A Chat with Tim Hagans

AAJ Staff By

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Everyone has their own definition of jazz but for me it's gotta be improvised... it's not knowing what you're gonna play until you put air through the horn, it's that energy and excitement and suspense that happens when you don't know what you're gonna play until the split second before you play it.
Tim Hagans is undoubtedly one of the biggest risk takers in jazz right now. Along with Bob Belden he ventures into the area of drum and bass music mixed with jazz. The result is a exciting type of music. I had the opportunity to sit down with this two time Grammy nominated trumpeter where he shares about his musical experiences, his time abroad, and his further ventures in new varieties of music.

All About Jazz: First, how did you start playing? What were your first experiences?

Tim Hagans: Well, my first playing experiences are how I got interested in music, which do you want first? Because I mean I started in the fourth grade playing the trumpet and knew that I wanted to play the trumpet before that even. But I really didn't start actually playing till I was actually in college, but I went through a school band program. I started when I was 9 and you know just played in the concert band in high school, played in the marching band. This was like, I was born in 1954 so in the 60's there wasn't a lot of jazz in the schools, definitely not in the junior high. In high school, my last year — '70, '71, 72 — we had the jazz band that actually became part of the curriculum. But you could take it for credit and that was like a major breakthrough, you know, that was just when jazz education was starting actually be taken seriously.

AAJ: Did you go to school around here (Philadelphia)?

TH: No, I'm from Ohio. Dayton, Ohio. So I went through Dayton Public schools and then I went to college in Bowling Green in Ohio, big state university. I went there two years and they didn't have the jazz major at that point. Now, almost 30 years later, no respectable college is without a jazz program, so...we had a lot of informal jam sessions. There were jazz big bands there that in my second year you could take it for credit, it became a real thing.

AAJ: So why did you pick jazz? Why not classical? It seems like people make it out that you can't be a classical player and a jazz player at the same time. Do you agree with that?

TH: Well, you know, that depends on the individual. Wynton Marsalis proves that wrong. You know, he faces a lot of criticism about many things he does, but one thing that you can't criticize him for is actually the way he plays the trumpet. I mean he's an incredible trumpet player, he's born to play the trumpet, and he can play a trumpet concerto and turn right around and play jazz. He's a very unique situation but he does disprove that. You talk specifically about trumpet playing and I'm sure with the saxophone it's the same thing, there is a certain volume level, a certain way that you play jazz with articulations, it's improvised so that you play the horn a different way than you would be playing in a symphony orchestra. We (his family) go to the Philadelphia Orchestra all the time and I'm amazed at the brass section, how they can just sit there and come in with the most beautiful sound and not miss a note. And, to me, I could never do that, I'd be shaking in my boots.

AAJ: Did you ever strictly study classical music?

TH: Yeah, back then because there was no jazz program all my lessons were classical. Although my very first teacher that I had for the first five years when I was in grade school played with Woody Herman in the late 30's, was like a swing style Harry James trumpet player. We didn't really deal with improvisation and chords but we dealt with the swing feel and how to play the melodies so that it sound like music and not just playing the notes. That was very good but he wasn't really a hard bop player at all and we never got into that. So most of my lessons were classical in nature but nobody ever told me the correct way to play the trumpet. I've only figured that out'

AAJ: By yourself?

TH: Well, two teachers, one in Sweden named Lef Baksen and Bobby Shew who's a great trumpet player who lives out in the west coast. Both of those guys in the last 15 years have given me lessons and even as late as two years ago Bobby showed me some stuff that changed the whole way that I approach playing the trumpet and if I had that kind of instruction back when I started maybe I could have played better in the classical world. But I played in school orchestras and concert bands and I was crackin' notes all over the place because I was just playing the horn wrong. Back to your question a little while ago, it was because first of all I could choose what I wanted to play with the improvisation factor and it wasn't any fun to sit in an orchestra and know that I was gonna come in and I was probably gonna miss half the notes just because of playing and breathing the wrong way. But the real reason I got into jazz was more than the style of music, this is something this is very important and nobody talks about, but I always talk about when I do interviews and do master classes, and that is the element of personal freedom and being an individual and growing up in the sixties with the social things that were happening in this country with the assassinations and the anti-war movement and the pro-war movement, social changes, simple changes like so that you could wear blue jeans to school.

AAJ: Is this the time around the Vietnam War?

TH: Yeah, definitely. And everything was being questioned in society. Big political problems to the things I just mentioned, about how long your hair was gonna be and what you were gonna wear to school and everything was being questioned and the music reflected that. If you look at the pop and the rock music that was happening at that time it was not the formula MTV, it was completely different. Record companies were taking chances on bands that actually had a voice. Now it's just a formula, it started in the 80's, basically when Reagan got elected. Life became a formula, put it in these little cubbie holes and the pop music, and I can say this because I do have something to contrast it to. Growing up and hearing Santana's first record, hearing The James Gang's first record. I saw the Beatles on TV on "The Ed Sullivan Show" the first time they played the United States.

AAJ: Did you grow up listening to the rock music that was out then?

TH: Yeah, I was totally into rock and roll, especially in the late sixties the music got really interesting with Santana, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Chicago, and that's when the rock bands started using jazz musicians. If you look at the line up on the Blood, Sweat, and Tears records, it's like the Brecker Brothers, it's pretty amazing.

AAJ: Wasn't Joe Henderson at one point in Blood, Sweat, and Tears?

TH: Yeah, right, he never recorded with them but people were playing all kinds of music back then and it was wide open. What was going on on the streets and in the minds of people was reflected in the music. If you look at the jazz that was happening, we were playing hard bop, people were playing free music, Coltrane was writing tunes. There's been a lot of press, I don't know if you read the paper in the last month about this trial in Alabama about this KKK guy that bombed this church in 1963.

AAJ: Yeah, and he's getting prosecuted for it now.

TH: Right, and back then these guys were in the white world in the south, they were heroes because they bombed a black church and killed four girls, it's a terrible tragedy. Well, when that happened Coltrane wrote a song called "Alabama" and it's written in protest of that happening. So it's like rock bands were doing anti-war songs, The Doors were doing anti-Vietnam songs and Coltrane was doing anti-racism songs. I mean, music was related to what was happening and that's why I became interested in music because this was a way to try and describe the world. A lot of younger jazz musicians are into music because they think it's a cool lifestyle; it's cool to be a jazz star. You know? You wanna play like "fill in the blank."

Back then when I was in school, this was in the early 70's, if you sounded like somebody else, people would diss you. They'd say man, great, you sound like Kenny Dorham, but what's inside of you? Now it's completely the opposite but now it's starting to change. But what the corporate record companies are doing in the 80's and 90's made everybody like MTV did to the pop music, play like a certain way. It's very dangerous because art is where the freedom is, if you're a dancer, a painter. Once you lose that individualism, it's all over.

AAJ: I think that the school systems restrict you in the freedom aspect as well. For instance, my experience with the music program has made me conclude that music teachers don't really allow you to express your artistic freedom. They want you to play exactly what's on the page and only music that's written or typed on pages. Kids in the jazz band write out solos because the directors sometimes restrict the idea of taking an improvised solo. That really disappoints me because isn't freedom, of course within the boundaries, what jazz is all about?

TH: It's much better to stand up and sound bad and play a bunch of wrong notes and learn from that experience than play the same solo over and over.

AAJ: Just through the years I've found that music in schools is a great thing but it restricts you at the same time.

TH: It's true, and education in the arts if we specifically talk about jazz education, but this is true in any arts education, is about defining what started out as personal expression and turning it into rules and regulations. So that if you think about Charlie Parker, I mean how do you describe Charlie Parker, there are so many facets to his playing. Melodically and rhythmically, if you try to melt that into like 25 or 30 rules and if you follow these rules you'll sound like Charlie Parker it's totally wrong. You can always study people and find out what made them tick and what made them sound like the way they do which is why transcriptions are good and looking at scores if you're writing music — seeing what other people did — but when you yourself do something artistic you have to take those influences and let it affect you but your voice has to come out. It's a big problem with jazz education because what the educators are trying to do is first make the band/ensemble sound good and the competition thing is really dangerous because you have bands that rehearse the same three, four, or five charts the whole year, they go to a competition and sound great.
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