many as a musician who studies the music, who elaborates what comes out of that horn. What do feel when you play?
JP: Hopefully, happy. You know what? What you want to do is set up a different story every single time you play, that's the way that I approach playing. And it's so much of a personal kind of thing that sometimes it's just really inexplicable. Maybe I can't sit over here and say exactly what it is that I am feeling when I'm playing because then it will come and go.
AAJ: Have you ever had to play a gig and you didn't feel like playing?
JP: Sure, plenty of times. The biggest misconception you can get is that musicians, while we play for a living and it's the greatest thing you can hope to accomplish, but still there are days when you just don't feel like going to work. There are certain circumstances, where you just go, "Oh boy, I don't feel like making it!" Sometimes you end up doing it just for the money. It has to manifest itself in different ways. First and foremost, you have to be professional. So, if you are on stage with a bunch of screw-ups that can't play or the music is terrible, you play and then you just head for the nearest bar. That's what I've always done [laughs], because you never know. Sometimes the squarest gigs for the people can be the most connected, in terms of getting you good-paying gigs. And sometimes those good-paying gigs can be the saddest gigs. So, you don't want to alienate them by acting disrespectful towards them on stage or talking bad about them. So, what you do is you pray that you're not able to make the gig, that you will be busy doing something else [laughs]. That's an ideal opportunity right there.
AAJ: What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of jazz?
JP: You know the answer to that question changes daily. Somebody asked me that question two or three years ago, and I can't remember what I told that person. If they were to remind me I'd be like, "Oh, yeah...well...it could also be this..." I hate trying to give definitive answers to a question that can move you a lot different in the space of a day. I'm not trying to be elusive about it, just saying that truly, is like I could sit here and tell you that the most definitive answer that I can give is that jazz is keen to life. But that alone can mean so many different things to different people. Jazz means different things to different people and I'm sure you understand that. So, a lot of people have different points of view about what the music is, according to their own experiences, which is why life would seem to be a very good answer to that question; because there are some sub-explanations to fit into that question, from day to day, but the common denominator would always be life. I wouldn't be surprised with the answer anybody can give you to that question because it depends on each person and how they feel that day.
AAJ: What would you like to see happen for you?
JP: I'd like to see my band get wider recognition. Not fame, wider recognition. More exposure, especially in its home country. Especially because, I'll be honest, there's only a few places where I can work in the Unites States: New York and then there's L.A., and there is a lot less in L.A. because Jazz Bakery is closed now and I don't know when they are going to open back up. So, wider recognition in the States would be good. Of course, you understand that we're in a terrible economy right now, and everybody is afraid to take any kind of hit, but there's got to be a general understanding about financing and everything like that. I'm just saying, I get emails all the time, and I have more than 3,000 people on Facebook, including people that I don't even know who they are but that know me. So somebody knows me, somebody is affected, and I get people in the Midwest, too, "Oh, when are you going to come here?," I got nothing to tell them because a lot of these places is an uphill battle all the time. Uphill! I'm going to be playing in Chicago in April; man, it took us seven or eight years to get there! And I'm talking about with no label support because there are cats my age or a little bit younger that are playing over there, but they also got label support.
A lot of these places, if you are not coming with a certain guarantee to them that they will actually break even, then they won't even try to hear you, and they know who you are. So it's not even like they can sit over there and fake and say, "Well, nobody knows you." Oh, come on, don't give me that. Everybody knows who I am at this point. I have been at the cover of Down Beat, numerous articles, including Wall Street Journal. I can go ahead and list a bunch of them but I choose not to, except now, that you asked me a question that I am being frank about; otherwise I try to be as much as a gentleman as possible. But the fact is that at this point, with my band, we are playing in Europe at least three times a year, traveling different territories, and people love the music. And we keep going back.
And it's sad that we can't even get the same kind of love and attention, except for the occasional articles, but it's sad that not even that matters. I could have been nominated for a Grammy this year and won a Grammythat won't matter. You see the same people in festivals every year, or they are going for something completely different and they don't even want straight-ahead, you know? Something buzz-worthy. It is almost like you have to create a scandal now, the John Mayer of jazz, and that is a poor joke, but still, you know? It's just a ridiculous thing. So what do I want for myself? I want more recognition for the band because we deserve it. I think there is room for everybody in music but I also think that in order to make it fair, there has to be some kind of a rite of passage. A lot of times you see cats that barely came on the scene; you can't find them on other people's recordings, so they haven't recorded. They're starting to buzz about them and now they're getting a lot of work, for what? You know what I mean? And everybody's got a musical point of view.
A lot of music is good and should be heard in due time, but people are so quick to do things immediately that you have to try to slave over a concept for 12 years. And playing with a lot of the masters that are here, and some that are now dead, to see somebody else come up there. And this is going to sound like I'm bitter, but I'm not. In the past 12 years that I've been up here I've been able to have great opportunities. It's not a full complaint, "Nobody is paying attention to me," that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that there is room for everybody, for bands to be heard, and it makes no sense that every festival has the same artists pretty much from here to here.
Like you have somebody that is new and you're going to present them. Sure, go ahead. But not every year! I look at things realistically and there is one thing that you have to have in mind if you want to make it as a band leader, and that is that you have to know what your own standing on the scene is, and I think I have a firm grasp on that. I don't think I am greater than anybody but I'm assertive and I know exactly what I've done thus far, and I know what it is that I am capable of doing, and I definitely work with that as much as possible. And it is not like I have any false kind of perceptions about where I am in the scene. I'm not sitting here saying, "Listen, I should be on the same bill as Wynton Marsalis." I don't understand that, I'm not one of those people. We can go over to Europe, no problem. And a lot of times I have wondered if I shouldn't move to Europe.
But then I had a great conversation with Jesse Davis, because I was really thinking about it, because there comes a point when in the darkest corner on every musicians' minds there is some state of discourage about something. And it probably happens to me once a year, when I'm like, "You know what, this shit fucking sucks!" [laughs]. And then I get a hold of myself and I get myself together and tomorrow is a different day. But I guess my whole point, in regards to moving to Europe, was that. And Jesse said, "You don't really want to do that because then you are easily accessible, and essentially is going to be the same thing." So you want to keep your visibility here because then you won't be a cat that they can see all the time. It's a business decision but if you ask me what I want, that's what I want: recognition for the band.
AAJ: What's the best feeling you've ever had, while playing?
JP: Just being able to be in the same room with a lot of my heroes, that's the best feeling. Being on stage and them not looking at me like, "You need to get your ass off the stage." That's the best feeling I've ever had right there 'cause that's what's important. A lot of cats, because they haven't been exposed to the opportunity to play with the great masters of music, probably can't really relate to it in a way because they don't have that experience, and they don't care that they haven't been on stage with a legend, and they don't know about the importance of that; what that does to their own character and their own playing, and what it says to the people that are watching them. And when it comes to me, I grew up completely old school, respect your elders, and learn as much as you can.
I spent summers sitting next to my grandfather, three months a year, you know what I mean? Listening to the old stories. So it has to do with the way I was raised. It's kinda like when you were told as a kid, "Don't be interrupting the old folks when they're talking, don't be having any kind of opinion." So, it's exciting, it's exhilarating when you're able to finally have an opinion. When somebody that's way, way more experienced, somebody that came to the city 20-some odd years before you were born, and made their mark on the music and now has you in the band, and might ask you, "What do you want to play?" And they want to extend you that respect as a peer, as a fellow musician, it makes all the difference in the world; and that's always going to be the best feeling that I've had, in regards of what I do, because that's what motivates what I do.
It's like I saw this one interview with Miles Davis by Bryant Gumbel for BBC done in 1982, and Miles was just being playful and answering the questions directly. And when it comes down to the real thing, he said, "Dizzy Gillespie would say that I'm one of the best." That's what I'm talking aboutit's always going to come down to the same thing, being accepted and respected by those who were here before me, the people that I look up to and respect, listened to on record and continue to listen to for years, encouraging and telling me that I sound good. After all is said and done, it still is going to have to come down to the truth. Like Miles, all perceptions aside of his arrogance, drug use, all of that gets swept under the rug, and all its left is the truth, and the truth is that still, at that point, 1982, was still that boy from St. Louis that came up there and wanted to follow his idol around, which was Dizzy. Important.
Jeremy Pelt, Men of Honor (HighNote, 2010)
Jeremy Pelt, November (MAXJAZZ, 2008)
Jeremy Pelt and Wired, Shock Value (MAXJAZZ, 2007)
Jeremy Pelt, Identity (MAXJAZZ, 2005)
Jeremy Pelt, Close to My Heart (MAXJAZZ, 2003)
Jeremy Pelt, Profile (Blue Moon, 2002)
Page 1: Jimmy Katz
Page 2: Courtesy of Jeremy Pelt
Pages 3, 4, 6: Hans Speekenbrink Page 5: C. Andrew Hovan
Pages 7, 8: Heronski