In the world of creative improvisation, there is an adage that being true to one's art and one's instrument doesn't necessarily beget monetary or commercial success, but rather a place in the history books and the esteem of one's peers, a decidedly sure place in the nebula of the sonic air current. But what of those who create music that defies the boundaries of jazz, folk, and rock in a way that just so happens to reach outside the cognoscenti to a public well outside the jazz world? Are self, art, instrument, and public necessarily separate truths? Guitarist, singer-songwriter and improviser Michael Gregory has found a window into all of these subjects the hard way, and yet through all of it, his vision has been steadfast.
Born Michael Gregory Jackson in 1953 in New Haven, Connecticut, Gregory was around a variety of music from a young age, and his father "listened to a lot of music, from Groove Holmes and George Benson to Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles, that type of stuff. The Creed Taylor jazz stuff, you know, and my father was a musician and played ukulele and tenor guitar, harmonica, but it wasn't his jobthat's how I started getting involved in music. I always heard music and my older brothers were singers [one was in The Five Satins]." Gregory originally wanted to play drums, though at the behest of his father, the quieter learning curve of the guitar won out.
By his teens, Gregory was playing local coffee shops and nightspots, primarily in a singer-songwriter vein, though he was listening to everything he could get his hands on: "I was into rock music, but I was into all kinds of music, especially Miles and at that time, electric Miles, Coltrane and Sanders, Webern and Stravinsky; radio wasn't so demographically programmed, and I always felt that I liked 'music,' and never separated it too much." After high school, Gregory moved to Boston with a friend ("originally, my plan was to actually go to Japan and become a monk; I was very involved in Zen Buddhism") playing folk music and improvising - not through any specific jazz connection, but through the thriving artistic community that existed in New York and Boston in the early '70s.
Trumpeter and composer Leo Smith was one of Gregory's early mentors, and helped set the stage for the guitarist's involvement in improvised music: "I liked Leo as a person: he was very powerful, directed, clear and communicative, and that was very interesting to me. He was very learned, very accepting and nurturing of creativity. He was writing in these different notations, and it was very appealing to me on many levels - on a visual level, his scores were beautiful in an artistic way. He was dealing with rhythm units and other concepts, and the freedom was very appealing."
From there, Gregory became involved with other improvising luminaries like "Jay Hoggard, Dwight Andrews, Jeff Fuller, Pheeroan Ak Laff, and a whole bunch of people who were in that New Haven scene. I met Oliver Lake through a concert that I was playing with Leo in Boston, and Leo had invited Oliver, and Oliver invited me to come to New York and start playing with him. That was really it; through them I met the Art Ensemble, Anthony Braxton, [poet] Ntozake Shange, we started doing tours, and there was also a thriving scene in New York at the time. I also met and played a lot with Henry Threadgill, pretty much anybody you can think of, because it was a very fertile scene and everybody collaborated with dancers, poets, writers, photographers, and artists.
At the same time I was in the loft-jazz scene, I was also playing in the punk clubs, and I was always into a lot of different things." Gregory toured Europe and played the concert and festival circuit in a group with Lake, trumpeter Baikaida Carroll and Ak Laff, and recorded several highly unique albums from 1976 through 1979 for Bija, Black Saint, Improvising Artists and Arista. Gregory's music was unlike anything previous guitarists in either free or straight-ahead jazz idioms had done: "I really tried hard to not have the guitar sound like a guitar, or be limited by a traditional guitar style. Truthfully, I just wanted to produce what I heard in my imagination... I got involved with different concepts for amplification - using stereo amplification, finding ways to play longer tones on the guitar, whether that be bowing it with wooden things or using volume pedals. In fact, a recent Downbeat article had Bill Frisell saying that I was an inspiration to him using volume pedals in his work."
By 1979, though, Gregory had felt that the singer-songwriter aspect of his art was being neglected, and through both free improvisation and experimenting with the possibilities of electric guitar sounds and rhythmic structure, he had redeveloped an interest in playing rock music. "That was what was calling me, and I shrunk the band down so it was just Ak Laff and Jerome Harris... and then I started the three-piece rock band Signal. We played every night and rehearsed every day for about two years and hit all the clubs and festivals nonstop between Boston and New York, DC and other cities. Obviously, there was a big circuit for rock music, and we were a band that people could dance to, though I played a lot of guitar solossome of the stuff was blues-based, but it was pretty balls-to-the-wall, aggressive music."
Arista, however, was less receptive to Gregory's talents as a rock musician, even more so because it was not an idiom that African-American artists were regularly associated with: "I had this situation where the label was saying 'oh wow, this is great, these are terrific songs,' and I was also very prolific and writing five songs a day, and I'd say 'okay, can I record them?' and they would just keep me on hold. Basically, I was black and they didn't want me to do rock, though doing R&B would have been fine. I spent a year with Arista trying to make the move I wanted to make musically, and they wouldn't let me do it, so finally I asked for my release."
This led to a time of serious disappointment with the record business, as though Gregory was working with producers like Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic (and even briefly Walter Becker), attempts to record the music he wanted and have it be promoted to any capacity were almost nil, though he was able to record one album for Island (1983's Situation X
). In litigation for almost three years with Island to get out of his contract, Gregory became leery of the music business in general, and returned to Massachusetts to raise his family. However, in recent years, he has returned not only to playing regularly (including guitar solos with Stephen Allen setting the poems of Paul Muldoon, as well as two solo releases slated for Fall 2005) but to the world of free improvisation, and has renewed his relationship with Oliver Lake - a fruitful partnership that, to Gregory, "feels like home."
Through the pitfalls of the commercial music world, Michael Gregory has learned a lot about not only the integrity of the music business, but also about his own integrity as an artistsomething which has certainly not flagged a bit, and which can be credited to what improvisation has affirmed. "I had my own thing I was hearing, and I had it from when I was a kid. I would go to my lessons and they'd say 'here, play this' and I'd play my etudes, and right after I'd work on something of my own. I always heard my own music and would try to play what I was hearing... I love really being able to stretch myself. The integrity that comes from improvising - there is no substitute for it." This very integrity is what has imbued Michael Gregory's music, across all boundaries. Recommended Listening:
* Oliver Lake - Holding Together (Black Saint, 1976)
* Michael Gregory Jackson - Clarity (Bija, 1976)
* Michael Gregory Jackson - Karmonic Suite (IAI, 1978)
* Oliver Lake - Life Dance of Is (Arista-Novus, 1978)
* Oliver Lake - Shine (Arista-Novus, 1978)
* Michael Gregory Jackson - Gifts (Arista-Novus, 1979)