Monday, October 13, 2008

John Voigt Dialogues: Part 1.

John Voigt is a dear old pal going back to 1972 and one of the very best musical minds still stuck living in Boston. I made a vague stab at writing a jazz book in Seattle but the money sucked and it was a chore and I had rent to pay. That aside, I got an amazing chapter out of Mr. Voigts correspondence and it is too noteworthy to just leave in a hard drive. Thus I give you, Mr Voigt.

Describe the circumstances that brought you to the bass.
First a mechanistic answer: I was like a ball in a pin ball machine: born dirt poor in the South End of Boston, a multi-ethnic, multi-racial slum of bow front tenements made up of cold water flats. My freedom loving parents had been economically crushed by their dreams of sharing spiritual realities through art in life--mom was a dancer, dad her percussionist. By the 1950'sthe only gigs Mom got was stripping for bachelor parties and in carnivals.
I needed to keep the inner-truths of my parents, but not by growing up to be on welfare. So I began that which I continue to this day: searching for a personal freedom within a self-imposed order of formal constructs.
In Boston in the 1950's one could listen to great jazz on AM radio, there was Symphony Sid, fresh from the New York City scene, and my favorite jazz disc-jockey: Bob "The Robin" Martin. Both played Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton, Stan Getz and Miles Davis. As I listened I slowly began to hear what I was looking for, a freedom (improvisation) within an abstract series of formal patterns. I got a trumpet and began playing it. But I was horrible; I have the worst embouchure possible. But my sweat along with Divine help got me into the U.S. Navy as a musician. And that was a cool time, the late 1950's. No wars, no killing people. The roughest duty was deciding which whores to bed down with in foreign ports of call.
I had bought some Gerry Mulligan charts, and was sitting with a trumpeter, saxophonist and drummer friend in a military base drinking beer and said let's play the arrangements. I just grabbed a bass that was in the band room. I had a good time feel on it. It seemed that this was the way to move to continue reaching my goal of being an innovative jazz player. So at twenty-one years of age I was out of the service with a ten-year-old car and a plywood bass and a couple of thousand bucks in the bank. In 1960 I returned to Boston and began living and jamming with musicians who were going to Berklee School of Music.
But that is positing facts on the mechanistic level. One could also say that on an Emotional Level I prefer being the foundation element of an ensemble--as in the name of the instrument "Bass" as in Basis of what is
Taking place. Also it was a practical economic choice since a bass player had more of a chance to get work than did a trumpet player.
Describe the evolution of your personal performance and composition aesthetic and the role of ensembles, such as Music of The Spheres, and of compositions, such as Bingo, in the expression of your aesthetic and method.
As a kid I wanted to play like Miles Davis. In the Navy I dug the East Coast sound of the black players, Blakey's bands, Monk, Clifford Brown. In 1959 I heard the Atlantic Ornette Coleman records. That blew me away. I didn't know what they were doing but that is what I wanted to do.
Later during a psychedelic drug high I figured it out. It was as if the notes played of the previous African-Americans were etched onto plates of glass and Coleman and his quartet were taking the glass and breaking it into cubist-like constructions and then played these shards. With that the door opened for my search.
I had to make money so during the 1960's I played a commercial form of jazz music, trios behind singers doing American popular music standards. Then there was a period of playing what is now called Salsa music. From this I learned how Hispanic music families did it: the family would sing every evening; the youngest would begin that way--by hearing first, no chords, no scales, no method books. But singing in the tradition. In jazz of course the corollary was spirituals and is Gospel. Then the Latino child might go to the Afro-Cuban percussion. If you were going to become a bass player you first played the large conga drum, the Tumba. Then you'd get some piano, now playing the European classics as best you could so that you'd learn music theory, how to read music, not the scales as such but in the context of great music, Bach, Chopin, etc. Then you'd play the Latin popular standards, say, Besume Mucho -- the songs with a lot of dripping emotions to them. Then the Cuban Sons called Mambos in Mexico. Jamming on one or two dominant chords. This is a direct contact to the religious music of West Africa, Afro-percussion, and voices. Then the Latin band members hipped me to Cuban bassist Chachao. Now the notes didn't matter, but how YOU played them mattered: Be a bull on the instrument. Believe in what you played and in what you felt.
I have played with thousands of musicians. Obviously from the good and great ones things were learned. But I learned also from the not so good players, as in what NOT TO DO. There is a constant learning process here of social psychology and life styles. As in Tony Williams telling me about how his musician father who had the great drummers who came to Boston--Roach, Jones, Blakey, etc. stay at his home for free and play all week with Tony. And told him what to Not Do. The big one was stay away from hard drugs. The society was set up then so that young intellectual creative blacks wound up socially and physically destroyed by heroin. But the same thing also happens to poor whites. The moral of that J. Edgar Hoover story being that by using the Mafia bringing in drugs to the ghettos, the economic power structure could keep the power for their children.
All the time I was playing the commercial jazz gigs, at places like the Playboy Club. I was also playing a freedom jazz with Lowell Davidson. Michael Mantler was a roommate. We played each morning before breakfast.
By the 1970's I began leading more radical ensembles. A Sun Ra like band I called Music of The Spheres. I did an LP in 1976 of bass overdubs to a prose piece that had been published by Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press fame. I was not finding players in Boston then who could do what I was hearing so I had to be the whole ensemble myself. By the 1980's I was playing with more New York City Downtown masters: Andrew Cyrille, Jemeel Moondoc, Oliver Lake. I played the precursor to the Visions Festivals, the Sound Unity Festival in New York City with Bill Dixon. You learn a lot when you are playing with Dixon and Mario Pavone--a killer bassist--and in the audience is William Parker, Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry.
Being put in that kind of pressure cooker will quickly anneal you. There were the two great gigs that Chris Rich set up, one week with Butch Morris and another with Joseph Jarman. Here I saw and heard what ensembles could do through conduction, physically dictating what is to be played, and through interpreting the written page very loosely.
In the 1990's I began doing gigs at the Knitting Factory, then at various Vision festivals, most often with Jemeel Moondoc or Thurston Moore. I was learning about ensembles and how to create music for them. Moondoc was especially influential by saying things such as "I don't write out the harmonies for bass, guitar, piano. You know chords better than I do. Play what you hear." One of Moondoc's compositions was built on the note F, period. That was it: play 4/4 time and be aware of the note, F. With the right players this can really work. That band had Tyrone Hill and Steve Swell on trombones, Bern Nix on guitar, Roy Campbell and Nathan Breedlove on trumpets and Cody Moffitt on drums. With such musicians you can do such things.
In the last ten years my compositions and improvisations have melted together, I love Butch Morris' phrase com-provisation. Or Moondoc saying that we are not musicians (they are technicians) but that we are instantaneous-composers. The phrase "motivic development" has some bearing on this, but usually when that is said people lock into a European style of music that can be notated, that is not really what I am doing. Maybe a better way to understand it begins with how Sonny Rollins' uses phrase development. But for me the loose drive of black music is by itself not enough. So I have experimented with Noise Music timbre effects, and using the voice as in acting. I have a persona I call Beat-Bop who does "Let's Get High" sing alongs. Although I love Black music best and I think that I can play it rather well there is the bald faced truth that I am white. A head aching producing paradox if I think about it too much.
So I always am searching for timbre extensions, things that began in Black music but I want to move them in the direction of people such as string players Malcolm Goldstein, or Burt Turetsky. But Burt for me is always coming out from his Euro music headspace and training. For me, so many other things can be done on such a massive instrument as the bass. So many never-played-before sounds may be found and worked with. And I have an electric-upright bass made for me by a Luthier master, John Carruthers in Venice California. With that curious instrument the stomp boxes (a la Thurston Moore) have possibilities.
Come the new millennium there are now great improvisers living in and around Boston. I've formed Workshop ensembles--The Hotel Rooftop Improv. Workshop, and Strings with Things--and we are preparing for gigs and recordings. I expect names of such that I am now playing with as Katt Hernandez-violin, Marc Bisson-prepared guitar, William Buchanan-percussion will be known by the musical intelligentsia in the years to come. This certainly will take place as long as they can hang on through the pains and trials of trying to be uniquely creative in our current society.
And there are other great musicians around Boston and Providence RI: Lawrence Cook on drums, James Coleman on Theramin, Greg Kelley on trumpet, Paul Flaherty on saxophone, Tom Plsek on trombone, John Damian on prepared guitar; in Bennington Vermont, studying with Milford Graves is Ben Hall on drums. I am leaving many names out just because of space. But for my music the wealth of great players outside of New York City allows for creation to take place in Boston.
Today from my spiritual/psychological studies I believe that it is not about the notes we play but the ENERGY with which we play them and about the personality that we project through what we are playing. That is what the audience (the non-music student part of the audience, that is) is interested in and that is what they want to participate in.
Pianist Stephanie Stone, in her eighties and still doing gigs in New York, and still hanging out most every night at the Knitting Factory or at Tonic told me what it is I am searching for. She says that what I want to do musically is FLY. That is it; that is totally correct.