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Greg Osby: A Candid Conversation

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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Whenever you think of harmolodics, you invariably think of Ornette Coleman because that's what he named his music. But we didn't want anyone to coin a phrase as something as ridiculous as bebop, which is a phrase that musicians abhorred. So we decided to call our music M-BASE; that is an acronym that stands for "Macro—Basic Array of Structured Extemporization." Roughly meaning a large base, a large group of musicians whose main purpose is to learn and teach each other and to present new methods of composition and environments for improvisation.

GO: It's a new day as far as being a practicing musician and trying to sustain an existence. You have to choose between playing an instrument and playing in creative circles. You can play for money where there is not a great deal of creativity, but you're a faceless, nameless commodity who is doing what they are told and is basically a hired gun. Or you can make less money and sleep better at night by expressing yourself based upon your creative ideals.

I advise younger players to prepare and to avail yourself of the information—free information, mind you—about everybody's job who is involved in this business. You have to be able to speak with them articulately about what you are dealing with at the moment. You need to be able to talk to recording engineers, attorneys and music executives. You will need to know how the record company and contract works—how promotion, marketing and distribution work. Around the '40s or '50s, you went around with a dog collar and people pointed you in the direction you needed to go. That's why a lot of musicians were shafted and died penniless because they didn't have their business together. They were gypped out of all their money by lawyers, managers and record company executives who took all of their royalties, their spoils, and now today, you have to know everybody's job to know they're not doing that to you.

LP: One of the problems with documentation of jazz, such as the Ken Burns' series, is that they spend most of the time concentrating on what jazz created in the past tense and little on what the music is creating at the moment, which to me is the essence of this great music we call jazz. Isn't this a lost opportunity to educate potential aspiring jazz students and people as to what is available to them?

GO: Well, perhaps if he would have had a more variable list of advisers, but it was obvious who his advisers were because they're all friends of mine. I know how they think, what they prioritize, and that was reflected in the documentary. They spent several episodes talking about Louis Armstrong and several more talking about Duke Ellington, so whose philosophy does that reflect? Had Ken Burns had a more variable list of advisers, the film would have been a lot broader and much more comprehensive. Perhaps they ran out of budget when they came to the more recent period, or maybe they ran out of steam—ran out of ideas—or maybe everybody got cotton mouth and became tired of talking. The point is, it was unfortunate that he stopped when he did. He was in fast-forward from the late '50s and '60s with some of the most profound contributors to the music of American culture, and if you blinked, you would have missed it. And that was just unfortunate. They spent so much time in the mid-1900s as opposed to dealing with what's leading up to now.

Another aspect that was really disappointing is that he talked about the dark side of the most profound contributors to the music. He talked about their drug addictions and alcohol addictions, which is really nonessential. It took up time where he could have provided worthwhile, useful and retainable information. That stuff was disposable more or less.

LP: There are already so many negative stereotypes, why not focus on the positive?

GO: The thing about documentaries, especially something like this, which was mass-produced, is that they will be referenced in academic circles. There's no point in all that. If you look at the movie Amadeus (1984), it was readily apparent that they considered Mozart a child prodigy, a genius who changed music and had these God-given gifts. He was amazing. Even for all his quirkiness and eccentricities, the things he did were astounding. He had inner demons, was haunted by his father and died a pauper. Still, the symphonies and the concertos that he composed as a young person were portrayed with love. But when you see movies like 'Round Midnight(1986) and Bird (1988), they always portray the jazz musician as down on his luck, depraved, dependent upon some golden goose who has rescued him from the depths of hell. They can't take care of themselves; they're groveling, drooling somewhere in the shadows. The lighting is grim, dark and gray. In many respects, the Ken Burns documentary perpetuated that.

LP: Throughout all the arts, there have been many well-known and creative people with highly addictive personalities, yet it does seem that many jazz or black artists usually get portrayed in this negative light. It continues to occur.

GO: It's just history repeating itself. People will glamorize the things that provide drama, and it's tabloid mentality. It's voyeurism for people who want to peek into the dark side of freakish behavior, sexual deviancy, drug addiction, alcoholism, the dark secrets and sordid past. The documentary could have spent a good deal of time talking about the innovation, experimentation and great achievements by musicians and could have been a lot more effective than it was.

LP: If Miles would have been alive, would he had been included as a resource?

GO: It's possible, but I'd like to touch upon something you said earlier. He was criticized, but by the time he was doing Michael Jackson and Cindy Lauper covers, he had nothing left to prove. He was having a lot of fun and surrounded himself with musicians that I won't say didn't deserve to share the stage with him, but they weren't really on his level. They just provided a sonic backdrop for him to be a personality and not Miles Davis the musician that he once was. He was having fun and wasn't out to change the whole face or the tide of music. Subsequently, he wasn't this vortex of energy that he once was, and it shouldn't have been expected of him. And people unfortunately and selfishly attacked him for that. A lot of musicians attacked him for that, but that's their shortcoming and not his.

LP: Though Miles wasn't playing a lot during this later period, he could still play one note and you knew it was him.

GO: Certainly. It was his sound, his personality, his approach, his attack and his technique. Everything was definable and unmistakable, and that's what it's all about. He could have played one note per tune, and it would have been just as valid had he played 100. And that's something that takes musicians a lifetime to achieve, and some people never attain that because that's not a point of emphasis or focus. They want to display technique, velocity, volume and all the other kind of things that are not necessarily priorities or the prerequisite to identification.

LP: Our culture today appreciates art but seems to have difficulty with creativity that is not easily explained or identifiable. Will this be a significant obstacle to overcome for creative music?

GO: Well, I think the conditioning that takes place for understanding has to be dealt with at a very young age. It's very common for us musicians to see entire families coming out to see us in Europe. They come out to see pure bona fide American jazz that's not cut or watered down and recognize it as a valid and credible United States export. They cultivate this thinking in the minds of the young people, so when they grow up, they appreciate it as something to be embraced, to be treasured and virtued. And that's what we need to deal with in this country because most people identify the music as my grandfather's music or something heard in cartoons or in the backdrop for a slapstick comedy, silent films or something ridiculous. That's the association and imagery it conjures up when they hear jazz. The only thing that serves as a bridge for younger people and jazz is probably hip-hop, and they just hear it in snippets. They may hear a sampled fragment from a jazz recording, but they can't identify the source of the artist, or where it's from or what period it represents. It's throwaway. It goes in one ear and out the other, and they really don't retain that information.

And unfortunately, the most prevailing so-called jazz presentation right now is this so-called "smooth jazz," which really isn't jazz at all. And the people that are popular within that whole structure, they're really not jazz musicians. They're pop musicians, and what they play is pop music. If you take the vocalist out of any pop song or Mariah Carey song, what you have is this so called smooth jazz. It's the same environment, the same sugar coating, the same instruments, and it has the same disposable nature. Even the improvised elements are very much prepared. They play the same way all of the time, and it adheres to a formula, which isn't about individuality. Jazz now has to find a way to shake the association of being under the same umbrella and grand veil of so-called smooth jazz—instrumental jazz. You have to learn how to appreciate the elements, the relationships, know the history, how things work and the lineage of it to develop an appreciation for it. It's not an easy sell.

LP: Do you think we have become a society that no longer has the patience to be challenged and is only open to things that are easily accessible?

GO: Americans in particular—perhaps not so much in Europe because they don't have the same access to a lot of things that we do. I find that people from other countries read more, but yes, Americans have short attention spans, since we're victimized by the multimedia-ness of contemporary culture with emphasis on what is visual and not necessarily what's heard. Yeah, we're suffering. But all things are cyclical, and these things have to run their course. They have to because how many pretty girls and belly buttons can you stand?

LP: Is it more difficult for young musicians to be creative today?

GO: When I came to New York in 1980 or so, and then officially moved to New York in late 1982, there were tons of jam sessions. In every major borough—Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and certainly Manhattan, with the exception of Staten Island—there were jam sessions. You could go on a daily basis and see who was hot and who wasn't. We listened to the new musicians in town to see if they were ready to compete or if they needed a few more months to hone their talent. You could weigh your skill level against the more accomplished players and find out exactly what your weak points were and what you needed to work on. But all of that is gone. There are only a few places for a younger player, and you have musicians lining up out the door to get in and have their 15 minutes of fame. And by the fact that there are not many places to play, these musicians get up and overstay their welcome. They're frustrated, so they get there and play a long time, and by the time the night is over, most have not had an opportunity to play. So I don't know what to tell a young cat to do. They ask me, "Where should I go?" and I don't know. There are only a couple of places to play, and there are too many musicians; therefore, they only get a chance to play in school, but that's not the same thing because they are only playing with people on their own level. One guy is sad, and so they are all sad, and it's hard to weigh yourself against a group of sadness.

LP: Cecil Taylor said, "Music has a lot to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists, rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of your music is from love, and how much from this other place that Cecil Taylor describes?

GO: There's a great deal of fundamental logic in just about everything I embark upon in music because I cannot and will not allow myself to recklessly enter into a situation or environment without deducing what needs to be done. I have to analyze the situation and weigh my various approaches, compounds and needs in order to make a successful contribution. Jumping in headfirst is like jumping into a pool without assessing the depth of the water. This is very important to me, and I have my own opinions about players who just recklessly charge in with guns a-blazing, playing real loud and fast without taste or character—without regard to tone or without trying to fit into what everyone else is doing. It's like some loud drummers who don't care about the ensemble, but only about bringing attention to themselves, or even piano players that just because they have 10 fingers, want to make sure they use them all. They're whole presentation is like a run-on sentence without punctuation. They don't breathe or stop because they don't have to, and I like to avoid that kind of recklessness.

LP: If the perfect situation is complete freedom, shouldn't this creative process have intent? Isn't there responsibility, with its own set of disciplines that comes with that freedom?


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