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Larry Willis: Reaching and Teaching

Russ Musto By

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AAJ: You're speaking more of the those times and places where many jazz programs operated under a principle which basically proved the old adage that those who can't do, teach.

LW: Yes.

AAJ: From your work in Florida, you've begun doing some more ambitious work. You've written and arranged several orchestral jazz works? Do you find that rewarding?

LW: It's quite rewarding in several aspects. Music is so locked up in sound and the fact that having access or being able to write for larger ensembles has certainly been rewarding and another aspect has to do with society. For so many years, jazz musicians have been pushed over into a certain kind of box—you can't read, you don't have technical skills, you don't have orchestration skills—and they never consider people like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and how agile minded they were in that arena. I just want to at least show the world that some people of color that play this music can jump over into that world, too. Because at the end of the day a C7 chord is the same the C7 chord to Johann Sebastian Bach as it was to Charlie Parker.

AAJ: You've developed an international reputation as a result of this work. You've not only performed your orchestral works in universities here, but also in Israel and elsewhere around the world. You're working more on the international scene these days. What are some of things you're seeing—besides that traveling can be a drag?

LW: (laughs) Yeah, we don't even have to go there. I see a broader interest in this music, outside of the United States, from younger people, than ever before. For example, I just came back from a European tour with the trio and the audiences were just absolutely, astoundingly receptive. And oddly enough, in most cases they were mostly young people. It's quite rewarding to see, as far as I'm concerned.

AAJ: You also had a Russian interlude in the middle of the tour. What did you see in Russia?

LW: A lot of cold weather (laughs). We played two nights at this club in Moscow, called the Composers' Club and there again there was a lot of audience participation and I would say a good percentage 35 years old or younger. Russia is a very, very interesting place. Because they go back, Russian society goes back, at least culturally, for a long, long time, but they are also a part of the world that we live in today and there is a lot of corruption and politics has a tremendous influence on how things are done there. You know, in essence, nothing's changed. It's extremely expensive to live there, you know, because they've got money now. It's weird, we tend to think, a lot of us, who have had any touch of Russian history or know anything of Russian history, we're still looking or still feeling Bolshevism and I guess that some of that remains, but under Bolshevism the Russian people were very, very poor—but now that's not necessarily the case. You know, you see a lot of mink coats walking down the streets of Moscow. But Moscow is just one place there. We didn't get a chance to go there this time, but the first time I went to Russia, I played the Jazz Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg, which is absolutely beautiful; it has some tradition to it. St. Petersburg is just a wonderful beautiful place to visit, to see. It's actually in many respects, as it is called, "the Venice of the North." It's clean and it's beautiful and there's wonderful antique architecture there. Moscow is a horse of a completely different color. It's dirty and there's a lot of bullshit that goes on there, but all in all I had a great time.

AAJ: You'll be back in New York playing soon with—you have a longstanding working relationship with trombonist Steve Davis, who was schooled by Jackie McLean ...

LW: Just as Jackie schooled me. Yeah, I'm coming to New York to play with Steve the 5th and 6th of March.

AAJ: You also use Steve on your own recordings. He's part of your band, you're part of his band. You do have a recording contract these days with High Note Records, we're happy to say. You are recording regularly these days. You're seen as a leader, certainly as a veteran from who younger players, who hold you in high esteem, can learn much. What are some of the valuable lessons that you have learned that you try to impart to younger musicians?

LW: The first is to be able to trust and use your ears. Because if you can't hear the music you're supposed to play, there's no other way to internalize it, to make it yours and have it regurgitate from you that is very, very personal and has to do with your own story. Respect for the music is something that I really, really, really try to push with the younger players and to get them to do as much homework as they possibly can because, as I mentioned before, there are so many valid schools of thought under the umbrella of this music that we call jazz, that need to be explored and the more that you explore them the broader your musical vocabulary becomes. So I try to encourage that as much as I can.

AAJ: Well you certainly listened to your teacher's admonition in regards to being eclectic, at least in regards to your taste. You listen I know to a lot of different music and we can hear that in all the little elements that come together to be that one big thing that is Larry Willis. What do you try to put into your music? What are the different facets of your storytelling technique?

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