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Bobby Zankel: The Soul of Jazz - Past, Present, and Future Tense

Victor L. Schermer By

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[This is the first of an All About Jazz series of interviews and articles on "The Many Faces of Jazz Today: Critical Dialogues," in which we will explore the current state of jazz around the world. Jazz has expanded in many directions. The business, educational, geographical, recording, and entertainment aspects have undergone major transformations. Today, there are myriad ways of playing and understanding the music. So what is jazz all about today, towards the end of the second decade of the New Millenium, a century after the first jazz recording was made? We will investigate this question with musicians, journalists, and entrepreneurs who can give us their own unique perspectives on what is happening.]

Saxophonist Bobby Zankel has participated in the cutting edge of jazz performance, composition, and leadership since the 1970s. He studied and worked with Cecil Taylor for 45 years, and others who pushed jazz into new territories. In the last decade, he has led the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, a big band which features his compositions that stretch the limits yet retain the best of the important historical developments. The Warriors have collaborated with masters like Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Don Byron, Rene McLean, and William Parker. As a soloist, sideman, and small group leader, Zankel performs with a wide variety of musicians and genres. He is fully immersed in the current jazz scene yet staunchly maintains his artistic independence. We asked Zankel for his insights on jazz today from his particular musical, personal, and professional experience.

All About Jazz: How would you describe the overall jazz scene today?

Bobby Zankel: I have some thoughts about it, but in my own work, as time goes on, I'm less and less concerned about what other people are doing. My life has already been blessed with encountering all the wonderful people, information, and experiences that I've had, and now I really need to focus on creating my own music. If I think about the scene, I'll get distracted and lose my inner focus. It doesn't serve me well to get into that state of mind. But having said that, I do think there's a bigger mix of people and approaches now. The present moment always contains the accomplishments of the past and the seeds of the future.

Comparing the Past and Present

AAJ: You almost have to wonder if, with all this variation, it's still the same kind of music, whether jazz retains its essential definition and unity. Do you think the jazz scene today is in a good place if you compare it with when you came up in the 1960s-80s, which was undoubtedly one of the most exciting periods in the history of jazz?

BZ: We can't discuss the scene outside of the larger context. The world has changed tremendously, needless to say, The lack of heart to heart communication and the decline of social communities has had a large impact on the role and basic expression of music. There is so much information available that young people can be encyclopedic in their head but not connected to their heart. Too much studied knowledge can be a barrier to discovering ones own voice. For the most part, the music doesn't mean nearly as much as it meant then, and some of the newer players aren't telling their own stories. But there are a lot of young people playing, and a lot of composing of different kinds. A lot has to do with how recordings are being made. The death of the recording industry is creating a more level playing field where there are tons of things being recorded on homemade and personal labels, musicians doing their own recordings. Although there's less money in the jazz recording business today, there are a lot more records being made on independent labels. The problem is that nobody's really figured out what to do with music in this digital age.

AAJ: Do you feel that the current record distribution process has given musicians more room to create new things?

BZ: I think it does create more room, in a way, because the playing field is more level. Many musicians are succeeding by putting out records on their own labels. It creates a situation where if you can get a couple of thousand dollars, you can make your own record.

AAJ: But how do you get that money? In fact, how does anyone but the most famous make a good living in jazz today?

BZ: It is very difficult to earn a living just performing. Many of us teach as a way of making a steady income. I have been teaching in Pennsylvania prisons for over twenty years. It is gratifying way to spend time and I am able to compose, practice and even travel when the opportunities arise and someday I will even get a pension. I have been fortunate. Some of our busiest performers like Joe Lovano, Ralph Peterson, Gary Thomas, and Terell Stafford are on university and conservatory faculties.

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