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Greg Osby: Saxophone “Griot”


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The griot is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician, a repository of oral tradition who is often seen as a societal leader. Saxophonist Greg Osby recently was excited to meet some griots on his travels. While he is originally from St. Louis, he himself is a griot in many senses of the word. As Peter Margasak said in Jazz Times as early as 2000, "Greg Osby has quietly become one of the most potent, complete and important saxophonists in jazz." That reputation continues to this day, and he has become a force in all aspects of the jazz scene, exploring possibilities and genres, mentoring younger musicians, and jump starting a successful record company, Inner Circle Music.

Beginning with the formation of the M-Base Collective with Steve Coleman in the 1980s, Osby has been helping musicians come together to develop new approaches and to advance their cause. He is a perennial seeker of knowledge, not only about music, but about diverse subjects from restoring collectors' items to spiritual teachings. He uses his knowledge to push the envelope of jazz. In those respects, he is a griot par excellence, and in this interview he candidly discusses his musical development with astute observations and strong views on what he and the music are all about.

All About Jazz: A couple of warm-up questions. First, the desert island question: please give us a few recordings that you would take to that desert island.

Greg Osby: Off the top of my head, maybe Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959). Duke Ellington, Indigos (Columbia, 1958). Thelonious Monk, Underground (Columbia, 1968). Shirley Horn, Here's to Life (Verve, 1992. Betty Carter, The Audience (Verve, 1980). I could go on forever, actually...

AAJ: Any classical music that you especially like?

GO: I do love Erik Satie, Debussy, Ravel, Ibert. Also Alexander Scriabin. I enjoy the progressions and motives that are utilized in French-infused classical music.

AAJ: If you were in a big city, and there was a lot of jazz going on, who are some of the musicians and groups you'd grab a chance to hear?

GO: To be honest, I would be more inclined towards towards catching the younger players. They best represent the idea of music being put together from the large numbers of historical building blocks that we have available to us now. Some of my current favorites are Logan Richardson, Godwin Lewis, Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Ambrose Akinmusire, Adam O'Farrill on trumpet, Walter Smith III, Melissa Aldana, Ben Wendel, Tivon Pennicott, Troy Roberts on tenor sax, Aaron Parks, Christian Li, Victor Gould, Matt Mitchell, Gerald Clayton, John Chin on piano, Matt Brewer, Linda May Han Oh, Ben Williams on bass, Lage Lund, Mike Moreno on guitar, Sara Serpa, Gretchen Parlato on vocals, Eric Harland, Jonathan Blake, Tommy Crane, Marcus Gilmore on drums, younger people like that. Far too many to mention, really. I applaud their fearlessness and their ability to channel their influences into an identifiable platform -music that is representative of our times. There are others who promote and practice traditional values, which is also great, but for my own personal preference, I like to hear music that is a representation and expression of the world as an artist experiences it—while it's happening.

Early Roots

AAJ: Let's go back to your youth. You grew up in St. Louis, a city that plays an important role in the history of jazz. What was your life there like as a kid, and especially the musical influences?

GO: I enjoyed typical inner city radio-oriented listening, with healthy dosages of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner. Lots of soul music, funk and R&B. In the sixth grade, I was able to get my hands on a clarinet when there was an opening in the junior high school band. I chose the clarinet over the trombone, and I took to it quite rapidly. I learned the fingerings, how to develop a tone, how to play little melodies on it in a very short time. And I couldn't get enough of it.

AAJ: Did you have a teacher at that time?

GO: My clarinet teacher was actually a trumpeter by the name of Fred Irby III, who is now (and has been for the past 42 years) the director of the Jazz Ensemble and Coordinator of Instrumental Music at Howard University in Washington, DC. He was working on his music education graduate degree back then and made his rounds on the public school circuit, doing student teaching. He was very inspiring. But outside of that, I've never really had any formal instrumental music lessons in my entire life. I may have had some great advice and personal coaching, but no regular or legitimate lessons as such. It's interesting to hear myself say that because I've never really thought about it very much until now.

AAJ: At what point did you learn to read music?

GO: I learned to read music right way somewhat, but it wasn't methodical, it was largely intuitive. So, of course there were bound to be issues. Back then I had a lot of shortcomings in my musical education that weren't corrected until I got to the university level. I started playing clarinet in 1972, and a year later I got my hands on an alto saxophone. At that time, I soon found myself playing in lightweight blues bands and in soul band horn sections. By 14, I was playing with grown men in their 30s and 40s, so it was a very healthy environment and apprenticeship situation for someone who was as enthusiastic as I was about learning how to play. The older players looked out for me. They advised me on the ins and outs of captivating an audience, being funky and soulful, dealing with properties of music that stimulated movement and dancing. It was great that I could learn on the job and get paid for it, but my formal education was still lacking in terms of musical references, harmony, and theory. I was basically playing by ear.

AAJ: Were you interested in jazz around that time?

GO: Not quite yet. In 1974, I started high school, and was in a soul R&B band in St. Louis, and a year later guitarist Kelvyn Bell, who now lives in New York, joined the band that I was in and he gave me a Charlie Parker live bootleg recording in which Bird was playing bebop at blistering tempos. Parker was masterfully playing songs like "Hot House," "BeBop" and "Barbados," and I was mystified. I was completely stunned by his ability to express himself on that level. I had no idea that people could play that way on the saxophone. So I tried to extract as much as I could from those recordings by just listening and copying, again pretty much on my own. I've been a lone wolf for the greater part of my career.

AAJ: What do you mean when you say you're a lone wolf?

GO: I tend to pursue things on my own. My curiosity motivates me to seek things out, analyze them and I would then come up with my own systems of identification and labeling. I had my own personal lexicon, my own vocabulary, my own notational system. I knew nothing really, but I would get to a piano and write things out in a way that made sense to me. It was very rudimentary.

AAJ: I'd say you were very independent, not so much a loner.

GO: Well, I rejected a lot of things, too. I always wanted to dance to the beat of my own drum. I never liked to go with trends because doing so didn't require any creativity. I thought about many things differently. I embraced a different set of values of my own contrivance. Hard-headed is another word for it! [Laughter.] It's come to serve me well, but it's also boxed me into a corner on many a day because being unconventional has its hazards in a world where conformity is the norm.

Getting back to my early listening, during that time my mother worked at a record distribution company in St. Louis, a really big warehouse, and they would get shipments of recordings from all of the major labels, and in turn they would distribute them to the big chain and retail stores around town. So every day, my mother would come home with an armload of discontinued items; cutouts, overstock and unsold returns. So, we had a record collection to die for. We literally lived amongst mountains of vinyl recordings! We'd stack the spindle on the record player with six or more records, and they would include, say, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Wilson Pickett, Jr. Walker, various classical recordings, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, The Jackson Five, the Beatles, and the Osmond Brothers. We, quite literally, played and listened to everything.

AAJ: Did your mother enjoy the music as much as you did?

GO: Absolutely. Her favorites were Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Jackie Wilson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and so on. Mostly Soul and Blues.

AAJ: Was she a single parent?

GO: Yes, and I really appreciated her efforts to keep everything together, domestically speaking, so I did my best to keep out of trouble in the streets. I found activities that would occupy my time, like visual arts and music, which helped to fashion my perspectives on life and how I might fit into the grand scheme of things. The street culture in my neighborhood was both seductive and unsavory, to say the least. I saw things that young people should never see, and I saw them up close, face-to-face, and with a great deal of frequency, to the point where I became desensitized to them. I became indifferent in a way, and it affected how I reacted to and viewed things. Fortunately, I was smart and ambitious enough to recognize the folly of participation in some of the neighborhood's various "activities."

AAJ: So you never got into the drug culture.

GO: No, not at all. I was more of a regular reader at the library, and I often would travel to the other side of town to read and check out books because, it wasn't considered a good look to be seen coming out of the local library! We often did stupid things or pretended like we didn't enjoy school or didn't want to excel in order to not be targeted by the "bad" guys on the block. It was ridiculous, and I'm sure it still happens.

AAJ: What was the interracial climate was like at that time in St. Louis?

GO: At the time, I didn't even know the definition of interracial! There was no mixing and up to that point, all of the people I knew or encountered were black, as was my entire environment. I only saw white people on TV or in the movies. In fact, I didn't actually have a white friend until I was twenty years old, when I transferred from Howard University to Berklee College of Music in Boston. I experienced real culture shock when I had to actually relate to white musicians, teachers and such. Growing up in an all-black community was great in terms of being exposed to culture, identity, soul and blues, but it was debilitating in terms of social interchange.

AAJ: So, at that time, you were in high school, you took up alto sax, and began working some gigs with the more mature musicians. What was your next move after high school?

GO: Fred Irby III, who was my mentor in junior high, later visited my high school with his big band that he then (and now) directed at Howard University in DC. I heard them up close and was transfixed, because I'd never seen a big band before. I was blown away. Before that, I never had thought of pursuing music as a career, but Fred took me aside and proposed that after I graduated from high school, he would arrange a scholarship for me to go to Howard. That really motivated me to take the music more seriously so I could be prepared for music studies in college. It wasn't simply a fun pastime anymore.

AAJ: What happened when you got to Howard University?

Inspirations at the Berklee College of Music

GO: On the very first day of orientation, I met trumpeter Wallace Roney, tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, pianist Geri Allen, and a few other players who also went on to great careers. During the audition process, they put some music charts in front of me, and I froze, because I wasn't a good sight reader at all. But I was a quick study, and soon got into the swing of things. I was learning and progressing very rapidly because I had an overwhelming enthusiasm for acquiring information. However, after a while I got restless and frustrated because I felt that I needed more than I could get at that school. So during my second year at Howard, I visited Berklee College in Boston during spring break. I sat in on some jam sessions with other guys who were all my age, but they were playing things that I wasn't yet familiar with. There were people like alto saxophonists Donald Harrison and Walter Beasley, tenor saxophonists Jean Toussaint and Don Aliquo. Branford Marsalis was also there, but he played alto exclusively at the time. Drummer Cindy Blackman, bassist Victor Bailey, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, and drummers Jeff "Tain" Watts and Marvin "Smitty" Smith. There were many more and I was very impressed by their abilities and energy.

AAJ: What a lineup! And they were all students at the time?

GO: Yes, they were all students or associates of the college. I thought, this is where I need to be! At Berklee, they were jamming all evening—every day, whereas at Howard, it was really difficult to find a complete group to play with. Also, while checking out Berklee, I sat in on some classes, in particular two performance ensembles taught by tenor saxophonist George Garzone, and one by alto saxophonist Bob Mover. It was a very inspiring trip.

So, after my visit to Berklee, someone from the school contacted me and offered me a scholarship. Since I got a free ride to go there, it was onward to Boston. And it was a big culture shock, because it was a very diverse city and college, and for the first time, I felt like a member of a minority group. There were even international students there. I'd never been around Europeans or even Asian people. That was in 1980 in Boston.

AAJ: What was the musical culture like at that time?

GO: It was quite a vibrant scene. There were a number of clubs, places to perform where you could work things out or regularly hear more experienced musicians play. Bob Mover, James Williams, Jerry Bergonzi, Mike Stern, Bill Pierce, George Garzone, guys like that played a lot in the Boston area. Garzone had a group called the Fringe that played at a place called The Willow in Somerville. There was (and still is) a club called Wally's, where I fronted an organ trio. I could write arrangements or call any song in any key at any tempo, so it was a great place to apply what I'd learned in school in front of a live audience, at my own pace.

AAJ: What sort of music were you playing at that time?

GO: We were playing primarily standards, but we could also closely check out a guy like George Garzone who was very adventuresome and experimental. Branford Marsalis liked a lot of what Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis were doing. I liked Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderley a lot. And I really appreciated that there was an incredible degree of exchange and sharing in our peer group. Players weren't smugly putting each other down or coveting information. We were coaching each other, and it was very supportive. Back then, we gave a lot to each other and as a result, one person's discoveries were to the benefit of everyone. I miss that atmosphere.

AAJ: You had a noteworthy teacher at Berklee named Andy McGhee. What was he like, and how did he influence you?

GO: There were a number of very knowledgeable teachers who influenced me, for example, Joe Viola, who was a technician, a "saxophone guru" so to speak. But I preferred to study with Andy McGhee because he was more hands on and more fatherly. He watched over me, and helped me to identify and hone the more unique characteristics of my playing. I guess he recognized my desire and latent, underlying musical personality. He observed me carefully, and we had frequent conversations—on and off the clock. At times, it was like going to a shrink! I would tell him a lot about what I was thinking and feeling. Then, he would sit at the piano and accompany me. He told me to stand in the far corner of the room, because he wanted me to fill the room with my sound and to simulate a broader, tenor saxophone direction on my alto sax, because some alto saxophonists sound screechy, like nails on a chalkboard. He suggested that I incorporate tenor sax logic into my playing. He felt that a lot of alto saxophonists sounded thin and undeveloped, and he wanted me to be more vibrant and more enveloping with my sound.

He emphasized ballad playing for tone development and for grand decision making. He'd often tell me not to play so many notes, to take my time, to tell a story, to think about the lyrics. He had me listen to multiple vocal versions of each song that I played, emphasizing that they were sung before they were played instrumentally. He covered many particulars that you don't usually get introduced to by most teachers. They give you the nuts and bolts and mechanics of musical construction, but they often don't give you the why's, where's and how's, the reasons behind doing certain things. For instance, he would tell me that when I played a gig, I should play to the Exit sign in the back, and then it dawned on me much later that he was telling me to play for the people in the back row -that I should attempt to project and spread my voice to embrace everyone in the entire room.

AAJ: That's a real gem of advice!

GO: Yeah, it was one of those "Old Man on the Mountain" bits of accumulated wisdom.

AAJ: McGhee was a wise man who'd been around.

GO: Oh, yes, he'd been around! He played with Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and many of the other big bands. He emphasized reading charts, doubling, being reliable and punctual and being a complete musician. It's all right to have your own voice, but when you're called for a gig, you want to be able to fill the bill whether or not you think it's hip. It's up to you to make a living as a working musician. Rent and bills don't care about "hip."

Career Trajectory in New York

AAJ: OK. So you're doing all this learning, jamming, and meeting people. At what point did you feel you were actually embarking on your musical career? Was it when you moved to New York.? GO: The entire time that I was in Boston, I would make bi-weekend or monthly treks to New York. I took a cheap shuttle flight from Boston to Newark. I would hang out, sleep on various floors and sofas. When you're young, you're very adaptable and have boundless amounts of energy. I was fascinated by all the possibilities that New York offered. A lot of questions that I couldn't get answers to in school became more clear. In New York, I could supplement the blackboard-based logic of my teachers with applications by the best musicians. I heard George Coleman, Gary Bartz, Charlie Rouse, George Coleman, Junior Cook, Arthur Blythe, so many players. I went to Bradley's regularly [a small club in Greenwich Village that closed in 1996.—Eds.] There, practically every night I was in the midst of giants who would come there after their gigs. I'd be there, and all of a sudden there'd be Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and there's Woody Shaw. Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, John Hicks, Kenny Barron. Betty Carter would hold court at times. I just couldn't believe it!

And most of these top musicians were very accommodating to me. I've always been the assertive type who would ask a lot of questions. I'd see one of these people in the club, offer to buy them a drink, and I'd ask some questions. I wasn't shy at all, especially since I was aware that I was presented with a rare opportunity to get the truth from the source and not a book. They were usually very nice and impressed that someone my age would be there and even be interested in the music at all. I'd ask questions about their playing, practice routines, details about what led them to play in specific ways, the books and tools they used, and so on. And they enjoyed our dialogue. So I would go back to Boston all charged up with stories and anecdotes. It became clear to me that New York would be my destination.

AAJ: What other musicians did you interact with in New York at that time?

GO: Primarily a drummer named Camille Gainer, a New York native and a good friend was my main running buddy, but I also hung out with a lot of people who never went on to become professional musicians or were simply fans of the music and the scene. My friend Jeff Watts had already made the move from Boston to the city by then, as he was a member of Wynton Marsalis' newly formed quintet. So he showed me around. I frequently hung out with people who would be dismissed as derelicts or junkies, homeless musicians who were strung out on drugs, but despite their condition, they told me a lot. They had seen Coltrane live. They got high with some of the legends. Or they knew Monk personally. They had stories that no one else knew about. So that was also an education. Information is where you find it.

AAJ: What neighborhoods did you hang out in?

GO: Harlem, various locations in Brooklyn, but mostly in the Village, which was the epicenter of jazz activity during that time.

AAJ: When did you begin to feel that you were forming your own "voice," that you had a unique point to make when you played?

GO: At the risk of sounding mildly arrogant, I've always felt that I had a "voice," as unrefined as it remained for a long time. But things didn't begin to feel really solid for me until I was around 35, I'd say.

AAJ: When did you start to think, "I'd like to get my own band together"?

GO: That didn't happen until several years after I'd moved to New York. I wasn't in any rush! I had my own trio in Boston, but we mostly played modified standards. Even when I moved to New York in 1982, I resisted stepping out as a leader as well as offers for record deals that were being presented to me. It was the beginning of the so-called "Young Lions" movement, which, in itself, is a ridiculous term. Many of the major labels were looking for their respective golden goose that would serve as a representative or "face" for them in that movement. They were seeking out musicians who were young, articulate, dressed and played well, etc. I was also being courted heavily. But I knew that I wasn't ready. For one thing, I knew that I didn't have enough life experience behind me to give my music much substance. I still needed some apprenticeship, some time on the road, and I needed to cultivate more of my own expression. I also needed to be taken under the wing of some notables who had the goods that I wanted. So I resisted the record deals. A lot of people who recorded too early and who were thrust into the public eye prematurely were exploited, dissected, and discarded. So I waited until around 1986 before I started to lead bands and record.

AAJ: And some, like Wynton Marsalis, who became great successes, weren't resilient in terms of the progressive ideas that were coming along.

GO: Actually, Wynton was very exploratory when he started out. I appreciated what he was trying to do. But after a certain point, his value system changed, which was his choice. But the work he's been involved in has been admirable, with attention to detail and authenticity, although it doesn't necessarily meet everyone's taste. It's not possible, and no artist should be expected to. But that's the whole problem with these made up "scenes," like the Young Lions. Everyone is put under the same categorical umbrella and are thought to all adhere to the same ideologies, perspectives and career objectives. No one really thinks the same.

AAJ: I think it's really great that you allowed yourself the time to percolate and do the difficult time of apprenticeship and hanging with the other musicians rather than suddenly becoming a rising star.

GO: I was simply being honest with myself, and sparing the public from having to endure my underdeveloped playing and interpretations. Most people don't realize how sad they are. I did.

Steve Coleman and the M-Base Collective

GO: Also, during that time, I engaged with different influences and streams of what was going on. I met Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Robin Eubanks, Graham Haynes, and reconnected with Geri Allen. I met Steve when I first moved to New York while I was playing at the Village Vanguard with John Faddis. Steve heard about me from someone so he came to check me out. He dropped by with Cassandra Wilson, and then after the gig, we talked for a long time outside, in front of the Vanguard. We talked about our goals, ambitions and what we were trying to do in music, and it was a charge for me to find a kindred spirit.

Steve was doing alternative things, his own things, as opposed to lots of guys who were very retrospective. We talked until the sun came up, went back to our respective apartments, and that afternoon we had another marathon telephone conversation. We talked about possibilities: what if we did this or that? We threw around the idea of starting a musician's collective. We made a list of questions to pose to our musician friends, and the answers we got were very stimulating. I was surprised, because the answers didn't necessarily reflect the way most people played. Some played very traditionally, even though they had very well reasoned and advanced ideas and theories. Steve and I surmised that if some of these new theories were developed and utilized, then the output would mirror the times we lived in more accurately, as opposed to being caught up in the past. We endeavored to establish a contemporary musical language.

AAJ: It must have been an exciting and creative period for you.

GO: It was a very, very inspiring, creative, and extremely fertile period. It was the literal embodiment of exchange, sharing, and healthy, creative prodding from one's peers and I learned a lot from everyone.

AAJ: Often, new developments in the arts happen from people coming together, creating a movement, a new set of principles. Like cubism, bebop. serial composition, method acting, whatever.

GO: Any creative ideal is a composite result of different people contributing their knowledge, discoveries, failures, and inventions. Things happen when creative minds meet, even when they're in opposition to one another. There's always something to be learned.

AAJ: One of the musicians you haven't mentioned at all, yet who you seem to reflect a great deal in your playing is Wayne Shorter.

GO: I hear that a lot. Many journalists have made that reference. I can't relate to that so much. I guess it's because I used to play a lot more soprano saxophone, which he does of course, but I never studied Wayne Shorter in that way. I have never transcribed his solos, never decoded what he was doing. I'm not so influenced by him in an academic sense. He's a career model for me because the bulk of his output, especially now, is very sophisticated and personal. That's what appeals to me about his work.

AAJ: Perhaps it's the inventiveness itself that's similar, always creating new lines and phrases.

GO: Yes, Wayne Shorter is an influence in the sense that I've always admired his ability to create environments in which he can flourish and function effectively within. He organizes his groups so that they stimulate and enhance his playing. Master conceptualists do that very well, like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk. They innately seek out players who are sometimes considered misfits and put them together to create something wonderful and unique. It takes a visionary to do that. Duke Ellington was exceptional in that way. He wrote customized pieces for various eclectic stylists in his orchestra. Wayne Shorter absolutely does influence me in the way that he assembles his music and his groups.

Defining the Jazz Idiom

AAJ: I have a question for you that has been batted in many contexts. Based on what you've said so far about all the diverse influences you've been exposed to, you might be able to provide an interesting perspective. That is, "What is Jazz?" From the beginning, jazz has been influenced by many different genres; it's been eclectic in that way. But it had the specific African and Caribbean roots as well as in gospel music. Do you think of jazz as a specific idiom, or, in terms of today, it seems that any music that is improvised is called jazz, whatever its roots might be? Klezmer music, music from India, music of all genres from places all around the world, all seem to qualify as jazz. The definition is important to where jazz is heading in the future. What do you think about this issue?

GO: Jazz is a flowing stream that's fed by diverse inlets of influence. It's something that's perpetual, so it has to keep moving. Of course there are historical markers and soundposts when certain things came into the flow, when particular innovations were developed and engaged, or when particular personalities were prominent. But it keeps moving, it's almost like it picks up momentum from these various changes, but it shouldn't stop evolving.

Unfortunately, contemporary improvised music had reached an impasse beyond which we hadn't moved from in quite some time. But I can feel it gaining momentum again, because many hard-thinking young players have grown impatient with "playing nice" and pandering to expectations, so now we find ourselves in the "post-hip hop" generation.

Jazz has gone from Ragtime to Dixieland and swing, to bebop, hard bop, and avant-garde, and fusion, etc. So this is more or less what I call the post-hip hop era. A lot of young players have been introduced to music in snippets or in loops, not necessarily knowing the origins or root source of those compounds and structures. So they listen, respond to and play music in a different way. However, listening to music that is less melodic—the result is that many musicians today have heightened rhythmic sensibilities and are more aware of the potential that rhythmic variation presents.

So for me, jazz is a deeply rooted American-based music that now feeds off a wide variety of global resources. It's come to that. There are many great international players, who not only bring technical expertise, but they also bring their own histories, folklore, traditions, and customs of their respective countries—which helps to broaden the language and increases the possibilities and options available to artists. It's like a chef who brings spices from all over the world to enhance the flavor of his dishes. There are great musicians from Poland, where I was just last week. We have great musicians from India, Central and South America, throughout all of Europe and Asia. They all have older cultures and more extensive histories than we do in the U.S., so they contribute and offer resources that we can all benefit from.

AAJ: The question is whether, given all these diverse influences, there still needs to be something in the jazz idiom that should be preserved, such as the blues and syncopation, or whether all improvised music qualifies as jazz. Some, like Don Byron, argue that music doesn't fit into neat categories: "God doesn't care whether it's jazz or not." Others feel that jazz embodies a certain essence with specific origins.

GO: I don't think it's incumbent upon anyone to express himself based on others' expectations. No artist is morally or historically obligated to adhere to a vision that is untrue to their goals or personal mission. If a person chooses to play hard bop a la the Jazz Messengers, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver and so on, that's perfectly fine. Or, if he wants to do something entirely different, that's OK too. Musical expression is very personal and so are the tastes and preferences of audiences.

AAJ: You can go well beyond hard bop and still retain specific jazz elements. Ornette Coleman retained key aspects of the blues and the African American experience in his music. Coleman even thought of himself as an extension of Charlie Parker. How important are the roots?

GO: It's interesting that you say that, because I'm reminded of a blindfold test of an associate that I read recently. One of the examples played was a track from a spontaneous improvisational recording and DVD that I did with guitarist John Abercrombie. After listening, my associate said that he wouldn't call it jazz because it didn't swing and have the blues or whatever. (He didn't know that it was me on the track until it was revealed afterward.) I don't think so much in absolute terms in that way, although I do appreciate it when a musician exhibits that he has respectfully studied the foundations and principles of music as it has been presented—either academically or esthetically. But I would never expect someone to maintain those aspects in absolutely everything that they do. I would hope that they would be expansive enough to venture outside of the traditional realm. But even then, I would want to hear the expression of an accomplished and studied musician, despite however they choose to categorize their work.

AAJ: In that respect, I'm thinking of Pablo Picasso's paintings. He was one of the innovators of cubism and abstract art, but only after he mastered all the aspects of the art that preceded him. His earliest paintings are in the tradition of realism and impressionism. He then incorporated them into the new art forms. It sounds like you're very open to new things, but you want them to maintain, respect, and reflect the craftsmanship and the historical development.

GO: If someone wants to express themselves in a fashion that has very little or no precedent, like the way that Picasso painted two eyes on the same side of the head, that's acceptable to me. Some people may not care for it, and that's OK too. When I was younger, if I couldn't hear legitimate chord progressions and forms being exhibited in improvisations or compositions, I would think that it and the players were bullshit. I got that way from trying to please my teachers and by showing that I could play the way they wanted me to. In fact, I later concluded that I was actually victimized by that closed-minded way of institutionalized thinking. When I moved to New York, I had a chance to actually play with some of the people that I had previously dismissed. I learned that even though some of their techniques and methods weren't in the textbooks, it wasn't necessarily wrong. Some of their work couldn't even be accurately notated, but had to be explained or demonstrated.

For example, during my early New York days, sometimes I would occasionally substitute for Julius Hemphill in the World Saxophone Quartet. Before I performed with them, I really didn't think much of their music. However, when I actually found myself standing next to Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, and David Murray, and they weren't playing Charlie Parker's Kansas City blues, but yet another vein of blues, I soon realized that I had a lot more to learn! Hamiet Bluiett played around different places in the midwest, and he picked up a lot of nuances that he showed me. Oliver Lake had his own experiences around the new music circuit. Henry Threadgill, Lester Bowie and several others influenced my composing and thinking. Arthur Blythe had another thing going on alto saxophone that opened up my ears. And Julius Hemphill's unique way of composing was also very inspiring. I used to sit and talk with Muhal Richard Abrams for hours when we would tour. Later, I recorded and toured with Andrew Hill and many other great artists. It was all very enlightening, and it sent me off on an entirely new trajectory.

Current Musical Activities, Personal Life, and Guidance for Young Musicians


For the Love of Jazz
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