Interview - Cameron Brown - August 2009
JI: As a teacher at the New School and around the world, what do you feel is the most important thing a teacher can do for a student, and the most important thing a youngster can do for himself?
CB: With a student, I try to be present, unguarded, really listen and tell it like it is, with all the nuances. Jazz musicians fly by the seats of their pants. We try to be prepared for every situation, but very often we’re improvising by intuition at the moment - listening. What a student can do for himself is to practice and listen and play and try to give him or herself to most complete technical education possible. He needs to first imitate, and then get to the point where the material is absorbed, assimilated, and made his own. Then he can carry on the real tradition of jazz, which is to innovate - create something new.
JI: Over the course of your long and prestigious career, you’ve played with Don Cherry, George Russell, Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Lou Donaldson, Dewey Redman, Joe Lovano and on and on. Can you share some of the experiences you had with some of these players? Anecdotes, words of wisdom?
CB: You failed to mention my 10 year experience with what was certainly the “band of my lifetime,” The George Adams/Don Pullen 4tet featuring Dannie Richmond. To be on the bandstand with Dannie Richmond for 8 and 1/2 years was the thrill of a lifetime for a young bassist. Dannie, Don and George were the best possible role-models for how to play this music. Dannie was a dear friend, totally supportive both off and on the bandstand, and one of the most complete musicians and drummers ever. Then he took me into his band and taught me a big chunk of the Mingus repertoire -- priceless. I met Don Cherry when I was 19. He improvised his life, with music coming out of every pore, every minute. When you were with him, you were swept up in his profound joy and excitement about all music. There’s not time or space here to talk about all these wonderful players and composers. George Russell is a very special composer and arranger and getting to record all his big band material in the 1960s in Sweden was amazing. I played a big Carnegie Hall concert with him the 70’s which featured Stanley Cowell and Tony Williams and a cast of thousands. Pullen was an under-rated genius whose solo piano record should be required listening for every young pianist. Dewey was the guy with the endless words of wisdom for every life situation. Joe Lovano matches Cherry’s love for and immersion in every imaginable kind of music and is simply the most positive person I’ve ever met - a huge creative force in jazz.
JI: What is it about musical improvisation that you find so valuable? What does it offer to you, your band-mates, and the listeners? What motivates you and drives you forward?
CB: What is it about jazz that so attracts us, that so seduces the Europeans and the Japanese and really everyone? What’s the source of that energy, the boundless joy and swagger of Louis’ “High Society”, the soulful, impossibly delicate beauty of Miles and Bill Evans playing “Blue in Green?” I think that it is the equal and opposite reaction to four centuries of unspeakable cruelty, death and mayhem. Jazz is the diamond created by the awful experiences of slavery and its aftermath. Its positive energy is almost irresistible to people with open ears and open hearts and it has now become a universal language of improvisation shared by musicians and listeners all over the world. It remains connected to that painful root but, at the same time, has transcended it. I was blessed as a young teenager to sit five feet away from Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, five feet away from Trane, McCoy [Tyner], Jimmy Garrison and Elvin [Jones]. I couldn’t understand Trane at that moment, but I was irresistibly drawn to try to figure out how Jimmy and Elvin, how Chambers and Cobb did what they did.JI: When you first embarked on the sophisticated journey of becoming an improvising bassist, or a jazz bassist, what were some methods that you found extremely useful to achieving your goals? (Perhaps something that you developed on your own, or your favorite instructional resource)
CB: I’m from the school of experience. I had to work. I had to make a living, so I was just trying to learn as many tunes as I could, listen to as many great bassists and bands as I could. Then I tried to practice and play what they played.
JI: Some say that stress and angst make for good art, and others say you need to find serenity to really express yourself. What do you do to stay balanced?
CB: Stress can be both a motivator and inhibitor of creativity. With Betty Carter - she “got to” me - it was something of an inhibitor, but sometimes a good kick in the butt works wonders. The older I get, the more I lean toward serenity to seek inspiration. Outside music I try to spend as much time as I can in nature: walking in the woods or hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
JI: What is the greatest compliment that you can receive as a musician?
CB: When an audience member comes with a compliment, you can see in their eyes and feel from their vibe that you really reached them, really touched them with your playing and compositions. This is the greatest compliment - making that connection with “regular people.”