Greg Osby: A Candid Conversation

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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I have found that with forward-thinking artists, their music can be a direct reflection of who they are. That's largely my interest in these very creative individuals—in how they think and how they view the world through their own eyes. Greg Osby is fearless in expressing his convictions, and I think you'll find that his compositions reflect that very character. He is a creator and a fresh voice in a world that has a tendency to fall victim to the past.

Lloyd Peterson: Are you still doing things your own way?

Greg Osby: I have no other way, and creatively speaking, I customize my career so I'm able to make choices without interruptions. And though I'm a collaborator at heart, I still need to adhere to my initial ideas and concepts.

LP: It would be difficult to meet everyone's expectations anyway.

GO: You just can't please everyone or beat yourself up trying to please writers who may have written unfavorably about you in the past or by trying to pander to the tastes of label executives and fans. As an artist, you want to sleep at night knowing what went into the stew was an ingredient of your own design. I don't want to sound self-indulgent, but it's not about pandering to what people want or about what's popular because you can box yourself in based upon those expectations and parameters. I would rather let the music write itself based upon the initial germs of thought and maintain that focus. Otherwise, you'll get off track worrying about awards and accolades.

LP: Are jazz traditionalists having a difficult time accepting that a music form considered "American" now has more visible international and diverse aspects within it?

GO: The problem is overkill. The floodgates are open with an overabundance of substandard product because everyone has access to some kind of recording medium, whether they are ready to present a project meant for public consumption or not. So in order for people to get to the real gemstones, they have to sit through the muck. They have to get a machete and hack through the jungle of CDs that are not really developed and print quality. They haven't played long enough or shared any experience that would give them music to market of permanency. Most of it is disposable, but you can still find accomplished musicians everywhere you go. Everywhere I go, whether it's Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Australia or whatever, I find great musicians who are often on par with American musicians, who in many respects have gotten lazy and taken for granted the demands of this art form. You have a lot of prominent musicians wrestling with the laurels and not realizing that there are people in New Zealand who can blow their socks off. The music was originated here, but it doesn't mean it cannot be perfected somewhere else.

LP: Are the roots of jazz from Africa?

GO: Yes, but as an art form, jazz is the epitome of fusion. Of course, it has West African root elements with functional drumming as well as a great deal of symbolism, but it also emerged heavily with Western European sensibilities as far as harmony. So a lot of the rhythm, the feel, the soul, the swing, is African, but a lot of the structural elements are largely European. That's what made the music what it is. Those are the things that need to be referred to and relied upon to fortify and strengthen it, but many people are just maintaining the precedent as it stands without being concerned with moving it to the next level. But we need to take heed and follow the lead of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis and continue to press forward and not idealize the music as some type of museum piece frozen in time. It should be perpetual.

LP: Is jazz a thing, or an approach and process to making music?

GO: It's all of the above, but it's also a mentality and a way of life. It can be readily apparent if the music doesn't contain the stylistic characteristics of a jazz musician living a jazz life. You can tell when the music is largely academic or from a book or from records. You can tell they are not professionals that don't travel because they don't think with that aptitude. It's obvious, and especially now when there are 100,000 tenor players copying the flavor of the day. You should have individual personalities, and everyone should sound different as you and I sound different in our vocal patterns, mannerisms and our complete character profile. The lack of individualism and motivity toward assuming and maintaining a personal approach and a personality in the music is killing a large part of what this music is supposed to be about. When someone plays, it should evoke imagery of someone who is like no other.

LP: But are the academic programs placing enough emphasis on the importance of this?

GO: I'm a veteran of the institutionalized approach to jazz education from teaching at many well-known universities, and I have been at odds with their methodology in approaching music. I think it should be individualized based upon the aptitude and aspirations of each student, as opposed to this broad stroke and grand sweep of everybody given the same information and forced to adhere to the same list of requirements. There isn't any reason why someone in music school should be forced to study and be held responsible for anything not having to do with the jazz life. There should be more emphasis on business, self-promotion and the attainment of individualism that will make you stand out and make you more appealing to label executives; they throw away thousands of audition CDs daily that sound like they came out of a Xerox machine.

LP: There are now younger musicians that don't necessarily want to be tied to what jazz did in the past, though they have a tremendous respect for those that came before them. These musicians are trying to move in different directions while finding their own identity and voice.

GO: There is a danger of being dismissive of a precedent or the lineage of the music. Many people are reckless because they don't want to do the work, but in order to get away from something, you have to be aware of it. You have to know how it worked, how it was applied and what it derived from. You have to know the root source, otherwise it's escapism, and people are just trying to circumvent deep study. So there is a danger in that cavalier attitude of "wanting to do my own thing." That's why we have a great deal of people who are not really well versed in the history of this music. They play their own music and play it fairly well, but put them in another environment and they sink like a rock because they don't know anyone else's music and have given its due.

LP: Miles Davis was criticized for incorporating pop influences into his music, but jazz has always taken from pop influences. Is there anything different in what Miles was doing or what is being done today by a number of jazz musicians?

GO: Well, in the '30s, '40s and '50s, there was less divide between the genres because many jazz musicians during that period openly improvised within the confines of the forms of those popular tunes, which had a great deal of chord changes, bridges and development. As time progressed, especially in the 1960s when rock and roll came around, popular music was reduced to one or two chords with a lot of screaming, hollering and a lot of guitar. There was less of an environment for musicians to improvise with, and now with electronics, it's gotten worse! That has hurt the scene at large because a lot of people at one time were introduced to jazz through an instrumental version of a popular song they may have recognized. But you can't do that today. I cannot introduce the uninitiated to jazz by playing a pop tune of the day because the songs from Britney Spears and *NSYNC have only two repetitive chords, have no development without anything for me to play on. That's why jazz has been relegated as this bastard child within contemporary music. It doesn't contain any appealing elements that are recognizable to and by young people. So until popular music becomes interesting again, we can't play that music, and it's going to remain difficult to reel people in.

LP: Does hip-hop have elements from the foundation of jazz?

GO: At one time, but now it's become disposable and pretty much a waste of record deals, in my opinion, because most of these people are idiots. It's become a circus. In many instances, it's buffoonery at its finest with very little profundity being uttered. Hip-hop may have been different at one time, but there was a lot more creativity in the production and construction of the music. It was more or less a cut-and-paste music where they sampled little snippets of recordings that didn't resemble or have anything to do with each other. It was a collage of sound textures that created an environment and pallet for rappers who artfully and rhythmically created rhymes, short stories and poems. But once the sampling walls became more strident and artists went after these rappers for sampling their wares, there were exorbitant lawsuits. Now it's been reduced to two notes on a keyboard with children's nursery rhymes. It's not interesting anymore, and all they talk about is money, so it's really disposable.

LP: Can you talk about M Base Collective and the basis for starting it?

GO: I found it necessary to seek out a group of younger players, players in my peer group that were interested in incorporating elements from music that existed prior to our arrival in New York as well as music that existed at the time. I also found many improvising musicians dismissive of what was going on in contemporary terms, so I wanted to use everything that existed as a building block, as a steppingstone, and not stay transfixed in a rapt state or try to create a bygone era.

There was also this vast influx of younger players from all over the country who came to New York well prepared, proficient, articulate and ready to learn. This was the beginning of what was unfortunately called the "young lions period." We were also the last beneficiaries of the apprenticeship system and had the grand opportunity to play with our heroes. But after us, a lot of people passed on and stopped having groups, so we became the bandleaders younger players started to look toward. But we wanted it organized.

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