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A Fireside Chat With Miroslav Vitous

By Published: October 10, 2003

I found out when I was at the New England Conservatory, we couldn’t even have a mandatory piano. It was a joke. I said, “You are kidding. This is twenty-five years later and the school I was going to in the middle of Communism had a piano.” This was unbelievable. Also, this was very interesting. The money in the schools overpowers the principles of the purpose.

I was the chairman at the New England Conservatory and what happened was, a student didn’t show up for the lesson and he told that the teacher didn’t show up. So I was the chairman and had to go to the president to speak for the teacher and said, “Listen, this is not true. The student didn’t show up. He just didn’t want to tell the truth because he doesn’t want to get spanked by his father.” The president says, “I believe that, but unfortunately, I have to go with the student because they are paying the money.”

I looked at him and I said, “You cannot discourage the teacher in such a way.” There is no respect from the student to the teacher. The whole principle is turned upside down. The next year, that happened to me. My student didn’t show up for three lessons and he said that I didn’t come. At that point, I said, “It happened to me and if you don’t believe me, I quit.” And I quit.

That was really so upsetting when you are trying to pass on some very serious knowledge and be basically, treated worse than a student coming off the street because his father pays the tuition. Come on. Give me a break. This is no school. This is a joke.

FJ: It is an epidemic of the times. Students lack the reverence for their teachers.

MV: Yes, I was very disappointed to find that out. Being victimized by this myself, I could not believe that this was possible. I found out that in the States, a lot of teachers are people that couldn’t make it in their own line of work and so they go teaching, unfortunately. Over there, that was not the case. They taught us because they wanted to pass the knowledge on and educate young musicians. It was not because they had to teach because they failed as musicians. There is a huge difference in the reasons why someone is teaching and what they can offer and what they cannot offer.

FJ: Your latest for ECM ( Universal Syncopation ) reminded me of Infinite Search.

MV: Right. I would say about Infinite Search, it was basically the top of modern jazz with European influences at that time, 1968, ’69. It was extremely advanced because the concept was modern. The main thing that those two albums have in common aside from my music, which of course, a sense of it, you can recognize, it is that the bass on Infinite Search was playing much, much less like a bass. It was playing more on an equal level to the other instruments. We had more of a conversation than a bassist keeping a role in the rhythm section. That was very advanced at that time.

I just continued this concept because, partly, bass players at the beginning of jazz could not play their instrument. Most of the bass players used to be ex-trombone players and they just picked the bass because there was no bassist around. So the whole basis for jazz music is based on the fact that the bassist could not play his instrument.

Isn’t that funny? That is what happened. So our ears got used to listening to jazz in the place that it was that the bassist could not play. No one really realized it and really addressed it until the bass players who could play their instrument came along and started doing something with it.

So I am one of those bass players who can do something and musically, it was back then and now it is even more, if you noticed on the new album, I am not playing all the time anymore. I am playing a phrase and Garbarek answers me or Corea comes in and answers both of us, then I say something or Garbarek says something. It is a constant conversation.

There is no roles. No one is keeping any roles. The drummer is also answering everybody and everything. So it is a constant conversation and communication between musicians on an extremely high level with extremely valuable material, motifs, and melodies.

It was magic because, in my own opinion, this is the best I have ever heard Garbarek play, on my new album. The music and the whole setting has brought this out of him. This is the best I have ever heard him play and I was completely knocked out the way he executed all my motifs and all my lines. His mother or his father was Polish and I am from Czechoslovakia, which is something they call Slavic. The Slavic part of him has a feeling for the Slavic part of the music and he perfectly understands and feels my melodic and harmonic roots.

I am a Slavic musician and it is deeply inside of me. I consider him to be like my musical brother. Anyone who comes close is him at this point.

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