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Roy Nathanson: Auditory Circus

Maxwell Chandler By

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The bottom line about jazz is that it's not a music for like a zillion people, it's not that.
Roy NathansonSaxophonist Roy Nathanson was in one of the earliest versions of The Lounge Lizards, which he left to found The Jazz Passengers, a group that slowly morphed into his new ensemble, Sotto Voce. In between he also co-led a duo with keyboardist and composer, Anthony Coleman and released, among others, the ground-breaking album I Could've Been a Drum (Tzadik, 1997).

As an independent composer he also scored the work of monologue artist, David Cole. He also scored music for several PBS programs and even wrote children's songs for the HBO series, Happily Ever After. All the writing, together with his career in acting, worked in concert to further the narrative aspect of his music, and a life which has always mixed aspects of the cerebral and the whimsical.

Chapter Index

  1. Early Years
  2. New York Melting Pot
  3. Debbie Harry
  4. Words and Music
  5. Jimmy Heath
  6. The Life of an Actor
  7. Grants and Commissions
  8. Fire at Keaton's
  9. The Rock Concert
  10. You're the Fool
  11. Sotto Voce

Early Years

All About Jazz: Aside from singing and composing, you are a multi-reedman. Had you always worn all three hats?

Roy Nathanson: Yes. I had played clarinet when I was kid. I was a pretty good clarinetist coming from parents who are musicians. My mother was a classical pianist, but had a lot of problems in her life and was never really able to have a career. My father played kind of big band stuff. He also wasn't a really great saxophonist, but my mother was really a good pianist. So I kind of grew up in a musical family. I was pretty good by the time I was fifteen... Then I kind of freaked out from classical auditions and then stopped playing for a while. Then I got really involved in politics; like lefty, radical politics.

Then when I came back to playing and I heard Coltrane, I was at Columbia... I started practicing alto like a maniac so then I dropped out of college just practice and play.

AAJ: You co-founded the Jazz Passengers with Curtis Fowlkes. Your more recent work under your own name seems more theatrical... combining music with spoken word and acting even within the space of one song. Had you this in mind from earlier in your career or did it slowly evolve?

RN: When I was in college, years ago, zillions of years ago; I went to Columbia. I was majoring in acting, (with a minor) in music. It was the early '70s and I decided that being an actor was the counterrevolutionary thing to be because you could not make up your own things. So then I just got involved in theater. I sort of was in the avant-garde theater world of the East Village; a lot of my friends were in that world. Which was also very gay, you know mixed gay and that was not normal for most jazz musicians. But I knew John Lurie from that scene because we both loved all those characters.

So I guess I always felt that for me, music was kind of an extension of culture and of storytelling. But at the same time when I was first playing all I cared about was playing. I was like any lunatic that wanted to play jazz. That's why I dropped out of Colombia.

Roy Nathanson

Then I moved out to California and played with the circus. It was called to the Major Chumley's Combined Pandemonium Satire Show. It was really a hippy circus. I was studying with Charles Tyler... I was nineteen... Butch Morris was out there.

But then when I got back to New York I started working for Jazz Interactions which was a nonprofit jazz organization. I heard Sonny Stitt... at this point all I was interested in was Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers and Albert Ayler and all that stuff. When I heard Sonny Stitt at one point and I though this was really amazing, I gotta figure out how they do that. So then I started studying with Jimmy Heath.

Even though I was doing sort of theater, I would write scores for my friends and would help act in them in the East Village, I was also doing the same stuff that any young jazz guy was doing at that time; going to big band things and all that kind of stuff. Because back then there was no jazz in school really until the late '70s.

Then I got a gig with Charlie Earland and toured with him for a couple of years. I was good friends with Marc Ribot and we would sort of be all in bands together, he got a gig with Jack McDuff. After that, the thing to do was to get a gig with an organ player and then after that you play with Miles or something. That was still part of that kind of apprenticeship world. I just sort of caught the tail end and it also dovetailed with the world of the East Village, becoming friends with Lurie and combining that with theater.

That's a really round about way of answering that question. It's true that I had a multi-purpose idea of what it was to do music. It was all sort of under the general heading of theater or storytelling or narrative; or something like that. So that when I finally did the Passengers, I had already been doing scoring for David Cole who was a monologist. I did some film scores already before I did that.

I was around the Lounge Lizards and the Lizards were so much about combining those things even though all (John Lurie) did was really play music. Just the fact that he had this thing about fashion and the way the music was perceived was a kind of postmodern idea in that it was aware of itself.

John was very aware of how it was impacting the audience and the relationship between music and the audience. It was a kind of pop art the way that Warhol was, or something like that. He was really dealing in that currency. In fact when we did the Passengers I kind of didn't like that. I did not like the distance that John had to the audience and sort of the way he seemed like a star.

Roy Nathanson

Curtis [Fowlkes] and I were from Brooklyn; we met in the early '80s playing at the Big Apple Circus; which was more like Cirque de Soleil or a Broadway show or something. Curtis was involved in it from the beginning and they always hired good players, Lenny Pickett did it. It was a real OK paying gig. So it was not nearly as funky as the other circus that I played in before.

Curtis and I got Ribot into the Lounge Lizards. So when I started to get something together, first of all I wanted something that was more compositional and had: more chord changes, more harmonically interesting and more compositionally challenging and at the same time funnier and goofier. I was always interested in making sure that, like Louis Armstrong's thing, like comedy... I wanted to have the thing constantly be the way a Dadaist thing is...kind of off balance or something. That's one of the things I liked about the ambiguous sexuality stuff and the ambiguous everything. I really wanted to feel like it was somehow off balance. Quite the contrary, it was more like the living theater than John [Lurie], that there was no barrier between the performer and the audience.



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