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Steve Swell: Appreciating the Avant Garde Today

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

AAJ: What do you think foundations should be aware of in giving grants, so they can be a really positive force in jazz?

SS: One suggestion would be for them to make it more of a level playing field. Of course, it's important that they give grants to musicians who've been out there and struggled for a long time, like Roscoe Mitchell or Wadada Leo Smith, both of whom recently won sizeable grants. That's well-deserved. But I think there needs to be ways that musicians in general can get access to enough money to live on and take some of the pressure off.

AAJ: Do you feel that there is a good environment for the younger musicians today?

SS: Absolutely! For one thing, it's a lot easier for them to check out all the music that's around, They can just go on the internet and find an amazing array of stuff to listen to. I myself listen to many more musicians now than when I was coming up. Back then, I was limited to reading Downbeat, listening to the radio, and buying some LPs. Today, there's so much more at your fingertips. But that can be a double-edged sword. Too much of it numbs people. But for whatever interests you and lights that fire under you, you have an unlimited "library" of recorded music available.

AAJ: Who are a few of the musicians that you yourself have listened to recently?

SS: When I listen to music, I'm always trying to pick up new things, so that affects what I choose. Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Threadgill really grab me in that way. I'm listening to how they pace their performances, their sound, how they formulate their compositions. I love listening to Roscoe Mitchell. For me, it's about how they're organizing their music and their concerts.

Jazz Outside the Mainstream

AAJ: Let's talk now about where you are with a lot of your work, namely, jazz that's outside the mainstream. Terms like avant-garde, third stream jazz, "the new thing," free jazz, experimental jazz, crossover music, world music have been used, but what it all adds up to is that what we call jazz has expanded incredibly over the years. The question is how we can begin to make some sense out of all the different forms of music out there, so that when we're listening to something new and unfamiliar, we can put it in context. For example, it took some time for me to grasp what Cecil Taylor was trying to do, as distinct from what Ornette Coleman aiming at. I know you became interested in various new approaches even when you were just starting out. So maybe you can give us a handle as to how to make sense out of the very diverse forms of music that we have at our disposal today.

SS: First of all, I like that you're trying to help people to relate to such music with more sensitivity and appreciation. Let's take some examples of how they could do that. First, they should realize with regard to so-called "free jazz" that Ornette Coleman came up playing the blues. Cecil Taylor came up playing classical music. So there's a continuum between so-called mainstream jazz and classical music that informs a lot of free improvising and innovative forms of jazz.

It's not like they decided to do something that came out of nowhere. It didn't come out of nowhere; it came out of a tradition. You can hear the blues in Ornette Coleman. I'm surprised when I find out that some people today can't even hear something that Ornette did fifty years ago. Whether you can put a name on his music, to me it's just the name of the musician, It's Ornette's music, it's Cecil Taylor's music. It's David Murray's music. If you go and listen to David Murray's records, you get an idea of what that music is, and you say, "Oh, that's David Murray."

When young musicians are learning, they really get into Clifford Brown's or Charlie Parker's solos, and they get a sense of each of their personalities reflected throughout that musician's career. I get the same sense out of Cecil Taylor. I hate the official labels. They aren't as effective as just knowing there's a tradition from which the music comes, and it's really a matter of how each musician or group interprets the music they grew up with and how they turned it into their own music, from their own personalities and life experiences. And it reflects the time they were making their music.

AAJ: Who were some of those musicians who stimulated you personally?

SS: I was already playing trombone when I was ten years old, and I started listening to WRVR in New York and all the records that my father had. There was Vic Dickenson, Jack Teagarden, Kid Ory, all those early trombonists I loved very much. I listened to Tommy Dorsey, who was a very good improviser before he became a big band success. I loved the sound of the trombone. I listened to Jack Teagarden play "St. James Infirmary" a thousand times maybe, and I just loved it.

When I was around age 15, I first heard Roswell Rudd, and from there on in, I got interested in freer music. He just did something so very different, but he came from a tradition of New Orleans Dixieland music. He brought some of that tradition into the music he played with Archie Shepp and some of the freer musicians he played with in the 1960s and 1970s. So Roswell led me to Archie Shepp, and I got curiouser and curiouser, and discovered Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and all those whose recordings were available at my local department store in New Jersey.

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