JAZZ FORUM: There has been something of a Mingus resurgence going on with the CBS release of the monumental "Epitaph" with a 30-piece orchestra. How do you view all of this renewed attention to Mingus and how do you think it will affect your own career?
JACK WALRATH: Well, first of all, I hope that this interest in Mingus will make younger musicians more creative as I think that the thing nowadays seems to be to repeat former people's styles and even licks. At least these are the guys who are being promoted. The young "Lee Morgans," "Charlie Parkers," that you hear now sound almost as good as the originals, but then again they have had 30 or 40 years to learn the lick! Maybe the interest in Mingus will place some of the learning emphasis on spontaneity and creativity for a change, since his style is more compositional and not so down pat or easily copied and predictable. Of course, he should be studied from a technical viewpoint, but it would be nice if, for a change, a lesson would be learned from his originality and rebelliousness. I feel that the so-called jazz resurgence for the most part is just a marketing scam and is representative of the decadent right-wing temper of the times. It seems like a sort of techno-jazz -- like techno-pop -- or, old ideas that are touted as new because they are played by synthesizers, computers and drum machines, or in the case of jazz, human computers.
I feel like there is a Nazification of jazz. You not only have to play all the "correct" notes, but you have to play completely in a certain style to be considered valid. But, I guess the generation is rebelling against the middle-aged one. Hey, we've had enough of this peace and love shit and let's get back to the former values of materialism, conservatism and good old-fashioned warmongering! I guess that I sound like an old man! When I was 22 all the guys in their forties used to say, "Aw, all you young guys want to play is that new music!" Now guys that are 22 are saying that to guys in their forties! The other day I read that some "up and coming" cat said that Don Pullen wasn't jazz!
JF: So, you feel that there is really no such thing as a jazz resurgence?
JW: No, not really. At least among most of which is being promoted as a resurgence. I think jazz is being treated as a museum music like classical music. Hell, I'm a young guy, and I believe that jazz music still has the potential for great creativity and innovation. Contrary to what people would have you believe, from what I see it is the most popular music in the world -- it can play anywhere!
What I don't understand is why so many musicians have this hang-up of wanting to be compared with classical music. They seem to use that (classical) as a barometer of respect, but most classical music wouldn't exist without grants and handouts. It's lost its audience.
I believe jazz still has a large potential audience. You don't need a singer to tell you what's going on. Believe it or not, there are people on earth who like rhythmic instrumental music.
JF: So, basically, you think that most younger musicians are just wasting their time?
JW: No, I don't know if I would say that. I listen to Bach as much as Xenakis and Louis Armstrong as much as Cecil Taylor. Inspiration comes from everywhere or at least it should. One contribution of younger musicians is in the area of craftsmanship. Cats can play their horns and play them in tune again -- something that seemed to be lost in the '70s!
But, I do think that it's perverse that, say, somebody playing Clifford Brown licks will make more money in a year than Clifford Brown probably ever made in his life -- and will get more critical attention -- plus Clifford Brown won't even be acknowledged! His estate should sue! They should copyright his solos! If they did, some unnamed trumpeters would get life imprisonment for plagiarism!
Don't get me wrong, there are some younger guys trying to do new things. And there are middle-aged and older cats too. Among the younger guys, the people that stand out in my mind are (saxist) Gary Thomas and a guitar player who plays with me sometimes, named David Fiuczynski who will blow the lid off of a lot of things if given a chance.
Of my generation (saxist) Jerry Bergonzi, (drummer) Mike Clark, and particularly (pianist) John Hicks -- definitely an unsung original both as a player, composer/arranger -- are still searching and pulling it off. I hope that people will see that I am trying to do something different and that the business community will see the potential when the wheel turns around and people want to hear originality again.
JF: Tell us about your experience with Blue Note records. Also, I see that you received a Grammy nomination for a track on your record "Master Of Suspense" which featured, of all people, country singer Willie Nelson. Could you also tell us about that?
JW: Thankfully, now it seems that I see more copies of my Blue Note records in the record store than I did when I was with the label! I guess that they couldn't figure out how to categorize me, which I guess you are trying to sell art like a brand of soap. On CD boxes, along with guys like Pullen and Adams, they would describe me as a "progressive" and in ad copy they would say that there was "solid blowing in the tradition"! I even asked the company to say something else besides "in the tradition" because it made me feel like I should put on a straw hat and get a job on a steamboat with a Dixieland band!
JF: Did you have any trouble with the record company in getting the idea across to use Willie Nelson on two tracks?
JW: Not really. Bruce Lundvall (president of Blue Note) thought it was a great idea. Some "purist" thought that it was kind of weird, but, I don't care. It wasn't like I wanted to add a country singer just to make money. I just mentioned to Bruce that it would be interesting if Willie Nelson suddenly came in from left field. I couldn't be just anybody. Happily, this one time the bizarreness of the concept got over.
JF: But, whether you were thinking commercially or not, don't you think that Blue Note thought that they could make much more money in having a personality like Nelson on the recording?
JW: I did at first, because Bruce said he thought that the vocal version could be a single and sent some copies to the Nashville office but they said that you never hear trumpets on Country & Western records so of course it wasn't worth putting it out because nobody would buy it! They even said this after the record was nominated by the same people (NARAS) that vote for people like Willie and Madonna! Maybe this was the same guy that didn't think it was important for Manhattan records artists to receive acknowledgment and thank yous from the company in the Grammy Awards program! I don't think that this guy is with the company any more!
JF: As you refuse to be categorized then how would you want to describe your music to people?
JW: For one thing, I am also a composer, and being a composer, I aspire to what the Ellingtons, Minguses, Monks, what have accomplished and as a player to what the Rollinses, Dolphys, Davises, and others have done. Whether I succeed or not is a matter of conjecture, bat at least I am going to try my damnedest and not try to get over by copying somebody else' licks! I hope that people will hear my stuff and say, "Oh, that sounds like Jack Walrath" and not "Oh, that sounds like bebop, or swing," or whatever. Was Ellington, swing... Mingus bebop? No. People say that they are hearing Ellington, or they are hearing Mingus. Just the use of their names describes the music. So many people copied Bird that they wanted to seem more original by saying that they were playing "bebop" instead of "Parker."
JF: Most people still seem to associate you with Mingus. Has this helped or hurt your career?
JW: For one thing, his charisma is so great that the contributions of his sidemen tended to be overlooked. As a result many of his alumni seem to have a hard time making a name for themselves. Pullen and Adams were together for almost ten years before they got an American record date! Dannie (Richmond) never really did get his own band started. Everybody associated Don and George with Mingus, when they only played with him for about two years collectively! I, myself, to this day, have gone to promoters and they have told me that it will be hard to do my own thing because people think of me as being with Mingus! I not only have 13 records ou, but somebody should tell them that the guy has been dead for 12 years!
JF: Do you think that it was a wise career move to assume the leadership of the Mingus Dynasty?
JW: God, I hope so! For one thing I need the money. Also I thought that the way the music was being done was stagnant and was even being disrespected, and since I do feel an obvious debt to the man, I took the opportunity to try and restore the original energy and spirit and take up the direction from where he left off.
JF: Do you think that you have succeeded?
JW: I think so, because the music is now very unpredictable, energetic and spontaneous, which I think Charles would appreciate. Some things that happen are a natural evolution, but there are many original ideas also present now, plus the audience who seemed to die, is now coming back. When I first joined, it seemed that it was mostly aging hippie men with holes in the knees where now there are many more young people; especially young women, which incidentally, was according to Mingus, a large reason whether you would be successful or not. I guess that it is due to the presence of the devilishly handsome Craig Handy and Ray Drummond and especially the very lovely and talented John Hicks!
JF: But don't you think that people will now associate you with the Mingus Dynasty and it will be even harder to break away when the time comes?
JW: I hope not. We (the Dynasty) have a record coming out on Columbia and I hope people will see that there is a resemblance to my Blue Note records "Master Of Suspense" and "Neohippus: because I did organize the session and rewrite practically all of the arrangements! The only thing that I worry about is some critic writing in the future about my own music, "Sounds great, but obviously influenced a great deal by the Mingus Dynasty!" when actually I have, I think, added a lot of my influence to the Dynasty" Just listen to the CBS record and then listen to Mingus and I think you will see the difference.
JF: Do you see this recording with Columbia as opening any doors for you to record your own music on the label?
JW: Who knows? That might depend partly on whether the company sees the record as being a new slant on Mingus by nine highly original individuals or as another Charles Mingus record such as "Epitaph."
JF: Who else is on the record?
JW: Craig Handy, Alex Foster and George Adams on saxophones, John Hicks and Benny Green on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, Smitty Smith and Victor Lewis, drums and on one track Eric Mingus does a vocal. Delfeayo Marsalis was the producer. Actually Delfeayo was the most copasetic producer I ever worked with. He has big ears.
JF: What was your impression of playing at the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree?
JW: Audiences over in Europe seem to be more appreciative and larger than in America. It probably comes from growing up in a background, where culture is more a part of daily life. Even though America is the source of many new art forms, in Poland and other countries, art appreciation seem to be more on the surface. In Poland, everyone seem - to know about Chopin or Kafka, or Wajda or Parker, whereas in America for the majority of people a major cultural event consists of the grand opening of a new McDonalds's or when Madonna changes her hair color! It's a shame that Americans don't make more use of their resources to aspire to a higher quality of life.
JF: Who were the musicians that you played with at the Remont Club and what did you think of them?
JW: I can't begin to produce their names (Wojciech Niedziela and Jacek Niedziela on piano and bass respectively) but I knew that in Polish their names translated into Sunday, which put a positive and sunny vibes on the proceedings from the get go! I found them to be more accomplished and more serious than most of the cats that I have played in "pick-up" groups around the world. I would play with them again at any time in any place!
JF: You have another record that is about to be released. Can you tell us about that?
JW: Well, it's pretty different than anything I have ever done. It features my group, the Masters of Suspense with Anthony Cox (bass), Ronnie Burrage (drums), Carter Jefferson (sax) and Mike Cochrane (piano), along with eight string players. The album will be called "Gut Feelings" and it will come out on Muse records.
JF: Did you write all of the music on the album?
JW: No, not really. I wrote about half of the compositions, one is by Mingus, one by Messiaen and one by Albinoni, but I did all of the arrangements.
JF: What a diverse program! How do Mingus and Albinoni fit on the same program?
JW: Quite well, actually. First of all, I didn't expect the strings to swing, because sometimes that is like trying to get a one-legged man to win an ass-kicking contest, so I just had them play their classical thing and we played hardcore (jazz). I don't want to call it a fusion, but it is more like an event where jazz, and classical music just happen to be played at the same time! I figure that if the Kronos Quartet can play Monk tunes, I can play Albinoni! I think that the fans of both kinds of music will be satisfied.
JF: Do you do much listening to classical music and has it had much of an influence on your own music?
JW: Everything has an influence on me. Even non-musical sources. For example, I am heavy into paleontology, theoretical physics, alchemy and movies because I think on one hand, being into many different things of quality will carry over into music. Out of 10,000 records I own, I would say that about 1500 are classical and a thousand are ethnic or "world" music. All of these different interests can't help but be influences!
Of course, sometimes I like to have a hot dog and this shows too, but the trick is to find the right relish to go along with the hot dog to make it something else besides just a chunk of boiled meat between two pieces of bread!
Someday, I would like to get some money so I could write some out-and-out classical music or more pieces like those coming out on my record. I would love to come to Eastern Europe and play concerts with symphony orchestras playing my stuff.
JF: Is there any particular reason why you would choose Eastern Europe on as a forum for your music?
JW: One reason is that I think Eastern Europe is still somewhat uncontaminated by cut throat market values! Also I think that they could especially appreciate what I have to say because people could relate to the emotionalism and passion I try to express. Russian music, for one, has always had great depth and fire; Poland, of course, has Chopin and a great melodic and Romantic tradition, and Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria use the weird tonalities that I like. Plus there is a pretty strong rhythmic tradition. Someday I would love to go to Bulgaria and really check out Bulgarian group singing!
Frankly, I have just begun to explore this culture. I've used a few Hungarian and Romanian scales as a basis for tunes in the past, and have found a little Chopinesque or Russian, choral-type music sneaking into my stuff. But, ever since I went to North Africa with Mingus, Semitic music, like Arab and Jewish music, has been a large influence, but, I have applied them in Western ways.
JF: Could you describe what you mean?
JW: Well, for example, I might take an Arab-sounding scale and derive a chord from it. Most people would play on this scale and chord for eight or sixteen bars or even make a drone out of it. What I do is play the chord for, maybe, four beats and the go on to another chord based on another Arab scale, or Hungarian scale, or whatever for four beats, then to another, and so on. In other words, what I do is derive some pretty weird chords from these scales and use them in a jazz or "Western" harmonic rhythm. You can do the same things with melodies.
JF: In Leonard Feather's and Ira Gitler's "Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies," you were quoted as saying, "Lately in my composition I have been employing devices which I think are of my own invention. I have yet to find a name for this concept but it consist of making the melody, the harmony and vice versa. I think I have been influenced in this direction by the music of Bartok, or at least my conception of it..." Could you explain?
JW: Well, I guess it's kind of like using the twelve-tone system but by ear. Basically in the twelve-tone system, you have twelve notes that are played in a sequence where no note in the chromatic scale is repeated until you come back to the starting note. Chords are formed by taking, say, the first three notes together, the next five, then the next three, and so on in sequence. Let's take a tune like All the Things You Are for example. In the first bar you have an A-flat and a D-flat in the melody. Well, that's also your chord, an open fifth. Now, just because the first chord of All the Things You Are has been played as an F minor 7th twenty billion times doesn't make it a capital offense to change it! For example, with the A-flat and a D-flat, you might also like the sound of an A natural, a D natural and an F sharp. So now, for a basic closed position chord, let's put the D on the bottom, and spelling up, you would have, D F, A-flat or G sharp, A natural and D-flat or C-sharp. This is a long way from an F minor 7th but will sound good because the melody notes are in the chord. Stretching it out further, you might want to construct a seven note scale by adding passing tones such as E natural between the D and the F and a B natural between the A and D-flat. Now, you not only have an unorthodox seven note scale to use for improvisation but also two more notes that you can derive yet another chord from: I think that what makes this system different from a cold technique is that you ultimately have to use your intuition, your taste, and especially your ear to pick your choice of notes. To me, this seems like the marriage of technology and science with spirituality and intuition. I more or less got this idea from the example of Alchemy. Alchemists performed all kinds of scientific experiments but derived the inspiration for these experiments from intuition and religious or spiritual symbolism. These days music and many other arts seem to have too much of one quality or the another. Either most people give in to unbridled emotionalism without craftsmanship or else it is all craftsmanship and no feeling.
JF: It appears that you have done a lot of thinking about esthetics and the proper approach to art.
JW: I don't know what the proper approach to art is, or if there is such a thing, but as I get older and travel more, and read more, and experience more cultures and meet more people and listen to and analyze more different kinds of music and read more about nature and scientific things, I think that I am at least getting a concept of what quality is. It's becoming much easier and much more satisfying to sit through a Beethoven Symphony than to sit through yet another episode Nightmare on Elm Street..
JF: What can we expect from Jack Walrath in the near future?
JW: I hope that I can tour with my own band some more. I have added a guitar because I am heavily influenced by '60s rhythm and blues, which I think is the closest pop music has ever come to approaching high art. I am surprised that critics haven't noticed this in my music.
I will be doing more touring with the Mingus Dynasty and would like to do at least one more record with them. Susan Mingus and I are checking out Mingus's sketches to see if we can find any "lost" material.
Aside from "Gut Feelings," Muse has another record in the can called " Out Of The Tradition" with Benny Green, Ronnie Burrage, Anthony Cox, and Larry Coryell (guitar). where I take obscure standard songs and turn them sideways and upside down and pervert them to my own evil ends!
Also, I spent a week in Sicily in April, where I rehearsed with a local big band. We did a concert and they recorded nine of my big band charts which will hopefully come out on a CD -- sort of my version of "Miles Ahead."
But, you know, I would really like to write for movies. I now have a reel of examples of all kinds of music from classical to jazz to electronic which I think show that I could do it. I hope some producer or director with a good artistic sense will like it.