Danny Meyer: Music has developed an incredible amount in the last few decades. I think as a language, so much has happened. I also think it’s wonderful that as a community, we seem to be doing much better. In the past, a lot of musicians had problems with drugs and alcohol and now so many musicians are going to college and really studying the language.
So, I feel very blessed because I think it is a very exciting time to be a musician. The music that is going to be made over the next fifty years or so is going to be very interesting. But along with this excitement, I also think that this generation of musicians has a responsibility to society that is very important. That is to try to explain to society what it is that we do. Without that explanation, I think it might be become more difficult to develop the language of music. I think we need to start explaining what is going on. I have a feeling that the general population probably has about the same understanding of what we do as they have an understanding of particle physics. The difference being that particle physicists seem to be better supported by society – I think they are doing a much better job of explaining what it is that they are doing to the rest of society.
Ron Miles: Well, I think there are a few things. I think the idea of explaining what we’re doing to society is good and that ties into your other point, which is that so many musicians have degrees. We’ve actually studied being able to talk about music. A lot of us have. So, those of us that can talk about it should. We both know Kent McLagan. He uses language so efficiently and so well – I think he’s a great person to do that. I think that there are some people who maybe don’t explain things well – and that’s ok – I don’t think everybody has to do it, but those of us that can…I think it’s very helpful.
Also, to make sure that we spend a bit of time – we have a lot of classes on [jazz] history – but, it’s good to find a way to talk about what is going on now. How can we do that? How can we have presentations of new music like classical musicians sometimes do? And these parlor concerts you read about where pianists would get together and play new pieces or their new compositions and people would come and check it out – and they’d talk about it. That kind of gathering I think is something that we can also explore.
We are seeing more of these kinds of house concerts pop up where people feel more comfortable with that kind of interaction. Sometimes in a club you have the stage, and there’s the audience and a performer. It’s difficult to negotiate that balance. If we can set up more opportunities where people can play, ask questions, and maybe play something again – that kind of thing can be really nice.
DM: That’s great. So, at one point, you mentioned clubs and one thing I think is interesting is that while so many of us in this generation are educated musicians we are still performing in a lot of the same types of places – playing a lot in bars – and I think that is more reflective of where we have been than where we are now.
RM: Well, I think that you want to play at a place where people who like music can hear the music – and that’s really important. Sometimes you play at a place and it’s kind of hard to hear the music and you think about how hard that is for the musicians, but think about the people who paid $10 to come. They came and they’re totally frustrated and they’re like, “I came and paid and I couldn’t hear anything.” So, I think it’s good to work those things out the best you can. That’s part of our responsibility as musicians to do that. Good venues exist but some times you have really look for them. When I was coming up with Fred Hess, we would call art museums; we’d call libraries, because they have summer concert series or series through the year - we’d say, “Hey, can we get on your series and play.” You might have to find those kinds of places and then get the word out so people can come and listen. Be consistent about it, too. You don’t want to make it too far on the other side so that people don’t know if there’s going to be a place you can hear the music. We want our audience to have faith that they can come out and really have a good time and enjoy some music.
DM: I think that artists and musicians understand that there’s value in the arts, but I don’t know that we’re particularly good at explaining that value.
RM: I agree. It’s very difficult to deal with abstract concepts like music and art in the same way. We’re a society that loves numbers and loves being able to show that, “this is the best of this,” or, “this is the second best.” So, we just have to – as a society – think a little deeper.
As musicians, in explaining the value of the arts, there are a couple of things that come to mind. For one, to seek out people who are really good at explaining things – it might not be us – but to find those people and have them get on our side and have them be advocates for us. And the people in our community who can do it – like we talked about earlier – have them make the case, because not everyone is good at it. I’m not sure that I’m always so good at it – but I know people who are.
We were just working on this bill in the legislature here in Colorado about making sure that arts and arts education stays in the public schools. There’s a great fellow, Dorian Delong, who was actually a student here – worked in the office - and now he teaches at Thorton High School. He had me come out every year for a few years to talk about the Harlem Renaissance and play music for the whole school – not just the music students. And this guy is savvy, he’s politically connected, and he’s very smart, and passionate about the arts and he was able to drive this thing home. But he had folks like me come in and play some music. And this community got this thing through – and it worked! When he called and said it passed, I said, “Man, it did work." That’s great…at least the legislature. What I think is important is looking at – even outside of our community - for who is skilled at making the case. When you think about really successful art institutions like symphonies and big museums, they have folks like that who make their case for them.
Also, as a community of improvisers, we’re spread out. Even a small community like Denver, we’re still kind of spread out. I still think that there are hopes about forming organizations to kind of get that going. Creative Music Works used to do here in town, but they haven’t been around so much here lately. I still have hopes that we can get something like that going and present the new music on a more consistent basis - consistent as far as the number of performances, consistent as far as the quality of the performances, consistent in the experience the listeners have in the coming out to the performance. All of that.
DM: What, do you think does the community need to hear?…I’m not sure how to say it…to get everybody to go over to the same place - to work together? What do we need to be on the same team?
RM: That is a very good question. I think…to get everyone on the same team…there are a couple things. First off, the community of art musicians needs to be less territorial. I think the symphonies hold on to their territory, and other groups of musicians are holding on to their territories. Almost in the sense that “We can’t let people know what’s going on over there because they might not come to our thing.” My thing has always been like, “If you come, I think you’re going to have a good time – I’m not saying don’t go over there, you might have a good time over there,” but I’m not going to tell you not to go over there to get you to come over here. We’ll just present our stuff as strong as possible. There are a lot of people that are really entrenched in kind of an old-school thing. It’s going to take a moment to loosen that thing up a little bit. That’ll be the first thing, for people to be a little less territorial.
And then, while we’re trying to get things to open up…I think that the community of improvisers in this area…we’re just going to have to form an organization. I’ve been thinking about it a lot that last few months. It’s not necessarily our nature, you and I, to kind of step out there and be like the front person. We’d rather play some music, be supportive, and if someone wants to get some shine on, “go ahead…take it all,” but there might be a need to – I feel for myself that might not be the natural place for me to be, but I might have to step out there a little bit more. While there’s some kind of…notoriety or whatever here – which goes up and down, too – but while it’s here might be a time kind of see if we can generate some force around whatever small notoriety that some people have in this town. That’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about.
DM: Alright, the next thing - What is your advice to a someone who is just going into college, what is your advice to them in their studies.
RM: Going into college… First word is “humility” when you get to college, because, chances are that if you’re going to college you were probably dealin’ at your high school. So, [my advice is] just to come in and be humble and take a step back and learn. And also realize that school is not the end of everything. School is school – it’s like a laboratory to work some stuff out. So you learn stuff in school, but make sure you’re playing outside of school where you can just play music and remind yourself why it is that you are[in school] – it’s because you love music. Sometimes in school we’re constantly being confronted by things we don’t know and we’re not good at, and so it can beat you down - you think, “Man, I’m not good at anything.” It’s good to play with people that are saying, “We like playing with you because you’re you. That’s what we like. We’re not hearing what you can’t do…what you’re doing is great! We like that.” So you’re just adding into that with school.
That’s the thing, because when I was in school I would be confronted with that a lot, too. I would go take a lesson from people that I admired like Jane Ira Bloom or Lester Bowie or different people who would say, “You’re alright. I mean, you still have a lot to learn, but you sound all right. Don’t let school bring you down.” Then I’d get together with my friends we’d play and like, “yeah, this is great!” Then I’d go to school and the jazz band director would yell at me, you know. I had it in perspective. That’s a big thing - just keep it in perspective. And take advantage of this opportunity that’s there to learn from your peers, learn from these teachers, go to the library – listen to all the records that are there. It’s really quite remarkable. And take classes outside of your discipline because there are some bad people at your school. Unfortunately, not everybody in your area might not be one of those bad people, but some place there is. There might be a baroque scholar or somebody who does electronic music. Get with them…kind of see what makes them tick. Take advantage all that while you’re there.
DM: Beautiful. What about somebody who is getting out of school, or maybe has been out of school for a little while?
RM: Get a band. GET…A…BAND. Play with people that you like to play with and people that like to play with you, and develop some music. Again, it’s always groups of people that develop music. I mean, Prince developed his music, but that’s why it always sounds better on record than it does at those concerts - and Prince is my favorite living musician, but honestly, if I want to hear the best Prince performance, I just put on one of those records where he’s playing everything, because it sounds great. The gigs sound good to, but it’s different. But in our music – which is a collective music – it takes all of us working together and that exchange of ideas.
When I first had that trio with Eric [Gunnison] and Kent [McLagan], I wrote a lot of music before then with a lot of specific things to play. When I started playing with Eric and Kent - Eric was so great at coming up with these chord voicings, so why am I writing chord voicings for him? That’s what he does. Or, why am I writing bass lines for Kent when he likes to be inventive and move things around. So, you learn…how do you communicate? Like, “Well, I want this kind of vibe…and you know…you’re on your own…go ahead…this is kind of what I’m after.” Or, “This chord here…I hear this sound…is there a more official way to write that chord?” You’re constantly learning and expanding. Just hearing their sounds gives you stuff to play. You learn, in forms, how much openness, balance, structure, or free – you learn all these possibilities just from playing with folks – that’s so great. That’s, I think, the biggest thing for folks who are in school, but especially when you’re out of school. Get a band. The collective energy of finding gigs - that’s hard to do for one person, too. Then everyone is invested in the music. It can do something.
Even that new band, Mostly Other People Do the Killing…out in New York…Peter Evans…they’ve been able to make dent out there because one, they’re all great players and two, they have some point of view that they’re putting out there. That’s really what people want. They don’t need you to give them a thesis when you’re doing a concert – which is another thing that school teaches you that’s totally wrong. “Well, your set should show that you can play bop and you can play free and you can play this.” Man, nobody gives a crap about that when they go to see a concert. I don’t go see Joni Mitchell to see here play baroque music [laughs]. I want to hear her do what she thinks we want to hear.
That’s what bands do. Present some music. Great. When I hear someone great or a great band, I’m not thinking about what they can’t do. I’m thinking about what they’re doing and I’m appreciative of that. That’s another reason why it’s good to play some music outside of school. People who play in school too long, every time they do a gig it sounds like their trying to show us that they can do something. Just do something. That’s what you need to do. Do something. Stop trying to show me you can do something.
DM: That’s very good advice. So, one of the qualities of your playing that I’ve most enjoyed is the way you interact with other musicians. The way that I’ve described it is that you seem to say, “yes” to everybody. We’ve talked about being on the same team. It always feels like you’re on everybody’s team…all the time. It’s great. So, could you talk about the way that you think about being a part of an ensemble?
RM: I think that as horn players we have a very unique position that rhythm section players don’t have. Rhythm section players kind of have to do it, because they’re playing all the time. Horn players, get a chance to come in and out. I’ve had the chance to play with a lot of folks over the years and one of the reasons that I’ve tried to approach music in that way is because that is when I always had the nicest times – when people are on the same team with me.
Matt Wilson does this thing – he’s such a great clinician by the way. Some people do these clinics at schools and you can tell they’re just try to, you know, get enough money for the hotel so they can make this tour happen. I mean; you know what I’m talking about. But Matt, man, he’ll show up and he’ll have someone come up and play with him. He said that, “improvising is a way to even the playing field.” Whoever you’re playing with, you’re job is to make some music with them. Again, not this idea that you’re supposed to show them, “I’m better than you.” No, if you’re really great, then you should certainly be able to play with someone who’s not that great. The hardest part is when you’re not – you’re very limited – to play with somebody. So, it’s all about what can we do to make this work? If we have some disagreements, we can deal with this later, but right now were all here together to make the strongest thing we can do.
Louis Armstrong - I remember this story all the time – he would talk about him and Bix Beiderbeck getting together – they only got together a couples times. He said that, “We closed the door and tried to make the music sound as good as it possibly could.” And that was like, “There you go, man.” Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbeck, I’m sure that music sounded pretty damn good - with those guys playing with that mindset. It’s not competitive, it’s like, “let’s just see if – how we can really make this great.”
In the 80’s, they had that dream team – basketball – for the Olympics. The first one with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and all those cats were playing. I’d read the box score: Michael Jordan, 9 points; someone else, 20 points…it would just change all the time. When I would watch them play, they just played and passed to the open person – who was great. They’d talk about [how] their practices were the most fun, because they would just get together and play.
Just remind yourself, reinforce that, and play with people as much as you can who have that. I think what starts to happen is that sometimes we play with people who don’t have that mindset and it confuses us. It’s like, “Maybe that’s not the way…maybe I’m supposed to get out there and cut this cat…[laughs]…you know what I’m saying…I’m going to shake this cat down, because that’s what just happened.” No…hold on…play with people who have that mindset, too – which is most of the people who can play, by the way. Just to reinforce that. Again, that’s our whole idea: for this hour, we’re all here together to make just the best musical presentation we can. And it’s not that hard. You get to play music for an hour. That’s great. Give it up, for that hour. And then like I say, if there’s some issues, don’t come back next time if it really wasn’t fun. But for that hour, just go ahead and deal. Again, I find most people are that same way. It’s rare that I have a performance where I leave and think, “That really was – people were dealin’ that way. They kind of had another thing.” I just go and put that on my list. Next time I won’t be there for that one...unless we can talk about it ahead of time.
The next part of the interview is the discussion of some important figures in music.
Wayne Shorter –
RM: I think one of the things that I find when I look at musicians who are really great is that they have their music. I think that’s one of the things that we sometimes don’t get from folks. Somebody like Wayne Shorter, he writes this kind of music that…he improvises the way he writes. Even so much these days that I hear in his solos these old compositions showing up – in his solos. And he understands every element of his music. You get the sense that he – you see the scores that Danilo has some times that are incredibly… – and you know that Wayne really hears all that stuff. So you go to this part and he knows how to react. Part of that has come from the fact, – well, he’s obviously a genius, but – he really practices his music. That’s a thing that I think is going to be true about the folks that we talk about and it has to be one of the things that we remember about ourselves. We really need to practice our music…. really hard…so that we have a really good understanding of it. When you go to a rock band and – whoever it is…Metallica – they have nineteen songs and they are going to play the heck out of those nineteen songs. And I don’t even like Metallica that much. God Bless ‘em, but I’m not really a big fan - but that kind of idea. Sometimes as jazz musicians, we have so much music to learn that the thing that gets the least attention is our own music. We’re always working on standards; we’re working on transcriptions. We should be mostly transcribing our stuff and figuring out what didn’t work on that…or what did. I mean…I don’t do that enough. I don’t take all of my songs through twelve keys. I’ve been doing it lately. Why do we do that with All the Things You Are and don’t do that with our own songs? That’s the kind of thing - that’s what I hear when I hear Wayne Shorter.
The other thing about Wayne Shorter is that he and Miles Davis – to me – are the people in the last generation…since the post collective improvisation music…that really understand the idea of a horn player in collective improvisational format with a rhythm section. That they don’t take solos as much as they weave in and out of the texture of the band. And they don’t play for a long time. They have more patience than anybody I can think of as far as not playing for minutes and then coming back in – or playing for little about and coming out – or playing for another couple of minutes. Whatever, but they are always engaged. Which is why bands that try to play their music don’t play it is well. It isn’t because of the rhythm sections’ approach, it’s because of Wayne and Miles. Their playing is so hard to duplicate. As horn players we’re never allowed and we don’t allow ourselves that idea that you can come in and out of the music that frequently.
RM: Prince, like I say, he’s one of those guys who – when I came up – was, like Wayne – not afraid to have his own music and also not afraid to be totally outrageous - outrageous in both extremes: outrageously deep and outrageously corny. He could do all that in the same song - same album certainly. There are some songs on albums that I can’t listen to because they’re so corny and others that I can’t stop listening to.
And [he’s] somebody who’s able to create a sound world…I remember when Sign of the Times came out. It was about to come out and I had moved back here – must have been 1988 – and I got a Village Voice and it said there was a new Prince Record…Sign of the Times. I stayed up that night listening on the radio to see if I could here it. It starts out with this little drum machine…[sings] and I thought, “That’s the new Prince song…” he had hasn’t even sang yet. Because no one would put out a song that spare with just a little drum machine and claps. No one would do it. Obviously it was him, but that idea that somebody could have a sound-scape so clear that you would hear – without them even singing or playing, because it was just a drum machine…it was like he was playing…just a pattern. Must be Prince.
And his ability to – for me as a religious person – the kind of passion that he would bring to discussing his religious fervor that was only used to address things that were more sensational…like sex at that kind of…he would use that same kind of approach in discussion his passion for religion – his love for God – I always found that to be so powerful. The idea that you can be this kind of freakish guy and this religious guy at the same time and you don’t really even have to figure out why. It’s like, “I am. I’m kind of freaky and I’m religious. How’s that?” Ok. I guess so. That’s what I’ve always loved about him.
Ornette Coleman –
RM: Yeah…Ornette Coleman…like Wayne, somebody who not only had his own music, but was confident early on to have music that was so different than everyone else. Wayne’s music doesn’t necessarily have new rules. Ornette’s music has different rules. The idea that we would concentrate on the foreground more than the background – and what does that mean? That we would play the melody and let the melody develop? Ok…how do we do that? Well, this is how we do that. And to find people like Charlie [Haden] and Don [Cherry] and Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell who also shared that kind of vision. Again, those guys rehearsed all the time. His bands still rehearse all the time. What do they rehearse if they’re playing free? Well, they’re rehearsing learning how to play together. How to play that music and how to recognize where people are going.
We’ve talked about this, but the lesson that I took with him where he would write a note and ask me what the note was…like a first space note…and I’d say it was an “F.” Then he’d change the clef and say, “What note is it?” Not really explaining it, but me taking away from that, that as improvisers, we sometimes approach it like we know something, because we’ve studied all this stuff, – we know this theory – but when we’re really improvising, we can’t know anything. We have to approach it like, “I’m getting together with this person, and let’s really play together. I’m not going to play this thing I practiced. Were just going to start playing and let it develop.” That’s really scary to do. He’s developed a whole music that was based on that and he’s lived eighty years doing that. [It’s] so powerful in that regard – that you really can improvise. When he came up, there was that sense that “we’ve learned all this stuff that we’ve practiced…and that people don’t really improvise anymore…we just kind of put stuff together that we’ve practiced in new ways.” Just to blow it up and say, “No, let’s really improvise. Let’s do that.” That really does even the playing field. That does make it possible for everybody to play together.
DM: He recorded with his ten-year-old son.
RM: Yeah, exactly. That’s right, man…Empty Foxhole. That’s one of my top ones. Then, that most recent records - Sound Grammer - is also one of his greatest records. This guy can still keep doing it, because it’s possible – if you’re really improvising – that you could do something really spectacular. You don’t have to worry about topping yourself, because it’s a new day – a new approach.
That clip that they took down – it was Ornette and Sonny Rollins – on Youtube that was just up for couple of days. That just spelled it out so clearly, to see this guy show up. And Sonny Rollins, too, who is a great improviser.
Don Cherry –
RM: You know, Don Cherry is such and interesting person, because when I came up I didn’t listen to him. Because I would listen to those Ornette records so much, and I would stop it after Ornette’s solo and listen to it over and over again and I would never listen to Don’s solo. It wasn’t until…I’m sure it was after My Cruel Heart and that stuff that I really started to get into Don and that was because I had really started to get into Ed Blackwell. So I bought El Corazon with Don and Ed and I got Old and New Dreams and I started to check out Don more and more and he’s just one of my favorites. And also, I love the way he plays over changes. He plays over changes so great. That…what’s that record with Lacy where they play all those Monk tunes? I’m actually doing this song, Who Knows, by Monk that I learned from that record. He really hears stuff. Just beautiful melodies…and Don is somebody who…we minimize his technique, because he would crack notes and all that kind of stuff, but he created a sound-scape that…it doesn’t sound right, unless it’s all there. That timbre, the articulations – the kind of spit-y articulation…it all is a perfect package together. When I took that lesson with Mr. Coleman, I played these split tone notes, he was like, “Ah. You should play every note like that.” And at first, I said, “I can’t play every note as a split tone,” but that kind of sense about...creating a sound world that’s yours…and you should play every note with that same concept of an entire sound. I took one lesson with him for 2 hours…I don’t know how long ago…it’s been 20 years or something, and I still get things from that lesson that I go back and think about. Yes, indeed.
Sonny Rollins –
DM: He just had his 80th birthday.
RM: Well, that’s where Ornette played – at that concert. I think of Sonny as – to me – as complete a player that has ever been. [He] can play over any set of chord changes in an inventive, spontaneous way. Time that is immaculate – you can’t have any better time than him. So, that’s what I think – I think about him being so strong. Somebody that can really play quarter notes in an improvisation, and eighth notes, and all that stuff in between. I just think of him as maybe the most complete of all the improvisers.
Public Enemy –
DM: It’s there a hip-hop artist that you’ve been really excited about?
RM: Well, I was really familiar with Public Enemy. To me, that’s one of my favorite, most important bands that I’ve heard in my life and Fear of a Black Planet would easily be in my top five albums ever. For one, at that point in hip-hop, it was still possible to use it as something other than pop music. It really was powerful social commentary. The music was powerful in that it was kind of like music concrete. That you’d hear it the radio and there’d be all these crazy sounds and stuff going on. I love those first…well, the first four records or so I thought were just outstanding. To me, that’s my favorite of all the hip-hop bands.
It became really hard – it’s almost like Jelly Roll Morton. Jelly Roll Morton is one of my favorite musicians ever. He had way of dealing with New Orleans polyphony in such a way that it’s almost so complete that there’s nowhere to go in that music. He kind of ends the style, because he’s so great at it. And Louis Armstrong shows up with this new rhythm which he can’t adapt to and so, it kind of ends this thing. [It’s] the same thing with Public Enemy to me, they create such a high point in that music that it didn’t leave any place for the music to go. And I feel like it kind of stopped after that point. The same way that other pop forms sometimes stop and then elements of them get reconstituted to form a new pop style. So, for me, that’s kind of the end of the development of hip-hop in a lot of ways. I mean, it really becomes a new form of pop music at that point. There are expressive pop records after that I like - Late Registration by Kanye or The Black Album by Jay-Z or other albums that show up after that…even Eminem’s first records, or Chronic, that Dr. Dre Record…Chronic and Chronic 2000. I love all those records, but that’s a different thing. It’s pop music at that point.
Bill Frisell –
RM: Bill Frisell is, I think, somebody who is very trusting of what he hears. In the sense that, as jazz musicians sometimes we’re taught that what we hear is cool, but there’s kind of a complexity of jazz that has to be there to really make it valid – and he went through that. He talks about – at his first composition class at Berkelee, he wrote music like he writes now and the teacher is like “No, that’s not going to work. It sounds like some folk music,” and it made him stop writing music for a long time. [He thought], “That’s what I heard, but that’s wrong.” So, when his own records came out and I heard – because when his records first showed up, when I first heard about him, it was this period where people were getting signed and who were talking about signing me. I was dealing with record labels…and this guy at Gramavision wrote back and he said that, “You know, I really like your music, but the melodies aren’t always all that strong,” and I thought about that and it hurt me at first. I thought, “Aw man…my music!” But I thought, what if I really, really, wrote the strongest melodies I could without any worry about anything? About whether it’s hip or cool or anything. So, My Cruel Heart and Women’s Day and all those records were my first attempt. My Cruel Heart, I had even done a version of My Cruel Heart before that, that got scrapped and I kind of reconstituted it and rearranged it and wrote some new music with that thing in mind. And I heard Bill’s music and it kind of had this country thing that I thought was so cool, but nobody was doing that. It was really melodic and really true, it felt like. So, it just sent me down that path. When I started to play with him all the time I was just realizing that he really hears a lot of music. And he is technically really solid. I mean, his foundation is so strong. And it reminded me that too, that you have to make sure to deal with that, too – a strong foundation will not be a hindrance to you. It will be very helpful to you.
Playing with him was important for me, because I really got to apprentice. We’ve talked about that a little bit, too, that I think that’s a really important thing to do. Just to be out on the road with this guy. To see how he deals with interviews; and how he deals with the public; how he deals with the clubs; how deals with the travel; how he deals with putting together a set; and how were going to deal with playing with the same musicians for three weeks in a row. You have to change the set – we’re going to do the set and kind of move it around. Just to hear all of that and dealing with that. It was really something. It’s great. It was like going to school in a different way. I think that’s really important to do, too. So as we talk about people forming bands and playing with their peers. That’s incredibly important, but this idea, too, about somebody who maybe is more established offering a gig, particularly a tour, it’s also really important to do that, too. Not even for the notoriety it gives, – which is great – but just the chance to learn and see how they approach it. It might not be the only approach, but it’s just a way.
One thing with school – that’s why I don’t like faculty bands in school. I can’t stand that concept of faculty jazz bands, because they always sound just like really good student band – because they’re trying to do too much. I like more the idea of artist in residence. Just have a band come to your school and talk about what they do and play…play with them. It’s not the end all. It’s just a way. It might speak to you and not speak to her or speak to him and not speak to him, but somebody is going to take something away from it. Then the next year, another band shows up – same kind of thing…just approaches a way to do that. So, I’m trying to work with some of these things here at this school or other schools, too, but that’s some of the things that I’ve thought about. But, that idea of apprenticing under Bill has been so great.
And he’s so generous. I think that’s the thing about Bill, too, that I’ve learned. You get the sense…when you play with him…you’d do something and get totally housed. Like, “Oh my Gosh,” and he’d play and there’d be no applause…because he was playing something so connected to the song that it was almost like you didn’t realize that he had soloed. That he had played something so beautiful that the audience didn’t know that the song had stopped. And it’s just like, “Wow.” Now that’s some other level, you know what I mean? I mean, it’s obvious that you’re not playing the song. You’re playing something, whatever, it can be great too, but it’s obvious that you’re not playing the song. You took a solo, but I didn’t know that he had even taken a solo. Bill Frisell, man.
He’s just such a great guy, man and he’s totally down with playing music, too, with folks. I feel so blessed to be playing with him, because all my peers that play trumpet have had to have them on their records, because they all want to play with him, too. I get to play with him on his records. I feel so blessed and to have him on my records, too. All of us – from when I came up and obviously from your generation, too – Bill Frisell is one of our icons. He’s like Miles Davis or Wayne or those guys for us – and he should be thought of that way. He’s done music as great as anybody who has ever played this music.
DM: One thing that I’m trying to sort through and this is another thing that they don’t talk about so well in school…I guess we don’t talk about it in general that much as people, but finding balance in life as a musician? Something challenging for me is that I make a living teaching, but I practice. If you want to play music– to be able to have discourse in this language – you have to work really hard. It’s like having a job and then having a hobby, which is also your job. It seems like you deal pretty well with that.
RM: It’s a work in progress. I mean, I don’t think there’s a final answer, look at your life situation and you’re constantly improvising and making adjustments. For example, my daughter needs to be at school at 7:30 and so I take her to school and make breakfast for her and my son. So that means, I get up at 5:00, because she gets up at 6:30.
DM: You wake up at 5:00 to practice?
RM: Yeah, to practice or do stuff. Practice ear training, do some exercises, just to try to get some stuff in. And I stay up late. I look at my day or my week and plan how I’m going get all this stuff in that I’ve got to do this week, because I want to get it all in. The tricky thing is, of course, that things show up that you don’t plan on and that kind of throws a wrench in things, but for me – as a busy person – you kind of have to have a plan…and realized that it has to be adjusted, but the stuff still has to get done every day. It doesn’t matter to me that, “Well, I guess I get to sleep 3 hours tonight. I planned on getting 5 or 6, but I’ve got stuff that I’ve got to get done.” So that’s kind of how I’ve approached it in my life. Luckily, I’m one of those people who doesn’t need a lot of sleep.
That’s what I do, I make sure to get the stuff done that needs to get done, which, as a parent, it means being present for your kids. I mean – now really mean present for them can’t be like, “I really should be practicing right now instead of being here at this concert.” No, they’re my kids. I want to be there for them. It’s like, “They’ll be asleep at 9:00. Dad will get to work then, but while they’re here we want to be present with them.”
DM: That’s really great to hear you say.
RM: The thing also, is that music - and I know you know this, but a lot of folks think of music this other thing. No, music can be that thing…that very central thing in our life, even if we have a job. The job is a job and it’s not better or worse than we think of music as a vocation or whatever. They’re not better or worse, they’re just what they are and they both have their responsibilities. We are musicians, and that has its responsibilities and we have this job, which has its responsibilities and sometimes they meet up and sometimes they don’t. The key is that we meet our obligations in these areas. I think sometimes we get out of school and we’re taught that our job is here and then your music is over here…get to that when you get time. No, no, no, they can both exist. We juggle a lot of things – we wear a lot of hats in this society right now, and so we don’t have make a judgment about what is more important. We just get stuff done.
DM: And finally, do you have any performances or projects that you’re really excited about that are coming up?
RM: Yeah, well, on Tuesday, I go to L.A. with Wayne Horowitz’s Gravitas Quartet and I haven’t played with them in a while, so I’m looking forward to that. Then in November 12th and 13th  I’ll play at Dazzle. That was going to be a band with Rudy Royston, Kent McLagan, Glenn Taylor, and Doug Wamble on guitar. We might do Parade and some other songs that I haven’t played in a while. We’re going to do some Blind Willie Johnson music…Let the Light Shine and John the Revelator. Doug wrote some songs that he sings. We’ll do some Tom Waits music. And we’ll do some of those vocal songs that I’ve covered lately, but no one has sung, but he might sing them…like, I Woke Up in Love This Morning, I’ll Be There, I’ve been playing Anne, lately that the Beatles covered. What else? Oh, and this old song, There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears that Bix played in Paul Whiteman’s band in the 20’s and Bing Crosby sang. We’re going to do that for sure, whether Doug sings or not.
Going into the repertoire, I also learned from Bill…I’ll go back to this…is that in picking out standards, Bill taught me that you pick out standards that you really have something to say on. That’s why you do a tune at a gig. It’s not…you know…let’s do All the Things You Are or let’s do this…You do it because, you really want to play All the Things You Are. And he plays them a long time, in every band, for years. We’ve played Subconscious-lee for years. You look back and you see Thelonious Monk or these people…when they would introduce standards, it’s not like they would show up a bunch. A tune would show up in the set…you’d work it out and play it a bunch and get used to it. I talked to Jason Moran recently and I asked him how his band learns songs. He said that he introduces repertoire slowly.
DM: I think that’s something that jazz musicians have stepped away from. I would like to see more of that…I would like to hear more people playing more music that they really want to play. That would be great.
Have there been any recordings that you’re involved with or that you’re putting out that might show up in the future.
RM: I’m trying to think if there’s anything. Oh…Carmen [Sandim’s] recording is going to show up soon. We’re on that together, so I’m looking forward to hearing that. I hope to do a recording next year – a trio recording with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade. They said they want to do it, so that’s big. We just have to find out when we can do it. That trio – playing with that trio…I learned a lot and I had a great time doing that, so I’d like to see whether we can do that in the next year.
DM: Well, thank you.
RM: Thank you, Danny. It’s been good having a chance to talk to you about music. It was really great…I mean, you’re one of the musicians that I have the most respect for, so it’s to get a chance to chat with you.
DM: Likewise. That was a lot of fun.The interview took place on October 30th, 2010