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Ken Vandermark: The Passion and Ascension of a Brilliant Mind

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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All of the arts are an expression of the individual and the relationship to society. Jazz, as an improvised music, goes even further because it's such a direct expression of whoever I am in this moment.
This interview was originally published in 2006.

In a world that has difficulty and attitude toward unfamiliar and creative thought, Ken Vandermark is a visionary exploring possibilities with improvisational and compositional forms.

A recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, he has used the funding to support his interest in bringing together some of today's most innovative and forward-thinking musicians and composers in the global arts community. Embracing music and life without compromise, Vandermark is a bold and brilliant presence, relentless in his passion for creative and artistic ascension.

Lloyd Peterson: Have we become a society that no longer has the patience to be challenged and is only open to things that are easily accessible?

Ken Vandermark: For me, it's really difficult to understand how the current administration in power (George W) has been able to completely dominate political and cultural thought the way it has. The people I am surrounded by are incredibly critical of this administration but its clear there's huge support by the American people for what this government is doing. This is connected to the question you've asked, which is in regard to this information age. Things are becoming more and more accelerated with information and imagery bombarding us from every side. You can't get into an elevator, you can't go into a bar, and you can't get into a bus no matter where you go, there are sounds of some kind of music, some kind of advertising—it's everywhere! People no longer have the patience to contemplate something and the news is a perfect example. There are obvious exceptions, but mass media has dumbed down its information, making it very quick and readily available to a certain kind of mentality.

My day-to-day experience is an exception to this; I don't understand it and it discourages me. It depresses me on a lot of levels because we are living in an incredibly complicated time and unless there can be dialogue, intense dialogue about complicated ideas in ways that can be articulated to the mass public, we're screwed!

LP: Is there a chance that because of the current global climate, that people could find a new appreciation for those things that have more depth and artistic value?

KV: There's a total shift in the way we receive information and people in their twenties can deal with complexity from sounds and visual elements more readily and are not going to get overwhelmed by huge amounts of information. They can pick out what's necessary and are able to deal with potentially more complex art forms because it's connected to their general day-to-day existence. That may be connected to the kinds of music and art that they are going to be interested in. But for someone like me or maybe someone older than me, dealing with new forms of technology can be overwhelming. There's like seventy things here, which ones do I deal with? This group of younger people is going to experience frustration with status quo sensibility and lots of them are just sick and tired of mainstream music. Radio and MTV has become so corporatized, manufactured, and homogenized in the truest sense of the word that they're just bored out of their skulls. They're scrambling on the Internet to find things they like and find new bands they haven't heard. So I think that there are a lot of connections. Its technology, its politics, its the age group, and its cycles that culturally happen. On some level, it doesn't surprise me that there is a group of people actively trying to find something that's an alternative to the common culture.

LP: Does society have difficulty with creativity that is not easily explained, understood, or identifiable and will this be a significant obstacle to overcome for creative music or the arts in general?

KV: If you look at the development of that music from the beginning of the twentieth century, there has been a very rapid growth rate. But if you look at the parallels from Western tonal music, the kind of music that was being played at the very beginning of the century was harmonically more simplified in a lot of its elements. Louis Armstrong was an incredibly complex musician so I'm not suggesting at all that people fit some generalization or were simplistic. For example, if you compare the harmonic and rhythmic systems that were being used previously to those of Cecil Taylor, there are obviously some developments that have happened. But in a simplistic way, you can draw a parallel from tonal music in Western culture to the progression of more dense chords and complicated rhythms in jazz.

In the twentieth century, jazz history was in this incredibly accelerated process of development but at the end of the '60s, something happened with that development. There was this very strong reaction against that development in the '80s and for the first time in jazz history, there was a really large-based neoconservative movement that was similar to the '50s, where there was a resurgence of interest in Dixieland music. With Wynton Marsalis and the crew surrounding him, there was a big neoconservative movement and that makes sense because there has to be a period of reassessment to make sense of these developments. The problem for me is that this neoconservative movement became so strict in its definitions of what was and what wasn't art.

It's like a box. If you look at a lot of the cultural institutions and the way that they are connected to politics, it would seem that there would be a real fight to convince the art status quo to be interested in challenging work. Whereas, the creativity that comes out right now is from a totally different place and actually has a lot more to say about being alive right now. There's going to be a fight in that status quo between the established artists and the way they believe things should be done. I think we are in a shift period where the stuff coming up now is going to be problematic for that status quo and that's connected to politics.

LP: Are jazz traditionalists having a difficult time accepting that a music form considered "American" now has more visible international and diverse aspects within it?

KV: You have a group of people that are connected to part of the past and that past is really important to them. They see influences coming in and altering their sense of tradition and that tradition gets lost and then it's gone. There's protectiveness to that, and just as the beboppers saw the influence of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, the pre-bebop players saw the influence of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Miles Davis is a perfect example of a guy that was completely cutting edge and then Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor came along and it's like, this is crap! Miles had broken through all these things just as they were breaking through them and at some point he began to recognize the correlation but not initially in the late '50s. It's protecting the work you've done because it has to remain valid. Is anybody going to care about the work that we did or is it just going to get thrown out with the next new thing that comes in? Lasting art is going to stand up to time. That doesn't change the fact there are musicians who understand and have devoted their entire life to working with certain methods. And as new methods come from outside the United States within jazz and start affecting the perception of what's important, innovative, and interesting—that's a threat to their livelihood.

There's defensiveness about outside influences and I think it makes a lot of sense. Art's going to do what it's going to do. If you look at the music historically, there have always been outside influences in jazz. Look at Duke Ellington's music. He was influenced in the '20s and '30s from people integrating into the United States in addition to the touring he did outside the United States. And Coltrane was influenced by music from the East. European composed music also had an impact on people who were dealing with composition. Charlie Parker was interested in Stravinsky and wanted to study with Varese. The music of Charlie Parker is 100 percent as valid as Varese but it indicates there is an interest in cross-pollination. It's always been part of improvised music coming out of the United States, and to say that now that's going to have to stop if the music is going to remain jazz, I don't see how that's going to happen.

It gets into this whole thing of defining what jazz is, which gets into some really complicated cultural issues that deal with race too. Because you cannot say that jazz in terms of its source, its innovations and influence, is separate from black American culture. It's completely developed and defined by that culture. If you look at jazz audiences today, they are not predominately black and that includes performing artists too. So if black Americans are not coming out to hear the music and especially if black American children are not coming out to hear the music, then it's not surprising they're not going to be interested in playing that music as an adult. So now what's going to happen to the music that we call jazz? That's a huge change and maybe it's a change for the worse, but you can't force through definition what jazz is.

It's like any kind of art; it has its own set of threads. It's a very complicated and touchy subject because the things that define music in this country come out of the black American experience and those influences have affected European and Asian interests in the music too. All the primary influences that are connected to jazz are coming out of the black American experience as far as I see it. I don't see how anyone can make an argument against that.

So what's going to happen to the music now? I don't have an answer for that and I think it's out of our hands. I would be incredibly naive and ignorant to suggest that I understand black American culture. I'm not a black American. I'm totally influenced by it, and it's completely changed my life down to my DNA, but I'm not a black American. And if I can't understand or appreciate what it means to be a black American culturally, socially, and politically, then how can somebody in Europe or Asia really say that they could possibly understand the answer to what that culture is and how it would affect the art? As participation from people outside black American culture increases, there is no question the music is going to change radically because the source has shifted. That's a real issue and is neither positive nor negative, it's just reality.

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