Russ Gershon: Time Traveler, Four Million Years Later
RG: The whole idea that jazz died in the '70s is preposterous to me. It doesn't agree with the historical record. In fact, I remember when Newsweek had a "Jazz is back" cover story in the late '70s. I was born in '59 and got into jazz in '72 or '73, and the New York jazz scene then was so vital. You had the post-Coltrane wave going on, with people like [saxophonist] Billy Harper, [trumpeters] Hannibal Marvin Peterson and Woody Shaw, [pianist] McCoy Tyner, [saxophonist/flautist] Rahsaan Roland Kirkjust incrediblethe people who were coming out of the bebop tradition, influenced by Coltrane's advances, who could play their butts off on chord changes and were trying to move things forward. The players who were alive and working in the '70s represented every generation of jazz, from [drummer] "Papa" Jo Jones and [trumpeter] Doc Cheatham on down. You could hear the post-Miles electric thing, Herbie [Hancock] and his advances, early Return to Forever, Mahavishnu [Orchestra], Weather Report, and that was just the superstar layer.
Ornette [Coleman] reinvented himself in '75 and a whole scene came out of that, like [guitarist] James Blood Ulmer and [drummer] Ronald Shannon Jackson. That's not even touching [saxophonist/flautist] Sam Rivers and [jazz performance loft] Studio Rivbea, or the AACM people and the Black Art Group movement coming from the mid-west to New York, which they did in the '70s. There was such an influx of interesting talent. I saw [drummer] Steve Reid with [saxophonist] Charles Tyler. Then [saxophonist] Arthur Blythe came to New York and he played with Tyler. In New York, there were jazz lofts where I heard a lot of great music. The whole attitude was: jazz has to move forward and we are always finding new ways to approach it. There were many, incredible, fascinating, different ideas about jazz thenas there are now.
Jazz as music wasn't dying, though the clubs were. Jazz was continuing to be economically marginalized and becoming more of an art music and moving further away from being popular music. As a business entity, it was becoming more fragmented. Then there were the Young Lionsthe neo-classical wave which hit in the '80s. That's how art works: things move forward to the point of discomfort, and provoke classicist reactions. Then the front wave and the back wave sort of come together. Wynton [Marsalis] was a perfect figure for the jazz business at that point. His artistic inclinations and the ideology of his backers, like Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, synced with Columbia records searching for a new star because they had parted ways with Miles [Davis]. Woody Shaw was going to be the guy and he had the music to back it up, but he had some personal issues and he wasn't a good manipulator of PR. Wynton was the perfect guy for the job. Many things, both good and bad, have been said about him, but he's a tremendous trumpet player, a brilliant fund raiser and educator and an effective figurehead, and my hat's off to him for all that. But artistically that's not where I was at in the '80s, despite loving a lot of the same older music that he does.
Coming back to your original question, our rhythm section changed at the end of the '80s, when Matt Wilson and Bob Nieske came in. They were a really swinging, really different rhythm section from Deupree and Rivard. We were lucky to have John Medeski playing keyboards and piano over that transition, because that dude can play anything. Because we could now swing on a world-class level, it pushed the writing more in that direction. Nieske, who had toured with [clarinetist/saxophonist] Jimmy Giuffre, wrote a lot of good music for the band at that point, and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring came into his own as a composer. We were evolving through another way of looking at jazz historydrawing a clear line between the past and future. This connected us in some way with [pianist/composer] Sun Ra's vision of how to swing avant-garde and play swing so that it sounds totally alive now.
Then in the late '90s we had [drummer]Harvey Whirt in the bandwho is from Suriname, the most African South American countryand he really brought an African 6/8, 12/8 feel to the band. [Saxophonist] Miguel Zenon joined the band at that time, with his developing vision of an almost [pianist, Lennie] Tristano-like, linear approach to Latin rhythms. It was '97, and a whole new generation of musicians came into the band, some of them 20 years younger than me. These were people who grew up post-Marsalis. They brought a whole different generational aesthetic, which in a way was less ideological than us older guys like myself, Charlie [Kohlhase] and Tom [Halter]. We grew up when jazz felt like a revolutionary art form. Just playing jazz in the '60s and '70s was a political statement. The next generation came up in the era of jazz education. This is part of Wynton's contribution; he helped make it a respectable thing to study in the academy, a credible career for middle-class kids.
The new young musicians, many with Master's degrees, brought something new to the band, and they were knowledgeable of some parts of the jazz tradition and open to learning about others. Then in '98, Dominican conguero Vicente Lebron joined us, and he brought a very earthy feel to the band and accentuated the Latino wave in our music. Pablo Bencid from Venezuela followed Harvey Wirht on the drums. Leo Blanco, a Venezuelan pianist who is not on any of our records, played in the band from '05 to '06, and now we have pianist Rafael Alcala, originally from Mexico. So yes, the course of the Either/Orchestra does reflect the history of jazz and the history of the United States.
Then there's the Ethiopian music. I'm certainly not the first to bring jazz methods to materials from outside the United States, but I liked that music, and clearly we're part of that trend. The Either/Orchestra really does reflect the history of jazz over the last 25 years. It's such a long time. Twenty-five years before we started was 1960, which seems so distant now.