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Darcy James Argue: His Secret Society

R.J. DeLuke By

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AAJ: The Conservatory was a great experience for all of that, especially with Brookmeyer there.

DJA: Yeah. That was a fantastic experience to be able to go down to Boston, to study directly with Brookmeyer. He's taught so many great writers. Not every great composer or great player is a great teacher, but it's something Bob took very seriously. He took an incredible interest in the development of all of his students and developed a lot of strategies for helping people to develop their own voice and push people to try things that they hadn't tried before, to nudge them out of their comfort zone a little bit. When that was already happening, he also had the perspective to stay out of the way.

The first chart I wrote when I moved down and studied with Brookmeyer was this thing called "Lizard Brain," that we still play, a 20-minute burnout, a baritone sax feature. It was something drastically different than I'd ever attempted before. I think Bob could sense that enough to let me see where this music was going to lead me before offering too much in terms of actual critique. He saw that I was really looking for something, that I was searching for something. Basically, his comments were, "Great. Keep it coming," until the whole thing was complete. After that we'd look at what we had. He was able to help me shape it from that point. I think he knew if that he got too bogged down in the details, it might have the negative effect of slowing down the process of experimentation.

At that point, I was so excited to be down there studying with him and be around so many great musicians that I thought I had something to prove with the chart. So I was really pushing myself. For the first few lessons, I thought, "Is he ever going to say anything?" He just said, "That's great. Keep it up. Keep it up."

AAJ: When you left the Conservatory, did you hang around Boston for awhile?

DJA:I stayed in Boston for one year after I graduated, because my girlfriend was still at Tufts University (near Boston) , she had another year. But I was commuting to New York a lot because I was involved in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. Every Tuesday morning,. I'd get up super early and go down and line up for one of those Chinatown express buses to New York. I'd spend the day there with friends who were musicians and ask them a lot of questions about what it was like; wander around the city a bit. Then go in for the BMI meetings or the reading sessions at the (musician's) union hall.

At the time, Jim McNeely and Michael Abene were running the program. John Hollenbeck was occasionally playing drums on the reading sessions, which as really great. It gave me a chance to talk to John a little bit about some of the things he was doing with his music, not to mention having him play on our charts, including mine, which was wonderful.

That gave me a sense of...I guess there was security in numbers. I was trying to work hard at that point. It was like, is it completely insane to decide to move to New York and start a big band? And the answer is: yes. It is completely insane to move to New York and start a big band. But since there were a lot of people doing it in the BMI workshop, it did seem a lot more reasonable.

AAJ: At that point, were you thinking: I'm not going to be a pianist leading a quartet? You were thinking big band?

DJA: All through my studies at the New England Conservatory, I tried to keep both sides up. I would play a lot of piano at my lessons with Brookmeyer. He was extremely helpful. I've never been much of a bebop specialist. He's someone who helped refine line playing and digging in and trying to get a sense of that Midwestern swing feel that he and Clark Terry have that's so special. At the end of that process, when I had to make a decision about moving to New York and starting a big band and whatnot, it became apparent there weren't enough hours a in the day to pursue dual careers to start up a new big band that was going to play my new music exclusively, run that and organize that, and also try to make a name for myself in New York as a pianist.

It was a really hard decision, but it was becoming evident that my voice was coming out a lot clearer in my compositions than it was in my piano playing.

I felt that the music I was writing was more personal and meaningful to me than my ability to make a statement on a standard or something like that. It came down to that. I've got to pick something, for my own insane reasons I gravitated toward the big band route rather than the piano route.

AAJ: It is a daunting task. How did the idea for the Secret Society come about? Did you have a big band before that?

DJA: The Secret Society is the first big band that I started on my own. I had done in Boston big band concerts with other composers from NEC and a lot of NEC players that were put together to play over the summer; kind of an ad hoc group. But (the Secret Society) this is my first attempt at starting a big band that plays regularly and has more or less sustainable personnel.

It took me a while to work up the nerve to do that. I was new in New York. I moved there in the fall of 2003 and continued doing the BMI Workshop. The BMI sessions are designed to give you a little taste of what it's like to have your music played by a great group of players. But the reading sessions go by quickly. You usually have seven to 10 minutes of the band looking at what you wrote, then they move on. If you want to explore your music in more depth and have a chance to rehearse it, then you've got to set that up on your own.

I started putting together some reading sessions on my music a few months after I moved to New York. I didn't know a lot of players at that point. I got a list of names off a friend who graciously shared his Rolodex with me. I made a lot of cold calls that went something like: "You don't know me. I'm new in town. But I'm a writer. You want to come down to the union and play through some of my music for free? It's really hard."

Darcy James Argue / The Secret Society

I was amazed at the reaction . Everyone in New York wants to play. Universally, everyone said, "I'd love to do that. Where do I sign up?" Or, "I'm sorry. I can't make that day, but keep me in mind. I love to play really hard music." That seemed like a positive indication that I moved to the right place, because it doesn't happen in other cities.

I started having these reading sessions. It was really [trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen who ended up kicking my ass and saying, "If you're going to keep having these reading sessions, you should get us a gig somewhere." I said, "OK. I'll try and get us a gig somewhere." I managed to get something. We had a great reception from that and it took off from there.

AAJ: That's cool that everybody was so willing. They probably also told you that you were crazy.

DJA: [chuckles]. It still is completely insane. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing with my life. This big band I'm running and recording is a totally unreasonable way to make music. It's like I've gone out of my way to create the absolute most difficult scenario in terms of hours involved in preparation, to actual minutes of music produced. But for whatever reason, the payoff has been worth it for me so far.

AAJ: The music I've heard sounds really good. And I know the critical acclaim is there, which has to feel good.

DJA: It's been incredibly gratifying. Critics and listeners have responded so well to this music. It's obviously really important, especially in this kind of endeavor where it is so labor intensive to get even five minutes of music out there. Sometimes it's difficult to keep motivated through the grind of preparing that. That kind of response, especially from the audiences, has been very encouraging. It's been very motivating, as well, for me writing stuff and keeping the band going.

AAJ: How do you sustain yourself, financially?

DJA: I'm a music copyist by day. I do a lot of work for various clients. Sometimes I do Broadway or film scores. Sometimes it's composers who still do work with pencil and paper. Or they have the score in music notation software and they want me to extract parts or whatever. I try to hustle up as much of that as I can to feed my big band habit.

AAJ: You guys don't travel that much?

DJA: We did have a mini-tour back in January. It was a Canadian splinter cell version of the band. I brought up as many players from New York as I could afford and we hooked up with some of the musicians I had collaborated with in my days on the Montreal scene, as well as Toronto players. That was great to be able to bring that music back to Montreal, which is a city that I dearly love. We played a show in Montreal, then we went to Toronto and did the last IAJE convention. And we did a gig at a club called Tranzac in Toronto as well. That was great. It was a wonderful experience to take the music outside of New York for a little while and collaborate with a different group of musicians.

We're trying to do something similar this summer. With the Canadian jazz festival season coming up, we'll try to set up a little tour of some festivals. Again, it will probably be a combination of musicians who play in the New York band and then some Canadian players as well.

AAJ: The joys of carrying a big band must outweigh the frustrations.

DJA: I guess on balance. Or it's something I'm powerless to stop doing.

AAJ: You've used the word "steampunk" to describe your music. What does that mean for you?

Darcy James Argue

DJA: For people who aren't familiar, steampunk is a literary movement, but it's also become involved in lifestyle and culture and invention. It involves an alternate vision of the future. What if the technology of the late 19th century, the external combustion engine and whatnot, was still the basis for contemporary technology.

A lot of it is inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and taking that view of the future and extrapolating it. It's using an anachronism, like using the past, or an imagined past or imagined future, as a way to comment on the present.

What also struck me is that it had so much contemporary resonance. To take these kind of pulp, late 19th century tropes and plug them into postmodern storytelling techniques, and to be able to do that and make some wry commentary on the state of the modern world and our relationship to technology. For whatever reason, that resonated with me and what I was trying to do—to take what is, in a lot of ways, an antiquated music technology and use it to make contemporary sounds.

The big band is born of the need to have a band that could fill a large ballroom before the days of amplification. If you needed the music to be loud and powerful, you needed 17, 18 players wailing away on it. Technology has rendered that necessity obsolete. Popular music has moved on to other things. Back in the day, the big bands were the sound of the day. If you had a singer and you had a radio hit, they had to be backed up by a big band. It was the sound of the day.

I thought, what would happen if that instrumentation had persisted through the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s? What of that was still a necessity for popular music and every song you heard on the radio had a big band behind it still? What might that music sound like?

Jazz, at that time, had that interesting relationship to popular music. Not everything you heard ion the radio was jazz, but it was jazz all kind of jazzy. There was that shared instrumentation and that shared sense of swing behind everything and a shared harmonic vocabulary. What if you had this contemporary big band that had a shared sonic vocabulary with bands like Tortoise or TV On The Radio? What might that sound like?
About Darcy James Argue
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