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Bunky Green: Urgency and Continuity

By Published: October 3, 2011
AAJ: What do you tell students about working within today's music industry climate, and the fact that there are fewer jazz performance opportunities than ever before in the U.S.?

BG: I say to them, "Don't look to get rich. Very, very few jazz musicians have been very successful monetarily. That's not the norm. If you're looking for a high-paying job that's going to make you $250,000 a year, it might not be the path you're looking for." [Laughs.] However, that's not the real point of this. I ask them, "Do you love it? Is this something you truly want to do? Do you have a burning desire to do it? Is there a fire inside you that you can't put out? If that's your desire, go for it and let the chips fall where they may. More than likely, you'll work it out and find a way to make a decent living. Maybe you can be one of those people who get rich doing it, but it's about the fire in the belly. You have to know that you have one life to live, and this is what it's going to be about." This is exactly how I talk to my students. This is real life. I tell them about all the wonderful musicians I play with and bring back knowledge from the street. I tell them, "No one's going to protect you if you do something wrong or didn't get something right on the street. When you go out there, you are out there. And the learning environment out there can be very cold sometimes. It's all part of the process. But if you're learning, you're cool."

AAJ: What did Through His Eyes, the 2004 student tribute album by the University of North Florida Jazz Ensemble (Sea Breeze Vista), mean to you?

BG: That was wonderful. It was a marvelous thing as a tribute from the students. It made me feel very good and needed. It also made me feel like I had done something to really affect the lives of some young people in a positive way. Keith Javors Music
Keith Javors Music
, a wonderful pianist, put it together and came up with his own take on things with his great band, and did a beautiful job.

AAJ: You've been working on a lot of new music. What's the status of getting some of it released?

BG: I'm looking forward to putting an album together and moving forward with it. Inevitably, someone will come up to me and say, "I want to record a project of your music." But I'm not overeager to put something out unless everything is right with the record company. When they do come along, I have to ask, "Is it my show or is it your show? If it's your show, you have an idea of how I should sound. But if you want me to record for you, you have to like what I'm doing, so go ahead and let me do it." I've been concentrating on Apex, which has us both out front, in terms of performing. Rudresh continues performing everywhere on his own, and I'm still teaching. So I'm not in a hurry to be recorded, but if the right situation comes along, I'll more than likely go along with it. I've already got great documentation of what I've done, but I am thinking about the future.

AAJ: You once said, "Unless a musician keeps his mind free, the rebel becomes the conservative." How do you keep out of that trap?

BG: It's just part of my DNA. When a person with great ideas comes along who changes the system, eventually someone else comes out with an idea that's even more rebellious. Even if the newer idea is right, the first person may say, "I don't want to change this." Why? Because that person is comfortable in his position. So the rebel has become the conservative. You have to be very careful to not become the conservative.

So here's Bunky Green. This is how I play now. People ask, "Bunky, will you be playing like this years from now?"

I respond, "Well, if I'm alive, hopefully not. I want to keep evolving."

But that doesn't mean I want to be different for the sake of it. That's not what it's about. Change has to be about something that inspires you to deliver in a new area. You're saying to yourself, "I want to uncover these layers and see what I can find." It's about keeping your mind open. Unfortunately, what happens is you can have a record that becomes very popular, that relates to the average person, and lots of people buy it. Now, when you go out to perform, you better play that tune—if you want to remain at that level of popularity. And you may not want to play it, but you're obligated to. You have to think about what you put out there. Ask yourself, "Can I fathom playing this again?" [Laughs.] Across my 15 albums, there are things I would have problems playing again because I wasn't satisfied when I did them, and there are others I'm happy with. The main thing is I'm an individual who just wants to move forward and play what I hear in my head. I don't want to be hindered by someone telling me something is not commercial enough. An artist should do what he or she feels is right and substantive.

AAJ: You've also described creativity as a matter of life and death. Elaborate on that.

BG: In order to be great at what you do, it is a matter of life and death. It's a case of you almost having to do what you do, in that you can't really live unless you do it. If you don't do it, you're unhappy with yourself and this unproductive state you're in, and in a way that's a sort of death. I don't mean it literally, but it's about having a need to express yourself that is so urgent. You're saying to yourself, "I've got to do this thing. It possesses me so much that it never leaves me. It's with me all the time." I'm talking about musicians who are thinking about phrases all day and night. They can't sleep because they're thinking about them. And when they're asleep, they wake up practicing without the instrument. They're mentally practicing and it becomes part of their living process. So all of this is a metaphor for the idea of life and death.

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