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Chasing The Masters: First Takes Of A Modern Drumming Artist

Chasing The Masters: First Takes Of A Modern Drumming Artist
Phil Haynes
296 pages
ISBN: #979-886-0200883
Self Published

I recently attended several recitals by instrumentalists, composers, and arrangers from the renowned Jazz Studies Program at William Paterson University. The level of musicianship was uniformly high in these stimulating and thought-provoking performances, and the alleged homogeny of jazz in the academy was nowhere to be found. Hearing idealism and enthusiasm in the emerging, individualistic voices was deeply gratifying. The music served as encouragement to continue to follow the graduates' music and careers in the years to come.

The flip side of these positive experiences is that they inevitably raise thorny questions regarding the graduates' futures. If they intend to pursue careers as professional musicians, will jazz performance, a field in which it is notoriously difficult to find sufficient work to make a living, take a backseat to playing a lot of other kinds of music that pays the bills but doesn't necessarily nourish the imagination or soul?

Instead, will they choose to work day jobs that enable them to keep artistic visions and identities as jazz musicians intact? And how will they fare in an increasingly do-it-yourself world, which necessitates a high degree of self-reliance and tenacity in terms of forming ensembles, finding gigs, managing artistic and business matters, as well as conceiving of, financing, producing, and promoting recordings?

Is it safe to assume that the influences of the university jazz curriculum and current peer group will be subject to many other stimuli as the years go by, leading to new and unforeseen directions? Or will their identities and performances remain firmly rooted in recognizable, celebrated jazz traditions? Will even the best and most persistent of them have difficulty coping with the scarcity of recognition and affirmation in an art form with a smaller fan base? Most importantly, will these promising young musicians continue to find kindred spirits to accompany them in creative musical pursuits?

These issues permeate Phil Haynes' autobiography Chasing The Masters: First Takes of a Modern Drumming Artist. For those unfamiliar with his work, Haynes is an accomplished performer, composer, bandleader, recording artist, member of cooperative ensembles, educator, and entrepreneur. He has garnered much positive attention from high-echelon critics in well-known print publications and broadcast media. However, emphasizing his credentials or dropping the names of many of his cohorts is beside the point. More important are the ways in which Haynes has evolved, artistically and in terms of the business of jazz and improvised music, managing to survive and often thrive amid myriad challenges.

After graduating high school, Haynes had the good fortune to land at Coe College, a liberal arts school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a strong music program. He immediately encountered Paul Smoker, a brilliant trumpeter and unorthodox professor. Smoker became Haynes' teacher, mentor, and, well before graduation, a colleague in a band that marked the beginning of Haynes' career.

Smoker's teaching style included an insistence—in front of the school's big band—that his young charge purge a substantial collection of Buddy Rich records in order to shun Rich's pervasive influence, and concentrate on analyzing and explaining the contributions of prominent, black jazz drummers throughout the music's history. He convinces the music department that Haynes doesn't need a drum teacher; a deep dive into the jazz tradition is more important. Lessons include playing in a duo format with Smoker, eventually transitioning into an adventurous working trio with bassist Ron Rohovit. They toured extensively and released four recordings under Smoker's name, one of which included three tracks with Anthony Braxton. "A concert," wrote one observer, "would range from field hollers to Avant-Garde and touch nearly everything in between."

An early indication of the open-minded, eclectic musician Haynes would eventually become is the willingness to embrace Smoker's insistence on exploring all corners of jazz and paying close attention to modern classical music. Haynes stays open to the creativity inherent in the music of Braxton, Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and others. While they were initially "all but impossible to digest readily, let alone make well-informed heads or tails of," he is willing to return to their music time and time again, throughout the decades, to gain a greater appreciation.

Haynes grapples with his disparate identities as an artist and those imposed on him by some musicians he encountered during decades spent in New York City's jazz and improvised music scenes. After college, he moved to NYC, intent on eventually landing the drum chair "in the equivalent of Art Blakey's group" and becoming a sought-after sideman in mainstream ensembles. Haynes survives by working 50-hour-per-week day jobs, first in telemarketing and eventually in high-end interior painting.

With friend and colleague guitarist Jim Yanda, Haynes converts a Brooklyn storefront into a living, rehearsal, and performance space. The Corner Store eventually becomes a haven for a community of artists who "were mostly focused and in pursuit of forward-looking, history-advancing, important new music..." Subsequent to a brief, lucrative period of playing in wedding bands, Haynes rejects nearly all commercial work in favor of only performing for the right personal reasons—namely, "child-like joy, community spirit, and artistic challenge."

After years of playing in NYC jam sessions, Haynes realizes that, despite the ability to hold his own in playing jazz standards and the Great American Songbook, he is likely to be decades away from "walking in through the standards front door." Apart from the fact that there were too many drummers ahead of him in the straight-ahead queue, it also belatedly dawns on him that talking to convention-minded peers about experiences with the jazz avant-garde may have turned him into something of an anomaly. Many people in "the real (so-called) mainstream...see me as avant-garde, and the real free players, the people who have only been playing free [most] all their lives—they see me as a jazz player."

Haynes' response to this quandary is to focus on "leading diverse bands and developing collectives." These activities require the addition of numerous skills, in addition to his evolution as a drummer and composer, such as finding and promoting gigs; initiating and funding recording projects; mastering the craft and the art of producing records and making all-important post-production decisions. He emphasizes that learning to do these things is a matter of "financial as well as artistic necessity." Despite being told by one jazz radio executive that "we don't play that kind of music," he insists that making records is "The only way to create a lasting international reputation..."

A handful of Haynes' numerous recording projects reveal a truly restless musical mind and, one suspects, a genuine desire to avoid being pigeonholed. ..."The very moment I have created and documented one artistically successful group," he writes, "I immediately start another, generally of sharp contrasts." For example, Music for Percussion & Piano (Corner Store Jazz, 2020) is comprised of non-Jazz, classically influenced improvisations. Initially inspired by Anthony Braxton and a product of years of thought and consideration, Sanctuary (Corner Store Jazz, 2013) solely showcases Haynes' drums and percussion. Another is The American Trilogy of records by Haynes' band Free Country which features fresh arrangements of American music ranging from pre-1900s tunes to Western soundtracks, Aaron Copeland, and various popular songs from the 1960s. And finally, No Fast Food, an adventurous trio comprised of Haynes, saxophonist/flutist Dave Liebman, and bassist Drew Gress, has released four CDs.

Although Haynes frequently offers insights into his evolution on the drum kit, three specific instances give the reader an idea of the breadth of his approach to the instrument. He interprets a question from Lee Konitz "as a direct challenge to hear each and every note of the sonorities I was creating." Within a few years, this ..."conception, utterly revolutionized my playing." (90) Gress and tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin "coaxed me into laying back more on the beat, so as to relax, widen and mature my approach to expressing time feels." Informal, freely improvised duets with avant-garde trumpeter Herb Robertson were "a genuine revelation," inspiring him to "make use of available sounds I'd apparently ignored previously...Everything audible needs to be explored and developed, intended or not."

After nearly 25 years in New York, Haynes married and moved to central Pennsylvania, where, at Bucknell University, his creativity, drive, and ability to get things done assumed new dimensions. He initiated a successful chamber jazz concert series that ran for ten years. Haynes founded The Bucknell Interdisciplinary Improvisation Ensemble, a new music aggregation comprised of Bucknell music majors, visiting international artists, and integrating "other faculty, staff and student artists from both the sciences and humanities." The multi-media ensemble performed regularly on campus and in other Lewisburg, Pennsylvania area venues. In addition to introducing Bucknell and central Pennsylvania to a lot of new music, Haynes created, from scratch, a two-semester course comprised of "an integrated jazz history and literature sequence, including a semester of classic jazz and one of modern jazz," which he taught for five years.

At the book's conclusion, Haynes makes it clear that he is a long way from "withdrawing into a much-dreaded international retirement." Although possessing "a natural and healthy nervousness about my own place in this great tradition," he is intent on shepherding a public and critical reappraisal of Paul Smoker's extensive body of work. Haynes has been "supervising updates to Paul's websites and presenting a comprehensive Bandcamp archive of his important albums," as well as advocating the issue of a multi-disc box set of the trumpeter's output.

Chasing The Masters is recommended to students, musicians, fans, or any interested party who wants to gain insight into the joys and difficulties of a life in jazz.



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