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Steve Swell: Unlimited Musical Possibilities

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Your immediate liking for newer forms of jazz leads me to the question of the day: Why do some people dig free and avant-garde jazz, while others of equal musical awareness are turned off? Why are there these extremes? For example, I'll tell you a well-documented story, and I'd like your reaction to it. When Ornette Coleman came from Texas to California to get into the modern jazz scene, he asked Dexter Gordon if he could sit in on a set at a local club in Los Angeles. Dexter welcomed him on stage, but after he heard Ornette play, he told him to leave and never come back! Ornette walked out, naturally hurt and dejected. But Dexter's bassist, Charlie Haden had the totally opposite reaction from Dexter. He thought Ornette was incredible, followed him home, and they jammed all night at Ornette's apartment! Of course, Haden became Ornette's main bassist for many years after that. My point is that here are two outstanding musicians in the same band, and one of them is repulsed while the other is completely entranced with the same music.

SS: That's interesting, I wonder how old Haden was at the time?

AAJ: It was the late 1950s, and Haden was about twenty years old. Sadly, he just passed away this month.

SS: I wonder how old Dexter Gordon was.

AAJ: He was in his mid-thirties, so perhaps he already found his groove by that time.

SS: That could partially explain the difference. Haden was young and still searching.

AAJ: Yes, but it repeatedly happens at many avant-garde and free jazz concerts that a certain segment of the audience gets turned off to the point of leaving the auditorium. This happened a few years ago when Ornette played in Philadelphia. Many walked out, while others at the concert loved Ornette's playing. The same thing happened when John Coltrane turned to avant- garde music. I'm just trying to bring out the reasons for the intense opposite reactions that some otherwise open and experienced listeners have to the same music. Do you think it's wired-in to the brain, or a matter of repeated exposure, education, personality, or something else?

SS: I think if you're a musician, and you're learning a certain way of playing, and you work all the scales in a very traditional, mainstream way, you're going to have trouble appreciating music that goes outside that tradition. Ornette Coleman was finding all those nooks and crannies of sound in his instrument that no one played before. That's what made it so revolutionary.

But we can go back before Ornette. The clarinetistPee Wee Russell and others before him played strangely and oddly in certain ways. Music as a whole goes way beyond what we usually hear these days. The diatonic scale [the twelve equally spaced notes of the piano, etc.—Eds.] is only a couple of thousand years old. Other countries have always played other notes and sounds. In India and Africa, there are quarter tones and half tones. So Ornette was bringing back something that was always present in other times and musical cultures. But if you're educated to play and listen diatonically in tune, with a standard rhythm, and so on, when someone claims something different, it seems to violate everything you've been dedicating your life to. The same would be true of listeners who are immersed in mainstream music.

AAJ: Once you've developed your vocabulary, your musical language, everything else might seem like a foreign language that you don't understand.

SS: That's exactly what happens. If you have your vocabulary and your mind set, you might not be ready to hear and appreciate something really different from what's familiar or what you've been working so hard on to accomplish. Then it actually becomes threatening to what your sense of what music is.

AAJ: And most listeners in America are brought up on the diatonic scale. There are some exceptions in country music, jazz, and blues, like slurred notes, flattened "blue notes," and so on. But mostly it's the standard scales and notes that we're hearing constantly.

SS: All the pop music is pretty much that way. It's even less flexible than mainstream jazz. It's the simplest common denominator of standard bass lines, chord progressions, and rhythms repeated over and over again. That's all we hear on the "top 40." I have a theory that if the DJs played Ornette Coleman all the time, he'd become a pop star! I really believe that avant-garde and free jazz could be sold and marketed to much larger audiences! Repeated listening, as they do with top 40 stuff, is the key.

AAJ: So let me throw an unfair question at you. How would you define "music"?

SS: You're right—that isn't fair! [Laughter]

AAJ: But what we're really getting at in this discussion is what people consider music as opposed to noise or speech, or whatever.

SS: Yes, it's actually a very good question. I happen to have a very wide-open palette, which is partly the result of my early exposure to both mainstream jazz and also people like Ornette Coleman and Roswell Rudd, and I didn't find it that far a leap to make. Last night I was reading how Charles Mingus was into the classical composer Bela Bartok. And I recall reading that J.J. Johnson was heavily into Hindemith.

AAJ: J.J. was also into Bartok and Stravinsky quite a bit.

SS: So I'm not alone among jazz musicians in being open to many modes and definitions of music, including some far out composers like John Cage and Olivier Messiaen. I happen to live in the middle of the city—New York—and I hear street sounds around me all the time. I can hear it as a disturbance, or I can listen to it simply as the sound of my world, which is just a step away from calling it music. Near the end of John Cage's life, they had live concerts in the Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden which he would attend. They would do pieces of his, so the taxi horns and all the street noises became part of the musical experience, which was his stated intention. For me sound is sound. Maybe I'm way too open to it, but I believe it's all part of music. If I'm out on the street, and I hear a garbage can bang, I hear it as a percussive accent, and it fits into the rhythm of my coming and going.

AAJ: So what you're saying is that in some way everything is music, depending on how we tune into things.

SS: Exactly.

AAJ: Are you familiar with pianist/composer Uri Caine's work at all? He uses all kinds of sounds and spoken words in his compositions and recordings.

SS: I know Uri very well. He's great.

AAJ: So you can define music as the diatonic scale, but you could also expand the definition well beyond that to all sounds that affect you in certain meaningful ways.

SS: Yes, absolutely. And it really is not anything new. Like what we are calling free jazz, many kinds of music in western culture has been changing and developing for a long time now. Using so many different harmonics and sounds, some that aren't even made from traditional western instruments. Harry Partch was one of many composers who invented his own instruments to play his compositions. So getting back to Ornette and free and avant-garde jazz, you could either reject it or you could give yourself to it in a very real way. If it does not click for you naturally, you should try to give it a chance, a number of concentrated, no judgment listenings, which I think is much more difficult than if it spoke to you right off as a listener. But repeated listenings is really the way in if you really want to try to "get" music that does not speak to you.

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