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I recently attended a concert which offered up a bill comprised of multi-generational musicians. With the older guys, were one to not watch them play but listen only, there would be no sense of having lost a step; no reduction in power or chops. The night had been dedicated to the recently departed Mulgrew Miller, a joyous sendoff yet a reminder too that the clock never stops ticking down.
Now added to the sad parade of names, Sathima Bea Benjamin and Marian McPartland. While I currently have a very full up schedule, I could not let these two passings go unremarked upon as I greatly admired both women and our paths ever so briefly intersected. This is by no means meant to be any kind of definitive, scholarly obituary but more a personal memento mori .
I had the pleasure of interviewing both women back when I used to bleed ink for All About Jazz. With Marian, I scored the interview basically as luck of the draw; I was up next in the bullpen to conduct an interview.
Her importance of place in modern jazz can never be overstated. Besides her own performances and recordings, her Jazz piano show did not so much humanize a diverse array of greats as add further, deeper layers to already compelling artists. I did thorough research so that I could ask the questions that I knew were expected of me but also more obscure ones as to try to do a definitive interview that covered her long career.
I was given an East Coast number to call and a time. I called at the appointed time, on the dot but no one picked up. Being her home phone number an answering machine came on. I did not feel it right to leave a message, I may have been wrong, and so hung up. A minute later my phone rang, that familiar voice sounding a little annoyed asked me;
“Did you just call me and hang up?”
I explained who I was and why I had called; asking if now was a good time to do the interview to which she said yes. A few questions in and she paused for a moment, asking me;
“But why had you hung up without leaving a message?”
As we continued on she realized I was not merely asking the standard run of the mill questions and warmed up to me. She was surprised that I had found out about her father having offered her one thousand pounds to stay in school at her career’s start. The interview was conversational and rich with jazz history. Two of my favorite moments:
Prompted by my questions, she went into great detail about the day of Art Kane’s photograph “A Great Day in Harlem” (1958). Among other thing Thelonious Monk holding up the taking of the photo as he tried on all combinations of jackets and hats to try to look different;
“[Thelonious] Monk wanted to choose an outfit so that he would look different from everybody else, but he wound up looking just the same as everybody else. He kept trying on different jackets and hats; I forget what he eventually wore.”
I asked her about having toured briefly in the 60’s with Benny Goodman. This was when Rock and Roll had already deposed Modern Jazz as soundtrack for youth, artists and bohemians, let alone the older genre which Benny Goodman had helped create. He did not like her playing and she asked;
“Benny I know you don’t like my playing. Why did you hire me?” He looked at me in sort of astonishment and said, “I’m damned if I know.”
The tour would be stopped with the death of President Kennedy.
She was a great lady and one of whom I was honored to have briefly interacted with.
The Sathima interview I got under different circumstances. I unintentionally became the go to guy for artists who were deeply genre defying; doing interviews with people propagating odd mélanges of the downtown sound or modern improvised classical. The benefit of these assignments was that I was turned onto artists I would otherwise not have discovered. The other type of interviews I was given were artists who had pedigree and an abundance of talent but their stature, to the more casual listener, was not on the same level as Miles or Sonny Rollins. These assignments I relished, as to me regardless of what tier they were placed on by other jazz writers, they were heroes. Again, I did my research finding far less information and what I did find seemed the reiteration of the same basic history from previous articles. At the time I was to do the interview, she was living in New York doing light club gigging and a soft promotion of the reissue of her A Morning In Paris album.
From the very start she was friendly, exuding a warm, earth-mother kind of vibe. She was beyond generous with her time, I had to keep changing tapes in my machine, both of us laughing as I had to tell her;
“Wait, please wait I must change the tape again.”
Eventually I ran out of questions to ask, we talked about the nature of creativity, cooking and Africa. She said that she liked my name and sort of sang-said it several times as she was mulling over the answer to one of my questions. Her life would make an amazing movie with no need of embellishments for the drama. She talked about not being well known in America and the hard logistics of trying to keep a band if not together as a permanent unit then steadily working for live dates, all without a trace of bitterness or regret. It seemed after a while; more that I was talking to a friend than being granted an interview. As we continued to chat I made bold by asking her about the pizzicato violin of Svend Asmussen, from the Paris album. As great of a musician as he was, to me it at times is distracting from the other things going on. She told me a fantastic story “off record” then as we continued to talk, changed her mind and said that I could put it in;
“So while we were doing this “Nightingale In Berkeley Square” he said now you are going to work with a trio. And then I did “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” and other things, “Darn That Dream…” And while we were into that the door opened and in walked… Svend Asmussen. And Ellington said “Oh, hey—you are just what we need… I want you to play with her but listen and this is important…Please do not play the melody. She is the melody.” So is that not beautiful? Ellington said “You can play anything else but you don’t play the melody.” So that’s why he played all the pizzicato, which I found sometimes like really annoying me. But what could I do? I wasn’t in control of this. I wasn’t going to tell him.”
She was an amazing woman, whose acquaintance I feel lucky enough to have made. I would like to think that if my interview did not help her in any professional way, it at the very least pleased her.
Farewell to two great artists whose artistic lights will never dim.
August 21, 2013 Midtown
This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Maxwell Chandler: Your professional beginnings seemed fairly traditional, backing up people like Albert “Tootie” Heath, and “Jabali” Billy Hart among others. How important was this beginning to what you would ultimately artistically become?
Alexander Berne: That’s hard to say. I think I was born into a situation where to become an artist was inevitable. The fact that jazz was an early spark, and was in a sense a good incubator for things to follow, people whom I’ve met, a credo of, “making it work”, the love and awe of a Cannonball Adderley, on and on is something I’m grateful for; and mostly that my first teacher Randy Wanless was and is a master, and he spoke that language, and gave me an incredible start and friendship going on 33+ years now.
MC: After playing in other people’s bands and a prestigious teaching gig you left America for Belgium. Upon your eventual return stateside you had shed your old skin for a new artistic vision. Did the journey facilitate the change or vice versa?
AB: My life in Europe for 2 1/2 years was based on a “spiritual search”. Which basically means I was miserable and knew I had to fix it, and approach the issues directly, I had no choice. The scenery was not critical per se. Quite a while before leaving I had formed much of my hyper – personal saxophone methods/techniques.
MC: What brought you back stateside?
AB: Malnutrition, depression, desperation…lovely things like that. It was time to be back at home in NYC.
MC: You have actively been involved in creating an array of custom instruments. How did that come about?
AB: I think it’s quite natural when spending so much time with something (or someone even) to have frustration with limitations, ideas about what could be better, questions about why certain possibilities seem easy while others are so out of reach, at least for me it’s usually the case.
The saduk was my 1st real foray into instrument making and is the most fully realized instrument to date. I experimented with metal pipes, electrical tape, tin foil, saxophone mouthpieces of all manner. Here’s something I wrote for The Saduk CD which pretty much sums it up:
“What do nearly all instrumental virtuoso do? Running headlong into limitations, they make significant changes to their instruments or in some cases make a new one entirely. I love the saxophone deeply, but it has some inherent constraints. It is a ‘heavy’ instrument, laden down with many large keys; you need a lot of breath to vibrate its elongated conical metal tube. Often longing for a more tender palette of expression than the saxophone would allow, – I developed flute envy. My solution was to create the saduk, the simple open-holed flute/reed hybrid featured on these tracks. Inspired in equal measure by an inner sound – one that I have ‘felt’ as much as ‘heard’ throughout my life – and the primal, tender wind instruments found in most world traditions, this recording marries a prenatally familiar wind expression with voice, percussion, saxophone and other acoustic sounds.”
MC: Do you have a favorite? How tied into your playing & composing is the creation of these instruments and could you ever do one without the other?
AB: My favorite is as of yet unrealized. It’s a new saxophone like instrument, but has a flexibility and range of timbres heretofore unrealized in a single instrument.
MC: Your music has cerebral components and an overall density which legitimately makes it more accurate to describe as modern classical with elements of improvisation. It seems that in America such aural art has become marginalized to a specific semi hidden audience. Does this ever effect the ambition of the scope of a project or how long after completion you remain involved with the performing/promoting of a work?
AB: I have arrived (for now at least) at a place where the pursuit of my art is important in and of itself. Meaning I trust I am only somewhat delusional, and that I know when I am cheating, being lazy, betraying my self, all the “bad habits” and “the pull” away from “the pursuit”. I will admit it’s, if not a losing battle, certainly a Sisyphean struggle.
So my ambition as you say, is great…as the standards are awesome, daunting, limitless, unachievable. Not MY standards, but THE standards. Set by the masters in all fields, places, times. I’m fortunate, I have been surrounded by “greatness”. So it’s easy in that sense to keep going. The goal for me is just to be a drop in the bucket. Not be intimidated but rather just offer up my little effort, my humble talent, mediocre worth-ethic, on the the alter of infinite creativity, inspiration.
As for promotion: I’m a beggar…please listen to my music!
MC: It would seem so many things regardless of the medium that have weight to them are destined to only obtain a certain level of exposure. Do genre defying artists have to make a conscious decision to not contemplate how “big” they will be or is it a form of stoicism which one learns organically with the passage of time?
AB: Speaking of myself only, again I’m at a nice place when I do that which I can do right here, right now. Can I make myself a star? In demand? Popular?
I can however practice, study, go in the studio an deal with matters at hand, or ear, or eye. Complaining in my mind, asking why, when I know there’s no answer, is a self indulgent wine better taken in small infrequent sips. Reminding myself any complaints I have are more honestly excuses is a good thing. I have to remember, I have everything I need right now, to do something potentially great…it’s up to me.
MC: Once Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) became fully (artistically) realized he said that he no longer read other’s work as he did not need the inspiration in that form. Do you still listen to other people’s work to keep the juices flowing or for enjoyment and if so how have your listening habits and tastes changed over the years?
AB: I love music. I love to listen. And there is a seemingly never ending wealth of music that I say, “Wow! I wouldn’t mind if my name was on that!”. I see a lot of, shall we say, a lack of generosity in artists…and I also see the opposite too! Ask yourself, “Did I give that recording, painting, movie, etc. the same quality of attention, atmosphere, and benefits I give my own work?” Of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.
MC: All your albums have a fantastic sound to them. How much of a factor does technology play in your compositions? Has technology ever changed a composition from its inception to execution live or in the studio?
AB: The studio as an instrument is a new and blossoming endeavor/fascination for me. For years I was obsessed with sound, on my saxophone.
True stories about practicing one note only, for considerable lengths: living at home my parents forced me to see a shrink thinking I was insane with that one note. And for a while in NYC I would practice after-hours in a large basement real estate office. After months, this lovely chap who cleaned at night, the only other soul in earshot, listening to my note every night, approached me. We had never spoken and he said, “Man don’t you know any songs? I mean you can’t keep playing that one thing forever?”
The studio is infinite saxophones…kickin’ my arse! I didn’t have any idea what compression was just a minute ago. Now I geek out about trying to hear differences between optical, VCA, Variable MU, FET. Mics, preamps, EQs, tonal shaping of aux sends, reverb chambers…insane. And also a danger that it all becomes an excuse, a distraction.
Yes I think all my work is a balance, a negotiation, a conversation between what I can do and what I want to do, my circumstance vs. my vision
MC: Your music is very cinematic which is apt as you have also done film work. How did that come about?
AB: My grandfather Gustave Berne was a theatre and film impresario, so I had a start there I suppose. I do believe that I am naturally inclined towards the sound/vision synaesthetic.
MC: You also paint, between all your mediums is there ever a cross pollination of inspiration?
AB: Inspiration is frequently in my case, just about getting started and then trusting providence will meet me half way. Certainly I have ideas and I prepare for them, and all that’s required to bring such to fruition, but often if I may, the medium is not the message.
MC: With art in any medium, the audience makes a personal totem of a work, not necessarily in line with the intent of the artist. How important is it for people to be attuned with your intent when approaching one of your pieces?
AB: I would like to think that if someone, “gives me a chance”, meaning say in the case of my recorded sounds, at least allowing themselves an atmosphere where absorption would be possible, that I have a good likelihood of touching them. As I said, beggars can’t be choosers.
MC: Is it possible to sum up your artistic philosophy and in doing so would it enhance one’s enjoyment of your work?
AB: I heard my mentor say once, “Art is that which represents you when you are not there.” A few ways to read that…
*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (email@example.com)
Parisian drummer/composer Guilhem Flouzat, now residing in NYC; takes time out of his busy schedule to chat about non-musical influences on his art, why methods matter, the perceptions and realities of jazz in Europe and Stateside and how it all helps keep him on the path…following his muse.
Maxwell Chandler: Your early background was not in music but in philosophy, for which you received a degree from the Sorbonne. Have you found that not starting initially as a musician you have a slightly different take on the (artistic) field more so than someone who has made a go of it from their youth?
Guilhem Flouzat: There is a reflexive side of me which probably owes a lot to this background, and overall I like to think that my references and models come from every creative field, from philosophy to literature or Cinema. Philosophy has nurtured me as a composer but it has also been a lot of hard work to catch up with over talented musicians who have been playing their whole life! I get tremendous wisdom lessons from musicians who never did anything else.
MC: What was it that made you first turn your attention towards jazz? Do you recall a specific defining moment?
GF: My mother sent me to a summer camp when I was 15, called “Jazz Children” which basically rocked my world. It was two weeks of playing, jamming, with master classes by jazz greats and the opportunity to open for these jazz legends in the festival that closed the workshop. People like Elvin Jones, Ray Barreto and Dianne Reeves came to this festival. I have to confess that my true heroes were the teachers with whom I got to hang out! I had started playing drums a few years before but it was there that I found out about playing in a band and also the tremendous high to be on stage; sharing the music with the audience and peers…and improvising! It’s there I met Michael Valeanu, who plays guitar on my album.
MC: You come from Paris. It has often been observed that the European scene for jazz tends to be more respectful/serious in terms of cultural importance as opposed to The States, where money making pop (music) has long been king to the record companies and concert venues. Did you feel any sense of culture shock once in America, feeling perhaps that jazz has become marginalized to the non-fan?
GF:: I would say that the main difference between the States and Europe comes from the State’s policy about culture. In France, art is subsidized by the state to a much greater ex-tent than in the States; where as a jazz musician you basically have to sustain yourself. That gives jazz musicians in the US an edge as far as business is concerned, which can be noticed from very early on!
I do not feel that the connection to a broader audience is stronger in France, though. Most big jazz festivals include big names from the pop or “world music” scene, whatever that term means, and jazz is considered highbrow by most of the audience. I also really appreciate the fact that musicians in the States are more open to many musical genres, less into stylistic boundaries.
MC: There is a tradition which goes back to jazz’s nascence of the established, older players taking the younger up and coming ones under their wings, largely while on the road. You have studied under John Riley, Bill Stewart and Eric Harland in a more formalized scholastic setting. Aside from the larger acts, the tour circuits available to a jazz player are largely gone. Is a component of what kept jazz in a constant state of evolutionary flux now missing?
GF: It’s true that the economic and professional world in which jazz evolves has changed drastically. Less tours, more self promotion, Facebook and Twittering as part of your professional practice; that will certainly change the music to a great extent. Still I think that the contact with older players remains a capital part of a musician’s growth, in an informal setting. You can’t always get it with tours but sessions are easy to set up and in New York most of your musical heroes are accessible. I believe the most important part still happens outside of class! Eric Harland I met by approaching him and setting up a master class with other drummers. Most of what I learned from him was rubbing off just by being around him when he’s in the city.
MC: What non-musical things go into forming and expanding your artistic identity and how big of a factor does your physical location play into it?
GF: The more I walk this path of music, the more I get the feeling that there can’t be a separation between your musical identity and who you are, what you see, experience, look for or even eat! All the artists I look up to nurture their creativity with something else than pure music: Wayne Shorter with movies, Herbie Hancock with technology, both of them with Buddhism, Eric Harland with spirituality, and I’m just naming the most obvious of their hobbies. I feed myself with books, movies, paintings, love and friendships. I feel lucky to be in New York for the overflow of esthetic information which characterizes this city and the intensity of its people. This energy and restlessness play a tremendous role in my evolution.
MC: From sideman (Tony Tixier, Nicola Sergio and Nicola Andrioli) to leading your own ensemble, do you find one affords you more freedom in your playing?
GF: I do not experience such a great difference as a player, perhaps a greater sense of responsibility when I’m leading but the objective remains to serve the music and help the players soar. If freedom is to be found, it has to be together! That can happen in both set-tings.
MC: One Way or Another is your new album. It is comprised of all original material. Duke Ellington, for example used to write for specific members of his band when working on a piece. Listening to the tightness of this album one gets a similar impression.
GF: Thanks! I actually have a very hard time writing pieces that are not specifically for certain players. Almost the entire album was written thinking about these players because they are strong personal and musical influences for me. As a leader, I wanted to leave as much room as possible for their universes within mine; my ears were wide open for their suggestions. The last thing I wanted was for the music to be mine only! Ellington takes this to stratospheric levels! One of the projects I have is to write a series of pieces as a gallery of portraits of the musicians I live and play with, based on their language.
MC: Were any of the pieces road tested before going into the studio? Is doing such a thing a help or hindrance to keeping a degree of spontaneity within the piece?
GF: To my regret, all the music was rehearsed right before the recording, and I’m only road testing it now! The creativity and excellence of these players helped them get into the music instantaneously and I have been playing with some of them for my whole musical life. There definitely was a chemistry in the studio but I’m still finding things out about these pieces! I think road testing can only be a good thing.
MC: Have you found that any of the pieces have gone through a sort of sea change in their journey from studio to stage or vice versa?
GF: Most of the pieces are pretty carefully articulated. They have kept their shape for the most part but I’m starting to have more fun with them because I do not play them with the same people in France as in the States. There’s a lot that can change within them! Tunes are a little like people, they sometimes reveal themselves to you as time goes by. If not the structure or the harmony then the energy of some of these tunes has evolved.
MC: Do you feel that live, your work must be heard in a sort of site specific environment (i.e. only clubs, theaters et al)?
GF: I’ve experienced playing this music mostly in clubs but I dream of playing it in movie theaters, in greater sized halls. It does take a certain kind of focused listening to delve into it but I’ve seen people enjoy it loudly at happy hour! I’m striving to create music that will touch people anywhere it’s played but the fact that I’m a “jazz musician” kind of narrows it down for now! I have a project of creating a movie-concert, where we perform over images, which allows me to perform outside of jazz clubs
MC: When writing or arranging a piece is a future performance venue given any thought?
GF: Not really, my focus is primarily on the musicians who will play it. It would be a great experience to write music for a specific place though!
MC: The flavor of your work sort of straddles a number of genres while also adding your own thing to the mix. How important if at all is it to try to categorize your work’s genre?
GF: I’m still constantly finding out about musical genres these days and I remember with delight having to pick from the numerous genres that Myspace offered to define my mu-sic. Ukulele, hard rock, Transprogressive, Neowave… I think genres are meant to help listeners find their way but they don’t mean much if anything at all to the music itself.
I listen to basically anything that triggers an emotion within me. More than categorizing my work, I’m trying to link it to other forms of art; to give for instance a few images to the audience before I play a piece, to help trigger the imagination, or to explain the source of a tune. I call that “cinematic” and I’m sure somebody else before me already came up with that idea!
MC: I think regardless of the medium, everyone has a sort of romanticized vision of what life as an artist would be like. What was the biggest surprise you faced?
GF: To find out that to be a musician today one has to be even more organized and business oriented than for most office jobs!
MC: Thank you for your time.
For more information about Guilhem Flouzat’s music you can go to his website at: http://guilhemflouzat.com/
*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler