Ran Blake: From Music to Film and Back
AAJ: I wanted to talk a little bit about the Contemporary Improvisation department, formerly known as the Third Stream department, at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts that you’ve been involved with since...
RB: Since its inception in '72. Gunther [Schuller] is probably one of the most important people in my life and he defined third stream as a combination [of musics]. The original definition was [a combination of] classical and jazz and then I thought what about making it a verb to "third stream"---why can it not be Joao Gilberto of Brazil mixed in with [Claude] Debussy, French harmony and then somebody might add a Cuban rhythm or a Ugandan rhythmyou can also have bad mixtures like chocolate ice-cream over pasta ---maybe that would be somebody’s idea of a good meal. I got fascinated by the ear and internalization. I had started when I first began to work at [the] conservatory after the year of helping John Wulp, and delivering mail ,and I helped [the] community services [department].[editor's note Ran was first employed at the conservatory as a mailroom employee] which was very unique in '68 , now everyplace has it. I noticed that some musicians began to play deeper if they really owned some of the music and I thought why do people have trouble memorizing? Maybe it's because they’re learning it visually. So I got to be a champion, maybe a little bit to rigid a doctrinaire, [but] I got to be a champion of really investigating the ear and I started to work on the primacy of the ear book a few years later and I suddenly found a young man-[reedist]- Hankus Netskywho [I thought] would be fabulous about bringing his culture into the department. And there were also [vocalist] Dominique Eade, [sitarist] Peter Row from India and Scott Sandvik [from] the [American] delta; then we had Rocky Birigwa from Uganda he had to leave after a while. We had many infusions and at that point young people weren’t in such a hurry to get a cd out so there was time to bring this idea of long term memory into focus and this of course was borrowed from Africa and Asia; I didn’t invent this, but I don’t think many schools developed a curriculum around it at the time.
AAJ: What do you mean borrowed from Africa or Asia?
RB: Well Africa, India, you might not have tape recorders keeping a log and doing it ala “Ran Blake”; they certainly don’t know me there, but grandfather to granddaughter—learned by the oral tradition and even though every generation would add things there would be the general brain idea that would be kept from grandparent to grandchild . The European tradition --- I love Europe there’s a great traditionbut it began to be purely visual there after a while.
AAJ: So the basic tenet of developing the primacy of the ear has to do with what you call long-term melodic memory?
RB: And [long-term] harmonic [memory]. A lot of people have rhythmical pulse but are they melodic? Matana there are some things we can do better than othersnot everybody is gonna be into noir; I don’t want to imprint the “Ran Blake” god forbid I hope they enjoy it a little bit but everybody should graduate with their own story, their own portrait.
AAJ: What’s the difference between long-term harmonic memory and long term melodic memory?
RB: Well long term harmonic? I feel there’s a lot of ways of holding three note chords in the ear like [my composition] Memphis [ Something to Live For, Hatology 527] has a major chord going to another major chord a sixth up and that’s not your Charlie Parker II, V, I [progression][ which doesn’t mean we don’t want Charlie Parker too--- some people like certain guitar players leap to that and they find other people who like it tooit’s a skill that they do. But you’re not meant to hear harmonically. Some people may hear a beat or a bass line more than an upper melody. Long term training whether its harmony or rhythm I mean a couple people call it bullshit now because people are in a hurry but it helps you. There are going to be some things you remember better. That’s why I think the study of film and looking back, not just only being obsessed by yourself but looking back at other people and saying to yourself “how did they grow?” [Having] a whole sense of history the whole thing can broaden not just the musical stuff. This takes a great deal of time but you do find your personality because after a while your teacher doesn’t say " I want you to do these eight things this week" [because] you began to pick your repertoire whether its Chris Connor, Roscoe Mitchell, Billie Holiday, [or Bela] Bartok. The whole field really has not been explored in classical music and of course conductors will need scores. But a lot of people like Gunther [Schuller] can look at a score and can hear it. I mean there's some people, some people don’t need this, but it is a way once you get pass that early stage, it really is a wonderful way of maturing and it does take time and it means if you are doing five gigs a week or somebody’s wedding you might have to slow down; I mean it seems not to be terribly relevant to some people now. It sounds grandiose but I really want the department to persevere.
AAJ: It will.
RB: I really hope so. I hope we can get enough funding and I hope there will be a small group that will really put aside their career for a year and really find out the glories of the ear and how one’s universe, ones vision, and also ones discipline, [how] it can all meld and you can [then] do something beautiful [even if] you may have a failure on the way.
AAJ: Its pretty intensive what you do with some of your students I’ve spoken with one of your former students who said that they had the hardest time learning some of your melodies, particularly more ethnic sounding melodies for instance like your tune Greek inspired composition about your time in Greece during the military coup in 1967 Vradiazi.
RB: Because that was an alien culture. It does take a little time to hear the melodies through the week – to mold yourself. But once you do you will have found great freedom.
AAJ: You also make your students take a personal inventory of what they like about music, you even make them make an inventory of the records and compact discs they own. What's so important about self inventory?
RB: Well I think first of all I want to know if you’ve heard the record once or twice because I didn’t like Art Ensemble from Chicago the first time I put them on, but now –they’re not my inner body—but now I have such respect for them but it doesn’t take away my love for Chris Connor. I think that inventory, if you can, its really your playing repertoire, your inventory of what you’re listening to, the ability of your ear, your timbre,[albeit] this is not a substitute for getting to your instrument and then your vision of life-those are the components [of it] really. So a cd thing, it doesn’t mean if you’re not hearing Bach or you don’t want to hear Miriam Makeba or if you don’t want to hear Abbey Lincoln-you should—but you really have to hear the ten or fifteen things that mean the most [to you], perhaps some that you’re learning the repertoire, some that will build up Matana, or [jazz guitarist] Nate Radley or [world music violinist] Claude Chalhoub. Or what was Dominique [Eade's] listening collection? And also three or four things that you get to know that you may not use, like some great Dial records of Charlie Parker, and I’m not bebop Matana but I know its great, and also the world of George Russell—because life is busy--- if you are trying to hear five hundred records and all the new things that come out--- so many things come out that I forget what's on track one or two or three—you really want to know one thing well, and for me, personally for me nothing gives me pleasure as much as the singers.
AAJ: You’re pretty legendary for seeing as much live music as possible. You even came to my solo set in Boston a few weeks ago after a full day of teaching!
RB: Well I gotta slow down a little bit because it doesn’t always help my teaching the day after, it seems as if Hankus [Netsky]can recuperate and do a very clear class; I guess I really want to be there to support people; I mean part of it’s a great pleasure and part of it’s a little duty and obligation, but in April I will say when you’re up four or five times a week it does not go into my memory and I can not practice what I preach so I am cutting down. Yes it's been a tradition.
AAJ: Where did you establish that tradition?
RB: Well I learned it in New York, and there of course you could hear [Thelonius] Monk, Ornette [Coleman]; there were clubs that had people five [or] six days. So if you wanted to go to classical--- and there goes my doorbell can I call you back when the student leaves?
AAJ: Sure Ran...
AAJ: (later—Ran asking me about my lunch) and I had salsa and beans and I’m going to make a cake today.
RB: Great! Will it be vegan?
AAJ: Yes it will be vegan god dammit yes!(laughter)
RB: well why not!(laughter)
AAJ: yes why not exactly!
RB: will you put a little lemon in it?
AAJ: I’m going to put a little orange in it, I wish you were here so that I could share it with you...
RB: Wish you could put it through the phone.. well anyway...
AAJ: So I think we’ll be able to finish this up, so we were talking about before..
RB: The department and long term memory, we [NEC] just hope that we could rather get 8 or 9 students who really want to be here..
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.
AAJ: Wait a minute did you just say you auditioned for the Modern Jazz Quartet?
RB: Yes, well not to play in the band [for entrance into the Lenox School]—it was mostly John Lewis, but I think that Connie Kay happened to be around ---it was at Atlantic Record studio which later they were to hire me—that was another great event —working at Atlantic records and meeting Ray Charles and Chris Connor and [Lennie] Tristano all of that happened because of the Lenox school. I went down and John Lewis said “you’d better let that Ray Brown give it to you” and he did and he also said good things about me but he was tough. [Bob]Brookmeyer said I’d never amount to much.
AAJ: That’s funny (editor's note: Bob Brookmeyer and Ran now both teach at the New England Conservatory)
RB: And then the guy that I thought that would really shoot me was Oscar Peterson! He said I needed a lot of work; I don’t know he said something very kind; my regret is that I didn’t go to Canada for a year and study with him.
AAJ: What kept you going if you had people telling you that you had so much you needed to do?
RB: Well I don’t think, I didn’t, I don’t know--- can I answer that more privately?—I felt terrible. Gunther [Schuller], who would also give me many "kicks"... Oscar Peterson of all people endorsing me! Brubek was very kind and George Russell who we know may be self centered, he drove to my concert in Suffolk, Connecticut and [was] very caring. One had to have the balance because I had no, I mean Gunther [Schuller] can really knock me, but it’s funny [Stan] Kenton I thought would love me but he said "you’re attempts are ludicrous..." and I thought he would be the one—I thought that’s what Oscar Peterson would say!who has a speed and velocity on the piano that I don’t even hear, it’s not that my hands can’t ever do a scale; But he was endorseful! So was Bill Evans; I did have a lonely time—guys my age did not, guys and women did not particularly seek me out. But after the Lenox I did play in the Eddie Young rock group in Windsor Locks, Connecticut and I know one man came up and said "What an interesting pianist, he’s shocking why don’t you fire him?" and Eddie Young said "Not on your life, but I admit he’s not for all tastes." And the guy came back a month later and said I was not too bad but this was a guy enjoying bottled drinks that were not from Poland Springs if you know what I mean.
AAJ: I know what you mean. (laughter) So what would you attribute a five plus decade and career as a recording artist to? Why have you been so long lasting?
RB: I don’t think half the people at the conservatory know...am I well known?
AAJ: You are so well known (laughter). I was recently in Beirut, Lebanon—halfway around the world and people (non musicians) were asking about you!
RB: Well some people care about music of mine and some don’t, I mean that’s not for me to say. I can tell you about what's long lasting about Thelonius Monk or George Russell...
AAJ: Well I mean I'm at a period in my musical life where I see other good musicians that I know making some very serious “quality of life” decisions and for most of them that means putting their musical pursuits on the back burner so that they may procure the type of stability that being an artist rarely offers. And though you developed during a different in some ways less volatile time---I'm sure you've seen the same thing happen among your peers, yet it hasn’t affected you. What do you attribute that to?
RB: Well because maybe I take months off [and] I practice and do sitting near the tape recorder and then I go near the piano and see the movies and I live alone and [I]really am very private in the world of the subconscious, trying to strain the sub conscious, but I think maybe I’m long lasting because I like to forget myself part of the year with other people; its true if you were to do two concerts the night before my own concerts I might stay in my hotel room and see a film noir because I need to get in that world but I think maybe forgetting yourself part of the time and then of course once and a while taking yourself seriously and remembering the pastthe glorious past and the horrible fascist history of Europe and also the tragedies and the also the great people; to this day I wish my goal was to be able to work on happier/ positive music just because its easy to be in my comfort zone and do only gray dark music.
AAJ: So you’ve been an educator now for some forty plus years, what differences have you seen in the student realm? With the advances of technology and the different social focus for each generation you must have seen some differences in the students that come through your door at the conservatory?
RB: Of course. In the '80s it was very self absorbed but now with technology, I feel out of it sometimes. Peter Row [New England Conservatory provost] says “as faculty grow older they get more intransigent and closed.” I think this is true part of the time and part of the time I keep learning. There is much more of an in impatience with the students. I don’t feel it’s because people are selfish I just think that so many young musicians are coming out so quickly and are worried because they have economic problems. I wasn’t extremely rich but I had it way easier than you have economically – and I worry about the other students and that’s what I wish I could do, or rather what we can talk about, at that alumni meeting in New York --- I feel that with all this explosion in tolerance of all music its very hard to have a vertical history—it is important to know about Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith and John Lee Hooker but if you are totally learning every geographical music all over the world., it can be hard. I think we’re much more open now but we don’t hold the music long enough and then maybe a music of an earlier era is forgotten. You can not hear everybody. And if you’ve given a certain music a chance then you have to then slim your choices. And I think that for so many students, there's so many clinics, so many distractions at school. We have such a greater faculty [at NEC] that more people want “smorgasbord” work and that’s good and bad because there's much more tolerance but not many people will drive in at 85 years of age like Dorothy Wallace to hear a concert. [editor's note: Dorothy Wallace was a famed patron of the arts and a great supporter of Ran Blake's music, she died in 2001] It’s all too available so the downside is that I find that like a lot of people really don’t know my records very well or can’t discuss what the third track is of a particular cd because it's all hurried. I’m beginning to get like that myself --- I’m getting so many records to hear that before I get to know one person they already have two other records out. I worry about the market place, I feel that students are too worried about it and they maybe have to be by necessityyet it’s getting in the way of their growth. But yet I’m pained with them when I see how little money they are making and I guess you have to have some validity. I want to figure it out Matana and I wonder if some day I will? I think it’s very hard now being a musician.
AAJ: You’ve done so many solo records—why so many?
RB: Well Jeanne Lee is not around on this earth, Ricky Ford is in Paris, and some people don't want to rehearse and I have all this time. I feel one of my best solos is Unmarked Van. [ Unmarked Van: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughn Soul Note)—particularly the title track. I have been in an isolated bubble. I can’t inflict my plots on everyone. I like duo settings too.
AAJ: Yeah you’ve done a lot of great duo records, Anthony Braxton, Houston Person, Ricky Ford, Jeanne Lee, Christine Correa... do you find duo allows you to explore the music more?
RB: Yes, and I care about James Meranda and the Knife[ Dave Fabris]... I have a duo record coming out with the Knife [ Untitled coming out on Soul Note]
AAJ: That’s right you have a record coming out soon with Boston based guitarist Dave Fabris (a.k.a the Knife)
RB: I' m also going to do something in late April at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) with Mark Harvey. When you involve a larger group people are busy and it’s not like growing up with Jeanne Lee and sitting and taking time. There is a sense of hurriedness that I find now that, I’m sure it was there Matana, in the ‘60’s but I just don’t remember it being quite so rushed.
AAJ: You have a very interesting symbol that you use a lot on your recordings and in your writing. What’s the story behind the black bag insignia?
RB: The black bag I had [it] made for me in Riverdale by a wonderful shoe man, and people thought I had a mixed bag in me. It was just great studying you know with Gunther [Schuller], running uptown not that I had to many lessons with Mary Lou Williams who lived at 63 Hamilton Terrace in Sugar Hill Harlem and then I would go down to hear Greek music and I just collected all of this stuff, perhaps I should have another black bag, maybe I should? It died in Dorthy Wallace’s attic 20 years ago with holes in and it was just like Jean Lee’s sunglasses and shawl... That was my idea for the cover for New Sounds Around and except for the album with Paul Bley it’s been with me. She never kept her trademark particularly. It’s too long a story people would pick me up at different airports—and they liked me well enough that the black bag meant a lot to them. It's like [how] Alfred Hitchcock appears for 30 seconds in his films it's not the most essential thing in my life, but now it’s on my watch and its on my stationary and now I got a letter from the post office addressed to the black bag and somebody at the post office knew it was me so it got delivered. Well Prince has a design, and so do I.
AAJ: Looking back in retrospect what do you feel are some of the major corner stones of your artistic development?
RB: I think noir, being in gospel music, the really encompassing great years 6 or 7 years or how manybut with Gunther wish I kept a log. I think now I’ll applaud my ability to get to know other styles like [soul/gospel vocalist] Al Green, as much as I love [Charlie] Parker, he’s not in me like the singers Al Green, Billie Holiday, and Ray [Charles] and Stevie [Wonder] and Chris [Connor] and Abbey Lincoln, and I guess the noir and the plots whereas if I just read a paperback? So, well I think also being an educator—how to deal with students---should I try it [teaching concepts] out on myself first etc.? But I don’t think I have all the answers I’m still trying to grow and learn more
AAJ: Where did your teaching style come from?
RB: Probably Gunther [Schuller] but I think maybe I had dyslexia as a kid and so I doted on an aural approach [to teaching.] But now I’d rather have people –if you had to learn [ my composition] Horace is Blue to play tonight I’d really rather you get 3 or 4 notes of notation down but then go back to my[aural] source of Horace. I used to be so doctrinaire that I used to tell people to almost burn [notated] music!—Gunther [Schuller] kidded me about that a year or two ago; but I think I think it’s just the way I learned and I think that I spent so much time hearing classical music—dissonant 20th century, but like a jazz musician would—in other words instead of hearing solos I heard orchestras—I loved black music—gospel, the vocalists. I heard some of the more virtuoso horn music where as I respected it ---a lot of women and guys heard that growing up--- but hearing Stravinsky and Ives and trying to improvise on itit didn’t sound like jazz but I used the ear and then I would blow on it some more. It sounded like to many people that I didn’t know what I was doing and sometimes I didn’t. And I guess I studied with myself a lot not all consciously, and I realized that isn’t it great to do things of Cecil Taylor and Earl Hines but I won’t--- my right hand doesn’t want to play faster than the singers. So I don’t knowso many things now I think I am meandering but, oh, and of course being in Greece was a shock and Argentian—the racial injustice being done..
AAJ: When were you there?
RB: Greece in '67 and Jeanne Lee warned me not to go she said " I don’t think the time is right" and that I had a few hundred dollars and she said "keep it for the hard days.” but I went and three days later the phones weren’t working, the tanks rolled up –April 20th 1967—that’s why I want my birthday held a month later because I always think of Vradiazi. In Argentina--- I was there 20 years later—1980 but suddenly there were tanks on the streets there, children were disappearing--- that didn’t have the consequences for me. I didn’t know what was happening in Greece and we Americans don’t speak other languages and suddenly I’m at a hotel... I couldn’t use the phone... and some people were very kind... this police van picking me up...I still have nightmares. I guess its memories. And [though] I don’t want to try to fight the nightmares it’s nice to have happy dreams too.
AAJ: What kind of advice would you give to a struggling artist like myself?
RB: I would say –I’ll be universal instead of just particular—I do think one should have a 15 or 20 hour a week job and no more and no less. And then maybe two or five hours a month that you volunteer your musical skill so that it’s not your own music that you are playing all of the time. Give maybe 2 or 3 concerts a year, you don’t have to guilt trip your friends, but you really want people to hear you and then other times you go hear others. I will have new music for this concert in January—thank you for reminding me it was in January—I thought it was in February. You have to also grow in repertoire. But I do think there are certain networking things you have to do to. We can’t do everything, and should there be a month in the year when we don’t play and we become musical ecologists---there are too many musicians and we need more listeners and I do think it’s important to make announcements or a bulletin notice to try and involve a larger audience in what you're doing. I don’t like to get up and talk but I will have a written program and I think some people I go out and hear them and they don’t say one word and I don’t know where we’re at and then there are some people that talk all the time and crack jokes. I have more advice: Don’t give up, hang in there. I think you have to pick five people whose career you really hope for and maybe one is ahead of you and maybe be selfish—can they do something to help you? Care about them but every musician has got [to] let someone down once you can’t get to every gig, you can’t always say yes. But I think there are some people who are 25 years old that might have one cd too many and maybe [you should] buy it. It doesn’t bother me. I’m not recording now because there's really enough—I don’t want to flood up the market and I think if everybody—just like in blackouts don’t you say "turn your lights out two hours a day to preserve the power"--- there has to be a time you are not playing, because you can't grow if you’re every minute playing. ...so you have now an earful.