Julian Priester: Reflections in Positivity

Paul Rauch By

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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!
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