The Independent Ear

Ain’t But a Few of Us: Tammy Kernodle

We return to our ongoing series of dialogues, Ain’t But a Few of Us, Black music writers tell their story with a true scholar of the music, Tammy Kernodle. I first met Tammy years ago when she gave delivered a very thoughtful, informative talk on NEA Jazz Master Mary Lou Williams at an IAJE conference. Since then Ms. Kernodle has authored a definitive MLW biography, Soul to Soul. Currently a Professor of Musicology at Miami University (Ohio), Tammy matriculated at Virginia State University with a degree in Music and achieved her PhD at Ohio State in Music History. She has served as Scholar in Residence at the American Jazz Museum (Kansas City, MO) and has contributed to Musical Quarterly and the American Music Research Journal, as well as the anthology Women’s Voices Across Musical Worlds. Additionally she is an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of African American Music. She is a contributor to the recent, long overdue and quite comprehensive Black Music Journal published by the Center for Black Music Research on the subject of the too long neglected NEA Jazz Master Melba Liston and her considerable contributions.

Tammy Kernodle

I was student teaching in a school whose student population was 90% black, but the faculty/staff of color constituted only 2%. In trying to create lesson plans that went beyond the standard Western canon, I found that there was a small body of scholarship that focused on the development of African American music, but not much in the way of public school curriculum. I really wanted to do more than just show up and do the typical “Beethoven was Black” lecture. I wanted to expose them to not only African American concert composers, but also jazz musicians and other forms of popular culture. I was already investigating graduate programs and decided to delve deeper into what musicology was about. I applied and was accepted to a graduate program in the Midwest (I won’t call the name) and arrived to find that most of my peers were writing dissertations on the Renaissance. The resistance I experienced from some (not all) of my professors in studying and writing about the music of African Americans only inspired me to pursue it even further. I realized that the only reason why an educated, trained professor would stand in the front of a class of graduate students and say that “no American, no Black and no Woman has ever made any substantial contribution to music” was because 1) his training was limited and he had never been exposed to anything beyond the Western canon; 2) The body of literature that framed the canon or the central focus of most music history or music courses needed to be expanded. So I found my purpose in the attempts to suppress my passion for writing about and teaching black music (concert and popular). My writing has one purpose—to expand our understanding of the historical and musicological contexts that have been framed in and through the American experience. I want to write excluded and ignored artists into the canonic history we so precious defend and protect. I don’t write just to write or publish just for the sake of having another line on my resume. I’m very strategic and the subject matter must resonate with me. I grow through the writing I do.

Tammy Kernodle 1
This is a hard question. I think part of the problem is that you have diversely trained people out there writing about music and because our methodology approaches to analysis, and use of language is dictated by our training some get excluded from certain opportunities. I’m amazed at how sometimes a cultural theorist or scholar in the area of English or Women Studies will get a writing gig from a certain publication or institution in lieu of a person trained as an Ethnomusicologist or Musicologist. Now, I’m not saying that those individuals are not capable of writing about music, but their approach to it is completely different. Sometimes the prose or narrative takes on a colloquial tone that fails to frame the performance aesthetic of musicians in a language that is comparable to scholarship on concert or classical music. Those individuals become the “central” or only black voices heard, as opportunities are not filtered to individuals who have different training or experiences with the music. I think the road to writing in major publications (trade magazines, etc.) is circuitous for many black scholars. I’m not hating on anyone (trained or untrained) because I can appreciate anyone who takes the time to accurately and seriously write about music, especially black music and not trivialize it. I also believe unless we develop a passion for writing and analyzing the world around us instead of pushing young people to choose a profession that’s going to pay “big,” there’s going to be this dearth.

Yes and no. I believe its one of the very reasons why some musicians have been excluded from serious discussions regarding the evolution of jazz after 1965 and why we see the repeated deification of certain artists. I think that there are certain aspects of the history that require a nuanced reading that can only be gained through lived-experience. Jazz has become canonized in such a way that many believe that we have not progressed beyond certain genres and musicians. I’m waiting to see the history expand to more coverage of regional scenes and musicians who are shaping the music where they are. Before Hurricane Katrina, the HBO series Treme and the rising popularity of New Orleans musicians like Trombone Shorty, who was really talking about the New Orleans jazz scene? I have yet to see one jazz history book revisit New Orleans after the closing of Storyville. My point is we need writers to evolve organically from or forge relationships with communities/musicians that are often ignored by the culture industry to continue to expand the historical context.

Tammy Kernodle 2
Yes. It’s always baffled me how someone like Wynton [Marsalis] could be elevated as the “voice” of jazz when individuals like Bertha Hope, Billy Taylor, Carline Ray or Roy Haynes who “lived” and experienced the music as it was developing are never quoted or even talked about. I don’t have a problem with Wynton, but his lived experience in jazz begins in the 1970s if not 1980s. What can he tell you—that extends beyond what you can read–about the rent party culture of Harlem during the 1940s? I’ve sat at the feet of Billy Taylor and heard him talk about hearing a young Thelonious Monk play at a rent party. Taylor left this earth without recounting much of the history he was a part of in the public forums that have been granted to musicians who give you a bunch of repeated anecdotes, sound bites and stories. The same can be said for Carline Ray, who played with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and worked extensively with Mary Lou Williams in the 1970s and early 1980s. How many writers are going to take the time to develop relationships with pioneering musicians? I’m not slamming Wynton because I believe he does take the promotion of jazz very seriously, but the history of jazz will not be complete if we continue to privilege the voices of some musicians over others. I’m not going to get into the gendered aspects of jazz writing that’s a can of worms that reflects a narrow viewpoint amongst black and white writers.

First many of these publications are no longer black-owned. So the diverse and organic type of coverage of our community has been diluted down to whoever or whatever is popular. They are struggling for relevance against the People magazines of the world. So unfortunately they replicate the templates of white oriented magazines. I look at old issues of Jet and Ebony [magazines] and I’m amazed at the amount of range of coverage black music received. Popular culture in the form of rap, R&B and soul are advanced as “authentic” representations of blackness, which means we have regressed in our own understanding of who we are and what we do. Outside of DownBeat did any black publication discuss Jason Moran’s appointment as Artistic Director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center? Is anyone talking about black singers on the operatic stage? No but go through the last few years of Ebony, Essence or Jet and you will see Beyoncé at least three times; Kerry Washington from “Scandal” at least three times. But where is Angela Brown? Where is Audra McDonald who just made history at the Tony Awards? You won’t see them because that’s not who we as a community embrace or offer as examples of success. More importantly in general we are a public that wants small bits of information that is accessible through our smart phones and tablets. We engage completely different with the published word today, so in order to remain relevant these publications have to tap into what interest the prominent demographic. It’s a really conundrum.

I think there are instances where this is true, but overall I would not apply this to every situation. I’ve read the work of some white writers that I would have sworn were black because of their treatment of the subject matter.

I met the family of Mary Lou Williams shortly after one of my first articles on her appeared in a journal. During the Q&A of a public lecture I gave on Williams, her niece stood up and thanked me for my work. She said that I had captured the essence of her aunt and her passion for music. Man, it almost took me out. I don’t know how I held it together. That was priceless to me! Because those were the people who knew her the most. I’ve had a lot of people over the years come to me and say thanks for writing about black women musicians the way you do. I so appreciate your work and that’s what makes it all worth all the struggles I have sometimes in finding resources or finding the right way in which to describe the music.

Family members and their perspectives on their relative’s life and music. Sometimes people have their own agendas and they believe they can dictate what you write, even if it’s not true. My earliest work was on the operas of William Grant Still. Initially his daughter was a supporter of my scholarship (she provided me with many of the materials I’ve used in my work) and when she realized I wasn’t willing to repeat some of the commonly held beliefs that circulated amongst her family members because there was no definitive truth, I became her mortal enemy. My work never dismissed these beliefs, but I could not in good conscious substantiate them. She first wrote a letter to my alma mater requesting that they rescind my thesis because it was “blasphemous” and defamed the legacy of her father’s memory; then when she was ignored she launched a tour complete with the 5-page single spaced typed letter she sent me. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s all true!! I would get messages from people who said I went to this conference and Judith Still was there and she had this display that had her letter to you, etc. I wanted to go straight gangsta on her, but I realized that I was not the only scholar she was targeting. Over the years I would randomly receive these letters from her harassing me further. I never responded. One other scholar actually hired a lawyer; I didn’t because her plan of discrediting me only made my scholarship more popular. But it took a mental and spiritual toll on me and I grew to hate the music of William Grant Still. She is one of the very reasons why I and many other scholars no longer write on Still. But that’s the price you pay when dealing with individuals who have their own readings of their family member’s life and music. What was most distressing is she took issue with two pages of a 70+-page document. Nothing misaligned her family or her father’s music. She just read what she wanted to in those pages. I learned from that scenario that integrity is more important than popularity, but there’s a cost. She reached out to me a few years ago to participate in a conference of Still, but she specified that she wanted me to present on women musicians. I never replied! I didn’t go either because I knew I probably would have caught a case if I were in the same room as her. While I still try and reach out to living musicians and/or family members, I’m more aware of the challenges that some time comes with this. I know my response is long, but the only other obstacle I’ve faced is people wanting to be paid for being interviewed. Even when I explain that I’m writing for scholarly journals I’ve had people blow me off when I can’t pay them for just relating their experiences. I experienced a lot of that when writing my book on Mary Lou Williams. I really tried to talk to as many of the musicians who played with her. Some were cool; others were just plain rude when they learned I had no budget to pay them. That attitude is one of the very reasons that I haven’t seen anyone write on them or mention them in jazz history books.

Hmm there have been a few I’ve been listening to—Cecile Salvant’s “Womanchild” and Gregory Porter’s “Liquid Spirit.” I really like the unique perspective they took in their song choices and performance approaches.

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Evolution of Modern Jazz

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Eric Harland restless Voyager

As the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival Artist-In-Residence (check the September ’14 Archives for our report on MJF), drummer Eric Harland was quite literally everywhere. Over the course of that weekend he performed five times, including twice with his own band Voyager, twice with Charles Lloyd (Sangam with percussionist Zakir Hussain and as part of the master’s quartet), and with MJF’s high school all-star Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. At 36 Harland is part of a remarkable generation of musicians to have impacted the scene after arriving from Houston over the last decade or so; a group which includes pianists Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and Helen Sung, fellow drummer Kendrick Scott, and tenor man Walter Smith 111 (who is also a member of Eric’s Voyager band), just to name a few. Since his arrival Harland has made over 200 record dates and performed with several NEA Jazz Masters, including ancestors Betty Carter and Joe Henderson, and newly-minted 2015 NEAJM Charles Lloyd. Clearly some questions were in order for one of the busiest drummers on the current scene.

Eric Harland

Your new record is Vipassana; talk about that title and is the title in direct thematic relation to the compositions on the record?
I got the title Vipassana from the actual Vipassana meditation that means “know thyself”. This “know thyself” meditation practice is in reference to understanding that external situations do not have to affect your state of being. Basically when things occur you do have a choice of how to react. Vipassana’s title is in direct thematic relation to the album. I desired that all the songs and overall vibe of the album should in someway reflect what I felt in my meditation of Vipassana.

Eric Harland Vipassana

I find it interesting in light of often witnessing drummers – including some of the masters, like Max Roach and Elvin Jones – make recordings as leaders that do not include chording instruments in their bands. For Vipassana you’ve chosen to have not only piano/keyboards, but also two guitarists in your band for this record. Explain how this particular configuration best served your vision for this record.

I love chordal instruments. They allow me a chance to hear life in a harmonic way. Also with them being chordal, they provide a more ambient setting which allows the rhythm to be more present. But to explain how this pairing of guitarist/pianist serves my vision… Well they each have their own sound and can play multiple notes at once, allowing for more of a range of sound and texture… which is definitely what I was hearing for this album.

From all of your many experiences, including SF Jazz Collective, the Charles Lloyd Quartet and so many others, what did those experiences teach you in terms of making your own record?
Those experiences helped me to see clearer that I actually had something that I wanted to say musically via my own album. Also by working with great masters like Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, Zakir Hussain and many others, it naturally blessed my ideas in ways even I wouldn’t have imagined.


You had to be about the busiest musician on the festival at the recent Monterey Jazz Festival – playing two sets with Charles Lloyd under different instrumental circumstances, playing two gigs with your own band Voyager, and playing with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra high school all-stars, etc. What was that weekend like for you?
That weekend was simply amazing. I was actually “Artist in Residence” which was an honor, giving me an experience to work with the kids and see how inspired they were by music. Another highlight for me was definitely being able to debut the Voyager band. But yes, the weekend was non-stop… moving from stage to stage performing completely different material from the other, being approached by a multitude of fans with questions, making sure you remember to eat, checking in on other fabulous bands and having chance to see all my friends and family in one place.

At the Blue Note @ 75 panel discussion Robert Glasper talked about all the musicians who went to that same high school in Houston. What was that high school creative environment like and how have so many of you risen to prominence?
Yes, that high school was definitely a chance to spend time (not only with other exciting artist) but with your own craft as well. It was actually encouraged. That program proved to me that when you are supported so early on in your development, it just gives you more time to express/discover yourself to an even higher level… which is clearly seen by the success of HSPVA’s alumni.

What have you got planned next?
I’m an Artist, I don’t plan… I create. So what I’m working on now is:
1) I’m one of the new SFJAZZ resident Artistic Directors for 2014-2016 seasons. People can tune in there to see what exciting things I’ll be doing at
2) JamesFarm’s new album is coming out this month. That band consist of Joshua Redman, Matt Penman, Aaron Parks and me.
3) PRISM, a band including Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and me are getting ready to record our 2nd album.
4) I have a new album that I’m currently working on :-)
5) and as always, on tour…
Charles Lloyd Quartet

Aaron Goldberg Trio
Dave Holland PRISM

and more.
You can checkout my schedule via my website
Also you can follow/like me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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Definition of a true mentor

After hearing nothing but great things about the documentary film “Keep on Keepin’ On,” including a ‘you MUST see this film’ order from Christian McBride‘s Twitter feed, I got an email invitation to a screening of the film at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring, MD. On an inviting fall Saturday afternoon what a distinct pleasure it was to spend those 84 minutes with this lovely film! “Keep on Keepin’ On” is a truly wonderful film and an abject lesson in mentoring young people.

Based on the warm and loving relationship between NEA Jazz Master Clark Terry, one of the purest spirits this music has ever produced, and the aspiring young pianist Justin Kauflin, “Keep on Keepin’ On” is equal parts love letter to jazz, tribute to CT, object lesson in the importance of nurturing and mentoring young people, and above all a love letter to the human spirit. Throughout the film, despite his poor and often bed ridden state of health, owing largely to nearly a lifetime of suffering from diabetes, Clark Terry gives love and drops science on a young man who is likely to follow in Clark’s footsteps, as a giving soul and as a significant player. Doubtless education will also become part of young Justin’s future; how could it not after spending so much quality time with one of the pioneers of jazz education!

Justin and Clark
Justin Kauflin playing for Clark

That the film is produced by Quincy Jones, Clark Terry’s first in an endless line of students and mentees, is all the more poignant as Q has in turn taken young Kauflin under his wing and is producing the pianist’s debut recording. The film is also a tribute to the strength and love Gwen Terry shares with her husband. We meet Justin’s parents and learn how a degenerative condition took his eyesight at age 11 and how neither that catharsis nor his ensuing challenges will keep this unusual young man from mastering the jazz piano. And director Alan Hicks, himself a Clark Terry mentee as a drummer, has skillfully woven in exceptional biographical footage of Clark Terry, from his St. Louis roots, through his Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Tonight Show band triumphs. We hear Clark recounting how a certain churlish old musician purposely gave him false trumpet playing information as a youngster and how CT vowed he would never similarly treat young musicians he would subsequently encounter.

Clark T

These elements are all satellites orbiting around the film’s core – Clark Terry as giving spirit and mentor supreme. Filmgoers will witness Clark’s troubles with the various infirmities of old age, including not only the loss of his sight but also the amputation of his legs and the very real sadness and resignation of that fate as Clark and Gwen go through medical regimens and eventual capitulation to the ravages of diabetes. Though he pauses to reflect sadly on that loss of mobility, his true spirit of giving is never dampened, never deterred. There is a touching mutuality between CT and Justin as each in his own way is uplifted by the other on so many levels, from their shared vision challenges to the challenges of playing the music in the true spirit of jazz. Throughout the film there are vignettes and testimony lovingly offered by other younger artists Mr. Terry has touched, such as a certain rail thin young trumpeter from East St. Louis, IL who declared Clark Terry his “first idol”, a certain Miles Davis. Dianne Reeves, another student of the master, also extends much love in the film.

Every aspiring musician and parent of aspiring musicians should see this film, it is a triumph of the human spirit of both mentor and student. Here’s a link to the trailer for “Keep On Keepin’ On”. If you see one film this season, you must see “Keep On Keepin’ On”.

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Matthew Garrison: ShapeShifter in motion

Last July, as chronicled in these pages (check the Archives section for August ’14) this writer had the pleasure of spending a weekend at the New Mexico Jazz Festival for a NEA Jazz Masters site visit on drummer Jack DeJohnette‘s Santa Fe residency. Jack’s visit culminated in a Saturday evening concert featuring his bracing trio, with Ravi Coltrane on saxophones and Matthew Garrison on bass. As many of you likely know Matt Garrison is the son of the late bassist Jimmy Garrison, of John Coltrane Quartet fame. A few hours prior to the evening concert I sat down on the exceedingly pleasant veranda of his Santa Fe hotel for a conversation with Garrison for a feature. Below is the complete Matt Garrison conversation, which ranged broadly from the DeJohnette and Ravi Coltrane connection to Matt’s bass guitar conception, to his burgeoning ShapeShifter Lab enterprise in Brooklyn.

Willard Jenkins: You have a long and deep history with Jack DeJohnette.

Matt Garrison
Matt Garrison: Absolutely. It started pretty much when I was born, or thereabouts. Jack knew my dad and they performed together on a few occasions. I grew up on the Upper West Side for a little bit and I think Jack was close by, he and his wife were good friends with my mother and my dad.

Eventually what happened, when my father died Jack basically said to my mother “if you ever need help with the kids, [he’d] be willing to help out.” After my dad died we moved to Italy for ten years – in ’77 (I was 7 years old). By the time I hit the age of 17 I actually was given the choice by the Italian government to become an Italian citizen. But in order to do that I would have had to do one year of military service. So I said ‘ya know what, I think it’s time to get the hell out of here…’ [laughs]. So we were trying to think of places to go and we called Jack up and said ‘Jack, remember that thing you said?’ And he said “cool.” So I had one more year of high school to finish and I finished it up in Woodstock and I lived with Jack’s family for a year and it was amazing.

As far as playing with Jack, is this the first tour that you’ve ever done with Jack?
Yeah. It started this year. We did this one event at the Brooklyn Museum, it was fantastic. Anytime I came to Jack’s house after I’d lived there – because I went to Berklee – but every time I came back to Jack’s place we would jam and he would show me some new stuff, he mostly played piano, but he’d play bass too and I’d try to play some drums and piano… it was amazing. That particular ['97 Brooklyn] event, he basically put it together and then he asked me and Ravi to come to his house and we spent two or three days just going through all this music, and that’s another one of the greatest moments of my life. First of all because I had never played with Ravi, so that was our first opportunity to play together.

Did you know Ravi before?
I think I had met him once before.

So the music that you played in Brooklyn that first time, how has it evolved to what it is now?
I guess now I can play it a little better [chuckles]. From what I can remember we played things like “Countdown”, “Giant Steps,” “ Central Park West,” “Spiral,” and some other really critical compositions of John’s. I think I was like 22 or something, so I knew how to play, I was somewhat versatile, but that was some hard shit to play! And at the time, speaking from my perspective as this has evolved, at the time I was playing more just bass function, meaning mostly playing roots and spelling out the chord changes, but I could also solo over the stuff which I guess was kind of important so that we had opportunities for soloing and going through the form and that kind of thing. It was a lot more basic from my perspective.

Now, over the years I’ve developed certain things where I play a lot of chordal information and I also play a lot of melodic information and the bass stuff, so I’m playing a quite specific role. We made a joke about this – Jack was like ‘hey man, you’re covering a lot of territory there, we don’t really need a piano player, sometimes we don’t need a melodic player… just don’t start asking me for more money.’

In this essentially bass-drums-saxophone setting it’s a challenge because there’s no chording instrument.
Yeah, but that’s where I come in. Another component that I bring to this current version is I use a lot of computer based software to enhance the sound or the textures that we use that I can use onstage. It’s a lot of open textural things that can really fill up – it creates a very dramatic texture off of which we can then create more dramatic textures. Its very, very different from what we initially did 20+ years ago from that standpoint. And of course the music – what’s interesting is that we’re not playing so much original material right now, that might just be because we’re just having too much fun playing these compositions by all these great master musicians. We’ve been playing stuff from Monk, Ornette Coleman, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Duke Ellington… we’re covering a lot of ground. I’m glad that I took the time to learn that material over the years.

Has this unit recorded yet?
We’ve recorded a whole bunch of stuff, but this seems to be one of those projects that kind of needs to be recorded in a live setting. I mean it could work in the studio too.

Jack's trio
Jack DeJohnette Trio at their New Mexico Jazz Festival performance

So why do you feel it’s better live than it would be recorded in the studio? I ask that also because considering the computer technology you’ve brought into the picture it would seem that might be better served in a studio environment.
Yeah, but I’m using it very differently because I’m using it in a way that its fully integrated into the idea of improvisation. So all the tools that I’m using are part of what can happen right now, there’s a lot of flexibility in that sense. Of course the computer stuff can be used in a very structured, thematic way, but that doesn’t work for this project. I’m taking advantage of another side of it and that’s great for me because I get to explore a whole bunch of other things. But the other thing about how this project works better as a live situation is that it tends to be an arc of information, in terms of drama there is a whole story that needs to be told and it undulates, it moves, it comes in and out with dynamics, and then there’s a lot of wide open improvisation in that whatever happens happens and then we go back into some information that people can relate to and when you get feedback from the audience then you start doing things differently.

The audience presence makes a real difference in this trio’s performance?
Absolutely! When we first started we decided very specifically that we open the show with some really out to lunch shit. So you can already tell the audience is like ‘aw shit…’ [laughs], they start looking at their watches, they’re getting a little bit uncomfortable, and then it slowly gets to something that they like, then we take it out to lunch a little bit more, and then they’re like ‘OK, so maybe that’s not so bad.’ There’s a whole series of things happening and we’re observing this, its fun for us to watch. We did a sound check somewhere in France and there was this old couple sitting in front watching us and we were playing like a Monk tune and then a Miles tune and they were happy checking out the sound check. And then I put on one of my weird computer things and they jumped up [laughs] and Jack started laughing, ‘did you see what you just did.’ But then they came back for the show, we saw that specific couple, and they loved it.

So there’s going to be a record from this trio?
I’m sure of it at some point. It should be a compiled set of recordings.

What is your sense of the irony of being on this tour with Ravi Coltrane in terms of both your ancestral lineage?
Well, I think its been long overdue and I don’t think there’s a better situation for it to happen because Jack is kind of like the unifying energy. If I really consider my musical beginnings, he’s it, he’s my sensei. I don’t know if he and Ravi have had the same sense of development but I’m sure they’ve had their moments to work over the years; Ravi has played in Jack’s groups and they’ve done other projects for other folks, and Ravi and I have done other projects, little things here and there.

I was asked to come play with McCoy [Tyner] at some point and I think Ravi was on that, but McCoy wanted me to play acoustic bass and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to sound like an idiot because that’s not my instrument. Maybe to some degree I should have studied it a little bit more but I put a lot of energy into [bass guitar] and I want that to be the focus. So when you’re playing with those masters and those historical figures, If I would have been allowed to play my instrument I’m sure Ravi and I would have been very comfortable to play some of the music that his father put together, or McCoy’s music. We’ve been invited to play other projects where they want us to play John Coltrane’s music and they want very specific types of things and we’ve both refused because its too sensitive.
Matthew Garrison
Not only is it too sensitive, but here it is the 21st century and you guys have evolved your own way of playing, so I don’t imagine a kind of repertory project appeals to you.
Right, and that’s very much part of why we’ve both avoided those situations. But in this [DeJohnette Trio] context… think about the fact that Jack did play with both of our dads and Jack definitely pushed me to learn that music over the years. When I first got up to his house he said ‘hey man, check this record out, see you later… come back and I’ll give you another one.’

I opened a venue in Brooklyn called ShapeShifter Lab and Ravi has been instrumental in helping the place do well. There was a period where we had this real rinky-dink piano and that’s a problem in New York because if you want some serious cats to play there you’ve gotta have a good piano, so he donated a piano to the space, and he helps in different ways. Now we’re opening up a non-profit side of the business and he’s going to help, he’s already on the board of directors – Jack is going to be involved in that as well.

You mentioned McCoy and your decision to stick with the bass guitar, at what point did you determine to specialize in the bass guitar?
Probably around then [chuckles]. It was much sooner than that. Actually when I was in Italy I did start studying bass. I got my first bass, which was an electric bass, at 14 or 15 and then it was recommended by various Italian musicians that I really had to get some kind of foundation in classical music which could then help me out in my jazz education as well. So then I went and studied a little bit of classical acoustic bass. The main problem that I had with that is that the school was quite far from where I lived and I had to take a train out there and I was this young black man with an afro with an acoustic bass in a big red case and I was on this train in Italy going to the school and you know how Italians are, they like to just stare at people. So I was on this train and people were just staring at me, so when I was 15 I was already getting quite irked by the acoustic bass thing. So that’s one of the first things that kinda got to me, so I said let me stick with [bass guitar], it’s smaller and easier to get around with. And then of course I started listening to cats like Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Jaco and thinking ‘oh my gosh, this thing is like wide open’, and I didn’t necessarily see that opportunity with an acoustic instrument. My tendency has actually been a little bit more towards electricity in general and it just gives you more options.

Now as technology has moved, especially from a software standpoint, its basically a golden age that unfortunately a lot of musicians that deal with improvisations still don’t know. There’s so much that can be done it’s scary. I bought my first computer in 1996 and I’ve never stopped; I’ve been recording and experimenting and trying things out. As technology gets better there’s more things you can do onstage now and it’s much smaller. I have a laptop, a little audio interface, a little pedal, one other pedal, some cables and the bass… and it’s done. The things you can do with just that set-up is sick; and this is just a stereo presentation because I also do surround sound presentations with that, which is a completely different world; I hope we can do that with Jack one day.

Is it your sense that specializing in the bass guitar has opened up more diverse opportunities for you?
Absolutely. If I had studied acoustic bass I think I would have had maybe two or three types of recording and performing options – one in the classical world, one in the more experimental jazz/improvisational world… not many other places to go with that instrument. And also now consider what’s happening with the airlines and how cats like Dave Holland, John Pattitucci, Ron Carter… and what they have to go through. With the electric bass I have a wide array of genres I could tackle which gives me the opportunity to have more financial potential and if you have finances now you have more opportunities to try some more things – going from pop to funk to jazz, and to be able to do them all is an important thing.

Aren’t they making advances in more portable acoustic basses, like Dave Holland’s instrument?
Yes and Dave’s bass sounds incredible.

Talk about Garrison Jazz Productions and your various business enterprises.
Garrison Jazz Productions is slowly being absorbed. Me and my business partner Fortuna Sung, an old high school friend of mine from when I was living in Italy, we met again after many years when I was on tour with Whitney Houston and she was in Tokyo at the same time we talked about this vision that we both had and we decided to just go for it. The first thing we did was we opened a new production company called ShapeShifter Productions and the second one which is called SSP Holdings – which is related to everything involved with music production, management, we have a whole set of items that we take care of there.

ShapeShifter… sounds like there’s some philosophical aspect to that name itself.
Yeah, the idea is definitely why be limited to one thing when you can do many things, and I think maybe in a way my particular history as a human being kind of reflects that – I’ve got parents from two very specific backgrounds, if you want to talk about race that’s part of the equation, if you want to talk about hierarchy and societal positioning of things… my mother is also Jewish, so that adds another component to this thing. I grew up in Italy and I started playing classical, I play jazz, I play funk, I play pop… and so why not?

I made a record which is called “Shapeshifter” and I said look, I’m not going to be stopped by anything or anybody, why should I? You only live once, if you have some ideas put them out. That was the original intention of Garrison Jazz Productions, to just basically create any music I want to, without limitations, I own everything. And that’s how it still stands – I own all publishing, all copyright, and any future options.

Describe ShapeShifter Lab.
ShapeShifter Lab
ShapeShifter Lab 1
Altogether it’s a 4200 square foot location, so it’s quite big. The main space where all the performances take place and all the events is 3600 square feet, which by Brooklyn standards is quite large for the type of music we’re putting on there. Its in Gowanus, near the canal about two blocks up – between Carroll and First, at the bottom of Park Slope. First of all I don’t want to stop musicians from performing at our space because they don’t fit a certain criteria of musical expression. So we pretty much let everyone play there. If you’re really at the beginning of your career we have other things they can do, certain events that are not like an actual professional situation because of course what’s gonna happen if people aren’t known and if they’re not very well informed on their instruments there’s not going to be anybody there, unless they have a party. I curate the space but we do have people that we give them carte blanche to do whatever they want and that’s also been quite incredible because I can’t really have that many ideas and the ones that I do have aren’t necessarily the most successful ones so its also important to bring in some other folks that are basically putting together whatever vision they have. Its been incredible for all of us.

How many nights a week are you open?
Seven, we’re going to try to back that down a bit through the use of the non-profit because its getting a little hard on the staff, which depending upon the events could be up to eight.

Who are some of the people who’ve played there regularly?
Aaron Parks, Andy Milne plays there a lot, Gene Lake with his various projects, David Gilmore – he had his 50th birthday celebration there and we had to send people away there were so many! Ravi plays there pretty frequently; a lot of folks from the avant garde community, Glasper has played there more as a guest but he just recently had his kid’s birthday celebration there, Jason Moran came down… that’s the thing that happens in the space, it feels like a family kind of thing, and it is because its all of us and we’re just doing it. And then when Jack shows up everybody comes down and it’s this big party. In a way it’s this hidden revolution that’s happening. We’re getting press and the folks that do know they get it. You walk in and it’s like a big old open living room, with a little more detail. We do have a bar in there, a beer & wine license.

That’s a full-time pursuit itself, how do you manage to do that and your music?
I have no idea, but it’s working. Going on tour right now like this is a vacation! I have to say that without Fortuna there’s no way in hell this would work because she’s doing a lot of the paperwork. What we’ll be able to do through the non-profit is that we’ll be able to implement a lot of the ideas that we’ve had without the for-profit business always going into our pockets to make these creative ventures a reality. If you really break it down, if we were only to base our business on presenting performances we would already be closed. So everything else that happens at the space – which tends to be rentals, corporate events, weddings, recitals, bar mitzvahs… Now we have a pretty vast clientele coming through the place. So we don’t want to keep taking the resources from the for-profit to then keep the arts alive when it could be done through a non-profit, which is not associated with ShapeShifter Lab itself.

I have some major projects that I need to do that I can do as a for-profit, but others that involve a larger scope of musicians… At the space, the artists come in, they create this cool little hip scene, then some folks around the neighborhood want to poke their heads in and see what’s going on, they love it and now they want to have their parties there, now they want to do this… then you start seeing actors come in and people with a lot of money. We’re already doing everything a non-profit does, but it works. It’s a good development. There’s a lot of educational events going on there. We’re building education into our non-profit side.

I’ll be able to release at least two new projects of mine before the end of the year, and one of those is more of a complete open improv project with various folks that I’ve observed at ShapeShifter Lab that just blew my mind because they were just so out to lunch, but in a really interesting and captivating way; so I want to collaborate with those folks. And then I have a very interesting project where I finally decided to do a fully electronic project, where I’m not even playing the bass; that’s pretty much done – me and a computer and some interesting lighting projections.

Two other projects I have to get done are a big band project with some of my older tunes that I have to rearrange for 18-19 piece big band – we’ve actually performed that several times but I need at least three more charts. The project after that is a fully acoustic project with an acoustic bass guitar – I might even play a bit of acoustic bass and acoustic guitar; that will be some material I still have to write for that project specifically. I’ve got a lot to do.

See the Jack DeJohnette Trio with Matthew Garrison & Ravi Coltrane in action at the Montreal Jazz Festival:

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