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Gary Bartz At 80: On Jazz Is Dead, Miles Davis And Why Improvisation Is A Dirty Word


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When so-called white citizens see the police they feel comfortable, they feel safe. We feel the opposite. That should never be.
—Gary Bartz
It's hard to talk to Gary Bartz about music. Not because he's a difficult or reluctant interviewee—quite the opposite. In fact, the 80-year-old saxophonist is refreshingly unguarded and garrulous when looking back over his formidable six-decade musical career. It's just finding the right words that's the tricky part.

Like many musicians, jazz isn't one of them he's a fan of—for the word's pejorative roots as much as its genre pigeonholing. Which is why, as a quick-fast rule, it often becomes so much easier to talk about "improvised music" (ref: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah). Problem is, "improvisation" is the term Bartz hates most of all. Midway through our hour-long encounter, after I've uttered the unsayable an umpteenth time, he leans forward and squints at his phone to deliver a pre-prepared list of disparaging dictionary synonyms for "improvised."

"Offhand, spur of the moment, unplanned, unpremeditated, unprepared—I'm insulted, I tell you—unrehearsed, unstudied ... [study] that's all we do! So that's why I'm insulted," he concludes, telling me off with the firm hand but good humor of an old family friend. "Because I am not improvising ... We're composing, all the time. Improvising means you're guessing, a lifetime of study, you're not guessing—the only time I improvise is when I make a mistake. Each solo I have a plan."

Now, when Gary Bartz scolds you, however good naturedly, it's customary to stop and listen. While far from a minor figure in (cough) jazz, a quick resume refresh only begs the question why the 80-year-old altoist isn't (even) more widely celebrated today: stints with bandleaders Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and his celebrated place in Miles Davis' post-Bitches Brew, Live-Evil band, are just a few headline highlights—all of which he mentions just minutes into our freewheeling Zoom interview.

We talk at 11pm Pacific time, at Bartz's request. "If I were performing, 11 o'clock at night would be when I was warmed up—and I'm warmed up now," he explains. And he is, the stories coming thick and fast. But first he wants to settle the improvisation debate forevermore. "Miles [Davis] used to say to people: 'I love your mistakes,' which implies most of it is not mistakes," he continues, invoking his most famous employer in support of his theory.

And it's not such a leftfield idea. Words have long proved utterly inadequate at describing either the auditory experience or creative process of music, and it seems evident that whatever one plays (or does not) can never be less or more than the sum of the player's musical experiences to date. At the root of our misconceptions might be the fact that historically musicians, just as much as listeners, have held a quasi-mystical belief in the seemingly divine inspiration of a soloist in the heat of battle. But back to reality: if that's not improvising, what do we call it when Bartz takes a solo? Spontaneous composition perhaps?

"I call it composing, period. It's being taught backwards, with the European classical concept," he argues, with little wiggle-room left for dissent. "So that's not where this music comes from. We don't do that. We learn the music, the music is internalized. When you're reading it, it means two things to me: one, you don't know the music; the other thing it means is that I'm watching a rehearsal. I don't want to go to the theatre and watch the actors read from the script."

The script of Bartz's own life is heading for a Hollywood ending: at the outset of his ninth decade (he turned 80 in September 2020), Bartz has enjoyed a welcome career resurgence after being sought out by two different young, trendsetting groove-centric collectives, from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Crucially, both projects are very much rooted in the now, contemporary musicians making modern music which happens to draw from, but do more than pay homage to, Bartz's brand. This isn't long-overdue recognition so much as a case of convergence, the sleek jazz-funk stylings of Bartz's '70s recordings today among the key reference points for a new strain of bass-driven instrumental music, equally informed by hip-hop as key texts such as Bartz's own Music is My Sanctuary (Capitol, 1977).

Most recently, Bartz was the latest subject of the compelling Jazz is Dead (JID) release series, spearheaded by and co-credited to R&B/hip-hop production team Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest fame). Since 2017 the pair has hosted a trendy LA gig series of the same name, which last year spawned a nine-part series of associated LPs, featuring the pair's favorite vintage on fresh recordings, tailor-produced and arranged by Younge and Muhammad. After an opening volume showcasing one track from each of their chosen guests, subsequent editions have been devoted to a single featured artist, with previous albums co-credited to Roy Ayers, Azymuth and Doug Carn.

As with most of the series' collaborations, Bartz's encounter came after a successful show at the JID concert series, in 2019, after which Bartz was casually invited back to check out the duo's recording gear. "And so I just loved the studio, it's all analogue, it's just the way I grew up in the recording studio, the kind of technology I remember," says Bartz. "I guess they like what I can do, what I can bring to their projects, and I like their energy."

And that, it turns out, was enough. Business aside, few further discussions took place. Younge and Muhammad's creative approach is typically to concoct a series of studio grooves for each soloist in advance—in their trademark lazy, hazy, mid-70s, West Coast vibe, often riffing on or referencing the guest's heyday recordings— before bringing them in to overdub solos. Blind: Bartz said he hadn't even heard the tunes before showing up at the studio last year for, as he remembers it, just two few-hour sessions.

Such an approach required a great deal of trust, I point out. Were there ever any reservations? "None," he answers in a heartbeat, likening the process to his work as a soloist on Donald Byrd's mid-70s funk workouts, Stepping into Tomorrow (Blue Note, 1974) and Caricatures (Blue Note, 1976). "Well, y'know, I was very familiar with that territory, because I had been doing that for years. Like the Donald Byrd records, all of those, when I went in everything was laid down [already], I just went in and laid my parts down, just like I did with the Jazz is Dead record.

"That's what I do—this is the same way I'd learn a song playing with Art Blakey. Sometimes we would be getting ready to get onstage, and the announcer would be calling our names, and Lee (Lee Morgan) would come up to me, 'Gary, you know this song?' ... Nah. So I have to learn the song while we're playing it for an audience—that's what we do. That's what this music is. It has nothing to do with memorizing anything. It has to do with hearing. If people pay money to come hear us, the art form is hearing. The motto is listening is more important than playing. We listen all the time, 100 per cent. We might not understand what we're hearing."

The album clunkily dubbed Gary Bartz JID 006 (Jazz is Dead, 2021) was released in April, less than a year after Bartz's collaboration with London's self-described spiritual jazz collective Maisha, a pairing apparently midwifed by British DJ and tastemaker Gilles Peterson ("he thought we would be a good match," explains Bartz simply). The musicians assembled in The Netherlands' Haarlem city to record a live studio session for the local label's Night Dreamer Direct-to-Disc Sessions, a groove-centric series inaugurated with a fantastic opening volume by Fela Kuti's most visible son, Seun Kuti, and also featuring entries from Etuk Ubong and Sarathy Korwar.

The direct-to-disc concept means everything is not just mic'd-up and recorded, but mixed and burnt onto wax, in real time— offering zero chance to change anything, either musically or sonically, after the event. It's a delicate art that required as much from the technicians as the musicians. "That was the first time I had done a direct-to-disc recording, so I didn't quite know what to expect," says Bartz. "But every time I go in the studio I learn something, every time you always learn something. This whole process was new to me. I'd like to do more of it, but for one thing: you really need a working band, or you need to be prepared— because there's no fixing it. Everything you do, it's mixed, it's ready to go, you've got to really do it right."

More immediate and expansive than the 27-minute Jazz is Dead title—but lacking that set's swaggering, smoldering energy—the 35-minute Gary Bartz & Maisha -Night Dreamer Direct-To-Disc Session (Night Dreamer, 2020) release saw Bartz pair with the six-piece band on three new compositions (including the wittily named opener "Harlem to Harleem") and two noddable numbers from Bartz's career-high I've Known Rivers and Other Bodies (Prestige, 1973) live set from years earlier, "Uhuru Sasa" and "Dr. Follows Dance."

"See, they're already a band, I'm the new person in there, I just have to find my role," says Bartz, refusing to pick a favorite of the two fish-out-of-water releases. "Whenever I'm hired, if it's not my band, and somebody hired me to do something, [that's] the first thing I want to figure out—like an actor would figure out their role—because ultimately I'm there to make the music better."

It's a role Bartz has been playing for a long time. Born and raised in a segregated Baltimore, Maryland, in September 1940, Bartz left town to study at the Juilliard Conservatory of Music. Among his most formative gigs was a stint alongside luminaries Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk in Charles Mingus' Jazz Workshop, from 1962-64, a mid-sized ensemble the fabled bassist established which allowed him to explore increasingly complicated arrangements in front of a paying audience, with zero paid rehearsal—a sleight lost on even Bartz himself at the time.

"In those days he was writing all the music and he didn't have the money to rent out a studio to rehearse the band," says Bartz. "So he thought of this way to have a gig and call it a workshop, so people were paying to come see him but we were really rehearsing.

"He had no written music, at least not for the horns. Mingus would start a harmonic pattern or a rhythm or something, then he would come over to Eric [Dophy] and hum what he wanted the saxophones to play and we'd figure out how we were going to play it. It was totally a band without music. All with the audience in the room, who had paid to come in—they didn't realize it was a rehearsal, and neither did I!"

Today, no one would argue that those audience members didn't get their money's worth, offered a chance to observe the genius behind The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse, 1973) riffing in real time, a fly on the wall for one of the century's greatest composers at work in his laboratory. And it left Bartz with some of the embryonic ideas about improvisation he extolls so vehemently today.

"Mingus called what we do spontaneous composition," adds Bartz. "I don't need to say that, because what we failed to realize is that a lot of the things that Beethoven and Bach supposedly 'wrote'—because they were virtuosos, any virtuoso musician can sit down with their instrument and just sound like they're writing a symphony right off the bat—so they would just sit down and play, and if they liked what they were playing they would write it down. Because we can never hear them, they're known as composers, but they were really musicians, more than composers. And the reason they were remembered as such great composers is because they were such great musicians."

Bartz sees little practical difference between the way baroque, classical and romantic composers stated a hummable theme and then proceeded to unravel and embellish it as "variations"—a practice begun in the baroque era as a way to keep short popular dance pieces playing repeatedly without a break, and the dancers on their feet—and the way 20th century American musicians state a melodic head and then explore and deconstruct the harmony collectively. "What we do is based on an old musical device called theme and variation ... But we figured out a way to do it with a group of people, he says. "Before only one person at a time could do it."

What elevates American music in the 20th century, then, argues Bartz, is that we no longer hear just one virtuoso composing on the spot, but a group of players all doing so at the same time—composing complimentary parts almost telepathically. It's for this reason that Bartz seems to celebrate working bands more than soloists or leaders.

"The only innovations in this music have come from working bands, and the only time music has reached a higher level is with a band that's been together at least two years," he enthuses, fully warmed up as midnight approaches, "and at that point they knew each other so well they could anticipate things that each of them were doing. It gets like magic, it's intuition at that point because you've worked together that long, you've heard everything they do. You've heard it all and you've played these same songs over and over again in all sorts of different ways, so there are very few surprises. If everybody is listening, everybody is composing. The thing you have to realize and remember is that it's a very unselfish thing."

Bartz says he clocked the magic two years to reach that higher plain several times: with Blakey (with whom he made his recording debut, on Soul Finger [Limelight, 1965]), Roach, Tyner, and with the Davis band—a life-defining biographical detail he's enthusiastic to relive today. Looking back on those days, Bartz says he still talks regularly with bandmates Jack DeJohnette, Michael Henderson, Airto Moreira, and used to keep a good relationship with the late Chick Corea before his sudden passing earlier this year.

"Miles was playing well, really into his health, going to the gym, being a vegetarian, he'd stopped smoking and drinking—he was in really, really good shape," says Bartz, "so we would play two and a half hours."

After the collapse of his genre-defining "Second Great Quintet," Davis would never again maintain such a stable, consistent group of musicians, employing increasingly large and varied ensembles for studio work, while maintaining a more slender electric small group for road work. Significantly, after the departure of Wayne Shorter, in the aftermath of recording Bitches Brew in August 1969, a number of different saxophonists would pass through the band's '70s permeations.

Steve Grossman was the saxophonist on two earlier live albums from Davis' 1970 electric band—Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West (CBS/Song, 1973) and Miles Davis at Fillmore (Columbia, 1970), taped in April and June respectively—but Bartz was well in place by the December 10, 1970, Cellar Door engagements that produced the bulk of all-time classic Live-Evil (Columbia, 1971). The album's core recordings are all drawn from the scintillating final of four nights Columbia recorded at the Washington DC nightclub with guitarist John McLaughlin sitting in as a surprise guest for one night only, performing a series of thick, funky, fusion collages grounded in little more than recent recruit Henderson's hypnotic electric basslines, and sparked by a young Keith Jarrett's electric organ scurries (he would go acoustic for life soon after).

"We didn't even know John was coming [that night], that caught us by surprise, that changed the music, changed everything," says Bartz. "That band was such an organic band, and it reached a pinnacle of something that [Davis] was working on."

That such an unplanned encounter could result in such resplendent, timeless recordings underpin the level of group trust, telepathy and musical fraternity the sextet-plus-one was working at. The biggest takeaway to Bartz was the absence of silence between songs—the formal formlessness which he has since pursued in his own working bands. However the upshot at the time was that most of the pieces were never introduced on the bandstand, and only later assigned cryptic names when it came time to release a record.

"I thought this was just me, but years later I found out Jack didn't know, Keith didn't know, Michael didn't know—we didn't even know the names of these songs we were playing," Bartz laughs. "People would come up to us and say, I really loved such and such, and we wouldn't know what song they were talking about. We just played the music we played. That's what this music is."

The greatest lesson Bartz took away from this formative experience was putting the music, not the audience, first. Despite his cool poise and detached demeanor, Miles' greatest trick may have been devoting far more energy to the music than he ever made it seem. "When I was working with Miles, I really saw how seriously he took this, and it made me take it that much more seriously than I was already," he explains. "He was taking it so seriously, he didn't care whether people talked about him turning his back [to the audience], he didn't care about people talking about him walking off the stage.

"He was always listening to the music—he was one of the greatest listeners ever. That's why he kept changing music, he kept hearing things, hearing more and more. The job of a musician is to hear that which no one else can hear, because hearing is like a fingerprint—everybody is different, [and] the way you'll hear if you tap into it, that's how you'll play, and people will always recognize you, because no one else can hear like you."

More recordings from the historic Cellar Door stint would later be released on the six-hour box set The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Columbia, 2005)—but that four-night string of shows, amazingly, would mark Bartz's entire recorded contribution to Davis' canon. Bartz arrived too late to appear on Davis' prolific flurry of early 70s studio recordings, and by the time of the September 1972 show at New York's Carnegie Hall released as In Concert (Columbia, 1973), he'd been replaced by Carlos Garnett (who also played on the June 1972 date that produced Big Fun's (Columbia, 1974) "Ife"). Bartz shares my dismay that more music wasn't released from his time in this seminal band—and has even been collecting unofficial bootlegs of the band's live shows. "We recorded everything we did so there are many bootlegs and recordings and videos of that band," says Bartz. "I have a lot of them. They had to take a lot of them off the market because they weren't [legally] cleared. But all of that was recorded ... That's why I think we never went in the studio. That was a different kind of band."

But as eager as Bartz is to talk about Davis and his other esteemed former employers, he's happier to modestly skip over his own work as leader—a grave disservice to an engaging, if erratic, discography which displays far more than his self-evident talents as a soloist. Arguably his most meaningful musical contributions came with the NTU Troupe—a collective he assembled while still a member of Davis' band, whose brand of "Harlem Bush Music" was conceived as a kind of urban folk music, rooted in rhythm and rhyme, which saw Bartz often taking the mic himself—not necessarily to sing, so much as rhythmically assert political and spiritual statements in a kind of proto-rap folk song.

Perhaps the most diverting but divisive piece in Bartz's back catalogue is "Blue (A Folk Tale)," a sprawling 18-minute blues odyssey, as spirited and immediate as it is unpolished and unnuanced, which takes up the entire first side of the group's Harlem Bush Music: Uhuru (Milesone, 1971) and features Bartz playing a freewheeling game of downtrodden call and response with vocalist Andy Bey over Ron Carter's incessant bass vamp.

"I have some healing songs too ... That music was done in a very volatile time in this country, leaders were assassinated in public .... and I was really speaking to my community," says Bartz. "A lot of times travelling through Europe people have said to me, 'I didn't really understand those NTU Troupe records,' and I would say I could understand it because I wasn't really addressing it to you."

The group's music—which surely deserves greater acknowledgement in its role as a form of socially conscious pre-hip-hop— brazenly tackled the societal ills of the day, the Black experience and systemic prejudice African-Americans encounter. Both "Uhuru Sasa" and "Vietcong" address inequality and the disparity in Vietnam War conscription—"Hell no / we won't fight your filthy battles no more / we won't raise your children no more," runs the former's infectious refrain. It doesn't need stating how depressing it is that, 50 years later, these records feel only too relevant today, a fact brought into sharper focus following the tragic events recently played out across the US.

"It really bothers me when things are not fair. Just be fair—if it's fair I don't have any problem," begins Bartz. "But if it's not fair, I have a problem, and I gotta say something about it.

"I grew up in a segregated city, I had segregated schools ... Like James Baldwin said, it's a wonder if every descendant of Africans aren't in a rage all the time. Just watching the George Floyd trial, this is what we've been saying forever. We walk through life in the fear that that can happen to us at any moment. And other people don't have that, they don't have to walk through life looking over their shoulder or being alarmed—when so-called white citizens see the police they feel comfortable, they feel safe. We feel the opposite. That should never be."

While still dubbed NTU Troupe, it was a very different sounding band that performed a stellar, groove-drenched set at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973, later released as I've Known Rivers and Other Bodies (Prestige, 1973), named after the title track, a Langston Hughes poem set to a lilting gospel bounce. Notably performing after Davis' bleaker, harder On the Corner-era band— Bartz's upbeat, emphatic ensemble likely offered a sense of relief and redemption that night. He again takes the mic at times, but it's his searing, soaring, soprano, spewing post-Coltrane modal solos over loose, squelchy vamps, drenched in soul, funk and gospel, that mark this out among Bartz's best work. Bartz doesn't have such fond memories: "That one, yeah, what happens is these songs, you play them so many times, and by then you play them much better, so you know how good you can be. So when you hear it back you say, 'I wish I had a recording of that night,'" he laments.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Bartz casually drops into the conversation news that a German radio station recently uncovered a live NTU Troupe broadcast featuring Howard 'KingFish' Franklin, Curtis Robinson and Charles Mims—which was slated for a 2CD release as Live in Bremen 1975 (Moosicus, 2021), and hit streaming platforms just as this article was being edited for publication. "I think it's a really good example of that band," he says. "They [the label] did the right thing, they came to us and said, 'We'd like to do this," we negotiated and money was exchanged, and that's the way to do it if you're gonna do it—we're [musicians] gonna get beat anyway, at least give us something."

Despite the heady, spiritual, anything-goes feel of these early recordings, the now octogenarian Bartz appears almost anti-bohemian in his approach to music today, balancing a rigorous approach to technique with a deep historical reverence and an almost sage-like philosophical sense of perspective. For one, he has not allowed the pandemic, or the year off-stage it wrought, to affect his mental poise. "Each year is a journey, and this is just another year in the journey—you never know what the year's going to bring," Bartz states softly, the man who sung the evil-slaying "Nommo—The Majick Song'' somehow both more innocent and experienced.

So he didn't miss the stage these past 12 months? "No, I haven't missed it because I always have music wherever I am, and I can always study it and I can always listen to it. I'm never far from it, I can always play it—well, I can usually play it."

Study is a word ranked highly in Bartz's vocabulary, and it's clear he approaches his position as Jazz Professor of Saxophone at Ohio's Oberlin College and Conservatory with the utmost seriousness. He considers eight hours daily practice the minimum any professional musician should clock—a "work day" like any other job—and when he has gigs or recordings lined up, he puts in overtime.

"What I say is eight hours is considered a work day, people go to work eight hours a day, so if we're not doing that, we're not really doing our job. The gigs are not the work, it's the study, in the house working on what you need to deal with on your instrument or your knowledge of music. That's the work. The gigs are a result of the work—if you haven't done the work you don't have any gigs," he says. "Like I tell my students, the house is where Charlie Parker got himself together, for three and a half years in his mothers' house, 12 to 15 hours every day. But I mean, three and a half years of doing that, you're warm for the rest of your life— you never cool off. "'Trane [practiced] all day long—I mean you have to do that—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, these are not average players ... They're the LeBron James, the Steph Curry, they've done that kind of work. Steph Curry might have worked a year on a crossover drill. Trane might have worked a year working out the 'Giant Steps' changes. These are virtuosos, this is virtuoso music."

Tellingly, in his later years Bartz has paid tribute to both of those saxophone titans on record, releasing both Coltrane Rules: Tao of a Music Warrior (OYO, 2012) and pairing with fellow sax men Bobby Watson and Vincent Herring on the celebratory Bird at 100 (Smoke Sessions Records, 2019).

It's also no coincidence that while we talk, a few feet behind Bartz sits a music stand with an open copy of oboe and saxophone studies by the 19th century German composer Franz Wilhelm Ferling (in the background to his right casually stand a pair of Grammys). "Charlie Parker used to have a Bach book with him all the time, his triplets and things, you hear his rhythms when you go back to Bach études," he says. "This is like going to the gym," adds Bartz, clutching his sheet music up to the camera. "A lot of it is written just to make you better."

And teachers, as well as students and musicians, need to up their game. Bartz's problem with music education in the US is its unshakeable foundation in the European classical model—and its reliance and reverence for sheet music— which has perpetuated a racially motivated institutional disparagement of America's greatest art form.

"I would just like to see this country recognize its homegrown contribution to this world," he adds solemnly. "They're still celebrating the European classical music, and we're just the side note, and the root of that problem goes back to all the [societal] problems we're having anyway. "This is the greatest music ever, probably the greatest art form ever, because we are composing solos every night, and these are our transcriptions—just like we transcribe Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, now we transcribe Charlie Parker."

At times, Bartz's methods seem contradictory—but in fact they're complimentary. As he tells it, all the greatest bands he was a part of rarely, if ever, rehearsed. He jokes about being caught smuggling sheet music onto the bandstand in Max Roach's band, but acknowledges such strict parenting made him a better musician in the end. "With Miles I had one rehearsal, with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, we had no rehearsals," Bartz remembers. "With Max the only time we rehearsed was when we had a record or we were working on new material. And you had to learn it immediately—it wasn't, 'Well, OK, I'll have it next month,' you had to have it that night, so consequently it made you have to learn how to learn.

"Max just wouldn't allow music onstage," he remembers with a chuckle. "If we rehearsed in the morning and he wanted to play the music that night, we would try to sneak the music onstage, put it where he wouldn't see it—but he'd always see it, because he's checking on us."

After his '60s sidemen stints and the spirited social-political attack of the NTU Troupe in the early '70s, Bartz won many more fans —and alienated a few along the way—after signing with Capitol Records in the mid-70s, changing track to author two slick, streetwise, largely instrumental and heavily produced funk-jazz discs: divisive at the time, then dismissed for years to come, it's precisely this fun, funky music which fed a generation of hip-hop crate-diggers—and ultimately fueled Bartz's late-career renaissance. It might have been a tough pill for hardcore fans of the NTU Troupe's free-wheeling, spiritually charged and politically astute work to stomach—but retrospectively at least Music is My Sanctuary has been rightly recognized as a classic of the genre. To Bartz, it was neither step forward, nor back. "To you it's a progression, it's the same music to me, there's no difference," he says.

Then after a pair of perhaps too slick late-70s outings, Bartz's recordings suddenly dried up, with nearly a decade passing between Bartz (Arista, 1980) and Reflections of Monk: The Final Frontier (1989, Steeplechase)—in part because of disputes with his record labels. "I got discouraged, I just said, I can't do this. I was [still] performing, they were giving me problems about getting my masters," he explains. "To own all my publishing, but I wanted my masters too, I wanted to leave my kids something."

Despite recording prodigiously in the '90s, Bartz's ultimate solution was to found his own OYO Records imprint in 2005. "Yes, it was about control," he says. People don't realize when you do your history, Duke Ellington had a label, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Mingus, Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Barry White... many people have had record labels. It's not so hard [to do] but the industry is so controlled, it's a monopoly. They might strike a deal with you but you're never going to be in that club."

Speaking of the dirty business of show business, about the current state of jazz—and the commercial boom it's enjoyed thanks to the fresh, hip take of Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington—Bartz remains non-committal. "Mmmmm, I don't know what direction it's going," he says stoically. "Nobody knows that—we don't even know what direction we're going in ... it doesn't look like we're going in a good direction.

"Today you have musicians who are musicians, and that's when it becomes an art form ... [and] you have some musicians whose medium happens to be music and so they're not thinking about music the same way—some other musicians couldn't care less, they just want to make money, play some music and have a good time. There's nothing wrong with any of that—sometimes if things are not going so well you might have to take a job that you wouldn't if you didn't have to—but that's what I see. I consider myself as an artist, musician, maybe even a music activist."

Artist, activist, saxophonist, vocalist—and defiant individualist. Because at the end of a day, however many hours a day you practice, everything a musician really has to say is found on the inside. One of Bartz's many attempts to wrap up the meandering final minutes of our conversation closes like this: "Let me tell this story: John Coltrane could have grown up right next door to James Brown. They could have been best friends since kids, growing up playing baseball together, football, going to movies together doing everything, and James still would have played what he played, and Trane still would have played what he played. Because it's the same thing, it's just a different way to look at it."

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