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The concept was 'Okay, you're not working much in New York, people think you've moved to Europe or you don't exist or you're not alive, let's come out and be visible.
Bassist Reggie Workman has spent almost 50 years participating in the shaping of modern jazz, playing with groups led by Art Blakey, Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Archie Shepp and John Coltrane, using those experiences to form his own unique brand of improvising and composing. Just a few months short of 70, Workman continues to record and tour, as well as teach at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Lately he has focused his considerable energy towards organizing the Sculptured Sounds Music Festival, a series of shows taking place on Sundays this month at Saint Peter's Church.
All About Jazz: What was the driving force behind Sculptured Sounds?
Reggie Workman: The idea for the festival grew out of an ongoing conversation with my co-founder Francina Connors about the music scene becoming more barren and fewer and fewer venues in which to perform. The reason we wanted to do this festival is because, as a musician myself... We looked around and realized that a lot of us musicians who would like to [perform] in New York end up having to go to Europe and the people here never hear what's on our minds... You have a certain number of people who are always in vogue, always up front, always before your ears and eyes. And there's a whole cadre of people who are doing creative things who never get to be heard.
AAJ: Back in the day [jazz musicians] went to Europe because European club owners and audiences were more receptive.
RW: They still are, even though the ratio is a little different. Entrepreneurs in Europe are more nationalistic now; they are hiring more of the local performers than before. With this Homeland Security Act it's more difficult to travel with your instruments. But still, even with all of those problems, it's better to have your boundaries not set at the Atlantic and the Pacific. But we don't want to come back home to ignorance, you know, where people somewhere else know more about the music and your creativity than the people right here. The concept was "Okay, you're not working much in New York, people think you've moved to Europe or you don't exist or you're not alive, let's come out and be visible and while [we're] doing it let's bring the other people who are your compadres along with you.
AAJ: How was the [December 10th] Preview Concert received?
RW: First let me step back a bit and say we chose Saint Peter's for the festival because of its history as a jazz ministry started by the late Rev. John Gensel. It's affectionately known as the "jazz church and Francina has performed at Saint Peter's and has been involved with various projects at the church. Coming forward, we wanted to do a preview concert for two reasons. One is because of the calendars and schedules of the people and the venue. Another, because we need to do something [like] sticking [a] toe in the water, a feeler, to see what we had to do to make it better, to make it run smoothly. Notice [that] we put it just after Thanksgiving and just before Christmas, right in the middle so [that] it could be not [subject to] the same excuse[s] that people usually have.
You can't imagine what has to be done... In New York people have so much to choose from. It's such a big smorgasbord of art that we can't expect that we are gonna be strong enough to get everybody or the majority into that church. Therefore we want to work hard enough to let the people know that the quality is high enough that this is a place to be in February.
AAJ: What did you learn?
RW: Well first of all, we learned that we have to condense the performance a bit. Secondly, we learned that we have to reach out to people who ordinarily don't pick up the [Village] Voice, don't pick up the trades. We realized that things are not the same as they used to be, so our technique for reaching all those people must be a little bit different. We realize that we have to have a smooth team and plan to run it if you're expecting to bring people in. We learned that we have to get an earlier start with everything because before you know it the event is on you and you're not completely prepared. So we have to figure out how to balance our energies.
AAJ: It should be pointed out that Sculptured Sounds Music Festival isn't just about music...there's also spoken word and an art exhibit.
RW: The word is "art. The musicians are artists, the spoken word people are artists, the people who paint, whatever. The word is "art and we know that a lot of our art comes from different directions in different formats. So we don't want to exclude anybody who is dealing with that.
AAJ: What's the format of the show?
RW: Pre-concert activities begin the space that you enter coming down the stairs, the "Living Room, not the sanctuary. The living room will be set up with the vending tables of artists performing that night as well as other artists in the festival who have elected to vend that night. At the same time, in another section of the living room space a pre-concert lecture/ demonstration will be going on. [The Preview Concert featured an art exhibit and discussion by musician/artists Oliver Lake and Dick Griffin.] That kicks off at seven o'clock. So the people can come in, they can mill around, they can feel the atmosphere, buy some CDs if they want to, whatever the case may be. At 7:15, we open the doors to the Sanctuary and hope to start promptly at 7:30.
AAJ: On the last night [February 25th] your daughter is playing in one of the groups, so Sculptured Sounds is kind of a family thing.
RW: [The group] Sojourner is my daughter's [Nioka] project. [February] 25th is called the African-American Legacy Project, which is a concept that Charles Tolliver and I put together. That project relates to the music of great composers who have contributed to the legacy of African-American music, [and] we will be performing in big band and choir fashion. I asked Nioka to bring her group in and [bass guitarist] Matthew Garrison has [said] that he would bring his trio in. He's Jimmy Garrison's son. When we did Lincoln Center we had Roy Haynes' son [cornetist Graham] and Cal Massey's son [tenor saxophonist Zane] involved with it. So the purpose is to create some kind of a vehicle for our links to the people who will move the music to the next space and carry it forward.
Now that's in tribute to Black History Month, so we made that a free concert. We want people from Philadelphia, all around Massachusetts [to know] that it's happening... They may be willing to drive up here and be a part of it because it's going to be something special. And it's worth a couple of hours on the highway. We'll do that in such a way that we'll be finished at about 11-11:30. I asked James Browne [manager of Sweet Rhythm] to keep his club open for people who have driven that far to come down and relax. He said "Well, you know, we don't open on Sunday. So I said "Will you open on Sunday for this occasion? He said he would do it. So that's another one of the things we're working toward, trying to have Sweet Rhythm open after the concert. Another thing that we have to do is get a core group down there, because whenever you have a gathering like that you need music.
AAJ: Is the Sculptured Sounds Music Festival just for this year, or, depending on the reception, would you do it again?
RW: Like you say, depending on the reception. It requires so much work. As I said, those 20-hour days... Whether or not you can continue to evolve and do that year after year, with the kind of resources we have at this point and with the kind of connections that we have in the media, depending on the response and the support that we get, will tell us whether it's a thing that we should continue with or not. From the response to the Preview Concert, I'm very optimistic. But it takes a lot out of one, so [it will depend] on how much it gives back to us.
Trio 3, Encounter (Passin' Thru, 1999) Reggie Workman, Summit Conference (Postcards, 1993) Fortune/Harper/Cowell/Workman/Hart, Great Friends (Black & Blue-Evidence, 1986) Alice Coltrane, Transfiguration (Warner Brothers-Sepia Tone, 1978) Wayne Shorter, Adam's Apple (Blue Note, 1966) John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse!-GRP, 1961)
As a kid, my mom told me I'd like jazz. I thought she was nuts. Then I went to hear Cannonball Adderley (with Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy and Airto) and everything changed. Yeah, mom knows best.