Lonnie Plaxico: Being Your Own Bird
Electric and acoustic bassist Lonnie Plaxico has been on the jazz scene in New York since 1980. He is on hundreds of recordings with everyone from Art Blakey, Cassandra Wilson, Jack DeJohnette, to Ravi Coltrane. He has 13 CDs as a leader, the latest being Ancestral Devotion (Plaxmusic, 2009). I first played with Lonnie Plaxico in 1999 on some gigs with trombonist Robin Eubanks. Lonnie barely knew me, but he recommended me for a nine-week tour with Cassandra Wilson. I was a member of Plaxico's first band in 2000. Lonnie's music was some of the most challenging I have played to date I remember blocking out weeks and weeks to practice the parts for his West Side Stories (Plaxmusic, 2006) CD. I recently sat down with Plaxico to discuss whatever was on his mind between sets of a performance in New York City.
George Colligan: You are somebody that really thinks in a unique way about everything from music, life, to relationships. We could start off with what you were just talking to me about in terms of the music industry: Where do you think it is, where do you see yourself in it, [and] where do you see everyone else?
Lonnie Plaxico: If you have ten gigs at a festival, you might have a hundred bands trying to get those ten gigs! There's a glut on the market. I don't see myself chasing after that anymore. I will keep working on my music and myself. I'm just gonna let my music speak for itself. I'm just concerned with enjoying life and paying my bills, not chasing after that dream. I did that for ten years as a bandleader and I see the game.
GC: Right. I see it definitely as a game. Some people really thrive on the game aspect of it rather than the music aspect of it. But I've always seen you as a real musician's musician. You really care about the music and you like to do things your way. You like to do it for the right reasons. Have you found that to be difficult in this environment?
LP: I felt like the promoter or a manager or a booking agent is always more concerned with filling seats. So to me, that takes away from the art right there. You have to have something to sell. That selling concept right away compromises our ability to focus on the music.
GC: I hope you haven't completely shut out the idea of working your own band. You are still working on your music, as you've said. I've been over to your house and I know how much of your own compositions you have waiting for the funding to document them. You clearly have no shortage of musical inspiration. Do you see yourself at some point trying to regroup and put something out there? You're still going to do recordings?
LP: I try to release a CD every year. But I'm not just chasing it like I was... It's like a fashion model, everybody tells her how beautiful she is and [how] she should be a model. But if she pursues it, she'll find it's not a matter of just deciding she wants to be a model. The agency and the fashion world [have] to choose her! For musicians, many times musicians will hear, "When are you going to get your own band? When are you going to do your own thing?" I found out that even when you want your own band, it's not really up to you. You can say I have CDs [and] I have my own compositions. I found out it's like... the industry tells you to take a number and to go sit down and wait for your time to have success. And no matter what you do or how hard you work, someone is still controlling what is going to happen with your career. Some people have better ingredients for success or stardom than other people. You can't do anything about that. That's just who they are and who you are. Some people have that certain thing that managers and record companies are going to see as moreI hate to say itbut exploitable...
GC: Well yeah, that's the history of the music business- -exploitation. Some people have described it as modern day sharecropping!
LP: It pretty much is, it's the people controlling it. Like in sports. It's like the NBA draft, only a few people are going to get selected. In that sense, and relating to the music industry, it doesn't really matter how hard you work. Because of this, musicians end up compromising their musical concept in the hopes that it will make it more possible for the powers-that-be to select them as the next jazz star.
GC: I don't see you as somebody who compromises easily. You are somebody that likes to do things your way. And yet when I performed with your band all over Europe and Japan, and even in the United States, where the popular supportthe audience reactionwas undeniably favorable. Why is there a disconnect between the clear interest from the people and changing that into real success in terms of booking your band? Why do you think there is a disconnect there?