Interview by Dan Warburton, 3rd November 2000
Exclusive photographs by Mathieu de France
And when I play they know I exist, and it leaves a space when I go.
Disclaimer: The editors of Paris Transatlantic would like to point out that the content of this interview does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors, their families, their children, nor their pets; but that the text that follows is a fascinating documentation of the opinions of Sunny Murray one day last November.
You mentioned when we spoke before that you'd spent a lot of time studying the nineteenth-century acoustic theorist Helmholtz while you were working with Cecil Taylor. What were you looking for?
There was a period of my life, around 1960, when you could say that I was playing a bit like Elvin [Jones], though I didn't know it – nor him – at that time. Cecil and I had been practising for about a year, just the two of us together, every day, six, seven, eight hours a day, everything from “Love for Sale” to “Zip”. He'd just finished playing Newport, he'd made a record with John [Coltrane, the album “Stereo Drive”, also known as “Coltrane Time”], and he was trying to make his mind up which way he wanted his music to go, it seemed to me. It was a period of change for us both. I'd just got married, I was becoming a good professional bebop drummer, I was swinging it. Bebop to me was fun, and I approached my drums with fun... We met at the right time – we needed each other in a sense, because Dennis [Charles], who was his drummer at the time, had taken his expression of Cecil's music up to a point, and I listened to the records they'd made, and I thought “Wow, Den, just a little bit more there, and you'd be RIGHT ON IT!” I used to joke with Den about it, and he'd say, “God, I'm getting close to it, Murray...” I felt I was moving in the right direction, but it was difficult to go beyond swing/bebop – it wasn't as simple for me as for Cecil because he had his musical system to deal with. Helmholtz gave me the technique I needed. I still have a Helmholtz text at home. It's a mother. Even now. He discusses the vibrations like Cage does, the vibrations that all things create, because you know if you play a sound under certain conditions, it changes.
Helmholtz was a genius, one of the strangest guys in the world, an expert on rhythms. I'm sure VarËse and Cage and those guys went through his shit. ... He had thirty-six degrees, he had a degree in the rhythms of frog muscles, rhythms of the heart, and in his book “On the Sensations of Tone” he had a system called Rapidity of Beats. When you take two notes on the piano, an octave apart, and play them in rapid alternation, you get a third tone. The piano's a percussion instrument – when you play very low on the piano things move veeery sloooow, and when you play very high things move very fast. I was able to interpret the difference between the sharp, quick sound and the slow, deep sound of percussion and manipulate it, get a third sound out of things, if the beats were rapid enough. Sounds change when they're rapid. This to me was like a way to play better with Cecil.
Were you trying to tie this concept in with Cecil's way of thinking on harmony?
It was just to be creative first, to take myself to where pure improvisation becomes music, where a beat becomes music. I'd gotten to the point where, as my music changed, I didn't want to play a lot of beats – I wanted to get more from the beat than just the beat... For me that was like the beginning of a system that I could use to really find my way in what I wanted to play. Daniel Humair said about one of my records “Sounds like Sunny Murray's hanging a painting on the wall...” (Laughs) It did, in a way, because what I was creating was acoustically correct... I started to write acoustical charts, graphic scores, like Cage and those guys... I worked on those with Romulus Franceschini, who was a very great musician (he wrote arrangements for [Coltrane's] “Africa Brass”, for Archie Shepp [“Things Have Got To Change”, “Attica Blues”]. I wrote my acoustical charts in relation to his Moog synthesizer, trying to find a set of symbols for my music that would correspond to his symbols.
In the early recordings you seem to spend a lot of time on the snare drum, and later in the 1960s you were more on the cymbals... was that a conscious decision on your part?
It's true that for years I didn't use anything but snare and bass drum... that also had to do with the system. I felt that to get something really effective from a drum set that these were the two most important components. Like, you know, a car's beautiful but when you get to know the motor, the drive-shift and the clutch, you're going to be OK. The snare is a very acoustical sounding instrument, and my snare playing was the first clear evidence of what I was trying to do; with the bass drum I was trying to get away from the boom. I use a lot of boom now, but I wanted the boom to be a whoom and hrmmm and a mmmm... you know, get those sort of sounds out of the bass drum.
But yes, I was always conscious of the cymbals. I went backstage once at the Newport Jazz Festival and it was cymbal heaven... there was Zildjian, there was Paiste, and they gave 'em to me free. “Pick what you want, Sunny.” Philly Joe Jones was there, saying “I got this motherfucker here...” (Laughs) I left there with a bag heavy as shit! I love cymbals. I don't like tom toms though – you really have to know how to mix them in with the other drums or they'll sound too separate.
Listening to the range of sounds you can get from a snare, a bass drum and a couple of cymbals, you must be rather amused to see the enormous kits drummers use today...
They got two bass drums, two drums over here, an extra drum here, cymbal here, cymbal there... and I get a kick out of it, I'll be sitting there waiting for them to hit all that shit! I just saw Calvin Weston with James Carter, and he had one two three four five six seven drums, and he never did hit 'em all... He had five or six cymbals, and he didn't hit 'em all. Louis Bellson was like that – he had something like eight or nine snares, and when I came in the room I said “Whose shit is that?” They whispered, “Louis Bellson's...” I said “I bet you anything he doesn't hit 'em all.” When I have extra drums in my kit, in my head those are the things I play first, to get rid of them. Play that shit and get it out of the way! They gave me an electric set once, they gave Max [Roach] one, they gave Billy Cobham one, and I never played it. I set it up at a gig in New York and all the cats were amazed. “Wow, Murray's playing electric...” It was all made of tubes and mounted together on wheels; it was made for TV so they could push you off the set on it (laughs) and it had a big case you couldn't get through the door. Some guys came to steal mine but they couldn't get it out of the door so they threw it out of the window! Somebody found the soundboard in the street and called me. I was already in Paris with my family – this was 1970...
Do you agree with Milford Graves that certain percussion sounds can have a healing property?
I don't know, but I don't believe so much in that, I won't tell a lie. I'd be rich if I could do something like that, I'd have people lined up all the way round the block, the crippled and blind! (Laughs) No, I think music should be for music's sake, even if you have a very technical approach. I like Milford a lot, but basically I have the attitude of a bebop drummer regarding what I feel about music and other drummers. Milford didn't come from bebop at all. I love Roy Brooks, and Louis Hayes with those beautiful mahogany-looking hands, Eddie Blackwell that could just swing your head off, Steve McCall was the best surprise with the left hand I ever heard, Dennis Charles he'd just chug-a-lug you for ever. Elvin to me was like a spiritual guide because somehow, we had the same kind of time in life dropped on us both – you can listen to Elvin five years before he played with John and he sounds like just a very hip good drummer, but John gave Elvin the thing that Cecil gave me, a chance to redevelop and progress in his ideas.
You know, it's traditional for a drummer to be opinionated about other drummers, because there are some basics and roots in jazz drumming and there's a whole generation today that hasn't had to deal with those rules or laws, aesthetically or spiritually, or go through the kinds of pressures I had to go through, Louis Hayes, Dennis Charles, Eddie Blackwell, Steve McCall had to go through... It wasn't something unpleasant, it was an education.
…I said “Do you really think you can play everything I play in one set? I've been playing this for 42 years!”
Do you think that drummers today have got it easy in a way?
Yeah, very easy – they don't particularly have to study music intensively, like harmony or theory or acoustics – they just play, and that's OK. With most avant-garde drummers it's like that. I wouldn't say I'm old-fashioned, but it's like... what's a building without a foundation? I always think avant-garde drummers should find out what they're playing and make a system out of it that can be taught technically to someone. Avant-garde drummers don't teach much because they don't really offer a technical system, they offer the “let's do what I do”. Milford does that. I had a drummer friend who was in Milford's class at Bennington who told me he had fights with Milford because he asked Milford to play an Elvin Jones record, and Milford was freaking out, screaming “Don't ever listen to nobody but me!” Sure, doing what Milford does is difficult but once you can do it, it's done. I don't teach that way because students would never do what I do – I make it too complicated, because I am a little complicated in order to get the effects I want. I played in New York recently and one young cat tried to play everything I'd played, and I said “Do you really think you can play everything I play in one set? I've been playing this for 42 years!” No, I teach my students basic technique, to work. I want the guy to excel, to make good records, people to think highly of him. I want him to go get a gig, and tell 'em I sent him. “Who's your teacher?” “Sunny Murray.” “Oh boy, he can do that!” I don't want them to say like “Unhh, Sunny Murray, oh he's just a way-out guy that plays like shit...”
Your playing has evolved considerably over the years, but I always feel that what you do depends a lot on who you're playing with, which is of course inevitable. Your playing with Cecil sounds different from your playing with Albert Ayler, for example, but you were still with Cecil when you met Albert. What was that first encounter like? Did your playing change immediately?
We were in Sweden and we had finally decided to be free. That's what Cecil had decided, and there was no more “Love for Sale”, though he did have “Mephistopheles” [could this be “Matie's Trophes” as recorded in 1959 on the “Love for Sale” date?] which is a blues, a real blues... The way Cecil and Jimmy [Lyons] and I were playing, we could absorb any different thing at that period, because we were so fresh! One night I saw this guy, Albert, sitting there in a leather suit (he had about four leather suits, never wore nothing but a leather suit... leather overcoat too), kinda nice-looking guy, and I came off the bandstand with Jimmy, and Albert said: “I've been waiting for you, man. You're the guys I've been waiting for.” He was very emphatic. He'd been in Sweden for about a year with the Army. Albert was basically a soul sax player, a R&B sax player, and he'd written some material based on Swedish tunes and folk music he'd heard while he was in France – these are the tunes we know today, “Ghosts”, “Spirits” –
Those pieces originated in European folk music?
That's right. But he didn't play them with the trio with Cecil.
These young cats don't shine the horns because they say it sounds better... why the hell should it sound better?!
You'd never met him before that night...
No. He said he'd like to play, and Jimmy said “Well, we have to ask Cecil.” Cecil was very touchy – he didn't like to talk to anybody. He was like commander-in-chief, in charge of everything. He knew we were playing differently, and it was like he kept people from playing with us, I guess out of respect for what we were doing with him. We asked him [if Albert could sit in] and he said “Definitely not”, but Jimmy and I said to Albert “Pay him no mind, go get your horn...” There was so much love in the band that we knew we could play jokes on each other. Albert came back with a beautiful brand new Selmer, shining (I like guys with shiny horns! These young cats who don't shine the horns because they say it “sounds better”... why the hell should it sound better?!). We said “When we give you the cue, come on in.” We wanted to shock people too – at that time people in Europe were so nice... When we played in Norway they danced! In Sweden they were eating dinner while we played, steaks and caviar... they didn't even move. It was like we weren't even there! I was beating and Jimmy was blowing, and we couldn't even make them hate us! (Laughs) So Albert came on and started to play, and CT... jumped... It was a strange, but beautiful reaction, very... healthy – Cecil's a really healthy cat, he doesn't have any problems, it's like he's just burned them out, or they don't seem to get to him – there wasn't a break in what he was playing, but he just transposed right into what Albert was playing. Jimmy too, me too. We just all kind of mixed in there.
What did the public do? Stop eating their steaks and listen?
They liked Albert – he hadn't played that many places but he had a good reputation, nice coloured guy, pretty, bit of a playboy – it was a great evening, but afterwards Cecil went in the back and kept quiet. Albert wasn't the kind to force himself on you, but he was human and relaxed and even though Cecil was a private kind of guy they finally started talking, and Cecil started to laugh and said “What is that shit you're playing?” Albert wanted to quit everything right there and asked Cecil to give him a job, and it was impossible. I can't remember what we got paid – this was 1962 and Europe was really Europe then, there were no supermarkets or cornflakes... it was when you could really enjoy Europe – but I ended up saying “OK, I'll share everything with you...” Cecil said “If you want to share everything, Murray, he can hang. He can stay in your room, I don't mind.” So he left with us and we ended up at the Montmartre [in Copenhagen], and right away Albert made out with a nice lady whose father was one of the owners of PanAm or something, and he got me hooked up with some lady who's mother worked for the Queen of Denmark or something. I thought they were prostitutes, they were just rich girls! (Laughs) Albert was a lot of fun. Except for my real brother he was my closest brother. Albert was a great cat, I miss Albert like a motherfucker.
One of the most striking things acoustically about that unit with Cecil was the sax / piano / drums line-up. Was there originally meant to be a bassist in the group?
There was supposed to be Henry Grimes, but he got sick just before we left, so when we arrived in Europe we were just a trio. I remember Nils Henning Orsted went over to Cecil's table once – he was sixteen – and he said, “I can play your music. My name is Nils Henning Orsted. What do you think of me?” Cecil said [contemptuously] “You sound like Paul Chambers...” (Laughs) He said, “What? I sound like PAUL CHAMBERS?!” Cecil said, “Quiet man, get away from the table, OK?” Now that cat is as rich you want... owns three or four pig farms... No, in fact there is a bootleg record with a Swedish bass player someone gave me last month. [Ingo 16, “The Early Unit”, recorded in Stockholm's Gyllene Cirkeln, October 1962 with Kurt Lindgren on bass] I don't know if Cecil knows about that – this was a radio tape they got hold of, and we play shit like “Flamingo” ...an avant-garde “Flamingo”! I wonder if Cecil remembers playing “Flamingo”...
Anyway, we went to Denmark, and there Albert and I sort of spun off. We were still with Cecil, and he wanted to make this record at the Montmartre, and Albert was supposed to be on this record. That would have paid his fare to come home. But for some reason – Cecil never let you get into his music business – we did our album as a trio and Albert did “My Name is Albert” where he plays those spirituals and stuff, and that got him the fare to come home. He went back to Cleveland and called me in New York. He'd never been to New York, but he found out he had an aunt who lived uptown, a very nice elegant lady, so when he came in he stayed at her place. Of course I turned him on to everybody, we did a couple of gigs, and then we met this guy Bernard Stollman.
Back then I thought Bernard was the creator of avant-garde exploitation. I should say that recently, Bernard and I have had a very fruitful reunion, and now I know the history of ESP, and of my record, and the difficulties Bernard has suffered trying to keep that company afloat. I realise that it was difficult to sell those early avant-garde records. I know now he went bankrupt and lost the company to some other people, and how he had to go down to Florida and work as a regular lawyer to get back on his feet. I'm very happy now that Bernard is willing to help me and other musicians in my legal battles.
He always said he never made much money himself out of ESP. He invested his own inheritance to get the label going.
He created ESP, which turned out to be a very popular and exclusive label in avant-garde, and one of the first avant-garde labels, internationally. My ESP record has been licensed to everywhere in the world. If ever a platinum record was made in avant-garde, I made it for ESP. I know if I've sold one record a week for the past thirty-three years my record's platinum now. [Not quite, that would be only 1,716 records – Ed.] I also have 2% of all of Albert’s contracts, because Bernard said he didn't have any money to pay us at the time. I got $300 and 2% on Albert's records – I'm sure Bernard's forgotten that. You can go to Germany now and someone claiming to be his son is there selling the new re-releases of ESP records, and you can go to Japan, and Italy... If you look at that label you'll see about thirty musicians that have disappeared... there was Patty Waters, and a lot of rock guys too. A lot of rock cats had a beef against Bernard.
Bernard was a publishing lawyer and knew the pros and cons of opening record companies. Originally it was Cecil who was supposed to open ESP but he changed his mind – Bernard was hesitating (because Cecil wanted $20,000 or something crazy for the tape) so Cecil refused and didn't give Bernard the tape. Bernard had had something to do with Cecil's first European tour in 1962, when Cecil, Jimmy Lyons and I brought American-style avant-garde to Europe. When Bernard heard Albert with us, he decided to use Albert and myself to open ESP, and from those first releases we – that is Albert and myself – still haven't received any royalties. Bernard still owes Albert a lot of money. He also released “Prophecy” after Albert died, without Albert's signature, but because I also had a copy of the same tape I released mine through a company in Germany [“Albert Smiles with Sunny”, In Respect 39 501], as a correct move for me and Al. Bernard's so-called son tried to put the stops on my album, and finally did. However my tape was better quality than his and also at the correct speed, so mine sounds better. That tape's thirty-four years old, made up on 91st Street at Cellar CafÈ [June 14th, 1964], where Paul Bley and all those cats first started playing, the white avant-garde guys, Barre Phillips, Gary Peacock... Gary Peacock had just gotten in from California to play with Miles, and he wanted to play with us.
Today you can play “Round About Midnight” and play only two or three notes out of it and get away with it, people say “He's making a statement...”
I never knew Gary played with Miles.
Yeah, and Tony Williams was in the band at the time. We used to fuck with Gary and say things like “You taking our shit back to Miles!” He played some gigs with Miles. He got that gig for us at the cafÈ with me, him, Albert, John Gilmore and Paul Bley. That's where this tape comes from – it's not those same musicians, it's me, Albert and Gary Peacock. “Prophecy”. Bernard put that out and called me and I said I didn't want to see him, but he said he'd give me a check for a little bit of money if I came up to New York, so I came to New York with my son and I gave him the titles to some of the tunes. He bought me a big hamburger, and my son a big hamburger, and you know, I felt like shit. I felt like this guy's putting his foot up your ass and you have to sit there and smile and take this $300 check. Every time I saw him he was like, “Hi Sunny! How're ya doin'? How's the world treatin' ya? I know, I know... don't start that conversation again...” Bernard always had a sense of humour. He owes Albert over a million dollars. I used to think of all kinds of ways to rid the world of Bernard! One time I drove up to his farm and frightened him and he gave me $300 more, drove all the way up into the mountains near Woodstock and destroyed my car doing it... (Pause) Being in Europe has given me the strength and patience and wisdom to challenge these cats. We should get them before we all die. Being in Europe has helped – you have more time for yourself, to think about your music. You're not just running around all over New York City having a good time and being stupid...
But in Europe you had the same kind of experience with BYG Actuel!
Oh yeah, that's the next one! Those two, ESP and BYG, were the biggest profiteers of avant-garde music in the world. So these days I record for the younger cats, Michael [Ehlers, of Eremite] and JÈrme [Gnin, of Fractal], I have no problem with them, they treat me good. Japanese companies are good, I get my royalty checks... But the real dinosaurs were ESP and BYG, because they didn't pay NOBODY. You're dead as far as they're concerned. I've been dead for thirty-two years. Now they've re-released everything so it's like you're dead two times.
I heard they [Charly] wouldn't be re-releasing all the BYG Actuel catalogue...
Oh, they'll release them... (Pause) BYG records are gangsters. They try to intimidate you. But Bernard's helping me on that one. And I'm going to try and address the problem before I'm dead. I'm going to put on the Internet, on a website, PLEASE DON'T BUY CERTAIN RECORD LABELS... If you want to help us and respect what we stood for, don't buy BYG. If you're really interested in those tapes, write to me and I'll send you a cassette. Maybe this way one day our children won't buy BYG records. I'd prefer it if you didn't buy any, but DON'T BUY MINE! Here's my address and I'll send you a cassette of whatever you want to hear...
Did you get a good deal for the album on Shandar [“Sunny Murray”, Shandar 10.008, recorded in Paris on 8th December 1968]?
No, that was another rip-off. I saw it reissued ten years ago, turned the record over and saw ORTF on the back, ORTF records, so I'm gonna get their ass too.
Well, it was recorded at ORTF in the Maison Radio France...
Yeah, those Shandar guys didn't give us a studio. It was a little confusing when you didn't understand French. Those contracts from BYG records... nobody spoke French but Archie, and they put in the contract like they had the rights for “infinity”. I happened to talk to a lawyer friend, and he said “Infinity? You can't put “infinity” in a contract.” What is infinity? Seven generations from now they can take my money? Steve Lacy told me he'd said something provocative about BYG records like they were a bunch of crooks, and two guys came to his house and said they were working for BYG and they said “Be careful what you say, what you do. You can get in a lot of trouble, buddy.” Steve said they really frightened him. “Yeah, Murray, they're real gangsters!” I said “I swear that's perfect for me, I wish I could get that kind of response, because I'm not like you, Steve. They come to my house and threaten me I'm gonna try to fight them. Call the cops on the scene, make a scandal, hit 'em with a chair.” He was telling me “Be careful, Sunny... Jean-Luc Young, he's a gangster.”
They ripped me off of a whole record of mine that I produced and paid for with Jimmy Garrison, Lonnie Liston Smith, Alan Silva, Joe Lee Wilson singing, children singing... My record. BYG records stole it from me. They put it out somewhere because once I got an ASCAP statement, and “Love's Last Cry”, which is the name of the record and one of the tunes on it, was on there, which means it was played over the radio somewhere. I've never seen it as a record, because I went out to the company, gave them a tape, they gave me half the money for licensing, and that was it. 1969 or 70. That was a great record. Lonnie Liston Smith wasn't that famous then. I still got the music for that record. I’ve got more tunes registered than any drummer in history, more than Max, more than Elvin... I've got over a hundred-something registered tunes, twenty-something in Germany, thirty-something in France, I've got my whole compositional output written out. They're my tunes on most of the records you hear – not because I don't love bebop tunes, but I just didn't have the cats who could play like that. I couldn't ask them to play “Round About Midnight”, because they'd play it another way. In those days if you didn't play it like it was written, they'd think you were fucking the tune up! Today you can play “Round About Midnight” and play only two or three notes out of it and get away with it, people say “He's making a statement...” My ass, he don't know the tune man! Today you can do that. Anyway, I registered my compositions just making sure that when I got older I'd have some mechanics [royalties].
Talking of lost albums, whatever happened to your album for Columbia [“Spiritual Infinity”, from 1968, featuring Clifford Thornton, Arthur Jones, Dave Burrell, Alan Silva, Juni Booth, Frank Wright and Art Lewis and “possibly others”]?
That was a great record, but they never put it out. Great orchestration. Matter of fact Frank Wright's first record [third in fact, after the two Wright ESP albums from 1965 and 1967 respectively]. He was in a group with fourteen of the baddest cats in New York, and he played wonderfully to be one of the newest, not being a real academic musician, you know. For that record I did some crazy stuff – I wrote some very nice music for that record. One of the compositions was like an experimental piece, like a John Cage piece – I had a lot of different sound things, and I had a siren. I didn't want the band to know it... I wanted to see their reaction... The band was playing their ass off and I started to work the siren real low rrrrrrrrrr so that only I could hear it. (That's another thing in Helmholtz, playing above and below the audible level... That's why moms and grandmoms say what kids play today is loud, because they're used to listening to the radio at a lower level, and kids today above it...) So I started working the siren, and I raised it rrrrrrrrrr to their level, and when I got to their level – it was a great experience – the whole band heard it together and didn't know what the fuck it was! I was behind them at my drums watching their reaction, and they got hot, their hearts beat faster, I was really messing with 'em RRRRRRRRRR and then THE BAND STOPPED. Nobody could get their breath to challenge this sound... but Frank Wright continued! (Laughs) He continued, I raised it higher, he continued, I raised it higher and finally he stopped, he couldn't continue no more! He says “MURRAY WHAT THE HELL IS THAT MAN?!” I told everybody, it's a siren!
So why the hell didn't Columbia ever put it out? They put some weird stuff out at the time – there's a Burton Greene album on Columbia with Byard Lancaster which is pretty wild...
Mr. Hammond said at that time they were waiting for the right moment. When he gave me the Columbia date he said “Sunny, I like your playing, you remind me of Sid Catlett” and I said, “You hear Sid in me?” He said, “Yeah.” Later this guy from the New Yorker magazine, Earl S. Wilson, nice guy, came to one of my concerts in the Loft series and put out an article saying I seemed like a regular guy, he didn't know why people were giving me such a hard time, I simply reminded him of Sid Catlett. That was the second time I reminded somebody of Sid Catlett. (Pause) I'll tell you something – I'm sort of influenced a bit spiritually by Sid Catlett. You know, I'd heard very little Sid Catlett, but what I heard I liked. But then I had a crazy experience, dig this, a real serious experience... When I first got a drum set in New York around 1957, I was so happy, I was sharing the apartment we had with a bass player on 3rd Avenue, I came home with the drums, I pushed them all the way down 3rd Avenue (how I got 'em was a friend had a club, and the club got raided, and everybody got busted, so my friend had all these instruments, bass, drums left, and he called me and said “You a drummer. Take 'em.” I packed 'em up, got 'em downstairs, wheeled 'em down 3rd Avenue feeling good!). Got 'em upstairs, set 'em up... and I had one Max Roach record at that time, “Ezz-Thetic” or something, made just after Clifford [Brown] died, when he had Kenny Dorham [this would appear to be “Max Roach Plus 4” on EmArcy from 1957, which features George Russell’s “Ezz-Thetic”]. ... Anyway I played that record, and we took some cheap wine, 35 cents a bottle, “Death Valley”, “Thunderbird” shit, and we cooked it, we heated it up, and we took some nutmeg, a spoonful of nutmeg and then we smoked some J... And I played and I played and I played (nobody complained in those days!), and then I lay on the bed and – this is still clear in my mind – I was so smashed that I began to levitate and honest to God I saw SID CATLETT standing there, and he was like smiling, and I was looking at Sid Catlett and I was tripping and he... dissolved right inside me. I swear today, I'll never forget that. (Pause) And I fell boom back on the bed. I got back on the drums and I was playing, man! And three years later I was playing with Cecil. Six years and I was playing with John. I went up like that in drums, man... I still believe that's still some part of my success, that the spirit of this man has been... not haunting but, part of me. I find now Catlett's spirit is one of the most liberating in music. It's one of those burning bush experiences for me.
You told me that Cecil was attacked once...
Yes, after we came back from Europe. Nobody remembers that in New York. One morning about 11, they hopped out of the car on 2nd Avenue, four cats, picked Cecil up, slammed him and broke his wrists. Took two years and different doctors to get that together.
What did they want?
At that period, they paid Ornette not to play for two years. The mafia, or whoever it was, said “Keep these cats quiet”... Steve Lacy was OK, he was playing Monk. George Russell was playing sort of neo-bebop, so he was OK. No, it was to stop us... When we opened up at the Five Spot, the old Five Spot, we opened with a whole band: Cecil, Archie, Jimmy Lyons and Henry Grimes. The place was packed –Eric [Dolphy], Monk, John... that's where I met all those guys. They came over to the drums, took me up to the bar, bought me drinks, told me they didn't know what the hell I was doing but “keep it up, sounds great...” I remember that very well, and right after that a period went down when we didn't work at all.
I remember when the gangsters attacked me. I was coming out of the Vanguard about three weeks after they got Cecil, and there was this little Thunderbird sitting there with the motor roaring. I'm a movie fanatic, and I'm standing on the corner saying like “That's kinda like in the movies, man... They just waiting for me to...” And VROOOM I was diving on the freaking cement and people on 7th Avenue looked at me like I was nuts! I got up and brushed myself off, totally fucking confused... I go to this apartment where I was staying, there was no furniture, we had no money... Me and my wife were sleeping on a mattress on the floor, she was pregnant. There was no lock on my door, I was there because I was helping a buddy of mine, Irish actor, I was helping him paint the building, so I was allowed to have this place. No lock on the door. I get back, and I'm standing at my window and I look down and the car's there. Honest to God's truth. They get out, two guys get out, and I tell my wife. We don't have nothing in the apartment except two forks to eat Chinese food with, right? They come up to my floor. If they had just pushed my door... There was a policeman who lived at the other end of the corridor. If they had just pushed my door... I could see their silhouettes because my door's got a kind of translucent glass pane. They stood there. Me and my wife lying there motionless. All they had to do was push the door... there was even a hole where the lock was... They stopped, and they said something to each other, and they went down the stairs. I took my wife around to a lady named Jean Phillips' house – Jean was kind of like a mother to the avant-garde jazz community – and I get there and it's loaded with cats. My wife sits down and has some tea, and Jean asks “What's wrong?” and so I told her. She said, “Sunny, lay low...” That scared the fuck out of me. She said “They just paid Ornette. He can't play for two years.” It's all true, man. It made me realise that we were doing something important, also in a scary way. They started talking about us as “outlaws”... we weren't outlaws! We got in a couple of scrapes in the clubs. Cecil was almost fucked up by this waiter who tried to break his hands again with the piano lid...
Do you think this gangsterism ties in with Albert's death?
Albert's death tied in with hoodlums and drugs – it wasn't a political death. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Pause) I was called to identify the body. Ornette called me about eight in the morning and said Mary Maria asked him to go, but he had to catch a plane or something, so I went. She told me then that she had just negotiated a tour for him in Japan for $250,000. She had typed letters till her fingers were sore. Now, would you kill yourself if you had a $250,000 tour coming up? And you'd never played a festival in your life? Albert never played a festival with me! Can you imagine Albert Ayler at a festival today? That band we had with Gary Peacock and Don Cherry and Eric who was supposed to join us before he died... pheeww. There are seldom bands like that. Cecil's band at the Five Spot, the “Into the Hot” band, that was another great band that didn't happen...
[At this point in the interview (the first part of which took place on November 3rd, 2000) Sunny received a phone call telling him that journalist, broadcaster and champion of free jazz Maurice Cullaz had died.]
I would like you to say in this interview that Maurice was one of the most prominent jazz enthusiasts, writers, critics, entrepreneurs. One of the cats, I could consider Maurice. God bless him, he was a great cat. Always treated me nice. We had some good times together. God bless you, peace and love to you, Maurice. He recognised us as people, not just objects that make music, black men that sweat, clowns... We need more people like that in the music business. Not just the profiteers and gangsters. They don't see us as artists, they don't see the dues we have to pay to play, they don't see how we're exploited throughout the years and finally we either die or disappear without any of the resources we've made for society or money we've made for the record companies or our family. It's like your life is invisible. People talk about you when you're rich, or when you become scandalous. But if you've got quality in your work, it's more difficult to make money – quality doesn't sell as well as mediocrity. The art world accepts a lot of mediocrity. It's not as pure or refined as it should be. Record sales, market research, they don't take into account what we're playing. Folk music. Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb onwards... it's really folk music, American folk music. You go to Armenia or Greece or Turkey and listen to folk music and it is folk music, because there's never been commercial marketing and profiteering done on it. Where American jazz is concerned, the originality has been diluted because of profiteering and exploitation and the music hasn't been allowed to revise itself constantly enough. For me, Cecil was a product of the refinement of the music of the period, and nowadays that's not happening anymore. Now we're going to sort of stagnate in a kind of historical museum kind of thing.
When did it begin to go off the rails, do you think? With the kind of crossover albums that Pharoah Sanders started releasing?
I think Pharoah got lost too. When he started playing with John he was at least trying to be free; when he left John, you would have thought he'd continue that idea, but he jumped back into the blues. He played good blues. I was there when he arrived in New York, this guy walking up 8th Street with his saxophone and his shoes that were so worn out it looked like his socks had been run over. We were sitting outside this jam session place called The Dome with Frank Lowe and Pharoah came up and stopped. He looked really worn out, he'd been walking a lot. He said: “You having a session? I'd like to play...” I said, “You look like a crow, man, feathers all raggedy and shit!” Anyway, he picked up a beer and went in and played. He never played around with guys the way Albert did though. He played with Sun Ra for a while.
No, we all got lost in the 1980s. The concepts became rather confused. Musicians didn't know what they wanted to play – you had a lot of alternative styles, which was original, but it was also the basis for a kind of crass profiteering. For me it got off track in about 1976. Cecil was becoming very popular, some underdogs were becoming heroes, but the new groups weren't as professional, they didn't have the experience and didn't play with the heroes to redevelop and redefine what they were doing. The only way you could get into the avant-garde flow in 1976 was to work with people like Ornette and Cecil, or to get their information to help you make your own music progress. As far as drummers went, there was Milford, Rashied [Ali] and Andrew [Cyrille], who were the extremists of where I was coming from, but at the same time there was still Eddie Blackwell, Steve McCall and Dennis Charles. They'd progressed and become part of the hero system too – Eddie with Ornette and Don Cherry, Steve with Air and David Murray, Dennis with Billy Bang and other great musicians. But there was a lot of amateur avant-garde at that time too, especially in Europe...
When did you first meet Milford?
Roswell Rudd came up to me when I was playing with Gary and Albert and Don Cherry on “New York Eye and Ear Control”. Roswell had this idea to do something with John Tchicai and a bass player friend of Albert's from Cleveland, Lewis Worrell. Lewis played with us in and out at that time too, but because we had Gary, Lewis was open for a gig, and Roswell had plans for him and me to be in the Contemporary Five. He had a little dinner party, and I was having a joke saying like “Oh I'm not playing with John Tchicai...!” And Roswell got all serious, and he said “Well I got something for you... I met this guy in Boston and he's gonna be the next avant-garde drummer.” And he took me to his loft and he showed me a nice drum set. “See those drums? They could have been yours. You never had no drum set.” I paid him no mind. A week or so later he calls to me. “Sunny, I want you to come over and meet somebody.” And it was Milford. He didn't even know my name, he'd just come in from Boston, playing congas and bongos. He knew nothing about nobody, least of all Charlie Parker, but that was OK. Next thing I know there's the Contemporary Five, and they've got pictures of Milford dressed in a tie and a suit like the MJQ! I listened to them rehearse in Roswell's place, and Milford didn't even know which pedal was which! If you'd asked him for a paradiddle he'd think you wanted two eggs and bacon. Quote musician's joke unquote.
Then there was Leroi Jones [aka Amiri Baraka], [Allen] Ginsberg's and [William] Burroughs' little teddy bear (not Jack Kerouac's, thank God) who changed his spots and became a jazz critic. He spoke and defended new music aggressively – his heart and soul were in the right place, but his head wasn’t always. Cecil used to check him through sometimes. He started writing about Milford and me in the same articles, which I thought was bullshit. When I won the Downbeat New Star Talent Deserving Wider Recognition award in 1966, which I think I earned for creating something different on the jazz scene, Leroi put out a great filibuster until his friends finally gave the 1967 New Star to Milford. That changed my feelings about Downbeat, as well as justice and honesty in art – I felt my music was being used in a power game, because there were drummers like Eddie Blackwell, Steve McCall, Charlie Persip and Louis Hayes who had come through the ranks with me, and if by some freak I'd won the award they should get it too... but Milford? I didn't have much to say to Leroi at that period. (I hadn't gotten too political yet, because I always considered politics too intellectual for me, I'm a kind of action guy. Intellectuals always made more money than me!) Eventually Leroi and I became brothers in the struggle in avant-garde music, and I'll say now he was one of the cats who did most to keep black music alive.
There's a story that you tried to burn down the offices of Downbeat after they gave you that award in 1966. Why on earth did you want to do that?
There wasn't any money involved. After seeing myself slowly come up the list above Billy Higgins, Frank Butler, over some of the baddest drummers in the world, it gave me a sense of artificialness. At the same time, there was evidence I couldn't ignore – one hundred jazz critics had voted for me, and by some fluke I won it. But my financial situation at the time with my family was rough, and if this award couldn't produce me some money, I didn't want it. So I went up to the Downbeat offices (there were a couple of musicians there at the time – Charles Davis, Don Pullen) to ask Don [de diMichaelis, Editor] if there was any money in it, and he told me no, very nicely. So I decided I was going to revolt. I took some paper from the secretary's trash can, and I made a bonfire on the floor and I started to burn my Downbeat award. The secretary called the police. There was smoke everywhere, and Don came out of the office throwing water on the fire, and I was getting pretty frustrated until I got a phone call to go to the lobby downstairs. Alan Silva was supposed to meet me there. Anyway, I went downstairs, and while I was there, sure enough, two big New York detectives showed up and went upstairs, and I waited twenty minutes until they left and went back up there myself, saying “Hahaha! I'm still here!” And Jane the secretary apologised and Charles said “Murray, that was too out. You calm down. I can show you how to get something out of this [award]. Just be COOL!” We went down to get a beer at the Five Spot with Don Pullen, and Charles somehow got me a gig straight away and it ended up with a record! (Laughs)
Don Pullen is a pianist people tend to associate more with Milford than with you.
They had a nice band with Giuseppe Logan. I was never sure when they first started if any of them knew what to do (laughs) but then I found out Giuseppe had a Masters degree, Don Pullen was highly educated, and Milford was good on all that Latin percussion. It was a great group, really. Giuseppe Logan lost his mind, which was really sad. That came about because he had an affair or something and wife left him and took his son with her. He had a twelve-year-old son who could read music backwards, play the trumpet and was a real genius. Giuseppe was very proud of his boy. When his wife left that threw him into a tailspin he never recovered from –I know what it's like, I remember when my wife left me – and he searched down south, everywhere, and he could never find his son or his wife. When I came back to New York years later they told me Giuseppe Logan was a bagman, a clochard. I ran into Roger Blank (who was another very good drummer) and his wife on the corner of 137th Street and she said, “I just saw Giuseppe Logan, Sunny! He's got a room somewhere round here.” I said “Where? I want to see him! People say he's crazy, I don't believe it.” She said “He sure tried to get me up there in that room! That sound like a crazy man to you?!” (Laughs) I guess that was about twenty years ago. Now someone told me he died. But I'm sure he didn't die crazy.
A year after the Downbeat award you were invited to play in San Francisco.
I was invited to play at the Jazz Both/And in San Francisco in 1967. Beaver Harris had told me a guy called Delano or something had been asking for me down at Slug's Saloon, and that he wanted me to be a house drummer for the Both/And. I met the guy and told him being a house drummer was a little far-fetched, considering the way I played, so he offered me an engagement of four days or something like that instead. He got Ralph Gleason to write a whole thing in the [San Francisco] Chronicle, “Welcome Sunny to California.” I'd never had that before. Amiri Baraka was trying to produce a lecture tour of Californian universities at the same time so we rented a big van together, a tour bus like the rhythm'n'blues bands used to have. I took Al Shorter, Pharoah [Sanders], Henry Grimes. We arrived at the club and outside it said: Milt Jackson / Miles Davis / Sunny Murray! I said “Go get a camera quick!” Miles was there and he had Friday and Saturday to do, and on the Friday I met up with Tony again (we had become good buddies since Eric [Dolphy] brought him over to my house in 1964), and he was playing these baaad 22-inch cymbals real hard – he was trying something new, but he was playing too strong for the band. After the gig we had dinner together with Ron Carter and Wayne [Shorter] (Miles and Herbie were staying down the street) and I said “I know what you're trying to do man, but Miles is not John Coltrane. He's not as patient and as tolerant as John. Take it easy on Miles.” He said, “He ain't gonna fire me, Sunny, he loves me!” I said “Famous last words!”
Come Saturday, I had a problem. Pharoah had disappeared. I didn't have a home address for him but he had left a number where I could contact him and the guy's name was Dewey Redman. (I didn't know Dewey from a can of paint then! Later I helped him come to New York, and my wife and I helped him get that apartment he's in now.) I went down there and met Dewey, told him I needed a sax player, and he said “I can't play in the Both/And. Me and Mr. Delano don't get along.” I said “You're not there to deal with Mr. Delano, you're there to play with me. I have a contract in the name of Sunny Murray. Mr. Delano will not bother you and I'm asking you not to bother Mr. Delano. You keep it cool like that and everything's OK.” I said the same thing to Mr. Delano and Dewey showed up and they were gentlemanly to each other, and that was that.
Anyway, later that night Miles was playing and cussing at Tony and walking off the bandstand... I was at the bar and I finally met Ralph Gleason. Boy, could he drink that brandy. Him and Miles were sitting on the steps drinking big fucking water glasses full of brandy. Shepp was there standing at the bar with me when Miles came to the bar for two more buckets of whisky or something, and Shepp said to me “Seems like Miles don't know who I am.” Miles looks at him and says [impersonates] “What are you drinking, Mister Ar-chie SHEPP?!” (Laughs) I was sitting in the dressing room later and Miles comes in wiping his mouth, and said “OK Sunny Murray, you know everything, right? What do you do when your lip is bleeding?” I said “I was MILES DAVIS I'd bleed all over the goddamn trumpet!” (Laughs) And just as he was going out of the door he turned and said “I'd be alright if it wasn't for you and your shit!” I said, “Is that an insult or a compliment?” And that night Tony got sacked!
Talking of other drummers, you've often been compared (justly or not) to Rashied Ali. How do you feel about that?
When I came to New York from Philly, Rashied said “I'm gonna follow you.” In 1965, I'm sitting in front my house and a car pulls up and it's Rashied with Sonny Johnson, the bass player. “I'M HERE, MURRAY!” His brother Muhammad, who had a more profound talent – not technically, but feeling-wise – was still in Philly. Muhammad was my best friend, and the reason I met Rashied. Rashied, he drove me crazy, he followed me around New York, man. Followed me to my friends' houses... I had friends who refused to buzz him in, he'd buzz and say, “Rashied, I'm a friend of Sunny...” He just wanted to copy what I was doing. Rashied's lucky, he married a rich woman. Got a million dollar pad in SoHo, a $350,000 studio in his basement. He shows me all this stuff, I say “Beautiful, 'Shied, that's nice.”
Didn't he help his brother out a bit? Muhammad was really suffering at the end...*
Like Billie Holiday say, “Help yourself, but don't take too much...”
Why do think Rashied ended up getting the gig with John?
I'll tell you the truth – John wanted somebody to play next to Elvin, and I turned him down. I had played with John three times in 1964, and the closest Elvin came to losing his job was me taking it. Buzz buzz the grapevine buzz buzz Sunny Murray's gonna be playing with John... At that period Elvin was getting high and shit, he'd get off the bandstand and his first wife – big tall white chick, real vampire junky – she'd be at the door... “Baby c'mon here...” And Jimmy Garrison saying “Motherfucker, you can't just go...” John asked me to sit in that first time because Elvin was arguing with Jimmy – Albert was with me – John came over quietly and said, “Sunny, how you doing? Would you like to play?” But Elvin was playing so great that night, it froze me in my tracks. After he jumped and ran Albert said “You still wanna do this?” I said, “Yeah...” And we played, man. McCoy sounded different, Jimmy was singing with me... it worked. Elvin came back and was sitting there with a drink and he was enjoying himself! I came off the stand and we had a drink together and we became buddies. He calls me Big Man ever since. I took John to a little festival Archie had put together at the Dome on St. Mark's Place, and there Milford was playing, Roger Black was playing and Rashied was playing... John said, “You wanna play some, Sunny?” I said, “I'm gonna show you something John about acoustics.” Roger Blank let me on his drums while Milford and Rashied were still playing, and when I started you couldn't hear nobody but me. I was using what Helmholtz calls “sound displacement”... a big sound displaces a small sound, like that story I told you about the siren. Later I told John “Elvin never let nobody play with you but me, and I'm never gonna lose the friendship I have with him... You're gonna make him hate me.” John sat there quietly and said, “Sunny, I hear a thousand rhythms...” Cecil was there, Leroi Jones was there and Jean Phillips was there when he offered me the job, if there's anybody out there don't believe me, they were there.
But you see, I consider what I play to be the traditional avant-garde, the roots…
I would like you to say in this interview that I want to make it clear that in consideration for the time and effort that drummers like Milford and Rashied and Andrew Cyrille have put into the music, they've now reached a certain quality and a certain genius of their own, which I respect, and will always continue to. But you see, I consider what I play to be the traditional avant-garde, the roots, and I think nobody understands the difference, the generation gap in the avant-garde. Traditional avant-garde has a kind of swing. We should call it free bop. When I think about European drummers, the most creative is Han Bennink. When I met Han he was playing with Eric, he didn't know anything about avant-garde. He was with Misha Mengelberg in a place called the Sheherazade, on the canal [in Amsterdam] near where the hookers hang out in the windows. Albert and Gary and I played there and Han became kind of a disciple, but I gave him a warning: “Take it easy, now... there's no work in this shit, they're gonna jump on your ass...” It took him a while to finally jump into it, and he did great.
Han became a good friend. I played with him, Louis Moholo and Martin Van Duynhoven, a very good drummer, some time back, and Martin had written some music for us to play, and we gave a part to Han, and he said “I don't read music. I just play.” We said, “You can read this shit, man. This is just beats...” So when it came to the concert we were all correct, we played our parts and when it came to Han Bennink he said fuck it and he just played. He wouldn't stop! He kept playing, he played he played he played until he couldn't play no more. And then he stopped. So we finished playing the music, and when we finished he started again! He played he played he played he played he played he played he played he played he played and when he stopped we finished playing the music and that was the end of the concert. At the bar afterwards, we said “Han, come over here. You won a prize...” He says “Yeah? What's that?” We said “You're the KING OF NOISE!” (Laughs) Man, he gets away with some shit, but he's true to his cause. You get to a certain age playing avant-garde where your mind starts to cloud a bit, and the final struggle is to keep your energy and your creativity and your mind alive. It's not that your music gets bad, but if you don't work to keep that dexterity and energy, you finally don't know what to play. Best thing to do is to start again at that point. It's like cars... you can't keep driving a T-model Ford forever, you have to design a new model based on the original. Han's a great showman, and there's a great tradition of that, from Cab Calloway up.
Han and Misha are great. Misha's a crazy cat, with his hip Romantic Yiddish thing... [impersonates] “Yass. I'm Jewish...” Like “fuck you!” He came to play with me at Banlieues Bleues, and he said to the promoter, “I came this time because Sunny asked me, but I'll never travel here again unless it's First Class, OK?”
I think the Dutch scene is dynamic precisely because they haven't lost touch with the tradition and with where the music came from. But surely you get depressed with the scene here in Paris? It isn't as exciting as it likes to think it is...
I went to see some girl play at a festival – they said “Sunny, you gotta check this out.” She played a little electronic box, or something, a little light on her, and she played all this crazy shit, noises and stuff, and after it finished she came down and had a beer with me. She was a nice girl, and she said [whispers] “Sunny, I get away with it...!” She was going to Poland next day, lots of festivals and shit. “I get away with it...” (Pause)
They put a lot of strange shit on at Les Instants ChavirÈs [the leading improvised music venue just outside Paris]. Every time I call them for a gig, the guy there plays with my mind, I say “Why don't I call you back in six months?” He says “Make it eight months, hahaha...” and I hang up. He's OK, he gets his state subsidies, he doesn't have to depend on quality music to pay the bills. He does European new music stuff, not jazz. They have one token black guy, Joe McPhee, from time to time.
They like Joe because he plays with the local guys often. But just last week I saw William Parker, Mat Shipp and Rob Brown there...
William works ninety-nine gigs a year! Why? Because he played with Cecil... the touch of the magic wand. Nobody ever heard of Tony Oxley before he played with Cecil. Same with Andrew [Cyrille]. (Pause) There's so much chaos and confusion and artificiality and insincerity in this avant-garde business today. The big festival promoters haven't got the taste of the smaller festivals like William's [Vision Festival]. They've been herding us around as a “sellable product” for fifty years. They won't let avant-garde have a past, a history. The new generation of avant-garde forget that they're part of a family. When you were a bebopper you automatically knew you were part of a family; there was no fighting, no envy, no jealousy. When you reach 50, you're almost a has-been for festival and club promoters. Record dates are scarce too; I had a guy in Sweden who told me he only gave dates to new avant-garde talents, and I said “That means you don't record the originals of the music, just the second generation. But what will you tell them in twenty years time? Same as you're telling me now? No matter how much you record them, they're gonna get old too.” A lot of new avant-garde players seem to have a kind of resentment for people like me, maybe because of Cecil, because we did it first, they treat me as if I'm guilty of something. The business world treats me like that too – the festival mafia seems to have this thing against drummer leaders. There are a lot of great players who I can't get to play with me because their price is too high. I can't afford Cecil. We're in two different stages of life at this age. He's a little older than me, and I guess you could say he's reached that mountain top, socially, spiritually and financially. I don't think he ever thinks about me anymore, because he's had so many avant-garde drummers. I can get quality musicians to play with me like Richard Davis, Archie and David [Murray], but only if I can afford to pay them. David's a hard worker; he earns what he gets...
Didn't you get any work from the “St. Louis Blues” album [1999, PAO Records] with Shepp and Richard Davis?
I faxed the guy Paul Zauner, and he faxed back “Hey, how you doing, Sunny!” and he gave me a gig at this festival. Shepp named his price – big – and we got to the festival, and this guy became Archie's slave... I'd known Paul for ten years, and he totally ignored me. Almost got left at the motherfucking airport getting my own taxi. Richard Davis kept saying to me, “That's your friend?” BE CAREFUL: NEVER HIRE A GUY MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU. Even if it's your friend. You hire Ray Charles they ain't gonna see you. Ain't no car gonna pick you up! So we were at the hotel and I was with Archie, and he said “Murray, why didn't you get a suite at the hotel like me?” I said, “Archie, what am I gonna do with the extra room? Ain't got no girls in there, I get lonely with too much space...” Archie left him with $800 in telephone and food bills, showed me his bill and said, “What do you think, Sunny?” I said, “Shepp are you serious?” He said, “Yes, he can pay that... He should pay yours too.” I said, “Please stop telling me to be like you.” We did the record and Shepp took all the money for the record, and the guy Paul came complaining to me, and I said “You're losing it because you're running after Shepp. You're gonna lose the game with Shepp.” He said, “Should I pay this bill, Sunny?” I said, “I'm tired of you and Archie, I should never have done this gig.” I can't treat guys like that, I can't get into that dumb shit. Anyway, the record was finally made; I asked him for twenty records, he refused to send me any. He never sent me one. Shepp said, “I have a few, Sunny...” To piss him off I said, “Is it really that good?”
It makes me a little crazy, because I practise so hard not to die...
The funny thing is they ended up paying those people – Shepp, Ornette, Cecil – the biggest money. You don't want to get into the mysteries of this shit, because then you go crazy. If we ever had to have a kind of psychological thing, I'd cry, I'd go trying to kill myself. This business is so corrupt and confusing, and I've been used by the corruption and the confusion. When I look back at this period, the history of how the new music was created and functioned, I equate myself with people like Herbie Nichols, because they forced him out with no work. It happened to Billie Holiday – she died from no work. You kill a genius if you don't let him function. You can't be a genius in the kitchen at home. You are a genius but you're dying. Now I work a festival a year, two festivals a year out of maybe a thousand in the world. Five hundred in Europe. It makes me a little crazy, because I practise so hard not to die... (Pause) I'm always here practising. I don't know why I can't work. I know I must die, but it's kind of a reverse psychology thing for me – I refuse to die because I don't work. I practise, I stay creative. Maybe people say “He's at the Studio des Islettes all the time...” but I'm here to practise or to do something spiritual with my life as a musician. I'm not here because I'm depressed or I don't have anywhere else to go; I'm here because I'm constantly training, fortifying, feeding my spirit so that the lack of work that society seems to discriminate against me with, the work society deletes where I'm concerned, won't beat me. I'm 64 now, and if it takes me till I'm 94 I'm going to continue to play and try for the new generation to hear me. I feel in some way the system refuses to let the new generation hear me, because I could become a force as a drummer, not as a rich one, but as a real direction for young drummers to follow to be good creative drummers instead of just listening to each other all the time. For me it's like the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre... there's a million prints but you have to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. That's how I feel about me and all the other drummers. OK, they listen to Max as the father of bebop, to Elvin the father of swing, but when it comes to avant-garde there's no father figure... When I go to New York and see William Parker's thing, and see what they got going on the East Side, and the Knitting Factory, I feel totally excluded. They look at me like I'm an alien from space. The young cats look at me kinda strange, like I don't exist. But I'm there. And when I play they know I exist, and it leaves a space when I go.
|Thank you for visiting Paris Transatlantic. If you enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in reading our talks with John Butcher, or with Misha Mengelberg, Dutch jazzer and avant-garde pianist/composer/improvisor. Dan Warburton also produced interviews with Fred Frith and Eugene Chadbourne. Copyright Paris Transatlantic Magazine 2001, except photos, copyright 2000 by Mathieu de France. He runs an excellent photography website at laphotographie.com|