Bobby Zankel: Peaceful Jazz Warrior
For many decades, Philadelphia has been home to a cadre of multi-generational jazz musicians who go on year-after-year composing, arranging and performing some of the best, highest level music to be heard anywhere. This tradition is exemplified in no better way than by alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader Bobby Zankel.
Zankel apprenticed with legendary pianist Cecil Taylor and absorbed the most advanced trends of the 1960s and '70s. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he has done his own thing with various ensembles for over three decades. One of his jewels is the big band, Warriors of the Wonderful Sounda collective of the best, most sophisticated players around, recently supplemented by the phenomenal saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappaand an upcoming collaboration with groundbreaking saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman. The Warriors' music has virtuosity, aesthetic beauty, and rich complexity that is rare in any genre.
Zankel's late, great teacher and mentor was Dennis Sandole, with whom he studied for many years. Sandole was also the teacher who inspired Chuck Anderson, John Coltrane, Pat Martino, and James Moody, among many others. Sandole remains a bit of a mystery to much of the jazz public, and Zankel helped clarify his mystique and influence. Two of Zankel's other mentors, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman are jazz legends.
Zankel resides in the heart of West Philadelphia, not far from the University of Pennsylvania campus. Like the Left Bank of the Seine (in this case, the Right Bank of the Schuykill), the creativity that comes out of this diverse neighborhood of working poor, writers, students, professors, musicians, artists and scientists is extraordinary. Its residents have included Margaret Mead, Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, as well as members of the jazz pantheon such as John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, The Heath Brothers, and Gerry Mulligan.
- Origins and Youth
- The Avant-Garde in New York
- With Cecil Taylor at the University of Wisconsin and Antioch
- The Move to Philadelphia
- Learning from Master Teacher Dennis Sandole
- The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound
- Listening to and Appreciating Advanced Jazz
- About Jazz Writers and Critics
- Other Pursuits and Interests
- The Avant-Garde in New York
All About Jazz: We'll start out with the notorious "desert island question": Which recordings would you take with you to that island?
Bobby Zankel: John Coltrane at the Half Note (Audio Fidelity, 2005), which was released three years ago. Maybe Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction (Columbia, 1972), with Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Bobby Bradford, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and, of course, Charlie Haden. And if I found myself in a bad mood at the time and needed cheering up, I'd take James Brown, Live at the Apollo, Volume II (King Records, 1967), something to relieve the seriousness of everything else. Maybe the early record that Monk made on Blue Note, The Genius of Modern Music, in two volumes, and it was all there in 1952 with all those incredible tunes like "Skippy" and "Four in One."
AAJ: Any others with sax players?
BZ: Well, maybe I should have mentioned the one with Trane at the Vanguard, [Live at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!, 1962)], that had Eric Dolphy on it too. And certainly Bird at St. Nicks )OJC< 1983), and a lot of other live Charlie Parker records. Of course, I'd take the rare recordings of Cecil Taylor with Jimmy Lyons, and Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard. And now they have these box compilations, like the ones with the Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter at The Plugged Nickel [The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel 1965 (Columbia, 1995)]. Also some Mingus, maybe Blues and Roots (Atlantic, 1959). You know, the usual suspects.
AAJ: So you grew up in Brooklyn, New York, right?
BZ: I was just a kid in Brooklyn, and then I went to high school in Rockville Center, Long Island. My family moved out to the suburbs, as many people did.
AAJ: What years were you in Brooklyn?
BZ: The mid-1950s.
AAJ: That was when modern jazz began its upward momentum. So, what was your childhood like, and what were your early musical exposures?
BZ: OK, there are a couple of levels. One is when we got our first stack of LPs. My father knew someone at RCA, and we got a box of Harry Belafonte records. Then there was Little Richard, rock 'n roll, under Alan Fried's banner, the Coasters with those great tenor solos. And Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf." My parents tried to expose me to some highbrow music.
AAJ: Did they sense that you had talent as a kid?
BZ: They weren't artsy folks. They grew up in the Depression and were very practical people. In school, in the second or third grades, you could only begin on string instruments, so I got a violin, but it wasn't really "manly" enough for me, so then I wanted a saxophone. But you had to get a clarinet, so I played it throughout junior high and high school in the bands and so on. I didn't consider myself a "musician" at that time, but I did love music. I got a lot of stuff from the library and the radio. At the local library they had Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, and I could hear that right away.
I was more into sports, politics, poetry or whatever. But I remember reading Downbeat and buying my first Coltrane record with Eric Dolphy, Impressions (Impulse!, 1963) from the Village Vanguard. I could hardly follow it, but I knew it demanded my attention. It was in New York. The '60s were such an exciting time. It was a very exciting time to grow up culturally. Being in eighth grade, and seeing the president shot down, it was like having the rug pulled out from under you, and what reality was and what you could depend upon. You know, the norm at the time was go to school, get a job, and so on- but all that began to unravel. It was a sensitive time of my life, so that at 16 or 17, just becoming a lawyer, a school teacher, a professor, or a person in government or business had no appeal to me at all. At that point, the music seemed like the most interesting thing I could do, and getting into the saxophone was very comfortable- it's made to be a comfortable instrument to learn on anyway. The years playing the clarinet made it relatively easy to transition into it.
BZ: No, in truth I never liked the clarinetI found it hard for me to play. Few can speak on it and sing on it, except for Eric Dolphy, who was such a gifted person technically. With the clarinet, the instrument tends to dominates the player. With the saxophone, your personality can come out in many ways. Actually, I had a horrible experience on the bass clarinet. Some years later, when I was working under Cecil Taylor, his great alto player Jimmy Lyons had a bass clarinet at the university, and he let me borrow it, a beautiful Buffet bass clarinet. So I went to Appalachian Mountains visiting some hippie friends, and parked at the side of the road. I had to leave the car for a while, and when I came back the trunk was popped and Jimmy's instrument was stolen. And that's why the world never heard Jimmy playing the bass clarinet. Also, I was working on playing the alto clarinet, which is a sort of bastard instrument in terms of tuning, and so on, but it's lighter and brighter than either the bass clarinet or the B-flat clarinet. I'm surprised more people don't play it. It's got a curved bell, and it sings a lot more.
AAJ: Are there any recordings using the alto clarinet?
AAJ: So, when you were young, did you go to the clubs and concerts in New York to hear the music?
BZ: No, not when I was very young. That's one of my greatest regrets. One of the great events that I was supposed to attend but missed was a concert that Coltrane and others did in 1966 called "Titans of the Tenor." They had Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Rollins, and Albert Ayler. I didn't get to that one, but soon after that, I started going to clubs, and I saw Monk with Charlie Rouse, Ornette playing when he had David Izenzon, Charlie Haden, and Charles Moffett, all bassists, typically two at a time. Herbie Hancock's first band after he left Miles, which included Johnny Coles, with whom I later played and recorded. Dexter Gordon, during a visit from Europe with Pharoah [Sanders] and Leon Thomas, opening up at the Vanguard. Larry Young, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, Booker Ervin, who I took a lesson from. Sun Ra many times. And I saw the Miles Davis Quintet at the Village Gate. Once I started going, I didn't stop.
AAJ: It's interesting that you gravitated very early to jazz that was pushing the envelope. Most musicians seem to have first listened to a lot of the standard stuff before going on to the outer reaches.
BZ: It was pushing the envelope, but it was what was very popular as well. You know, Cecil Taylor recorded on Blue Note. People thought he was the outer extreme, but in 1965-66, he had a contract for Blue Note, the same label as Lee Morgan and Lou Donaldson. Ornette Coleman made Live in Stockholm [At the Golden Circle, Vols. 1 & 2 (1965)] on Blue Note, too. When you listened to the mainstream jazz station, WLIB, in the afternoon, they might play either Ornette or Cecil. It's true that when Cecil became more abstract, he got less radio play. Now, when you listen to WBGO in New York or WRTI in Philly, they won't play any John Coltrane that came after 1962-63; but in those days, Trane was there, people loved him. He was such a beloved person by everyone.
AAJ: Are you saying that Cecil and Ornette and the post-1962 Trane were part of the mainstream?
BZ: No, they were clearly to the far left, but avant-garde wasn't a dirty word. Freddie Hubbard and Tony Williams played with Cecil's band. Moreover, Miles Davis' band in the late-'60s, before Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), but after the great quintet, were playing non-metrically without regular chord progressions. What made me gravitate towards this stuff was the emotional weight of it. People refer to the "summer of love" in the sixties, but it was also the "summer of upheaval." Before Woodstock, it was the Vietnam War, you and your friends going over there. There was mental anguish about the legitimacy of our government. The Woodstock drugs and sexual revolution were really sidebars to the anxiety and confusion about what was going to happen to our country and what was going on in the world. I know that for me, in 1967, I went to the University of Wisconsin, and I was there for two weeks, and there was a campus demonstration against Dow Chemical around the Agent Orange scandal. I said, "OK, I'm against the war," so I went there, sat down for a soda, and the next thing you know there were police officers banging students over the head, windows are smashed. That's how I woke up to the conflict that was really tearing our country apart.
AAJ: And the music of the time reflected that conflict.
BZ: Absolutely. The seriousness and emotional power of that music. You know, when you listen to Horace Silver at the Village Gate, you hear that finger-poppin,' and I like that, but it didn't affect me like John Coltrane playing A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). Even guys like Lee Morgan and Joe Henderson, for example, wore dashikis and they were playing very modern. People remember Lee for Cornbread (Blue Note, 1965), Speedball (Mercury Phonogram, 1970), and "Ceora," but he also made a record about Angela Davis [We Remember You (Fresh Sounds, 1972)], with all kinds of cross-rhythms and fire.
AAJ: You're rounding off the picture of jazz at that time. So, when you started your career, you were playing with Cecil Taylor's group?
BZ: Yeah, what happened was that I got an alto sax, and I was at the University of Wisconsin, and I realized I didn't want to be a lawyer or a politician. I really wanted to be a musician and play the saxophone. So I dropped out of college, went back to Brooklyn, heard a ton of music, and got into a summer program at Berklee School of Music in Boston. I used the money I earned from working at the post office, but when September came around, I wanted to go to Berklee, but my parents wouldn't support that. They wanted me to go back to a regular college and get a full education.
So I went back to Wisconsin, which didn't even have a regular saxophone teacher until Fred Hemke came in my second year as a music major. But when I got into their music school, they told me that Cecil Taylor was going to be coming out there as artist-in-residence. They thought it was only going to be for one semester. I was taken aback, because I had heard Cecil many times in New York, at a Slug's on Third Street, between Avenues C and D. Sun Ra also played there every Monday. I heard Cecil play an incredible piece with the Jazz Composers Orchestra. That was after Trane had died, and I was convinced that Cecil was the most important musician in the world, and here he was coming to Wisconsin, and I thought "this is mystical" that I'd be there at that exact time.
BZ: I hooked up with Cecil Taylor through the intercession of a great drummer named George Brownhe was a very under- appreciated drummer who died a year or two ago in Paris, played like Elvin, played with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. He had a band called George Brown and the Nervous Society [laughter], with the great organist Melvin Rhyne. George was a very funny guy, and he invited me to play in his band. Cecil was playing with George late one night, and I felt the vibe to join them, and it was up to that time the greatest experience I ever had. Some time before that, back in New York, I had some friends who were living in the same building that Dollar Brand, aka Abdullah Ibrahim, was living in. We hung out, and he told me the best way to learn chord changes was George Russell's chromatic concept. So I said, "I'm gonna buy that book." When I met Cecil, I wanted to impress him, and I said, "Abdullah Ibrahim told me the greatest way to learn chord changes is George Russell's book." And he replied, "Who wants to learn chord changes?" [Laughter]
And I said, "OK, That solves that." At that stage of his life, Cecil was so creative and energetic. And serious. You could stand outside his practice room, and he would go at it three straight hours at a stretch, playing the same patterns over and over, varying the tempo, the articulation. Sort of Hanonesque [reference to the Hanon piano books]. People have no idea what a master of the instrument he was, and what he had to go through to get to that point.
As soon as he returned for the next semester, he organized an ensemble, and we rehearsed 4 days a week for a whole year with new music almost every single day. After each rehearsal, most of the guys would leave, but Cecil would just start playing and a few of us would hang in, and play for hours.
AAJ: Where was this?
BZ: At the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They brought him back there to teach the second year. And there were guys from Chicago and from Boston, who weren't even students, who just wanted to be part of this thing. And by the springtime, we did a little tour of some colleges. It was incredible, he had drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Sam Rivers, and alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons.
BZ: It was about 15.
AAJ: A big band?
BZ: Yeah. And then we did a concert at Hunter College. The first half was Jimmy, Sam, and Andrew; and then he had us do the big band thing. I know that Cecil paid for us out of his pocket, which inspires me to this day. And I remember playing, and there's Ornette Coleman sitting in the first row. And I found out later that Michael Brecker was there. Everybody came out because Cecil played only twice a year in New York in those days. He seemed to prefer working for the University of Wisconsin and just do his music. He felt people weren't treating him right in New York, even though he liked playing club dates there. Then the next year, he got a job at Antioch College. Cecil was like a magnetpeople came from everywhere. I went to Antioch just to play with Cecil. He had Andrew and Jimmy on the faculty. Impulse and the other record companies came out there to try to sign him up, but Cecil had his own standards and felt that the artist should control his own creations. I spoke with him just a couple of days ago. He's still that way.
AAJ: It sounds like for you in those days, it was an intense, thrilling cauldron of apprenticeship.
BZ: Every day was really exciting. I wanted to go to New York and play, but I didn't then, because I couldn't bear to miss a day with Cecil. If you took off, you might miss some new music. We were young guys, and not that great as players, but we had an understanding of the concepts.
AAJ: Were there other leaders besides Cecil Taylor whom you worked with?
BZ: Of course; there were 30 years after that. So, Cecil moved to New York after Wisconsin and Antioch, and I moved to Brooklyn around the same in 1973. I thought I was going to play with him for fifty years, like Johnny Hodges did with Duke Ellington. My life was becoming very complicated .My first daughter was born with Down's Syndrome when we were living in Ohio. I was not married or really planning to live forever with her mother. It was the Hippie period, and she was studying sort of by mail at the University of Indiana for a master's degree. So when my daughter was born I felt a tremendous responsibility in spite of my basic, spaced-out character. So I persuaded her mother to move to Brooklyn with me, and I was in New York two years and started to do more work, with R&B bands and so on. Also that was when the loft scene was flourishing, I had my own little bands with guys that played under Cecil, like William Parker, Rashid Bakr (Charles Downs), and Joseph Locandro. I wanted to spread my wings, but the situation in New York was very compartmentalized, an unhealthy situation for musicians in many ways. Sort of in, versus out. A great digression from the '60s, when if you could play, you were "in."
So, then my daughter's mom got money to come to Penn for a PHD anthropology and another daughter was on the way. I was very committed to my daughter's happiness and offered to come with her. I thought it was temporary because it was not normal career move for a musician to move from New York to Philadelphia. But, surprisingly, I started meeting people in Philly who were playing all kinds of different stuff. And they liked the way I played, and I met all those older guys who had been around Coltrane, and it was really inspiring. People like Odean Pope, Middy Middleton, Charles Cunningham, John Glenn, Ed Crockett, Eddie Green, and Tyrone Hill. They were very nice to me, and encouraging. And after a year or two, I finally found and started studying with the great Dennis Sandole.
AAJ: Before you get to him, because I really want to focus in on Sandole, who were some of the key influences you encountered in Philadelphia at that time?
BZ: The main one was Odean Pope. He was teaching then at a government-sponsored program called "Model Cities," and he was very nice to me. He passed on some R&B gigs to me. We did a Latin gig together where I played baritone sax. I felt that Odean was a monster of a player and I couldn't understand why the guys in New York never mentioned him. There was a big concert, and he played on the same stage with Archie Shepp and David Murray. I love Archie, but Odean was clearly the best. Just a month ago, CIMP released Fresh Breeze (2010), an Odean Pope Quartet CD with me, Lee Smith on bass and Craig McIver on drums. It represents those thirty years. He played with my big band, and he was on my Seeking Spirit (Cadence, 1992) CD with Johnny Coles, and others.
At the Model Cities, I also met Tyrone Brown, who played on three or four of my records, and I played on two records with him as leader, with his fantastic string group, doing Tyrone's own music. Those guys were very flexible- they'd play with Sunny Murray, and then they'd play an R&B gig. Tyrone played with Grover Washington and around the same time he played with Max Roach. It was a different concept than in New York. Philadelphia really embodied the idea of a Black Music continuum that had a wide variety of branches that came from one trunk. Cecil was continually making connections between himself and Horace Silver and Ellington and Monk and Bud Powell. He grew up copying those guys, even though you don't easily hear it, it was his tradition. He even dug James Brown and Marvin Gaye. So he really taught me the connections among all the musicians.
In 1981, a great drummer named Alan Nelson, who used to play with Hannibal and Billy Harper, brought me in to play with the great bassist/composer Jymie Merritt's band, which included Odean and Julian Pressley, a great alto player. Jymie was the one who got me involved in advanced poly-rhythms and really opened me up to playing cross-rhythms. He was very complex rhythmically. Listen to the piece he played with Max Roach around 1963 called "Nomo." It's like what Steve Coleman, who is a genius of our age, is doing now. Working with Jymie was tremendous. I had a profound friendship with the magnificent drummer Edgar Bateman, who recorded with Eric Dolphy. I played a gig with him in 1976 and we went all the way to last month when he played his last performance with me before he passed away. We got to record together for CIMP in 2007.
These guys were so encouraging, and that led me to meet a whole other generation. I met Uri Caine, when he was a student at Penn. He started playing in my band, and he introduced me to Ralph Peterson, who's one of the most important drummers in the world. He teaches at Berklee in Boston now, but he lived in Philly for a number of years, so I got to work and record two CDs with Ralph. Then, also at Model Cities, I met what I call the Ornette Coleman gang. I started playing with Jamaaladeen Tacuma, in 1976. And through him I met Charles Ellerbee, and Calvin Weston who were also part of Ornette's band.
So just here in Philadelphia, I've been able to meet so many great musicians. Through Ralph, I formed a wonderful working relationship with the singer composer Ruth Naomi Floyd, with whom I performed and recorded for years. Through Ruth, and her brilliant manager Keith McKinley, I got to play on the bandstand and in the studio with such major musicians as Gary Thomas, James Wideman, Terri Lyne Carrington, Reggie Washington, Craig Handy. She was surrounded by great players.
AAJ: Now, let's get back to Dennis Sandole. I've picked up bits and pieces about him from various musicians who consider him a genius, yet he remains almost a mystery to many people.
BZ: He is a mystical figure.
AAJ: So there you are in the firmament with all these guys doing new things, but yet Sandole pulls you into his sphere. And you're not alonethere's Pat Martino, John Coltrane, James Moody, Chuck Anderson, and many talented and innovative players. They all came to Sandole. But I can't quite get what it is that they got from him.
BZ: That's great! And that probably frames a question that people all over the world probably have. Even in New York, I met people who knew Sandole, and I read that Coltrane studied with him. So when I moved to Philly, one of the first things I did was to look up Sandole in the phone book, but I couldn't find him! It turned out later that he lived in Springfield in the suburbs, and even though he taught in South Philadelphia, he had no phone listing there.
Dennis taught about tonal relationships both vertically and horizontally. He was an Italian guy from South Philly who came up in the late '30s and '40s, and sometimes called himself "Denicio." He was what you call an autodidact, that is, he taught himself music, and as a guitarist, he had the whole orchestra at his fingertips. In terms of making a living, he played guitar with Charley Barnett and the Dorsey Brothers and Boyd Raeburn, those modern, high level working bands. He somehow developed a profound understanding of tonal relationships, how tones combine, of how tones resolve or not, which is how western harmony and jazz as such came about. He really knew how to create colors with chords, and add real interest to simple progressions and develop polytonal lines.
He was also a master of the art of teaching. He really knew how to impart information. And he was totally non-judgmental, and not about any particular style. He was about tones and about creativity. So he taught tonal movement, and he could do it from the points of view of chords and melody. He could make you hear lines, and the way he would make you hear it is that he would write out these short exercises that would illustrate certain ideas. It's just like if you wanted to teach a child one plus one, you could give him one apple and then another apple, rather than deal with numbers which are an abstraction.
So what Dennis would do is, rather than telling you that this tone can go with that tone, he would write out these exercises, and then you'd have to memorize in one key and play them in all twelve keys. He would say "barbells on the ears." Rather than telling you what worked, he would put it in your fingers and your ears. And each student would respond differently, so he would take them in different directions. Like certain notes don't usually go with some chords, but under some circumstances they might. So then you'd have to play through that in all the keys, so you'd have to hear it and get it in your fingers. So he was expanding your vocabulary.
Some people take Charlie Parker's solos and play them all over the horn. So you learn Charlie Parker's language, and that's great. But what Dennis would do is give you, every week, something you hadn't heard before. We did some stuff from records, but Dennis would write four bars out, and you could spend hours trying to get it. You'd only be in his office maybe 20 minutes. Most of the work you did at home.
He was different with every student. With me, he saw that I was interested in writing, so he had me get orchestration and counterpoint books. He had me take a chapter or two and outline it and read back what I had written. He made me learn it myself. He really pushed me writing-wise. I'll never forget when I was with him a couple of years, and he made me write out this little eight bar figure, and I related it to Stravinsky. And he said, "Yeah, but what you wrote is better than Stravinsky." He made you feel great. And he did that in away with all of his students. He would make you feel that you were the special one. And then the next guy would go in, and he was the special one. He would kick your butt with that material. I got so caught up in it, that I stayed up nights working on it. It was such an exciting time. Then, after a while, I got caught up doing gigs and recordings, but I always wanted to continue learning from him. And I studied with him until the end of his life.
AAJ: You portray the experience so richly, I could almost visualize myself being in the room with him. He sounds like a remarkable teacher who literally made musicians bring out their true potential.
BZ: And if you don't believe me, he has a couple of recordings- very few. One was on Fantasy called The Brothers Sandole (Fantasy, 1999), with his brother Adolph, who was a fine teacher too but not what Dennis was doing. You can see how talented Dennis was from the guys on his records: Art Farmer, James Moody, Teo Macero, John Portergreat players. People saw Teo in that movie with Monk, and he looked like a clown, but he was a great musician. The material is so modern it sounds maybe like George Russell of that period.
AAJ: In addition to Sandole and Cecil Taylor, have you had any other serious mentors?
BZ: In fact, I guess my greatest fortune has been in the area of mentorsI have been really blessed. In 1999 I was introduced by pianist Joe Locandro to Ornette ColemanFor about four years, I went up to Ornette's loft maybe monthly and he generously shared so many of his ideas about music and life. His approach, which he named harmolodics, is extremely personal as he proved with 60 years of brilliant compositions and improvisations. Ornette's mentorship was totally profoundhe showed me things on paper and most often through the horn. Mentors are extremely important in life and art: animals have parents, but only humans can form the special bond of mentor and disciple.
AAJ: For some reason, when you were talking about Sandole's emphasiz on tonality, your big band, The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, came to mind.
BZ: Oh, yeah; Sandole inspired me to write for big band, and he gave me the tools to hear that stuff.
AAJ: So, what led you to start a big band, knowing that they are notoriously difficult to get together and keep going, given all the musician's commitments and the shortage of paid big band gigs. When did you start the Warriors?
BZ: Between 1985 and 1992, I was fortunately able to get some grants. And I did a couple of multimedia projects, some with dancers, some with visual artists, because that's what the grants paid for. I did it with eight-piece groups. The first record I did was from a project with Steve Rowland, the radio producer, and photographer about the city of Philadelphia. I was able to get Johnny Coles, Odean, Raeburn Wright, and Sumi Tonooka. Tyrone Brown, Odean Pope and Craig McIver. And then the next year, I got another grant, and was able to have a band featuring John Blake, Ralph Peterson and Uri Caine, in another octet.
So I started to accumulate this music for a larger group. But I always went out of my way to use guys who were more experienced than me who could teach me something, and make it sound good.
Then around 1991, a young alto player named Daniel Peterson approached me when he put on a festival called "Collective Voices." He asked me if I could do something for a big band, and he said, "Well, I'll get you a big band." I had some trepidation, but it was an exciting opportunity to get some young guys to see what they could do. I took players of whatever instruments I could get, so initially we had four saxophones, two trumpets, and a trombone, and I brought my own drummer, Craig McIver, and I got guitarist Rick Iannacone and bassist Dylan Taylor.
So we did this festival at the Tritone club on South Street, and it was lots of fun, and I Thought, "Let me go for this," And one of the smartest things I did was limit it to once a month. I didn't want to burn out. And we're coming around to our tenth anniversary.
We rehearse right here at my home. I was able to purchase the home where you and I are doing the interview from winning a Pew Fellowship for composition in 1996. The panel included a Pulitzer Prize winner and was not simply jazz. So eventually, what I had done for years for love came back to me in the form of this house! It's such great fortune, but it reminds me that positive, compassionate action to improve the world can bring good things to yourself as well. I'm a Nichiren BuddhistI became a Buddhist joining the Soka Gakkai in 1973. And Buddhist practice is based on Nam Myoho Renge Kyothe law of cause and effect. Sometimes you can't see it in the short term, but every good cause is rewarded. To put it simply, you get the right effect. Creatively, I've tried to impact the world in a positive beautiful way. So I have this house, and now I can rehearse the big band in my living room.
AAJ: Doesn't that disturb the neighbors?
BZ: No, they're jazz lovers.
AAJ: Now, the music The Warriors play is not the average big band chart you pick up at a music store. Most of the music consists of your originals, which are quite complex. For example, you wrote "Ndura," a beautiful piece based on Bambuti [Pygmy] philosophy. But in places it's like a hornet's nest of notes. Now the guys must have been totally unfamiliar with it at first. So, you bring in the charts, and then, how do you prep them? What do you do to get them to play it, the way you want it?
BZ: Well, in fact I'm not much into being a conductor. The music I write is extremely intricate rhythmically, and things have to fit together in very precise ways. But the guys are good readers. For example, this week, we played a piece I wrote in honor of the great composer, Bill Dixon. And I could say to the trumpet players, "This piece is for Bill Dixon," and they could begin to think about how to interpret it. I notate the music very precisely, but notation only goes so far. Especially in jazz, you really need interpretation, and you have to know the context and the language of the composer. For example, Tom Lawton, our brilliant pianist, is a quick learner, and we talked today about this piece, and I pointed out a couple of things, and he said, "Oh! That's what you meant!" And most of the guys are like that.
AAJ: So, a lot of the composition is between the lines.
BZ: Right. And that's the benefit of keeping a band together over an extended time period. It's like keeping a basketball team together: the guys learn to have a little ESP with each other. They know what I'm intending based on shared experience.
AAJ: How do you want your audience to listen to The Warriors? What I mean is that, often when people go to hear so-called "new music," they don't quite get it, and they sort of absorb it anyway, but they might miss the composer's intent entirely. So, for your really new, creative, and complex work that you do with the Warriors, what mindset would you like your audience to come in with?
BZ: I think, with The Warriors, because of the rhythmic thrust of the music, I never worry about it being above people or getting too abstract. If you have a groove like ours, I mean we have a tremendous swing in the music, then you can do most anything. Like in a lot of my pieces, I have a bunch of 12 tone things, frequent uses of tonality and things that might be called dissonant, but if there's a groove, that's the bottom line. If your heart's not beatin,' there's a problem. But if you have a beat, they'll listen. My problem is about how to get more people to come in the first place.
AAJ: But maybe that's my point. If they don't know how to listen, they won't come. This is a big concern with the whole jazz scene today, as to why it's not attracting larger audiences. One reason may be that it's advanced quite a bit, and the masses don't quite get it. Like, personally, I love The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound. I think the groove is incredible, as you say, and your musicians are out of this world. I love to hear them play. But the music tends to get very dense. And it stays dense for long periods of time. Three or four guys might be improvising at the same time, each in his own way, and the backdrop is rocking, and it's just going on and on like that. And then I'm thinking, "What's the message here? What can I hang my hat on?" Now, I'm aware of my own listening limitations, and I admit that I might not be able to get what a more sophisticated listener can get, so I'm not judging anyone. My question is: when the serious but, perhaps, limited listener such as myself gets into that density and is looking for something to lean on, what does he do?
BZ: [Chuckles] I really understand what you're saying, and I don't do that as much as I used to in my music. Cecil Taylor used to play really dense, and sometimes he would get booked for festivals with, say, Oscar Peterson, where it wouldn't be Cecil's audience. And usually the promoter was smart enough to have Cecil play last. And he would start to play, and a lot of people would leave. Or even sometimes, in the 1960s, he'd play two-and-a-half hour sets. Someone asked him, "What about the people who leave?" He said, "I play for the people who stay." He didn't say, "I just play for myself." He said, "I play for the people who like it."
And for me, I feel the same way. I want people to like it. But I want more people to like it, so I don't want the density to go on too long. I'm more careful about that in my recordings than in live gigs. But I apologize if I neglect a segment of the audience. I believe I have a gift to be able to transmit feeling when I play and sometimes this might require digging very deep but I have to go with it and many people want to go too.
AAJ: I don't think you need to apologize. But, for example, when I was a kid, my aunt used to listen to Bach on WQXR, a classical radio station in New York City. I thought that music was so weird. Then, one day, I remember it clicked in. Suddenly, I was enjoying Bach, almost in a finger-snapping way. Similarly with advances in jazz. I think we've neglected to get it to click in for the less avant-garde audiences. We've got to be able to talk to them and help them along with their appreciation. We need to help them understand the gestalt, the pattern, that makes it click in for the musicians and, hence, the listeners.
BZ: I think it's important to hear this new music live, being in the room where you can really become part of the experience. In the '60s and the '70s, people would say, "Well, that music might be fun to play, but it's not fun to listen to." But Duke Ellington used to say, "There's just good music and bad music." It's not about the category.
My point is that it's not a matter of how advanced or dense it is, it's whether it's good or bad, period. When Trane and Pharoah are playing far out, some might describe it as a finger scratching the blackboard, but to me it's ecstatic, it's beautiful playing. It's got that energy. It's similar to things in contemporary music. Like the composer Xenakisvery similar to him. Or some of Stockhausen and Boulez.
I think a lot of players took unfair advantage of the conceptual gains that Cecil Taylor, and Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Sunny Murray made of playing without chords and without meter. Some took advantage of it. I never liked the term "free jazz," and I told Cecil that. It should be called "knowledge music," because it's based on how much you know. A lot of guys take "freedom" to mean "license." If you can't play quarter notes well, if you can't get a nice tone out of your horn, whatever you play is going to be unpleasant. Free jazz isn't going to cover up the fact that you have a really bad sound.
AAJ: I think you have an excellent point, that "free jazz" is really a misnomer. It's really about wider structures and concepts, not the absence of structure. Now, getting back to The Warriors big band, someoneI forget whomade a connection between the Sun Ra Arkestra and The Warriors. And you yourself mentioned your exposure to Sun Ra.
BZ: Yeah, I went to see Sun Ra in New York quite a bit in the 1960s.
AAJ: Is there a conceptual or historical connection between the two bands?
BZ: I saw that band many, many times and loved it. I happen to be a great student of Sun Ra and admire his music. I listened to it very carefully. John Gilmore is one of my favorite saxophonists. Marshall Allen is a national treasure. But The Warriors are not modeled on the Arkestra at all. I live here with my wife [the Sun Ra band live in a house together], and all of the guys in my band are very independent have their own groups and ideas.
The most personal connection that I had with Sun Ra was through a really remarkable drummer and composer named Samrai Celestial (Eric Walker). Samrai moved to Philadelphia from New Orleans in the late '70s just to play with Sun Ra and he was an important member of the band for a number of years. We met through the long time Arkestra member, trombonist Tyrone Hill and we formed a band called Ancient Family, with guitarist Rick Iannacone and bassist Doug Kirschner. We performed some of mine, but mostly Samrai's amazing compositions, which sort of sounded like Ornette in a profound wayand, of course, Sun Ra. In 1995, Samrai got funding from a recording company in Chicago, and we made a truly wonderful recording of all his tunes in Chattanoga where he lived. It's called Cosmic Millenium Gold (Carrot Top Records, 1997)really special. Samrai died the next year.
AAJ: OK, let's talk about the other saxophonist you've been joining forces with recently: Rudresh Mahanthappa. Simply put, he's a fantastic musician.
BZ: He's a great player and composer.
AAJ: So, what were you hearing in his playing that you could relate to your own to the extent that you engaged in a joint venture with him?
BZ: When I first heard Rudresh, I really liked his playing. I'm sort of a shy person, but we had a common friend, the trumpet player Amir ElSaffar. So, one day I was at a rehearsal with Amir, with Cecil's band in New York, and he suggested I go hear Rudresh that night. Rudresh was so nice, he gave me his CDs, was respectful, and knew a little about me. Of course, I noticed his technical facility, and the uniqueness of his language. But what really struck me was the emotional force in his music. A lot of the younger guys seem to lack what we used to call "fire," and Rudresh has that in great abundance. The more we talked, the more we found we had many things in common, and we formed a really simpatico relationship.
So, then I wanted to do something with Rudresh, and I thought of the Philadelphia Music Project grants program. I had made The Warriors a 501c3 non-profit organization in order to obtain funding for it in 2004. We're basically a cultural organization that supports modern music. I already had applied to PMP for a grant as part of the memorial to the 40th anniversary of Coltrane's death. We were gonna have it at the Church of the Advocate which Trane attended, and we were going to have Sonny Fortune be our special guest. Sonny had played with Trane at the last concert he did in Philadelphia, which was at the same church. A great idea, but unfortunately the grant was rejected.
Rudresh with Zankel (seated, on left)
So, after I met Rudresh, I thought maybe I'd do better with someone from New York and very popular like Rudresh writing the music and performing it with The Warriors. So we did thatyou reviewed the concert at Montgomery County Community College.
And next year, I'm doing it with Steve Coleman, whoand I think Rudresh would agreeis the Charlie Parker of our generation, and he's gonna do a piece with us to be performed next April. He and Rudresh both play the alto saxophone, they have a musical connection to each other and to me, and at the suggestion of Matt Levy, the director of PMP, we'll call them "The Wizards of the Alto Saxophone."
We ended up with a two-year project. Actually, I just exchanged emails with Rudresh yesterday, because I also got money from the Aaron Copland Foundation to perform his piece in New York. So it's a very exciting time for me and The Warriors. And it's great for me at this stage to keep learning and growing through work with these guys. And Rudresh's thing is so unique. He's been able to incorporate music from India with his jazz thing so beautifully. And to be with Steve is of major importance.
AAJ: On a different note, though it's related to what we've been talking about, somewhere in this firmament of creativity and new music, the jazz writer/critic/journalist plays some kind of mediating role between the musicians and the audience, perhaps even setting the pace at times, through their assessments of recordings and concerts. As someone on the cutting edge as a musician, which writers do you personally value, and why?
BZ: Well, you know its two different things. First of all, I think it's very important to write about jazz and let people know what's happening. In my opinion, to be a critic, you should perhaps know as much about music as I do, as a composer and performer. It's an ancient question as to whether you need to know a lot about the music or just be a music lover. Like in 1963, they said that "Eric Dolphy is playing anti-jazz" or "Eric Dolphy can't play chord changes." Did they know what they were talking about?
AAJ: Too much of what is written is opinionated, rather than consisting of commentary and analysis.
BZ: And it's easier to sound smart if you criticize someone than if you compliment them. And everybody wants to sound smart.
Sometimes people come up to me and say, "You sound great." Compared to what? OK, maybe you liked and appreciated it. But who are you to say what's great? You know, it all really leads up to the fact that the place of jazz in business and society is such a painful subject, maybe a losing battle. What's written is very important in that respect. I was lucky early on in that I got a lot of good articles, and I knew people in Philly who were good writers. When I was young, I remember that Cecil had certain critics who really liked him and helped him. But it's easier to remember the people who said he was playing the piano like a jackhammer, and I watched Cecil really suffer in a way from that.
AAJ: Musicians have been hurt by the critics' jibes. And you also make an important point that the critic can and should play an important role in getting jazz and society better tuned up.
BZ: I'll give you a positive example of that. When I was real young, I knew the names of all the musicians in the AACM, Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton and so on, before I ever heard them. Someone in Downbeat was writing about these guys, and when they got ready to tour Europe, people knew about them and were ready to help them. It created an environment for them to accomplish their goals.
AAJ: Lewis Porter is one of my all time favorites among jazz writers and educators.
BZ: I liked his book on Coltrane. He really balanced a musical intelligence and a historical perspective. But did you ever read John Szwed's book Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Da Capo Press, 1998)? Szwed is from Yale, so he's a pretty serious anthropologist. And he has so much information there. And some of the research is excellent. But unfortunately, his discussion of the music is not up to that level at all, but when he's in his own area, it's fantastic.
AAJ: You work in the Pennsylvania prison system. What drew you to that kind of vocation or avocation?
BZ: The Pennsylvania Arts Council used to have a program called Artists in Education. I was approved to be on their list of approved artist educators in 1986. Well, a very bright guy in the prison system had this great idea to bring artists into the prisons. So I did an eight week program, one day a week, at two prisons. More than anything, I needed the money at the time! I never had an aspiration to do prison work, but many ideas came to me, and then it evolved that for the next ten years, I went three days a week to two prisons upstate, and it really became part of my life. I learned so much working with those guys. Then they opened a prison in Chester, PA, and I took a full time position there as a music instructor. It fits the rest of my schedule perfectly.
AAJ: There was a time when a lot of jazz musicians ended up in the slammer on drug-related raps. Have you run into any good jazz musicians in the prisons?
BZ:. I have had a couple of interesting, talented guys but it's the human thing and profound affect that music has on people that makes the work still so rewarding.
AAJ: Do you teach music appreciation?
BZ: No, I teach music itself, a bit like Dennis Sandole. I teach by playing. Sometimes, I have more advanced players, and we play difficult tunes together.
AAJ: The work you do at the prisons is really what you call "making a difference."
BZ: It's my good fortune to be able to impact human beings one on one through the medium of music.
AAJ: Through your web pages, I learned about pianist and composer Marilyn Crispell, who I'm embarrassed to say I was not familiar with. Then I got a couple of her albums and I flipped.
BZ: We had a beautiful musical rapport. We did some great concerts and made a good CD titled Human Flowers (CIMP, 1999). There is a recording of a live concert that we did in a Frank Lloyd Wright church in Chicago with William Parker and Hamid Drake that needs to be released.
AAJ: I understand that Crispell was originally from Philadelphia.
BZ: She's moved around a lot, and she's lived in Woodstock for the last 20 or 30 years.
AAJ: She seems to bridge the gap between straight-ahead and going out on a limb.
BZ: Well, she really goes out on a limb. Her first record for ECM [Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, 1997] was, of course, on the more romantic side. But she's one of those musicians who defies categorization. She's so musical and so great physically playing the piano.
AAJ: Recently, I've been interested in the connection between jazz and dance. In a sense, jazz evolved out of African and Carribean trance dancing, and of course in the swing era, most of the music was for dancing. It's about movement. So tell us about your work with choreographers.
BZ: Right now, I'm in the middle of a project I've been working on for two years. I just got money to record some of the music I wrote. I had worked with choreographers a lot in the '80s, and a couple of years ago, I had this idea to do something about the house where "The Father of Our Country," George Washington lived with the slaves. It was actually the first White House, at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia after the Revolutionary War. I was struck that here was our president, and he had nine slaves living there, and actually they were there illegally. He had to get around the laws where you could only have slaves for six months, so he would take them to New Jersey for a day, to get around the law. Here's Washington, who supposedly never told a lie, and he's using a legal loophole to keep his slaves.
So I got Germaine Ingram, a choreographer who is actually a tap dancer, a percussive dancer/vocalist, interested in this story line. We got start-up money from Pew, and then we got a lot more funding from Dance Advance. I've written a lot of the music for it, and it might go up in October 2011. We also have John Dowell, a great visual artist who is involved in it. The music is not period music, but I wrote one piece which is like a "rag." I got money from the American Composer's Forum to record the music. It's exciting to be able to write long form and to write narratively.
Recently, I've worked with a great baritone saxophonist and composer named Fred Ho, a Chinese-American guy, and he's done a lot of long-form writing. I have learned a lot from him through working in his sextet and big band.. I'm doing a saxophone quartet recording with him next month.
AAJ: John Coltrane said, "Music is my spirituality." We're all trying to find a way of living and thinking about our lives that makes sense. So what are your particular thoughts on the subject?
BZ: In 1973, I began practicing Nichirin Shoshu Buddhism, a simple practice, based on chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," a short portion of the Lotus Sutra. The principle is that your life is a complete reflection of both your environment and your inner condition. So when you do this practice, both your inner life and your environment improves. When I started doing it, I lived in one room, and now I have a whole house! More importantly, I've changed so much inside. For example, in the past, I couldn't make any of my relationships work. Now, I've been with my wife for twenty years. The way spirituality and music relate for me is that your life is everything you do. If your life is based on compassion for other people and you love yourself, that comes out in your music. Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock both practice Buddhism.
AAJ: I like the idea that the inner and outer are profoundly connected.
BZ: That's somewhat easy to deal with, but the hard part is that to change the outer, you must change the inner. It's easier to buy a new mirror than to change what the mirror is reflecting. And it seems deceptively logical to change the environment instead of changing ourselves. Like if my wife spends too much money, I could find a new wife. But the new wife might do the same thing. So I have to get back to myself.
AAJ: From your understanding of Buddhism and life, what kind of spiritual discipline do you have to do?
BZ: Well, it's a little like Dennis Sandole applied to spirituality. The Buddhism I practice says "Chant for whatever you want," even if it's, say, a car. That sounds superficial, but then what happens is that it gradually reveals what you have to change about yourself to make that happen. Ultimately, you realize that you're selfish or sloppy, and so on. The chanting awakens you to yourself. The idea to do the dance piece came to me when I was chanting. We tap into our wisdom and creativity. But the spiritual work comes from trying to be happy and trying to make the world a better place.
AAJ: In that way you get in touch with your assumptions and beliefs and, in some cases, you can free yourself from them. I recently read a book about the far out composer John Cage, who wrote a whole composition of blank bars, where you only hear the ambient sounds in the room! Cage was interested in Zen Buddhism. He wanted to make people realize that music is not what we think it is. Cage also was familiar with a medieval composer who said the purpose of music is to calm the mind. "Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast," as Shakespeare wrote.
BZ: I don't know about jazz being "calm," but I think your point is well taken about jazz being related to dance and the African line of spirituality involving trance-like states, where you're connecting with elemental forces through dancing and singing. That's really what jazz is about. That's what I got from Cecil Taylor; that you play for a long time until you reach a kind of state of possession by Spirit. Coltrane knew about Hindu meditation, but his music had more of a relation to the gospel tradition of getting the Holy Ghost inside you by building up the energy. And gospel had partly African origins, of course. What he's doing is what they do in the Pentecostal Church, except that Trane was also a great artist who mastered western music in every respect.
AAJ: It brings up the possibility that music is about inducing a particular state of mind, and that it's not just about easy listening, or brilliant technique, or whatever.
BZ: I'll try to complete our conversation by going back to the beginning, when I first decided to become a musician. It was the Viet Nam War, and everyone was angry and confused, and for me the music was spirituality in the midst of all this anger. I could pick up the saxophone and go to a state of ecstasy. I could deal with the tensions of the time, but then transcend it. You could almost compare John Coltrane and James Brown in that respect.
AAJ: A couple of critics have said that Coltrane's playing is too angry. I say: more power to himwhat's wrong with that?
BZ: Trane always sounded ecstatic to me, not angry.
AAJ: There is an ecstatic angernot all anger is bad. It's a type of energy.
BZ: I don't hear or feel anger in John Coltrane's music. Maybe Trane had righteous indignation, but then he went right past that. And it might have been more an expression of pain than anger. Coming to grips with your pain, and then going beyond that. I hear a joyous connection to his ancestors and their song of struggle and triumph. Life is not meant to be easy, but it is our mission to show the next generation how to feel grateful and victorious.
Odean Pope Quartet, Fresh Breeze (CIMP, 2010)
Bobby Zankel /The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, Ceremonies Of Foregiveness ( DMJ, 2006)
Tyrone Brown String Ensemble, Suite For John A. Williams (DMJ, 2005)
Bobby Zankel Trio, Transcend & Triumph
Ruth Naomi Floyd, Fan Into Flame (Contour, 2002)
Samarai Celestial, Cosmic Gold Millenium (Carrot Top Records,1997)
Bobby Zankel, Emerging From The Earth (CJR, 1995)
Bobby Zankel, Seeking Spirit (CJR, 1992)