Please scroll down to the last post to read Pt I of my interview with Geof Bradfield. Also, please visit http://www.geofbradfield.com for more info on Geof. I’ve been able to upload a few more videos into this post now. However, please visit http://www.youtube.com/user/geofbrad to see more “African Flowers” videos, as well as videos of Geof’s “Urban Nomad” band. Thanks for reading!
Geof’s “African Flowers” promo video:
DM: Lets talk about how some of the compositions on African Flowers came about. On “The Children’s Room,” the only thing, to my ears, that steers it in an African direction is the mbira sound we talked about between Clark and Jeff. There’s also some triplet rhythmic things that happen in the horn writing. It’s a beautiful song, but it sounds very much like a jazz ballad form.
GB: I don’t think that’s an inaccurate description of that one. “The Children’s Room” is basically an inversion of the melody from “Butare.” I just borrowed a piece of the melody from “Butare” and maybe it became the bassline or something, I don’t remember. I just started with the idea of inverting the intervals and then writing a new tune off of it. I wasn’t worrying at all about the African connection. After I wrote the piece, however, I went back and tried to make the connection sonically.
With that piece, I was thinking more about evoking a certain feeling of something I saw there, rather than literally referencing the music. The Children’s Room is the last room you see at the Genocide Memorial in Kagali, Rwanda. The whole place is quite horrifying. The first room you visit is the tombs of maybe 250,000 bodies they’ve recovered at this point. It’s not a memorial like the Vietnam Memorial, it’s actually more of a graveyard with the remains and all. The Children’s Room is a memorial for all the children killed in the genocide. On a particular wall, they’ll have a very large picture of a Rwandan child and some things written about the child like their favorite food or best friend. The last thing you see written about the child is how he or she was killed. It’s brutal, horrible stuff. Our friend, Charles, who worked for the embassy and drove us all around Rwanda lost 28 family members in the genocide. Basically almost his entire family, but he didn’t tell us this until we got to the memorial. With the composition “The Children’s Room,” I was trying to convey this feeling of remorse and dreaminess, that sort of landscape of sorrow, or the starkness of it. The room itself is very stark. They have these very ordinary looking photos of the children and matter-of-fact reports of how they died.
DM: It’s a beautiful song. I also found “Nairobi Transit” to be very evocative in a much different way. It’s got this incessant beat that almost feels like a car chase scene. What’s the story behind that one?
GB: We were trying to get from Rwanda to Congo. However, to do so, we had to fly into the Nairobi Airport, which is the central airport in that part of the world, and get transit to the Congo. Anyone who travels through that region has to get a transfer from the airport to wherever they’re going. This process is extremely complicated. Hence “Nairobi Transit.” Our instruments and bags were left behind and it was just a complete disaster.
The airport itself is a disaster. There are no computers. Everything is just on clipboards and notepads. When I came back through there from Uganda a week or two later, I had just sprained my ankle falling down the hotel stairs in Uganda that morning at 2 am before our flight left. Very nasty, and there’s not much in the way of medical care in Kampala at 2 am. The marine at the embassy gave me some ice and sent me on my way. When we arrived in Nairobi, I heard my name on the intercom as we’re deplaning. There’s this airport worker in a yellow vest with one of those clipboards waiting for me. He claims that I didn’t give him my transfer when I was there two weeks earlier. This is obviously not true, because they wouldn’t have let me on the plane otherwise! But he was really insistent- when I asked him why he needed it, he just said, “because it is mine.” So anyway, we’re walking on the tarmac together and eventually what happens is I agree to allow him to xerox tickets that are in my itinerary so that he can eventually get his money. In return, he agrees to take me, in not so many words, to the airport nurse, and to tell her that I injured my ankle at the airport so that she’ll look at me. The nurse ended up looking somewhat like Mr. T!
DM: Wow! Beard and all?
GB: Yeah, pretty much [laughs]. She took a look at it and put this salve on her hands and proceeded to grind her thumbs into the bulb of my sprained ankle for five minutes. I was crying, nearly screaming! After this, the nurse came back again with a better salve and did it again! Then she bandaged it all up. On my way out, she proceeded to give me a handshake that could’ve broken all my fingers and put her other hand out, basically looking for a bribe. At the time, I felt like I got totally ripped off. But, in all fairness, I went hiking on that ankle the next day. As much pain as she inflicted, I was basically okay after that.
DM: Were any of these songs written with the musicians already in mind?
GB: All of them. When I started writing the material I had the musicians in mind. I wasn’t quite sure I’d have the bread together in the end, but I had the basic idea all planned out. I wanted to get Victor [Garcia, trumpet] because I’d done a few gigs with him and really liked his thing. He can play lead, he’s a great soloist, and he has amazing flexibility on the instrument. It’s this sound that blends with a lot of things, and there’s not a lot of cats who are like that.
I had the idea for quite a long time that I wanted to do something with Jeff. In fact, before “Urban Nomad,” which I did with my working band at the time [Ron Perrillo, Clark Sommers, George Fludas], the band was playing at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse every monday.
For the first two months of that gig, Jeff was on it, but later became unavailable. Jeff and I have played together for so long that I just feel very, very comfortable with him in terms of his comping. That’s why everybody else plays with him. I also liked the idea of doing something where there was harmonic support for him while he was soloing. I wanted him to be both a lead instrument and a comping instrument. He was also telling me at the time that he was doing all these gigs where he didn’t get to comp, so I wanted to write some music for him where he was able to do that. “Mama Yemo” is very specifically orchestrated for him to comp for me. There are a couple of other tunes that are like that as well.
DM: Some people might be surprised by the way George Fludas plays on this album. We’ve talked about how sometimes he is typecast as only a bebop drummer. You, however, know him as a much more flexible musician who is into a lot of different things. When you put him in different contexts, he can really shine.
GB: Yeah I always thought that was a weird typecasting for George. He can play so much on the drums. I mean, of course, the reason that Hank Jones and Cedar Walton want to play with him is because he has the elements they want. He can sound very much like Billy Higgins or Philly Joe. He has that history. He’s not really like anyone but George, but he has that element in his playing. Really, though, he doesn’t play anything like those guys when it comes down to it. There are musicians in town that play much more literally like those players.
I just don’t perceive George being limited by anything. First of all, George can play absolutely anything on the drums. Secondly, this is the guy that came to my gig at Pete Miller’s after going to see the Deep Purple concert a few nights before…he has other interests! He’s that guy that listens to a bunch of bootleg tapes of John Bonham. Some people are just looking for the box to put somebody in. Even when he plays with the greats like Ray Brown, or anyone we mentioned before, he doesn’t necessarily sound that much like Philly Joe. He really always sounds like George to me.
DM: Right, and if you hear him with Perrillo, he really stretches out on that gig.
GB: Yeah, he totally sounded different when he played with Bobby [Broom] back in the day, too.
Musically and technically speaking, George is an amazing drummer. There’s almost nothing you ask for that he can’t do. Some of the stuff on African Flowers is really counter-intuitive for a drummer. At some points, I’m asking him to play what several percussionists are doing simultaneously. On “Kampala,” for instance, I’m asking him to play the straight 4/4 and the 12/8 at the same time. The first rehearsal was tricky. Then by the second one, it was fine. He has almost no learning curve. You can just hum something to him and he gets it. There’s not a lot of guys like that.
On top of that, forget the drum thing, he’s a great musician. He can sing solos of great jazz horn players or piano players. He knows the changes. He knows when the bass player is not playing the right notes. He’s a fully functional musician on the bandstand in addition to his deep rhythmic thing. I’ve heard very few people that can do what he can. Both of the solos he plays on African Flowers are incredible. There are very few drummers that have that overall sense of the music. It’s the way he plays the song in the solo in many different ways.
DM: Speaking of solos, the “Piano Solo,” “Drum Solo,” and “Bass Solo” all break up the album in a way that makes it not feel like it’s an hour long. I mean that in a very complimentary way.
GB: Great! I want people to sit down and think, ‘oh, what happened to that hour?’
DM: Definitely. You and I have talked about how some jazz albums are way too long.
GB: Sometimes, they could be broken up into two albums!
DM: Right, so once you get past the LP age, it gets to be a little overkill. The interludes, if you will, on African Flowers provide some breathing room, but also have a very deep sense of expression. Did you give any guidelines for those pieces?
GB: Only very rough guidelines. For instance, Ryan’s piano interlude connects the two Rwandan pieces [“Butare” and “The Children’s Room”]. The only guidelines for him were that he had to get from the final chord of the first piece into the vamp of the second piece. The only other constraint was that he had about a minute and a half to do it. He knew both pieces by then and he knew I wanted him to bridge them, so he used thematic material from both. The bass and drum solos work in the same way, except that they are used to set up pieces rather than to bridge them.
The idea for the interludes came from playing live. One of the purposes of them is to provide relief to the audience in terms of texture. They also provide some relief to the ensemble, a very practical function as well as a musical one.
DM: Whenever you play live, do you play the suite in order, front to back?
DM: From my perspective, it seems like Ryan Cohan played a large role in the fruition of African Flowers–he was the bandleader that brought you to Africa, and I also know you have a deep respect for his composing.
GB: Absolutely. Having him involved in the project was very important to me since we were in Africa together. Ryan and I also share a similar love for Randy Weston’s music. Ryan also has a pretty thorough grasp of the Cuban element in the diaspora of African music. He’s a very percussive piano player. He treats it like a rhythm instrument in a lot of ways, so I thought that would fit right in with what I wanted to write.
DM: Was there any overt influence that you’ve gotten from Ryan’s composing?
GB: Definitely. In fact, I completely stole the final chord of the album from an earlier piece of his! Not intentionally, but I was working out a chord on the piano and then realized it was Ryan’s voicing. I’ve also been influenced by the commitment that I see in his writing. The commitment to detail and really working things out and not leaving a lot to chance in the writing stage of the music. He’s very explicit about what he wants, but he’s also flexible in some ways. When we get to the actual improvisatory part of it, the music is very open and there’s lots of room for the individual.
I want to find a balance between, as explicitly as I can, spelling out what I want in a writing sense, and leaving certain things up to the other musicians. I don’t want to write something in such a way that George feels like he’s in a straightjacket…or that Ryan feels like he’s in a straightjacket. I want to write something that will sound like what I want it to sound like no matter what, but that also leaves some room for exploration from these guys.
As we worked on the music, Ryan would ask something like, ‘do you mind if I play this here?’ Or George might ask me, ‘how about if I play this rhythm here?’ Some of the music evolved over time as a result of this, which is exactly what I wanted. This is somewhat how Ryan’s group works. I think it’s a very difficult border to walk. You want the songs to come off a certain way every time, but you also want the musicians to have fun and express themselves.
If your idea of the song is strong enough, though, other musicians’ interpretations have to fit within that idea. It shouldn’t just be any random thing. Of course, then it’s a matter of finding the right musicians, and that’s a very tricky thing. You have to find someone who can technically execute what you want and take it to that next level of interpretation.
For instance, I can trust that Clark will reinterpret any bassline I put in front of him in a creative way, and it’s usually much better. He might play the bassline for a little while, but he’s not going to feel completely bound by it. It’s taken a long time for us to work that out.
DM: You’ve lived in Chicago during three separate time periods. The first was from 1988-1992, the second was from 1997-1999, and the third is from 2004-present. How has the city’s jazz scene changed throughout all this time? What strong relationships have you forged with musicians that have lasted through these time periods?
GB: There’s a very small number that are still here from the the first time period for me. One of those is Ryan Cohan. We went to college together. We were at very different places, musically speaking. We were similar in a way because we were both very serious about what we were doing. As a piano player, though, he was very much coming out of someone like Chick Corea, maybe more of a fusion thing. I was into Keith Jarrett and Cannonball Adderly. My two favorite records at the time were Keith Jarrett Shades and Cannonball’s Live at the Lighthouse. I was transcribing all of Dewey Redman’s solos on Shades and Cannonball’s solos on Lighthouse. I was also really into Bird.
Anyways, some other people I knew on the scene at that time were Jeff Parker. He played on my senior recital. So did Sara Smith [trombone] and Gerald Dowd [drums]. Jeff had just moved to town in 1992. We had played a few gigs together before he did my senior recital. He was working at Tower Records at the time and had just moved here from Boston. I was playing on Mondays at the Bop Shop with Bob Dogan. George Fludas would occasionally sit in on that gig. Rusty Jones was the regular drummer on that gig, but would send George a lot to sub. I wasn’t getting paid for that gig, you know, I wasn’t in the house band, but I played in the jam session so much that they eventually just let me play the first set with them.
DM: So the band was Bob Dogan on piano, Eddie De Haas on bass, and Rusty Jones on drums?
GB: Right. Man, Rusty was just killing it back then! He sounded great. He’s one of the best brush players I’ve ever heard. It was a great experience for me. Every once in awhile Dogan or Eddie would just rake me over the coals. They’d call fifteen tunes in a row that I didn’t know until I was near tears and then they’d finally call something they knew I’d know! They’d just intentionally punish me sometimes. It was great. Then I’d learn those tunes that I didn’t know and come back and call them the next week. I met George on those gigs. He sounded so great at that point, just amazing.
At this point, the Chicago scene was very weird. There were very few good bass players or drummers in town. The rhythm section thing was really spare. On the other hand, you had somebody like Jodie Christian [piano] who was really playing in his prime at that point, just killing! Perrillo had also just moved to town and was astonishing in his own way. He was definitely more raw than he is now if that’s even possible. He had incredible energy, you know, he’d blow you off the bandstand.
DM: I’m sure Bob Dogan was great to play with, too.
GB: Dogan was amazing. Skoming. He was coming a lot out of Horace Silver. He was really unique and great, though. He was super supportive. He was kinda scary, you know, he looked like he was eight feet tall, kind of frankenstein looking! He’s a great guy, though. We became really good friends. I love Bob. He’s a bad dude. Dennis Carroll [bass] was around at this point, too.
It was rare at this time, though, to see a group that had worked out music together or that was all on the same page. There was Bobby Broom’s group. I remember one of the last things I saw in town before I split in ’92, and it almost persuaded me to stay, was Bobby’s quartet at that time which was Fludas, Dennis, and Ron Blake [tenor]. They were killing. I can’t imagine anything being much better. That was one of the few groups at the time where I thought everybody was great. There would be a lot of other things you’d go out and see, like Ron Dewar [tenor]. He was so killing, but maybe the bass player sucked. Or, everything is cool, but why do they have this jive drummer? There was a lot of that in Chicago at the time. It was very hard to get four great musicians on the bandstand at the same time. It was kind of a dark time, so I split to get my masters at CalArts.
After I finished my masters, I moved to New York City from 1994-1997. Then I moved back to Chicago in late 1997. Things were a little different at this point. There were a few more strong jazz drummers and bass players. Some people were coming up like Noel Kupersmith [bass] and Josh Abrams [bass]. Dennis Carroll was still here. I was playing a lot of sessions with all those guys. The scene was a little stronger at that point.
I played some great gigs around that time. That was the first time I played with Jodie Christian. It was terrifying. Jodie would just start playing tunes. I was coming out of this thing being in New York. Gigs were rarer there, so you would come to a gig really well prepared with a band and play a set almost like you would with a rock band. There was no room to be open and spontaneous on the gig. The stakes were so high there. So, here in Chicago, cats have more gigs. Somebody like Jodie doesn’t even tell you what tunes he likes to play. So he’ll start playing some tune that, not only I don’t know, but I’ve never heard! On top of that, when he told me the name of the tune after the set, I’d never even heard of it! He was very into risk-taking and having his band members do the same.
Scott Burns [tenor sax] had just moved to town. There were a lot more good musicians around.
DM: Going back to how the gigs functioned differently for you in New York and Chicago, did you have a preference between the two?
GB: I had actually come back to Chicago with the hopes of playing with a more diverse group of musicians. I found a scene that I fit into in New York, but when I talked to friends in Chicago, it sounded like they were doing all sorts of different things. They were playing straight ahead jazz gigs, avant garde jazz gigs, r&b gigs, rock, country, whatever it might be. I was hoping to play in some of these different scenes since it was a smaller town and there’s more crossover involved.
New York requires the opposite approach. Maybe it doesn’t require it, but it often ends up this way–there’s so many musicians there that the logical thing to do is find a niche and really cultivate it. Let’s say that you’re a cat like Eric Alexander. Your playing comes out of George Coleman and John Coltrane, people like that. The important part is he’s very clear about what it is he’s doing. In New York, you try to become the very best at one specific thing. In a way, that didn’t totally appeal to me. Part of that lack of appeal was a reasonable aesthetic choice and part of it was just being mixed up and young. It was a feeling that I couldn’t quite commit to one thing or the other. In New York, I would hang with cats who played in the Knitting Factory scene like Matt Moran or Reid Anderson, guys like that. I would also hang with some guys who were playing super straight ahead, kind of centered around the scene at Augie’s. Then I’d also play with some guys who were kind of in between like Joe Martin, Joel Frahm, or Matt Wilson. They had a very open attitude when playing jazz. That was exactly my flavor, basically.
I remember doing this gig there with this great trumpet player Kenny Rampton. He was in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the time and told me I was going to have a really hard time here if I didn’t commit to a clique. He was just being really straight forward and honest with me. So I think I did identify most with cats like Joel Frahm. We didn’t hang that much, but I used to always sit in on his gigs. He was such a sweet cat. Joe Martin and I are old friends and would play together every week while I was there. It was this scene that was mostly centered in Brooklyn, but before the scene really took off into what we know of it as today. A lot of those guys are very successful now.
At the time I was there, you have to remember, there were basically these guys in suits playing bebop. Some of it was certainly racialized, too. The idea of Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner being the stars of the day was not the case in 1994. Those guys were doing well. They were making records, but they were living in the same kind of apartment I was living in, and practicing all the time, and trying to hustle gigs. Not to say that their experience wasn’t already very different from mine, but there wasn’t that creative musician star figure at that time. It was a very different experience, say, from someone like Javon Jackson or someone like that who went through the mainstream, played with Art Blakey, and was introduced to the public in that way. Those were very different scenes at that time.
I also moved back to Chicago because my wife got a teaching position here at UIC. The second thing was that I thought I could keep what I had going on in New York and also develop something in Chicago. That was the first really stupid decision I made! I thought that I was valuable, in some way, to New York. The truth is, once you walk out the door in New York, unless you’re Bill Frisell or somebody like that, there are ten other people to take your place. After I moved to Chicago, I went back to New York to do a recording or two and a handful of gigs, but it gradually tapered off. It’s just a matter of not being there. You have to be there if you want to stay in the scene. It’s a matter of constantly fighting for it. I don’t think I realized how hard I was fighting for what I had: the occasional gig at Small’s, Detour, or Augie’s. They were, at the time, nothing that was paying my rent…kind of small potatoes, really. They are, in the larger scheme, but are very hard to get, in fact. They required a sort of constant vigilance, and I recognized that after I left.
There was definitely an adjustment period coming back here. One adjustment was that…I don’t want this to sound negative, but it’s inevitably going to sound that way…I felt like once or twice in New York I played with a rhythm section that wasn’t killing in four years, and most of those were on accident. I’m talking about gigs that were like $15. When people would send a sub, it would be Matt Wilson or Avishai Cohen. You can’t do that here. You can’t pay guys $30 on a friday night and get musicians of that caliber. In New York, it had become the norm. It’s terrible but it’s true. I came here at a time when there were some great players, but not enough.
DM: Just to clarify, when you did these gigs with Matt Wilson and Avishai Cohen, were they as established as they are now?
GB: No, definitely not.
DM: So it would be harder to get them for that price on a friday night in New York now, right?
GB: Yes, of course.
DM: So maybe now, somebody of comparable stature might be someone like, say, Kendrick Scott?
GB: Probably not even him because you know him, but there’s probably some cat that sounds like him that would work. Some guy you don’t even know. When I moved to New York, the guys who were on the way up were Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier. Or, to keep it in the rhythm section vein, Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier. On a given friday night at that time, I would hire, say, Joe Martin and Matt Wilson who are, to me, just as good, but not as well known. Maybe they would do the gig because we had some history of playing sessions together. Maybe they would do it because they knew they would have the freedom to play any way they wanted and no one would say anything. Maybe they would do it just because there wasn’t any other gig on that friday night, who knows?! In any case, when I was doing this gig at a coffee house in New York every friday for two years, I think only twice there was a bass player that wasn’t great. Other than that, the guys who did the gig were Avishai Cohen, Johaness Weidenmuller, Reid Anderson, Joe Martin, and Joe Fitzgerald. The drummers were Owen Howard, Marc Miralta, Matt Wilson, and Eliot Zigmund. To me, these guys are all the very best on the scene.
And there’s the difference between the New York and Chicago scenes at that time. It’s not uncommon in New York, even now, to see your heroes do the same gig you did yesterday. I mean, you’re not going to see Hank Jones at Detour, but you’re going to see Matt Wilson, Joel Frahm, and Seamus Blake there…guys who are setting the standard for your generation.
DM: Right. Now, 2004 was the third time you moved back?
GB: Right. To me, now, there are more strong players on the scene then there really ever have been. There’s just a deeper bench of players on every instrument. Unfortunately, there are fewer places for those players to make their living. The musician thing is great, though, especially on guitar, as you very well know. The only problem is that there’s not enough gigs for all of them. Even the bass thing has kind of outgrown its capacity. The saxophone thing is true, maybe to a lesser extent, but there are many good, young saxophone players on the scene now. There’s a lot of talented young cats out there that need gigs to play and to grow on…to develop their voice on the instrument and to work out all the great things that they’re practicing. As the scene increases in size, those venues seem to be diminishing.
DM: I remember about three or four years ago when the Bad Dog, Acme, and Stadium West gigs were all happening every week. I’m sure I’m forgetting some.
GB: Yeah, the modern jazz chitlin circuit! [laughs]
DM: All those gigs are gone now.
GB: All of them shut down at nearly the same time. I felt at that time, the, for lack of a better term, somewhat more mainstream jazz scene in Chicago was trying to adopt some of the techniques that have worked for the avant garde scene under Umbrella Music. You know, creating venues for themselves and developing their music in a scene where they were supported by their peers. It wasn’t so much a gig where you had to make money. Don’t get me wrong, I like to make money, and I don’t like that equation of it’s only cool if you don’t make money. That’s bullshit. But I did feel that during that particular time period there was potential for the development of a lot of groups. That’s one of the reasons I was working in the band Collage [Sam Macy, guitar; Hyosub Kim, bass; John Smillie, drums]. I wanted to be part of that scene. I thought it was a cool, vital thing that was going on and I’m sorry to see it not be here anymore.
DM: And it only lasted a few years.
GB: It was really brief. It never quite had the same following that, say, Umbrella Music has. It never established the critical hold that those places have. I’m not quite sure why that is. Maybe it’s not as romantic? Not marketed the same way?
DM: The good thing about it is that most of the people from that scene are still here.
GB: Oh yeah. They’re all still here except for Nick Fryer [guitar] and Doug Stone [saxophone], basically.
DM: The Whistler in Logan Square has kind of stepped up as a new home for this music, actually. They have jazz every wednesday and sometimes other days, as well. Matt Ulery’s Loom was doing a wednesday residency for awhile there and now it has opened up to different groups.
GB: Cool. Matt Ulery [bass] is a good example of this scene of musicians in Chicago–someone who’s making very, very high art for a very, very low paycheck. I don’t know if that’s quite the right way to put it. I mean more about the places he presents the music at like Katerina’s or The Whistler. It’s clear that everyone who plays his music is just doing it purely for the love of his music. They believe in it and want it to happen. There’s a great tradition for that in jazz, certainly. In the rock scene, it’s the norm.
It points to a couple different problems. One problem it points to is that in the jazz scene, as a jazz musician of my generation, it’s a little tricky to get people to do that, and it’s not entirely fair to ask. I feel like when I book a gig that is going to be good for me career-wise, as the composer, it’s my responsibility, one way or the other, to come up with the money to pay the musicians in the band a fair wage, because they aren’t getting out of it what I am. Let’s say the gig is extremely successful. It gets great reviews, and so on. That really impacts my career, mostly, so I do feel like I have to pay the musicians fairly because of that.
So there’s one problem–playing your own music for nothing is not sustainable. It’s hard on the composer and it’s hard on the band. Now, say the band has tons of good gigs in Europe and is making their money some other way, then doing the gigs at home that don’t pay as much makes more sense–that’s sustainable. I know this sounds kind of gross and music business-like, but it’s just the reality after awhile.
I was just reading that Monk book that came out recently [Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley]. Somewhere in the book, Monk says something like, ‘look, I’ve got a family. I’ve got to make a certain amount of money in a year.’ I certainly don’t like thinking about it like that. I love the idea that it’s just this very pure, music for music’s sake type of thing. I have to admit, though, that when it comes down to it, I have to find a way to pay the guys in my band because they pay me when I do their gigs. I worry a little bit about that aspect of it.
I thought, when we were amidst the ‘modern jazz chitlin circuit’ scene, that the musicians would grow out of doing all these gigs for little money. When I was doing those gigs, I thought I was cheating a little bit because I have my teaching position at Columbia College. You know, I wasn’t trying to make my living by just playing that gig at Stadium West, for example! It would just be a joke. It’s not nearly economically viable. On the other hand, I really love the idea that those cats, like Matt Ulery, are writing such intricate, detailed music for this gig where people are talking over it and they’re clearly just doing it for the love and to develop as a writer, and that’s bad. It’s great.
DM: When you were younger, did you feel less worry about paying your bandmates?
GB: Often the money is not even that good now. I think all of us have done a gig for less money than we could make on any given night because it was music we wanted to play. That’s always true. For me, though, the money matters even less to me now. If it’s a gig where I like the music, I’ll pretty much take it whenever I can. I do think my feelings about it are unusual and it helps that I do some teaching on the side. I’m pretty happy to do anything. I just bring my saxophone to the gig, park my car around the corner, and it’s usually not a big hassle. If I’m the bandleader, though, I’d feel differently because I’m getting other people involved. As you age as an artist, though, the money thing starts to rear its nasty head.
It’s not even that you’re trying to make money. You’re just trying to sustain yourself. You’re trying to figure out how you can get your ensemble out there in some way and still do it next year. It’s not like you’re trying to buy that nice new house with a pool or something. I mean, that’s so far from the truth. It’s just about trying to figure out how to get the musicians you want to play with for a fair price, and then figuring out how to do it again the next time.
DM: That’s where the Chamber Music America grant obviously helped out with African Flowers. You have a new grant that you’ll be working with soon, right?
GB: Yeah, I have this grant from the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. The BMRC, for short. It’s a group of Chicagoland academic institutions. Essentially, they pool their resources and they have this grant from Carnegie Mellon, which funds my fellowship. The fellowship I received centers around Melba Liston [trombonist and arranger]. The Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College has all of Melba Liston’s scores. I received this grant to look through her scores and letters, things like that, and to write a piece based on her life and music. She was an incredible arranger and wrote the arrangements for Randy Weston’s Uhuru Afrika and Highlife, and also wrote many arrangements for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band…super heavy. My thought is to sort of incorporate what she did with some more African music. I’m really excited about it.
Apparently the scores are very detailed and have a lot of revisions, which I’m really interested in checking out. I’m also interested to see how much of the rhythmic and percussion stuff is actually written in to the pieces and how much is just left up to the musicians.
DM: Are you planning on writing for a specific number of musicians?
GB: I haven’t quite decided yet. I’m definitely going to increase the horns, at least a trombone, or two. It might be with or without piano. I might make a wind ensemble and write around that.
DM: Is there a deadline for when it’s all going to be done?
GB: Not really. The grant is just for doing the research. I’m hoping we might be able to get the finished piece into Godspeed Hall at University of Chicago in the spring of next year. I’d love to also interview people that she was involved with and, of course, get permission from her family to write the piece about her. I think that all might take a fairly long time.
DM: Here’s looking forward to that project, as well as the release of African Flowers on Origin Records in September. Thanks Geof!