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Trumpeter John Swana

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: To change the subject, let's talk a bit about your philosophy and attitudes. I'm interested in knowing what musicians think about various subjects. For one thing, there are, in my opinion, some really incredible musicians in Philadelphia, my friend Tom Lawton , the pianist, being an excellent example. Now my impression is that most of these guys don't seem to go for the fast lane, the big time. Certainly, Tom is a "world class" pianist, and does at times travel the international circuit, but most of the time he's happily boppin' around the Philadelphia area playing various gigs. Could you reflect on your own approach to living, and why someone with the talent that you have is living in an inner city poor white neighborhood, hanging out with local musicians, and not doing that fast track lifestyle?

JS: Well, truthfully and sadly, Philly, where I live now, is a kind of provincial city. But for me, there are a lot of reasons why I didn't move to New York and stay. For one thing, there was a slight fear of just breaking ties in order to move there. When you speak of Tom Lawton and the other players around Philadelphia who don't go "far" in the sense of fame and fortune, I believe that there's a very real personality type that you need to have in the music business- it's a social thing, and part of it is what "looks good" to people. For example, I was playing with Ralph Bowen last night, and he said, I've come this far, and I realize I'm not going to get anywhere unless I do it myself- like I won't get to be a big name if I keep waiting for the break- I have to be more proactive.

I chose Philly for a number of reasons. I'm comfortable here, I have friends here. There's something that I like and don't like about the music scene here. I like playing with Sid Simmons, Mike Boone, Byron Landham, Tom Lawton, Larry McKenna, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts, Bootsie Barnes, Steve Giordano, Tony Miceli, Pete Smyser, and Mickey Roker, to name just a few. Uri Caine came from here. Did you ever hear of a club called Gert's Lounge? It was an organ place open from the late sixties to the mid to late eighties. There was a warm feeling there. There's a feeling about Philly that's "homespun," but not so homespun that it loses touch with what's happening in jazz. Philly's close to New York, and those guys come and perform with us.

AAJ: Philly also has some excellent music schools and teachers of jazz.

JS: At the same time, there's something about Philly that can be rough. This is a hard bop town, at least at Ortlieb's and Chris' [two jazz clubs in Philadelphia]. You can't be a Dave Douglas. You can't do a Knitting Factory type of thing and expect to work a lot of gigs in Philly. Except maybe at the Painted Bride, and then you can't really make a living. But there is a homemade thing that really has a lot of heart in Philly. At the same time, new material is hard to get played because the guys don't read as well [as in NYC]- they're not as quick. Like I love going to New York because I just get so inspired- the guys there are really on top of it, and they're really schooled.In New York I've performed with Eric Alexander, Richard Wyands, Jammil Nasser, Cecil Payne, Joe Magnerelli, Mark Turner, Ravi Coltrane, and Jerry Gibbs. All these guys, and many more, have also come down to Philly to play. Philly has a certain vibe, and it's hard to push out of that. There is a Philly sound, really. I feel blessed to be accepted by the guys in Philly. And it's easier to live here, it's comfortable to live here. At the same time, I love New York, and want to get up there more. But I feel more at home here.

AAJ: One of my interests is the duality of intellect and emotion that goes into music.

JS: I've always listened to music in terms of how I feel. The technical stuff doesn't impress me. If it doesn't go right to my heart, it doesn't mean much to me. I'm realizing I need a heartfelt connection. Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, Bird, Diz, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Tom Harrell, Chet Baker, Brownie, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, etc. hit me where it hurts. With Herbie, it comes from such a natural place. And it's intellectual too. But it's primarily intuitive. Chris Potter is also like that- intuitive. Expression along with "head." The key is that the intellect be subservient to feeling and emotional intent.

AAJ: Optimally, the goal is to master the technique so totally that you can forget about it when you play.

JS: Exactly. I played a gig in L.A. with Gerry Gibbs, and Brad Mehldau was on it. Brad is a pianist with tons of technique and an incredible ear, who virtually lets the music play him. And what comes out is him, unique, and original. That's a great player. I think Joshua Redman is like that, except that some of his albums "go for house," a little too much for my taste. Wynton has that also.

AAJ: Part of what makes jazz special is that there is an implied protest in it. There's chaos in jazz- it's an attempt to master chaos. And there's certainly a very deep sadness, coming from the blues. When players try to do what sounds "nice," as in so-called smooth jazz, for example, they compromise the music. What makes jazz great is when it expresses a deeper part of the self.

JS: And even if you come from a beautiful space, you can still have that connection. Chet Baker was an example of that: sad, melancholy.

AAJ: By the way, what's your overall opinion of Chet Baker? I've read some devastating critiques of him. He was either loved or hated by the critics- he inspired extremes.

JS: Maybe I should give my opinion of critics.

AAJ: How does Chet rate in your view as a trumpet player, not as a singer or personality?

JS: Well, you can't compare him to a Dizzy Gillespie or a Clifford Brown or a Freddie Hubbard, in terms of technique. I'm not always in a "Chet mood," but I think he really epitomizes what jazz is about- he comes from a natural place, and he really had a special vibe.

AAJ: One critic feels that Baker was musically a phony, a fake.

JS: Oh, no, I think that's a crock of [bleep]. Well, I take it back, maybe the critic is right. Maybe Baker was a type like Hannibal Lechter-and was able to fool us all- just kidding of course!

AAJ: You're comparing Baker to the psychiatrist in Silence of the Lambs???

JS: What kind of person is that?

AAJ: A psychopath.

JS: Now if Chet is a psychopath...

AAJ: Chet was indeed a narcotics addict. Addicts sometimes act antisocially, but by and large my experience is that they are not psychopathic, although some of my colleagues might disagree [Vic is a psychologist by profession].

JS: Yes, he had a total sincerity when he played. He epitomizes what I believe jazz is about- you want to bring across your personal "vibe" and he is totally that way- there's no extraneous bullshit, and it's always about music, he always sounds musical.

AAJ: He was like you, in that he knew exactly where he was in a piece.

JS: Plus he was a vocalist and really connected to the lyrics when he played.

AAJ: At the outset of Chet's career, Charlie Parker chose the young Chet for his group at a huge audition of trumpet players in L.A. because Bird felt that Chet played like Bix Beiderbecke. Chet's father gave his son Beiderbecke recordings when he was growing up, so Parker heard right!

JS: The first trumpet solo I learned was a Beiderbecke solo.

AAJ: We were talking about Philly jazz, and I've heard both good things and rather serious complaints from the musicians about Philadelphia as a jazz scene, and I wonder what your thoughts are about how jazz could be improved and revitalized here in Philadelphia.

JS: I'm here for a reason. Tom's here, Bootsie [Barnes, tenor sax], Larry McKenna [tenor sax] who's really mastered the melodic concepts of bebop from Stan Getz and Hank Mobley. But about the scene- I've been pretty successful on the scene here, but I wish it was more open to cutting edge stuff and that people took more chances. I would never want to lose whatever is already here and established, but from that, it would be neat to see more chances taken.

AAJ: Does the conservatism have something to do with the audience in Philly?

JS: It's probably a combination of the audience and the people who are booking the gigs.

AAJ: I have two objections to jazz hiring practices in Philadelphia: One is that at the big jazz festivals, they don't use enough local musicians.

JS: I don't like that either- it's jive.

AAJ: And, secondly, they don't support enough large concert formats at the local colleges and so on. Tom Lawton, for example, has done some memorable jazz performances on the concert stage, but the opportunities are all too few.

JS: The colleges are the way to get the venues out, to really do it creatively. And by the way, it really ticked me off when WRTI [an FM station run by Temple University in Philadelphia, which had for years offered the best jazz on a 24-hour basis] merged with classical station WFLN, so that it has jazz for only part of the day now. I like classical music, but to me the merger stunk of upper class white takeover! The whole jazz community was so unorganized, that nobody could do anything about it.

I love the Philadelphia Orchestra, but I felt like telling them when they went on strike- you guys are complaining about an $80,000 starting salary- I'm playing at Ortlieb's for peanuts for G-d's sake! Someone came up to a friend of mine and asked him to sign a petition to support the Orchestra, and he said- you guys get over a million dollars in grants from the foundations, etc., and the whole jazz community gets next to nothing! Jazz music needs more concrete support here, whether financially, or with its own radio station, etc.

I like both classical and jazz, and I think everybody should be exposed to them, because the popular music is getting worse and worse, and people's attention span is getting less and less.

AAJ: There's no reason why this town shouldn't have a fine, excellent jazz station, and a fine, excellent classical music station. We're talking here about creative vitality in a city, and what's happening more broadly in a culture which is being increasingly compromised.

JS: Isn't it because money talks first and it's about making a buck?
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