Ran Blake: From Music to Film and Back
AAJ: Tell me some more of what you want people to know about the Contemporary Improvisation department at the New England Conservatory? RB: Well, of course some of our faculty like Dominique Eade, and Scott Sandvik and all that; that ear training is a component that really maybe it’s easier to say you wouldn’t choose it if you wanted big band, I mean you could--- but your options are more limited—for style design. But [in contemporary improvisation]there is still a repertoire that one would learn of the past and you would learn that you are really out to be an individual that still wants to not be 100% isolated ---with some interest in the history of the music and using the past to refurbish the present . You would learn to certainly be adaptable to do other gigs that pass along---but to really have goals to not just to try and be totally original but you really are or not, but that you have brought independence and occasionally the that you will have curiosity in other people and their career. We want some unselfishness altruism too.
AAJ: I read some interview many years ago from the pianist Bill Evans where he was talking about the Lenox School [ editor's note: The Lenox school of Jazz was a famous summer program that sought to nurture growing musicians through intensive studying, composing and performance located in Lenox, Massachusetts]which you participated in. He was saying that he found a majority of his private students were very adamant about making sure they sounded only like themselves. Originality in creative style was very seemed very important there, why was that?
RB: That might be, one shouldn’t brag, I would say, [but] that can be really over done. I’m really glad you brought that up Matana. You shouldn’t be thinking about that all the time. I think that too much that’s why it’s [school is] a pharmacy--- that has to be integrated with some wealth of the history and not just only hearing who ever. I mean you and I have talked about rap and hip hop, what's the best of it and then that there's also Charles Ives and Duke Ellington, so that you gotta pick your models. At first you have a teacher and some interest in really having a mentor, not just changing every semester – really someone to guide you. A teacher who will not impose his or her world only on you not a Svengali or Dr. Mabuse [ reference to one of Ran’s favorite Noir movies by director Fritz Lang ]and that you really have a chance. The first few weeks you probably should be a little of what the teachers want and you really develop your models for the ages, mostly musical or philosophers, but for me film directors; You’ve got to have a sense of proportion.
AAJ: So in the Contemporary Improvisation department what you are trying to do is mold balanced artists.
RB: And caring for another person and perhaps not just trying to get a cd out of your own every week I mean—we want people to stay in love with what we do but we also want to be there for other people. Develop your own healthy ego so you see it's that ego--- but a care for others, your own style---but a care for history and what your peers are doing; You have to master oscillating it and eventually ( I got this from a yoga manual—by doing yin and yang—)you develop some kind of sense of proportion. That word proportion I studied [about it] with Albert Murray—do you know that name? Once and a while Wynton [Marsalis] has his arrogant moments you know but I can also say nice things about Wynton, but Albert Murray—I wasn’t a private student of his but I studied history with him for a week at the Smithsonian and that was years ago and I never forgot some words. And also Willis Laurence James was influential; That Lenox School of Jazz was fabulous. It was there that George Russell, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, Oscar Peterson, the owner Stephanie Barber; it was just a great.
AAJ: Who were some of your peer students there?
RB: I remember the teachers so much more; but of course one peer student was Ornette Coleman , one was Colin Cook a drummer from Bermuda, one was Ron Brown, one was [Edward] "Dizzy Sal" [Saldahna] from Kuwait, India a trumpet player, there many and one was Margo Guryan, one was Cevira Rose from upper east side--- that 96th street where you have a touch of East Harlem and a touch of faded Park avenue--- the people that wanted to still keep a sense of the old Park avenue but who wanted to share things with the neighbors and the new and it was just a beautiful blend—I used to have a key to an apartment—I’ll keep on for 10 hours--- the memories of New York...
AAJ: Did you have to apply to it or were you selected?
RB: You applied and I went down to New York City to audition for John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
RB: And John said – he gave me a "kick" and said “you’d better take some medicine with Ray Brown" and then he said "I played unlike anybody." I spent a lot of my life trying to conform and do skill building--- I don’t want to just sound like my element that’s why Hankus [Netsky] became my teacher even though he says he learned from me and he studied with me but I want to know other traditions.