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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.

AAJ: But they don't play any other charts.

TH: Yeah, and the learning experience over that period of time is where maybe you could have played 20 or 25 charts and read through them and rehearsed them a little might benefit the students better but at the competitions those other charts aren't going to be as tight. There is a lot of that on the high school and college level and so the soloists also — there are soloist awards, they wanna sound good. Even if they're not doing a competition, if it's just a concert at the school, like you're doing tomorrow night, still the soloist wants to sound good. That was always my thing in college was I was very good friends with a trumpet player who was a Kenny Dorham freak, which is why I used that example, and Kenny is one of my favorite trumpet players but I hardly ever transcribe anything and I hardly ever look at what anybody else has done note for note. I've listened to hundreds and hundreds of hours of Kenny Dorhman records but I never really sat down and figured out a lick of his, we used to jam sessions together when we were freshmen and he sounded great, I mean he just sounded great, because everything he played was correct and I get up there and we're on tunes like "St. Thomas" or "Tune Up" and blues or whatever, and I'm fumbling all over the place. I'm missing changes and I can't play six eighth notes in a row without getting messed up but 30 years later he still sounds like Kenny Dorham. I, for whatever it's worth, have at least developed this voice that I have and can proficiently execute on the tool that I'm using which is the trumpet.

AAJ: With that being said would you disagree with the use of things like the Omnibook?

TH: That's the logical next question, as long as you keep it in the proper perspective. It's great, I have that book and I also have this Freddie Hubbard transcribed solo book that Freddie himself said that they did a great job in transcribing what he did. I thought that when I had a little time I thought it would be nice to sit down and play through these transcriptions just to kinda play some different things and take your ear into different directions, play some things that I've heard a million times but never actually played myself. I think for a student it's great to do that.

But you have to keep it in the proper perspective because that's not by any means the end of the road. The freedom aspect of this music comes from the improvised moment, and that split second when you make that choice of what note you're going to play, it's like baseball, a true improviser is like a hitter in baseball in that the thinking is very quickly done. A 90 mph fastball, I've stood in batting cages and pushed like the fast button and there is just no way that I could react, I can't even get the bat off my shoulder. But a professional hitter they see that ball they can tell the spin of the seams, they know from the release, they absorb and process all this information in a second or something. That's just because they see everything in slow motion and that's what we do too as improvisers. We have to react to the situation so that it seems like we're thinking in normal time but we're thinking so quickly. You know, in the improvised world, if you practice that in the very beginning then you get comfortable with improvising even if you play wrong notes. I do a lot of master classes and I have some students in Sweden, I work in Sweden. We have a youth band over there and we have kids from like 15-20, kind of an all county band assembles three or four times a year. I started them a few years ago playing completely free, these are beginning improvisers, not thinking about time and not thinking about harmony but just on your horn play a note and play whatever comes next for a half hour a day, not thinking about time, changes, melody, tunes, you know? Just playing. So you get used to improvising on your instrument and then slowly we add little harmony. But they get used to improvising, thinking about improvisation. When I talk about these things in university master classes, people are like, "We never thought about doing that" — well, that's the whole point. That's they way I started — just playing free because I had no harmonic knowledge, there were no Abersold records, I played along with pop records, I played along with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, I played along with Louis Armstrong records, then I just played free but it's the importance of that improvised moment that's really missing. That's what you're talking about.

AAJ: With that in mind, do you think there is as much opportunity in the jazz or music world these days? Back in the day jazz was learned on the bandstand and jazz musicians were pretty accessible and I think that that was vital to the growth of jazz. I think that people don't really condone their children doing music as a career because there aren't that many opportunities in the world for it. So what opportunities are out there? Is music school the only way to go?

TH: Well, where do I start. First of all you're right, I'm very lucky because I got in on the very last part of the big band era that started in the 30's and ended very slowly as the great leaders passed on.

AAJ: You played with Kenton, right?

TH: I played with Stan Kenton starting in June of 1974, I was with him for almost three years, he died in 1979. I played with Woody Herman for a little bit, Woody hated my playing and I got fired after a month. But Woody died in the late 80's, at some point, Basie's gone, Buddy Rich, Ellington, Maynard is the only one that's really out there, like an original cat. But even he's kinda like a generation after Stan, Woody, and Count Basie and those guys because he was on Stan's band in the early 50's and didn't become a band leader until the middle fifties, late fifties.

When I was in high school, I saw all those bands even in junior high, living in Ohio it's a very populous state like Pennsylvania and when I was on the road with those bands we played in Pennsylvania and Ohio, we played like from the Mississippi over, a lot, because that's where most of the people are in this country. So I was really fortunate to hear those bands all the time, I heard each of those bands maybe two or three times a year and I knew that, wow, in a few years I'll be old enough, maybe I'll be good enough. That was like a job opportunity that I hoped that would still exist when I was old enough or good enough; now that's a problem because those bands don't exist anymore. So it's not so obvious what the job opportunities are but the most obvious one is teaching, so people go to a university and now almost to teach at a university you need a doctorate degree. Even on the high school level the competition is so tough that sometimes you even need a doctorate degree in music education. It's not so obvious, but I couldn't do anything else but be involved with music somehow, I've taught in universities and somehow I got enough encouragement from the performing world where they say, you know, and that's what I really wanted to do anyway was play, so I couldn't do anything else and for people that know that then there is no question, I'm going into music and I have no idea what's going to happen. Instead of going to bars to learn how to improvise, I'm going to go to a good college with a jazz program, I'm gonna try and play as much as possible, I'm gonna show up on time, I'm not gonna smell bad, I'm gonna be prepared, I'm gonna take care of business and see what kind of opportunities are out there.

For me it's just been a huge question mark where my next opportunity is going to come, but I've always tried to play; like baseball, a pitcher is only as good as his last outing. You're only as good as your last gig so you want to make every gig your best and hopefully the phone will keep ringing. And it's not easy, we're living here, my wife teaches college in New York and I'm on the road a lot and somehow we're making it all work, we'll be able to send our kids to college, we're gonna try and get into a bigger house because we're just expanding. Time for more bookshelves. But you kinda know whether you have to be a musician or not. You just make the opportunities happen, it's not as obvious.

AAJ: Is it just for the big band you do there?

TH: Yeah, and a little bit of teaching with this youth band, but it's mostly the big band.

AAJ: Speaking of youth bands, my jazz band director brought in this trombone player that was part of the Newport Youth band back in the fifties that included Eddie Daniels, Eddie Gomez and Ronnie Cuber, just to name a few people. I was listening to that and I realized that kids nowadays don't really have that opportunity to do that kind of thing. Let's just take for an example the Mellon Jazz Festival in Philly. I'm pretty sure that they don't have a youth jazz band that they assemble that gets the chance to work with these top-notch musicians and things like that. That to me is pretty disappointing.

TH: Right, because they've got corporate sponsors and doing things that involve education for young people is always incredibly well looked upon politically. They could put together some sort of all star band based on cassette tape auditions at any of these festivals and then have the artists performing at the festivals work with the band for a day or two, the ones that are involved with education as well. We're actually doing, the first week of July, in Sweden, a big band camp. It's for professional and good student musicians. It coincides with a music festival in the same town. It has opera, jazz, and folk music. The professional band that I lead is playing some concerts and the students are there all week long and going to the concerts and the guest artists from the concerts we're doing are also working with the band during the day. But they've got a lot of support, money wise for the arts in Europe and it's very easy. I proposed this two years ago and people just nod their heads and say we can fund that, through government agencies, arts councils. Here you have to go through government agencies.

AAJ: People tend to point out the problems with teenagers and the bad things that some of them do. The thing that they don't point out enough is the good things that kids do. They want kids to do something positive but if a idea for something positive comes up no one is willing to fund it. Why lie about it if they won't follow through? You know?

TH: Right. Well, you can look at it that way and you're already finding this out but when you deal with politicians you can never hold them to their word. Their very first thought when they get up is not, how am I gonna do something good for society, it's how am I gonna keep my job? So they listen to the people that scream the most. There is also a thing in this country where you're responsible for yourself, you can't look to the government for help. In Europe people think,"Ok, we're paying all this tax money, we don't have to spend a lot on national defense because those guys over there will come to the rescue," so they spend a lot of money on 'lifestyle' improvements. They have good roads, health care, job security, unemployment, and lots of money for the arts. It's been decided if people don't worry about making the bills and if they get sick they'll be taken care of and you provide them artistic food for thought and good roads and water supply and electricity, then people are gonna be happy and productive. Here the government, and it's been lately, it's always been like this, it's saying, "If you want it, you get it yourself." I lived five years and Europe and I work there all the time and it's good for me because I can see the differences in culture and how people think and I can also see why the way over here is kinda the way it is because of the way this country started and the different cultures we have in this country. In Sweden there are nine million Swedes, they all look the same and think the same way so it's very easy for them to come to an agreement about how things are gonna work. Here we have people from all over the world, all different cultures and religions.

AAJ: We can't agree on one thing here.

TH: If you agree on this, it's gonna benefit this group more than the other. So the concept is, well, nobody gets anything from us, do it on your own. So the teens, sit in your room and practice, don't go steal cars. It can be very discouraging when they say one thing and do another. That's why in a way the musicians over here, you look at the jazz musicians over here and most of them move to New York. I go around to a lot of towns and cities all over the country and man, there are some amazing local musicians everywhere, not just Chicago and L.A. They've made a decision. I could have stayed in Ohio because I really like living there and there were some great musicians there but I wanted to go out and try for bigger things and the people that think that way all go to New York because that's where you can be a complete weirdo and no one cares. You also feel that energy that gives you that support to do it yourself because there is no support so you need a support group of like-minded weirdoes that all move there from Kansas and Nebraska and all these other places that are ready to change the world artistically and that's why New York is such a great place. That's one of the ways musicians, instead of looking towards the government or their local thing and saying, "Support me," they've said, "Forget it."

AAJ: That leads to your latest projects. What was your motivation for what you're doing now with the DJ's and the drum and bass things?

TH: Well, going back to the sixties I always wanted to play in a band, where it's not playing for a lot of people to be popular but there is a certain feeling you get when you play for people and you can tell that they dig it. In jazz you don't really feel that because the audience is really cool, they're supposed to be cool. I always like, you know, playing for screaming people that also feel like that they can dance and they can move not like a concert situation. Because I listen to Rock and Roll just as much, even more than jazz, before I even got into jazz, I wanted to reach that kind of audience, and have really been trying, all the bands that I've played in and formed myself in different places I've lived, have always had some element of the straight eighth note rock. When I hooked up with (Bob)Belden, we're like separated at birth in a way, he's like a year younger than I am, but we had the same exact influences, he grew up in South Carolina, we didn't meet until about eleven or twelve years ago, it's like I met my brother, we had the exact same thought about what music should be, and we had differences as well which is what makes it a good partnership.

AAJ: Is that how you look for the people in your band? People that have the same influences or do you try to mix different influences into one?

TH: It wasn't on purpose, it was just something I noticed. It was like, "Oh man, this cat's favorite cut on this Miles record is the same as mine," and then you start thinking maybe we can do something together. Bob is really good at creating situations, he had a band he put together in New York and we played a bunch of door gigs, he got signed with Blue Note to do the music of Sting, are you familiar with that record?

AAJ: No, I'm not.

TH: It's been out of print for a few years, it was with some singers and big band instrumentations, a lot of Sting tunes, some from the Police and some from his Dream of the Blue Turtles, that period. We (he and Bob Belden) just started doing things. His goal was to bring it down to a small group from a big band. He sent me some drum and bass records and I'd heard drum and bass before but didn't know what it was called. Just musically, drummers never play enough for me, not talking about volume but energy, I want the energy to stay up there and when I heard these drum and bass records I thought, this is it. We thought if we combine drum and bass programs and a live drummer we'd have the best of both worlds. So the first record we did three years ago, Animation Imagination, it might sound like a lot of overdubbing but basically we took the basic drum and bass track and I took that for the night and I wrote some simple little melodies over them, and then we went in the next four days and just recorded live. The engineer ran the drum and bass track in our headphones and we just played free along with it, I'd cue some melodies here and there, and that was it. There is really no overdubbing, Bob did some funny tricks on a couple of those things with a backwards piano type thing, we didn't overdub or layer, it's just playing in the studio.

AAJ: While I was listening to the recent live CD I was really wondering about the programming in a live situation: How do you guys coordinate all of that, especially with the solos?

TH: Well DJ Kingsize has everything on records, not CDs or computerized, so it's very easy physically for him to move around. So he gets the thing going, we play the theme, and then (Billy) Kilson on the live record, and now we're using a different drummer because Billy is busy with Dave Holland. The drummer kinda takes over and then all of a sudden you hear Kingsize come back in, what he's done with his sound off is calibrated the tempo for his turntables with what the drummers doing. Then he'll come back in with something different that's not even on the Animation record but something else he's got that he thinks fits in, then we hear that. He's become an improvising member of the band that affects what the rhythm section does and how they play.

AAJ: Do you think that the use of DJs and such is the new wave of jazz?

TH: Well yeah, they're becoming musicians and not just record spinners. (We take time to look at an article in "Downbeat" about DJs in which he is quoted and then he comments.) But DJ Smash is great, DJ Logic is great, they're not just record spinners but improvising members of the band. It's really exciting because all of a sudden I'm playing and I hear some, it doesn't even have to be rhythm, it can be space sounds or people talking. Kingsize does this one thing once in a while where he has this Count Basie record with this huge chord, just a big "Bop!" and he'll find that spot on the record and he'll just punch that so all of a sudden it sounds like I have a big band behind me playing rhythms, so it's stuff like that. It's very exciting and of course the basic thing of playing drum and bass with a live drummer is utopia for me.

AAJ: Just out of curiosity, who is the drummer filling in for Billy right now?

TH: Zack Danziger, he's been in L.A. he's been in NY, he's a drum programmer so we're starting a third record about two months ago and Zack brought in some stuff that he actually programmed, actually Scott Kinsey did the programming but Scott had sampled Zack's drums. So we have Zack on the programming and Zack playing live. Which was kinda cool.

AAJ: Was there a Miles (Davis) influence?

TH: Oh, definitely, and I thought music was going in this direction in the late 70's, early 80's: Herbie Hancock's Future Shock.

AAJ: So basically fusion stuff.

TH: Well fusion first started like Mahavishnu and you didn't really call Miles (Davis), well I guess you did call Miles fusion. Definitely wasn't Spyro Gyra or Yellojackets, nothing wrong with those, they're great bands, but actually Yellowjackets is a pretty amazing band, I don't want to put them in the same category as Spyro Gyra. When fusion started out, it was pretty burning. I mean it was some "other" stuff, so you were confused, it was like listening to a Jeff Beck record, Guitar Shop or Wired — is this jazz or is this rock? You're confused because it's improvised, it's instrumental, but it's rock-based improvisation and I thought that's where fusion was going. But then it turned into something completely different.

AAJ: It kinda became like pop music.

TH: Yeah, it's instrumental pop. So this stuff that Bob and I were doing, I thought that this was where music was heading and I was ready to do this 20 years ago, but I was living in Europe and I was playing this free electronic jazz. I came back to the U.S. after five years, beginning in 1982, and everybody's playing "ding dink a ding" (swing rhythm) and trying to sound like 1953 again. Like I said, Reagan got elected at that point and everything got really conservative, really corporate and the spirit of freedom from the 60's and 70's was gone. America was tired after the 60's and the 70's — I mean we talk about the 60's and the 70's, the war ended, Nixon had to resign, we had a president that was complete crook and the whole thing that ended with the hostages being taken in Iran. People just threw up their hands and said they had enough. Ronald Reagan came along, he was like the grandfather figure, I'll make everything warm and cozy for you, and they fell for it.

AAJ: The other musicians that I've talked to say the same thing about Reagan. Specifically speaking jazz though, they say that when Reagan got elected people went back to the 50's and 60's and jazz hasn't progressed.

TH: That's why when Clinton was elected in '92 it was like these twelve years of repression for free thinkers was over but nothing happened and he turned out not to be the beacon of hope for liberalism. He was pretty conservative himself. Now were back to even worse than those twelve years. But everything goes in cycles and musicians now, if you look through "Downbeat," Wynton's not on the cover every other issue, they've got articles about DJs and they're talking about some of the musicians that aren't just playing straight ahead jazz and that's a really good sign. The record sales of mainstream young lion type records are just dismal. So I thought that the timing for what Bob and I are doing was perfect.

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