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Lonnie Plaxico: Being Your Own Bird

George Colligan By

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Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

Electric and acoustic bassist Lonnie Plaxico has been on the jazz scene in New York since 1980. He is on hundreds of recordings with everyone from Art Blakey, Cassandra Wilson, Jack DeJohnette, to Ravi Coltrane. He has 13 CDs as a leader, the latest being Ancestral Devotion (Plaxmusic, 2009). I first played with Lonnie Plaxico in 1999 on some gigs with trombonist Robin Eubanks. Lonnie barely knew me, but he recommended me for a nine-week tour with Cassandra Wilson. I was a member of Plaxico's first band in 2000. Lonnie's music was some of the most challenging I have played to date —I remember blocking out weeks and weeks to practice the parts for his West Side Stories (Plaxmusic, 2006) CD. I recently sat down with Plaxico to discuss whatever was on his mind between sets of a performance in New York City.

George Colligan: You are somebody that really thinks in a unique way about everything from music, life, to relationships. We could start off with what you were just talking to me about in terms of the music industry: Where do you think it is, where do you see yourself in it, [and] where do you see everyone else?

Lonnie Plaxico: If you have ten gigs at a festival, you might have a hundred bands trying to get those ten gigs! There's a glut on the market. I don't see myself chasing after that anymore. I will keep working on my music and myself. I'm just gonna let my music speak for itself. I'm just concerned with enjoying life and paying my bills, not chasing after that dream. I did that for ten years as a bandleader and I see the game.

GC: Right. I see it definitely as a game. Some people really thrive on the game aspect of it rather than the music aspect of it. But I've always seen you as a real musician's musician. You really care about the music and you like to do things your way. You like to do it for the right reasons. Have you found that to be difficult in this environment?

LP: I felt like the promoter or a manager or a booking agent is always more concerned with filling seats. So to me, that takes away from the art right there. You have to have something to sell. That selling concept right away compromises our ability to focus on the music.

GC: I hope you haven't completely shut out the idea of working your own band. You are still working on your music, as you've said. I've been over to your house and I know how much of your own compositions you have waiting for the funding to document them. You clearly have no shortage of musical inspiration. Do you see yourself at some point trying to regroup and put something out there? You're still going to do recordings?

LP: I try to release a CD every year. But I'm not just chasing it like I was... It's like a fashion model, everybody tells her how beautiful she is and [how] she should be a model. But if she pursues it, she'll find it's not a matter of just deciding she wants to be a model. The agency and the fashion world [have] to choose her! For musicians, many times musicians will hear, "When are you going to get your own band? When are you going to do your own thing?" I found out that even when you want your own band, it's not really up to you. You can say I have CDs [and] I have my own compositions. I found out it's like... the industry tells you to take a number and to go sit down and wait for your time to have success. And no matter what you do or how hard you work, someone is still controlling what is going to happen with your career. Some people have better ingredients for success or stardom than other people. You can't do anything about that. That's just who they are and who you are. Some people have that certain thing that managers and record companies are going to see as more—I hate to say it—but exploitable...

GC: Well yeah, that's the history of the music business- -exploitation. Some people have described it as modern day sharecropping!

LP: It pretty much is, it's the people controlling it. Like in sports. It's like the NBA draft, only a few people are going to get selected. In that sense, and relating to the music industry, it doesn't really matter how hard you work. Because of this, musicians end up compromising their musical concept in the hopes that it will make it more possible for the powers-that-be to select them as the next jazz star.

GC: I don't see you as somebody who compromises easily. You are somebody that likes to do things your way. And yet when I performed with your band all over Europe and Japan, and even in the United States, where the popular support—the audience reaction—was undeniably favorable. Why is there a disconnect between the clear interest from the people and changing that into real success in terms of booking your band? Why do you think there is a disconnect there?

LP: The people that book these festivals and clubs are not musicians. So they really don't see the music, they are just interested in the product and how they perceive it. Because they aren't musicians, they are looking at press reviews, what label you are on, if you are in a movie, or something extra that helps to sell you on a festival.

GC: So for now do you see yourself on hiatus from booking your own band?

LP: I don't have the desire or passion I had before, because I didn't know about these all these factors when I started. Sometimes you have more passion when you aren't aware of certain things, and then somebody shows you the crystal ball, you see the crystal ball for yourself and then you say, "Hold It! I'm beating my head against the wall. Let me rethink and regroup and stop doing the same thing I was doing for 10 years.

GC: Let's switch gears. You can always be a sideman as a bassist. You want to talk about some of the people you have worked with? Who did you learn from?

LP: The person I really learned a lot from initially was Steve Coleman. Because when I moved to New York...

GC: Didn't you come to New York with Wynton Marsalis?

LP: Yes, but I shared an apartment with Steve Coleman and I saw how Steve's career started without any support, and I got to see how he put bands together and he was not in the spotlight at all. So I saw the raw elements of his career. Even while I was with Art Blakey... Art Blakey was already a legend—it's not good to look at people on a high level, cause you have to work your way up to that. So I got to observe Steve and watch his career progress. Also, he showed me a lot of his musical concepts, advice, a lot of things that Thad Jones showed him.

Furthermore, he would give examples of how musicians would compromise. He would talk about how somebody like Joe Henderson—as great as he was—would have to pick up a rhythm section when he toured Europe. Coleman would talk about how important it was to have your own band to develop your music. And he would give examples of artists who didn't do that and how their careers never took off.

GC: One of the things I admired about you starting your band in 2000 was that you made a conscious choice to not play the obvious standards or to use name musicians. You were only motivated by the sound of the music you were hearing in your head. What kind of advice would you give to a young musician who has the same goal? Say, a 20-year-old coming out of the New School?

LP: It's kinda hard.

GC: Would you be positive?

LP: I would be positive, but I would tell him, don't forget about life! To me, when everybody has the same attitude and we're all trying to achieve the same thing, it doesn't separate us from each other. I would say don't only focus on music, but also focus on what is going on in the world. The reason why musicians can be exploited is because we're all trying to chase the same thing, and there is a lack of solidarity among musicians.

GC: Let's talk shop for a moment. What do you practice on the bass? I realize you have some unique techniques. Do you still practice a lot? Are there some technical things you don't need to practice?

LP: It's a hobby for me to figure out different fingerings on the bass, even if I never use them during a performance. I tell students to think about the bass like the universe! Ss opposed to thinking of it just like the Earth. Learn the traditional technique, but just realize that that is just a small part of what is possible on the bass.

GC: I remember that you told me when you first started the bass, you didn't know the names of the notes, but you could always hear everything! It seems like the ear trumps being able to read music. If you can hear it, you can play it.

LP: When you go back to ancient history, the oral tradition was all they had. And when I was growing up, the people around me didn't read music, so we had to hear everything, and the music was more organic. That's always been my approach. Of course eventually I learned to read music. But we tend to read music because we don't really know the music. If you know it, you don't need to read it. The written manuscript is what keeps us from internalizing the music.

GC: Your musical sensibilities are wide open in terms of style. You are influenced by jazz, funk, rock, classical, R&B, etc. What was it about your musical upbringing that made your music so diverse?

LP: When I was in Chicago, we had to play a wide audience, so you had to play jazz, R&B, [and] funk. We had to please the audience. That's what I've always enjoyed doing. I hope to do that with my music.

GC: I recently started working with drummer Jack Dejohnette. To prepare for the gig, I watched a lot of Youtube videos that featured you, Gary Thomas, and Greg Osby with Jack's Special Edition. What did you learn from Jack Dejohnette?

LP: It was great because Jack wanted us to bring who we were musically to the band. That was our opportunity to explore. He wanted us to find different notes. He wanted us to take the music somewhere else.

GC: You played with Cassandra Wilson for how long?

LP: Off and on for 20 years.

GC: Did you feel more like a co-leader at times? Or simply a sideman?

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