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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.

AAJ: What about the musicians who are just starting out? Many of them today study jazz at college or conservatory. They don't go around as much playing gigs as in the past. Then where are they when they graduate? How does that affect the quality of what's being produced?

BZ: I would say you learn the most by playing with people who are better than you! Many of the younger people now have their own bands. You go to any big city, and there are bands playing every night, and they're mostly young people. I know that for me, I always sought out my elders. I always wanted to be the least experienced guy in the band because I could learn something. Nowadays, it seems there's much less mix of generations. Also, there's much less decent work, so actual learning on the bandstand doesn't happen as much anymore.

AAJ: Would you then agree that this lack of seeking out elders could be an obstacle to creating great jazz?

BZ: Many young people study with great players and that is wonderful, but it's different being in a band. I began studying and playing with Cecil Taylor at the University of Wisconsin in 1971, and when he left, I followed him, and still am! Playing in Jymie Merritt's band next to Odean Pope 35 years ago was a life changing education. It's not so much the younger musicians or academia as such that limits creativity. It's the academic "canon" that's become really problematic. Up until around 1980, the musicians wanted to make new music that reflected their present moment. Then, somewhere around that time, "repertoire bands" became popular and many musicians became stuck on the past. I agree with them that it's great to know your history—I couldn't emphasize that enough. But it's not OK to stay in the past. Great jazz takes chances. Important jazz is always about going into the unknown, even when you don't know whether it's going to work.

AAJ: Music has to develop in new directions, or it stagnates. So, do you think that jazz the way it's being made today has the potential to create a John Coltrane or an Eric Dolphy or a Cecil Taylor—some of your own favorite innovators?

BZ: Of course! There's no way to predict geniuses—they come along!

AAJ: But the conditions that allow their genius to emerge have to be there as well.

BZ: To me, they'll always come along, regardless of what's happening around them.

Movements, Styles, and Genres in Jazz

AAJ: It's your faith that the innovators always appear. Now, let's go back a little in time. Let's say from WWII and onward, jazz clustered around certain styles or approaches: swing, bebop, West Coast cool, hard bop, fusion, and so on. After fusion, roughly around 1980, rather than develop a new form, jazz appeared to become elastic, eclectic, and culturally diverse without any center to hold it together. Before that there was a great amount of interaction between musicians attracted to a specific approach. A number of musicians are of the opinion that there is no longer any distinct evolution in jazz and that contemporary jazz is just elaborating on what has gone before. Do you agree with this assessment?

BZ: Not entirely. For example, Steve Coleman is definitely the leader of a significant movement in jazz and has been for quite a while. He and his cohorts have been exploring rhythmic organization in a way that had never been done before. That's phenomenal.

AAJ: Are there others like Steve who are leading a movement?

BZ: There are other important brilliant creative musicians, but to me he's the leader of the pack. Just to mention a few, Henry Threadgill, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Lehman are also doing a lot of original things in their own right.

AAJ: Did they interact personally with one another?

BZ: Threadgill is older and is truly one of a kind. Vijay played in Steve's band. I don't know whether Steve and Rudresh ever played together, but I do know that Rudresh was listening to Steve. If you were in New York after 1982, you knew there was something that had never happened before. Rudresh is part of the world cultures influence, and in that connection Amir ElSaffar is doing great things incorporating Iraqi music. Fred Ho used Chinese music before he passed away. Jen Shyu, a vocalist who was born in Illinois to Taiwanese and East Timorese immigrant parents, composes music based on those sources as well as other countries like China and Cuba. There's a whole movement of Asian music. There's a guy in California, a great saxophonist, Hafez Modirazadeh who uses Iranian music.

AAJ: Here's a question that stirs up a lot of controversy. There are two competing definitions of jazz: music of specifically Afro-American origin versus improvised music of any origin and genre. What is your opinion?

BZ: Well, jazz comes from Afro-American culture. There's no question about that—it's un-debateable, as far as I'm concerned.

AAJ: Bassist George Mraz made four wonderful albums of Moravian music with a lot of improvising. They consist entirely of music from that specific Eastern European region. Is that jazz?

BZ: I have not heard that music so I can't say. The way George Mraz touches the bass, when I have heard him with Tommy Flanagan has to do with Paul Chambers, Jimmy Blanton, and the whole lineage of African American bass players. He reflects the Afro-American heritage no matter what he plays. Conversely, composers in America often write European neo-classical music. All of music borrows from others. You learn a lot from everyone, and then you develop your own music.

AAJ: Musician and musicologist George Lewis, argues that, unlike European classical music, jazz is the expression of the personality and story of the performer as distinct from the composer. So, for example, Sonny Stitt came right out of Charlie Parker, but each had his unique way of playing. That's what makes jazz so exciting, that each performance is a completely new experience that reflects something about the player and/or the group. It's a very individualized form of self expression that also has universal implications. Unfortunately today we have the phenomenon of "mass man," where people have blended into one another and lose their distinct human qualities. It makes you wonder whether jazz, which is so individualistic, can survive in the new social context. Do you think jazz can make it in this world?

BZ: Yes, it will survive. It'll survive!

Does Bebop Really Exist?

AAJ: Getting back to the history of jazz, do you subscribe to the common idea that jazz evolved in distinct phases, say hot, swing, bebop, hard bop, etc? Or do you think it's been a gradual evolution?

BZ: I think everything is overlapping and interconnected. Historians, critics, and business people want to put things in boxes. Did Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, or Lester Young play swing or bebop? Who can say?

AAJ: Well, then what did Charlie Parker invent that was new?

BZ: He had a rhythmic sense nobody had until then—and actually nobody has since then. He had a language for playing melodically that was unique. He used passing tones in a way that nobody had before him. To me, when people play like him, I like to say they're playing the Charlie Parker "school" rather than something called bebop.

AAJ: So you wouldn't say that Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others invented a new form of music called bebop?

BZ: It wasn't a new form of music. Rather, they evolved a way of expression that fit the post-World War II culture: the speeded up reality, the intensity of the times like a woodblock on a print.

AAJ: Would you say that it was a new genre of jazz?

BZ: Not necessarily, because if you listen to Don Byas or Lester Young, both of whom pre-dated Bird and whom he listened to coming up, they anticipated a lot of Bird's playing. And then you have guys like Thelonious Monk, who are completely unique, yet a lot of people put him in the bebop category.

AAJ: Monk himself always claimed that he was one of the bebop originators. He was there with Parker, Gillespie, and the others at Minton's when they were inventing the new harmonies, etc.

BZ: But Monk had his own milieu, his own direction. My main point is that these ideas were around long before then. Cootie Williams actually made the first recording of Monk's "'Round Midnight" in 1944. Yet we think of him as a swing player with Duke Ellington.

AAJ: That supports your point that jazz evolves over time, it doesn't have sharp breaks from one genre to another. So what you're saying is that jazz is always finding new ways of self-expression, and it doesn't matter so much what you call it.

BZ: Exactly. Today, I was listening to a Miles Davis recording in Europe from 1969-70, when he still had Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and Jack DeJohnette in the band. You could call it avant-garde, fusion, or whatever you want, but it completely defies categorization. In a way its closer to what Cecil Taylor was playing than Miles' Kind of Blue. But Miles is just Miles, and it's very beautiful.

Leading the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound

AAJ: You're the leader of the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound that includes some of the most advanced and varied musicians. Would you say that their interaction is similar to the one you describe in that Miles Davis Quintet?

BZ: No. What I'm saying about Miles is that, for one thing, in 1969-70 he was playing music that totally defied genre and was simply fantastic. The other thing is that if you have younger guys in the band, like Chick Corea was playing electric piano on that gig, and DeJohnette was on fire, so that changing the cast of characters breathes life into the music as well. The situation I have with the Warriors is more like having musicians bring their unique knowledge and artistry to our situation and create some beautiful music.

AAJ: But would you agree that the band members have influenced the approach of the Warriors and the nature of your arrangements?

BZ: That's a good question. Up to this point, the Warriors have been chameleon-like, depending on the situation. When we played with Rene McLean, we played in his style. When we played with Rudresh, I wrote a piece based on Indian modes. Of course, there's a consistency in our playing, but I try to bring stuff to each occasion for the guest performers, and it may be that in doing that I've ignored the specific Warriors identity. And that's what I'm doing right now. For the last month or two, and on into the fall, I'm working on what the real Warriors sound is that we haven't really heard yet.

AAJ: This is exciting. And it's relevant to our discussion, because one of the questions about jazz today is whether you can really hear distinct styles and distinct flavors in the music that is coming out. In New York alone, there are many great musicians playing in many different groups, and you wonder if each of those groups has a distinct, coherent style or approach.

BZ: That's just what I'm striving for now.

AAJ: How would you go about doing it?

BZ: I know exactly what I'm doing. I'm doing what I did at the concert with Dave Burrell, Muhammad Ali, and William Parker. I'm writing it out in my charts for the band to be able to have that level of intensity, dealing with those specific ideas about rhythm.

Music as "Style" and "Idea"

AAJ: But will that be an identifiable style?

BZ: I always say that music is not a style, it's an idea. There was an idea of rhythmic organization we were dealing with that night that's totally different from what we've done up until then.

AAJ: You may have just defined what the future of jazz will be about. You might be a microcosm for what others might do. While groups of the past, say the Count Basie Band or the Bill Evans trios, had a distinct, easily recognizable style, it may be that what bands are about now is less a matter of style and more about what musical ideas they convey. Perhaps the excitement will come from the ideas rather than the distinct sound of the group. William Parker, for example, is one of those who keeps developing meaningful musical ideas in various contexts.

The Social, Political, and Spiritual Context of Jazz

AAJ: On another level, how does the music today reflect the current social and political landscape?

BZ: I can't speak for other people, but I know that what I'm trying to do really comes from the reality of my life, my personal and family issues, my loves and relationships, my practice of Buddhism, my feelings about what's going on in the world. Our concert with Rene McLean was two days after the presidential election. We never expected the electoral outcome, and it turned out that the concert was very healing for us and the audience.

AAJ: I was there, and I remember both you and Parker saying we all needed to support one another and keep doing what we're doing regardless of how we felt about the election.

BZ: And the William Parker concert was the night of the Women's March, which marked the beginning of formal protests against the new regime. We had a full house, and I was surprised people came after spending the day at the march. And it was impossible to get around town because of the traffic changes. But they all showed up!

AAJ: One thing that concerns me in today's world is the impact of cyber-technology in distancing everyone from their physical embodied being. Now we communicate by texts, "apps," and cellphones rather than in face-to-face contact. Live music provides an antidote to this, creating a genuine sense of community. Your music in particular is transformational, affecting the audience both intellectually and emotionally. Do you share my concern about the computer culture?

BZ: Yes, I think that as a culture, we're losing touch with our feelings and gut experience, whether it's computers or something else. I think that's been going on for a long, long time.

AAJ: I know you practice Buddhism. How do you deal with this problem from a Buddhist perspective?

BZ: I try to connect with people. When my own darkness gets in the way, I try to become a more open, connecting person and try to appreciate other people and share what I have with them. That's what we're really here for.

AAJ: So Buddhism is not about dropping out.

BZ: No. Buddhism is about encouraging and inspiring other people.

AAJ: Some important jazz musicians like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and others turned to Eastern Thought for inspiration. Rollins studied at a yoga ashram in India and still practices meditation. Do you think the practice of these forms of spirituality stimulates the music?

BZ: There are many forms of Eastern thought and Buddhism. I can only talk specifically about Nicheren Buddhism, which I have practiced for decades.

AAJ: I believe Wayne Shorter practices Nicheren Buddhism. Is that why you wrote the song, "The Next Time I See You," in memory of his wife Ana Maria who died in the TWA Flight 800 plane disaster off Long Island in 1996?

BZ: No. I just love Wayne Shorter, and I felt great empathy when I heard his wife died. It gave me a particular point of view. Here, let me read something to you. I just opened a new book where Wayne writes: "I like to say that playing jazz builds on our humanity in that it presents us with the challenge of not knowing what's going to happen. And not knowing what's going to happen is what improvisation is all about. We wanted to pick the moments of struggle, to have the audience seeing us struggling and then breaking out of those moments and creating victory for something that transcends the temporariness and unpredictability of life." (Herbie Hancock, Daisaku Ikeda, and Wayne Shorter: Reaching Beyond: Improvisations on Jazz, Buddhism, and a Joyful Life. Middleway Press, 2017.)

Just right there is the difference between what we were saying earlier about the 1960s versus the academic-oriented musicians coming up today. They need to be willing to be wrong, to go into an unknown area. I would tell them, "Take a chance, walk on the edge of the mountain, walk out on the ice."

AAJ: Have you brought young musicians into the Warriors?

BZ: Last year, I used a sixteen year old drummer, Nazir Ebo, in one of my smaller groups. And I did a performance with dancers where I used a twenty year old saxophonist, Yesseh Ali, a guy from the Clef Club Youth Orchestra. Just last week, I rehearsed with Dylan Reis, a high school senior bassist. I'm thinking seriously about how to do this more. For a concert in June I will be using 17 year old pianist Joseph Block. Some of these young people are truly remarkable.

The "Corporate Effect" Versus the Individual Spirit

AAJ: A while back, in a casual conversation, you said something puzzling to me. You said, "There is a force pulling all the music together today." What is that force?

BZ: I'm not sure what I meant by that. [Laughter.] In many ways, I see it all fracturing more and more, and some great musicians being marginalized, and some being overemphasized. I would draw a comparison with hamburgers. In the past, every block on every city had its own special hamburger, and the one on 30th Street was different from the one on 33rd Street. Now you get the same McDonalds whether you go to 30th Street, 33rd Street, Bangkok, or anywhere in the world. We have a situation now where it's almost "McJazz." When I spoke of those forces, I may have meant it in a negative way, that money is going to those sources which are limiting what people can hear.

AAJ: So there's a certain kind of homogenization.

BZ: Yes, homogenization, the "corporate effect." I shout out to musicians: "Make your own music, and make your own scene." Create your own activity. Steve Coleman is a good role model for that. To me, he's been the most important figure in New York jazz for forty years. Yet he didn't play at the Village Vanguard until last year. He created his own opportunities. We all have to make the shit happen. We have to turn the negatives into positives. I've had great teachers like Cecil Taylor who prevailed after receiving poor treatment or being dismissed as too far out. So I know it can be done.

Every jazz performance needs to say something unique and important that also comes from a universal source. Let me read one more thing from the book, Reaching Beyond. The Buddhist poet and philosopher Daisaku Ikeda asks Herbie Hancock about the roots of jazz. Herbie says, "[Jazz] is a gift that African Americans gave to the world. It came from the oppression of African Americans. Their suffering gave birth to it. Jazz is no longer limited to expressing pain, though it has expanded well beyond that. They turned suffering into joy, through creativity rather than into revenge, poison into medicine. Sharing and openness also is characteristic of jazz. It enthusiastically adopts influences from other countries and genres while at the same time strongly influencing them. These traits, sharing, openness, and turning suffering into joy are the core of spirituality."

Again, from Herbie, "Even though the roots of jazz come from the African American experience, my feeling has always been that jazz really developed from a noble aspect of the human spirit common to all people." We must devote ourselves to sustaining that spirit in jazz.

Photo Credit: Anthony Dean

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