Darius Jones: From Johnny Hodges To Noise Jazz
AAJ: Avant-garde is not necessarily "free." Avant-garde can mean just inventive and new, a new direction, like Stravinsky was when he was new. It's "before" ("avant") everyone else. But "free" is basically completely free playing from "1, 2, 3, start." Would you describe yourself as a free player at all?
DJ: I struggle with what that word means. Would you consider Roscoe Mitchell free, would you consider Thelonious Monk free? I've listened to everybody. I've listened to Ornette Coleman, I've listened to James Spalding. I've listened to a lot of dudes. Ornette for me is taking the music back to the root of creativity. He's just saying "Be creative, be you." [That's] how I see his music. When he called his records "free jazz" I think he was really saying, "I think of it as a verb not an adjective." You know, like "free jazz; free it from its constraints so we can do some other [stuff]."
Here's another thing, is Eric Dolphy free? I've studied with this pianist who was on this Booker Little record. I took a few lessons from him, and we were talking about Eric Dolphy, and he was like "Man, Eric would play over the [key], he would not play the changes. He would play something other than what the changes were. He would play at the changes." If the concept of free is about not playing changes [relative to] playing tonal [and] inside of harmony, then I would have to say I exist somewhere in the middle of all that. I do not consider myself a "free" jazz musician at all, because there's too much structure in almost everything that I do.
[Cooper-Moore and Moses], are they free, or avant-garde? It's hard to know. If you were to sit down to talk to either one of them they would, I don't know what they would say, but they both encouraged me to be the best musical person I possibly can be, which is not ignoring melody, harmony, rhythm, time, all those things. I talk with Matthew Shipp a lot. Is Matthew Shipp a "free" player? I consider myself to be more "avant-garde" in the classical sense of that word. [That] is what I am. Because I can't say that I want to be playing straight-ahead because that's not what I want to do. I don't feel that compulsion to play so like my heroes. I feel the need to be me... insanely [Laughs]. It's like an insane desire to be like myself. I don't want to be like Ornette Coleman.
AAJ: Yes, he's already been done. There's already one of him. People following him need to be themselves.
DJ: Matthew Shipp came up to me one time. He heard me play and he said "Man, I don't hear any Ornette in what you're playing." But I'm not really thinking about that. I'm not thinking, "Woa, today I need to pull out my Ornette Coleman chops or my Cannonball chops, or my this, that or [the] other." I'm like, "Today we have to play in the context of this music, whether it has changes or whether it doesn't." That's how I operate. I don't feel that you have to prove anything in music. I think when horn players and piano players and everybody get on the stage where you have to prove all this stuff. It's like, that's crazy. Just play music. It's just about music. Whatever touches you is what touches you.
I feel, [that] for a musician like myself, it's [as if] I only get two categories to go in. I've got to be either a Steve Coleman, Greg Osby-esque cat, in that world of just the black hierarchy of jazz improvisation, or I'm gonna be, like, free and just [be like] Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, the sky's the limit; Julius Hemphill, you know, just [an] out kind of guy. And I think what I'm trying to say is, "I've got something else for you. There's a third category in there, and it's me. And I'm about to show you what it is."
I don't really fit into any of those worlds completely, I just don't. I remember spending a summer just studying Steve Coleman's music and working on some of his concepts, and at the end of the summer I had a headache. I had an intense headache and I realized that I would never want to play that structured, where it's like, I'm so so cerebral. I need the organic process, or [an organic] part of it. [That] is a huge thing that is important to me. That's no dig on Steve Coleman or anyone else. That's just my process. The organic process is important to me. That means that time is important to me, that means that melody is important to me, that means that harmony is important to me.
[Duke Ellington], he didn't go to school. He did what sounded good, and that's how we got Duke Ellington. As I said, I feel like for a young black creative musician there are only two worlds that you can go into. I refuse to work along those lines. I want to be free. I want to create a universe that's my universe. That is, the universe of me, and right now that's Man'ish Boy. Man'ish Boy, that person that you're seeing, he's a character, he's a person from a different planet, he's from outer space. He's not of this world, but he's coming to this world. And that's definitely going to influence things, that's gonna affect the outcome of certain events. With an alien being in a certain environment, that's gonna affect you. Especially if people are listening, I think that's the greatest thing. You know, listen to the musicI might not be the prettiest dude but it doesn't matter. It's all about the music. Listen to the music. I'm letting the music speak for myself; I'm letting the music talk for myself. In interviews you're just getting the insider perspective basically, the special features [laughs].
AAJ: There was a review of the Man'ish Boy album that described you as "a part of the New York underground." Do you think you are part of "the underground'"?
DJ: I'm glad you noticed that. When he said that, [it was] a great glowing review, but it's almost like a slap in the face when he said "underground." I was like, "Whoa!" It's funny, for weeks I asked my friends, "What is the underground? Who is in the jazz underground? Who is considered the underground of jazz music, and do I want to be part of that?" I don't know who the underground is. Obviously he has some intense ideas about who that is and the people who belong in that category, which is fine, but I was personally just a little taken aback by the whole thing. "The underground," I guess that's the people who don't paid! If that's who they are, man, I need to get a day job.
Do you consider Vijay Iyer mainstream, Chopin, Ligeti? He's [Iyer] coming from all kinds of different ideas. Maybe the people are not familiar with where it comes from. You can look at it and say this is different, that is different, but come on; we're talking about apples and oranges here. If you listen to David S. Ware and you listen to John Coltrane, are you saying that David S. Ware can't play his instrument? He just chooses to go on a different path. Some Duke Ellington. It's so original that it's avant-garde. It's so him, it's so Duke. I don't subscribe myself to any of what I would almost say [are] unhip terms, [or] unhip categorizations of sound. Sound is free and my role is to be free, and when I say "free," my desire is to be free to organize it in any way that I see fit. That is my goal.
That may be pleasing to you sometimes, and it may not be pleasing to you sometimes. I play in a lot of bands. Some of the stuff is super mainstream. I play in this one band, it could almost be considered folk music, folk jazz or something like that, where we're playing the prettiest [stuff] you could ever imagine. And then I'm in Little Women. And then you can listen to my record [Man'ish Boy]. It's like a soul record. Or I play with William Hooker, or something like that. Really? You hear me do "Teen Spirit." I wrote that. I can't write that if I'm so out; it's crazy. I always believe this: in The Bible it talks about in the beginning there is chaos. And I think chaos is only chaos when you don't understand. And when you do, when you can actually hear something, or when you can understand something, it's no longer chaos. It's no longer weird; it's no longer something that makes you question everything on Earth.
I used to tell people, "Really, if you think about it, Jesus Christ was normal. That's normal. All those other cats weren't normal, but he's considered the anomaly." If we were to check out what's mainstream or normal in every day society in the aspect of peoplethat would be some sad [stuff].
AAJ: The point is that music is either good or it's the other thing, as the quote attributed to Ellington says. It's all one thing. For example, do you listen to classical music?
DJ: There's this Mozart wind ensemble [that] really influenced me in a compositional sense, of creating counterpoint where you have this one thing happening above. And then you have this middle ground and then you have the bottom. Mozart was just fascinating me how he would structure and orchestrate, where he would have the counterpoint and have certain instruments come in, and I felt like his music was almost like pop music. It had a pop essence to it, and I really love that. I really love that about him and I love that in general, when I can hear this general [music that is] super connected to regular life. I don't feel like his music was that disconnected from the human condition. Maybe it was just the time that he lived in.
AAJ: You can hear some recent popular music in Mozart. For example, some of "A Groovy Kind Of Love" is in one of his early Salzburg Symphonies, and the main theme from the hit "Oxygene" [by Jean Michel Jarre] is there, in a different tempo, in a single movement for piano and orchestra, [It is K 302 in the catalog of his works, a standalone piano and orchestra rondo originally written for a piano concerto]. There's even something by Luis Bonfa, the famous thing he wrote ("Manha de Carnival") that has the same opening notes as something by Mozart.
DJ: Great composers didn't shy away from simplicity. Simplicity is in the greatest music. Even someone as out as Ligeti. It's just there. No one really asks about the process of making the music. There is a string that connects that is one. The string is that, I believe you compose something, but when you play something it can be different, it can be changed. The greatest classical musicians are able to lift the music off the page and it becomes them. They are going to manipulate that music to fit themselves, who they are. So for me, it's about how things are played, what your inflections are.
What would you get if you combined Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges all into one being? I think about that a lot. A weird hybrid, the whole Ellingtonian world. I think about that.
AAJ: Are you trying to write that combination?!
DJ: Yeah but, of course, there are more influences than that. When I look at the whole Ellingtonian world, [how it flows] into one being, and the spiritual aspect of it, [that] is very important to me. Religion, that's something else. But spirituality has been at the forefront of my desire to play this music from the whole inception. I think it is important that music has the healing force [or] power, that music can touch you, that you can feel it. [It's] not just licks or notes or sound, that it's literally alive and it's touching you. That's what spirituality is. [It's as if] someone stands up and speaks before you, and you feel compelled to change your life.
I feel like cerebral [players] are thinking more than they're playing. That's why I consider myself a soul musician; I'm going to surrender to that rather than my mind, to the soul rather than the mind.
I'm sure you've heard the story where Charlie Parker was getting a blowjob. To be honest with you that's what I want to bring back to music. You gotta live it. You gotta live what you play. That's what I want to bring back to music. I've lived my music. I don't [make] music from the standpoint of "Oh this is cool, watch me play in 7/4 and then switch to 7/8." I don't care about that [stuff]. It's got to come from the heart. Do I work on rudimentary things? Of course, but I do that in the practice room.
I need to feel that organic process so deeply and to live the music, live it, live that music. And hearing that story, man that guy was living it. He was really on a whole other vibe. But you see, Miles was young at that time and Miles didn't get the importance of being out. For Bird it manifested in that way. He didn't give a fuck: [it was] "Get out of the car if you don't want to be a part of that." In a lot of ways Miles ended up living it; he was no better. I've heard the same about Ornette Coleman. He's out of it. Do you think Ornette cares? Greatness is greatness. It's like you were following it and it took you to some place, and [the past] doesn't fit you anymore. At some point you should graduate, and at some point Miles started hearing his own music.
I don't think you should be categorized in any aspect, but I know that categorization is good because it helps people who want to buy your [stuff], or get into you. I'm basically starting my career here. You heard Man'ish Boy, which is a very small aspect of who I am. It is me, definitely, but then I do bands like Little Women which is totally something else. I wouldn't even consider that jazz music, on a lot of levels, 'cause it's very composed. There's a lot of composition that goes into what we're playing there. It's very strategized. Then I play with progressive cats like Mara Rosenblum. My quartet record that I'm working on [the next installment in the Man'ish Boy series], all of these tunes have changes and forms that are strict. I think we live in a time where you need to be able to just play. I don't