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Greg Osby: Saxophone “Griot”

Victor L. Schermer By

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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

AAJ: We could have a much longer dialogue about the evolution of your music, but time is pressing, and I want to bring readers up to date on what's happening with you these days. In a previous All About Jazz interview, you focused upon your record company, Inner Circle Music, so let's shift the focus here to your own recent musical efforts and career.

GO: It's been an interesting ride of late. I haven't had a personal recording release since 2008. I've been exceptionally busy organizing and running the label, and have been more active producing, teaching and making guest appearances. I'm on the road a lot, but now I'm doing many so many gigs as a special guest that frankly, I get offered a lot more as a special guest than I do for my own bands! So it's time to step back from that. Also, I'm involved with promoting and coordinating over 50 artists who record for my label, Inner Circle Music. In addition, I'm working on a book, which is going very slowly. And, of course, I never stop composing and working on new ideas. So I have a lot on my plate.

In the next month or two, I'll begin production on my next CD project. It's time to get busy again. The emphasis will be internal development of the compositions themselves, and not necessarily offering lengthy improvisations. I'll be auditioning yet another batch of young musicians to take the journey with me. I'm designing it to be something that is musically captivating and technically challenging but something that the general public can also enjoy. It's been a long time coming.

AAJ: Let's talk a bit about Greg Osby when you're not doing music.

GO: I collect things! I attend auctions, flea markets, thrift stores, yard sales, garage sales, and estate sales. I look for hidden gems and rare finds. I restore them and often give them as gifts. Right now, believe it or not, I'm on a kick of buying vintage suits, hats, and silver jewelry.

AAJ: Miles Davis did that too.

GO: I go for suits from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Vintage and classic suits. I like the thin ties, the skinny bow ties, tip clips and pins, cufflinks. I like those looks and vibes. I favor musicians who dress more elegantly and look like professionals. Many dress far too casually for my tastes. Performing is about the whole package, a complete presentation. People don't come to see our shows with blindfolds on. Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and all of our predecessors dressed really nicely for their performances. You absolutely will not find a photo or video of them in public or on stage disrespecting themselves nor the art form by wearing "street clothes" in front of a paying public. Not to mention, they did so in an effort to emphasize the fact that they were indeed special, and wanted to be treated with respect. However, I realize that this just isn't a priority issue for many musicians in this "post hip hop" generation. Being casual and comfortable is more of a concern than having a dignified and prepared appearance. But then, it becomes easy to understand why some laypersons don't appreciate the music as an institution of value or high regard. I wouldn't hire a lawyer or go to a doctor if they looked like some musicians that I know. But my expectations are different and it's only my opinion.

AAJ: That's a good point. Today, many jazz guys wear a cheap shirt open at the collar for their gigs, blue jeans, or something like that. By contrast, the Modern Jazz Quartet, in particular, wore the formal attire of classical musicians.

GO: Again, I can't argue with anyone's right of choice. One of my blogs is called Jazz Bums. I would agree that the quality of the music itself is of primary importance, but I think we need to be a bit more respectful in how we present ourselves. We expect anyone in a professional capacity to be properly attired for the job. Why not musicians?

AAJ: What's your family life like?

GO: My family is all over the place, St. Louis, Chicago, the South, west coast. They're not into jazz so much, so I can't relate to them fully on that level, and that's OK. I'm certain that they appreciate one of their own following their muse and sticking with it. Most of my friends are musicians or are in the arts, but I also try to have friends who are into other careers—outside of the business. It keeps me balanced and in touch with what people really think about my music! We talk a lot about cooking, wine, travel, real estate and culture. Absolutely no sports, politics or religious discussions is tolerated. I don't enter in those types of exchanges because arguing over those issues is futile.

AAJ: What about your spirituality? What's your philosophy of life? How do you deal with the big picture?

GO: My ideal logo for life would be an outstretched palm with some seeds in it. Perpetual possibilities. My goal is to continue growing. I'm always looking for new information and resources that fascinate me. There's always this need to demystify and decrypt things I never knew about. Then hopefully I can use what I learn in my own work. Some of it may be very subtle, but there's a great deal that goes into my musical recipes and I enjoy the notion that we all may have different points of view. I'll hear people out about whatever their opinions may be.

AAJ: Do you have a particular spiritual practice or religious faith?

GO: I'm a devout Osby-ist! I'm a practitioner of Osby-ism! [Laughter.]

AAJ: Would you say that you're a seeker after truth?

GO: I do tend to peel back layers in search or deeper meaning or shrouded information. I've investigated many of the major world religions, mostly as a philosophical pursuit. I was a practicing Buddhist for a number of years. I've endured intensive studies in Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism. I study them for personal enlightenment or to attempt to become a better human being and to try to be as giving and open to people as possible. I try not act negatively towards people or to be unnecessarily confrontational or oppositional. I prefer not to practice any particular religion on an ongoing basis, because I find them to be very absolute and the many mystical and abstract references aren't in accordance with my idea of personal growth and development.. Subscribing to ideologies that are inflexible or are intolerant of others' beliefs doesn't fit my way of thinking. But, more power to anyone who finds focus, grounding and peace in them.

AAJ: Do you ever use world mythology or cultural lore in your music?

GO: Definitely. I was in Africa several months ago, and I met many Griots and Chiefs in places like Ghana and the Ivory Coast. I visited the towns and they did libations and induction ceremonies. They gave us names of significance and told us a lot about the spirits and ancestors. It was humbling, incredible, and enlightening in many important ways. However, I'm wary about blatant expressions of unchecked or irresponsible representations of spirituality in my music. I classify that to be reckless and it's not solely what I'm about.

AAJ: One final question. What advice and guidance would you like to offer to young jazz musicians?

GO: "Lifestyle" is a key word here that should be heeded. "Jazz" may also be a word to be more carefully considered. Many young musicians today emerge from universities and conservatories not fully knowing what they're going to face in their careers in terms of obstacles, challenges or even opposition. I would suggest that before they make a move, they should pay repeated visits to wherever it is that they seek to live and work. Check out the climate, the seasons, the available work opportunities, the lifestyle, transportation, the municipal layout, etc. Some areas are more competitive for musicians and artists, some, not so much. New York, for example, is fiercely competitive and is home to thousands of superbly talented musicians, many of whom are out of work. The audiences at jazz clubs can sometimes filled with unemployed virtuosos!

Young musicians should also familiarize themselves with the music business as such. A lot of musicians emerge from college with no social skills, no ability to communicate with an audience, no idea how to negotiate a contract, how to form and direct a band. They have no leadership skills. They don't know how to conduct themselves at gigs. Some don't have much or any live performance experience outside of school ensembles. They should know budgeting and simple economics. They need to know how to work with diverse forms of music and ensembles, how to compose for vocalists, TV, commercial jingles, dance choreography, etc. They also need to know how to use computers, music software and how to do studio recordings: mixing, microphones, etc. Everything!

You've got to wear a multiplicity of professional hats these days and know a little or a lot about many things. You can't just expect to take a metropolis by storm! You need to have a several irons in the fire. You might also have to find and hold down a side job outside of music until your career gains momentum. It's a reality that many artists have and will face.
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