Interview - Todd Coolman - August 2009
JI: You’ve played with a gigantic list of influential and legendary leaders. Can you talk about some of the highlights you’ve had? Not in terms of prestige or to drop names, but just experiences that just blew your mind, and had a big impact on you? Things you learned?
TC: The overriding single highlight of any career as a sideman that occurs anytime one is fortunate enough to perform with a true master of the music is that one has the opportunity to learn what one still needs to get together musically. One also gets a glimpse of the greatness of this music and how vast the musical universe is. There is no limit to what a person can create, other than any limit he/she imposes upon him/herself.
JI: Can you talk about your life as an educator? What are your day to day activities at Purchase? What are the challenges and rewards of teaching? Is it something you were born with or did you have to pay your dues to become a good teacher?
TC: My life as an educator was initially accidental. It simply came as a result of Jamey Aebersold asking me if I had ever done any teaching, to which I answered “no”, and then he offered to let me try teaching at one of his summer jazz camps. That put me in touch with some of the greatest teachers/mentors in the business. It was simply “dumb luck” for me to get this sort of entrée into the world of jazz education. At Purchase, my day to day activities include teaching some classes in our core curriculum and attending to the usual array of administrative duties associated with a Program Director that oversees 90 students and 23 faculty members, all of whom report directly to me. I have no secretary. Although I do not feel that I am a “born” teacher, I feel that I have developed some abilities in that area in much the same way I have as a performer. I have benefited greatly from the apprenticeship system, both as a player and teacher, so I have learned by listening, watching, imitating, failing, and trial and error in general. It is a continual learning process. To me, teaching is simply an advanced form of learning.
The sad thing is that many jazz musicians aspiring to form teaching careers do not realize that by the time I got my first full-time teaching gig at Purchase College about 12 years ago, I had taught part-time for 16 years at six different institutions before that, and had presented countless hours of private instruction and clinics all around the world. It baffles me to observe some of my relatively inexperienced peers, who seem to think they can simply walk into such a position, simply on the basis of who it is they perceive they are. I would no sooner expect this than I would expect to work in a good band at the Village Vanguard without having first learned, after years of preparation, how to play the blues. Teaching is a craft that is developed after time and much experimentation. College teaching also requires that you be present on a consistent basis. One has to make choices as to how to balance performing and teaching obligations. Something has to give. One has to make critical decisions. As far as I am concerned in my capacity at Purchase, my students come first. Teaching has never represented “just a gig” to me that is to be used solely as a financial antidote to playing awful gigs instead. It is a calling and requires my fullest time and attention when I am in that mode.
JI: Since the late 70’s how have you seen the jazz world evolve, particularly in New York, for better and for worse? What would make it better than it is?
TC: The jazz world always evolves. I do not concern myself whether it is for “better or worse.” That axiom is far too subjective, in my view. The music is evolving in some ways, and is “de-volving” in others. The business has been turned upside down in the recent past, and only the strong - and entrepreneurial - will survive. It is a new ballgame. The main thing that would improve the jazz world is the same thing it has always needed….more awareness within and support from the American public. Until, and if ever, the general American public can truly differentiate between entertainment and art, and value art for its own sake without having to be “pacified by entertainment”, jazz is likely to remain status-quo in terms of overall popularity and essentiality. This too is ultimately a matter of education and priorities at all levels. The society as a whole will have to embrace art on a multi-faceted level if the “jazz world” is to show any significant signs of upward mobility.
JI: What is new and on the horizon in your musical life?
TC: Playing lower, slower, and softer. Possibly doing some composing. Interactive relationships with my “fans” through the internet.
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?
TC: Those are several questions. Improvisation is the act of problem solving. It is also the product of teamwork, or lack thereof, and in it’s best moments illustrates the finest artistic qualities in mankind. It is a metaphor for life. I am motivated by the desire to learn, the need to grow, and the realization that the beauty lies in the striving. One never gets it together completely.
JI: What was it that initially inspired you to become a bassist? How did it all start?
TC: Hearing Ray Brown. Period.
JI: What are your thoughts about electric vs. acoustic bass?
TC: One is a guitar and one is a violin.
JI: What are your top five desert island bass records that you couldn’t possibly live without, and please state why?
TC: Such lists are entertaining, I suppose, but ultimately not very useful. People should find their own muse. Regardless, in no particular order:
(1) The Bridge by Sonny Rollins – A triumph in human development.
(2) Kind of Blue by Miles Davis – True magic caught on record. A rarity in any era.
(3) Jazz at Massey Hall by Charlie Parker - A magical example of a revolution in modern American music.
(4) Duke At His Very Best by the Duke Ellington Orchestra – One of the classic Ellington bands featuring Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster. Although there were others, Blanton was the most formidable influence on jazz bass playing in the twentieth century.
(5) The Awakening by Ahmad Jamal – The great dramatist of jazz. He tells a story and invites the listener to utilize his/her imagination and creativity.
My top five will likely be different tomorrow……
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?
TC: Although I have received excellent tutelage from many great teachers, the best method for me has been to train my ear, listen to and carefully study - transcribe and analyze - recordings of the masters, to play by ear, and to screw up so much that I provided myself with ample learning opportunities.
JI: Some say that stress and angst make for good art, and others say you need to find serenity to really express yourself. Have you found that your life outside of music, or your state of mind in general have a direct correlation to your playing? If so, what activities do you do outside of music to better prepare you for playing/practicing success??
TC: No. I think these postulates are highly overrated and needlessly examined and reexamined ad infinitum. When performing, I owe every fiber of my being to the music, for better or for worse. That is my obligation and my give-back. I have a job to do. Outside of music, the best activity I have found to keep myself in an optimal mental and spiritual state has been to connect as often as possible with the natural world - usually through fly fishing. I approach that with as much passion as I do anything in my life. Listen to Beethoven’s sixth symphony to further illuminate the point. Whether my extra-musical life experiences impact positively or negatively on my music is for the listener to decide.
JI: What is the greatest compliment that you can receive as a musician?
TC: That I shared something valuable with another person.
JI: Can you talk about your process of composing? Is it something you can do like clockwork, or do you wait for inspiration to hit?
TC: Anytime I have a melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, formal, or pan-inspirational idea, I write it down immediately, regardless of its size or scope. It can come at anytime. As you can surmise by now, I am not a sentimentalist. The idea of the “spirits moving me” is bullshit for the most part, as far as I am concerned. I never evaluate the value of an idea or lack thereof. I throw the scraps into a cardboard box. Eventually, one such item can become the germ for a creative flow that culminates in a composition