(2012). The Last Generation Of Black People. New York: The Liberator Magazine.
(artwork: Nikki Pressley)
Brooklyn’s Brian Jackson was raised in a concert home. His parents loved music; a ton of Black Jazz with sprinkles of classical European. And yet, he often enjoys silence. We sat down with him to listen to the concert within ...
Liberator: You’ve spoken about "original African form." What would you say was your first clear introduction to [African orgeood Speech]: Africa or African concepts?
Brian Jackson: Wow! Okay so I guess I would have to say — it took me a minute to dig this up because I really had to think — When is the first time I heard hand drums besides on a Gene Ammons record or a Dizzy Gillespie record? I guess the first time that I actually really heard African drumming was on the Symphony Sid Show. When I was coming up, there was a cat, a DJ named Symphony Sid, and he used to produce a live show out of the Bronx ... must've been on Friday or Saturday night or some time around that. Of course it was too late for me. I remember hearing it at like 2 a.m. What was I doing up at 2 a.m.? Well, officially I wasn't up. I had a little transistor radio and I used to put it under my pillow because, there's something about the sound qualities of bed springs, box springs, mattresses and pillows that kind of amplified the bass. So if you put it under your pillow and you had your ear real close to it, you could really hear that bass. I used to be able to hear a lot of things that I really wanted to hear the bass on, which was everything.
Symphony Sid played all the Latin music from New York. All the Latin music. I mean the Fania All-Stars and Joe Bataan, and then, you know, there would be all kinds of other music ... Hector Lavoe. I would hear all of this stuff without really knowing what it was, but I could just remember the horns, all the great horn lines. And then I could remember the bass, and the patterns that the bass would play, and the sound that the piano player would play. And of course I would hear the hand-drums, the timbales and the percussion. I would say that was my first exposure to African music. I didn't realize later how it was all connected until I met Barnett Williams in Washington, D.C. when I had already had the Midnight Band. And I met Barnett as a potential member of the band. Barnett was an expert, he was a master of everything that had to do with African percussion and African music. This was a cat that could play the rhythm, tell you what part of Africa it was from, and then get up and do the dance and sing the song. Seriously, name a country, name a region and he would play you the music from that region, give you some history on it, sing you the song, dance the dance, I mean the whole thing, the whole nine. He was the president of a company called The Society for the Preservation of African Percussion and I have to tell you, that was not a name that he took lightly.
Did he play with Miles Davis at all?
I don't think he played with Miles, I know he did some stuff with Earth, Wind and Fire. He was very busy in the Washington, D.C. area for many years before I ran into him. And when I ran into him I said, "Okay, this is what we need, this is the cat. This is the dude." And the rest is music.
How did you get around to playing instruments and picking and choosing the piano as your primary instrument?
You're hitting all the funny stories because, like I told you, I was listening to Max Roach. Max Roach was my idol because I would hear him playing with this band: Max Roach and Clifford Brown quintet. We didn't have video games back then but what we did have was sounds. And sounds were like, you know, you could use your imagination and you could picture the video game in your mind. So imagine hearing Max Roach, this cat is like... chichidiiichiBOOM ... chichidiiichiBOOM ... bachiiishBOOM! And you would hear all this stuff and you were imagining all this stuff going on in your head, through the music. To me it was exciting to hear him play the drums with all these booms and crashes. For a young boy, that was amazing! So, naturally, the first thing I wanted to play was drums. I wanted to be the pilot. [Laughs]
I was still young. I started telling my mom, I guess around age 4 or 5, I want to play the drums. Well, we lived in a little apartment and the practicality of that was mind-boggling. Or, the impracticality of it, I should say. [Laughs] So, she's trying to be kind but she's like: "Son, Dude, it ain't gonna happen." So I was like, okay I have to negotiate, I realize now I have to bargain. So who's my next favorite? Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. Let me play the horn. "Nah! Sorry! You ain't gonna be blowing no horns up in this apartment and getting me kicked out, getting us kicked out on the street, not gonna happen!" So, we settled on piano. My heroes: Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, Wynton Kelly. I mean there were plenty of piano players that I really admired, especially Ahmad Jamal. Because Ahmad Jamal, to me, was like the Miles of piano. The way he used silence. It was more about the spaces where he didn't play. Eventually, I read an interview where Miles said that's what he really liked about Ahmad Jamal: he said he loved what he didn't play. I can really understand that. I guess I've always loved artists who say things with what they don't say. Gil was a master of that in his writing. I've always admired that and I've always tried to do that in my own music as well. I forget sometimes, I try to say too much, we all do. And then, I think the editing process is all about trying to figure out how much you can say with as little words or notes as possible. To me, that's my editing process.
But anyway, we settled on the piano. I started taking lessons from a teacher who actually taught my mom. She was already elderly, and her name was — for the record — her name was Mrs. Hesuba Ross and she lived in Fort Greene. I used to visit her every week; the lessons were $5 a week. When she first began to teach me she would give me a cardboard keyboard that I would practice the scales on.
How old were you?
[My mom and I] hit the compromise at age 5. Then she tortured me for the next two years by taking me to piano recitals, and after I'd go to the recitals she would say, "You still want to play? It looks kind of hard doesn't it?" And I'm like, "Yea, I still want to play." So, she tortured me for two years and at 7, she actually brought me to ... I called her Aunt Heppie, because she was like a family member, she was fam. And she started giving me lessons. She gave me this little fold-out cardboard keyboard and I started to practice my scales — because I didn't have a piano — so I started practicing my scales on that. I was practicing away and the only time I could really hear what I was doing was when I went to her house and I played the actual piano. One day, I came home from school and I was looking for my little cardboard keyboard to practice on. And I was like, "Wow Mom, what happened to my keyboard?" And she's like, "Oh, it's over there!" And I look over there and it was a little Spinet piano.
You know, a real one.
She surprised you.
That was my mom! Yea! From then on, my fate was sealed, I suppose.
Yea like yo, I gotta play it now!
Yea I gotta play it now! So, you know, [I did] every time I wanted to. My grandmother took care of me while my mom was at work. My grandmother always had a great line because I'd want to go out and play ball, I'd want to go out and hang out and she'd say, "You said you wanted to play piano. So what do you want to do: you want to go play ball or you want to play the piano?"
And I'd be like, aw man! [Laughs] And she'd hit me with the guilt ... "Your mother scraped to get this money together to get you a piano and you're just gonna sit there and let it get dusty?" And I was like [whispers] "okay, okay okay!"
Now, how would you describe Brooklyn at that time? Were a lot of kids picking up instruments?
No, a lot of kids weren't picking up instruments. As far as I remember, they didn't really even have decent music programs. Most of the music that I remember was singing, we had a lot of choral clubs and stuff like that. It wasn't until high school that I really heard anybody really playing any instruments. That's probably a good thing from what I can see nowadays, you know. [Laughs] I feel bad that more people weren't involved in music. Now at least see every once in a while, you see a kid carrying a violin or a trumpet. There were marching bands in college and high school, I guess. I don't remember too much about that I just remember being at home, practicing.
And this was ... what would you say the year was?
I was 5 in 1957, so we're talking about the '60s, the mid-60s when I really started showing some results. I studied from the time I was 7 until the time I was 14, formally, with Aunt Heppie. I have a little story about that. So, I told you the lessons were $5 a week and the pressure got a little bit much on my mom. She couldn't afford the lessons anymore at that particular time.
[Laughs] Yea, that was the whole...
That was always the thing, right?
Yea, I know it well. There were three of us so we were like ...
Three? Oh! It was just one of me and that was bad, you know?
You get in the groove of something and you're loving it, you're like, "I love it, love it," and they're just like ...
Whoop, sorry! [Laughs]
It's like they're always plotting like, what can we replace that with 'cause its gonna be a hole in their whole ... [Laughs]
That's right, and we gotta have them do something, they gotta do something. I was upset but I understood you know, she told me, "I can't really afford it." So, I went to what I believed was going to be my last lesson. My mom was there and everything. It was kind of sad, you know, it was really sad. Aunt Heppie said, "I think you have a special talent." She said, "I would hate to see you not carry this further. So what I'm going to do is, I'm going to put you on scholarship." And for the rest of the time ... this must've been maybe 3 or 4 years in ... she said for the rest of the time you're on scholarship until you decide to leave.
That's great, man!
Yeah. So it's things like that that make you who you are. I probably would've given up. I probably wouldn't have ... maybe I wouldn't have continued. I don't know. But she got me to the point where I had the fire for it. By the time I left her, I was writing songs. We used to have recitals every year. Let me tell you, this was an extraordinary woman because it was in the Black community, [and] all her students were Black or Indian or West Indian or something. We were all people of color. Every year, she would take her money from the tuition and she'd rent out a place for us to have a recital. But it wasn't in a community center, it was Town Hall. And she would rent out Town Hall for a Sunday night and everybody would get dressed up — all the parents, everybody, kids, everybody — would get dressed up and we would have a recital on the big Steinway pianos in Town Hall in New York City. Put yourself in that frame of mind: as a kid, you're on stage at Town Hall? You see what she was doing? You know, this is what she did to us. That was in my brain so when I step on stage somewhere, hell, I've been doing that since I was like 9 years old. It didn't have the same effect on everybody but, you know, maybe it ... it had to have some affect on everybody's self-esteem somewhat. So after a while Town Hall, I think, got too expensive so she then switched to BAM and we started having our shows at BAM. Same difference to me as far as I was concerned. It was just as good and closer.
So yeah, every year we'd have a recital. She'd get the two pianos — because sometimes we did piano duets — she'd get two pianos, she'd make them take both of those pianos out on stage, tune them suckers to perfection, and then we'd have our recitals dressed up in our suits. Those were good times ... good times.
To me, I just feel like, if I had any question later on in life with an experience like that — because I'm sure I can dig up and pinpoint certain moments like that that affect the direction I would go next as a youngin' — if I had any question about "What is love?" those are the moments to me ... that ability to see a bigger picture and to give and serve outside of your own needs, for others. I can't find any other definition that resonates beyond someone's life. Clearly still, you remember it like...
... like it was yesterday. I go by that building sometimes — 419 Washington Avenue — I go by that house sometimes and I just think ... wow! Plus, it was a really old house. Her husband was a Pullman Porter and they lived in that house for years. I don't know how long they lived there but it was a house that was built in 17 ... I don't know ...1787. They still had a tree in the basement that was chopped down to build that house ... a chunk of the tree. She brought me down there one day to see it.
Wow, and it's still there?
It's still there! That's the Fort Greene I remember.
Wow. Outside of these interactions, these moments of inspiration, when folks are giving you these, what I like to call more or less omens, where, you know, you keep going right back, these affirmations, you had to be inspired by other things going on at that time. What else was going on in New York or just in the community with people in general? What can you remember?
I can remember my dad at that time lived up in Harlem. And he lived on ... I think it was 127th. One of his neighbors stopped by one day and my dad told me, "Yeah, he's a drummer, this guy's a Jazz drummer, he's really famous!" And he sat down and he's talking to me and he's like really surprised I knew so much about music. I must've been maybe 6 ... 7 years old, maybe a little older, I don't know. So he says, "who you like?" I start riffing off some names, and I mention Thelonious Monk. And he's like, "Oh, you like Monk?" And I'm like, "Yea, I like Monk. Thelonious Monk, he's one of my heroes." He's like, "Yea, I play with Monk." And I was like, "What!" And he was like, "Yea, my name is Ben Riley." He was a drummer, you know. I told him the story, I said, "I really enjoy the piano but I always wanted to play the drums. Don't tell nobody. I really wanted to play the drums!" So he says, "Man, it's easy, all you gotta do you just gotta learn what they call the rootaments." He said, "Wait a minute, I'll be right back!"
So, he goes to his apartment and he comes back down with this old practice pad. It's basically just a piece of almost rotted wood with a piece of hard rubber on the top of it, and he had two drumsticks. And he showed me, "So this, the first thing you have to learn how to do is play a drum roll," and he goes tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. And he said, "You hold the sticks like this and you just go tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap and you just keep doing it until you go fa-duh-duh-duh-duhduhduhdududududu" I was like, wow. He said, "Yea, so that's your first drum lesson." And he hands me the sticks and he says "And that's your first drum set." And he gave me the pad and the sticks. [Laughs] Another omen, right?
Right right right! Wow!
I had a lot of things like that. [There was] another omen, but this was back with my teacher, Aunt Heppie. When I got to be 14 years old, I told you I had been writing a couple of songs. My godmother had been studying, [and] I was over at her house in Jamaica, Queens and she told me, "Yea, you know I play piano now, too." And I was like, "Really? Wow!" She said, "Yea, I started studying Jazz." And I was like, "Whaaat?" And she said, "Yea, sit down. Let me show you some of these chords I learned." So, she showed me the chords, right. Showed me like three or four chords. And she showed me how to play them and I was like, "Wooow!" So I wrote them down, we wrote them down together, and I took them home and I started playing with them. Just these four chords, right ... and before I knew it I had a song. And I wrote another one.
At my next lesson, I went to Aunt Heppie and said, "I want to play you something." So I played these songs for her and she was like, "Those are really beautiful." And I said, "Wow, thanks." She said, "It seems like you're really ready to study Jazz now." I said, "I really want to. I really thought I was going to learn Jazz and I've only been studying ... I mean I love it ... but I've only been studying this classical European music ... which I love ... but I was in this to learn Jazz." She was like, "Look here, I'm going to hook you up. I'm going to find somebody to teach you. I'm not qualified to teach you Jazz but I know there are some people around. This is Brooklyn, I can find you somebody!" So time went on and I didn't hear anything. So I asked her, really politely you know, "Did you find anybody?" And she kind of shrugged her shoulders and dropped her head. I said, "What's the matter?" And she said, "Well, long story, but I found somebody. I thought he'd be really great because he lives right around the corner. I was all set, I was really excited. I talked to his wife about it and I told [her] there's this really talented young man, you know, and he'd really like to study with your husband. Would he be into it? She got back to me and she said, 'Yea, he'd teach him.' So, I got ready to set everything up and I called her back and she told me that her husband had gotten ill and he passed away." It's like wow, what a drag, sorry to hear that. So, I said "Just out of curiosity, who was it?" She said, "I don't know you probably heard of him, but his name was Bud Powell." Another omen. After that I said, man, I'm just going to study on my own [Laughs]. I figured if I didn't slice my wrist then, I probably was destined to just study on my own. So, that's what I did.
I ended up studying with Jaki Byard a little bit, too. Jaki Byard, an incredible musician, did a lot of work with a lot of really avant garde artists. He played with Eric Dolphy, he played with Mingus. He was a really prolific and awesomely talented pianist. I got a chance to study with him a little while, he taught me some basics. And then there was another teacher ... there was a place called Muse in Brooklyn on Sterling Place, near Eastern Parkway. It was set up by Brooklyn Jazz musicians to teach Jazz. One of the teachers was ... the pianist was a musician by the name of Fred Simmons. I think Fred is still alive, actually. Fred taught Jazz piano there along with Bill Barron, Kenny Barron's brother, who played tenor saxophone. I'm trying to think of the bass player's name, Chris ... Lee? I got to get that name ... but I was interested in the piano and Fred Simmons was there teaching the piano. So, I learned a lot from him also. People used to just share their knowledge man, nobody was paying no money for this stuff. I mean, I think Jackie was charging like $20 a lesson but, nobody was charging no money for this stuff. They were happy to give it up.
And then I learned a lot from DJs. There were two DJs in New York that were 80-90% responsible for what I know about music aside from what I learned from my parents and that's Ed Williams and Dell Shields. They used to be on WLIB before WLIB became WBLS and a lot of the show was in Jazz format, part of the time during the night. Ed Williams was a cat that would play all of the Jazz, but not just play it, he could tell you who was on it, everybody who was on the record. He could even tell you about the musicians themselves, where they were born ... Whenever he'd play Miles he would say, "And that was Miles Dewey Davis." So I knew that his name was Miles Dewey Davis. And I just knew things about a lot of the musicians because he used to hang with them — he'd go to where they were. He was such an enthusiast. I learned a lot. Him and Dell Shields, they came on back-to-back. And he just gave me a thorough education about a lot of the musicians I really respected and admired.
Now, if you were to describe Brooklyn during that time as a young musician, how would you describe it?
Oh, it was popping, man! Just in my area alone, and I lived in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn at the time, I lived there for about 10 years ... so, on the opposite corner from where I lived, Freddie Hubbard and Louis Hayes lived. About two blocks down, Olu Dara — Nas' dad — lived there. Right around there were those cats that I was telling you about, Fred Simmons and all of those guys. I'm trying to think of some of the other people that I used to run into. Oh, well ... there was a place called the Blue Clarinet Club that was on Fulton Street and Franklin Avenue And that's where I went to see Miles. My dad's boy took me and my boy down to this Blue Clarinet to see Miles play in 1968 or 9, something like that. So no, it was popping! I mean Harlem yea, but Brooklyn, was on fire!
Now how about New York as a whole just in terms of or even outside of music?
Man, as far as the rest of the city was concerned, it was a hotbed of music activity, Jazz activity. Music activity of any kind. Just any kind of music, you know? It was all going down. There were jam sessions. There were rent parties. All kinds of stuff was going on all the time. The clubs: all the clubs were hot. When I was 16 I think, or 15, I used to sneak into Slugs down in the Bowery. I used to sneak in because they had jam sessions on Monday nights and I used to go in there and just watch. And I used to just think, "Man, I sure wish I had the courage to jump up there and play." That was the place that Lee Morgan was fatally shot. I think that probably had a lot to do with its demise soon after. But this was before then. And some of the great musicians, some of the greats used to come down there. Philly Joe, you know, Papa Joe used to come down there and hold court! Hold court, man! And you'd see people like George Coleman jump up on the stage and play. I think Larry Hicks would be around there. There'd be all kinds of people ... Harold Mabern ... you know you could see all kinds of people hanging around there getting ready, you know, just riffing.
The music always came first. [There's] maybe a handful of times when the music didn't come first, but the music always came first. And, something that I had never thought about before, but when you write music you have something on your mind or you have something in your heart. I would write music and I would just write it. It would just come out of me and I really didn't think too much about what motivated my writing the piece. But Gil would ask me, what were you thinking about, what were your trying to say, what were you feeling when you feeling when you wrote this piece? And I would have to backtrack, I would have to go back and try and identify those feelings, and those thoughts ... maybe what led up to that piece of music, you know ... circumstances surrounding that music or what it was I was trying to convey. It forced me to be conscious of that, it forced me to name it, to name the feeling, to name the thought.
Sometimes, when I wrote a piece I would write a bit of the lyric first, I'd write maybe the chorus, in which case, he didn't have to ask me that. But a lot of times I would write a piece of music and then I would have to go back and I would have to name the concept or the feeling or the idea that I was trying to get across. And then he would take that, he would run with that, and then he would write a piece of poetry. He'd write the lyrics for that song. I think this is what made our music more potent I think, because of the fact that the idea was the same whether you got it from the music, or you got it from the verse, or you got it from both. The idea was going to be the same. Contrarily, I think that's a little different from the way a lot of people write. Because, you know, a lot of times people write and they say, okay, here's the music, write some lyrics to it. I don't think very often — I might be wrong — but I don't know about many times where the lyricist will say, "Well, what were you thinking?" They generate what it makes them feel. They listen to the music and it makes them feel a certain way and they say, "Well, I'm feeling this" and "I'm feeling that." And then they write based on what the music makes them feel. See, Gil didn't depend on that. He depended on my feeling, on how it made me feel to write the music. You know? [laughs] And that's quite different, that's a quite different methodology. And it just makes it that much more powerful because here we are, two Black men, saying exactly the same thing. I mean, it was never a stretch ... whatever it was that I was thinking or feeling it was never a stretch for him because we were like ... kind of like-minded about a lot of things.
Could you mention that analogy with the Madison Ave. gang?
So I read this book and it was called the Hidden Persuaders, I believe it was. And it was talking about how Madison Ave. — the Mad Men, you know, the Mad Men from Madison Ave. — how they employed music to embed their messages.
What year did you read this?
This had to be in the mid to late-60s. They were talking about all the different things like, you know, the common things people know about now. There was a commercial and they would flash the word sex on the screen so imperceptibly, like one frame or something so that you wouldn't be able to see it. When they say "sex sells" they're not just talking about the actual sex that you can see but actually the word, the idea, flashed so quickly that only the mind, only the subconscious mind can pick it up. They did the same thing in music. The same thing happened in music. Back in those days I started to see how Jazz was used. Like, Jazz pieces were used to sell products to people. I remember distinctly when McDonald's stopped using their "You deserve..." whatever that song is that they used and all of a sudden it started having hip-hop beats underneath it. This is an example of what I'm talking about.
Music says a lot to us, to people, about how we want to feel ... who we are, or who we want to be ... without saying a word, without one word. And so, you can use that music to draw in the kind of people that you want. You can use music to focus people's attention on the message without them even knowing it. When I looked at that and I saw that Madison Ave. was doing it I was like, "Why can't we do that?" Why can't we do the same thing? Why can't we have a funky piece of music that's talking about not allowing you to be sucked into the Military Industrial Complex Propaganda Machine? Why can't we talk about that? Why can't we write a Blues about America, about Watergate? Why can't we have a funky song about shutting down nuclear power plants? It's like the music will draw you in because its funky, you like it, you're dancing to it. Maybe you're not really paying attention to the lyrics all the time but the lyrics are getting in, and that's the point. The message was getting in because of the music.
You guys were so young, man. You guys were teens. Did you know at all what you were doing?
We knew what we were doing. We got better at it, but we knew ... let's put it this way we knew what we wanted to do.
And what was that?
We wanted to use music to educate and to heal. Those were always my intentions. I always felt that music had a purpose to Africans, to people of African descent. Music is not just entertainment, music has a purpose. According to the griot tradition it's purpose is to educate, to inform, to heal, and to bind: to unify. To keep the community strong, to keep the community together. Those were the elements that I would hope that I would be able to incorporate into the music that we were doing. Somewhat more or less successful at times but that was the point. I guess when I have someone come up to me, a young lady come up to me and say, "Yea you know the only way I could get to sleep at night was if I put on 'Your Daddy Loves You," that's kind of fulfilling and it kind of makes me feel that maybe, in some way, somehow, somewhere, that it worked.
When I think of it, I can't think of anything but immortality.
If there is anything like immortality that's about as close as it gets. To be able to touch someone through generations, like some of the best music that I've heard in my life. I'm happy to have it reported back to me that some of the music I have created has that same quality.
You know how much you've been sampled...
I don't think I know...
How does that feel? Let's take it to when you first heard a sample...
The first time I even became aware of sampling was a record that I heard Funky Drummer on. And I thought that was the funkiest thing I've ever heard in my life, you know what I'm saying? And then I found out later that it was Clyde Stubblefield in honor of a James Brown record, and I was like, "Oh wow, so this is sampling. Ok!'" [Laughs] So, for a first experience, that felt pretty good. What was that song? "It Takes Two?" And I'm like, this is bangin' I like this, so I said, ok, this is sampling, I can get with it. I'm with it. And then I started hearing other samples and I'm like this is what I used to call, or what they used to call, because I was too young, in the '50s they used to call it Musique Concrete ... what it was was people would take loops and the reason they would call it loops is because people would take actual pieces of tape and they would tape two ends together and let it go around and around on the tape head as a loop and they would have multiple machines with these different loops going around at the same time. And this was all done with tape; all done physically and not within the digital domain. And so I think, it was for that reason that I understood the concept as just a continuation of that concept just as Jazz was a continuation of Gospel, and 20th century composers and African rhythms. We have borrowed everything. There is no such thing as new music. We borrow all the time. Whether we choose to emulate it physically, or whether we choose to emulate it digitally, I don't know if it really matters. So, I was never angry about sampling. There was a time, and there was a place for the music that we did and if somebody felt that a portion of that time and place is appropriate for this time and place, I'm okay with that. It's not me anymore. I played it already. It's in the air. Luckily, it was recorded for somebody to memorialize, or for somebody to use as a basis for some other creation that they are doing. We all do that, as artists. We don't make up anything new. We get inspiration from the artists that we've heard and seen.
Do you listen to the music where you're sampled?
Well, most of the time, I can't even tell. [Laughs] For instance, like "Down For Whatever," with TuPac, that was like clearly, "1980." And there are some songs like "Home," Kanye's version of "Home" is clearly "Home Is Where The Hatred Is." Clearly Common's "The People" is a sample of the synth line on "We Almost Lost Detroit." A lot of times, how it happens is that people will call me up incensed and they're like, "Yo, Man did you hear this new cut by so and so? They're using your sample man, it's all over, it's all on there." And I'm like, "It's alright, calm down!" [Laughs] And then I listen and I'm like, "Damn, it works!" And I'm proud of that. I'm okay with that. I really am. I think it was George Clinton who was like, "use my stuff, sample it. I don't care." Because he did it already, it's done, why am I trying to hold on to it? If I never wanted you to hear it again, I wouldn't have made a record. Use it. It's not like it's mine anyway. It's not like it belonged to me ... it came through me. I can't be a hypocrite about that. I can't say on one side, I'm the instrument, and then on the other side, I'm saying, It's mine. It can't be both, I can't have it both ways. I made it, it's done, and guess what? I can make some more. Can you? Maybe you can't. Maybe sampling is what you do, that's your realm, you do it really well, you chop it up on an MPC and that's your art. I'm okay with that.
What use of a sample has surprised you most?
I don't think any sample has really surprised me; some have really interested me like the one PM Dawn used for "Paper Doll." Did you know that? They used "Angola, Louisiana" for "Paper Doll!" That was kind of out! It's the things like that that are interesting. I don't think anything surprises me, because you can be very creative with samples. You can do a lot of things that turns it into a new work and that's what sampling is. That is a big part of what Hip Hop is. You take that away from Hip Hop and you don't really have Hip Hop, do you? I don't know ... so I don't want to destroy Hip Hop, I think Hip is a good thing. I know Gil didn't quite feel the same way about it but, I've worked with a lot of young people; I've met a lot of young people and I made it my mission that by the time I was 50 years old, I started to come to grips with my own mortality and I started to realize that I'm not going to be here forever. And some of the things that I know, if I don't get them out to other people that I would taking them to grave with me and I don't really want to do that. Because that's not what I was put here to do. I was put here to be a griot, I was put here to learn the traditions, to be passed on the traditions and then to pass them on. So I'm in the passing on phase now. I'm still creating but I'm also in the phase where part of the blessing I have received — to make music and create music and use what I've been given — part of that pact with the ancestors is to make sure that someone else from another generation understands that tradition. One day it's going to be their job and that's how we've gotten to where we are as a people and as musicians and as artists. That's the crux, that's the meat of all of the this, besides the fact that if I were to stop doing it I would probably die, but I'm not just doing it for me anymore.
It's fun, I love playing, I love improvising, that's my thing, but I could probably do that without reaching out to a lot of younger artists ... there's a lot of people that I know that I would love to work with. But I've been teaching, and part of the reason I teach is not only so that I can have a career when I'm too old to tour but also so that I can keep in touch with young artists. Maybe I can't teach them as much as they can teach me. Maybe neither one of us are really students, and neither one of us are really teachers, and conversely we are both to each other. So I always learn from whoever it is who requested me for instruction. I always learn something from everybody; but particularly from younger artists. And it keeps me invigorated. It's amazing to see the progression from being 3 years old and listening to Max Roach and Clifford Brown, it's amazing to see the progression from that to some of the things that are happening now. I think that music is so much wider now and there are so many more options for people.
As a musician is that an advantage or a disadvantage?
I think it's a distinct advantage. When Gil and I first started recording, there was no way to record unless you had a huge budget. You had to have some cash, you had to have some money. Now, all you have to have is a Mac. So the price has gone down like 100 percent. 10,000 percent. More than that. Way more than that. You can produce something and then have people listening to it the next day. You could never do that before, this is unprecedented in the history of music. Some of it's going to be bad, some of it's going to be okay, some of it's going to be outstanding. All of it is going to be heard. By somebody. All of it is going to be made. And this was the issue in our time, like, how are we going to make it? Not how are we going to distribute it, or sell it or market it. We didn't have those problems. Our biggest problem was how are we going to make it. You need a studio you need 200 reel of tape for every 15 minutes that you were recording. See, with those kinds of obstacles being out of the way now, anybody with a musical vision can execute it. And I do mean execute. They can either follow it through to its completion or they can kill it. It's their option. They can do whatever they want to do with it and somebody will hear it. You post it up on Facebook and somebody is going to listen. You post it up on Soundcloud and somebody is going to hear it. This is great. This is amazing. Sure there's going to be a lot of garbage. But one man's garbage is another man's treasure.
You said that when confronted with your mortality that that was kind of what drew you to collaborate with younger artists. Was it a specific event?
My 50th birthday. I said, "Wow, I'm 50. I'm half a century. I've been doing this for 30 years or more." And I thought, you know what, maybe I can do it for another 30 years, maybe 50. I don't know, but all I do know, is that at some point my hands are going to stop moving and I won't be able to do this any more and I have all of this information in my head; and I have all of this knowledge about history and human relationships within music and the music business, and just things I could share. A lot of people want to know, how did we make those records? There's a lot of people who've never even seen a 16 track tape machine. So there are a lot of things that are history and they should be known. People should know about them. Not just for historical purposes ... remember I told you about Ed Williams, the DJ, and he used to play all those Jazz records and then he would tell about the history? He used to tell you their middle names, how they grew up, whose band they played in. He could even tell you liner notes, about the session, about some of the jokes they told in the session, what they were drinking and if they were clowning around. And who came in late, and who had to borrow what from so and so; all these kinds of things, man, this is what makes up the culture of music. Our culture. It's not just the recording. It's the whole experience of making art, that makes it art. Not just the recording, the whole process.
The music business has, in many cases, tried to take that out of it, tried to dehumanize those elements to the point where it's no longer cultural, it's no longer a cultural experience. A cultural experience in my book is not art. It's still music, but is it art? When is music art? It's art when it's a complete experience. There are people who play music and then there are artists who create music. And there are artists who understand that music is just one part of what they do, of their lives. One part of the whole. So in that same sense I feel like it's important for me to share the aspects of art around the music that we created. Because that is the instructive part. That's the part that you as a younger artist takes away. You might emulate every note that I play or somebody else plays, but you are not really getting the whole thing unless you know something about what made them play that note. How did they get to that note, where did that note come from, where did they get that note from, who did they listen to? What note were they trying to get when the played that note. Were they trying to play that note or were they trying to play a note they heard so and so play? What was in their head? What were they thinking about? Who did they admire? You can hear a lot of those things when you listen to artists. I used to play this game all the time, where I would listen to somebody and try to hear who their influences were. And this is a big part of the whole. A big part of the music. And that's the type of thing that I want to share with younger artists while I can. And so I seek them out — the ones who are conscious of the importance of those things that surround the music. And I work with them and talk with them and we share and we build.
I'm going to ask for a memorable studio session.
Boy. Well, I have so many memorable sessions. I guess I'll tell you about the one where we're doing "Pieces of a Man" and it's Ron Carter and Bernard Purdie and Hubert Laws. I'm only 19 and I'm scared shitless. You hear me? I was scared to death. And I'm in the studio and I think we're doing "Pieces of a Man." Ron Carter is a funny cat, man, he's a very funny cat. So, I'm 19 and everybody knows I'm scared to death. So I'm sitting with these guys and I'm trying to tell them how to play my music, and of course these guys are like my gods, they are like my heroes. Bernard Purdie, come on man, you know "Rock Steady," you know Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws. Everything. So I'm there and Ron looks at the music and says, "I have something to ask you. This chord right here. You call it a C11?" I say, "Yea, C11." He says, "Okay. It's a C11 right, it's not like a C7 because you know, a C7 ..." and I say, "No it's a C11." And he says, "Are you sure, because, you know, it could be a C7 because there's only the difference of one note. So do you want me to play a ... C7?" And I say, "No, its a C11." And I thought about it and I was like, You telling Ron Carter what to play! So then I was like, "But if you think it should be a C7 ..." and he goes, "No, no, no, no, no ... I mean all that I'm saying is that it could be a C7 but really it's a C11 right?" And I'm like, "Yea, it's a C11." And I catch him out of the side of my eye and he's looking at Purdie and Laws and cracking up, and they're like, leave the kid alone. So he tested me. He just put me through it. After that, after I stood my ground, shaky as it was, knees knocking and everything. But everything was cool and smooth after that. And actually, "Pieces of a Man" was just me him together with Gil. That was just a duet between me and Ron Carter — at 19 years old. That was a heavy moment. And that was one of the first times really with me in the studio, with the heaviest hitmen in New York City.
Were there other people in the studio?
Yes, there was Johnny Pate was what we called the conductor. He was responsible for writing up the charts so it looked pretty and I think Bob had him in there for insurance just in case I didn't know how to handle everybody. Since it was my first session I could completely understand. But Johnny didn't have to do anything, he just sat back looking at me and was like, "this kid knows what he's doing" and left me alone. Then there was Hubert Laws, playing flute, and I had never heard Hubert Laws playing saxophone, but on this one cut he was playing alto saxophone on this song called "When You Are Who You Are." He busted out that saxophone I was like, whoa ... he plays sax? His brother plays sax, Ronnie Laws. And then Bernard Purdie, "Mr. Rock Steady." And then on top of that my man Burt from Lincoln University was playing guitar. So we had him on "I Think I'll Call it Morning" and he was on "When You Are Who You Are." That was an interesting session. -END-
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