Matthew Shipp: Shipp Shape
Shipp turned to his core community at home in Delaware to address the task of contacting potential presenters in North America where one of his oldest friends, Scott Davidson is a percussionist with the usual mixed array of homemade skills that everyone at this level acquires.
"There is no pattern or common template used to book Matthew Shipp and his trio, says Davidson. "It all depends on a number of factors. There are some difficult cities where, for example, people from the suburbs do not come into the city, and the city is usually where the venues are. Some areas, like most of Florida, seem only to want smooth jazz, and Matt is far from that. Some cities Matt plays regularly, like Philadelphia, are where he gets a good crowd no matter if it is the trio or a solo piano concert. Universities can pay a lot of money, but sometimes not so much. It all depends on their budget, and one never knows if it is large or small.
"There is no one formula. My style is to be polite, straightforward, and honest, all the while trying to get as much money for the musicians as I can. Presenters can smell show business bullshit as soon as they answer the phone, and really don't have time for a sales presentation. Most venues that present jazz know who Matt is anyway, but the ones who don't I usually direct to the website, and talk up a little. I send out hundreds of emails, and make phone calls, and spend a lot of time researching venues on the web, and this work pays off.
"I met Matt when we were teenagers, and we both were studying with Boysie Lowery, who taught Clifford Brown and jazz vibes player Lem Winchester. I was a drummer. We had our lesson back-to-back and then, after both of our lessons, we would all three play together. I remember we played "Joy Spring," by Clifford Brown. Boysie was an amazing teacher, and anyone who wanted to play jazz in Wilmington, DE would seek him out.
"So, when I was 20 (I am 55 now), I went to India to study tabla, the drums used in North Indian classical music. I had been a fan of Indian music since I was about 12, because my half brother gave me some Ravi Shankar records at that time. I was also interested in Persian classical music, gamelan, African, and many other kinds of what is now called 'world music.' I played some Indian music records for Matt, and he was really into it. I was also studying a lot of odd time signatures in many different kinds of music, and sometimes I wonder if his listening to Indian music is why sometimes, especially in his piano solo work, I hear many patterns in rhythms of five, seven nine, etc. I really don't know, and don't want to be simplistic about analyzing his music.
"What do I do? I am a musician specializing in hand drumming from around the world. I play in concerts, in pizza joints, do workshops in universities and Day of Percussion events for local Percussive Arts Society chapters, etc. I have a trio, with me on Middle-Eastern percussion, an oud player, and an oboe/English Horn player; a trio with a guitarist and saxophonist (we play Afro-Pop, funk, bossa nova, and other music from around the world); and I get hired by churches to play during their services.
"I have a mail order business called Percussionmusic.com, and I sell percussion instructional materials, (books, DVDs, CDs, sheet music)," Davidson concludes. "I used to run an entertainment agency, used to book music in a hall in Arden, DE, and am a musician; so those are reasons why Matt had me be his agent. We also have been friends for over 30 years, so we both have a mutual trust and respect for each other."
Venues Near and Far
Stuart Kestenbaum is among the varied and yet distinct array of people who have been involved in preparing some kind of performance event with Matthew Shipp. He combines his work as Director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts with his avocation as a poet in one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful settings anywhere, Deer Isle on Penobscot Bay, Maine.
"Matt's residency was a collaboration with Opera House Arts in Stonington as part its jazz festival," Kestenbaum says. "Each summer, Haystack invites one of the jazz musicians to be in residence during one of our two weeks. This provides an opportunity for our workshop participants and faculty to attend the concert, too. Our goal in having jazz musicians (and other visiting artists) is to create opportunities for people to experience varied approaches to the creative process. Musicians can experience how we work with craft materials, and we get to experience improvisation and rhythm in new ways.
"In addition to having afternoon discussions about jazz, Matt also gave a public talk and played music for our school community and island residents too. It provides a less formal environment than a concert. One highlight of his residency was the time he spent with the drawing workshop that session. His style of improvisation, and the improvisational drawing that the workshop undertook, was a wonderful match.
"From June through early September, Haystack offers intensive workshops for participants from throughout the US and abroad (last year we had students and teachers from 43 states and 17 countries). Our retreat setting provides an ideal location for an uninterrupted time to work. Students have to be at least 18 for these programs, and our oldest student this year is 89. They range in experience from beginners to advanced professionals. In addition to workshops in specific craft disciplines, we have increasingly become involved with more interdisciplinary work, through conferences and visiting artists.
"We offer programs of the same quality to our own community as well," says Kestenbaum, "including a three-day intensive residency for high school students from Deer Isle and the Blue Hill Peninsula, a mentor program for high school kids in the winter, and community-based residencies (most recently one with MacArthur award-winning choreographer Liz Lerman). Central to all our programs are investigating materials and creative process. We don't have a set curriculumwe want to encourage an open-ended exploration."
Max Micheliov provides a lucid summary of how a cottage scale music scene works in Vilnius, Lithuania, a metropolitan area roughly the size of Portland, Oregon. His discovery of Shipp's work began in a small retail record shop, Thelonious.
"It's difficult to say what year exactly it happened but our acquaintance started through Matt's recordings from '90s," says Micheliov. "Here and on I am going to refer to 'we' and 'us,' because my personal path into a music world of Mr. Shipp can't be separated from that of friends and colleagues, Valerij Anosov and Danas Mikailionis (music store Thelonious, No Business Records). At that time, Thelonious was my major supply of recorded music; also all three of us would meet up, listen and discuss the music quite regularly."
"Magnetism (Bleuregard, 1999), by Matthew Shipp, Rob Brown and William Parker, was among the first CDs I'd heard. Other brilliant works that instantly grabbed our attention and established Matthew Shipp among the most exciting modern pianists were his solo CD Symbol Systems (No More, 1995) and a trio with William Parker and Whit Dickey, Prism (HatHut, 2000). Also, duos with Joe Morris and Mat Maneri, released by hatOLOGY, were great, of course.
"One of my favorites is In Finland (Cadence, 2005), with Joe McPhee and Dominic Duval; that come out a bit later. It is interesting to mention that Matthew Shipp has become relatively known even outside a small circle of free improv fans. By 2004-05 he gained an unofficial status of "avant-garde star" after his recordings Nu Bop (Thirsty Ear, 2002), Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear, 2003) and Spring Heel Jack with Matthew Shipp (Thirsty Ear, 2003) were pirated," Micheliov asserts.
Thus, through basic supply chain failures, the first wave of recordings encountered over in Micheliov's corner of the old country were old-style physical bootlegs.
"Our first acquaintance with Matthew and William Parker happened through a New York jazz photographer, Peter Gannushkin." Micheliov explains. "Matthew has been our guest on two occasions; in 2005, he visited Vilnius for a duo performance with William Parker and, two years later, together with David S. Ware's quartet.
"The audiencesI would say the 'audience,' because we see the same faces on all concerts of free improvised musicconsists of mostly middle-aged people with a few exceptions. Some of the older concertgoers belong to a cohort of dedicated music fans and collectors, whose acquaintance with jazz music started long before the fall of the 'iron curtain.' Young faces are typically students of musical faculties.
"This is due to the fact that this music was little available and known during the Soviet times. For the first time, jazz outside a limited list of iconic names received a massive exposure to our audience in '90s, when the pirate CD market was thriving. This discovery aspect provoked a wave of interest that has declined since then due to market saturation.
"Even the example of Matthew's two appearances in Vilnius illustrates this general tendency. In 2005 the duo concert with William Parker still carried a strong aspect of novelty. That time it could be considered a very special event on the city concert map, and had the biggest attendance ever in our practice. I think we sold well over 200 tickets and had about 500 people in Vilnius Philharmonic.
"However, two years later, the David S Ware Quartet sold only 100 tickets, despite the event being well-advertised; we had three-meter tall posters in many city spots, and some print ads in major newspapers.
"This is how our vision of bringing up own audience was ruined, Micheliov concludes. "It never happened. Instead we have observed a decline of public interest, selling less tickets, show-after-show. The numbers have since stabilized, with about 100 sold tickets as top limit for us; though with guests and friends (if you want to do concerts you should have a lot of friends) we often have 200 people in the room."
The production team availed itself of whatever shoe string options were at hand and, in some ways, was more enthusiastic and imaginative than its counterparts I've observed, here in Boston. Nonetheless, there is generally a substantial effort input needed to obtain a modest output.
"We've tried various advertising schemes including large print posters on announcement posts in town center, banners stretched over the roads, articles in newspapers and online, of course email newsletters," says Micheliov. "We also explored advertising packages on television. Major TV channels offer massive discounts to cultural events. However, such discount packages still exceed our concert budget by several times.
Efforts to attain some sort of cooperative block-booking with other regional presenters have rarely yielded useful results.
"Speaking of collaboration," Micheliov says, "we have been interested in establishing local partnerships with other organizations and individuals. With very few exceptions, this has never worked. Schemes of collaboration seem to be more straightforward in a moneymaking project. But in a situation when neither party is going to benefit and there's a big chance that some funds will be lost, partnership is only possible between some truly likeminded individuals. Unfortunately, we do not have such close spiritual brothers locally.
"On a regional level, the idea has little potential for a bit different reason," Micheliov concludes. "Our concert life is too fragmented and irregular; available funds are barely sufficient for an event. Some sponsorship funds can be found at the very last moment. That's why nobody can afford and are willing to take additional risks of negotiating more events than they can manage directly."
Thus, we see a counterpart situation to status quo in the homeland. Oddly, Vilnius still is doing better audience numbers than Boston. And, as a silver lining in the attendance problem for the David S. Ware show, the recording became one of the best sellers in the No Business release roster.