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Richie Beirach: Indelible Memories and Thought-Provoking Reflections on a Life in Jazz, Part 2

Victor L. Schermer By

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Part 1 | Part 2

Richie Beirach hovers somewhat mysteriously in the pantheon of the great modern jazz pianists. Some of the others in that category from his generation (coming up in the 1960s/'70s), like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Kenny Barron have greater celebrity, but Beirach easily qualifies alongside them as one of the most accomplished masters. While the aforementioned have developed a signature style, emotional power, and virtuosic technique, Beirach, above and beyond those qualities, has for over a half century immersed himself in a process of uncovering and interpreting the richness in music from both jazz and classical sources, from bebop to cool jazz to fusion, and from the Romantic composers to Bartok to the very modern. A composer- instrumentalist in the best sense of the word, he delves into new and old melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic regions with depth and passion, always looking for creative ways to fulfill the potential of musical expression.

A centerpiece of his career has been an ongoing collaboration with NEA Jazz Master saxophonist, Dave Liebman. Ever since their groundbreaking jazz fusion album, Lookout Farm, they have been working and composing together on a frequent basis, producing a series of duo and ensemble recordings that are unique and original, yet always steeped in the tradition. In addition, Beirach himself has performed and made notable recordings as a soloist and leader, for example, the early Eon (ECM, 1984), Hubris (ECM, 1977), Elm (ECM, 1979), Elegy for Bill Evans (Evidence, 1981), and the more recent Summer Night (Venus, 2007), and Impressions of Tokyo (Outnote, 2010), among many others.

Beirach lived and worked as a prodigious sideman in New York at the height of the 1970s jazz scene through the 1990s. At the start of the New Millennium and in the wake of the 911 terrorist attacks, he shifted his home base from New York to Leipzig Germany, where he taught and mentored young pianists for fifteen years. Today, he continues performing and teaching worldwide while residing in Hessheim, a small town not far from Frankfurt and Mannheim, where he values his privacy and freedom. In the above photograph, Beirach is joined by two members of his current European band, drummer Christian Scheuber and keyboardist Regina Litvinova. Beirach is a wonderful conversationalist, so relax and enjoy this extensive autobiographical excursion by a jazz master.

PART 2: THE EUROPEAN RESIDENCY AND BEYOND

From New York to Leipzig

AAJ: For the last fifteen years or so, you've been living and teaching in Leipzig, and you've always worked and taught a lot in Europe even before that. What led you to move to Europe, and what did you find there that you didn't get in your long residence in New York?

RB: I came here to Germany in 2001, and here's why and how. After the 911 attack on the World Trade Center, I started to get very weird about living in New York City. I was born in Brooklyn, and had been living in my apartment at Spring and Hudson Streets since 1968, right around the corner from the original Half Note. I came of age there. I loved the music, I had women, we all hung out, parties, rehearsals. I hung out with Randy Brecker, I played gigs with Stan Getz those years, and Chet Baker, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, George Coleman, Liebman, Abercrombie, and all those gigs as a sideman. All that time, I loved travelling and coming back to New York City.

AAJ: It sounds like an ideal situation! Why did you leave for Europe?

RB: I had a small apartment in the Village and loved it. But then, the area started getting built up, all the hippies started moving in, and the lofts were turned into apartments. New York changed in a lot of ways. It became very Republican. Things changed in the jazz scene. Wynton Marsalis took over the Lincoln Center jazz programs. The musicians started putting suits on. The town and the music became conservative. Before all that, I could play all the time whatever I wanted to play. The clubs were full six or seven nights a week. The musicians would come to the shows on weekdays, and the tourists would come out on weekends. Just within Greenwich Village, there were about fifteen clubs actively happening. There were some clubs on the east side and uptown too. And they had jazz every night. But in the 1980s and '90s, all that started going downhill. And after 911 it was really terrible. I was there, at home, when 911 happened. I never liked those World Trade Center skyscrapers, but to see them go down was horrible. After that, people changed. People were scared of another attack. Even if a bus tire blew, people would duck to the ground! It was a strange vibe, and I wasn't happy there after that.

While living in New York all that time, I had been to Europe a thousand times for gigs and workshops and teaching, and I had a lot of connections in a lot of the jazz schools in Berlin, Stuttgart. Everyone had a jazz school at that time. So I thought it would be great to get out of New York, if nothing else just for a change of scene. So I started calling around, and I found out that people were interested in giving me a teaching position. In Berlin, David Friedman, the vibes player, was involved in a jazz program and said, "OK, I can get you a job as a professor," and they offered me a great salary. But it was a state-run school, so I couldn't just be hired on the spot. I had to do an audition, and Germany hit a financial downturn, and they cut the salary quite a bit, so that went down the tubes. Then I got a call from Jean-Claude Jenny-Clarke in Paris, who was running L'Ecole Nationale, a really good jazz school, and he said "Richie, you gotta come and teach here!" But again the salary wasn't enough.

Finally, I got a call from this guy Ralph Schrabbe, a former student of mine from the New School. He said, "I heard you're looking for a job as a professor in Germany." He was running the school in Leipzig. I thought, he's crazy, because I thought it was in East Germany! But he said, "Richie, the Berlin Wall came down! It's one country now! And, man, we have lots of money from the state!" And he offered me a great salary. But he said, "You have to audition." I said, "You mean if Miles or Trane or somebody wanted to teach at your school, they'd have to fuckin' audition?" And he said, "Yes." So on my birthday, May 23, I went there to audition with fifty other piano players.

A professorship there is a very special job. But I figured I was already 54, with an incredible musical background, so I stood a good chance of getting it. I had to play three classical pieces, baroque, contemporary. And then I had to do improvisations, so I played my own piece, "Elm" and a standard, "Round Midnight." Then I had to teach a beginning student and an advanced student. And I did well with that. But then I had to pass a big interview where there was a lot of politics involved. And some of them wanted to hire an East German, not an American. So they said, "Why do you, such a big shot in New York want to come to our little town of Leipzig to teach?" I just said, "Because I have a chance to build something here." They really liked that. Then they asked, "Do you speak German?" And I said, "No." And they said, "This is Germany, and you have to teach the classes in German." I said, "Jazz is American music, and I teach in English. And all these students will have to go to America eventually anyway." And I got the job!

That teaching position lasted fifteen years (2001-2016). It was at the Mendelssohn Hochshule in Leipzig. I was a professor and the head of the jazz piano department. I loved the job—I had the best kids as students. And I was very involved with them. In a few years, you see them grow up. They were the best young pianists from their little towns around the world. And then at around age 18, they came to Leipzig where they got a dose of the real standards of excellence. I'm a very tough teacher, but very kind and very generous—I'd do anything for them. And in four years, they grew up and became men and women with a sense of adult responsibility. It was fantastic working there with them. But unfortunately, there is a lot of age discrimination in Germany, and there is mandatory retirement at age 67, so I had to leave. I was still rolling, but it's a state job, and I had to go. Today, I'm living semi-retired in a smaller town, Hessheim, Germany not far from Mannheim. I have great friends here. One of them is a drummer, Christian. I'm very happy here.

The European Jazz Experience

AAJ: Nevertheless, you still do gigs and teaching, and you come back to the U.S. periodically. What are some of the highlights of your years living, teaching, and doing gigs in Europe?

RB: When I first moved to Leipzig, it was a big adjustment, because I never had a full time job like that. Also, I was lonely, I didn't know anybody. But I made some friends and I really got into teaching. Especially because I could control who came to study with me. I was on the jury for selection of the candidates. So, we eventually had the highest level of young people coming into the school. It wasn't a hard job: 18 hours a week. I had ten private students and two ensembles each week. With lots of holidays, I had time to do a lot of gigs. And a lot of my gigs had already been in Europe anyway, so when I was living here, I got many calls to do festivals and concerts. I'd just jump on a train and go. I did solo piano, duo stuff with violinist Gregor Huebner, quartet stuff. And then occasionally I'd bring in George Mraz and Billy Hart to play trio concerts. I'd do workshops in Stuttgart, Essen, Frankfurt, the Netherlands. It was fun to do, very high level. And they respect education in Europe. It's a 3,000 year old culture, while the U.S. is only 250 or 300 years old. So they understand cultural history.

So at Leipzig, I worked for a long time. I was busy with concerts, recordings, going to Japan, the whole deal. I did more than I did in New York! And I've had a great life of an American in Germany. I'm still an American citizen by the way.

AAJ: What were a few flashpoints of that time in your life?

RB: One of them was a spectacular concert in Stockholm with the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra in 2010 with a Swedish trumpet player named Anders Bergrantz. His wife, Amalena wrote a concerto for piano and trumpet. We performed it for two nights with the Stockholm Symphony. It was unbelievable! Packed house. The music was breakthrough stuff: contemporary music with jazz improvisation. The people loved it. It was very high class, and it was great.

For my sixtieth birthday, they had a big celebration concert for me in Leipzig, and I was able to invite Dave Liebman, Gregor Huebner, and George Mraz, and a lot of my American friends, to come to Liepzig. We had a big concert and a 3-4 day workshop. That was twelve years ago.

The violinist Gregor Huebner is a very important musician in my life. I have had a twenty year working relationship with him. He is one of the most incredible modern contemporary jazz violinists. He began with me as my piano student, and we quickly moved on to a more collaborative relationship. We work all the time in different situations. I love his playing, and he always surprises me.

Those were very important things. And from 2001-2016, I was going back to New York twice a year. In the winters between 2004-2012, there were big requests for a gig at Birdland with me, Liebman, Billy Hart, and Ron McClure. Five great nights in a wonderful atmosphere. We made a recording there. And several summers , around Labor Day, I worked in a band (the Richie Beirach Quintet) with Gregor Huebner, Randy Brecker, Billy Hart, and George Mraz (Live at Birdland New York, ACT Rercords, 2017).

So I'd go to New York twice a year, for a week at a time. And I'd go to Japan, Switizerland, wherever, and people were still buying records and paying for them, so we sold a lot of records. We still had the structure of a record company with its support and promotion. I met wonderful people, had great experiences. On the whole, I would say they were some of the best years of my life. The other special period, of course, was in the 1970s when I was starting out, and I recorded Hubris, and all that stuff with Dave and those folks. That was a golden time.

AAJ: You've worked with Randy Brecker many times. Did you ever work with Michael Brecker?

RB: Of course! I did a whole bunch of recordings with him. We worked concerts here and there. We did a live concert with an audience in a recording studio. The record is called Inborn, a double CD on Jazzline Records (2018). It's a wonderful document. It was recorded in 1992, and re-released last year. Michael was my friend, and he and Randy were like my brothers.

AAJ: To me, Michael Brecker was one of the greatest musicians who ever walked the face of the earth.

RB: He absolutely was.

AAJ: For you as a seasoned musician who worked with him, what was it about him and his music that made it so incredible and memorable?

RB: It was his humanity. His humanity as a person came out in his sound. It was his sincerity, his modesty. He was very hard on himself. He often didn't like what he played and wanted to do another take. There's a track on Inborn where I do a duo with him on my piece, "Sunday Song." He came in and sight read it, and everyone in the studio was crying, including me. His sound was so honest, no bullshit. Plus he had unbelievable chops. He was like Stan Getz in that both had incredible technique, all the right stuff. And for Michael, the saxophone became an extension of him as a person. He was a warm guy, great sense of humor, very self-deprecating. He was a natural on the horn. And the way he developed his ideas was extremely brilliant. Because the instrument was so much a part of him, he could really concentrate on the music. He had perfect intonation, and there was nothing he couldn't articulate at any tempo. He was all about the musical ideas, unlike the guys that have great chops, but they play without any concept of what they're doing.

AAJ: There are very few who literally compose the music while they're playing.

RB: Right. Wayne Shorter was like that. Stan Getz was. But there are a lot who don't have that knack. For example, I love George Coleman, but he plays riffs all the time. The same with Dexter Gordon. Great, but predictable. And I really like the way they play. But they didn't have the incredible ability that Michael had to invent new ideas one after the other.

AAJ: Did you play with any of the wonderful European radio big bands?

RB: I played with all of them. I played with the WDR big band with Gregor Huebner on a recording called Crossing Borders (Zoho, 2019). Rich DeRosa led the band and wrote many of the arrangements. I played with the NDR big band, with Mike Gibbs' arrangements. They are a fantastic band. And I played with the NHR band in Frankfurt, with Jim McNeely's unbelievable arrangements. I did three recordings with them. These are terrific bands. Over the last thirty years, they got to know all our American big band music, not just the classic bands like Count Basie. We'd do a week each in Hamburg, Cologne, and Frankfurt. I want to do more work with big bands. I'd like to work with Maria Schneider and her fantastic band, and do some more work with Vince Mendoza. Those are two things I'd like to have happen in the future.

Maria Schneider is super-talented. We loved Maria when she came to New York from Minnesota. We used to call her "Pinkie" because she had strawberry blond hair. She used to work for Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. She worked as a copyist for Gil, and I used to see her around all the time back then. In her own arrangements, she has a beautiful harmonic sense and elegant sounds. And she avoids all the big band clichés and all that shit. She's great! She's also a very good promoter of her own music. She's very positive, very articulate. She's not a neurotic bitch. She's gorgeous, level headed. She's got everything!

Comments on the Jazz Business

AAJ: When I interviewed Maria for All About Jazz, one of the things we discussed was the jazz business as such. She's very active in advocating for the rights of musicians, their recordings, performances, and compositions.

RB: I have the same passion about it that she does, and we had a lot of contact when she was working with the U.S. Congress to effect changes in the internet copyright laws.

AAJ: You've been around the circuit as much as any musician I know, from the 1970s right up to the present. The jazz business seems to always have had special difficulties, and even more so now. Please share some of your views about what's happening and how it affects the musicians and the music.

RB: When I started my professional life as a jazz musician in 1968, there were BMI, AMRA, Harry Fox, Gema, and a few other organizations that were available to us to collect and distribute our royalties to us. And I had my own publishing company. Back then, there was none of all that digital stuff that we have now, with all the downloads, Spotify, Google, and YouTube. I have mixed feelings about it all.. I'm conflicted because I use that shit myself. I go to YouTube and with one click, I have almost everything ever recorded! But most of it is free or costs a few cents, and musicians are deprived of copyright protection and record royalties. These are our creative productions, and we deserve to make a living from our work and have some control over its use and distribution.

AAJ: It's great for the consumer, but not for the working musicians.

RB: And it also has an upside and a downside for the students. It's so available and easy now to get whatever you want to listen to and study. And that's why we have so many great jazz musicians today, because they have access to everything on the internet. It's great, but it's also bad, because it's too easy. You don't have to pay for most of the music. You don't have to buy a CD because it's on YouTube or Spotify. The digital revolution has been great because it opened up access to the music. Some guy in Zimbabwe with a cellphone can hear my recordings!

In the past, there were simply record companies and there were artists. The only way to make a record was to contact a record producer. I would call Manfred Eicher of ECM, and I would say. "I have a trio recording I'd like to make." And he'd say, "Yes!" Or he would contact me. And then we would negotiate the details: cost, pay, personnel, track and tune details, and so on. So the know-how was all there on both sides.

Now, anyone can make a recording! A musician can self-produce his own CD at his own expense. I get a couple of hundred of these every month. And the truth is there is so much garbage and things that should not be released. The market is flooded with these records. Now this is democracy and in that sense it's great, and people should have every opportunity. But the result is that there is so much poor quality work. Number one, listeners don't know what to buy. Number two, people don't want to pay for a CD. They want to download the tracks for free. The result is there's very little income and respect for musicians. My mother, when I got interested in becoming a jazz musician, said, "Oh no! You should be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher and play music on the weekends," like a hobby. Jazz musicians are not regarded with respect. You go to a club, and people are drinking, getting drunk, talking loud, making out. They want to party, and they don't realize we musicians are there to work professionally and create art. And this is made even worse by the fact that anyone can make a recording, and there are no high artistic standards to be maintained.

As a result, my record royalties twenty years ago were twice the amount I get now. I'm lucky to have a few hit songs: "Elm," "Zal," "Pendulum," "Broken Wing." These tunes I wrote were recorded a lot by Chet Baker and other musicians. Everybody plays them. Now, nobody buys shit! And it's systematic, it's not because of a decrease in popularity, it's the result of the change in the way music is accessed.

In the U.S., it's worse. Jazz and country music are the only "real" American music. And rap is not really music. It's just a rhythm machine. They're not songs, they're just "hooks." For jazz, the statistics are scary. Jazz is only one percent of all music sold! America is a young country, and it's still a savage country in many ways. It's a good place to do something new, but it's not a place to become a real creative artist. Europe has a cultural awareness that we do not have in America. Only a few cities, like New York, Boston, and L.A., still have an active jazz scene. The rest of the country, no one knows what jazz is, who the musicians are, and so on. I'm still a New Yorker, I'm an American, I love my country. But it's not a good place to be a jazz artist. Even the grants and subsidies for us are going away.

We used to get a few thousand dollars up front for a recording. Now we often don't get anything. What smart popular musicians like Madonna and Sting are doing to compensate for the lack of recording income is charge a lot of money for a concert in a big stadium. And now they even have a gigantic mobile recording truck they bring to the stadium, so they record, produce, and sell the concert album right after the concert! Things have really changed!

Because of the overall financial crunch, Dave Liebman's message to young musicians is therefore to "find something else that pays money, because you won't earn enough from making music. Most of you will not be able to make a decent living from being a jazz musician." I used to make a very good income doing tours, records, and so on. Now all that money is drying up. An exception might be in China, where they have a middle class in Shanghai and the other big cities who are turned on by jazz. But most of the aspiring jazz musicians won't be able to get a sufficient income from jazz. They will have to do what Dave says and find a new way to make a living. I'm lucky in that respect because I was established in the 1970s and everybody knows me for better or worse. They have many festivals, but some, like the Montreux Festival are no longer specifically for jazz. Unfortunately for us, jazz, which used to be the popular music of the time, today is totally a "niche" music, appealing to only a small segment of the population. Again, one percent of all records sold are jazz albums.

AAJ: That is indeed a very sad statistic. What I'm hearing you say is that the art form of jazz is suffering greatly today. Everything seems to be going against the idea of a musician who dedicates himself and his life to creating new music in a community of like-minded musicians and fans. We finally have had a couple of generations of musicians who are not getting hooked on drugs and alcohol, who are talented and very serious about the music, yet they can't be part of a thriving community to develop the art form.

RB: The community is what made it happen. In the seventies for me, it was me and Dave and Randy and Abercrombie and Steve Grossman, Bob Berg, Lenny White, and Michael Brecker, and a whole bunch of others you might not know. And we bonded and formed a real community of music makers. And at that time, all the founding fathers, our forebears, our inspirations, were still alive, except Coltrane who died in 1967. And these guys gave us gigs. There was a ladder, there was a way up. And guys like Dave Liebman went to the top of the pyramid with Miles. And everybody was in New York City.

In the 1970s, all the major jazz musicians were there. Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Art Farmer. They all had their own bands and hired younger sidemen. So you tried to get a gig with Chet Baker, Stan, or Art Farmer. I was a young sideman. Among the pianists, I remember Cedar Walton was there, Harold Mabern, Kirk Lightsey, John Hicks, Albert Dailey, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Bill Evans, Roger Kellaway, Jimmy Rowles, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner— everybody was in New York City! You could go to the Vanguard and hear McCoy. And then you could go hear Woody Shaw or Freddie Hubbard at the East Village Inn. So on any given day, you go to a club like Slugs, you hang out, you smoke a joint, Then go to another club later on, go to an after hours club, have breakfast, get home at six in the morning!

AAJ: It was 24 hours of learning and growing as a musician almost every day, while the music itself was happening all around you.

RB: When I heard Tommy Flanagan play "Lush Life," I was amazed by the chord changes he was using. And I went up to him and asked about it, and he sat down at the piano and showed me! And then after hours at Bradley's or the Vanguard after the show ended, guys would hang around, and I heard discussions between Red Mitchell and Jimmy Rowles arguing about one note, with Rolland Hannah saying, "Well, I thought Billy Strayhorn wrote it this way!" And I'd be hearing tunes and writing them down. They knew all the tunes, even ones you wouldn't know existed.

AAJ: I thought Jimmy Rowles was from the West Coast.

RB: Cmon! He was in New York all the time. He used to play at Bradley's, He was living in New York with his daughter Stacey, who was a good trumpet player. He stayed in New York after he finished touring with Ella Fitzgerald. Jimmy knew all the tunes, and also had a very light touch, and he taught all of us just by his playing. And he wrote beautiful tunes like "The Peacocks." Stan Getz and Bill Evans both recorded it. Jimmy knew all the tunes and had a very light touch. And he taught everyone just by playing. And all of us were approachable by the other musicians. If someone asked me, "What are your chords for "Round Midnight," I would show them!

AAJ: That seems to contrast with the young musicians today. They do share a lot with one another, and they have great teachers who are working musicians, but they don't have mentors on their gigs, and not many opportunities to interact with them.

RB: Yes, there is a lack of that kind of community that we had in the day. It could be that that's happening now with some cats. I don't know. But we definitely had it with all the major cats alive and burning. I could go hear Chick Corea at the Vanguard and then go hear Bill Evans at the Top of the Gate, and hear McCoy and "Lush Life." These were the major players in their prime. I don't want to be nostalgic and dismiss the great things that are happening today. But back then, there was an incredible world-wide community of jazz musicians all interacting with one another at clubs, festivals, tours all over France, Germany, all the countries. And we'd come back from our trips with a lot of money and great music. And we'd meet so many great people along the way. Today, only a few of the top names can do such tours, like Branford and Herbie. Most of the guys don't get much opportunity to do that today.

AAJ: I really empathize with what you're talking about. There's no ladder to climb any more, and there's no sense of a lively musical community. There are pockets of intense activity in some places, and advanced players like Steve Coleman are leading guys along, but often the new guys once they graduate are left to themselves. Perhaps this interview will contribute to re-vitalizing the jazz scene in various ways. We all want it to happen.

Personal Life, Spirituality, and a Message to Young Jazz Musicians

AAJ: What do you like to do when you're not doing music?

RB: I'm living in Hessheim, Germany, about an hour from Mannheim, and 40 minutes from Frankfurt. I'm a retired professor, and I have an adequate pension. I'm living and have some friends in a small town. It's a beautiful place surrounded by farms, asparagus, the wine countries in the Rheinphalz. I can walk out of my apartment and see the stars. It's a perfect place for me to live now, because I'm older. If I were 40, it would be terrible because there's nothing happening, even though the locals know me as the American professor.

For the first time in my life really, I have a lot of unstructured time. I use a lot of it for music. I plan recordings, I work some gigs. Liebman works all the time. I do it more as the spirit moves me. My life is very good here as an auslander [foreigner—Eds.], and I do miss my old friends in New York. But I'm in touch with everyone by computer and phone, and I have time now to do what I want. I have time to listen to chamber music and operas.

Aside from music, I love action movies with stunts, Transporter I, II, and III. I like Scott Atkins, the martial arts guy. It makes me relax because I don't have to think about it a lot! I used to read a lot of books, but I don't read so much now. But some books I read again a few times.

AAJ: Who are your favorite authors?

RB: Hemingway, Rilke, James Jones, Phillip Roth. I've read everything Hemingway wrote. I read The Old Man and the Sea every ten years or so, and it means something different to me every time. First, I identified with the shark, then I identified with the old man, then with the young kid, and then with none of them! When you have a real masterpiece, there's so much room to discover new things in it. And the same is true with musical compositions. If you listen to Mahler's Fifth Symphony, or the Shostakovich Fifth, or the Ravel Piano Concerto or Prokofiev, each time you listen to it you get more out of it.

And now I have a new band, a quartet with Chris Scheuber, a great drummer whom I trained to be looser and more contemporary. My bassist is Gregor's younger brother Veit Huebner. Regina Litvinova is a great keyboard player who was my student and now is my colleague. My relationship with Chris and Regina has been growing for the last six years. We have a recording called Gaia on the Jazzsick label (2017). I'm very proud of this record. And, since I have this band, I can record and work as the spirit moves me.

We have a concert here August 10th, at the Festival called JAZZAMREIN. This year, it's a fifty year anniversary tribute to the Miles Davis Quintet. So we're playing tunes like "So What," "Paraphernalia," "Blue in Green." In September, I'm doing a duo gig in New York with Dave Liebman at Mezzrow on September 12th. And then we'll go up to Woodstock, NY and make a trio record with myself, Dave, and Jack DeJohnette. It'll be free improvisation, something I've wanted to do with Jack DeJohnette for a long time. I'm honored that he agreed to do this recording.

After the record date, I'm just going on vacation out to Ohio to hang out with my second wife. We're divorced, but we still love each other. I didn't get along at all with my first wife, but I got a couple of good songs out of her [laughter]. My second wife LeeAnn Ledgerwood, whom I first met at Bradley's in New York, is wonderful. She's a great pianist too by the way. She has about fifteen recordings on Steeplchase. She lives in Ohio now, taking care of her ageing mother. We're close like two peas in a pod. I love her. And she inspires me a lot musically too.

AAJ: Did she inspire any of your songs?

RB: Yes, she did! I wrote a song called "Eternal Melody" with her in mind. That song will be on an upcoming duo record I made with my German drummer Chris Scheuber which will be coming out in September on the Jazzsick label. It'll be called Avala. It's like art imitating life.

AAJ: It could be called "The Other Side of Richie's Midnight." [laughter.] Now, I always ask a question about the musician's spiritual side. Coltrane said, "Music is my spirituality." Some musicians have a spiritual practice or are on a spiritual journey of some kind. What is your take on this subject?

RB: That's complicated. I'll answer it this way. I believe music is my only religion. I don't believe in religion as such. I think religion and nationalism have divided the world. As soon as someone says "This is the truth, and you're going to hell if you don't believe it," the fighting starts. And by the way, the Bible was written by humans. I agree with Christopher Hitchens, one of my favorite writers, who is very critical of religious beliefs. But, on the other hand, do I believe in something I can't see? Yes. Just look at your own hand. It's amazing. This was not made by a human being. They can make robots, but they can't make a hand, they can't make a brain. So, to my mind, somebody or something made it. There's more than we can see. And there's a great mystery. The conditions for human life are so specific. So why would it be that on some little shithole planet in the whole gigantic universe there are us humans? Do you think it's an accident that the temperature was just right, and there was enough oxygen and water? It's so improbable. So there's an inevitability and inexorability about life. And it's not of our making.

And I believe in the unknown and the unspoken, and I love the mystery. It's better that certain things are not answered. Music is the highest art because it's not in words, it's not in colors, it's not visible. It's not translatable. It's just sound! It's mysterious. It's beyond all the other arts. It's an impossible truth. You can analyze it all you want, but you cannot prove it. It's just sound! And I love that about music. You as a writer know how hard it is to describe music in words. I can tell you how someone looks. But you can't tell me how to describe Miles Davis' sound. I love that dichotomy, that impossibility of definition. I love it, I live in it. And I'm always looking for a surprise. Leonard Feather said, "Jazz is the sound of surprise." And I want to be surprised. So that's my religion. OK?

AAJ: Very interesting. There's so much in what you say that could be unpacked in different ways. The joy of music comes from its mystery, but you said it more richly, no pun intended, than I've heard before. The truth about music is that you can play one note, and let it vanish, and it's a mystery with a story behind it. It's a mystery that has a meaning, but no one can say with certainty what the meaning is.

RB: It's invisible.

AAJ: And it disappears.

RB: Yeah, it's gone. Eric Dolphy said that the thing about music is that once you've played it, it's gone into the air. It's fantastic.

AAJ: To wrap things up, for the young jazz musicians who are reading this, what would you like to tell them as they try to jump start their careers?

RB: Sure. The thing is that when you're young and you're really equipped, and you really have your basic skills, you can read music, you have good music, you have good technique, you have good improvising skills, you've got to do something worthwhile with it. If you're a genius like Tony Williams or Herbie Hancock, you don't have to worry about it. But I'm not a genius. Most of us are not geniuses. Bill Evans wasn't a genius. So if you're twenty, and you can play, and you've got great chops and ability, you still may have nothing meaningful to say with your music. So you have to live, you have to go and live your life so you get experiences and have something to say. The whole thing is the ability to express your view of the world in your music. That's the nut, the essence of the essence. You must acquire the ability to express your view of the world with great clarity, emotionality, balance, and fire.

In addition, you have to interact with the people. Unlike a composer, who writes alone and gives the music to his publisher, you as a jazz artist give the music directly to the people, except in a recording studio which is something different. You have to have something to say to the audience. And all your studies and skills mean shit! You have to have something to say. You have to have the ability to articulate your opinion and beliefs and your life in the music. And it has to come from inside you. Jazz is the music of the individual. Jazz is the music of self-expression, The challenge of jazz is that you have to go before an audience, under pressure, and improvise something interesting and consistent, strong enough to hold the audience for a couple of hours. If you play a standard like "Midnight" or "Solar," the head lasts a minute or two! The rest is you expressing yourself in improvisation. That's the stuff they don't teach in school. That cannot be taught in school. You have to go out and live! See things, have experiences.

When you play, you have to be in it totally. You immerse yourself in expressing your view of the world in music. Now when you're just starting out, you're apprenticing. You play like Bud Powell and Art Tatum and Lennie Tristano and Chick Corea. But hopefully at the end of it you come out as yourself. What you don't want to be is a clone. Apprentice-master is just a period in your life. After that, you need to do something individual. To do that, you have to go out and live spontaneously, have life experiences that you can express in music. When people go to a concert, they want to be moved, they want to feel something. Even anger. They want to feel emotions. You've got to give them yourself!

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