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Steve Swell: Appreciating the Avant Garde Today

Victor L. Schermer By

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[This is the third of an All About Jazz series of interviews and articles on "The Many Faces of Jazz Today: Critical Dialogues" in which we explore the current state of jazz around the world with musicians, journalists, and entrepreneurs who give us their own unique perspectives. In the first interview of the series, saxophonist Bobby Zankel spoke about his efforts to maintain his creativity and independence in an increasingly "homogenized" consumer-based environment. The second interview with public relations expert Terri Hinte , elaborated on how musicians promote their wares and what this means in terms of how the jazz industry evolved over the past half century. In the current interview, trombonist Steve Swell gives his reflections on jazz outside the mainstream and the explosion of creativity and diversity that has taken place.]

Steve Swell is a New York based trombonist who for forty years has pursued music at the frontier, variously called avant-garde, the new thing, free jazz, the "outside," music that goes beyond conventionality, is sometimes controversial, and often challenges the listening process. From his early exposures to trombonists Roswell Rudd and Grachan Moncur III, as well as innovators like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and David Murray, he has joined others in America and Europe who compose and play outside standard expectations. Such music is dismissed by some critics and lauded by others. Regardless of opinion, it has influenced all of jazz, regardless of genre. In this interview, Swell reflects on the place of such music in the ever-expanding jazz scene of the New Millennium. He also shares his ideas on how listeners and musicians can expand their horizons to appreciate music that initially seems foreign or disturbing.

All About Jazz: Steve, when did you start out in the music business?

Steve Swell: I'd say around 1975.

AAJ: So, since then, how do you see that jazz as a vocation has changed in those years since you started out?

The Current Jazz Scene: Thriving or Declining?

SS: First of all, there are a lot more musicians who are interested in improvising. I would say that in a lot of different styles and genres, improvising is almost mandatory as part of the technique that people need to have. Even classical players need to improvise on a lot of the new music that's being composed. Also, there's much more competition for performances and tours for the many excellent musicians who are out there!

AAJ: It sounds like you think the changes have been very positive.

SS: It's positive in the sense that many more people are coming to the music and taking an interest in it.

AAJ: Some would say that the audiences for jazz have declined significantly.

SS: I don't know what measures they're using for that. I just know, when I play at clubs in New York City or elsewhere, we get pretty good crowds. Just last night, I played at a venue in Kingston, New York, in a small club in a small town in the Catskill Mountains, and we filled up the place. There's an audience for all varieties of jazz around the world today. As for the big venues and big money, that depends on what situation you find yourself in.

AAJ: That's an interesting observation, that the accessibility of jazz, live and recorded, has vastly increased due to globalization, small town venues, availability in multiple formats, a click away now.

SS: I think that's true. To some extent, it depends on the kind of music we're talking about. I'm playing with bands that do original music -we're not playing standards, and many times we're improvising whole concerts without any pre-determined music whatsoever. I've found that there's a core group of people who absolutely love that kind of music throughout the world.

AAJ: That seems to go contrary to the pessimism that many in the music business have about the opportunities for musicians to perform and get their message out. They say audiences and venues have declined.

SS: Well, they've been saying jazz is dead for a very long time.

AAJ: Would you agree that it's harder to be a jazz musician today than when you came up in the 1970s?

SS: No, it's always been hard no matter when, how, or where you came up. It's a lifelong commitment, you have to work at it every day, and with the amount of work you put into practicing, working in a band, finding gigs, at the end of the day, the amount you receive from all of that, you're not really well-compensated for all the work you put into this art form.

AAJ: Do you have any thoughts about what could be done to improve the financial situation for musicians?

SS: Well, at a recent meeting of Chamber Music America, someone proposed a change in grants from institutions or foundations, where they give money to a group rather than an individual. In that way, more musicians can extend themselves more easily, and it will take some of the pressure off them.

AAJ: Have you ever worked with a grant yourself?

SS: Many times. And I've worked with others who pursued grants. When Anthony Braxton won his MacArthur grant, around 1995, he used a lot of that money to present his first opera at John Jay College, and all the musicians involved received some of that grant money through Anthony.

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