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Lonnie Plaxico: Being Your Own Bird

George Colligan By

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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?

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