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Interviews

Bobby Zankel: Peaceful Jazz Warrior

By Published: September 6, 2010
The Avant-Garde in New York

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
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
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
Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan
1938 - 1972
trumpet
and Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson
b.1926
saxophone
. 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
Freddie Hubbard
Freddie Hubbard
1938 - 2008
trumpet
and Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
drums
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
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
b.1928
piano
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
Lee Morgan
Lee Morgan
1938 - 1972
trumpet
and Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson
1937 - 2001
sax, tenor
, 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
Sun Ra
Sun Ra
1914 - 1993
keyboard
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.

With Cecil Taylor at the University of Wisconsin and Antioch

BZ: I hooked up with Cecil Taylor through the intercession of a great drummer named Theodore George Brown
Theodore George Brown
b.1927
sax, tenor
—he was a very under- appreciated drummer who died a year or two ago in Paris, played like Elvin, played with Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
and Jackie McLean. He had a band called George Brown and the Nervous Society [laughter], with the great organist Melvin Rhyne
Melvin Rhyne
Melvin Rhyne
1936 - 2013
organ, Hammond B3
. 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
Abdullah Ibrahim
Abdullah Ibrahim
b.1934
piano
, was living in. We hung out, and he told me the best way to learn chord changes was George Russell
George Russell
George Russell
1923 - 2009
piano
'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
Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
b.1939
drums
, bassist Sam Rivers, and alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons.

AAJ: What size group did Taylor have when you did the tour?

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
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
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 magnet—people 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.


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Download jazz mp3 “Ceremonies of Forgiveness (Part 1)” by Bobby Zankel