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.

I'm really curious, fifty years from now, what happens? Is improvised music or jazz—is it just an anachronism? Or does it become something totally unrecognizable to someone who thinks they knew what jazz is because of this move away from the culture that developed and defined it. And the only way for someone today to sound vaguely like jazz in a Coltrane and Miles classic quintet way, is to completely work counter to the way that the music works. Because improvised music is of its time in every possible way that you can define it. And to sound like classic jazz now, you've got to re-create and imitate the sounds, rhythms, harmonics, melodic approaches of something that's like OK, mid-'50s. We're talking forty-five or fifty years ago at this point. As soon as you start doing that, you're killing the creative drive of the music. It has to follow a timeline. It's not an art that's based on re-creation. It's based on creation, which is consistent with almost any art. One of the problems in this country is that race is still a touchy and loaded issue and it's a sad statement about what little distance we've come in the United States. Jazz is tied to race issues in this country and we have to be able to discuss these things and I find that when I talk about subjects that are connected to race, I find myself walking on eggshells. There are so many different ways to interpret what I am trying to say and if I'm not as articulate as I need to be, and not as informed as I need to be on the subject, it's not from lack of trying. And yet to have someone that's a white middle-class American try to talk about race relations in the United States, it's a problem because I can't fully appreciate a huge part of the situation.

A discussion of the subject really needs to happen from all the parties involved, and I find that those circumstances arise so rarely without them becoming combative. That's a really strong statement about how screwed up race relations are in this country. I want to point this out because it's the kind of thing where some people just won't talk about it because it's a really loaded subject. It touches on so many very sensitive and painful aspects of the problems in the United States. Yet I would rather try and talk about it and do the best that I can to articulate my own subjective point of view, rather than leave it not discussed. To be honest, I think it's a bit risky because it's so easy to misinterpret or mishear what I'm trying to say. I have nothing but respect for the people who have been developing this music, both black and white. From the friends that I have who are black American and the things I have seen them deal with socially, culturally, and politically, there are serious lasting problems going on with how black Americans are treated, and it's important to discuss in forums like this or nothing is going to change and that would be the biggest crime.

LP: Is it possible that what's happening creative music is too forward thinking or complex for much of society?

KV: The most creative and unique music of any period has always been ignored or was under the radar. Thelonious Monk was almost a household name and that's kind of astounding. Almost all the great classic jazz records with rare exception were made on small independent labels such as Bluenote, Riverside, Prestige, Dial, and Savoy. That's not unlike now, whether in Europe, Asia, Canada, or here. You're talking about people who are passionate about the music and trying to get people documented that are overlooked by the mainstream. Columbia Records is a weird exception because Miles Davis did some of his greatest work on Columbia. There are other examples like Duke Ellington as well, but generally speaking, it's been people working independently outside the mainstream. And I think the people who are doing some of the most interesting work now, like you said, are artists that others don't know about.

LP: One of the problems with documentation focusing on jazz, such as Ken Burn's series, is that it spends most of it's time concentrating on what jazz created in the past tense and little on what the music is creating at the moment, which is the essence of this great music we call jazz. Doesn't this seem shortsighted, perhaps a lost opportunity to educate potential aspiring jazz students and educate people to what jazz is really all about and what is available to them?

KV: One of the problems with art is it's hard for people to assess what's really happening connected to the present. The artists that get signed to a major label frequently are people who have done work that's associated with the past because people can assess it or think that they can assess it. There are very few writers who actually talk about artists that are doing things right now that have real weight. Some people are trying to do that obviously but the overwhelming majority of information about the music is about its past. In some ways that makes sense but there is certainly a discrepancy there.

At the beginning of their careers, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk were looked at as outsiders. Amazingly, Monk was even looked at as someone that was not technically capable of playing the piano that well. At some point, there was enough weight in their art for people to accept the fact that they were great artists. However, when many artists are allowed to do their work, they end up being misunderstood. This is especially true for someone like Duke Ellington, who was still being criticized for not being able to compose long-form pieces even towards the end of his career. It doesn't surprise me that the people who get funding to document jazz usually receive it for stuff that has been assessed as art. There are no qualifiers that say the people doing great work right now such as Mat Maneri, Joe Morris, William Parker, or Peter Brötzmann are going to be as lasting as the work of Charlie Parker. So we'll talk about Charlie Parker more because that's a qualified and quantified thing as great art in America. The irony is that improvised music is attached to its own time, the present, and very infrequently is it discussed in its own period. Institutions like schools place emphasis on music that has history, and I would say the emphasis is much more on harmonically derived elements and music that's attached to tonal harmony as opposed to music that comes out of the end of the '50s. There is like a ton of development going on inside and outside the United States that has really moved the music into different places. That's why it continues to thrive. It may not get written about or acknowledged like in a Ken Burns series, where I think the last episode dealt with the '60s and was pushed into thirty or forty-five minutes of time. In terms of chronology, that's half the period of the music. It's absurd! Whether you like the music or not, it has continued to change and shift. People in mainstream jazz magazines still talk about Albert Ayler as a charlatan and I think that's a very simple illustration of the kind of problem that we are faced with. If Jackson Pollack is seen as a genius, then translating that to music, Albert Ayler should be seen as a genius. His approach to the saxophone and sound radically changed the possibilities for music and yet he is very unknown. In terms of the general thrust of the writing, Albert Ayler is a footnote and he shouldn't be. There is some kind of critical assessment issue with the music as far as the way I perceive it.

LP: Is there a chance that at some point over the generations we became a more visual kind of society and took for granted or place less significance on various elements of sound?

KV: Historically, it would seem that the visual arts have a long history of respect in Western culture. Jazz is this weird anomalous music that isn't highbrow enough for people to consider as art music and too esoteric to be considered pop music. It's stuck in this ghetto somewhere. And it's ironic because it may be the most inclusive approach to music in terms of its sources and ability to take influences from all kinds of music and organically apply it to the thread of improvisation and narrative expression. There is an issue with improvised music that I wrestle with all the time. If you keep it doing what it should be doing, then how do you make it valid to a world that doesn't want something to be ephemeral? People want to know that it's the best band or the greatest performance.

Everything is quantified and qualified but this music isn't designed for that. It's designed for experience in real time and it's about risk. If you take risk, then sometimes things fail. Even in the process of something failing, it's totally crucial to the aspect of what's going on and that creates tons of problems. As far as I can tell, the motivations connected with the Lincoln Center are to try and codify the jazz vision of Ken Burns, Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and promote that as the thing that will replace symphonic music in this country. There is a huge amount of funding in support of that vision and that vision cannot include things that are contrary to that thread. If you read comments by people who are very strongly sided with that vision, they get very critical about music that doesn't fit into it. But the frustration that I have is with the vast majority of the funding that goes towards this vision and they know that and are trying to control it. That's why they become very defensive about things that don't fit into their paradigm because it challenges what may or may not be happening with the music and the funding for it. I think a lot of the people that are associated with the Lincoln Center viewpoint really honestly believe they are saving jazz and the art form and that they are keeping it alive. From my perspective, they are totally into a museum piece. They are turning it into those paintings on the wall so everyone can say that this is a classic, this is a masterpiece. But I don't need to actually look at the damn thing because I know that that's what it supposed to be.

LP: Do you have a philosophy that you try to impart on younger musicians or students?

KV: The most creative musicians working today, like those of the past, have been individualists that have their own innovative and personal approach. And anytime I'm playing with people who are younger than me, I try to emphasize the fact that you've got to find your own voice, pursue your own ideas, and understand that the ideas that you have as an individual are completely valid and need to be pursued. The ideas and explanations for why I have done things a certain way are just personal solutions. It's very necessary for people to find their own set of solutions to the problems they are faced with and to pursue those influences that strike them the most. Therefore, you cannot give people the answers to the problems you have found. You have to suggest the problems and suggest that you have to go solve them yourself.

LP: What characteristics do you look for in the musicians you collaborate with?

KV: My favorite musicians are people who are extremely open-minded and open to the tools they have available as players. I very rarely play with people that are only familiar with one type of music or are only interested in jazz and not interested in playing music that isn't connected with jazz and improvised music. At times, the musicians of the Vandermark 5 need to be able to work with materials that have nothing to do with jazz, and if they are not familiar with the music or not motivated to explore things on their own, the band wouldn't work.

That's much more common for musicians now and certainly for musicians that I work with who are even much older than me. Most have come from backgrounds where they are extremely aware of many developments of music, whether it's improvised, composed, or music that's not connected to jazz at all. I can't imagine playing with someone who wasn't like that. I know that there are people who are only concerned or focused on one kind of music and I can see why there might be merits in that. You can explore deeper in terms of the relationship within a specific set of limitations. There is certainly merit in doing that but I don't work with people with that focus. For the kind of music that I play, the broader your sensibilities, the more potential tools you have to express your individuality.

LP: You seem to have more control over the rhythm most. How much of that aspect of your music is taken into consideration with the musicians that you are involved with?

KV: The way I play and write for groups tends to deal with rhythm, which is one of the most critical elements I'm dealing with. Rhythm is a consistent factor in all the different kinds of music, and there are a variety of rhythms attached to the way different people and music deal with time. I'm not a harmonically oriented player. I'm a melodically/rhythmically oriented player and I've always heard music that way. When I hear groups play and I find something lacking in the performance, it's usually connected to the way they deal with rhythm or tempo in a way I don't find interesting. Since the beginning of the Vandermark 5, the ensemble has dealt with exploring the different possibilities in rhythm. That's why I think a small part of what the group does is related to jazz time and the way that time feels rhythmically. It also has the kind of propulsion that incorporates a lot of elements of more open time that may come out of Cecil Taylor's music. This is wave energy as opposed to strict pulse energy. The group is also incorporating rhythmic feels completely out of improvised music such as funk, or different kinds of traditional world music that has nothing to do with jazz.

LP: Drummers seem to be a key element within the chemistry of your groups.

KV: For me, the most essential musician in the group is the drummer. I think the drummer defines more aspects of the music than any other individual and so my in each group is the most important relationship I have musically. Drummers define the dynamic level, the rhythmic flow more than anybody else in the group and end up affecting structural indications more than anyone else along with every element of the music. For instance, if you have a mediocre horn section with a great drummer, that band will sound really good, but if you have a great horn section with a horrendous drummer, the band will sound bad. You cannot overcome a bad drummer and a great drummer will make the music really come alive. This again is tied to the way I approach things which is more from a rhythmic base than from anything else so that relationship is completely connected to me. They are inseparable. There is an issue of chemistry and communication that doesn't seem to get talked about that much which is about the way individuals relate to each other and less about individual skills. You have great players who don't communicate well just as you can have really cool people who can't have a conversation. They just don't communicate. The key is really about group communication and chemistry, and chemistry can be incredibly unpredictable but there are times that you cannot anticipate the way a group of people are going to work in a room. So chemistry is like this X factor.

Look at the Miles Davis group after Coltrane left. He tried to find that chemistry again but had to totally revamp the group. The group with Wayne Shorter had a different rhythm section with a totally different approach and yet that group had amazing chemistry. Miles was a genius at putting groups together, but even someone as brilliant as Miles Davis at organizing ensembles had to find an entirely different set of chemistry before he could find a group that was as strong as the group he had with Coltrane. That's a mysterious element to the music, which is really essential and for some reason doesn't get looked at very much. Mingus was able to put groups together that were just completely burnin.' That group with Dolphy and Jaki Byard was one of the greatest groups I have ever heard. There were more famous and versatile drummers than Danny Richmond but no one would have sounded as good in that band. You could have had Philly Joe Jones in that band and it wouldn't have made any sense. It may have sounded all right but the thing that Danny Richmond and Mingus had was one of the great bass and drummer relations in the history of the music. And that was chemistry.

LP: One of the aspects of the music that you are involved in is that every individual within each band has a unique voice and an equal say of what's happening within the creative process. Do you mind talking about your approach and how you incorporate the relationship between the individuals you have in mind with your compositions?

KV: Trying to write for who's in the band is a huge part of the composing aspect. The Vandermark 5 is a group that's been very stable for many years and part of the challenge is writing material that continues to develop as the individuals have changed and developed over time. That's a primary importance on a compositional level. I'm always happier when I'm working with people whom I'm familiar with because it gives me much more grounding in terms of how I can write for the ensemble. Therefore, it's less about instrumentation and more about the individuals. Putting a balanced group together in terms of the instruments is obviously important but more important is who the players are and what their musical personalities are and what their musical personalities are and how I'm going to organize that aspect of the music. I read something from Cecil Taylor where he said that composing starts when the band is selected, or something to that effect, and I think that that's completely true. Once a group is put together, the compositional process has actually started in my head and I think a lot of music is written, without sounding overly romantic about it, in my subconscious. Also, when I tap into the creative process of trying to put stuff down, a lot of it has accessed already in my mind because of my awareness of who the band is. And that's completely attached to the individuals in the band and is of utmost importance to me.

LP: Many of the musicians that I think are some of the stronger soloists tell a story but wait until they get to their solo to do it. But your narrative approach starts right at the beginning of the composition.

KV: Yeah, that's a big part of it. The piece itself has got to tell a story that informs the narratives of the soloists, the improvisers, and the way that they interact in the hierarchy of the piece. Certain pieces are fluid within the hierarchy and others are more conventional in terms of the rhythm section and soloist. But from the beginning of the piece, there has to be a tone set that affects the choices of the players in terms of interpreting the score and then taking that much further and improvising on that score. If that's not going to happen, then there is no point in having the piece. Get rid of the piece. If the piece is not affecting or having an impact on what's going on the overall story, like you said from the beginning of the first note until the end, then there is something ineffective about the piece or there is something wrong about the way that the improvisers are dealing with the material. The piece then is just a crutch. It's not structurally or creatively impacting the music in a way that's important or inspiring, so the performance is just there as a matter of course. It's a convention. And if the compositions are just a mere convention, then get rid of them. There's no point.

LP: Miles Davis said that "The right notes can fertilize the sound of a composition that it can make the sound grow, much like adding lemon to fish or vegetables that bring out the flavor. That it's your sweat." With many of your compositions, you seem to emphasize where and how you use sound textures and colors. I have also noticed that when someone is soloing, you are looking for a place to add sound to enrich what's happening in the music. Can you describe that process, your approach, and what you are attempting to do within the context of the music with regard to sound?

KV: I would agree with your observation because that gets back to this idea of clarity that I was talking about. I would also say that the correlation you make with Miles Davis's music is really insightful to be honest because in the last year or year and a half, I have been studying his music in terms of listening and examining his different periods. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis have had the most impact on my ideas in terms of the jazz perspective. Part of that is because they both continued to change and shift their sensibility over the course of their careers as performers, composers, and improvisers. John Coltrane is another example of someone who was constantly searching. If you look at his earlier styles and notice where he ended up with Interstellar Space, there are a lot of shifts and changes, so Coltrane is another person who had a voice and wanted to hear that voice in different contexts over the course of time. I think with Miles and Ellington, there is a thing about the clarity in which they deal with sound, both in primary composition and secondary elements that work behind the soloists or are integrated into the improvised material. Gill Evans did this perhaps not better than them but certainly as well. The line between improvisation and composition is sometimes blurred in a way that can be very effective but the music always remains very clear.

LP: Cecil Taylor said that, "Music has to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists, rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of you music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cecil describes?

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