Music and life. -
"It’s just a part. It’s like water."
Natural improv streams unchecked.
Try some at Nat Geo. Read the rest right here.
You talk about how the artists are so open [in Africa]. When I hear the album, the first thing I think is that it feels so light and easy and free. And even when you talk about it it almost sounds that way. Is that more or less open than jazz, that sense of freedom, if it is there?
It’s interesting to say what I think or what it feels because I’m not in it. I’m not in it everyday. Those are my experiences. It’s like you go somewhere and you think “oh this is a great place. I can live here.” You’re experience of visiting and experience of living there would be actually – might be – two different experiences. I think because music, really on the continent and a lot of other cultures, music is such a part of the everyday life, regardless. It’s not about being a professional musician or not. It’s a vital part of one’s life. And here, in the Western world, it’s not. It’s a thing you do. And unfortunately, more and more, the powers that be feel like it’s an extracurricular activity. Some young people just don’t have the opportunities where I feel like there everybody has the opportunity to sing, play, dance. That’s just a part of their life. So you feel like everyone’s just ready to play. Let’s play, let’s play, let’s play. And here, because it’s something that you do and in the jazz world, yeah everybody wants to play. But a lot of times too we don’t have those opportunities because we’re so worried about paying this bill and paying that bill. It’s not like in the 70’s where musicians could just get together at someone’s house and just play. It happens but not as much as it could or it should even.
Are you saying that people who are musicians that happen to play for their own sake will play more often and openly over there? Or are you saying that it just happens on a whim where people might get together in a local neighborhood and it just happens?
I think people are just always playing. I look at Yacouba for instance. He’s always, regardless. We’ll go to sound check. From the time we get to the venue, whatever anyone’s doing, he’s on his kora playing the whole time. We had a party here a couple of weeks ago and I didn’t realize he wanted to bring his kora and play. Someone coming with him said “no, no . Leave it at home. It’s not that kind of thing.” And I wish I had known. I would have told him “Yeah. Bring it.” He just wanted to play. Not as a concert, but just always wanting to play. There would have been that opportunity. Either he would have just been playing or if someone wanted to join in and play. But for him it’s just about music. If you’re not doing something else that you have to do than you have your instrument in your hand and your playing. So it’s a part of his entire life. And for some people they’re fortunate… I just think because it’s part of their life, like I said. Whether you’re going to be professional or not. There’s just always music. I don’t think that we have that fortune of life, being able to just play. Because we’ve got to figure out, OK, I need to do this now to pay this. Or for the young kids. If there’s no money in school for music, which there isn’t, they’re taking it away. They don’t even have that exposure to it.
So you mean he doesn’t treat it like work. He doesn’t separate it. Music is music wherever he goes.
Right. Yeah. It’s just a part. It’s like water.
Do you ever go into the schools and talk to kids about music?
Yeah. Definitely. A lot. If there are kids that happen to play I work with them. And they usually invite other students that don’t play so they can see what’s going on. Sometimes I go do concerts with the kids and they play. For a while the company Harman was sending out musicians. They would send me out to a lot of different schools. Especially in the inner cities. And I do a whole program with the kids. We talk about music and improvisation and how to listen. Studies have always shown that when kids have music in their lives they concentrate better and they learn faster and learn to listen to details. It’s fun for me. Especially with young kids, because they’re so open. They’re like sponges and they love it. Their responses are always very honest.
So they’re open to the music I guess. There’s this idea that kids out here now are really just into what’s on MTV and such and they’re not interested in expanding much beyond that.
I think if jazz or any other kind of music were on MTV and they had the exposure to it as much as what you see on MTV, they might be interested. First of all, how many times have you heard a song on the radio that you thought was “Oh my God. This is so stupid. This song. It just gets on my nerves.”And then when play it again three days later you’re singing that little line, as silly as it is, because you’ve heard it so much. I think if they were exposed to some other kind of music that much they might actually like it. But they don’t know. And not only kids, but so many adults have preconceived ideas of what they think certain music, different cultures of music are. I had a woman once, when I was on Atlantic once. The first two records were like smooth jazz. When I went to Verve they were more straight ahead. And so this woman came to a gig and she goes “Ooohh. You know you changed what you did. I don’t know if I really like this. I do like that one tune you did ‘Don’t Explain,’ ” which is the Billy Holiday tune. So she was thinking I hate jazz. I was like “Well if you like Billy Holiday that’s jazz. Check out her stuff. Maybe check out Ella or some of this.” Because there are so many different styles that get shoved under that umbrella of jazz. When I was younger and first getting into jazz and I heard Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” and Ornet’s “Dancing in Your Head” and Miles’ “Bitches Brew.” I was like oh my God this is horrible. My ears weren’t ready. Now when I got older those are some of my favorite recordings. My ears had to grow into that. But I think if someone had that experience that could definitely turn them off and say “I don’t like jazz.” Because they would think that’s what jazz is. Or you hear people say “Oh I listen to jazz. I listen to Kenny G.” And that’s fine. Everybody listens and likes who they like, but they’ve never heard of Kenny Garrett or they’ve never heard of Coltrane. And that’s their whole world. So it’s really about what people are exposed to. And in some cases it’s over-exposure.
Give us a better idea of two things. What the music scene was like in Detroit growing up. And maybe some things people don’t know about… I read some stuff about you being classically trained, etc., in the schools out there. And I don’t know much about the Detroit music scene. And also, from doing Reverse Thread did that change your notions about music in Africa at all from what you knew before to what you know now
[Excerpt published on NatGeo World Music website, discussing how Africa educated more than changed any previous notions]....
As far as growing up in Detroit. Like I said, Detroit then just had such a rich history of music because Motown was started there. You still had live sessions going on. Musicians were working on a regular basis doing a lot of the sessions there. The jazz scene was huge. I was talking to Barry Harris once when he recorded with me. He was saying back then a musician would come to town and play and it might be another piano player that came into town. But after the gig that piano player that was in town would call up Barry or Barry would be there. And maybe five or six piano players from around would get together at someone’s house after the gig and exchange info.
Yeah. So it was just such this sense of community. And then because of all the different ethnic groups that were there due to the automotive industry you’d have these pockets of those communities that have their own music, whether it would be bands or orchestras , you would hear this music. Even though people lived in their own sections or neighborhoods by the time I was born I could go into those neighborhoods and experience that music. Every summer Detroit has an ethnic festival. They feature different ethnic groups for the week. Vendors come out with all kinds of food and music and clothing and dancing. It’s a great way to be exposed to and learn about those cultures that week. And to see and hear your neighbors that are living with you to respect, understand, and learn tolerance, which I think we all could use.
Thinking about now, because of the economy, you don’t really get that depiction because of the auto industry having its difficulties.
Yes. It’s a totally different city now, unfortunately, than it was when I grew up there. It was such a rich city, really. I’m really thankful I grew up there and had the experiences that I did. Because Detroit prepared me for what it is that I want to do. Some of the people that I have the opportunity to work with or study with or just be around really prepared me more so than college could ever do. It really prepared me for New York and what I want to do. It’s really sad to see not only what’s happened to the city, but to see the people that have taken advantage of the city. But I love my city. I have so many friends that are either there or even if they’ve moved. We all love our city. For me that will always be home.