Chris Washburne: Instrumental Activist

Jason Crane By

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A political act can be anything. My music on this record tends to be a little more energetic and high-powered. It's a wake-up call.
Chris WashburneTrombonist, composer and educator Chris Washburne has added another title—activist. Washburne and his longtime partners, The SYOTOS Band, are making a bold political statement on their new album, Land of Nod (Jazzheads, 2006). Like all bold political statements, this one is... danceable? You read that right. Washburne manages to pack the same punch on the dance floor as always, but he's coupling it with an ideological message intended to give listeners a meaning behind the music.

In September, Washburne was a guest on The Jason Crane Show, hosted by All About Jazz contributor Jason Crane. The following is a transcript of the interview. You can listen to the full interview and selections from the new album at the show's Web site.

All About Jazz: You've made an overtly political instrumental album. What are the challenges associated with recording a political album when you don't have lyrics to get the message across?

Chris Washburne: That's a really great question. For a number of years, I have always been politically active in my non-musical life, and I've been thinking about how to incorporate—because I mainly play instrumental music, at least the music I write is instrumental—I was really trying to ponder how I could put across political messages within that context. I realized that it really has to do with the political climate of today that forced this upon me. I was becoming more and more frustrated with our current administration, and the way things are moving in the world is very troubling to me.

I realized that being on stage week after week with a microphone in hand, there was a way I could convey some messages in the midst of the entertainment, and convey how I was feeling and voice some of my frustrations and connect with some listeners that way. So I started to write songs that were in some way inspired by feelings stirred by the current political situation. And then what I would do is have brief introductions to them on the microphone, and cue people in who wanted to be cued in—people who were on the dance floor or were in a jazz club listening—that there's something behind what this tune is about, and that's the sentiment and message that we're trying to get across. It was quite effective because you allow the listeners to make the connection in terms of the literal meanings, but the emotions are obviously there. It also served to incite more of an emotional display from the musicians in the band who had similar feelings.

AAJ: The new album is called Land of Nod, which is a Jonathan Swift reference, and also a reference to this country, which seems to have fallen asleep. For folks who know your music, they know that it's really danceable Latin jazz and salsa, and this album is no different. Do you try to connect the serious political content with danceable music?

CW: I think the music can be enjoyed on many different levels. Some people are just not willing to engage politically, and that's fine. I'm not really here to indoctrinate anybody or proselytize at all. I'm more interested in making people feel good with this music, but also in making them realize that there's something behind it, a personal meaning. If they can grasp some of that, it makes it a more meaningful musical experience for myself, but of course I understand that that's not necessarily always going to be the case, and that's cool, too.

Jonathan Swift has been a big influence on the way that I think politics and art can come together and serve as a creative force. The way that he did it in Gulliver's Travels, for instance, is really remarkable. A way to politically critique the state but at the same time provide a really engaging and creative storyline. So the Land of Nod is this place where everybody walks around in this slumberous state, which I tend to find is part of the political climate of the United States now. The Land of Nod is representative of the country we live in.

AAJ: In the Land of Nod, is the simple act of making music a political act?

CW: It can be, right? A political act can be anything. My music on this record tends to be a little more energetic and high-powered. It's a wake-up call. A wake-up call to those who are slumberous to say that political action can come in many different ways, just by paying attention to the political act. But also there's a way to resist by just moving your body and dancing to the grooves that have this meaning behind them.

AAJ: You're the leader of a band of independent-minded musicians. When you make a political record, is it important that the band buys into it?

CW: That's a great question. I could sense that there might be some discord in some groups. SYOTOS has been together for close to eighteen years now. Not only are the musicians close musical pals, but they're all my friends. I spend a lot of my free time with them, and I've learned a lot from them. We share openly our philosophies of life and politics. Most of them are pretty closely aligned with the ideas behind the record, so they were really enthusiastic when we embarked upon this project.

AAJ: In terms of the political content more than the musical content, is this a record you could have made eighteen years ago when SYOTOS started out, or have you become more radicalized in recent years?

CW: I absolutely would not have made this record until about two years ago. In the past I had always thought music should be there for entertainment and for art's sake and to instruct, but politics should be kept separate from that act. Playing in clubs—why do people come out to jazz clubs and listen to music? There are a variety of reasons, but the main one is social. To forget about the political struggles. And nowhere was that more apparent than being a jazz musician after September 11.

After 9/11, I had a gig that week at Smoke [jazz club in Manhattan], and I really wasn't in the mood to play. Nobody was. Nobody wanted to do anything. We were all depressed. We got there and the place was packed. There were so many people wanting to go out and commune, to just be together and to enjoy. And it was really important that our performance was not political, that it was a celebration of life, and a celebration of moving on. Nobody wanted to remember what had just happened for that set or for the few sets they were there. In that sense, music was really a powerful tool for healing, and at that point politics didn't belong.

God forbid if anything should happen again, I don't know if I would be saying the same things on the microphone that I do now in those settings. But as time has progressed and our political climate has changed, I couldn't remain silent anymore. I was compelled to say something, and the outlet that I have as a musician is a jazz club on stage or in a dance club on stage, so I take those few moments to state my perspective and move on.

I remember we were playing at Smoke not too long ago, and a very close friend of the [Bush] administration from Colombia was there. A politician—a right-wing candidate—who had just come from Washington, D.C. They heard our music and heard our rap and looked at the ambassadors who were with them and said, "My goodness, they really don't like George Bush in New York City, do they?" But they could enjoy the music, and since the message came along with this joyous musical expression, they were okay with that. I'm sure they didn't agree with me, but they certainly didn't stand up and walk out. They really enjoyed themselves. They even bought a CD afterwards. [laughs]

AAJ: Protest music is often perceived as the domain of rock and folk. Before we spoke, I put together a quick list of jazz players who've done protest music, and came up with folks like [drummer] Max Roach; [singer] Abbey Lincoln; [saxophonist] John Coltrane; [bassist] Charlie Haden; [bassist] Charles Mingus; [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk; [singer/pianist] Nina Simone; [singer] Oscar Brown, Jr.—it's an impressive list. It seems like in the 50's, 60's and 70's, people were doing that kind of thing in jazz, and then in the 80's it just went away. Now it seems to be coming back. Do you see political jazz as always having been there, or is the pendulum swinging back?

CW: I definitely see a swing of the pendulum. I think that the 1980's especially was a decade where the slumberous state started. I remember it. I was in college at the time, and the fervor I grew up with during the Vietnam era was just not there. There were not protests like there used to be. And I was at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which is a bastion of left-wing thinking and protest, and even then there was a lack of an edge to some of those political movements.

I remember coming to New York City and seeing the Mingus Dynasty perform in Central Park in the mid-80's. Of course this was [after] Charles Mingus's time, but my professor [bassist] Richard Davis was playing in the group and I went, and it was the first time that I saw [tenor saxophonist] George Adams play. They did a version of "Fables of Faubus" where George was using Mingus's original words to that and riffing off them, taunting the KKK to come after him, and it was just so powerful. Knowing that this music was written in the 60's, and Mingus was saying this stuff at a time when it was really dangerous to be saying that. It really moved me.

George Adams has had a huge influence on the way that I think about performance—the energy and messages that he was able to portray with his saxophone. I remember one time he was playing at a club in New York. It was a Friday night, and there were so many drunk people in there. It was so loud. He was playing with his quartet acoustically, and you could barely hear him. And he was probably one of the loudest saxophone players in the entire world. All of sudden, it got really quiet on stage. You could see that he was playing, but you couldn't hear anything. The people at the bar were looking because they couldn't hear any music. They started quieting down and looking. Everybody got quiet and you could hear him play, really softly, [sings first few bars of "America, The Beautiful"]. That's what he was playing. "America, The Beautiful." So quiet, like this whisper tune.

And then I saw him; his eyes rolled back into his head, and he leaned back and took a big breath, and there was the most devilish, diabolical sound that emerged from the saxophone. It just resounded in the depths of everybody's soul that was there. The entire place jumped, and from then on, the rest of the night, he quieted down and everybody listened. That power on stage—that was a form of protest in some ways. To really grab people's attention. He grabbed my attention in Central Park singing "Fables of Faubus," and I'll never forget that.


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