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Ralph Peterson: Music Teaches You Life

George Colligan By

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The other thing that contributes to the state of me answering yes to that question, is that these conservatory minded music departments don't even know what jazz means anymore. When you have institutions trying to position themselves to take credit for the success of anybody who ever ate lunch in their cafeteria, regardless of whether or not they complete the program, then that's a problem. Plus, a mentality on the part of students that, because they came from the McDonald's All American State Band or the All County Band, or what have you, then they should go to music school. And that's in the few communities left in America where music programs are supported at the secondary level. Which is a whole other issue, the lack of music in the schools, and how to fix that problem. You don't even start in high school, but we need to start in grade school, in terms of fixing this problem. Things are so different now, because when I was at school, and when you were in school, people didn't come to school with guns.

GC: No, no.

RP: No. I don't think it's a straight line, but there's a line from the absence of music programs to the increasing violence in schools. There is an absolute co- relative line: Music teaches people who they are. It teaches you about yourself. You learn your own limitations. You learn about your ego. You learn about having courage. So these principles are not being taught in computer stations. And for many kids, both parents are working. You know, parents working two jobs to send the kid to the best school, but sadly, the parents aren't around to teach them anything.

And so, it's an interesting dilemma. I think the first step in solving the problem is admitting the exact nature of it. (I am slipping into familiar language, based on my life's experience.) But once you find principles that are universally true, it's one size fits all. So if you're throwing money at the symptom, by installing metal detectors, and increased security, and more video cameras, that's throwing money at the symptom— right?

GC: Right. That's not a solution.

RP: That's like moving a drug addict to the suburbs from the inner city to the suburbs. It's sending him to some country club for some 28 days. It doesn't work.

GC: How important is it to have musical heroes?

RP: I think if you don't know how to play like somebody else first, you can never arrive at what somebody can identify as your own style. That's another problem with what's going on right now. All these institutions are pushing kids to have their own style.

GC: Before they are ready.

RP: I'm telling you, they ain't got no fucking style. I don't have no fucking style. My style is copying the style of the people I love and the way I combine it and that's nothing more.

GC: But it has come out as your own identifiable style?

RP: Yeah, the way I combine these musical things is not going to be the way you combine them, even if we study the same guy's playing. Because it's art and art is subjective. Subjective means two people standing in front of art and coming away with different things from the experience that's the nature of art.

One of the phenomenons of the music industry is that art is not necessarily promoting formula. The formula is copied and redone until it becomes so common that it doesn't attract any attention anymore! They have to find a way to rework it, right? I mean anybody that's old enough to know Madonna, they don't think Lady Gaga is anything new.

But, it's a hell of a thing getting old, right? You find yourselves thinking things and saying things that you remember your parents or your teachers saying to you and you think, "I'll never think that way!" Well, here we are! Amazing how different things become. And in that way, life is like a doorknob: everybody gets a turn!

GC: Especially when you have kids.

RP: Man! And when that happens in your life, as an artist and a musician—it changes what you think to be important. My daughter just graduated from college. She'll be 22 in June. You know... whether you're in a cohesive type of family or whether you're in kind of some adaptation of that, it's still family. And so, being a parent is some shit that nobody can prepare you for, and nobody can tell you about.

I'm watching Facebook. Some of the shit people write makes me laugh! Because, you know, they write some shit, and they don't have kids, and they are talking about parenthood, or they are talking about what's wrong with kids. I say to them: have some. Yeah, have one. And then come talk to me.

GC: But there are good things about Facebook, no?

RP: I use it to keep in contact with people that are important to me. But that's on the positive side. It's really a platform that lives up to the old saying my grandmother used to tell me, "It's one thing to go through life being quiet and having people think you're an idiot, it's another thing all together to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

But regarding having kids; I think that having a family redefines our purpose. It redefines the purpose of your life, and when that happens, the purpose of your heart transforms.

GC: What's going on with you lately in terms of your music?

RP: There are times when I feel my musical repertoire leaning towards things like the music that created the "Unity Project." Then there are times when I think about the Subliminal Seduction (Criss Cross, 2002) recording, where I want to play and write my own music. And then there is this whole venture that I am off into now, being a record label owner. And I really want to make that mean something. I don't want to be a guy who only puts out his own records. Because a lot of people who do that already. I really want to try to create a platform for other people who go through the process, and are deserving of the platform. Not because of the way they look or some other superficial aspect of what they present, but just because the cat can play! He or she does not have to be handsome or beautiful. They don't have to play classical. You know what I'm saying? They don't have to sing popular songs... just you know, be great with your instrument. If we get back to the quality of the music being enough and the technology is the thing that's going to empower us musicians to take over that. That's why I really believe in what you're doing here, with your blog, and interviewing the cats. It's part of taking it back for the musicians.

Jazz writers used to know a little bit more about the music than they know now, besides recordings. They actually used to spend sometime trying to play. Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch—these cats played instruments. But we as musicians, we ought to be defining for ourselves what's great. We shouldn't be beholden to people who don't do what we do for validation, to make us an employable commodity, or entity in the industry. We have the power now through the technology to redefine that.
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