Down Beat, January 1999: Freedom Fighters: Ken Vandermark &
Joe McPhee Compare Notes on Creative Music Renaissances
by John Corbett
Chicago. Summer of ’98. The city is bustling with new jazz activity, no small part of it directly involving Ken Vandermark, a bright, articulate, unflinchingly committed tenor saxophonist, clarinetist, composer and bandleader whose presence has been a major defibrillator for the city since he set up shop here in 1989. But Vandermark’s musical journey was sparked by another figure, multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee.
Based in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., McPhee was already active in the late ’60s, as New York City’s originary free-jazz movement was transforming into the so-called “loft scene” of the subsequent decade. McPhee barely played in New York; instead, working with tenor and soprano saxophones, pocket-cornet and valve-trombone, he made his mark with a series of records for the Swiss hat Hut label (specifically established as an outlet for McPhee’s music), forging lasting musical relationships with a core group of European musicians.
McPhee’s 1976 solo record Tenor was a revelation to young Vandermark. Twenty years after Tenor was recorded, McPhee and Vandermark finally performed together in Chicago in a glorious trio concert with bassist Kent Kessler, and since then they’ve collaborated again in various settings.
Relaxing at Vandermark’s apartment, the two new yet old friends sat down to compare notes on markedly different backgrounds and startlingly compatible outlooks. A stuffed animal hiding next to the couch suggested an opening volley to McPhee.
Joe McPhee: To begin, Ken Vandermark, try to explain why I have a platypus on my head. Ken Vandermark: Because you’re crazy!
John Corbett: Where did you fellows first meet?
JMP: Ken and I met briefly in Vancouver in 1993. Ken was playing with his group, and I’d read an article in which he mentioned my name and the influence I’d had on his music. I was surprised that I’d influenced anybody’s music. I went to the concert, and lo and behold, toward the end of the concert Ken introduced a piece of mine, “Goodbye Tom B.” I’d never heard anybody play my music; I was absolutely thrilled!
JC: Ken, you’re part of a creative music renaissance here in Chicago, and you’re very much associated with this scene, playing with a regular cast of characters week-in, week-out. Joe, there isn’t much of a scene in Poughkeepsie...
JMP: No, I never play there.
JC: ...so you’ve made your artistic life in various other places, coming into other communities. It seems a big difference between the way you two function.
JMP: Curiously, I’ve worked with a regular cast of characters in Europe, Raymond Boni and Andre Jaume, which I’ve really made the center of my music. I play in New York occasionally, and on the West Coast. But in Europe, I was invited. In Poughkeepsie, there aren’t many presenters interested in improvised music. And my music is becoming improvised more and more. I’ve really moved away from written composition — I want to play what’s on my mind at the moment.
KV: I think Joe’s comment about being “invited” or not is part of why and how the scene has developed in Chicago. A lot of people here, and I include myself, had to find ways to do work, because we weren’t being asked. In different subgroups around the scene here, people are actively trying to make it happen. The city’s big enough to make that possible. I mean, you can see creative music every night of the week in Chicago. You can in New York, too. But I think that’s unusual. And to be able to play my own music, or the music of Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Mars Williams, Jim Baker, three nights a week, at home — that’s pretty amazing, and it’s been crucial to my own development. I’m aware of how fortunate I am to be able to do that. We aspire to be on the level of our favorite musicians. To get to that level, we have to perform. So we try to make our own circumstances. I think that’s what the AACM did, too.
JMP: Historically, I think what’s going on in Chicago right now is going to be very important. I pretty much developed in a vacuum. I rehearse a lot in my toilet, because the sound is good in there. Then I go out all over the country and around the world to all these extraordinary little places where wonderful musicians are playing their asses off. And we find that we really have a lot in common. I find people I like, we get together, have a drink. Most of my rehearsals consist of a glass of wine, a meal, conversation, maybe watching something on the TV. That’s it. We connect in another way, and the music will happen. “You can’t play”? What does that mean? I’ve played with amateurs who play with so much heart and soul — I’d much prefer to play with them than with some “professionals” who have ego up the ass! I don’t care about that. I’ve had some workshops where people come and play all the chord changes as fast as they can, and I throw ’em out! And other people come and say they’re afraid because they’ve only been playing their instruments a little time and they don’t have a bunch of technique, and I tell them to come in. In the end, we make some music. We’re not looking for Charlie Tuna, the great golden performances; we want people with some heart.
JC: You didn’t really start out playing in a vacuum, did you?
JMP: I was a big Art Blakey/Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderly fan. All the groups I played with played like that. There were a lot of jam sessions. I played in a group called Ira and the Soul Project: Hammond B-3, drums, guitar, vibes. We played jazz before we’d play soul music, dance and sing. I loved it. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, the people were into it! Then it sort of changed. I had music that I was trying to play, and it became something of a threat. People would lose their job if they did what I was doing, so they quit. When I say I developed in a vacuum, that’s a little misleading, because I certainly listened to all the great music that was on record, and I went to hear the great players.
JC: Early on in your public performing life, though, you had fantastic opportunities with Clifford Thornton, Don Cherry...
JMP: In an extraordinary situation, the day after John Coltrane died I went to a recording session with Clifford Thornton for the recording Freedom & Unity. The bassist was Jimmy Garrison! I mean, can you imagine, the first recording you’re going to do? A few years later I was invited to do this recording with Don Cherry for a week — the whole concept of the way I organize the large ensembles I recorded for hat Hut was based on what I learned from Don Cherry. Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy — I read all the things in Down Beat about why you shouldn’t listen to them, so I went out and bought all the records... don’t tell me what I can’t do! [laughter] I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. By the time I went into the Army, I took all my Ornette and Coltrane records — “Chasin’ the Trane” had me dumbstruck, destroyed me! I built a record player. It ran on batteries, and I put a transmitter in it. In the barracks I’d flip on the transmitter and it’d block out all the radio stations, because it was stronger than them. And nobody could hear anything except Ornette. [laughs]
JC: Radio Free McPhee!
JMP: I painted a watercolor of Ornette, hung it inside my locker in the Army. You think that didn’t get me in trouble? It wasn’t a naked woman, it was Ornette. There wasn’t a lot of jazz in my family. My parents are both from the Bahamas. I was the first person in my family born in this country, in Miami, Fla., of all places. My parents came from a very English, British background — I didn’t grow up in a Baptist church listening to gospel. The jazz that I acquired, I got through friends. And then when I got to the other side of the music, Ornette and the rest, that was a choice of my own. I found that music, and I had to seek it out.
KV: Well, it was kind of the opposite for me. I grew up in a family where my parents, particularly my father, were listening to jazz all the time. I wasn’t really exposed to contemporary popular music like rock until I went to college. As a kid, I went to lots and lots and lots of live concerts. I must have gone to Lulu White’s in Boston, where I grew up, more than once a week. Saw Johnny Griffin, the Art Ensemble, Benny Goodman, Art Blakey a bunch of times. It was also important that my father never categorized things at all. We’d listen to Stravinsky, then Duke Ellington, then Monk, then Sly and the Family Stone. It was all music, just music in the house. That made me hear Ellington and Stravinsky on the same level, not to listen to Ellington as a “jazz” musician and somehow, subconsciously, look down on him.
JC: What was it about hearing Joe’s music that so captivated you?
KV: One of the things is the amount of beauty that comes across. As aggressive as it can get sometimes, there’s a sense of remarkable beauty. I’d been listening to a lot more mainstream stuff growing up, and I was starting to get exposed to more “outside,” experimental things through my father, like Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers. But I wasn’t really connecting with it the way that, say, I connected with Thelonious Monk. My father flipped out the day he got Tenor, and said: “You’ve gotta hear this, you’ve gotta hear this!” It was in the morning, he put it on, I remember it was “Goodbye Tom B,” and it was as close to an epiphany as I can imagine. The extroverted Shepp/Rivers playing, the use of overtones and shrieks, were all there, but it connected with me in an incredibly musical, melodic sort of way. It really spoke to me. It communicated to me the way Monk did, but using a different language. I heard that and literally said: “This is what I want to do. This is the way I want to go. This is the music I want to play.” It’s hard to keep it from sounding trite or corny, but playing for Joe was a highlight of my life. And to have him react positively was a bonus! [laughs] From the first time I heard Joe’s music to the time we played together was a 14-year process, a path that was really instigated by his music.
JMP: When we finally connected here in Chicago, all we needed to know was there, so it felt like we’d been playing together for years and years. It was that complete. It had come around in a circle.
JC: There are a lot of stereotypes about free music and its relationship to beauty and lyricism — the preconception that music after the ’60s got violent, this idea that beauty had to be obliterated.
JMP: Well, the first thing I’d do is just trash “freedom.” Let’s trash that whole concept. There’s a big distinction between freedom and license. It doesn’t mean you can just shit all over everything and blow your brains out. Freedom is a work-in-progress. When Coltrane’s music became very energetic, people thought of it as being violent, and again a mistake is made in the interpretation of what passion is. It’s not necessarily anger or violence, though those are certainly part of our lives and should be reflected in what we do.
KV: It isn’t just about doing whatever you want whenever you want. There’s a responsibility to make the music interesting, and that means you really have to listen and pay attention and work hard on developing possibilities. “License” is an interesting way of putting it. It’s like working toward having permission to do things. Whether it’s with compositions or it’s freely improvised, it’s about trying to find the communication center. It gets into pseudo-mysticism: When music’s really working you can become sort of unconscious. Last time we played together, at the end of the concert Joe and I were playing contrapuntal statements, and in very indirect ways we arrived at the very same note at the very same time, completed our statements, and that was the end of the concert. There’s no way I could have anticipated where he would go; the music just happened that way. To get into a state where things like that are possible takes a lot of discipline. I work with people who take it that seriously, they don’t think, Let’s screw around and waste everyone’s time. It’s like, Let’s find some music here.
JMP: When we play, we don’t verbalize much about what we do or how we do it. [to Vandermark] But listening to you talk, it’s like being inside my own head. Something important is the idea of sharing. It’s about the life we have, the time we have on this planet, which is not all that long. The things that are important to us become more focused, particularly as you get close to the end, and you get to know that you’re wasting a lot of time with some bullshit. Every time we’ve played together, without exception, it’s been about sharing — music, life, love and humanity.
KV: When music is really the most magical, it’s aural version of spending time with someone you really like being with, or just experiencing life in all its complexity. All the best music, improvised or otherwise, is an expression of those really complex things, things that are impossible to express in words. That’s why i think that a lot of musicians are inspired by other art forms. I love the paintings of Franz Kline. They had a retrospective here, and I walked into that room with all those black-and-white paintings. I said, I want to play like this!
JMP: The more we talk, the more I find we have in common. I had a very good friend who passed away in 1991 named Alton Pickens. He was an artist; some of his works are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. He had an accident, fell down some stairs — upshot was that he moved into my house for about eight years. He was really my mentor.
KV: I guess what frustrates me is when people think that we don’t consider the ramifications of what we do. As if we just play off the cuff, wake up and play whatever — that sense of “freedom” as doing whatever we feel like doing, like we don’t take it seriously, don’t examine it, don’t practice, don’t study. That’s so insulting. It’s not to say other people can’t have different opinions about it. But it’s frustrating to have outsiders think they know more about it than we do. I take it really seriously, and the musicians I play with take it seriously.
JMP: For a solo recording, I borrowed the title from Val Wilmer’s book, As Serious As Your Life. I take what I do and my music very seriously. Somebody wants to ask me how seriously, it’s like this gun is to your head — how fuckin’ seriously can I take it?! But at the same time [he puts the stuffed animal back on his head], there’s a platypus on my head. I don’t take myself very seriously at all, and I love to have a good time and laugh.
Joe McPhee uses a Selmer Balanced Action tenor with Otto Link 95/0 mouthpiece and soft Bari tenor reeds; his soprano is a Selmer Super Action 80 with a Selmer CL mouthpiece and Rico Royal #2 1/2 reeds. He plays a Vito alto clarinet with Vandoren mouthpiece. His pocket-trumpet is a Classic, and he plays a Couesnon flugel. McPhee’s valve-trombone is a German Hutl B-flat Special that was formerly owned by Clifford Thornton. He uses Bach mouthpieces for brass.
Ken Vandermark plays a Selmer Mark VI tenor with a Rico Royal metallite mouthpiece, a Buffet clarinet with a Paul Combs mouthpiece and a Leblanc bass clarinet with a Vandoren mouthpiece. He uses Rico Royal reeds, #2 on tenor and clarinet, #1 1/2 on bass clarinet. Vandermark prefers wide-bore mouthpieces. He is currently looking for a baritone sax.