As one whose listening interests have always been more invested in the composition side of jazz, someone for whom the jam session/blowing aspect (as in endless, rapturous choruses on “I Got Rhythm” changes) is of less curiosity than experiencing creative and successful improvising operating within the realm of compositional structure, I’m always intrigued by young musicians who come along with composition as their primary calling card in this music. One such composer is Darcy James Argue; that he bills his large ensemble exploits under the rubric Secret Society, coupled with my positive response to his music increased my curiosity about his motivations. Additionally, we had an earlier dialogue on questions of New York-based large ensemble personnel diversity, and quite frankly how it was that large bands such as his or John Hollenbeck‘s rarely reflected the diversity of the New York musician scene. His thoughtful responses compelled some questions for Darcy James Argue…
Would you best characterize yourself as a composer, arranger, bandleader or all of the above, and talk about your development of those skills.
I usually call myself a composer-bandleader. I’m always a bit surprised whenever my name happens to pop up in the “Arranger” category of Down Beat polls because I honestly don’t get called to do that very often these days. I think my last big arranging gig was for Lizz Wright’s concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and that was five years ago! I also arranged a couple of ’70s Donald Byrd/Mizell Brothers tunes for Secret Society to play alongside the 17-piece neo-disco band Escort at a show this summer, but that was a special situation. To date, the stuff I’ve written for Secret Society has been almost exclusively original compositions. That’s just where my head has been.
As for how I got started, I can actually pinpoint the first time I got excited about big band music: I was thirteen years old and my high school junior jazz band was learning (a simplified version of) a Thad Jones chart, “Us.” The band director played us the original vinyl and I was like “Oh damn, so that’s what this is supposed to sound like!” I immediately went out and got as many Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra albums as I could track down, and listened to them pretty obsessively all through high school. That’s also how I also discovered the music Bob Brookmeyer had written for Thad & Mel. Years later, I had the incredible opportunity to study with Bob while pursuing a Master’s at New England Conservatory. (If I could go back in time and tell my 13-year old self this was the way things were going to go, it would blow his mind pretty thoroughly.)
After graduating from NEC, I joined the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop, led by Jim McNeely and Michael Abene. This was a great resource — it allowed me to continue to develop my craft post-graduation, to get invaluable feedback on my music from Jim and Mike, to connect with other young composers and look at their scores, and to meet New York musicians who were interested in performing this kind of music. Most importantly, there is no tuition — if you are accepted, it’s free to attend! At first, I was still living in Boston and commuting in for the workshop every week via the Fung Wah Bus, but after a year of this, I decided to bite the bullet and relocate to Brooklyn.
What was the motivation behind naming your band the Secret Society and should we interpret something a bit cryptic in that name as it relates to your music?
It seemed to me that Henry Threadgill had the right idea — you should name your bands. I tossed around many different ideas for my bigband (among them “Witness Protection Program” — if you want to disappear where no one will ever see you again, you should join a jazz band) but I eventually settled on “Secret Society” as being appropriately conspiratorial. I also thought it would have the side benefit of instantly transforming what would otherwise have been just another poorly attended gig into something that felt more like an exclusive underground event for selected cognoscenti.
How have you gone about assembling the Secret Society and talk a bit about the band’s activities.
In the fall of 2003, my girlfriend and I packed up our Boston apartment and U-Hauled it out here. Once we were settled, I began setting up reading sessions for my music at the Local 802 rehearsal space. This was before the band had a name, before anyone knew who I was… there were certainly no gigs! I couldn’t afford to pay anyone for these sessions, of course. I could barely afford the $10/hour it cost to rent the space. But I’d twist a few arms and get people to come in and read through the music I’d been working on. This continued on a semi-regular basis until I had enough material to fill out a set, and in the spring of 2005, I finally landed the band our first gig, in the basement of the now-defunct punk rock club CBGB. We played there a couple of times before the venue closed its doors for good, and after that, at the (late, lamented) Bowery Poetry Club across the street, and sometimes uptown at Makor (also closed). The first actual jazz venue we ever played was The Jazz Gallery — which is now also being forced out of its longtime Hudson Street home. I swear this is not our fault — I’d hate for venues to think that having Secret Society grace their stage is the kiss of death!
Anyway, after four years of playing these types of shows around the city, our first album, Infernal Machines, was released in 2009 on New Amsterdam Records, and that’s when things really started to pick up for us. Even in this post-digital world where no one really buys records anymore, albums can still make a big impact on your career. They function as business cards that can help get you in the door at certain venues and festivals (albeit business cards that costs as much as a mid-sized sedan). The critical acclaim for Infernal Machines was tremendous, and that enabled us to do something most large ensembles don’t get to do much of anymore, which is get out on the road. We’ve been to Europe a couple of times, last year we played the Canadian jazz festival circuit, and in June we even made it down to São Paulo and Rio, which was an incredible experience for us.
What’s your sense of why so many large ensembles are either/or and do not always reflect personnel diversity?
This is obviously a very fraught question. I’ve had this conversation many times in person with friends and fellow musicians — it’s something I’ve struggled with and I think it’s a very important issue. I am also acutely aware that when white people talk about race on the internet, nothing good usually comes of that! Nonetheless, I’ll try to answer your question as best I can.
I think there is an underlying concern here, a concern which everyone in the jazz community needs to take very seriously, about the extent to which jazz retains its core identity as black music. In a lot of ways, jazz has been becoming increasingly diverse. Individuals from all over the world are lending their unique voices to the art. But I think it’s also extremely important for all of us who play this music to respect and understand where it comes from, and to support the ongoing struggle for civil rights and better opportunities for African-Americans — a struggle in which jazz has always played a central role. I’m sympathetic to those who have sought to emphasize the place of jazz within the larger context of Black American Music. The statement that jazz is Black American Music should not be controversial!
As far as Secret Society goes, we’ve had musicians from many different backgrounds perform with us over the years, and while the players have been somewhat diverse in terms of gender, it’s fair to say that the core personnel has been less diverse than I’d like in terms of race. I’ll speak to that momentarily. First, though, I want to be clear: every musician who plays with Secret Society has to have a deep understanding of and respect for black music. I make a lot of demands of the players who work with me, but the most fundamental is this: if you can’t swing, you can’t play in my band. If you look at the other bands that folks like Ingrid Jensen, John Ellis, and Matt Clohesy perform with, I don’t think there’s any doubt as to the esteem in which they are held by the musicians in our community. Critics often like to contrast Secret Society with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — this comparison is deeply absurd on so many levels, but if writers are going to go there, I wish they’d at least take note of the fact that prior to Secret Society, our lead trumpet player, Seneca Black, was personally recruited by Wynton to play lead in the LCJO, a position he held for seven years.
When I first started to approach people about playing my music, I was (I think understandably) reluctant to put out a bunch of cold calls that began “Hey, you don’t know me or my music, but would you be willing to play this big band date at the Bowery Poetry Club for essentially no money? Did I mention the six hours of rehearsal?” So I did whatever I could to get a band together: I called up old friends from Boston and Montreal who had relocated to NYC, I brought in musicians who knew me and my music via the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, and I reached out to players suggested to me by my composer-bandleader peers — musicians who were active in the “scene” of poorly-compensated large ensemble gigs.
These players formed the core of Secret Society in the early days, and most are still with me today. They’re the ones who’ve stuck it out with me through all of those unpaid rehearsals and underpaid gigs, many of them giving up much more lucrative opportunities in order to be able to play Secret Society shows. All of the music I’ve written since putting the band together has been tailored to their specific abilities. There’s an unfortunate tradition in jazz of young bandleaders, once they have achieved a certain amount of success, abandoning the musicians they came up with in favor of hiring more bankable names. That doesn’t sit right with me. Like Orrin Evans says, big bands are more than just the sum of their parts — they’re more like family: “I can call the baddest cat. We all can.”
It’s true that the scene of large ensemble specialists I drew from when I was putting Secret Society together is very small, and isn’t terribly representative of the diversity of the jazz community as a whole. In retrospect, could I have cast a wider net? Absolutely. It’s important and I should have been (and still should be) making a greater effort to get out there and hear a broad sampling of what’s going on around the city.
But if there’s one thing that unites jazz musicians of all racial backgrounds, it’s that the overwhelming majority of them did not decide to pursue a career in jazz because they dreamt of one day playing pain-in-the-ass bigband charts like mine. I know many, many players who chose jazz instead of classical music precisely because they did not want to play highly determined, intricately notated music with few opportunities for improvisation. Most jazz musicians quite reasonably spend their formative years working on skills more directly relevant to small group situations. There’s an extremely long list list of totally badass musicians whose playing completely slays me, but who wouldn’t be a good fit for my band for one reason or another. The skills that make someone a great jazz improviser are, in many important respects, completely orthogonal to the skills that make someone a staunch team player in a large ensemble. Finding musicians that excel at both is not easy for anyone.
There’s also a more fundamental question here, one that’s bigger than any individual bandleader: where are today’s musicians learning to play? Specifically, where are they learning to sight-read, to play in tune and phrase with others, to lead a section or blend within one, to balance chords, to reconcile twenty different ideas about where the beat is, and so on? These aren’t really skills you can develop on your own, no matter how talented or dedicated you are. You only learn to do this stuff through the experience of actually playing in a large ensemble.
The traditional jazz model of learning your craft on the bandstand, coming up through territory bands — unfortunately, that path just isn’t there anymore. The gigs and the bands that allowed that to happen in previous generations are extinct. The financial incentives for jazz musicians to develop superior large-ensemble playing and sight-reading skills are also much less than they once were. Time was, players like Snooky Young and Marshall Royal were able to make a solid living off of their studio work. Those opportunities have mostly vanished now too.
So if young players get any large-ensemble experience at all, they get that in school. And what we have seen has been a long-term trend (accelerated in the wake of No Child Left Behind) towards slashing or eliminating budgets for public school music programs all over the US. Schools that lack resources — and of course, schools located in minority communities are more likely to be underfunded — have had to make hard choices about what programs they can afford to offer, and music is often the first thing to be cut. The result has been that generations of potential music greats have been denied access to instruments and quality instruction because of where they grew up. Systemic inequality in education is a very serious problem in America, and jazz is not immune to its effects by any means.
What about those players who manage to overcome these obstacles and are accepted into a conservatory with a great jazz program — like, for instance, Juilliard? Well Juilliard costs an estimated $51,756 — per year. What are the demographics of those students whose parents can afford to pay that kind of money? What are the prospects for a jazz musician being able to pay back over $200,000 in student loans? Scholarships and financial aid can sometimes help, but ultimately, when you’re competing for these things against players who have reaped the benefits of generously-funded, well-run school music programs, that’s not really a level playing field. I think those of us who love jazz have a special responsibility to help ensure that it does not become the exclusive province of the very privileged. Everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in this music.
These trends are, unfortunately, not new. Thad Jones (my personal hero) observed to Leonard Feather back in 1978:
“I was at the University of Minnesota, where they have three jazz orchestras, and they have exactly one black student. Same thing at the college where I taught, William Patterson in Wayne, New Jersey.”
He also talks about how he found it increasingly difficult to recruit black musicians to play in the Thad/Mel Orchestra:
“It’s become a real problem. Basically, economics is at the root of it. At one time the scene was pretty well saturated with black musicians. But whenever there’s any times of privation, they affect the black musician three times as heavily as the white, so he’ll take whatever he can find to survive. Meanwhile, for every black musician there’s going to be ten white guys waiting and ready to join us.”
There aren’t any easy solutions here, but I think jazz musicians, educators, critics, fans, the whole community — we need to try to find creative ways to fight these systemic problems. I’m very grateful I’ve been afforded the opportunity to be part of the music that I love. At the same time I think it’s vitally important that young African-Americans have equal access to those opportunities, so that they can continue to play a central role in the shape of jazz to come.
What’s next for Darcy James Argue?
Secret Society is at The Jazz Gallery on November 30 and December 1. These are among the final shows in the Gallery’s current location, which is a listening room like no other. It’s a rare opportunity to hear the band up close and old-school, in an intimate and largely unamplified setting! The Jazz Gallery is a genuine treasure of the New York scene and we are hoping they will settle into a new permanent home before too long.
In January, I’ll be traveling to Copenhagen for a concert and recording with the Danish Radio Big Band — this is the group that Thad Jones directed after he relocated to Europe in the late 1970’s, so needless to say it’s a tremendous honor for me to be working with this group!
Then, at the end of April, Secret Society will finally be releasing our second album, Brooklyn Babylon. The record will include all of the music from the multimedia piece I co-created with visual artist Danijel Zezelj and premiered last year. We’re hoping to be able to take the full Brooklyn Babylon production — which incorporates live painting and projected animation in addition to live music — on the road next summer. Brooklyn Babylon is unlike anything else I’ve ever done, and I’m looking forward to being able to share it with a wider audience.