Chuck Israels: Evans, Education and Philosophy
Throughout his career bassist Chuck Israels has worked with illustrious names including Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, J.J. Johnson, John Coltrane. He is, however, best known for his work with Bill Evans, following the untimely death of Scott LaFaro, performing with the legendary pianist from 1961 to 1966. Strikingly intelligent and well-spoken when it comes to articulating a valuable philosophy regarding jazz, and composition, Israels is currently the Director of Jazz Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
All About Jazz: You were a member of the groundbreaking Bill Evans Trio. What was the musical climate like in the jazz arena at this time? And how was the trio being received by audiences during this period?
Chuck Israels: Very different than it is today. The trio was at the top of its form and was popular enough that we could find good work and an attentive, appreciative and knowledgeable audience almost all year-round.
AAJ: It's been written that Evans worked tirelessly on assimilating new material, and also worked at perfecting his own musical ideas towards a very high standard. If this is correct, how did this attitude affect the trio?
CI: It made my job easy. I was unprepared to do that kind of organizing/arranging work at that time. Bill was meticulous and thorough, and was continuously prepared with beautifully worked out material. Once exposed to Bill's versions of familiar pieces, I was hard pressed to accept other ways of hearing them.
AAJ: While you were with the trio, the level of musical communication was almost magical. What were some of Evans' methods of communication with the rest of the group in performance (if he had any)?
CI: Everythingeverythingwas communicated through the sound of the music. There were no other signals of any kind everno count-offs, head nods, spoken instructions...nothing.
AAJ: As an educator who has developed such high musical standards through an impressive career, you have also been in the trenches with scores of budding musicians. Have you encountered any hindering mindsets that young players commonly hold?
CI: The most common is that one can learn a language by studying its alphabet and grammarand maybe a word or two. Languages exist in the history of their usagetheir prose and poetry. You cannot learn to be a poet without knowing a repertoire of existing poetry. There are no shortcuts to this.
AAJ: On your site, your "An Unpopular Perspective On Jazz Education" article is both profound and insightful, with several of your thoughts resonating deeply. What is your opinion of jazz education as it stands today?
CI: With few exceptions, jazz education survives within a system that often pretends to separation from popular and commercial influences while, in fact, it is deeply affected by those influences. It is difficult to maintain a high level of musical (or educational) integrity in the face of an impoverished world of inane popular music. Even worse are those educational institutions that mistakenly embrace weak and mindless music in the belief that its momentary popularity represents sufficient value to warrant teaching young people how to pursue this music under the guise of defensible music education.
It may be education. Commercial music is a trade, and there is a place for trade schools but, given the state of musical contemporary musical commerce, pretending that pursuing its values is any kind of art is misguided at least and fraudulent at the worst. Unfortunately, a good deal of this poor music falls under the rubric of jazzsome of it blatantly mundane and some high minded and pretentious, but weak and vapid nonetheless.
AAJ: What of the modern music that is harsh and dissonant. This music sometimes finds its way into current trends, and it seems that many players use this biting, disjunct vocabulary without first developing a solid harmonic foundation. What are your thoughts?
CI: Music needs the juxtaposition of opposites to achieve its drama, so harshness and dissonance are simply part of the material a musician can use to create a musical work. All one thing is a boreall dissonance, or all fatuous consonance. George Winston and Guns and Roses are two sides of the same worthless coin in my esthetic world.
AAJ: If you had to choose a few basic principlesones that have guided you as a composer, arranger, and musicianthat you view as most vital in your own musical development, what would they be?
CI: Things that turn out to be durablethat have a lasting good effect on my psyche, are also the things that have the most telling effect on the short term, so I listen to things that I continue to like over long periods and try to include the elements I find in those things in whatever I am doing at the moment. I have no time to waste on listening to disposable music.
AAJ: In your long musical career, has there been a particularly defining experience that you continue to reflect on, and continue to carry with you?
CI: Too many to recount, but I can say that being part of making music with Bill remains a standard to which I aspire every day of my musical life.
AAJ: Let me talk about composition for a moment. In general, what would you say that you strive for in your own personal composition? That is to say, when you set out in a certain direction, when do you know that you've achieved your intentions when you are involved in a new work?
CI: It's be nice to think that I could turn out something half as good as Billy Strayhorn's work. If I have done what I intend, [then] at some point what I'm working on solidifies and seems to have completed itself, and I become satisfied with it. That doesn't happen with every project, so some get abandoned and some get reworked until they reach that point. Needless to say, some never get there.
Chuck Israels/Metropole Orkestra, Eindhoven Concert (Anzic, 1997)
Barry Harris, Barry Harris In Spain (Nuba, 1991)
Bill Evans, Trio '65 (Verve, 1965)
Herbie Hancock, My Point of View (Blue Note, 1963)
Bill Evans Trio, How My Heart Sings! (Riverside, 1962)
Eric Dolphy, Copenhagen Concert (Prestige, 1961)
George Russell Sextet, A the Five Spot (Verve, 1960)
Cecil Taylor, Hard Driving Jazz (Gambit, 1958)
John Coltrane, Coltrane Time (Blue Note, 1958)