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Julian Priester: Reflections in Positivity

Paul Rauch By

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He's like a utility player, like a great sixth man. If you need somebody to score you some three-pointers, you always know he's there. You always know you have one of the greatest players in your band — not because he's a virtuoso, but he's just really one of the greatest solid musicians on any instrument throughout the years. —Christian McBride
My task for the day was to interview legendary trombonist/composer, and jazz icon, Julian Priester. We had met a few times over my 35 years of frequenting the jazz scene in Seattle, coinciding with Priester's years teaching at the esteemed Cornish College of the Arts. In anticipation, I had spent nearly two months preparing, reacquainting myself for that which I already knew-that Julian Priester is a jazz legend that has played an amazing role in the evolution of the music. He has had the good fortune of being chosen to participate in some of the genre's groundbreaking recording sessions and live performances, spanning a remarkable 65 years. As a leader, he recorded in the late 50's and early 60's for Riverside, before cementing his legacy some 25 years later with the groundbreaking ECM release, Love Love (ECM, 1974).

I listened to it all. I read and listened to every interview available to me. Each interview basically fielded the same questions, with Priester responding thoughtfully, insightfully, brilliantly. I wondered what I could possibly add to this legacy, how could my time serve the music, serve the jazz public in a relevant and meaningful way. This lead to two conclusions on my part. First, Priester's words could have significant impact on young musicians, certainly my platform here at AAJ could provide that. Secondly, my task was in fact, easy. Simply allow Priester to speak.

At age 82, Priester is a master musician who speaks in a thoughtful, humble manner. Our conversation revealed a warm, intimate voice, enabling a relaxed, and focused forum for his amazing insights. His words suggest a staunch pride despite a lack of proper recognition for his transcendent accomplishments. His life journey has led him on stage and in the studio with the likes of Muddy Waters, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, Sun Ra, Art Blakey, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Herbie Hancock to mention a handful. He played on John Coltrane's Africa/ Brass sessions (Impulse, 1961), helped revolutionize jazz with Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi Band. I was humbled for the opportunity. And so I let Priester speak. His probing insights into music, into life itself, have tremendous value to us all. He is a worldly, historical figure, with enlightened social and intellectual refinement. His story seems to reveal a new window of wisdom each time it is discussed, shedding light on a clear path going forward, utilizing humanity as its prime instrument. I hope you dig.

All About Jazz: I have the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time with young jazz musicians. I am often amazed with their technical facility, but what I don't often hear in their playing is the blues, any connection in terms of their sound and musical dedication. I sense in your playing throughout your career, a deep connection with the blues. You grew up in Chicago, and as a teen, had the opportunity to play with some of the blues legends like the great Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley. How did these opportunities come to be, and how did it embolden you to be yourself when you play?

Julian Priester: First off, let me just give you an idea of the environment I came into. I came from a religious family, a Baptist family, my Dad was an assistant pastor. As a child, I came up in the church, and the music from the church was part of my environment. We had a piano at home. Several of my siblings played piano, I was debating-I was the youngest of six. There was music all around. We would gather around the piano and sing hymns. My mother, and one of my sisters played piano, and one of my brothers was a jazz fan. My sister liked the blues, so we had a variety of musical styles in the house there. I was just excited, because of the excitement that was generated by my brother and his friends that would come over and listen to records. They would show energy, get excited with names like Bird, and Bud, Diz and Monk. These were fascinating names for an 8 or 9 year old kid. I had this dream, I would go to the piano and tinker. Before modern equipment came on the scene, before digital things, we had the old fashioned monologue, where you had to move the needle. Certain passages on the records, my brother and his friends would want to listen to over and over, so they would just take the needle and move it.

AAJ: I remember doing that.

JP: I would gravitate to the piano, and pick out the sounds that I heard, that my brother and his friends had played over and over. It would be one of Charlie Parker's riffs, or something like that. I could hear it. I had grown up around the piano, I didn't know technically what I was doing, but I knew the sound. From there, I grew, my ear was such that anything that I would hear, I could find on the piano. So that converted to being able to perform with other players, by ear.

On the west side of Chicago, all the clubs there featured blues. In high school, I had enough music in me that I wanted to join the jazz band, as a pianist, because that was my instrument at the beginning. The routine for the concert band at the DuSable High School in Chicago, was that everyone had to play in the concert orchestra. The concert orchestra also had the responsibility for playing at the sports games, mainly football. There was an event in the summer where they would dress the orchestra up in military uniforms, ROTC uniforms, and we would participate in the parade. This is where the change happened, because as a pianist, I was given a glockenspiel. Oh boy, I hated it!

AAJ: So that's when you decided to pick up the trombone?

JP: I didn't know, I just had to get away from the glockenspiel. So I asked for the trumpet, but there were several other students waiting to play trumpet. and so my instructor gave me a baritone horn. Same fingering as a trumpet, so at one point I could make a conversion over to the trumpet, after the baritone horn. As it turned out, the mouthpiece used to play the baritone horn, is the exact same mouthpiece used to play the trombone. There was no precedent in jazz for the baritone horn at that time. So now I have the trombone in my hand, I moved into the jazz band. There was no looking back after that.

I loved music so much that I didn't care about making money, I just wanted to play. I'd play for free. I would invade somebody else's gig, to get a chance to play some! (laughter) That's when I came into contact with Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, just going from club to club, walking in with my horn.

AAJ: Getting to sit in.

JP: Yes. I would sit in, and after several times of sitting in they started paying me, without officially being a member of the band. I don't know what term to use to describe it, I guess I was a sideman.

AAJ: You have twice been a member of Sun Ra's band, the first time as a very young musician. What did you take with you, in terms of your personal approach to improvisation, from that experience moving forward in your career? How would you describe your playing style at that point in time?

JP: Yes, actually during the experience, I was young, I hadn't made up my mind exactly where I was. I loved bebop. I was confined to bebop, and I wasn't really playing spirituals, gospel music, but I had already absorbed that music from being in church. I was so bent on playing jazz, and developing a repertoire, it came about to not be embarrassed sitting in. I don't know if it's the same now, basically when I was coming up, they would put you to the task, just to test you to see if your repertoire was up to date. They would do things like call a standard song, for instance, "Cherokee," everyone played it, in a standard key. In Chicago, they would change the key without telling you, a half step from the standard. You wouldn't find out until you put the horn to your face and play the first note. You would think, " Oh wow, this is not right." And then to make the conversion to the different key, sometimes you did, sometimes you didn't. In order to keep from being embarrassed, I learned the songs in many keys. At the same time, I'm developing my own ability on the instrument. Technically, I had to not only just learn music, I had to learn trombone, which didn't take that long, because I already had the ear. I could hear.

Once I graduated from high school, I was ready for the big time in my mind. Without being afraid, I had a chip on my shoulder, especially towards saxophone players. Saxophone players get to the microphone and play a hundred choruses, and I'm standing there waiting. So I developed a technique where I would beat them to the microphone (laughter). I kind of carried that attitude with me for my whole career, just the aggressiveness. It really worked in my favor.

AAJ: You played with Sun Ra again in the 80's. How different was his music between your first stint with him in the 50's and the second in the 80's, and how different was your music?

JP: One thing I have to give Sun Ra credit for is to put me in a position where he wouldn't give me much information about the technical aspects about the music he wanted us to play, he would just give it to us and say, "Ok, play." There was no written music there.

AAJ: There were no charts?

JP: No charts, but he would have maybe an idea or two. A phrase, and he would build it off that phrase. Then the rest of the band, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Robert Barry put me in a position where I had to use my ear, and I developed that ability which served me throughout my career.

When you get into a band and improvise, in the beginning, you plan the little stuff that you practice, things we learn in the practice room, and we get onstage and play those licks for one or two choruses, and after that you're out of ideas, you've exhausted your ideas, so your ear comes into play. You listen to what the general sound is and you identify it as far as the harmonics are concerned, and you react on the spot to the sounds that you are hearing. That's what I got from Sun Ra. That's what served me. It didn't dawn on me when it was happening, but later on I realized that Sun Ra really left me with a wonderful gift. I already had an ear, but in terms of the proper use of that ear in a performance is different from going to the piano and picking out one phrase that you've heard. You have to create a song.

AAJ: In some regards that is lacking with many young musicians today. You can come into a session with charts on an iPad in a certain key, and change the key utilizing technology rather than by ear. They don't have to transpose in their head, or listen as much. There are concerns about that educational approach.

JP: It is a handicap if you can't really instantly identify the sound that you are hearing. It's not about learning the chords, because when you're on stage, you don't have the time to think about what chord this is. It's the sound you can identify. You're connected to that sound, you play with that sound. Once that skill is developed, you don't really need to know what the chords are.

AAJ: You arrived in New York in the late fifties, a very exciting and transitional time for jazz music. New language was being created in terms of melodic improvisation, as bebop gave way to more open harmonic structure, and melodic possibilities. Talk about this time in the late fifties, what it was like to be a part of that movement.

JP: When I arrived in New York, I went to the Five Spot where Thelonious Monk was performing, and in his band Johnny Griffin was playing saxophone. Johnny is from Chicago. Johnny introduced me to Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records where he was recording for the label at that time. Things just mushroomed from there.

I was very fortunate. I credit all of my successes to an attitude that was kind of forced on me when I was in high school. My high school band director Captain Walter Henry Dyett, ex army captain who took no mess from nobody! The principal of the school, the mayor of the city all respected Walter Henry Dyett. He was instrumental for not only Johnny Griffin, but Gene Ammons, Clifford Jordan, and many, many others. That really prepared me for life because he told us that the power of positive thinking can get you through life.

He made an illustration that you can go to this window in the band room on the third floor of the school building, and you can actually walk across the street, to the house across the street, without going down to the ground. From the window to the roof. And of course, everyone looked at him and said that this man was crazy (laughter)!

AAJ: But they didn't mess with him!

JP: But it worked. Not that I tried to walk across the street from that window! Little things would happen, like I would be desperate for money, and the phone would ring with a gig. If I didn't have any money, I would make a determination that I was going to go out and find some money, and I would go out and find some money. One time in particular, I was dead broke looking for money, I was going through Washington Park in Chicago, a huge field big enough to have two baseball games going on simultaneously. As I was walking across this field, I saw something glimmer on the ground, it was money, coins. As I reached down to pick up that coin, there were others. I must have picked up a couple of dollars in change from the ground. It must have fallen out of someone's pocket. But that confirmed the belief that the power of positive thinking results in positive thoughts and positive action. So I kind of carry that around with me to this day.

AAJ: There was a protest element to the music in that time, in terms of civil rights, and social justice that would manifest itself later in the sixties in rock music as well. For example, Abbey Lincoln's contribution to the Max Roach album Percussion Bitter Sweet (Impulse, 1961), "Mendacity." Talk about the impact of social change on the music then.

JP: Oh yes, Max in particular was very busy stirring people up with music, and also personally. He was an avid agent in the civil rights movement. We marched in parades when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, Abbey, Max, and myself. I was just following them at that time, it was a learning experience for me. I wasn't politically involved, all I wanted to do was play some music. So that was an education for me, it opened up a lot of new ideas, points of view. I wasn't active socially, still I have social issues, I don't converse openly. If somebody talks to me, I'll reply. Even today, my wife reminds me that I need to be a little more social, more active, getting out and meeting people, and talking to people. I'll talk, like right now, but I wouldn't initiate a conversation with a stranger, or with somebody who is not in music, if we don't have anything in common that would bring us together naturally. So when I go to social events to hang out with people I know, perhaps a jazz fan who recognizes me will come up and say hello. I might have a few words to say to that person. But generally, I'm pretty quiet.

AAJ: There was a new form of jazz evolving then, music exemplified by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, among others. This music truly liberated the rhythm section, the drummer and bassist, an invitation to join in the internal conversation. It changed the approach to modern melodic improvisation. Talk about time in the new music, what would be anticipated from each musician.

JP: At some point in my development I came to the conclusion that the drummer has to play music, so don't be so concerned with keeping time. I can keep time myself. You can play in time, but I don't want you to keep time. Play music. Make it music, play melodies on the drums. Max Roach could do that.

AAJ: Be part of the conversation.

JP: Yes, be part of it. All the great drummers were not so much concerned with keeping time. They were very creative, they were very involved in setting the mood. If they became angry, they would adapt to that, play something to support that mood. If he became more peaceful, quiet, they would respond like that. One of the things I appreciate about that conversion was, well, when you're playing with somebody like Elvin Jones, if you're going to rely on Elvin to give you the downbeat, forget it.

AAJ: How did you meet people in those days? There is a concern now of how young musicians get together to play, which is largely with their peers, as opposed to playing with, and learning from older and more experienced musicians. When you were younger, you had the opportunity to play with Jimmy Heath, McCoy Tyner, Tommy Flanagan, Sam Jones, Elvin Jones, and players of that caliber and experience.

JP: Those people that you just mentioned were from my very first recordings with Riverside Records. It was actually Orrin Keepnews that put that group together for Keep Swingin' (Riverside, 1960). All those people were already recording for the label. So here's this newcomer coming in, it was a great idea, I was blown away, being in the company of those giants. The effect on me, the effect on my image, is indescribable. It elevated me to a stature I would never be able to gain on my own.

AAJ: Was that the connection that enabled you to play on the Coltrane Africa/Brass session?

JP: No, I had spent, after the Max Roach experience, a time freelancing in New York, on call. I would receive opportunities to perform with artists that I had no prior connection with. Since I was on the list of available trombone players, I got involved with John Coltrane. He certainly didn't invite me to play on that album. I had done some things with Blue Note before, so it was just a chain reaction, basically. There's a perception that I was in Coltrane's band, but that's not accurate. I was just one of the sidemen on that album.

AAJ: You are credited with playing euphonium on it.

JP: That's what it says, but no, I played trombone. I still have the baritone horn, but I haven't played it in years. That's an error, I read that.

AAJ: I went to see trombonist David Marriott, Jr. play last night at Tula's with his Triskaidekaband, and asked him why he doesn't solo more, which he does brilliantly. His response was basically that people generally don't want to hear trombone solos, they want to hear trumpet and saxophone. It's true that the trombone has largely been relegated to a support role behind trumpet and saxophone. Obviously you take exception to that to some degree. How have you dealt with that phenomenon, or bias throughout your career?

JP: Traditionally, trombone has been the support instrument. Technically, it doesn't have the facility that the trumpet or saxophone has, but that's no excuse.

AAJ: No, it really comes down to who's playing it.

JP: Right, so I developed an attitude, it's one of the reasons I would be the first one to the microphone. I thought, I'm going to dispel that tradition. Even composers when they write for the trombone based on a hold back, they put it in a category based on its limitations, and it does have limitations. Because of that, trombonists don't get the opportunities that trumpet players and saxophone players get, as far as the organization of the music is concerned. So I set out to break that habit, that concept. Instead of following in the footsteps of J.J. Johnson, I followed in the footsteps of Sonny Rollins.

AAJ: The trombone does seem to get more respect in Latin music. Trombonist Doug Beavers released an album recently titled Titanes del Trombón (Artistshare, 2015). Do you know him?

JP: I don't know him personally, but I know of him. I played with Eddie Palmieri. I was in his band, so I've had a latin experience.

AAJ: In 1969 you did a six month stint in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. After all you had experienced, from Sun Ra, to Max Roach, Dinah Washington, John Coltrane, and your recordings as a leader, what was it like to step back into perhaps the greatest large ensemble in the history of jazz?

JP: This may sound a little strange, because I was awed to be in the presence of those giants. I hated it. I hated it because I had to pretend to be older. Conceptually, the music was older, the style was older, I had Cat Anderson and Cootie Williams playing behind me. I love Paul Gonsalves, I love him. So here I am, everyone dressed up in jackets, trousers, shoes shined, tie, everybody. Everybody had a little stash, a bottle of whatever their favorite drink was. They'd get to the hotel, go to their room, sit down. turn on the TV and drink. Every time you would see them, they would have their tie on, gentlemanly. So I'm in this environment, I even got my own stash, I kept my own bottle. I think my favorite drink then was cognac. I put on about twenty five pounds. But I hated it, I was really torn to be where I was, but at the same time, not really having the opportunity to express myself. I remember a rehearsal where I had a trombone solo, and there was a break, maybe a two or four bar break before the solo. And so I took the break, I played in the break, and I reverted back to Julian. For the first time it was, "Say hello to Julian." After those four bars that I played, silence. Everyone stopped.

AAJ: He wrote with specific musicians in mind. Did he ever talk to you about that at all?

JP: No. I put that together, that if I'm going to play with these wonderful people, I have to behave. I can't be playing bebop, I can't be playing outside. I have to fit in, and that's what separated me from myself.

AAJ: That's hard to do for a long period of time.

JP: Yes. So I drank and put on weight!

AAJ: Was Johnny Hodges in the band then?

JP: Yes, Johnny took me under his wing. He made me feel comfortable there.

AAJ: You played with Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi Band after the Ellington experience. You then began to experiment with electric instruments, as well as different rhythmic and harmonic forms. In this time, not just in jazz, but all across the board, it seemed like everything was bleeding into each other. Everybody was experimenting with these other sounds. Everything was on the table. Your album Love Love (ECM, 1974) was a true musical revelation that still resonates today. What was that period like for you as an artist, as rock and electric music was hitting a progressive stride?

JP: I was asked to sub in Herbie's band originally by Garnett Jnr Brown, who was playing with the Herbie band at that time. Garnett was also the arranger and he had some projects he was was working on, so he asked me to play with Herbie in his place, until he finished this writing project that he was working on. I think it originally was supposed to be about three weeks, he never came back, and I loved it! So, it was one of those things.

AAJ: That was an amazing lineup of talent, Eddie Henderson, Buster Williams, Billy Hart, Bernie Maupin. Did you have any experience playing with electric instruments at that point?

JP: At that point, no.

AAJ: The music was reflecting the unrest in American cities and protests over Vietnam, it was turbulent and stormy, and a tough sell for record companies, who weren't accustomed to the mainly long, sprawling tracks at odds with the pop format.

JP: Depending on the label. I think Riverside Records was set on capturing the music as it is, as it was performed. Blue Note, similar. They had an eye on the commercial market. It was a turbulent time for jazz.

What happened, and I think it's really important that we make note of this, is the change in the market, like World War 2, for instance. The recording industry suffered because of the shortage of vinyl. When the war ended, there was a new boy in town, cool jazz. Cool jazz, Julie London, June Christy. It was more west coast, and we on the east coast didn't like that. The east coast musicians did not like that at all. Although, I'm from Chicago, I identified with bebop, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, east coast. So it was a turbulent time actually. That was around the time the music started to change. The AACM formed out of this clash, upset that the marketing people jumped on this new product coming from the west coast. We resented that, we felt that what we were doing was also valuable, even more valuable because it was more tied to the tradition than the west coast music was. So anyway, we rebelled. Somehow we got the idea that we're going to play free. We're going to make it so difficult that we can't be copied. Wrong idea, because that alienated the music even more from the general public.

AAJ: Jazz eschewed popularity when it became art music, instead of dance music. So rebellion has been part of the equation since the bebop revolution. Rebellion is what has made the art form what it is, so we are indeed thankful as jazz fans for that form of courage.

Mentorship has changed dramatically since you came up, taking place mostly in academic institutions, rather than on the bandstand with older and more experienced musicians. How has this impacted the creative processes of the music?

JP: That's really a difficult situation. There's knowledge, on one hand and that's what academia provides. It gives you the nuts and bolts of music. It doesn't really teach you how to express music, to get to the emotional aspect. Music for me is an emotional language. It stimulates the emotions, and that's what gives it value. It can be peaceful, it can be angry, it could be comical. I think that those players who come up in music like I did, that had a piano in the home, siblings who play music, and a brother who was a jazz fan-I was fortunate to be raised in that environment. I think today's student of the music is handicapped in that there are not enough places to play outside of a paid performance. You can play at your friend's house, or in your friend's basement, or the garage, and that helps. You have to play, that's where the education is, more than in the classroom. To take a bath, you have to get in the tub. When you are performing, you are aware of what works and what doesn't work, and you make the corrections where they need to be if you're a serious student. At least that's the way I came in. I did go to Sherwood School of music after high school, but I just wanted to participate in the orchestra. That wasn't actually where I learned music.

AAJ: You brought your years of experience to Seattle to mentor students at Cornish College of the Arts, where we have been the beneficiary of your life in music. How did this turn of events in your life take place?

JP: I was very fortunate to have found what we were talking about before, the power of positive thinking. I was living in San Francisco, I had just gotten married, and had our first child who was about a year and a half old. Circumstances changed my life in that the mayor of San Francisco was assassinated. The gay community was up in arms. I had a one and a half year old son, I had to get out of there. I got a call from John Dykers. We were working on a music and art summer camp north of San Francisco, and John had received a notice from the President of Cornish, Melvin Strauss, to join the faculty there. John asked me if I would be interested. Hello! So without hesitating I prepared to leave San Francisco, and did.

AAJ: There's some cultural parallels between Seattle and San Francisco. I imagine socially, the transition was fairly easy.

JP: Yes, it was very easy. The only thing that, and this isn't a criticism of Seattle, but I've discovered that Seattle has a lot going on for it, a great place for families, the education system, everything is good to raise a family here. But once you've done that, it's very lonely. It's very little.

AAJ: Your musical history has traveled through the blues, avant-garde, hard bop, post bop, from Muddy Waters to Sun Ra, Max Roach, Dinah Washington, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, an amazing variety of forms. What is it about your approach to playing that enables your ability to adapt and play inspired music in all of these creative scenarios, and in the process create your own personal sound.

JP: I think it's from my childhood. I think that the trauma of having your mom die when you're nine years old, sends you into a spiral. Emotionally, it changes you. I have so much pain from that experience that I still carry around with me. I think I express it through music. The intensity of the music that I produce, especially in a jazz setting where I can get up in front of the microphone and just play what comes out. I try not to control what is coming out. I just want to play what I feel. I have my ear open and I'm listening to sound, and I adapt to that sound. This served me as a successful model. It is what is so natural to me. All the ingredients are ingrained. The pain is there, the religious fervor is there. I've had to cope with the physical properties. The trombone is not a flute (laughter).

AAJ: I just feel when I listen to your playing, that it's coming from a very deep place, a very personal place, it's notably different from other trombonists. That's why I'm drawn to your music.

Capitalism has not been kind to artists in this day and age. Streaming services are paying musicians what amounts to a joke, while substantially reducing CD and download sales. Even before rock and roll began dominating record sales, it seems musicians were paid just enough to come back for more, in essence, volunteer slavery. In your career, how do you see commercialization as having altered the creative process, and the music itself?

JP: Oh boy. It turned art into product, commercial product. The impact that it has on the art clouds its identity. Commercialism turns art into product, which is put on the shelf with like products. Jazz is in the same category as peanut butter, and I resent that. I really, really resent that because here you have something that is really precious, that really mirrors the human experience, it speaks to the human experience, the emotional experience. It should be revered, but it's not. Once jazz moved from dance music to creative music, emphasis on creating, it lost its place, jazz lost its stature, its identity. There's a certain portion of citizens who are informed. Soon as capitalism enters the equation, there's no caring about the aesthetic properties that jazz as a music makes available.

AAJ: Essentially, it's making the music a commodity.

JP: Yes, and as a commodity, it loses its identity.

AAJ: And society suffers. You see this take form in things aside from music, where you can see people behave in a certain way. You often wonder how their behavior and their outlook on life, and their relationships with other people would be different if they were more engaged with art as part of their life and their outlook on life in general. I know personally, it has impacted me so deeply in every aspect of my humanity. When you come upon people integrated in the art community here in Seattle, you can plainly see the impact it has on the heart, on the level of compassion and love that is revealed and shared with the rest of the world. Capitalism just has not served this aspect of the human experience well.

JP: Yes, capitalism tends to bring out the negative side of the human psyche. I've been listening to NPR, and from listening I've discovered that I'm not the only one that has noticed this about capitalism. People are speaking out.

AAJ: I think the extreme views of the current administration is inspiring the possibility of people rising up against the ultimate byproducts of capitalism, namely greed, oppression and class warfare. We tend to be lazy here in America until our backs are firmly against the wall. Then uprising occurs.

JP: Yes, I've got my fingers crossed!

AAJ: Your friend and colleague, pianist Dawn Clement has recorded a duos project on Origin Records of which you are a part.

JP: Yes, and we have a live performance coming up on December 13th at the Royal Room, so that's another thing I'm really looking forward to. I just wish I could stir things up, just get more activities going as far as music is concerned in this town. I know there's a lot going on that I'm not really privy to, because I just don't go out.

AAJ: What is our responsibility in terms of social change as a musical form?

JP: I'm a firm advocate for keeping the tradition alive, because that connects the music to this country's history. Each period that this country has gone through, the music is right there, building a soundtrack for society.

AAJ: Classical music and jazz share almost an identical market share in terms of record sales and press identity, yet symphonies live in lavish buildings financed by both private and public funds, while we as a community are swinging away in clubs, non-profits, all of which are in a constant state of financial struggle. Jazz is America's only original art form, whereas modern symphonies tend to eschew modern American composers in favor of European classical and romantic composers. When these institutions were originally formed and financed, clearly European music was prioritized as opposed to our own cultural heritage, which is firmly rooted in the experience of African Americans. Clearly we struggle with our own cultural identity here, as opposed to many other cultures that maintain and embellish their identifiable cultural traditions. How do you see this?

JP: I blame capitalism for that too. It's bent on turning it over, it has to have a new product. When sales start to drop off, forget that, let's go over here now. Consequently, everything is lost with that revolving psyche. What's value, who is valuable? It's here today, gone tomorrow, no matter what it is. That's not right. I'm concerned, I'm really concerned because we're on the precipice, if something doesn't happen to save us, it's going to get lost. How many people actually sit down and listen to music these days?

AAJ: Throughout your entire career, regardless of who you are playing with, or what style, or form your are engaging, in terms of your playing, you have remained true to yourself. Many musicians have told me that at the end of the day, it's about expressing yourself truthfully on the bandstand in the moment, having your peers accept what you are playing. To me, and many others, you exemplify this. Truth?

JP: That's the truth, yes. When I was working with Duke, I had to adapt, and that was one of the things that bothered me, because I wasn't really speaking from my own voice, I was speaking from Duke Ellington's voice. It was touch and go. All these great stylists in the band, each and every one of them as individuals had their own voice.

AAJ: And you certainly have yours my friend. Thank you so much Julian.

JP: My pleasure Paul.

Photo Credit: Daniel Sheehan / Earshot Jazz
About Julian Priester
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