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A Conversation Between William Hooker & Ras Moshe

By Published: March 11, 2003

...there are people all in one camp, and many of these people get looked over because they're not the hangout type... They're not chasing every day, trying to figure out how to get interviews in magazines, because basically many of them have day jobs. They're just not trying to be on the scene to have arguments with people about aesthetics. —William Hooker

William Hooker is a spirit drummer who has shared his energy with musicians from Billy Bang, David Murray and David S. Ware to DJ Spooky and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. He has been given the opportunity to hone the minds and souls of children by teaching social studies and literacy with components of choral and vocal music at the Walt Whitman Middle School in Brooklyn. A component of his curriculum is inviting speakers to his classes including musicians Richard Keene, Lewis Barnes, Mark Hennen, Tor Snyder, architect Leslie Neblit and reknowned writer Denize Lauture. Downtown saxophonist Ras Moshe was one of the invitees and what follows is an excerpt of a taped discussion the two had.

William Hooker: To the youth, hopefully they'll be able to take it in their own direction, interpret it in their own way in their own mind, and be able to think for themselves about what we've said today, about what we play today, about how we're perceived, and especially myself, and how I'm perceived as a teacher. But I guess every time I sit down at the drums with a special guest, like Ros today, their perception of me changes as well. Here's Ras talking about how he thought today went.

Ras Moshe: It went pretty good, because I asked each class that I worked with with you, what kind of music they liked, and it was predominantly hip-hop. They come from a generation where things are more visual, musically. Regardless of that, the enthusiasm was still there, even though they might not have been exposed to that much creative music, like previous generations of young people. It was there, just somebody has to make it more prominent for them to know about the music. Because it's there, they want to know. Based on what they were saying, they know more than people think they do. They might be put in certain kinds of classifications, 'This kid is this, this kid is that,' but the natural intelligence is there. The playfulness is there, too. They get distracted, but on the whole, they're searching, and it's even more important now, with the way things are going musically.

WH: Bringing things up to today, and to the music, and what it takes to play this music, and generally what it takes to be a creative person and keep going. I mean, myself, I know that I've-me and Ros actually go back quite a ways, when I think about it. I've seen Ros at Columbia, and a lot of times when I got ready to play a lot of times he would be there. I remember that time when I was driving down 7th Avenue, and I say you going down to a gig, and I just pulled over, and I said, "Ros, where you going?" And you were coming to my gig that night.

RM: I met you in Wise's bookstore, too, 'cause I used to work there. And you came in there once, but I think you were in a hurry, because I tried to ask you a musical question, but I think you were with somebody. (Laughs.) I think that was on 27th Street, 28th Street. But I had seen you before that, even back in the 80s.

WH: I was probably with Donna, my wife, and that used to be one of our most frequent haunts. We would go, and, really, it was almost as if you'd go into Wise's you'd get a full meal. Or else you go into Theosophical Bookstore, up on 53rd I think it is, 52nd. Yeah, you get a full meal in all these places. Matter of fact, I remember going in there and getting a lot of books by this guy named Manley Hall. Definitely, there were a couple of books he wrote about tone in music, which I thought were pretty interesting too. Let me ask you a question. How do you feel about playing with some people now that you've seen perform in the past, and some of the newer people? How do you feel, in terms of someone who's bridging the gap between some people you've known for a while and you know have been out there for a while, like your most recent record. You're with Lou Grossi [sp?] And who else is on it? .... As well as the fact that I saw you play with Jackson Crowell [sp?], with Marco Neady [sp?], I saw you play with a lot of different people. Basically we're talking about playing with two different generations. How do you feel about that, and what do you feel is the potential for this kind of thing to happen? Where do you honestly see it at right now?

RM: Things get better. It's like two things happening at once, especially if you're a creator of jazz. There's the certain kinds of issues that get to us I bet you already know about. Combined with that, the exposure increases a little more too, because I've noticed there's a lot more younger people taking an interest in post-Charles Parker music. The ironic thing about that is sometimes they might not always know about Bird. But at least the enthusiasm and the urge to express yourself musically is valid, and hopefully they will learn about the music that came before, as well. I don't believe that you have to play it, because I believe that the so-called avant-garde is a very important form of music. And amongst a lot of the younger people, some know about so-called bebop and some don't. But I believe that you have at least know about it, in order to not play it, to play yourself. That should be the guideline of how you know your instrument, but I don't believe that you have to play what Bird played, because the bebop musicians, I don't believe they were concerned with being mainstream, or they were saying, 'Let's play something inside today.' I think they were playing what was being played in that time. The music changes, just like it changed from King Oliver and Coleman Hawkins and Red Allen. There's a swing versus bebop thing that happened, too. A lot of people talk about bebop versus the avant-garde, but there was a heavy swing versus bop thing, too, even though bop was utilized in swing. So it's getting better, it's good to see a lot of young people take interest in people like Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh and Cecil Taylor, and Jimmy Lyons [sp?] and all these kinds of people. That's good.

WH: The only thing that I can't really rationalize, as a person whose been out here playing for a while, trying to make my own way, in a lot of different situations, is the fact that a lot of people want to play the music, but when I put them in a situation where they come up to the studio and they begin to play, or they come into a gig, and I'll just extend my hand and say, 'Come on up and do whatever you do.' They always seem sort of timid about the fact that the music is not theirs. It's as if I'm giving them a portion of something that is mind, which I disown completely. Because it's not about me, it's not about them. I find this whole personality thing kind of interesting in a sense because a lot of that personality stuff is based on the fact of who can almost make it, and who is going to ultimately have a harder way of making it. And that changes people's attitudes about where they want to be, who they want to hang around with, where they put their energies in a sense. So one of the only things that I can say is, I'm really hoping that a lot of young cats, they start to see that it's about shedding as much as possible. It's definitely about shedding as much as possible. Because myself, when I was doing what I had to do, I was playing a lot. I was really playing a lot, I gotta admit.

And that's one thing I see a lot of people can't do now, in terms of the ability to go on the scene and play, even though I haven't been to some of the places that say they have open sessions and stuff, but that, combined with the fact that in New York City, everybody has to worry about how to survive and make money. So you get this whole thing about people who don't even know how to play, and they'll get up in your face and start talking about how much you're going to pay them. Half of them don't even know how to play. (laughs) It's true! It's true! It's like, here I am at my job, right, Ros, I'm at my job today, so when I go to play, I'll go down to a place and I'll say, alright, tonight I'm going to have a good payday, and tomorrow I'm just going and playing. I'm playing for the music, whatever it is. If you think I'm going to drag a drum set around, you're not going to get a cab with all this nonsense.

But the point is, some of these cats, they just get there, and the next thing you know, you're talking to them like employer to union person or something. I don't know how it works. So in that case, that's the reason why I shy away from a lot of situations that I shy away from, and a lot of people I shy away from. Because I know ultimately, they're going to start asking me these wacky questions that have really nothing to do with how my schedule is, in terms of us being able to go into the studio and play, what kinds of things are out here so that maybe if I got a little bit of a name, I can go out here and get us some gigs or something. Very few people also do that too, because of this whole every man for himself mentality. And a lot of times, we don't even use all the collateral we have given to us, because we're not put in a situation to use it.

I'm just trying to encourage everybody, older cats and younger cats, to be able to play and almost get rid of that particular attitude about things. Because it's definitely perceived, and when things are perceived that way, you really feel strange if you are the quote-unquote leader walking into a place, because you know that you're going in to do something with a club owner, or whatever, and you're trying to make an opportunity for yourself and other cats to play, and then, as soon as you walk out the door and you try to think of who you're going to play with, you know that somebody's going to come up with some wacky question like, 'Am I going to be staying in a Holiday Inn, tonight, or what's my situation? Can I get my per diem money to go and buy myself whatever?' It's crazy! I'm serious. It's literally crazy. And because of that a lot of times I've chosen to go to places and play with local cats, because it's less of a-it's kind of a strain when you take a band out on the road. It's really a strain. Trust me.

RM: With younger musicians, in a way, there seem to be two things happening. And I don't mean every younger musician, because I played with some, very good people, in spirit, too, and musically. But in some, there's a resurgence of interest in the so-called avant-garde, but, sometimes because of their class background, but not always, they understand less and less socially about the music. And I think that's the reason for certain kinds of arrogance, or thinking that they're on the same kind of level as somebody who's been playing for a while. Because the social and cultural understanding of the development of this music is not always hand in hand with the resurgence in appreciation of the later areas of jazz. Not with everybody. I'm not a predictor of how people feel. This is just certain situations I've seen. It takes them time to realize certain things. You can't say this, you can't do that.

I've seen musicians who've been playing the free creative music for a while now, and they are very tolerant with a lot of things that younger musicians do, and older musicians, of course. But I commend their tolerance, because there's a lot that's understood less and less, culturally and socially. I don't mean that in a separatist sense, because I view it as people's music. It's of black origin. I don't have a problem with the word black music, but it's the voice of the people. I commend the tolerance that a lot of older musicians have for a lot of the ridiculousness that's out here. To deal with the factionalism from the 70s, all the way down to dealing with the so-called youth phenomenon. Which is happening even in free music-it's not just happening in the Wynton Marsalis camp. It's easy to think that you have the key, just because the absorption rate is faster.

You can get certain things under your finger at a faster rate, but that doesn't mean that you should be arrogant and think that you're on the level-you can get there, you get there through practice. But to think that it just comes immediately, because of the fast absorption rate, that's not good. You have to have patience, and you have to have respect for people playing this music. I've seen situations with guys who've been playing for a long time, and some younger musicians will just say things that are not, that are disrespectful. This is not the case all the time. I'm not in the habit of talking about musicians or people like that. It's just observations on the music scene.

WH: Do you have a question for me?

RM: Yeah. How do you feel about that? Being involved in the post-Charlie Parker music, there's a resurgence of interest in it. Do you find that things have changed for the better as far as venues to play, for musicians? And is there less factionalism than before, about 'you can't play here,' or something?

WH: It's the same thing. I've seen this happen over and over again. And to an extent, I gotta say, there's something about my going and playing last weekend and getting a standing ovation at CB's, which I thought was pretty interesting, because I've found that I've returned to the basement. I started in the basement, it's almost like I returned to the basement, and I made just about as much money, or less, than when I first walked into the basement. But that's just myself. But that could be because, I've been told this many, many times, Ros, I've been told that when I chose to play music, and I chose to play the kind of brand of music that I play, with the fire, and explaining that I only play my own music, basically, and I don't play as sideman with people, with such-and-such, etc. And hadn't, for my own reasons, I don't know. But at that point, I ruled out, really, making a lot of money. I made a choice. I made a choice, and that's a choice that I have to live with. So because of that, a lot of things that people think, in terms of venues, and having to deal with factionalism, and having to deal with a lot of jealousy, and back-stabbing, and all sorts of craziness that goes on. As well as a lot of the poverty, and the sadness that happens from daily digestion of being around creative people that have as yet been unfulfilled, or are not used to their potential by this society. That breeds a certain sadness in a person, I think.

I've taken it to the point where, when I realized my own choices, then, I stopped asking these questions about what was going on out there, because I realized even though I do have a certain anger when I see people that don't deserve to get as much play as they do, and some people that deserve to get more play. And should be getting more play than they do, because their work is that strong, I being one of them. I'd be the first one to say, I'm one of them. I'm speaking from my own experience about what kinds of sides I've put out in the last five years. What kind of conscience I've had, what kinds of groups are put together in certain situations. What caliber of musicians I've played with, that even know that that caliber of musician is definitely greater than many of those who are out here. People don't recognize them, either. Maybe they're in the wrong camp. You understand what I'm getting at? It's not like I look at it only what has happened to me. But I look at it, there are people all in one camp, and many of these people get looked over because they're not the hangout type. They're not there at the middle of the night when the club closes up. They're not chasing every day, trying to figure out how to get interviews in magazines, because basically many of them have day jobs. They're just not trying to be on the scene to have arguments with people about aesthetics.

What they're trying to do is just play the music as honestly as they can, be providers for their families, and have a life. I have a life. I have a very good life. I feel really good. I just told you, I'm going to San Francisco for Christmas, I feel good about that. If I can get a gig, that's all well and good, that makes it even sweeter. But if I don't, I know I have a life, I have a family. I'm trying to go and just enjoy my family and the peace that is in family. That means a lot to me. It really does. Sometimes, as an artist, you have to sacrifice one or the other, being out on the road all the time. Right now, there's a lot of things I won't accept. There could be a lot of different places for people to play. But I'll tell you, I'm too old to be sleeping on people's floors and sleeping on people's couches. So, because of that, certain things have to be correct, or otherwise I can't go to Canada, I can't go to France. I can't go to Holland. Because I'm going to go there, I'm going to get a certain amount, hopefully, I'm going to get the plane fare paid for, and I'm not going to live in some hole, getting prepared to go the next gig. I'm just not taking it like that.

RM: What you just said, I understand that... Max Roach mentioned sometime that there's a bias against drummers, as far as having musical ideas, and leading a group, and playing the drummer's music, a lot of people are apprehensive about that. Is that a stereotype, or do you find that is an old problem, or a new problem? Because as much as people say they love jazz, sometimes the drums are still stereotyped. People like yourself, Andrew Serrill [sp?], and other people have their own ideas, just like any other instrument. Do you find that's still a problem?

WH: Definitely a problem. In terms of being able to lead a group in a legitimate festival, or college situation, or arts situation, and get the kind of pay for the group that is supposed to be, so that I as a leader can give the other people in the group what they're supposed to get. Along with the icing on top of the cake, like a nice place to stay, like good food, like somebody that's going to take you around, to show you you're just not a stranger in a strange land. People that make you feel comfortable, what you're doing, so that your life is just a little more livable. Yes, there is definitely a prejudice against that, there has always been, and much of that prejudice I gotta say has been instrumented by the musicians themselves. Because they've gotten into that certain groove, where we have been forced to get certain gigs based on this whole quartet or quintet situation, which has to have the quote-unquote leader up here, in such and such, and it keeps on going down, and the drummer seems to be the one on the bottom. That's so for great drummers, and you've named them.

Even separate from music, I've noticed this in a lot of different things. I've noticed this in architecture, I've noticed this in painting, I've noticed this in dance. You should see what happens when I take Makiko and Mark Hennon to a place and they just look like, 'what is going on? William, what are you doing?' What do you mean what am I doing, I'm expressing myself, and it just so happens that, it's something that Ornette Coleman said to me. I happened to meet him on the subway one day, and we talked all the way up to 50th Street, and he said to me, 'William, the problem is, you play ideas. You don't play tunes.' (laughs) This deals with something that is even beyond drums, saxophone, bass, piano, whatever. This is beyond the fake book, whatever. This gets into, what is the idea for the day? So if I say something like, 'This piece is entitled "The Continuity of Unfoldment,"' what do I mean by that? That could take a lot of different twists and turns. A lot of different things one can put in there. Different nuances, different artistic expressions a person can use, when a person says something like, 'This is entitled "The Continuity of Unfoldment."' The door's open to anything, basically.... So when a person says you play ideas, you don't play tunes, I think you understand what he meant by that.

RM: That you're playing what you have to say. Because it is easier sometimes. Someone once asked me to do a concert playing "A Love Supreme," and I didn't do it because I said number one, how could I? That was his spiritual statement about his-John Coltrane's-life changing for himself, and his personal vision. You can play the notes on the horn, but that's personal music. I mean, I listen to it, I listen to Trane almost every day, and Pharaoh and Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. I listen to them constantly, but I didn't, I wanted to play what I had to say, which is coming out of that. Two, people are always picking "A Love Supreme," on top of that. You've got "Meditations," "Cosmic Music," all these beautiful records, you know, and "Reverend King," "Expression," "Offering," "Stellar Region," so there's a lot of other material to play, too.

WH: Yeah, but you got to remember that's one reason why I was just so happy to reuite again with Louis Belogenis, because he went through a certain transition after he played with me for a while, then he went out, due to the configuration of the group, and then he started playing with Rasheed. And in playing with Rasheed he got introduced to Trane's music on a very intimate level, which I could seriously appreciate. A person like Rasheed sharing those kinds of insights with him. I know now he's a different player. He's a much different player, in terms of his sincerity toward those particular pieces. But that's a whole other thing. Because I find that in a lot of different people that I work with, Mark Hennon, speaking about when he studied with Cecil Taylor...

I have a lot of stories, but most recently, man, I feel like I'm just here to ride the crest of the wave out, play the music that I have to play, hopefully get as many good gigs as I can possibly get. And I'm not thinking about the entire situation of music in general. I'm thinking about my own history, and how much my contribution has been to the entire vocabulary. And so therefore I think that at this point, I should be getting things that should be just due. Because I've played a lot of music, ain't no doubt about it. And so I just naturally look at arts centers and things like that, things that happen on a really strong high level, to be able to do music in, and by the same token, I look at all those idiosyncratic projects, too, because I see those as breaking into other crowds, even though many of them may not be musically based as high a standard as if I played with true quote-unquote hardcore musicians. Many of those situations are opening up, so that colleges can be investigated, new cities can be investigated. I can meet new people, I can get free tickets to be able to go someplace and travel to see the great art of the world and stuff like that. That's another thing about it. I just love creative life, art, etc, etc. I don't know. You finish it off, what you think. Where do you think we're going with our efforts?

RM: Creative life, I think that the creative life and creative music will never stop. The only catch is, what you're going to reap materially, in a sense. You have to not be fazed by that. When the money comes, that's nice, but the music will live. The same issues that exist because we're not playing bebop will be there too. But because we're here talking now, and I know people like Albert Ayler and Trane were going to wonder if their creations were going to last. And I think that they would be happy, and there's people all around the world playing this message of free music right now, too. And young people from different parts of the country, it's changing their life, it's changing them around from a lot of the things that their parents taught them. The unhip parents, that is. The music is talking about what's happening socially, realistically. It's the true voice of what's going on around you. That's never going to stop. Just don't get discouraged about trying to gain something materially, because that's not what the music is for. In that case, you should develop other aspects of yourself so you can survive. It'd be better to have a day job and keep your music pure, than compromise your music and say you were trying to reach somebody. Thank you.

WH: That's it. That's us.

Photo Credit

Alan Nahigian

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