Greg Osby: Saxophone “Griot”

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.
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