George Brooks: Global Conversations
AAJ: How did you first encounter Riley?
GB: My first encounter with Terry was in 1979. I had just come out to California and got a gig playing at Pasand, a defunct South Indian restaurant in Berkeley. They paid me $15 a night and all I could eat [laughs]. I was playing with Lisa Moskow, a sarod player and student of Ali Akbar Khan, and Tor Dietrich, a tabla player who used to play with the Diga Rhythm Band. One day, Terry came into the restaurant to eat and left a huge $5 tip, which was mind-blowing [laughs]. That was the first connection. My wife Emily was also a student at Mills College, where she was studying with Terry and Pandit Pran Nath. Emily is a trained musician and composer who works more as a theater producer and writer today.
We went to India in 1980 and stayed in New Delhi, studying with a student of Guruji. One day, Guruji came over and we connected right away on a number of levels. He had a heart attack in 1979 and was just recovering, so he was quite fragile and needed certain food cooked for him. I cook well, so I became his cook. And before going into music, I was pre-med and worked for several years with a pediatric cardiologist, so I knew a bit about medicine and cardiac issues. So, I was kind of like his baby doctor [laughs]. I'm also a good masseur and he liked my massages. I can also sit quietly. All of that combined to make a guru very happy. We became friendly very quickly. We were in India, so there wasn't a lot of rigmarole around him like there was when he was here in the States.
Terry came to India to visit Guruji in 1980, which he did regularly. That's where I really got to know him. We stayed there for a year and then Terry went back to California. When I came back, we started doing a little bit of playing. We hung out and I did some traveling with Guruji, Terry and Lamonte Young as their cook. I would take care of things in general, as well as study. By the mid-'80s, Terry began inviting me to play more frequently. We started touring together in a trio with Krishna Bhatt. He took me very early on to Italy for a week and it was a heavenly thing. I learned a lot about intuitive playing from Terry, including how to listen to somebody's thoughts on stage and what's involved in responding to that. He was and still is a big influence on me.
AAJ: At what point did you first become fascinated by Indian music?
GB: It pretty much took a huge hold as soon as I heard it. The first Indian music I heard was probably when I was in high school, on George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh (Capitol, 1971) record, but I didn't get it at the time. I didn't hear it again until I was a student at the New England Conservatory of music, where I encountered a sitar-playing professor named Peter Rowe. He was a student of Nikhil Banerjee's and had just come back from living in India for six years. He was an American guy, but very Indianized. He was married to an Indian woman and came to school wearing a shawl and smoking Beedies.
During this period, around 1976, I took Peter's course, which offered a survey of Indian musicjust on a whim. It was like fireworks going off in my head. I'd go to the listening library and put on Ali Akbar Khan, the Dagar Brothers, and Hariprasad Chaurasia, and it blew my mind the same way John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley were blowing my mind. That's when I started to say "How can I play 'Rag Yaman' on saxophone?" That same year I met my wife, who came floating through Boston. She then floated out to California and ended up at Mills College, where Terry Riley and Pandit Pran Nath were. She said, "You have to come out to California. It's amazing." The rest, as they say, is history.
AAJ: Have you ever had to deal with the vibe of people perceiving you as a "Caucasian interloper" in a sacred set of musical traditions?
GB: I've never experienced that in India, ever, but I have wondered if there might some perception in the States of the idea of "cultural expropriation." I play this music because of the way it has touched my soul and because of the relationships I have been fortunate to develop with so many extraordinary Indian musicians. These musicians have been my guides and mentors and have encouraged my work. I don't know what would be a more culturally appropriate music for me. Would I be genuine if I was playing Klezmer music or bebop or '60s swing music like Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis? When became serious about playing saxophone in 1976, I started hearing Indian music and it intrigued me.
I tried to figure out how to play ragas in the same way I was trying to figure out how to play jazz. "What was Charlie Parker doing?" and "What is Hariprasad Chaurasia doing?" were questions I pondered. All of it was pretty unknown to me, but there were things in both realms that drew me to them. My involvement in Indian music came through my relationships with Indian musicians. As I mentioned, I was incredibly dear friends with Krishna Bhatt. He was an important teacher and a key reason for why I play Indian music. I would sit with him, hang out and drive up to Terry Riley's place and get high together. Whatever we did musically was part of our friendship. My other deep relationship was with Pandit Pran Nath. We had a deep, real relationship. I never thought "Oh man, I can take this form of music and turn it into something that will give me a career." That was never anything I anticipated.
Oddly, I have some ability to travel around the world and perform because of my relationship with Indian music. India is the country where I receive the most appreciation for what I've done. If I play something in the States based on "Raag Charukeshi," nobody knows what that means. If I do it over there on saxophone, even when I'm just practicing, someone understands it. I was doing a gig in India once and was warming up backstage. A Rajasthani Qawwali singer came into the room and just started singing with me. It blew his mind to hear an instrument he wasn't particularly familiar with playing a scale he was very familiar with. So, over there, unless something is going on behind my back, I have genuinely received a lot of positive feedback on what I do. I've endeavored to write music that is attractive and interesting for an Indian musician to play. So, it makes sense to me that a lot of Indian musicians have learned pieces of mine. I hope that I have helped to increase the flow of information and interaction between Indian classical musicians and Western improvisers.