Interview with Muhal Richard Abrams


This telephone interview with pianist, composer and bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams was recorded a few days before his 1996 orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center. That performance also marked the world premiere of an Abrams’ commission, Duet for Violin and Piano. Eighteen years later to the day, Muhal returned to the Kennedy Center, where I shot this pic at close of his concert.

Why don’t you tell us about the music you’re playing here this coming week?

Well, each piece is completely different. It’s original music; some older pieces and some newer pieces recently composed, of course.

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An attempt to answer some questions about Jazz

I’m so used to interviewing others, I found it stimulating to be on the other side of the questions for a change. This interview was conducted by journalist Margo Ormotsadze via Skype on June 20, 2015 and published in both Russian and Ukrainan in Forbes Ukraine.

Here is the English version:


— Please, explain the role of jazz for American and international culture?

— These things change over time. When jazz was first introduced to the world, it was a revelation, a gift created by African-American musicians. It was a symbol of the new age, a new sensibility, a new approach not just to music and dance and syncopation, but also to thought and the idea of collective improvisation with a modern insight. Again, it has changed in some profound ways. Just as in the world of art, the pendulum in jazz has moved back and forth between abstraction and representation, assimilating traditions and styles from other genres and other cultures. Now, you can hear this language of jazz played all over the world with various accents.

— Also, jazz was a symbol of the freedom? Is it possible to connect revolutions in society with revolutions of sound?

— Yes, but that has become a cliché. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. In most cases it’s a bit more subtle today, and most jazz musicians tend to avoid overt sociopolitical statements. Jazz used to be the sound of the outsider. It was a subversive music, especially in the context of repressive or totalitarian regimes. I’m sure you know something about this. In Nazi Germany, jazz was considered a “degenerate” music – “Entartete Musik”.

During Soviet times, jazz, for the most part, was an underground music. It was there, embraced by some, but you couldn’t walk into a record shop and ask for jazz records. There was virtually no jazz on the Melodya label, and no jazz clubs, concerts or festivals to hear the music in a live setting. It was a very big deal when Benny Goodman went in the early 60s, and when Charles Lloyd went a few years later.

I hope your readers know that Willis Conover was host of The Jazz Hour on Voice of America’s short-wave radio service. There’s a reason why Willis Conover was so popular behind the so-called Iron Curtain. He was virtually unknown here in the U.S., but very well-known for post-war Eastern European jazz fans. For them, the jazz-is-freedom trope was and still is very important.

It doesn’t seem to have quite the same resonance for younger generations these days. It’s no longer a dangerous music. As I mentioned, times have changed and what jazz represents in various cultures has changed in the course of just a few generations.

You can also say it is the African-American’s own art music. But all of that depends on your perspective and where you’re coming from.


— How you explain – why jazz became a symbol of freedom?

— This goes back to the 1920s, and even earlier. Popular music, commercial dance music had been very “white” and derived from European styles. But, with the rise of ragtime, blues and jazz, a “black” approach to rhythm and harmony starts to seep in. And that sound, that approach to rhythm was fresh and exciting, not like the stale music the kid’s parents listened to.

In the 1920s in the U.S, it was prohibition times. Alcohol was illegal, many people were inhibited socially. But the younger generation broke through it and embraced the concept of swing. Their parents hated it, of course, and conservatives rejected it, but the kids loved it and wanted to dance. In the U.S., we call that time “the roaring 20s”, marked by a modernist sensibility in the arts, especially after the world war when things were changing at a very fast rate.

It meant something different in the 30s-50s, and especially in the late 50s-70s, when some musicians expressed political statements with their music. I’m speaking of Max Roach (We Insist Freedom Now), Sonny Rollins (The Freedom Suite), Charles Mingus (Fables of Faubus) and so-on. This was not abstract. These were explicit musical statements about segregation and civil rights.

— Please, what do you recommend to start for those who want to understand jazz? How to understand jazz?

— Learn to listen. That’s the big thing. Just learn something about the language.

You can do that by listening to recordings or watching videos, but the best way I think – is by hearing it in a live setting. Go to concerts and clubs, listen, absorb it. And ask musicians questions. There are many books you can read about jazz, but in many ways it is still an oral tradition. So, talk to the creators, and they can tell you what’s really happening in their music.

And, if you’re truly curious, read some good books. But I sometimes wonder if people’s attention span allows for reading beyond a tweet.

— Please, tell us about your experience – from what you have started to listen jazz music?

— I used to be a singer and studied music in school. I’ve always loved music, but in those days it was all about classical music and certain kinds of popular music. One of my favorite musical experiences was singing Bach chorales, because I was a baritone and I loved his bass lines. Bach was so hip and his baselines swing in their own contrapuntal way. So, when I first heard jazz, I equated the “walking bass lines” played by people like Ray Brown and Paul Chambers with Bach’s baselines. I’ve always loved those walking bass lines, and I still love Bach chorales.

It really started for me while I was in high school. One day my choral teacher told me to listen to Count Basie if i wanted to hear how musicians can feel the beat together. So, I went to a Count Basie concert. All the seats were taken, so I sat on the floor right in front of the band. That experience changed my life.

— What trends of the modern jazz world would you notice?

— The overt embrace of other genres, for one. Young jazz musicians don’t just listen only to jazz anymore. Popular music, such as hip-hop, soul, rock and classical, are found on many musician’s playlists today.

Second is the rise of women in jazz. This has been happening for at least the last 20 years. There have always been good female jazz musicians going back at least into the 20s, but now it’s become much more obvious. And they don’t just play good for woman. They play good, period. I’m thinking of:

Terri Lyne Carrington, Ingrid Jensen, Kris Davis, Allison Miller, Maria Schneider, Hiromi, Melissa Aldana, Trish Kelly Clowes, Joelle Leandre, Myra Melford, and so on. And those are composers and instrumentalists. Lots of great singers, too.

Third, jazz is everywhere now; pretty much any major city around the world has some sort of active jazz scene. And the technical abilities of young musicians are increasingly impressive. Technique isn’t everything, but it’s a tool to get your musical ideas across. So the assimilation of all these different, distinct accents and dialects into the language of jazz has helped to revitalize the scene in an important way.

And lastly, I’d say that in many ways it’s harder and harder for musicians to make a living playing. There’s a lot of competition now, and young people in general don’t think they should have to pay for music or physical media. You can’t make any money from Spotify or other streaming services. So, it’s hard. At the same time, the music schools that teach jazz are doing well. Despite the economic realities, young people still want to learn how to play this music. Jazz education is booming.

— What youngsters from jazz have impressed you?

— There’s an 11-year old boy from Bali named Joey Alexander who just got signed to a label. I haven’t heard him live yet, but I’ve seen the videos and he’s got some chops. I think Cécile McLorin Salvant is someone creative who takes some chances. Other up and coming artists to watch out for are Jamison Ross, Tivon Pennicott, Alexander Hawkins, David Virelles and Julian Lage. There’s always someone young and new who will scare the pants off you. Just read the jazz magazines for updates on emerging artists.

— Which international festivals today are the most influential?

—   The biggest festivals, the ones that are most well-known are Montreal, Northsea, Copenhagen, Cape Town, New Orleans, Montreux, London, Vancouver. There are some festivals that are smaller, but they focus on one specific genre. For example, if you like avant-garde jazz, the Vision Festival, Jazz em Agosto and the festival in Guelph are very important, even if they’re not that well known to the general jazz audience. Umbria is also quite important, I think, and Rochester. There are now great jazz festivals all over the world.

larry kiev-1

— Who are the Ukrainian musicians sounds good on the world stage? Who is famous?

—   If you’re talking about living musicians who were born or raised in Ukraine, there simply aren’t that many who are known outside of Ukraine. It’s only when they leave Ukraine that they become more internationally known.  But of those, I’d say that Vadim Neselovskyi is possibly the best known. Of course he teaches at Berklee now and he traveled the world with both Gary Burton and Arkady Shilkloper.

I think that Enver Izmaylov is known in the international guitar community. In the world of avant-jazz, Mark Tokar and Yuri Yaremchuk have their reputations. There’s a bassist now in New York named Ark Ovrutski. And while they’re salsa and not jazz, I’d say Los Dislocados has the potential to go international.

It’s also worth noting that both Misha Mengelberg and Misha Alperin were both born in Ukraine.

There are lots of good musicians in Ukraine, but it’s hard for them to break through as long as they remain there and only release recordings with Russian liner notes.

They would need good agents, publicists and promoters. That’s how the business works. And if someone wants to make it, it helps to know how to hustle and not wait for the world to come to them.

Remembering Bruce Lundvall


A deep bow of respect for Bruce Lundvall, who passed away today at the age of 79 after a long struggle with Parkinsons. For anyone interested in learning about the life of this record label exec who did so much for jazz music and musicians, you might spend time with his autobiography, Playing By Ear, co-written with jazz journalist and author Dan Ouellette. I’m sure there will be many obits and stories in the days to come shared by those who knew and admired him, and I look forward to reading them.

For now, I just want to share a couple of stories that I think reveal something about the man and his passion for music. The first took place in 1997 when I was curating my annual Jazz Film Series at the Library of Congress. I had the opportunity to present a premiere of the new Don McGlynn documentary Dexter Gordon: More Than You Know, and I was looking for someone to come and introduce it that night. My first thought was jazz historian Michael Cuscuna, who co-founded Mosaic Records and produced so many great reissues from Blue Note and other label catalogs. When I called, Michael was open to the idea, but then suggested I ask Bruce Lundvall, since Dexter was Bruce’s favorite jazz musician. At that point I had never met Bruce and was a bit skeptical that the President of Blue Note Records would come to Washington on his own dime to introduce a film on Dexter Gordon, but Bruce immediately accepted and simply asked for the date, time and location.

For the screening we had a packed house in the theater, beyond packed, really, with people in seats, on the floor and in the aisles (good thing the Fire Marshall didn’t stop by). Bruce got up to speak and he didn’t have any prepared notes. He spoke from his heart about his relationship with Dexter and what his music meant to him. It was touching and funny and insightful; the perfect set-up for the film. At the conclusion, Bruce agreed to take some questions, and he told many great stories about the making of the film Round Midnight and the various projects he and Dexter worked on over the years. Everyone in the room was moved by the love expressed by Bruce and I’ll always be grateful for his generosity in coming and sharing.


The second story involved the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane tapes we found at the Library in 2005. After Ben Ratliff’s piece on the discovery appeared in the NY Times, every jazz label inquired how they might issue the recordings, but it was Blue Note that ended up signing with the Monk Estate for the release, in large part because Bruce, along with Michael Cuscuna and Tom Evered at the label, believed in the music. It wasn’t just about profit margin and the bottom line. The music itself meant something to them and it was so inspiring to see their excitement for the project. You can see Bruce talking about it in this short documentary made by the actress Kim Fields.

My last in-person experience with Bruce was at his home in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He told me he wanted to donate his papers to the Library of Congress Music Division, so we visited him to see what was there. Soon after we arrived, he took us to his “barn” behind the house where he kept his office. If was a very cozy space with lots of natural sunlight and the walls covered with photos, letters and original artist designs for album covers on the various labels Bruce ran. We had a great time going through photos identifying the subjects in them, which of course led to some off-the-record reminiscing. While walking back to the house, we spent some quality time playing with his dog (you can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats his four-legged friends) and made our goodbyes.




Bruce ended up donating not just the photos and paperwork from his home office, but many of the things he kept at his EMI office in Manhattan, including two large displays consisting of dozens of passport photos from various Blue Note artists, and a hilarious telegram Miles Davis sent to Bruce when he became head of CBS Records. With this last generous gesture, Bruce Lundvall reminded us once again what he dedicated his professional life to: signing great artists and preserving the legacy of the music he loved. He did it for decades with unwavering taste and integrity. Thank you, Bruce.


Listening Session: Randy Brecker


Randy Brecker and I did this late night listening session after one of his concert performances at the 2011 Copenhagen Jazz Festival. He had been up for two days but was inspired by the selections played and offered insights into both the music and players.

1) Terri Lyne Carrington

“Michelle” (from Mosaic, Concord). Carrington, drums; Geri Allen, piano; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Anat Cohen, saxophone; Esperanza Spalding, bass; Gretchen Parlato, vocal. Recorded in 2011.

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R.I.P. Rose Marie McCoy

You may not recognize the name of songwriter Rose Marie McCoy (1922-2015), but you likely know her work. The Arkansas-born McCoy scored her first hit with Gabbin’ Blues recorded by Big Maybelle. Her songs, co-written with Charlie Singleton and others, were recorded by Nat “King” Cole, Louis Jordan, Dinah Washington, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Scott, Sarah Vaughan and many more. She reportedly turned down offers from Atlantic, Stax and Motown Records, and set up shop in the Brill Building. Ms. McCoy, who continued to write into her 9th decade passed on Jan. 20 . She was 92.

Here are some of my favorite songs written or co-written by Rose Marie McCoy. The first one features McCoy herself taunting Big Maybelle. The last is a rare 78 of McCoy herself singing